I never understood why the other children teased us in school, and even at home. They would call us names like Ojuju Worshiper or Ndi Ogwu Ego. The latter being more baffling because it suggested we were rich from black magic. We weren’t rich, far from it. We lived in a rented bungalow that had never seen a lick of paint. The rooms were tiny and the ceiling hung low, leaking in all two rooms when the rain came. And as for black magic, I think the best father could do was put out a candle with his fingers and some saliva. Ironically, it was the priests and pastors that I thought possessed magical powers. How else could one explain the many feats I witnessed on our old television set? On Sunday afternoons, licking the palm oil off my red stained fingers after eating boiled yams, I watched these men work wonders. At the mere touch of their hand, men even older than father fell to the ground—rattling like epileptics caught in a seizure. I watched them command children out of wheelchairs, give sight to the blind, and even rewire their memory so that they could identify colors and people they had never seen before. Father would sit back in his cane chair, laughing hysterically.
“Chai, look at what oyibo has turned our people into? How can a baby born blind be able to know blue? If you ask them now they will say the Lord works in mysterious ways, abi His ways are not our ways.”
Mother never knew how to react to these statements. She was a Christian, but somehow, she had married father. She said it was because she loved him. I can see why, father was a very funny man, very wise too. I still hold dear memories of so many things he used to say. When I close my eyes, I can almost see myself back in time. His teachings usually came in the evening when he was mildly drunk on palm wine, his fingers stained brown from his utabha snuff.
“At first they came for slaves, proposition for some trade.” In a terrible mock British accent he would add, “Here is a barrel of liquor, blackie hand me a nigger.”
My brother and I sitting cross legged on the concrete living room floor would watch him in the glow of the kerosene lamp, only ever looking away to clap at mosquitoes that buzzed at us.
“Gunpowder for warfare, divided before they got here. Truth must be spoken with no fear, till our lungs are filled with no air.”
I think father was a fan of the oral tradition. He believed it to be an important part of our cultural heritage. It wasn’t just enough for him to tell us a story or share his ideas, he made a lot of effort to present them in something that resembled poetry.
“Later they will come back to rule us, use us, no—abuse us. Conquer us along lines that are tribal while separating us with lines from the Koran and Bible.”
At this time mother was mostly in the kitchen. I don’t know if it was her favorite time to wash the plates, or if she just didn’t want to be a part of father’s sermons. On the days when she pounded the yams first, over the dum-dum-dum of her odo, father would find a beat and speak with rhythm.
“Funny, isn’t it? The same ideas that were once used to colonize us, even today are still being used to disorientate us, disassociate us, convince us we are rivals, fighting in a jungle for our own survival. They might as well hand us a glock or a rifle. Just look at the violence. And what do we do? We stand idle like we did on their arrival as they came down their boats to tell us that our gods were idols.”
In father’s mind we were the last of a dying breed. He thought of us as some sort of resistance to the powers that left most powerless. He called it a tyranny without a tyrant. He used to say that rather than hold his tongue he would die in the face of a loaded gun. As a truth seeker he would never rest till he towered tops taller than Everest searching for higher planes to ever rest.
“My sons, even if you can’t feel the words in my sentences, I hope you feel my heart, it’s where my essence is!”
Even in the dull glow of the flickering fire through a smoke stained globe, his eyes always glinted with truth.
After his sermons, we would return to our tired beds where sleep would be punctuated by the sounds of gunshots, screams, tyres screeching, babies crying, mothers weeping, and other such sounds of violence.
“Don’t be alarmed, it’s just some kids with firearms and machetes for your arms. It is but another day in the belly of the beast where night and criminals meet, crime and corruption cripple the street, broad day light bribery, no, it’s never discrete. Leaders prey on the meek, preachers prey on the weak; rip the spoils of the soil to leave the water with oil.”
This was father’s idea of a lullaby. It didn’t matter that he tried to sing it, for a child, it wasn’t very comforting.
