By Patrick Tagbo Oguejiofor
It was not the power failure that worried him. Though it had thrown the whole house into darkness and ended his romance with a new movie. Something else was eating deep into his soul. The sudden power failure with its attendant heat and song and bits of the mosquitoes only made his world more unpalatable.
He pushed his way through the door into the fresh air of the large expansive compound. The air smelt sweet with the song of the palm fronds whistling in the wind. The rains fell the night before and he could still perceive the smell of it.
Without a word to his wife he made his way through the gates into the dark night. His three kids had already gone to bed. He could hear the sound of electric generating set buzzing here and there murdering the beauty of the night. But his headache was not the epileptic power generating authority. For a week or so now he had not been himself even though business has not been bad. A was a successful elder and had many things to show for it: a three bedroom flat where he lived with his wife and three kids; a second Toyota car and a fairly good bank account. He was never in short of customers who were always looking for him when they want a real ‘solid’ job done as he used to say.
He carefully made his way down the road until he got to the roundabout. He passed the women selling wares. They would bang their deafening bells now and again in their search for customers. He stopped a bike and jumped on it.
‘City of Angel’, he told the cyclist.
‘Drive on, please!’ he ordered.
Even at the gate of the popular hotel he could hear the banging music. As he tried to pass the gate, call girls waylaid him. Three of them, almost naked from the waist up followed him pleading with him. But he ignored them and went into the hotel where he buried himself on a bottle of beer.
He spent the next one hour drinking, burying himself in his thought. But he could not reach a decision after five bottles. He still ignored the whores milling round him begging for an invitation. Sometimes his mind would turn to the reggae music or to the rambling disco jockey. He was a frequent visitor to City of Angels and it was not out of place for him to invite one of the girls to keep him company. But he was not here for that now. He was simply here to take a decision that will affect his life and of course those of his family.
But he remained indecisive, drinking slowly going out to urinate now and again. Still, the call girls would not leave him alone. But he wanted to be left alone and drink away the depression and indecision that was eating up his mind.
Gradually the melancholy began to leave him and his face began to wear a smile. Yes, life can be static, he thought to himself. The world was a masquerade, if one must see everything, he must move around with it as it performs in the village square. He has heard the saying that nothing is constant except change. Life itself is a series of adventure. Nothing ventures, nothing succeeds. Every great achievement in life took some measure of risk. He kept giving himself one advice after the other to justify what he was proposing. He was surprised with the sudden peace that took possession of him after he reached the decision. For two weeks now he had vacillated.
Since eh met Ozuome, he had never stopped dreaming of big money. It was not that he had not been dreaming of becoming a multi-millionaire before; it was just hat the sudden achievements of Ozuome within a twinkling of an eye had sent his mind flying.
Come to think of it. Ozuome (he was so called because he used to be very poor until his sudden return from South Africa pulling sacks of money behind him) now owns one of the most magnificent houses in town. It was the same old story of from pauper to a king. He once worked at a bakery until fortune smiled on him and his life was no longer the same. Until the sudden transformation they used to be very good friends. Now they can’t be friends again because the poor and the rich don’t make good friends in our society.
His house was filled with such books as The Seven Laws of Success, think and Grow Rich, Your Right to the Wealth of this World. He bought and read these books because the nursed the desire to be rich. But it was not until the return of Ozuome that he gave more than a serious thought to actualizing the dreams. Ozuome on his return threw one fest to the village after the other. It was not easy having his audience in private as one visitor after the other trooped into his house for courtesy call. Several posh cars were equally packed inside the massive compound. But one day he got him sitting alone.
‘Confusion!’ Emeka hailed. They both laughed.
‘You know that was only a school nickname. I am no longer confusion. I am now for peace. I bring sanity where there is confusion and no the other way round’, he said still laughing heartily and sleeping his friend’s cheeks.
‘You are looking good, my friend. You appear not be be performing badly’, Ozuome said.
‘No, Ozuome. It is not so. Things are not always the way they look on the surface. I am not really making it.’
‘I’m just bored of this town where the money comes in tickles. If only I can change my base. Business is dull and the town is boring. I really need a change and a big breakthrough. I think a change of scene may do me some good, preferably outside the shore of this sick country.’
‘In that case south Africa is the ideal place. Of course you know it’s my base. I made it there. Lots of Nigerians are there. They’ve been trooping there since Mandela came to power.’
‘So I was told. It’s even written all over you.’
‘That man Mandela is indeed a saint. Over there he put smiles on people’s faces before he handed over power to Tabo Mbeki and Mbeki is following his footsteps. It is a story of light from darkness. I mean the era of apartheids to this present dispensation…’
‘I think I must tell you that I am really thinking of shifting base-‘
‘In that case you need to decide quickly because too many Nigerians are rushing there in droves. They house of parliament is presently toyuing with the idea of tightening their immigration laws so as to save jobs for their own people. So if you want to go to South as we call it, the time is now. Tomorrow might be too late.’
