When Len arrived at the meeting, twenty minutes late because he was delayed by detours to pick up the provisions he ordered for the repast at John’s home, most of the guests were already gathered. There were on hand many physicians, a few registered nurses, and a couple of pharmacists.
Big John’s house was big, like everything John did, but it was also designed and built with attention to detail. Situated on a slope, its focal point was the basement entertainment arena. An arena it was, but only half of it was underground. The western half was at the level of a creek running behind the house. Half of its north side was taken up by a vast TV screen, tall as a man and framed in polished timber; the other half was a large and elegant bar crowded with assorted drinks. On the south side of that basement lounge was a kitchenette with an extra-wide refrigerator, its glass doors permitting a view of rows and rows of drinks. The middle of that lounge was dominated by a wide balustrade spiraling around a big, soft shaft of light that poured down from a transparent dome. That stairwell rode all the way up past the living and bedroom levels and on to the roof. John’s architect was a wizard, Len marveled.
Behind the house, between the basement and the creek was a sandlot to one side and a barbecue pit on the other side, both hemmed in by a lawn that reached up to the edge of the creek. That lush, half-acre lawn had emplacements for poles that held a net for volleyball. Sometimes John wheeled out a ping-pong table for games with his friends. Those amenities made his house a favorite venue for many social events of the African community and the business associates from among whom John drew his circle of friends. Children played in the backyard while their parents sat watching from deck chairs on the lawn, or lounged inside the arena to chat or to watch TV. Except at night, most visitors came into the house from the rear, entering through a glass door that looked out to the lawn and creek.
The wall-sized TV screen was showing a football game that drew enthusiastic attention from many of the men sprawled in John’s basement. Others were huddled in private whispers. Len recognized most of them, as almost all were physicians he had run into previously at African parties: Zach Milla and Antoine Fraya, John’s “brothers” (meaning that they too were from Cameroun); the Nigerians Robert Mbamalu, Grace Okeke, and her husband George Okeke; Charles Kodjo, Kenneth Quartey-Mensah, and Angela Kuffuor, the Ghanaians; there were also several physicians of other African nationalities. After stowing the provisions Len made his rounds, greeting and bantering with the ones he knew and introducing himself to the ones that were new to him. The game on television was on half time break.
The catering lady whose family was manning the barbecue pit stepped into the room and whispered to Big John. Sensing that dinner was ready, Len went around with two bottles in hand, replenishing drinks. Suddenly, as he made to resum his seat, all heads turned to look at the glass door. There, bathed in the light of the setting sun, an apparition was framed in the doorway. Well, not quite. It was more corporeal than ethereal, but it seemed to glow as it took a few hesitant steps forward, its face lit up with a gentle smile. Human and female it was, but it stepped lightly as a ghost, with both arms held up as if in supplication. From the left arm dangled a bag of woven raffia studded with patterns of fine coral beads; the other hand held aloft a pair of sunglasses. Her hair was silver-grey and hung willowy, in bangs and tresses about her ears, where they set off oval hoops of ivory. That mop of hair was a major endowment. Whether the product of graceful ageing, or an artifact of coloration, it was a winner.
And her dress! It was in zebra stripes of blue and brown, just translucent enough to outline her legs. Along the uplifted arms the stripes coiled in spirals; at the torso they tapered down, converging at her slim belt line. Below her waist they flowed around her hips and flared out like a fan. The raised arms and billowing long dress, and the gloss of Big John’s floor at the threshold beneath her feet, produced the illusion that she was floating. Her upraised arms seemed to mimic Len’s as he held up the two bottles. He realized he was staring rudely at her. He mouthed “Nefertiti” before he could restrain himself; then he backed away to his seat.
She squinted past him into the room, recognized a few people and exchanged nods with them.
“Hi. I’m sorry to be late, but the parkway was so gorgeous with carpets of maple leaves beneath stark branches, I… well… I tarried a while on the way.”
Big John came to her rescue. “Not to worry. Dinner was only just about to be announced. I suppose you’re called Dr. Fast for a reason. Being fast means that, like the hare, you tarry on the way and still hope to arrive in time.”
Len, still mesmerized, leaned towards the ghost and recited the last stanza of Robert Frost’s famous poem, The Road Not Taken:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
The lady looked quizzically at Len and he explained: “Sorry: Robert Frost.” He unfroze, put down the bottles in his hand, and resumed his seat. She came over and sat on a deck chair beside him. “How do you do! You must be Dr. Obi,” she said to Len with a smile.
“Yes, Dr. Gista, but please call me Len. Everyone does. After all, I’m only a doctor of books, not of people. But how did you….” His question trailed off as John announced dinner, inviting the ladies to lead the way.
The food was good, the wines excellent. Everyone commended John for the selections and he told them to thank Len, who brought the wines, cheeses, and crackers. Dr. Gista was initially tentative with her glass of wine. She leaned over and asked Len why he didn’t include sweet wines. He went to the fridge and brought out the moscato and sangria that were served earlier with nuts, crackers and cheeses. Len had put them back in the fridge just before she arrived, when the caterer came in and whispered to Big John that dinner was ready. Len poured her a little sangria and watched her as she took a sip of it. She smacked her lips softly, saw disapproval on his face, and chose to stick with the pinot grigio that was served to her for the pork and goat meat dinner.
Len chose the pinto for convenience really, for it was stocked in profusion on supermarket wine shelves. The stores did with wines as boutiques do with ladies’ fashion, he reflected: a new wave comes each year and floods the stores, and older varieties can’t be found even if one wanted to pay more for them. He was not sophisticated enough to tell a chardonnay from the Chablis he used to like in the 1970s and 80s, and he sometimes wondered if vintners were not just juggling names on wine labels. For whatever reason, pinot grigio was suddenly everywhere, affordable and agreeably fruity so that drinkers found it a good introduction to dry white wines. Dr Gista read the wine and cheese labels and scribbled notes on a little Post-It pad she kept in her handbag.
A half hour was all the time Big John allowed for dinner, to the inconvenience of Len, who was a really slow eater. Today he was even slower than usual; he kept racking his brain. He could not shake a strong feeling of déjà vu. He had seen this lady before, in his dream perhaps? But, no, he almost never remembered his dreams anymore. It was frustrating how these days he would have the most vivid and enjoyable encounters in his dream only for them to fizzle and fade rapidly the moment he woke up. The harder he tried to recall a dream the more hopeless seemed the effort and he gave up.
John rapped on a bottle to indicate the floor was open for business.
“I hope everyone present has decided to join the cooperative. You’ve all read the agenda Dr. Kodjo and Dr. Obi and I put together. We suggested a simple formula for membership and benefits. I shall go through them as necessary, and please feel free to interrupt at any time with any questions you may have.”
He started by suggesting a name for the organization: CAMPUS, for Cooperative of African Medics and Physicians in the U.S. Someone said it was a catchy acronym, worthy of a prize. John said thanks were due to Lennox Obi, who suggested the name. Len smiled to indicate his pleasure at the compliment. Otherwise, there were no questions, and he continued. The cooperative was to be open to any and all persons of African origin practicing in a medical or allied field in the U.S., primarily nurses and physicians.
Dr. Kenneth Quartey-Mensah cut in with: “Medics and Physicians? Are physicians not medics?”
There goes “the Q-M”, Len thought. Owing to Len’s days in the military, Quartey-Mensah reminded him of “Quarter-Master.” If there was any contradiction or tautology, “the Q-M” would be the one to point it out; he was the sharpest wit among all those doctors gathered tonight.
“One might think so,” Big John answered with a smirk, “but surely you’ve noticed that African doctors like to avoid name association with the PhDs and other non-medical doctors? The averted eyes and shuffling feet and tapping finger suggested instant tension. Dr. Kodjo came to the rescue.
“In the UK, ‘medic’ is sometimes used to distinguish the medical doctors from surgeons. When a doctor specializes in an area of surgery (by becoming a Fellow of a College of Surgeons) his title reverts from ‘Dr.’ to ‘Mr.,’ but in the USA that distinction is not much emphasized. Still, both physicians and surgeons are concerned about patients being confused by the proliferation of new ‘doctors’ (he made chevron marks with both hands to indicate quotation) in hospitals who wear white coats and hang stethoscopes down their shoulders, some of whom even write prescriptions. So we like to call them ‘medics’ as a group.”
The tension eased a bit but did not dissolve altogether. It is always delicate when one broaches the enthusiasm of Africans for titles and exclusive honors. While educated African professionals like to pretend they are above such vanities, if you called one of them ‘Mister’ when it should be ‘Doctor’ or ‘Professor,’ you are likely to hear from his wife. To everyone’s relief, the feisty Dr. Kamma, the sprightly Ivorién internist broke the ice with his usual jab at his buddy Dr. Osunde, a Nigerian surgeon. The two of them liked to sit side-by-side and razz each other with mock taunts. Len once asked why they did it, and learned they had been through residency together and formed the kind of bond that seemed to thrive on verbal jousting all the time.
Flicking an elbow at his friend, Seydou Kamma said, “Well, surgeons are quite a different animal of course. Originally they were butcher’s assistants wielding sharp knives.”
