My father told me shortly before he died I should run if I see a leaping toad in the middle of the city in the month of January. What is chasing it could also affect me. Well, I was in the middle of Oba Adesida Road, the busiest street in Akure, a city in Ondo State. It was early January, just after the New Year festivities. And now a toad jumped into the middle of the street in broad daylight.
Such a toad was either chasing something or being chased, my father said. While I stared at the animal as it leaped towards me and crashed against a waste bin placed on the sidewalk by the Environmental Vanguard, I decided it was not chasing anything but getting out of the way of some dangerous people. I came to this conclusion when I saw two men, who must have frightened the toad, climb the sidewalk and head towards me. Without wasting time, I dropped the rotten plantain in my hand to the ground and took to my heels.
“Catch her!” one of the men shouted.” She’s a kidnapper.”
I first knew I could be mistaken for a kidnapper yesterday. The sun shone in the sky, and I stood by the side of the road, watching a group of children play with a plastic ball. People milled around me, and the smell of car fumes hung in the air. I held the rotten plantain I ate to one of the children. When Wakaabout, the shoe repairer, saw me, he yelled at the children: “You’ll be charmed! You’ll be charmed! She’s a kidnapper!” Two hours later, while I stood on the road one kilometer from the market, Pancake, who sold fried rice and beans, shoved me aside and said: “What are you doing here, you kidnapper?” Thirty minutes later, as I sat by the sidewalk and minded my business, some small children gathered around me, staring with curiosity. A. K., a truck pusher who was dressed like a mad man, emerged out of nowhere and chased me from my spot. “If I see you here again, I’ll deal with you! Kidnapper!” he shouted.
When I recalled some of this as I ran, I increased my speed, dodged between two market women who argued over the price of a piece of fish, and got to a street junction. Wakaabout, licking an ice-cream cone, came up the road towards me. When he saw me, he threw the ice cream cone into the gutter and dashed towards some women standing by the road. “She has gone mad!” he shouted and then crashed into one of the women standing at the edge of the gathering. The impact knocked the basin of banana the woman carried on her head, and it crashed to the road. The woman grabbed Wakaabout by the shirt and said: “I don’t care how you do it, just pay for my banana.”
In the ensuing confusion, I slipped past them and stood by a nearby wall, safe from the people pursuing me. Wiping sweat from my face with the back of my hand, I thought about my situation. Wakaabout and company were not the only ones making my life a misery since my step-father brought me from Arigidi and abandoned me in Akure six months ago for having lost control of my senses. When I walked on the streets, dogs saw me and barked: “Woo! Woo!” When I sat on the sidewalk by A Division Police Station, eating the plantain I found in the rubbish dump, someone would shout: “What are you doing there!” I knew I suffered blackouts in the afternoon, but why should these people treat me less than an animal?
The kidnap issue came up three days ago. I read about it on pages of a newspaper someone used to clean his anus after defecating on the street in the night. The story was in a banner headline: “Mad Woman Kidnaps 6-Year-Old Girl By Charming Her With A Packet Of Biscuit.” Since then, I suddenly became a kidnapper. When I walked past on the streets, people who knew me and tolerated me as an insane woman now said: “Watch her! She could be a kidnapper!” When I sat on the sidewalk by Eso Junction two kilometers from Oba Market, someone was sure to say: “Be careful of her! She could be a kidnapper.” When I tried to pick ice-cream, sweet, and bean cake from the dustbin, they would say: “What are you doing here? Kidnapper!” It was as though everybody knew I had a degree in kidnapping but I was the only one who didn’t have the certificate.
After experiencing all this, I decided to take refuge at the Get Well Sanatorium near the market so I would not be lynched by people who felt I was a kidnapper. I was going there for another reason. “When you get there, your madness will go quick quick,” Johnny Just Come, a man who brought me food and clothes at night, told me last night. “Just go to Get Well Sanatorium,” said a woman who came to put sacrifices by the road at night, “your problems will go away.” Yesterday, another of my nightly visitors told me: “Them go cure you of your sickness for Get Well. You go well within one day”
There was a third reason for going to the sanatorium. My teacher in secondary school, Mr Segun Adeloye – alias Mr. Bless My Soul – used to tell us: “Some die as millionaires, some die as ‘thousandaires’, some die as paupers, and some die as kidnappers.” I knew I was not completely sane, but I was no kidnapper. If I was killed for that, it meant I was killed for nothing, and I didn’t want to die for nothing. It was while I was going to the sanatorium I saw the leaping toad.
