That Friday, Rayo’s father arrived to take her for the weekend. Her cousin was getting married and Rayo was determined to wear the wedding uniform she had made at such expense weeks earlier, even if she had to sit in a wheelchair to do so. When she was safely installed in the car, De Sampa and the patient’s father, who had done the heavy lifting, returned to the great hall. They were sweating liberally. The father opened his wallet and counted out some notes. ‘She can stay at home now,’ said De Sampa delicately, as he folded his fees into his pocket, ‘I can be treating her as out-patient from now on…’
‘No, no, no,’ said Rayo’s father, hastily, ‘here is better for her – so as to heal very, very well. I will bring her back on Sunday, unfailingly.’
As the father made his escape, De Sampa wandered through a house that was once more his own, muttering under his breath. I was not very hopeful that he could put down his foot on the subject, come Sunday – he seemed too dependant on this one client. As he paced, he seemed to arrive at the same conclusion, because he stopped suddenly in front of me and announced a marketing drive. It was the first he was undertaking in a decade, he said. As he outlined his plans, he feverishly filled two bags with supplies. It was going well enough, his briefing, until I realized that he actually expected me to carry one of the bags and accompany him to Waterside’s weekly market. I tried to clarify that, and provoked another outburst. ‘I am not a coward,’ I insisted, ‘but I am here as an observer, not a vendor.’
‘You’re also an eater, not so? So you are just going to sit in the house like a houseboy while I go and work, not so?’
I considered the dangerous demotion from unwilling apprentice to houseboy. ‘Don’t you have a more decent bag?’ I asked eventually.
‘Ghana-mus-go is the best type of bag for this business,’ he said, mollified. ‘It can carry everything. That’s the price-list, memorize it, let me go and baf!’
He entered his bathroom and I made the startling discovery of his keyring by the packed bags. De Sampa did not lock any doors in his house on the theory that no one would dare to rob a witchdoctor with his reputation. But he had one room – the inner sanctum of his deity – that was always locked. That room held another fascination for me, because it contained his filing cabinets. Unfortunately, the key never left De Sampa’s pocket… until now. The enormity of what I was about to do gave me pause… but I also recognised the sole purpose for my so-called residency. I snatched the keyring and dashed across the hall.
From the speed of De Sampa’s past ablutions, I knew I couldn’t count on more than ten minutes. I let myself into the room, the weak bulb doing nothing to dispel the overwhelming gloominess. There was a smell of stale palm wine and incense and my eyes stung. On a central plinth stood an ugly slab of pottery that seemed more failed-secondary-school-project than deity. Its two bead eyes glared blinklessly and I saw where De Sampa got his stare from. Yet, my mental stopwatch was running and I had no time for staring contests with clay artefacts. I turned urgently to the two filing cabinets in the corner. De Sampa was a decent archivist and I easily located his 1982 file. It was much thinner than more contemporary files which broke into multiple volumes, but I knew I had run out of time so I took the entire file and escaped the oppressive room. By the time he was out of the bathroom, his inner sanctum was locked, the keys were back on the table and his file stowed safely in my back pack.
Just then, I wanted nothing more than to escape to my guest house room and lock myself up with De Sampa’s file, but there was no way to get out of the visit to Waterside’s weekly market without rousing suspicion. When we arrived, the best pitches were gone, the regular traders having been arriving since six am. Eventually (much to my relief) we found a place to spread a jute mat somewhere discreet and away from the central square. Yet, the relief did not last very long. As soon as De Sampa laid out his bottles and polythene bags of herbal preparations, he pulled out a thumb piano and took up a loud sing-song in a disconcertingly loud voice,
call it mansecticide!
is he wicked man?
it will drive him away!
is he married man?
it will drive him away!
is he poor man?
drive him away!
drive him away!
they will run from my mansecticide.
do you want rich,
and faithful man?
His was not so much a singing, as a croaking voice – and his fingers could barely keep a tune – but those were not enough to deter his audience. In no time at all we were completely surrounded by humans of the female persuasion. I was stumped by the attention – and from his delight, so was he. I had figured that I would pass the most embarrassing day of my life in some anonymity, instead we quickly become the centre of attraction at the once-weekly Waterside market, which attracted shoppers and traders from eighty miles up and down the Niger. I had sudden visions of being arrested as an accomplice in a 419 scam.
A buxom, middle-aged woman was complaining, ‘I don’t want to be smelling of insecticide…’
‘God forbid,’ swore De Sampa, ‘mansecticide smells like perfume. Apprentice! Spray it on her hand and let her see!’
I glared at him, but there was little point in telling illiterate market women that I was a writer-in-residence rather than apprentice. Resentfully, I sprayed the brown liquid on the back of her hand and she lifted it to a nose so large that I wondered that she would want to drive any man away. She wrinkled said nose: ‘Is smelling like… like…’
‘Like perfume!’ said De Sampa, not taking any chances, ‘just spray under your armpit and it can last for one whole day. No need to buy expensive perfume again – and waste it on a cheater of a man!’ I was now squeezing sample puffs on many jousting hands.
