Numbers

Qualified Entry: Fiction Category

By: Tunji Ajibade

I didn’t think anything of it, until politicians came in their flowing, long-sleeved babanriga  and  caps to make much out of it. I rolled my wheel chair (two lifeless legs dangling under me) to the podium in the University auditorium. I stopped, turned around in the centre of the podium, to face the crowd as the governor continued with his address.

“…It is a thing of joy that the empowerment programmes of my Administration are yielding fruits. And  I will also like to state here that…”

My mind left the governor and travelled into the past, to the day I took a decision, the decision that made it possible for the governor to come along with his entourage to the University auditorium where he seized the opportunity I presented to make political statements.

I had touched the pocket of my sleeveless dashiki when I arrived the Children’s Ward of the General Hospital that day. I wanted to be sure I brought my pink card along; it identified me as Number 89 which meant I was the eighty-ninth person to be registered when my parents brought me for treatment as a toddler years ago. I would need the card for identification purposes when officials of the drug company arrived for the verification exercise.

I sat on a bench in front of the ward, placed my stringed goge beside me, and lay the two crutches on the floor, wondering if Number 88 would come. We had become friends, Number 88, since we met at the Children’s Ward six months ago; that was when news came that the government and the drug company had agreed to settle their dispute out of court. It was a long battle between the two parties, but the drug company said lately that it would  compensate the victims of its drug test. I thought once I was paid, I would buy a wheel chair which would make it easier for me to move between our house and my spot at Cross, the roundabout in the centre of town where I sat to beg for alms each day.

I could see twelve year old Number 68, limping on his right leg, a walking stick in his left hand as he came in my direction. Behind him, Number 24, a nine year old girl was on a wheelchair which she rolled with a hand pedal. Both were from the same parents and they were also victims of the failed drug test that the drug company carried out on us when we were toddlers.  I had heard the stories of how some children gathered money, doing odd jobs for adults in their neighbourhood; they used the money to buy  wheelchair for Number 24 whose feet were paralyzed like mine –  she used to  move about with her playmates by drawing her buttocks on the ground.

“How are you?” one of the nurses who walked past where I sat on the hospital corridor asked, her eyes on 68, 24 and me.

“Fine, thank you, Ma,” I said and picked up my goge. I placed it on my laps, strummed on it, and hummed, though my mind was on something else.

I had always wondered if the nurses in their starched white uniforms, and the doctors who walked past on the corridor in their white overcoats were guilty of anything. I wondered if they had actually watched the drug company feed us poison years ago as my father told me. My father said my condition grew worse when my mother brought me to the General hospital like other children who suffered from meningitis, and that I was administered with drugs.  He didn’t know why, not until news came months ago that the company had used us to test the effectiveness of a new drug.

Number 88 said we were used as guinea pigs. I knew cattle which cattlemen drove through my father’s farm and for which my father quarreled with their owners because the cattle ate the fodder he had packed ready for sale.  I also knew goats, dozens of them that belonged to my father and I fed with cassava every morning. I knew donkeys one of which my father used in carrying his bags of corn and millet  home from the farm. And I also knew camels which men with head turbans from further up north rode as they travelled past our village. But I didn’t know guinea pigs. I never saw one.

Number 88 who was a school pupil said he had seen guinea pigs in a picture book; he said a nurse at the hospital gave him the book and he had promised to bring it for me. But he said his mother who had to carry him to the hospital on her back  always took the book from him, throw it on the ground in their mud house and say: “You are enough load for me.”  Number 88 promised when we met at the hospital the last time that he would keep the book in his crotch so that his mother would not see it. I looked in the direction of the hospital gate, hoping he would come. I imagined it would be bad luck if his mother did not bring him today when we were sure the drug company would fulfill its promise of compensating us. I learned that lawyers and doctors whom the company had recruited would conduct verification exercise, and then pay us. The company had also said it would attend only to the  victims it had on its list. This had been another source of contention between it and the government.  But both continued to discuss a compromise at a meeting that lasted all night. As I sat in front of the Children’s Ward, the meeting was still on, but there was no news of how far they had gone.

