A small boy asks what I’m scrawling in the sand.
Isn’t it obvious?
“I’m writing a novel,” I say.
”What is it about?”
Another obvious question. I answer anyway.
“About my life…the futility of life.”
He smiles, “When will it be published?”
“Never!” I snap.
He’s a boy of about nine years, fat, with a bulging forehead and thin-slit eyes. He stands akimbo above me as I crouch on my haunches scribbling. He’s in a chequered blue school uniform with a brown bag slung across his shoulder. Holding his hand over his brow to shade his eyes from the blazing sun, he squints as he tries to focus on my writing. His frame casts a shadow along mine in the sand. His, standing; mine, crouching. He wipes sweat off his brow.
How can I publish an unfinished story? I’m writing a story never to be finished. Does he not know that writing is therapeutic? And if I let the story be finished, then there goes my catharsis. I do not write to be published. I write to be numb. Numb to the past. Doesn’t he understand? Writing makes me feel like a god. I can, at will, establish or mar a character, kill or keep alive, make and unmake, enrich or impoverish, name a stupid dog after someone that has offended me – my way to even the score. I feel like a co-creator with Divinity. You think I’m eccentric? Show me a creative artist, truly creative, who isn’t. Michael Jackson? Leonardo da Vinci…? Creativity and eccentricity are like the hen and the egg. Is it that creative people are eccentric? Or eccentrics are creative?
The boy hisses and strides off mumbling. I shake my head at his ignorance.
He seems to remember something, turns back and asks, “What’s your name?”
“I have no name.”
“I’m the writer formerly known as Ozimede.”
“So, your name is Ozimede.”
“My name was Ozimede.”
“What’s your name now?”
“I told you. I have no name. I’m the writer formerly known as Ozimede.”
“So, your name is The Writer?”
“That’s not a name. I am the writer formerly known as Ozimede.”
“Your name is,’ he pauses, ‘The Writer Formerly Known as Ozimede?”
“No!’ I yell. ‘No name, no name. Don’t you get it? I, formerly known as Ozimede, am now nameless.”
Looking frustrated, he throws his hands up in the air, blows out his cheeks and strides off.
I have not always been like this – living on the street, naked save for my ragged boxers, scavenging food from garbage dumps. Until She, I do not remember her name, left me. She left me as though love is a thing to be plugged and unplugged – one moment she was in love with me and the next she was no longer in love. Perhaps, I was deluded, she was never in love. She dumped me on our wedding day. While I was waiting for her at the altar, someone came in with a note. She said she couldn’t go on with it because she didn’t love me any more. Any more? It was not a nice feeling to be loved one moment and then to not be loved the next. She eloped with somebody – my best friend, not sure. It’s a past I’d rather not remember, like the painful memories of an adult that was abused as a child.
So, I took to flight right from the venue of the wedding, and have been on the run since then. On a destination-less journey. The numbness produced by this trip would become ineffectual if a destination were to be ascribed to it. I discarded everything. The first thing to go was my clothing. Then my name and entire identity. I needed to be free and unencumbered on this journey. And I soon found out that nakedness is a covering in itself, against the cares and worries of this world. I own nothing and nothing owns me. I owe nobody and nobody owes me. When you are bold enough to live naked, you have conquered the urge to live up to people’s expectations, you have become truly free. Nakedness is liberating! All weights, constraints and regrets dropped. And my writing is no different – bold, fearless, revealing, unreserved. Writing this way is emancipating.
The body is designed to take flight from too much pain or too much pleasure lest it dies. Orgasm is momentary flight from pleasure, your senses become briefly blunt to pleasure. Escapism – as powerful and as salutary as orgasm – is flight from pain. I chose to flee from the pains inflicted by She by forgetting her and the past. My fleeing is not cowardice; suicide is. Escapism and suicide, same objective – release from pain and pursuit of happiness – different routes.
I get up from my crouching position and head to the dumpsite by the marketplace. I pass a group of boys who jeer at me, Madman, get away from here! I ignore them. It’s close to the end of the market day and I need to forage for food, and scraps of paper with which to continue to craft my story. I go on my way laughing – I have gone through a trauma that cannot be mourned by weeping but by laughter and escapism. To the soul, weeping is analgesic. But laughter is more. Laugher is anaesthesia. I do not wish to be taken out of this newfound paradise, whether it is a fool’s or not. Paradise is paradise. I have discovered a cocoon that shields from the hopelessness of life – something most people desire but may never find. I laugh my way to the marketplace.
By a posh neighbourhood, I scavenge through their dustbins which always brim with food, unspoilt. Neighbourhood of tall buildings, gated huge compounds, houses with well gardened lawns like parks, walls garlanded with bougainvillea. Some houses with swimming pools, not for its utility but as a sign of opulence. How wasteful the rich can be. It is unreasonable for life to give so much to the rich – who do not need it – and take away from the poor the little that they have. It is unfair to give so much to haughty and ungrateful people who think the wealth they have accumulated are by their own power, forgetting that man only casts the dice of fortune, Providence determines the fall. The rich who think they merit their affluence and the poor their deprivation. They act as though life is orderly and people get what they deserve. All the buildings have fences so tall they wall off the sordid lives of their wealthy occupants from prying eyes. Despite the facade, I’m still able to glean a wisp of what goes on behind the walls. I have roamed here long enough that I know the men who beat their wives; the pregnant woman who comes home with her younger lover when her hardworking husband is gone to work; the quack doctor who aborts for teenagers; the patent medicine dealer who sells fake medications; the boys and girls that are prim and proper when their parents are at home and binge on drugs when they leave. I watch like a wildlife cameraman, I do not interfere in this ecosystem of life lest I upset it. Then there is the family whose breadwinner is terminally ill and the children have cursed God to His face, forgetting that the terminally ill is privileged with a grace that others do not have – time and opportunity to restitute on this side of the world, and to prepare for the next life. There is some good in every evil.
