All We Have Left Is Ourselves

The long list of blame is endless. We point fingers at each other. Someone says Adam caused it. Why did he allow Eve to deceive him? The women point the fingers right back at the men. You should be ashamed of yourselves. Real men take responsibility for their actions. The juju man blames no one in particular. Our ancestors are infuriated at us. We have bitten more than we can chew. The pastors and Imams are not left out in the paroxysm. We need to atone for our sins. The Redeemer is coming soon. Rapture is at hand. There is the man who is making money from the scourge. He puts up a charade. The government has failed us. Where are the palliatives for the down-trodden and low income earners? The scientist blames it on dwellers of earth. We all. Mother Earth is currently an oblate spheroid. Your actions made her this way. A small group who want to save the environment from pulverization gather to educate the people, telling them to do their part. Protect your environment. The environment is a sentient being. She will fight back if abused.

Bunch of hypocrites. You want my opinion on the current happenings? We are the ones who stuff heaps of garbage on the culvert, waiting for the waste truck to come dispose of it. And when we don’t see them, we pray for the rain to come, tossing all our trash in the undulating flow. I see the juju man’s signature: the blood of the dead chicken on the three-road junction. The lifeless chicken, rotting on the road until the sun dries what is left of it. The opulent man is also guilty. He rubs his wealth on us all, building a mansion that extends, blocking the channel of water. The government appeals to the landlady of the sea, appeasing her with sacrifice. They build exorbitant houses after sand-filling the beach—Oceanview Estate they call it. The harmless little children, too. Taking a heavy dump in the canal. Dysentery, cholera, malaria: pervasive in our locality like the vast blue sky. How will I forget the company that is the crux of this problem. Plant-17. The gigantic establishment that posed as the messiah. They give us a transformer, and in turn hijack our sight. They offer us food and later infect our farms with toxic residue of their product. They offer us jobs, and we spend the emolument on hospital bills. They furnish our schools, sensitize our children to the danger of not protecting the environment. Little did we know that we gave the devil a room in our domicile. Now he has chosen not to leave, inviting his associates. All we want is to survive. No matter what it takes. Mother Earth is on a vacation somewhere on a beach in Hawaii. Perhaps in Obudu Cattle Ranch, sipping on coconut drink and basking in the comfort of a masseur.

Do you still want my opinion on the current happenings? I suggest you grab an N95 mask, soldier boots, and your camera, and follow me. Because out there is fucking jungle, eat or get eaten.

#

It begins with a tocsin. We wake up from the deep sleep, thinking the long awaited rapture has finally arrived. This is not rapture—that is, if rapture has not already taken place. Everyone wakes up with that agility instilled by a clarion call. The bugle sound shoots through our ears again. Yolanda is still covered in her duvet. I nudge her. ‘Yoli. Yoli. Wake up. The buyers are here,’ I say, knotting the lace of my boot. She doesn’t say anything. I pull the duvet off her half-naked body. I see her sallow eyes. She coughs, a dry one. Not again. Yolanda’s cough has been persistent, going on for weeks. At the incipient stage we thought it was triggered by the coconut and palm kernel nuts she eats on a regular. But it is not that. It is something more baleful. I cup Yolanda’s jaw in my hand, checking her eyes as if I could diagnose the problem. Later, I run off with my Ghana-must-go bag to meet the others.

You see, everyone living in Ajeshima is a scavenger. Stealing is highly prohibited. Whoever you were before this wave doesn’t matter. If you want to pay your rent, eat some not-too-healthy food, and smoke good weed, you have to sell something. A group of elite came to our aid two months back. The largess they brought sustained us for a while, until we were all out. Then the situation changed. They asked for something in return. Now we fan out to where we can find goods, garner whatever we can; iron scraps, used cans, nuts and bolts, plastic, anything worthy of an exchange. This group gives us boots, N95 and gas masks. You get paid by the measure of your hunt—bottled water, food stuff, and medical assistance. Payment in cash is small except if what you are selling is huge.

