Lonely Roads – Previous Episodes: Prologue, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Lonely Roads 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, Chapter 13, Chapter 14
Afam tried hard to conceal his worries but Chibuzo easily saw through him. He wondered what Afam must have done to make someone do this to him in the village. Chibuzo had heard Afam’s story when he was only a child. Afam was a child at the time too. Every man in Aboh talked about the osu that returned to the village with a child in those days. Chibuzo knew people tried to stay as far away as possible from osus, so why did someone take the time to batter Afam like this and bring him here? He tried to believe it was a mistake but he couldn’t get himself to accept that. The look on Afam’s face told him something was not right.
‘How long have you been here?’ Afam asked. Chibuzo understood every word but he didn’t know the answer to the question. He had been here for over ten days and he had lost count somewhere along the line. He guessed it was between ten and fifteen and told Afam so with his fingers. Afam wondered what staying here for a week would feel like. He didn’t want to think of it so he put it off. The truth was that the next time he was going to be let out it would be to sell him to the oyibo. Afam tried to compare and choose between life in this hell-hole and life in servitude. It was a hard decision to make.
Chibuzo noticed the cloud over Afam. It was a mixture of fears, regrets, and a lot of sorrow. Afam had more questions but his mind was so troubled that he began to forget quickly, and when he tried to speak his mouth went dry and the words seemed to disappear before he could voice them. He felt several hard thumps in his heart and got so lightheaded he feared that he might faint at any moment. The fear he felt drained his body of energy and almost involuntarily he sat on the floor. Chibuzo wanted to know what it was that had caused his new-found friend so much pain. He wanted to see the world Afam lived in, and he wanted to help him.
The truth about Chibuzo’s soft heart had nothing to do with his being a naturally good man. In fact it was the opposite. Chibuzo was everything evil could be. He was a thief, a rapist, a murderer, and many other things. He truly believed he deserved everything he was getting and even more. It was on his third day in the pit that he found what he now thought to be god. All his life Chibuzo, whose name means ‘god is first’ had always put the gods last, or didn’t even consider them at all. His father was a disgrace and his mother left him with the guilt of dying at childbirth and taking with her his speech. He cursed the gods for all his misfortunes and to spite them he threw his life into everything evil he could find. He was wanted in several villages for different crimes, including burning a shrine.
Chibuzo grew up in isolation even though he wasn’t an osu. When he was younger the other children wouldn’t play with him because they couldn’t understand him when he spoke. He grew up to hate everyone and everything around him, which destroyed every sense of right and wrong for him. He perpetuated terrible crimes but he slept like a baby. He had no fear of ghosts and spirits. As far as he could tell there were no such things as gods or spirituality. In fact if there was a god, it was he who was the god. But all that changed when he got thrown into this pit.
On the third night Chibuzo had thought through his life and seen so many things he had been blind to. He couldn’t name a single person who loved him, neither could he name a single person he loved. No one outside the pit was going to miss him. This discovery hurt him so much because he felt as if he didn’t really exist. He was more or less like the spirits he had no regard for. He had walked in anger all his life, now he was realizing that each step with anger was a backward one.
That night he slept and in his dreams he was disturbed by the spirits of men, women, and even children. Some of the faces he could remember, some he couldn’t put a name or place to. He woke up in a cold sweat and whether they were imaginary or real, he heard voices in his head. He heard screams and cries, and then he heard a voice that though he had never heard it before, he could tell it was his mother speaking to him. He could not remember the words she spoke, but it left him with more fear than he knew existed.
Chibuzo couldn’t shut his eyes in the nights that followed. He feared so much that he didn’t even want to blink. He began to see things. He wasn’t sure if these were really ghosts haunting him, or if they were nothing but figments of his own imagination conjured by this uncontrollable fear that possessed him. But did it really matter if he was going crazy or if he was really being haunted? The fear was real and he could feel it in his soul. He recalled nights when he did things he now recognised to be evil and wrong. He felt like all these years the gods had set a cup for him, and it was a big cup indeed. With every evil deed they filled it with blood and now it was full and overflowing. The gods had to empty the cup and the only way to do that was to pour all that blood over his head. Chibuzo was trying to do something to change the minds of the gods. He wasn’t hoping not to face punishment. He was only hoping to minimise his suffering. He decided that he would try rewriting his bad deeds by writing good ones. He started by fasting and giving food to those less able to obtain it in the pit. Hunger was breaking him but the thought of the sacrifice allowed him to shut his eyes at night. It took some effort for him to drift into sleep and even when he managed it, he was disturbed by constant nightmares.
Afam of course didn’t know anything about Chibuzo’s past. As far as he knew, Chibuzo was a kind-hearted stranger. He was probably here because he couldn’t speak well enough to tell his captors he was from Aboh – what a shame. Chibuzo felt good to have someone in the world that saw him in some light. He decided not to let Afam into this dark past because he feared that it would change Afam’s perception of him. There was no man on earth, dead or alive, whom he could call a friend. The promise of Afam becoming a friend filled him with joy. Even though Chibuzo didn’t recognise it, the fact that Afam’s life was troubled like his somehow bonded them in a special way.
