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THE CHARITABLE SMOKE

By Kenechuckwu Obi

Monday, September 28, 2009.

Bright red colour, flickered from a stick of cigarette he gently smoked. Ash followed ash in the same direction, making a fine sprinkle on the sandy ground. His slim body, well tucked into the chair. He was calm. I didn’t know if he was thinking. His head was up, starring at the cloud of smoke above.

The confidence he exuded struck me in successive sequence. I liked the very way he smoked. Especially the way he used his tongue to curl smoke out of his mouth. What an art, I thought. And for the first time in my life, I felt like smoking. His shoes were new. Polished as well. What of his trousers? Oh! Crispy! Very neat! Just fascinating. 

I liked him very much going by his composure. Directly behind him stood a four storey building in which people were streaming into. People that from vantage position, I beheld that poverty had very well finished with them. Torn trousers, unkempt hair, I saw in numbers. It was also not hard to notice that some of them had never known what bathing water felt like for months. On their faces were however, fading frustration and hopelessness with glimmer of hope in fine medley.

On the building was a bold inscription -THE TAMALE FOUNDATION. It brought my curiosity. Then I walked past the gentle smoker into the building.

“This is the Tamale Foundation,” said a man to me as I queried him to know more. “Haven’t you heard about it?” He further said to me, his eyes widened in surprise that surged into it.

“No,” I said. The man laughed at my ignorance.

“What is it for?” I further asked.

“It is for the poor. This is the centre for the banishment of poverty.” He laughed again.

“Poverty?” I said, as if that was my first time of hearing that word. Then I paused to ponder. I saw smiles being put on people’s faces during my reverie. Folks were being given springboards to start dreaming.

“Where are you?” I thundered on leaving the world of my reverie because the man who spoke with me earlier on was no longer with me. And I had more questions begging for answers. “Whose brain-child is this?” Again I asked on top of my voice, desperate to hear somebody talk back.

            Hands touched my shoulders from behind. When I turned, it was the gentle smoker that stood. An inviting smile stood on his face. “What do you want, gentleman of the press?” He asked me, slowly of offered his right hand, and we shook hands. “My name is Tamale. I own this place. Can we be of any help to you? The word, help, is what we exist for.”

 His calm mien and confidence were nothing else but striking. For some seconds, I couldn’t find words to utter, as if my sense of mission had flown away. A feeling of honour arose inside me afterwards. Not because of Tamale’s charm, but for the chance to file a story I believed it would be a ‘hot one’.

“My name is Ken, freelance writer,” was my terse response.

“Feel relaxed, said Tamale, offering me a stick of cigarette, but I declined. When asked how he got the foundation started, Tamale took five steps away from me, sat on a settee, gesturing me to join him. I did with all pleasure. Curiosity just drove me on. “This is the realization of a dream I nurtured since I was a youth, which never came on a platter of gold.” Tamale’s story began. “There is no dream pushing towards reality that does not duel with obstacles,” he went further to say. “The most difficult times, I believe, prevail when you are very close to the object of your heart’s chase.”  Tamale lit up another cigarette, drew a deep breath and went ahead.

            He was born alone and bred rich. Lost his mother at the age of five. His father did not remarry. He was so immersed in wealth that it got him bored, fuelling intense hunger in him to experience poverty. He wanted to be part and parcel of the less privileged and the poor in their quest to survive. His father vehemently did not support him. “Why should my son mingle with the poor?” He had asked in annoyance. He would always say to Tamale that that meant demeaning his status. But Tamale consistently cared less enough to not want to fathom, even in the least, how demeaning his quest might have sounded. All that mattered to him was to tune in to the pulse of the poor in his midst. “Would my gladness know no bounds if I had plenty of water in my mouth, overflowing, and my brother’s throat is as dry as a desert? No!” He had argued.

            Tamale ran away from home bare footed, with nothing except the clothes he had on. This was however, after his failed first ever suicide attempt. To him there was no point in remaining alive, living rich without carrying out his mission. He got a rope, tied it firmly to the branch of an orange tree at the lawn behind his father’s house. Tamale lit another stick, drew smoke hard into his lungs before proceeding with his story.

“I made sure I was home alone to completely eliminate chances of anyone stalling the cold hands of death from tugging me away. And all was set, I bade the world bye. The rope instantly tugged hard at my neck. So hard that less air began to pass through my windpipe, before the unexpected occurred. The rope got loose. Till date, I don’t know how it happened. I am quite sure I did everything right. Astounding, I must admit. If I had died, maybe all these people you see in here would not benefit from magnanimity of this proportion in their entire lives.”

