Sunday, 6 December 2015


Possible Titles: "MEN DO NOT CRY" , "THE LUMP IN MY THROAT" 

    Papa used to say to all of us that a man that could not provide for his family was worse than a murderer. He wasn't a very wise man, my two brothers and I agreed. If he were so wise, he wouldn't have married a second wife when mama was still there. It wasn't as if he wanted male children like Uncle Ndubuisi whose first wife had given birth to five girls.  Uncle Ndubuisi married three more wives. It wasn't as if he was a title holder in the village. It wasn't as if mama didn't take care of herself anymore. She did. She'd won best dressed in her women's meeting the same year father married his new wife. It wasn't even as if mama could not cook very well. Her ofe aku sauce was praised by her in-laws that would touch her waist and say "Nwere anyi" . Our wife. 

They never said that to the new wife, Amara whose Aja soup tasted like cement, the leaves always half-done. They never said anything to the new wife who hadn't given birth after six years of marriage. 

The only time they said anything to her was when she had screamed one morning that father was dead. I rushed to father's room and saw him lying peacefully unaware. I stared at his corpse from the side of the bed. Amara huddled in a corner sobbing, perhaps thinking about her fate. I touched my father's body, it wasn't slightly wrinkled and leathery anymore. It was hard, not quite like a stone yet. His body had the texture of made garri - eba - that had been untouched and exposed for some days. He must have died in the night. Goosebumps covered my skin. 

I stepped away from the bed as I heard footsteps. I could hear mama shouting, "It can't be. It's a lie."  I wanted it to be. 

She entered father's room flanked by Uncle Peter and my two brothers, Emeka and Ovunda. "You are a witch. You have killed my husband", mama wailed and beat her chest, pointing at Amara. "Why have you done this to me and my children?" She rolled on the floor for some minutes and pulled her hair. I feared she would hit her head. I did not understand why she cried. If I were her, I would have hated papa. I would not be sad that he was no more. 

I looked away from mother wailing and gnashing her teeth on the concrete floor. A child should not see such. I wished I could erase from my memory the little I had seen. Nobody tried to stop her or hold her as she rolled. My fears were baseless as her circular movements on the floor seemed to have a pattern that ensured she wouldn't bash her skull. Her voice also had a sort of rhythm and was at its peak whenever she exclaimed 'Chim o!' My God. 

My brothers said nothing, feeling the same way I did. We shouldn't have to see this. Uncle Peter said to mother, "Our wife, it is okay. Please stop crying.  Pick yourself up from the floor, you have to take it easy." It sounded like something the young Bishop at the diocese would say. 

Mother spurred, leapt up immediately and moved towards Amara and promptly gave her three slaps in sequence. I held her back from doling out more. "Mama, this won't solve anything". My brothers looked at me like I had just said I worship the devil. Amara looked at me as if to say thank you. I looked away and held on to mama. She clung onto me and sobbed, drenching my shirt with her tears. I felt hot tears trying to escape from my own eyes just then. I blinked them back and swallowed the heavy lump in my throat. 

Men do not cry. My father used to say this to us. 

" I will call for a family meeting later today.", Uncle Peter said, calling us away from our mother. "Jisike. Have you heard? You have to be strong for your mother".

 I was 14 and the youngest. I did not know even how to be strong for myself, not to talk of my mother. My brothers seemed to know because they nodded their heads. All I knew was that just like my brothers, I couldn't cry. The lump in my throat grew bigger. 

The walls closed in and threatened to squash me. I wasn't sad or bereaved. That was my mother. I wasn't numb - my brothers were. I was flat, an emotion I didn't even know existed. I was like an orange that was thrown away and run over by a car after being sucked dry and spat out. 

My brothers and I huddled together in the room we shared, needing space but needing something familiar as well. Some women from mama's church group came to keep her company. I imagined the women telling mama to be strong for her children in the same tone they would have told her to hold on tight when father had remarried. 'You are not the first, you know?' 

