Saturday, September 12, 2009

Taking Grandad home to Nigeria

By Sarah Allen

I was listening to Nirvana in my bedroom one Saturday night. About halfway through the album, an almighty shout came from the living room. It was my mum. I ran in to investigate. "What?" my mum said into the phone, "Daddy's dead?" My hand flew up to my chest; it felt like someone had splashed ice-cold water over my heart. For a second I thought she might be talking about my dad, until I saw him lounging on the couch. She was talking about her father, my grandfather – Christopher Chukhuma Orakwue. He was on holiday in Jamaica with my aunt and cousins and due back in a few days.

That evening, I went to Grandad's house with my parents and brothers. Grandad's wife was sitting in his big leather chair. It suddenly hit me: I'd never see him sitting in the chair again. People were making phone calls around me to Jamaica, getting details. Grandad and my aunt had gone to a restaurant for dinner the night before. Grandad ordered the fish. After the meal, they went back to the hotel, where he said he felt sick. After going to the hospital and being advised to stay there under observation, he told my aunt he wanted to go home. "Home, as in London?" she asked. "No, back to the hotel," he replied. The doctors and his daughter tried to convince him otherwise, but Grandad would be the first to tell you how stubborn he was, and he got his way. The next night at the hotel he died. He was 82.

Where would we lay Grandad to rest? He had lived most of his life here in England but always said he wanted to be buried in Nigeria, in his home village of Onitsha. More specifically, he wanted to be buried in a room in his house. My grandad was a chief; it would be done. His chief title was Onenyi, meaning "the great elephant". His sons and daughters and his wife, some of my cousins and I prepared to travel to Nigeria – me for the first time. The day approached; we were filled with trepidation.

As a young man, my grandfather had very been handsome. I've been told that at college in Nigeria as a law student, he was regarded as highly eligible. As a student, he was often to be seen riding his motorbike around Lagos and was active in the Pan-African movement during the early 60s. His parents, following tradition, tried to arrange a marriage between their son and a choice of local girls. Grandad refused all offers and told his parents he had found the girl he wanted to marry. My grandmother's name was Christine; she was a primary-school teacher and Grandad told his parents she was beautiful, humble, well-mannered and educated. They were married in 1956.

Grandad was in his 30s when he came to London, followed soon after by my grandmother, and they settled in Tooting Broadway. He had hoped to continue his law studies, but in order to send money home to his elderly parents, he was forced to abandon his education and work instead. He transferred his passion for study to his children and, subsequently, his grandchildren.

Thanks to Grandad, therefore, I was born and brought up in Wandsworth, south London. Neither I, nor my brothers – David Junior (DJ), Eugene and Gregory – had ever been to Nigeria; our upbringing was as English as a Carry On film, as a bacon sarnie.

The week before we were meant to fly out to Nigeria, there was a big story in all the papers about a child being kidnapped there. Nigeria rarely features in the British press – suddenly it was the focus of international interest. Then there was Grandad's village. I had heard all sorts of horror stories from my own aunts and uncles who had left the country as children; about dumps masquerading as homes and poisonous water and warnings not to buy any fruit from the stalls at the roadside. When I got there, I was pleasantly surprised. Bumping along the roads of Owerri, not far from Onitsha, the streets were full of people selling disparate goods on market stalls and women carrying packages on their heads. And the Grand Hotel Asaba was an unexpected treat.

The day of Grandad's burial, all his family had to wear white African attire, decorated with diamante studs. It was a far cry from the black we wore at his London memorial, which was depressing, dark and gloomy. More than 100 friends and family who couldn't travel to Nigeria attended a south London church one wet and miserable day. At one point, the Igbo priest called on everyone to walk up the aisle to see Grandad, some for the last time. A piano played a solemn accompaniment, making me even more miserable.

In Onitsha, along with the rest of the women, I wore a long-sleeved top with a wrap, like a sarong but heavier. I found it impossible to tie up at first but with some help I managed to leave the hotel looking decent. Grandad never saw me in African clothes. When we got to the village, as I stepped out of the car, we heard a loud bang, a gunshot. Everybody from the car ducked. We quickly discovered that shots from soldiers were being fired in honour of Grandad, a much respected chief in the village. I was kept on my toes that day. The mourning family had no time to sit around crying. We had work to do.

I found it almost impossible to keep it together; my nerves or my beautiful wrap. Having female villagers shaking their heads at me in displeasure while I dragged it through the clay didn't help either. "Look at this gel," I imagined them saying in Igbo. "She is so English she can't even dress herself like an Igbo woman!"

The entire village attended; the street was sealed off, there were chairs where cars should have been. We had to greet guests while Igbo musicians played traditional, upbeat music. At one point, I was walking with my mum when she stopped a teenage boy who was holding a bag of tissues under his arm and spoke to him in Igbo. He stood there, looking up at her defiantly, before skulking off, his head down. "What was that about?" I asked. "He was selling tissues to mourners, so I told him, 'Have some respect; this is my father's funeral.'"

Later, we all had to dance around the village in groups, each with a band of banging drums and singers. As we danced, people would stick money to our foreheads. The money wasn't meant for us but as a contribution towards the day's costs – the food, bands, gravediggers. I couldn't help feeling that this was all absurd. I just couldn't marry the two notions of death and dance. That is until my cousin, heavily pregnant and dancing in the sweltering heat, noticed me slacking. "Come on, Sarah," she said through tears. "Let's dance for Grandad." I suddenly got it. This was a celebration of my grandad and all the good things he had done in his life: for us as his children and grandchildren; for his village, sending money regularly even after he had left.

During the funeral, I noticed aunts, uncles and my mum disappearing in the same direction. They were going to the house Grandad had bought 10 years earlier, where he was about to be buried. I put it off as long as possible, but finally went to see him one last time before he was to be buried in Nigeria for ever. I steeled myself. We walked into the house. At the doorstep was a goat, tied up and lying in its own excrement. A sacrifice of some sort. It took me a while to realise it wasn't actually dead. Once inside, I saw my grandad lying in an open casket, propped up in the middle of what used to be the living room. There were women all around; some crying, some talking. I stood at the door trying to muster up the courage to walk up to the casket. It was so strange. He looked like Grandad, but not. He was dressed in African clothes, royal blue with gold designs on them, and wore a hat with a feather in it. He just looked asleep and not as plump as he was when I last saw him. I kissed my hand and rested it on his chest.

Later, we all congregated outside the bedroom window where he was about to be buried. A grave had been dug inside the room. I tried to get as close as possible, but the window was so high and I'm so tiny I that couldn't see in. Suddenly I heard You'll Never Walk Alone coming from a cousin's laptop. Grandad was an avid Liverpool supporter.

Nigeria: it is the place I am from, but also an alien country to me. It is the place my grandad lies this very minute, and will always be; the man who used to babysit me and my brothers; the man who used to take us to the supermarket for jam doughnuts and chocolate biscuits; the man who would call the house just to say hello to me.

As the plane took off, I looked out of the window and watched Nigeria getting smaller and further away, taking Grandad with it. As much as I had been moved by Nigeria, even felt a sense of belonging, I couldn't help but miss London. I couldn't wait for the grey sky and rain-soaked concrete. And as the plane descended towards the place I call home, it didn't disappoint.

No comments: