I can’t forget that wintry Sunday last July. It was the visit of mother’s big brother in Lagos, Uncle Okeke. Mother had told us for the umpteenth time how nice and kind-hearted Uncle Okeke was. He had been so helpful to the less-privileged and the widows of the community ever since he came back from the war. When mother was a little child, he had told her stories about what happened in the war and how he had watched families being eternally separated by the blind eyes of the barrel. He had watched little children become orphans in a matter of seconds; wives become widows before they could even squeeze tears out of their eyes to appease the blind executioner. These horrible experiences had softened his heart so much and turned him into a philanthropist celebrated in the entire Idumu-Ogo village. It was a well-known fact that he had donated a health-care centre to the village and built a very big cathedral for St John the Divine Catholic Church. The Bishop of the Issele-Uku Diocese had, on the occasion of the dedication of the temple, declared him a saint on the orders of the pope. Uncle Okeke’s fame therefore, was well known even in Rome. A mass was celebrated in his name and his past and future sins were forgiven after series of ablutions were carried out. That was the man Uncle Okeke, our big Uncle.
Father had died one year before then and mother had been struggling to feed and clothe us. She had had to sell some of her lappas just to be able to make ends meet, especially last harvest season when her crops did not produce a bountiful harvest. They had been infected by one unknown disease which people called utuma. It ate up crops from their roots and left the stem and flowers to wilt. Some wealthy farmers like Agadinma and Ututu-echi bought pesticides which helped to check the incursions made by this utuma. They had bountiful harvests like previous seasons. But mother and others who could not afford the necessary pesticides had to settle for low harvests that season. In other words, they settled for hunger, for starvation, for hardship.
During that harvest season and the succeeding months, Kelechi and I had to stop going to school so as to help mother hawk some of her miserable-looking yams and cocoyam in the market. We hardly were able to convince anyone to patronise us but we still repeated our rounds every day, hoping that each new day would be better than the previous day. Sometimes we got some people who were compassionate enough to buy off our stock for the day if only it would make us go home. In such situations, Kelechi and I always used to feel this sense of joy and guilt mixed together. Joy because someone was merciful enough to come to our rescue and relieve us of the burden of walking round the market aimlessly without any result; guilt because we saw from the actions of these benefactors, that they were not going to eat these yams, but were definitely going to dump them somewhere or feed them to their dogs. One way or the other, we felt we were innocently imposing our poverty on the world; flaunting our suffering and forcing an unfeeling world to do what it would rather not have done.
As the days passed, we learned how to wear our sufferings well. There hardly were times neighbours knew we were still living in the trenches of poverty. We ate whenever there was food, but drank enough water to fill our stomachs whenever there was no food. Whether we saw food to eat or not, mother had taught us the great importance of keeping a smiling face even when things were not going the way we planned them. The only index showing that things had not become as good as they were when father was alive was the fact that we still had not been able to go back to school. We worked hard at the farm every day, trying our best to relieve mother of some burdens. But the harder we worked, the more we discovered that farming, at least the way we used to do it, held little hopes for survival in the twenty-first century. We worked harder and harder, hoping that Uncle Okeke would come some day and just carry all our burdens and sufferings on his shoulders the way he had done it for the many other widows and fatherless children in the past. Did people not say it that what looked so big in one’s eyes was very small in the eyes of his helper? In our own estimation, all that needed to happen for us to kiss suffering and poverty goodbye was just for Uncle Okeke to come to the village.
Even the villagers who knew Uncle Okeke happened to be the ones fuelling our hopes. Some days when mother would be coming back from the farm with our last sister, Nkechi, straddled to her back and a load for two people balanced on her head, they would always be quick to tell her: “Oga di nma. Okeke ga bia soon.” In some way we could not explain, Uncle Okeke’s name had come to hold the magic wand that was going to open the doors to our next level. So we waited patiently, praying that God should order his steps.
During this period of waiting, some villagers even began to envy us, as if we had already started swimming in Uncle Okeke’s wealth. One of them, Mama Ihuoma, lost her marriage because of that. She had unwittingly complained that her husband, Papa Ihuoma was as good as dead, since he was no longer giving her money for food but was always wasting his money on tobacco and dry gin. To her, it was better to be a widow than to have such a man as a husband. At least a widow had a very great opportunity of being helped by Uncle Okeke, an opportunity she would always remain deprived of as long as Papa Ihuoma remained alive. Her complaint was made in a meeting of the ikpoho idumu when they gave each woman the opportunity to talk about what was going on in her home. Papa Ihuoma got to hear of it, no thanks to his numerous mistresses that were in attendance that day. He accused his wife of attempting to poison her, then threw her out, only to bring in a girl as young as his first daughter for a replacement.
