Wednesday Morning-25th March 2009: The Abia Line bus ride to Umuahia was smooth in speed yet bumpy all the same. All through the about 8hours long journey from Abuja, I clutched Teju Cole’s novel “Every Day is for the Thief” which kept my eyes and mind company and evoked nostalgic feelings of Lagos, a city that pulls me strongly, yet loathes my person and my need for serenity. Along the Lokoja-Ajaokuta stretch, passengers swear at the government and the contractors; and burst into lamentation when tufts and whirls of dust puffed into our nostrils from the bitumen-bare surface. As we ride along, the bumps sneer and mock at the weakened shock-absorbers of the Toyota ‘hummer’ bus.
Eight hours later, I spot the sky-tall Abia Tower that signaled we’ve arrived Owerri and the feeling that I am now closer home than I was 8 hours earlier. A senile and rickety Peugeot 504 saloon car stood by to ferry commuters to my village; only 15 minutes drive from Umuahia at a donkey’s average speed. A notice that distant maternal ‘uncle’ (a cousin of sorts from mom’s extended family) and his wife were already inside the car. Surprise lines contour their faces as we exchange greetings. To make a good impression I buy a loaf of bread as long as my forearm and I watch his wife’s mouth gap to release commensurate praise. To cap it all, I pay their fares and mine. For how else will I prove that I’m a big boy visiting the village from Abuja if I allow thriftiness to overwhelm my reputation? After all, is Abuja not the place to flaunt filthy lucre stolen from our brows by politicians and paper contractors?
As I spot the access road to my family house, I disembark and hurl my small travel bag to my back. With my Sony digital camera strapped across my neck, I take the short walk to my family house; where I was nursed and groomed. Home is home and I heave a sigh of relief. My niece makes a quick dash to hug me like a lover who has missed her beaus. Broad smiles make her eyes tingle and glitter and she relieves me of the bag and camera. HOME; It has not changed so much save that my cousins, half-, second- and other cousins have all moved into the cities and countries within and outside Nigeria in pursuit of money and their dreams.Yea, dreams that the village couldn’t birth and nurture.
I look around but no sign of mom’s presence and they tell me she’s gone to Umuihi; the nearby village where her sister lived for the past 60 years till ‘death do us part’. I choose to not think of the scene of cries and moans at Umuihi till tomorrow when mom’s elder and only sister will be interred. My ‘uncle’ (he’s actually my most senior cousin) was sleeping in my grandfather’s (actually was my most senior uncle) room and I gently tap on the door to place a little Abuja gift beside him. My senior cousins and I didn’t meet our grandfather alive so I’ve now adopted my most senior cousin as my ‘father’, and had in the past seen my senior uncle and my father’s elder brother as my ‘grandfather’ before he died. The creaking hiss of the door hinges roused him, and delight fills his heart as he sees me. We embrace like father and son, and talk family matters for a while. We then conclude arrangement for the burial of my aunt. We are to but food and drinks for extended family members and kindred folks that will follow us to my aunt’s place the next day.
Then I leave his room to drop a mothers’ day gift from my cousin for her mom at my father’s younger brother’s house which adjoins the main family house; a house that has housed an sheltered three generations of Obi’s after my grandfather’s demise. I watch as she unwraps the parcel and joy takes over her heart as she tells me how thoughtful my younger cousin has been. It was a befitting mother’s day gift from a girl that loved her mom so deeply. We talk about home affairs and local politics and sundries until a knock by a frantic mother; a neighbor and wife of a local chief in our kindred.
We listen to her lamentation but for some weird reasons, my ears refuse to cringe at the details of the event that has set her heart reeling in emotional anguish. Her teenage son had been ‘making out’ with an ‘extended cousin’ of ours and she was afraid the recalcitrant girl could get pregnant and this brazenly open incestuous relationship might rip her destiny apart and bring a curse on them. The dazzling girl had chosen to schlep along the same paths for which her mom was once sent back to her parents’ home when she was caught in the very act years back. Life seems not to easily forget to trace the arcs and cycles that encircle a generation to the 3rd and 4th generation till a daughter repeats the same acts for which her mother was abhorred. I wail within over a mom’s adultery that has given birth to a daughter’s incest. I mutter silently, ”Tufiakwa! Chineke ekwela ka aruu mee.” God forbid bad thing!
