For once Nkem could not imagine a car key being in an envelope but that was why it is a surprise, he thought. While he wished for good he kept an open mind. His smiling mother handed him the envelope. He collected it with utmost gratitude, not for its contents but for he had received a present at about 12.45am on his birthday and because the gift had come from his parents not some stranger. The room became quieter but the clock and the faint sound of a steaming generator prevented by locked doors, and later, the footfalls of his sisters who have been awoken by the early morning conversation interrupted the silence.
“Happy birthday, Nkem.” Kembi said.
“Congratulations, Nkem,” Ebere added.
“Come sit here,” the smiling Nkem requested of her sisters. Kembi and Ebere sat. Kembi and Ebere had begun lectures at the state University. They had not secured hostel rooms yet. Their father had asked them to attend lectures from home while they await the hostel. The drive to school, jumping of buses and taxis had not been fair to the fair complexioned girls. The state had all but good roads. The government had made advertisement of roads on TV during a campaign but nothing was really on ground aside asphalt.
Nkem unsealed the envelope and released a letter. He raised it up, read the first few lines and flared up like a quick demon had jumped into him. His face changed. His eyes turned blur. Something had gone wrong. His gift was either a bad one or for a wrong celebrant. He flung the letter. One of the girls picked it up and read it. It was an admission letter into one of the new generation institutes in Ghana. Nkem had told his parents that it was the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, or no school at all. The first few years were like a joke until Nkem had sat for the same examination eight times. They had felt a school in Ghana would be a great one and accountancy was a better course of study to Nkemjika’s literature, which guaranteed a paid job.
Then there were raised voices. Nkem defended his conviction but his parents were ready for him. His father’s towering height and his stammering came to play. His mother was also prepared; she tied her wrapper firmly and called on Jesus for her son. She cursed the enemies from her village, those from high places who had cast a spell on her child so much that he cared for no one but the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, a place she was sure was nothing but a regular African university modelled after an American educational system by the late Nnamdi Azikiwe. It was an old pathetic university which had frustrated her son for years. When Jesus could not come to her aid, immediately, the woman called on Amadioha to smoke the men or women who had turned her son’s head upside down. The girls mediated but Nkem’s talking back at her parents was not helping. It was the house against him. And why the next two hours was a period in the once peaceful house of the Nwachukwus, Nkem went into his room, packed his bag and left.
Nkem found a bus on Aba Road which took him straight to the park en route Nsukka. In the bus, his tears could not stop streaming. He cried so much that prospective passengers were scared to board the vehicle. At first the conductor and driver had pity on him but when potential passengers walked away that morning the same men called Nkem an evil spirit, a bad luck. They called him bad belle. They hurled him down until a Samaritan intervened and the bus loaded again.
At Peace Park, an older woman sat next to Nkem. While he sobbed the woman tried to tap him. After some trial, Nkem looked up at the 45 years old woman whose face glittered from cheap makeup. She had a smile that was difficult to resist and some empathy. She asked questions and Nkem answered. She threw a hand around Nkem and told him that everything would be fine.
Nkem’s journey to Nsukka was distracted. The woman who introduced herself as Ego alighted at Okigwe and begged Nkem to come with her. Nkem barely had anyone in Nsukka except a friend who had sat for same examination with him and succeeded. Nkem walked with Ego, they walked like a child and a mother. She told Nkem so much about herself. She was a teacher at the Government College, Okigwe. She was single and searching. Nkem said little and walked on.
Ego, like an angel gave Nkem shelter and love. Ego gave Nkem all she had without reservation. She gave him access to her bedroom and sex in plentiful. After six months Nkem was awoken by Ego on a cold morning. Ego showed Nkem a risen stomach and smiled. She said God had brought her joy through Nkem. She said she was pregnant for him. When Nkem recalled his mother’s state during pregnancy he lost words and affirmed with a nod. Ego said she loved him.
Day did not break when Nkem sneaked out of Ego’s place without a pin but a book. With a few hundreds of naira in his pocket he joined a vehicle to Nsukka.
The day was still a virgin. The atmosphere was fresh behind the moving bus. Nkem relaxed his shoulder and enjoyed the music, Asiri, a song by Morocco Maduka which played. Nkem did not care to know who sat next to him or the muscled hand which requested for his fare. While he hoped for the moment that the bus would stop at Nsukka Park, he slept off. In a dream, Nkem saw his father, his mother and two teenage sisters, they were chasing after him. While the mother had a broom, his father had a loaded short-gun. The sisters clapped their hands at him. They chased after him until he fell in a ditch, then he woke up. With wide eyes the bus he watched the bus entering the park. He reached out to pay the conductor who frowned at the large note he place in his hand. The conductor asked his driver for change and returned same to Nkem.
The day had broken. Motorcycles had already started flights. Nsukka was busy. He approached one and told him that he was going to the campus. Nkem knew no one but a long time friend who he could barely recall. He roamed around until the gate of Jives, a public bar opened. He walked in, requested for a drink and took it to the balcony, a place which gave him an ample view of the University of Nigeria. He drank his beer gradually until it was noon. Nkem didn’t ask for a second beer even when it was evening. There was no place he could sleep. The thoughts ruled his mind. No one suspected he was a stranger. He had no bags, just the clothes he had on.
