…When it feels like Chi-Ukwu isn’t there…
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In my head, there’s a scream.
It looks like this 😱 but ten times bigger.
It’s not coming out; I don’t want it to. If it does, there’s no going back.
It was a voice that sounded familiar yet strange at the same time.
And it called from within, not without. If’anachọ had found space inside of me. I do not know how he got in there; I don’t recall making space for him but somehow, he found a way.
Even though Ugonna, Maduemesi and Izuchukwu had prepared me to find me, they had also left their marks on me. I knew who I was, I knew what I was but what I wanted or thought I wanted was tainted by what I had.
“I am here,” I replied.
But when I looked at him, I saw the outline of Ugonna, Maduemesi and Izuchukwu.
I did not think If’anachọ was what I was looking for.
He spoke plainly but I heard their voices.
He looked carefully but I saw their eyes.
He sat beside me quietly but I heard their noise.
“Is there something about me you do not like?” His calm eyes bore deeply into mine. I looked at him again, thoughtfully, this time. I kept my gaze steady; he neither blinked nor flinched. The longer I stared at him, the less I saw the vestiges of Ugonna, Maduemesi and Izuchukwu in him.
“Nkemjika,” he called again.
“If’anachọ, I responded.
“I am not them. I am me. See me for who I am. I found space in you even when you did not make it and I fitted in. Unless you permit me, I will not take of you nor bend you. Who you are, what you are, is all I want; all I need.”
If’anachọ, was the Looking that found me.
Not on a pedestal, not in the shadows, not waiting for failure to be my success.
Looking found me and filled a space it found in me.
Got into bed with me.
I rolled away,
For Opportunity to touch me
Roll me back round and
Give of herself to me.
She saw me asleep
And Opportunity doesn’t wait for you to be awake.
So she got up and left.
I got up and ran
But Opportunity was gone.
Opportunity waits for no-one.
The group my mother joined called themselves ‘The Salvation of The Seven-Towns-Bound-By-One-Blood.’
I’m not sure I knew what it was they were salvaging; my mother said they weren’t salvagers but savers. Either way, it made no sense to me. What exactly did they want to save or salvage of the Seven Towns? What I did know and was sure of was that I hated that group. I hated all the times my mother dragged me to their many meetings where people were constantly putting hands on my head, mumbling or in some cases, shouting incomprehensible chants. When they weren’t shouting on people’s heads, they were going around the Seven Towns, beating their metal drums fashioned out of metal discarded by ọku, the head metal worker, ( they claimed wooden drums were of the devil) denouncing everything and anything.
If you wore beads in your hair, it was of the devil.
If you wore them on your waist, it was of the devil.
If you painted designs on your skin with uli, it was of the devil.
All the rituals and preparations preceding the Week of the Remembrance were of the devil. Every established precept and principle of the Seven Towns were of the devil; even the name – Seven-Towns-Bound-By-One-Blood – was of the devil!
“Who is this devil, they speak of, Nnem, and why is everything of him?” I inquired of my mother on one of the mornings when she was getting us ready to go to one of their many dreaded meetings.
My mother muttered something under her breath that sounded like ‘etish’ and ‘delvish’.
I didn’t ask again.
Not because her face had closed up tight like my father’s fist when he gets angry but because I didn’t really care to know, if my own mother wasn’t willing to tell me.
From the day my mother joined that group till my seventh year, I wasn’t allowed to go out unaccompanied. Even when I wanted to go out and play with Udoka, Afam and my fellow age-graders, my mother will insist that Ekejiuba, the errand boy accompany me.
“Uwam, leave this child alone to run free like her mates; nothing will happen to her.”
My mother pursed her lips at my father’s admonishings and made no reply. She never made any reply when it came to the issue of my ‘safety’. What she was afraid of, only she knew. As for harm befalling children, in any of the Seven Towns, it was almost unheard of. Falls from trees, scraped knees and elbows, soldier ant bites and bee stings? Yes, but harm from another human? Very, very, rare.
It’s funny how If’anachọ appeared that year I got to know myself. With a direct gaze, hands held out, palms facing upwards, clean and empty, I was tempted, heavily tempted but three thoughts dropped into my mind, kpọm, kpọm, kpọm, as heavy and loud as the rocks Somto drops into the overflowing stream to dam it.
Thought One: Did I need If’anachọ?
Thought Two: Really need him?
Thought Three: Was I incomplete unless I had him?
To all three thoughts and questions, my answer was no.
“You know my name means ‘that which we/they are looking for/seeking’ ” He carried on gazing directly into my eyes.
I allowed a ghost of a smile to travel across my lips in reply.
His direct gaze remained on me a little longer, steady and unblinking, in expectation of a reply.
He got none.
This was me.
Nkemji-ka – ‘the one I have is greater’.
Why I failed to embrace my name before now, I am yet to know.
