The country was breaking down. Everyday there were riots on the streets. It was total chaos everywhere. Democracy activists, trade unionists, hoodlums, workers, political opportunists, soft-hearted womanists, hired assassins, hard-core feminists, the unemployed and just about everyone joined in the streets to protest and burn tyres. Armed anti-squads chased the protesters wherever they could. Some of them were shot and left to rot. Looters had a field day as businesses closed down indefinitely. The streets were filled with broken glass, litter and trash. Ethnic chauvinists of all persuasions were fleeing the city in droves to avoid the impending sociopolitical catastrophe. When people were not running away from the armed anti-riot squads and shouting pro-democracy slogans at the top of their voices they gathered at street corners to trade gossip. The newspapers became a source of mystification rather than enlightenment. The tales about the nation went in all directions. The dictator was about to hand over power. No he was about to change from his army general’s uniform into civilian clothes while remaining in power. He was going to flee to another country with a hoard of fifty billion dollars. He was about to take another wife forty years younger than he was. He would be tried in a court of law for crimes against humanity and rampant corruption. He was dead and had stated in his will that he wished to be buried in Mumbai. The rumours went on and on until the line between fact and fiction became indistinguishable.
Shaggy de Mann’s head swirled each time he had to contemplate the astonishing diversity of rumours that were peddled everyday on the litter ridden streets. He could not make the slightest sense of them. The newspapers were the main source of confusion. Their sprawling pages of scandal and outrage perverted the ethics of journalism. Sources of information were never revealed and were instead ascribed to ‘insiders.’ Shaggy de Mann would sometimes try to participate in the street-side sessions of rumour-mongering but each time he came away even more emotionally bereft. He had reached the end of his tether as far as trying to see any redeeming value in the fervent sessions of salacious gossip. Each day seemed the same; rioting, violence, looting and lies. He often wondered what spirituality was possible in such a degrading milieu of decadence, debauchery and damnation.
Shaggy de Mann was an unemployed cameraman who had obtained a degree in history. At the age of thirty-two he regarded himself as a failure as he had depended on distant family members and friends who had more or less brought him up. He had had a hard life from the beginning. Shortly after his birth, his mother was committed to a mental institution and his father had disappeared even before his birth. It was left to his mother’s sister together with her husband to bring him up. It was a most terrifying experience. The experience would turn him into an incorrigible outsider. He had never really wanted to be an outsider. His aunt took in nephews and nieces from time to time and they managed to fit it and be accepted. Shaggy de Mann was never quite accepted by his aunt, her husband and their children. He couldn’t ascertain what factors led to making him a typical outsider. If he were to have a guess going from fragments from his life he would say outsiders carried an unmistakable aura of permanent alienation. No matter how hard they tried and how radiant were their fake smiles outsiders were a marked species right from birth.
At his aunt’s house, he was not allowed to sit at the table when others ate. A cloud hovered above his head that revealed the hypocrisy of others and so they hated him. He made them feel self-conscious even as a twelve year boy. So he was left in the kitchen to eat his meals alone while others ate in bright dinner rooms amid the cackle of hallow laughter. So many nights and days during his formative years had been spent alone in the kitchen while he listened to the ring of hallow laughter that seemed to mock his outsiderdom. It seemed to be telling him that his plight was worst than a death sentence. His spirit was mutilated by those unforgettable days of emotional torture. He didn’t go to the same schools as his aunt’s children who went to much classier schools. He couldn’t understand why he was always considered an outsider and why his jokes were mostly ignored and why no one cared about his well-being. He did all he could to fit in. He humiliated himself in innumerable ways just to belong. He would dance clownishly and wildly to entertain his aunt, her husband and their children in the hope they would find something of value in him. Perhaps they did for a few minutes but never more. He reverted to his old sore position of being an eternal outsider. His young soul knew no better. Each day he spent in his humiliating condition damaged him just a little bit more. Everywhere he saw enormous jaws that seemed like vast penitentiaries beckoning to him, mocking him, indicating to him he had no hope whatsoever. Everywhere he saw the fangs of wild animals exposed for maximum effect to horrify and defeat him. He could no longer stand the humiliations and the torture that came to mark his daily existence. It was time to escape before he was plunged into a state of half-death for the reminder of his miserable days. He needed to leave his aunt’s house because life there seemed no different from life lived under a death sentence and solitary confinement. He had to run away so he could find another kind of reality for himself.
