By Olusola Martin Ade-Onojobi-Bennett
Saturday, July 11, 2009.
This world is a wonderful place. Human beings are even more fantastic creatures. I thought I had seen everything. I was soon to be proved wrong.
One day I met someone who I’m sure I’ll never forget. The next time I saw him, he was dead. From the time he was born till the time he died he was of no use to anyone. He might as well have never lived. Though he will never know it, nor could ever have dreamed it possible, this story will ensure that he is not forgotten. My brief meeting with him lasted only a few minutes, but I’ll never forget the lasting impression he made on me as an individual. Now over two decades later, I feel I have to share my experience. At least he will live on in these few pages and now I know that as pathetic as it was, his brief life was not wasted. This is a story of abject dejection. It is an absolute wonder that something has actually come out of it.
Baby Ayaya was a walking skeleton of a creature. No more, no less. If you have construed that this is the nickname of the adult anti-hero of this story, you would not be wrong. Actually, very few people knew his real name. Not that it really mattered any way. Most people didn’t give a damn. He was a warped caricature of schizophrenic destitution; the perfect example of a hopeless existence.
He was probably in his early thirties at the time, but his pockmarked sallow facial features portrayed a man in his late fifties, especially if you take all the premature wrinkles into consideration. He looked even worse than that if one considered the deep three inch scar above his left eye and the two teeth missing from the upper right quadrant of his mouth. Some said it had something to do with an attack with a broken bottle many years previously. The state of discolouration in what he had left in his mouth was nothing to write home about.
However, there was one thing that made him stand head and shoulders above his peers, though in a negative sort of way and that was the nature of his psychologically idiosyncratic state of being. One part of his mind worked in a not-too-normal way; the other, for all it was worth, probably didn’t consciously function at all. Both halves were under the unrelenting and deleterious control of distilled palm-wine, known locally as ‘ogogoro’ (a devastatingly potent alcoholic concoction that could put Vodka to shame), as well as the hallucinogenic disassociation from reality brought about by the pernicious effects of smoking unrefined and unadulterated marijuana in unnatural quantities over a long period of time.
There always seemed to be a constant battle raging within his little skull. He never really appeared to know who he was. In fact, more often than not, was even less aware of where he was. He did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. Unfortunately, he was never aware when he did either, for it was quite impossible for him to work out where reality ended and fantasy began. Not surprisingly, most people could not be blamed for reaching the conclusion that he was not normal, at least not in the orthodox sense of the word. And they wouldn’t have been that far wrong.
Baby Ayaya lived with his parents in a wretched hovel constructed of mud, discarded cardboard and rusty corrugated iron dwelling situated in an even more miserable slum area of Lagos known as ‘No Man’s Land’. There you could find the dregs of urban society, the sleaziest of prostitutes, the pimps, drug addicts, thugs, conmen, drug dealers, armed robbers, thieves, burglars, pickpockets and what have you. This whole area was comprised of a sprawling conglomeration of shanties, most of them built on loamy soil that quickly transformed into a squelchy quagmire of mud whenever it rained.
All over the neighbourhood slimy stinking gutters ran between, behind, in front of and even through most of these temporary structures, many of which served as well-patronised but sleazy business enterprises, such as brothels, shebeens, or ‘beer parlours’ where alcohol, drugs and prostitutes to suit every taste could be purchased. It was common to see men of all shapes and sizes actually queuing up in front of some dubious doors awaiting their turn for carnal gratification. At night the whole area tended to be rather noisy, as the majority of these joints blared their own brand of music, quite oblivious to the general cacophony permeating the area.
Baby Ayaya was known to have four delinquent sisters. All were street-wise in every sense of the word and had already graduated from being fair game for nearly every hood in the neighbourhood. The two eldest had learned the ropes well and could easily put many of their older counterparts in far away Harlem or the Bronx to shame. They had once carried the label of ‘public dog’ – no mean feat I can tell you – to being shrewd exploiters of the frailties of masculine egoistic phallocentricism.
Already, they had astute business-like minds and their sexual exploits went a long way towards contributing to their meagre family coffers. There were even rumours that from time to time they had contributed to their father’s sexual gratification, since their mother was rather of a sickly disposition and had literally succumbed to the physical rigours of many years of part-time prostitution, drug abuse and misuse, coupled with malnutrition and ill health. Their mother’s unfortunate predicament had meant that her children had to fend for themselves from a very early age, in a country where survival of the fittest was a stark reality and the cliché ‘every man for himself’, a bleak necessity.