Why I allowed myself to dance in the shadows, be a polished trophy and wait for other people’s failures, I am yet to understand.
Be that as it may, if If’anachọ thinks he is what they or we are seeking then he needs to go find where the seekers are. I will not adjust myself for him to fit in. I will not twist, bend or fold, just so that I can create a space for him. If he really thinks he is indeed what ‘they/we’ are looking for, let him bend, twist, fold, contort even and fit himself to me… if he can find the space.
I may not have known myself; embraced my name previously, but now I have.
I am no longer looking but if looking finds me and finds space in me, so be it.
I was Ugonna’s back-up plan, the one he would come to when all others failed. Only some seemed to take too long to fail and so I stayed in the back-(ground), waiting for the failure of others to be my success.
Then Mmaduemesi came along and set a fire in my belly but would not shine his light on me so others would see. I was his shadow-dancer, his night owl, his cloud that covers the moon. He loved me only in the dark; come daylight, I became a stranger; a nodding acquaintance.
Izuchukwu kept me on a pedestal. He took me down twice a day to polish me; he cared not for the smile on my face or the shine of my tears. He wanted only to display my comeliness for all to see. If I felt anything, he did not notice, so long as I sat pretty for everyone to gaze upon.
Strangely, Ugonna, Mmaduemesi and Izuchukwu helped me come to know myself…to discover that I was not made to be a back-up plan, a shadow-dancer or a trophy… that I should not be sitting and waiting for others to fail so that I could succeed…or hiding in the dark because someone didn’t really want me to be in the light nor should I be kept on a pedestal as a display of someone’s achievements.
I came to know that I did not have to be any of these.
I was more than a prize, a medal…an outline or silhouette…a backcloth or backdrop.
I was me.
We left the house and the compound. Somehow, my mother had contrived to ensure that our departure did not clash with the arrival of my grandmother and seven aunties.
My mother did not hurry me but, in some way, I sensed she didn’t want me dawdling. I got the feeling that today was not one of those days I was allowed to inspect lizards sunning themselves on a rock, kick at oddly-shaped pebbles, or follow the trail of the vicious, red soldier ants. No. Somehow, I sensed that my mother needed me to keep her pace as much as my chubby little legs could carry me. However, my mother also knew that this journey, arduous enough for an adult, would be a killer for a child so she brought her cart along. It wasn’t a regular cart like the ones you saw drawn by the villagers who preferred them to wheel barrows, it was a labour of love…
We remember you, Fatima Priscilla Gana.
On this date, a year ago, we laid your body to rest.
We remember your guileless smile; your heart of gold.
We remember your child-like trust and belief in others.
We remember your ability to see no wrong in people.
I remember you…
… I remember crushing eggshells with you in the kitchen, for your mum’s Rose garden. Your mum was an ardent gardener and saved the eggshells to be crushed and used to fertilize her rose garden.
I remember you teaching me a few Nupe words – ‘echi’ for yam – which I found funny at the time because ‘echi’ in Igbo means tomorrow!
I remember pushing each other in the swing in your garden and listening to your stories about the orchard on the other side of your house…going swimming with you at your Uncle’s house with a firm promise that you will teach me how to swim so I needn’t be worried.
So many memories…
…I try to write some more but I find that the pain of knowing that all the reunions I planned in my head, will remain just that…plans.
I envy those who spent more time with you; our former class-mates who met up with you in recent times; who shared space and time with you before you left us.
Even though I try and squelch it any time it comes, the hurt hasn’t lessened. I push the tears back, squash the crushing pain and pull together the cavernous gap in my heart.
They tell me ‘you’re in a better place’ and I try to believe and accept but it rings hollow. What better place? I ask in my head. Couldn’t you have stayed with us a little longer? I wanted to meet you again in this life. I wanted to see your smile, your gap-toothed smile, in the here and now not in some ‘better place.’
Then, I stop my sulking, my ranting, my raving because I can feel you looking at me and shaking your head; a half-smile playing around your lips. Just like you went to your dad and told him about me all those years ago, I can see you looking for a solution for me…looking for a way to ease my pain even though you’re not here with me because, Fatima Priscilla Gana, that’s who you are…always looking out for others.
I remember and I will not forget.
Till we meet again…Fatima Priscilla Gana, an angel….I salute you.
The first incident took place when I was three years old.
My grandmother and seven aunties wanted to prepare a feast to mark my third year on earth.
My mother refused, bluntly.
You must understand that this is unlike my mother. With her mother-in-law and seven sisters-in-law, she had always chosen her battles carefully. All those childless years of cruel teasing, taunting and torments… she scraped, she smiled, she bowed; in short, she stooped to conquer, as it were.
For the quiet.
Because she loved my father and was able to deal with their noise more than he could. She allowed them the first year to gloat, to joy, to make merry while she and my father sat with quiet smiles at the feasting table.
The second year, the same.
But, not this year.