In his late teens, Shaggy de Mann started to smoke marijuana with his friend Tobsy Emmanuel wherever they could find peace and quiet. They smoked in quiet street corners at dusk. They smoked on the roof tops of low apartment blocks. They smoked on deserted fields and school compounds that had been left unprotected. They smoked anywhere and everywhere they could not be caught by prowling cops. They went to highlife clubs in the seediest areas of town and smoked to their hearts’ content. They went to clubs that played Congolese soukous and smoked until they became blind, numb and dumb. And then Shaggy de Mann began to realise he couldn’t smoke his life away because he would have no support if he crumbled and ended up in a sewer. So when Tobsy Emmanuel called him to go with him for a joint he began to make excuses about having a headache, about having to be somewhere else and about the need to leave some space clean in his head so he could plot the next move in his life. Tobsy called him a pussy, a turncoat and a betrayer. Tobsy on the other hand began to explore various recipes for marijuana. He would boil it and drink it like tea. He would make a pot of lentils and sprinkle it with fresh weed. He would make all kinds of drinks and lace it with grass for him and his friends. He prowled amid joints selling bootleg liquor spiked heavily with weed after midnight. He poured fire and grass down his throat until the first tentative rays of dawn touched him with bitter fever. Weed was ‘it’ he proclaimed to anyone who granted him an ear. Tobsy soon began cutting lectures at the university where he was studying biochemistry. He didn’t give a fuck about anything except the somnolent joys derived from weed fumes that coursed through his veins and made his eyeballs swirl. In his daydreams all he could see were old cads puffing on fist-sized joints amid harems of totally stoned naked girls. All he could hear in his befuddled head was the power of vision granted by prolonged weed use. All he could see were erect penises strengthened by weed and the allure of stoned naked girls. All he could hear were labyrinthine sounds slowly making their way though the tired and frayed passages of dusk. He descended accompanied by weed into subterranean dens painted in bright orange to learn the ways of bewitched sex, wayward high heels, turbulent afros, fringe and mystical dreadlocks, masquerade faces and violent life-changing trances of self-purification. He sank into grottoes that were an irreconcilable contrast to the rays of the hot sun that whipped him onto a mundane level of consciousness each time he had the misfortune to come up from those dark depths. Nothing mattered to him anymore than going down the unending mystery road of weed. He had found a goal in life and nothing could divert him from his self-chosen path. Not even his former mate of incessant weed journeys, Shaggy de Mann. Shaggy de Mann could not understand the new level of his friend’s weed obsession. Tobsy Emmanuel’s parents saw that their son was rapidly dwindling, that he was disappearing into mists of incoherence. Not knowing much about rock and roll it took them a while to know what was happening. By the time they realised their son had gotten lost along the road of intense weed-smoking it was too late. They couldn’t tell which spot precisely he had gone astray. They viewed him as a beloved lost dog who would somehow manage to trace his way home. They didn’t want to go the route of evangelical intervention or psychiatric abuse. They strongly believed their son who had managed to get himself lost would also endeavour to find the right path leading to their home. They had an almost unshakeable trust in this evidently spirit-uplifting belief. As a way of uniting them with their son’s past, they took in Shaggy de Mann and made him a substitute son. He began to be everything their beleaguered son could never hope to be. He washed their cars, polished their shoes, cleaned up the house, went shopping for groceries and sometimes cooked when Tobsy Emmanuel’s mother was too tired to enter the kitchen. How many sons could do that? In appreciation of his unfailing devotion to Tobsy’s parents’ and his general good breeding he was given a room and three meals a day. His life was on the point of being turned around. Apart from being such a skilful person to have around the house, he was also a good listener. He listened to fading tales of graying lives, abandonment and solitude on innumerable evenings before the television set but more importantly, he reminded Tobsy’s parents of the long and difficult pilgrimage back home that their son had to make all by himself. They simply had no roadmap by which to find him. Shaggy de Mann, their son’s bosom friend presented an image they fervently hoped would eventually become the definition of Tobsy’s character and life. They held on to Shaggy as a way of reminding themselves of the potentials Tobsy needed to exploit. Days and years went by and Tobsy continued to wander down the paths of mists, cobwebs and impenetrable dust. Even Shaggy de Mann began to find it pretty difficult to keep dust away from the house. Dust floated in and taunted Tobsy’s parents on account of their aching joints and bones as they gradually advanced in years. Apart from the dust, sorrow seeped into their marrow with the realisation that perhaps their lost son might not be coming back home. They didn’t know what to do with Shaggy, they didn’t know how far to go with him in terms of handing over what little property they had. But Shaggy was beginning to find some sense of belonging which enabled him to think about other things. When he went into the fiery streets where the looting and rioting went on, he knew he had a place to which to return. This fact as simple as it seemed was a great source of comfort to him. It gave him a strong platform on which to face armed tanks grumbling down the streets. It gave him the confidence to dodge bullets fired by anti-riot squads. And when rumour-mongers gathered at burning street corners it gave him the stomach to add fuel to their sprawling mosaic of lies.
