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Novel: The Ostrich Dance - Chapter Eight
Whence he came from, none could fathom. How he seeped through the tight security cordon, made up of official and self-appointed guards, was a complete mystery. Who he was, only few could tell. Why he was here was impossible to conjecture. What he had to tell, only God in heaven and perhaps his many angels and prophets could foretell. What was known for sure was that there he was, bang out of the blue, right in front of the microphones, ready to address the gathering.
The members of the funeral committee, at least those known publicly, who were present at the gathering, rose up in protestant unison. Peter Alal approached like the bad character in a terrorist movie. Major Ojiem was marching up and down in total fury. Even Prof. Aledi who had nothing to do with the committee, had her temper rising dangerously.
The man was quite a sight to behold. His dread-locked hair hung in strands, brown with dirt such that one could nearly feel the lice crawling in them. His eyes were egret red; his shirt was brown-black and torn in strands. His trousers were a discordant mismatch of all sorts of colours, so torn that it was lucky it covered the vital part. Dirt caked his long fingernails black and made extra thick layers on his feet, which were squeezed into big akala sandals. The wails of surprise from the crowd were definitely called for.
But when he begun to speak, in impeccable English, everything froze. His deep, controlled voice, had a calm, authoritative drone that made all to listen.
“Ladies and gentlemen, honorable and otherwise, I certainly have no apologies to make for opting to address you people on this occasion. I sought no permission from anyone, since I don’t need that. As you very well know, the swelling of the frog does not prevent the cow from drinking water.
This man lying here dead today, is my loyal friend and none of those gathered here knows him better than I do. So I will not sit back and watch his funeral being turned into a political fencing match, like any ordinary funeral these days, without throwing in a few home truths into this very public occasion.
This man was no ordinary man, I wish to clarify this point with three clear illustrations, in Onagi if you will allow me.”
Continued in Onagi
And so he continued in Onagi.
“This man lying here, as I have stated, was no ordinary man. He was a man of infallible integrity and distinguished ingenuity. The term honorable fitted him like the suit of a cockroach.
I definitely do not belong to his political party. The ‘Everybody! Rupa! Everybody! Rupa!’ thing. No, not me. Neither do I belong for that matter, to any of these other pedestrian parties littering the national political gutter, which is as congested and filthy as Noah’s ark. This is because I’m not anyone’s bootlicker. I’m therefore, here for only one reason, to state the truth about him.
This man was a great man. Whenever our so called leaders go abroad, for instance, they go to beg and frolic at the feet of their white masters. Even then, they lack concrete ideas to present, like a beggar without a bowl, so they are kicked in the butt and retrieve the few coins thrown at them from the sewer.
McOpondo was above that, he took the white man to task. He made them scratch their heads bald with his cryptic questions. As such, he got well known, and made this mapera village to be known as well, all over the world. Who would have known this village where people fight for natural toilet space with monkeys?
So we owe a lot to Hon McOpondo. For verily I say unto you, we already missed a great opportunity to honor him during the last general election, because of petty politics. Our politics is moving around in fits and starts like a beheaded chicken.
My good people, let us not lose this second and final opportunity to show the world that we respect this man. Let us not sit there and spread innuendo about his wife and son having deserted him. Let us not celebrate that his imposing reign has at last come to an end. For though you may not see it, his end marks the end for this entire village, as far as the world is concerned. Kanem is going back to the mapera bush where it belongs. Thanks to our lack of foresight and respect. The leaders we are now left with cannot cover the political vacuum left by him. Not now, not ever! No matter how much they struggle, bearing the teeth does not help one in shitting.”
At this point, he stopped speaking as suddenly as he had started. He took off speedily and picked up his paraphernalia in a dirty, blackened sack. Only then did people realize that he was a madman.
It took a whole two minutes for the murmuring and confusion that followed his departure to ebb out. At length, Peter Alal took the microphone to announce the next course of events, which was not much.