My ears now full, I take my leave to rest for the night. But the same NEPA that morphed into PHCN deny me the honor of sleeping under the whirling blades of the ceiling fan. So I make a detour and emerge from the room to sit outside on the 19-year old tomb of my father’s younger brother. Fresh breezes tease the hairs on my skin and cooled blood course through my veins and no sooner, my tacky body receive the freshness I had longed for. It was barely 9 PM and my family folks had retired into their rooms to sleep while I lounge outside listening to the beckoning calls and chirps of birds, crickets, roaches and other things that creep, run and fly at night. I remember how as a child, I played ‘beach soccer’ with my cousins and peers on the sandy turf of our extended family’s playground. And at night, we boys and our little girls played hide and seek under the watchful eyes and twinkle of the moon and stars. When I had my lungs full of salubrious air, I retreat from the quietness of the dark night into the room.till morning.
Thursday Afternoon-26th March 2009: My memory’s eyes usually take pictures that can easily be played back at will, so I try to tame it through an embargo of sorts. I just deny it the thrill of taking snapshots of any fresh and painful events and scenes. That kind of food embargo that Pa Awolowo contrived to ensure that Biafran children and their rebellious Army shriveled from hunger and kwashiorkor before capitulating to the brute force of the Federal army. Yea, that civil war that made refugees stay under the shelter of our iconic family house for weeks and months; but before I was born.
So I delayed for a night the journey to Umuihi for my mom’s only sister’s burial. For to see her lifeless face may be an ‘injustice’ to fond memories of her, so thought a selfish voice within. A psychotherapeutic strategy that I adopted to handle the painful death of a beloved cousin that died through an auto crash in Johannesburg about 3 years ago. I just took ‘permission’ from his dad to stay back in Abuja rather than travel back home to ‘see’ the corpse of my janded cousin-brother. At least I retained his smiley face and no record of his death exists in my psyche except all those sweet memories we shared from our childhood. It worked like magic!
The short ride on Okada took a matter of minutes before the local Catholic Church came into my view. I make straight for the front seats not blinking at the wary eyes that peered endlessly at me and my camera was strapped across my shoulders. I see maternal uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces that I hadn’t seen in ages clad in identical uniforms. I had no family uniform but a native wear that I had ‘designed’ for the tailor to test his sartorial skills. As I spot mom, I quietly come to sit behind her. The hubby of my aunt’s eldest daughter; a proud grandfather, asks why I don’t visit him when NDDC had tarred the road to his village. Funny enough I am sure he doesn’t know my name or seen me before!
Mom’s eyes glowed when a cousin informed her I had arrived and was seated behind her. I plant a peck on her sagging cheeks that looked so well sculpted in the picture she took with her sister at my l
ate brother’s wedding 20 years ago. We listen as the priest recounts the last moments he had with my aunt a couple of weeks earlier and how she travailed and poured her hearts out to God in the chapel. And 3 days after the encounter with her, she gave up the ghost and breathed her last; at the age of 85 years.
Her strength didn’t wane for I was told she still went to her farms and attended to her business at the local market before the ‘short illness’ that took her unawares. If death was a strong but fair wrestler, I am certain my aunt would have given him a good fight, for a fighter she and her siblings had been. Her hubby died about 40 years ago but widowhood never took the shine off her life or make her surrender to travails and challenges of living without the reassuring presence of the man she loved and married.
As the burial service went on, my eyes alight on my mom as she lifts the funeral brochure to take a closer look at her sister’s face. Her fingers trace the cover page and she didn’t bother to look away when my curious eyes and camera lens caught that moment. She gazed at her sister’s face for moments that seemed to have been cut-out from eternity’s endless seconds and eons. No other one saw her but what would touch me was the gravity with which she did that in utter silence. He muttered no words, no sighs. I saw her eyes glint and glisten with unshed tears.
The sacredness of that moment made goose bumps roughen the smooth-contoured muscles of my heart. There was no speech, no questions, and no words; only glances and unexpressed tears and words. Deep in her thoughts, I sensed some pictures might have popped in from their shared childhood and adulthood. She may have remembered how my aunt played the big sister role for years after the demise of my father. Auntie went out of her way to ensure that her little sister (mom) never felt lonely or be drowned in the misery and sorrow of widowhood as a young woman. Her big sister and only surviving sibling has gone the way of her parents and other siblings forever.