When morning came, my brother and I would patrol the muddy streets. Him in his pyjamas, the only one he owned, I in my underwear; I wasn’t quite old enough to own a pyjamas yet. We would scavenge the crime scene picking up shotgun shells and empty cartridges. It was the closest to toys we would ever know. One time, we found an unused shell and tried to explode it by smashing the bottom of the casing with a hard rock. Luckily for us, it was a Sunday and as you might expect, father was home.
“Are you stupid? Do you want to die?” He yelled as he dragged us both by the ears.
I guess as children it was easy to live unaware of being in a failed state where the government couldn’t protect our estates or as father would complain, fill the fuel gauge. He said it was easier to marvel at history and its aesthetics.
“With pyramids and bronze works we could keep time frozen; better to live in times old, than in a present where rich as kings we fed like peasants.”
I didn’t always understand father, and I’m not sure my older brother didn’t either. When mother was in church on Sunday, he would dress up in his red and white robe and go to our backyard where he housed a little shrine. It was always interesting to watch him sing songs and mumble inaudible words while lighting candles. After that, he would pour some spirits on the ground and roll a few rocks in the semblance of die, and then he would proceed to talking to us in parables. That was the best part. Father knew so many stories.
Some days he allowed us go to church with mother. It wasn’t all that different. The priest wore more elaborate costumes; a pointy hat, a lengthy scarf, and on some days, he carried a silver staff. They sang slow songs and also mumbled words I could make no meaning of. Sometimes they even drank wine from a silver chalice, kneeling in front of the priest—and they burned candles too. After everything, the priest would read from their book of parables and talk to the crowd not so differently from how father would talk to us. I remember thinking it was cheating that he had to look at the book to get his stories. Like a student peeping at his notes or textbooks during close book exams. Before the service was over, a bowl or two would go around for the collection of offerings. My brother and I never had anything to put inside. We could never figure out what mother donated because she hid her money in a clenched fist.
In church, the children from our street often watched us with curious eyes, as if they expected us to burst into flames at any moment—especially when the priest went around sprinkling the supposed holy water to ward off evil spirits. For the most part, it just felt like someone speaking with a really bad lisp spewed saliva over my body.
I used to find it really interesting that for all the prayers offered in church for protection, most of the houses around ours had been robbed. For reasons I couldn’t understand, no one had come knocking at our door. It’s not like there was much to take, but it hadn’t stopped them anywhere else. Later I would come to discover the robbers were afraid of our house because father marked the door with some chalk and kept some seeds wrapped up in a piece of red cloth by the doormat. It was supposed to be some sort of a protective charm, and I guess you could say it worked. At least it did, until that day, the day they came for us.
Like most things, it started with a whisper, and then it grew into a rumor. We were already used to the stares and the name calling that followed, but this was different. Mothers dragged their children inside when we walked the street. No one bought anything from father’s stationery shop, and even mother that used to be able to sell a whole basin of akara barely made a sale of the snack all day. It seemed as if this rainy season had brought with it a curse upon my family. A curse that would see us become strangers in our own home, outcasts in the community. Word around the camp fire was that we were the reason for all the pain and suffering the community was experiencing. It was a particularly hard year with measles and chicken pox running rampant. Robberies were also on the rise, and though I didn’t fully understand it, the country was not doing well either. At least that’s what the man on the radio said; something about the fall of oil and the currency depreciating. Depreciating was a big word for my six year old self.
One night, quite like most when a robbery was taking place, a knock came from the front door. No, not a knock. A bang.
“Come and open this door. Today na today.”
The bangs continued, growing in frequency and intensity. Father asked us to be calm. He carried the kerosene lamp and went to see what the disturbance was about. We wanted to follow him but mother asked us to go inside the bedroom.
“Who is that?” We heard him ask.
All of a sudden, there was a loud crack. Someone had shattered a window. It sounded like it had come from the kitchen. Mother ran back into the family bedroom to find us huddled by the corner, trembling with fear. She sat with us and pulled us close to her.
