Win 100,000 naira from AY Imprint. When it is said that dreams are killed overseas and hopes dashed, it is no longer surprising, since the sense of paradox therein is waning fast. Without equivocation, an African living overseas is no longer a thing of pride. Lately, the situation of most African migrants has turned pitiable and horrifying; and the true pain of the tragedy is only known by the victims. “Across the Mediterranean” is a true life story that captures this sorry plight.
As a way of encouraging reading and the fight against the African predicament, AY Imprint wishes to reward the best reader (i.e. one whose six-line summary of the short story will capture a deep understanding of its content and message) with the sum of 100,000 naira. Kindly send your summary to firstname.lastname@example.org . The winner will be announced on May 29, 2016. Below is the short story.
ACROSS THE MEDITERRANEAN
(By Chinonso Madu)
To behold him required more courage than to face a she-bear with young. A dose of compassion was a necessity too. In fact, those who dared to sit close to him in the bus were special fellows of expansive humanity. They were little versions of Mother Teresa. If the gutters were meant for a distinct class of people, those who dared to step into them must have some distinction. He carried a strong, repulsive air, and flies often followed him like vapour trails in solidarity with the tradition of dirt and foul odour. His hair was a squalid, fleece-packed short dreadlocks; his face rough with overgrown facial hair, and beard distended as much as the moustache. The hairs of his nostrils grew conspicuously out as though protesting to be cut or tucked in, at least. He wildly grew whiskers in his ears; lips scaly and caked! He stood tall and huge with the aspect of a lumbering giant. His dressing was no respecter of seasons; it was the same clothes year in, year out. With six pairs of bogus trousers, each bigger and dirtier than the other, and with a rag of an oversize winter jacket that hid a pile of stinking shirts and sweaters underneath, he had a fair security against cold nights and days. His chocolate colour had progressed to charcoal blackness in the company of the dirt accumulated from months of lack of bath. He walked slowly and dragged himself like an overfed masquerade.
That was who Ejike turned into after a few years overseas. He had become a roamer in Rome. His life was purposelessly autistic; he created a world where his best friend was loneliness. He avoided company as if everyone had Ebola.
As he wobbled in his heavy costume on the walkway of Via Marsala behind Roma Termini, he stumbled across two old friends. The street was notoriously untidy with patched road and dirty, uneven walkway. Every corner bore urine marks and nauseating odour that provoked the odium of passing strangers. It wasn’t infrequent to meet people still lying on cartons in deep sleep even till midday. Some lay seemingly lifeless, covered head to toe, with all their possession rolled into a lump to form a pillow.
“Ejike Omenka!” His friends’ familiar faces had been rendered long by his deaf ears, which grew deafer to the familiarity of their voices. He passed them as though they never existed.
“Guy, are you sure this is Ejike?” One of them, Ibeto, asked, as the possibility of a mistaken identity crossed his mind.
“Nnaa, I’m very sure he is the one, just that he is getting worse each passing day. He wasn’t this way before. The charm with which they got him must be very powerful,” Ojemba assured.
“I still don’t think he is the one. Did you not see his face? There was no minimal signal that he knew us.”
“I’ve told you he is.”
“But honestly I don’t think so.”
“What? I hate when I’m sure of something and people doubt me. That guy is Ejike Omenka. Now let’s go back and verify,” Ojemba said angrily.
“Sure, but let’s not fight over it.”
“That’s what you are saying, right? Sometimes a good fight is needed to clarify certain issues.” Now Ojemba was happy that Ibeto was giving him the upper arm in the argument. He had loosened his face a bit as they turned and walked behind the slow walking Ejike.
“Don’t rejoice o, because you have not won yet. Ejike will never grow this fat. The man is too tattered.”
“Keep arguing, as if you didn’t see what he is wearing. Ejike! Ejike!” There was still no response. The passersby watched in disquiet the two queer strangers screaming behind a black madman. It was one of those melodramatic scenes that would fetch the actors a return ticket forthwith to their homeland if some fellows had their way.
“I told you he is not the one.” By now the duo were inches behind him.