So in silence, my camera and I witnessed mom’s nostalgic moment of unshed tears as she communed with her beloved sister’s face on the burial brochure. She was quiet and oblivious of what the reverend father was saying in that moment of history. Unshed tears flowed in my heart as I exit my body to feel the sorrow that tinged with pleasant memories that two sisters had shared for decades. This for me was the most precious of moments that would remain fresh in my heart for years to come. It was grave and nostalgic.was sorrowful.was beautiful.and so sacred that I would cherish and commit it to memory as long as I breathe.
The funeral mass now over, the priest leads the mass of human heads and faces to my aunt’s final resting place at her late husband’s house. Two young men leap into the rectangular hole hewn out of the red earth to receive the white coffin that housed the bodily remains of my beloved aunt. As family members pay her final respects, the young men shovel heaps of red earth to cover the glistening white coffin till it’s shut out of our view forever. Tears roll down the cheeks of few family members but there was no wailing by professional mourners. Music starts to blare from loud speakers, the village women sing and dance, food and drinks course the throats of many. People hustle for food and drinks and the voices of folks that should have adorned a dour and mournful mien modulate to a higher octave; of mirth that is bereft of sorrow.
Though not a wedding, my cousin frantically calls for my help like the Virgin Mary did at the Canaan wedding; “Chei, the drinks have finished and there are so many ‘uninvited’ guests!!!” I then empty all the naira bills in my pocket so we don’t get smeared with shame and derision by the guests that included three traditional village kings and titled chiefs. Even a miser or pauper would have heeded my elegant and beautiful cousin’s pleas after what she allowed me to see.a precious part of her body that had been ravaged by cancer. That sacred part of her that suckled her beloved children with pure milk before this army of ferocious villains chose to wage a most unfortunate war. The battle that sloshed and flushed away hard earned money in endless chemotherapy sessions and visits to oncologists! What senseless war that brutally snatched away precious female friends and wonderful women from me, leaving only trails of tears on our faces and in our hearts.
Mom couldn’t eat all day and only managed to sip a mouthful from the bottle of Fanta her nephew had offered to assuage her thirst. She and her niece prepared a plate of akpu and egusi soup for me, and I was surprised that I licked my fingers dry. At twilight, mom makes a volte-face by deciding to go back to our own village rather than spend the night at her sister’s. My nudging advice didn’t sway her resolve. Unknown to me, she had cried all night while her sister was laid in state and now needed to heed an inevitable summon by the purveyors of sleep. When I arrived home later at night, she was far gone into the world of dreams having capitulated to a dose of pain-relieving pills that helped to calm her pulsating skull. NEPA chose to not disprove that notorious toga of ‘agents of darkness’ they brazenly burnish before our faces. So my sleep was not soporific!
Friday Morning-27th March 2009; A friend had called from London to make a request that I help him see his old man. So I trace my way to his family house to check his dad who had fractured his thigh bone over a year ago. Village bone setters had milked out over a thousand Pounds Sterling from him but the x-ray showed that the fractured ends of the bone have been resting in peace with no ossification and joining in sight. My friend’s parents recognized my face as the ‘Son of Abraham’- ‘that kind man’- and I glow within in mirth for the respectful name my father had left behind. A legacy and heritage he had bequeathed to me even when I still don’t know what he looked like or sounded. My friend’s dad tells me he’s my dad’s age mate and as he counts his fingers, he is amazed only a few of his mates in the village still breathed fresh air through their nostrils. Their obituary notices had faded out of our collective memory but have been saved and stored in the hearts of precious family members and friends!
Afternoon comes and I bid my folks goodbye after sharing a cup of tea with mum. I take a 10-minute walk to Imo Transport Corporation bus terminus at Isinweke, my LGA (Ihitte-Uboma) headquarters for the 45minutes trip to Owerri to commiserate with a childhood friend. Before we depart, I make a quick dash to the 50years old health centre where I was born; still standing at its foundations. I then zoom and focus my lens to take several shots of the overlooking Central School Ihitte building; the primary school where I took lessons on the bare floor as an ‘Otakara pupil’ long before the advent of nursery schools and Montessori.
