By Steve Ogah
Here I am with my head swathed. The last time the doctor came to my room, I told him my demons hadn’t deserted me. I am losing confidence in this community health facility which is named after the military dictator. Do people ever get healed here? It has been a week since I arrived here. Things are just the same. I am beginning to have a fight in my head with the doctor and the nurse.
“I need to see the doctor,” I find myself screaming at nurse Nkoyo when she comes to check my bandages. Though she is innocent of the pain I feel, I still find myself barking and shrieking as though a dog gone mad.
She smiles her signature smile, the kind of smile all trained nurses are supposed to wear at all times. “Kune, the doctor is rather busy at this time of day.” She says to me.
Disappointed, I sit up against the pillow which I prop against the wall behind my head. I move my forefinger in the air as though a radio’s frequency tuning needle. Then I say to her: “I don’t think you heard me.”
She is about to say she is not hard of hearing when I scream again, this time invoking God angrily. I hear my voice run through the quietness of the hallway, throwing up a storm in the ears of others in the building. I imagine all who heard my voice are startled. Some walk to the window and look out hoping to find a demented man in crutches and bandages standing in the centre of the courtyard. Some hope to find a mad man hopping down the corridor. Those sleeping pop open their eyes; shake their heads in regret that a man just lost his sanity today.
“Okay, take it easy,” the frightened nurse says to me as she gently places the tray of medications on the side stool of my bedside.
“No. It’s not okay until the doctor gets here!” I slam the side of the bed. She is careful not to spill the tablets and water as her eyes look up to meet mine. I stare, not willing to drop my eyes, wishing for her to see the anger and urgency of a sick man in an equally sick country. Of course, she sees the colour in my eyes. It is the pigment of pain and frustration. It is the colour of a man wishing for revenge. She sees that I am more than willing to conjure a world of torment for everyone around me. She sees I can only do that if I leave my bed in good health. Perhaps, she is willing to help me get off this damned bed. There is overwhelming pity in her eyes for me. They get teary all at once. She is about to mumble some words of sympathy when I ask: “What would the problem be?”
“I will get the doctor.” She walks away. The soles of her white tennis shoes begin to echo in my head as though they were stilettos. I feel I am going to scream at her: Take those cursed shoes off your feet. But I can’t say that because I find myself feasting on her all the way down, wishing I would leap from the bed and tell her this is a hospital ward and not a clubhouse. She is gone now, and the door slams shut. All is quiet again. I begin to wait for the doctor to come see me and use his magic to drive away my pain and frustration.
I close my eyes shut and try to sleep. I do not sleep for long. I hear footfalls and voices in the narrow corridor. The doctor is checking his white coat to see if he carries a pen with him. But he finds a surgical knife and his stethoscope instead. He tells the nurse at his back to hurry up. She bears a tray, and in it, is a cocktail of huge tablets, a glass of coloured water and a scary syringe. He is sure he can take care of me without much drama. He has put countless troublesome patients to sleep before. But he still has the plan of calling in extra hands if I act like the craziest of the crazy. He could be violent with me if the situation demands it.
I imagine him at my side. He tries to appear like most doctors are — calm. Then he sees that his cultured ways are at variance with my primitive actions. I try to resist his caring touch. So, he lets the stethoscope slide down his neck. It hits the floor. It vibrates in my head a million times. The doctor hits me with his forearm. I collapse back to the bed. He lets out a jet of air, having overpowered me.
“Here,” The nurse says to him, as she passes the syringe to him. I am motionless as the tip of the instrument pierces my arm and the fluid in it travels through my veins and decides to stop in my brain. Nurse Nkoyo flinches as the tip of the needle is withdrawn from my body. But the doctor betrays no emotions. Mean doctor?
These images were in my head when Doctor Kpo walked in. He had a gift with people, and I had seen him offer sick people hope before giving them medical treatment. He would pray with them too. But it was that hope that the country needed. It was also in need of cure, and I imagined Kpo as the man for my country. He was the one to examine the heads of members of the supreme military council to tell them that only sick heads would lock up sane people who were merely asking for their rights and the freedom to associate among themselves. I also needed him to tell them that it was wrong of them to have armed men beat up people on the streets for simply nudging them in the arm unknowingly. He needed to tell them that the sight of soldiers smoking at street corners with AK-47 rifles was enough terror for the average Nigerian. Soldiers needed to be told that it was criminal enough to make people forget when they want to remember. They needed to know that military brutality was a crime, especially when committed against defenseless and unarmed people.
