11 Jun The Lightening
The horizon became darker as the minutes went by. Every tickling of the clock seemed to add more fury to the ambiance of the skies. The clouds loomed overhead, black with liquid anger, ready to burst open upon Ibadan. There were flashes of lightning everywhere there was sky.
The thunder reverberated, bouncing off walls and people. The market at Bodija was getting empty as people scurried into buses and made for home.
In Ibadan, the fear of the rain had become the beginning of wisdom. Two weeks previous, the rain had come down in torrents, there had been a flood and flood-water levels had reached as high as the eyebrows of a full-grown man. Many people had lost their lives.
Tunde had walked down to Bodija from his apartment in Agbowo. His mind was in turmoil and he felt an uncontrollable urge to move. All day long, he had contemplated his own death and had thought of the many possible ways to make it happen. However he tried, he could not make up his mind on what he could do to end his misery. As the hot afternoon sun gave way to gloomy skies, new ideas began to form on his mind.
As more flashes of lightning drew bright zigzags across the south-western skies, he walked towards the Bodija market. He ruminated on the measures he had put in place to confuse anyone that suspected foul play.
He sat in an empty stall and watched the traders as they closed up for the day. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry to get home. He smiled to himself as he reflected on the irony. He hoped that by the time that night was over, he would be just another body among hundreds of drowned flood victims. He needed desperately, an escape from the trauma that daily living had become.
He rubbed his face with both palms and sighed as he felt the swellings on his nose and at the edge of his lower lip. The rain had started now and the market was very empty. He stood up and walked to the road. He started walking towards Awolowo Street. That was where the most deaths had taken place during the last flood.
He looked at his feet. They were swollen, as was the rest of his body. The doctors at the University Teaching Hospital had mentioned a syndrome. They had asked him if he ever had a sore throat, if he ever used any skin-toning cream, if he ever felt pain on his sides.
As the months passed, he had got weaker and weaker. His urine contained blood and had decreased in volume and with every passing minute, he had felt that his life was being sucked away. It was as if he was hanging on by a thin stretch of thread that was about to break.
Around him, the streets still had a few people who were trying desperately to get to some shelter. He was all drenched and instinct told him to find a place to hide. He continued walking by the side of the road and reminded himself Awolowo was where he was headed.
The water had started to rise. Many people blamed the government for the poor drainage system in Ibadan. The government did not build proper drainage channels. The government did not build good bridges. The government did not dredge the inland water ways. Only a few people recognized that the indiscriminate dumping of refuse had a role to play in the flood problem. People disposed of their waste into streams and rivers. Downstream, this waste matter accumulated into veritable dams, leading to rising water levels upstream.
He thought of his life and how it was that he was at that point. He had been a promising teenager. He had looked forward to the day he would become a computer systems engineer. He was at the edge of glory when his health went on a downward spiral.
One of his preoccupations as a teenager was his skin. It was very dark, so dark that one of his friends had joked that one couldn’t make him out in the night unless he showed his teeth. He had thought much about how possible it was to get a fairer complexion.
He had visited a cosmetics shop and asked the attendant if there was such a cream that could make one fairer than nature bestowed. The attendant had smiled and replied that science had solutions to every imperfection in nature.
That was four years before.
Indeed, he had become fairer as he used the assortment of creams he had bought. He had enjoyed his new-found happiness.
He had told himself all he needed was to achieve a uniform, fair complexion, and then he would stop using the creams. That uniformity always eluded him.
Jude had warned him he was exposing himself to danger. Jude, a medical student, was always that way. He always saw grey areas in every situation. Tunde had taken his warnings with a pinch of salt. Jude was naturally fair, so he obviously could not understand what magnitude of social stress being as dark as charcoal had caused him.
He could not see clearly anymore. The rain was falling so heavily it seemed each drop was on a mission to blind him. He shielded his eyes with his hand. The streets were already empty. The water had already risen above ankle level. He groped on, taking one step at a time, doing his best to avoid trenches.
A woman called out to him from one of the shops by the roadside. She was asking him to get out of the rain. She was by a fire. Tunde ignored her. He felt an immense sense of destiny. That day was his last, and he felt bound by instinct to hurry to his watery grave.
‘DO NOT DUMP REFUSE HERE. BY MANAGEMENT’.
It was a billboard by the roadside, near a bank. Ironically, the area around the billboard was packed with all kinds of waste: water bottles, cans, paper, nylon bags and cartons. Tunde could see that the pile was gradually disintegrating under the force of the downpour. From time to time, one more nylon bag or can escaped into the surrounding, fast-flowing flood waters.