‘Does it work on husbands?’ asked another woman turning the bottle around suspiciously, ‘If a husband is sleeping around, will it also drive him away?’
De Sampa snatched the bottle from her; he raised his voice, ‘Is not for married women o! Are you hearing me now? If it drives your husband to divorce, don’t call my name o! You’re hearing me now o!’
The woman snatched it back. ‘How much is it?’
And we had our first sale. Every now and again, he switched products and talked up another potion, but mansecticide was his biggest seller that day – until noon when we took a lunch break, sitting on a bench in front of a brazier, waiting for yellow plantains to brown. A muscle-bound truck pusher took the seat next to De Sampa. He was eating a metre-long, skinned sugar cane with fingers that seemed to have biceps of their own. His complexion was engine-black and the hair from his nostrils had grown so long that they had merged with his bristly moustache. He chewed steadily until his sugar cane was no longer than a truncheon, and his eyes never left the witchdoctor. ‘Are you wearing body-armour merecine?’ he asked eventually, juice dripping down his chin.
‘What’s that?’ asked De Sampa.
‘You know that juju that armed robbers like: so that should in case they catch them and lynch them, they won’t feel anything?’
‘What are you talking about?’ said De Sampa, with the faintest trace of worry in his voice.
‘…because we’re having a meeting now, now. I don’t know what they have decided, but…’
‘Who is we?’
‘The Agbero Club of Waterside,’ he said, pointing his truncheon in the direction of a clump of men gathered around a gin kiosk. They seemed a tribe of muscle-builders, as toned and resentful as rejected actors at a casting audition for Gladiators. He tore off another chunk of sugar cane with vice-like jaws, ‘We have seen many of our girlfriends buying your spray. We’re not saying that you shouldn’t find your own chop money, but what we are saying is that nobody should put san-san inside another man’s gari, that’s all.’
De Sampa coughed, ‘I’m not trying to put sand…’
‘What we are saying is that there’s difference between driving your truck on the road and driving your truck on another man’s toes.’
‘Look, my brother, one thing that I hate is to step on another person’s-‘
‘If is left to me alone, nothin’ spoil. – Me, I’m not a wicked man and I’m not a married man. I am not even a ashawo, but what I don’t understand is: what’s your vex with poor people. That’s what me I don’t understand. So poor man can’t have girlfriend again? Is that what you’re saying?’
Two men drifted away from the clump around the gin still and sauntered towards us. From their loose gait they seemed more than sufficiently lubricated and De Sampa did not seem too keen on lunch any more. He rose, ‘Is it that play-play thing I am saying just to sell my market that you’re listening to?’ He was burrowing urgently in his long bag and came up with a small dark bottle. He slipped it to the truck pusher.
‘What’s this?’ said the man suspiciously,
‘Girlsmagnet,’ whispered De Sampa conspiratorially, ‘If they like, let them spray all the mansecticide they want, just rub this behind your ears and on your adam’s apple, let me see who born the girl that will say no!’
The truck pusher had twenty pearly white teeth. (I write this from visual evidence.) ‘Is that?’ he demanded, with repressed excitement. ‘How much is it?’
‘How much?’ snorted De Sampa, ‘A man that is eating from his brother’s pot of soup does not ask how much! You’re making me angry now.’
‘Sorry o,’ said the truck pusher happily, ‘God bless you, my brother.’
‘Ami,’ said De Sampa, he was several feet away now, and pulling at my arm.
‘What about the roast plantain?’ I asked with a straight face.
‘Is a bit soft,’ he said distractedly, ‘I don’t like soft roast plantain, let’s go.’
So we packed up his heavy bags, over the protestation of the fresh womenfolk who had arrived during our recess and were waiting for him to resume his trading. He gave out a few cards as his truck pusher ‘brother’ held up the rest of the angry club members and soon we were hurrying out of the market. At the entrance he turned into the motor park, and over my weak protestations, we boarded a bus heading for Port Harcourt. ‘Why are we going to Port Harcourt?’ I asked, as if I didn’t know.
‘You will soon see,’ he said. He waited until the bus was some five kilometres outside Waterside and the travellers had settled down, then he rose up and started his pitch. This time he was flogging sachets of barks and roots that had to be boiled for three hours and stored overnight to yield anti-malarial potions more potent than chloroquine. (The bus was full of men so he could hardly have pushed his bestseller.) But the passengers were a crankier audience than the ladies in the market, and most of them were strangers to Waterside. There were catcalls and heckling and within minutes of standing up, the bus was pulling up on the hard shoulder.
‘Is this a bus stop?’ asked De Sampa, looking up and down the deserted stretch of express way.
