As soon as I saw him I knew. I knew he was an African boy.There was a way he walked that reminded me of my father. I stalked him for the rest of the day, watching him walk, his feet slightly turned out, to convince my self. Finally I picked up the courage to say hello and ask him where he was from. I was right. He was from Africa. From Nigeria too. Just like my dad, the only other African man I knew.
He was as excited to find me as I was to find him. He took me home to meet his parents right after school. For a while after that I would get down at the bus stop before mine to walk home with him and hang out at his house for an hour or two before going home. His mother was always at home after school. Always had a hot meal of Farina and soup waiting for him. They always invited me to eat. i always refused. I didn’t like Farina and soup.
One weekend I was out riding bicycles in the shopping mall parking lot with some other friends of mine. He eagerly rode up on a girls pink bicycle. It had a girly pink basket adorned with pink flowers on the pink handle bars. He looked to me when my friends started taunting him.
“Look at the stupid African boy” they laughed “Don’t you know that’s a girls bike?”
“Yeah. Stupid African boy.” I shouted at him, as someone tore the flowers off the basket.
He was in tears as we rode away. When I looked back he was quivering still astride his bike watching us ride away, his eyes round and confused. Pink flowers strewn around him on the black asphalt.
When I went back to his house later that day to apologise, his mother answered the door. I didn’t understand the stream of Yoruba that she hurled violently at me like a tsunami but I understood that I wasn’t welcome there anymore. I saw him sitting at the dining table behind her, staring at me. His eyes still big and confused. And I saw something else lurking behind his pain. He never spoke to me again.
Not long after that I moved away. It’s been many years. I can’t remember what he looked like or his name but I will always remember how he walked. And when I think I see someone that walks like him I still ask if they were that kid because I still need to apologise.
‘Your father is dead.” Did he say my father wants to speak to me? Sometimes the old man uses other people’s phones to call me because he thinks I won’t take his calls.
“What did you say?” I ask.
“Your father is dead. Your father is dead” the caller, Mmuta my uncle, replies.
I feel a cold rush run through my body and sink into a nearby chair. He can’t be, I think to myself. I haven’t built him that house yet. Besides, he’s too mean to die, he enjoys tormenting us, his family, too much.
“Should we bury him today?” Mmuta asks me over the phone.
“Should we bury him immediately?”
I feel a spark of irritation. How can he ask me such a thing? I haven’t even processed news of my fathers death and he wants to make me responsible for the decision to bury him immediately or not? He didn’t even ask me if I was sitting down when he broke the news. How callous. But that is the way of the village. Men don’t do sentimental although some are more compassionate than others. Mmuta is of the practical school of thought.
I wonder why he’s asking me anyway. I’m a woman, there is no way in hell they will let a woman decide the conduct of an Igbo man’s funeral even if she is his oldest daughter. When he was alive my father said he wanted to be buried the same day he died, rolled up in a mat like a Muslim. He said he wanted no monuments, just a tree to grow over his bones. Simple, inexpensive, no fanfare. He was a committed communist, he abhorred all obscene consumption and crass materialism.
I gather my reeling senses – “Yes, bury him immediately.” I reply and hang up. Who knows, it just might work. My concern shifted to how I would break the news to my sons. In a daze I went to tell them their grand father was dead.
I call Mmuta several hours later.
“Have you buried him?”
“The family met and decided that he is too important to bury him just like that.They said they will meet and inform you when and how he will be buried.” Mmuta replies.
A couple days later my younger brother calls. He is my fathers first son and he is younger than my youngest son.
“We have decided that we have to complete his house before we bury him.”
My father the communist and idealist lived his whole life in a suit of rooms in his fathers ancient house and didn’t start building his own till after he retired with his gratuity. It was less than 60% complete.
“Really? Do you have the money to complete it?” I ask.
“What do you mean? That is the decision we have taken, all you need to do is tell us is how much you are contributing” he snarled.
The hyena’s had gathered. My father wasn’t there to protect me anymore.
