“A proud heart can survive general failure because such a failure does not prick its pride. It is more difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone” – Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart)
The sun slowly drowned across the horizon, throwing violent streaks of light across the sky as though trying to raise an alarm. The clouds absorbed them gently, as would a mother cradling her dying child, creating a vaguely pink and purple vista; a natural spoken euphemism for the death of a king across the evening sky.
Uduak walked slowly along the bush path that was his way home, flanked on both sides by lush, green bush as he pulled the wheelbarrow that carried his battered oil drums with some difficulty. He did not pay attention to the sun’s familiar predicament overhead or to the cries of the early evening crickets all around him. His simple white vest and Ankara-print trousers provided as much insulation as he needed from the cool evening breeze; the air was still saturated with heat from the afternoon reign of the drowning sun. As he approached the village, he semi-consciously slowed his pace, as though retarded by some invisible force.
I’m asymptotically tending towards home, he thought with a small smile that quickly crumbled away leaving the ruins of a depressed frown on his face. Words are potentially pernicious things, even the seemingly benign ones. This word, ‘asymptotically’ had triggered a flood of bitter memories; memories of the days when he had been at the top of his class in Mathematics. Physics and chemistry as well. Those days were now far behind him and remembering only brought him pain. Memories of earlier success tend to leave an unsavoury aftertaste in the wake of dreams that had never been and would never be; the vile, bitter draught of unfulfilled potential.
Uduak dry-swallowed and shook his head as he forced his mind away from bitterness and allowed it examine the reason for his slowing approach to home where his wife and daughter awaited him. Affiong – his brother-in-law – was coming home today. He was probably already there by now and in all likelihood, had the entire village gathered around, their jaws descended in amazement at whatever new tale he would have chosen to regale them with this time. Affiong always told great stories, even if they were, as Uduak suspected, embellished generously. Uduak still remembered fragments of Affiong’s lavish anecdotes from the days he yet had the patience to endure them. Stories set in Accra and Lagos where day light was but a minor illumination compared to the dazzling lightshows of the night. Tales of beautiful streets and buildings decorated with light. Light from Kawashida power cells.
Uduak cursed that name – Kawashida. He spat as it wrangled its way into his consciousness.The cells were invented by Dr. Dai Kawashida of the ShinChi Technology Company in Tokyo towards the end of 2019 – everyone knew that, including Uduak. What only a few people knew was that the cells were biological.
By splicing the genes of electric eels with those of genetically modified bacteria and infusing the hybrid with a cocktail of high cell density, enhanced reproduction genes, Dai Kawashida had created a living, breathing, carbon dioxide-consuming, seemingly endless supply of electrical energy for the planet. Clean, organic, easy to obtain, feed and grow, Kawashida cell technology quickly made its way around the developed world shrouded in secrecy and defended by a slew of ShinChi Tech Co. lawyers and the latent but obvious military backing of the Japanese government.
The developed nations had quickly bought into the technology, paying ShinChi astronomical amounts of money to be free of the death-grip OPEC had on their collective testicles. When Oil prices fell from two hundred and three dollars per barrel to twelve in less than a year, OPEC and all the other oil producing nations started to panic. There was nothing they could do, the future was unstoppable.
Within five short years of deployment, Kawashida technology had changed the world in what was, by historic standards, the blink of an eye and for what many believed was the better. However, for Uduak and his small world, in Opolo, a tiny village on the outskirts of Eket in Nigeria’s impoverished and oil-rich Niger-Delta, this change had delivered a death-blow to hundreds of dreams and aspirations.
The oil industry, besides being a source of pollution to and a means for exploitation of the local people had also been the only way to clamber out of life of penury in the village for a relatively bright young Opolo child with a dream and some measure of talent.
With the coming of Kawashida, the oil wells were shut, the money stopped flowing, the scholarships were withdrawn, the facilities were abandoned and while the big cities moved on with the changing technology, everyone forgot the small villages that had once vomited their oil for the world’s consumption. For Uduak, the world ended. His dreams had drowned in the future.
Uduak ground his teeth bitterly and adjusted his grip on the wheelbarrow as he stumbled across the village boundary and out of the bush path. Kawashida was the only reason Affiong could come to the village every so often and mock him despite being only a factory hand at the Kawashida assembly factory in Accra. In the early days, Uduak had considered going to work there himself, but pride and deeply-rooted resentment would not let him entertain the thought for long. That resentment had grown, become a great, green sinewy mass of bitterness and hate that had clawed its way into his heart and fused itself with his soul. Now, even the thought of working at a Kawashida plant made his skin crawl. He’d spent many moments thinking of ways to reignite the bright, burning future he had once dreamed of for himself.
It was in one of those moments that he had decided to build something that would serve as a living tombstone for his dead aspirations and mordantly scorn Kawashida in the one place where it mattered most to him. He’d decided to build a crude-oil refinery for the village.
He needed matches.
Uduak snapped out of his pseudo-reverie as the village square became a faint dot on the edge of his view. Slow pace or not, he would be home soon and he would need matches to start the fired heater for his crude distillation chamber. If he managed to run it stably for about an hour, he would be able to produce enough fuel to run the old Mikano generator for perhaps a week or two. That would restore some of the village’s rapidly eroding faith in him. He had been going back and forth from the old abandoned Exxon facility for two days, siphoning crude oil from one of the abandoned oil wells he had managed to partially reopen and now he had enough of the stuff to distil.
He tried to remember where he left his last box of matches as he picked up his pace, the wonky wheelbarrow and its cargo trailing him. Turning off the main path that led to the village square, he walked onto the rarely-used footpath that snaked past the old burial ground, avoiding the village centre.
He did not want to see Affiong just yet.