As I stood by the wall, watching the banana woman pull at Wakaabout’s dirty shirt, I decided to continue my journey to the sanatorium, which was about a kilometer away. But I was afraid to go because I heard ‘kpo kpo kpo’ and ‘kpa kpa kpa’ sounds in my head. This was a sign I was about to suffer from my afternoon blackout. If I did before I got to the sanatorium, would I not fight anybody who tried to stop me? Would the nearby market women not shout like mad women: “We’ve said it before, this mad woman should not be allowed to roam free on the street.”
But if I remained where I stood, small children would come around, staring at me until saliva dropped from their mouths. Before long, Wakaabout, A.K., or Pancake would see them and shout: “Do want to be kidnapped!” And before one could count from A to B, they would accuse me of attempting to kidnap the children, and people could rush in and I will be in serious trouble.
I knew I was not too sound in the head, but who said I couldn’t see? Didn’t I see what people did to Short Pants – the mad woman who wandered with me along the streets of Akure? Yesterday, she defecated by the dustbin on the road and an old toothless woman shouted at her: “Gbeni gbeni!, Kidnapper!” A crowd gathered shortly after and battered Short Pants. While they did this, a dog barked at the scene. A small girl who watched the action had her basin knocked out her head and her fresh fish spilled to the road. When Wakaabout saw this, he said: “These fish girls are useless people! What are they doing here?” By the time a policeman came to say “What is happening here?”, Short Pants lay half-dead on the street.
Not wanting to experience the same situation – especially as people rumored Short Pants was dead – I decided to move towards the sanatorium. But I had some doubts even when everybody advised me to go there. Would it be my place of succor and solve my thirty years’ problem?
Despite my reservation, I began to move towards it. A minute later, I saw A.K., the truck pusher, stand twenty meters from me, staring at the street. This was what he did when he was broke. He wore a pair of slippers so oversized his dirty feet looked small in it, like the feet of a five-year-old put inside the shoes meant for a grown man. A.K. had shaved one of his eyebrows, but the other looked bushy and was streaked by grey hair. As he picked his teeth, he scratched his bushy eyebrows as though lice lived in it.
A.K. was one of the popular characters in this part of Akure. When the girl’s basin of fish fell to the road yesterday, A.K. picked one of the fish, grinned, and said with happiness: “This is a gift from God”, pushing it in his pocket. People rumored he beat his 70-year-old mother in his one-bedroom apartment in Ijoka Street. Anytime I heard the story, I was filled with anger. People called us mad women and drove us from our parent’s houses even though we didn’t beat our mothers. Men like A.K. who battered their mothers were allowed to stay at home and called sane men. Where was justice in this crazy and unfair world?
“You again, Sisi Eko,” he said when he saw me.
They called me Ajulo in Arigidi and Belle No Go Die in Ikare, a town one kilometer from Arigidi. But here in Akure, I was called Sisi Eko.
“What is it again?” I asked him. “I’m going to Get Well Sanatorium”
“Have I not told you not to get near this market? What are you looking for here? Are you looking for someone to kidnap?”
“Your father is looking for someone to kidnap.”
“Are you talking to me? You’re not going to any Get Well Sanatorium. You’ll do your getting well here.”
As I tried to pass by his truck, he shouted: “Get back now!” But as he moved towards me, he stepped on a beer bottle and lost his balance. He fell to the ground and rolled into a nearby gutter. As he stood up, dirty water dripping from him, the market women who watched the drama behind tables filled with tomatoes five meters away laughed at him.
By the time A.K. climbed out the gutter, he had soiled his ragged clothes with the dirty water. Also, his shirt was torn by his left arm, revealing a hairy armpit. One of the woman pointed at him and laughed: “A.K, what is making you fall inside the gutter? Is it Sisi Eko’s beauty?” Another told him: “Do you want to marry her? Pay me her dowry and you can have her.” A.K. glared at them and shouted: “Shut your mouths there!”
Remembering my mission, I sneaked past his truck and walked away. With a shout, A.K. grabbed my hand and pulled it. “Where do you think you’re going!” he yelled. I wanted to slap him, but I didn’t because I feared he would kill me.
