Not My Business – By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo

Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo I bet, you saw the pictures of those 95 men and women and children who perished while scooping fuel from a petrol tanker that crashed and later caught fire. But did you see the pictures of those poor souls before the fire?

After the fire, their bodies were stiff like roasted Christmas goats. You saw their charred torso, outstretched arms and legs. You saw their shrunk flesh, skin split at weird angles; contracted muscles, flexed joints, fractured bones, skulls cracked along suture lines. Did you imagine how they smelled?

Some of them died in a defensive posture. They were not fighting the fire with their bare hands. Their airways were blocked. Hot toxic gasses strangulated them. Others died of asphyxiation. What were left to the sun were bellies busted at the side, with intestines resting on gray powders all over the hallowed ground.

Are you disgusted yet?

You really need to see their pictures before the fire. One man with a plastic red bowl scooping fuel and pouring it into a big black can had an anxious grin on his face. He had one eye on the fallen tanker and another on the makeshift funnel that channeled the petrol into the can. Like the rest of the men, he folded the legs of his pants so that it would not be soaked in petrol. His eyes sank inside. He wore a shirt that was bigger than his body. Maybe he borrowed it from his older brother. Or maybe he had recently lost weight. His hand was skinny. His body-mass index must be at the fat to muscle malnourished level. His okada, the one with a tuber of yam in the carriage, was idling away beside him. Holding the funnel for him was a little boy, maybe six or seven. Maybe a kid who should be in school but wasn’t. He didn’t look any better – the kid, I mean. His chin was shrunk. His face was dry with lines of his cheek bone visible from 1000 yards away.

By the way, that boy, the one who wore the yellow shirt that was torn near the armpit, could have been our own Steve Jobs. Somehow, he could have emerged from abject poverty to join one of these young people who write programs that run the internet. But he would not do that anymore, would he? We wouldn’t even know who next he was to hand down his rumpled yellow shirt to. Anyway, there is no yellow shirt to hand down to anyone, or is there?

Are you disgusted yet?

Once the fire started everyone had to wait for it to burn out. Villagers who came around placed their hands on their heads and wailed and screamed and prayed. The fire was more than what their buckets of well water could quench. The nearest fire truck was 40 miles away in Port Harcourt, where very important people live – like past and current governors, the permanent secretaries and the oil company executives. Minutes after the fire started, the emergency agency workers came. They came with the only tools they have- masks for their mouths and noses, gloves for their hands, and body bags. They are glorified undertakers, anyway.

It wasn’t only the limps that were stripped of bones, the tuber of yam was now a lump of soot. Looking at the bodies, nobody knew if they were men or women. Too late. The emergency workers just packed the bodies into the truck, skins peeling off along the way. No waiting for the toxicology report. No siren. No police escort. No Boys Brigade band leading the way to the grave.

A tractor dug up a field beside a school yard- the one near the evil forest. Nobody checked if the hole was six feet deep or less. Dark clouds brew in the sky. Vultures hovered around. Repulsive stench filled the air. Someone said a prayer, a short one at it. Not the Catholic prayer. Not the Anglican prayer. Not the Redeem prayer. And definitely, not the Winners’ prayer. They just said a prayer -and a quick Amen. Those who gathered hissed that heaven must pay. The remains were all heaped in there and covered up, leaving the flies hovering around the red soil.

Are you disgusted yet?

We have forgotten those in the hospital. It will take weeks before we see their faces, anyway. They are wrapped up like mummies. Their moans are irritating to the doctors who have no medicine to treat their burns. The nurses chase away flies with antiseptics fluids mixed with water. When they pause from doing so, they join the family members on the bedside to pray.

Are you disgusted yet?

No, you are not. It is not your business. You don’t know these people. You could have lived all your life without crossing path with them. If you were around the area, like travelling through their village, your only business would have been to wave off the smoke coming off their bodies to take pictures with your phone’s camera. That is all you owe them -and Facebook. Thanks for restoring their dignity.

You could relate more with those who died in the Dana airplane crash. Those were your kind of people. They would not stoop so low to scoop petrol from the ground while smoking a cigarette. But those Dana plane victims were burnt too, you remember? They too could have made it out of the plane if help had arrived on time.

Do you want to think further? I bet, you don’t. If the road was maintained to begin with, that tanker truck would not have veered off the road into a ditch. You know the contract was awarded in 2006. But someone got the money and pocketed it. A chief, I suppose -one of those successful men who own the land. Those we worship instead of hold accountable. Because it was an important road, another contract was awarded again. And once more, the money was embezzled.

Are you disgusted yet? Don’t bother your head too much with thinking like this. After all, it is not your business.

So these men, women and children were given a mass burial because their bodies were burnt beyond identification. No fingerprint. No birthmarks. No tattoos. The emergency personnel thought about dental -X-ray, as was written in their manual. But when they could not get a yellow tape to secure the perimeter of the scene, where would they get X-ray machines.

Anyway, with such high energy fire it was hard to separate the bodies of children from those of animals, like dogs. I know you didn’t see their pictures before the fire. But there was a dog somewhere beside another idling okada machine. Yes, there was a dog in one of those black body bags.

Are you disgusted yet?

That is what human life has been reduced to in our country. Those people were one of us even though we may not know it. It was them the other day. It would be you and I in coming days. Please, spare me of your tufiakwa. Maybe not while scooping petrol. Maybe while flying in a plane to go scoop an inflated contract. Maybe while driving on the road to pick an NYSC call up letter that would otherwise been posted if only the Post Office was functional. Maybe while receiving substandard treatment for a non-life threatening illness in a hyped hospital. Maybe while singing praises in a church at striking distance of those who have lost all reasons and all taste for roasted yam in their mouths.

But what am I saying? Poet Niyi Osundare was right.

“What business of mine is it

So long they don’t take the yam

From my savouring mouth?”

-Niyi Osundare, Not My Business.

  1. Dayo Reply

    Well written,
    I wonder when it will be everybody’s business….
    Anybody can also end up as nobody

  2. AWAP Reply

    Yea, Rudolph this was a well written piece. I cried and laughed all at the same time. The intent was intact and as you pointed out, when will it be my (our /everybody’s) business to stand up to the monstrous atocities in everyday Nigeria?

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