“Was his hair oiled, uncut, and braided wildly, like an Osu with ties of many colors?” he demanded. His face was flooded with awe, agony, and intense concentration—his bloodshot eyes quivering and glinting, reminding me of broken eggs with a quickened fetus, and now they seemed to focus on me with a light of their own—two penetrating beams, as in the ancient theory that sight was the result of the eye’s power to project rays and thus make literal contact with the objects they perceive.
“You must tell me everything that happened”, he said, “Don’t leave out a single detail. I must know everything you saw.” In these words I sensed both a threat and the implication that I would have reason to conceal information from him. I was confused, startled, and fascinated that anything could have had this much of an effect on Wilson. I slowly began to describe my arrival at the airport the previous evening, while watching him as unblinkingly as he watched me. In fact, I wonder now what emotion was showing on my face as I mapped the shadow that had descended on his.
I recounted my really nasty–row with the taxi drivers at the airport, although I left out the minor and ineffectual violence that, if truth be told, I could have avoided. I told him how they had refused to give me a decent price for the trip to the hotel, insisting on treating me like someone right off the NGO bus. In a fit of anger, I grabbed my overnight bag and headed out onto the road, hoping that I could flag down a taxi with other passengers, whose driver would be willing to take me on without an unreasonable tax on my being well-off by Nigerian standards. That’s when I got into a struggle with the taxi man who had won out over another man in the tug of war over my bag, which I used to give him a full broadside in the face. The little gang around me had made a shushing sound and stepped back into silence and darkness, and it seemed that I was suddenly alone. I grabbed my bag and began running toward the branch road that would lead to my hotel. This was really stupid behavior on my part. The hotel was over twelve kilometers away and I did not even have a flashlight to see if there were snakes on the road. If anyone was willing to stop, they might be just as willing to rob me and leave me to find out just how much wildlife had survived in the bush after the Nigerian Civil War.
Just as I had decided to head back to the airport and attempt to make my peace with the drivers, a lorry came barreling down the main highway and stopped not far ahead of me. From its general outline, visible in the light from the airport road, I could tell that it was quite probably a mammy wagon, a large van fitted on the inside with rough benches and hand rails so that it served as a kind of open-air bus. This was the cheapest transportation in the country, and the most dangerous, since overloading the truck with passengers was common and no regular maintenance of the vehicle could be expected. At that hour, given the pride that I was almost forced to swallow, I jumped at the chance of a ride into the city for probably a tenth of what the taxi drivers would have settled for if I had returned hat in hand.
I ran toward the lorry at breakneck speed, hoping that any viper in the road would be killed or stunned by my foot falls. As I approached the vehicle, slowing to a stomping jog, I saw a fluttering of something inside the dimly lit driver’s cab that looked like a bat or a marsh owl. I wondered how it had gotten into the cabin and why any driver would not immediately remove such an intruder. Perhaps the driver was stopping for that very purpose and I was mistaken in assuming that he had stopped to see if I needed help. I could see that it was empty save a few large crates and canopied objects. I rounded the van to approach from the front, so the driver could see me clearly and be assured I was no threat. I could see that the light was from an old oil lamp suspended from the center of the ceiling of the cab’s interior, and that dangling behind it was a medicine bag or charm, which must have caused the flight-like movement I had seen from the initial distance. Medicine bags of this sort on a vehicle marked the driver as especially “bush,” or without citified sophistication, since they had their origin in the belief that evil spirits could molest a traveler in the darkness before noticing his protective Juju. Such a mistake resulted in a catastrophe for the spirit as well as the victim, and the medicine bag, lighted and prominently situated as to be visible from all four directions, was a particularly old-fashioned precaution or highway courtesy, depending on the point of view. The oil lamp was even more anachronistic, because until that moment I only knew of battery powered lamps being used for that purpose.
The sweat I wiped from my eyes was thick with the red harmattan dust, and I was relieved there were no residences nearby that could be a source of air-borne human waste and hepatitis. With wide eyes I could make out through the crust of dust the meaning of the words painted with bright colors in Arabic-influenced cursive above the windscreen. It was customary for these mammy wagons to have a moto that riders could refer to them by, with phrases like “Has God’s Wrath passed yet.” or “Mother’s Smile So Sweet” is making me late. The van’s slogan read:
CHUKWU DE, 0 HE NO DE?
The translation from Pidgin is ambiguous: either, “God is with me, or is he?”, or “There is a God, or is there?” Comforted by this piece of charming local color, I stretched out my arms waist high, palms up in supplication.