Dr. Osunde (digging right back at his friend) rejoined: “And physicians were simple diviners of auspices from animal entrails. Didn’t they kill George Washington with excessive bloodletting?”
Len interjected. “It was actually Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon-General of the Continental Army, who administered the blood letting. Dr. Rush insisted there was nothing wrong with the treatment, and he later sued a journalist who accused him of malpractice.”
Dr. Marco Obiang, the podiatrist from Equatorial Guinea, looked impressed and said to Len,
“How is it you know everything, my dear fellow? Is there an encyclopedia in your head?”
But Dr. Kamma charged right back in with a fresh did at his friend: “You see, you butchers even try to blame us for your malpractice. That’s why we now paint bold scarlet signs on the particular limbs that are to be amputated, saying, ‘Cut this one, dummy’!”
Big John remonstrated with the feisty combatants: “Cut it out, both of you! Go duke it out on some cadaver someplace. We need to make progress.”
But Len quickly cut in. He knew that even after they dropped the subject, ‘medic’ would needlessly fester in the minds of members and perhaps even rankle among the non-physician members. It was better to nip the controversy in the bud. He suggested that CAMPUS could just as easily stand for “Cooperative of African Medical Practitioners in the U.S.” That did it. Eager concurrence sounded all around the group, and John said, “It’s settled then. We keep the acronym and let MP stand for ‘Medical Practitioners.’ That will better accommodate nurses and pharmacists as well.”
They moved on to the next topic. On and on they went for two hours. A few drank beer or liquor as they talked; the catering hostess served coffee and tea; Len refilled wine glasses, letting a recorder at the bar discreetly capture what was said. They agreed the benefits of members, the roles of affiliated hospitals situated in the home countries of members, the role of Campus in facilitating placement of patients from affiliated hospitals who need advanced treatment in the USA, the need eventually to set up a liaison office in Africa, preferably in Abuja, Nigeria.
They had stalled at defining the obligations of members and a couple of other contentious issues and deferred those to the end. Eventually they set membership dues at one thousand dollars per annum for each physician and half as much for medics and others. They agreed that each member must commit to at least one mission every two years, one of which should be to a country other than the member’s own country. Free consultation when consulting a CAMPUS physician being an important benefit of membership that could overload the scheme, they agreed to limit ‘relative’ to the parents and siblings of members and the offspring of those siblings. Thereby the loaded word ‘cousin’ was circumvented.
Len served another round of drinks, offering beer and liquor to those who preferred them. It was getting dark and so a few took their leave. Others glanced at their watches and sighed. Big John took the cue and wound down the session. He announced a follow-up meeting in a fortnight. Dr. Gista seemed fidgety, glancing twice at her watch, but none the less staying to listen passively to the banter that was trailing off. It seemed she was not quite comfortable being the only lady left in the group right then. Finally, she gathered her stuff, told Len she must be going, and rose to leave. She extended her hand.
“I’m truly pleased to meet you. My sister was hugely impressed at her first meeting with you.”
It immediately clicked in his head. His mind had indeed correctly registered déjà vu, but it was her sister he had encountered somewhere. What a resemblance! Except that this one was a bit taller and thinner than the other. “But how did you recognize me?” Len queried her.
“My sister described you well. She described your trimmed white beard.”
“Does your sister own an African restaurant?” Len asked her.
“Yes. Her name is Maryam and her restaurant is called Al-Jazzira. You went there to dine not long ago. Maryam said you spent an evening chatting with her and her staff, a most agreeable evening she called it. She said you seemed to know a lot about everything. And of course Dr. Obiang said the same thing tonight. Your mind must be an encyclopedia.”
“But everybody’s brain is an encyclopedia,” Len countered. “No, a mind is a supercomputer and an encyclopedia is the least part of it. May I walk you to your car? It’s getting dark.”
“Thanks, but I am a big girl. I’m not afraid of the dark anymore.”
Her assurance sounded a little forced, so Len persisted. “An overgrown girl, huh? I’d say that seems to describe you reasonably well. Anyway, you never know who is watching in the dark.”
Right then Dr. Kodjo came with Big John to say goodnight to Dr. Gista. They greeted, and Len cut in to say, “I’m walking the lady to her car; she is safe with me.” The lady said goodnight to Big John and Dr. Kodjo, and she and Len walked towards her car, talking as they walked.
“You see,” Len said, returning to the topic of night time stalkers, “it’s not always the muggers and assassins that one must beware of. Once, at a meeting of our high school Ol’ Boys’ Association in St. Louis I learned how IRS and DEA agents nailed a pair of our colleagues who made their living from the wrong side of the law. When a raucous birthday party got in full swing, agents went around noting the license plates of the Mercedes, Lexus, Acura, and Jaguar cars parked in the lots and the driveway. Then they lurked in nearby hedges and bushes with night-vision binoculars and cameras, noting who went into which cars eventually. After that it was a small matter of comparing the snazzy rides with the declared incomes of the parties in question, following which dedicated surveillance revealed who really did what for a living.”
“Ingenious! But I drive just a Camry, a comfortable and simple car to reflect my humble status and my insufficient means.”
“In your case, my dear,” countered Len, “the attraction would be the gorgeous driver, not the car.”
“You’re never at a loss for witty things to say, are you? By the way, I do believe you said something naughty to me when I came into the room, something about ‘ever tardy.’ What was it? Is that how you greet strangers?”
“Oh, no!” Len assured her. “I think I foolishly called you ‘Nefertiti,’ on account of your lovely swan neck, you know; but it fell from my mouth unintentionally. Pardon me. I meant no offense.”
“On the contrary,” she hastened to respond, “I appreciate the compliment. But then you also recited a poem by Robert Frost. Did you know Frost was my favorite American poet?”
“I was in referring to your excuse for lateness: your taking the scenic parkway that’s less traveled.”
“Didn’t he also write the moving poem about stopping by woods on a snowy evening?” She began to recite it and Len joined her:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
Yes, miles to go before I sleep.
“You know,” he said, “all I remember of that lovely poem is that last stanza. I first heard it in the movie Telefon: that chilling Cold-War psycho drama starring Charles Bronson.”
“Me too,” she said, and giggled. “I only remember that last bit of it. I read it in a high school poetry class. But, tell me, does your mind often go to poems and pleasant thoughts?”
“Perhaps your presence inspires pleasant thoughts. Yes, I love poems, but they must be short and really rhyme. I never took to Shakespeare’s sonnets in high school —too long and too much like riddles. My son thinks I’m simplistic to like only poems that gallop in rhythm and rhyme at the end of each line.”
She thought about it and said, anyhow, it was good to end the rather serious evening deliberations on a pleasant note of poetry.
But Len was not ready to let her go, so he brought up the deliberations of the meeting just ended. “You know,” he said, “that macabre jab by Dr. Kamma on his friend hit too close to home for me, the one about cutting the wrong leg. It can happen. The wife of my colleague in Nigeria had a wrong kidney removed by mistake. She was a very likeable woman, lively and friendly, always poking fun at her husband for his lifelong modesty that bordered on timidity. The poor woman developed kidney malfunction or infection, I don’t know which. Luckily it was limited to one kidney and they decided to remove it since they say a person can function well on one kidney. She went for surgery and the klutzes cut out her good, functioning kidney in error.”
“Goodness gracious! How horrible!” She looked aghast. “One wishes there was an effective way to label internal organs with a ‘Cut This One’ sign before surgery.”
“Perhaps a phosphorescent die that can be injected before surgery,” Len suggested facetiously, with a chuckle.”
“They could still inject it into the wrong organ,” she pointed out. “Murphy’s Law, you know.”
“Yep! I guess no one can be shielded one hundred percent from human error.”
“What happened to that wife of your colleague?” she wanted to know.
“I never found out. I was back here in the U.S. when news of that blunder came through. I suppose she had to rely on dialysis from then on. And the saddest part of it is that Nigeria did not have, has never had a tradition of suing for malpractice, and I wonder if they do now: I hear horror stories like that all the time.”
“Doctors always have the best intentions, of course. That’s what the Hippocratic Oath is all about. But we are human and make mistakes, more commonly these days, as our workload increases.”
“Yeah,” Len concurred, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions, they say.”
He gave her his card, which listed just his name at the top, and at the bottom his cell phone number, his email address, and his blog site; in the middle was just one word: “Retired.”
“Retired from what?” she asked. And he replied, “From everything!” She pocketed it and drove off.
He reflected on her beauty and her wit. He hoped she would attend the next meeting of the group on the Sunday following. Then he shuddered as he recalled a certain lady he had walked to her car once upon a winter night and thereby planted a seed that germinated and grew like Jack’s beanstalk, eventually busting his splendid life. But that was a lifetime ago, he reminisced, and everyone kept telling him that he couldn’t go on avoiding female company for the rest of his life.
“Cherchez la femme!” he whispered as he went back to John’s house to take his leave.
