His spirit quailed at the ordeal ahead as he bade his friends final farewell, knowing fully well that they might not see each other again. The NYSC scheme was originally set up in 1972 by the then military administrator of the country. The primary aim was for young graduates to go away from their geopolitical zones to other part of the country and work there for a year in a bid to reduce if not eradicate the cold war between the numerous tribes in the country. The serving individual was to have broadened his horizon about his country’s diverse cultural backgrounds and hence cultivate a not-so-wary attitude towards people from other tribes other than his own. The serving corps members are usually deployed to government establishments, mostly government owned schools, where these young graduates impart knowledge on the unassuming pupils. Abubakar, a young graduate from the western part of the country, had been deployed to serve in Ebonyi state. He had packed his belongings earlier in the day, said his final goodbyes to his interim friends, natives of the Igbo, in Ikwo, the village where he had taught in one of the schools. He was leaving the next morning for Ogun state, his state of origin. He must, however, say his goodbye to Ogechi, a female pupil in the secondary school he had taught Fine Art. She was living with HIV. Now that was the ordeal. He got up and promised his friends he would see them at the corpers’ lodge later in the night. Ogechi’s family house was a stone throw from the NYSC secretariat. Ogechi’s otherwise bright future was given a fatal twist when she was tested positive to HIV in a random test conducted by serving medical doctors in her local government area,Ikwo. She was a virgin and had never had a blood transfusion before, she announced to Abubakar, two days after the discovery. She had naturally taken to Abubakar when he got to the school. He had taken the otherwise serious overtures of affection towards him from her as a crush, to be transferred to another serving graduate after he had left. But he had played along, winning her trust. She, in turn, had taken him as a true confidant, divulging secrets, dreams, hopes and passions to him. She was barely seventeen.
The elder daughter in a family of six, the mother had died while giving birth to the fourth and last child of the family, a girl. The two boys before her had moved to Lagos, a more lucrative state, in search of greener pastures. She had, since the demise of her mother, attained the position of mother to her sister and sometimes as she would jokingly enthused, a wife to her now deceased father.
Abubakar had explained to her with a heavy heart that it was possible she contracted it by cutting herself with any sharp object which another carrier had cut himself or herself with. He urged her though, that the cause didn’t matter as much as how she was going to cope with living with the disease. She went on to confess that she usually use her father’s shaving blade to shave her private parts and armpits. Abubakar had decided to be matter – of – fact about the issue but she had took the reins, suggesting maybe that was the cause, as she had cut herself once or twice with the blade. She had decided to confront her father and Abubakar had acquiesced. Her father, an illiterate, like most of the men in his village, was a driver of a commercial vehicle, a job that had taken him miles away from home. Ogechi’s father had grudgingly agreed to follow his daughter to Abakaliki, the state capital, to take the test. He was a carrier. A naturally quiet man, he had explained to his daughter all his escapades; having unprotected sex with prostitutes while he was away from home on duty. He apologized to her profusely after she had told him she contracted it from him. He solemnly promised to find a solution to it. He did. A week later, he was found dead on his farm, hanging by the neck from a mango tree. It was a taboo to commit suicide in this village, hence his corpse was taken far away from home and dumped in the ‘Evil forest’, a thick forest where corpses of people who had died in a manner otherwise considered normal in the village were dumped. His sons had no reason to come home for his burial.
Ogechi and her baby sister had since moved in with their uncle, still in the same village. Her brothers couldn’t come home to see them, at least not now. As far as the villagers were concerned, their father had put a curse on the family, a situation usually to be remedied by performing some sacrifices – something the young boys were not financially capable of. So they had stayed back in Lagos. Ogechi had fallen ill three times in quick succession within a month. In villages like this one scattered across Nigeria, medical facilities was a phantom, known of, but seldom experienced. It was difficult to ascertain the cause of her illness as there was no means to take her to the hospital for treatment because of the nature of illness. Malaria was a common enough illness, but HIV/AIDS must as well be a curse among these villagers as the patient must die – a rationale stemming from their belief that all illnesses are curable except curses.
The extraordinary element in this account, mused Abubakar, as he got to the door of Ogechi’s room, was the inert nature of the government towards the plight of their citizens, mostly those unfortunate enough to be villagers. All they do is promise. However, their character speaks so loud, the people could hardly hear what they are saying anymore. He braced himself and knocked on her door.