The driver was a massive silhouette, backlit by the lamplight. He cranked his window open and preempted any verbal request I could have made. “You de come, Sah. Dis no place for gentleman’s walk. Dis place no get book, Sah.” Before settling in beside the driver, I glanced into the box and confirmed my earlier impression that there were no riders. The benches and handrails that I had expected were there were mostly covered with boxes and canopied shapes. Judging by the clots of dried mud, he had skipped the bridge at Onitsha and waded the van through Ebonnipenni River during low tide, when the salt water receded back toward the ocean for a little more than hour. That meant he had come from the southwest, where chimpanzees and primatologists outnumbered the scattered bush folk.
I had grown used to the terseness of the Rivers people’s English at work, and the exuberance of gossip and public oratory of the same individuals when in the market or on holiday in the village. I could now see in the light of the poorly wicked oil lamp that the driver was exceptionally large for a Rivers man, and as I slipped into the seat next to him, I noticed that his head brushed the ceiling of the cab, a good three inches above my six feet, two inches. I was amazed that he barely bounced around at all in the cab as we lurched onto the road and began almost immediately began hitting pot-holes at sixty kilometers per hour, and deduced that he was solid muscle and at least half again my weight. The cab seemed unusually small, partly due to his size and partly due to the hanging implements that I kept ducking.
He drove the vehicle with wild determination not to hit the larger potholes, fallen tree limbs, and the inevitable animals in the road, while refusing to slow down around the more dangerous curves where the road closely hugged the Ebonnipenni river. I caught the strong, yeasty smell of palm wine several times in those brief minutes of the ride, despite the open windows and gust of wind with its suspended red dust, smelling of cattle. I realized that the driver was probably drunk, or drugged or both, and secretly cursed myself for having ran from the frying pan into the fire. He had remained silent so far, and I began to survey him more closely. He was exceptionally dark for a local and his hair had the distinctive oiliness that Wilson had inquired about. Like an Osu, his hair had clearly not been cut for a long time. The ancestors of the Osu had been devoted or sacrificed to a shrine, and so they were a kind of untouchable caste and not allowed to buy or sell openly in the markets, marry to persons who were not Osu, or to hold any position of authority. As the shrines became neglected, forgotten, or built over, the Osu became outcasts. Many became roving merchants, travelling without anchor in the southern zone of West Africa, without regard to tribal or national boundaries. They were said to sometimes accumulate vast wealth by traffic in illegal, banned, or ritually tabooed goods. It was said they could sell the flesh of albinos, or for the right Oba, a sacrificial child, but this was likely just a lie to encourage Witch hunts. They were thought of as having great ingenuity at theft and deception, which had been conferred on them by the shrine god for their protection. The college’s only biologists held that the Osu males more often than not suffered from a special variant of schizophrenia that was unique to the coastal region. Heritable susceptibility to this disease, he suggested, was the reason they had become the shrine caste centuries ago. Now, no longer a holy legacy, the trait was exacerbated by social shunning and frequent indulgence in huge amounts of the cheapest, rancid palm wine, bush marijuana, and wild cola nut (with its mega-doses of caffeine) which caused cycles of feverish, crazed paranoia followed by days of stupor and half-conscious immobility.
Unlike any Osu I had ever seen, however, the driver had his hair braided into small clumps—piccaninny braids like those typically worn by West African children before puberty. His braided clumps were wrapped in cords of bright colors, something I had never encountered in an adult male. His dress was a traditional Southern Nigerian pajama-like affair made of black cotton. It was covered with large greenish-white full-moons—complete with craters—printed randomly over the material, like lost planets floating in the void, dimly illuminated by an unseen star, too distant to hold them in orbit. Despite his unusual size and grooming, and the alarming smell of sour palm wine, he maneuvered the vehicle deftly, and his eyes followed the road carefully. Occasionally, he directed his vision toward me.
After a few miles of silence, he began to speak to me, or rather to deliver a slow, depressed and mournful soliloquy in fairly clear Pidgin English. The story was about his wife, who due to some infraction on his part, had left him and was now dwelling with some uncle of hers in a distant village. He was in genuine distress. But I wasn’t in the mood for comforting a half-drunk, probably half-mad stranger who was endangering my life every few minutes when he played chicken with the few autos we encountered approaching us from the town. After each face down with the anonymous, faceless drivers coming toward us, the danger would continue because the Osu would pound the center of the steering wheel to unstick his blasted horn. I never know what would come first: his successful silencing of the damned thing or our deaths after he lost control of the lurching vehicle. When total blackness and silence clothed the road again, he would return to the pitiful tale of losing his wife as though he had never been interrupted.
