My name is Charles. I am nine years old. I was named Charles by my uncle who was a Biafran soldier and worked with a priest during the war and now he is very religious. My grandmother likes my name, because the richest man in my clan is named Charles too, that is why she allows me to do anything I wish – I could exempt myself from going to the farm. I could decide to leave the hut early in the morning to inspect my rat-traps scattered about in the bush, without going to fetch water for her. I could return late from moonlight plays and she would not be bothered. Grandma says I am going to grow up to become like Charles the rich man in the clan. Then I can take her to the hospital for her arthritis.
Today I leave the hut very early and run towards the marketplace. Our market holds every five days. It is located at the centre of the village but it is so big that people troop to it with Lorries and trucks from everywhere. Children are not allowed to come to the market on market-days because people that steal children might steal us and put us inside their big sacks and we would not be seen again forever.
A day after the market holds, we would rush to the marketplace to scavenge the area – we would search for akara balls that fell to the ground while the seller was trying to wrap them in gmelina leaves for the buyers. We would pick the akara balls we could find and eat them. Akara balls were sweeter if they were found in the marketplace because they had stayed over the night and the oil had permeated inside the mashed beans. We would search for torchlight bulbs, batteries, and pegs. We would pick coca-cola corks and pile them inside the pockets of our knickers. There would be pieces of clothes to be picked and rubber bands too. If you found a cigarette stub, you were a lord because you would light it with the matches you had picked and smoke till you coughed. Everyone would take a drag and you could charge them if you were wise – a drag for a cork of coca-cola or an akara ball or a piece of coloured paper.
If God was on our side we could find money. Sometimes, you could pick a fifty Kobo coin or a one Naira note and you were a king – you would dance and jib around the market and everyone would respect you in the village because you could afford to buy some peppered dog meat – the sweetest meat in the world. True.
I leave the hut early today and run to the market before the other children could get there. I am hoping to find a camphor ball. If you have a camphor ball, you could make a lot of money with it, because before anyone could sniff it, the person would pay you some money or give you one rat in exchange for some minutes of sniffing your camphor. After everyone had sniffed your camphor ball till someone had found another or they were tired of sniffing it, you could put it in your basket of clothes so that when you wore them, you would smell like Charles the richest man in the clan.
I am walking and running till I get to the marketplace. There are vultures high above the sky, descending swiftly and picking up things. I hope they have not picked all the pieces of meats in the slaughterhouse. If I search for a camphor ball for a while, I will go and see if I can pick meats. I will mix the meats with those of the rats my traps will catch today. I hasten at the thought of this.
There are boys who are already coming out of the slaughterhouse. They are carrying some pieces of meats in their hands. I envy them. I wonder if they did not sleep at all last night. I wonder the time they left their mother’s huts for the market. I snick at them and they sigh. They hate me as much as I hate them. They hate me because I always get lucky – Several times, I had found what no one had ever found before. I once found a ball. I don’t know if the seller was drunk and he forgot his blue plastic ball. I still have it and we play it all the time at the village square because grandma won’t allow us to play it inside the compound. She is afraid it may fall inside her pot of soup one day. I once found a pair of stockings. That is what I am wearing now. The last time I was here, last week, I found eyeglasses made of plastic. I gave it to Meeting, my brother. Meeting is six years old and cannot come to scavenge for items in the market. Grandma can’t allow him. Besides he is not named after any rich man. He was born in a meeting venue where nnene, mother went to learn igbiri dance – and his name became Meeting. If you are born on the road, your name will become Nwuzor, son of road. I am Charles because I was born the day Charles who is the richest man in the clan came to campaign in our village. He was contesting to become a councillor.
The market is built with poles from different trees and roofed with thatch. All the stalls in the market are not walled. There are just four poles and a thatch on top. The sellers come with their goods in cartons and sacks. Their tables are already in the market. They clean them up every market day and display their goods on them. No seller can steal another’s table otherwise he would be caught and stripped naked and paraded around the market. If the thief was a man, women would watch and laugh, clapping their hands against their mouths, wooh! wooh! wooh! wooh! His body painted with charcoal. If a woman stole a box of matches or a fowl, the same thing happened to her. People that returned from the market would tell the story in ecstasy.
I walk from one stall to the other. Some are tall and I climb the tables. Some are not tall, I stand on my toes and my hands can get to them. There is nothing on the roofs. I move to the slaughterhouse and it is as if the other boys swept the place, not even a grain of meat is here. I curse them. I am at the cloth stalls, there are pieces of clothes left and I collect them. There are no coca-cola corks. No stockings. No akara balls or grains of it. Saliva gushes from my mouth as I stare at the tripods where the women fry their akara. I bend down and use my hand to search the dust. Nothing. I walk away and search for toys, batteries, torchlight bulbs, and buttons. Nothing. There is nothing at the animal section, where they sell horses and goats and chickens. I wish one day someone would forget a puppy he brought to the market so that I would find it. That day, I will be the happiest person on earth. Happier even, than Charles the richest man in the clan.
