Of Death And The He-goat
Quintus Horace, a prominent thinker in ancient Rome wrote on pale death, who “with an impartial foot, knocks at the hovels of the poor and the palaces of kings”.
The impartiality of the Grim Reaper may partly explain its fearsome reputation. If Horace lived today he might also call Death an equal opportunity agent or a classless personae, or a democrat unfazed by race, status or gender. Why do men die? It is a question that had troubled most minds since Adam and Eve fell at the Garden of Eden.
Thomas Malthus, 18th Century English priest-turned-economist, posited it was logically inevitable that man must die that even without the mess at Eden. How would man’s immortality have fared in the face of the finite resources of the earth? If you believe the Malthus theory, Death stalks life mainly to regulate for economic reasons.
Man ought to die for life to endure on earth. Take Malthusian logic further, Death can somehow pass as an agent of the global liberal market. Adolf Hitler, the most prolific murderer of all times had also attempted to re-define death.
If he had his way, Death would be a stomping redneck, a barefaced racist who should wield the grim sickle mainly on Gypsies, Blacks, Jews and others designated by the German Fuhrer as lower human.
By the Nazi logic when Death reaches for Caucasians, it should be the “genetically weak” or any member of the race adjudged unworthy of life by the warped definition of the Hitler and his co-travellers in evil.
Yet, Death remains un-persuaded, clinging to its reputation as the ultimate equal-opportunity agent. It knocks at hovels and palaces as rendered by Quintus Horace in the ancient verse. I thought about the impartiality of Death and the Horace lines again the other day when I learned about the death of Obuko, the famous urchin in my hometown that recently passed on in his sleep.
Obuko, a Yoruba cognomen, translates to he-goat in the English lexicon. The urchin with that name had trudged the dusty roads of my birthplace as long as I can remember. No one seems to know how the man with a slow mental condition came about the cognomen but everyone guessed he earned it from the streets.
Obuko is not the regular name you give a child at christening and it is not a suitable name for baptism. What parent would name a child after a beast? It is unusual for a man to be named after the he-goat, the fetid brute with known disdain for decency.
But the cognomen stuck on the urchin and he bore it with equanimity until Death came recently knocking at his own hovel, as Horace predicted. There were no dull moments for the feisty fellow.
He was a man on the move to anywhere leading to free grub and free booze. He was a natural fixture at owambe parties, a common fixture here, where he was often served like any other guest.
I was caught in the irony of the moment the first time I saw the mentally-challenged urchin nursing a bottle of beer as the party gained momentum. The Bible admonished that God deliberately created the simple things of the world to confound the notions of the wise.
That may be why things are not often as they seem. It may be why the pristine and the complex do not always translate directly in real life to the dictionary meanings.
Obuko the scamp counted many friends from every strata of the community. Here, he also had unimpeded access to many abodes, even those of the rich and famous.
It was a common knowledge that he knew everybody that is anybody, up to the ledges of their doorposts. He knew who had just arrived in town from the city and who might soon be leaving.
The man you called a mental retard also had uncanny ability to recall local events and dates from many decades back. How did the one with a mental deficit rise to play the role of a grit in this rustic setting that often prides in normalcy? How did the dusty streets of his life seamlessly connect to the gilded gates of the elite with where he often had amity? Obuko’s life was ring-fenced in a classless world and that could be an interesting subject of study for future scholars searching for how the lowliest of the lowly had managed to conflate with the high and the mighty in this rustic community.
Mahatma Gandhi loved to dwell on the strength of weakness. He said there are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.
In his novel This Earth My Brother, Kofi Awoonor painted the power of bread over death in the story of Abosi, an urchin on a rich fiction canvass.
When Abosi suddenly fell ill, everyone thought it would be a sickness unto death until an old man thought otherwise. The sage advised that the urchin was in fact ailing from hunger and counseled they should rather fetch a plate of food than a cocktail of remedies. Abosi sided with the folks that his illness was indeed unto death and agreed to the counsel of the wise on food as the right remedy.
Abosi let his folks know it would be immoral to let him face Death with an empty stomach. They fetched the food, Abosi ate and lived. For that fictitious character God appeared in form of bread when Death knocked at the doors of his hovel. Abosi and Obuko often formed a confluence in my mind for strange reasons. But they are actually unlikely fellows on the issues of bread.
There are no records that Obuko ever begged for bread and he couldn’t have; he lived boisterously in the midst of a generous community. You could even aver that he lived a life of gluttony amongst the folks that readily tolerated his nuances.
The story of the He-goat is etched in many minds at Ile-Oluji where he lived, died and still evokes deep feelings. Ordinarily, narrations on this life should be about a life unworthy of life. After all, it was a life lived out of all known modern economic models; a life removed from the vagaries of the formal economy and the devious hands of the liberal market.
Obuko lived outside this age of rat race; where a man gets measured not by the worth of his soul by the worth of the things he owns. Obuko never heard of Horace, but he too was caught by the cold hands of “pale death … (that) knocks at the hovels of the poor and the palaces of king.” The ancient verse rings true for him, as it will do for every man, someday. • Akinyosoye writes from Lagos