Nigeria's Leading Story Blog: Beggar, Leprosy, Subway, Road, Enugu, Railway, Train, Drugs, Medicine, Palms, Propeller, Push, Wood, Wooden, Coins, Fortune, Daughter, Life, Smile, God.
He rolled along the busy Enugu Railway subway connecting Ogui Road to the main Enugu Train Station. Sitting on a small piece of wood with metal rollers for wheels, he placed his hands on the floor and propelled himself forward. With every push, tiredness crept into his body as sweat streamed down his face. What was left of his legs folded inwards on the makeshift wooden skate that served as his sole means of transport. A closer look revealed palms with hardly any fingers. Leprosy had done terrible damage years back, eating away his fingers, toes and most of his feet. He could no longer stand on his feet as a result.
Along the subway was another leprosy survivor, also without feet and fingers. She plied the same route as Dinga every day. This morning, she looked under the weather. Instead of propelling her way to the Station platform; a prime real estate for beggars, she sat on her wooden propeller in the subway. She watched helplessly as a sea of travelers streamed past in both directions.
“Are you alright, Kalanki?” Dinga asked.
“I have not been alright since this terrible disease struck me down,” she replied humorously.
“You look awfully tired this morning,” Dinga remarked.
“I am very tired, Dinga. I slept here last night. I was not able to make it back to the home after begging on the platform yesterday. I wish I had money to buy myself some medication. I think I have malaria.”
“I am sorry to hear that. Can you make it to the platform?”
“I don’t think so. I am too tired. I could throw up any time. I’d rather do that here than on the platform. The station master may throw me out and that would be terrible for me economically.”
“But it’s difficult here in the subway, Kalanki. People are too busy in the subway. They hardly look around let alone offer anything to beggars.”
“I know Dinga, but I can’t go anymore. I want to lean against the wall here and rest.”
“I can pull you along with me, Kalanki. Do you mind?”
“Thanks, but don’t worry Dinga. I feel terrible.”
Reluctantly, Dinga rolled away stopping every few seconds to take a look at Kalanki who leaned against the wall with an empty plastic plate lying pitifully in front of her. Normally, she’d be singing and beating the ground with an empty metallic milk container. She would clamp the milk container in-between both palms and slam it to the ground intermittently while her voice bellowed through the station platform. Dinga arrived at his favorite spot on the platform near a soft drink kiosk. He had an old bag made of fabric hanging around his neck. It was covered in dirt and stains. Meticulously, he climbed down from his wooden propeller and sat on the floor, crossing his legs. He dug both hands into his bag and picked up his empty milk container. Then, he began to pound the concrete floor with it, singing ebulliently at the top of his voice. Slowly but surely, passers-by dropped coins into his plastic plate. With every coin that dangled and jingled in his plate, he upped the ante, raising his voice to a new level.
Inside the subway, Kalanki barely said a word. She wished she could be back at the uncompleted building that she called home. It was a two storey building where beggars, mainly survivors of leprosy lived, somewhat communally. A riotous wave of headache rocked her head while her stomach rumbled with pain. Her eyes were shut as she leaned against the wall, opening them every now and again when she was woken up from her labored rest by the footsteps of passers-by. Her plastic plate remained miserably empty. She craved her mat. Each time she opened her eyes, she wished she could be home, without having to go through the work of pushing herself there.
By the time the final train left Enugu, Dinga knew there was only one more train to arrive from Port Harcourt. He carefully emptied his coins into his bag and climbed back onto to his propeller for a short ride to the soft drink kiosk. He bought two cans of Coca Cola and a loaf of bread. He stashed his purchase in his bag and hung it around his neck. Expertly, he glided down into the tunnel of the subway to check in on Kalanki. He found her shivering slightly with fever.
“Have you had anything to eat?” He asked her.
