Sam Okoedo clutched at the bunch of long dry broomsticks he was wielding. The broom could have been made from anything from the riverside of Onireke, but certainly not from raffia or palm fronds. The riverine communities along the Atlantic shores in Lagos, starting from the Island to Ojo, moving further down to Badagry, were a shade different from those he had known in the Niger Delta, though this was not apparent to an observer. The sickly cane forest of these parts was the source of domestic materials in these riverine communities, and they were unlike the products of swamps and mangroves of the South-South. From The Expressway up to the dark salty river, clumps of thatched houses dotted the white sandy terrain.
As he swung the long cane-broom across the yard, he took more of the sand covering the left over gravel in the compound than the debris from the rainfall of the previous night. The woven strands of shredded tyre tubes which held the cane-broom together at the thick end were already coming off, and this made Sam’s task a little more treacherous. Only his left hand was really quite useful, four fingers of the right hand having been chopped off above the knuckles by an iron factory machine. All the four affected fingers of the right hand had thus been accidentally made equal in height with the thumb. The reality presented a wry sense of justice, especially for those who mourn the fact that all fingers were not equal. That hand was now no more useful than a stump. Usually he supported his left hand with the entire length of his right hand and his chest to keep the broom in place.
Soon he got tired of the task. He drew close to an old bench at a corner, dragging the loose broom along, and sat down. For a long while he stared into the empty space ahead of him, beyond the tiny heaps of sand he had inelegantly made. The compound looked more undignified than it was when he started sweeping it.
Tomorrow would be another court day. No one took interest in the suit any more. His mother-in-law never stopped telling him that the case was just a wasted effort. ‘You’d better start doing something useful with your time instead of that court case, lazy man,’ she would say. His faith would flag again and again, but his lawyer kept telling him that ‘justice delayed is not justice denied.’ Several times he took him on long excursions of cases that came through after long tortuous years. ‘Though our judiciary has compromised, we’re not yet living in a jungle,’ the lawyer said, and assured him that ‘there’s light at the end of the tunnel.’ But every other day in court, the judges were as dismissive as ever, and so they moved from the High Court to the Appeal Court. Now they were at the Supreme Court, the apex court in the land – it’s been nine solid years. All this time, they spent some four years or so to get judgement. Sam had not thought it would last three years. His lawyer told him that the judges were bribed to adjourn the case frequently to wear out the patience of the litigant. ‘It’s psychological warfare,’ he said. Sam didn’t quite understand that term; he guessed, however, that it meant that the judge was an interested party in the case. Otherwise, he needn’t put a man seeking justice through any psychological gruel. His lawyer, the bearded Barrister Fred Kemo, was a fiery student union leader who had continued his activism as rights advocate long after qualifying to practice. Though he was a brilliant lawyer, judges treated him with hostility because he was a loud critic of the judiciary. Nevertheless, he pursued his case with a single-mindedness that sometimes disarmed the lords of the bench. Sam’s case was one of the many interventionist cases he was handling at the time. He would not demand a dime until the case was won and damages or compensation paid.
Often Sam remembered the agony he suffered when the accident happened, especially when the blade of the machine came down on his fingers; it was one moment of miscalculation. At first it seemed like a brutal joke as he stared at his fingers which lay neatly on the surface of the machine. Then the world evaporated as the pain singed through him. The next thing he knew was that there was a flurry of activities, quiet commotion. The little Chinese female supervisor was in a rage of accusations: ‘You wound yourself, we not pay you anything – we carry you go hospital, that’s all,’ she ranted as his blood spilled endlessly. The other machine operators had stopped working and the machines ground to a halt. She flew at everybody for halting work ‘because of this not useful man who wound himself.’ Sam was in hospital for weeks, and when it was time for him to be discharged, the Chinese company insisted he pay half of the bill because it was his carelessness that caused the accident. He had been a casual factory worker after several years, by virtue of the casualisation policy of most Asian companies operating in the country, and the company insisted they owed him no obligation whatsoever. Regardless, his fellow factory workers raised dust and the company was forced to pay the entire bill but dismissed every argument for compensation. That was when someone took him to Barrister Fred Kemo. His wife and every other relation got to know that Sam could make a fortune running into several millions of Naira if he won the court case, and this became a source of consolation to them.
