Wednesday 21 December 2011

Driving to the Village

Mbaise Imo State
Around this time of the year, Igbo people from all over the world, begin to troop towards their villages. It is a Christmas exodus like no other, befitting of a people who claim to be descendants of the Jews. From America, from Europe, from Hong Kong and of course from Lagos, Amakas, Ifeanyis and ChiChis start to wend their way home. After all, Agaracha must come back and the more style Agaracha returns with, the better.

My father hails from Ubulu in Imo state, a village which he often remarks is not shown on any map of Nigeria he has ever seen. It was thence we returned in December for almost all the Decembers I spent in Nigeria. There is a reason why Ubulu is not on any map of Nigeria. We are not like Nnewi, our bourgeois cousin down the road, whose entrance is marked by an arch decorated with dollar and pound signs. Neither are we notorious like Okija where bodies pile up at a mysterious shrine. Neither are we cannibals nor python worshippers nor any other quirky thing which would draw attention to us. 

The journey to Ubulu is pretty straight forward. You leave Lagos, get on the express and go straight until you reach Ihiala junction. Turn left and ask for the village with all the yellow girls. Those were the directions my sister used to give when people asked where Ubulu was. We always planned to leave the house early, sometimes as early as 6am but usually, time would trickle away as we ran around trying to pack the one last convenience that would make the next few days less onerous. Looking back now, they must have sold Nasco cornflakes and powdered milk and Cabin biscuit somewhere close to Ubulu, but we always brought these things from Lagos. My aunt from America, was on another level. She took sweets, chewing gum, cereal, hot chocolate, microwaveable meals, if not for baggage restrictions, she would probably have brought metal canisters labelled Air.  

Sometimes, as late as noon we would finally set off. Our mode of travel varied every year. Sometimes it was a bus from my parent's hospital, other times it was a standard four seater car, other times it was a convoy of cars, it depended on how many of us were going. The checkpoints were perhaps the scariest part of the whole drive. They were illegal. Police men with large guns would place wooden planks or barrels across the road and force every car that passed to slow down. Some were waived forward, some were told to park so their papers could be examined. It was entirely random who was stopped. Of course, once stopped, it was expected that you produce a bribe to be let go. I found out that these checkpoints were illegal entirely by accident. One day, we were told to stop when we heard the sounds of a siren convoy behind us. Immediately, the police pushed the barriers away, kicking a plank to the side of the road as if shocked to find it there.
"Who said you should stop?" One shouted at the driver. "Begin dey go." 

Once, we were stopped on the byroad that allowed you bypass the traffic through Benin City. It was a quiet  slip of a road and not many cars used it. These men came out of nowhere. They were not police men but they wore bright yellow tunics over their clothes, as if to lend themselves a degree of fluorescent officiousness. They threw a plank and a barrel in our way and shouted, "Park here!" 

They didn't ask for papers. Instead, there was a sticker we had to have. A sticker worth 7,500 Naira. Without this sticker, we could not pass. They brought a concrete block and placed it in front of one of our tyres. We had been going to the village for several years. We had never needed that sticker before but we were a car full of women. The only man was the driver and he was quite a thin man at that. The road was deserted. My mother took an executive decision and paid the money amidst cries of, no, no from the back seat. Even me, I added mouth. "Mummy don't pay these people."  But the money was paid and we were sent on our way. 

On that same trip, we were stopped at Onitsha. Again, by a group of touts wearing fluorescent overalls, asking for this same mysterious sticker. Hastily, my mother produced the one we had purchased a few hours ago. Unfortunately, she made the mistake of telling the man that she had already paid seven thousand five hundred Naira for it. Once the man heard what she had paid for that worthless piece of paper and glue, he was determined to get his own share. 
"Let me see that sticker,"  he said. My mother handed it to him and he pocketed it. "It's not the current one. You need to pay again." 