* * * * * * * * * *
Later that night, Caephas stood on the balcony gazing down at the pool below. People were asleep on the lawn around it and far into the horizon, covered in anything from bed-sheets, to sacks, to blankets. They looked uncannily like piglets cuddling together for warmth. Some thoughtful person Major Ojiem most likely, had ensured that the paved paths were not lain on to aid those going for calls of nature. Whoever it was had also ensured that armed soldiers sat next to the casket, guarding it. Under normal circumstances, this was the work of the immediate members of the family of the deceased. But then, McOpondo was not your ordinary village bum.
Caephas recalled for a moment that it was from this very spot that Goretti had viewed his dad swimming in the pool below, so many years ago. Ironically, here he was viewing the same person, or rather, his casket. Oh, how the mansion had changed hands.
This last thought kind of bothered him, he couldn’t exactly tell why. There was something about this property and inheriting it that jarred his nerves. He could not just put his finger on it. All the same, it bothered him a lot.
His mind then shifted all the way to New York. He remembered driving his white Mercedes convertible over the River Hudson with the lovely Cecilly tittering excitedly next to him. He recalled her flaming red hair, bright hazel eyes and slender frame in a pink mini dress, as though it was just yesterday.
Admittedly, he had not approached her himself when they first came to know each other. It had been an arrangement between their parents Ceasar Hamilton, a New York Structural Engineer and Absalom D.J. McOpondo, a politico-businessman from Iborian, Aynek.
There had been family visits in which the children had been given lots of time to interact, money to go out together and so on. Then, getting quite impatient at the way his son didn’t seem to taking the hint, McOpondo had told them point-blank to start getting intimate as they were meant to get married. The two youngsters, both naïve, had not hesitated to do just that from then on. They didn’t know the first thing about getting a love affair going, but they had fumbled along. Actually, Cecilly had taken the lead and sooner rather than later, she eased Caephas out of virginity to mark her seventeenth birthday. Since then, they had a go again and again.
But her first love was and had always been computer software engineering. She dreamt about starting a “Silicon Mountain” in her mountainous home of Wyoming, to rival the existing Silicon Valley. So her life had been one of exhibitions, exhibitions and more exhibitions; of new software for Redmark, the company she worked for. They exhibitions were held across the length and breadth of North America, Europe and Australia.
That was why she had informed him, to his distress, that she could not accompany him to his father’s funeral. He thought that was quite odd. It was a real paradox that people who were not even related to him had thronged this funeral, while his closest relation was nowhere to be seen. He wondered.
He didn't Love Cecilly
Oddly enough, he knew he did not love Cecilly. Not in the manner that made one gasp for breath and lose one’s voice when the other approached. He even wondered if he could ever really love any woman. Granted, being with her was marvelous and sex was heaven itself, but he was sure he didn’t love her. Perhaps this was because no love had existed between his parents.
The last thought really distressed him. He was old enough now to know that it had not been his fault, the tragedy of divorce that had befallen his parents. Nevertheless, like all products of such failed marriages, he still had a nagging feeling of guilt, which he now realized would not go away.
The suddenly, his mood swings turned for the better. He gasped for breath and cleared his hoarse throat without realizing. He was smiling as he walked to bed. He was thinking about Naomi.
The following morning he was naturally drawn to the balcony while still brushing his teeth. He had a towel wrapped around his waist. He gazed down again at the now sunbathed pool and lawn. Then something caught his attention down there. It looked quite odd.
He had earlier been told by a most reliable source, Major Ojiem, that the two long Volvos; belonging to prominent Iborian businessmen; that had accompanied the hearse from the city, had gone back. They would not be here again till the burial two days later. So, which was that long, dark-blue limo parked right next to the pool? Well only one way to find out, he had to go down.
He quickly dressed up. He passed through a mostly feminine and juvenile mass of squealing humanity, in various stages of dressing, who occupied the living room by way of living quarters. Outside the door, he met Oliver and Tito, the two typical city macho men who had been guarding him since his arrival in the country. They were ready and prepared to chaperone him off as usual. They said hallo and touched they caps in salute.
