Catch-22: by Shayera Dark

His heart pounded so hard he couldn’t hear the TV. With the force of a pestle striking a mortar, it threatened to burst through his chest as he retrieved the proposal from his safe. Sweat dotted the area his moustache would have covered had his barber not wheedled him into shaving it off last weekend.

Obi became MD of the Environmental Protection Agency the same month a court in the Netherlands ordered Splendid Oil to clean-up oil spills in Ogoni land. Six months after the verdict, Splendid Oil made him a sweet offer, the kind that would vaporise all his problems. Turn a blind eye to their clean-up efforts and eight million dollars would be his for the taking. Not naira, dollars. He had made sure to go over the number four times.

Obi felt the vice around his neck loosen, assessing the many different things he could do with eight million dollars. House rent and school fees would no longer give him night tremors. In fact, he would transfer his twin boys from Government College to Golden Crest International, an exclusive secondary school in Maitama, where an assortment of Mercedes Benzs and BMWs drove in and out of its high, white wrought-iron gates each morning. The school ran the British curriculum and was a magnet for wealthy Nigerians who wanted their kids to acquire quality education, a smooth accent and, most importantly, an elite network.

With the eight million dollars in his account, his ailing mom would receive medical treatment in a private hospital run by foreign-trained doctors with good bedside manners and amiable nurses, and Seyi will fly to America to give birth to their third child.

Obi cracked his spindly fingers, toying with the idea of retiring from his low paying job. I’m not greedy, he reasoned. Eight million is more than enough for a lifetime of luxury. All he needed to do was sign the four-page document in front of him, and yet he remained immobile, weighed down by the potential repercussions of his action.

What if I get caught? What would Seyi and the kids think of me? Obi heaved a labored sigh then leaned back with a plunk into his faux leather seat, cradled his head with his hands and shut his eyes.

He envisioned a five bedroom house nestled behind rows of masquerade trees, equipped with the compulsory sound-proof generator for days NEPA misbehaved. Asokoro, the district moneyed Nigerians and politicians called their home was his dream location. He saw himself in the back of a chauffeur-driven SUV like his child-hood friend John Dele, the Minister for Education, and smiled. He imagined bank managers fawn over him in the privacy of their air-conditioned office. Yes, he’d never have to deal with those snippy, inattentive customer service representatives on the ground floor.

His silly, indulgent smile bloomed, picturing himself in a pool on those blistering Abuja afternoons when the heat pricked and sidewalks became radiators.

The possibilities were infinite.

Obi was basking in the glow of his reverie when his phone—a two year-old Nokia with a green, cracked screen and faded keys—vibrated from an SMS. It was one of those weekly messages Apostle Godspower sent to his congregation. Obi was a member of the Holy Ghost Fire church by proxy. Seyi’s decision to abandon the sanity of Saint Ann’s Anglican Church for the clamor of a tongues-speaking-demon-binding church remained a mystery to him. Initially, he’d expressed his displeasure by teasing his wife’s religious conversion, but relented when his criticisms were met with sexless nights and cold, insipid meals.

Today’s text message exhorted parishioners to heed the last commandment, and also promised a double dose of God’s blessings to those who donated towards the upcoming harvest.

Donate. Donate. Donate. Obi was sick of the incessant fundraising. Barely four months before, Apostle Godspower had asked parishioners to contribute towards buying him a car, and before that to refurbish his home.

As far as Obi was concerned, Nigerian preachers were conmen taking advantage of the economically desperate population. A recent newspaper story on a pastor’s new private jet was full of praise, empty on criticism and nonchalant about where the money to purchase the plane had come from.

Obi kissed his teeth and deleted the text. Then he reached for the TV remote resting on a pile of documents in the incoming tray, pressed a button until the man became mute. The man had been berating the Nigerian government and oil companies for destroying his village. “Ogoni be wasteland.” The camera panned to a torpid river covered with a sleek black film. “All de fish for de water don die. Wetin a fisherman like me go do now?” the man lamented.