My father took me to the market in Owerri once when I was 12 or 13. I didn’t want to go with him. I was at that age when parents embarrassed the hell out of a teenager. And by this time I was finding my father a bloody embarrassment all the time.
He made me walk ahead of him. As usual the traders in the market started groping me and pulling me and appreciating God’s work in rather lewd Igbo grammar. Usually I pushed them away and told them off and shopped with the least offensive and quietest of the lot.
I tried to brush them off and ignore them in my usual manner but my father pounced on each and everyone of them.
“What are you looking at? Why are you touching her? Are you mad?”
The wise ones slunk away, the brash ones tried to stand up to him. Big mistake. No one stood up to my father. When he used that tone of voice he expected complete and immediate compliance. And he didn’t hesitate to use his fists to enforce compliance.
I don’t remember much else about that day except wanting the ground to open up and swallow me while he argued and fought his way through the market. I must have bought something but I can’t remember what it was.
Most of the male members of his extended family behaved in a similar manner when we were out together.
“What you looking at?” they would demand aggressively of any poor sod that happened to look my way with more than appropriate interest.
My fathers family were well known in the village for their quick temper and quick fists. It was well known that a fight with one of them would bring the entire family coming to the rescue and support of their own. It was a large family. They didn’t ask what happened till the threat was eliminated and everyone at home and accounted for. They were like the marines or the army like that.
One guy got beat to a pulp for calling me names. One of my cousins still has an impressive facial scar to remind me of the incident. He uses it to manipulate me regularly.
“Ah ah. I took a knife for you nah. See, sixteen stitches, because of you” he would say pointing to the scar that dragged the line of his lips into a perpetual half frown. It didn’t feel right to remind him that I hadn’t asked or even expected him to fight for me much less take a a nasty cut to his once handsome face although he is still handsome in a rakish beat up way.
I didn’t appreciate my violent protectors back in those days. I didn’t even know that I needed them. I was clueless, it didn’t occur to me that something bad could happen or that I wouldn’t be able to take care of myself if it did. After all I knew how to use a knife.
When I’m moved to Nigeria from America at the age of ten I’m already a skilled survivor. I survived the terror of being alone in Denmark at three and being alone in the US from the age of five, I am a survivor already. How I survived is still a mystery to me. I’m told I’m strong, I’m told I’m lucky, I’m told I’m blessed.
I’m a child but no one asks me how I feeel or how I’m coping. I’m told to cope, like I’ve always been told to cope, I’m expected to cope, to keep calm and carry on. There is no electricity, no plumbing, no one speaks English, at least not the kind that I can understand, no … there is nothing familiar.
When I wake up very late the first morning I see bars and chicken wire on the windows and a sea of black faces impassively starring in at me, their hands hooked through the mesh like claws. I feel like I’m an animal in a zoo. I complain to my father. He closes the shutters, shuts me inside the hot stifling little room.
My father asks someone to put an armchair outside for me but every time I go outside a crowd gathers to stare at me, young and old just gather and stare. I can’t understand a word they’re saying. I look around anxiously for my father but he has gone off somewhere to meet with men.
When I tell my father, he laughs, he says they mean no harm they just haven’t seen someone like me before. They call me ‘onye ocha’. I ask my father what that means. “White person” he says. I compare it to being called a nigger, he laughs, says it isn’t the same thing, they’re friendly, he says. I don’t know that.
One day somebody calls me a white monkey, as usual I complain to my father. He summons the fellow and slaps him. Maybe that was going a bit too far, I think. Why is it okay for them to call my onye ocha and not white monkey? It all feels the same to me. It feels like an insult, it reinforces my feelings of alienation and isolation.
Later I start to play tag and hide and seek and other children’s games that require no language with children my age but when the sun goes down and my father is still away with the men I’m lonely even though I’m surrounded by my chattering cousins in the dull glow of the lantern.
The night sky is dark and there is a steady regular buzz in the air. It stops for a minute and resumes again louder than before it seems. At first I think the ringing is in my ears, I think maybe I’m sick. I heard somewhere when I was still in the real world that ringing in the ears is a bad sign. Later I learn its just cicada’s.