In the early days of the suit he was well cared for and even pampered by everyone around him who looked forward to the day Sam would become a beneficiary of some millions. Even he was so optimistic that he sometimes secretly thanked God for what seemed a misfortune. In his heart he told himself that it was a blessing in disguise. He soon accumulated debts in the neighbourhood pubs in view of the expected wealth. The women who ran the pubs had also heard that he would soon come into money, so they didn’t mind serving him beer on IOU basis. Sometimes he went with his friends, and would often talk as though he was already in possession of the money. Everyone soon got tired of the frequent adjournments in court, and soon the rumour spread that the Chinese company had bribed the judges handling his case. He didn’t have money and could not bribe the judges. This rumour was reified by the indecorous manner with which the case was thrown out of the court after over four years, and despite the fact that his lawyer appealed the verdict, faith was lost. The neighbourhood pubs became no-go areas. Often an incensed pub owner would be seen pulling him by his waist belt along the road, demanding settlement of the debt he had run up.
At home life gradually became hard. He was now considered incapable by every potential employer because of his missing fingers. An office once offered him a job as gateman because he was ready to take the kind of salary often referred to as peanuts. Unfortunately, his employer finally kicked him out because he thought Sam was too slow with opening the gate. He would fumble with the gates for an improper interval before the lock gave in to his effort. He had also tried to be a messenger but he never seemed to have a good grip on breakable things when he carried them from one office to another. Then he finally settled for something that didn’t require the use of his fists. By moving closer to a friend of his who was an estate agent and going to his office on regular visit, he became adept at property speculation as it was done in Lagos. However, he was just able to get a little from agency commission which came once in a long while. Soon his wife moved out with their three children to live with her mother.
Sam was now literally a bachelor and a man without responsibilities. In fact, he became, in the words of his mother-in-law, ‘a responsibility’. This fact was much obvious to him but he was too helpless to alter the circumstances. The woman had got tired of hoping against hope. Every morning the family woke up without the simplest hint of how the meal would come. By buying things on credit and sometimes begging friends for soup ingredients they managed to get by. At a point nobody was ready to listen to their stories anymore and so they were no longer able to buy anything on credit, and friends began to say it loud that they had their own burden to bear. The children could not meet even the simplest obligation at school, and had to stop. Then the landlord of their one-room home began to show his face as soon as the cock crew. The woman tried selling vegetables and later hawked fruits at motor parks, but every profit went to family needs. She was stressed and began to fall ill regularly. Her mother who lived in the next village told her to stop her exertions, warning that she would just slump and die someday because her ‘useless husband’ failed to bear his responsibilities. She often ridiculed him to his face, and he took it with helpless patience, because, after all, she was still assisting them from time to time. Whenever she brought food items to them, she would dump the lot at the door step and remind her daughter that ‘I am doing for you what you and your useless husband are supposed to be doing for me.’ Sam had got used to being called useless. One day she came with a hired car and asked her daughter to get her things into the car. Sam’s mother-in-law, already in her early seventies, was still a woman of firm character and strong physical features. She broached no objections. In any case, her daughter seemed to be ready to cling at a straw, and did not need any persuasion. She took her things into the car and pulled the children along with her. Sam was not at home, but his next-door neighbour was around to pass on the message. He stormed out as soon as he was told what had happened, but by the time he got to his mother-in-law’s place his stomach was growling, and he met his wife and children feasting hungrily on a pot of jollof rice. He joined them and only told his mother-in-law that she should just have informed him before taking the action he took.
The old woman was incensed. ‘Look at who’s talking,’ she cried out. ‘What right do you have to be informed? I am asking you useless and irresponsible man. You and your children are eating my food yet you want to be informed of the decisions I make – aren’t you ashamed of yourself? You want my daughter to die in your house?’
Sam apologized profusely and later left without his wife and children. He vowed to himself that he would only go back to his mother-in-law’s place when conditions had changed. But conditions didn’t change and he soon began to go to his mother-in-law’s place for food. As his wife was not at home to stop him, he soon started selling some household items. The refrigerator was the first to go. He convinced himself that he didn’t need cold water and the lot because they caused heart problems. He also rationalized that his electricity bill would reduce. Then the television set found its way into a neighbour’s sitting room. He had been indebted to the man and he used the television set to settle the debt and got little money also from the bargain. The furniture and similar objects went the same way. When his wife did not see him regularly she wondered what was happening. He later told her that he had been getting some good business and that things would normalize again. This way he was able to stave off her probing questions and suspicions. By the time the landlord came with court bailiffs they found nothing worthwhile to remove from his room.
From then he began to sleep in an abandoned bus in a nearby street. He would go to the river early in the morning and wash himself, then foray for any source of cash, retire to a pool house in the evening and go to bed in his newly found apartment. He had a little bundle of clothes and other things tucked away in a corner of the bus. For many weeks he would not see his wife and children.
