The traffic jam into the city this morning was phenomenal. Normally there was a go-slow: tiresome, but at least one moved. Today, however, something extremely abnormal seemed to have happened. The cars were locked solid, for over a quarter of an hour I had just moved about ten metres. It was as if all the cars in the world were suddenly converging onto the city centre.
I kept twirling the radio dial, trying to get some news on what could be causing the traffic jam. But there was no news whatsoever.
As my car crawled by the entrance to the University of Ghana, I decided to escape the traffic jam by going into the University and aborting my trip into town. I had calculated that at the rate at which the cars were moving, I would get into town late in the afternoon, and therefore there was no use whatsoever pursuing that course of action.
The object of the excursion into the University campus was to call upon my old friend and former lecturer, Professor Divsum of the Department of Mathematics.
The campus was bustling with activity as students scurried about their business, going to and from lectures, the library, and so on. Feelings of nostalgia crept over me as I drove to the Department of Mathematics. The dull grey building still stood, as sombre as ever.
The Professor, old and balding, was in his office. He looked up suspiciously at me as I entered his office.
‘And what do you want?’ he said. ‘You are too old to do mathematics.’
‘I just dropped in to see how you are faring.’ I laughed, we shook hands.
‘I am nothing,’ Professor Divsum replied, adding: ‘the subject is everything.’
‘Amen,’ I concluded.
The professor chuckled.
‘The traffic into town is something horrible today,’ I said. ‘It’s absolutely stuck.’
‘Oh, yes,’ he replied, ‘Years ago I foresaw it happening, I saw it all. It is a problem, which, if not tackled promptly, will lead to the immobilisation of the masses. It is something which I have always worried about, and even now I am working on the solution.’
He pushed a sheaf of paper towards me, the topmost bearing a pencil sketch and some calculations. I glanced at it, not understanding.
‘A new mode of transportation,’ he explained, ‘the only solution to the problems with urban mobility. It is my very own invention.’
Professor Divsum then went on to explain his idea. Basically it consisted of interconnecting the city’s transport hubs with pneumatic tubes, which could be built on the ground, passed underground, or even suspended in the air. Inside these tubes there would be little capsules capable of holding two or three people. The capsules would be propelled at high speed through the tubes by air pressure.
‘The energy required to run such a system will be a tiny fraction of what is expended now on the present inefficient means of transport. There will be no more traffic jams, no accidents, no exhaust pollution. It is perfect! But of course, why will it not be perfect?’
I said a few cautious words in doubt about the practicability of such an idea.
Professor Divsum snorted with ridicule. ‘And of course you would know all about it,’ he said sarcastically. ‘We all remember very well the project work which you left with us. Very insightful, it was.’
I winced. He was talking, of course, about my final year project work in Mathematics, which had caused a quite a little uproar. The project work was entitled, ‘An Eclectic Comparison of two modes of Bipedal Locomotion: walking forwards versus walking sideways.’
I was embarrassed at the memory.
Professor Divsum went on, ‘In the course of time, this system will be adapted to inter-city and even trans-continental travel. However in that case the capsules will be much larger, perhaps capable of carrying five hundred or a thousand persons. This is the future of transportation.’
Professor Divsum showed me more drawings and calculations. Presently, however, he seemed to get bored with my passive scepticism. He gathered up the sheets, mumbling something about great ideas not being recognised by little minds.
‘This office is hallowed ground,’ he said, wagging a finger in the air. ‘The future of the world has been decided here. But now I must go home, for sandwiches await.’
We went outside. Prof Divsum seemed to have become much more cheerful and walked with a sprightly air.
‘I want you to observe by what means I go home,’ he said. ‘This should set your mind at rest about my ideas, for they are excellent both in genesis and in implementation. I first tried this out yesterday, and the results were just as expected: excellent!’
He led me to the back of the building, where there was a little open ground taken up by unkempt lawn and shrubbery. Close to a row of shrubs there was a large grey plastic sheet covering what I took to be some sort of sculpture.
‘The students were amazed by my prowess when they saw me leave for home yesterday,’ he said, and uncovered the plastic sheet. ‘They simply marvelled.’
Exposed before us was a strange contraption. It consisted of a plastic bucket seat suspended about three feet from the ground. The sides of the seat were fastened to two thick lengths of elastic cord which were tied to two stout wooden beams planted in the ground. The back of the seat was connected to the shaft of an electric motor by means of a steel cable.
‘It is clear how this thing works,’ Professor Divsum said with pride.
It certainly was all too clear. It was a catapult.
‘But this thing must be dangerous!’ I exclaimed.
‘Nonsense,’ said the professor, lowering himself into the seat. ‘Every possible contingency has been taken care of. My computations were exhaustive.’ He nodded rather vigorously.
Professor Divsum touched some buttons on a small device at the side of the seat. ‘This is the controller,’ he said. ‘It is a powerful little computer.’
Suddenly the electric motor started up with a whine. First the position of the seat was adjusted: it tilted slightly sideways. Then the seat began moving backward. The elastic began to stretch and become taut. I was very concerned, but Prof Divsum was entirely at ease. When the elastic was very taut the Professor smiled at me and said,
‘See you another time, my friend.’
Just then I observed that one of the thick shrubs behind the catapult was stirring oddly. It seemed that there was someone hiding behind it.
Professor Divsum pressed another button, and there was a fearful twang. He was flung far upwards, rapidly becoming a smaller and smaller speck in the clear blue sky. At the same time I saw two students dart from behind the shrub and run away.
My gaze was torn between the Professor, who was fast disappearing into the skies, and the students, who were fast disappearing around the building. The significance of this did not strike me until much later.
I left the scene of these amazing events and drove off in my humble automobile. The traffic jam had cleared considerably, and I was able to get into town before midday.
Later in the evening I heard on the radio news bulletin that Professor Divsum had been cast far out to sea by his catapult. Apparently something had gone wrong with the apparatus. That was when I remembered the students running away. I wondered what they had had to do with it. It did appear, however, that the Professor was not much hurt, being a man of extraordinary resources: on landing on the water, he had quickly recovered from the mishap and walked back to Accra.
-Martin Egblewogbe, 2001