Shaking hands and hurriedly acknowledging greetings, which were a must everyday for everyone who got the chance, he managed to make his way to the pool. Then he stopped dead.
Cecilly and Samantha
The limousine he had thought belonged to an Iborian businessman was actually one he had never seen before. It had foreign registration number plates. Its newly emerged contents were the last thing he had ever hoped to see in this part of the world. Standing next to the casket, viewing the body, were none other than his mother Samantha and girlfriend Cecilly. His mouth simply fell open.
Then by sixth sense and perhaps the sudden stillness all over, the two detected his presence and were soon trotting towards him. He also set off towards them and they fell into one another’s arms in one big bunch. Villagers watched the foreign entourage with wonder.
Standing a few meters away, Naomi watched this emotional reunion with thoroughly mixed feelings. Suddenly, tears inexplicably rolled down her cheeks. Caephas happened to look across between the heads of the two newcomers and his eyes met hers. His tears rolled out too. All who noticed, thought the arrival of these two unknown people, who were obviously close to him, had caused this sentimental high tide. They were wrong, though even Caephas didn’t know at the time exactly why the tears. Soon Samantha and Cecilly were crying too.
When everyone had sorted themselves out a while later, Caephas and his new company found a comfortable perch on the balcony. Here they had all the chatter of catching up, while sipping from glasses of real brandy, fresh from London.
There wasn’t much to catch up on between him and his girlfriend. The only bit was that she had felt so lonely that she had decided to postpone her software exhibition after all, and gone to London to see his mother. They had then decided to attend this funeral, at least to keep him company.
His mother, on the other hand, had a lot to tell. Not that the younger girl really gave her tome to say it. She kept on interrupting with stories of her own.
A whole year had passed since he had last seen his mother. She was now a senior government medical officer in London, after having resumed and completed her studies. When her husband had still been a politician, she had only reached her son very few times. This was partly because she feared her husband, and mainly because of the painful manner in which they had parted. For starters, there were the bitter revelations of traumatizing secrets between them in a horrible quarrel. Secrets that she hoped against hope that her son would never know.
All the while she had missed her son terribly. When Absolom finally lost an election, she had started communicating regularly to her son again. Soon they started visiting each other, in the US and UK, but never in Aynek. The memories of Aynek, though fond ones at times, always generally ended with a bitter twist, too painful to bear.
Now she had finally realized that, whatever the case, Caephas loved both of his parents equally. She had, therefore, decided to keep him company during his grief. Even though she didn’t mention it, she missed her late husband too, and had just been as struck by his death as anyone else, friend or foe, who had known him. Seeing his face again, albeit dead, stirred something in her that had made her use hugging her son as an excuse for crying. She was actually mourning for the man she had always loved.
Much later that evening, when they had just had supper, the three of them found some time alone, from the hustle and bustle of introductions and socialization. They were back on the balcony looking down at the ceaseless activities below. This balcony was fast becoming their favourite place for its seclusion and wide view. They could easily pick out the security men in suits mingling with the crowd, which boy was chasing which girl and who was quarreling who. It was like watching a crowd scene in a movie.
Encounter with Jodongo
The view was made more romantic on a night like this, with the security lights mingling with the full glow of the full moon. Judging by the way they were fully enthralled by the cinematic panorama, it was hard to imagine that just moments earlier, they had a disenchanting run in with a bunch of Jodongo. The clan elders, mostly made up of fathers and brothers of McOpondo, eight in number, had urgently pointed out that it was Samantha’s duty as the widow to keep virgil over her husband’s body, as per tradition. They had pointed out that after the burial she had to be inherited by one of the Yuoro for the sake of continuity.
To be fair, the Jodongo through Jasolo, their spokesman, had been diplomatic and respectful. So in kind, Samantha had listened patiently. The moment she responded, in Kiswahili, which she spoke, that she was divorced and had no more interest in the ways of the tribe, all hell broke loose. Inspired by their disbelief, the entire council babbled, ridiculed, shook their heads and warned her. It was mostly in Onagi and Caephas had the most difficult time interpreting.
