Suddenly the chit-chat ceased; the smiles froze.
We were close to the Okorocha centre of Amauju, a short distance from our house. Next minute ‘small brother’ was on the sandy floor of our outer compound wailing his lungs out.
‘Ndo, ndo’ filled the air. ‘Sorry, sorry,’ they consoled in our typical Nigerian repetitive manner. Supported by some women, the pitch of the cry increased and the wailing waxed stronger. Mother was crying also. The rest of us sat speechless in the car. We could believe neither our eyes nor our ears.
It was true. Nze Ibekwe was dead! Of that fact, we were sure; so sure that we had to travel right in the middle of February, putting school and shop aside. The day the news came, ‘Big brother’ was singing ‘Jerusalem, my happy home’. Big brother was Dad’s younger brother and the elder brother of ‘small brother.’ He liked to sing especially when the shop teemed with customers.
‘Jerusalem, my happy home,’ he sang that day, ‘when shall I come to thee…’’
‘Mbadiwe, what are you saying?’ interrupted Chukwura, his neighbor. ‘Are you not aware that the song is for the dead? Or are you trying to invite the ‘visitor?’
‘…When shall my sorrows have an end? Thy joys when shall I see?” uncle sang heedlessly, increasing the tempo and moving his feet to the beat.
That night, we received news of his father’s death.
We travelled in Dad’s Sienna 2012 model with ‘mosquito’ at the wheels. In addition to owning a shop, Dad owned the Sienna and two Mitsubishi buses for public transportation. He leased one to Somtochukwu aka ‘Mosquito’ and another to Nnamdi.
When I was not sleeping or throwing up on one or the other of my siblings, I enjoyed looking at the trees on the way. We would see a large forest of them in front of us and then ‘VOOM!’ The trees always performed their disappearing act as if in awe of our presence. We talked and laughed, ate and slept, trusting completely in Mosquito’s competence. We were in one of such laughing rounds when I heard the first sniff.
‘Why did he have to pretend like that?’ Soluchi asked mother when we finally settled into our room. Before the room, we had to bulldoze through a ‘petting antechamber’ of uncles and aunts and older cousins and other villagers.
‘How well they look’ one remarked
‘Nze will be proud as he converses with his ancestors in person.’ Nze was my grandfather whom had come to bury. I remember him as a dark slim man of medium height. I remember the kindness in his shiny eyes as he cut off a piece of game and handed it to me. On that night when exhausted by our visits to innumerable cousins, we gathered round the compound well to find some comfort in one another’s company. The kerosene lamp seated firmly on the well welcomed us in its faint yellow glow. We chewed the roasted antelope from Nze’s experienced trap and gisted.
After we had changed into our day clothes, I overheard some older cousins planning to leave the house next day. They mentioned Umuaka, a faraway town. Exhausted by our journey here, I thought it best to stay put.
We woke up frightened the next morning to the sound of loud wails. I wondered who else had died. False alarm. It was only grandmother and second grandmother competing with the chickens to wake up the house. They won. Their wails mourning the death of grandfather did not only rouse up the house, it also brought tens of villagers to the house to begin the commiseration afresh.
We had an expected but most unwanted visitor. She was black and wiry and looked as if every layer of flesh she might have added had been sliced away by her sharp razor. I felt a pang of jealousy as she entered grandmother’s room, a feat I had been unable to achieve. It was a short visit—grandmother was ready and so was she. Five minutes later, she came out and deposited grandma’s lovely jet black hair at the foot of the well. Then she went to see second grandmother the same way.
After that, Dedem, Dad’s elder brother, got up. He had been sitting on that stool for a while. This time, he got up. It was his turn. He took a few steps backwards and came back again. He greeted the wiry lady and sat down as if he had just come in. She went to work and from here I got the full picture. Three minutes later, she made the usual trip to the well. Then it was my uncle’s turn to make his own trip to the wiry lady, Dadam Jelemma, who was also his wife.
Then my Dad’s. More uncles, according to age. The Aunties! The well hungrily collected the black African hair offered to it. And so it continued.
‘Does the tradition include a few words of consolation from the eldest daughter-in-law?’ I asked mother, who was doing her nails inside the sitting room.
‘Be patient!’ she admonished ‘You will find out soon’.
Lucky her! Since she was not a blood relative, she didn’t have to face the razor.
It was the turn of the first grandchild.
A pause as no one came forward to the stool.
‘Where is Chizara?’
The question passed from lip to lip, mocking each one as it progressed. Chizara was in faraway Umuaka. Never have I been so foolish! To realize I could have gone also. Anyway, I gave them four mental salutes. Thumbs up to Chizara, to Chinonso, to Olumma and to Chidalu. To the consternation, shame, fury and sorrow of many and the understanding and pride of a few, they flaunted their long artificial braids throughout the funeral.
The hair cut train continued moving. Chikwado, my brother. Chetachi. Me! Golly gosh gee. Me!
I sat down on the low stool, my thick lips pressed together to keep from sighing or crying. A sharp cut from the scissors. Then the real job began with the blade which had claimed the hairs of many heads that day. I counted the seconds, consoled by the fact that it would soon be over. Then, I can begin to deal with the consequences. Just before the final second, a nick with the blade. A short sharp pain. I swabbed the blood from my head with cotton wool from Dadam Jelemma.
As the mass of hair grew so did the canopies and chairs being set up in the outer compound. It was the same story for the rectangular hole being dug by some men. First, they worked from the outside. By the time I went to test the reactions to my shaven head, I saw no men. I saw only sand being shoveled out from inside the hole.
