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Close Encounters With Edwin Ogidi-Gbegbaje By Basil Okoh

 

 

The man walked in fear into the expansive office of the director. He was disheveled and looked distraught. You could read a lack of self assurance in his steps. His unsure steps told the story of a man walking into a place he may not be welcome.

He had the carriage of a man who has seen the world and lived it hard and rough but today, the bounce and the self assurance are all gone, taken away by the absence of food in the stomach and money in the pocket. He has come in shame to his old family friend as the last redoubt.

His friend saw him as the door opened for a guest to step out and called out to him. Today will be a lucky day, thank God. As the director called out to him, he practically leapt into the open office. When life has dealt you wicked blows, you don’t wait for doors to open fully. You learn to leap through half open doors for survival. The host stood up to shake hands and welcomed him warmly. It was obvious to the small crowd in the directors office that these two were old friends coming from a long way back.

“O boy, how now, long time. You’re looking under the weather”, the director said to him.
“Oga na so. Weather nor good at all”. He said it with the listlessness of a man carrying a useless burden over a long distance.
“Wilson, (not real name) na me you dey call oga? Wetin dey happen”?

Wilson looked around nervously. He was uncomfortable seeing the many people in the office listening in to the conversation.
“You nor want people to hear us”? the Director called out. “
Ok, come siddon here”,
The director pointed to a seat by his side, away from the usual and unending crowd in his office.

The man sat by the director and went into his long tale of hard luck, wicked friends and neighbours. He spoke in what he believed was in whispers, but everyone in the room heard the entire tale.

The many friends in the room were used to it. Hard time stories are told very regularly in the office of Edwin Ogidi-Gbegbaje like the regular spurt of water from a spring. And he listens to them all, patient and intent, with a fixed scowl, head bent sideways and eyes looking up to a spot beyond the ceiling, with the pen clutched in his right palm tapping his head, gaze so intent as if he was consulting the heavens and asking the angels to come join in and listen to the travails of life.

The story drifted back and forth and took longer than the usual, but in the end, the director asked the man to go back to a seat further away. His face had changed and become set, his lips pouting. In the place of the fixed smile was now a deep scowl. His eyes were darting around at nobody and nothing in particular. The office fell silent. Almost everyone in the room knew the look and what was to follow.

His boys sat silent, waiting. And after a while, the voice called out with a force.
“Jo”
“Come here”.
Jo was by his side even before the command was complete. He knew the call was coming.

The bug of sympathy had bitten Edwin Eguonomu Ogidi-Gbegbaje, again. Everybody in the room knew it. They know the look. It happens frequently.

It comes as a flash of self revelation, like the sudden revelation of of the answer to a difficult examination question. You must treat the question and ensure its completion before taking on any other matter.

The sudden seizure immediately takes over his entire being and he does not treat any other matter until his patient is treated and walking again.

“Joe, go and look for money, now”! The “now” came like a clap and Joe knew better than to stand there arguing. He dashed out and half the men in the room followed him. The others also knew that the command was not directed to Jo alone. Everybody was to comply with that order and until the money is brought in, no one was going to have peace.

Edwin Ogidi-Gbegbaje sat there leaning hard on his office swivel chair, still staring at a fixed spot on the ceiling, his hand now tapping the pen steadily on the Government file spread out in front of him. The ten minutes it took Jo and his boys to come back from consultation was like an eternity and the room remained tense. Jo moved to him across the room in long strides. He didn’t bother to whisper.

“Oga, my cousin, the doctor who just came in from the U.S says he has some money at home now. He just changed his dollars to naira. Can I …….?
He was cut off so sharply.
“My friend, go get the money. What are you waiting for?”.

In two strides, Jo was out of the room. Just as the door was to bang after him, the directors voice rang out. “Tell him we’ll add a little something”. As Jo and his boys left, the office fell back to normal and conversations resumed. Half an hour later, Jo was back with an envelope and handed it to the director. The director peeped into the envelope, left it on the table and called out:

“Mr. Wilson come back and sit here”. The distraught man with the hard luck story stood up. The Director signaled him to sit down.

“This is the money you asked for. Part is to pay off the rent you owe and the other is to look for a cheaper apartment. Jo, hand the money over to him. Jo gave the man the envelope containing the money.

“Now look here Wilson. I borrowed this money and I’m giving it out to you. You did not convince me with your story and I do not believe every thing you have said here this night. I believe some but many are lies. Outright lies”.

“But Oga….”“Hey stop and let me finish. You’re my senior but I must tell you that you have been living the life of a prodigal son. Yes, vagabond may be a better word. And I mean it. When I remember how your parents and my parents lived as friends, as one family, I feel like crying to see you turn out the way you have. So, I believe I have a duty to do this. I’m borrowing money to bring you out of shame. Your parents left you so much wealth in Sapele and Benin, so many properties but where are they all today? You sold them and now you’re a tenant being pursued like a destitute. Take this money and never come here again except for a visit”. The man quietly took the money, genuflected and walked away.

The office was quiet for a long time until Gabriel shouted to Jo.

“Oga Jo, go and bring good money to me now!”. Jo gave him a long and hostile look and released a long hiss.

“I hope everybody here heard Jo hissing because I asked him to bring me money. If a vagabond can get so much from Jo, why should a good boy like me not get a little money”. Just as the director swung up, Gabriel dashed through the office door and the director yelled “Monkey” after him. The place regained its cheer.

It was a busy midmorning on a Friday in the office of the Secretary to Government of Delta State. The office of the Permanent Secretary was busy as usual with staff and visitors milling around. The overflow emptied into the corridor. Two women were climbing up the stairs and stood hesitant at the top of the rails. They moved to the door of the office of the Permanent Secretary.

They were dressed in rich “Hollandis” wrappers and leather shoes and bags to match, necklaces and bracelets in gold from perhaps a Milano Designer shop. The head gears stood wide and tall like small umbrellas attached firmly on their head. The head gears gleamed golden in the bright lights of the office.

It was an intimidating presence, except perhaps for the hospital smell. Yes, the smell. It flowed into the office in a strong waft that you could immediately notice and couldn’t ignore. It was a hospital odour and it quickly made a presence of its own in the entire office.

Quickly, they were ushered into the Permanent Secretary’s office and offered seats at the back row. It was obvious that the office assistants were in a hurry to usher them away from the outer office.

But the Permanent Secretary waved them to a chair close to himself and welcomed them warmly. The smell was getting stronger and people started leaving the office one after the other. They were both women of old beauty who had seen the good times and had been through many offices of power and influence. But beauty and power are not good friends of time.

The darker one stood after the introductions and said: “Madam has something private to tell you..”, and walked away to the outer office. It was now obvious that the smell was with the madam who stayed. The entire office was now empty, except for the friend reporting this story. The smell was heavy and overwhelmed the air-conditioning. Just then an office assistant came to open the windows but the Permanent Secretary waved him away. And then the lady of previous means told her story.

It was a story of a long standing fight with a disease that was originally diagnosed wrongly but refused to go away after so many treatments in different places. A story of long stays in hospitals and money borrowed and wasted. She was now hanging on to the memory of a joy that she lost and does not know anymore. Until somebody told her of a traditional healer in the forest town of Idah. The man had healed so many in worse conditions with the disease and he offered the hope of a new lease of life for her. The man had started work on her but needs money to continue. At this point in her story, her handkerchief was soaking wet and her face was drenched in tears.

The Permanent Secretary said for her to wait. He asked her a few questions and fell silent. His head was now hung in it’s usual tangent and face looking upwards at the ceiling. A long while passed. And then quietly and without a hurry in the world he took out his phone and dialed. The phone was on speaker and didn’t go through and he dialed again.

Director of Finance, I want you to listen carefully to the instruction I am going to give you now. I’m sending somebody down to you. She is a lady, Mrs. … Please however you can gather it together, give her the sum for my leave allowance. I’m sending her with a letter of authority to collect the money. Please listen further, my travel and every other personal claims, add it all up and net off, please.

“Oga, I’m not sure your claims can cover the entire sum ooo! You asked me to pay two other persons before.

Please do the needful. This is urgent. I will cover with a cheque from my salary account. And he hung up.

She turned to the woman. Tears were dripping down her eyes and covered her now blotched face.

“Ah madam, don’t cry. Don’t cry, please. God is bringing solutions and you’re here crying”.

“Oga, I’m not crying because of my sickness. It’s been with me a long time now. I’m crying because you don’t even know me, yet you’re doing this for me. You know my friend who brought me here, but you don’t know me and you’re doing all this to help me?”.

He took her hand. “It is well madam”. He stepped out and called her friend in and explained to her that they had to go down to the office of the chief accountant to get the money. The woman stood there looking at her benefactor, dumbfounded and enthralled at the same time. And then she burst into song even as she cried. She prayed and prayed for her benefactor before they both left his office. And then the office assistants, all two of them rushed in and threw all the windows open.

It was a balmy evening at the new Government House Asaba. The night was advancing to overcome the day. We sat on the lawns of the white buildings, talking about things in general and nothing in particular. The insects were chirping in ernest now, serenading the night and warning us that the night had taken over the grounds and so we went back into the office of the Permanent Secretary.

And then after thirty minutes of watching a midweek Barcelona match, one of the night officers on duty barged in, breathing heavily.

“Oga, there’s a man o, a pastor outside. I’ve told him that you are closed and we are shutting the office but he refused to go away. He said he will sleep in his car and wait for the office to open tomorrow”.

“Which pastor can be doing that, he asked and where did he come from”?
“Oga, I don’t know. I’ve not seen him before”.

“Well, tell him to come in. There are people here. So he can’t eat me”.

The man came in minutes later, disheveled and looking worn from long travel. The Permanent Secretary stood up to greet and welcome him but the man was obviously in no mood for pleasantries as he just dumped himself on the visitors chair, obviously tired. He just sat down heavily on the chair opposite the Permanent Secretary and said nothing for a long time.

“I want to see the Governor”, he announced at last with a tad of authority. “I must see him. This night”.

“I’m sorry sir, I cannot make you see the Governor. He is not even in town. And you don’t have an appointment”.

The man sat there forlorn and looking dejected. It was obvious that this was a man of means who does not have the habit of taking no for an answer. The man had fallen on bad times judging by his visage and his clothing. In spite of the loss of means, he oozed confidence and self assurance.

“Where is the Executive Assistant. He is supposed to meet me but his phone is no longer connecting”. He named him.

“His Excellency is indisposed”. The man did not move a muscle. “He is not in residence now and it is already night. You will have to go and come back tomorrow sir”.

He looked at the Permanent Secretary with clear hostility in his eyes.

“You don’t understand, do you”? It was the kind of question you would ask a child. “I don’t have a place to sleep over, I don’t have money, I don’t even have petrol in my car and me and my driver are tired. We are driving in from Kano”.

It was then I sat up looking at the man.
“If I may have your name and address sir, I will see what I can do to help”.

At that point I knew that my friend who cannot hear a sympathy story and remain the same was now taken in. Again.
“My name is Bishop Godwin Elomobor of the New Generation Church. I’m coming in from Kano”.

I was now forced to join the exchange.
“Ah, Bishop Godwin Elomobor, I repeated. New Generation Church”. You have a church on the old Agidingbi Road, now called Lateef Jakande Road, Ikeja, Lagos”?
“Yes, my friend”, he said, looking sideways at me.
“You look different sir. What is happening to you, I’m sorry to ask”?
“I don’t look different my friend. I look down. And fading out”
“No sir, you’re not fading out. Not just yet sir.”

“I’m fading out, I say. I have serious prostrate problem. I’m searching for resources to travel to the US for treatment”.

