By Maureen Alasa
I called him 'Unique'. The very first time I set my eyes on him, he had his back to me. This young man of strong build and well chiseled muscles. I thought his dreadlocks were cool and even though from where I sat stuck in the usually congested Lagos Traffic, I could see that his jacket was a little worn. With loose threads hanging like strands of noodles licking the sides of a pot, I made excuses ; Maybe I needed a closer look, maybe he lived around, maybe he just was a tough man or perhaps a stranger from a different town or city. But then, that was how it all began, my odyssey through the dark revealing world of pain and truths.
In a state of prolonged immobility, the mind becomes idle and an idle mind makes the best observer. So I transformed the frustration from my current state into renewable energy, one that fueled my power of observation. With my face pressed to the window of the bus, I drifted into a trance, the kind that made the chattering of my colleagues become nothing but a distorted bed for this new movie that had begun to form behind my mental screen.
It began with 'Unique' but by the time the month then the year was gone, I had met at least 50 others, lost track of names and knew most by face except the new comers who seemed to trickle in by the week. Some times in twos and threes and other times it may just be one unusual bloodshot eyes replacing an old member of this club that only seemed to exist in my head, as the world was either too busy to care or these guys too oblivious to notice my keen eyes as I ensured to always take a window seat on my daily bus ride to work. Mismatched appearance of ill fitting clothes and dreadlocks of varying lengths was not the only thing that made them stand out.
From 'Unique' to 'Mr pepper' to 'Angry kid' the list was endless and even though they did not look crazy, you could tell there was some sort of imbalance. A lack of fashion sense could be excused as the reason for the somewhat rugged look they always had. But what excuses the aggression they displayed as they gathered in groups? Almost like a congregation of weirdos who were congregating without words or any form of communal essence. You cannot mistake the blood shot eyes or the puffy trail they left as they perambulated, covering long distances by foot as they travelled daily to and from destinations I fear to discover. Not mentioning the usual soliloquy that causes them to open their mouths as they made this daily journey. Subconsciously I could taste the air as my bus moved, tasting in every breathe the strong, bitter stench of Marijuana as these young men. puffed away their youthfulness, infecting the air with their testimonies of hopelessness often accompanied with the harsh truths of failed childhoods, wrong company, bad influence, media's unsolicited corrupt influence and all the ills that usually oozes from a failing system.
It is hard for a young lady to admit that these somewhat agile young men are the compasses pointing to the social, economic, cognitive and technological alterations in our system that has led to an increased decadence in the moral composition of our young. So what if there was such a substance responsible for the contorted visuals that has become a part of my daily routine? This thought soon became the only occupant of my heart's apartment, as I watched routine become a mind boggling revelation.
Leaving the usually chaotic Mushin daily to a destination that reveals an unusual truth was something I struggled to adapt to. All it took was a longer time stuck on the congested mainland roads to get me to see something that stays with me all day, until the day I saw the one that held me bound forever. Not in awe but in pains and confusion on an issue or situation my brain struggled to comprehend forever.
Stuck in reverse in my head, I could not help but ponder on the beginning. What went wrong? Why did it seem no one saw any of what I did? It is easy to blame it all on a dysfunctional family, it would have been perfect to cast stones like a broken home, poverty or a failing economy. It is no news that as a Nigerian, I operate on a whole different level of spiritual liberation, one that could blame the devil for anything and every thing and so it was a perfect time to say it was the devil. It was just the right thing to do, attribute the degenerate state of these young men to some black curse from an envious step mother or an attack on to offsprings of people who have somehow done some ills in the past, one in which the Almighty seemed to have found an offense worth punishing.
One fateful day still on my trip to work, it took a simple yet completely scary incident to make me realize the only salvation for these men lied in the combination I would like to call 'spiripsyche', one that involved psychological help, psychiatric intervention and of course a spiritual podium upon which families and friends can find some sort of support system, solace and relevance.
On this day, it seemed like all the gist about ozone layer depletion had reached its peak and all of the heat that was trapped somewhere in the stratosphere had been rolled up into small pellets which now dropped on mankind. The rate at which people dabbed their faces seemed as though we were all being punished for a crime we all committed as a group and those who had the luxury of having a functional cooling unit in their vehicles as they drove to their various destinations were the ones spared by grace. That was when I saw him. He looked new, different, not part of my register and from his appearance, I could have sworn just a few weeks ago he had a white collar job with an average pay. Still in his now worn office wear and somewhat battered portfolio, he sat at a street corner facing the road with his head intensely bent as he kept at his wrapping mission.