After the trade, I approach the man in charge, telling him of Yolanda. Her incessant croak cough. He thinks it is a minor sickness. I beg him to wait while I bring Yolanda to him. ‘It will cost you. Time is expensive these days,’ he says, winking at me. He wants me to fuck him. No way! I have a full sack of used cans that can cover Yolanda’s bills.

‘Go fuck yourself,’ I tell him. He turns back, heads into the chopper.

Back in the hostel, Yolanda is still sleeping. Her cough aggravates. People in the camp are muttering. I hope she doesn’t have the flu. There is a law sacrosanct to all. Anyone who has the flu gets temporarily evicted until management thinks the person is better enough to return.

Austin comes to her aid. He was a 500-level undergraduate of Medicine and Surgery before all of this. He is the closest thing to a doctor in the hostel. Austin covers his nose with an N95 and rubber gloves. Yolanda does as she is told. Widen your eyes. Open your mouth. Cough once. Twice. He asks her some questions, too. Taking notes.

He beckons me outside. This cannot be good. ‘She has asbestosis,’ he says. ‘The antibiotics we have here cannot do the magic. She will be needing something stronger.’

Yolanda asks what the problem is. It is her health. She has the right to know. The reaction on her face is far from what I expected. It is gaiety. I know that frame on her face. She thinks it is time for her to go meet her maker.

‘We will get through this. I assure you,’ I say, locking her hand in mine.

Footsteps approach behind me. All of them wearing protective kits. They have come for Yolanda. Austin must have told them about her sickness. I do not blame him. He risks getting evicted to the wetland if he doesn’t report a sickness that may be noxious to the populace. Yolanda calls out to me, acting contumacious.

‘Please don’t let them take me away.’ She fights back.

My hands are tied. There is nothing I can do. I want her to get better even if it means going away for a while. I am pissed at many things. An avalanche of rage bobs in my head. I head over to the area where we take a shit. A boy with a ringworm-streaked head walks past me. He is only wearing a colorless pant with holes. Buzzing flies trail his bum. I squat, doing my business. Plopping sound, bdum bdum, drops in the blackwater below the shack. Yolanda is the only person close to a family I have. How can I go on living if she dies? The rage blistering my heart has exacerbated. I don’t take cognizance of the pervert boys watching me from the door hole until someone asks what they’re doing there.

#

I have always had a penchant for photography. Taking pictures of nature, wildlife, that sort of it. I saw an advert for interns at a company. After pitching them my idea, they suggested I send them my best shots. Tolu, my friend, suggested I bring them pictures of rural areas. People like crude pictures. The search began, until I landed in Ajeshima. What a perfect place for a shot, I thought. Ajeshima is at the boundary of two local governments. You cannot be oblivious of the berm, the vast river meandering through a large body flanked by overgrown bushes, boys wearing dreadlock sitting in a canoe rolling dried weed for business and pleasure, burnt tires in the middle of the road, and little kids searching furtively for bush animals. An autochthon of the place was my tour guide for the time I would be spending there. For a little cash, she took me all around. I slept at a lodge meant for the Corpers, who were on break at that time. A small, but decent house. Two days I spent strolling, taking pictures. Then I saw a canal where kids sloshed through the discolored puddles looking for something. The water might be a mixture of sludge, animal waste and sharps. But these kids were oblivious of the danger, plunging their hands for the catch.

‘Na their goldmine be that. You no sabi how much iron scrap cost?’ said a man scanning the pile of dirt, also looking for something valuable. ‘You fine well-well o.’

I noticed him staring at my cleavage.

The rain fell heavily. I stayed back at the lodge, checking out the pictures, sorting them. For days, the downpour increased. Boys in the area gathered more stones, adding to the riprap when they noticed the flood had trespassed the riverbanks. Coupled with news of crocodiles sneaking into the lodge at times, this convinced me I had to find somewhere safe. My guide told me of a school that required the service of an English Teacher. She suggested I could also snap pictures with them after lessons.

