By Jekwu Anyaegbuna
Saturday, 17 September 2011.
Mama died, and her burial was a special one; but she should not have died because her death led to where I found myself. The signs had been there the day she was buried, signs of angels fighting in heaven because she was buried with acrimony here on earth. Uncle Ibe, who started it all as the ceremony progressed, never imagined this level of degeneration. He spoke like a parrot until he began to accuse everyone in the family of killing her, of crying without shedding enough tears that should have flowed like a stream down their cheeks, to their chests, and all the way to their stomachs. He stood up like a pregnant woman, pointing his stubby fingers at members of our kindred, his eyes the colour of ripe tomatoes; wavy lines of grief travelled across his forehead. He wore a deep frown on his tearless face. I wondered why he should say our kinsmen did not shed heart-felt tears when his own cheeks were so chubby and tearless. I connected his energetic and finger-pointing gestures with his face, and concluded that if he did not stop the next moment, he would talk Mama’s burial, and all of us, into trouble. So Mama’s burial was special, and I really wondered if angels would refuse to welcome her to heaven because of unnecessary combats during the burial.
Everyone listened as Uncle Ibe held the microphone far from his mouth, as if the device bred air-borne diseases. I had leant to beware when our kinsmen listened that way as a man talked; I knew they didn’t listen for nothing. The speaker soon provoked them when he said that what had killed Mama did not come from outside but within. The microphone cable rested on his protruding stomach as he rained accusations. I wondered if the size of a man’s belly had anything to do with the way he talked. He repeated “my sister” several times as he spoke. I knew it was to impress it on the sympathisers that he was a caring uncle to us, that he loved Mama more than his own wife and children, and that he had taken Mama to several churches in search of a solution to her sickness. All around, as he spoke, men drank palm wine and aromatic schnapps, especially those digging the grave, to reduce their grief. Women drank Coke and Fanta, and washed their hands with Sprite, before they dipped them into huge plates of vegetable soup.
“I know that the person who killed my sister is from this family,” Uncle Ibe said, pulling at the waist of his trousers that had an elastic rope, perhaps to get a relief from grief that had accumulated in his enormous stomach. “What makes a mature he-goat smell is within the he-goat! The killers of my sister are within you people.”
He stood in front of us, pointing at the canopy under which our kinsmen sat. Some of them simply nodded like weak lizards and said, “Yes, yes, O bu eziokwu, it is true,” as though they totally agreed with him. Others chewed kola nuts and alligator pepper, crossing their legs as they listened to him. He went on to say that there were two categories of sympathisers: those who cried because they had not eaten and drunk enough during the funeral, and those who cried because they pretended they loved Mama. I agreed with him because some women laughed until they came towards the front of our house, and then suddenly broke into wailing and shouting, their hands placed on their heads.
One woman even questioned whether this death was not too sudden for us, whether we actually planned anything at all, because whoever served her food did not put a big chunk of meat in it, accompanied with the required bottle of Fanta. Uncle Ibe overheard her, placed the microphone to his fat lips, and announced the woman’s questions to everyone. He said she was an example of sympathy that came only from the tip of the tongue, sympathy that came only when the stomach was full. Since everybody around was a killer, as far as he was concerned, Mama must revenge her untimely death and impose epilepsy on whoever was responsible for her death. She should make the person mad to sweep the market square, naked. He then invited everybody to the sitting room where Mama was lying in state.
“My sister, use this knife to kill your killers,” Uncle Ibe said, and forced a small knife into her right hand.
“My sister,” he said again. “Use this broom and sweep away whoever is responsible for your death.” He stuck a bunch of short brooms into her left hand, and kissed her cheek.
I wanted to cry but was warned not to, because according to tradition, a man should not cry during funerals. The mortuary attendant had done a good job. Mama was dressed in the Women’s Guild uniform – a white blouse atop a blue wrapper. She smelled of peach and jasmine, her mouth glistening from a glossy red lipstick, and she looked like a janitor inside the coffin with the broom and the knife standing erect in her still hands.
Okezie, my half-brother, known for his attitude that elders had said was unbecoming of a mature man, was the first to react at that point. “How do you expect a corpse to kill and sweep?” he asked, pointing at Mama. Other members of the kindred stood behind Uncle Ibe, Okezie, my siblings and me, craning their necks to see Mama’s beautiful corpse as if to ensure that the coffin had a dead content inside it.
Uncle Ibe shrugged his shoulder, shook his head and the lines on his forehead seemed to have multiplied within seconds. “My sister was a very powerful woman with a high spirit. Even in death, she is still capable of great achievements. She will not let her killers drink and peacefully drop their cups. If her killers are men, they will urinate through their anuses, and their sperms will dry up. If her killers are women, they will menstruate through their noses. They will sweep the ground naked. My sister will plant trees on the pupils of their eyes, and they will chew nails with their teeth.”
