by Crispin Oduobuk
that lacklustre way which characterises most of the world, Forneeso seems
to be in a state of perfect monotonous normalcy when Assak begins to speak
of his Awakening. That is to say, the inhabitants of this small road village
with a reputation for producing gasoline blackmarketers are, as usual,
busy spying on each other and swapping bits of gossip while the occasional
hapless motorist who runs out of gasoline in the vicinity gets cleaned
out—amidst many sympathetic tongue clicks—for a few adulterated gallons
Though no immediately discernible change has taken place, Assak’s Awaken- ing is soon on every lip. While some folks saunter over to his home to see and hear for themselves—their reactions being as mixed and as varied as their dietary preferences—others stay away jeering, and eventually deriding, Assak’s Awakening as his Maddening.
A thin, generally likeable shopkeeper of mild manners, Assak has had little formal education. However, he has broadened or narrowed (his fellow villagers cannot agree on which) his mind with wide reading. Whether because of or in spite of this, he welcomes all to his home, even those who clearly visit merely to mock him.
To such visitors—and we should place ourselves in this group on this occasion—the ‘awakened’ Assak, on a typical evening, is never at a loss for words. We meet him now as he holds court in his front yard, his four-year-old daughter bouncing happily on his knees.
"Subject to his interpretation, either from within or without, there is always evidence before man. And the more significant evidences reside within men, where they really live. Denying the presence of evidence is a futile effort, as it will out, given time and circumstance."
That is how it goes with Assak. He makes many unsure whether it’s the language or the topic they do not understand, though, it must be admitted, there are those who are certain it’s both. Some consider this the stuff of genius. For others, grotesque images of the madhouse present themselves. This babble of reactions, while silencing most, has quite the opposite effect on Kapsak, a gasoline blackmarketer neighbour of Assak’s.
"I had no idea they awarded degrees in the shop or on the farm, Assak," Kapsak teases. "Or is yours a home-grown kind of professorship for which no degrees are needed?"
Bent on delivering his latest piece of wisdom to his small audience, our divinely inspired host (how else shall we put it?) carries on as if Kapsak has not spoken at all. Or, perhaps, he does take Kapsak’s words into con- sideration.
"Since evidence reveals itself sooner or later, it is only a matter of time before everybody becomes aware of it."
"What evidence are you talking of?" Kapsak queries.
This time some of the other neighbours in attendance glare at the impertinent Kapsak. "Why don’t you listen first?" comes from Awadamoto, the only car owner in the village and a taxi-driver in New Town, twenty minutes drive away.
Dahsang, Assak’s closest friend, heaves an exaggerated sigh in Kapsak’s direction and wags his head. Kapsak swallows hard as Assak, gesticulating slowly, continues his lecture.
"Consequently, the awakening of a man to the importance of some thought- provoking or life-defining experience is of significance in itself, for itself. Perhaps quite as significant as the original happenstance. This is much in the same way as when a curious student seeks out the underlying reason why a teacher decides upon a particular experiment to illustrate a point. Some men come to this realisation easily. Some labour over it. Some even deny it, though, curiously, being in denial has never destroyed evidence.
"Therefore, realisation—the Awakening—is a deep-seated aspect of life which no circumstance can permanently put off."
Now we learn that for Assak realisation has not come with the heart- shattering suddenness of bad news. Neither has it arrived with regal slowness like the kaleidoscopic rays of early morning sunlight. Nor has it materialised in the manner of a witch doctor’s mumbo-jumbo predicting the imminent return of the longed-for rainy season, which anyone could have made with less fuss. Rather, realisation has come very much in the way of a tiny ant starting out at a man’s foot yet bent on stinging only the fleshiest part of his buttocks.
What Assak does not tell us—but we learn nonetheless with a little snooping —is that with realisation, or Awakening, as he prefers to call it, has come this new fad of his to go off on a tangent that no one—not even the dramatic witch doctor—can predict. Interestingly, curious solitary brainstorming sessions usually precede these rather unscientific extrapolations.
The often-opinionated folks of Forneeso are no longer arguing over how, when or even where the whole matter is going to end. While they’re all agreed that some conclusion will cap the issue, scoffers and admirers alike have silently decided to wait and see what strange creature Assak’s Awakening will give birth to. Some wait in well-articulated anticipation.
"It’ll be nice to have tourists asking to be taken to meet Assak, ‘the Philosopher of Forneeso’," says Awadamoto, his mind on potential fares.
"More likely it’ll be Assak ‘the Madman of Forneeso’ we’ll end up with," Kapsak cracks. "I assure you, no tourists would want to meet him."
"Let’s just wait and see!" Dahsang snaps.
So Forneeso is in waiting, drearily seated under the tropical sun as if it were in mourning. However, while they wait the villagers still marvel at Assak’s new-found tendency to drop bits of unfamiliar sayings from out of nowhere into ordinary conversation or into the suspicion-laden silence of a full room. Inexplicably, Assak keeps bringing up some touching—and some not so touching—issues, everyday matters that come and go.