“Come in.” a faint voice answered. He stepped into the darkened room.
The room had, as a companion a thin mattress lying at the corner on the bare floor, its occupant, Ogechi, in it. She was wearing a T-shirt long enough to cover her knees. She managed a wan smile when she saw him and shifted her frail body to the end of the mattress, making room for him to sit. He sat down at the edge of the mattress where she had made space for him close to where her head was resting on an equally thin pillow. He reached out and touched her forehead, then played with her hair. She was convalescing.
The moon was shinning brightly that night; the only source of light the room had. She was looking directly at it through the small window by the corner of the room where she was facing. The moon, too, equally looked back at her and her face shone. She had a pretty face and an equally shapely body. Puberty beauty was evident on her breasts, fully grown, and her hips, wide, from which long tapered legs reached out. Save for the rhythmic chiming of the wall clock, the room had an eerie silence.
“How are you, Oge?” Abu broke the silence.
She nodded a “fine, thank you” at him. She was avoiding eye contact with him. She knew he had come to say goodbye. Goodbye that he was leaving or goodbye that she was going to die soon, she pondered. She liked him; wished he were her brother.
“Do you know Van Gogh?” Abu tried his never – fail teaching method where he would ask a question he knew the class wouldn’t know the answer to. It was meant to get their attention. The class would chorus a ‘No Sir’ and he would delve into explaining to them; then skillfully start the day’s topic.
“Who is he?” Ogechi asked, a smile finding its way, all the way, across her face. She knew the trick, she was his pupil, but couldn’t help falling for it. He however didn’t see her smile as her face was turned away from him.
“Who was he, you mean?”
“Oh, sorry, didn’t know he was dead.”
“So who was he?”
“Well, he was one of the greatest artists that lived on the surface of the earth. Like most artists, his works were not worth much while he was alive. Now they are worth millions. His painting of his personal physician, Mr. Gatchet, is now worth $82.5 million.”
“Vincent Van Gough. That’s his full name. Vincent Van Gough.”
“Oh, well, I mean he sounds like every other great impressionist. You know, starting poor, people not really appreciating what you do, I mean financially, of course. And suddenly you die and bang! Wealthy collectors make a mad rush in a bid to get your lifeless paintings for millions of dollars. “
“Vincent’s was different.”
“He started hallucinating… I’m not sure when and he personally asked to be taken to a mental home.”
“Now he’s beginning to be different.”
“Yeah, devoid of love except for that of his only brother, Theo, and desperate for a lover, his condition worsened
“All artists are lovers.”
“Yeah, sincere lovers.”
“Hmm.” Ogechi was getting warmed up, finally interested.
“To show his sincere love for a prostitute, he cut off his left ear and gave it to her.”
That was when she looked hard at him. Very hard.
During one of their numerous conversations, she had told him about her desire to be an artist. He had in his usual calm demeanor, encouraged her, promising to find books on the subject for her. She had given him her own parting gift, a painting of him in his NYSC uniform and it was evident from her powerful strokes that she was a prodigy.
“I can’t stay any longer.” she bit back the sob, tears welling up in her eyes.
“Yes you can. I would prove my love for you by coming back here every month to see how you are faring. Please Ogechi, your sister needs you.”
”Have you ever worn a pair of shoes without soles?”Ogechi asked, slowly.
“Shoes don’t come without soles, Oge.” Abubakar answered in a low tone, sensing defeat at his own game for the first time.
“Mine did, sir, and I can’t stand the pain anymore.”
“Have you taken your drugs?” He asked not because the drugs did matter-they were common pain-reliever readily available in the village – but because he was not sure about what to say anymore.
“Yes sir.” She replied jokingly, shifting her frail body into a more comfortable position, preparing to go to sleep. He tucked her in properly, both enjoying the little drama he made of the act. She fell asleep not quite long after that, peacefully, like a baby. He waited until he was sure she was deep in slumber, said his goodbye to her, and then went out of the room with a heavy heart. As he stepped into the night, he heard the distant hooting of an owl. Ogechi was found dead the next morning; she had poisoned herself. She left a note for Abubakar which read “Please forgive me, but I can’t see any help coming.”
Written by Muyis Adepoju
“@abdulmuizzx on twitter“