When we were Young Part 2 – by Abidemi Adebola “Sometimes our best love moments
Chapter 12 – “Death’s porch”
Catch up on Chapter 11 here
Benjamin’s heart skipped a beat the moment he heard those words.
“I have seen this man. Four years ago”
Fearful thoughts looped around his mind so quickly until there was no room for anything else. While he indeed was on the lookout for any credible information about the whereabouts of Mr. George, nothing could prepare him for his own reaction when he got some.
He could barely hide his apprehension and the Village head easily discerned his body language right across the room.
“He came here asking about Mahmud Jaguda- one of our most successful exploits from the village. You know Mahmud don’t you?” Below his unmoving eyes was a grin that spread through his face. Pride lingered at the corner of his mouth as he turned to face the wall across the room.
Benjamin followed the old man’s arm as he pointed to a framed image on the wall conspicuous enough for everyone to see. He also did not fail to notice how the old old’s man’s arm looked as though the bones had grown faster than the flesh could keep up.
Benjamin recognized Mahmud without moving closer to the portrait. Mahmud was a once celebrated and award winning actor who was disgraced after he was enmeshed in the murder of his love interest and partner. During his best years, he was often slammed by the critics and loved by the punters, yet he never failed to dazzle on the movie set. He was the darling of the film industry – Nollywood, renowned the world over for churning out a new movie every 12hour.
Even amidst the chaos and the melting horizon of his career in the wake of the murder and subsequent public trials, he showed no remorse and was unapologetic. He had a chip on his shoulder, the weight of which crashed his famed career into a bottomless abyss where stars never recover from.
After the murder was uncovered, several other ladies he had dated in the past came forward with scathing horror stories and evidence of physical abuse which underscored his history of violence against women.
He was first judged in the court of public opinions, then social media, before the law courts found him guilty and sentenced him to spend the rest of his life within the cold walls of the federal prison in Ilesha.
Sad end! But to this hunched old man, there was no question or doubt that Mahmud would always be their hero. Despite his attempt to dissociate himself from his very humble beginning in the rustic village of Bagaji, his picture hung on the wall proudly in the village head’s hut welcoming every visitor to the modest abode.
Mr. George was investigating Mahmud’s background and had made a trip to Bagaji to investigate and interview his parents and friends so he could get an idea of how he grew up during his childhood years. Mr. George would go that far to scoop for information.
Benjamin was lost briefly in the moment as sweat trickled down his face. The air was suddenly thick with silence as waves of sweltering heat from the mid-day sun descended on the hut. He looked around the room for windows or anything to help with the heat, it was completely empty except for some benches and a wooden door to the corner.
Just that moment he heard the small gagging noises he had heard before when he first got to the hut. But this time a little louder and with it the sour scent of puke adding to the already discomfiting smell that lingered in the hut. It was more like a muffled cry of children, the kind that comes from those drained of all hope.
Somehow the noises filled the room and Benjamin could no longer think, it felt like scrambled logic mis-wiring all the synapses in his brain. He had to find out what the noise was about.
“The noise?” The old man ask quizzically. “Let me show you”
The next few minutes would either pass as a blip in the course of his life, or they would be the final trauma that broke him. Sweat trickled down Benjamin’s face as waves of grief and despair, the kind that can take one’s mind prisoner and never give it back, flushed through his whole being.
As the wooden door swung open, his sight beheld children of all ages with various forms of deformity, crying, sobbing, whimpering and muttering gibberish looking helpless and lost. Some had enlarged and bald heads, others had limbs in awkward postures with mouth agape and spittle drooling uncontrollably.
Some children had distended lower abdomen and gorged eyes popping out of their skulls. It felt so unreal, yet the uncoordinated movement of the children lying face down on threadbare mattresses on the earthen floor was a jolt back into reality.
The unmistakable stench of urine, puke and sweat assaulted his nostrils and his hands were starting to shake badly the longer he stood in that room.