Chapter 3: Big John
Len and John had not been close friends, just recent associates. In fact, they had interacted strictly only on business dealings. Len was wary of John, thinking him a hustler par excellence totally devoid of scruples—a man who would fleece his own brother without batting an eye. Big John’s reputation in the local community of African professionals was as a quintessential entrepreneur, quite successful because he was cold-eyed, perhaps predatory. A few had been burned by John, but he did nothing illegal—only morally questionable. And lately he had kept up a solicitous attention to Len who was wallowing in despondency and isolation. What was Big John up to? Len was intrigued in spite of his withdrawal from society. He knew Big John did not really care a hoot about anybody but himself; so it might be an amusing distraction to see what he wanted.
Big John was a go-getter; one had to give him his dues. Starting off in 1978 with a Bachelor’s degree in marketing, John had parlayed a keen wit, an unerring instinct for quick opportunity, and a gift of the gab into a succession of brisk businesses. First, he went into real estate after obtaining a realtor’s license in 1980, rising in two short years to branch manager on the strength of his huge volume of sales to a burgeoning African community of middle-class professionals. His fellow Africans trusted him to get them the best deals, and his knack for fast talk won over superiors who would otherwise hesitate to commit large loans to members of an ‘unproven’ market of new immigrants.
Buying and selling his own dwelling places twice in five years, John pocketed enough profit to stash away in some other business. Just then a good opportunity came up in used cars, and John jumped into it with both feet. In 1986 Nissan Corporation decided to phase out the name franchise on the Datsun brand of automobiles. Nissan’s decision was based on a vain desire to boost their corporate name by featuring it—instead of the auxiliary marketing name Datsun— on their best selling car, the same way that Toyota and Honda did. Datsun was a hot seller in the mode of the Camry and the Accord. All three were reasonably priced brands that performed well while only sipping gasoline, a popular factor during the consumer panic occasioned by the Arab Oil Embargo. A joke current then was that, thanks to US Congressional cuddling of Detroit, America had only the Chevrolet Vega as an answer to Japan’s triad; but if patriotism inclined you to plug for the Vega then its thirsty, cast aluminum crankshaft would require a barrel of oil on board to top off the engine every few miles.
Not convinced that a car named “Nissan” would carry the same peppy appeal of Datsun, many dealers hastened to sell off their stock and close the line ahead of expected consumer defection to other Japanese brands. But Big John gambled in the opposite direction, that cars like the Datsun models would remain popular as memories of recent oil crises would keep consumer anxiety high. He started buying and selling used Datsuns. He struck gold. Again, the rising tide of new African entrants into the middle class made his business flourish. To that dependable market was added an influx of new students pouring into the U.S. from African countries now awash in oil money, and who came with comfortable scholarship stipends that enabled them to buy cars. The boom of his used car business peaked about the late-1980s. John amazed people with his instinct for timing in business and his ability to read straws in the winds of change.
Soon he added a line of refurbished, pricey automobiles, the European luxury cars, the Mercedes Benzes, Volvos, BMWs, and Jaguars, some of which disappeared after being handsomely insured, only to reappear in West Africa where oil-soaked wheelers and dealers were snapping them up with no questions asked. It was a scandal that surfaced a decade later and for which Big John narrowly escaped incarceration, as witnesses alleged to be his Nigerian and Ghanaian accomplices jumped bail and fled the U.S.A. In those years, before clever Nigerians carved out their lucrative niche in global solicitation racketeering, the so-called “419 scams,” they applied their imaginative spirit of predation and plunder to surreptitious crimes like insurance and bank card fraud. But, though suspected, John was never proven to have been involved in such practices. He just made money hand-over-fist from other men who were immersed in sleaze and fraudulent deals. John became touted privately as a Teflon-coated smooth operator, with the Midas touch.
In any case, John had enough energy and imagination to make ample living in legitimate, albeit borderline enterprise. In the early 1990s, his pockets were stuffed enough for him to indulge in ostentatious living. He designed a swank new home for himself and his family —his wife and two children— to be built from scratch. With boundless drive, Big John followed every phase of the construction, utilizing his realtor’s credentials and connections to obtain the most favorable terms. But he remained restless and, five years later, decided to ride the crest of a real estate boom to more profit. He sold his new home and started a newer and bigger one. This time, alas, his luck was down. Before the new house was completed the realty bubble burst and his builder went out of business. That was when the sagacity of Big John Balongo came to the fore. Where other men might have seen discouragement, he saw opportunity. Necessity became the mother of invention as he decided to finish building his house by himself; and he did.
“That was easy,” he must have said to himself. “Gee, I can build homes!” Through his close scrutiny of every phase in the construction of his two homes, he had learned enough about such matters as architectural design and blueprints, bills of quantities, project management and scheduling, mortgage draw-down sequencing and timing, sourcing labor and skills, and negotiating labyrinthine ordnances of the suburban cities concerning details of building construction.
Len was shopping for a company to build his own home about the time that John was transforming himself into a home builder. He knew John as a realtor and consulted him about construction loans for building, whereupon John offered himself as a builder. Skeptical, Len made inquiries and visited the house John had just finished building for himself. Then he learned a bit about John the man.
On account of his audacious spirit of enterprise and the faint whiff of sleaze about his deals —with impropriety suspected but never proven— most people thought he was a Nigerian. And they were not far off the mark. John was from Bali, Bamenda in Cameroun, a territory with interesting history. Bamenda was right next door to Nigeria, and used to be a part of Nigeria when Len was a boy. It was part of what was called the British Cameroons (spelled with a double ‘o’) which used to have a representative in the Eastern Nigerian Nigeria House of Assembly, the last of whom was a man by the name of E.M. Endeley. At that same time northern Cameroun (spelled with an ‘ou’ because it used to be a French protectorate or colony) had a northern province called Adamawa, which was peopled by Fulanis whose ethnic and Islamic cousins were located across the border, in Nigeria.
When independence approached for Nigeria and Cameroun in 1960 a plebiscite was held, as a result of which Bamenda opted to leave Nigeria and join Cameroun, while Adamawa province went in the opposite direction, leaving Cameroun to join Northern Nigeria. The preceding campaign was hot: John Foncha led the Bamenda drive to join Cameroun while E.M. Endeley led a faction opposing the switch. A popular song satirized the tussle between the two men: John Foncha e-tell Endeley say, small no be weak, Cameroun na we own now. (John Foncha, a diminutive man, was gloating about the victory of his faction, telling Endeley that ‘small’ did not mean ‘weak.’)
Cameroun is unique among African countries. Neither wholly in West Africa nor fully in Central Africa, it straddles both ethnic and geopolitical zones. And having managed to avoid the spate of coups d’état that plagued and derailed most African governments upon independence, it nevertheless has had only two presidents in the 55 years since its independence: Ahmadu Ahidjo who was the first president and who held office from 1960 to 1982, and Paul Biya who has been president ever since, amply exceeding Ahidjo’s longevity in office. Depending on one’s viewpoint, that situation spelled remarkable stability in a developing country, or it illustrates the president-for-life tenacity of Africa’s leaders.
It was not clear whether John identified with Nigeria out of atavism or of expediency. While the Adamawa Camerounians were happy to join their kin in Nigeria and come under traditional rule of the Lamido of Adamawa (one of Northern Nigeria’s big chiefs), the 1962 Nigeria-to-Cameroun swap of southern Cameroonians left them chafing and complaining. Bamendas turn nostalgic for Nigeria whenever they feel dominated by the Francophone majority in Cameroun. John was no exception. If you were a Nigerian, John told you that his grandfather was a Nigerian migrant worker who drifted over early in the twentieth century into British Cameroon and married a local woman. However, he wasn’t specific about where in Nigeria his grandfather came from. Sometimes he said it was Calabar in the South-east area of Nigeria; at other times it was Lokoja, at the confluence of the Niger and Benué rivers. And it was said facetiously that if you were a Ghanaian, Big John might tell you his grandfather was a Gan from the Accra region of Ghana—anything to get your attention and your business as he prattled on.
Impressed by what he heard and saw, and liking the prospect of consolidating the building and the funding in one set of hands, Len commissioned John to build his home. John did a nice job of it too; he had taken to home building like a duck to water. Using the two homes he had built (his and Len’s) as advertisement, John made his masterpiece by embarking on a big, bold, building spree. As before, he benefitted from the swelling ranks of African professionals who were now comfortable enough to want their dream suburban homes built to their own specifications. John buttressed his reputation by enlisting the participation of a couple of African construction engineers and architects. That turned out to be a solid PR move as his operations became an advertisement to showcase the capabilities of African immigrant professionals in private enterprise. It was a smart gesture at a time when FUBU (“For Us, By Us”) attire was the rage among urbanized African Americans.
Nothing succeeds like success. Never one to dream modestly, John expanded his operations into loans and home insurance. But the problem with a bull-dozer mentality is in not knowing when to quit while one is ahead. Consolidating his ad hoc home building team into another corporation with limited liability under his management, he leased big parcels of land in a couple of new suburban subdivisions and commenced simultaneous construction in a few new homes, then more and more until he had a dozen building projects going on at once. His main investors were area physicians of African origin: they were making good money, were not sufficiently savvy about how or where else to invest their earnings, and they saw the strong promise in a fellow African who had already blazed a trail of success.
