By Chika Unigwe
Whenever Mike tried to remember the day they fled Jos, he remembered grief: a sadness that his dog could not come with them. He also remembered that they left in the thick of night. He remembered a darkness he could not see through. Bad things always happened in the night.
But his brother disputed this. He said they left at dawn. With the crowing of the cocks and a sky of the lightest blue. Their mother had woken them up and told them to hurry, hurry, they had to leave on a trip in their father’s car.
And they had entered the car (without taking a shower) with face caps on their heads and brightly coloured sun glasses around their necks and Mike had sung My Bonny is over the ocean, My Bonny is over the sea, Oh bring back my bonny to me, to me, his mouth stinking of morning breath. And Egbuna ought to remember better. He was older.
Their mother would never talk about that day, not even when the brothers disputed in heated voices, shouting, “You’re wrong!” above each other’s heads. And not even when their voices exploded into fights which only subsided in lachrymose reconciliation would she say a word.
When they appealed to her directly, “Mother, tell us. When did we leave? Morning or night?” she ignored them. Or she said, “Memories are like plates. You don’t leave them dirty.”
Asking their father was not an option. There was a stiffness to him as if he was cut out of cardboard which made him unapproachable. Their mother said that the war had stolen most of his voice so that he spoke in monosyllables like a car bumper sticker.
Mike was eight when they left Jos but he could not remember their father any other way. In any case he was not one to be relied on to tell stories. A story teller had to have an excess of words, a belly full of tales that were eager to rush out. Their mother with her look of Christian meekness and a love for storytelling was the parent to approach.
However on this one topic, she would not talk. The brothers learnt to live with their versions of the truth and when their mother started showing signs of dementia in old age, they clung even more fiercely to their own truths. It was easier.
But in her final days, the gods breathed into their mother’s head and she, inhaling their breath was hit with a lucidity that stunned her sons and an obvious need to unburden herself so that she - without any prompting - told them the story of how they had fled Jos.
It was the first time she had ever told the story, believing staunchly in the days and years after the war when she was much healthier, that certain memories were better buried. And now in her last days believing that the words would rot in her stomach if she did not expel them, she called her sons by her bedside and filled their eyes with remembrance.
She said it started with the wife of the Igbo headmaster who was hacked to death in her own home. Neither Mike nor Egbuna remembered the headmaster’s wife. “She called you her boyfriends and Mike especially was shy of her. Every time she came Mike would run and hide in the bedroom. She was very fond of both of you.”
Her gate men had colluded and murdered her while her husband was away on a school trip. “That day, that same day, I swore we were leaving the North. I knew the Hausa meant business then. ” And they did not leave in a car.
They left on the train. From Jos to Makurdi then to Enugu where the hills were green even at that time of the year. And all through the trip, they chanted chaka chaka gwom gwom chaka chaka gwom gwom until she got a headache and asked them to shut the hell up.
It was also around that time that she began swearing, interspersing her speech with words that did not go at all with her Christian face.
nd on which trip did Mike sing My Bonny then? Egbuna asked
That was on an earlier trip, on a visit home when Mike did not know the words properly and thought bonny referred to a bone, their mother laughed. Mike had spent hours in the car singing,
"My boneys ova de okshoon
My boneys ova de seeeee
My boney ovad okshoon
Oh bringback my boneyt me
On the train she told the children that they were no longer allowed to speak Hausa. “Hausa is the language of the enemy, ndiausa.” That was the only explanation she had given Mike, the only one of the two children to ask for an explanation.
The headmaster’s wife was her best friend. She was also the president of the Igbo Women’s Christian Mother’s Union and after she was killed her head was left at the front door of St. Theresa’s as a warning to the other women. “It still had a scarf tied around it. And the eyes...”
Mike told his mother to stop talking. She said if she stopped she would never get past the lump that stuck in her throat, she had kept quiet for too long, she did not want to die with a belly full of rotten tales. And then she started to cry, her wailing embarrassing Egbuna and Mike who had never seen her cry, not even at their father’s funeral many years before.
Did they not remember the Headmaster’s wife? No, they said. She made them akara balls that shone like gold. She called the akara nuggets. Egbuna said if he thought hard enough, he remembered a woman with a round face sailing into the house smelling of akara.
Egbuna said he remembered the woman with a loud voice who shouted merrily, “Where are my little husbands? I’ve got nuggets for them.” Mike said he did not remember.