“Mtchewwww, Ejike!” It was followed by a tap on the shoulder, which Ejike ignored and continued his snail walk: a walk that lacked the traces of both ambition and destination. They came, each to his either side, elongating their necks like giraffes from their spots to his front to catch his attention as they called from the closest range of touch, sight and sound. But neither their existence nor their action of the moment moved him one bit. They overtook him and formed a wall like the Nigerian police trying to stop a moving car. They were sure he would either stop or change direction. And still, that did not mean anything to him, his movement, pace and direction were unaffected. Thus, they cleared for him to pass, and with that ended the ugly spectacle. They didn’t need a soothsayer to know that the police might arrive and query them. They left and continued their argument from where they stopped. Madmen! thundered in Ejike’s mind.
On reaching a pizzeria, he stood outside and looked at the pizza seller, who returned the look with sufficient familiarity. Both nodded, and later the pizza seller exited through the two-piece counter way that opened from the middle.
“Eccola,” he said and handed over a pizza con prosciutto crudo wrapped in a pack to him.
“Grazie, capo!” Ejike said and counted coins of six euro and paid. Together with the coins was a substance wrapped in brown paper. The man collected all without counting and threw them in his apron’s big pocket and hurried to the counter to attend to other customers. Ejike walked away with his pizza, now a bit faster as he crossed the road, and headed to a recreation park opposite Roma Termini. On getting there, he looked around in covert circumspection before taking his sit on the floor at the dirtiest corner of the park. Slowly, he opened the pizza pack, raised the food a bit and got some interior mirth. Then he pounced on it and ate ravenously. The aroma sent invitation to flies, which honoured it with pleasure. Of course, he shared some bizarre familiarity with them. He allowed them to have their share as they perched on his hand, cloth and the pizza. Man and insects feasted with gusto.
Later, he dragged himself to the public tap and drank like a dromedary. Filled, he returned to the dirty corner and sat back down. From sitting, he lay down as the cool breeze of the park conveyed nature’s freshness to his members. His senses succumbed to it and he closed his eyes. A cat nap had ensued, his deepest sleep lately. His style of insanity denied him real sleep. As a matter of fact, he didn’t think he needed sleep given that he had got irreparably addicted to vigilance.
The noise of the movement he heard made him open his eyes abruptly. Right behind him was a grey snake virtually about to run through him. Like an eagle, he rose and took the poor reptile by the tail and smashed its head on the park’s cement chair. It stretched its body but got another smash that left it wriggling in the pain of death. He brought the animal to his mouth and buried his teeth on its body in savage rage and pulled them off again after a couple of seconds and then dropped it on the ground. The poisonous snake fell and lay there like a small rubber pipe. He knelt, breathing heavily while facing the lifeless snake. When he looked up, he saw people surrounding him, mainly tourists.
“I think he deserves to be sued for animal maltreatment. He just killed the poor, tender snake,” a lanky girl with rose tattoo on her mosquito-like bicep said.
“What a cruelty! This man has no humanity. Doesn’t he know that only the human beings who love animals deserve to be loved? I love who loves animals,” another voice added.
“Me too,” concurred his fellow animalist.
“We are against every form of maltreatment of animals. Some of these animals are like our children. I can’t afford to watch my child suffer in this manner,” the voice of a good mother affirmed.
“People this cruel should be locked up in prison. Look at what he did to a beautiful creature of God,” a furious man said.
“Prison you say? People like this don’t deserve to live.”
“But the man is insane.”
By this time, Ejike could only hear them from a distance; he had left as soon as he noticed their presence. And when he heard the word insane, he couldn’t but soliloquize, “It is your father who is insane. Your mother too is mad, and so are all your family members. In fact, you come from a mad lineage. All your generation is crazy! Madman!” He was walking faster than usual to evade the imploding weight of their accursed utterances. In his thoughts, he vividly captured the scenes of affection towards animals that had made him long to become a dog (not any dog, but a puppy) in order to experience a torrent of humanity in Rome. He was about to curse someone but it occurred to him that thousands back home would wish to become a fat mouse in a politician’s house, or even a housefly in the villa of a Nigerian celebrity pastor. “God punish you people!” he screamed, though not sure to whom. And his hearers turned and looked.