I think that's when the people on that Onitsha road knew that Agaracha was not stupid. My mother is a Yoruba woman. She does not understand Igbo. But she came down from the car that day and began to demand that her sticker be returned. My aunty who is also Yoruba and was the most vocal critic when my mother paid for the sticker the first time, jumped down from the bus and went to look for a police man. My cousins and I remained in the car, wondering what to do. As we wondered, one of the bystanders who had gathered, slid open the bus door which we had forgotten to lock after my aunt came down. 

He looked at our stunned faces and remarked, "Nah only woman for this bus." Then he saw the portable DVD player we had strapped to the front seat. "Dem even get TV for inside here." 

For some reason, it was this comment that roused my cousins, who speak Igbo fluently and also grew up in the East.
"Get away from there." 
"Who said you should open that door?" 
"Bush man."  

The man retreated and we slammed the door and locked it and continued to wait. A few minutes later, we saw my aunt returning with a police man behind her and a crowd following them. 
"We must have our sticker." 
" Give us back our sticker." 
"Today today." 

Eventually the tout had to acquiesce. The sticker was returned and we continued on our way. Agarachas triumphant.  

The kinsmen the Agarachas must impress
Once we had driven over the Niger Bridge that was bombed during the Civil War and rebuilt not long after, we began to feel that the journey was almost over. In truth, distance wise, Ubulu and Onitsha are not very far from each other. But the Onitsha traffic, can make them hours apart. After Onitsha, the roads deteriorated rapidly. Sometimes they were not even tarred. They had been cleared for construction, but someone had forgotten to lay the bitumen on top so the cars drove on the red, clayey earth. The tyres would raise so much dust that the bush that lined the roads would be stained ochre for most of the dry season. 

After we turned left at Ihiala, we began to drive through villages proper. It was then you had the opportunity to see, if daylight permitted, the monstrosities some Agarachas had built to impress their kinsmen. Even then, I wondered at the stupidity of it. Why would people build such enormous houses and spend no more than 4 weeks of a year in them. There was one property I remember. The owner had built a respectable Georgian style house of about two stories. It was grand enough but perhaps, this particular Agaracha had struck it even richer and wished everyone in his village to know. Beside this Georgian villa, he began to build a gargantuan thing, that was six stories high and twelve stories wide and made the first house look like a boys quarters. Such waste.

Finally, we would reach Ubulu. No matter how often we went, we could never find our village if my father was not with us. It was as if it shifted its position every year. Without fail, we would ask for Ubulu and sometimes, when it was dark, we would have to ask for the Onuzo compound. Eventually we would reach the house that my father and his brothers and their children shared. Then we would tumble out, our legs cramped. Then we would run to the toilet to release our much distressed bladders. 

The Agarachas had returned.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Spain and Turkey

Are not playing a football match. But a publisher in each country has offered to buy the rights of my novel. I'm really looking forward to seeing my book in another language. One of my cousins said, on hearing the news, "So you'll get to read your book in Spanish." As I know neither Spanish nor Turkish, I will just look at the letters and smile. We really thank God. It makes me so grateful to think that my book will go to places I have never been.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Know Your Rights

When Paul was arrested and flogged for preaching the gospel in Philippi, on his release the next day, he refused to leave the jail cell. He said to the officer sent to free him and Silas, 'They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.' (Acts 16:37) The magistrates who had ordered that they be flogged, had no choice but to agree to Paul's demand. You couldn't flog a Roman citizen without trial and get away with it. They were lucky Paul didn't ask for more.

Again, the bond servant Paul stood up for his rights in Jerusalem. Again he was flogged for preaching the gospel. The Bible says, 'As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, "is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn't even been found guilty?" I love that he phrased this as a question, I love the calm brazenness of it, even as they were about to flog him, Paul was cool and questioning the centurion on a point of law. The commander who was superior to the centurion 'was alarmed when he realised that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen in chains." (Acts 23:25b,29b)

These two passages got me thinking. The only reason why Paul could claim his rights as a Roman citizen was because he knew them. As a Christian, I claim my spiritual rights when I pray. God has not given me a spirit of fear but a spirit of sound mind, God will not forsake the righteous and I am righteous by the blood of Jesus, God will bless me exceedingly, abundantly and above all that I can ask. But I could not tell you a single right that I have as a Nigerian citizen. I cannot tell you the rights I have as a Nigerian citizen living in the U.K. I have special rights that others do not have because I am a citizen of a Commonwealth country yet I do not know what these are. I cannot even tell you the rights that I have as a University of London student. The other day, I just discovered that I can order restricted documents from LSE because I go to Kings.

