Born the only son of his father, from his earliest days looked to his larger extended family for male kin.
As a foetus in the womb he had been restless. He would shift and kick, squirm and twist, and always at the most inopportune moments.
His mother would be bending over to pluck the weeds from around the cassava or cocoyam mounds and he would kick, causing her to take a sharp breath or cry out softly. She would straighten up to rub the flat of her hands in a circular motion round her belly which had swollen like a ripe melon pod, and she would talk to him as she did so.
When he came, he chose one of the hottest afternoons anybody could remember. Unlike some babies that came into the world tentatively, almost reluctantly, he seemed too impatient to enter the world. He did not cry. It took two firm smacks to his buttocks and a pinch under his arm to bring forth his first sounds. He did not whine, he bellowed. So loud was his cry that the midwife almost dropped him.
They called him Nwokezurike; a name which literally meant restless man.
As a boy he was always in the company of his other cousins. He would spend the entire day in their company.
The older boys taught him to lay traps for small rodents. With the younger boys he raced udala seeds across the veranda of Ogadilinma’s big black and white house. He never let his mother see him because she said it was only onye efuluefu, a useless fellow that gambled.
“If it was not gambling,” she asked, “how come people lost their udala seeds? Keep this up and you are sure to end up an anuruma who slept wherever alcohol led him, but that will be over my dead body, inugo?”
Ezurike attended the mission primary school at Obodo-Ofu. He went on to attend the secondary school in Afor-Oghe. In his fourth year in secondary school, Ezurike’s father died and he dropped out of school. He took up odd jobs and worked on people’s farms to provide for his mother and younger sister; he would not accept charity from his kinsmen and they respected that. When he turned eighteen he went to live with his father’s sister’s husband in Onitsha. Mazi Ifeka ran a mechanic shop just off the motor park and Ezurike worked as his apprentice for three years.
Ezurike had never seen anyplace quite as big as Onitsha and, for the first few weeks, he spent every free time he had to explore his surroundings.
The market was a criss-crossing maze of sheds and open air stands. Everything was so big and Ezurike was overwhelmed. People milled about like so many ants, everybody in a hurry and Ezurike wondered how they knew where they were going to. How could anyone possibly know their way around this market?
There were temporary stalls set up around the close to the motor park. They served as bases from where the children launched with their wares of bananas, groundnuts, okpa, roasted cashew nuts, aki na ukwa, bread and drinks. The women sold plain boiled rice with stew, abacha and boiled ukwa; roasted yams with smoked or dried fish and palm oil too.
Passengers, touts, drivers and passers-by alike patronised one or more of these traders.
It was in the third year of his apprenticeship that Ezurike met William.
Mazi Ifeka wanted yams and Ezurike had gone to Mama Ujunwa; she cut her yams a little bigger than the other women and cooked it in such a way that the yam was softer inside with a crustier outside. Her sauce also had the right amount of potash and pepper.
Standing there waiting for the yams, Ezurike’s attention was drawn to a small group of men gathered next to a big caterpillar. One of the ones he had seen grading the Onitsha/Awka road. In the middle, close to the machine and surrounded by five or six other men, stood two men. One was white and the other was black. They were talking rather animatedly about something, and Ezurike was going to return his attention to the yams roasting on the grate over coal fire, when the man in the white overalls leaned over to look in the open bonnet.
As if in a trance, Ezurike found himself drawn towards the men. He walked till he stood just a few feet from them, his eyes on the man under the bonnet and the engine.
“We don try..”
“E no gree start..”
“Nothing else to do..”
“…Lagos be dat o..”
A silence fell among the men who turned their attention to him.
He saw caterpillars all the time, but never up close. He knew the construction company working on the roads and on the Niger Bridge used them to shift earth, grade roads, dig ditches, and uproot tree stumps. He also knew they worked on some kind of engine, but that was all he knew about them.
“I salute o, ana’m ekene,” he greeted the men standing there, wiping his sweating palms down the sides of his shorts. He took a close look at the engine block and saw that it was not much different from what ran under the bonnet of some of the lorries; just bigger. He reached out a hand to touch it and his hand was slapped off by the overall-clad man.
“Wetin you tink say you dey do?” He asked. Wetin you sabi wey you wan do? Abeg run go play.” He waved him away with a scowl.
“What appears to be ze matter, eh?” A wheezy voice asked.
Ezurike was taken aback. The only white man he had ever heard speak was the Priest who came from the mission once every month to say Mass. Like Father James, this white man spoke through his nose, but unlike Fada, who was as thin as a broomstick, he was built like a wrestler. He also sounded somehow different. He looked like he had a lot of problems weighing on his broad, well-muscled shoulders.
“Come on Martin, if ze chap wants a try, zen we let him, yes? He can maybe not do any more bad than we ‘ave managed, no?” He told the man in overalls. Then he turned to Ezurike, gave him a nod and gestured at the machine.
“Thank you Mastah,” he bowed slightly. He spent fifteen minutes looking the engine over, and then asked Martin for a wrench and a spanner. Martin exchanged looks with the white man who nodded.
A small toolbox was provided from which Ezurike selected what he needed. With the assistance of two of the other men there, he turned a set of bolts one way, wiped grease from some pistons, blew into some valves to clear them and when he was done, he asked for the machine to be started. Martin turned the key and the engine backfired. A plume of black smoke and sparks shot out of the vertical exhaust pipe into the evening sky. There was a small stampede; some unsuspecting people close by ran back. Ezurike who had been looking at the engine raised his left palm, and the engine was turned off.