She shook her head dejectedly. He unpacked his bag and retrieved the cold cans of Coca Cola. He handed her one, which she gladly accepted. Then, Dinga tore the bread in two and offered her one half. She had been starving all day. She devoured the bread and Coca Cola ravenously. After the meal, Dinga ploughed his way back to the platform for the final foray of the day. The Express train from Port Harcourt was always full. On this day, it did not disappoint. A throng of commuters streamed off the train as Dinga serenaded them with fervor. Again, his plate dangled under the influence of landing coins. After all the passengers had disembarked, he rolled to a corner and unloaded his day’s earning. Slowly, he counted the coins. He spread everything on the floor and used the palm of his right hand to move them from right to left as he counted meticulously.
When he had finished, he worked with both fingerless palms to scoop his coins back into his bag. He had sixty eight Naira seventy Kobo, which was a massive ‘haul’ for him. He rarely raked in such a figure. Gladly, he dragged his fortune in his bag as he rolled down the subway. When he reached Kalanki’s position, he found her lying on the concrete floor. She had vomited everything she ate at lunch time. Passers-by walked on as Kalanki breathed heavily.
“Kalanki!” Dinga shouted.
“I am feeling very sick,” she answered with great difficulty.
“We have to get you some medicine.”
“I just want to be home. I don’t have money to buy medicine.”
“Money or no money, you need help,” Dinga said matter-of-factly.
He dragged her up, working with great difficulty owing to his lack of fingers. He was careful to avoid Kalanki’s vomit. Placing both palms on either side of Kalanki, he dragged her towards her propeller. Kalanki placed her palms on the ground and used the last ounce of strength in her to help Dinga pull her onto the wooden propeller. Once she was hoisted on it, she sluggishly folded her legs and placed her hands on the sides of the propeller. Dinga rolled in front of her and said, “Hold my back the best you can with both hands.” Kalanki reached for his back with her palms. She grabbed as much of his shirt as she could, clamping on a chunk of it with her palms working together. Dinga dug his palms into the ground and pushed slowly, propelling himself and Kalanki forward. It was a slow, arduous process but he was determined to get her help. She felt nauseated, yet she managed to hang onto a palm-full of Dinga’s shirt. Mustering all his might, he pushed and dragged forward. When they reached Ogui Road, Dinga stopped and raised his hand to attract the attention of passing vehicles that screeched along the road at frenetic pace. He wanted to get them to stop so he could drag himself and Kalanki across the road.
No one seemed to pay attention to them. Each time he wanted to cross, he sighted a speeding vehicle coming down the hill or one laboring up the steep leading to the North of town. Finally, he found an opening after nearly fifteen minutes. Kalanki was barely hanging on. Dinga pulled with all his might and dragged them both across the street. He knew there was a drug store (Chemist) near the stadium. He dragged Kalanki and himself towards the location.
“We will soon be there,” he assured her.
“Take me home, Dinga. I have no money to pay for medicine.”
“Let’s find out if they can help first. I can’t take you home to die, Kalanki. You are terribly sick.”
“What more is there to live for? With my condition, death seems a good thing to me…at least it would end my miseries. This is no living, my friend. I have thought about death a lot in recent times,” Kalanki explained.
“It is not the best life my friend, but it is better than none,” Dinga countered.
“I doubt it…In fact, I don’t doubt it; I know it,” Kalanki insisted.
“If you die Kalanki, I won’t get to see your beautiful smile again. From someone’s smile, you can tell whether they have a good heart or not. Your smile is nothing but a symbol of good heatedness. Your laughter, when you do laugh is like a fire that energizes all around you. I as well have thought of taking my life several times. It seems like each time I consider it seriously, God uses you to prevent me from taking that sad and ugly path,” Dinga remarked.
“How do you mean Dinga? God can’t use me when I have yet to ditch the idea of putting a knife through my own throat…if I can hold the knife in position to puncture my arteries. I guess that is why I have yet to go through with it,” Kalanki countered.
“One morning, I woke up and waited for everyone to leave the building. When it seemed like everyone was gone, I took a knife from the floor of the kitchen and managed to hold it to my wretched neck. I was ready to sever my arteries and veins so I could end this life of pain and shame. That was when I heard you laughing raucously outside. You had been outside all along, chatting with someone. The energy that oozed out of your heart led me to reconsider my intention. In fact, I heard you say that you were holding onto life for your daughter. After you family threw you out for fear of contracting leprosy, you have held on to the hope of seeing your daughter again. There was life…faith and hope in your voice as you spoke. How come you could laugh with such joy despite you situation…our sordid situation? I wondered, while I was on the verge of taking my life? I dropped the knife and pushed myself outside. There, you were laughing and chatting with Abudisan. Your face glowed like sun in the sky as you smiled, perched atop your wooden propeller. Your smile pierced my heart. If you could smile and laugh despite your condition, I was going to live. I was going to hang onto life and scrape past each day,” Dinga explained.