I imagined that the lawyers from the drug company would be prompt as I learned lawyers were when they had a case in court, and that they would come to the hospital for the verification exercise in flowing black robes and white shirts. I had also imagined that the lawyers whom I learned were natives, unlike the senior staff of the drug companies who were white, would fight for us and ensure every victim of the drug test was compensated. But news on my father’s portable radio had made me wonder. Even my father shook his head where he sat on his deckchair the previous day, listening to the news on radio in front of our hut after he returned from the farm.  He had said, “Uhmmn,” which I knew to be his sign of disapproval.

Part of the news item was that the state government and the company disagreed on the number of people who should be compensated. It had always been a major area of disagreement between them,  the number of victims to compensate, since the time they agreed to settle the matter out of court months ago. Taking the drug company to court was the first thing our state government did when it realized that the company administered an untested drug on kids. The government took the company to court for a second time when it refused to accept responsibility for the negative effects of the drugs on us. The two court cases had dragged on for years.  When both parties eventually agreed to settle out of court, the company said  it wanted to  compensate only the patients whose pink cards had numbers from 1 to 200;  it claimed it was the total number of kids whose parents and guardians volunteered to participate in its drug tests years ago.

I noticed that large number of young people like myself had been coming to the hospital since the news of compensation was made known six months ago. But the verification had been postponed several times and a new date set. As I sat strumming on my goge at the hospital, I tried to recollect the number of “grey areas”, as radio reports put it, that the two parties had had to resolve over the past few years since the government linked our worsened conditions to the drug test. I couldn’t. But I remembered my father’s version of  how I became physically challenged.

‘“He has developed fever and he refused to feed,’ was how your mother complained to me about your condition one night,’” my father informed me. It was in the months when meningitis usually broke out in our part of the country. Mothers had been taught in the maternity how to recognize early symptoms of the disease, so the glass tumbler that my mother kept handy and pressed to my rash-covered skin left its mark  – a sign that I had contacted meningitis.

“That year, a large number of children died,” my father continued. The manner he drew out on the words ‘large number’ made me think of the hundreds of children that lost their lives only as numbers. I wondered if nurses at the hospital ever knew our names, or the names of dead children listed in their records. But I recollected that they never mentioned our names. Each time victims of the drug tests reported for the aborted verification exercise, and we were marked  ‘present’ or ‘absent’, the nurses  called the numbers written against our names. Somehow this made me think of ants, hundred of thousands of ants that matched across my fathers farm. I also thought of locusts that caused my father’s friend to commit suicide as well as government officials who said on radio that they had “promptly swung into action to deal with the locust menace.” That was after several hectares of ripe millets, sorghum and corn had been devoured.

“We took you to the hospital and met hundreds of children who were in the same condition,” my father added as he spoke to me. “We were desperate to have drugs for you. Officials at the hospital informed your mother and me that the government had sought for the assistance of a major drug company. They said that a new drug would be administered only to the children whose parents gave their approval.  I decided that was what we needed for you, drugs. I was given a pink card with a number on it, after which we handed you over to the nurses.

“I came regularly to check on you and your mother. But she complained that your physical condition didn’t get better. You lost the use of your legs, yet you managed to live while other mothers wailed on the hospital floors as their children passed on.”

My father gave me the pink card and I had it in my pocket each time I came to wait for the company lawyers who were to conduct the verification exercise. The card was the only evidence that I was ever part of the drug test.  As my father explained to me what took place at the hospital that year when my legs were paralyzed, I imagined what the space in the hospital premises had looked like –  bodies of children lain out on rows and rows of mats; mothers  waiting for life saving treatment that didn’t come, but wept as life ebbed out of their children. I also imagined that staff of the hospital walked past them the same way I would walk past a goat that was giving birth without bothering to give it any assistance.

“You, what are you doing there?”

My mind jumped, and my fingers missed a note on my goge. The voice belonged to a nurse; she spoke to a young adult who stood at the foot of a cashew tree  a few feet away from where I sat in front of the Children’s Ward.

“I feel like vomiting,” the young man said, his neck stretched forward, his body heaving as he prepared to let go other things in his bowel.

“Will you get away from there?” the nurse said. “Is that the toilet where you should vomit?”

“The toilet is dirty and there is no water, so I…”

“The toilet is dirty,” the nurse mimicked, her fingers spread out like talons, her lips twisted to an angle like the girls who acted ‘witches’ in a play while I was in primary school. “Does that mean you should come and vomit here? Have you employed a houseboy  to clean it for you?  Get away from there, and go into the bush or wherever.”