The mad Ejike stuck around Roma Termini like a misfit. He needed to wash away the blood that had risen and flooded his brain. A tender thought of who he used to be and his pitiable transition mattered. The thoughts rioted before one gave way for the other. He had been brought to his knees, and he knelt looking far, thousands of kilometers away. The tears that gathered like clouds dropped like heavy rainfall with cleansing effect. Though a cold comfort, crying alleviated the sorrow of his mind. He migrated in thought.
*** *** *** ***
The journey to the stream was virtually a race-walk, often rendered more exciting with a primitive chase game in the bushy narrow pathway. Going was brisker and more carefree than returning, which was slower and laden with more attentiveness. The rough brushes of elephant grasses and the tender caresses of crop tendrils dancing the music of nature were often ignored. They had become an inalienable part of a harmless everydayness. Not even early morning cobwebs posed a problem bigger than one swift face-wipe unconsciously carried out. From a distance, the path leading to the stream was usually quiet save the occasional chirping of insects and tweeting of birds, heightened by the rare interjection of clap sounds of ukpaka fruit, especially on a hot afternoon. At night, it was free of footsteps except for those of the spirits, dangerous beasts and shy nocturnal rodents. Closer to the stream came a cool breeze that welcomed one with its dampness and freshness. The water scurried lively in an endless flux that mirrored its sustenance by a busy god.
Far from the hills, the stream presented the picture of an uneven highway running from east to west in a wide valley. The air turned more verdant as descent was made through the hilly pathway. Herbs of various forms and seaweeds formed natural fringes to the carton-colour stream. The seamless part is the shallow mouth that wetted the sandy shore with its timid showers, which receded even before flowing out. That was the most friendly and generous part of the stream: its first point of contact, its welcome area to children and adults alike. Logs of wood and large pieces of stone were in the stream inches from the mouth. Those were enhancers of manual laundry. And children caught fun in the shallowest part as they washed only their potbellies in justification of their presence in the stream, and showed their infant solidarity with adults who did the actual bathing and swimming. Young girls and mothers sieved their cassava roots with baskets and bags. Others cleansed the slippery seeds of breadfruit around the greenest corner of the stream full of toad eggs and vivacious tadpoles, whose parents called out with a loud cry as if in protest against anyone harassing them. Washing of clothes was for men and women. The overwhelming power of nature permeated the attribute of the stench air; it was nothing short of natural, the normal smell of the village stream. Not even strangers on their first day at the stream complained about the stench. The village stream couldn’t possess any smell short of the super aroma of classy primitivism. Actually, village life in the 80s was simple in Umubiam, a land that had not known the mindless ravish of its innocence.
The first day the seven-year-old Ejike went to the stream alone, he swam through the dreaded part and was bitten by a poisonous animal. Some said it was a medusa, others a snake. Nobody was sure of what bit him as they beheld the scampering child, who was fast turning pale and weak. Amidst that cloud of confusion, what mattered most was rushing him home to his grandfather, Papa Oha, who mixed a concussion of poison antidote, which killed the terrible pain that was fast choking his consciousness and freed his body fluid of the deadly pale colouration. His mother, Margaret, was kept in the dark over the state of her only surviving son until Papa Oha did his normal duty, what gave him fame in Umubiam and beyond, his matchless health restoration. He had identified the specie of the snake that bit Ejike through its poison.
“Dim!” Margaret called Ejike as she looked with worrisome surprise at him walking towards the kitchen hand-in-hand with Papa Oha. “Dim!” She called again and sprang on her feet, having sensed something amiss. She was virtually oblivious of the presence of Papa Oha. Her eyes were fixed on her son. She wondered why a child who should return from the stream with a vessel of water on the head would now, nothing on the head, walk home hand-in-hand with Papa Oha. “What happened to you? Where is your vessel? Did you fight with anybody! Are you okay?” She was already with the two at the speed of light. “Papa Oha, welcome, please pardon me.” She greeted and quickly apologized to her father-in-law, the most respected elder of Umubiam, for her belated salute.
