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MEET BENEDICT

MEET BENEDICT

By Tuntufye Simwimba
You must know that itch that gets at the cleft between buttocks. It is subtle and safe at first. Then it begins to develop. The more it does, the difficult it becomes to concentrate. At last, it robs you of your entire focus - it owns you. You would want to reach down your buttock cleavage to scratch. Sadly, you would not - not with everyone watching, say, in a meeting.  So all you can afford is to shift on the bench you are seated; just hard enough to produce a scratching effect but not too hard to draw attention. The bench squeaks under your weight. The itch then disappears. However, it does not take long to discover that the comfort is not lasting. Instantaneously, the itch gets back, this time around with persistence and rapid annoyance. All you can do is to endure.
That is what Benedict has been to me; an itch I cannot scratch but endure. You should hear how long he stammers before he says something when he is angry. At times, he does not just stammer but he plunges his head into a brick wall like a mad pig or smashes this against that, breaking everything within his reach. The next day he wakes up with cuts in his hands or face, or an inflamed forehead. In other instances, he gets stitches here or there, or nurses a broken hand or finger.
Pray hard that he does not visit a doctor because one always worsens his condition. He limps or walks with his legs awkwardly apart when he sees one. You would think he had an excruciating tumour in his inner thigh, but no. He simply loves the attention.
He is choosy with food when sick. It is as if the doctor just recommended a diet of the most expensive and delicious foods. He says beans creep up his throat, any fish smells horribly, and never bring up nsima. Never. All he needs is Chicken Burger or pizza - fresh Italian Pizza. When you place pizza before him, he grabs a slice, nibbles at it at the corner and packs it away. You would think that is it. As a patient he must have lost his appetite from the foul taste of medication, you would be tempted to think.
However, the moment you step outside to tend to some business he licks the plate clean like a starved dog. When you get back you usually find him asleep, at least you think he is. He tries to snore and deliberately shrinks his stomach. His tummy looks like a canoe. He does not snore when he is genuinely asleep neither is he good at pretending to. It is pathetic to watch him try. You would think he were drowning in his own saliva.
Not all those who come to visit him when sick come in good faith. Some come to pick jokes. He cracks all the wrong jokes and laughs before everyone does that he immediately becomes the joke. They do not laugh with him; they laugh at him. Why he twists his tongue to come up with such a funny accent is beyond me. Each word is more ridiculous than the previous.
He has two close friends: the mirror and the radio. To him the mirror is more than just a tool for folks to check if they have a grain of rice at the corner of their mouths before they go out. It is the core of his stupidity! He stares in it for hours, making funny or harrowing faces. He is never tired watching that baboon in the mirror staring back at him. You would think he was insane, maybe you would be thinking right. But he befriended this baboon. It smiles at him. At times, it frowns. He combs in front of that baboon until every strand of his hair is straightened. When he is angry, he breaks the mirror and the baboon disappears.
There is no way you would detach him from his radio. It has a brown strap. With it, it dangles down his neck. At times, he holds it delicately in his hands and presses it against his huge ear but whatever the circumstance he always listens to it, be it in the hospital or not. He agrees with it. Occasionally, he disagrees to something implausible by vigorously shaking his head. In some scenarios, he jumps up to his feet and shouts back at his radio. He gets enraged. He lifts his hand to hit it by the speaker. But his hand freezes mid-way. He does not knock it down into loose parts like he would shatter the mirror. For that reason, I have learnt to believe that the radio is his first love.
He lets it play, play and play. When it plays music, he sings along. At times, he lets it play and he smiles. His fingers start to tap again any surface they are resting on. They pick a distinct pattern. Soon a familiar rhythm is born. His feet then join the madness; they start to thump on the floor. His whole body starts to shake. He wakes up from where he was seated; composes himself, bobs his head, throws his weight upfront, then back. A familiar dance is born. When he aligns himself for another round, he is more vigorous than the last. It is difficult to watch this kind of madness, from a patient, and not laugh but don’t! I did once. You know what followed, the same pattern: uncontrollable anger, injury and another reason to stay in the hospital.
His entire face is getting pale from the use of cosmetics but the eyelids seem not to comply. I think they are even getting darker with every attempt.  
Often I am angry at his unreasonableness. I cannot voice my concerns, however, for two reasons: I have just arrived from what was an indefinite suspension and I am not sure about his reaction; it might be violent. Benedict is unpredictable. All I do is watch him with the same endurance of a violent itch I fail to scratch.
I am trying to be my best this time. Any tension is unwelcome; the school made it clear in my re-admission letter. I am focused. All I want is to get my law degree. I drink less often and when I do, it is always in moderation. My girlfriend drops by once a week. The rest of my free time is spent in the library and on writing. The school magazine has grown from the time I got suspended, two years ago.  I had just founded it but since my arrival, I have not gathered courage to submit an article. My column was discontinued the very week I got suspended.  Now as I am back in college, with Benedict as my roommate, all I can do is be my best.
You would think all the beautiful girls keep a distance from Benedict. You would be amazed  - perplexed even - that they are obsessed with him. They huddle around him at all times like a birthday cake. They wobble their behinds with definite seduction. All the boys – me inclusive - are jealousy. We all wish we could be Benedict at some point. We all wish we would be endowed with the gift of drawing and painting that makes him a darling to the beautiful ones.
Benedict is art. His abilities are unrivalled. He has a special understanding for nuances of colour and their combination. He knows what makes a piece of painting distinguish itself from the ordinary. All the beautiful girls in the college come here. They pose before him. They want to be captured in the most breathtaking way possible. And he does just that. Some even want to put off their blouses before him and let their projecting breasts be captured like those historical nude paintings in Italy. We have watched his art grow and he has amazed us all.