The bus driver jumped down from his cabin and strode around the bus. He was digging savagely into his belt bag, ‘Is not a bus stop,’ he said angrily, ‘but this is where you’re coming down!’
‘Okay,’ said De Sampa, getting the message, ‘I’m sitting down now, don’t worry, I’m not selling any more…’
‘You’re not sitting down in my bus,’ shouted the driver, sprinkling holy water violently all over the place, ‘this is a born-again bus, I don’t want any witchdoctors and their apprentice wizards here!’
‘I’m just a herbalist,’ protested De Sampa weakly.
‘The same ten and ten pence! Out!’
De Sampa resisted gamely, but eventually we had to haul the Ghana-mus-go bags down from the bus. As the bus pulled out, De Sampa shouted angrily, ‘Go! And if I don’t get to Port-Harcourt on foot before you, my name is not De Sampa!”
There was a collegiate roar of laughter as the bus pulled away. I was feeling a little embarrassed at his silly boast myself, not to mention angry at the situation he had landed me in. It was a hot day and despite the number of bottles we had sold that day, my bag was far too heavy to be hauled back to Waterside, especially in addition to my backpack. ‘What now…’ I began, then I broke off as De Sampa lifted his bag over his head and hurled it beyond the hard shoulder down the ravine that abutted the road. ‘Why?‘
He shrugged, ‘It’s just grass and glass bottles. There’s plenty more at home and I’m not suffering myself to carry it back to Waterside – I’m not an agbero. Come let’s find somewhere to eat.’
‘But, your mansecticide… you could have sold it for…’
‘…I’m not selling to get rich,’ he reminded me, ‘let’s go, I need palmy!’ he turned and started walking back towards Waterside. Thoughtfully, I hoisted my own bag overhead and threw it into the ravine as well. I hated to admit it, but it was somewhat liberating, this philosophy of ‘just enough for today and tomorrow’. It was just north of laziness and yet… I followed him, but after just a few steps he sat on the hard shoulder and pulled off his shoe in search of a troublesome pebble. He was thus engaged when a bus pulled up on the opposite side of the road. It was the same one that evicted us barely ten minutes earlier. The driver jumped down from his cab and hurried across the express way. He seemed a different person. On his heels came his conductor and an elderly passenger.
‘Did you say Sampa?’ Asked the driver agitatedly, ‘Are you the same Sampa that was splashed with mud by a rough driver who did not stop to apologize, who cursed the driver and told him to ‘keep on driving’ and the driver drove and drove and drove until his petrol finished and he left the car in the middle of the road and he kept running and running and running for two days he was running like a madman – until his people finally caught and took him to asylum…’ he broke off, panting.
‘That was my grandfather, not me,’ said Sampa, looking deep into his shoe, ‘and they didn’t take him to asylum. They were not stupid. They brought him to my grandfather with a black goat and three red cocks for the sacrifice.’
‘So you are still standing?’ marvelled the elderly passenger, and the driver and his conductor dropped to their knees before De Sampa. The older man hitched up his trousers. ‘Can’t you see that their Ghana-mus-go bags have already got to Port Harcourt before us? Is God that saved all of us today that we caught them before they left! Me I don’t want to be delayed in a mortuary until De Sampa gets to Port Harcourt! That’s what I keep tell these young boys, eh? Is not everybody you see in a bus that is an ordinary person, eh? But… look, De Sampa… the fart has been farted, eh? What else can we say except “sorry”. Please forgive and forget, remove the curse from the bus. Don’t let innocent passengers suffer because of one person.’
‘Is just a mistake, that’s all,’ said the driver piteously.
‘Ah,’ cried De Sampa, raising his two innocent palms to the skies, ‘Me I didn’t curse any bus o…’
‘Okay bless the bus,’ begged the born-again bus driver, ‘and come with us, I will take you anywhere, I swear on the bible…’
‘Okay I will bless you: go well, you and everybody in the bus too; but I’ve changed my mind. We’re not going to Porta any more.’
The old man seemed just as relieved as the bus driver at our new travel plans. ‘Just refund their bus fare,’ said the old man, ‘can’t you see we’re delaying De Sampa?’
Within a few more minutes we were alone. De Sampa smirked helplessly as he pulled on his shoe, ‘I told you, my grandfather was really famous.’
‘You mean notorious. Don’t worry, it won’t be long before everyone will be talking about how you transported two heavy Ghana-mus-go bags from Waterside to Port Harcourt just by waving your hands.
De Sampa got to his feet. He was in too good a mood for my sarcasm to upset him. ‘You’re just like the bus driver, very soon now you will kneel down and start begging me! Come, let’s look for somewhere to eat, I’m hungry!’
As I trudged after the witchdoctor towards Waterside, his 1982 file grew heavier in my backpack and I wondered, idly, if the current idol in his inner sanctum was the same one his grandfather had worshipped.
I wasn’t worried, by the way. I was just wondering.