The music blared at the bar and the people danced and screamed. He knew they were fortunate. They had no problems. If they had any it was not as huge as his. He wished he could dance like them, forget the lump of sorrows in his heart and smoke like they did. Nkem left Jives and walked inside the poorly lit campus. He sat at a spot thinking which area to continue his journey. The men he greeted did not answer his greetings like they could help him if he asked for their assistance.
Nkem walked into the University of Nigeria, Nuskka, through the second gate. When he had walked some ten feet inside the school he saw hostels. There was Mbanefo, the boys’ hostel on his left and Nkrumah, the girls’ hostel on his right. He walked inside and asked a guy if he could sleep somewhere in his room. The guy walked away. After three failures, Nkem saw a recharge-card seller who was packing her stuff. He approached her in English but she spoke in Igbo. Though he was Igbo, Nkem knew nothing of the Igbo language. He could spell Igbo as a word but that was as far he could go. When he was questioned in Igbo he responded in English. And when the lady replied him in Igbo he knew he was in trouble as she was the only one he could speak to after about three disappointments. Nkem tried his tongue at a few Igbo words which could have thrown an Igbo linguist off balance. The lady ceased packing up when she heard that he wanted help. She turned and asked him if he thought she was a student. He replied in the negative. The lady continued with the packing and walked away. Even Nkem could not understand why she left.
Nkem looked up but couldn’t see the stars to question. He looked down but didn’t see a dug pit to swallow his sorrows. He stood at the spot stoically until the rain performed some ablution on him. Soaked, he squatted under a table of one of the orange sellers and slept even when the rain poured down in great torrent.
When the day broke a new look and a new view grew. When students saw Nkem they avoided him. Some whispered that he could have been one of those stubborn, brainless kids who had been sent to school but rather chose to befriend the green-grass. Someone said Nkem had smoked sanity into the air. They shrugged shoulders and prayed for his parents wherever they were. And when Nkem learned about the people’s view of him, the stigmatisation, he cared little about clothes. He wore clothes when he could but he never did that always, and as time grew larger he was often clothe-less and people spoke that it was a matter of time and his trousers too would be on his head. Nkem lived under the table of the orange seller. The seller never returned. The news of the demise of the seller spread around the school and the people who had known the woman cried. Few weeks after news flew that the orange seller had died of AIDS. All the people who had eaten her oranges threw up or went to the church to pray to God to forestall any contamination of AIDS. For a week, fellowships saw visions of students who were HIV positive, not of unprotected casual sex but infected oranges. They organised a large crusade at the Freedom Park, hundreds of students attended. They prayed down the heavens and the organisers didn’t forget to collect offerings.
Nkem could not imagine the deceit in humans. Everyone said he was retarded so he lived up to their expectations. When the girls were done cooking and the aroma had filled the entire school he would trace the rooms and barge in amidst loud screams and carry a hot pot of rice or a pot of soup, as his luck led him. Nkem didn’t escape being beaten but no one ever retrieved the pots from him. They said it was contaminated with dirt or insanity or HIV. Nkem did not mind the names, the spit at him or the stones. He fed properly; when he was tired he slept. When the weather permitted he read a torn copy of Wizard of the Crow, a book whose author he did not know much of. He loved the characters he read of. He had once read Things Fall Apart and liked the character of Okonkwo, a man who was not only unfortunate from birth with a crazy and lazy father, but looked down upon until he worked hard enough on the farm to become wealthy.
Nkem liked Okonkwo. He liked the writers he read also, he admired their skills but he was not a writer. He wanted to become one, once he could fit in. But how could he become a writer when those who would read his books could not see him? He thought. Nkem, at a point stopped getting just food from the students of the hostels; he collected books also. His collection became larger. He had mathematics texts. He had economics text as well as Physics’. Few people had the books he wanted. A large number of the students had romantic novels by cheap European writers who wanted to make money from hungry African readers. When Nkem had gathered the little money he wanted from sweeping for students at a cheap rate, he bought a few pairs of shorts and new shirts and attended lectures.
Nkem once walked down to Isiakata, a female hostel at the extreme of the school and approached the students and asked for where Christopher Okigbo had stayed. To the girls, he was speaking a foreign language as no one knew who the Okigbo guy was. He was not a trendy young musician promoting the Azonto dance or an actor. He was probably a dead teacher or some lazy ass dean of a faculty who was thrilled with failing students by setting difficult examination questions. Nkem kept asking until he found it, an old office at the faculty of humanities. When he saw a name tag boldly written CHRISTOPHER OKIGBO, crested on the door post, he fell down and worshipped it. He closed his eyes and recalled the days he would sit in his room, while studying his bible, he would flip through a couple of poems by the great Okigbo who had been killed by a pathetic Nigerian soldier during the civil war. He cursed the war that had claimed his life and wept until no tears ran down his face.
After that evening Nkem had walked to Ukwuta Close to think in the quietness of its streets until he was tired and rested at a corner and slept. That was where Barbara Ogbodo had found him. That was how he started reading many books and calling women bitches. That was how he convinced Barbara that a pan-Africanist could drink and smoke and party. That was when he started growing dreads and started writing poetry. That was when she started drinking vodka with him and went to party when they could. That was how he became a wizard and Barbara became a witch before the students.