There, I met Yolanda. She came for morning class along with a few others. She became my favorite student and friend, too. Though older, Yolanda related with me like we were yealing.

I got to know that she had worked as a putter at Ebute-Metta railroad. Later she quit the job to do other construction jobs; filling, sanding, scraping asbestos from materials of older buildings. She worked as a janitor in between. Yoli was a man in a woman’s body. She suggested I come live with her. ‘I have a place. I can use your company. You don’t have to pay rent. No padi for jungle. But I will keep you safe.’

I arrived at Tokyo-Villa. Faces scanned me. Who be this one again o.

It was Yolanda who first told me of the brownfield where the denizens worked before they were out of jobs. I asked Yolanda why she wouldn’t leave this area for a better life in the city. She snickered, explaining she wouldn’t stand a chance in an urban world. I knew it was a lie. She liked it here. The freedom to do whatever she wanted.

The flood increased. A surge damaged what was left of the rickety buildings void of people. The brownfield collapsed. The toxins mixed with the drinking water, making it unsafe for consumption. But Tokyo-Villa was safe, for now. Too many questions popped up in my head. Why isn’t the government doing anything to decontaminate the brownfield? Why hasn’t anyone heard about this? Who is going to come to their aid? I had many more questions to ask, but no answer. The bridge had been damaged. Canoe riders told of the risk in case you wanted to get past the boundary into the neighboring local government. I was stuck in Ajeshima.

Yolanda showed me how the hunt went down. Everyone called scavenging hunt. We walked past graffiti on the wall. I was ensorcelled by the equine drawing, white and red. We went to a machine shop. Choking motes suspended in the air greeted us, welcome. Mostly teenagers and a few aged worked there. ‘Why are they not wearing masks?’ I asked Yolanda. She laughed.

‘They didn’t die as children here in this locality. I am sure they can survive this.’

A man who I figured was the superior scolded a boy. His asperity made the boy shut off the drilling machine he held on to. The man poked the boy on the chest. Yolanda went over as though to settle the dispute, but I saw her cutting eye signal to me. Behind the superior’s back, two boys carried three billets out the door. My best guess, someone outside received it, hid it for them.

#

Austin allows me to see Yolanda. I have roughly ten minutes with her before the management tells me to leave. Once a person is quarantined, only Austin and his team of auxiliary nurses are allowed to visit them until management says the patient’s ailment is asymptomatic. I wear my N95, holding a wrapped package in my hand. Yolanda likes roasted grasscutter. She looks limp when I see her.

‘Yoli, see what I brought for you.’

The aroma of the roasted meat wafts into the room. I unwrap it, cutting a chunk into her mouth. She chews on it the same way a baby growing teeth attempts his first bite. It breaks my heart to see her unable to eat. She asks if anyone has been threatening me in her absence. She asks of the garrulous Iya Ridwan who is pregnant with her seventh child. ‘That woman jus’ dey born like rat,’ she says. We laugh about it. She asks about her goods, safely tucked inside her locker. Of all the things she asks, Yolanda never asks about her health.

‘I have paid my bills on earth. When it is time, I will go,’ she says, hitting her chest.

#

Yolanda got her fair share out of the billets stolen from the machine shop. I watched the boys who participated brokering a deal at a liquor store. She paid some of her share to a woman by the roadside selling roasted grasscutter and palm wine.

‘Come. Let me show you somewhere,’ Yolanda said.

She helped me climb up a pile of stones. The view was better from where we sat. The roasted meat tasted better than I expected. Yolanda advised against drinking the palm-wine. A diurnal wind roamed, soothing my nerves. This area was completely different from the slum where the majority lived. The stench was minimal, though the breeze still carried scent of weed at intervals. I stretched my hands behind me, trying to relax, when my fingers touched a goop on a wad of newspaper. Yolanda couldn’t stop laughing when she saw my hand. ‘Na person pikin you touch so.’ Someone had poured his semen there.