Instead of slapping him, I placed my hand on the truck to steady myself and stared at him
“What have I done to you?” I asked.
“You’ll soon know what you’ve done to me, kidnapper.”
He dragged me near, clenched his fist, and moved backwards. But he didn’t look at where he was going, so he bumped into one suit-wearing man who read Guardian newspapers at a nearby newsstand, staining him with the dirty water from the gutter.”
“Sorry, sir,” A.K. said, leaving my hand.
“What is the meaning of this?” the man shouted.
“It’s a mistake, sir.”
“Shut up there!”
Not wanting to stay around to hear big grammar, I slipped away and headed for the sanatorium. The sun was one-third of its way up the sky, its heat increasing with every minute. As I moved towards my destination, the air thickened with the smell of pepper, tomatoes, and dried fish, the foodstuff that made me lose my senses. To make matters worse, I felt hot under the dress Johnny Just Come gave me the previous night. Also, I noticed the ‘kpo kpo kpo’ and ‘kpa kpa kpa’ sounds in my head rose in decibel. I prayed – yes, even mad women prayed – that I should get to the sanatorium before I suffered from the blackout that left me not knowing what I did.
My father once told me: It’s one thing to pray for the devil to come to your hut, but it’s quite a different thing when he comes. God knows, I didn’t pray to meet Pancake on my journey to seek succor because she was a devil and enjoyed making trouble with me. If she did not fight me or Short Pants – may God bless her soul – she felt unhappy. If I called her a rat I was generous – Pancake was far worse than the naughty rats living in the sewer of my father house in Arigidi. When the girl’s basin of fish fell to the road yesterday, Pancake asked her: “Did your mother send you here? Is this where your mother sent you?.”
“Where are you going?” she asked as she stopped in front of me.
“Get Well Sanatorium,” I told her.
“But I told you I don’t want to see you around here.”
“Please, leave me alone,” I said, trying to walk past her.
She blocked my path and placed her arms akimbo. I wanted to yell at her: “Will you get out of my way?” But when I saw her clenched fists placed as though she wanted to hammer it on my head, I told her, “Please, let me go.” I didn’t want those fists to land on me because people rumored the head of one of her rivals swelled like a ball after she punched it.
“Go back now!” she ordered, lifting up her hand and pointing down the road like Mrs. Ajayi, who never got tired of beating me as my class teacher in secondary school. But there was a difference. While Mrs. Ajayi was always neat in her white clothes, Pancake’s blouse was soiled by large food stains on the collar. Also, her blouse was torn around the hips.
I was reluctant to obey Pancake, so she pushed me back. “Go back now! We don’t want another child to be kidnapped.” I took two steps backwards then stopped. When she saw I would not budge, she said, “So you want to resist me. Alright, I’ll deal with you.” She loosened her scarf from her head and tied it around the waist. She then raised her fists and posed like the boxers I saw in Boxing Spectacular on television. “I said go back now!”
My father told me I should never run if someone merely threatened me. However, if someone threatened me, raised their fist, and posed like the boxers on Boxing Spectacular at the same time I should run. I was thinking about this when Pancake’s blow caught me by the stomach. As I closed in on her, people came to separate us.
“What’s happening here?” said one market women. “Why are you beating her, Pancake? Did she snatch your husband?”
“She’s a kidnapper,” Pancake said.
“Did she kidnap your child?”
“She didn’t. But people like her kidnap people. Like that child three days ago. If I don’t fight her, a child may get kidnapped.”
“It’s a lot easier to fight innocent mad women than fighting the real kidnappers,” said a tall man who came to the scene.
“What do you mean?” Pancake shouted at him.
“Leave the poor woman alone,” the tall man said. “She’s innocent.”
“I’ll not leave her alone.”
With the strength of a wrestler, she pushed the man out the way and faced me. As she grabbed me, I wanted to slap her, but I realized if I did I could get agitated, suffer a blackout, and not get to my destination, so I didn’t.
As Pancake raised her hand to strike me, the tall man held it and pulled. Two things happened at the same time. Pancake’s blouse tore, and it revealed her dirty brassiere. The second thing that happened was her wrapper loosened and fell to the ground. Since she wore no underwear, she stood in her dirty white pants. Now completely furious, she turned to the tall man. “You will kill me today!” she shouted and held his shirt.