I thought of the toilet the young man mentioned. I had been there on a few occasions but I didn’t go there anymore each time I came to the hospital, preferring to use the bush behind the hospital. I had always thought the bush was safer since the day I sat on the toilet bowl and I had to scratch my buttocks kraw-kraw-kraw till the following morning when my father bought ori, balm, that brought me relief.

“Nurse, help me!” The voice was from the door labeled Labour Room in the block opposite where I sat. The door of the labour room opened and two nurses walked out, the swing door falling back into place behind them. They spoke as they walked on the corridor.

“Is it not that woman with the two set of twins…?”

“She is the one.”

“Why does she shout like that? It is the third time she would give birth in this hospital, not the first. Even those who give birth for the first time don’t…”

“You too say so? Don’t mind her.”

Number 88, a twelve year old boy, turned the corner, the same spot where the two nurses had disappeared from my view.

Sannu da zuwa,” I said to his mother when she got to where I sat.

“Thank you,” the mother said and placed 88, whom she had on her back, on the bench beside me. Then she straightened up and drew her top garment back in place.

“You are the first person to arrive,” 88 said, shifting further into the bench to lean on the  backrest. He picked his words like a stutterer who had been taught to take it easy. He had dazed eyes, slow speech and an uneven gait even in his sitting position. I understood these were signals of brain damage caused by the swelling of the lining around the brain and the spinal cord. Nurses explained some of these things to us, saying we needed to be educated and informed about our physical conditions.

“Yes,” I said, reacting to 88. We always competed over who was the first person to arrive. It was one thing we enjoyed since we began to come for the promised compensation.

“I have the book,” 88 said, drawing the strings in the waist band of his sokoto as soon as his mother walked into the Children’s Ward. He brought out a picture book through the loose end of the waist band, opened it to a page and gave it to me.

Two animals stood side by side on their hind legs, their whiskers sticking out like the fronds of the four date palms in front of my father’s house.

“They looked like rabbits, not pigs,” I said, staring at the animals covered in black and white fur. I liked them and I wondered why anyone would want to harm them. But I remembered they were not the ones the drug company harmed when it tested drugs; it harmed children. The company made me lose my legs, made 88 have a partially damaged brain, and made 24  become not only lame but had a neck that was as stiff  as that of my father who could hardly turn around without turning his whole body.

“I asked my teacher in school about it.” 88 said.

“About what?”

“About guinea pigs not being pigs. He said I shouldn’t bother, that it is one of the oddities in the use of the English language.” 88 still attended school while I could not continue with my education. I was in my first year in High school when my father said he had no money for the special care that I needed, and I had been sitting at Cross to beg for alms ever since.

I was interested in the compensation from the drug company, not what 88’s school teacher said.

“The drug company and government officials are still at their meeting; they have not agreed to pay all of us. The company insists we are too many,” I said to 88.

“If we had died when the company gave us drugs, it wouldn’t have had reasons to complain about compensation.”

“The company said it would compensate only two hundred people, but the government said we are two thousand. Do you think there were up to two thousand people, I mean those who agreed to be part of the test the company conducted?” I asked.

“How many people died that year, do you remember?”

I stared at 88, as though he was an old man with grey head. He seemed to me like that with some of his responses, 88, and he had made a point so I didn’t have to answer him. Thousands of children died, meaning that any number of children could have been submitted for the drug test by parents who were eager to have them healed. When such children died, their parents would have cried. But they quietly buried them and then move on with their lives, taking it the way my father took it the year he lost his two dozen cattle to an epidemic and said it was an act of God.

What 88 meant was that more children might have died than those of us that lived, and if they had not, they would also have come to demand for compensation. But the company only thought of the number that survived and had come forward for compensation. I assumed the company would get away with this since government officials would not provide valid records of their claims that there were two thousand victims of the drug test. I knew officials would not back up their claim because I had seen files dumped in dark corners in the hospital where rats fed on them. I was in the Pharmacy Unit sometime ago when the official in charge said,  “You will pay two hundred naira for a new file jacket.” The record file that I had always used whenever I came to treat cold, headaches and stomach aches could not be found, the official at the Pharmacy Unit had added.