There was a statue of an old man by the side of the road. Tunde wondered why he had never seen it there before. It was sitting against an electric pole. The flood waters were at the level of its chest. Tunde had learned that the elderly were often the first victims of natural disasters. This one was lucky it was only a statue. The consequences of sitting in the rain would have been dire.
Then a voice called out to him. He was startled. There was nobody around him but the statue. Then the statue moved its hand in a beckoning gesture. That was when it dawned on Tunde that it was no statue after all.
The old man told Tunde he was an environmental activist who had spent his whole life angling for the government to get responsible in the area of waste management. He lamented that all his travails had yielded little fruit. He said that he was sure his death in the flood would bring a big difference. Tunde did not know what to say. He felt like dissuading the old man but remembered he had a similar mission, although his own purposes were not altruistic. The old man handed him a nylon bag that was neatly wrapped around some object. The old man told him that was his special message to the state Governor, to be opened only at his demise. Tunde took the nylon bag and walked on, remembering as he said goodbye they would be meeting on the other side within a few hours.
He remembered his last visit to Dr. Samuels, a consultant Nephrologist. He had told Tunde he was sorry to inform him that tests carried out showed his kidneys had deteriorated to a point he would surely need a kidney transplant in the not too distant future. Dr. Samuels had told him that it was most likely a result of his use of skin lightening creams, which probably contained mercury and hydroquinone, both of which were highly toxic. He had pointed out swellings on his face which he called suspicious and had referred him to a consultant dermatologist.
Dr. Adamu, the dermatologist had told him two weeks later that the results of the skin test showed he had some form of skin cancer. Tunde had remembered how a cancer of the lungs had devastated one of his uncles several years before. Uncle Joe had been a successful businessman who lived up to the glamour of his high estate by smoking expensive Cuban cigars and taking vacations to the Caribbean. Then he had come down with lung cancer and had lost much weight. He had started coughing up a lot of blood and had died on a day he coughed up nearly a litre.
It was the memory of that shameful death that brought him to the present path. He feared being at the mercy of diseases that had now taken his body in their grip. He had to be in control, to determine his own moment. He regretted using all those skin lightening creams if indeed they were the cause of his crisis.
He hugged the nylon bag and walked on. He was getting close to Awolowo. The waters were at the level of his navel. A rush of excitement was welling up in his frail body. The rain was coming down in a drizzle by now and he wondered if he would achieve his goal.
He was startled when a female voice called out to him in a near-scream.
He looked up and saw her waving frantically from the second floor of a two-storey building. She asked him if he was trying to get himself killed. He looked away and said nothing. He was at the Awolowo Bridge now and the waters had reached his neck.
Suddenly, he felt the ground giving way under him and he fell through the flood waters. In the final seconds before his head disappeared under the waters, he heard the woman screaming out in desperation. Then, everything became dark. He gasped for air but took in water instead. He felt like he was being strangulated. He saw flashes of lightning within the water and heard the muffled thunder that followed. He tightened his grip on the nylon bag. Momentarily, he recovered his zest for life and felt like struggling. He hit his head against an iron bar and lost consciousness.
Mrs. Adewale was perplexed and anxious. It had been twelve hours since Tunde called to say he was on his way home for a short vacation. Jebba was only a four hour journey from Ibadan. She had told him to stay back. Christmas was close by and he could come home then. Moreover, she had been warned at church that that week would be a turbulent one for her family if she did not commit herself to fasting and prayer.
She had done her best. She had fasted for most of the days of the week. Were it not for the peptic ulcer that made fasting unbearable for her, she would have continued fasting that Friday. She hoped desperately that Tunde was not the focus of that revelation.
For the thousandth time that evening, she picked up the phone to call him. She got a network voice-over telling her that the phone had been switched off.
She put on the television and stamped her feet on the ground. She paced. Tunde’s father was on a business trip. She felt alone in the world.
The news filtered into her ears. She poured herself a glass of water but couldn’t drink it.
There was a report of a ghastly accident along Jebba road. One of the passengers was a young man in who was listed as Dr. Agon in the manifest. The saloon car which had collided with a petrol truck, had veered off the road and exploded into flames. The bodies were charred beyond recognition.