“It’s okay my daughter, we know how much you love him,” Papa Oha responded looking at the woman clad chest-high in wrapper. Her bare back, shoulder and neck had tiny heat rashes bathed by occasional drops of sweat from her hair and forehead, which she wiped with the back of her right palm and cleaned on her wrapper. When alone or just in the company of Ejike, she usually wiped her face directly with the wrapper, a multi-purpose role player that cushioned some dirty wads of naira notes at another knotted end. Her body was full under the wrapper, and her presence spread the strong air of half-done fufu and egusi soup. It was an emphatic presence of motherhood: raw and pure, coupled with high femininity in chocolate colour. She looked quite appealing in the disarming humility, competence and maturity of a charming village widow. Her cornrow hairstyle enhanced her simplicity and the ripe beauty of a woman in her 40s.
“Dim!” Margaret’s eyes were fixed on her son, who stared down like a guilty child. “Ejike! You are scaring me. Where is your vessel, and why are you not talking?”
“My daughter, it was just a little bite, and I have taken care of it. The young men who brought him back were wise enough not to waste time. Indeed, a stitch in time saves nine.” He spoke slowly in the slow, thick, reflective and sagacious style of an elder. Margaret’s eyes moved repeatedly to and from Ejike and Papa Oha, worrisomely. She looked virtually lost.
“Papa Oha, please how do you mean? Ewooo! They want to kill my son for me. My only eye. Dim! This boy you will not kill me o!” She had now knelt down to be of the same height with the young boy as she hugged him tight.” The poor boy was still speechless and in shock.
“Take him inside. Give him food to eat, and let him sleep well. He will feel much better when he wakes up.” Papa Oha’s words didn’t seem to be falling on functional ears, since the woman was still there hugging her son and examining the slim blister on his left hand as though she were a soldier who just returned from an impossible mission in Maiduguri. “Woman!” This time Papa Oha’s voice was louder, though it didn’t miss its deep polish. And mother and child heard it well as she stood up. “Ejike is well and nothing will happen to him. This is even providential, because now he has in his body fluid a strong antidote against every form of poison. No snake, medusa, spider, scorpion, etc. can harm him anymore. Take this and put in his food for the next three days, it will perfect the strength of the antidote in him.” Margaret collected the dark thick liquid in a small dirty bottle corked with an undersized wooden stopper, which was enhanced with dead leaves to make it fit properly.
“Thank you, Papa Oha!” she pretended she believed everything he said.
“Yes, it is something I didn’t even do for my own sons at that age. It’s a great privilege. Omenka was at the age of emmh…nine, no, eight, yes eight. The son after my heart. Chai, death!” The old man was about being carried away in emotion before it occurred to him that an old wound had just been roughly scratched. He shouldn’t give in to emotions before his son’s widow. That was another way of tormenting a woman who had lately gotten over her inconsolable state after the husband’s death. Now her face was expressionless. “Ejike is a hero; he is Omenka.” That was not just a consolation, the child was indeed a reincarnation of his father, Omenka, who died a few months before his birth. “Take him inside, feed him and let him rest. He will make you proud. He possesses the guts of the great. My grandson is a wonder chap.”
The antidote was a semblance of immortality. Papa Oha had rendered Ejike indestructible. He felt like engaging every poisonous animal in a fierce duel. He would do better than Achilles in his blunt clobbering of Hector, for sure. Now he junketed with the ease of a delighted sparrow in flight. He had the liberty of agile youthful monkeys playing on the treetop. He jumped about with the frolicsomeness of a tender kid. He felt special in Umubiam, and people saw him as such. However, there were some folks who dismissed his specialty as the redundancy in one’s vaunt of being unique; no doubt, one is unique, but who is not?