The day of Uncle Okeke’s visit was fast approaching and there is no need to state that so much went into preparations for his arrival. He had sent a message through one of the people who came home for Easter that he would come on a particular day in July. For a long time he had been hindered from coming by a number of things, chief of which was his last peace mission to Liberia at the instance of the UN. It should be naturally assumed that we all kept that very date ringing in our hearts. Mother encircled the date on the small calendar hanging on the wall of her room. Every day she kept her count-down and always reminded us of how our sufferings were soon going to be over. She made Kelechi and I memorise the statement, ‘August Visitor’ and told us to make sure we bowed in greeting to welcome our august visitor whenever he walked into our house. She also went to borrow a new blouse and lappa from our closest neighbour, Mama Somto, who had become her closest friend since father died. She even went as far as borrowing money for the preparations. She borrowed from the ikpoho idumu and some few other women who were well-to-do. Her collateral for the loan was Uncle Okeke’s coming. The women did not bother because they knew that mother was going to become a rich woman the very moment he arrived. They lended to her willingly and even encouraged her to borrow some more so as to be able to give him a very befitting welcome. Such a benefactor must be encouraged to do what he intends to do, they always told my mother. With their encouragement, mother borrowed and borrowed until she had borrowed enough to feed the entire community for one day.
The day finally came and I want to state here that the whole Idumu-Ogo community had never seen a welcome party as big as that. The only one that was closest to it was the one that was organised to welcome the bishop of Issele-Uku diocese of the Catholic Church, Rt Rev. Ekpu Ochanya. The only difference was that for the latter, the funds came from everyone’s pocket and part of the donations had gone into giving the parish a face-lift. The welcome party in honour of Uncle Okeke was full of pomp. Mother organised some women to dance and some youths to have a wrestling competition. Apart from paying these groups, she also bought them drinks and fed them too. She instructed that everyone coming to welcome Uncle Okeke should be made to go with a bottle of dry gin or a new lappa as the case might be. In her thinking, she wanted us to bid poverty goodbye in grand style. For the three days that Uncle Okeke stayed in our house, food and drinks flowed in abundance and for once we were beginning to get used to the idea of being rich. In everyone’s calculation, we were going to seamlessly migrate into that phase of wealth, since Uncle Okeke had finally come.
At the end of the third day, Uncle Okeke called my mother and specially thanked her for the great reception organised in his honour. In his own words, he had never felt that special all his life. It simply showed that the wife of his late cousin was fully appreciative of the fact that he was upholding the family’s name even outside the shores of the country. He then wished that the Nigerian government and the UN could show them that much appreciation for the things they achieved in Liberia and some other parts of Africa. He also spared some couple of minutes to complain about the people that were dying in the interior parts of Nigeria and beyond, no thanks to the Boko Haram menace. He hoped that the military would soon be brought in to quell the situation.
After his long speech, Uncle Okeke told us he stopped over on his way to visit his friend living in Enugu. He was going to continue his journey first thing the following morning. He was very careful not to mention the fact that father died and that he knew we must have been going through so much suffering as a result of that. Either he was deluded by the kind of plush reception we gave him or that he was afraid to horn in on our poverty. I think the latter should be the case. Our hidden poverty was so deep, nobody would have loved to interfere with it.
True to what he said, Uncle Okeke left very early the following morning, long before the villagers woke up. All the villagers started thronging our house when they got wind of the fact that our big uncle, Okeke, had left. They actually came with the mind to celebrate with us over our new status. All of them left disappointed, as they did not get anything in return for the visit. They were angry with mother for being so stingy now that the wealth had come. After they left, mother’s many creditors stayed back. They wanted to get their money to the last kobo, in spite of the fact that they had all shared in the food and drinks that were shared during Uncle Okeke’s visit. When mother told them that Uncle Okeke left her with nothing, they were very much infuriated and threatened to beat her up. They could not understand why mother was so greedy as to want to eat their own share of the wealth; why mother would choose to bury her wealth in the ground just because she did not want to pay her debts. God came to mother’s rescue that day. She could have been lynched by her angry creditors. But the leader of the ikpoho idumu appealed to all of them to be patient with mother, knowing full well that she could not run anywhere.
In an attempt to settle her debts, mother sold all the plots of land father had while he was still alive but the money still was not enough to pay off all the debts. She had to appeal to her many creditors to give her some time to raise the remaining part of the money. Ever since then, she has been selling anything saleable in our house, ranging from the furniture to the mattresses, and even down to our cooking utensil. But every time, it seems as if she is pouring money into a bottomless pit. The debts have never been fully repaid and mother’s creditors have never left her back.