The main point by the Jodongo was that it was taboo for her to sleep comfortably in her room while strangers cared for her husband. She was endangering the life of her son, they added. They made no impression however, as Samantha didn’t share the superstition that kept the tribe together, not anymore. Worse still, she was used to this kind of thing, having been married to their most prized son for years.
The Jodongo had left crestfallen, mumbling something to the effect that reasoning with Odiero (a white person) was like trying to feed meat to a mad donkey. The last sentiments Caephas didn’t bother to interpret.
However, all was calm now, the moment having ebbed out. Only Caephas had been left a little hollow inside by this victory. He recalled that he had earlier turned down a similar request himself. All the same he was a man, the elders became more insistent when the person involved was a woman. In his mother’s case, her divorce from her husband was not recognized by the Jodongo. Divorce only applied when cows paid as dowry were physically withdrawn from the bride’s home. In this case there had been no dowry and none knew the bride’s home. So it was tricky even for the elders. But they knew one thing, among the Onagi, divorce was never permanent. A woman whose dowry had been withdrawn, and even remarried seventy-times, could still walk home to her first husband and begin legitimately staying. None, not even her husband, had the right to send her away.
What greater sign of marital reunion was there, than a woman who came of her own free will, to her former husband’s funeral?
As the old men left pondering this question, with them went the culture to which Caephas believed he belonged. He had been born and brought up among the Onagi. Onagi was his first language and culture. He had internalized Onagi ways as his ways. He owed no one any apologies for being an Onagi. He had lived in Iborian, New York, London, Paris, Caracas and Cairo. Yet the only people who were undoubtedly his people were the Onagi, white skin or not. Whether he kept virgil over his father’s corpse or not. He was an Onagi, first and foremost, now and forever.
Yet his own people didn’t know what to make of him. Whenever he spoke their language, his language, they would whoop in surprise. The fact that he spoke without any accent whatsoever, just like them, was something they could not easily live with. They just never got used to it and thus never ceased to talk about it. They expected Onagi spoken through the nose as they say.
In fact, he generally had a way with languages. He spoke American English, British English, Aynekan English; each complete with the appropriate accent. He spoke the lyrical coastal Kiswahili that even Aynekans from the upcountry regions could not. He spoke French like the Frenchmen. But the only reason he spoke Onagi, like an Onagi was that he was an Onagi.
Anyway, all that was in the past now. At the moment, all was plain sailing as nerves had settled and Martini Rosso was flowing. Another source of inspiration for him was that the rumours about his mother and him having deserted his father, which was spread all around during the first days when they all thought he didn’t understand Onagi, were finally over. Villagers liked rumours based on hypotheses and speculation, when the facts emerged, like his mum and himself, they lost talking interest. He was glad. He never liked anything negative being said about his mother.
As such his mind slowly drifted to something else. He gazed down with a lot of interest towards the space before the same old servants’ quarters. Apparently, the old practice of lighting a fire in that space, which he remembered from his father’s stories was still on. At the moment, some young girls had collected bundles of firewood and were arranging them to light one.
When the flames started dancing, the girls, and some boys with obvious pursuits, gathered around the fire. Otherwise, the other people didn’t seem to be too interested in the development. In fact, a few older men seemed to be opposing the idea of a fire. In Caephas, the fire stirred a deep longing to partake in the practice of warming himself and hopefully, to hear to good stories of old.
Another Evening Fire
After a little hesitation, he excused himself and set off. On the way, he was joined by Oliver. Tito he had noticed, was now the newly personally appointed guard of his mother. He paved his way with his one remaining watcher until he was next to the fire. His heart leapt with joy when he realized that Naomi was one of those who had lit the fire.
Her eyes lit up with joy on seeing him and they both smiled. He chose his place on the inner circle and sat. Oliver positioned himself strategically behind him, also seated.
