Christmas in Ugbu Afo arrives like an overseas guest, like it just dropped out of a plane and landed at your doorstep. That was how, one moment, we were scurrying about at dawn, rushing to fetch water before school, and the next, Uguru appeared from nowhere, cold wind and dry dust. Now, we can barely make one trip to the stream without feeling like we are carrying some severe punishment on our shoulders. The breeze is crisp and dirty and my mouth, baked from the dryness, looks like rumpled cloth, the kind you washed and spread and wore in a hurry. Here, the harmattan has always been terrible, worse than the type they have in Aba and Onitsha, even in Enugu.
Nkoli, our last born, has been sniffling all week because of the dust, her breathing is forced and dry, and at night, she sounds like a tired, overused generator, those cheap ones made in China. But it is not the sound, or the cold, or the stench of Bobo’s dried urine on our coverless foam that makes it impossible to sleep. It is knowing that Christmas is almost here; that if it were traveling from Lagos, it is now in Akwa, a few hours away.
Our village has begun to take shape, like a little girl growing and filling out her oversized dress. The township people who usually arrived in trickles have suddenly all started rushing in, Ndi Aba today, Ndi Achalla last week, everyone swimming into town as if somebody was about to close the gate. The only other time our village gets full is when the Umu Ada gather for their August meeting. Around that time, the women will be all over Afor market, pricing Okporoko and comparing it with rates at Onitsha and Port Harcourt. Also, they come in shiny new lace blouses, always white, and always different from the year before. Pa Nnukwu says it is the only way for each woman to show that her life in the city is more fanciful than those of others, the way they measured their progress. They usually look the same to me anyway, as if someone stuffed them into the blouse, as if a person pushed and pushed and sat on them until they fit into the attire, looking bloated and sweaty, the roundness of their arms hanging heavy at each side. The only ones who look different are the younger brides, but even they do not impress me that much, especially the married ones from Lagos, Efulefus who cannot speak Igbo without sounding like they are talking from the television. They speak the language anyhow, without our local dialect, allowing the words to fall out flat and uneventful. They would usually arrive on a Thursday and by Monday would have disappeared, returned to their base.
But Christmas is always different, always better. For one, the celebration stretches over the entire month. It makes itself present, first through the harmattan, then through Father Biko’s sermons at morning mass which become unusually congratulatory, as though witnessing December was the same as acquiring a land at Achalla Layout.
Yet in some way, this particular December came as a huge relief for many people, like there was some unspeakable dread that hung over the village all through the year, raining down drops of misfortune. True. Was it not in January, barely two weeks into the New Year, when the roof at the community school suddenly gave way and came tumbling down, as if it had been carrying the weight of the country on its rusty sheets? Then there was March, when Adaugo, the Baptist preacher’s first daughter got pregnant and wouldn’t say who put the baby in her stomach. The other day, Nma Cetus was telling mother about Obiageli, Isi Nkpi’s child that had suddenly gone missing, only sixteen and fresh out of secondary school. The people of Addo, the next village, had searched and searched for her, and after three weeks of not hearing anything conducted a summarized burial, the quiet ones organised for young people who die. These are the kind of things Father Biko has been using to punctuate his sermons. Onye nke ahu efugo – That one has gone missing, he would bellow into the microphone, his eyes trailing some imaginary object in the audience, like he was lost in a trance. He would then remind the villagers of the tragedies that befell us through the year and warn for extra vigilance and prayers. Tinye nu chaplet na mmiri – Say your prayers, he would admonish.
On the 19th, in the heat of afternoon, Nma Cetus burst into our yard with more news, this time about Ojakiri, the village drunk, the local jester who would stroll through Afor market in the hot afternoon, wearing nothing but his cream trousers that hung too low, revealing the crack of his butt. She relayed, with her typically hurried sentences, how the meat sellers, returning from the abattoir in Addo, had found Ojakiri lying in a gutter, very dead, his skin baked in the sun, spittle fresh in his mouth, and houseflies swimming around his groin, evidence of the shit he had shat on himself. I listened from the room I shared with Nkoli and Adaugo and Bobo, on the worn out mattress we spread on the floor, the one that Bobo destroyed with his constant bedwetting at sixteen. But while I was horrified by the death that had suddenly befallen Ojakiri, I was fascinated by Nma Cetus’ narration. It was mostly the way the words came out of her mouth like thunder, surprising and delightful at the same time.
By the following Sunday, we scurried to mass with a haunted gait in our steps. News of Ojakiri’s death had spread through the village like a bed bug infestation: it was everywhere. In our own way we all mourned him; there was a certain vacancy the market inherited from his death, a cold and gripping silence. He was a nuisance, but he was our nuisance; we, the people of Ugbu Afor collectively owned the right to ridicule him and chase him off our stalls and use him as examples for errant little boys. And now he’s dead, strangely, with nothing but the smell of liquor and shit clinging to his body.