In that process of runaway growth John spread himself too thin. He nevertheless insisted on giving his customers good quality: a car may come and go in a few years, but a building was a prominent signature project that stands for a long time as a testimonial to its creator. Something had to give, and did: his schedules sagged and slipped, and some snapped altogether as construction progress slipped out of phase with the sourcing of funds. Complaints mounted from customers whose new homes remained unavailable for occupancy months past the expected duration of construction. John had to accommodate a few of the loudest complainers in hotels and temporary dwellings —at his own expense. Some complaints went to City Hall; others reached local TV stations and the ensuing wrangles only distracted and delayed John some more. His investors hesitated, causing his financing to sputter and dry up.
But John had an ace up his sleeve. In addition to learning how to build homes himself, John had picked up another valuable lesson from the fall of the first home builder he had hired; he saw that the bankruptcy laws of the US afforded protection to speculators in the housing market, especially builders. So he gave up one day and filed for bankruptcy. Except for his personal car, all his major assets were held jointly with his wife. (He and his wife did themselves well, wheeling about in style: he in a one-in-town Bentley, she in a Mercedes S-555.) He transferred all those assets to his wife’s name. Thus, by the simple expedient of filing quit-claim deeds he slunk out from under the debris of his collapsed construction overextension. His home building customers howled, but he was safe from them. The chief losers were the doctors who were his investors, but they were as a group quite phlegmatic and not inclined to draw attention to their wealth or their losses.
John was also lucky enough or clever enough to have set up his different operations as independent corporations of limited liability. That enabled him to hopscotch through his enterprises: building, loans, insurance, real estate. With his gift of the gab he managed to retain the loyalty and support of some doctors and other investors who had lost money in his building spree. They were to figure again in his future enterprises, believing the failure of his home building ventures was due not to bad judgment but to factors beyond his control.
Through his expanding contact with African healthcare workers Big John came to focus more and more on doctors and nurses in his real estate and his loans operations. Some thought it was due to the reliability of income of workers in that sector in hypochondriac America. But John himself let out a hint of his main reason in an unguarded moment at a party, after he had had a little to drink. (He was really almost a teetotaler just as he eschewed other popular vices and bad habits, but this was his birthday party in his own home, and he had had a bumper season, so a little drinking and bragging was in order.)
In a huddle with Len and a few physicians John wondered why doctors and nurses are habitually so late in paying monthly installments on loans. Perhaps it was absent-mindedness? A doctor said it was because they were too busy to be book-keepers, and John retorted that they were all hemorrhaging money from the late fees that apply each month. The late fees alone exceeded the monthly interests on the principal balance, John pointed out; it is an arbitrary amount set by the lender and not really related to risk. He preferred, he said (burping), to lend to late but sure payers like doctors and nurses than to academics (he imparted that with an elbow jab at Len), who were notoriously prompt with their monthly payments. That remark was vintage Big John: alert to opportunities that, while quite legitimate, might be viewed as morally reprehensible.
“Professors,” John added, “will scramble to pay off on their credit card purchases ahead of their statement-due date just to avoid accruing any interest whatsoever.”
Len responded: “Academics do not have the good fortune to be able to itemize their charges: ‘three hundred dollars for each hour of engineering class lecture, one hundred dollars per office hour spent in counseling a student, ten bucks for each exam paper graded,’ and so forth. So we count pennies.”
So the bulk of John’s clients were health-care workers and that perhaps instigated gestation of the idea he had broached to Len, thereby hatching the scheme that became Campus. Since the season when John built Len’s home, the two of them had interacted often, over the house construction and at African events, parties and all. Thus was born an association between Len and John that started with sporadic contact and developed into a low-grade friendship. It was nothing warm, which was the reason Len became curious when John kept encouraging him to break out of seclusion just when Len’s closer friends had given up on him. It is the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, Len thought, and he decided to call John back and see what was up. John asked him to lunch.
Big John’s performance at the lunch was in character. As soon as they exchanged “How are things?” and ordered their meals John came to the point.
“I have an idea I think you’ll like. I was going to come to you. Glad you called me.”
How could I not? Len thought to himself. John had sent him two email messages and one phone text message in the last week. John continued:
“You know we are blessed with an abundance of African physicians, good doctors, in these parts. They make good money, and they donate to small charity causes, such as when one of us passes.”
Len winced at that silly new euphemism for dying. People used to die all the time. Then the notion grew that the dreaded process should be sugar-coated to ease the sting: people began “passing away” instead of dying. From there spiritualists, who crave heaven but are afraid to die to get there, decided to impart a sense of directedness to the process: we don’t “pass away,” they decided: we joyously “pass on” —presumably to some otherworldly destination. Finally, in our new age of back-sliding fundamentalism, they have removed the prepositions altogether and we just “pass.” Len had given firm instructions to his family: “When I die, tell people I died. To say I ‘passed’ would convey the wrong impression that I used to fail but have now finally succeeded.”
Len was recalled from his reverie by tapping on the table and John saying, “Hey, boss! Are you with me?” (When Big John called a person boss, he really wanted that person’s attention, Len reflected, so he perked up.)
“I was saying that many of our doctors feel guilty about blowing their stash in this affluent society while their kith and kin in Africa go without. You know what I mean?”
Len nodded silently, wondering where all this was leading. Big John continued. “That guilt feeling is even stronger in the younger African doctors who were born in the U.S. or elsewhere abroad and grew up here. When you talk with them you know they feel an urge to do something for Africa. So our African doctors are forming various associations of physicians from this or that country, and they are volunteering for occasional medical missions to their respective home countries.”
Pausing, he took a bite of his hamburger, looking at Len to see if his eyes held interest or boredom. Len nodded, remembering ANPA and AGPA: associations of Nigerian and of Ghanaian physicians abroad, respectively; still, he wondered where he fitted into this topic of doctors.
“But those associations achieve little, because doctors are too busy to organize the missions in detail or donate more than a few days a year to the cause; and it is a bit much to expect them to pay their own way to go out there for a couple of days just to soothe their conscience. So their efforts are sporadic. For a long time I’ve wanted to organize those missions for them as my own contribution to Mother Africa.”
That would be the day, thought Len, when Big John thought of Africa in terms of charity going out rather than gain coming in.
“I have discussed it with some of our doctors,” John continued. “They are interested but they say a scheme like that would go nowhere without backing from a big African government, such as oil-rich Nigeria. That makes sense. But getting in touch with agencies of a foreign government is beyond me. Except that I heard Nigeria’s new Health Minister is someone who used to be close to you.”
So that was it, Len mused. He understood, and smiled broadly. This man is a wizard for sniffing out opportunities miles and months ahead. He pondered the idea, as John watched him closely to see if his eyes lit up or narrowed.
Len had heard that the new Health Minister was an colleague and friend when they both taught in a Nigerian university. But that was long ago; he had not kept in touch with the man. Indeed, he had been disappointed that the man abandoned academia to wade into putrid Nigerian politics. Len had not been much interested in Nigeria since he left it for the last time a dozen years earlier, declaring that his fellow countrymen and women were too mired in corruption to do anything but loot the place. He had not done the obvious thing: contact the new minister and congratulate him. And now that he was retired from career pursuits and nursing a heart that was broken literally and figuratively, he had no wish to become beholden to any government official.
“So, how do I come in?” Len inquired.
“I have given the matter some thought and I think a scheme like the one I propose will play well with the Nigerian government —if you and I presented it jointly to them. I made inquiries and found that your new president is scheduled for a state visit to the U.S. in six weeks and will come with the top members of his cabinet, including his health minister. Here is what I propose…”
John proceeded to outline a proposal to form an organization of African health workers and pool them for medical missions rotated among African countries. He and someone with time on their hands (he winked at Len) would provide organization while the members would support it with dues, as well as with pledges to go on at least one mission every two years. Starting with Nigeria, the organization would need the participation of suitable countries. The governments would help fund trip expenses, and also to steer hospitals in target countries to affiliate with the mission organization. With the right synergy between African governments and their prodigal son-and-daughter physicians in the U.S., much good could be leveraged out of modest investments.
It sounded grand, yet plausible. And yes, Len thought, he too would not mind applying some of his idle time towards helping African countries from afar. (He was not interested in going back there.) Yet, it sounded too good to be a matter of philanthropy on John’s part. John must have a profit angle hidden somewhere. But Len was too tired to think. Eating lunch triggers his siesta instinct. This was not the moment to try and figure out what John expected to get out of the scheme. So he told John it sounded quite intriguing, and he would think more carefully about it when he got it in writing from John.
“You do have a written proposal, don’t you?” he asked John, hoping thereby to derail the idea.
“Yes,” John replied briskly, “and I will send it over by email in the next couple of days.”
And so was born a scheme. John sent his five-page proposal the next day. Len read it. The more he studied the scheme the more he liked it. Try as he might, he was unable to spot any camouflaged trapdoor to personal profit that John could have built into it —unless he intended to embezzle any subventions from the governments. Len went online and confirmed the impending visit of the high-powered delegation from Nigeria. He contacted an old friend, Larry, who owned a travel agency in Maryland and used to handle trips for some of Nigeria’s embassy people in Washington, D.C., and he asked the friend to make it his business to get him audience with the Health Minister during their visit. The friend responded in a week with good news. When he explained to the embassy’s protocol and transportation officer that Len and the minister used to be colleagues, the woman agreed to arrange a meeting between Len and the minister if the latter wished it.