Despite all what he is, I find him ordinary at times. His thirst for success is unquenchable like for us all. He yearns to move forward that I was not surprised then when he came to me last month. His voice was dull. He seemed to calculate every word he ousted.  “I want you to be my director, Zondwayo,” he said to me. His lips were trembling. His radio was hanging from his neck as he spoke, to ease the tension his fingers lingered among the buttons without pressing any.
“Director?”
“Yes, I want to start working on a weekly cartoon. I want you to help me out.”
“No,” I declined flatly. I did not want to do anything with it. My suspension was a product of my art and I did not want to be involved into anything art-related for the school.
“You know, Zondwayo,” he continued, “That school magazine gained popularity because of your column; you have attention for details.” I was flattered inwardly.
“The fact that you wrote on the lecturer who was cheating on his wife with a student and got a suspension from it should not be a deterrent to you. It was not your fault. You were a victim of gross injustice. The problem was the lecture’s infidelity. You are supposed to be a hero for having the courage to even write about it.”
Again, I was flattered. He spoke at great length about my importance to his upcoming cartoon. I curved in to his request before he got irritating, “Just don’t indicate my involvement in any of the works. Make people believe they are solely from you,” I said to him. He did not protest. I also recognized that would offer us a chance to improve our relationship.
“And -” I said.
“What?”
“I’ve another condition.”
“Yes.”
“The radio – it should not be a disturbance.” He simply nodded.
The cartoon made the ladies go haywire. Benedict’s number of fans quadrupled. Again, I was overcome with jealousy. I wanted my fair share of the popularity too.
However, I say his popularity plummet with just one incident. Those who were there have a long and detailed story to tell. For me, I got the aftermath. It took the accounts of several sources to string together a comprehensive line of events. What spooked Benedict, on that day, nobody knows. However, the known facts are that Benedict walked in the library one morning and started beating up everyone. When he calmed down, he seemed to have woken from a trance.
With that incident, he lost all the friends but me, his roommate. Some made fun in his face. The cowards muttered behind his back.  He assumed innumerable demeaning names from others.  A retard; he was branded.
I saw him, day in day out, making sure that the ideas materialized. He strived to regain his popularity. He drew and drew. Some drawings were just a product of his distorted imagination – his hallucinations! He could not sleep when he had trouble drawing. He tore several sketches, crumbled them in his hands and threw them away.  When he got a particular work done, he was overwhelmed with an excitement the like I have never seen. His determination was admirable.
However, one afternoon, he came into the room with a strange silence. His radio was off. I sensed a burden weighing heavily on his heart. For a brief moment, I held myself from being inquisitive until my curiosity got the best of me, “What troubles you?”
“I was called before the disciplinary committee.”
“For?”
“The cartoon, it is said to be a tool for incitement of an uprising against the management.”
“How?”
“Last week’s cartoon.”
“The one about the water problem?
“Yes, because it has coincided with the students body meeting on the problem.”
I fumed. It reminded me about my suspension which I have never stopped to believe that was unfair. That evening as the students gathered in the Que Sera Sera Hall, the biggest hall on campus, waiting for the meeting to get started, I went up front. I grabbed the microphone from a table and slotted it into its stand. I could feel the urge to speak suddenly building up in my throat but I impatiently waited for noise to recede. When it did, I coughed first. For what felt like second, I listened to the silence. I could feel every muscle in me trembling to nervousness before I begun, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am not here to speak for myself.” I paused, swallowed and continued.
“I am here to speak for Benedict.” There was a low murmur the moment I mentioned ‘Benedict,’ “not because he has sent me to do so but because I’m bound by responsibility.” The murmur progressed.
“Hold on, friends,” I was amazed by the impact of those words. The room was drawn into silence again.
“Thank you.” I wept my eyes across the room. “We have all called Benedict all kinds of names.”
“Yes.” Three front-liners answered in unison.
“Some call him a mad fellow.”
“A retard,” someone corrected.
“Yes,” I adjusted the microphone. “Does he deserve to be called names? Most of us here must have already known that Benedict is clinically insane. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia five years ago. Should his mental state warrant him all those insults?”
I paused and waited for the meaning to sink in the cloud.  “Those who are mentally insane are victimized, raped and sidelined out there. They are stripped of their chances to make sound contributions. They are deprived of medical care. They are left to roam and rot in the streets. They feel every cold wind biting on their skins in winter and the scorching sun on their temples in summer. Do they deserve all that? Will you deserve it yourselves when one day your brains stop to function?” I paused to look at the reaction of the cloud. There was none.
“Benedict might be irrational at times,” I continued, “With proper medication, he has always been fine. However, I might not know what the problem is now. He is the best artist I have ever come across. With his cartoon, he started fighting for the cause we are gathered here for long ago. He drew a cartoon about the water problem that affects us all. He was summoned before the administration because he had the guts to stand for us. It’s on us to protect him.”
Immediately, Benedict walked through the back door. He was late. I jumped off the stage and walked through the aisle towards him. I threw my right hand across his neck and looked at the cloud, “Meet my best friend, Benedict.”
Everyone stood to his feet and clapped endlessly as Benedict smiled. I could see tears running down cheeks of a handful of students.
That night, a demonstration began; we called it MEET BENEDICT WATER DEMOSTRATION. The demonstration dragged on for three days before the water problem was resolved.

Tuntufye Simwimba is a law student and a holder of a diploma in Nutrition and Livelihood security. He is the former president of Poetry Association of Malawi (central region chapter) and a founding member of the Lilongwe Writers Forum. Tuntufye was the overall winner of the 2008 Malawi Pen Awards. He started writing to cope with anger and boredom. He writes today to provoke and challenge.

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