I played Whot cards with my siblings. Pick 2, pick another two, last card, check!  Ovunda, the eldest had just won me at the game. Everything almost seemed normal except  for the poignant silence that was ever present, interjecting our monosyllabic expressions in which we tried to say everything. Everything was almost normal except for the lump that threatened to choke me. I needed water. 

"You are lucky. You have three sons, three good sons my friend", a shrill voice said, repeating her words like they were supposed to have a deeper meaning. The voice was coming from the backyard where mama sat with some of her friends. "Didn't you hear what happened to Ebere last year?"  Mama must have said No because the voice proceeded to narrate how Ebere had been chased out of her husband's house with her daughters when he had passed away. "She didn't even take a pin", another voice joined in. "My dear friend, you are a lucky woman. Stop crying and wipe away your tears.". 

I made shuffling noises with my feet and turned on the tap seconds later. I didn't want it to seem like I had been eavesdropping from the kitchen. I drank at least three glasses of water with each gulp I felt a lightness in my chest. 

Later in the day by 4pm, Uncle Peter came with some other members of the family  - some of father's uncles, brother and cousins. We went out to welcome them. 

          "Good evening sirs", everyone said, my mother punctuating her greeting with a curtsy. 
         "Peace be unto this home", the eldest of them all said. "It is well." 
        "Where is Amara?", Uncle Peter asked. 
       "I have not seen that murderer ever since you left this morning", mother replied. 
      "I have not seen her either", Emeka said. Ovunda nodded in consent. I looked away. 

After Uncle Peter had gone in the morning, mama had locked Amara in the room with the corpse. I didn't understand why she did that. She said she wanted Amara to confess. Amara only cried. Mother said they were crocodile tears. When my brothers had said they wanted to call someone that knew how they could take the corpse to the mortuary, mother refused. It was strange this word corpse, that meant you were no longer worthy of the present tense. That made you become was. 
"I don't know where Amara is", I said. I should have kept quiet. 

The meeting took place in the verandah. It was long and tedious. Mama served everyone with a plate of okwu ose - peppered fried meat. I didn't know how she had managed to cook anything. Uncle Udoka requested for father's best brandy. I was angered. I never liked him anyway even when father was alive. 

Mother was dismissed and told to wait inside the house. Uncle Udoka and his nicotine-stained teeth said to her, "Your sons will represent you". It was as though mother and Amara were on trial only worse, they weren't allowed to make their case.
They broke the kolanut and passed it around for everyone to take a lobe, from the eldest to the youngest. I sat meekly barely listening, occupying a fraction of space on the bench. Ovunda did most of the talking with the family elders.

"It is important we iron out certain issues now to avoid future problems in this family", said the eldest uncle called Onye isi - literally, The Head. 

It was agreed that the funeral would be in three weeks time. Amara was to wash father's corpse the day before the burial and drink from the water used to bathe the corpse while mother watched her. It was tradition for a man's first daughter to wash the body but father had none. Also, they said, a suitable punishment would be meted out on Amara except she could prove before the burial that she had not killed their brother. I felt a slight pity for Amara. She would leave the house and go back to her people immediately after the burial.

The property division was concluded in the crudest way possible. Ovunda as the eldest would get father's house and crops. Father was a palm wine tapper. Emeka got the furniture in the house. There was nothing else left for me to inherit except father's clothes which was as good as nothing. I wasn't even angry. Father didn't really have much and it was the way things were. At least I wasn't a girl and I could say I inherited something. 

Nobody questioned anything. There was nothing to say. Onye isi said that effective immediately Amara and mama would have to shave their heads until it shone. 

"Why?", I asked the Head shocking everyone. My brothers looked at me like surely, Ike must be mad. 

"To pay respects to your father of course."
"If mother had died, would Father allow his hair to grow like a woman to pay his respects to her?"
"That is not the way we do things. It is not so."