Ejike had indisputably entered into the class of the fearless. He would run with confidence to the direction from where others fled. That was the edge he had over other kids of his age that made him the favourite of young hunters. Boys far older than him always called him to join them as they moved from the village farm and light bushes into thick and often dangerous forests to hunt games. The few younger boys who joined in that group were those who had the fortune of possessing an eagle-eyed dog that made hunting a sensational experience. Such dogs did not only smell the presence of a game but also tirelessly pursued and captured it. Ejike had no dog, yet he was given that privilege. Actually, he possessed something that was worth more than a dog. The presence of a lad like him would have saved Bingo, Kanayo’s dog bitten to death by a snake. The dog’s death was such sad news that kept Ejike restless for weeks until he found the snake and killed it. He killed several other snakes afterwards. He was hailed as the new St Patrick in Nigeria. He was indeed heroic, but now in Rome, his heroism couldn’t but provoke a paradox, no, a travesty of paradox. He suddenly became inhuman and undoubtedly a villain.
“The search for greener pastures…chai…Greg didn’t put these things in simple language. He never told me that he, Greg Okeke, had received a civil baptism: now Mustapha Campbell, his real name gone, with his Nigerian citizenship suppressed in order to don a Liberian one, all for political asylum in Italy. Seen as sub-human, he couldn’t but give in to the suffocation of self-confidence and unashamedly assume the status of a beggar at the supermarket door. He didn’t make any effort to free me from the stereotype of Western life, the good life of no poverty and misery. If only intuition had favoured my modest assessment, perhaps I would have seen that fleeing was no solution to my perceived Nigerian tragedy. If only intuition had numbed the sleep of my consciousness, I wouldn’t have set out to Libya by road. Hell must be paradise in comparison with my desert experience. If only intuition had been lavish with foresight, Libya would have been my final destination. Mr. Ahmed wanted me to stay back and continue to work with him in Libya, but I told him that Libya was only a passage to my destination. Incredible! Job scarcity has raised the prestige of menial jobs in Italy. People like us have no chance for any job at all. How I wish he had held me back at all costs. The incubus of the Mediterranean Sea was calling with a seductive voice. Its intensity was more than the Cyclops’ persistence to woo Galatea. Men, women and children excitedly packed like sardine in an inferior, old boat that had outlived its existence. Ours was manned by one of us in search of better life in Europe. Reason was totally blurred by desperation; we failed to see that the high sea was no place for first lesson in navigation. An odyssey was an understatement when being led in the sea by one who could not read a compass. Poseidon must have stayed too long in Ethiopia not to notice our clumsy selves revolving nights and days aimlessly in the middle of the sea. If it wasn’t for that young man that used the rising of the sun and its setting to direct our boat, the inhabitants of the sea would have feasted on us. Kind Italians rescued us at Lampedusa when all hope was lost. My senses came back, if they ever did, at the refugee camp. I was stripped of whatever I had on me. I entered the new world naked as I came into the world. It was a rebirth. A sad rebirth!
Away from the camp, the civilization I dreamt of met my eyes. The roads, the rails, electricity, portable water, hospitals, schools, etc. were all functional. Clean environment, no pollution in an air of liberty and fun. I would luxuriate in the beauty and countless opportunities of a lovely society. But the irreconcilable reality struck. The people were unjustifiably sad and closed. Faces lacked the glow of the good life the structures showed. The trains, the buses were replete with acerbic ladies and gentlemen – folks you offend with your harmless greeting. The foreigner was actually a stranger in every sense of the word.
Mixing up with fellow Africans didn’t appear a better idea. The distinction between Anglophone and Francophone wilted true interaction. Mutual suspicion was rife. Trust was so distant that nobody permitted themselves the joke of touching it with a barge-pole. And still, the African shop around Termini was a meeting point. Drinks were taken with native hilarity. At last a home was found in Rome. But all quenched one day by an infamous invasion by the police. Folks abandoned their fellows and fled. I was arrested with a few others who couldn’t escape. The only person left was a black madman who was gulping his beer with frenzied gusto. I was released two years later, even though I had never touched drug. Drug trafficking was my assumed crime, the prison a haven for true friendship. With confused lawyers asking me to plead guilty despite my loud innocence, no chance existed to claim damages. My fury was born by the rape of my innocence. Stark injustice nursed it so much that off the prison I had become a time bomb seconds to explosion. Now, I am mad. The madman of the African shop on the day of my unjust arrest was my inspiration. Immunity to arrest in a life of no life and falsehood perforce,” Ejike’s ended his rant feeling proud of himself for lending his voice to the endless soliloquies of crazy people.