Tamale suffered hunger at first. When he had money, most times, he could only feed once a day. Even the odd jobs were hard to come-by. He picked potatoes in farms for stipends, cleared animal dung in a dairy farm to eke out a living. In spite of his little disposable income, barely enough for him to survive, he couldn’t help but give alms. Tears coursed down Tamale’s eyes each time he saw beggars. Many of them at highways that posed untold threats to their lives, snatching a living from the jaw of death. He would give and sometimes forget to keep back some. “I think we live in a world almost entirely obsessed with the insatiable quest to acquire,” he said. “Pile up, even if the store is filled and overflowing. Why must men have so much and their brothers are lacking? Only to do a lot of wasteful spending in times of their brothers’ death to show off.” One major challenge Tamale had was his background.

“I know you! What are you doing here?”

“You don’t know me. Go away. I want to concentrate.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“You don’t know me! Get off!”

“I know you. I know the son of whom you are. Behold, heir to a great fortune wallowing in slums? I can’t understand what you’re doing here. You ought not to work, let alone be seen doing so in filthy places like this.” People would not just leave Tamale alone. He did not believe his life ought just to revolve in his rich father’s shadow. That he saw as extremely ridiculous. “If my grandfather hadn’t been poor,” he argued, ‘would my father have thought it necessary to strive and achieve? Most certainly not.”

  There was a poem Tamale wrote and recited each day, with which he made his demand on life.

I do not understand you anymore

You overwhelm me by the games you play

For how long will you keep away from me?

My desired goals that I am bargaining for?

Each time I strive to reach the stars

You give me mountains

I am thirsty

You make a desert my home

Is it not you again?

The just employer

Or have you changed since you first saw my face?

I suppose I’m not pouring water into a basket

Look my way for my prize

Life!

Lofti! That was her name. The woman that opened the door of succuor for Tamale. As fate would have it, they met. Lofti was a lady Tamale had cleared the drains in front her apartment one evening. She got Tamale paid, also kept glaring at him.

“Who are you?” That was the first question she asked Tamale, her glare nailing him hard. Another person who knows me, Tamale thought in disgust. Lofti’s curiosity was invited so much that Tamale felt uncomfortable. His background became a thing he hated. He had to fake his identity.

“Why should you be doing this for a living?” That was Lofti’s second question.

“No home, no money,” Tamale answered.

“Who are your parents?”

“No father, no mother.” 

Lofti was touched. She pitied Tamale on learning of his false orphaned condition. She closed her eyes, looked away in pain. Lofti told Tamale that she too was an orphan. Tamale saw tears moisten Lofti’s eyes. Tears that almost made him confess that he had told a lie. What a flow of emotion his lie had drawn. But he had to keep a low profile, stay out of his wealthy status as much as possible to remain true to his mission.

“Oh! How it pains me to see a young and energetic man like you,” said Lofti, ‘wasting away his youthfulness. Youth is the season of hope. It is like a porter’s clay. You mould it lest it dries up. Youth is today’s child, tomorrow’s man. I will get you something better. You must meet with the man who was instrumental to my success in business,” she assured Tamale. That was how Tamale got to know a famous American corn merchant in the person of Sir Alex Clinton, who coincidentally, was desperately in need of an astute, honest and hardworking young man as his assistant.

Sir Alex Clinton was tall and in his mid fifties. So carefree than Tamale had ever seen. Never allowed much to bother him. He staunchly believed he grabbed much good luck in life by how many good things he did for people. Never bothered much if he discovered one was cheating him. He just believed anyone who cheated him would be paid in his own coin by some sort of natural laws in nature.

He drank tea a lot. Had no wife, no children as well. He took his children to be all young men and women who worked with him. Sir Alex was glad that he was able to assist young people. That way, he was convinced he channeled their minds away from criminal tendencies. He would say, “A youth you take off the street, helping him to be useful, the entire society enjoys peace which translates to meaningful development tenfold.” That was his unflinching philosophy.

When asked what he had to say about his workers that misappropriated funds, he said, “Well, I’ve tried my best for them absolutely. What and how they choose to be is now entirely in their hands. Posterity will vindicate me.”  He was a man so straight forward and simple in his approach to life.

Tamale was inspired and enriched. His resolve to actualize his mission experienced unprecedented growth in strength. Light of his cause to do charity had never been brighter. If there was anything he would forget, it would surely not be his first meeting with Sir Alex Clinton.