“Then she must be a witch,” Okezie pointed out.
“What? My sister, a witch!” Uncle Ibe shouted.
“Yes, a witch,” Okezie said.
“Mama was not a witch, and can never be. She was a great teacher,” I said.
Uncle Ibe warned me: “Ifenna, leave that daft to me, let me finish him.” He faced Okezie and said, “Okezie, so you called my only sister a witch.”
“How can you accuse everyone in this kindred of killing her?” one man who had the habit of drinking alcohol with aspirin asked, his eyes bloodshot, the eyes of one recovering from a severe case of conjunctivitis. Others started to grunt, supporting him. Yet, they had all been listening, as if Uncle Ibe had said the right things all along. I had always known that the silence of the spider as the housefly danced close to a cobweb was not for nothing.
“How can you accuse everyone in this kindred of killing her?” the man repeated himself, seeing that he was not alone.
“That’s the question,” Okezie said.
“I can’t take this rubbish any longer,” Uncle Ibe said, moulded a fist and threw it at Okezie’s flat nose, which had always looked as though an angry, heavy elephant stepped on it. As my half-brother collapsed, and blood poured out from the nostrils, Uncle Ibe continued to pummel him on the floor; yet the kinsmen did nothing to separate them. There were smiles on their faces as if both fighters were rehearsing for a wrestling match, until my older siblings, out of sympathy for Okezie, came in between them.
Our relatives later buried Mama with the knife and the broom, but Okezie moved about like a wounded antelope; he grumbled like an angry bee, and eyed everyone like they should fall and die and follow Mama on her journey. His mother too had refused to let any canopy stand in front of her room, a surprise to everyone because it was rare for someone alive to be jealous of the dead.
“Does it mean their enmity continues even in the grave?” one of the women from Mama’s church had asked when Okezie’s mother took a broom, earlier on, and swept everyone’s feet from the front of her room. I had shaken dust from my feet that time.
I looked at my feet again after Mama was interred, as members of the Women’s Guild of All Saints’ Anglican Church, prayed and repeated Psalm 23 several times, mantra-like, and danced and ate rice and hid bottles of Coke in their bags. They overturned plates of rice and meat into plastic bags which ended up at the bottom of their bags. I thought of the woman who sold the crates of soft drinks to us. I tried to calculate how much we would have to pay for every missing bottle, after the sympathizers had all gone home. I didn’t say a word to my siblings, as members of Women’s Guild engaged in the usual process of carrying loads of food home for their hungry children. One reason was, I didn’t want to cause trouble at Mama’s burial. I wanted her to rest in peace inside the cradle of the angels in heaven.
Mama’s kid sister, Aunty Oluchi, had already claimed money from Uncle Ibe for expenses she claimed to have incurred on extra gallons of palm oil, pepper, salt, fish and vegetables, maggi cubes, curry and thyme. I knew it was all a lie because she had called her six-year-old son, and loaded him with a bagful of raw food items that had been paid for. I did not say anything on that too; if Uncle Ibe liked to boast of the load of expenses he had carried for Mama, to the extent of offending the kindred, I decided he should carry as much of it as this occasion of the burial would allow. After all, Mama’s kid sister would not have such an opportunity again. In fact, everyone had been surprised at Uncle Ibe’s generosity at Mama’s burial; he was known among the kindred as a tight-fisted squirrel clutching on a ripe palm kennel.
The Women’s Guild finished their routine of praying and dancing and eating, and their leader thanked our family, saying they never expected to be so entertained with enough food and drinks. I wondered why she didn’t mention that they had all come with spoons and plastic bags in their big-bottomed handbags, expecting to cart home part of the sumptuous meals. But the women’s leader’s words were soothing, and she gave everyone a reason to nod their heads in contentment and smile, the same way my girlfriend made me smile in my hostel room after the funeral, rubbing and pressing my nipples, saying that was the only way she could commiserate with me over Mama’s death.
It was also the way I smiled the day Okezie phoned me at the University, asking if I was interested in going to Italy to work. I was happy, though pessimistic because I knew his mouth impregnated words. Okezie would say he had diarrhoea, whereas he had only stomach-ache. He would say he shook hands with Queen Elizabeth just because he came across a British woman at an occasion in Lagos. I imagined that if I ever got to Italy, he would place an advert on CNN to announce my departure to the world. His voice on phone was cough-coated and he breathed so loudly into the phone that I wondered whether he had not recovered from Uncle Ibe’s blows on his nose. I also wondered whether the blows had made him develop catarrh. At a point, I laughed on phone and shouted “Italy for life!” to please him, to make him realise how important Italy would be to my future, and to draw the attention of my roommates to the conversation that would make me abandon my studies to become a factory worker in Italy, and earn Euros per week.