With over twenty years of Lagos experience, I would be damned if I thought he was wrapping anything other than the dried brown particles with which 'Unique' and his gang gifted their mouths and their lungs on a daily basis and so I already knew the weed without any taxonomical calendar. He wrapped with so much dexterity and was done in no time. Just as the part of my brain responsible for curiosity sprung into action, wondering from whence he would get a flame generator and half expecting him to rub stones together, I saw him pull out a match from the left breast pocket of what would have been an office jacket a few weeks ago but was now like a strange garment of sort.
In one strike, his wrap was lit like a burnt offering to a god that lived somewhere in his gut. The look of delight that swept across his face made me for one second see the vision of a man who had just been handed a cold glass of juice on this scorching day but was indeed taken aback by the reality of what played before my eyes. More angry than disgusted I was ready to turn away, for how could anyone think to ingest anything but an ice cold liquid right now? What planet was he from? I silently cursed the driver for taking this unusual route that he claimed was the fastest way to beat the traffic on the main road, a decision which eventually turned out to be the worst decision ever as we got a 30minutes extra dose of traffic congestion en route this short cut as there would have been on the main road.
But all the pent up anger was not really from the state of traffic. This stranger had provoked something in me and just as I was about to turn away I got the shock of my life. This fellow seemed to have found dessert to go with his main course weed. Being the main course meant that holding the wrapped up weed in his right hand made him right handed but the grace with which he held onto the huge piece of Jalapeno pepper, sucking on it and chewing on the seeds made me consider him an ambidextrous candidate but all of that didn't matter, I could almost feel my insides burn from the heat and hotness. Weed and hot pepper? This was a new level of psychosis...and there and then I wanted to meet Cannabis sativa. I wanted to have a conversation with marijuana and I wanted to sure as hell ask Cocaine some questions and that was when the real quest for truth began.
Flash back to a couple of years ago, my mother once told me the tale of a village witch doctor who was said to be in the business of curing mental health issues. According to her, no one ever knew what had caused the mental derangement in the patients but family members trooped in from far and wide to deposit their mentally retarded relatives in the care of this medicine man whilst he chained them up, flooding their system with a steady dose of concoctions whose recipes were never known to the ordinary man.
So if this medicine man was so powerful, how come we still had the likes of Unique, roaming the village and being a sore sight for the eyes as they painted an image that clawed at hearts even as they wasted away on a daily basis, creating a void in the work force of the Nation, one that has no economical fix? Now fast forward to a few months ago, my mother was able to unravel this puzzle, with an information not every one was privy to as she explained that it was malaria induced psychosis this medicine man was specialized in and so for those who were left ignorant and frustrated by psychotic relatives, they ended up delivering psychotic relatives to the hands of a man who treated a particular case only to have such relatives who obviously suffered a different case rot and die eventually.
You might want to ask what then happens, who is to blame when a living relative becomes a corpse in a matter of months? Well, no one but the gods I presume and so the answer to my question was definitely not to be found in the hands of an illiterate medicine man who was neither learned enough to understand that not all that seemed crazy was crazy nor smart enough to administer proper psychiatric analysis and so I moved on, away from the barbaric acts being practiced by some so called sect within a religious bracket.The ones who believed that psychosis was to be treated as a child who should not be spared the rod but beaten to submission as it was the only way to set the victim free who according to them was in some dark captivity.
As a Nigerian, it is hard to say religion has failed, as an African religion is all that we have left as our solid system of support when all hope is lost but has religion helped? How does religion fix 'Unique' and his gang? How does religion actually prevent the invention of such group of young men? Is there a part of religion that gives us hope by going right back to the past to fix fundamental issues that would adjust a present and rewrite a future? Is religion the antedote for our future as a Nation which has gradually been made handicapped by the crumbling mental health of our workforce, our future, tomorrow's leaders?
Fast forward to a few weeks ago, I met Bayo and for the few hours I spent talking to him, I lived a different life, his life. One that on the outside looked perfect but on the inside was a decaying mess. No sooner had I met Bayo, did my 'Spiripsyche' theory meet its birth. What began as a regular Tuesday ended with an extraordinary revelation. The revelation that right there just beside me every Sunday, the fingers who serenaded our soul as a congregation, with the expertise of an angelic version of Stevie Wonder but who also bore the burden of abuse, a life whose hope was wrapped within the thin wraps of weed and whose future was gradually being sucked up by the cold white hands of cocaine.
