The first time I met my mother's estranged brother; it was like reading a novel, a true one at that. His life was more real than fiction. It was after his return from abroad at a meeting held by our Umunna that I came face to face with my mother’s dear brother.
Uncle had spent forty years of his life overseas; he lived in a city where he was one of the few black heads that dared to exist. My mother told me how they all had to starve to send the only son of the family to obodo oyibo at the early age of twenty-five. "It was tough," she said, "We all had to squeeze tight and live hard after Ezenna left the country." Surprisingly, Uncle came home; and went about another name, John which he called his baptismal name. But with time, he went back into being what was expected of a man his age.
My mother said that her family was not the only one blessed by such an unfortunate incident of having a child travel abroad. It was indeed a blessing that came with its pains and hardship. Other families like the Okeke and Okafors also sent their sons overseas. These efforts were meant to bring progress and prosperity to the community and clan. When things turned sour, some contributed money and sold off farmlands to see to the needs of their kinsman.
Women were thought too weak to be availed such uncommon opportunity. They were made to stay back, marry and make babies that populate such communities that had lost sons to the white man's land. Most of these boys were made to marry and have children by their wives before they left, and my uncle was one of such.
Before he left, he had to acknowledge the main reason behind his travel; he was made to know that he bore the burden of the entire community on his shoulders and must return to take over at the death of his father. Moreover, he had three children to his name and a wife who dutifully awaits proceeds of his progress; his case was not the same as others, and he knew it.
Mother once told me of how hard it was growing up. They lost their mother at a tender age, and Papa Nnukwu had to bring all seven up with much perseverance. She regrets not having gone to school during her time when knowledge was power. Papa Nnukwu then favoured the only boy with school and resorted to scouting for suitors for his six girls.
She could not forget their bitter civil war experience; where most families lost persons to hunger and how little boys were forced to fight, while some ran away to join the army. She would demonstrate how they fought for their lives, hiding from shells, and how they came home to settle at the end of the war.
Uncle John had travelled in the early fifties, shortly after his secondary school education. He was lucky enough to land the government scholarship which was never segregated but was for all. Things were much better then; my mother would sigh in regret. "A cup of gari was not up to a guinea."
My uncle's scholarship was highly debated upon by the family. It was too difficult to agree for him to take it up or not. He was the only eye of his father, and he might forget his tradition which could spell doom for the entire family. Later on, they reached a decision, and it was resolved that he must take a wife and have children by her if he must leave. He quickly agreed and married his Uso, Ada from secondary school. He was ready to do anything to further his studies.
Ada was one of the few lucky girls who went to school in the village; she was the only child of her parents, and her father had bestowed all the love he had for his late wife on her. He readily agreed when the proposal to marry his daughter came. Luckily enough, the first twins did not take time to arrive; neither did the girl who was conceived after the boys. It showed that my uncle’s Chi had already blessed his path to travel.
He wrote home immediately he stepped his feet on the shores of the land. He wrote of his success; how he was accepted into one of the prestigious universities and also offered employment with a handsome allowance which accompanied the letter home. They rejoiced and praised his Chi who never slept on the day he was called.
My grandfather never failed to make sacrifices to his Chi whom he firmly believed had seen his son through. In a letter he dictated to Ada, he made sure to remind him of the role his Chi had played in his life. He also cautioned on the importance of his faithfulness towards his Chi who would never desert him. He warned him never at any point to forget his name and origin. He reminded him of how his Chi saved his life at birth and during the tribal war. He finally told him how hungry his old eyes were to see his son once more.
They wrote to each other over the ten years that he travelled. Papa Nnukwu was satisfied that his Chi had made him achieve the unachievable; all his hope was on his son, who he believed would make exploits. In return, uncle stayed focused; he sent money home for numerous projects and his family's well-being. Everything was as it ought to be; in the midst of all the joy, there came a quiet afternoon when Papa Nukwu peacefully joined in the line of his ancestors.