Mbono had been crying for ten minutes and the shrill sound of her voice pierced through his semi-consciousness, slowly chipping away at his sanity. Uduak turned over restlessly, settling on his left side; a mistake that brought him face-to-face with his wife, Ndifreke. She was glaring at him brutally with well-fermented disdain that fizzed and frothed around her narrowed eyes, threatening to spill out onto the rim of her curled up nose. Her face radiated contempt. He was tempted to look away but he only shut his eyes instead.
“Enye mi. Useless man.” She muttered under her breath as she sat up on their bed and adjusted the wrapper that was trying to abandon her ample bosom.
Uduak felt a chill run up his spine. It was about to begin. Again.
“Unen! Go and comfort your daughter, she is crying. Shebi you know everything?”
Uduak kept his eyelids shut, hoping she would tire quickly, give up, stop hurling insults at him and go see to their wailing daughter whose cries were still tormenting him.
“Mosquitoes and heat will soon kill her. Go and help her. Are you not the one building the distillation something…that is not working? No fuel for the generator. No money to buy Kawashida cell. Useless man.”
Ndifreke pronounced Kawashida with an affected nasal tinge, making the name sound even more irritating to Uduak. He felt a red, persistent throbbing at the base of his skull and finally turned his back to her. She was getting worked up. Her words were more spiteful than usual. They were eating into his soul like acid through flesh, saturating his spirit with the acrid smell of dream-residue, disappointment and failure. He felt himself grow weary.
“We are suffering o! Ehn. We are suffering! You want to be a local village champion eh? Nobody even needs your rubbish thing again; the elders have agreed today to sell the Mikano generator and buy a tokunbo Kawishda cell. Affiong is helping us to arrange it. Be there with your disti-nonsense. Mscheeww!”
She let out a loud, venomous hiss. He groaned as she climbed out of the bed to go and tend to their wailing daughter.
“I’m taking Mbono to my mother’s house to sleep. Affiong brought one small mobile Kawashida cell for mummy. Very soon, nobody will need your distillation nonsense again.”
And with that, she left the room, her footsteps echoing through the house. Uduak felt unstable, he felt many emotions all at once and was unsure what to do with them all. He pressed his eyelids closer together, causing small motes of red light to appear somewhere in his consciousness. The motes flitted about randomly like dust in Brownian motion, whizzing about almost in tune to the pounding of the headache he now had. He lay there for almost fifteen minutes, his head throbbing, until he thought he heard something snap and the motes disappeared with the suddenness of a conjurers trick.
A deathly smile cut its way across his face. He was not sure why but he was happy all of a sudden. Ecstatic even. He leapt up from the mattress laughing manically and made his way to their kitchen to look for a knife and some matches.
“Fire! Fire!! Fire!!!”
The voice was male, guttural and considerably unnerving to all who heard it. They came out of their red-brick and thatch-roof houses slowly, most of them not fully free of sleep. That was, at least until they saw the growing tower of flame in the distance and were instantly freed of their slumber-shackles. The fire looked like a bright orange subsisting on a metal tree.
Everyone knew the place that was engulfed in flames. Everyone was familiar with “Crazy Uduak’s” distillation tower on the North-west edge of the village just beside the polluted Opo River whose surface still reflected tiny rainbows in daylight. They collectively marvelled at the sight of the fire, a growing accumulation of men in torn vests and trousers and women wrapped in colourful Ankara cloth under the full glare of an attentive Nigerian moon.
“Water o! We need water!” came an appeal from the centre of the growing crowd but no one made any significant move towards the growing beast of heat and light. They were all entranced by the dance of the fire as it snaked its around the crude metal and wood construct, drinking the oil for sustenance as it ate the roughly constructed structure.
“Look up o! There is somebody there!” the voice that had raised the initial alarm said, trembling. Someone recognized it as Affiong’s. The entire village looked up and became mesmerized by the event that was playing out atop the crude fired heater, near the bottom of the tower as the flames gingerly approached the stage.
Uduak was standing there, looking into the inferno that had spread from the main crude oil tank. The entire village instinctively knew he had started the fire. He held a bundle in his hands; no one could clearly see what it was in the orange and grey shroud of fire and smoke. He was pacing along the edge of the heater, overlooking the tank as though trying to come to a conclusion regarding some difficult decision.
Suddenly, Ndifreke staggered out of their house, her legs barely carrying her as she stumbled several paces towards the crowd, and screamed her daughter’s name before collapsing onto the dirt. Thick, crimson blood flowed enthusiastically from the dozens of cuts and stabs wounds that decorated her body.
The crowd was now split in two, unsure which of the two unfolding events to focus upon. One of the village elders – an old man wrapped in a thinning piece of white linen – started shouting and making his way towards Ndifreke to see if she could be helped. Affiong, still unsure of what he heard and uncomfortable with the sight of Uduak and the bundle atop the heater, took one step towards his dying sister before the realization hit him. He was still not entirely sure the bundle was Mbono until Uduak dropped it into the burning tank and it let out a familiar wail briefly before being silenced forever by the fire. In that instant, he knew. They all knew.
“Ahhh!!! Abasi o! Mbono! Ye! Ye!”
Affiong burst through the crowd, sprinting towards the fire without thinking or looking where he was going. He was wearing only his shorts and the muscles of his chest, softened by good living, pendulated furiously. He accelerated madly, driven by shock until he tripped over a small mound of sand and fell flat on his face, tears of anger and confusion streaking down his cheeks. As he lay on the floor, he kept wondering why. Why had Uduak done this terrible thing? The tears that ran down his fear were hot and uncomfortable on his face.
He did not get to see Uduak smile a final, mad smile before leaping into the fire to burn with his daughter and his failed legacy as a gentle wind blew from the North-West, saturating the air with the smell of burning flesh, oil and unfulfilled aspirations.
Photo Credit: guardian.co.uk