I pass by the house of the pregnant adulteress and spit at the wall in disgust. A power bike vrooms past me, ridden by a brat with his girlfriend straddling behind. The girl clutches tightly to his waist, her head buried in his back. They are both wearing colourful helmets and black biker boots. The fringes of her long hair jut out from under the helmet and flutter in the wind. He has a white paper wrap between his fingers. The wisp of smoke from it smells of marijuana, overwhelming the whiff of fume from the bike’s exhaust. This brat who rapes his mother’s hens to death, hmmn. I have caught him twice at it in the cover of the night while he lurks behind the fence of their house. It seems man is capable of having sex with anything, even an arse wipe, once he is able to manipulate his brain to sexualize the thing. If you were to interrogate the brat, perhaps, he would absolve himself of manipulating. Rather he would put the blame of manipulation on his brain and hormones. Man seems to not accept responsibilities for his actions any more.
This brat then dresses and barbecues the chickens under the mango tree, and hosts his friends, including his girlfriend with the well garnished meat. His girlfriend may never know the secrets locked in his loins. She can never guess with whom, or rather with what, she is sharing his bed.
A fat man in cream joggers and a green sweatshirt trots past me panting. Life! The rich workout to shed excess food while the poor work hard to eke out a living.
In a dustbin nearby, I find discarded food enough to feed a village. I salvage just what I need, white bread – not mildewed, bananas – not soggy, a can of sardines – not expired. All thrown away not because they are bad, but out of surplus. I eat to my fill taking nothing away lest I become like the wealthy who hoards for tomorrow that may never come. Ultimately, nature does not allow anything to go to waste. With me in this salvage mission are goats, stray dogs and insects. And the remaining debris, packed away by dustcart, is devoured by small invisible organisms through the decay process.
The things you find inside people’s wastebins say a lot about who they are. Syringes and needles – lives ravaged by drug addiction. Used condoms and old issues of Playboy magazine – randy rampaging teenagers. Old books, newspapers, magazines and comics – remnant of folks who still read. Empty cartons of hair dye cream – you know the parents of the house are greying even when they turn out with all-black hair. Fairly used padded bras and, hip and butt padded panties – women with low self-esteem who deceive men about their endowments. I have found before a foetus carefully wrapped in a polythene bag – fresh, bloodied, heart still pulsating. It was inside the dustbin of a Catholic family whose father is a lay reader. Refuse don’t lie. A man’s lifestyle and secrets are often found in his garbage. I could make a living from ‘clairvoyance’ using people’s refuse.
Pastor James – whose trust is in his bank account but tells his congregation to trust in the Lord, Praise God! – strolls out of his house through the huge black gate holding a black dog by its leash. Well nourished fat Rottweiler reputed to be fed on the best of food that the poor only dream of. Its fur shimmers in the sun. The dog pads laboriously behind its owner, darts its head from side to side, sniffs the ground and then the air. Spittle drips from its lolling large tongue. Pastor James suffers from obesity as much as his dog. The stomach of his rotund body bops up and down as he walks the dog. He is a middle age man with drooping cheeks. Though he preaches against the use of alcohol, cans of beer and bottles of vodka turn up in his bin all the time. The dog sights me, stops in its track and starts to bark.
Pastor James shouts at me, “Hey! You’re trespassing. Get off that dustbin before I let the dog on you.”
The dog barks and lurches forward straining on its leash; I scurry off. How can a man trespass on what you have disowned by discarding? What is disowned is unowned. The rich will not let the poor have even that which he has thrown away.
Subcity. This part of town is a sharp contrast to Pastor James’s neighbourhood. Not a good place to forage. Their dustbins are what garbage bins should be, no surprises, filled with only junks and rotten food. Here live the ignorant financiers of Pastor James’s opulent lifestyle – his congregants. Dilapidated houses, open sewages, roofs of rusty corrugated iron sheets.
I pass by an old bungalow where a boy stands by a window, his elbows resting on the sill. He is scrawny with wide eyes, about seven years old.
He calls to me, “Benja-Benja, where are you off to?”
I’m off to nowhere.
But I do not answer. I’m not Benja-Benja. I walk away from him. It’s amazing how men like to give names to things. The reasons they give names are the reasons I refuse to be named. Name stereotypes you. Name is a tether, a leash. Name is like the puppet strings with which men control and subject others and things. The day a child learns to answer to his name is the day his lifelong problem starts. To know the name of a thing is to have a form of control over that thing. People wish I answer to a name so they can influence, control and dominate me.
A group of children, who before now have been playing by the street corner, on sighting me, abandon their play and run after me shouting, Benja-Benja, Benja-Benja. Some of them whistle the name while the others make it into a rhythm; two of them turn empty cans into drums. They sing and dance after me, whistling, clapping, drumming, laughing. This mocking of a poor writer minding his own business may soon degenerate, at the snap of a finger, into stone hurling and cudgel wielding. It has happened before. I have scars to show for it. To them it’s a sport – assaulting someone whose lifestyle and worldview is different from theirs.
I hurry away from them; to nowhere.