“Ifenna, you must come to Lagos this week so as to get the visa,” Okezie said on phone. He sneezed loudly, and I had covered my nose with a white handkerchief, before I remembered he was on the other end of the line.
“I will come immediately,” I said.
“Please do, because I don’t want you to miss this chance.”
“Brother Okezie, I will.”
“This is a great opportunity for you to leave Nigeria and make money abroad. The owner of the factory where you will work is my friend. He is an Italian, and I’m the sole representative of his company here in Nigeria and in the entire Africa and Europe and Asia and America and everywhere else in the world. Actually, if I catch anyone pirating his cosmetics here in Nigeria, I will take the culprit to court and send the idiot to prison. The man just wants a relative of mine to be part of his workforce in Italy, so I’m offering you this rare opportunity of a lifetime.”
“Thank you, Brother Okezie.”
“Lest I forget, you must prepare to learn Italian when you come to Lagos because that’s the official language in Italy.” He sneezed again into the phone.
“I will, Brother Okezie. In fact, I will start learning the language right away because one of my roommates is studying it for his first degree here at the university. I will ask him to start teaching me Introductory Italian, Course 101.”
The Italian language student giggled on his bed.
“Good. Ensure that you come back to Lagos with all your belongings because you won’t go back to school after your interview at the Italian embassy.”
My mind juggled some things.
“Brother Okezie, I’m already in the final year, and we will start our second semester exams next week. I want to write this exam so that I can go to Italy with my degree. I think my degree in Business Administration will help me to secure a better position in the company.”
The tone of his voice changed to that of a towing van pulling out a trailer stuck in the mud, as he shouted, “Ifenna, Italians don’t recognise degrees from Nigerian universities. In fact, they prefer to employ illiterate Nigerians in their companies. The same thing happens in Spain. You’re going there to work in the factory, not inside a plush office. Don’t you know that a factory worker in Italy is better than a bank manager in Nigeria?”
“I don’t know.”
“Now you know. Get this fact from me now: a Nigerian prostitute in Italy earns more than an oil merchant in Nigeria.”
“Yes. So make your choice. Italian visa or a useless university degree?”
“I will think about it, brother Okezie.”
His voice rose sharply. “Think about what? Are you listening to me at all?”
“If a cow is offered a piece of palm frond and it refuses, then a goat will take the frond and chew it. If you’re not serious about this visa, I will give it to someone else.”
I thought about the cow and the opportunistic goat, but when I wanted to talk again, the phone line beeped and went dead. My roommates threw “congratulations” to me for the opportunity, but I wondered what Mama would think in the grave if I abandoned my degree for a menial job in Italy. I began to imagine she might leave her killers for the moment, and come to Italy with the knife and broom to sweep me back to Nigeria, to complete a degree program she had solely sponsored after my father’s death. I didn’t resolve the matter, but a roommate made a list and placed it in my hand from where he lay on his bed. It was the list of items he wanted me to send regularly to him from Italy: latex condoms, second-hand bras and pants, second-hand brogue shoes, second-hand toothbrushes, second-hand mattresses, and second-hand boxers.
“You will make money by bringing these items into Nigeria,” the roommate, who gave me the list, said. Then he jumped down from his bed, touched the floor with his right index finger, dipped it on his tongue and raised the wet finger towards the ceiling, the way our people do to swear and bestow authenticity on an argument.
“Eziokwu m, maka Chukwu, you will sell all of them because Nigerians prefer buying this sort of goods that white people have used. That’s because second-hand goods last longer than the new, but fake ones imported from China and Taiwan.”
“I don’t think I will go to Italy,” I said.
“Ifenna, don’t disappoint me. You must go,” Cynthia, my girlfriend said later, rolling her eyeballs wide like a globe, as we lay together on my bed. I knew she would want to show off to her friends that her boyfriend was travelling abroad to earn the almighty Euro.
“I won’t go to Italy,” I repeated, starring at the ceiling, at the writing on it, done in black with candle flames by a former student: “The only thing a man needs from a woman is her urine.”
Cynthia sank to her knees and began to shed tears. “Ifenna, please don’t do this to me. Just go to Lagos, get the visa first, and then decide whether to use it or not. Italian visa is better than this university degree.”
“My half-brother said almost the same thing on phone. But I don’t think Mama will like this idea,” I said.
“Your dead mother?” Cynthia shouted.
The list-writing roommate threw his pen at me and said, “Please, tell your half-brother that I’m interested in the visa. What is the use of my degree in statistics in Nigeria, where nobody is interested in research, but in short cuts?”
We all laughed at that.
But I laughed more in Lagos, in Okezie’s half-furnished house on Allen Avenue, to show how happy and interested I was in the visa, to conceal my unhappiness over my missed exams, over my abandoned degree. He still had a small piece of bandage on his nose, and I did not ask him if the wound still pained. He told me some other stories, that he was the first and only one in our entire lineage to have a plot of land in Lagos, that he had just signed a contract with the Federal government to supply cosmetics to the First Lady.
