“Driver, o ga apu na Afor-Oghe.” I said to alert the bus driver of my desire to alight at Afor-Oghe.
I could see that some level of development had reached this place, yet it still looked very familiar – at least I did not need an orange or mango tree landmark to know where I was.
I took an Okada home since I knew exactly where I was going, and the scenery flew by in a blur: tall grasses on either side of the road covered in red dust, and even taller bamboo stalks interspersed with orange and udala trees the leaves of which were coated in a thin film of the same red dust; old houses of red bricks with rusted corrugated zinc roofs, and modern houses with colourful aluminium roofing sat side by side dotting the landscape; the people we passed as they strode purposefully, trudged wearily or skipped happily along (usually the children) had more than the shiny and sometimes threadbare clothes on their backs in common, they had their smile. No matter in what direction they faced, they turned, waved, smiled and called out a greeting and I responded in kind.
Nothing so far prepared me for the next few hours; nothing prepared me for the next couple of days.
Ahead in the distance I saw the big white and black house the sat smack in the middle of the road with paths veering off to left and right of it. Built in the early 1900s, it was, in its own way, a feat of architecture. It stood as high as a storey building with wide steps running up the front and down the back. It was without a ground floor, just the long flight of steps leading to the verandah and past that to a passage lined with rooms on either side. Around the outside walls just under each window protrudes a cement bulb like a water pot lying on its side. These seemed to grow from the walls and added to the overall beauty of house, like jigida beads round the waist of a fair maiden.
At the sight of this house, the memories came crashing in, flooding my head and threatening to drown me.
I remembered misty mornings walking single file with my cousins Ugo, Chika, Okey and Ferdi (memories of his mother yelling “Nandi! Nandi ooo!!” still makes me chuckle because for a long time I thought his name was Nnamdi. It was years later I realised it was her shortened version of Ferdinand). We would walk single file through bush paths till we got to Ife-agu, a bush clearing, where we would then take up posts to do our morning toilets or ‘bush attack’ as we called it. The smell of foliage and shit strong in the air, assailing the nostrils;
I remembered mornings spent up on the verandah of that building playing any number of games, from racing udala seeds to racing bottle tops; cracking walnuts to twirling cassava leaves on the index finger to see who could do so the longest. Every game had more than pride riding on it. I guess I was a gambler even before I knew what gambling was;
I remembered breakfast of big cups of Ovaltine or Bournvita with Carnco milk and Unicorn sugar, thick slices of bread spread with Planta margarine. I would dunk chunks of bread in hot beverage, the drink running down my hand, and when I attempted to lick the drink off my arm, I would lose the soggy bread in the process. With a spoon I fished bread out of my cup with the oil of the margarine floating and swirling in the drink;
I remembered the horror of bathing in the morning with the cold gnawing on my bones. My aunt always had a kettle of water on the fire, but even with the steam rising out of the pail of water, the water was never hot enough – plus I have always hated bathing. Standing on the slab of rock behind the house, I would hold my breath just before the water hit and usually would run a few feet before returning to the slab, that was till the day I slipped on the wet red earth and fell. After that I just stood on the slab and hopped from foot to foot. Rafia sponge would scrub from head to feet covering me in a thick lather and leaving only my eyes and mouth free, and sometimes even that got soap as I would not stop talking;
I remembered drinking the coldest water out of water pots lining the sides of the house. The pots were usually covered with trays on which usually sat an aluminium who-send-you cup. A cup so big your face was easily swallowed by the rim when you drank. There was a format to drawing water out of these pots: the bottom of the cup is gently dragged across the face of the water to draw any floating debris to one side as if to part a curtain or veil before the lip of the cup is gently dipped in to draw water and, as gently lifted out with a palm under the cup to catch any drips or drops, these are first sucked off the fingers before taking lips to the cup itself. No matter how low the level of water, you never strike the bottom of the pot lest you disturb what lay there: a mire poix of larvae and algae;
I remembered sitting in the kitchen in front of the fire, a fire started with firewood and akwu kindling, these palm fruit husks were very flammable and very precious stuff. Then there was a sprinkling of kerosine (krezin), a matchstick and blowing, either with the mouth or akupe, the hand fan of woven palm fronds;
I remembered squatting in front of the fire roasting corn, not the freshly plucked off the stalk kind, no. These were last season’s hanging from the kitchen rafters, the husks yellowed with age and the maize grains hard. One of my sisters, usually Flesh, would either roast groundnuts in the earthen bowl, or crack palm kernels with a huge rock on the upturned mortar, a mortar the bottom of which became dimpled – my first dimpled backside;
I remembered the bowl of abacha and azu fridge or ice fish with small green añala adding colour to the platter. The crunching when you bit into these tiny garden eggs, their slightly bitter taste in contrast with the savoury one of the abacha, the aroma of freshly plucked peppers or the flavour of crushed, roast dried peppers, the smell and taste of palmwine as it coursed it’s way down my throat and trickled out my mouth…;
I remembered nightfall coming early to the village. The lanterns and bush lamps were lit around 6pm when the fowls made their way home to the cage in the kitchen that was more to protect them from wild cats than imprison them. With the wooden shutters closed, the house is engulfed in a darkness so thick, it almost has a texture. And once the door was locked, nobody went out before the cock crew the next morning – not even to pee. There was a po, or potty as I hear it is called now, for that purpose;
I remembered lying on the mattress of the top bunk of the double decker and played back the day’s activities, while tingling with anticipation of what the next day would bring. I remembered the cock’s crowing announcing daybreak. I remembered things from my childhood that seemed to just lie before my eyes. I almost reached out to touch these memories so vivid, but the okada bouncing off a pothole brought me back to the present.
I remembered Heath Ledger’s character in the movie “A knight’s tale” asking his father what if he didn’t remember his way home, and his father saying “Follow your feet.” Back then I thought it an odd reply. Not anymore.
“Driver, o ga apu na Afor-Oghe” I said, looking out the window.
I could see that some level of development had reached my corner of the world, yet it still looked very familiar – at least I did not need an orange or mango tree landmark to know where I was. I do not go home to the village often, I had not been here in years, and yet here I was at the bus stop by myself!
PS: Lest I make this about myself, it really is about my sister who got married recently. She was the reason for my return home.
Let’s just say she has successfully changed her name and home address, but I do not consider it a loss, no. For in her doing so, I gained a brother.
I pray God blesses their union and may they make each other happier together than anyone else can make them apart.
Guys get to work and make me an uncle o. You know I love you, but I must come for omugwo soon UTUNU.