Two other men came to separate them. As one of them held her blouse, it ripped apart. The second man held Pancake’s dusty wrapper in his hand, trying to tie it around her waist. Hit in the face by Pancake’s elbow, he shouted: “My face! My face!”, allowing the wrapper to drop to the ground and be matched by the good Samaritans that had gathered. Soon after, Pancake saw a chance and bit the tall man on the nose. As he shouted, people grabbed him before he attacked Pancake. While this took place, one fat woman tied the dusty wrapper around Pancake’s waist and another covered her body with the scarf. As they led her away, Pancake turned to me and said: “Don’t think you’ve escaped. I’m coming back for you.”
By this time, the sun was two-third of its way up the sky, and pockets of white clouds drifted about it. Due to the heat, the decibel of the sounds in my head rose. Adding to my discomfort, I choked in the smell of pepper, tomatoes, and dried fish as I got close to the market. Added to these, I was chafed by the sounds of motor-cars and motor-bike engines.
As the minutes tickled by, I felt myself gradually losing control of my body. If I could not get to the sanatorium by 12 noon when the sun rose to its highest point in the sky, I could suffer from the blackout and anything could happen.
And the attitude of many people in the city filled me with anger. Why wouldn’t people like Wakaabout, A.K., and Pancake allow me go to the sanatorium? Why would A.K. – a man who beat his mother – see me and say: “Stop there, Mad woman! Where are you going?” Why would people like Wakaabout shout at me: “Shut up there, you kidnapper!”, all because someone pretended to be mad and kidnapped one two-year-old boy? Why would Pancake – who was worse than the sewer rats living in my father’s house – sometimes shout at me: “Stop there, you rat!” Why would people like me walk on the streets and mad-looking passers-by would stop, point at them, and sneer: “What are these mad women doing on the streets?”
When I tell them I’m not mad but had a little problem when the time was 12 noon, they would throw their heads back and laugh. “Sisi Eko, does the problem make you roll on the ground on the street?” the jovial ones would ask. “Does it make you dance in the middle of the road, disturbing traffic?” others would say. “Sisi Eko, when a woman sleeps on the road, is that not a sign of madness?” still others would ask.
I knew my head was not quite steady, but I could think. When I suffered blackouts, I remembered nothing. But I suspected the things people joked about with me happened during my blackouts. This was why I wanted to get to the sanatorium as quickly as possible.
Besides, my father told me there were three places where one should not go crazy. The first was the main road leading to the king’s palace. If one did get mad here, one had revealed her craziness to a quarter of the people in the city. The second was on the road that led to the market place. If madness happened here, the person had revealed it to half of the peple in the city. The third was at the market place itself. When it happened, according to my father, one had revealed it to everyone and there was no longer any salvation. I didn’t want the blackout to happen at the market so I could still have salvation.
How could I achieve this? I asked myself, especially when people like Pancake, Wakaabout, and A.K., could appear from nowhere and at anytime and bark: “Sisi Eko, have I not told you not to come here?” If they didn’t appear, someone who was angry about not eating since morning and blamed me for it could stop me and say, “Will you get out the way!”, even though I was far from them. Or another person who had problems with his penis and wanted to blame someone for it could grab it after passing me and shout: “My penis has disappeared! Sisi Eko’s magic caused it,” and a crowd could gather with the aim of assaulting me.
Any of these could delay me on the way to the sanatorium. In fact, I felt the delays and my refusal to fight those who confronted me were responsible for my not having reached the sanatorium. If I frowned back at Pancake and said, “Why are you always at my back, Pancake? Are we struggling for the same man? Please, get lost!”, won’t I be on my way now? I therefore told myself I would fight anyone who stood in my way. It was better than suffering a blackout before I got to the sanatorium.
I was at its gate when I saw A.K. once again. By this time, the sun had almost climbed to its zenith in the sky. The ‘kpo kpo kpo’ and ‘kpa kpa kpa’ sounds in my head had almost risen to their loudest decibel, and I was close to suffering a blackout. The smell of pepper, tomatoes, and dried fish was overpowering, and I barely breathed. The deafening noise of motor-cars and motor-bike engines blasted against my eardrums and I found it difficult hearing anything.
