The Emperor’s Son

The mad men were a common sight in Ibadan in those days. There was the one at New Bodija junction. He directed traffic. Not but a mile away was an authentic traffic warden. It might be assumed, then, that he did not feel it a worthy enterprise to divest the imposter of his authority. And authority it was. Those who did not know the score, who failed to obey the whims of the mad man, they could find themselves the object of a short but vigorous chase. A stone might find its way in the direction of their car. Anything could happen. So people humored him. “Sergeant!” they called him. They paused when he signaled a pause. They moved when he told them to. It was his world and nothing would take that away from him. On bad days, when there was a traffic jam in the area, he was king. It was impossible to whisk by him, to drive away and refute the glory of his madness. And so he terrorized the civilians, walking between cars and challenging their occupants in a language only he could understand. He was a dreadful tyrant and the people had little recourse. It was just the way things were.

You might say that I have had a fascination with madness for quite a while. I always wondered how people became crazy. I always wondered what it was like to be that free. I always wondered how it happened. What did it? An event? Did they just snap one day and become mad? Was it a gradual slide into the dungeon of no return? I eventually figured that it had to be a bit of both. Take uncle Panama, for instance. He went mad that day and beat his girlfriend all around the compound. And he was a Christian. Spirit-filled, as was the norm in those days. Tongue-talking. Whatever it was she did to him must have been that maddening, so to speak. A few occasions the like and a man can lose all inhibitions. Madness can seem a welcoming reality.

Our family friend, Arivwo, she became mad one day. But hers was a result of suffering. She suffered for a very long time. She suffered and struggled every day. She fetched water. She swept the corridors. She washed plates. She washed clothes. She endured the hardships of a school without chalk or competent teachers for one as intelligent and gifted as she. And, when it was time to rest, just an hour or two to relax and gather herself together, she was verbally abused brutally. One day, she would suffer no more. She lost her mind and went crazy. Mrs. Idenre, with him Arivwo stayed, was petrified. Arivwo could not be allowed near her children any longer. It failed to occur to Mrs. Idenre then that her wickedness might have had to do with Arivwo’s mental state. As with everyone else, Mrs. Idenre was a Christian. Spirit-filled. Tongue-talking. And very wicked to those who worked for her. They didn’t actually work for her. They lived with her. They had been brought from the village, that far away place that the schooled knew little about. These were her husband’s relatives, and they symbolized something, it is not clear what, that did not sit right with Mrs. Idenre. Then again, it wasn’t her fault really. The third-world has its way with even the most peaceful. It irritates and gnaws and claws and harms the soul so that no one is not a sinner who has been touched by the chaos of poverty in full bloom.

They sent Arivwo to U.C.H, the University teaching hospital. There she was placed on a regimen of drugs. Anti-psychotics. Mood stabilizers. Sleeping medication. We went to visit her twice. I had seen her when she was mad and I saw her in the hospital. She was still mad in the hospital, as far as I was concerned. I could feel it. The medication just made her too groggy to execute her madness. After her second week incarcerated in the psycho ward, she escaped and found her way back to Mrs. Idenre’s house. Mrs. Idenre was now more alarmed. The suggestion came up that Arivwo was beyond repair. “Aro” was to be her final destination. Aro. The Aro Mental Institute in Abeokuta, run by the legendary Dr. Lambo. He never really cured anyone. No one went to Aro expecting to be cured. But, to be sure, the mad were to be brought to Lambo like lepers to Jesus. They were in good hands with Lambo.

They took Arivwo back to U.C.H. pending her final transfer to Aro. But she escaped again. This time she was intelligent enough not to stroll back into the lion’s den. The story goes that she made it, somehow, to Benin. Like sightings of a resurrected Jesus, people saw Arivwo here and there and everywhere. We do not know, today, where she is. Ask Mrs. Idenre and she will tell you that Arivwo was a witch. That she was possessed and needed deliverance. That it was just as well she disappeared, for she was a danger to herself and everyone else. Yes, yes, perhaps it is true that Arivwo’s madness was cause for concern. But how did she get that way? I asked myself time and time again.