Before long, the smile on Naomi’s face suddenly faded as someone squeezed her tender body beside him. It was Cecilly. Then his mother squeezed herself on the opposite side. All of a sudden, other VIPs developed interest in the fire too. Soon, the entire city and the prominent of the village were in vantage positions around the blaze.
Those considered to be nobodies like Naomi, were pushed away to the distant cold periphery, their firewood snatched heartlessly from them. It was reminiscent of how public affairs are conducted all over the world. It is mostly the common man who innovates things, the VIPs being too busy doing other things, but inevitably the dominant fellows shove them aside unceremoniously, being the one’s to gain. He felt slightly guilty at having initiated the city invasion of the village fire. He knew though that this could not now be reversed. More so, his own nostalgic longing for a culture so old and rich represented by the fire, left him with no room to turn back.
Disappointingly, there were no folktales, jokes and songs to be heard here now. With the city and village elite came their pet topic: politics.
First, the oppositionists who obviously had roaring support. They had nothing new as usual, since all they could say was that the ills and misrule of the current regime had caused all the suffering, in the form of poverty, hunger, joblessness, lack of proper roads, piped water and electricity, and the list went on. The reverse was that once the NPC came to power, all this would change. Though like before they repeated everything again and again, every time they roared:
they were rewarded by a thunderous:
Then came the government men. They alleged that the single-tribe opposition parties, who believed the next river was the boundary of Aynek, caused all the ills. They had splintered the country into small fiefdoms, which all suffered from the said ills, due to lack of a more national focus. This time very few responded to the call:
with insignificant cries of;
No wonder McOpondo had lost, though Caephas.
Owich the Madman Again
“Rubbish! Nonsense! Hogwash! Pilth!” cut in a familiar deep voice, from nowhere as usual.
The crowd welcomed Owich the madman with cheers and loud expectant laughter. They had already forgotten everything else. They were now united for the very first time on the occasion. The three MPs in the crowd, Honorables Ogwal, Ochare and Malando: who were reasonable when chatting in a relaxed setting, and completely hopeless before a cheering crowd, looked in awe, wondering what the magic was and how they could muster it. Presently, the mad man continued.
“First of all, let me state that there is nothing wrong with this country. If country to you means this physical piece of earth, there is nothing wrong with that. The sun rises, dead on time, every morning and has never failed to set. The rain falls, according to its own time-table, but it falls. The seeds we put in the ground germinate, sometimes giving miserable harvest, but they germinate. So there is nothing wrong with that.
If the country is the people in it, then there is nothing wrong with that either. We eat, sleep, shit, sex, steal, murder, worship, undermine, praise, sing, dance, trade and learn like everyone else. Nothing wrong there.”
This speech, delivered in Onagi, caused such loud laughter and clapping, owing to its rapid delivery just as well as its hilarious content, that he had to momentarily stop it. In the meantime, Caephas had to divide his time between laughing and interpreting for his linguistically disable feminine entourage.
Luckily, the next part was in English.
“Secondly, I would like to state that all of you seated her, except me of course, do not know what you want in politics. So you do not know where and how to look for it. Allow me to tell you what it is, where and how to find it. May I?”
The interest had risen to an all time high. The silence that followed was deafening. Some people in the crowd listened so hard that they moved their lips bearing and covering their teeth in rapid succession. Others moved their long necks forward and backward like giraffes. Yet others tilted their heads to one side, elevating one ear, like chicken tracing a kite in the sky. Naomi was looking steadily at Caephas. Pastor Odipo was in deep meditation completely out of this world. Old men were catching up on the interpretation of what had just been said. All in all, what was being said was important to the vast majority.
“What we want, ladies and gentlemen, is to solve our collective problem. That problem is extreme and excessive poverty.
I can already sense some of you agreeing with me without a second thought. I can also sense some of the more prominent and cunning ones smiling inwardly, and consoling themselves that they no longer share that problem. That they have already crossed that particular valley and are high and dry on the more prosperous hills yonder. But they are wrong. A well fed rat is not a cat.
The loud laughter at this point eased the growing tensions somewhat.
