ENGLISHMAN IN BENIN CITY, 1981 (Part Twenty-four)
The burial ceremony was brief.
There were many more people than I expected. It was the first burial ceremony I ever attended in my entire life. Scores of nurses from the school of nursing were in attendance. All of them wore dark glasses and white uniforms. They looked like angels. I didn’t know many men were in the nursing profession. They stood together in the blazing son, men and women, some wiping their faces with handkerchief, others lifting up their glasses and dabbing up tears.
We later heard that the dark glasses were the sign of solidarity, and also a form of protest, by the nurses. The surgeon whose error led to the untimely death had, we were told, committed lots of other errors before this tragedy. The nurses had lodged a complaint to the hospital authority that his breath always reeked of whisky, that he was short-tempered, with terrible mannered. He once beat his wife so brutally that neighbors rushed the woman to the hospital where she received lots of stiches on her head. The police did nothing because he was a surgeon, and probably also because they received bribes from him.
Many of the nurses were also mad because the surgeon’s colleagues did nothing, after he made several blunders with the patients, a number of whom died, with many crippled for life. They said he was a brilliant scholar, with lots of impressive publications. But he was already notorious as a careless surgeon, and the nurses always made sure that he did not attend to patients who they knew. His stitches, the nurses complained, were extremely rough, resulting in poor healing, or even in fatal ruptures. Because of his alcoholism, his hands shook as he cut patients, and the attending nurses would exchange glances as they prayed for those under his knife.
If she been conscious, she would never have ended up under this surgeon. But because she was rushed in unconscious, and needed instant surgery to save her life, she found herself on the operating table of Dr. Trouble, as the nurses nicknamed him. He was chain-smoking in his office when Corporal Joe carried her into the emergency ward. He was notorious for smoking unfiltered Target, a cheap local brand. His students called him Target, and his office had a permanent smell of the tobacco.
He was the only idle OBG surgeon in the hospital when she was brought in. The attending physician who transferred her file to Dr. Trouble was a new intern. Other doctors would have justifiably notified any other OBG surgeon on call, explained the situation, emphasizing that the unconscious patient was a nurse at the hospital. And when the nurses discovered what was happening, it was too late to do anything because she was already on his table, getting cut.
When she ended up dead, not as a result of her ailment, but because Dr. Trouble severed the uterine artery around her ruptured fallopian tube, the nurses were not surprised. As he clumsily struggled to stop the bleeding, some of the nurses contacted the chief surgeon to see if they could save her, even at that late point. But the CS had just left the hospital after spending twelve hours saving the life of an accident victim, and was on his way home, caught in a long traffic jam. There were no cellphones in those days. It was about one hour later when the CS arrived home, but his son did not inform him that the hospital was trying to contact him. When he heard the following day that Dr. Trouble had made another fatal error, and learned the identity of the victim, the CS began to cry like a baby, because she was so popular at the hospital.
Rufus, Steve and I stood together at the burial. We were not wearing black as the other mourners, and wore white shirts and trousers like the male nurses. The three of us wore some cheap black plastic glasses as Adolo instructed.
The fact of her death was difficult to understand as we stood there, stunned. The scenery looked like some dream from which I would soon wake up. When we arrived at the hospital, and Adolo broke the news to us, Rufus fell down and fainted. He was out for almost one full minute. As he stood there with us at the burial ground, he did not yet seem fully conscious.
He had not eaten anything for two days, and on the day of the funeral, one of his students, Felicia, brought him some hot pepper soup, some of which he took. Felicia was one of the students who went with us to the hospital with the intention of donating blood. She therefore witnessed him falling down and fainting.
Felicia had been coming to our place daily since that day, bringing one appetizing dish after another for Rufus. Steve and I were the beneficiaries of these sumptuous dishes, because Rufus lost his appetite.
On the third day when they buried her, Felicia went with us to the ceremony. She looked elegant in her long gown with raised black floral patterns, as she stood next to Rufus to support him. The dark glasses gave her small face a smart touch.
They lowered the coffin into the grave. It was common knowledge that both her parents died before she was ten, and she struggled hard to get her nursing degree, with the support of her only sibling, her older sister, who was ten years her senior.
Her sister, the assistant manager at the local brewery, stood at the burial dressed in a long beautiful black gown that reached down to her ankles. She wore a small and stylish black jacket on top. She reeled several times, unable to stand upright by herself. They removed her high heeled shoes, to keep her from keeling over, and she stood there barefooted. Her friends propped her up. I saw Adolo, in her white nurse uniform, holding her right hand, with their bodies pressed together to keep the dazed woman standing.
The cemetery was large, but it was already getting crammed with graves, many of them marked with impressive architectural tombs. Her grave was between two monumental tombs painted white. The nurses contributed funds to buy the land for her burial. Getting a spot at the cemetery was quite expensive and she was not a regular face at the Methodist cathedral that owned the cemetery, although she was baptized there as a baby.
After the minister gave the final prayer, the grave attendants started to shovel the vividly red soil into the grave to cover the coffin. I watched in a dreamlike spell, as they fully covered the grave. Many of the nurses were loudly wailing. I hoped the nurses had enough fund to build a tomb on her grave, and would not leave it unmarked. My dreamy spell took me back thirteen years to my primary school days as I watched her grave.
I attended the St. Peter’s Anglican primary school in Ile Ife, directly opposite a cathedral. The school premises doubled as the church’s burial ground. The cemetery was already full in 1967 when I was in Primary Six.
One day, I was hanging out in the cemetery during midday break. I was eleven. The cemetery was my favorite place to hang out. What did I see on the ground next to where I was sitting, but a human skull!
The skull must have been dug out as they buried a new body on top of an old unmarked grave.
I picked up the skull. It still had a few matted hairs on top of it, but there was no skin. The hair was dark, I noted, meaning the deceased died at a younger age. I sniffed it. It was not smelly.
I decided to keep the skull in my school locker to examine it further. I didn’t, for a moment, think it was a big deal.
By day three, my classmates, somehow, found out I had a skull in my locker. They reported me to the class teacher, who reported me to Mrs. Olagbaju, our headmistress.
They concluded I was a devil. They took the matter to the Bishop at the Anglican Cathedral across the street. Meanwhile, they sent someone to summon my parents.
The Bishop, however, said they should not call me a devil. He said I was just a curious and innocent child, who was without fear. They did a prayer for the skull, and buried it in the cemetery. By the time my parents arrived, the Bishop had settled the matter. He actually offered my parents an apology for what happened. My parents took me home, and my mom got me a cup of ice cream to salve me.
Steve dug his elbow into my ribs, waking me up from my daydream. He said, “Let’s get outta here, dude.” Everybody had left the burial ground, and just the four of us were left standing there, looking confused. Only Felicia seemed to have her wits left.
“Mister Rufus,” Felicia said, “won’t you sprinkle a handful of soil over her grave?” She half pushed Rufus toward the grave and Steve and I followed. Rufus scooped up some of the red soil and gently allowed it to fall through his open fingers, over the grave. Steve picked up some soil and angrily threw it on the grave. I did the same, followed by Felicia. She pushed Rufus away, and we began milling toward the spot where we parked the bus.
Then I suddenly remembered that the following day was Friday, and we were expected at Ogwuashi Ukwu for the burial rites of Gina’s father.
TO BE CONTINUED.
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