With the room grave yard silent, Obi gradually eased back into his virtual wonderland. The marble-walled kitchen was redolent with the cinnamon-flavored banana cake Seyi had just baked. They both watched their kids from the window giggle wildly as they swung higher and higher towards the sky. Then she turned to him, offering him one of those radiant smiles that came easily in the first year of their marriage before the kids and the mountain of responsibilities rolled in.

“So where are we going this year?” she asked, handing him a generous slice of cake. They had yet to decide on their next exotic holiday location for the Christmas. The last one had been to Tahiti. Or was it Fiji?

Obi’s secretary knocked on his door and picturesque image disappeared with a poof. A vague frown flickered across his face at the interruption.

“Sah, Mr Koch from Splendid Oil is here to see you,” the secretary announced morosely.

“Let him in,” Obi replied in a tone bereft of energy—energy Koch’s presence would continue to deplete until he, Koch, got his wish. He quickly slid the proposal into a drawer.

“Good afternoon, Mr Koch.” Obi rose, pumping his clammy hand into Koch’s then motioning him to the visitor’s chair.

Koch was a man of fine manners and elegant taste. But behind the designer suit, gentle, grey eyes and charming exterior was a savage negotiator whose moral code hinged on maximising profit and pleasing investors. It was rumoured that during the military regime, he got oil company execs to pressure the Nigerian government into remove drilling restrictions in their path, threatening to shut down operations if their demands went unheeded. In response, the Nigerian army, under orders from the government, massacred recalcitrant villagers.

A warm, casual smile danced on Koch’s lips. “How work dey go?”

Obi froze briefly, surprised at the white man’s ability to speak pidgin, albeit with a foreign accent.

“Work dey fine,” he replied, laughing.

The men engaged in small talk about the raining season which had started early and the upcoming presidential elections.

“None of the candidates are worth my sweat and time…or blood.” Obi said in response to Koch’s question. “Besides, the elections will inevitably be rigged. So my choosing not to vote doesn’t even matter.”

When the laughter subsided, Koch cleared his throat, signalling it was time to discuss the business at hand.

“So what do you think of the proposal?” Koch asked in the tone of a businessman accustomed to flying first class.

It had been ten days since the proposal landed on Obi’s table. He recalled the day as vividly as the day the twins were born, only this time the occasion was grim. His sister Ada had called hours prior to the proposal reaching his desk with the news of their mother’s diagnosis.

“The doctors won’t attend to her until one million naira is paid upfront,” Ada said in a despondent voice. “How are we going to raise that amount, eh? How?”

Obi had sat in a stupor unable to think, let alone function. Borrowing from friends or family members was something he detested and avoided at all cost. He and his wife made sure there was money to cater for their needs. Wants were painstakingly budgeted for, like those Christmas trips to the bend-down market, where heaps of second hand clothes littered the floor for customers to riffle through and visually gauge what would fit.

Koch misinterpreted Obi’s reticence as dissatisfaction. “It can be doubled, you know? Just say the word,” he offered in a cavalier manner that mildly irritated Obi.

The prospect of owning sixteen million dollars caused sweat to once again form above Obi’s upper lip. There was a nagging fear his asthma would flare up any minute.

Obi’s mind drifted to a documentary he’d seen years ago on NTA news on a desperately poor father whose twin sons suffered from neurological disorders. Medical experts had fingered gas flaring and high levels of benzene in the air as the culprits. The story stirred something in his heart. He’d noted—but for a bizarre twist of fate— that could easily have been his family. It struck him that though country, gender and ethnicity were arbitrarily assigned, man’s constant rigging of the survival game determined who, within each category, was precious and who was expendable.

“So what do you say?” Koch looked dead in the eyes of his quarry, smiling a sinister smile.

Obi swallowed hard, glanced at his twitching fingers then back at Koch.

 


Shayera Dark is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on AFREADAThe AtlanticInternational Development JournalTrue AfricaaKoma and Brittle Paper among others. She is currently working on her first novel.

Related country: Nigeria

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