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August 18, 2015
African Voice
The Craziness of Crazy Tom
by Imo Eshiet

Tom was an eccentric. From morning till dark he sat on a recliner under his porch. Beside him stood a handwashing water stand.

Placed on a neat small table by the stand were disinfectant, soap, sponge, towel, and a water pot. Any visitor who expected to shake hands with him had to scoop water from the pot into the little basin on the stand, squirt the disinfectant into it and then thoroughly scrub his or her hands with the soap and sponge. Following that, the visitor toweled his hands before approaching Tom for a handshake.

It was a rite everyone followed. Some folks liked the ritual, for it was the closest they could get to a sweet-smelling soap. Anyone who thought this beneath his dignity stayed away and Tom did not care, for he never visited anyone himself. That was not all.

Tom had a different protocol for kids who came on errands for their parents to meet him. Since kids could not shake hands with an adult, they had to prove they were disciplined enough to stand before the quirky old man. They had to march briskly to within several yards of where Tom sat, come to attention, and salute smartly.

While all that was going on, Tom would sit back and fix the approaching kid with the kind of exacting gaze a snake uses to mesmerize and devour a rat. Children were known to cower, slip, and fall under that stare. If Tom gave a silent nod, the kid knew his performance was something to be proud of. But if Tom kept staring, the kid retraced his steps, marched up and saluted again.

Kids scared of the ordeal cringed at the idea of running any errand that took them to Tom. However, those who succeeded in pleasing Tom were held in high esteem by villagers, for such kids were said to have sound home training. Such children, villagers predicted, would make good in the future because of their ability to obey rules.

So while some kids avoided Tom, others liked him for the approval he gave to controlled behavior.

As an added incentive, Tom sent his assessment to teachers at the village school. Since Tom was a retired court clerk, his words carried weight in the village and at school.

Tom was as strict at home as he was with visitors. He was finicky over his food and drink. His water had to be fetched at the minute night changed to day. The stream, Tom said, was pure and undefiled at such time.

Once villagers heard Tom’s family going to the stream at night, they knew a new day had dawned. When his returned, they boiled the water and allowed it to cool before pouring it into a water filter. After that they could retire briefly for the night.

But as the children of pastors often do not turn out to be the godliest, Tom’s strictness did not pass down to his children and his sons were a thorn in his flesh.

Tom had six children, half of whom were male. Unfortunately, the sons were problem drinkers. The baffled villagers concluded they were not Tom’s kids, for all Tom ever drank was his filtered water.

One of the sons, a civil servant, was only sober when at work. Immediately after, though, he crawled from one bar to another, especially at the end of the month when he received his pay. Unable to stand his sizzling affair with the bottle, his menaced wife left home.

That aggravated his condition. He would go to a flea market, buy meat, and tie it to the carrier of his bicycle. Getting home in the early hours of the morning after his rounds at the bars at night, he would be too exhausted to remember he had gone shopping the previous day. Next day with the meat still where it was the day before, he would roll out his bicycle and off he went to work.

Before long the sun and humidity cooked the meat just enough to make it putrid. Pedestrians would hold their noses as he cycled by, bemoaned the fate that had befallen proud Tom.

One son simply walked away from the village, leaving no forwarding address. The last one lived with Tom and scandalized the village by beating his old father silly every so often. These assaults notwithstanding, the nail-tough old geezer managed to hang on until he was 90.

When Tom died, the son immediately took over his house. He did not maintain it, and the roof caved in and killed him one day. Folks said it was a just dessert.

While the sons went prodigal, Tom’s daughters brought him honor. Tom was the first in the village to send his daughters to college. At the time villagers reviled him. Some said years of working as interpreter and clerk at the White man’s court had ruined him.

They mocked that the White man had picked his brains and replaced them with mud. How else, they reasoned, could Tom have preferred to keep his pretty daughters in school and reject the rich suitors who lined up for them?

Education, they said, turned women into men. What man, they asked, wanted to live with another man? They guffawed at the joke and said Tom was not only odd but had grown old and stupid too.

With time one of the daughters became a doctor and chased down the villagers to treat their infections. Another became a school principal and mounted literacy drives in the village. The last became a businesswoman to whom villagers turned to borrow money when in need. Eventually the villagers had a rethink.

When Tom’s sons became a mess and the daughters gave Tom a befitting burial the laughter completely dried up on the lips of the villagers. Tom’s world had not gone up in smoke as they had feared.

Tom, they now said, may have been weird, but sure had eyes that saw what they could not.

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