Mrs. Adewale screamed. She remembered how Tunde had wanted to study medicine in the university. She had dissuaded him, citing the long duration of the course and how he had to be a responsible son and follow his father’s footsteps in the computer business. Tunde had liked those computer games that had dragon characters and as a child, he had told his mother times without number he wanted to be a dragon in future. Later, he had joked that he would make computers branded as Dr. Agon.
So that was it? She clasped her hands to her chest and held her breasts as if Tunde was lurking somewhere within them. Her heart was pounding away furiously. An excruciating chest pain sucked the breath out of her. She slumped to the floor.
When she came to, she was on a hospital bed. She burst into tears and called out to Tunde. There was no answer.
The following morning, August 27th, was a Saturday. Television stations were agog with news and video coverage of the devastation wrought by the flood. People gathered in small groups in the streets and shared accounts of the loss of life and property.
Whole houses had collapsed in the cataclysm, leaving behind only traces of their foundations. Poultry and fish farms had been destroyed. Over a hundred lives had met their untimely end. Preliminary estimates put the economic losses at billions of naira.
Timothy Specialist Hospital had an unusual patient: a fair skinned man in his mid-twenties who clutched at a nylon bag as if his very life depended on it. His head was deeply gashed and there was a huge cut on his leg. He had been rescued by the men of the National Emergency Management Agency who had responded to the phone call of a hysterical housewife.
Slowly, Tunde came to. He opened his eyes but saw nothing. He perceived what he recognized as the repulsive smell of the hospital: an unwelcome mix of the smells of blood, drugs and disinfectants. He attempted to speak but could only groan.
He felt a presence beside him and extended his hand. He released the nylon bag and knew whoever it was must have taken the nylon bag when he did not hear a thud on the floor.
He felt sleepy. A deep sense of relief overwhelmed him when he let go of that nylon bag. He felt like he had fulfilled his life’s mission: delivering the message of an apostle of the environment. He gave a last breath. Several days later, a nurse would comment that there had seemed to be a grin on his face at the time of his passing.
Dr. Badmus later found out that the nylon bag contained a mobile phone that was protected within a water-proof polythene sachet. On it were inscribed the words ‘For the Attention of The Executive Governor’. The package had been left intact, and on the same day, accompanied by the hospital’s legal adviser, Dr. Badmus had delivered the package to the Governor’s office.
Professor Ambeletase’s death was announced on State Television later that evening. There was a special message from the state governor promising that Ambeletase’s death would not be in vain.
Tunde never knew what the message on the mobile phone was. Nobody ever identified the fair-complexioned young man who delivered the package.
It was a windy autumn day in Austin, Texas. Marina Agon waited desperately for her husband’s call. In her apartment, the internal gloom she felt from not having heard from him in a whole day was not brightened by the joyful noises from her children, Berta and Shantelle.
Dr. Agon was a post-graduate student of anthropology at the University of Texas. The day before, he had called her from the ancient city of Ibadan and told her excitedly he would visit the Mungo Park monument in Jebba the following day.
She had no idea who Mungo Park was or why her husband was so interested in the monument. She loved her man and he loved his work. Nursing was her own domain and nothing satisfied her more than the joy of knowing that a patient’s life was saved because she was present at his surgery, that she fulfilled her part in the life-restoring art.
She was about to call the American Embassy in Nigeria to make enquiries when her cell phone started ringing. The ringtone was one she had specially dedicated to her husband: Shania Twain’s ‘You’re Still The One’.
She dropped the receiver and made for her cell phone. Bob Agon was in the Republic of Benin. He apologized for not having called the previous day. He said he had not seen Mungo Park’s monument after all. He had decided to travel to the former Dahomey and he was standing on the Atlantic coast at the ‘Place de Non Retour’.
Marina heaved a sigh of relief and hugged both her children. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, another Dr. Agon would never be truly found.
Four days had passed and nobody had come to reclaim the corpse of the message bearer, as hospital staff now referred to him. Timothy’s specialist hospital had very limited space in the morgue and the body had to be disposed of. The hospital management gave it to the medical school for their dissection sessions.
Gladys, a third year medical student saw the documents that accompanied the cadaver. She took notes and sighed. She took off her latex gloves and washed her hands with soap and water. As she stepped out of the Dissection Room, a gust of fresh air welcomed her. It felt great to be away from the lacrymogenic formalin and the rancid smell of death.
Like a flash of lightning, the end to a damaged life came. The lessons of that life’s experience, like a flash of lightning, were lost forever.
By Victor Olayemi