Eventually his tone changed to one of hopeful optimism as he began to describe certain goods that he had for sale that would provide him with enough wealth to persuade his wife to return to him. It slowly dawned on me that his hopefulness stemmed from having decided that I would be the one to rescue him by buying everything he had. I was outraged. For the second time that evening, I found myself a target for exploitation. To make it worse, he began to insist that we stop so he could show me “secret inequities,” by which I am now confident he meant antiquities, that he could sell me for “cheap-cheap.” I insisted that we not stop and then, either out of fear or anger or both, demanded that he drop me off immediately right there in the road so I could find some other way into town. He ignored this request and started to describe a “seventieth century” bronze that he knew how to obtain, and spoke about ivory and pearls “cheap-cheap.” I finally acquiesced, agreeing to look at the items in the hotel parking lot, already bored with the prospect of another faked royal bronze from the “17th century,” which for all the driver knew about antiquities might as well have been the 70th century.
At the next break in the mangrove that engulfed most of the final stretch of road before we entered the town, he abruptly pulled over onto the knee-high grass, and turned off the engine, leaving on the lights. He unhooked the hanging lamp, lengthened its wick for a bright smoky flame, and under my constant barrage of curses from the cab, walked to the back of the truck, flung open the doors, and started to undrape the crates.
I walked around to try to convince him to go on the few remaining kilometers and to wait for a clear light. Since my saying I had only enough cash to get to my next paycheck had no effect on him, I argued that he couldn’t expect me to buy something that I could barely see. It was then in the light from the lamp that I was surprised to see hidden under one of the benches of the mammy-wagon-turned-freighter, the outline of two small children. They were cowering, huddled together, with legs crossed over each other so that they would both fit tightly under the one bench, perhaps their only means of securing themselves during the brutally pounding ride that the last few kilometers must have been for them. “Now you go see my pikin,” the Osu said, without acknowledging them in any way. The children were dirty and dressed in tattered clothing that had been clearly cut from the same piece of bright yellow cloth. This similarity of dress was the most dissimilar thing about the children, and I noticed that they were the oldest pair of identical twins that I had seen among the river and forest peoples. They slowly untwined their limbs as old people might if an old person could ever twist into such a twine ball of human flesh and bone. They crawled stiffly and weakly to the back of the cab seats, the point farthest from where their father was tearing clumsily at the canvas on a crate. They said nothing either to myself or their father, as the huddled together again under the shelf of protection the seatbacks offered. More eloquent than any words was the absence of any wonder, surprise, fear, or relief on their faces—no sign of joy at the sight of their father in their eyes and none in his for them.
I was shocked. I had ridden for miles in relative comfort, listening to this hulking man’s tale of sorrow, while he had allowed me to unknowingly participate in his cruelty and negligence toward two of his own children. Even worse, I could see the signs of grey and reddish brown marks on their skin that, along with their frail limbs and enlarged bellies, spoke of advanced nutritional deficiency. Yet this man had the audacity and blind callousness to boast of having hoarded a priceless national treasure over three centuries old that he could arrange for me to have “cheap-cheap.”
As I recounted these details to Wilson, I saw that an inward gaze of memory or fantasy had stilled those darting eyes. His face took on a purple-blue tint and was visibly more bloated than only minutes before. I rushed into the kitchen, insisting on getting him a glass of water, which he drank desperately—peculiar since he always avoided the local water like the plague. The mayor had once explained to me, in fact, that inadequate pump pressure at the purification plant often allowed raw sewage to seep into the potable water pipes, ironically spreading hepatitis and cholera by the modern miracle of civil engineering.
Wilson’s color slowly began to return to its usual pale yellow as he, in fury and fear, insisted that I immediately continue my description of the previous night’s events. He refused to give me even the briefest explanation of his astonishing reaction to a story, which even in the detail of the cruel abuse of the children, could have held nothing that he had not experienced dozens of times before. I continued haltingly, with attempts at brevity that he met with enraged demands for more detail. I decided to tell the whole incident before making my own demands for a full explanation of Wilson’s response, which I came to assume was related to some aspect of his personal history, about which I was totally ignorant.