Ozuome agreed to assist him. He used to return at least twice a year. He promised to take him along the next time he returns if he would be ready by then. But how does he raise the money for the traveling documents: passport, visa and other papers all to be procured through the black market?
For weeks he thought of how to raise the money. He need at least half a million naira for everything including the air ticket an amount he could hardly afford at the moment.
He swore he would do everything possible to raise the money. Yes, he was not poor. Neither was he rich. But ‘Mr Average’ was an enemy, say one famous motivational speaker. There was no security in merely having enough to live on in a country that has no social security for its citizens. Ozuome had now bided eternal farewell to poverty and had even begun to contribute to the town. Since Ozuome himself was the one taking him along, he has nothing to fear about things working out. If matters comes to worse he may ask him to engage him in one of his large farms which he is said to own in Pretoria.
His wife wept on learning the house had been sold. ‘Overnight, my status have changed from a landlady to a tenant’, she lamented shortly before he departed for South Africa one night. Although he made adequate preparation for her and the children, but the woman felt that her husband, who had refused to take her into confidence might have been a victim of advance fee fraud or worse still under some magical influence that would sooner or later clear off his eyes as soon as he had been disposed of his money or goods.
If he succeeds in South Africa, and with stories of Ozuome and other been-tos, made clear, he would build a bigger house. But what if he fails? But Ozuome has assured that that things will work out fine. Post apartheid South Africa was like present day Europe. . Everything was said to be money whether washing plates or cleaning corpses. Their currency said to be rand was said to be seriously competing with the dollar.
He was forced to sell house a month before Ozuome’s arrival. He was in regular touch with him through the internet and the telephone.
Ozuome kept his words. As soon as he made the one million naira available to him he handed over to Emeka the traveling papers to enable him travel: air ticket passport visas and other relevant papers. He was to learn later that some of these papers, though genuine, were illegally procured.
They arrived Pretoria at dawn and traveled to Johannesburg by road. The faint fear at the back of his mind appeared to have gained momentum. An avid newspaper reader, the papers he bought, Jo’burg Mail was full of frightening stories of how Nigerians have constituted themselves into horrible nuisances in that country though series of criminal activities. But for the role Nigeria placed in the liberation struggle f that country may be they would have imposed a total ban on Nigerians coming into that country.
But shock awaited him on their arrival. Although Ozuome showed him an office from where he oversees his importing and exporting business, after weeks of going there he discovered that nothing was really happening there.
Emeka’s money ran down after two months with no work or business in sight. Ozuome said he will have to wait for the next farming season before he could employ him. He was forced to abandon his hotel room and relocated to a rat infested hotel in a suburb of Johannesburg. It was full of flies and the stench from the nearby pit toilet very close to his room was overpowering. Even when he took ill, he did not find it easy borrowing a few rand to procure treatment from a quack chemist in the suburb infested with crime. He was surprised they too had quacks and thieves as there are in Nigeria.
He was seriously out of rhythm with life in South Africa. Although he waned to go home, he would not go back home town as he could not face the reality of a shattered South African dream. H had now lost confidence in Ozuome who kept promising of a job that never came. In the street he had to hide the fact that he was a Nigerian as his fellow country men were highly loathed for fraudulent practices and other criminal behavious like the ghetto boys natives who engaged in armed robbery. By now he was very sure that Ozuome had lied to them in the village. He had not been able to show him the magical tree that bears the crisp bank notes for him. He believed he was either in drugs business or some other dubious business that yield money. If only he would introduce him into that. It was better than wasting away her just like that.
One afternoon when he was lying in his room lost in his depression his phone rang.
‘It’ me, Ozuome. The deal is here at last. See me first thing tomorrow morning, Ok?’
‘That’s great!’ said Emeka ready for anything. Idleness was one of the worst things on earth.
But the deal shocked him. Ozuome and his fellow Nigerian collaborators planned to kidnap the daughter of a Kenyan diplomat for a ransom. Emeka not willing to go to jail in a foreign land simply walked out on Ozuome. He knew that many Nigerians are languishing in South African jails and would be deported immediately they complete their jail sentences. After listening to the details of the plan he knew he was a few steps to prison if he agrees. Although he had been suspecting that Ozuome made his wealth through criminal activities, he was still shocked when he was confronted face to face with the facts. He remembered that back home the Catholic priest was a guest of honour during the formal opening of his mansion. Bu little did they know that the new arrival was a criminal, in fact one of those Nigerians tainting the name of the country outside its shores.
But Ozuome would not give up. For two days he mounted pressure Emeka without success.
‘I want to be rich, but I don’t want to go to jail’, he told him bluntly.
‘But I haven’t gone to jail’.