One night he was woken up by a strange sound coming from very close by. It was like the sound of a drone. He sat up, petrified. The night was dark and threatening. When he turned, he saw a column of men in white robes wrapped over their shoulders down to their knees. They were in a procession to the river. Their chant was the sound he had heard. He guessed it could be 2 or 3 am. He lowered himself in the bus as best he could but maintained his focus on the procession. Faintly, he saw a part of the procession come into view, and they were carrying something laid on two polls, held at each end by two men, the way corpses were sometimes carried when a coffin was not needed. He could see that the men were struggling with the burden. Other men came behind carrying different objects he could not identify. Strangely, there was no single light to guard them. He realized instantly that he was watching a cult in a ritual procession. Slowly, he began to shiver until the last set in the procession disappeared. He fled from the scene. He ran blindly until he was halted by the barking of a gun somewhere ahead of him. He flew into the most promising cover he could see: a wooden stall with half of the roof in the air. There he took cover until the first hints of dawn. That was when he took the decision to join his wife and children in his mother-in-law’s. He knew he was in for regular humiliation, but he made up his mind to brace it. In summary he became like a houseboy, one whose presence was a constant source of irritation to the old woman.
This morning the sun had risen early with vengeful inclination. The old woman’s complaint of having a whole family to feed in his old age had roused him from his slumber. If he were in his own house, he would have given himself a good rest, having gone to bed late. These days he helped his mother-in-law to mix her own version of palm wine, and this was done late in the night when there were no prying eyes. She told customers at her palm wine bar that she got her palm wine fresh from palm wine tappers from the interior, but it was actually a mixture of chemicals. Despite his effort, the old woman was never pleased. His wife was her mother’s saleswoman at the bar. The woman had driven the former saleswoman away when her daughter returned to live with her. Her argument was that her daughter should earn her feeding. The children also did some chores in the bar, such as washing the glasses. Of course, the old woman insisted on supervising the place with trying geriatric insolence, pointing at a task here and there and complaining that an object had been kept in a wrong place or positioned wrongly.
As he stared into the space ahead of him, he realized that the previous day was his 49th birthday. The fact presented nothing but disappointment. Coming from a remote village in the Niger Delta area, he had struggled through education until he was twenty-three years old when he managed to pass his School Certificate Examination, but he never got any job with it because he fell in love with the rubber business that became a thriving occupation at a time. He made money and became a bread winner in his father’s household in place of his ailing father. Just before he was twenty-seven, some boys came to the village from Lagos and struck a deal for the supply of rubber to their overseas agent. They provided documents to convince him, and he fell in. He borrowed money to buy enough for export, as they told him, and he was supposed to be paid at an office in Warri, a big town close to his village. He had been taken to the office and introduced to the Managing Director, but he was to find out later that the office was just a general clearing point and that there was no Managing Director. He got information that the boys were from Lagos, and he decided to go in search of them with the addresses suggested to him. He never found them, but he didn’t return home. He found a fellow school mate to squat with and began to sell petty things at a motor park. Years later he made enough to rent a room and began to live like a city dweller.
Recalling the past, his encounter with his wife when he was already in his thirties, the children, the ups and downs – he shook his head mournfully.
‘What is wrong with that man today?’ This came from his mother-in-law who was walking towards him. ‘So, you’re just realizing that you have been a baggage and nothing more?’ She scanned the compound and saw the sands Sam had swept up, they looked like tiny heaps. She waved her shriveling hand over the place in mockery. What are these sands for? Do you want to plant yams in them? So you cannot even do the slightest task well?’ She stared at him with mock amazement and then began to call her daughter to come out and have a look at the mess her ‘useless husband’ had raked up.
His wife came out, already dressed for her duties at the palm wine bar. She had recently begun to look better: as fleshy as she used to be when he first met her years back. In addition, she wore very good clothes these days. He wondered whether she had started pilfering from her mother’s business. The possibility didn’t trouble him a bit; the woman deserved any pay-back her daughter could devise.
‘What have you been doing, Papa Faith?’ His wife asked, calling him by their daughter’s name.
‘What do you see me doing,’ he asked, almost absent-mindedly. It was very rare to catch husband and wife quarreling, but at present Sam’s wife looked like she was willing to pick a fight. Her mother walked away from the scene, smacking her palms in ridicule.
‘Papa Faith, I ‘m now ashamed of you; you have really become useless as mummy always say. If you cannot even sweep a small compound like this clean, then what can you do?’
This tirade from his wife caught Sam unawares. She was directly insulting him for the first time since they got married. Her words, especially the reference to being useless, stung him.
