The prison yard was completely silent on the day Uchenna had an august visitor. Two guards led him to a room where the President, guarded by uniformed officers, sat waiting for him. They met each other’s gaze with no smiles. The President signaled all the guards to leave the room. Alone with him, Femi stood before Uche and they both burst out chuckles, held hands in a tight shake, and then embraced, letting out tears onto each other’s shoulders.
TWENTY YEARS BEFORE
Two men greeted each other in the house of one, Uchenna. Femi held Uchenna’s hand in a strong excited grip, and the left hand of each tapped the other’s shoulder. While Femi was all cheery with visible veins and muscles corroborating the pops of his cheeks, the shine of his teeth and the smiles of his eyes, Uchenna was seemingly comported but secretly envious, carrying himself with false air of confidence that only did not appear arrogant in his eyes and that of his new-found group of friends. He could not fathom why, since he made new friends, he always had to make this much effort of conceit at the sight of this best friend from childhood. However, he knew Femi to read and understand him – Uchenna, no matter how he tried to pretend before him. It is this intuitive quality he now hates most about Femi. It used to be what he loved most when Femi was the centre of his eyes; he needed not say much before Femi offered his shoulders. But he no longer wanted a shoulder to rest on! He wanted to have more than he needed so he never had to beg again!
He was married and separated from his family because his wife did not like his new associates and their lifestyle; a lifestyle he needed to embrace in order ‘to belong’. According to her she did not want their children to be exposed to the potential danger the new friends and lifestyle portended for their lives. Not the money he now made nor this beautiful nice house he bought in the wealthiest part of the city would bring her back to him. This turn around in their life was not what they planned for their marriage, but since change is a constancy, he had to move on to pursue his desire for the political life he had entered, whatever it took to be in and to remain in it; even if it means dissociating himself from loved ones, friends and others he knew before now.
It was said that politics is dirty in every country and since his country was not an exception, why should he not fulfil his desire by going into the filth? Why should he allow the flaws of the institution to stop him since that was the way he met and had always known the rules in practice to be different from the ethical theory? He did not start the corruption and he was certainly not the tree to start a forest of change; he would surely be cut down before he could produce a fruit. The world is ruled by the rich and powerful, whether they be unscrupulous or not. He has become impatient in trailing the path of the latter because that had not worked out well and fast enough for him in the recent past, and so he had resolved to accomplish his quest in the former.
Femi, on the other hand, was not married yet at 35. Uchenna did not know what he was waiting for at that age. Brought up in a wealthy home, his father threw him out while he was still in the University for giving away huge amount of his wealth to charity. Femi laughed about it nowadays, but said he had become wiser now. Although, he had reconciled with his father, he preferred living by his own terms and means in his own rented apartment. Still, his father gave him part of his inheritance to live by because the old man could not take his eyes off his son even though he was not too pleased with his looseness with money.
Femi, having had degrees in Sociology and Psychology, had been working for one non-governmental organization or the other and also one Governmental Social Welfare Service or the other, rendering welfare services wherever his mind wandered to give hand: to the homeless, sick, sponsorship of the wrongfully imprisoned in order to attain freedom, and many more. He has accomplished more self-giving in social services and charity at this age than anyone Uche knew; and it was easy to walk out and into any employment without riding on his father’s influence but an innate genuineness, intelligence, and no doubt, the accompanying grace was what made him irresistible to employers. And he appeared not to be conscious of this favour haloed about him. He seemed to care nothing about living in affluence, because whatever he earned, he gave out to anyone and to many in need, even to him, Uchenna – his friend, yet he did not lack. He always had one asset or the other from his inheritance to sell and then give the returns to some greater need and cause. He did not want for himself, but only for others in need whenever he begged for help. ‘Why didn’t he just join the Priesthood?’ Uchenna thought.
It was this begging from his new political associates that had become an embarrassment to Uchenna. These associates tried to induce Femi into their league, but they realized that he was simply a jolly good fellow who was not ashamed to solicit for assistance for the poor, and could neither be maneuvered nor constricted into a conclave like theirs. Femi was a friend to all and an enemy to none; not even his enemies. He did not care to know the enemy, but he knew them. Yes, he related well with them – these associates, but his presence humbled them, demeaning their arrogance. He made them see themselves for who they were, devils before a saint.
Today, Uche decided, he had to put a distance between their long-term friendship to continue to be acceptable to this political group. This is because they could no longer bear Femi’s attachment to him and consequent presence among them, which excruciate and emaciate their spirits. Being close to Femi did not give wealth to his hard work nor reward for his honesty. Life was not fair to the honest and the world belonged more to the unscrupulous, Uche figured. Heaven is where the reward of the virtuous is, but that seemed a long time to come. Many bad people repented before dying; perhaps, and he prayed, he would have the chance to repent too before he died. His friend was that opposite of him that he would always cherish; and he admired what he could not bring himself to be. But he had to end their friendship.
