A Novel Written by Kolade Segun-Okeowo (KSO)
ONIGBA-IWOFA VILLAGE, SOUTH WEST NIGERIA….1985
A loud scream from the first of the children to receive the inoculation syringe was all it took to send the others into a deafening crescendo of wailing. One of the children, a six year old, broke violently from the mother’s hands and dashed into one of the houses in the village as another cursed in the names of the gods to the heavens.
A baby strapped to her mothers back suddenly woke from her deep sleep, apparently disturbed by the unexpected and uncoordinated music of wailings from her mates. As if prompted by a music conductor, she joined the ‘band of wailing musicians’ her voice tending to overshadow the other older ‘musicians’. The noise rent the whole village square where the inoculation exercise was taking place.
Two days earlier, when the news of the inoculation exercise by Health Officials from the city got to Onigba-Iwofa, the villagers could not hide their fears.
“Needles? In human bodies?” some wondered.
“Over my dead body!” Alade, a local drunkard boasted to his mates over a calabash of palm wine.
“Me? How can I allow one small girl who calls herself a nurse or whatever to prick my buttocks with needles in the name of inoculation! Inoculation my feet!”
The crier who went round to the village to announce the coming of the Health Officials had a hard time trying to explain to the villagers what the whole exercise is all about. It was true a strange epidemic had broken out in the village, but no one could understand why Folagbade the King would not listen to the counsel of the elders that the gods are angry. Why calling Health Inspectors to come and inject people with needles instead of making sacrifices.
“Sometimes I find it difficult to understand all these book people” said Agbaakin one of the leading elders in the village. “Folagbade will never understand until the whole village is destroyed by this epidemic….”
“The moment we decided to make a retired Court Clerk the King of this village I knew we were courting trouble!” Agaga, the village head-hunter shouted fuming with anger. “A position of valour is not for childish minds”
He had opposed strongly the choice of Folagbade as the King. He had always held the opinion that educated people are only good for the kind of life they live in the city not in the village.
“One seeks a person with a prominent back as suitor for one’s daughter, and the humpback presents himself; who spoke of a protruding back?” Agaga continued still on his feet fuming more than when he started his speech. “Folagbade had worked with the white men for twenty years before they left this country”
“For another seventeen years after the white men left, Folagbade worked with the government…so what do you expect from a man like that… ehn to come back and bow down and respect the same gods the white men had insulted in his presence for thirty and seven years?, I maintain, we have made a terrible mistake of choosing Folagbade as the King of this village, we had better start from there; when trees fall on one another, the topmost is better attended to first.”
“Are you suggesting we remove Folagbade from the throne of his fathers?” Retorted Agbeja, the head of the masquerade cult, his eyes bulging red with anger.
“Broken calabash can be mended but not a broken dish…years of rainfall cannot wash off the spots on the leopard’s skin” said Agaga.
“Agaga you have taken too much wine today!” Sagbua shouted shaking his fist at the village head-hunter…before long; more fists were already shaking throwing in accusations and counter accusations.
The village square, venue of the meeting soon became covered in a snow of dust rising from the angry heels of village elders trying to resolve the crisis at hand only to brew more.
By the time the Health Officials arrived two days later, half of the villagers have decided never to receive any ‘strange needle’ not approved by the gods! Agbaakin and Agaga removed their families from the village and took refuge in nearby Aponbiede.
“I refuse to be contaminated” Agaga had told his senior wife beating his chest over a meal of pounded yam. “If only the King would listen to us and consult the gods, the epidemic will disappear within three days.”
“…but why not allow the health officials to come and do whatever they wish to do then when they fail, we shall all see and the King will have no choice than to listen to your wise counsel” pleaded Agaga’s wife on her knees with her appealing eyes.
Agaga stopped eating; he stared at the woman menacingly. Too scared to look back, the woman quickly turned her stare to the ground. Then the words came rolling like an erupting volcano!
“So! They sent you to go and appeal to me?
Scared and confused, the woman quickly raised her eyes to start a defense, but another volcanic eruption stopped her.
“Quiet! …. I am yet to understand why you women are easily bought over by mere words! Hear me woman….! No one in this household of mine will take that strange needle. Tomorrow at dawn, we leave for Aponbiede”
When the Health officials arrived, Oba Folagbade the village King personally took them around in their mobilization van released by the Local Council Authority for the exercise.
With the mobile public address system, the villagers were ushered to the village square and the exercise started… and the wailings began… to continue for seven days!
For seven days, the inoculation continued. Hundreds of the villagers received the strange needle. On the seventh day, the health officials set to leave. The Chief Health Inspector in the Local Council came with the vehicle to pick his staff, the five health officials – three men and two ladies.
“So how did it go?” asked the Inspector with smiles. The Health Officials were already beaming with smiles as they saw him approaching to meet them. The smiles brought him relief. He had been troubled since he sent the health workers to Onigba-Iwofa seven days ago.
He had only prayed that this mission will be a success. The experience he had in a village in the Eastern part of the country had always haunted him. Two members of his staff were murdered in cold blood by the villagers who mistook their mission in the village.
The villagers had thought they were kidnappers, so they laid an ambush against them and hacked them into pieces. He managed to escape the cruel hands of death. It was an incident he never could forget. The next day, he sought to be transferred back home from the East.
