One cool weekend evening, I was walking down the main street in my new neighbourhood. Suddenly, a little boy, a year plus, dashed out of a shack, a wooden board in hand, and sat pat in the middle of the dusty road. At the same time, a man riding on a motorbike was approaching. I didn’t know when I let out a wild shout. To whom was it meant? The boy or the bike man, I couldn’t tell.
I looked round, nobody on the crowded street seemed to share my heightened apprehension. Truth was, they were more interested in me than the boy I feared was about to be crushed. “Why are you people staring at me? Didn’t you see the boy running into the jaws of death?” I blurted out. My anger was directed at no one in particular.
It was obvious that they were too used to Terngough’s daily dashes to the centre of the road to bother. But why he chose to perform those theatrics in the evenings when tragedy was busiest nobody, not even his young mother, could say. Attracted by my shout, she waltzed an about-turn from what she was doing on the other side of the road, ran and seized the child and dragged him to the place where she was frying pork for sale.
Then she took a piece of worn cloth, rolled it into a string. With it, she took hold of one of the boy’s hands, wore it round the wrist and fastened the other end to a wooden bench. I watched as Terngough kept tugging at his lease. He was effectively his mother’s prisoner. His effort to get away only made the rope tighter and he winced in pain. Exhausted, he decided to accept his fate and sat demurely on the bench itself. It was then he sensed my presence and smiled, resignedly.
Whether it was the boy’s eyes or my legs, tired from standing at one spot for long, that did it, I found myself looking for anything to sit on. I did find a rickety plastic chair which I drew close to Terngough’s ‘prison’. A schoolgirl hawking groundnuts was passing and I bought 200 naira worth. The boy’s face lit up when he saw the purchase and stood up to come closer. But the lease rudely told him he wasn’t free to move as he would like.
I beckoned his mother and pleaded for the boy’s release. Hesitantly, she let go of his hand. Smiling and gingerly patting the ‘arrested’ wrist, he shifted his weight in my direction. Still smiling, he made for the groundnuts but I wouldn’t let him. All this while, the conversation was through eye and hand contacts, for at his tender age, Terngough’s speech faculty was not developed. I fed him a few roasted seeds and now satisfied, he ran back to mom, his attention turned to the shards of meat simmering by a lively fire. My conversation with him now ended, so I took my leave. I visited him again three or four times. The lease was gone and so was the wooden board. The liveliness in his gait was all too obvious. He recognized me immediately by holding my two hands.
The human longing for freedom is the same in kids as adults. It is the dominant spirit in both. However, the difference is awareness of it and what price to pay for one’s freedom. The child exercises its free will intuitively while the adult knowingly and determinedly. But the result is the same: satisfaction. I’m happy knowing I do what I want. Charles Dickens, the famous English novelist, wrote, “I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free”. ( Bleak House)
We all know that liberty has a price tag to it, don’t we? In Terngough’s case, the price of being allowed to be a rolling stone would have been to be crushed by a moving vehicle. His mother put him in ‘prison’ so he could live to be a knowing adult. Others who choose to rebel against society in the exercise of their freedom to disagree often find themselves in real prison. Even here the free moral agency is able to survive physical isolation and torture. A line of Meek Mills’ song … runs “you may beat him but you can never keep a man’s soul down.”
That “soul” (spirit) finds release (escape), sometimes, in what the French philosopher, Jean-Paul Satre, called “Existentialism” – an ability to find meaning in life above and beyond physical confinement. Some take to writing, something your incarcerator cannot take away. Our own Wole Soyinka, a Nobel literature laureate, wrote “The Man Died” in prison and so did Kenyan author, Ngugi wa Thiongo, his “My Prison Notes.”.
Others did not find their transcendental spirit a strong enough force and almost became resigned to their fate. An example is the 18th century English political writer, Lord Gordon Byron, who, in prison, had become one with his environment and he did not welcome freedom when it came. In his poem “The Prisoner of Chillon”, he wrote: “I learned to love despair. / With spiders I had friendship made/ Had seen the mice by moonlight play,/And why should I feel less than they?/ We were all inmates of one place…/ In quiet we had learn’d to dwell; / My very chains and I grew friends, … even I Regain’d my freedom with a sigh.” But get out he did finally. The fervour of freedom burns deeper and more brightly than familiarity with a strange habitation.
Terngough was happy to regain his freedom and walked away from me without so much as a wave of the hand, indicating goodbye. We didn’t meet again and probably never will.