What is a man who cannot have plenty, lavish and waste? What is a man shackled by dependence, hobbled by lack? What is a man who cannot please his cravings and assuage his thirst, because the means dance an elusive dance? Other than self-adulation and the admiration of a detached few, what scant reward, if any, might integrity bring in these climes? The tall white man, perhaps Belgian, because of his strange accent, had come to the house clad in but a shirt, jeans and boots. Unlike many white men he had seen in these parts, this one’s shirt fit firmly over a well-proportioned body. This white man had called himself Bart van Rijk, and had announced he was here to see me, to discuss issues that may end up being beneficial to both of us. That was how he had put it.
The house, a 2-bedroom flat had seemed spacious enough 7 years ago. There was but Maria and I then, sharing the same room, sharing the same king-size bed. Then Matthew had come along, as had Maggie and Mildred. Matthew was seven years old now, Maggie five, and Mildred four. Mildred looked just like her mother, a brooding cherub with little dimples when she merely moved her face. She was the apple of my eyes, a fact she knew and regularly took advantage of. It was getting difficult to be her boyfriend, as Maria called me now, as the finances were getting tighter and tighter. Not even with these terrible economic realities. There were bills to be paid – school, hospital, utility, tax, otherwise. There were appearances to keep up, however meagre. And now, the still alien form of what was to be our last child swelled Maria’s previously lithe body. I had been there with Maria when the doctor announced she was 4 weeks pregnant after surveying the grey haze of the ultrasound scan. Later on, the doctor would announce the new arrival was to be a boy. Two boys and two girls, exactly as Maria had wished when we were but mere friends with very well hidden romantic intentions toward each other. We had agreed to have only four, all within ten years or thereabouts. She nagged often now and I was quick to blame it on the stew of hormones that would be bubbling and coursing through her veins. But I knew. We had been through three pregnancies and I knew. It had never gotten this bad. Never.
Mother had sent word from the other big city. Boma had bought another giant car, and had built another giant mansion. Mother would say it as if any mansions were small. Boma. Mother had sent word five times in the past year. That would mean Boma had bought five cars or so in that time span. Boma. A mere five years ago. I knew his roots, and the roots of his wealth. Boma was almost family. In fact, his family thatch now a mansion sat just next to ours in the village. We wandered the length and breadth of the village together, baiting gullible and easily irritable girls, getting in scrapes with other boys, and evading the stern grasp of village discipline. We had parted ways when my superior ability at academics had fetched me a scholarship to study in one of the best government secondary schools in the South, a course that took me to studying Public Administration at the prestigious University of the South. Boma had stayed on in the village and its schools chock-full of half-cooked teachers, and then on to some nameless polytechnic in the wild. Two years after I had gotten my own job, he had taken a job in the Power Ministry, at a lower level – in pay, prestige and clout – than I, because I was a university graduate and he an Ordinary National Diploma holder. Then he had wangled a way into the racketeering in the Power Ministry, because that is the only way he could have acquired this much in so short a while. I’m sure. His money stank, but then no one could perceive any stench on any of his houses, his cars, and any of his other property. The market woman had never complained that Boma’s money reeked of exploitation, neither had the agent who had brokered the deal on all of his houses ever rejected the payments on account of its questionable source. Never.
When I had taken the government job, Mother and Father had thrown a big party. I objected but who was I in the grand scheme of things? And then I had married Maria, and Mother and Father – Mother especially – had insisted we closed the street with our merriment. After all, was I not an only child, the only evidence of all the efforts to bear the fruit of the womb? Maria and I moved to the new city after the wedding. Seven years on, Mother still lived with Father in their old government-assigned bungalow.
Because I was in the Projects Ministry and was believed to have the ear of the Minister, emissaries from the village came to see me regularly. They demanded this; they demanded that. I did my best to persuade them that something would be done, always. Something hadn’t even been done in the big cities yet. It was unfortunate but yes, they would wait. The last time I was in the village, I had been publicly shamed. What’s the use of a dog without teeth, an impotent man, of a car without an engine? They had asked many other proverbial questions in appropriate proverbial language, and I had taken every one of them on the chin, like the man they didn’t think I was.
I longed for a big house in the village, at least to show that I too was worth something, and to shut the rabid villagers up. I wished to move Mother and Father to a big house in the other big city. I wished to take Maria, Matthew, Maggie, Mildred and myself to Europe. We could wander Europe with glee. Paris, Monaco, Rome, Florence, Prague, London, Milan. The United States. The Carribeans. I have these lofty dreams, yes. But I am bound by what I feel in my bones is right. I do not attempt to reap where I haven’t sown.
Or I haven’t tried. Not yet.
The white man had made his case. I had listened to him detail what he wanted me to do, and how this thing he needed me to do would be of benefit to me. I could not reason why I had been targeted or who had targeted me for him. I had been eager to dismiss him that day he had approached. I had asked no questions. Did my face bear my turmoil? I had told him I would have a reply for him soon. Tomorrow was that day.
The heavens did not fall.
The next day, the newspapers were agog with the news of the fire. No one ever knows how fires get started in government buildings here. Some thought such incidents were representative of the state of the nation and its nonchalance towards safety practices. The more cynical commentators figured it was some smart civil servant (or servants) trying desperately to cover tracks etched in the mud. None of these schools of thought and certainly not their scholars, no matter how erudite, held as much as a tiny fraction of my attention that day. Of major concern to me was that the fire had burnt every file in the Records Room to ash, soot and gas. It had burnt other places too, but in bidding processes organized by Projects Ministry, the Records Room was important, because of a compartment known as the Blacklists.
To check the wanton disregard for best practices in the construction of the nation’s infrastructure, the administration of General Buba Abu Saleh had started to list the names of companies that shortchanged the government – and in essence, the people – by failing to fulfill the promises they had made in the construction contracts signed with the government. The plan was to disallow them from ever bidding for a government contract again, by virtue of their previous incompetence. Some level of sanity had been achieved with this method of dealing, and several sheaves of lists – now affectionately dubbed the Blacklists – still survived till today, or more appropriately, till yesterday, even though General Saleh had relinquished power to a democratically elected government fifteen years ago.
Mr Van Rijk’s company entered a bid, a process his company should never have been allowed to partake in, given that the last dam they had built in a town in the East had collapsed and thousands had perished in the ensuing floods. I had gone through the Blacklists.
Mr Van Rijk’s company won the bid. Perhaps he had learnt his lesson; perhaps he hadn’t and was still up to old tricks. Whichever way it turns, I will never be anywhere in the vicinity of the East. The probability of a broken dam affecting me personally is minute to nonexistent. I’ll sleep easy and the heavens will not fall.