"I feel tears in my eyes even though I know I’m not crying," Assak points out to his wife one breezy evening. "I wonder why, and eventually it dawns on me that even though I may not be aware of it, a part of me, I’m sure it’s the soul, is crying. And it must be for some unjust happening."
His wife nods silently and hastens
into the kitchen. As far as she knows, weeping souls can neither cook dinner
nor be of help in any practical way.
"Infamous schemes to keep crooked politicians in the mainstream of events always stick out like sore thumbs," Assak says to his friend one clear night while they’re observing the stars in the sky.
"What has that got to do with anything?" Dahsang replies.
"I don’t know. It just came into my head."
"Hmm. Assak, all this thinking, has it been able to tell you what tomorrow will bring?"
"No," Assak replies truthfully.
"See there? No one knows what tomorrow will bring, so stop thinking so much."
"Empty promises that will sail with the dust."
"What? Is that what tomorrow will bring? Or are you talking about politicians again?"
"Huh-huh-huh! No, it just occurred to me. I—well, come to think of it, politicians do make empty promises that sail with the dust. And tomorrow may bring just that."
"Assak! You’ve started again. What does ‘sail with the dust’ mean?"
"Just think about it and you’ll see."
Dahsang thinks. And he does see. Much to his amazement. And, thenceforth, he too takes to thinking, much to his own wife’s chagrin.
"I don’t like this at all," she complains. "That crazy friend of yours has got you thinking like him. Very soon you’ll be talking nonsense too."
"Assak is not crazy," Dahsang declares. "He’s just got the Awakening, and I think I’m getting it too."
To ensure that he really gets it, despite his wife’s scoffing, Dahsang recalls some of Assak’s sayings. "If I could define with certainty my purpose here on earth, I believe that would empower me more than a landslide victory at a presidential election."
But this only angers his wife the more. "Now I don’t know who’s crazier, you or Assak!"
"No one is crazy," Dahsang assures her, imitating Assak’s quiet way of talking. "It is in the nature of the mysteries that govern this world that one day the sledgehammer will bounce off the back of the ant and return to smash its wielder," Dahsang quotes, glad to have said it just the way Assak would have.
"You see what I mean? Now I truly don’t know you anymore."
Dahsang shrugs and wonders what Assak would have said next. Probably nothing.
Our survey of Forneeso in the days of Assak and his Awakening continues with a visit to his home on another day. For our friend of the unusual philosophical persuasion, this is a day of environmental sanitation. We bear witness as Assak begins to clear the small bushy area behind his house.
"Don’t stand behind me," he says
to his daughter as he begins to work.
"Oh, my God!" Assak cries as he turns to see blood gushing from his daugh- ter’s head. "God, help me! Please, help me!" as he tears off his shirt and tries to stop the bleeding. Wrapping the shirt around the gash, he picks up his unconscious offspring. Already moving, he thinks fast. By this time of day Awadamoto would have left for New Town. Kapsak has a scooter. But besides Kapsak being Kapsak, it is said that he uses only heavily adulterated gasoline, so the scooter runs for a hundred meters and then has to be pushed for the next hundred.
Assak begins to run. Barrels flat out. It’s the race of his life. His only chance is to get his child to the local dispensary as quickly as possible. Seconds later, he blows onto the narrow main village road and races on.
Like an ancient locomotive, he puffs
through the village square at leg-breaking speed. Unintentionally, he knocks
Dahsang’s wife—who’s returning from the market—out of the way and cuts
off into the bush. The dispensary is four miles away. Staying on the road
will take him longer to reach it. Cutting through the bush should shave
off a mile or so.
Dahsang’s home. We find him totally relaxed in the comfort of an easy chair in his living room. His head is slightly bowed. He is obviously in the middle of a mind-expanding meditation.
Presently his wife barges in breathing hard.
"Didn’t I say it? Didn’t I say it? That crazy ‘awakened’ friend of yours has joined a cult!"
Dahsang looks up at her slowly. Interrupting him in the middle of a mind- expanding meditation—he has said this many times—is a clear case of his wife’s failure to grasp the fine points of the art.
"He has joined a cult!" his wife insists.
"My dear, would you please calm down? What is this talk about a cult?"
Even so, Dahsang is slightly worried. He knows his wife, and her excited state can only mean she has happened on some troubling discovery. But Assak cannot be a cultist. Not Assak.
"I saw him just now running with his daughter into the bush. I think he’s going to offer her as a sacrifice."
"Don’t be silly! Assak will never do such a thing!"
"I saw the blood myself! It seemed as if he’d violated her too, though I won’t say so since I didn’t actually see that. He pushed me down and ran away with the girl. She may already be dead by now. And I know it’s all because of his silly Awakening!"
Dahsang jumps to his feet. There are things a man should see for himself.