Afam didn’t speak for a while as he gathered some strength and controlled his breathing. Chibuzo stood and watched without saying a word. What was he supposed to say? He imagined having to tell Afam about his problems. He couldn’t even find the words he’d use in his imagination. Where was he going to start? How far would he go? And where would he stop? He didn’t have the answer to any of these questions. He was not willing or ready to share. Chibuzo figured the case with Afam was more or less the same as with him. If people wanted their problems to be known, they would speak of them. He had just met Afam, they were strangers to each other. There were no grounds for them to share secrets. He believed with time they would grow closer and then Afam would trust him enough to let him into his world. He wondered if there would ever be a time when he would be able to share his secrets in return. At the moment it was impossible to imagine. The things he had done were better locked away, buried forever.
Time moved at snail’s speed in the pit. The only thing you could do in a place like this was think. Mostly, people depended on memories to help them pass the time. Some occupied their minds with friends and family they had left behind. It brought grief to them, but it also strengthened them. The optimistic few thought through escape schemes for the thousandth time and still weren’t wise enough to know their thinking was in vain.
For Afam it was a bit of everything. He noticed from the once lit holes in the thatched roof that it was now night. The pains were now fading but not yet gone. He was still too weak to fight for a spot but Chibuzo offered him sleeping space. Afam refused it.
‘It is very kind of you. But where would you sleep if I lay on your patch?’
For a brief moment Chibuzo wanted to tell Afam the truth about his nights. He wanted to tell Afam that he hardly slept, and when he did, it was short and horrible. He knew it would bring questions that he wasn’t willing to answer so he avoided speaking of it. Instead he came up with another excuse to be helpful.
‘You need sleep more, you hurt, I fine.’ Chibuzo beat his chest to make the message clearer. Afam wasn’t sure he would ever be able to pay Chibuzo back for all his kindness. He smiled weakly and thanked him. Chibuzo didn’t seem to appreciate the thanks very much. The truth was that Chibuzo wasn’t yet feeling fulfilled. He felt like he was still a bad person, he was still selfish. He wasn’t offering his sleeping space because he genuinely felt pity for Afam. He did it hoping that the gods would see him and bless him for it. He was still trying to save his own skin. The motive behind his actions was still the same: selfishness.
All these things Chibuzo recognised and acknowledged. He just tried to believe that a time would come when as evil was once a part of him, good would become a part of him. It would be embedded in his mind and his instincts. He walked to the wall and leaned on it. He tried to think more about his life and where it was going. Could people really change, or were we what we were the moment we were born and could never be anything else, no matter how hard we tried? Chibuzo couldn’t remember where he heard a saying that people do not change, only circumstances change and people adapt. Was that what was happening to him? If he were a free man would he have realised the wrongs in his ways? And would he make an effort to turn away from evil? He questioned whether it was not just the circumstances that were now directing his actions. Deep inside, he still felt like the same man. He imagined that if he sniffed his fingers hard enough he would smell the blood of his victims, if he listened intently enough he would hear their screams, and if he looked closely enough he would see their faces. Perhaps there was no amount of good deeds that would turn his past around. It was what it was and he would never be able to change a single thing. He could spend the rest of his life blameless of sin but he would still be a sinner.
At this point Chibuzo decided to try as hard as possible to walk a morally right path. Perhaps after so many years of living in evil the least he could do was try and walk a righteous path for the rest of his days. He realised that it would be difficult, there would be temptations. It was a lot easier to be evil than to be good, but he was willing to try. For the first time in his life as far as he could remember, he closed his eyes and spoke to something he imagined was a god. Chibuzo said a prayer. He didn’t pray for forgiveness, he didn’t pray for protection. He believed he didn’t deserve any of that so he didn’t ask. Instead, he asked for strength to fight temptations, he asked for the strength to endure the punishment he would be receiving. And then lastly, to his own amazement, he asked that the gods to help Afam and everyone else in the pit for they were about to face hard times. This was the first act Chibuzo considered not selfish and he felt more fulfilled than he could imagine. After the prayer he watched Afam closely. Afam lay motionless on the floor but he was not sleeping. His eyes were wide open in the darkness and Chibuzo could tell that his mind was wandering around strange corners. He really wanted to know Afam and his story. He felt that in knowing Afam’s story he would find it in him to tell Afam his own story in return. Chibuzo knew he couldn’t walk around for the rest of his life with all this guilt on his mind. He believed that in sharing the story and receiving sympathy, even if he felt he didn’t deserve it, the weight on his shoulders was going to be reduced. All at the right time – that was what Chibuzo told himself before taking his mind off everything around him and trying to get some rest. Who knows if he’ll need the energy before morning? Who even knows if he will live to see another morning? Chibuzo closed his eyes and fell into a light but dreamless sleep.
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