He had seen enough. The old man’s wrinkled hands guided Benjamin out of the room just before he uncontrollably retched the contents of his stomach into the floor. He suddenly felt sick and weak. He was heaved into the nearby bench outside the hut and supported with his back to the wall.
“The man on your phone didn’t faint when he saw the children in that room. He was angry. Very angry. He took pictures and left in a hurry” the old man started to say when Benjamin had filled his lungs with clean air.
“He visited the abandoned camp before he left. We didn’t see him again. I remember him because he was the only journalist who visited the village to enquire about my son Mahmud during the crisis that ended his career”
The old man later explained to him that over 80 children in the community had died over the last 6 years after a well-coordinated mass vaccination exercise was conducted in the community by some foreign health agency in conjunction with the local health care providers.
The agency had set up a camp in the community and lived amongst them for over 6 months combing all the neighboring villages for children not older than 3years and administering vaccines in measured doses with follow up booster doses weeks later.
However, weeks after the children received the vaccines, a strange illness ravaged the communities and they started to die in droves. It started first as a shivering fever before the children started to say delirious gabble and then the fainting spells and seizures. It was a health crisis they had never witnessed. It happened so fast and all effort to provide adequate medical care ended in futility. The children started to die.
The mortality rate on the girl child was predominantly double that of their male counterparts. The toddlers who survived the debilitating illness were deformed badly and never remained the same again.
At first the agencies started to care for the kids by administering drugs and other palliatives, but soon it got out of the control and the natives started to revolt. They left in a hurry abandoning their camp and never returned for many years.
The sight was so sad and heart wrenching.
When Benjamin managed to stand on his feet, he asked;
“Can I see the abandoned camp?”
As they walked the distance to the camp, Benjamin was beginning to fit the pieces of the puzzles together. The papers in the envelop Pete handed over to him at the airport now made complete sense as clarity on the document dawned on him.
The document in his custody had a list of names; they must be that of the children who received the vaccines along with their ages and addresses. It also had a list of all the villages where the trials were ongoing at the time.
If Mr. George knew about this travesty, then he must have started some sort of investigation on his own no doubt. But he never mentioned anything about mass vaccination to him before his death. Has this got anything to do with his death? Perhaps.
The camp was a group of 6 tents; 3 of either side, that blended with the brown dusty soil in the arid village. Its hue of casual green-grey was lost to several thick layers of dust and mud from the seasonal weather cycle. It was built with fine mesh that allowed for stargazing at night and was still pegged into the soil firmly awaiting the return of its occupant who may never arrive.
He walked closer and approached the entrance into one of the tents. He peered in coyly scanning the tent in 360 degrees. It was some sort of military tent. The decaying remains of a paper calendar dyed by the dust still hung loosely flapping as he opened the tent. So did the remains of papers cluttered in a dump at one corner of the tent. A couple of foldable steel chairs and tables that once served doctors and nurses laid broken, upturned and in disarray in evidence of their hurried exit from the camp.
There was a cabinet sitting pretty in regal presence as the biggest furniture in the tent. The drawers were open and empty. Three lizards scampered the floor of the tent as the unwelcomed visitor kicked at the beddings on the bare floor.
He starts to recreate the scenes in his head. The children lined up right outside each tent and a pair of a nurse and doctor taking their vitals and recording same before each child got a pinch of the syringe in their forearm. He wondered where the vials would be stored. He dismissed the thought quickly as he figured they would have come in the storage boxes with dividers and ice to keep the vials and its content at ultra-low temperature.
This is a criminal activity and it appears to have been swept under the carpet. Benjamin thought.
“They left in a hurry and we opted to keep the camp the way it was before they left” The old man punctuated his thoughts with his words.
“They promised to come back. It’s been three years now”
“Have you any idea which of the villages they set up a camp in?” Benjamin asked desperately hoping for a lifeline.
“They are currently at the fisherman village in Burukutu. My brother just got back from that village yesterday. Its two hours away”
Benjamin scanned the document in the envelope in his care to see if Burukutu was on the list. That moment, Benjamin knew where his next stop would be.
Chapter 13 awaits you
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