My growing years were spent amidst a crowd of relatives. At every point in my young life there was an uncle, aunt or cousin in residence. Some I remember with fondness, others with intense dislike. Others I don’t remember at all.
Those were the glorious days of constant electricity, running water and that typical African institution – the Extended Family.
There was always a cousin who was looking for a job and needed a place to stay, or a nephew taking GCE for the umpteenth time. An aunt who came to attend a wedding in Lagos and decided to extend her holiday, as well as the other relative who was not quite related (but had been in the house for so long that everyone had forgotten how he came to be there in the first place.)
Though in Naija people still maintain ties with extended family, these days with the economic situation there’s an obvious attempt to maintain some distance. Gone are the days when relatives journeyed from their homes and landed on our doorsteps unannounced.
When I was young, for some reason extended family members always arrived around 7pm. I remember that I would be in the process of being dragged off to have a bath when I would hear a loud cry of welcome in the living room. And when I emerged bathed, powdered and pyjamaed, there would be another unknown family member sitting in the living room surrounded by yams, plantains, fruit and jute bags filled with gari.
“Come and meet your uncle/aunt/cousin” my mum would say to me, and if she knew exactly how we were related she would trace the family tree, touching every root, branch and leaf. If she wasn’t too sure what the connection was she would laugh, say “you know the family is very large!” and ask the relative to explain the connection.
Some of these relatives pampered me and my siblings, others bullied us terribly. Some left with us begging them to stay and others had us celebrating their departure for weeks!
There was tall, slim Aunty B who thought she’d make a good model – and she might have, except that she had a bit of a potbelly.
There was Uncle U who loved to play soccer with the other young restless males in the neighbourhood. I remember the day he asked me to cut an old pair of jeans into shorts he could wear to play soccer.
I set to work with all the zeal of a young Donna Karan, rummaging in my school needlework kit for scissors, tailor’s chalk and a measuring tape. Its no wonder I failed needlework at school – the project didn’t turn out right and Uncle U ended up with an uneven pair of shorts; part Bermudas, part hot pants. But he seemed quite pleased with the results and happily jogged off that evening in a magnificent show of thigh and leg.
There was another Uncle U (same name) who fancied himself as the next Bob Marley. He would force us to listen to him perform his revolutionary reggae songs with titles such as ‘My People’ ‘Oh Africa’ and ‘Onward March’. My brother and I provided backup vocals as he drummed on the bedside cabinet, whilst our little sister declared her dislike of the songs and Priscilla the househelp looked out of the window and worried aloud about her brother in prison. (Apparently he was thrown in jail for stealing paint)
Aunty A was a caterer but we hated her food and were quite glad when she left. Then came Aunty F – actually a cousin old enough to earn the title of ‘aunt’ – who sulked a lot but made wonderful okro soup.
Whatever their idiosyncrasies, my life was definitely enriched by the stream of family members that flowed through my life and our home. Many of my fondest memories are of encounters – good and bad – with uncles, aunts and cousins.
Traditionally, a guest in your home can do no wrong. In those days one dared not complain about a relative staying at your house, no matter how annoying their personal habits were.
Did they drink water straight from the bottle? Was the pot of stew tampered with at midnight? No matter what, you would bury your annoyance deep in your chest and cheerfully answer their greeting the next morning. Why?
Because of the fear of that other great African institution – the Family Meeting!