It was an opportunity too good to miss. An opportunity far greater than he could ever have wished for at this time of the day on a busy Lagos bus. A real lunatic seated beside the Christian evangelist had apparently inspired in the other a string of religious songs, given impetus by the insistence of the lunatic on clapping and shrilly singing along.
An acid but nervous sermon had followed; a sermon which had caused a great deal of ruckus between the preacher and a Muslim cleric on the bus. The bus had consequently come alive with approbation and encouragement from all angles. A warm audience: a showman's greatest dream.
The lean tall man rose from his seat like a neat magic trick. Behind a face glistening with sweat, body oil and an affected good humour, desperation strained to be set free. He wiped his face with a grubby handkerchief and cleared his throat. Then he held aloft a black cheap imitation leather bag for all to see. It was a welcome diversion from a returning boredom and all eyes turned in his direction. Just what he wanted.
'Good morning to you all brothers and sisters; fathers and mothers in this bus. All of you chairmen , chairwomen and good members of the standing committee', he announced in a well practiced voice which carried well to all points in the cramped space.
' My name is Doctor, Professor, General Nwawu'. A pause for effect.
'Now a lot of people will be wondering what an important man like me is doing in a bus such as this. The reason is that my hobby is to sell things. Now you should be wondering what sort of things I sell. The answer is that I sell anything; everything. Selling is my hobby. It is also my job. If you are a manufacturer. Whatever it is that you make, I will sell it for you as long as it is not stolen. My hobby is selling. Bring your things to me and I will sell them for you and give you your money. It is as simple as that. I will sell your things on radio, television, satellite and even on a bus such as this. I know my job; and I do it well'.
'Some of you may even have children that are so stupid that you always wonder what to do with them. You send them to school, they refuse to stay. You send them to the farm; they eat all your maize and go to sleep. You send them into the street to sell and they return home with another person's carton of broken eggs. Now what can you do with such a child. No; don't give them away to the herbalists to make juju sacrifice with. Bring them to me. I will carry them to the market, sell them for you and give you your money. It is as simple as that. My job is to sell'
Peals of laughter ran through the crowd. Good; he now had an attentive crowd. The introduction was most important. Rather like the first incision in a lobotomy . A careless cut and that was all. No second chance. In this operation however, the crowd was the undesirable growth from which he needed to recover the useful part: money. Now to really get into doing the main job.
' But today I am not selling naughty children. I only sell them on Sundays. Today I am selling you a better relief. What can be more distressing than for a man to get home in the night and fall straight asleep, while his wife lies awake thinking of nothing but sex. A man comes home and begins to discuss politics with his wife, like he's is an important journalist working for CNN. And on the few days that he can manage it, it is only for a few minutes after which he is gasping like a dying fish. My brothers, we all have times that our bodies appear like they don't belong to us but to our grandfather who died twenty years ago. There are times that you feel so weak and tired that you think you will die before night falls. There are days that we wake up in the morning wishing that it is Sunday; and when we get to work, we pray for the day to end quickly so that we can go home to bed. Don't you have days like these?’
There were of course some nods of assent.
‘Now; I can tell you that it is because you are not having what doctors call balanced diet. Many of you think that once you have filled your stomach with whatever is available there is no more problems in life. Some imitate the white man by eating doughnuts , meat pie and hamburger with tea. That is not balanced diet. I can tell you that when the white man wants to eat balanced diet, he takes six eggs, twelve sausages, bacon, salad, a gallon of milk and so on. And that is only for breakfast. But I know one brother who because he wants to imitate the white man, he begins to drink tea from morning till night. And how does he do this?. My brother takes a teaspoon of sugar, a teaspoon of Bournvita, a teaspoon of milk; and he puts it all in a pail of hot water. And then he begins to drink until his stomach swells like he's pregnant and he's sweating like he's just wrestled an elephant. This is not balanced diet. It is poverty'
A rumble of laughter.
'Now this brother, when his wife got pregnant last month, he picked a fight with her over nothing and vex out of the house; fear of money catch him. When he come back finish after they beg him. You know what he do for pregnant Madam ? He go market and buy plenty garri and cow hide, instead of to buy madam egg, milk, sausage, Bournvita, butter and so on. Now what kind of pikin will Madam born?’
The lapse into pidgin was intentional. It was the language of camaraderie. Much shaking of heads. No idea.
'When madam born it will be thick-skinned child - weak and sick everyday and costing money for hospital charges. You will wish that the child should die, but it will not agree. Hit it on the head with hammer, the hammer will bounce off. Give him poison to drink; he will cry for more. Throw him inside the sea; the sea will throw him back at you : hopeless child. When he manages to grow up, and you send him to school he will not stay. After ten years ask him two plus two, and he will say six. Ask him the capital of Nigeria and he will say it is Oshodi Market. Useless child'
The crowd was now falling apart with laughter. But he did not laugh. Indeed he looked so serious that his failure to be amused prompted more laughter.
'This is no laughing matter', he admonished. And the crowd laughed harder.
'Lack of balanced diet can kill. I once had this brother who was always so weak that just last week he fell off a bus, and another bus coming from behind killed him. We could only identify him by his dentition. He had only ten teeth left. Nasty thing this poverty'
Regretful shaking of heads.