“I shall explain shortly. For the moment, let me revisit those of you who’ve accepted that you are poor. It is true, you are very poor indeed.”
“When your expectant wife delivers on a bicycle carrier for lack of a more appropriate means of transport to the hospital; the problem is poverty. When your child drops out of school for lack of fees; the problem is poverty. When your husband dies from an ordinary disease due to lack of readily available drugs; the problem is poverty.”
By this time the crowd had picked up the refrain: “the problem is poverty!” So they repeated it with every pause he took. The more they said it, the louder they laughed.
“When you fail to raise dowry to get yourself a wife..”
“… the problem is poverty!”
“When your clothes are falling apart..”
“..the problem is poverty!”
“When you can see the stars through the roof from your bed at night..”
“.. the problem is poverty!”
“When you follow other people and beg for handouts wearing an imported smile..”
“..the problem is poverty!”
“When you daughter falls pregnant and is married off at the age of ten..”
“.. the problem is poverty!”
“When you take off and hide as others contribute in a harambee..”
“..the problem is poverty!”
“So those of you who believe you are poor, are actually very, very poor.”
There was voluptuous laughter here that covered the better part of a minute.
Selling Pork in Teheran
“Now, for those who believe they are rich, let me tell them again that they are wrong. For you to be truly rich, you must be in possession of something that the majority needs so badly that they will buy it for a profit in your favor. But what do you really have that is originally yours? If what you have was originally manufactured in another country, and is passed through you as a conduit, then it is those in that country who are rich, not you!
Above all, if the vast majority have learned to live without what you are offering since they can’t afford it, then you are on your way down. In any case, if we all come from the twentieth poorest country in the world, collectively we are all poor and the world regards us as such, individual lifestyles notwithstanding. Furthermore, whether we drive in matatus or private limos, it has to be through the same portholes, over the same garbage, traffic jams, flash floods, and rioting university students. In short, there is no way you can be comfortably rich in a sea of extreme poverty, even if I don’t go further to mention the beggars, muggers and robbers that we all share.
So I think you now realize that the only collective problem we have is poverty. It is such a simple concept, but to make some of you understand it, is worse than trying to sell pork in Tehran.
There was an eruption of volcanic laughter. All laughed, even those who could not tell whether Tehran was a goat, place or mountain.
“But …” there was still laughter.
“But…. But then what is poverty? Poverty is a situation whereby those who are regarded as being rich, blame the perceived poor for being a nuisance, backward, ignorant and even stupid; while those regarded as poor blame the perceived rich for being greedy, mean, inconsiderate, inhuman and even satanic. Poverty is a situation of mutual distrust emanating from the lack of confidence of individuals in their ability to resolve problems, and the pervading state of denial and indignant self-righteousness. In short, poverty is a situation where everybody wants something done for the betterment of all, but nobody knows what should be done.
That is why when we set out to talk about poverty, the ideas we present are as amorphous as an obese wife, who splashes herself on the bed like a swimming pool. Whose deep or shallow end, her husband cannot tell, in order to begin swimming.”
That brought the roof down. Even so, one particularly fat woman, Jecinter Odeke, wife of a member of the funeral committee, set the record by laughing louder and longer than everyone else. She rolled on the ground as tears flowed from her eyes, mucous from her nose and saliva from her mouth. She went on laughing and on and on, until the spasms made her choke. Yet she laughed on such that volunteers had to eventually carry her off. They took her to the waiting Volvo of her Iborian businessman-husband. This puzzled Caephas a little since he was meant to understand that the car was not supposed to be here. Anyway, the car took off, as the lady had passed out. Whoever said that laughter is the best medicine.
The commotion caused had effectively ended the Owich show. The mad man had smartly disappeared during the melee. Though Naomi started singing to fill in the gap, Caephas did not wait. He took off, his girlfriend, mum and guards tugging along. He only had bed in his mind now. His departure completely killed Naomi’s son and everyone looked for a place to sleep. Owich had drawn a large crowd indeed.