The doctor was unusually calm for my liking. His sky-white coat was in good shape. It was well-pressed with few creases and that made me think that perhaps, he hadn’t taken a seat since he wore it. He clutched a clipboard close to his chest as though it were a baby in need of comfort. And his stethoscope was slung down his neck. He walked like an angel who had come to transport me on wings to the judgment throne, without giving me the chance to receive the sacrament of penance, and without the chance to hug dearest ones for the last time. He looked like an angel who had come to transport me to mama. Mama, I believed, was glued at Jesus’ feet in heaven, free from the pain my country had caused her. I have never imagined mama in any place other than heaven. Mamas don’t go to hell or anywhere hurting. They are so kind and tender they deserve to dine with angels and saints and God. If God needed wives, he would have chosen all mamas. They never do wrong.
She had been a petty trader who sold tomatoes and pepper at the market in town which was named after the wife of the military ruler. Just like any other day in her quiet and lonely life, she had gone to display her articles of trade at her roadside table. She was trying to convince a young boy to add few coins to what he was offering her. She said that was the little profit she stood to make. Out of the blue, commotion rose all around her. She thought it was the usual anti-coup protest that had been taking place since the dictator sent the democratic president to exile.
“Hey. Run. Fast!” Many people had been screaming as she later narrated to me. But she wasn’t Usain Bolt. She had willed strength from her inner self but had found no youthful reserves. She was still at her stool when soldiers with blistering eyes, bearing horsewhips descended on her. They whipped with a searing horsewhip and kicked her while she called out for help that wasn’t going to come. The soldiers didn’t relent in their torture exercise. She believed some demons of sorts had possessed them. And the soldiers were so many that she thought a war had been declared on old fat petty traders who sat on low stools.
The soldiers had come from two angles, jumping down from ugly army trucks imported from some totalitarian countries. They were excited. They didn’t just beat hapless civilians and had them lie down on broken road; the heartless men were happy to destroy people’s wares with their jackboots. Mama had told me this on her hospital bed.
She had thought that by screaming and holding her head in her palms, she would find mercy with the invaders. But with each shout that she had made, she had gotten a heavier kick and harsher whip to her body. Soon, she found herself rolling in the mud and invoking God’s name to plead her case. That didn’t help. They brutalized her until the welts on her skin began to course with blood. Her screams were now dying. Slow. Slower. She rolled slowly and lay on her stomach, her face buried in the mud, her backside open to several jackboots and whips of a demented gang of military misfits. They only stopped beating her when she lay motionless on the ground. The pandemonium at the market was soon over, then the military men left, blissful that they had not been challenged. What was Mama’s crime? She had not been able to afford the high cost of stalls in the main market complex, which was already sold out, in any case. And that the curfew was due in thirty minutes, and no one had been expected to be on the streets.
In the weeks that followed, Mama never made it to the market area again. She was badly wounded. She could not understand why her country had done her so much harm. She found succor from the delegation of market women who visited her at the hospital telling her not to worry that all would be well. But Mama never got well. She was admitted to a local hospital. She had complained of pains in her stomach. I went to see her daily. I went one day and met an unusual calm at Hope medical center. I didn’t suspect anything out of the ordinary. I walked to Mama’s room only to find out that the door was locked. I went to the doctor’s office and there I was told the tragic news.
She had died. Now, I didn’t understand what death meant because I had never for one moment believed my mama would die. I thought death was a disease far from our home. I didn’t want to take the news like one takes a loving present home from teachers at school. I told the bearer of the news that he was a terrible comic act and should never consider a career in comedy if he was trying to make me laugh. But he insisted that he was serious about the tragedy that had befallen my family.
Truth. She had closed her eyes while a prayer froze on her full lips. She was Catholic and she had been praying the prayer for Nigeria in distress before she passed on. It was a prayer she knew by heart as she had attended masses without fail. Her death wish was that I prayed the prayer daily, but I had failed her religiously. I was still trying to shake off the memory of Mama from my mind when the doctor touched me; his usual smile was not on his round face. I wanted to ask what the issue was, but he spoke first. Doctors deliver tragedy best.
