What Hunger Did to Chief Kalu

Kalu is not a chief. No kingdom, chiefdom, council, traditional or orthodox, autonomous or dependent, directly or indirectly, gave Kalu a chieftaincy title. The title ‘chief’ was a nickname, half-mockery and half-praise from his polytechnic days. He was in Oko Polytechnic where he could spare a few naira notes after feeding himself and photocopying materials, so he decided to become a chief, he bought the form to contest for chief of Orumba.

Orumba is the host community of the Polytechnic; they have a sizeable number of students so that the gathering of Orumba students to elect their leaders usually attract the attention of the entire campus. Only the ultra-rich or ultra-popular dared. Kalu lost the election, 814 to 174 votes, a miracle, so many people couldn’t have voted for Kalu under normal condition; it was amazing, to get 174 votes, it was a miracle.

But Kalu came out of the election, his ego bruised, a red cap of humiliation on his head, but he earned something, he got the title of chief. His friends called him chief to commiserate with him; his detractors called him chief to mock him. By the time he was done with his HND he was a chief to everyone. At NYSC and beyond he was a chief to everyone. He forced everyone to call him chief and would sulk if you called him just Kalu. Even Mark Zuckerberg knew him as Chief Kalu on Facebook; his Gmail account was chiefkalu@gmail.com or something of that nature, and that unnatural.

Since no one would hire a chief, Chief Kalu was self-employed. No, not the type of self-employment which is a veneer for unemployment and underemployment that many accounts on Facebook carry like an unfitting hat; he was truly self-employed. He was a half-decent graphic designer, and since nine out of every ten who require designs are blind to what real design looks like, people took Chief Kalu’s seriously and he prospered.

Half of his money went to buying clothes, from tailored senators wear that revealed his pot belly and made him look like an old-fashioned Rochas, to suits that half-covered his conceit mixed with inferiority complex in nearly equal proportions. There were also shirt sleeves, T-shirts and a countless assortment of jeans, chinos and cashmere trousers. The other half of his money goes to women—he was not handsome, he was not smart, he wasn’t a poet; his only weapon was money. He spent on them as much as he had to for as long as they were the biggest fish in his net; he thought of women as fish and himself as kingfisher, and he changed women as much as a randy CEO changed ties.

Then came the drought. As a freelancer, he frequently had small droughts, sometimes for a week, sometimes for three weeks, times in which not one customer came to him. He usually survived on his last earnings until the next job came. But only once, before now, had he experienced two months without earning a kobo. Then he was a youth corps member and it was during the 2015 elections and because he served in a state where money fell like rainfall, he had so much and didn’t feel the draught. Now he was on the third month without earning anything off his trade.

He had no savings. At first, he sold his refrigerator, a Double Door HRH, he bought online for 76 thousand naira, for 25 thousand and the buyer still owed him 5 thousand. ‘The fridge is with the mechanic,’ he had a ready excuse for any prying girlfriend. Then he sold his LG Home Theatre, which cost him 60 thousand, online, for 15 thousand. He didn’t get any business; he went on to sell a suit, a senator’s wear, then pairs of shoes. He tried to manage on the paltry fees his goods bought. Garri cost a ton and he wasn’t a good cook; he always boasted that he ate out, now that he had to eat in, he was feeding himself concoction and purging like Agric fowls.

Then he ran short of things to sell—actually he ran out of buyers—and began to borrow. Then he ran short of lenders and hunger began to draw close. He ate in his friends’ place and once in his uncle’s place—paring or ignoring stylishly dished insults. He withdrew to himself, working the system, searching for clients and harassing his debtors. Hunger began to press in on him, now in the eighteen yard box, and for the first time in his life he was staring at the possibility of starvation.

Last Saturday, he had endured 48 hours without real food save for groundnuts and half a bag of sachet water. He was not hungry, hunger was him.

There are three stages of hunger. The first stage of hunger is the call to eat. It is lunchtime, or time for breakfast and your belly gives out pangs of pain, nudging you to get food. If you eat, it goes away, if you don’t, maybe you are immersed in work, or queuing up before an ATM, it goes away. This is the minimum stage.

The second stage is the medium stage. You have a riot in your belly. Maybe you skipped two meals and it is now getting towards the time for the third meal. This riot is relentless. It bites, your intestines, and the other particulars in the abdominal cavity are hurting as though your stomach is a mass of open wound and a bowl of pepper mixed with salt was poured on it. This hunger affects reasoning.

Maximum hunger is the third stage of hunger. It is hunger that is beyond a riot. It is the base for annihilation. It weakens your body and makes concentration impossible, and reasoning an insurmountable task. One can sleep through the first stage of hunger and, in a time of great exhaustion, the second stage. There is no sleep for maximum hunger. You just drift in and out of nightmares where a group of witches are gathered, feeding on your body parts and you don’t mind joining them.

For Chief Kalu, maximum hunger was a school of humility. Vanity upon vanity, all is vanity, said the chief, he kept muttering in his thought as hunger ruled in his middle belt. His next door neighbour was frying turkey; the aroma slipped into Chief Kalu’s room and covered him like a blanket of inaccessible hope. His next door neighbour was a nurse he once asked out who not only rejected his proposal but insulted him over it a few weeks later when they disagreed over the contribution for Nepa prepaid fee. I would rather die than to ask her for food, he swore.

And he was dying. ‘Using your ears for pepper soup’ was a metaphor for being in deep trouble. Now Chief Kalu understood this metaphor in plain words. Hunger was using his ears for pepper soup and was trying to force the pepper soup down his throat. He lay weak; his belly on fire, his head knocking with a faint headache that never went away nor became a full-fledged headache. His hands were so weak, moving them about on the bed caused him so much energy. His fingers were in a steady state of unsteadiness, dancing even, like a small fire in the wind.

The crust of the hunger, however, was his collarbones. His collarbones felt as soft as biscuit, as though a carpenter had done a job on it, full treatment, hammer, saw, chisel, bar, nails, all. His ribs hurt as if someone had placed a hot rag on them. His vision was faint, blurred; it felt like his room was a bucket of water and he had placed his head in it. His lips were dry, nearly baked with want. His salivary glands had stopped working and his mouth was dry except for a few drops of saliva, like a hurried afterthought.

He was dying. Chief Kalu was dying of hunger. And he knew it. But he was dying as a human being, as Kalu, hunger having stripped him of his chieftaincy title. He had never heard of anyone who hunger literally killed, he was sure he would be the first; but he was happy for one thing, he would die humble. Very humble.

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