His mood became better as night drew nearer. A man who detested human company would definitely crave an enduring nightlife, since it was the best opportunity to maximize the true content of loneliness. Now he sat cool, like cucumber on a pavement, at a corner around Termini. He added to the oddity of the corner which stench was as strong as a urinary bereft of water. He was more sober than a sentinel. The darker it got, the more he was disposed to keeping vigil. Then his Samsung phone started vibrating, and he searched for the small phone like a pin in the pile of clothes on him. He fumbled the clothes and luckily got the phone before it stopped vibrating.
“No, non è pronto,” he just told someone that the stuff was ready in a coded language of via negativa.
“Quando?” And the man asked if it was as
usual in the selfsame code.
“Mai,” Ejike confirmed by answering ‘Never,’ sealed the deal and hurried out. Soon he was back, and the farther the night spent, the more his phone vibrated in continuation. He was actually as busy as an ant, walking to and fro until midnight. Around, 1:00a.m, his movement tempo lowered, given that his clients grew less. He continued in that diminishing tempo until about 2:10 a.m. when he started wobbling to the bus station. Just a few metres from the station were some of his colleagues, high in the fever of nocturnal frenzy. The folks who hung around at such hours considered themselves special. From 11:30p.m every night, Roma Termini had always taken another face. The crowded face had usually given way to a desolate one that got punctuated by a special squad radiating an incredibly boisterous air. It was the time for the few last trains of the day, trains that carried away the remains of sickening quotidian existence. Their departure spelt farewell to the boredom of normalcy. It prepared the Termini stage for the real life in the colour of pop.
When the ATAC night bus 811 arrived, Ejike hopped in without a ticket. They were only four passengers in the big bus, and each queerer than the other. The two people seated in front of him were a couple, who could easily be passed off as zombies created by a good make-up artist. A lanky dog lying at their feet was the only attractive thing about them. It seemed their only friend and consolation, yet they rewarded the poor creature with starvation. The next was a well-dressed girl who later pulled off her shoes and turned so frightened that her fright frightened the rest. Ejike was a madman!
He alighted at the bus stop before that of the cemetery, and headed towards the Roma Est cemetery. With great care, he made his way through the whistling pine to a fallow land opposite the cemetery. His keen watchfulness was enhanced by the two side antennas he had for ears. At a spot covered with leaves, he warily opened the ground and uncovered a mini spade. Shifting to another portion at the speed of light, he exhumed his treasury. The intense peppery vapour entered his nose and he coughed aloud and suddenly hushed the cough. Now he jerked like an engine whose oil was contaminated by water.
“Accursed cough! no way, you can’t implicate me. What is amiss? Even this flicker of light seems more deem than usual. Well, I can see but only a spirit will see me from the road, because nature’s design has denied those shinning in the light the gift of sight for hidden things. Pepper, a good talisman you are, despite the cough. No insect, no rodent, you ward them all off. You protect my treasure from sniffing dogs and cats. They dare not scratch and go with nose unhurt.” He warily unwrapped the cocaine and took the required quantity for the next transaction, poured reasonable quantity of pepper in the hole, wrapped the drug back with layers of polythene bag and paper, and buried it alongside some cash. He eventually sealed the ground with pepper, sand and dry leaves. He exited with a cautious glance to the lonely road, strolling down like lord of the night.
“Ah I almost forgot,” he said and brought out his sim card, broke it into pieces and flung it away. “I don’t know how long this will last, but no regrets if caught, because I’m fighting hard to live, to survive.”
Written by Chinonso Madu: the winner of the 2009 Italian National Competition in Fairy Tales, Racconta la tua Favola.