Baby Ayaya rarely slept at home. Nevertheless, his sisters always had a fair idea of his whereabouts and took great delight in surreptitiously sneaking up behind him and thwacking him with a stick, or a belt, or even pinching him and then getting out of his way as fast as they could. Needless to say, this generated a lot of fun not only for the spectators, but also for them, judging from their excited and taunting laughter on these regular occasions. Their actions never really bothered them, for they knew that their brother didn’t have a long attention span for anything that was happening to him, or even around him.
He never could walk in a straight line. His gait was a balancing act that lay somewhere between a meandering stagger and an aimless shuffle. How he ever managed to remain upright was a miracle. Whenever he stood still he would sway precariously in slow motion, his bleary bloodshot eyes squinting to focus on nothing in particular; his gaunt skeletal figure threatening to blow away with the slightest gust of wind. He always attracted a small crowd of bystanders, many of who gaped in awe at the state of him.
His mode of dress would have won him first prize in any rag day fancy dress competition. He stood out in a crowd. His preferential attire was a tattered, dirty and threadbare green beret, which he wore in such a way that it covered his ears. He also wore a greyish blue sleeveless shirt, which many moons prior would have been the pride of its original owner, in that it had been part of a police uniform. A filthy, rumpled pair of threadbare khaki shorts, two or three sizes too big and which reached down to his skinny spindly knees adorned the lower half of his body. These were kept from falling down by an old necktie that now served as a belt.
On his feet he wore an old, terribly battered pair of army boots which had no shoelaces and from which a number of his scrawny toes peeped through. He really looked a comic sight despite his abject and pathetic circumstances.
Whenever the urge arose he took to the streets of the capital, haphazardly directing traffic and making a general nuisance of himself. He always saluted any member of the police or armed forces that he came across; for in his schizophrenic little mind he at times believed he was a general. If not for the fact that they found him relatively harmless, amusing and mentally deranged, they would not have hesitated in taking action a good deal more harsh than the bemused and indifferent glances they gave him.
He was generally well known and it was not uncommon to see him being followed by hounding children chanting, ‘Baby Ayaya! Baby Ayaya!’ They would taunt him mercilessly and relentlessly. Sometimes he delighted them by chasing them a short distance, as a result they would scatter in wild directionless array some being narrowly missed by busy traffic. However, as he never chased any particular child, it goes without saying that he never caught any of them and one could only speculate as to what he would have done if he had succeeded.
Whenever the mood came upon him – and this was not often - he would change his attire. No one ever knew where he kept his spare clothes, if the scanty rags he wore could be called that. He hardly ever seemed to spend any time at home. When he wasn’t dressed like a ‘policeman’, he would suddenly turn up clad like a cross between a despicably attired soldier and a shoddily dressed diplomat. His tie was a length of filthy rope. It was even all the more conspicuous because he did not wear a shirt. He donned a coat that was three sizes too small and boasted only one sleeve, the tip of which reached just below his elbow. To complete this strange attire, he wore the same old army boots, a battered green battle helmet and a pair of spectacles that had no lenses.
Many years later and many miles from where I had met last seen him, to be precise, on the expressway on the outskirts of the city, I saw Baby Ayaya again. Only this time he was barely recognisable as a human being and if not for the remains of his clothing and the grotesque and bloodied skull that stared sightlessly at me, I would never have known that it was my old acquaintance.
It was the stench that first attracted my attention and then the birds; vultures reluctantly scurrying away whenever people approached, only to scuttle back a few seconds later when the coast was clear for a few more juicy morsels. Lying by the side of the road, his body was horribly mangled, with strips of decomposing flesh ground into the scorching tarmac by cars and lorries that had passed over it the night before, most of them travelling too fast to avoid the now almost unrecognisable lump of flesh. The sun shone relentlessly on what was left of him.
People nonchalantly passed by, covering their noses from the stench, but otherwise hardly giving the mass of flesh more than fleeting glances. No one really cared. There was no one to bury him. It was not necessary. In fact, judging by the large number of articulated lorries that passed close to his body every few minutes, there wouldn’t be much more left of him after another night. Night scavengers would see to that. In any way, his family wouldn’t have been able to afford a funeral. The local authorities were happy to turn a blind eye and let nature take its course. In a couple of days, much less longer than it would take the bureaucratic machine of state to respond, the potential hazard to human health would have disappeared into nothingness.
I later asked what had happened from a small group of roadside traders hawking their wares a relatively short distance away. One them informed me that very late the night before, Baby Ayaya had staggered into the path of a speeding hit-and-run juggernaut. He never knew what hit him. By morning only God knew how many other vehicles had run over his ravaged carcass. I felt overwhelmed with pity for this poor soul. What a way to go. Was ever a life as worthless as belonged to this underprivileged destitute lying all alone, in the words of Scott, ‘unwept, unhonoured and unsung’?
Adieu Baby Ayaya. May your soul rest in perfect peace.