Time to stick in the scalpel, he decided.
'Lack of balanced diet causes tired blood my brothers and sisters. And tired blood makes you weak. And I say this with authority, because I used to have this problem until I met this wonderful White doctor from Germany who introduced me to this medicine'.
He unzipped his bag and pulls out a red package, which he held aloft for all to see.
'Now good people, this medicine is a wonder drug, and I am not saying this because I am selling. It has worked for me and for hundreds of other people. Some days it is so difficult for me to get out of the house in the morning because of the crowd waiting at my doorsteps to buy this medicine. I even find that some people have been waiting since the previous night. You don't have to believe me If you don't want to; but this medicine really works. My grandmother will be one hundred and fifty years old tomorrow, thanks to this medicine. My grandfather is not as lucky. He died before I was born, and I feel so sorry for him. Someone told me just yesterday that my grandmother is pregnant again. When I go home at Christmas I will be going to give the man who put her in the family way a good handshake for having the wisdom to share the medicine I sent home to her. You may think I am lying, but believe me my parents had twins last year and they are both over a hundred years old'
More laughter; clapping. The twins or your parents, someone hectored. The man scowled. Don't ask me stupid question, he replied.
'This medicine that you see in my hands is called Vitapower. It is made in Germany, not India . It is not like imitations that you will find fake medicine sellers selling to innocent people like you good folks on the bus like this. No, this medicine is the original stuff. It contains twenty-six vitamins and minerals to keep your blood in best condition. It has iron for strength. And for the benefit of some people, who refused to go to school, it is not the kind of iron that you use to press clothes or build houses. It is iron for thick blood. This medicine I tell you works against tiredness, impotence, arthritis, lumbago, headache, fever, rheumatism, cough, catarrh and most common illness. Some even tell me that it can cure cancer and AIDS. But I will not mislead you good people because I have not yet tried it on people so afflicted. However, If it does I will not be surprised. It is a very strong medicine.
'And how much does this wonderful thing cost? Of course it is not cheap. Nothing good comes cheap. At any pharmacy a box of thirty capsules will cost a hundred and fifty. However since I am only promoting it, I will sell for one hundred and twenty or for a sachet of six a mere twenty five. Raise your hand anybody who desires long life”.
About ten hands shot up; all for sachets.
'Anymore ?' , the medicine seller announced hopefully. Another hand. One sachet.
Miserable start. Time was precious in this game. Never give the suckers time to think clearly. It was time to change tact.
'It appears that all the poor people in the world have assembled in this bus today for a family reunion', he announced with contrived annoyance.
'Poor people don't recognise a good opportunity. My job is to sell. And it is because I work hard so that I will not need to get a gun and come knocking at your doors at night demanding your money. Now, how many of you will want me to remain honest?’
A few more hand up. Fifteen more sachets. God bless all you kind idiots. But still not enough, he observed.
'My brothers and sisters, now that you have shown me that you are my friends, we must not part ways without me sharing a problem with you. For five years I have been in this horrible city. I have not for once been able to go home because I can't afford the transport fare. Now what could be more distressing than a young virile man like me living all alone ? Do you know what I had for breakfast today?; bread. What did I eat this afternoon? ; bread. And what am I likely to eat tonight? ; clap for yourself everybody, it is bread. All because I don't have a good wife who will cook a good meal for a hardworking man like me. Weep for me friends
.'Of course you can’t pick just any girl to marry. To marry a nice Ibo girl I will need to save for twenty years just to pay the dowry. Save for another twenty years to pay for the wedding. Now I don't know how true this is, but that is what they tell me. Hausa girl ? forget it. They won't ask you for much. But I hear their people strip you naked and then they flog you with a stick. Forty whacks on each buttock, and if your smile breaks you are not worthy of their daughter. Now I don't know how true this is, but that is what people tell me. Oh, some fool will say that with so many Yoruba girls around, a handsome chap like me has no problem. Well with Yoruba girls the story is a lot different. Not much dowry, no flogging. But what you don't initially pay, you pay a hundred times more for the rest of your life. Everyday it is parties. Father dies; party. Mother dies; party. Baby born; party. Even when you lose your job; party. Those people are insane. They will kill you with party. Now I don't know how true this is, but that is what my friends tell me.
' But I am not willing to take chances. Just last week, my mother message me to send one thousand Naira so that she can send me a nice girl from the village. A nice dummy girl who will do exactly as I instruct without asking any questions. Sit, stand, cook, speak, shut up, lie down. A nice stupid dummy who will give me no extra troubles.
' I have exactly six hundred and fifty Naira in saving. I need three hundred and fifty more to get myself a wife. I appeal to you good people of Nigeria to come to my assistance. To make my dream of a decent life comes true. How? Just buy three boxes of Vitapower and I will be grateful to you for the rest of my life. Thank you'
Five hands went up. The medicine seller made his sale; sat down and contemplated his next bus ride. It was yet afternoon, barely three- o -clock. Painkillers. He should restock on painkillers, he mentally noted. The evening traffic would be heavier, the people less resistant, aching in all places. Painkillers. The evening harvest should be more bountiful.