It did not matter if he remembered, their mother said. What mattered was the story. “Stories help us to remember,” she said. And Mike heard the accusation in the cadences of her voice. He saw it fleck her eyes when she looked at him. He looked away from her face and settled his gaze on the fridge purring quietly beside the dying woman’s bed.
His parents had never understood. And now he knew that his mother would never forgive him, that even in her dementia when she waited for a long-dead husband to reappear, when she smiled at her sons with the politeness reserved for strangers and asked them who they were, her anger and resentment at Mike had remained.
He knew that she still hoped to redeem him. Her choice of words, not his. He did not believe he needed redemption.
They had left Jos in the morning with a suitcase full of clothes and a hope that they would be able to return soon; that the threat to Igbo lives would be quelled. Ten months after they left, the civil war broke out.
“The smell was already in the air. It was there long before the headmaster’s wife was killed . There had been rumours. Rumours that flew by night and smashed through the glass of our windows. Do you remember when the sitting-room window was broken by a group of small boys?"
Her sons did not remember. “Small children. Boys as young as ten. They shouted nyamiri, Igbo, go home! And the security guard could not catch them no matter how fast he ran. Do you remember him? He had knock-knees and sometimes slept at his post but he was a wonderful man. He - ”
“If the rumours had been doing the rounds for a bit, why did so many people stay on?”
“Do not take words from my mouth. I am still talking,” she snapped at Egbuna. In her last days, their mother had also become incredibly authoritarian. The meekness of her face had been steadily replaced by a look of steel.
“We heard that ndiausa had vowed to kill one million Igbo to avenge the death of their Sardauna who was killed in the coup. They said Igbo soldiers killed the Sardauna and so we had to pay. Your father paid no attention to those rumours. ”
They had stayed in Onitsha for thirteen months, renting a duplex in GRA. Mike could never remember living in Onitsha but Egbuna had scraps of memories from there: a heavy gate that squealed when it was swung open and on which he and Mike idled away hours swinging from it; a very short orange tree which they nicknamed osisi mammywata, the mermaid’s tree; a kitchen that stank of kerosene fumes.
In their mother’s eye, they saw the house in Onitsha. It was bigger than they remembered with walls papered in yellow and green; the only house with wall papering for miles. It had been occupied by a British couple who nostalgic for their home in an English countryside had imported the wall paper into Onitsha.
When they left the country they left behind a set of matching pots and pans with glass covers. But even those did not make up for what their mother missed, what she had left behind in Jos:
The gold-edged china that was left in the dining room cupboard because their father had ordered that only the most essential necessities be packed because he believed that things would get back to normal before long. “Your father was wrong. I tried to tell him but he was a stubborn man.”
The huge flower vases with drawings of Oriental women on them. They stayed on the porch. “And every night I saw them in my dreams, bleeding.”
The silver-coloured knight on the table whose stomach opened outwards to reveal a bottle and whose shoulders held six miniature glasses that visitors to the house always commented on and Mike hoped one day to inherit.
And Scotch, the trained Labrador that not only answered to its name, but gave a paw when asked and stood and sat at command. Mike had loved Scotch with a European passion and even though he had not been bought specifically for him, everyone called it Mike’s dog.
And their father always told guests how he had paid thirty pounds so that their dog could shake and stand and sit when ordered.
Did they remember the toilet with a bidet? Mike did not. Egbuna remembered because it was in the bidet he washed his clothes.
Did they remember how they left Onitsha? Mike remembered that it was on an afternoon. Their father came in from town to announce that, isolated as they were from the rest of the city in GRA, they had not realized that there was nobody left in the city. “Onitsha agbago oso,’ he told his wife. “Onitsha has run.”
“We bundled you into the car, do you remember? You were eating an egg, Mike.” And Mike remembered the taste of a stolen egg that filled his mouth.
And remembered that fear and guilt combined to make him forget himself and he had spoken in Hausa to his mother, saying sorry he stole the boiled egg she had been hoarding. She had slapped him hard across the face and he was sure it was not because of the egg.
“Outside Onitsha we were stopped by a soldier. A young man, a boy, not much older than Egbuna was then really. Twelve maybe. Thirteen, tops. He looked like he was playing soldier. It turned out he was defecting. Poor boy. He was tired of the fighting. He made your father give him his shirt.