Kalanki said nothing for a while. Dinga pushed harder as he tried to reach the drug store before they closed. The sun was beginning to inch behind thick dark clouds. As she clamped tenaciously onto Dinga’s ragged shirt, she felt balls of tears descend languidly down her face.
“I have never stopped thinking of my daughter. The desire to see her again has kept me going. To be very honest, I smile sometimes, but deep inside, I am dead,” Kalanki said quietly.
“What you consider death has given me life over and over again, Kalanki. As bad as things seem, that beautiful smile of yours and your energetic laughter offer hope and strength to someone…may be some people. If you take your life, you’d rob me of the purpose to live on.”
They reached the store just in time. Dinga narrated Kalanki’s symptoms to the chemist.
“It sounds like malaria to me. I will mix some medication for her,” the chemist explained.
He walked behind the counter and reappeared shortly afterwards with a sachet of drugs.
“Here you go!” he said.
“Take one white tablet, one blue one and one yellow one at the same time in the morning, afternoon and night. There is enough drugs there to last your for at least a week and half. That will cost you sixty five Naira.”
“I told you to take me home Dinga” Kalanki whispered into Dinga’s ear.
“I have no such money,” she added worryingly.
Dinga took the sachet and handed it to Kalanki who clutched it between her palms. She was not comfortable placing the drugs in her bag after it had not been paid for. The chemist would not take it back after someone like me has touched it, she thought. Dinga opened his bag, tossed his fortune on the floor and began to count the coins.
“What are you doing?” Kalanki asked.
Dinga ignored her and continued to count. The chemist waited until he was done counting. He scooped the remaining few coins into his bag while leaving the rest on the floor for the chemist.
“That is yours. Please do you mind taking them?” He asked waving his leprosy-damaged hand in the air. He obliged Dinga. Bending over, he put on a pair of gloves to protect himself even though neither Dinga nor Kalanki had any sores at this time. He placed the coins in a special bag to make sure they did not make contact with the rest of his money.
“You can’t do this, Dinga,” Kalanki pleaded.
“That is your whole day’s earning. You can’t spend it all on my medicine,” she continued.
“Let’s go home so you can take the medicines soon enough,” Dinga answered.
“I feel bad taking this from you Dinga. I will pay you back someday. Thank you!!! God bless you Dinga!!!”
“Thank you, Kalanki. Your smile and overall kindness over the years have already paid me in advance,” he replied.
“I would not have to think of suicide if everyone thought like you…acted like you, Dinga.”
“If you continue to sparkle the world around you with your passionate energy and tender-heartedness by giving up the idea to take your own life, then I would not have to think of suicide ever again myself,” Dinga answered.
He rolled into place and Kalanki grabbed his shirt as before. He began to glide down the hill, using his palms on which he had placed old, tattered slippers as breaks when he needed to slow down, rubbing it against the ground.
“Did I really keep you from taking your life?” Kalanki asked him.
“Yes you did. I did not make that up, Kalanki.
I never knew I was of any value to anyone, she thought to herself.
“You are more valuable than you realize, Kalanki,” Dinga said as though he read her mind.
“With our condition, we don’t seem useful, but I know we are in some sense. We all are, my friend in one way or another. I wish I knew how…maybe we’d find out in heaven when we see God’s face,” Dinga philosophized.
Kalanki smiled broadly with tears of joy raining down her face as oncoming air brushed past her face on the descent downhill. I never knew I could touch anyone…I never knew I had touched anyone, she thought to herself, gleefully. My hands will probably never touch anyone, but perhaps my heart will…my smile and my laughter. I hope my daughter will see those when I eventually see her face again, she prayed quietly as Dinga propelled forcefully downhill.
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