I had thought that maybe those of us that the company was sure of should be paid, while the doubtful cases were further investigated. But government officials said they would not take the amount the company offered us because the company’s lawyers wanted to take larger share of the total sum. Meanwhile, the company said it wanted to give the money to us directly; but government officials preferred to be the ones to share it to victims. I thought about the  insistence of government officials and my mind went to what happened to my father which made it impossible for him to go on pilgrimage to the holy land as he had wished all his life. The state government set up a scheme that allowed intending pilgrims save money over a period towards the trip. My father paid monthly to the government officials in charge. Years later, he showed up to pay the balance and to receive necessary papers for the pilgrimage. But the money he paid could not be traced because there was no record. He wasn’t the only victim.

“When do you think they will come?”

“What did you say?” I asked 88.

“The company lawyers, when will they come?”

“Maybe this morning, maybe in the afternoon.”

Number 1006, an eight year old girl turned the corner. She was on her mother’s back, and I had heard her mother confiding in the mother of another child that she was not sure if her daughter was administered with the drug. All she knew was that when 1006, then a 6-month old infant became feverish she brought her to the hospital. The child was treated, but she suffered severe brain damage that left her unable to sit up or talk. The mother said she came to the hospital when a government official informed her of the plan by the drug company to compensate victims.

More people arrived the Children’s Ward. A nurse came out and she began to take the roll call as usual.

“Number  88.”

“Present.”

“Say ‘Present, Ma.’ Didn’t you hear how your mates have been answering all this while?” the nurse asked, her eyelids raised to show all the white of her eyes.  She hissed, her eyes still on the offender, making the same sound like the spitting cobra that my father once cornered on our farm.

“Number  89.”

“Present, Ma,” I answered.

“Nurse,” 88 called after the nurse had finished calling our numbers, turned around and was about to enter  the Children’s Ward.

She turned around in her starched uniform,  the look on her face like that of a lady in stiletto, mini skirt and low cut blouse who couldn’t believe an urchin stopped her on the street to say, “I love you.”

“When will the company’s lawyers come?” 88 asked the nurse.

“I don’t know.  They will come whenever they are ready to come,” she said, waving a hand  as though she was taking a swipe at a fly. She turned and walked away, her high heels making ko-ko-ka, ko-ko-ka, the kind of sound teachers always say the footwear of a pupil that is serious with his studies will make; meanwhile the footwear of the child who is not serious will make flat-flat-flat on the ground as he walks. I had always imagined wearing ko-ko-ka shoes after I must have finished my university education. But I couldn’t continue with my education and I had lost my feet. I looked down at them where I sat, thinking of what they had prevented me from doing; they appeared like thin, undeveloped sugar cane even inside my baggy trousers.

“Have you heard?”

It was the nurse who had called our numbers. She came out of the ward again and as she stood facing the large crowd of invalids that had arrived for the verification, everyone turned in her direction with a look of  ‘heard what?’ on our faces.

“It has been announced on radio that the lawyers that work for the drug company will not come today;  the latest negotiations between them and the government has broken down,” she announced.

People murmured things. I didn’t. I picked up my crutches and got up. “Whoever waits for these people will wait forever,” I said to 88 and turned around.

“Are you going?” he asked.

I dropped his book on the bench without an answer. I took the pink card out of my pocket, tore it to shreds and limped away on my crutches. I didn’t want to wait for anyone’s hand-outs anymore.

“Banibi Surugi here has demonstrated that being physically-challenged is a challenge to excel, not a denial…”

My mind returned to the University auditorium where the state governor was still talking, his audience clapping.

I  didn’t pick most of the other things the governor said about automatic employment that his government offered me;  the honour of being made the “State Ambassador For the Physically-Challenged; a scholarship to do a Master’s degree programme in any University abroad and the rest of it. My mind only recollected that when I left the hospital, I was so angry that I didn’t return to Cross. Instead, I  registered with the state government’s Scholarship Board which offered special scholarship to indigent and physically-challenged children. I had spent the last ten years completing my high school education and a law degree in the University. On the day of graduation, I was announced as the only graduating student with a First Class that the Law Faculty produced for the year.

“I am glad,”  the governor turned around and said to me, “to award you this medal of honour in recognition of your hard work, and for being a source of inspiration to sixty-four thousand other physically-challenged young people across the state.”

I bent forward on my wheel chair. The governor hanged the medal on my neck.

The crowd stood and cheered.

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