Ajo ihe— that was the way Father Biko described it this time, an evil thing. But surprisingly, that was all he said of the matter. He did not stretch the facts till he saw the fear in our eyes, he did not prance about the altar, or offer any gesticulations; there was no need to hold our breath. That day was all about good news, he beamed at the congregation. Development has finally come, he said, as if development was the son you sent on an errand who took a lifetime to finally return. Later on, we would find out that by development, Father Biko simply meant the generous investments that Star Pack was going to make in our community.
There were cheers all over the hall as Chief Idejimba, whom everyone referred to as Star Pack because of the peculiar protrusion of his belly, approached the altar. He was walking out right in the middle of mass, because when you are a big man and you want to say something, you will not have time to wait for anyone, least of all your parish priest.
He started by saying that the government had failed the people of Ugbu Afor, as if we didn’t know that already. Then, like someone who had just received an imaginary idea, he declared that it was time for the people of Ugbu Afor to give back and build the community, people like himself. I was waiting for him to say something like building boreholes or re-roofing the community school, because that would have been the real development thing to undertake. I even thought he had volunteered to build another parish with the way Father Biko was smiling all over the place. Instead, he said he would be taking five boys and five girls back with him to the city, to complete their education on full scholarship, after which they would understudy his business. It was a strange thing, this one. We were used to bags of rice and Ego Christimasi, but nobody ever came to take us away on this scholarship and understudy thing, especially not ten people at the same time.
At this point, our Christmas acquired a new complexity: suspicion. By evening that very day, dark rumours, travelling through whispers, began to spread through the town. What does he want to do with our sons and daughters, this Idejimba man? Is that not how his wife had lost three pregnancies, her body eventually growing weary from the miscarriages and refusing to conceive anymore? Is he taking our children to fill up the silence in his township home? Those were the questions that sat heavy on people’s tongues. But not Bobo — to him, this was destiny, his opportunity to taste more of life, and it did not matter that education was the price he would have to pay for his escape. There were few other idiots like him, ndi nzuzu, who started flocking to the chief’s house in the guise of saying hello and running errands.
Little by little, a strange thing started happening. First, the suspicion started falling off like dead skin; people began to trade fear for ambition. Suddenly, all the ndi Okpara wanted to leave the village, they wanted to scamper and climb their way out of the rut of rural life. Even Nma Cetus reduced her visits drastically when she learnt that Bobo had volunteered himself at the Idejimba residence every morning to assist with car washing. The next day, her two sons reported at the venue with tubers of yam and fresh onugbu, laughing nervously as they reported to the woman of the house how their mother had squeezed the bitterness out by herself.
Then, on 29th, Father Biko announced causally at one evening mass that he had been personally tasked to recommend families from which Idejimba would pick from. He said it, and then continued with his sermon as if he did not know the tightness he was causing in people’s chest. As mass finished, mother hurriedly went to parish office to see if it was too late in the evening to pay the balance of her dues. She met six other families in the queue. And so the tension continued to grow and grow, everybody on their best behaviour, until some of the mothers started picking fights in the market, and fathers, in the guise of confession, began spilling the secrets that their friends had previously confided in them.
By the 2nd of January, I had reached exhaustion; the holidays had become a dull ache and I couldn’t wait for Chief to leave with his chosen ones, just so we could resume the simplicity of our lives. I was used to the gossip and fear, but this sudden angst and my mother’s instruction to stop speaking to the Agbors and Ukaigwes was killing me. I stood in the kitchen with her as she railed again about how we could not trust anybody, and how the people you think are your friends will gladly step on you if it would get them higher up the rails of their lives. Suddenly, resuming character, Nma Cetus barged in with words rushing out of her mouth, as if she and mother had not been quarreling for the past three weeks.
Olanwa, inugo, bia kwa nuru – come and hear what is happening!
That was how we learned that Chief Idejimba was dragged out of his house by uniformed men, charging him for hit and run. It was not just that he was identified by two akwunas from Addo, it was that he had somehow dropped his bracelet while he pushed the victim, who happened to be Ojakiri, to the gutter. We listened, mother and I and Bobo who rushed out at the mention of the Chief’s name. We listened, with our eyes and mouth open, then allowed ourselves fall into the silence of the room.
Later on, when we had collected ourselves from the shock, we would speak of Ojakiri in pity, we would speak of the wickedness of the Chief, we would talk about Rose and Akali and Father Biko, but no one would mention the greatest occupant of our thoughts: the scholarships and understudy and all the ugly things we had done to escape this village.
Post image by Ian Cochrane via Flickr.
About the Author:
Tochi is a non-practicing Lawyer who has refused to drop the title solely for the inconvenience she went through in school. She works as a Media Content Developer, and enjoys writing and making new connections.