There are more children joining me now. One is happy and showing the others a piece of pencil he found. He shows it to me. I look at it and it is painted yellow. It is beautiful. He puts it in between his right ear and his head, like carpenters do. His name is Ogodo. He is tall and lanky and we have fought many times while taking our fathers’ cows to the field. I congratulate him. He smiles and walks away with his team. As I turn to leave I see a white tablet on the red earth. I bend down immediately and pick it up.
‘I have found a camphor ball!’ I call out. They stop and rush back. They collect it and sniff it one after the other. It is obvious that this is not a camphor ball. It does not have a good scent and it is not shaped like a ball. It is flat and round.
‘It is a drug,’ someone says.
I sniff it again. ‘It is a drug!’ I call out, ‘It is a drug.’ I am happy. Everyone collects it and looks at it again and again. They envy me. I collect back my treasure and begin to go home. I am happy because I asked God to help me find a camphor ball and he gave me a drug.
Grandma is traipsing down to the farm as I enter the compound. She tells me to go check on my traps and meet her in the farm. I enter the hut and keep all my treasures inside the basket that contains my clothes.
When I return from the farm with grandma, my friends, about eight of them come to inquire what happened when I took the drug. We know that if you take a white-man’s drug you can never be sick till the day you will die. You will be stronger and happier than someone that takes herbs. I bring out the drug. Meeting, my brother brings a cup of water. His head is round and infested with ringworms. But he is fat and looks like he lives in the house of a rich man.
I collect the cup of water from Meeting. They watch me as I swallow the tablet.
‘How do you feel?’ everyone is asking.
‘It tastes bitter somehow.’
‘Do you feel anything?’
‘No. But I can feel something in my throat. It is as if it is stuck there.’
‘Don’t worry. It will enter your stomach.’
‘The white man made the drug to go slow when swallowed so that it will be working as it finds its way into the stomach.’
‘That may be true.’
‘Who told you?’ I ask.
‘Nobody. But it is true. Otherwise why would the drug stick to your throat?’
‘I don’t know.’ I sit down. I am feeling somehow in my mouth and throat. ‘It is no longer in my throat,’ I say
‘I told you. It is working its way to your stomach.’
They look at me with respect as we discuss other things for a while. We agree to meet in the night while going to hunt doves. They leave. I feel so tired and weak. My eyes are closing. I walk to the hut. My eyes are almost closing now and the ground is undulating. Meeting walks behind me. He had returned the cup.
Inside the hut I lie down and sleep till night time when my uncle wakes me up for the hunt. I feel better now but my throat has dried up and my mouth is scratching me. We are set to go hunt for doves. I don’t know if I have eating or not. My uncle is carrying a torchlight made of bamboo stick. I am carrying a small basket that contains other bamboo torches. If the one he has burns out he will collect one from the basket on my head and lights it. The torch will be used to search for the doves as they sleep in their roost. The light from the torch will blind the birds and my uncle will use his stick to kill them and put them inside the basket on my head.
We do this all the time. We meet other men and their children, carrying baskets. We all set out for the search. Inside the bush, I begin to feel very dizzy. I cannot even see at all. The ground is undulating and the whole place spins around. I have fallen two times and my uncle is getting so worried.
‘What is wrong with you, Charles.’
‘I am fine.’
‘Are you sick?’ he asks again.
We continue and I fall for the third time. This time, the eggs of the doves that my uncle collected smash and breaks. He is furious.
‘Are you drunk, Charles!’
I say nothing because I cannot even stand. The trees in the bush look like masquerades to me. I am crying because the masquerades are coming towards me. My mouth is dried up and there is no saliva again. My whole body is shaking in spasms.
‘What is wrong with him?’ one of the men asks.
‘I don’t know.’ My uncle pulls me up and sniffs my mouth. It does not smell of alcohol. I feel pains on my knees.
‘Charles! Charles!’ he calls. I stare at him and try to fall again. My friends have gathered around me. They are watching with keen interest and murmuring amongst themselves.
‘What is it?’ one of the men asks.
‘Charles. We think it is the drug.’
‘What drug?’ My uncle is surprised.
They are silent. After a while, one of them volunteers the answer. ‘He was lucky today in the marketplace. He picked a drug tablet. He took it this evening.’
‘A drug? From the marketplace?’
The men look at themselves in astonishment and fury. My friends describe the drug to them.
‘That must be Ephedrine,’ one of the men says.
‘Ephedrine? God! Are your eyes turning as if you’re drunk?’ my uncle asks.
‘Yes.’ I have not been drunk before but I manage to respond.
‘It must be Ephedrine,’ another says. My uncle and his friends take Ephedrine in the evening when they want to get high and cannot afford alcohol.
‘We need to get him cocoanut water. Immediately,’ my uncle says. He carries me on his back. He has forgotten about the doves, the torch sticks and the basket.