The visiting Indians and our parents and teachers had waited for five hours for Ara. Ara, the school headmaster, was to present a speech to welcome the Indian diplomats and officially accept their donation of 300 science books.
It is true that here in our land timeliness is a worthless quality and lateness to ceremonies is a dignified virtue worthy of admiration. It is true that no self-respecting citizen makes the mistake of arriving on time for scheduled events. But five hours late? Alarmed by his tardiness, the teachers sent the student leader and I to Ara’s house.
We knew, as soon as we saw him on the street near his house, that Ara had gone koko, insane, mad, demented, out of his mind.
We knew that he was mad because he went from house to house demanding that someone give him a penny. No one would give the revered headmaster just a penny. But each time the puzzled residents offered him any currency denomination that was larger than a penny, he would rain insults at them, spit on the money or grab and throw it to the ground, and then rush off to the next house to ask for a penny.
We knew that he was demented because, between the houses where he begged for pennies, he kept giggling and dancing without the benefit of music, giggling some more and talking to his “papa” without the benefit of his papa who, everyone knew, had been dead for ten years.
We followed him from house to house and he kept moving as if we never existed. As the townsfolk quickly spread the news that something was wrong with the headmaster, a crowd of mostly children and women joined us and followed Ara while he begged for pennies. With youthful naivety we kept looking for an opportunity to remind him that he was late for the ceremony at the school. But he would not even acknowledge our presence. The crowd, to him, did not exist.
Since the elders in our land claimed access to the spiritual causes of physical events, and since they, naturally, suspected that the spirits were offended, and since they said, in proverb, that adults were charged with vigilance where children were likely to mistake vultures for hawks, they, the elders, went in search of the thing needed to pacify the spirits. They came, that evening, to see my grandpa, the diviner.
The elders, through my venerable grandpa, naturally discovered both the cause and the cure. Grandpa confirmed the popularly feared connection between Ara’s madness and the visiting Indians. But the connection was not the one that the townsfolk had suspected. The madness was not a manifestation of the anger of the gods for any failures of the villagers. No. It was not even a visitation of anger to chastise them for welcoming the Indians. No, the matter was simpler than that: the villagers allowed Indians to burn some incense at the school! But wait, no one in Ananta had been aware that the Indians had burned incense at the school. And what, anyway, was wrong with burning incense at a school? Besides, if no one had been aware that the Indians had burned some incense, why were the villagers not exonerated in the eyes of the gods? Well, said Grandpa, it was not important to know what was wrong with burning incense at the school; the gods were angry, period; and did the proverb not state that vigilance was required of the elders whenever children were likely to catch vultures mistaking them for hawks?
What then was the cure, the elders asked? Well, said Grandpa, the gods needed a human child. And before they, the elders, ran in different directions, shielding their children, he, Grandpa, would like to inform them that the gods did not mean a human sacrifice. No, they meant a child who would be dedicated to the school in atonement; and who would thenceforth become a property of the school. No.No.No – the child would not be offered to, nor live at, the school. Such a dedication was only to assuage the angers of the gods immediately and bring a cessation to Ara’s madness.
The elders were certain that Grandpa the diviner, from his tone and gestures, was asking them to volunteer one of their children for the dedication. He waited for their response. Suddenly, the men felt the room temperature move from normal to chilly to hot. They shifted uncomfortably in their seats. They shifted because, as we say in Igboland, a man does not sit still when the doctor to whom he went to cure the redness in his eyes is instead applying red pepper to his eyes.
Their anxiety rising, they promised Grandpa that they would return to see him soon. They wanted, they said, to first conduct a thorough search for an appropriate child. But they did not fool my grandpa. As they left grandpa, a discordant sensation descended upon them; each man wondered what excuse to give the others for not volunteering his own child for grandpa’s proposed dedication. At the door, I overheard one of the elders whisper to another that my gandpa himself was mad.
The next day, the Indians took Ara to the hospital, where he remained, still mad, still singing, still giggling, still asking for pennies, until his last day on earth six months later.