By Sam Felix
Each month, our mother used to leave us twice to visit our sick father in Ukanafun. She would hold us together under her arms, caress our heads, and then tell us to be our brother’s keeper, love one another and live in peace till she would return.
Before leaving, she used to procure for us the following items: a bundle of white candles, a packet of matches, two litres of kerosene, a bottle of olive oil, a rosary for each of us and a big Jerusalem Bible.Then we would be marooned in the palpable quietness of our 1980’s model of thatched house that went dark even in the afternoon and cold on sunny days. At night, we would pack ourselves at a corner, in our mother’s bedroom, sing a few songs and pray the rosary, till we would doze on each other’s shoulders, with our ears wide open to hear a cock crew announcing a new day.
During a visit in November, my mother stayed at Ukanafun longer than usual – almost a month, and we began to run short of food stuff. So, one Saturday morning, we took a cutlass, a hoe and a rubber basin, to bring some cassava and potatoes from my mother’s farm at EnenEbom, and we spent the whole day wandering in the farm, tiptoeing to identify which one was my mother’s farm or not, and we came back with nothing. Then hunger came severely,and we began to file on the street – in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening, to our Aunty Mbeke’s house, to eat. On another day, a woman came to us and told us that our father’s banana had ripened and was being eaten by wild bats. So, we set out again for the harvest, again, returned without the banana, as we were confused of which of the many ripened banana trees was our father’s. While the hunger lasted, we really wished we had taken it seriously, when our father used to tell us the need for a person to know what really belongs to him or her. We wished we could return to those days, at least one of them, when my father used to tell us what he owned and those he did not. And as we sat out one day, to recall the memories of the days of our father, this is what we remembered:
In those days, when parents were given the respect they deserved from their children, and when children were taught to do the first thing first, we were born in southern Nigeria, to a couple who were so committed to their family-making. I was ten, the eldest child named Amanam. Asi followed me immediately and was a girl, eight, tall and very beautiful. Sam was the last born, six, fairand long-legged. The time was 1980, and my parents knew nothing about formal education and the Western lifestyle. All that bothered them was that something must go on the table, at the right time; that all that belonged to us – including our kinsmen, where all known about and taken care of; that weeds did not survive in our farms for more than three days. Although we enjoyed reputation as the best brains in the famous St. John the Baptist Catholic School, which father Iyirepleaded with my father to register us, my father did not still applaud our intellectual prowess, neither did he, even for once, celebrated our excellent academic performance, and at least, roast a tuber of yam for us, not to talk of kill a fowl. One day, when father Iyire invited him to the father’s house after a Sunday service, and congratulated him on the grounds of our intelligence, my father faked afrantic, fleeting smile that almost tore his mouth.
“You have wonderful gifts from God”, father Iyire told him.
“Thank, father!”My father managed to bow a little when his two hands reached the priest’s. And when the priest had gone inside, my father suddenly handed me his Bible and the liturgical Calendar and then led us away, that it wondered me what would have happened if the priest went in just to bring his sprinkler or, maybe, his wooden crucifix to do us a little blessing.
For my father, you were not intelligent or wise to his own taste, if you could not boldly say how many plots of land he presently owned, how many were leased out and to whom, and which ones were due for cultivation in a given planting season. Those were the ideas that shaped my father’s understanding of who an intelligent person was, and nothing more pretentious. No wonder, then, that he showed that level of non-challance toward our academic knowledge.According to him, the only knowledge of a man which could be of benefit both to the man and his up-coming generation, is his knowledge of what and who belong to him – property, kinsmen – including his forefathers who had died many years ago, why they died and where they were laid to rest. `Other than that, a man’s knowledge was very flimsy, and could be blown away even by the lightest evening breeze.
On Saturday mornings, my father used to file us up at the backyard, to clear the wild ndise leaves that formed little canopy around a peer tree, to prevent mosquitoes from breeding under it. He would stand behind us, watching and criticizing our improper ways of holding cutlasses. He had his own matchet – curve-edged and wooden-handled, with which he showed us how to hold a cutlass when cutting grasses and it was different from how to hold it when cutting a bigger stem or when being challenged by an enemy. In the afternoons, he would show us how to repair our thatched roof – when to only patch a leaking mat, or when to change it for a fresh one. Then in the evenings he would seat us down on a bamboo bench, wear his double-lensed spectacles that glimmered like a sun-flashed ocean, and begin to read each of the hand-written agreements, and the receipts that followed all that he had ever owned, including that of the white Raleigh bicycle he said he bought two years before the Nigerian Civil War.
He was as good a record keeper as he was a history teller. I wondered why, out of the many stories that he used to tell us about himself, his late father, and even our country, he never told us the amusing tales of animals – the wiseness of tortoise, the rulership of lions, the smartness of the cat.Or didn’t he know them? Or were they simply unnecessary? When, then, my father wanted us wise, was it not necessary that he tell us the tales of the wiseness of the tortoise so we could be wise? Why did he waste his time telling us about the difficulties of life and how to overcome them? Did he, by implication mean that things were going to be difficult for us his own children?
My father’s tales of life were simply dismissed by the flamboyant fantasies we had about the future. Within us, the ambitions were open and clear. I was going with the self-respect of a future priest. Asi was carrying the pride of a potential medical doctor. Sam was already treated by his peers, with the respect of a future footballer. My father should have said something about our ambition: how to adapt to the loneliness of priesthood, how to make it in the medical school; how to be an outstanding footballer. That way he would have said something, animated us. Would I, when I become a priest, leave my parish or seminary, to judge which of my father’s farm would be due for which planting season? Would Asi, who would be a medical doctor, be leaving her luxuriously built and furnished Mansion in the city, or her highly respected apartment in the hospital to keep watch of our father’s white bicycle? Or is it then, Sam, an international footballer, paid in dollars, Euros and even pounds that would run out of the pitch or abscond from their training camp, in Brazil, for instance, to count the branches of his father’s mango trees?
Five years had gone by, and I was done with my junior seminary. Asi was putting finishing touches to her WAEC exams. Sam was writing his WAEC mock, and father Iyire had travelled to Rome. Things began to change, when my father’s leg fractured from a little falling in the night, and was taken to a herbalist at Ukanafun, where my mother used to visit twice a month.
So our mother came back after two more days. She talked to no one. She even managed to answer our greetings. She sat quietly on the bed, her face swelling, eyes red. She seated Sam on her lap and stared at him with the air of someone who was rather consoling than caring. We needed no Angel to tell us that we had lost our father. And, so we had already melted before our mother finally told us. There was no reason whatsoever, to take our father’s death easily. For what reason?Our truncated ambitions?Our poor knowledge of our father’s property and kinsmen that we had to fall back on as our mainstay of survival? The fact that father Iyire, who would have mentored us, had travelled to Rome? We wished father Iyire were around, to coach me through the senior seminary to become a priest, to put Asi in the University to read Medicine, to introduce Sam to an International Football Club to become a footballer.
Samuel Felix Ekanem is a Nigerian Creative Writer from Akwa Ibom State. Many of his creative works, especially short fiction, have appeared in many National Dailies in Nigeria. He graduated from the Pentecostal Secondary School, and is presently studying Communication and Media Arts at the University of Uyo, Nigeria. E-mail: [email protected]