Wilson had been on his phone for about half an hour now, browsing and doing stuff. He looked up occasionally to glance at the wrestling match on TV across from where he sat. I was fully engaged watching the match; he, on the other hand, hardly paid attention to it. Rather, he tortured me endlessly with “listen to this…”, “did you know that…”, and similar declarations from his phone.
“Hey Gebenga, you need to hear this,” he said. I looked in his direction as he started to read from his phone.
“ ‘A man is rescued from a crashed car in an accident that had been fatal to other travellers. Three days later, he turns around and sues his rescuers because they weren’t licensed first-responders. He believes their action could’ve crippled him.’ ”
When he finished reading from the Yahoo! homepage, he said, “How more self-absorbed can we get, Gebenga?”
A native of Douala in Cameroon, Wilson could never correctly pronounce the double consonant, Gb, in my name, Gbenga.
Wilson was very easily moved to pity by the human condition. Whenever he found a piece of bewildering news he made sure to notify me, repeating my name for emphasis in almost every sentence.
I resented Wilson for distracting me from the wrestling match on TV and I resented the accident victim who was responsible for the distraction. Seething quietly, I bit back.
“Perhaps the victim was expressing an indirect wish to have been left to bleed to death.”
Wilson looked alarmed as I spoke. “Hey, easy man, easy,” he said.
“Well, let’s face it; possessing a right to life may not always mean having a willingness to live,” I tried to explain but Wilson was not to be outdone.
“Do you know what, Gebenga? One of the rescuers was his brother-in-law.”
Frowning in amazement with this added piece of information, I tried to digest the incongruity of it all.
“Aside from a moral duty to rescue, the Good Samaritan Law should absolve the rescuers, amateurs though they may be, from liability when they have clearly acted in good faith to save someone in danger. I don’t see how the lawsuit makes sense.”
“Even then, Gebenga, a really smart lawyer could argue the whole rescue doctrine in favour of the plaintiff,” Wilson observed.
“Well, let’s drop it; not that our opinions matter in any way,” I concluded.
It was impossible for Wilson to see that human unfairness, which so often led to unexpected twists, was a normal part of the conflict in the grand story of life. He and I shared an apartment; almost daily, there was some injustice he whined about, invariably expecting my empathy. In time, I learned to duck out of his way as he sought to infect me with his frustrations.
“Why Wilson die?” Sidi asked.
I had no answer for her.
Wilson had been a diabetic with a kidney malfunction. Due for dialysis, my friend was denied prompt medical attention at a university teaching hospital where he had been undergoing treatment. On the ill-fated day, his family members and I had taken him to the hospital at about seven o’clock in the morning. He was in agonizing pain all day long; still, he received no medical care. Twelve distressful hours later, he died. The attending physician closed the case, simply reporting the deceased as DOA. It was so dreadful—his death!
In halting but passable English, Sidi continued, “You know he was good man, very special person.”
I mumbled something to keep up the conversation.
“All the people that come here, there is no better person like him,” Sidi said, then a moment later, poked, “You cannot be like him.”
I looked at this teenaged slum dweller and wondered if something existed between Wilson and her. Tall and lithe, the edges of her palms and soles were calloused and tanned. Her tresses were loose but her prettiness was not veiled. Sidi was hardened by ill fate, yet her voice was soft, almost tender.
“You are right; I can’t take his place.” It was painful to admit. A while earlier, I observed that Sidi had referred to him simply as Wilson, not Uncle Wilson as would have been more fitting for a benefactor. Or, maybe my mind was just playing with undertones that did not exist.
“People come here to bring foods and things but they benefit theirselves more. Wilson is different.” Her voice strained slightly as she spoke.
“How do you mean?” I asked after a pause.
“The people bring news people to record for TV. Only Sir Wilson is correct friend and sincere man.” Tears welled up in Sidi’s eyes.
Wilson had helped out in the slums where children and the aged needed food and comfort. During the day, he worked part-time at a restaurant. In the evenings, he visited with his friends in these shacks, bringing them food he had begged from his manager at the diner or bought with his allowance. Sometimes, he got warm clothing for them too.
We had been here together a few times; I always noticed how everyone was fond of Wilson. He knew their names and would often joke around with them. Truly, he was unlike those who, according to Sidi, repeatedly exploited the slummers’ condition for personal benefit; who brought relief materials but also had the media tag along to bear witness to their good deeds. Their efforts, sincere though they might have been, resonated little with Sidi and her friends.
After Wilson’s passing, I tried to help out at the slums too. Although the dwellers needed the food I brought and never failed to take it, they did not welcome me. I could feel it in their emotionless response.
“I’m sorry about Wilson,” I said, looking around me. Some of the people, with heads bowed, were grey-haired. Many others, most of whom had already retired for the night, were young children.
Because of their station in life, people like Sidi were often ascribed degraded humanity by some of us in Lagos; we felt condescending pity for them. There were those who even regarded them as an indolent nuisance to society and thought they deserved their place in it.
Keeping my guilt feelings well hidden, I asked, “What happened with all the media coverage? Surely, the Government must be planning a more permanent solution to all of this.”
Sidi spoke up slowly. “Some people say Government is planning to drive us away from here. That is permanent solution, eh?”
I was alarmed. “No, they can’t do that!”
“Who go stop them? You?” she asked, sneering.
I opened my mouth to speak but promptly shut it as no words came forth. Indeed, the spaces under these land bridges were the property of the Government of Lagos State who reserved the right to keep out trespassers.
Sidi looked long at me and probed, “You wan bring media too?”
Of course not; not with all that she had taught me lately. Somehow, I understood now why I had not been accepted by Wilson’s destitute friends.
“I really want to help, but I’m not sure how.”
“You can just be good friend,” she said.
When I first started coming out to this place by myself, my motive was to keep Wilson’s memory alive. I paid random visits and wrote a few depressing posts on social media. When they started to go viral, I was excited. In no time, I had thought, the dwellers of this shantytown would get help.
My internet posts sparked a useless online debate on the pros and cons of dwelling in slums, obviously causing my followership to sprout geometrically. Many people applauded my humanitarian effort. But I doubted much that any slum dwellers in Lagos fared better by the outcome. It felt awful that I furthered my online popularity at the expense of these slummers.
When Wilson passed away, I created a bleak depiction of the incident on my Facebook Timeline decrying the country’s sick health system that he was a casualty of. I recalled how that post, also, only drew a few erratic comments—some of them kindly—but everything petered out quickly.
The needless death of my friend left me confused about many things. Wilson lived by great ideals but it appeared so pointless seeing how his life had ended. The inhuman circumstances of his death did not cause public outrage. Perhaps deeply caught up in the discourse of the evils caused by amateur first-responders in road accidents, the world had no time for Wilson and his unfair death.
Again, I surveyed the surroundings. There was Sidi looking on calmly, maybe dreaming of better days to come. There were all the others too who waited on life, who waited for a better life. They looked ready to live the next day if it dawned. And should tomorrow come with its challenges, I felt certain that they would surmount them.
“How can I show sincere friendship?”
Sidi remained silent for a time. Finally, she said, “People can feel true friends.”
I often complained about how dull Wilson’s social life was because of his commitment to the slums. “Tomorrow is not in my control, so I’ll volunteer today,” he would say. Looking back, I figured he was right.
Wilson was in his late twenties when he died. His was a small sphere of influence, yet it was an enduring one; his sacrifices outlived him. While he pursued his worldview with vigour, I fumed about his ceaseless pestering.
It took Wilson’s death for me to realise the need for service; I was glad that I did after all. Now, his friends had become my friends too, destitute though they might be.