“It has been a bad day,” he said as he motioned me to lay flat. He placed his stethoscope on my chest and listened with that trained ear of his. He placed his left palm on my forehead and wanted to know if I still felt the migraines.
“Just yesterday,” I answered.
He reached for his clipboard and took down some notes. He was taciturn with the nurse who stood by. The Dr Kpo I had known would have asked about my night, would have poked fun out of the stories in the news of the television authority, and would have spoken about things in other wards. So, I had to ask him the question he had frozen a while ago.
“Doctor, I shouldn’t really be asking this. But is everything okay at home and at work?”
He looked at me and smiled. Or rather enacted what looked like a smile. He failed at hiding an emotion which wasn’t joy. He shook his head as if to shake the weight of my question away. He blinked rapidly and wrote hurriedly in his file. I wasn’t going to force him to words if he wasn’t going to speak willingly. I lay down for him to carry out his medical ritual on me. But he didn’t. He stopped writing instead. He hugged his clipboard with sadness.
“My country is wicked,” he cast his eyes in sad colours. He went to the window and parted the curtains into two halves, each stuffing into the iron burglary. He stepped aside. The sharp rays of the rising sun bathed me in full. They were people on the streets marching and singing that they had lost the fear of death. They had just carried away a dead man from the health centre.
“What happened again?” I sat up against the wall.
“The unspeakable happens in this country every day.” He was still speaking to himself. Rather, he was speaking to the sad, angry, and frustrated people outside the window, the trees down below, I thought. “We are told the police is our friend, yet they extort and clamp us into jails at will. We are told the army is to protect against external aggressors, but the army boys think civilians are enemies.”
I questioned him with urgency poking out in my voice. I had expected him to turn and address me. But he chose to glue his vision to the window. There was pandemonium outside, angry voices tearing through into the room.
“They snatched Amina away last night.” He spoke at last.
“And who is she? Who took her away?”
“My wife,” he said, and I imagined his eyes had grown distant as he searched for her in the cramped houses, broken roads, and dusty sky up ahead in his view. I imagined his eyes were teary too and he didn’t wish me to see the infant side of him.
“She had been returning from the market when soldiers and armed men in a patrol van screeched to a stop beside her and asked her to get into their van. The doors of the van were plastered with the words ‘Operation Sweep’. She had resisted casually by walking ahead. Then she heard rifles snapping with fury behind her.”
“So sorry to hear about this. What time of the day did this happen?”
“Just before sunset.”
He explained that they seized her plastic bag, which was filled with beans and plantain, meant for dinner. They spilled the contents on the road. And what was her offence? They claimed they had sighted her at a corner talking to a man in whispers. They had lost trail of the man. They feared he was an activist, and his wife was one too. He said his wife denied the claim. The patrol van swept up people at random at street corners, blinding them with sharp torch rays at first. They would simply be told that they were ‘security threats’.
Doctor Kpo walked away from the window and announced to me that I would be discharged in a day or two. He said my injuries were not so severe anymore and the migraines would go away soonest. He said I had been fortunate not to crack my skull when the soldiers raided the soccer viewing center I had been, searching for activists.
“Steer clear of crowded areas,” he admonished me. “They don’t want to see so many young boys gathered in one place, even if you guys claim it’s the English soccer season on satellite television.”
I nodded. The doctor left my room. “What’s going to happen to Amina?” I asked as he got to the door.
“She will be fine. She will be out. She will not be in detention for long.”
“The director of the health centre has already petitioned the military administrator.” He shut the door. A vanishing act followed. Then he returned to the room without knocking. “Don’t join the protests outside. The Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the police just tortured a young man to death. I hear there will be end SARS protests in the days to come.” Another vanishing act was accomplished.
I closed my eyes, wondering why men with guns wanted to rule over us, bothered about what I would do to stop soldiers from flogging civilians at will, wondering if the confrontations in my head wouldn’t return. Then I saw myself joining the groups on the streets, confronting the army. The possibilities that I saw in my mind hit my eyelids, then they opened. I screamed for the nurse. I would discharge myself from the facility.
Steve Ogah is Voicesnet (USA) Poet of the month (Feb.2002) and fellow of the British Council/Lancaster University Crossing Borders online writing program. He is the author of Barack Obama’s Logic.
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