“You are Tamale,” said Sir Clinton with a broad smile. “You owe me no answers. Lofti said it all. Sit down and make yourself comfortable. One of us you are already.” Then he laughed. “Just work hard like I’ve been informed and success will come knocking on your door. Hey! I like taking tea, fifty times in a day is not too much, is it? Let me get you some.” If Sir Clinton would take that much tea in a day, Tamale wondered how many urination calls he answered daily. When Tamale looked into Sir Clinton’s business account books, it was very easy for him to see that he was filthy rich. All profit details were in bold black and white.

 Tamale’s working relationship with Sir Clinton, ushered in further financial success. His gifting began to bear on his transactions in Sir Clinton’s enterprise. He was branded the assistant who almost single-handedly envisioned and created a fatter purse for his boss. Sir Alex Clinton could not hide his delight as Tamale vigorously pursued his goals. There was phenomenal financial success within ten years.

“My instincts can’t be wrong,” said Sir Clinton to Tamale one day. “I knew you have it in you. I will eternally be grateful to Lofti for referring you. Surely, you are one great thing to have happened to me and humanity as a whole. Your faithfulness, sincerity and competence have most rewarded you. I see you go places, man! My grand plan for you is waiting.”

Sir Alex Clinton did what Tamale never expected at all. If a man works more than he gets paid for, sooner or later, he will be paid for more than he works. At first, Tamale had enough money to sustain himself. To eat and drink whatever he desired. The more abundant reward then came. Sir Alex Clinton, oh goodness! He made Tamale. He awarded Tamale a fifth of all profit he turned in. Tamale was so glad to have clawed up successfully. The less privileged became his target. He knew that even a drop of water from an ocean they get, would put a lot of smiles on their faces in distinct ways.

Tamale lit up another stick of cigarette and braced up to narrate more.

“I believe that a man reaps abundant bliss when bounties from his sweat under the sun is spread among his fellows,” he began after the first puff. “Otherwise they are a terrible waste. He would be choked while striving to consume them alone. Decay will visit his store house, causing him excruciating pain. I did not need to be told more than ever that it was time to give abundantly and of course, cheerfully. Everything under the sun has time and season. A time to lose, a time to gain. A time to plant, a time to reap. A time to plan, a time to execute. A time to come, a time to go.”

Tamale left Sir Alex Clinton’s enterprise to set up his own. This even made him more famous. A huge part of his resources channeled to the less privileged. He visited inmates of prisons and orphanages on several occasions. Somehow, his wealth increased as he gave out. His generosity ensured that many beggars started their own corn businesses. It was all so good.

Then there came the time to lose. Tamale’s enterprise ebbed to a lean situation. A time of precarious financial status preceded a complete collapse. His business, ripped apart. No thanks to those that worked for him. He was paid for his liberal and generous approach with large scale misappropriation of funds. This brought Tamale not quite far from how he started out. He sought financial assistance without success. What a thin line between grace and grass.

“Well, Tamale, we agreed to meet this day. But I’m sorry there is nothing I can do to turn around your financial predicament.”

“But you promised to be of help today.”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, but…”

“You raised my hope!”

“My business is not liquid enough now to lend you any sum.”

“Not even any amount?”

“I’m afraid. I’m sorry.”

“What am I going through…..? Oh!”

“I wish you success elsewhere, Mr. Tamale.”

That was Tamale’s darkest hour just before dawn. He shed tears on realising how ungrateful and forgetful, even how heartless men can be. Worst of all, from people he had helped before, who were most unwilling to assist him at a time he needed them most. He pondered his future, reviewed how far he had come. He had to go back to doing odd jobs. And in a mysterious twist of fate, two one-time beggars he helped, got wind of his woes and came looking for him. And with that, came the needed lifeline. Tamale’s corn business took off again. His business savvy and luck brought him some good fortune as his sales of corn tripled in three years. Financial boom came around again for him.

Then an idea flashed in Tamale’s mind. He then needed to set up an institution for his charity works. And nothing was going to stop him. That marked the birth of the Tamale Foundation. And that coincided with Tamale’s reunion with his already frail father, weakened substantially by age. He felt untold joy surge through him. His only son, heir to his vast gold mining fortune was back.

And back with a bang! Tamale founded his foundation to encourage and assist the less privileged society folks to create wealth by investing in worthwhile ventures. Tamale the charitable smoker believed no one should be a societal burden. And he envisioned that his foundation will someday have the financial muscle to extend help not only to folks in his native Africa, but in the United States, Europe and the rest of the world.

Kenechukwu Obi is a Nigerian writer and poet. He is the author of the novel A Bond That Crumbled Tradition.  He can be reached at kencel27@yahoo.com

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