“You don’t need a huge bait to trap a large animal,” says a Senegalese proverb.
When I heard that proverb, I remembered grandpa and one crazy white man. Grandpa never went to school but was powerful. You see, grandpa was a medicine man in my small village. All you Nigerians know what I mean by ‘medicine man’. He prescribed ‘medicine’ for his clientele, which included, as we later discovered, lawyers and doctors, government officials, and of course the usual local men and women who shunned hospitals and instead blamed all their ailments and illnesses on curses and evil spirits – a deadly excuse for saving money by visiting a cheap medicine man.
Grandpa’s clients came from the surrounding towns and villages; some prominent personalities came at odd hours in the night to avoid being seen by their friends. A typical session with grandpa would involve a married woman who complained that each time she argued with her husband, she ended up with a beating; she wanted ‘something’ to stop her husband from continuing to beat her. A typical ‘medicine’ from grandpa for such beleaguered woman was a bottle of liquid with an instruction to fill her mouth with it each time she felt the urge to argue and to retain the mouthful until her husband said his piece and had calmed down. This prescription never failed, as we learned when we grew up, for the simple reason that a mouth full of water cannot argue.
My brother and I were in elementary school, still learning to count on our toes and fingers. But we were grandpa’s eyes because whenever he received a letter he would ask us to read it to him; whenever he received payment for his services, he would ask us to count the money for him. For reasons best known to him, grandpa did not trust the better-educated extended family to read his letters. So my brother and I, six and seven years old, were grandpa’s eyes. We did not know the meaning of most of the words in the letters we read to grandpa. We translated to him whatever we thought he wanted to hear. The benefits of being grandpa’s eyes were too many for us to lose by admitting our handicap.
There was this crazy white man stationed in my village. Please don’t ask me what he was doing there; I don’t know and I don’t want to lie to you. All that I remember now is that he was with some oil company. He was a terror. He went round the village at odd hours with his tobacco and cigar in his mouth, spitting all over the place, insulting the elders, and swearing at us the youths. He was famous for sending threatening letters to people. He knew that people were afraid of him and he enjoyed it. Only grandpa was not impressed by his terror, perhaps because grandpa believed in the protective powers of his medicine. The white man stayed a good distance away from our house.
Helpless and afraid to tell him to his face to leave our village, the elders instead wrote petitions to the local government. Of course, he ignored with impunity the summons to appear before the local government officials. At least three times some daredevil group of youths even threatened to burn down his house. Each time he laughed like a madman and dared them to try.
Then one day, the District Officer appointed grandpa Chief of the entire town. It was one of those useless political chieftaincy titles that did not have traditional implications, but nonetheless a very powerful post considering that we had no chief. All the cowardly elders, now with a good excuse to appoint grandpa their warrior, promptly came to our house to request that grandpa, as the chief, ‘do something’ about the white man. What it was they wanted him to do was not clear. They appeared to be deliberately vague so that if grandpa got into trouble they would deny ever telling him to do it. Somehow, their visit and discussion with grandpa reached the white man.
The white man, now doubly scared of grandpa, took the offensive and sent grandpa a threatening letter: “I WILL MAKE YOUR SON AN ORPHAN”, he wrote.
My brother and I were terrified when grandpa asked us to read the letter to him. We were terrified because we actually knew what an ‘orphan’ meant. Our father would be the orphan and grandpa would be dead. Looking at my face, my brother, who thinks faster than I, was able to read my thought: we did not want to upset grandpa and we certainly did not want to lose the benefits of being grandpa’s eyes, dead or alive. Before I could open my mouth, my brother said to grandpa: “The white man wants to make your son a small chief, this word here ‘orphan’ means ‘small chief’”. With a considerable flourish, grandpa danced up and down the compound, happy at the prospect of another title for the family. We were happy too. The entire compound of extended family, without being told what grandpa was celebrating, burst into applause as he danced. My brother and I went about our business playing around the compound and soon forgot the whole matter.
The next day we returned from school to learn that the white man had escaped from the village in a hurry. We were puzzled. The entire village was puzzled.
We discovered that earlier that morning, grandpa had sent messengers carrying yams and chicken to the white man’s house to thank him for his letter and to invite him to our house for celebration. The messengers, after delivering grandpa’s message, had seen the white man jump out the window running and shouting: “WHAT A STRANGE GROUP OF NEGROES. I PROPOSE TO KILL A MAN AND HE INVITES ME FOR A CELEBRATION …PROBABLY PLANNING TO MURDER ME….”
My brother and I burst into such a roaring laughter that even today I can still picture myself standing in front of our house, holding my brother’s shoulder, and laughing like a madman…My gratitude goes to Senegal for triggering my recollection of a story that proves that indeed “you don’t need a huge bait to trap a large animal”.