He took out the spark plugs and was going to clean them with fine sand he gathered from the ground, but Martin stopped him. He gave Ezurike a brush with metal bristles; Ezurike had never seen anything like it before. He brushed the plugs and blew at them. He examined each plug in carefully and then wiped them with a rag one of the men assisting him handed to him. He also took out some seals which he examined before replacing all but one. He got a strip of polythene from Mama Ujunwa which he wrapped around the seal before coating it in a little grease and replacing it.
This time when Martin turned the key, the engine backfired once and then caught. Plumes of black smoke rose up each time the engine was revved.
A small crowd had gathered around them by this time, and when the engine finally started, there was the roar of voices and some applause.
“Well, well,” the white man was smiling, “well done! My name is Henri Dupont, please call me Henri.” The white man said to Ezurike, pumping his hand up and down. “You have a name I may call you?” He asked.
He spoke too fast for Ezurike to follow with his limited English.
“Name. What is your name?” Henri asked again, saying each word slowly.
“Ezurike Akunaetigbuilo, sir.”
Henri looked at him from behind bushy brows pulled together in a frown, then smiled and said “Zik Iloh, nice. Where you learn about Lusty CAT?” Ezurike’s blank look drew a laugh from him.
“Our motor grader? I call her ze Lusty CAT, for the way she growls when she works. Like a lusty… Oh, never mind.” He asked, pointing to the white lettering on black on the yellow machine.
“I look it and I see that it is like the engines we repair in my mastah shop. So I say make I try someting; it is better than noting. I have lucky the engine have ansah, even though it is not working, it have show that it can still work.” He answered in broken English.
“Yea about that, we were going to send message to Lagos to send engineer over, still we will. How you will like to work for big company in Lagos? You are, it would seem, how you say Vous êtes une personne naturel?” Henri snapped his fingers. “A natural. You have never hear of UAC?”
The blank look on Ezurike’s face answered his question, but still he persisted. “United Africa Company? Lever Brothers? The Niger Company? C’monmonsieur, you’ve heard of that at least, yes? Ok, I work for Dumez. We are building for you un pont, how you say, bridge? Yes?” Henri gave a loud laught. “Monsieur Dupont gives to you un pont. You see the joke? No? No matter. We are building for your country a bridge. Bill mon ami works in the Tractor and Equipment division for UAC. If you like, maybe I can have talk with Bill, maybe he let you work there?”
“I am work for my Mastah here for Onitsha.” Ezurike said.
“C’est bon, Zik. Have talk with your Master, and if he likes, come to the Dumez construction camp and ask for me personally. I am sure they will want you there, you look like a joy to work with.” Henri said.
Ezurike told Mazi Ifeka all that had happened and about the job offer. Mazi Ifeka told him he was sad to let him go, but understood that the Chukwu may yet have bigger things in store for him, and may his penis shrivel if he dared to stand in the way of Ezurike’s oganiru, his progress. He gave his blessings and the next day, Ezurike went in search of Henri at the Dumez camp. He got introduced to William who was pleased with him.
He was hired as a trainee technician at the Tractor and Equipment division of the United Africa Company and sent to Lagos with a written resume from William Forsythe himself.
Over the years he made progress and advanced at work. After a succession of courses abroad, he was promoted to supervisor.
That year at Christmas he travelled east for the Biennial return home of indigenes all over the country and even overseas called the General Return.
This meant different things to different people. For some it was an opportunity to show home people how kind the city was to them; for others it was a time to give back to a community that has given them so much by joining their age grade, their ogba, in executing a community development project, and taking young kinsmen with them when they returned to the city to learn a trade while under their tutelage in order better their lot and be prosperous. Some others came back and did some repair or maintenance work on their aged father’s compounds. Young men of marriageable age were encouraged at this time to look among the maidens for likely wives.
Ezurike returned home to spend time with his mother, and see for himself how his sister Njideka was faring. His last visit home had been the year before, the year he had decided enough was enough.
Njideka’s good-for-nothing husband had taken to beating her, blaming her for all his woes. Ezurike said no when his family came for Njide’s hand. Ezurike’s quarrel had not been with his family, Nnandi came from a family of hardworking and successful men. His quarrel had been with the lazy weakling himself who pranced around the village in finery like a girl without the work to go with his lavish lifestyle. But Njide said he appealed to her, and Ezurike loved her, so he let her go with Nnandi.
On the day he had gone to collect Njideka, Ezurike went with his favourite cousin Paulinus who people called Tension because of his height. They said he was like a high tension pole. Robert who they called Hardway, from his favourite English phrase “hard way the only way”, also went with them.
At the sight of Ezurike, Tension and Hardway coming down the path to his father’s compound, Nnandi had gone into hiding. Ezurike’s message to him was that his bride wealth, drinks and yams would be returned to him the day he was man enough to come and get them himself. Nobody stood in their way as they left the compound with Njideka in their midst.
That was a year ago, and still Nnandi had not come back for either his wife or his bride wealth.
Ezurike had gone with Paulinus to see their friend, Benjamin, in one of the neighbouring villages. Benja was learning a trade up north and was full of news about life in Ugwu-Awusa.
It was dusk and they were seating on carved wooden stools in the courtyard, a transistor radio was playing hi-life music, and they were sharing a big bowl of abacha with smoked mmangala fish. They waved their hands to drive the buzzing flies, drawn by the palm wine they were sharing. Over the low fence they watched three girls walk past.
All the sounds and smells faded as Ezurike half stood, his eyes never leaving the girl in the middle. “Who was that girl in the middle with the firewood on her head?”
Paulinus and Benja burst into a round of hearty laughter.
That night when he got home, he told his mother about the girl he had seen. By the end of the Christmas holidays, enquiries had been made about her and the findings from the investigations pleased his mother. Over the next few months there were talks between both families, and it was going well.
So it came to be that less than a year later, walking between Njide and Taata, Philo walked into his family home.