What Shall an Igbo Father Tell his Son
Another short story exploring Igbo men and their houses in the village.
I have never seen my father experience shame. On the evening after our New Yam festival, he was humiliated. I wish had not been there, although I am not sure I would have been able to make sense of everything that happened next. Shame makes men go mad.
We celebrate ibgaru Ji every July, when the rains stop. That year, August was passing quickly and we had not yet marked the good harvest. Traveling back to the village was logistically demanding so we decided to throw a big party in Lagos. My mother Otuoma doesn’t come from a farming people, so they don’t celebrate new yams. That did not make her any less thrilled about the occasion. She said the table had to look exactly like Okonkwo’s table in Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, she read it to me before we set off for the market.
“The pounded yam dish placed in front of the partakers of the festival was as big as a mountain. People had to eat their way through it all night and it was only during the following day when the pounded yam “mountain” had gone down that people on one side recognized and greeted their family members on the other side of the dish for the first time.”
Our ancestors would have been proud of the occasion. We had Ocazi soup, made with palm oil, melon seed and assorted meats. We had ugba, made with oil bean seed, palm oil and crayfish. The yam was prepared different ways, yam peppersoup, roasted yam, boiled yam, and of course real pounded yam, the type that my back and arms paid for.
By sundown, the full-figured dancers, Nkwa ukwu, had left, the highlife band had packed up, and invited family and friends had eaten their fill.
The “gather” table in the dining room was still littered with empty bottles of champagne, red wine and mmanya ngwo tapped from my grandfather’s palm fruit tree in the village and brought in the night before with ABC transport. The wooden rectangular table stands majestic in a large room with high ceilings and tall windows overlooking our perfectly trimmed lawn. My friends who visit ask about the gather table the most, “it’s imported” I respond, usually nervous about their reaction. It is expensive to make a house feel like it’s not in Lagos.
Pleased to finally have the house to ourselves, we began to discuss the next steps for our family over what was left of a bottle of red. I sat at the head of the table, both parents on either side of me. And my fiancé, Emeka, tall and broad-shouldered, beside my mother.
As though intoxicated by an unnamed longing we remembered a time when our people were prosperous, and if that went too far, at least a time when the difference between us and them wasn’t so pronounced.
“When last did you go to the village Adaanyi?” my father asked me rhetorically.
“Listen ka m gua gi, You only have to glance at our compound to see the sorry state our people are living in.”
“That is ehn, the thing di very embarrassing my husband,” my mother, added.
“I want to completely knock down all those houses if you can even call them that,” My father said proudly.
“Commissioner for demolition and destruction!” Emeka said, recounting an inside joke. They shook hands and made a snapping sound with their fingers.
I took a generous sip of wine and tried to recall the sandy, incomplete structures, housing my extended family in the village. In our compound there are fifteen to twenty houses where leaky aluminium roofs, broken glass windows, and low ceilings for stunted people are the norm. I remembered that last time I went to Umuagada during the rainy season. I remembered pushing aside the long, heavy beads that served as a door into De Nguma’s house and stepping in, only to find my feet submerged in water. The light from my torch reflected off the sitting water, revealing the mosquitos that had found a resting place.
“But Ikenna,” said my mother to my father, “ị maara that if you succeed, you will alter the anthropology of the place.”
“Hapu that grammar biko. Stop speaking English.”
“Ikenna have you finished?” Our heads turned to the sitting room. We had never heard my grandfather shout like that before, well at least not since the stroke. He was 87 years old. Small bodied, but full of big ideas and the undying igbo man’s pride.
“Ikenna, when you have finished your grandiose planning, I have many things to tell you. My grandfather sat on his wheelchair patiently watching AIT News.
“OK Sir”, my father replied, rolling his eyes as he continued to diagram his plans for our family compound in Umuagada.
I ran my index finger along my plump lower lip, a nervous habit and wondered what my grandfather had to say.
“Ikeeeeeenna!” my Grandfather called again. His patience had run out.
“Yes Sir, we are coming.”
We all picked up our wine glasses and dragged our feet to the living room. There were more than enough seats for everyone. Every igbo man’s house I have ever been to always has enough chairs to host the whole village.
My father sat down cross-legged in front of my grandfather and for the first time I realized he was somebody’s child too.
“Ikenna, what makes a good village?”, My grandfather asked with his gaze fixed on the television, “Is it good structures or good people?”
My father looked up at my mother who was sat beside him, as though he were asking for help.
“Good people Sir,” he responded.
“Good. Now, does our village have people of such caliber?”
I was so sure my grandfather had set a trap, and my father in all his brazen honesty had fallen for it. How could he say his people are not good people? Even if it was true, painfully true. Years ago, he bought 20 keke napeps, to help families make enough to send their children to school and eat well. Despite these yellow tricycles that looked like ladybugs being the most popular form of transportation, the owners always asked for money to fix them. Two years later, the 20 kekes were nowhere to be seen, leaving their owners unemployed once more. One man, the village drunk, asked my father if that was his big plan, to make them keke drivers.
“What makes you think that your grand structures will change their character or their tendency to destroy every good thing they see.”
“Sir, our people no longer have anything to be proud of. I went to Acho’s compound. Everywhere was neat, the houses were beautiful. I felt ashamed.”
“Are you as rich as Acho?”
“Without a shadow of a doubt Sir, I am not.”
“Now, do you know that Acho’s people contributed money to build those houses. You think you are a big man, so you want to build houses for everybody. How many years has it been since your mother died? Do you know people were asking me, ‘where is Ikenna’s house’ and I had to cover up for you. You have no house but you want to build a house for others. Build your own first. You are a running joke in Umuagada.”
“Look at Emeka, the young man has come to marry our daughter. Will you marry her off from Lagos, like a woman with no people? Or you want to carry your house on your head across the River Niger?”
“But Papa but we have your house in the village,” my mother interrupted.
My grandfather chuckled. “No you do not. Your husband may inherit it when i die, but for now, it is mine.”
There was a long pause, My father knew he had been defeated, and My grandfather was almost finished with the conversation.
“Anyway. If you like, ị nwere ike ịjụ ndị mmadụ. Ask the people, if you can build houses for them. They will tell you to speak to the owner of the land, and that is me, and I refuse.”
“E nye gi chance, gi chowa chances.” I gave you an opportunity to earn a seat among Oke mmadu Ezi, as you age, but you want to use the opportunity to display your foolishness instead. Rich man from Lagos, indeed.”