“I don’t know what they want from us. God will help us.”
He didn’t. First was the smell of smoke. Someone must have set father’s shrine on fire. We didn’t dare leave the room, but from the crack underneath the door, we could hear footsteps outside with moonlight illuminated shadows shifting past.
“What about Papa?” I asked.
“Shhh!” Mother shushed me.
To this day, a part of me wishes I had done something or that I was stronger.
“What nonsense is this? You can’t do this!”
Father could not talk his way out of it. The smell of petrol sifted its way from the front door to the bedroom, and soon it was followed by the pungent stench of burning flesh. Father screamed. It was the sound of a million pains, the cry of a dying soul. The sound remains etched in my mind like words cast on stone, indelible, untouched by the sands of time.
The next time we would see father he would be caught in a set of tyres, burnt to a crisp, body void of spirit; lying still with holes burrowed where his eyes once sat. Mother would cry...no—mother would wail on what was left of him. Meanwhile, the full moon hung like a luminescent lamp in the night sky, the world indifferent to our plight. These were just some of the events that left a bitter taste in my brother’s mouth; a taste that would manifest years later in his disdain for the world and everything in it. I would grow up to become a writer in hopes of telling the stories father left untold. It was my way of carrying on his dream to awaken children of the sleeping giant as they loved to call Nigerians. Brother grew up indifferent to anything that was not his belly. I would try to tell him about how lies from the past are still affecting us and about how we lack in knowledge of self. Drunk on kai-kai he would say;
“Who me? I rather be Mansa Musa than Martin Luther. Get these riches and fuck these bitches. What the fuck am I fighting for freedom for? Living poor don’t make you free no more.”
He would take a swig of the bottle.
“Telling me I need some knowledge of self, how about you help me find some knowledge for wealth.”
His eyes would light up like fathers.
“Whips and chains, whips and chains. All I want, is whips and chains.”
I would shake my head in pity, but what did I expect? I couldn’t blame him. He was just a victim of the system—his mind state was but a symptom. After father died he had to do a lot to keep the family afloat and me in school. I had no idea the things he had seen or the feelings he felt. Ostracized by society with television screens to inspire him; head filled with pornographic images, lyrics that berate women with many synonyms. All this in a city with a pestilence of violence; I guess you could say he had lost his innocence.
Mother wasn’t doing very well either. After father died she wanted another man and when she couldn’t get that, she went after every other man. To this end she became someone else, something else. First went the hair, and then her skin followed. I tried to tell her, “A good man would love you from the sole of your feet up to the crown of your hair, nappy kinky or curly, and any style that you wear. Be you the blackest of berries or lightest of fruits, he would see the woman in you. He would love you in all your shades, every spectrum and tone, like a million shadings of gold, your beauty is a story untold.”
She would shake her head and tell me that I knew nothing of men and their desires of the flesh. Light is right and dark is nigh.
The television had depicted her as less, selling her bleach creams and worse for her health, chemicals to fry up her hair; all to line their pockets with wealth. But more than money, the price she paid was a part of her soul, trying to fill illusions of holes.
As I sit here, tears welled in my eyes distracting myself with this ramble because I am at a loss for words to compose a eulogy; I cannot help but feel wrecked with survivor’s guilt. My brother who gave his life so that I could live mine is resting in a coffin, much like my father, his body burnt beyond recognition. I would complain, but who would listen? Among the many that share in his fate of street justice for armed robbery, he is at best a statistic. A negligible one at that. Maybe I should have directed my knowledge towards endeavors less virtuous, less moral. In these parts where we are raised to shun knowledge, what is a writer but a lone pen in the wilderness? The world was never mine to save, Africa was never mine to save, and Nigeria was never mine to save. But my brother, my mother, these were my people. They were mine to save. I should have done better, much better. But then, I ask myself, if I don’t write these stories, who will? Who will...As they say, till the lion learns to write, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.
SEPTEMBER WILL BE DIFFERENT - COMING SOON!