Len called John and signed on. They agreed to hold an inaugural meeting of interested participants in a week or two. First, though, the two of them planned to meet at John’s house that coming weekend and put together some rules for membership in this organization they had in mind. John promised to try and inveigle a physician to join them to form a more balanced small committee. He proved as good as his word on that point. With the usual fast talk, he managed to lure Dr. Kodjo to join him and Len in a little ad-hoc committee. They met briefly once and agreed to just convey ideas to each other by email and in threesome conference calls. They cobbled together a working paper and called a meeting of all interested people. John prepared the list of potential members, directing his secretary to contact all of them and arrange a plenary meeting at his house.
Chapter 2: Money
Len woke up at 10:00 am next day, Saturday, and called the lawyer and the accountant who were on retainers for Campus. He briefed them on the events and informed them he had, by default, become the interim executive director of Campus. He explained the arrangements he had made to extract the team early; he was going to write Campus checks to cover the extra expenses. Each of them asked Len to confirm the organizational changes in writing, and he promised to send email notifications right away. Then he dug into the files, noting that there were few, and that John was quite organized just like Len, so everything was at his fingertips.
It was the binder labeled “Insurance” that zapped Len wide awake. He knew that travel insurance had been taken out by Campus for each member of the mission, as well as accidental death and dismemberment (ADD) insurance. What caught his eye, though, was that the initial coverage of a quarter of a million dollars, during the first Campus mission six months earlier, had been bumped up to half a million dollars before this trip. Though Campus paid the premiums, the next of kin of each team member was the beneficiary for payoffs. All of that was routine, of course.
Len flipped the divider labeled “Key Person,” and what he found there blew his mind. He did not know what “key person” insurance meant, and he did not have the patience to pore through the fine-print minutiae on the last six pages of the policy at the bottom of the stack. He decided to Google the phrase. Wikipedia enlightened him:
Key Person or “Key Man” insurance is an insurance policy taken out by a business to compensate that business for financial losses that would arise from the death or extended incapacity of an important member of the business. To put it simply, Keyman Insurance is a standard life insurance, TPD insurance or trauma insurance policy that is used for business succession or business protection purposes.
The coverage paid one hundred percent for loss of life or of all four limbs or both eyes; it paid half as much for loss of any two limbs or of one eye, and a quarter as much for any one limb. Len was appalled to note with what gruesome detail the insurance company priced out human body parts. He understood immediately that the payout on key-person insurance goes to the business, not to the relatives of the insured. Now that Big John was dead, the policy would pay Campus the agreed sum. That sum was one and a half million dollars before the first mission but had been upped to two million dollars just before John left with the team. Len called the accountant again. (The man was now on the golf course and sounded miffed by the intrusions.) He confirmed Len’s interpretation of the policy.
It sent Len’s mind reeling. Two million dollars, Len mused, was now under his control! He gave a low whistle and felt a bit faint when the import sank in. He remembered cracking his head to find out what profit angle John saw in the venture. He knew the man very well; Big John was not a man to act on mushy, pan-African philanthropic sentiments. John had found a way to make the venture pay big. It was a neat caper, more like a lottery than insurance: the ultimate gamble. Big John was betting on people’s lives, and it was all legit. He must have heard or read a lot about carnage on the highways of Africa and figured that sooner or later someone on a Campus mission would lose a covered ‘member’ or their life altogether, leaving Campus to pocket a small fortune. Since John was in the insurance business himself, he knew about the key person type of insurance. It was clever. But the tragic irony of it was for him to be caught in his own trap, so to speak—to fall fatal victim to the success of his own scheme.
In effect then, Big John had caught a bullet which fate intended for Len, to use a hackneyed phrase. Len had his cardiologist to thank for not going on the mission to Nigeria. He was not one to waste time or emotion celebrating such ‘escape.’ He had dodged many bullets in his hey day as a Biafran Army officer in bush combat, including one that was to this day lodged between his left tibia and fibula, not to mention a mortar shell that not only tore off the back of his left knee but also cut half of the soldiers in his platoon to pieces.
Just before that shell struck and cut his platoon to bits, Len was giving a pep talk to his men as they lined up in ranks prior to a reconnaissance patrol. He quoted for them the exhortation of a French general in the Second World War who told his men it was foolish to fear dying in battle. “If a bullet has your name on it you can’t dodge it: it will chase you up a street, down an alley, and into your house to get you under the bed where you are hiding.” Much later, in a college course of literature, Len encountered an apocryphal story which, he thought, might have inspired the colorful rendition that general had employed to distract his men from fear. A man was accosted one day in his village market place by a most disturbing apparition that introduced himself as the Grim Reaper. The Reaper told the scared man to prepare, for they would have a rendezvous in one year, to the date. The poor man sold all his possessions and fled as far as he could go, to a remote hamlet in Inner Mongolia. But on the appointed day the apparition cornered him and, as he quaked with fright, said: “Oh, did I forget to tell you our rendezvous was pre-set for this very spot?”
With John (who was president of Campus in all but name) lying in a Nigerian mortuary, Campus was too shocked to skimp on the return of its team members; nor did it have any more reason to worry about the expenses. And except for the important need to get hospitals in Nigerian to sign up for affiliation with Campus, there was no further reason to depend on the goodwill of the Nigerian (or anybody’s) government and its self-important bureaucrats. Campus was rich, rich, rich! It could send out as many missions now as members could fit into their busy private practices.
Len called the insurance underwriters, apprised them of the developments, and asked how Campus should file a claim. For that, they said, they needed John’s death certificate, and they would also need a copy of the bylaws of Campus empowering Len, as Co-Director, to act on the matter on behalf of Campus. When he told them Campus did not yet have bylaws, they said a notarized resolution of the directors giving executive powers to Len should suffice. Len sent out an email inviting all Campus members to an extraordinary meeting three days later, at which they would agree on ways to manage the present emergency; the meeting would discuss rites and benefits for Big John, and the matter of succession to John’s position.
But right away, trouble came from a direction Len did not expect. When he called Slide to apprise her of the insurance payoff due to Campus from John’s death, she took a long pause, and then she exploded into fury. Was Len telling her that he was going to get two million dollars on account of the death of her husband? What sort of callousness would make any “greedy bastard” want to profit by her husband’s death? How much of that would come to her and her children?
Len knew (but did not dare tell her he knew) that John had a personal life insurance to the tune of a quarter of a million dollars—in addition to the half a million dollars now to come from the ADD insurance on John’s life, which insurance was procured by Campus for her family. John’s death was putting three quarters a million dollars into Slide’s pocket, but she still craved more! He marshaled the points out to her: one, it was John himself who had taken out the key person policy—she could consult the documents or the underwriters; two, the money was not going into anybody’s personal pocket as it was to be deemed income or revenue to Campus; and three, the rules, the laws, do not permit the money to be divvied out as charity. He could no more easily turn any portion of that money over to her, Janet, than he could put it into his own pockets.
She was quiet, just breathing rapidly, and Len knew she was trying to hold in her outrage. He quickly added that he would need to send the insurers a notarized copy of John’s death certificate when she got it from Nigeria. At that she erupted again. She was not going to release John’s death certificate to enrich some abstract entity. Len made to respond but she slammed the phone. Len had lost the chance to ask Slide what she and Sam Sangala decided should be done with John’s remains, but he decided to let the matter cool for a day or two before he reopened it.
But it would not rest. Around 6:30 pm a call came through from Sam Sangala again. (Gosh, it must be around midnight in Nigeria, Len thought.) Sam said he had just had a searing earful from Janet Balongo; the lady was livid, Sam said, and he needed to know, what was going on? Len explained the situation. Unlike Len, Sam had heard of key-person insurance. He promised to convince Janet she wasn’t being ripped off; he would also ask her to talk to the lawyers and accountants she and John usually consult. Len got two more calls that night, one from Slide and another from Sam (who must be staying up to douse the fire set by the mere prospect of insurance money). Some horse trading transpired. The upshot was that Len would get the Campus emergency meeting to authorize serious payments to Janet (whom Len was careful not to call “Slide” when discussing her with Sam).
Campus would authorize the following terms. Janet Balongo was to be paid $50,000 ad-hoc death benefit on account of John. Sam Sangala who was coming back to U.S.A. with the rest of the team on Monday would use $10,000 of it to travel back to Nigeria and take John’s body to his home in Bamenda since Len could not go —for the same reason that John had had to replace Len on that unfortunate last mission. Janet and her two children could use up to $15,000 to cover their travel and incidental expenses when they went down to Cameroun for John’s burial, including a one-night layover in Yaoundé or Douala when going as well as when returning. The balance of $25,000 was contribution by Campus to funeral and burial expenses for John. Furthermore, Campus was to constitute a Board of Director as soon as possible and, as a good PR gesture, include Janet as one of the directors.
Len could not decide all that by himself, but he saw no problem with persuading Campus members to accept and implement all those provisions, which he put down as new items on the agenda for the Campus emergency meeting.
Chapter 1: Death
The electric news of the death of Big John flashed around and crackled. First came one call, then a torrent. “Have you heard?” Lennox was asked in tones of shock. “Big John is dead!”