I described how I insisted that the children ride in the cab with us for rest of the way into town, and made an unsuccessful attempt to appeal to the Osu’s paternal pride. The man simply ignored me, and continued to retrieve what he claimed to be pieces of carved ivory and bronze castings from the now dimly exposed crate. I began to speak my mind, and openly condemned him for his treatment of the children. I reminded him of God’s anger at those who treated children in this way. I doubted that he had any real conscience that could be moved in this manner, as he did not seem to share the most widely held value in Africa: the importance of one’s sons—both for one’s personal security in old age, as well as for the sake of the continuation of the memory of one’s self and one’s ancestors through the generations. In a few seconds, I had my fill of the whole thing and decided that the man was probably fool enough to keep me there half the night until I was willing to buy his goods, without ever thinking about the fact that even an Oibo (a white man or outlander) would not have anywhere near the amounts of money on his person to pay for the kind of high quality pieces that he claimed to be offering.
My castigation of him had no effect, and I felt the kind of hopelessness that makes one disbelieve the situation exists, or leads one to prayer, if that possibility could be considered open. Crackling on the road, not far away from where the van stood in the grass, I could make out the outline of a vehicle creeping along without lights. The driver of the vehicle must have suspected foul play, because no one would stop simply for a rest in such a place, considering the danger with which the forest at night was viewed. Almost on impulse, I ran into the road and began waving my arms and yelling for the driver of the car to stop. They probably noticed my light-mocha colored features, Western-style suit and bag of fine, embroidered Kano leather, which I had not once let go of since I had used it to clobber the taxi driver. I realized immediately that I could not hesitate, since the driver was most likely deciding whether to speed off or to see how threatening I would appear if I approached the car. It was an Audi and probably belonged to someone wealthy in the government or oil trade, so all the risk was clearly theirs, not knowing what sort of person was trying to flag them down.
I threw the Kano bag over my shoulder like a knapsack, and bolted toward the car, being sure to slow down and wave both of my hands widely so that the driver could see that I held no weapon. I was only a few of the passenger door, when a man called out to me that I should say what I wanted and who I was. I explained that I badly needed a lift into town and that I feared that the man that I had been riding with was drunk and crazy. I wanted him to understand why I was on the road at so unlikely an hour, so I explained that I was the African-American Visiting Scholar at the University of Enugu, and that I also lectured in political science and history at the College of Science in town, which required these late night commutes. After I identified several members of the faculty to the driver’s satisfaction and briefly exhibited my accent he offered me a ride. As I spoke, I noticed the figure of a woman in the passenger seat. I hopped in and before I could fully close the door, the tires screeched. The driver looked in the rearview mirror, both at me and past me to see if the truck was starting after us. Over the remaining kilometers, both the driver and I glanced repeatedly at the mirror. The van’s fading lights were still visible until we made an abrupt turn in the road, but otherwise there was no sign that the Osu had even noticed that I was gone.
I was delighted to learn that the driver and his wife lived at the British petroleum compound on the other side of the city from my hotel and would be glad to drop me off. I told them the story of my arrival and of the situation with the Osu. The husband, an engineer trained in New York, agreed that I was lucky that they had come along at that time, and told me to use his name in the future with the security guards at the airport, who would provide me with safe and reasonable transport. Although I was thoroughly shaken by my experience, I genuinely enjoyed the rest of the trip and hoped that I would continue my acquaintance with James Ake and his attractive wife.
Immediately on my arrival at the hotel, I took a shower and ordered several stiff drinks to be delivered to my room. The entire incident had angered, depressed, and condemned me all at once. Slowly the Osu’s desperation and the needy faces of the children grew on me, as did his sincere pain at the loss of a wife. The moral stupidity of the whole situation weighed on me for most of the night. I began to feel that I could have bought something from the man, in hopes that some of the money would have reached the children in the form of food, or even decent shelter. For all I knew the back of the truck was home to them. There’s no doubt that this guilt had led me to mention the story to Wilson, as I probably expected him to condone my behavior and to gloss over the pathos of the children and their broken father. But I no longer expected anything from Wilson, and I demanded that he explain why he was so animated and hyped up about a story that had no possible connection to him.
It would be hard to directly portray the difficulty with which Wilson’s explanation, or rather confession, proceeded. The many circuitous descriptions and the exhaustive detail were accompanied by the widest gulfs of unexplained circumstance. He delivered his explanations with such an incredibly uneven terrain of emotions—from exhilaration to whimpering despair—all of which left me ill at ease about the wellbeing of someone who typically lived only on the more moderate plateaus of life. Due to the expansiveness and volatility of his condition, over the course of the next few days I was able to plot out the general course of Wilson’s life and finally started to make sense of his strange reaction to my embarrassing incident. I gathered this information through hushed interviews that I arranged with considerable difficulty, almost to the extent of needing to intimidate the older man. But later Wilson seemed to share with me the sense that our talks, however exhausting, were inevitable.