The Permanent Secretary who had been writing furiously stopped on hearing cancer. He grabbed his phone and started calling the protocol officers and a hotel across town. He was now shouting at the man at the other end of the line. “Keep one suite in the name of Bishop Godwin Elomobor. The two men are arriving in thirty minutes. Please dinner should be ready by then. They are VIP’s please, his Excellency’s guests. Protocol will contact you very soon. Mark the booking as confirmed, please”.

He dropped the call and called the man in protocol again, gave him the name of the hotel and name of the manager he talked to. He then called up a driver from the Government House drivers pool and directed him to drive ahead of the Bishops car to the hotel. He reached into his drawer and brought out envelope and handed to the Bishop.
“Compliments of his Excellency sir”.

All these while, the Bishop didn’t say a word. He was just looking at the man calmly and without showing any emotions. He stood up and shook the Permanent Secretary’s hands and said nothing, not even a thank you.
The Bishop instead looked at me. “You say he’s your friend, pointing at the Permanent Secretary?

“Yes sir”.
“ Please keep him as friend. You have a good friend. I see that you’re not even surprised by this spontaneous act of kindness”.
“That’s who he is sir. I see it happen all the time”.
“All the time, you said”? But he doesn’t even know me?

Sir, It’s better when he doesn’t know you”.
“It happens always”, I continued. “Its not just about kindness, sir. It goes deeper than charity. He loves humanity and can’t stand the pain of others. So he likes to take the pain away from the sufferer and place it upon himself”.

“That is a profound thing to say of a mortal. You noticed that I didn’t say thank you?.

“Yes sir, I noticed”.
“God’s blessings will rest in his household”. “Just watch”. And he left.

Arthur Yugbovwre retired from the Civil Service of the Delta State Government. He was a director in the Cabinet Office of the State Government and retired from service there. He was my friend I met in Eddy’s office and we always had arguments over bananas. He asked me one day while I was driving to Agbor to stop at Umunede on my way back and buy him bananas. I forgot to buy him bananas or even to stop. Fortunately, I didn’t meet Arthur until three weeks afterwards. But he didn’t forget to ask for his bananas.

“Arthur, you would not be expecting me to keep bananas in the booth of a car for three weeks”.

“You should have called me or brought it to my house”. “Where are my bananas? Please hand my bananas over to me”.
Arthur, you know what, this shouldn’t cause trouble between us. I’ll make up for it with one thousand naira”.
“Just a thousand naira”?. Well I didn’t ask for money, I asked for bananas. Give me my bananas”.

And that’s how our joke about bananas was born. Everywhere Arthur meets me, he asked for his bananas. On this fateful day, as I drove into Summit Road from the Benin-Asaba expressway, I heard shouts of banana, I recognized my friends voice and stopped, right in front of where bananas are sold. When I climbed down from the car and looked for my friend Arthur, the person I saw was looking so different, frail and badly emaciated.
“Arthur, what happened to you”?
“My friend, let’s settle this banana dispute finally here today” He was smiling but looking real bad but his voice held strong as usual.

Look I’m ready to buy any quantity of bananas here even if I have to leave my shoes behind. What’s happening to you, Arthur”?

“You’re seeing a living man and getting so worried. I’m supposed to be a dead man. Your friend, PS Eddy is a magician and he is the reason I’m still alive”.
“What happened Arthur”?
“I had a stroke. A bad one. And the reason you see me walking and talking to you is your friend Edwin Ogidi-Gbegbaje. That man is a magician”.
“You had a stroke, Arthur”?
“A very bad one and there was not a naira in my house. I’ve not been paid a naira of my retirement dues. Is it not magic that I’m walking and talking to you? It’s one man, that man you call your friend”. “I for don die since”! I sat down on the pavement in front of the fruit market.
I was lost for words. “But why didn’t I know about all these? We sat there for another thirty minutes, lost in a banter about aging and the associated illnesses.
We finally lost Arthur three months later following resurgence of the sickness. Eddy took over the family as well as the funeral costs for Arthur. We were all at Ovwian/Aladja to pay our last respects at the funeral of Arthur and I still regret that I had no other chance in this life to make good on my promise for bananas. @basilokoh.

 

 

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