He calmly acknowledged to each caller that he had heard the news, thanked them, and hung up. He wouldn’t go beyond that. He couldn’t tell them he learned of it in a call from Nigeria at 4:00 am that morning; they might press him for confirmation, for specifics that were not his to divulge. Only two of the callers were his colleagues in CAMPUS and with them Len went into a bit more detail.
The 4:00 am call was from a lady, a Deputy Permanent Secretary in Nigeria’s Ministry of Health. It was 9:00 am in Nigeria, and the “Deputy Perm Sec” had probably just come to work, only to receive the shocking news. After Len identified himself, her message to him was formal, her tone measured:
“Dr. Obi, I understand you are the director of Campus. I have some bad news for you. Your team was in a car accident yesterday. Two persons died, including our liaison officer who was dispatched to introduce your team to the Kaduna General Hospital. The other fatality was Mr. John Balongo, the head of your mission. The others are in hospital for treatment and observation. We shall keep in touch to notify you of any more developments. I am sorry for your loss.”
Len was caught unawares and shocked to the core, but he recovered his senses enough to reply,
“And I am sorry, Madam, for the loss of your young officer. I will call you back after I process this news. But please tell me: were there any serious injuries to others of our team?”
“Details are still sketchy, but I understand someone sustained a fractured arm and another person is still unconscious. The other two persons were badly shaken but apparently unhurt.”
And just as the lady at the other end was about to hang up Len asked for the number of the hospital so he could glean some more details from the staff there. She passed the call to one of her staffers to locate the hospital phone number and give it to Len.
Len reflected, and shook his head. The lady had listed one Campus member dead and two survivors. That left one person to be accounted for: there had been six members on that team. He had all their mobile phone numbers, having made sure everyone on the team subscribed to special GPS service with their carrier to enable direct contact with him and with their families while they were out of the U.S. John’s secretary who coordinated the logistics of the trip had emailed all contact information to Len before the team left on the mission.
But before calling those numbers one by one he needed to know who was missing, and who was still in no shape to talk. So he put a call to the hospital and got details. They were cagey about divulging medical particulars so he asked to talk to the boss. Len got lucky: a man took the call and introduced himself as “Dr. Okon Eyo Bassey, CMD,” which meant Chief Medical Director as Len remembered. Len identified himself as the Co-Director of Campus, whose members, sent on a special mission to Nigeria, were “now patients in your hospital as I understand.” The man called for a file from which he read out to Len the name and status of each person involved.
“The late Mr. Balongo’s body is in the mortuary. Dr. Kehinde regained consciousness early this morning; Dr. Gista’s right arm was cracked above the elbow; Ms Williams is under sedation to calm her down, but she seemed otherwise unhurt; Dr. Sangala seemed unhurt but he is in deep distress and remains under close observation.”
“What of Dr. Balogun?” Len asked.
“There’s no such person on the list. Are you sure he was on the team?”
“Yes. He is a public health specialist. Are you sure no one was left at the scene of the accident?”
Dr. Bassey laughed. “They were not exactly in a forest, Dr. Obi. Nobody could be lost at the scene.”
Len was greatly relieved to learn that Speed did not have any life-threatening injuries. And he was amused that the seemingly imperturbable Winnie Williams had lost her cool and gone into hysterics after she woke up and the tragedy sank in. ‘Intrepid Winnie’ they dubbed her when she jumped up and volunteered for that first Campus trip to Nigeria, perhaps seeing in it a chance to stop, on her way back, in her country Sierra Leone, which had recently survived the ravages of Ebola. Not so intrepid after all, he thought; but then people react in different ways to sudden trauma and shock. But where was Taj Balogun? He couldn’t be AWOL from the mission, Len reflected, in his mind employing the famous and disparaging acronym of his military days: Absent Without Leave.
He turned to the heavy task of calling the team members one by one to offer emotional support. He began with Sam Sangala, but Sam did not pick up, so Len left him a message requesting a call-back. Then Len called Speed. She picked up immediately, and sighed with relief when she heard his voice. Words gushed from her mouth. Len told her to calm down; he promised to call airlines right away and arrange the team’s immediate return to the U.S. He took down the phone numbers of Speed’s three children and promised to call them that same day to offer support and any needed assistance. Next, Len called Winnie and she screamed: “Please get me out of here, please!” Len assured her that her return flight would be arranged right away. She sobbed again and, after calming her down, he hung up to call Speed back.
“Sorry to impose on you at this time, Speed, but Sam Sangala did not answer. I need to talk with him about what to do with John’s body. I shall also consult John’s wife now that his death has been confirmed. Sam and John are both Camerounians from Bamenda; I expect Sam will want to take the lead with the arrangements. Please tell him to call me back as soon as he can.”
Speed promised to do so, and Len came to the mystery of the missing Dr. Balogun, inquiring, “Speed, where is Taj?”
Speed explained that Taj Balogun did not accompany them on that fateful trip. He peeled off from the team soon after they arrived in Nigeria, planning to travel alone to remote community health centers where he could be of the most use. Taj was to rejoin them at Abuja before their homeward trip in a week. Len was relieved.
Next, Len called John’s wife, “Madam Slide.” It was 7:00 am, three hours since Len was notified of the tragedy. He did not relish the thought of being the one to break the horrible news to her, not knowing how that cold and unfriendly woman would react. The two did not really like each other, but that was no reason for him to shirk this duty. Still, Len hoped the Nigerian hospital or ministry of health, or Sam Sangala might already have called her and given her the bad news. He was lucky: she said they had called her with the news. Len promised to go over and see her in the evening. Right now, he intimated, he would get busy with arrangements to bring the team back with haste so the best facilities would be employed to check out all the team survivors and treat them as needed.
“Once again, please accept my condolences. We shall miss John terribly, Campus especially.”
At 7:00 pm Len went to John’s home to console “Madam Slide.” She was called that because once, at a party—the only party she had been known to attend unless it was in her own house—she was persuaded to join a dance in progress. It was the highly choreographed steps of the Electric Slide, a dance movement that Len and his peers enjoyed in those distant days of high school when it was called “Madison” and danced to the languid rhythm of ‘Pastor’ Erekosima (‘Rex’) Jim Lawson” and Erasmus Jenewari in their Highlife classic song, Tamuno bo Ibroma. In those old days of youthful exuberance, when “Madison” was in progress at a party everyone joined in, just as they did in the U.S. so many decades later when Marcia Griffith stirred things up with her lilting son, Electric Slide. The magic of the “Madison” or “Slide” performance lay in the choreography: It was spell-binding when a large party of dancers moved in formation, like a regiment of well-drilled soldiers on parade. Dragooned to join the Electric Slide dance, the stiff lady that was John’s wife was so clumsy and perhaps tipsy that she became disoriented, stepped on her dress, crashed down, and took several people with her in a domino progression. Presto, she became known as “Madam Slide.”
A few persons were already seated and moping sorrowfully when Len arrived at John’s house. Slide greeted him laconically at the door, turned away and went calmly to her kitchen. She did not like Len any more than Len liked her. And it was spooky the stolid way people like her appeared to take their bereavement, internalizing their grief. And it wasn’t only their grief or joy that they internalized; because they are taciturn and inscrutable, you never knew what they thought of you, or for that matter, of themselves.
Slide was originally an Englishwoman. Well, not quite. Her English mother who brought her up in Leeds, England, told her that her father was from Liberia. That made Slide nominally Liberian in African eyes, so why was she un-African in temperament? But her father had not been in her life as she grew up, and she was her mother’s child in both looks and outlook. She and her mother, who came on extended visits from time to time, were highly unsociable, to the point of avoiding eye contact when talked to, a habit that most people in the community observed. Slide and John had met when they both were students at a university in Ohio. They had been married for over two decades now but people still thought the pairing of such a garrulous and expansive man with a taciturn and stand-offish woman like Slide was something of an incongruity. The disparaging name “Slide” had stuck because few people liked her; she was aloof and given to making tactless, snide comments. Len was relieved to have done with this one-on-one encounter with her; he quickly went in to join his fellow Africans in what became a vigil that night in John’s elegant home.
John’s death was the third thunderclap in Len’s life in as many years. The first whammy was the big tsunami that had shattered a splendid dream on the cusp of consummation: a dream of a golden cap to his splendid life, of a long and gentle slide into twilight and senescence surrounded by the happy chatter of his dozen-odd grandchildren and in the company of the woman he loved. The second calamity was the quick unraveling of his marriage of nearly half a century —a jarring denouement that quickly followed the end of his love affair. In a flash he had lost the two women who featured most deeply in his life, and now he had lost a man he did not really like much but whom he had so suddenly come to regard as an indispensable player in their new joint business—a venture that had thrown Len a lifeline and looked set to afford him a pleasant distraction from dark memories.
John played a major, if inadvertent role in pulling Len back from the brink of a bottomless abyss. He reinforced Len’s feeble thoughts that, after a couple of years in the wilderness of life he should learn to overcome his calamity and move on. Len’s worst season was over, to be sure. The actual, slow-motion unfolding of his nightmare had crested nearly two years earlier. However, its aftermath had lingered in the form of his searing remembrance of the horror, and had only waned in steps so slow as to be imperceptible to him. Proof of Len’s renaissance was that he could now look back at those shattering events without tears coursing down his cheeks. The suddenness of his troubles had left him no chance to steel himself against the battering he took. Now the battering was only a memory.