As for A.K., he leaned against his truck, staring at me, looking as if he knew I would come. He had lost one of his oversized slippers, and his bare leg was covered by dust. If my mother saw him like this, she would have told him: “A.K., you’re smelling and dirty. Go and take your bath.” Also, the pond water had dried on his ragged shirt, leaving a stain as red as shit on his back. The torn part of his shirt had widened, revealing more of his hairy armpit. There was a wound above his shaved eyebrows – someone had probably punched him there after my trouble with him. Had my younger brother, Gbenga, seen him, he would have said: “A.K., who beat you like this?”
“See this,” he told me, pointing to the wound. “You caused it.”
“How did I cause it?”
“The man in suit brought his thugs. They did this to me.”
“It’s not my fault.”
“It’s your fault!” he shouted. “I have only one slippers. The man’s thugs took the other one to punish me. You caused it.”
I didn’t answer him. If I did the next thing he would say was that his penis was missing and I caused it. Instead of replying me, I headed for the gate of the sanatorium, but A.K. pushed himself from his truck and stood in front of me.
“I said you’re not going to the sanatorium,” he said. “Go back now!”
“Leave the road and allow me to pass.”
He bit his lower lip and pointed at his torn shirt. Had my brother seen the shirt he would have said: “What is wrong with you? Even a pig would reject this shirt!”
“The thugs did it,” A.K. said. “The only shirt I use for work. They tore it because of you.”
Seeing he became more enraged with the passage of the seconds, I took to my heels and headed for the sanatorium, but A.K. was waiting for me. He shouted: “You’re not going anywhere!”, and he caught me by the arm. He pulled me and I stumbled towards him.
“The stain on my shirt!” he shouted. “They did it. All because of a useless kidnapper.”
“I’m not a kidnapper.”
“You’re a kidnapper!”
And he kicked me at the crotch and I screamed, remembering Modupe, my classmate at primary school back in Arigidi. She said: “Let them slap you on the face, it will not kill you. Let them beat you on the breast, it will not kill you, and the pain will soon go away. But if they kick between your legs, you must fight back. The kick could kill you because it can stop you from having children.” I desperately wanted to have children. This need coupled with my earlier resolve made me fight back.
Before he could kick me a second time, I closed in on him and grabbed his ragged shirt. “Will you leave my shirt!” he shouted. As he closed his palms around my hand to remove it, I ripped his shirt apart. “Oh, my God!” he wailed, struggling to disentangle himself from me. As I stepped back, a nearby woman rushed between us and said, “Ah! Ah! A.K., shame on you. You’re fighting a woman!”
With rage, he shoved the woman out the way and closed in on me. He slapped my face, and stars swam about in my vision. “Kidnapper!” he shouted. He slapped me a second time, elbowed me on the shoulder, and said: “Mad woman!” His blow then struck me on my breast and I went down. “Kidnapper!” he shouted again.
As he came towards me, I stood up and then moved towards him. With a scream, I grabbed his penis and pulled with all the strength in my body. His howl cut through the sounds made by the engines of the motor-cars and motor-bikes around the spot. “Who is a kidnapper?” I shouted at him. Still holding his penis, I pulled again and he pleaded, “Please”, but I shouted at him: “Who is a kidnapper?” And then hands grabbed me, pulling me away from him.
Seeing a chance to escape at last, I ran towards the gate of the sanatorium, entered, but stopped, disappointed. It consisted of a long building built of mud, tin, and wood. Had my father seen it he would have said with disappointment: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” My mother would have said: “Can prayers get answered in this place?” As for me, I asked myself, was this why I had suffered so much? Could this place cure me and make the people in Akure stop sneering at me and saying: “Sisi Eko, does the problem not make you dance in the middle of the street?”
I was convinced the sanatorium was no place to get succor. Perhaps it was right to have doubts about it in the first place. But I remembered what my father told me: “If you fight hard to get to heaven and find it disappointing, still go there. Remember the battles you fought, and it could provide a temporary solution.” I decided to act according to my father’s words of wisdom.
I started running towards the sanatorium, sensing I was on the verge of a blackout. As I sprinted, I heard the voice of my father saying: “Run faster! Run faster!” The cries of “kidnapper” pursued me. But my effort ended in vain. I suffered the blackout just as I reached the frontage of the building, and I didn’t remember what happened after this.