We got home to find a crowd before the façade of the building. A boy working in the machine shop had been carried away. He had a cold, which metamorphosed into something lethal. Yolanda knew him—one of the boys who helped in stealing the billets. We found out that some deposit of beryllium had taken his body hostage, damaging his heart in the process.

I went back to the machine shop the next day. Talking to the supervisor about providing masks for his workers, he asked if I would like a job as his personal assistant. The sick boy had been replaced. This one, too, exposed himself to the hazards without concern.

#

Home is where your heart lies. My mother has said this umpteen times. I wanted to be a lawyer, protect the frail people in society. Along the way I lost that interest. I entered for a degree in journalism, majoring in photo-journalism. This became my métier.

Yolanda kept going out for her regular hunt. One of these days, she promised, she would take me to where she worked. The hostel was boring. The few of us left in the room during the day were lazyish. A zaftig combing her wig sang in her local dialect. An old man tuned his radio set, searching for something of interest. I watched the ceiling, counting invisible stars. Ennui took over my sensations. My camera’s battery was out flat. Dealers in batteries were at the other side of the river. There was no way I could reach them—the canoe driver was unavailable.

I asked around for anyone who deals in paper. This is Tokyo-Villa. Everyone deals in every form of waste. I went looking. On coming back from my short adventure, I found a huge of pile of newspapers, stacked it on my bed. ‘Aunt be careful-o. Those paper been dey get bedbugs,’ someone from the hostel said. I carried them outside. One after the other I began sorting them out, cutting out the images so I could paste them on the wall. It was high time this hostel got a facelift. Kids in the hostel joined me. Together we made art.

‘Why do they call this place Tokyo-Villa?’ I asked. One of the kids pointed to a gaunt old man chewing herbal stick, sitting on a straw chair.

‘Sir, I was told you know the history of this place.’ He coughed. Told me to grab a chair.

 

A group of people who regarded themselves as an NGO came to Ajeshima nine years ago. They had the goal of building a school for the inhabitants. Their leader met with the chairman of the association, relaying their purpose for coming. School was imperative, at least for the children. Other demands could be provided later. The project commenced. It was revealed that the Japanese who came with the group were the main sponsors of the project. The project went half-way, then resources were no longer available for completion. The old man said embezzlement took charge. Rodents, hoodlums, and miscreants saw the need to turn the place to a usual hangout. The association in Ajeshima came together, gathered resources, completed the building. This time the initial plan for the project changed: a hostel was built, named after the Japanese.

 

Yolanda came back at dusk. She was pissed at the paper arrangement at her bed space. She bloviated about how things were hard, the harsh situation. Here I was, wasting money on papers that I did not need. She thought I was obtuse. Someone has to keep hope alive. Perhaps mother earth would bring us good fortune in the days to come.

#

There are many rules in scavenging. The most important of them all is safety. We set out to hunt the following day. I replaced my camera battery after Yolanda bought a new one for me. We passed through a glen leading to a heap of disused items. Everything is useful in Ajeshima. Items abandoned in the open are left for vagrant dogs. We came across some boys and two girls in an effluent. Discharge from a severed drum plonked into the disturbed water. The teenagers were hunting for sharps. I rested my gaze on them. What if they get infected from this? Or worse, carry a vector to their homes. Yolanda shunned my rhetorical question. I noticed their change of mood upon discovering something riveting. It turned out to be a putrid animal, dead for days.

‘Welcome to the jungle,’ Yolanda said.

The next stop was a place that used to be an aquifer. It used to be the main source for good water before the pollution. Now the place had become anhydrous. ‘What lies down there?’ I asked Yolanda.