And what a battering! It was as if, one fine day and out of the blue, a sky-high tsunami had slammed into his life, tossing it into a large ditch, leaving him there to struggle as the roiling waters bashed him about. His fate was to thrash and flail about and try to touch firm ground with his feet, to keep his nose above water as he gasped for air. The buffeting had ebbed with time and now he began to think he might put his life back on an even keel, though he reeled unsteadily still. But it had been a close call. For the longest time he did not really want to live anymore. His mind drifted back to a broken-hearted lament from a novel Beyond Pardon that had moved him deeply as a teenager: “If I could only die and end it all… Die and end a struggle that is worse than death…” Len went into seclusion, and then slipped into hibernation, seeing no one, refusing to take calls and making none, and sleeping nearly round the clock.
Whenever Len suspended his anguish long enough to ponder objectively the influence of Tarissa, he realized why her defection had dealt him such a hard blow. True, the memory of the woman he had loved and lost left an aching void, but it was the injury to his ego, to his pride, that filled that void with a throbbing pain. He had had a splendid life, an easy life it was said. Always a star scholar from elementary school to grad school, he had benefitted from generous scholarships at all levels of his education. He breezed to his PhD in record time and prevailed over a large field of aspirants to bag his first academic job in a top-shelf university, eventually stepping over to what was considered a more prestigious engagement as a NASA scientist. His personal life had been just as rewarding. His three precocious sons had turned into accomplished adults, further enriching Len’s life with a gaggle of gregarious grandchildren. In short, he had come to regard success in life as his happy lot, almost a right because he never had to agonize for any prize he sought. And now suddenly the one prize he belatedly came to desire most in his mature life had slipped from his fingers at the last moment.
There was never any doubt in his mind that Tarissa was the woman he loved best and the one he would like by his side as he trudged into twilight and faded into oblivion. He and she were soul mates, and for fifteen years he had been in denial over her warts and flaws because he thought his love could smooth them over. But, alas, he had parked himself in the horns of a dilemma for full fifteen years, unable to abandon the honorable woman he had married upon emerging from teenage; he had dragged his feet until Tarissa tired of him, plundered his savings, found a new lover, and only then unfurled her true colors —her Jolly Roger.
In their final encounters, once at her workplace and then at her residence, she had regarded him first with cool disdain and then with a searing viciousness. It was as if their roles were reversed. Tarissa who used to fawn at Len through the years for his accomplished life, now looked down on him with cool insolence of a bandit wielding a gun. On that fateful day when, her voice dripping venom, she told Len that she had never really loved him, that she had been “messing around” with him all those years, his first impulse was to think that she couldn’t possibly mean it, that she was just mad at him for his years of indecision.
It was a thoroughly human reaction. He thought to make light of his predicament, to repay disdain with bravado and pretend that he had never loved Tarissa: that he had merely mistaken a strong passion for deep devotion; that he could shrug her off and move on. Nothing could be done about his broken heart, but he might at least redeem his ego by pretending to himself and his friends that parting from Tarissa was no big deal; that she had been a passing fancy or a long-running tryst that did not go beyond carnal lust. But, alas, he was no pretender. He always was a man who wore his emotions on his lapel. His closest male friends still kidded him about two occasions when he broke down and went “boo-hoo” at public funerals, at the moment of interment. He was mushy like that.
If pretence were in his nature he would have walked out of his marriage long ago to take up with Tarissa under the common pretext that his wife was inadequate in some serious way. But his wife’s only inadequacy was a lack of warmth. No, Len was not a pretender. He was not stoic enough to smother that warm throb, engendered by the mere thought of Tarissa, which had given his heart its peppy pace for so long. Tarissa may have found it easy to slice Len out of her life but Len could not requite the disfavor; Tarissa was branded in his heart for better or for worse.
And so he did what came naturally. He broke down right there and, with tears coursing down his cheeks, implored Tarissa’s hardened heart to have pity on him. But it was to no avail. His entreaties continued in the following days and weeks and months with message after message recounting their times together, reiterating his love and recalling her old declarations of love for him; he vowed to do anything she desired if only she would relent. And it was then, when Len was crushed and helpless, that Tarissa delivered her coup de grace. With a chilling email she booted him out of her life: “This is an attempt to help you,” she wrote, “You must desist from further approaches to me….If you ever again send me any communication or come to my door I shall call law enforcement on you.”
That was it: the savage kick in his groin. Perhaps assured that her new lover would shield her with the menace of his legal muscle, she had thrown down the gauntlet. The tattered remains of Len’s pride roused him to combat and he picked up the gauntlet, even though it was obvious to him the “law enforcement” threat had been crafted by Tarissa’s lawyer-lover. And this lawyer, Len was soon to discover, had a prickly insecurity that was writ large in his word and in his deed.
The man’s personality rides shotgun on the stationery of his law firm. Emblazoned on his letterhead was an outsize signature block listing his academic qualifications in such a detail as one may find on the résumé of a new graduate: “JD (Cum Laude), LL.M. (UK), LL.M. (USA), Attorney-at-law.” His brash and gaudy appearance matched the ostentation of his stationery. When Len encountered him in court the man was clad in a loud-checkered suit set off with a bold kerchief and a variegated tie which he pressed down to his chest with the left hand while his right hand was busy with stabbing motions of a forefinger to punctuate his speech. The man was over-eager to impress. All that he was missing for good stage effect were a tall bowler hat and ivory-tipped walking stick. Contemplating Tarissa and her man in court, Len felt like a perplexed Alice in Wonderland. How, Len wondered, did he get himself cornered into a pissing contest against such a character?
So Len’s present malaise was a mix of heartbreak and chagrin. The prospect of recurrent courtroom encounters with Tarissa, who now looked like a little-league queen, was distasteful to him; and the twitchy antics of the pied-piper squire beside Tarissa amused Len. Suddenly, the old magic of his silken progress through life had evaporated, leaving him a bewildered and ornery, weepy man.
Retiring from his job when he did added to Len’s depression. No longer did he keep a schedule or routine. That, in turn, brought an unintended change in his body. His diurnal rhythm oscillated, and then settled upside-down. He might wake up in the middle of the night, fix himself an omelet at 3:00 am and pick at it as he sipped a little wine and watched a recorded soccer or tennis game. He often wondered what his neighbors thought of all that clinking and clanking and banging that must filter through their thin wall in the devil’s own hour of the night! Then he might read a bit as jazz wafted from his round-the-clock internet station, finally returning to bed at 9:00 am to try and recover some lost sleep. Waking up in mid-afternoon he often went for a slow walk, at least to the neighborhood grocery store to replenish the simple provisions from which he eked out his meager meals, or he read a book by the communal swimming pool where some of his happier neighbors frolicked.
Thank goodness he had always been a sound sleeper. Twelve hours of sleep a day was not unusual for him. Only during the darkest days of his misery did sleep come to him in fits and stops; but even then he managed eight to ten combined hours of sleep each day. It provided the only relief that he knew; it was the only therapy that worked for him. “To sleep, perchance to dream…” he’d mutter. He craved sleep and sleep came to him, but it brought only a rehash of his happier days now gone beyond recall. But still he could summon sleep at will, if only by reading in bed —even if he awoke at ungodly hours. It amused Len to recall one of the doggerels and aphorisms that hung from his elementary school classrooms in the days when his teachers sought to inculcate ambition and industry in young pupils:
The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight
But they, while others slept
Kept toiling upward in the night.
Quite true, quite true, except that these days Len’s late night (or was it early morning?) sessions of toil were not motivated by ambition or even necessity. His race was run and he had achieved all the important goals he had set himself in youth and was content to retire as early as he did from career pursuits. The new stability he had achieved in his health was proof that idleness could be salutary. No, it was not a desire to attain great heights that kept him awake past midnight nowadays but the topsy-turvy turn of his lazy metabolic rhythm—whatever it was that physiologists called it.
It tickled Len’s fancy to realize that he was now living the kind of life any abstract anthropologist or sociologist might praise and envy. He was a poster child for Bertrand Russell’s book, In Praise of Idleness. With no deeds to do or promises to keep, he no longer had need to know or to care what time of day or season of year it was. But what to do whenever his body alarm went off at 3:00 am remained a matter for trial and error. He could not spend the wee hours gaping at inane ‘late-late’ TV shows; and how many recorded soccer and tennis games could one watch? And anyway, Len couldn’t watch any sport anymore without becoming partisan in it, which was annoying because his favorite teams and players lost more often than they won, while obnoxious players kept winning. So he usually sat at his PC and pecked away at his memoir or the short stories he wrote but never offered for publication.
Seldom did Len get in his car and go anywhere by day let alone in the middle of the night; that car of his just sat rotting in the underground communal garage. And incoming phone calls remained an unwelcome intrusion. Not surprisingly, he eventually dropped from everyone’s radar —everyone, that is, except Big John. John had made a habit of calling Len’s cell phone and leaving messages that were not returned. Then it appeared that John recalled Len’s preference for email over phones for keeping in contact. He emailed Len once every fortnight or so, just saying, “I hope you are doing fine. Get in touch.” Big John just would not quit.