The more popular stories of madness were of students in the university. There was Bankole, who lost his mind during an examination. I suppose the pressure got to him. The kind of thing that happened to him they normally call a nervous breakdown. He just never recovered from his. Today, Bankole remains a stranger to society. Withdrawn into his own world, he has found peace in the enticing arms of the African spirits. They love it, the spirits, when their children come home. Much later in life I was to understand that the spirits did make people crazy. But they never figured, I guess, that there would be those who had the ability to live in their world and the world of humans at the same time. The spirits are a jealous bunch, I should tell you. They want their children all to themselves. To keep them company in eternity. But when one exists who can bring them into the world of humans, they grumble. They label him a magician and do mischievous things so that people think he is evil. They are a strange bunch, the African spirits. But this for another time. This for another time. What I intend to discuss with you, as of now, is that one student who started me off on my journey into the spirit world.

He was one of those, highly intelligent, intellectual, intense, philosophical, and with an appreciation of Guinness Stout that made him normal. His beard was gruff and his intellect raged. This was one of the reasons that the white man was concerned about Africa. This was one of those diamonds in the rough who, if given the space, could make big noise in the world. There were many at the University of Ibadan in those days. They sat down at “Abe-Igi,” the wooden shacks appendaged to the student union building. They debated philosophy and politics till late in the night so that if there ever was any doubt that Africa had the resources to administer its complexity, they were erased.

We don’t know exactly what happened. It was not an exam. He had done well in those. I suspect quite strongly that it was induced by marijuana, his state of mind. But I will explain why, much later. In any event, one evening I was doing the thing that ten year-olds do. I was playing with the neighborhood kids when he walked up to me. He told me that he had been searching for me. He said that he was there to make me the ambassador to Ethiopia. Ambassador to Ethiopia. It was a nice enough gig for a ten-year old, so I accepted. There was little else going for me at the time. I did have a girlfriend, but we had let things slide, Matilda and I. I was no longer in the “happening” group of boys, even if my break-dancing skills still put me in the spotlight from time to time. Yes, ambassador to Ethiopia, it had a nice ring to it.

That evening we had visitors. I don’t know exactly what they said, but it alarmed my father. He told me, later, that something was “wrong” with the fellow; that, as we were wont to say back then, his head was not correct. The chap’s name escapes me at this moment, but I suspect this is unimportant. The next day he came again. He came searching for me, the ambassador to Ethiopia. The fog of childhood is like the fog of war. Times and events dance around and obscure themselves. I do not recall the exact sequence of events, but what is true is that, eventually, he was taken to the university clinic from where the plan was to transport him to Aro. Aro. You remember Aro. Dr. Lambo’s Aro. Where mad people went and never came back. Well, if you guessed that he escaped from the clinic and sought me out again, you guessed right. The mad are resilient when they have their minds set on a thing. I was the thing. What words of wisdom he imparted to me about my duties to come I cannot recall. But he was found, again, and this time Aro had a new occupant. I never saw or heard from him again.

When I began to grow my own dreadlocks mother had a fit. She claimed that it reminded her of one Pastor John from Ghana who had a hold over Mama Lagos, back in the day in Isolo. Pastor John was a Charlatan. He hypnotized the common folk and had a following. Where do they come from, these strange, strange men, who think that their connection to the spirit world is all there is to existence? There are many, and they roamed Ibadan back in the day. I can say this with authority, for more than once I have been found by these prophets. They always bore the weirdest messages for me. “Beware of rats on Mondays. Rub your belly with palm oil on Wednesdays.” Just what on earth was their motivation? It wasn’t money. You couldn’t dupe me even you wanted to. That much was apparent. There were the weak-minded who were seemingly hypnotized and duped by some of these sorts. But those like the dreadlocked Pastor John, they truly believed that they had a connection to a higher power. They believed it so powerfully that they lived and died clinging to those beliefs. We learn from these sorts of people in our journey. Life is so much richer when we do that.

One evening I was chatting with Asata outside the student union. He had, he said, some “bomb weed.” I had tried weed before and it did nothing for me. But I was never one to turn free stuff down. So we strolled and we smoked. I got high for the first time that night. And that was the moment that Ethiopia began to break through.

It is also how I became crazy.

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