We Nigerians, we complain a lot but how many of us have ever sat down to read the constitution. I know I certainly haven't. So from today, I'm going to start trying to find out what I am entitled to and what my government owes me. If you want to join me, click here for the link to the Nigerian constitution. The website is not particularly attractive but the information is necessary. We can demand more effectively when we know our rights.

Thursday 1 December 2011

Me Papa

When I was younger, I used to wish my father was a richer man. I went to a very middle class primary school and repeated the process for my secondary education. As early as primary four, I had begun fabricating stories for why we did not have a nicer car. I was too ashamed to tell these stories out loud but every once in a while, I would recount to myself the story of the S-class that got stolen to be replaced by the old, square Merc. In primary school, it wasn't so bad. My longer throat was only fuelled by seeing others climbing into the backseats of air conditioned cars while I sweated all the way home.

However, in secondary school, the car you went home with was a matter that was openly discussed and commented on. I got a lot of grief for that Merc. Things got so bad, that I much preferred to be dropped a few minutes from the school gates and walk to school. Our house was close enough that the illusion of my having walked all the way, was cooler than my being seen in that blue Merc. I remember once my mother came to pick me up from school in that car. Imagine my horror when I saw her driving into the school compound. Who had let her in?

"Chibundu," she said, beeping at me. "Can't you see me? Enter the car."

I could not disown my own mother. Head down, I crawled into the front seat. I could hear my class mates laughing in the class room. My mother is not the most skillful of drivers and the Merc is not the most skillful of cars. As she reversed, the car stalled, the laughter doubled. It looked like I was going to have to push start the car. It looked like I would have to change schools. Thank God, the car started and I was saved the inconvenience of resuming at another school half way through the term.

That day perhaps, I wished most fervently that my father was a richer man. After all he was Igbo. He could have become a trader and been a tycoon in no time. He could have sold electronics. Alaba was just down the road. Anything but this respectable medicine which left us with a very unrespectable car.

I have grown older and have come to realise that there are more important traits for a father to exhibit than stupendous wealth. My father is an honest man and he is a man of integrity. The opportunities for being crooked in medicine abound, as I have learnt over years of eavesdropping at doors. Time and time again, my father has lost business rather than pay bribes to get patients referred to his hospital. Perhaps it a foolishly scrupulous piece of integrity in an industry awash with corruption. But he has taken his stand. Patients with kidney problems should be referred to the hospital that will provide them with the best care. Not to the highest bidder.

My father is a generous man. I never had a room of my own when I was growing up and it was not often that I slept on a bed by myself. My cousins from the East when looking for a place to stay in Lagos, flocked to our house and my father turned not a single one away.

Lastly and most important to my development as a human being, my father taught me about God. Every morning, for the first fourteen years of my life we had morning prayers in my parent's room. Sometimes, I resented these intrusions into my sleep time. There were mornings I just didn't feel like singing, "Morning has broken," but I look back on those years with so much love. The whole house would gather in his room, domestic staff, cousins, siblings sometimes up to ten of us would be in that room. We would start by singing hymns from Mission Praise. Each person was allowed to pick one, a fundamental human right my mother defended against my father's attempts to sneak in a second choice. After singing, we would read a passage from the Bible, each person reading a few verses. Then my father would  teach. Not in an authoritarian way, we were always allowed to ask questions and give opinions, perhaps this is why to this day, I am at ease discussing with people a lot older than myself. Then we would pray. My father would always start his prayer with,

"We give You praise, 
Ancient of Days 
The Author, the Ruler and Possessor of our faith."

So I will close with this.

We give You praise, 
Ancient of Days,
That Okey Onuzo is a year older today.
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