Indeed, a great man was gone; his son, my uncle, was in the heat of a critical medical examination at that time. When the letter that bore the huge news arrived, he broke down in the middle of a crucial lecture and mourned his father, "Dike anaa! Nnam doo!" The deep mourns that followed disrupted the conference and caused an uproar. It was too heavy to bear, so he was excused.
He nearly died alongside his father from far away. It was a sudden and unexpected shock that rippled the waters of his life. He wished Nna m ochie had died in his arms, he wrote; he wanted nothing more but to come home and mourn his father, alongside his kinsmen, and give him due respect. He fought it, but there was no way he could defeat this one. His work needed his utmost attention and his studies, his sanity.
He firmly believed that his personal Chi had deserted him; he felt death should not have pressed so hard at that point? It took away the only encouragement he ever had and had thrown him into a lonesome state. Papa should have stayed longer; he should have fought and wrestled himself out of death's claws? He should have been more patient to see with his own eyes what his Ezenna had become, and would still become?
His Umunna, after patiently waiting, with no sign of their Nwadiana, urgently wrote to him. They unanimously urged his immediate return; the need for him to see his father for the last time was crucial. He knew better immediately he received their words, but his boss and school that neither spoke nor understood the culture were too deaf and blind to see reasons with him.
Papa Nukwu lived great, did great and was buried great. His burial was like the Ofala of a great king; things were in excess: Drinks flowed, food and all that one could ever imagine. Out of all these, one that was still missing was the presence of Ezennaya. His father's corpse was hungry for him; it was hungry for the strength of his loins, hungry for his mbe, his favourite praise, and hungry for his tears. The Ogbu Oja did not stop as the mbe master poured out praise and accolades before his corps:
Nnekwa! Nnekwa n’ dike anna mmuo!
Nnekwa! Nnekwa n’ mbosi akara erugo!
Chai! Akpokuo! Akpokuo! Hey!
Akpokuo dike! O buzikwa gi di ihe a!
Umunna n’ akpo gi
Nnekwa n’ Obinna n’ akpo gi!
O buzikwa gi bu ogbu agu dono n’ ozu?
People streamed in and out. I could remember because I was already ten by then. Different groups and masquerades came to bid my grandfather farewell except for my uncle who was his only son.
The Umunna could not hide their displeasure but wrote to him immediately after all the burial rites had been completed in his absence. They had never seen a situation such as this. It was not normal, and neither were they ready to allow such occur, ever again. If anything goes the other way, it was their duty to put both the issue and accomplice, if any, aright. They were not ready for anything to happen and would never give space to it either. In their letters: they chastised him for his inappropriate behaviour and warned for the doom that awaited his inaction. They did not hide their displeasure at his nonchalant attitude towards his father's burial, but still stressed the need for his immediate return. However, everything they said fell on deaf ears.
Fortunately, during the time of the burial, a female colleague of Ezenna had noticed his withdrawn mood. As a result of her observations and since she had taken a liking to him, she decided to find out what was on his mind. One day, she decided to sit with him at lunch; through that, she learnt about his loss and reached a decision to help too. Mary wrote to the school and management on his behalf; not only did they turn down her plea, but she almost lost her job and admission.
As a result of this outstanding gesture, Ezenna and Mary became very close friends that they each had a spare key to the other's house. Ezenna did not hide much from her; he told her about his background, how he grew up and what his stay there meant to his clan. She also got to know that he was married with children and was very impressed. Not only that, but what impressed her most was the extent of communal bond that existed, not just among the Igbos, but in Africa. Family, to her was more nuclear and personal; the society did not encourage people meddling in other people's business.
It was from Ezenna that she heard for the first time that nwa bu nwa oha, a child does not just belong to his parents but the whole town. He narrated how his clan had to contribute to send their sons to study far away, and as well, pave the way for others. Everything sounded awkward and out of this world. Since she did not exist in that part of the world, it was far too difficult to understand the culture and tradition which Ezenna embarrassingly and openly practiced. It irritated her so much, and she never hid her resentment to something she outrightly condemned and called evil practices and fetish believes.
