By Rohey Samba
Following the fire incident, Adjoa made sure that everyone knew who caused the fire outbreak. It was me!
She couldn’t help herself. She would literally die, if she failed to spill the beans. Nothing could be kept under wraps with people like Adjoa. She held nothing against me. I knew it for real. She just knew not how to seal her lips.
Thus she was overheard recounting in vivid details how I had carelessly left the lit candle stick on the bare ebony shelf by my bedside and had gone out to join the gathering downstairs immediately on hearing about Big Solo’s passing. I had actually planted the candle stick on a metallic stand before placing it on top of the shelf. I assumed that the window, which I had left ajar by habit due to my claustrophobia, was the source of the mess. Owing to the strong winds that were blowing on that fateful night, the curtains or perchance the wind itself, might have knocked off the candle on the bed, which may have caught fire as a result.
The stand was discovered lying on the crest of the burnt mattress when the fire was doused later that night. On hindsight, had Adjoa herself not insisted that I left immediately she announced the bad news of Big Solo’s death, I might have used due diligence to ensure all was safe before I departed from my dorm to be with the deceased’s family downstairs. Still, I did not blame Adjoa for anything, even though I was initially shocked and angered by her foolish blabbering. I thought it was unnecessary and thoughtless on her part to do so. We were supposed to be friends. Or are there real friendships anymore in this world?
When I was summoned by the commandant of the cadets to relate my account of events the day following the fire incident, he had already heard an earful of harrowing testimonies from the other cadets who knew nothing about the incident aside from what they were told by Adjoa. Still, he had the courtesy to ask me my version of events as they unfolded the previous night.
Now, commandant was thick and stood all of 6.5 feet tall. I cowered before him in fear, because tell you the truth, everyone at Nautical College both revered and feared the commandant. He was the head of cadetship training and earned the deepest respect by it for his distinctive sea career both as a naval captain and a boat captain. His distinguished career spanned many years and played out in many countries, including The Gambia, where he headed the fleet of vessels owned by Seagull in the 1980s.
Bracing for the worse, that is, suspension or even expulsion from the college, I listened to his calm admonishments in his blaring voice and unhesitantly admitted my guilt. It was my fault. I solemnly declared myself willing to bear all consequences for my mistake. What else was I supposed to do after all?
I was given the tasks to clear the weeds from an allotted area of the wide campus, and to clean the girls’ toilets for a period of one month as punishment. The female cadets took turns to clean the girls’ toilets daily according to a roster set by the senior female cadet. My punishment therefore served as relief from their duties for a while. It pleased them no doubt.
On my part, I could have weeded the whole campus as punishment every day of my life at Nautical College, but cleaning toilets was just not my thing to do. Not with the endemic late of running water from the taps, which left the toilets, let’s say, ‘unfit for civilised human use!’ So when Adjoa, perhaps out of guilt, came to relieve me of that duty, I gladly swallowed my misgivings and continued to remain ‘friends’ with her.
Three weeks after his death, the body of Big Solo was brought back to the campus for the final rites to be performed on him before the burial ceremony. Nautical College was chosen as a last resort. Angered by his neglect to assist his relatives when he was sailing and earning ‘big money’, his relations rejected his body when it was taken to their village for interment. Without mincing words, the eldest in his lineage, recounted how as a young man the hopes of the entire family were reposed on him as the first son to receive formal education in the British colonial system.
He explained how his mother had struggled to ensure that Big Solo lacked nothing going to school in those difficult times. Accordingly, his mother convinced his biological father, against his will, to sell a number of cattle heads in order to see Big Solo through Nautical College in the 1960s. To sum his discourse, which Adjoa explained to me as if she was right at the middle of it all, the old man expressed huge disappointment from all of the family with Big Solo upon completing his schooling and his subsequent accomplishments as a seafarer.