He put a gun to your father’s head and shouted into his face. I was shaking like a leaf but your father... your father was like a nail, ntu. He always kept his head. He asked the young man calmly not to shout because he was scaring you two. And then he pulled off his shirt like it was nothing and handed it over.
Then the soldier forced us to give him a lift to Uzuakoli which was out of our way. But... we made it to Osumenyi in one piece. Not many people can say that. We survived the war whole as a family.”
Their mother’s eyes were magic. They dimmed and shone in turn. “We survived but ndiausa killed your father.” Their mother was convinced that their father started dying the day he was made to run away from Jos; the prostrate cancer which killed him in 1973, three years after they moved back to Onitsha at the end of the war, was just an outward symptom of his inner death.
She would never forgive that. And she did not expect her sons to either. Which was why when Mike took the step he did, long before her dementia started, she had called him a sabo, a saboteur.
In Osumenyi, Mike and Egbuna complained of a starkness they could not get used to. The huge compound in Jos had three mango trees, a few orange trees and, oh-pride-of prides, a cashew tree that was the only one for miles and which fruit Egbuna mischievously called the dangling breasts of Mrs. Winternight.
Mrs. Winternight was the British head teacher of the school Mike and Egbuna attended. “Egbuna called osumenyi nwoke isi nkwocha - the bald man - do you remember?” Egbuna remembered bareness where trees should have been and sand that danced in the harmattan wind. Mike remembered missing Jos.
Mike never managed to feel at home in osumenyi. And it was not because, having grown up in a city, he was unused to the provincial ways of a village. His problem was more intimate, more crushing: unable to speak good Igbo he was bullied in school.
He remembered his classmates forming a circle round him and taunting him with songs about being Hausa, asking him to go back to Ugwuausa where he belonged. Even Egbuna seemed to avoid him at school. Bigger, and better at speaking Igbo, Egbuna had no trouble fitting in.
When he complained to his mother, she said he carried the enemy in his heart.
Four years after they fled Jos, the war ended and their father moved them back to Onitsha where Egbunna slot in like a key.
“You loved Onitsha, both of you. Finally a house with trees. You remember the guava trees? Egbuna spent all day climbing them. We started rebuilding our lives. We started to forget Jos. But who could forget the massacre? Who could forget the dead?”
Egbunna said he remembered the trees. He loved Onitsha. He remembered the neighbours’ son who became his best friend. Mike remembered missing Jos. He remembered school days spent hiding in the toilet because of schoolmates who laughed at the way he spoke his Igbo.
Four years of living in the East and his Igbo had not much improved. He remembered secretly praying that their father would move them back to Jos where his friends were. He whispered this prayer fervently at night when the family met for prayer time in the L-shaped sitting room with a grand piano which no one ever played.
Their father dominated the prayer time, breaking his moratorium of short, clipped sentences to say verbose prayers in a language so grand that Mike was worried that his own prayer would be pushed aside for his father’s more ornate one.
And his father’s prayer had no room to accommodate his because the older man had no desire to return to the part of the country he referred to as “ the cesspit of hell from which - Oh God, almighty ocean that never dries up, Osimmiri agwu agwu, The Spinner of all Life’s tales - you delivered thine own people from!”
While his brother and mother shouted an Amen that reverberated the walls of the house in response, Mike countered it with his own fevered request in Hausa, the only language he could live fully in.
“We were home where we were wanted. Your father always said that even if someone told him there was gold falling out of the sky in Jos, he’d never go back. He’d never go back to the North.” Her eyes held Mike’s. He knew what she was accusing him of.
She knew how much he missed his friends in Jos. How in the twenty five years he was away from Jos, the city never left his mind.
Now he thought that maybe what he missed was not just his friends but his entire childhood: the mornings of a compulsory boiled egg and a bowl of quaker oats sweetened with condensed milk; birds singing outside his window; parents who showed no signs of getting old or wrinkly; the school playground where he never felt left out; Saturday mornings spent traipsing the neighbourhood with his best friend, Musa and their catapults looking for birds to shoot out of trees. He always yearned for Jos.
And the yearning wove a lasso around his neck and would not let go until he gave in and took a job working in a bank in Jos after graduation, carrying in his head the memories of a home that sheltered him as a young boy and carrying on his back, the weight of his mother’s anger.
Chika Unigwe is a Nigerian writer based in Belgium. Her novel, ‘On Black Sisters' Street', about the lives of Nigerian prostitutes in Europe, is published by Jonathan Cape.