Ezenna never failed in his duties to send money home, write home or seek the face of his Chi whom he believed was always within, although from far away home. He read and reread his late father's numerous letters which he bound up into a book. He kept it under his pillow and leafed through whenever he was alone, lonely and burdened. He found solace in it, and felt his father's presence each time he held it; it gave him warmth.
Ezenna always had it rung in his head, never to leave his personal Chi at any cost. He was through with his studies, had a very comfortable position at the hospital which so many colleagues were envious of and now strived for the highest position in the medical profession. To some, it was quite a long ladder to climb, but his personal Chi made it effortless. He was still faithful and ever thankful to his chi and looked forward to greater heights. It also had been quite a while; yet, no one had answered the home call.
His relationship with Mary waxed stronger as she paid regular visits to his house. She mostly came around on Sundays to find him deep asleep or bent over his books. He had taken the exams three times and had failed twice at that. This made him feel so insecure and vulnerable. Also, his nonchalant attitude towards his religious obligations, as she called it, was a show of arrogance.
It was disappointing that he had deserted the church that made it possible for him to travel abroad. She preached and preached, but he did not give in. She blamed his failure on not going to church, and out of anger, she deserted him; but not for too long because she had fallen madly in love with him. Ezenna tried to explain to her that a man carries a god with him wherever he goes, but it was too much for her to understand as she had already given up on converting a heathen like him.
After some years of waging the storm all alone, Mary came by one Sunday to reconcile with him. She came from Church and brought along some takeout food too. After eating, they sat down to talk as she started to apologise for her behaviour. He just smiled and hugged her to show that he was never angry. She took this as a cue and in return, pushed her rich body more in between him and they made love for the first time. Before they could realise, it was already too late as she was pregnant with his child.
Out of fear, he gave into her whims and fell from grace. She made him believe that he had no real marriage back at home that the only real one was the one they would have in the months to come. He unclad himself from his true identity and took the leading role in church after their wedding. Mama recalled, "At that point, time stood still, darkness descended in mid-day and we all groped, confused in thick darkness. And for years, there were no postmen, and we thought he had met a sudden death. Indeed, his Chi might have slept when he was most needed".
The Umunna went on njuju, asking; they went to seek the face of his father. On getting there, what they learnt dissatisfied them the more. The wind of obodo oyibo had caught up with their son, and he had thrown his amulet back at his father.
Ada, my aunt, was the most worried than any one of them; she was in tune with the odinala and knew her husband must be in trouble. Their children were already grown; some were married, and some were in higher institutions. He promised to send for them, he promised to attend their weddings, but at a point, it made less sense to wait for those promises. In order not to die from idleness, she too went back to school to the disgust of her Umunna, who saw it as an opportunity to flirt with strange men since she turned down most of their advances.
It was apparent that her husband had abandoned his family, and she had to be there for their children. She was no saint, but she had known no one but him and did not care about what the Umunna thought of her decision or the choices she made.
The government had been kind to build a college of education in the community. It employed many trained teachers, and she was among the lucky ones. It was a tremendous opportunity; it took her mind away from so many burdens which hid inside her heart for so many years. She had learnt to live with rage and bitterness, but none of them could understand what went on with her. At a point, the Umunna selected a person that will perform the Irunata ritual on her husband's behalf because it was time to come home.
My aunt never knew what to expect: Rejection, denial or opposition? In her further studies; she had picked up some new traits that made her a better woman. Having lived without a husband for so many years, she had learnt to think more like a man than a wife. She learnt to be tenacious for her children, to talk less but assert whatever she wanted boldly.
She only traveled with a shoulder bag that contained his last letter so many years ago that bore his previous address. She hoped he still lived there.
It was not too complicated to get across to the other side, and neither was finding the address. What was most difficult was knocking on the door and not knowing what to expect on the other side. The knock brought a man dressed like a steward to the door. When she identified herself, she was politely led across a wide passageway to a door. It was as if her visit was long expected; she found herself in a large room with the walls lined with books. She looked further and there he was, close to the window; bent over a book was the man her heart once panted for. He looked up. He wore an older version of his son who stood very close to his mother. On seeing them both; he knew that it was time to go home...
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Very interesting... Never forget your root