As I watch kids play around, nostalgia grips me and I recall when I wore my pair of green ‘short knickers’ that had bright-colored patches at the bum area; they were non-luminous headlamps that attracted the jeer of fellow naughty kids that we were. The motor park men, market women and onlookers watch me with suspicious eyes as my camera’s shutter make click sounds whilst the emitted flash light gets swallowed up by the sun’s brightness.
Posterity will wail and revolt if I ever forget late Madam Ogoke that taught me how to hold my white and colored chalks to scribble and scrawl on my charcoal-painted slate in her Primary One class. Pictures of Madam Ohagi and my Primary 3 class ‘Miss’ bubble from their resting place and I remember how they painstakingly guided me to count and write 1.2.3 in my blue-faced Apex Mill exercise book. I remember my Primary 4 mistress, Miss Julie who had made me bond with Uzoma Ohajuru,my class rival 9that displaced me from the 1st position in Primary 3) and with whom I started exchanging and receiving letters sealed in ‘air mail par avion’ white envel
ops in Primary 5 . Will I ever delete from my memory, the stinging cane of my Primary 5 class teacher, Miss Chinyere who coerced my big eyes to get stuck to gleaning from the black pastures on the white pages of books till date. Memories of my late stern-looking village headmaster who thrashed my bums in Primary 4 days for acting naughty comedy scripts with ‘Miss Benaaaaa’s’ name refuse to wane. He would yet elevate me in primary 6 to the lofty post of ”School Bell Ringer” cum “Mail Runner”.
We cruise past lush green palm trees and familiar footpaths that my worn out school sandals had schlepped daily to listen to my teachers at Madonna Boys High School Ihitte; where I took my first lessons in integration and differentiation just a few days before the WAEC/GCE exams in Additional Mathematics which I determined to not fail by all means. We would alight from the bus at ITC Owerri Park when the sun’s piercing anger made our heads burn and our bodies to roast like a barbecue.
An Okada rider ferries me to ABC Transport Corporate Headquarters for a long-overdue visit, and my writer friend and brother-in-pen, Uche Umez welcomes me with open arms. We talk about books and encourage each other to keep writing. For Chimamanda, our sister-writer now stand above others in our generation but write we must even if it’s just to compete for prizes alone. We had wished our 9-5 jobs respected our need to visit the Muse often and dig deeper into our soul to harvest words, pictures and sounds with our creative plows and shares. We’ve written short stories and poems, but we now crave for months-long writer-in-residence posts and fellowships for unbroken moments to work on our maiden full-length novels. Lunch served.and hours later I bid him goodbye!
I stop by an eatery at the behest of a ‘friend’s friend’ and her three young Imo State University girlfriends join us at the table. They are full of life but tinged with tomorrow’s uncertainties in matters of the heart. They are Igbo girls who moan about how ‘boring’ Owerri was unlike Lagos where they all live, but they need IMSU’s certificate anyway. They excitedly talk about boyfriends, ‘catching fun’, but not about their lectures and contemporary issues.
One, a ‘confused’ 200 level babe is the archetypal hot chick, and a ‘hotu bebes’ for whom three(3) cool young guys are tugging, pulling and ‘beefing’ each other just to grab the key to her young heart: her ex-; her admirable classmate cum unofficial body guard; and the most potent contender , the admirable playboy with lots of money to throw around. A tattoo stares at me from her shoulder while I sit still to gain insight on what best counsel to offer her as though she were my blood sister. She and her friends nodded in affirmation that my cousel made sense but there was also the God factor which I quietly emphasized before we dispersed.
King Solomon’s words come to mind as we part and I make for my childhood friend’s; the one that lost his ‘once’ beautiful mother. I had forgotten to remind the four university girls that my ‘once’ beautiful aunt was buried the previous day and they would someday also grow old and will likely die someday too.
‘Rejoice, O young man in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes; but know that for all these, God will bring you into judgment. Therefore remove sorrow from your heart, and put away evil from your flesh, for childhood and youth are vanity. Remember now your Creator in the days of youth, before the difficult days come, and the years draw near when you say’ I have no pleasure in them”.For man goes to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets.Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it’.
And I ponder why the great teacher and wise king muttered loudly these last words,”Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing whether good or evil”. I shudder and wonder what my aunt told God about her days of youth when she was a beautiful girl.when men queued to ask her hand in marriage!