“If I must die, let it be with my people” He was lucky, he got the transfer quickly; it was an unusual transfer approved within two weeks!
As soon as he stepped down from the Ministry of Health’s Land Rover, the health workers seated under the shade of the baobab tree in the village square quickly rose to meet him.
They could recognize him from a kilometer away. His bald head and ringed spectacle were enough trademarks! His eyes quickly went through the health officials coming to meet him he counted one, two, three, four…he saw four, and his heart missed a beat.
“What could have happened to the fifth official? A lady for that matter”
His mind quickly raced back to the cold blooded murder of his colleagues in the east. The unlucky ones were those who could not run fast enough away from danger!
So what must have happened to the fifth worker…..? He adjusted his glasses and saw that the health officials were beaming with smiles “Sure they won’t be smiling if one of them is missing” he said to assure himself
Then he looked again, five of them! He breathed a sign of relief.
The lady had only stooped to adjust her shoes which slipped off as she stood from where she sat; too excited that the vehicle to pick them had arrived.
So how did it go” he asked, confident that the worst is over.
“Wonderful Sir!” Said the first lady who appeared to be the leader of the officials.
Anyone seeing her in an hospital ward would think she’s a medical doctor. A pretty lady with a gap tooth amongst a carefully laid set of snow white teeth. The Chief Inspector is always pleased to receive reports from her. Reports from her are always positive. This time, he was not only pleased to hear a positive report but the attraction and beauty of her teeth was comforting to him.
“We really had a wonderful time Sir” She continued “The first day was a bit rough, the people wouldn’t come out for the exercise. We had to go round with the council bus to mobilize them for the inoculation.”
“And they came?” Asked the Chief Inspection Officer; too eager to hear the report.
“Oh they came!” She flashed another smile exposing the beautiful gap-tooth to the admiration of the Chief Inspector. “We divided ourselves into two groups to facilitate a speedy completion of the exercise”
“And it worked?” The Chief Inspector asked proudly, he was happy that he had put the right person to lead the health workers.
“What a good idea” He said to himself.
“Yes it worked Sir” She flashed another smile.
“So how many people were you able to immunize?”
“In my group, we immunized four hundred and seventy-two adults, two hundred and fifty-six children” She said consulting a small leaflet for the information.
“My group immunized ninety-four adults” One of the male health workers quickly came in. He was glad to have an opportunity to let the Chief Inspector know that he too had worked hard; at least, he led the second group.
“Sir, it’s a good thing we have immunized the people of this village” The gap-toothed lady continued as if she knew the Chief Inspector was only interested in listening to her.
“I’m so sure that in the next ten years, the epidemic will never re-occur in this village”
“Always positive” the Chief Inspector said to himself admiring the courage and positive thinking nature of the lady.
“I must confess” He started beaming with smiles; he removed his spectacles as if he wanted his staff to see the smiles clearly.
“You have all done a good job. I’m also confident that this village can never be a victim of the strange epidemic again. I’m sure the authorities at the ministry of health will be willing to congratulate you for a job well done”
“Three hearty cheers to the Commissioner of Health who initiated this inoculation exercise….Hip! Hip! Hip!”
The Health workers chorused. Confident and assured that they would never need to visit the village again, at least, not in the next ten years!
But they all were wrong!
The tears started flowing again almost immediately. Seven days after the inoculation exercise, twenty one children and eleven adults died mysteriously.
The news went round again; the epidemic had returned; this time more ferocious! The strange needles were useless. The villagers have been tortured for no just cause.
Those who supported the coming of the health officials could only hang their heads in shame. To make the matters worse, the families who took the immunization were worst hit.
Agbeja, the head of the masquerade cult who stood solidly behind Folagbade lost two children in four days, one of his three wives also died!
Agaga was the happiest man in the village; had he not warned them all?
“But they will not hear words! It served them right”
He stretched his leg on the arm chair and took another long sip from the calabash of palm wine in his hands. His family was not hit by the epidemic. None died in his household.
“These so-called elders should learn to listen when I talk….Who do they think I am? A non-entity? Nonsense! Now they will see sense in what I’ve always told them; Folagbade is a stump in the path of progress for this village… He has no respect for the gods, remove Folagbade from the throne and this village will compete with Lagos!”
He took another sip of the palm wine; he stopped and emptied the remaining palm wine in the keg. He was already getting tipsy, that was the fourth keg. Then he heard a loud noise…No wailing!
He said to himself, “I must be drunk. I had better lie peacefully on this armchair and allow this thing go down.”
The wailing grew louder and nearer. He stood, staggered and fell back on the armchair, he saw two figures running towards him; he could not see them properly. They must be another family who have lost a child or relative again.
“Good for them!” He thought.
As the noise got nearer, now he seemed to recognize his first wife! She screamed and threw herself down at his feet. Agaga could not believe he was seeing his wife.
“This palm wine is too strong… The termite is only striving; it can never eat a rock…No..Not me”
He looked closely again and saw clearly now; his wives, two of them and his eldest daughter. They came to break the news. His eldest son and two other children!
Agaga slumped and simply passed away!
The toll rose !!!
To be continued in Episode 2.