‘This handshake, one would think it’s been a long while.’ Uche commented as they let go of their grip to sit.
‘It will be.’ Femi sat, smiling with less intensity.
‘Why …’ but he was distracted by the vibration of his phone on the table. ‘Excuse me.’ He took the phone and found the caller necessary to answer. ‘I have to take this call.’ Standing to answer it and walking to open the door to another room, ‘Hello, Tayo, how did it g…’ his voice faded as the door closed behind him.
Femi still had a smile on him as he relaxed more on the soothingly fluffy back-rest of the couch he sat on. But a sight caught the side of his eye and he turned to watch through the glass slide-door two little boys on the other side of the road: one, about ten years old, eating biscuits, and the other, younger and beggarly dressed, was begging for some of the biscuits. The older boy seemed to be enjoying his advantage over the younger one and was not moved to mercy.
‘Children are supposed to be innocent,’ Femi thought as he approached the transparent door, ‘but they are formed by the behavioural pattern they are exposed to.’ He would know, he reckoned, not just because of his educational background but by experience once upon a past. This was an environment where the rich lived and that little poor boy wandered into it, and by his looks he was hungry. He would not leave even at the reluctance and mockery of the older and apparently rich boy he was begging from. He was resolute on getting something from this humiliation. Perhaps, his persistent appeal to the rich young conscience would eventually elicit some good.
Femi met with the two boys and this caused the rich boy to frown at the interruption. The poor boy recoiled with head bowed and turned away, sad. ‘Hello boys,’ Femi greeted them. The rich boy would not tell him his name if he asked and might run away because he was a stranger his parents might have rightly cautioned him to be weary of. He would just go straight to the issue to ease their mind that he was only there to appeal to one for the other. ‘Why don’t you give him some?’
‘Why should I?’ was the rich boy’s abrupt response.
‘Because you have enough to spare.’
‘I can finish it.’ The rich boy clutched the pack of about ten more biscuits.
‘I trust you can. But it will only make your belly swell. That is unhealthy.
‘No, it will fill me and I will be satisfied.’
‘Your stomach will be more than filled, but a piece of your heart will continue to drip from now on at every time you remember this day you could have shared but didn’t.’ Femi smiled down at the rich boy.
‘You can’t say that to me, it’s unfair!’ The little rich boy cried out at Femi.
‘Why is it unfair if you are right about your decision?’
‘You can’t make me do what I don’t want to do!’ Anguished and sobbing, he glared with teary eyes at Femi.
Bending a knee down to the rich boy’s height, he touched his shoulder, ‘Yes, you’re right. But for every biscuit you give, joy will be added to your heart, and your joy will be full, and so will your stomach be healthily filled.’
But the rich boy ran away from him; he could not surrender to the whim of a stranger, a kind one though, because his ego would not allow it.
Femi turned his gaze from the running rich boy to the little poor one that was now looking hopefully at him; he did not care about what had transpired between him and the other boy but remained optimistic for something out of it all. There were two options, he thought as he stood up. He knew that the rich boy was lurking around somewhere and peeping for what he would do. If he gave the poor boy some money, the rich boy would either feel the need to emulate by sharing his biscuits too, or feel no need to since the poor boy had gotten the means to buy himself food. If he did not give, perhaps the rich boy would think him not better than he preached, or would eventually feel sorry for the poor boy who lost both ways, and then would come to share his biscuits with him. He wished for the last fanciful possibility, but he opted for the first, and left.
He saw Uche watching from the glass wall of the door. ‘I don’t know what you said to offend him, but you got him to share his biscuits.’
Femi joined Uche to watch through the glass too and saw the two boys eating the biscuits and laughing together.
‘That poor boy always comes around to beg him for whatever he is eating. It is not just because he hungers for what the rich boy eats, but also because he likes him and wants to be his friend. The rich boy likes him too but enjoys the superior feeling he gets from the poor boy’s need of him.’ Uche said and turned to Femi.
‘I guess the table has turned around now.’ Femi replied as he looked back at him, his kind eyes reading Uche’s face.
‘Thanks to you.’ But Femi only chuckled slightly. The kids were no longer important. ‘Story of our lives, eh?’ Uche said again turning away from Femi’s gaze and walked towards the seats they had vacated earlier. He would not battle gaze with one who did not see it as a battle but an act of love; and he – Uche – knew would cave in first anyway. He had to keep up the courage he had built up to tell Femi his decision. But somehow, he felt Femi was waiting to hear it; he must have sensed the tension within him. So much for bravery.
‘Not how I know it,’ Femi joined to also resume on the seat adjacent Uche. ‘And I don’t see why you’re thanking me. I didn’t ask you to join politics and that party that enriches you with public fund.’
‘Of course, you will see it differently as you always do.’ They considered each other a little while. Then Uche opened his mouth to speak again, and these words came out instead, ‘Care for a drink?’
Femi laughed, and said, ‘Try again.’
‘Femi, I’ve got new friends!’ His face twitched in an appeal for Femi’s understanding. ‘They are not comfortable with you!’
‘I know,’ and Femi sat up to explain to him, a little seriously. ‘I haven’t told you why I am excited and too much so to care about your associates’ feelings.’
‘Why are you excited?’
‘I signed a contract with the UNESCO and will be travelling out for … I don’t know when I will see you again … if I will.’ Femi said realizing he actually did not figure those out earlier.
Sincerely concerned, Uche asked, ‘What does that mean?’
Femi stood up pacing and gesticulating to let out his excitements, ‘I am going to Paris where I will be orientated for one year and then redeployed to the country of duty. There’s a lot I want to do after that but it’s a start.’ Uche could not find words at the moment. ‘This for me, is much more than baby-sitting you.’ He smiled down at Uche. ‘Now, this’ a cliché I can’t resist to say: you can force the horse to the stream but can’t force it to drink.’
‘Well, I wasn’t expecting that.’ And he stood to shake Femi’s hand, genuinely happy for him, ‘Congratulations!’
‘We’ve come a long way, dear friend. We are no longer kids. No doubt, we are different and can’t continue to flock together when our aspirations are different. But, it doesn’t mean our friendship should end.’ Femi told Uche more calmly.
Uche was lost at what to say, but, ‘I’ll call you as often as I can’, sounding more like a self-questioning than a certainty.
Femi considered Uche, ‘No, you will not …’
‘Don’t be too sure of …’ Uche protested.
But Femi continued, ‘No! Not with your new friends and the path you are trailing towards your ambition.’ A little pause between them. ‘Uche, you have made your choice and I have seen your change of attitude towards me for a while now. You’re becoming ruthless like them.’
‘You have no right …’ Uche challenged him.
‘You deny it?’ Femi challenged back.
Uche sighed, ‘Femi, the world is not what you dream it to be!’ Uche implore for understanding.
‘I am not dreaming it to be what is not; I am doing my bid to achieve what I dream for it.’
‘You cannot make a forest!’
‘Who says I’m alone?’ A pause, and then, ‘No doubt you and your new league and your likes are a majority. But, I’m satisfied with the angels at the conversion of even one person.’ Uche frowned. ‘I guess neither of us has been able to influence the other … whatever kept us together … at least, your new friends have ensured to severe it. We’ll see again someday.’ Femi made to leave.
‘Femi!’ Uche held him back by the arm. And Femi waited, looking to hear what he had to say. ‘I am sorry … but I need this. I’m not cut out for your world …’ and cutting off Femi’s attempt to protest, ‘I mean, … I need some other friends and influence, not you. You wrestle with my conscience in the right way, but … I need to live another way … we have hung on for too long … we only need to take some break.’ Uche looked for Femi’s understanding.
Then after a considering pause, Femi sighed, ‘You got it. Take as much break as you will, and call me when you want me. You know I will answer.’
‘I don’t like this good-bye.’ Uche was disappointed.
‘Like I said, we’ll see again someday; it is not a goodbye.’
‘I don’t like the manner of parting.’
‘It’s not how you planned it? But you were reluctant to do it as you planned it.’
Uche heaved an angry sigh, ‘Goodbye Femi.’ And retreated with that anger into the room he had visited during his call.
Femi watched him retreat, shook his head thinking:
‘It is indeed difficult to shine one’s light in the midst of the temptations for worldly pleasures and unholy desires. It is not the bad peer he associates with that he cannot conquer, since he is the one who went to them for the wrong reason, but his own greedy desire for money and selfish power, the two vicious spirits that counter Christ’s commands to choose to worship God and serve mankind with humility.
‘Politics, originally provides an opportunity to lead a constituency in their best interest, but it is now, and for a long time, utilized in a crooked way to seize power in order to impoverish by embezzling, and to subjugate the publics. Uche knows better, yet he chooses this. And I feel guilty about it because of our childhood encounter that caused him to nurse, for so long, to surpass my wealth even though I put it all aside for his sake, though I did not tell him so. He would not listen to my admonition to stand out among those friends as a light of God; he did not want to be a light because it will not help him attain his unholy desires: wealth and power.
‘It is sad that people do not let themselves into the greater wealth and joy of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. I can only pray for him and hope he converts not too late.’
He sighed and left.
Continues in part 2 …
Written by IfeanyiChukwu Oluwafemi Chukwudi – 9/9/2017
Images from Unsplash: Alexandre Debieve, Julian Alexander and Tamarcus Brown