‘Why don’t you go down? I am sure the creatures living there will like human company,’ she goaded. ‘Put on your mask. We are approaching the area of Plant-17.’ She said Plant-17 was responsible for the pollution. They dealt in a wide range of products from chemicals, fertilizers, metals, ceramics, and extraction of platinum metals to catalytic converters. The association had given them quick notice after having realized the damage they caused. Chaos erupted when the directors in Plant-17 employed the services of soldiers to stall the commotion of the people at their entrance. Property was damaged. At night the people threw bottles filled with fuel, gagged with a small piece of cloth, and lit on fire at the top. Two young boys were killed in sporadic shooting by the sentries guarding the place, and the hoodlums dispersed into the streets. An eye for an eye. The media got word of the happenings. Law enforcement came in mass, quelling the situation. Plant-17 took their leave abruptly. Police red duct tape couldn’t restrict intruders from plundering what was left. They carted away scraps found in the building, leaving it in skeletal form. What they didn’t know was that the company left a souvenir—cadmium residue in the air. The association banned anyone from going near Plant-17, noticing the number of sick children suffering from respiratory diseases. Yolanda a way around everything. ‘This N95 will keep us safe,’ she assured me.

‘What are we looking for?’ I asked, keeping my breath steady. A movement spooked me in the dust-covered, chapped papers to my left. A rat without a tail scurried across the floor with soot all over it. Yolanda said there were bad market days. I brought out my camera, taking shots of the rickety innards, piles of dirt. ‘Yoli. There is something here.’ She tightened her fur gloves, pulling up the trash to reveal fluttering cockroaches. One catalytic converter lay there helplessly. The smile on her face that day is etched deeper in my subconscious each time I remember. Yolanda hugged me, saying I brought her good luck. Used catalytic converters are worth more than other scraps.

On our way home, some men were goading a crocodile close to the effluent. This was not the first time I had heard of crocodiles coming into the open to find food.

#

Yolanda has reached her threshold of adverse health. I know this when the inhaler can’t alleviate her anymore. The once-healthy figure I liked from the first day I met her has become shrunken. Austin says she has not been eating. Yolanda tells me of the severe pains sprouting from her body. Her fingers are clubbed, too.

I try to force myself to sleep that night, but I cannot. The room feels gelid. The mattress is missing a body. The atmosphere whistles a dirge. Austin’s words thrum in my head. She will need something stronger. Anything from flu or pneumonia treatments will make her better, temporarily. ‘Is there a cure for this sickness?’ He shook his head. There is no cure for it. She can live on an oxygen tank for the time being. If what Yolanda needs is an oxygen tank, then I better give myself to that perverted representative of the elite group.

Yolanda summons me, to tell me about herself. She started fending for herself at the age of nine. Sold weed, drugs, did illicit jobs to survive. Her eyes show no remorse. A girl must survive. No matter the cost. She tells me where all her stash is. She is impervious to the thought of dying. ‘Don’t do anything stupid. It is time to start taking care of yourself,’ Yolanda says. She points to my pimply face. Little speckles spread on my neck. I can’t remember the last time I had a decent bath. It’s been so long. She says I should promise her not to stay in Ajeshima if something happens to her. I could not hold back the tears from flooding my eyes.

Mother Earth answers my prayer. The rain stops pelting. The flood still remains, filling the road, houses and shops. Austin calls for me. He needs to say no words.

I arrange the inhabitants of Tokyo-Villa, gather them for a photo shoot. One last look at Yolanda’s bed. Memories we shared make me cry some more. As I walk across the repaired wooden bridge, I see children in the canal. The surface is turbid. One of the children is in pain. The others hold him still, pulling with their hands a leech halfway into an open sore in his foot. I snap a picture of them. Someone has to come to their aid. I can help with that.

 

The smell of good air is balmy, home. My sister snuggles me from behind. There is a lot I want to tell her. But first I hang the picture of Yolanda and me on my bookshelf, heading towards the bathroom.