‘You are only lucky. You are living on borrowed time’,
‘I have not gone to jail because I never engage in anything that wouldn’t work out fine.
But Emeka’s fortunes dwindled so much that he became confused. On the third day after Ozuome made the proposal he got up and opened the window. Then he went out and smoked, lost in thought. He wished he had money for beer. If only back home people knew that Ozuome who got a chieftaincy title was into crime may be it would have made a difference. But now he had no choice.
He could not raise the money with which to go back. There was no provision for a return ticket. He story that South Africa was swarming with dollars waiting for Nigerians to come and pack them. Now he could not even pay for the rat infested room in the high crime area where he levied. He could hardly eat. He knew of the Nigerian who had abandoned his well paid job in Nigeria who now had to be sent money from home to pay his hotel bills. His own case was worse because he had no one to send him money from home. He knew better than trying. He now realized that the saying was true that behind every crime lies a bi crime. Then the phone rang. It was Ozuome.
‘How are you, Emmy?’
‘I am doing okay in a big ditch.’
‘I’ve told you it is the only way out.’
‘It’s kidnapping, extortion and blackmail. We risk seven years jail term for just one of the three if caught. I don’t want to go to jail. My wife and three kids are waiting for me back home.’
‘Be a man. Be courageous. There is very little to fear about. It will pull through neatly. Have I gone to jail myself? I have pulled more complicated ones in the past. If you want to bade goodbye to poverty you must be bold and fearless.’
‘If I will join, it’s because I have no other option. Right now, I no longer want to be rich I want to get back and start all over from where I stopped. I am only agreeing to save myself from starvation. What I was told about South Africa back home from the so called been to’s is far different from the reality on ground, I am sorry to say that. Home was far better. Back home I cannot be said to be a millionaire, but I have enough to live on and pay my children’s school fees.’
Ozuome later came and took him to a hotel in a slum, outside Johannesburg. There he met with other members of the syndicate. Ozuome and two others were to handle the kidnapping of the girl, while Emeka and a Nigerian girl she Ozuome once introduced to her at apart as a business partner were to carry the simplest and most juicy aspect of the job which was picking the money at the designated point whenever the Ambassador accepts to play ball. ‘And that wont be long as the mad man had only 24 hours to deliver the sum of 100 thousand dollars or he will never see his god dammed daughter,’ Ozuome said sounding like a kingpin which he was.
Emeka’s share from the amount was the equivalent of five million naira. In his own calculation that would more than justify the trip and would make up for all his suffering of course justify the risk. But he will never return to that kind of thing again in his life. That is if it works out. But fears linger behind his mind.
Ozuome returned to his rat hole hotel room and waited for Ozuome’s instruction. He remained in misery as he waited for the dreaded call. All the time what was in his mind was not the dream of smiling to the bank with five million naira rather it was the dream that was fast turning into an illusion.
The call finally came. He got up and Ozuome took him to the place and showed him where and how to hide. It was an abandoned uncompleted building in one of the numerous neighborhoods. He drilled him extensively on how to hide without being caught.
‘I shall tell you when to go, okay?’
‘Don’t panic. Nothing ventures, nothings succeeds’, Ozuome repeated the adage that has now become his trade mark.
After three hours of waiting Emeka’s phone rang. The money has been dropped, he told him. Although fear gripped him, he had decided that risk was better than starvation and being marooned in a strange Island.
Nightfall was engulfing the city when Emeka hit the road. Traffic moved slowly. It was half past ten when he got to the place Ozuome showed him earlier in the day. Everywhere was deserted. There was not even a spirit around. His fear was unfounded after all. But he remained cautious. Very cautiously, he looked round and walked into the uncompleted structure. Within minutes, he saw and picked the bag. It was heavy with money. He smiled to himself. Ozuome was right after all. Nobody was around. He hurried outside carrying the bag with the money.
Suddenly he heard the voice that has the clear South African accent.
‘Drop that bag and take your two hands up or you are a dead man!’
Emeka obeyed mechanically. By now all his fears were gone. What was left was an imagined life in a South African prison. He was handcuffed within second. Everything happened too quickly. Only God knew from where the men emerged from.
Hours later Ozuome too was arrested. Emeka called him to come over to the hotel to collect the bag with the money. This was in line with the arrangement. And that was how Ozuome went into the waiting hands of the South African special anti-crime squad. The operation was over and what was left was the price. The grim price.
Back home, nobody heard from him again. Even when his mother died, he neither called nor attended the funeral. He had already served three out of the seven years jail term passed on him when they learnt of his imprisonment at home. It was after he left prison that he learnt of the tragic death of his mother. Even then he could not summon the courage to go home. His wife had handed over the children to his relative and returned home. So he roamed about the city like several of the marooned Nigerians in search of the fortunes of the post apartheid South Africa of Nelson Mandela.
Abuja, 14-15th December, 2005.