‘I can’t believe this is coming from you, Maggie.’
‘Why shouldn’t it come from me? Who else has been suffering the shame of your uselessness? Imagine you living with your wife and children under the roof of your mother-in-law – if no one else has told you, I should. After all, no one would say I’ve not been patient enough.’
He was truly stunned. ‘Maggie, I can’t believe that this is coming from you,’ he repeated. ‘So you have joined those who mock me? Was it my fault that things have turned out this way, Maggie? Did I not provide for you when I was able to?’
She stared disdainfully at him for a long time before she turned and walked away with a loud serpentine hiss.
The children who were witnessing that kind of spectacle between their parents for the first time were perplexed. The oldest of the three and only female walked up to Sam and pleaded with him to forgive their mother. She sat beside her father, her arms around him, clearly feeling the pain. The older boy, aged nine, took the broom from his father while the other boy, aged seven, began to scoop sand into an empty tin.
‘Don’t worry, dad, you’d be all right,’ Faith said, just as her father’s eyes became wet with grief.
Moments later he walked out of the house, trying to clear the sogginess in his head. Things had finally come to a head, given the new development. If his own wife also considered him useless, what else was left of his pride as a family head? He was too immersed in his thoughts to notice that someone by a car was waving at him. When he finally took notice, he realized it was Barrister Kemo.
‘I’ve only come to remind you that the Supreme Court judgement is tomorrow. Be at the court by 8 am. You have nothing else to do; we’re going to hear the verdict.’
‘I’ve lo-st in-ter-est in the case, lawyer. Thank you for all your assistance,’ he stammered out.
Kemo smiled and patted him on the shoulders. ‘Easy man, I can see that you’ve probably just had a confrontation or something like that. But tomorrow could probably turn the wheels and change your life forever.’ He saw the wry smile on Sam’s face. ‘Well, I choose to be optimistic, and – in any case – one more day at the court won’t kill you.’
‘No, it will poison my blood. I am tired of it all,’ Sam insisted.
‘Too late to turn back, sir. You have run a good race, and you must persist until you breast the tape. Please, whatever happens, make sure you’re at the court tomorrow. My mission is done.’ He lowered himself into his car and slid away. Consoling people was not part of Kemo’s virtues.
Curiously, strength flowed from the lawyer’s last words. He picked himself up and strode towards a bar where he knew he would find one or two of his friends.
Later in the evening as he turned a corner, heading to his mother-in-law’s palm wine bar, he caught a glimpse of his wife entering a Toyota Camry car. It took some time before he could connect with the situation. Fired by a surge of inner will, he ran towards the car, shouting at the driver to stop, but he sped off. His mother-in-law stood defiantly at the door of the bar, daring him to challenge her.
‘So, this was the whole essence of bringing my wife to this place?’
‘If you were man enough you could have kept her under your roof …’
‘But that was where she was when you came for her.’
The old woman ignored him and bent over her task. The discovery disconcerted him, and he stared in agony at the space which his mother-in-law had receded into.
The younger boy went up to him and said, ‘That man had been coming here every evening.’ He said it as if it was a special knowledge he had kept to himself, but from the look of things, it was apparent that the other children were privy to the knowledge. He marched out of the bar the way he had come.
At the court the following day there was no friend or relation to sit by him. Even the courtroom was scanty. It was obviously not a high profile case, but the required number of judges were present. When the presiding judge entered, Sam recognized the man immediately. As the judge scanned the courtroom in his half-moon glasses, Sam felt very uncomfortable. Even though he had lost optimism long before that time, he still became apprehensive. Honourable Justice Yusuf Kabo was the same judge who slammed a 25 year jail term on an ex-governor for defrauding the state while in power.
After the preliminaries, Justice Kabo presented a short history of the case and expressed chagrin at the undignified conditions Nigerians were being subjected to by factory owners. He said all unwholesome industrial practices must stop, and he granted Sam’s prayers for compensation. The company would pay him thirty-two million naira (N32 million).
Sam returned from the court that afternoon a different man. His emaciated body seemed to have acquired more flesh to cover his pot belly, and his feet had assumed stronger strides. The Toyota Camry was parked outside the bar. He walked in brazenly, saw his wife sitting on the laps of a man, and she made no move to get up when she saw him. Sam called out his children and said, ‘We’re moving out of here for good, and we’re going to a new place of comfort and dignity. Now, let’s go.’
The children filed after him, trying to keep pace with their father. Sam knew that his mother-in-law and the other two people they had left in the bar were staring at them as they went. He knew also that they would soon find out that he was no longer useless.