In the evening, Dadam Jelemma called all the younger grandchildren to a brief meeting in the sitting room. The bare heads shone like a conglomeration of junior stars.
‘Do not step outside this little gate,’ she commanded, pointing to the squeaky red gate that connected the house and the inner compound to the outer one. Just in case we didn’t get it, she repeated.
‘Tomorrow, I will be greatly upset if I see you anywhere near the Obi or the canopies…’ We knew what her being ‘upset’ meant.
Silence greeted Dadam Jelemma’s words. It was followed seconds later by Soluchi’s perpetual ‘why?’ Though the youngest, he spoke for us all.
‘Because there will be all sorts of people here for the funeral tomorrow. Those with genuine intentions of paying their last respect to Nze will come. There will also be those who will come to try out their devilish powers on his household now that he is no more.’
‘But,’ Soluchi scratched his head, ‘I thought we were children of God and …’
‘Let us not tempt the devil or his agents. Your remaining indoors for just a day will neither maim nor kill you.’
Seconds later, Mother popped in to say that grandmother wanted to see her ‘nnedim.’ The announcement was greeted by a loud cheer.
Nnedim ‘mother of my husband’ was grandma’s affectionate nickname for me. I barely knew her ‘dim’, her husband. I never met the true nnedim. But they said I was the latter’s carbon copy and though Catechist said that there was no such thing as reincarnation, I answered to the name. With the name came some small privileges like this one—seeing my grandmother who had gone into traditional seclusion when her husband died. We had not seen her nor second grandmother since the day we arrived. That day, after uncle had let himself be talked into getting up and ceasing to wail, we all went inside. Dad had gone in to weep with his mother. He came out soon after to discuss matters with Dedem, his oldest brother. Even mother had not been allowed to see her.
Dadam Jelemma ministered to both grandmothers—creating and fulfilling needs for them. They seemed to have no need of anything except tears. Grandma was recovering from a fresh bout of tears when I entered her almost dark room carrying some live coals for light. I made out her shiny head as she sat on the bed awaiting my approach, and I went to her. She hugged me tight, and I felt her tears trickling down from my shoulder before being soaked up by my blouse.
‘mma ndo,’ I said softly, ‘mother sorry.’ My Igbo language vocabulary was highly limited, and she knew it. But she had not invited me to speak. She just wanted to see her nnedim with a head like hers. Shortly after, Dadam Jelemma found us in the same position.
‘Chineke, thank sir!’ she breathed, putting her mother-in-law on the bed to continue sleeping while she gently nudged me to leave the room. Mother smiled when I told her about it. It seemed that they had been trying to coax her to sleep with little success. For the next few hours I savored grandma’s palm kernel oil scent on my blouse as I walked around the house, trying to act like a responsible nnedim. I wore that blouse till Chetachi threatened to tell mother that I had gone to bed smelly and unwashed the night before. It was only a wicked way of manifesting her jealously at not being the ‘nnedim’.
Though the funeral was at 10am, the guests started arriving at dawn. I was still wearing the palm kernel oil blouse and felt the early morning fresh cold air on my skin as Soluchi and I swept the inner compounds with large palm fronds alias native broom.
The guests sat down on the benches recuperating from their long walk. After the usual ‘ᴉ saala chi/ ᴉ boola chi’ response to our ‘Nnoo’ and ‘Dedem, ututu oma’ or ‘Dadam ututu oma’, they remained silent, entertained by their thoughts.
Grandfather himself arrived in a modest casket accompanied in the ambulance by Dedem and Dadam Sabina whose tears nearly warped the wood before it arrived home. They laid the corpse in the small sitting room which had been prepared the day before as an ante-burial chamber. Relatives started to troop in to see him, and we had to wait for some time before it was our turn. Grandfather was dressed in a yellow silk shirt and trouser with white socks on his feet and hands and his red cap on his head. It reminded me of Christmas and Santa Claus. The only difference was that Santa was jolly and chubby, and he was dressed in red, not yellow.
‘I like his clothes,’ whispered Soluchi as we made to leave
‘Me too,’ I whispered back
We went back dutifully to our post in the sitting room. People had stopped trickling into the house and the funeral mass was about to begin when Dadam Jelemma rushed into the sitting room with a bottle. Mimicking the priest, she anointed our foreheads with the olive oil for protection against the devil and his agents. Then she rushed back outside to the congregation.
We watched as the undertakers lowered the casket into the hole. We sent five kisses into the hole to say farewell before anyone else did. Grandmother and second grandmother, who were seeing the light of day for the first time in two weeks, were wailing beside the hole. All my Dedems and Dadams and dad and mum were wailing also as each one poured in some drop of tears with their handful of sand. I forcefully suppressed the screams that rose to my lips. What was I to wail for? The two wives retired inside supported by Dadam Jelemma and big brother who was holding his mother
Then the eating began and continued for seven days. At dusk, Chizara, Chikwado, Chetachi, Olumma, Chinonso and Chidalu joined their peers on a destructive mission. They were angry, they sang, because they couldn’t find their father. They danced round our small village, uprooting cassava stems and whipping any tree in sight. Then they settled on top of the mound of red earth where grandfather lay. There they surrendered to the intoxicating beats of the tambo as they shook and stamped until the mound became table top flat.
Now that ‘Dim’ is at peace, what will become of me, his ‘nnedim’?
Post image by Eshank Sehgal via Flickr
About the Author:
In Amaka Anozie, Electrical Engineering and Writing Fiction converge. She shares both ‘worlds’ at Nijava’s blog. She currently resides at Italy where she’s taking another degree program in Christian Theology.