My cousins are laughing at the stories they’re sharing, I don’t know what about though. I watch their lips moving, listen to the tone of their voices, alert for changes. They can get very vicious when I do something wrong, I don’t know their ways yet. My aunt was so harsh when I didn’t invite her to come and eat.
I get bored and walk away, across the courtyard back to the bungalow where the room I share with my father is. A hurricane lamp burns on the table. I turn on the battery operated radio and listen to the music. Its modern and reminds me of home. I still think of Pennsylvania as home.
One day I ask my father when we are going back home. He laughs and says we are home. I look around numbly. I see the wide dirt courtyard and drive way, the dusty buildings arranged around its three sides, my grandfathers wife, wearing only a lion cloth and waist beads, slowly making her way to the back of her hut.
I wonder what it might be like to live the rest of my life in this village; bare breasted like all the women are when at home, wearing only a loin cloth around my waist, pounding cassava meal in my thatch hut kitchen for my husband who is away doing things with men, trying to keep my baby away from the log fire.
I have no words for the emotions that I feel.
Wilful. Precocious. Annoying. My father tried to beat it out of me. Didn’t make things any better. Matter of fact made it worse. Made me resentful, vindictive and rebellious. I would look at him with an evil eye as he hit me. In my mind I knew some day I would grow up and would exact a terrible revenge on him. And I did.
I would wish something bad would happen to me so he would be really sorry. Whenever I walked away from home I wished I would never have to go back to him. So he would be sorry. He was never sorry. Not even till the day he died. But nothing bad ever happened to me no matter how much I wished it so I went away a little bit at a time. Now I have to recall all those little bits that went away to play.
He destroyed any chance of a healthy relationship with him. I don’t think I was really sorry when he died but I pretended to be. I only miss him when I have a question about the family history. My relationship with my father was completely self-centered. Still I was told this was ‘bad’ so I tried to, you know, love him.
My curiosity was unbridled and I didn’t respect boundaries. My risk taking was reckless and frequently dangerous. I never asked for anything. I just took what I wanted. Got me into trouble more than once till I learnt to respect boundaries and eventually even authority.
I didn’t like school and never tried too hard. I thought the teachers were silly and fake. They accused me of lying a couple times and I never lied, not really. My grades weren’t impressive. I only went to university because my father insisted. If he hadn’t I would have been happy making babies, making art, reading, writing stories, travelling, gardening. That sort of stuff. Creative stuff.
I preferred hanging out in the woods or just roaming around till I knew everywhere within walking range. I wasn’t scared of the forests or anywhere else for that matter but I was wary of people. Best job I had was working with the Nigerian National Parks running around in the bush. Better than the Ashoka job which came second.
My best friend was a cat. My other friends were never of the most popular in school ilk. My friendships with people were pretty superficial. And selfish I must admit. I didn’t make too much effort to stay in touch. Maybe I ddin’t care. Maybe I’m just too scared to care. Who knows. Does it matter? Maybe I’ll try a little harder. Why? Cause I should? Or cause I want to? Gee.
When my cat ran away to get pregnant I cried for days. Cried as hard as when I realized I wasn’t going to see my Babushka or my Mama again, I never cried like that over anyone or anything again. Not even when my son died. Not even when my mama died. Certainly not when my Papa died. I loved him when I was a little girl. I never cried when he hit me. Not really. I don’t cry much anymore. Not really. And when I do you can just see me holding it back.
I been holding in the shit and producing a whole lot of it too! I have been telling the narrative as if I was the angel, the victim, the innocent one, the misunderstood, the golden child. I was probably more like Denise the Menace really. I was what the natives called an ‘obanje’ child – difficult. My father despite his 15 year sojourn in the west and his 5 degress was after all said and done ‘a native’.
I must have perplexed and challenged him. Perhaps that was why he insisted that my hair not be cut and never wanted it cut. A spirit child his people called children like me. What I never did understand was that spirit children were usually indulged, beating me seemed to be the very thing he shouldn’t have done.