Len had much to thank John for. And now he had to bestir himself to do what he could for John’s wife, notwithstanding the antipathy between him and her. But first he had to satisfy due decorum by putting on an ostentatiously mournful appearance among the growing crowd of people gathered in John’s house. When Africans mourn in public they wear the proper expression. With long faces and downcast eyes they sigh and heave with occasional shudders all the time. Some break into occasional sobs or wails, or mumble to themselves. In one of his novels, Chinua Achebe (that doyen of African writers) quips about the disquieting funeral guest “who cries louder than the owners of the corpse.” After half an hour of muted banter with the many mourners in that cavernous basement lounge of John’s house, Len screwed up the resolve to go to the kitchen and broach painful topics with Slide.
“Once again, Janet, please accept my condolences. The news has stunned all of us. Please do not forget that the mission was a joint project between John and me and Campus. If there is anything I can do as a person, anything Campus can do as an organization to help ease your pain or worries, I would be glad to hear of it.”
“Thank you, Lennox,” she replied. And she clammed up. Typical Janet Balongo, Len thought, and he continued:
“I am arranging for the survivors on the team to be brought back tomorrow —all but Dr. Balogun perhaps, who split off on a different track after they got to Nigeria. I need to know what should be done with John, with his body that is. Of course, it is your call, but I’d like to stress that we Africans lean heavily on tradition in times of birth and death. Tradition may require a strong input from Sam Sangala; he and John are from the same hometown in Cameroun. I am waiting for a call-back from Sam. I shall give you a few days to consider the matter and let me know what should be done. Also, as a man of the community, John deserves a big memorial service here. I expect to be able to organize one, unless you have other ideas. Please let me know about that too, as soon as possible, so arrangements can be made and people notified in time.”
“I will,” Slide promised, still looking inscrutable, her eyes seemingly fixed on Len’s left ear.
“I’m devastated for Junior and Tessy; they were so close to their daddy. Kindly extend my deep condolences to them,” Len added, referring to John’s children, who were both in college.
He left to go home and contact Speed’s children. He was sure their mom would have broken the news to them with a call by now; but protocol and his promise to Speed required him to call them. Besides, he liked those three: they looked so much like their mom one had to wonder: where were their daddy’s genes? Randa answered his call on first ring. Her mom, Speed, had called her and the boys. Is it true that Len was bringing her mom home the next day they asked? They could hardly wait to see her and to reassure themselves that she was really okay.
“Yes. Your mom is booked on a flight that leaves Abuja tomorrow, just before midnight Nigerian time, she and another lady on the mission. Their overnight flight will arrive at JFK about 1:00 pm Sunday, coming via Amsterdam. They will connect to a flight that arrives in Cleveland just before 5:00 pm Sunday. You and Jarvis and Tarek will get exact times from your mom. Please call me with those details when you get them; I plan to be at the airport too when your mom arrives. The rest of our mission team will come back to the U.S. on Monday: there was not room enough on the plane to get them all back at one time.”
He might have added that to get the two seats for her mom and the other lady took a monumental effort that involved the Nigerian Minister of Health himself (on a passionate plea from Len). Even then one of the vacancies found was a first class seat, so that their mom had to be upgraded with extra fees (which Len paid with the company debit card) and special gratuities which Speed was to pay to a manager at the airport ticketing office, and which Len would refund upon her return. But the kids did not need those details; the important point was that their mom was coming home.
It had been a rough day. Len chilled with a glass of wine and watched recorded matches of the Wimbledon tennis tournament that was being broadcast by The Tennis Channel. He had seen two matches before a call came in at 2:00 am, from Sam Sangala in Nigeria.
After pleasantries and condolences, Len asked Sam’s opinion on whether John’s remains should be flown back to the U.S. or just transported across the border to his village in Bamenda. Sam thought that there would be no point taking John’s body up to the U.S. and then perhaps flying it back down to Cameroun. Knowing his people, he was sure John’s mother, who was alive still, would want to bury her son in their ancestral home. Of course, John’s wife would have to give her consent, and Sam was already discussing that with her. Sam told Len to expect to hear the outcome from Janet herself in the next day or two. But, Sam went on, if the body was taken to Bamenda, Janet and her two children would have to travel there for the funeral. Could Campus fund their travel?
Len had already considered that matter. While transporting John’s remains back to the U.S. might pose no problem since travel insurance could cover that, footing the bill to send John’s wife and two children to Cameroun and back might pose a few challenges. But Len was not going to tell Sam that at this harrowing time. He promised to look into it and notify Sam soon.
This story is a sequel to Preying Mantis, the saga of Tarissa Adoja of Columbus. That consummate courtesan had burst into the life of Lennox Obi at high noon, sporting the shining halo and bright plumes of an angel of paradise until a furious final flurry of events at twilight stripped her façade and exposed her as a tawdry Nigerian copy of Madame Bovary with pretensions of Catholic sanctimony.
The long-running affair between Tarissa and Len had badly unraveled. Having started in high orbit, and having brought them a dozen years of complacent pleasure, it slipped out of control and went into a tailspin, crashing to earth with the flaming impact of a meteorite. The end began when Tarissa expropriated tens of thousands of dollars of Len’s retirement savings entrusted to her care: some of it she inveigled out of him, the rest of it she embezzled outright. Of course, Len had only himself to blame for entrusting such large sums of money to her keeping. As the end approached, new rumors swirled: Tarissa was tired of her Sugar Daddy; she thought he was played out; she had found a new willing wallet. But all that was not news really, Len acknowledged to himself. When they met he had heard rumors about her scams and shenanigans. A leopard, they say, does not change its spots.
Tarissa was bad to the core. Having decided to decamp to new pastures she showed her true colors. First she plunged in her dagger by declaiming to Len in a final confrontation that the love she had professed to him all those years was a lie: that she had merely been “messing around.” Then she twisted the dagger, ratting him out to his wife, smashing his marriage of four decades. And rumors wafted about that she was sleeping with her Nigerian attorney in Maryland in consideration of legal services he rendered to her family—a lawyer who fronted as Tarissa’s “family friend” to explain why he had charged Tarissa’s family no fees for those extensive professional services.
Nor was that all. Len had reason to suspect that Tarissa was trading her virtue for more than legal services. When her younger sister arrived from Nigeria for cancer treatment, accompanied by three adult relatives, neither that sister nor the accompanying relatives had health insurance. Yet, through the years after their arrival all four relatives had the usual medical needs of typical middle-age adults, including conditions needing frequent monitoring and maintenance. Each time Len inquired after their health, Tarissa said she was getting free medical consultations and prescriptions for them from Columbus area physicians of African origin; and free supplies, she said, were being donated to her by kind Nigerians who owned pharmaceutical stores in Columbus. Now, in view of the revelations about her pillow consultations with her lawyer, Len shuddered to think what price she was paying for those other “free” and “kind” medical and pharmaceutical assistance as well.
When confronted, she did not bother to deny any of it. Rather, she was cavalier, saying defiantly that she owed no one an explanation for her conduct. That wasn’t surprising. Some of her close friends were rumored to be women of easy virtue, and her family was already well known in Columbus for its “un-African” values regarding sexual mores —the children born into her nuclear and extended families in the U.S.A. during the preceding decade all having been born out of wedlock. But Len thought a line ought to be drawn between mere promiscuity (an endemic plight in today’s society) and de facto prostitution. So he pressed her for clarification, and she turned truculent. Her response was swift. At the instigation of her new lawyer-lover she filed complaints against Len for a Civil Protective Order, charging him with felonious ‘stalking’ and ‘harassment’. Those salacious and false charges were eventually dismissed in court but her machinations had put Len on the defensive. Her callous and vindictive reaction devastated Len and plunged him into a deep crisis of remorse. He had never imagined reaping such bitter rewards from anyone, let alone from Tarissa. For, she had brought him a season of sunshine, notwithstanding that she was now leaving a toxic wake, a lethal aftermath of radiation poisoning for all involved.
Len could not believe that so much depravity could well up from the heart of a woman on whom he had lavished so much love and care for so long: that she would blithely wreck his marriage of four decades, steal his life savings, kick him aside and defect to a new lover. And what a clever diversion she had contrived to pin Len down on the defensive, with a fusillade of frivolous lawsuits —clearly a diversionary plot hatched by the diabolical mind of her new lawyer-lover. Then again, her duplicity was what might be expected from a woman whose adult life was spent in prison, never mind that her long career in the prisons of Ohio was spent as a manager of inmates rather than as a prisoner. And what a travesty, Len thought. As a manager of prisoners, Tarissa was like the proverbial fox in a hen house. Her conduct was a brazen affront to all human decency, and it seemed as if she was set to get away with it. The thought of it gnawed constantly at Len.
This sequel is the story of how Len was coaxed out of his abyss of grief, depression, and isolation through the agency of an unusual charity and, above all, as the result of the dogged persistence of one extraordinary member of that charitable organization.