He said more in the following weeks, telling me to forfeit my plot of land in Abuja to him if I got the visa. It was a plot of land that our father had bequeathed to me in his will. I agreed, but wondered if it was a sort of collateral, the kind of thing my interviewer at the Italian embassy was interested in when I sat before him on the day of my interview. Looking at me with suspicion like someone who had worn the back of his shirt as the front, the Italian woman, with flat lips and straight nose, spoke Queen’s English to a flawless rhythm. I took a cue quickly and spoke Oxford-accented English to demonstrate how many editions of the Advanced Learner’s English dictionary I had read. I guessed I impressed her because she gave me the visa, and the ice of happiness only thawed when I got to the embassy gates where I threw a fist into the air and shouted, “Italy forever!”
I walked across the lawn outside the Embassy gates, not bothered by the strange look from the gateman. I wondered why he should be so close to the visa office but never travelled to Italy.
That night, I dreamt dreams. I dreamt of snoring in a dream within another dream. I dreamt of Mama teaching me the Nigerian constitution in a dilapidated primary school building, wearing wig and gown like a supreme-court judge. It seemed to me that she was taller, as though she added some length in the grave. As she disappeared, she said, “If someone promises you a new shirt free of charge, carefully examine the shirt the person wears before you decide whether to accept the gift or not.”
I wanted her to stay but she seemed to be in a hurry; she seemed to have another class to teach. I gasped and woke up the next morning, only to realise that Okezie had stolen the visa from my bag when I was asleep, dreaming.
“I won’t release this visa to you,” he said.
“Why?” I asked, yawning.
“I got a message from the village yesterday that my mother has gone mad and naked, that she sweeps the entire market square with a short, wretched bunch of brooms.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I shouted, angrily. “Just give me the visa; I have made a lot of sacrifice to get it.”
“I won’t until your dead mother is dug up from the grave. Tell your stupid Uncle Ibe to go back to the village and exhume that witch you call your mother, and remove the knife and broom in her hands. She is the one tormenting my mother. Moreover, your brothers must pay me five thousand dollars before I can think of releasing this passport. After that, you will have to attend our kindred’s meeting in Lagos where I will announce to everyone that I am sponsoring your trip to Italy with one hundred thousand dollars.”
I sat down, scratched my stubble, and felt giddy as if I had tetanus in my brain, my eyes popping out. I remembered just then that Okezie had once banished my cousin, Ogochukwu, from entering his house when the poor boy needed some money from him to buy an air ticket to Hungary. I remembered other things, like my dreams the previous night, and that Okezie had divorced his wife because she caught him raping a ten-year-old house girl on his matrimonial bed in Lagos. I imagined Mama would not want to be exhumed because she had become comfortable with the mustiness of the grave, with the stabbing and sweeping of her killers with the knife and broom. That should be the only reason she hurried away in my dream.
I left Okezie’s house and called Uncle Ibe and my siblings in Lagos to tell them.
“You see, I said so. Now nemesis has caught up with my sister’s killer at last,” Uncle Ibe said across the line.
I heard the sound of his hand landing on his chest as he beat his chest, saying he had always known that my half-brother’s mother had killed my mother with a rat poison. He also swore he would prepare a Juju that would make Okezie release my visa and sweep the streets of Lagos.
Even my younger brother also spoke to me on phone and swore to kill Okezie if he did not return my visa. I wondered if I would ever get my visa back. I settled for Uncle Ibe’s plan. Sweeping a dirty street in Lagos was more disgraceful and more surreal than an outright killing with a gun, I thought. After all, Okezie’s mother had been sweeping the market, walking naked in the village. I wished Uncle Ibe would get the job done quickly.
“I am coming back to the campus next week,” I said on phone to my girlfriend, Cynthia, chronicling my ordeal to her.
“What?” she screamed. “Don’t even try coming back to this school.”
“I have been telling everybody that you are already a millionaire in Milan, that you are now a Chief Executive Officer of a big company there.”
“You can’t be serious, Cynthia.”
“I am very serious.”
“You should not have done that, Cynthia.”
“Well, I did. And if you care to know, I have a new boyfriend now and he has promised to marry me.”
“A student?” I asked. I did know what else to say, my eyeballs turning like wet corns inside a blender.
“No, he’s a trader. He sells beans and rice in a shop outside the university gates. When you come back here, don’t even bother to come and look for me.”
As I dropped the phone, I wondered if Uncle Ibe had begun to do what he had promised. I also thought of including Cynthia on the Juju list of those that would sweep. I would phone Uncle Ibe to include her, I decided.
Jekwu Anyaegbuna is a Nigerian writer. He was educated at the University of Ilorin and has been published in several literary journals all over the world. He currently works in Lagos.