There was a collective shaking of heads. Some of my uncles spat away their brandy to show their disappointment. Emeka looked at me solemnly, conveying without words that I had said what was on his mind. 

The meeting was over. My uncles were still eating their fried peppered meat, legs spread out and potbellies bobbing up and down as they swallowed. I was choking.
                                                         .        .        .

It was over fifteen years since father passed away. I barely remembered him anymore, only in passing.  I'd left home at fifteen to stay with an uncle in Lagos. Things had been difficult at home after father died. We barely managed to survive when he was the breadwinner and mama assisted with her job as a tailor.  At least we never lacked food. No matter how bad it was, people always bought palm wine. 

Uncle Uche, my father's cousin twice removed was a nice man but mama did not like him. She said he was too proud because he had not attended father's funeral. He thinks he is too good for this family. Yet, he was the only one that sent money from time to time to help out when things got too hard. None of the uncles that had attended father's funeral and eaten mama's okwu ose gave anything at all, not even when there was no money to buy a tin of milk. 

I hated to think about those times when it felt like I had swallowed a bone and it was stuck in my throat. I had done well enough for myself. I wasn't what people called a big man yet but I could be, in the not-so-distant future. Uncle Uche had helped me set me up my own truck company that delivered timber to people. I made enough money that I started thinking about settling down with my girlfriend. 

I was in my pastor's office for pre-marriage counseling. At thirty, I was getting married before my brothers. I had always thought I'd be the last. 
"Are you sure you are ready to take this big step in your life?". I was. I nodded.

"To be a husband is to be a provider, a giver. A man that cannot provide for his family is worse than an infidel." Father used to tell me this, only he said murderer and not infidel. Maybe, he was a little wise after all. 

Bad things happen in pairs or in threes, never alone. Armed robbers had hijacked one of my two trucks, the bigger one on its way to Ibadan. I lost hundreds of thousands of naira that month. The smaller truck couldn't deliver much timber. I made barely enough for my partner that drove the trucks and I to split and still settle certain people.

The next month, the small truck was also hijacked by robbers, this time on its way to Onitsha. It was later I realized that my partner had duped me. The scales fell away from my eyes. I was angry at my partner initially. It metamorphosed into self-anger. That was the worst. 

The next couple of months were the toughest. I realized money had an elastic limit. I stretched the little I had left to take care of myself, my wife and twin daughters. I still had to send money home to mama. My brothers didn't help out with finances a lot.  A lot of my money had gone into buying a piece of land and building my own house. I was not even close to completing my building project. 

I scoured the newspapers looking for a job. It was tough to get a job especially without being a University graduate. I was optimistic however. I couldn't afford not to be. Optimism doesn't change reality, it only makes it easier to bear. 

A friend helped me get a job as the driver of a big man's wife. Oga was a stingy man and paid very little but I couldn't complain. Madam Caro gave me foodstuffs at the end of every month. Things were not good, but they were not bad as well. My wife brought her relative to stay with us. It was an extra mouth to feed but I did not complain. She said she needed the help. 
My job as Madam Caro's driver lasted for exactly seven months. I told no one but Uncle Uche the reason I was fired. I had refused to sleep with Madam. "You ungrateful cow. You are not ready to succeed in this Lagos." Uncle Uche told me I was stupid and that I should go and beg Madam. I told him I couldn't because I loved my wife. He laughed. 'Let's see if your wife will eat love two months from now."

We stretched the money we had and exceeded the elastic limit. It got to a point that there was no money to buy a tin of milk. The lump in my throat grew and my eyes would water once in a while when my wife went to the neighbours to beg for some foodstuff. But men do not cry. 

My wife came home one day and told me she'd gotten a job at a bank in Ikeja. My wife was a graduate, but even at that jobs were hard to come by. "We are not living, Ike. We are merely existing." She told me she'd slept with the bank manager.  At least she was honest about it, I tell myself when the lump threatens to choke me. 

I know that if I could go back, I'd sleep with Madam in a heartbeat.