After several phone calls and referrals that found me calling psychologists and psychiatrists, I found a break when Brother Bayo had to go away to a rehabilitation center somewhere in Magodo. I was ready to unravel this particular mystery because for some strange reason I felt talking to Bayo held the key to all the other souls that loitered the streets of Lagos wallowing away in the selfish hands of drug addiction and so I picked a fine Tuesday to go on this search for truth.
After a series of back and forts for validation and verification I was in the anteroom of Wellspring Rehabilitation center. From where I sat in my velvety wrap dress with my legs crossed, I felt my heart rate pick up an unfamiliar rhythm. The serenity of the place gave me an unsettling feeling. Yes, serene is good but when you remember that within these particular walls are the souls of young people no different from the University graduates who held respectable positions at various organisations and levels, who by a thin line of neurotic alteration found themselves as the other side, the side where day and night didn't matter, the side where they cried from a pain they could never really explain as their bodies tried to understand the life in the deathly act of withdrawal, serenity quickly becomes silhouettes of sadness threatening to envelope you . I had already seen Bayo and even as I tried not to focus on him, I couldn't help but wonder how this fresh faced young man got to be here in the first place. With that thought still on my mind, I heard the voice and that was when I realized the reason Bayo seemed rather intent was because they had classes going on and so I joined in mentally.
The speaker was on a roll, talking about the effects of drug abuse, pointing out obvious facts that seemed to me like a tireless rigamarole until I listened some more and then I realized he wasn't just reading from a book, he was telling the story of his life in a way the members of the class could relate with. What better way to catch a thief than to think like one right? and if the look I got on Bayo's face is a replication of what the other patients had, then it was obviously working.
Twenty minutes of listening to a strange man talk about his ordeal in the hands of drugs and I was starting to feel like an addict myself, thank God for the intervention of the MD who said I could now see Bayo and so we were invited into a room with of course a young lady who was obviously a staff and a probable chaperone for Bayo who seemed undisturbed by her presence. From choruses coming from near by rooms, the quotes on the walls which were mostly biblical verses and the fact that Bayo revealed later the existence of two classes : Adullam and Gilgal which are both biblical sites, established Wellspring as a religious rehabilitation center and for a second I regretted being there. If this was yet another place that sees psychotic disorders as the devil's curse then how can I find the truths I seek in a mirage?
But one look at the young man before me made me sit. Just looking at him made me want to listen. I remember how haggard he looked on those Sundays and even though his amazing voice and his expertise on the keyboard made his oversized shirt and queer looks get lost on some, it wasn't lost on me and so seeing a better version of this person, without residues of his previous appearance evident, I knew there was something here that seemed to work and I was going to find out what. It was with this determination I set the recorder rolling as I was taken on a dark, twisted journey of self destruction.
The last child of a family of four children, a young Bayo was born into a comfortable family. For reasons we would never know, a young Bayo welcomed his teenage years and early adulthood without the involvement of his father as he was away in the UK. His fluent English had me inquiring about his educational background and was appalled when he said all he had was Secondary school education and had never gotten through with his Diploma course in music as he had to drop out.
Like every young boy his age, Bayo had friends of all sorts and cursed by the last child curse meant that he enjoyed certain privileges which did not always help his situation as a growing young man. As a Junior student in secondary school, he was already exposed to lunch time smoking of cigarette which according to him was always accompanied with a chilled bottle of coke and with Yoruba language being a subtle lingua franca in Lagos, his Ilesha background helped him blend well in Igbobi college after he had to be transferred there.
How does a young boy in Junior school get to find pleasure in cigarette at a very tender age is one question that soon seemed irrelevant when Bayo found himself in midst of even worse company at his new school where he graduated from Cigarette and a bottle of coke to indian hemp. It is a popular saying that you can force a Horse to the stream but you can't force it to drink off the stream. So Bayo's was obviously not a case of lack but there was a missing piece in the puzzle of his life.
How does one explain wasted opportunities? I sat and looked at this well groomed thirty five year old tell me tales of his adventure in South Africa where he was sent right after Secondary school, with the hope of uniting with his parents and elder sister who have long relocated to the UK. First cigarette than Indian hemp and later cocaine and that was how Bayo found himself deep in the chambers of hard drugs which left him bound and imprisoned for almost twenty years. His case seemed to be like a case of a continuous downslide, almost like every stage of his life was meant to further destroy him. Holding a toy gun and becoming a criminal overnight was how he loitered the streets of Johannesburg and Pretoria in search of money that would further destroy his life, as every penny made was re routed back to the stream of drugs and so he recycled his life over and over again with the same end result, destruction.