Tobsy Emmanuel did not return from his journey into the forest of weed, cobwebs and dust. His parents were deeply heart-broken. They wanted to adopt Shaggy officially but some close relatives discouraged them. Instead they advised them to recall Shekpeteri, Tobsy’s forty-eight year old brother from London to take over the family’s affairs. At first Shekpeteri was not keen to return home. Although he was a bachelor and didn’t have any serious commitments, he was used to life in the West. He hadn’t made much headway in financial terms and so he thought coming back home would give him an opportunity to breakaway from his student-like existence once and for all. Once Shekpeteri agreed he was coming back the patriarch of the house passed away. He had at least found a modicum of peace. Tobsy was left to come and go as he wished. He sometimes spoke a language that no else could understand. No one bothered him least of all his now aged mother. It was time for Shekpeteri to assume the role of the new patriarch of the house. Could he hack it? He wore Buddy Holly type recommended glasses and drew from the same fount of strangeness Tobsy visited. Once he arrived, he made it clear he didn’t want Shaggy around. But his mother prevailed on him to let Shaggy stay. She made him understand that he had been an invaluable assistant to the family in times of great need. Moreover he kept her company on what would have long, lonely nights. Shekpeteri grumbled but let Shaggy remain. Shaggy knew he had to do all he could to get out of his way. He needed to find a job and a small cupboard of his own to crash. He needed to carve out an existence for himself that was truly autonomous, he needed to discover a distinctness of personality that guaranteed his independence. If he couldn’t accomplish all of this, then Shekpeteri would kick him in the butt at every given opportunity. He knew he had to struggle against this kind of fate.
The streets outside remained forlorn. The rioting had simmered but the nation was still tense. The factories had all ground to a halt. The gas stations had long since stopped functioning. The shelves of almost all the supermarkets were empty and those that still had some products were priced out of reach. People moaned, groaned and cried. There was no electricity power, there was no water, the highways had been overtaken by weeds, rubbish and the mentally ill. Nothing worked. Any hope that was left to be found stalked the obscure corners of vast prayer grounds that rumbled constantly with an infinity of tongues. The desperate, con artists, demagogues, false prophets, fornicators, drug addicts, piss takers, the homeless and other categories of aggrieved people gathered each and every day on the prayer grounds for the rare opportunity of touching the elusive silk of healing. It flashed before their desperate eyes and disappeared into the dark clouds above. The prayer grounds were much safer than the untended streets that had been taken over by looters, common criminals, murderers and rapists. The looters, common criminals, murderers and rapists hardly worked on the prayer grounds because they themselves often worshipped there. On the prayer grounds, everyone hunted the slippery skin of hope as it slipped through crack after crack in mockery of its pursuers. Shaggy went to a few of them with the faint intention of catching a breath of hope but wasn’t successful. It was difficult to accomplish success as gamblers struggled over the heads and bodies of each other in raucous pursuits that took place after dark fuelled by hearsay and speculation. After a few days on a prayer field, Shaggy decided that the gambler’s desperation was not for him. So he returned to street corners where amateur soothsayers made daily predictions about the collapse of the nation. He believed these types of gatherings better reflected the tempo of the times. He sometimes suffered from low blood pressure so the swirls and lashings of different tongues didn’t easily throw him off balance. He joined the Free Newspapers Readers’ Association which for a minimal weekly fee attempted to dissect the news behind the news. Many a soothsayer’s career began in this way. Shaggy did not want to be a soothsayer. He could not allow himself to come under fervent spells of verbal Armageddon and cross-eyed vehemence. He just wasn’t in that type of league. He preferred to gather confusing scraps of information which he carried in his head until the time he was able to sort them out in the privacy of his ramshackle bedroom. Tobsy’s mother would sometimes ask for the latest information from the streets and he would offer a few juicy bits. He was very thankful that her diligent house-keeping practices were what had been sustaining them. Before the riots finally got out of hand, she had been meticulously stocking up on beans, rice, macaroni, vegetable oil, sugar, tea, coffee, yam, sweet potatoes, salt, corn flower and palm oil. They would survive if the rioting went on for an entire year. As she sat by her favourite window in the living room trying to read bits and pieces of the bible, she was secure in the knowledge that those who belonged to her would not starve. It seemed a small accomplishment in relation to a lifetime’s toil, but it was still something for which she was immensely proud. She was pleased she didn’t have to run to her neighboors to borrow a teaspoon of salt. Shekpeteri spent days on end in his bedroom. He just couldn’t be bothered with the rioting, the irrevocable collapse of the nation and the random killings that told you all wasn’t well with both the citizen and the nation.
The roof of the nation had caved in and was crushing everyone underneath it. It was suffocating and excruciating to be beneath the collapsed roof. Many hadn’t the strength to pull themselves out talk less of fixing it. They were all trapped half-dead in a mass grave.
by Sanya Osha