His lean frame surprisingly strong against the wind, Assak blows on. He jumps over shrubs, dips slightly to avoid a low tree branch and powers on, determined to save his daughter.
He fords a shallow stream and puffs up the muddy bank, oblivious of the blood oozing from a cut on his right toe. He clutches his daughter’s body tightly as he tears through the bush with the fury of a lion bent on overtaking its prey.
If only time will wait, Assak tells himself as the thought crosses his mind that he might not make it to the dispensary soon enough.
"Time must wait!" he suddenly cries. "Time must wait! Time must wait!" To make time wait, he reaches deep within himself and finds extra strength to increase his already amazing speed. Over an anthill he goes with a leap that would impress even an Olympic jumper. Uneven ground sends him plunging to the earth but an unseen force steadies him as he repeats his battle cry: "Time must wait!"
"Time must wait! Time must wait!" The words echo over and over through the bush. Yet we are silent witnesses as time continues its destination-less journey, unwilling to halt a course set down long before the days of such as Assak.
With Dahsang’s wife re-enacting her knock-down experience in slow-motion to all comers, it happens that the girl actually passes on, and all of Forneeso has heard that Assak’s daughter is dead, and that "he sacrificed her, you know, that Awakening thing of his."
Assak returns from the dispensary limping from the big cut on his toe. Still in shock, we hear him barely manage to tell his wife and Dahsang what happened before delayed hysteria intervenes.
Meanwhile, legging about the village, has launched a new career explaining precisely what sort of ritual Assak has performed on his late daughter.
"It is a devilish sacrifice for wealth and knowledge," he declares to a family that lives near his home. Deciding that the news is worth dining out on, he walks some distance to a wealthy palmwine merchant’s, hoping to get some fresh wine in return for his analysis.
"You’ll see how rich Assak is going to become now," Kapsak, forerunner of the TV/Radio news analyst, declares between gulps of sweet palm wine. "It’s the blood, you know. They use it to perform the ritual, and then money starts pouring out of a hole in the floor. But I tell you the end result is always mad- ness, you’ll see."
While he is still holding forth in his new area of expertise, a mighty explosion rocks the village and forces everyone outside.
"I wonder what that blood-thirsty Assak is up to now," Kapsak muses in a tipsy voice.
"What makes you so sure the explosion had anything to do with Assak?" his host, who’s always been fond of Assak, asks.
"I tell you, I know these things! It’s part of their rituals!"
Just then an over-excited boy comes
running by and is besieged for news.
"Let the boy talk!" his host snaps. "Come, boy, tell us, what happened."
"Fire," the breathless boy says. “Then it went boom!"
"No," the boy begins, then stops and stares at Kapsak.
"What is it, boy?" Kapsak says, his eyes swimming in alcoholic frenzy. "Did you see the ghost of the dead child?"
"Come on, boy, where is the fire?"
"It’s… it’s at his house," the boy finally manages, pointing at Kapsak.
"Where?" Kapsak screams, his wine
gourd dropping with a splash. "I’ll kill
Since the whole village is now heading in the direction of Kapsak’s house where an inferno is threatening to flatten everything, it makes sense for us to make our way there too.
"What a day of tragedies," an toothless old woman cries while struggling to keep up with a group of much younger women.
"They say it’s all Assak’s fault. The gods are angry. They’re going to punish us all."
How can that be? Assak isn’t the one who kept gasoline at Kapsak’s house."
"So it’s gasoline?"
"You mean you didn’t hear?"
"Aye, but I thought it happened in the bush."
"Yes, it’s in the bush but it is still close to the house. They say Kapsak’s first son wanted to burn the garbage and he chose a spot too close to the gasoline cans his father hoards to sell to stranded motorists."
"I hope he’s alright."
"Who, Kapsak or the son?"
"That shows how little you know about gasoline."
"May the gods have mercy on us!"
"Will they? I thought you just said they’re angry and out to punish us."
By the time he reaches his burning house Kapsak is in no state to kill an ant. Drunk and stupefied by grief, when he sees the ‘awakened’ Assak at the head of the human water line, fighting a lost battle to save his friend’s house, he merely crumbles into a heap and begins to weep.
(Crispin Oduobuk is 30, single
and the magazine editor of the Weekly Trust. He's a read-a-lot,
travel-when-can, music and Internet freak. A 1995 best-graduate of Literature-in-English
of the University of Abuja, he's been published in BBC Focus on Africa
Washington Times, Ken*Again, and The Ultimate Hallucination (http://members.rogers.com/breeno/ultimatehallucination.html),
www.eastoftheweb.com, www.toowrite.com, www.sevenseasmagazine.com, www.topwritecorner.com,
www.mammyrammer.com and www.raintiger.com. When not fighting the dreaded
literary disease RTD (Revision to Death), Crispin disturbs his neighbours
with loud, badly expressed takes on artistes as diverse as Handel and 2Pac.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)