And the Sun Went Dark Before Noon. And Eben is No More

“What happened to him? Who did this? I said who?” – Arrow of God, Chinua Achebe, 1964.

That was Ezeulu when the corpse of Obika was brought into his obi. I read this in 2005 or 2006 and I couldn’t keep the tears from falling. I loved Obika and he was a mere fictional character.

On Sunday, 9th July 2017, a phone call brought the news about Ebenezer. Eben is dead. One phone call, one sentence, less than ten seconds, and a man full of life, fun, wit, intelligence, fairness, humility, respect and optimism was reduced to a man who was now gone from this life, a man who would now be addressed in the past tense. I can’t keep the tears from flowing. I loved Eben and he was a great man.

I am crying.

I met Eben in 2010. He was in 300 level, Literature. I was in 100 level, same department.  He became my coach and mentor; and my friend, despite the disparity in age and level; and my brother, despite the difference in tongue and tone; and I called him baba na–my father.

I am devastated.

Eben was a guru, a legend. We would argue among our study group and defend our point with Eben said this, but Eben didn’t exactly mean that. I would block him in front of the dean’s car park, in the library, in front of the Senate, in the Social Centre, before the Main Gate, anywhere. I would block him and ask him about a novel, a critical theory, an era, an author, a lecturer’s temperament, anything. And he would answer me in his analytical, witty manner with laughter in the edge of his mouth. He was never too busy for me.

I am confused.

Eben was Zaria-based. So when he left the university he remained on the campus. Like a small tree planted near the base of a mighty tree, I grew up under the wings of Eben, my raw academic ability shedded by Eben’s magnanimity and refined by his intellect, experience and nuanced worldview. In my final year, Eben got admission for his master’s degree in the department. His presence on the campus was solidified. I was in ABU Zaria for four years and Eben was the constant. His presence assured me, challenged me and favoured me. When he graduated I inherited his reading materials. I was his heir. Now he’s gone.

I feel cheated.

ebenrip

It didn’t end there. Ebengbasky, as he’s also called, fondly, remained my friend. On Twitter, on Facebook we fought, argued, shared jokes, swapped sarcasm and banters. We agreed on plenty fronts and disagreed in many. He was an Arsenal fan, like me, he was a wailer, like me, he lived online, like me. But I am irritated with the antics and personality of Trump while he enjoyed the drama of Trump, telling me to focus more on “Change” happening in Nigeria. I wanted Wenger fired but he preffered a gradual transition for Wenger. We disagreed and in the midst of our disagreement, our comradeship prospered.

I am heartbroken.

My friend is gone! Just three weeks back I was teasing him to go and get married. I said I must eat his wedding rice. He would ask me not to let the devil use me and we would start series of funny back and forth exchanges that, I believe, entertained our mutual friends. Suddenly Eben died. Just like that, mid-life, mid-wit, mid-school, mid-banter.

I mourn.

And the entire staff of English and literary studies mourns with me.

English and literary class of 2007 mourns you.

English and literary class of 2008 mourns you.

English and literary class of 2009 mourns you.

English and literary class of 2010 mourns you.

Federal College of Education Zaria mourns you.

Charity and Faith Church mourns you.

Federal Government Girls College Zaria mourns you.

Edo State mourns you.

Arsenal fans mourn you.

Wailers on Twitter mourn you.

Eben, where are you?

Your friends on Facebook are crying. Your family is lamenting. Your sons and daughters are lost, shocked, like breastfeeding kids forcefully taken from their mother’s bosom mid-suckling. Your paddies are calling one another on phone, to confirm you are really dead, willing someone to deny it, willing the whole story to become a joke, fatal, expensive, but a joke we’re willing to accept with a heavy sigh of relief.

I remember earlier this year, I said, half-jokingly, that if Nnamdi Kanu’s extreme agitations lead us to another war I would be unable to resist fighting but I would be killed in the war,  and Eben would, one day, write a book Don’t Let Kingsley Okechukwu Die, like Achebe wrote for Christopher Okigbo. Eben was going to write my memoir, keep my memory alive. But today, in a sunless morning, I sit on my desktop to type “Rest in Peace Ebenezer”. I can’t believe I’m doing this. No, I never saw it this way. Not in my weirdest nightmare. We had an unspoken pact Eben and you didn’t keep it.

One day, God’s words being true, we would meet again and I would approach you and ask one question, just one question. I would say, “Eben, why did you leave us without saying goodbyes? Just like that.”

ebeng

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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.

Tweets to @Oke4chukwu

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