With visible emotion, he recalled in vivid detail Big Solo’s marriage and resulting abandonment of even his own mother. According to the old man, that neglect broke his mother’s heart to the extent that she could not cope with life. She died from cardiac arrest whilst Big Solo was sailing and sending all of his hard earned income to his wife and little children. As for his blood relatives, all they got from him was ‘the pittance’ his wife saw fit to dole out to them from time to time. The old man then turned to face the grieving widow and told her without any vestige of emotion, to take the body back to her hometown and bury it among her kin, for Big Solo only catered to her and her family’s needs when he was alive.
Amidst cries and pleas to recant on his decision and allow the burial rites to be performed, the old man and the entire rural community with him refused. Seeing that there was no way out of the quandary, the bereaved family and the sympathizers with them returned back to the city, some 300km away from the village for the funeral. By the time they reached the city, the College had already put everything in place to give him a fitting burial, as one of its great pedigrees and lecturers. The music was blared at full volume. Criers were paid to cry for the somber occasion, priests were called from the Holy Trinity Church close by and cadets were dressed in their ceremonial white uniforms to welcome the body and pay their final respects in a choreographed parade session.
Adjoa, who was not a cadet but who saw the laid body just the same told me that Big Solo looked very peaceful where he was laid at rest in his officer regal. I had marched pass the laid body, but my intense fear of dead bodies in whatever regal they are costumed, prevented me from casting a glance at his corpse. Later on, when we were seated under the shade of the expansive canopy facing the family, I observed the boat-shaped casket and thought about the body laying within. I watched the deep sadness of the family and the wailing wife who had all her life been judged by her mistake, and felt the tinge of melancholy pervade my entire body. Literally, it was as if I was her and she was me. To me, she represented all the people I knew or have associated with who at one point in time, have either been misunderstood, afflicted by a scandal or been misjudged by other persons for one reason or the other.
I don’t believe there is any bad person per se. I believe we all were born good, until an incident or circumstance changes some of us. People react differently to different situations, this is a facility we have as human beings. Imbued with freewill, we are an excuse of perfection even though some of us claim to be perfect. We judge. We stigmatise. We castigate. We blow steam. And above all else, we pride ourselves in our own estimations or that of the people around us (usually our sycophants) as the perfect ones. But we are no less perfect than the fallen ones we choose to castigate. We must live out our destinies. That’s why dreams come true, and psychics are able to read the future. It was predestined before we were born. If God wanted perfect people, He would have created a paradise for all to dwell in forevermore!
Apparently, we don’t choose our destinies even though we play a huge role in carving them out. God being All-Knowing, Knows Everything. He is the Author in this big stage of life. He Knows our ends before we do. But He doesn’t determine our end, we do. I recalled the biblical saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Big Solo wanted to give his family a better life than his. He had struggled to reach the top and in order to remain there, he had planned a bright future for his progeny. He thought he had a good, trustworthy wife who would transform his intentions into actions, to relate his best wishes to realistic goals, and to do right by herself. His wife may have had all the good intention to carry out his best desires, but she was not Big Solo. Only ourselves can turn our intentions into our reality! Thus the famous hadith of the Prophet (may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), “Actions are judged by intentions”. Who better to carry out those actions than the person intending them.
Sure enough, as all well laid plans that fail to consider assumptions and risks, the consequences of his single mistake of trusting his wife with all his remittances was a colossal loss that followed him to his death. His wife squandered his money on useless things and spent on her own family, supposing that the source of money was infinite. When suddenly the services of radio officers were no longer required to decipher Morse Codes on board ships in the 1980s, Big Solo and his fellow Radio Officers became redundant. Out of panic, his wife sought the services of money doublers to cover-up her spendthrift ways…and you know what followed! The fake dudes ran off with what remained of a lifetime of hard work and depravation for the sake of family…
My son, some mistakes if committed, however infinitesimal, shall follow you to your grave and beyond! Hence the one lesson I learnt from Big Solo’s death is: You have just one shot at life. So make it worthwhile…Yes, again…make it worth your while! Do not let anyone determine the course of your sail. Be ready to captain the ship of your life. And if you fail, which I pray you shall not do, then you got no one to blame for it……Beats, Behind My Back and Heart Songs.