Days turned to months and months to years which according to Bayo seemed just like yesterday. The cold nights spent on the streets after being kicked out by roommates for stealing from them to keep his veins enriched with poison, the days without a bath and how he could not have cared less about a few bathless days. The early morning paranoia, the restlessness and hopelessness, half the time he claimed he had no thoughts and at other times he seemed to be upset over something he was not sure existed, while he rotted away mentally,psychologically and even physically as he described his face as shrunken at the time and so did his dreams of becoming a musician become nothing but a blurry reality he seldom had a grasp of in short moments of sobriety which wasn't frequent. On two occasions his mother sent him keyboards which he sold off along with his other belongings to purchase drugs.
Once he was arrested on a raid and remanded for over a year, only to be back to business as usual once released. Mind you, there was somehow a steady supply of drugs in prison and so prison was more like a chilling zone with less the hustle of living on the streets. You would think after he was arrested the second time when he lost his passport and deported, his life was going to have some meaning. But little did he know that he was coming back to a life that would leave him at the brink of death.
At this point family couldn't do anything. His mother fought tirelessly to have him come to the UK to see his father who was suffering from ill health but all of her efforts led no where, Bayo the son she loved so much was fading away in the face of reality and it seemed nothing could be done. His elder brother who had a wife and children could not bear to have him in his home and so with no where to go and no hope of changing his ways, Bayo eventually found solace in the arms of a drug lord somewhere in Lagos.
Like nothing that he was used to, Bayo got free food and shelter but not without a price. This drug lord operated a 24hours system where a mixture of drugs and weed were sold at a steady supply round the clock and so all Bayo and cohorts had to do was go out hustling to return with all they have made which would then be used as payment for more drugs which they ingested. When he told me about the deaths of room mates at the drug lord's cave and how the corpse of these roommates most of whom died from poor feeding and an overdose of drugs, were butchered and bagged for disposal, I felt chills run through my body as I looked again at the young man before me.
For what seemed like minutes but was only a few seconds I felt my inner man weep. We hear of addiction but nobody tells you the emptiness involved. Nobody ever spoke about how much of the victim's identity is lost and just how some never get back from the brink. We are never told that in the hands of addiction victims are like walking corpses, seeming to be, yet inexistent. Apart from an absent identity, drug addiction takes away the essence of a man, makes his destiny a thing of the past and like a worthless piece of paper, the victim's life is squeezed and eventually tossed and even though the forces that be try to pull victims away from the tight grip if destruction, once squeezed, paper can never be the same.
Wellspring seemed to have done a good job. Hence my 'Spiripsyche' thesis as they have some what found a balance by understanding psychosis was mental, needed psychological and psychiatric intervention whilst using a religious underlay as that support system that buffers the life of victims when they are gone. Providing a fall back mechanism and giving these patients a sense of belonging, a system they assure them that wouldn't fail when all else does. They have given to Cesar what belongs to Cesar by treating and then giving to God what was his by redeeming these souls.
At first glance, the young man before me looked nothing like the tale I have had to listen to for over an hour, but as I took one look at him, it was there, staring right back at me. In his eyes were a kaleidoscope of different emotions. One minute I saw hope as he spoke about how helpful the programme had been, at another point I saw confusion as though he could not understand how this ordeal was his. There was the time I saw a flicker of pain, as his eyes grew sad and I knew he still was not having it easy. I heard him talk about life after Wellspring and how he wants to further his education and I wept silently, for how much of his life had gone by. But then he told me about his song that was recently released and I knew without listening that there was hope for this one.
No sooner had I left before that thought was snatched by the cold hard truth that this was just one of the fifty somethings in my register who were just a handful of the total number of souls at the verge of total destruction. I stepped out of the tall gates of Wellspring and for the first time I felt it, the very first tear. I still cannot tell what that first tear was about, but the second and third came with their own reasons. I wept not for Bayo or Unique or all the others I knew, I wept for Us. I wept for you and I who lived in a society where such existed. I wept for the fact that our ignorance and nonchalance had a ripple effect that would arise when the walls of the hell of drug addiction and abuse falls flat, I wept for the reality of today and the uncertainty of tomorrow.
As I made my way home, I remembered Bayo's last words about his single and I downloaded and as his rich voice filled my ears through my phone's earpiece,I shook with convulsion from tears shed and tears to be shed as I dared to ask if Africa had a future in the face of this wasteland called today where all of our bright minds are gradually being slaughtered on the altar of drug abuse and addiction, so who then would be our tomorrow? From whence will our tomorrow come?