If Only Wishes Were Horses
Grandpa sat on his cane chair when it stopped raining in the evening. He was entertaining two of his friends (elders Arinze and Simon) when Nwike came outside to sit and listen to them. He loved listening to their tales from when they were young men and how they bragged about being the most agile and hardworking young men in their school and in the village. Nwike thought that most of the things they said were just extreme exaggeration and only meant to make themselves look really awesome. One time, elder Arinze boasted of how he jumped more than 7 feet high at his secondary school inter-house sports jumping competition! He also claimed to be so handsome, the maidens in the village couldn't stop trying to get his attention. Nwike found that there was always a lot to learn when the elders talked about their lives in the past and what they thought about the future.
Nwike sat down on the stairs leading up to the door. It was a bit wet but he didn't mind as he had already dusted it with his palms before sitting. "Diokpa, good evening sir", he said to elder Arinze.
"Nwike, good evening. How are you doing my son?" he asked.
"I'm fine sir", Nwike replied. He then turned to elder Simon and greeted him as well in the local dialect, according to tradition. "Ogbueshi - Ogene", said Nwike. "Ogene my son. How are you?" elder Simon asked.
"I'm fine sir." Nwike replied.
Greeting elders was a very important thing in African culture and it showed that a child was brought up well by their parents.
"So how is school?" Asked elder Arinze.
Your grandpa tells us you aren't doing quite well in calculations even though your English language class seems to be going just fine", he added.
Nwike hesitated for a while and then said, "Yes, I find calculations difficult most times, and honestly, I really don't understand what the teachers are writing on the blackboard because they don't explain very well."
Grandpa poured himself some gin, took a sip and said, "Maybe you can ask questions when you don't understand. No one ever lost his way by asking questions."
Elders Arinze and Simon nodded their heads in agreement as they also poured themselves some locally made gin and set about breaking the kola-nuts grandma had just set on the small table in front of then and changing the topic to the latest events in the village.
The breaking of kola-nuts in Nigeria is a tradition that's not taken likely. A typical kola-nut ceremony (in the Eastern part of Nigeria) is a way for hosts to welcome guests into their homes. Taking part in a kola-nut ceremony is almost inevitable for anyone visiting an elder in any Asaba village/home and if a host can't provide kola-nuts, he will need to do the explanatory apologies to his visitors. The kola-nut tradition is used for a variety of events but principally to welcome guests to a house or a village. Additionally, since Nigerians don't have a coffee drinking culture, they depend on kola-nuts to help kickstart their day because of its caffeine contents.
Grandma had presented the visiting elders with a plate filled with 5 kola-nuts (which was seen as a very generous gesture). Anything less than 2 kola-nuts is considered socially unacceptable as it is a sign that the host is stingy. The visitors may not comment on it but they'll definitely talk about it when they leave the host's house.
According to tradition, the plate of kola-nuts must be presented to the eldest guest and elder Simon, being the eldest was handed the plate. He had to acknowledge that he had seen the plate and as soon as he had done that, he set about praying for and blessing the host and his family. In the old days, they usually prayed to the old and local gods and recited incantations but since Christianity became the dominant religion in Asaba, they changed reciting incantations during kola-nut ceremonies to prayers and blessings.
After the prayers by the eldest guest, the plate of kola-nuts is handed back to the host who now has to take break the kola-nuts with his hands or using a knife. Traditionally, the breaking of the kola-nut is a very significant part of the ceremony. The more parts the host or a designated 'kola-nut breaker' breaks it into, the more prosperity it gives to the host and the visitors. After the kola-nuts have been broken into tiny pieces, the host picks up one and says:
"When the kola-nut reaches home, it will talk about whence it came from."
This proverb means that the eldest guest has to show the kola-nut to his clan as proof that the host of the house he visited had treated him well.
Grandpa ended up giving one of the kola-nuts to elder Simon who happily put it in his left pocket as he commented on how big the kola-nut was.
"What do these northerners put in their kola-nuts?" He asked. "They are always bigger than the ones we grow here in the east and I just can't figure out why.
I still don't know if it's the soil or the fertilizer", He added.
Grandpa went on to break the kola-nuts with a kitchen knife and when he was done, he passed the plate of broken kola-nuts to Nwike who had to walk from one elder to the other so they could pick a kola-nut piece.
As they ate their kolanuts and drank locally made gin and palm wine, Nwike wondered what a kola-nut ceremony looked like when they attended meetings at the Diokpa's house when he called an official meeting to discuss matters affecting the village.
The village of Umuda was about to elect a new head (Diokpa). The Diokpa was a very prestigious title in any Asaba village and a Diokpa presided over meetings, settled disputes, punished and fined offenders, acted as a moral and spiritual guide and also served in the king's (Asagba of Asaba) council as a representative of the village. The Diokpa wasn't usually the oldest male in the village but the one who could trace his lineage from Nnebisi - the founder of Asaba and as a result, was the closest to him in the 'lineage tree'.
Electing a new Diokpa was always a very special event and a lot of elderly men had to come forward and stake their claim. It had to be carefully done because in most cases, it could lead to civil unrest within a village. There have been instances where a village ended up having two Diokpas because the two candidates felt they had the right to the title (and all the privileges that came with it).
Grandpa always said that some men were easily corruptible and most times, the only reason why they ever stuck around was to see how much they could benefit from others. He talked about how he hoped the greedy men in the village wouldn't take bribes from the rich and support them to take the title away from whoever turns out to be the rightful heir to the chair.
That night when his friends left and Nwike sat alone with him outside, they talked about the history of Asaba and the village. He talked about how the village had gone through a period of transition. How different Diokpas had ascended the chair and almost ruined the peace and unity with their greed, lack of vision and foolishness. From the way he sounded, it seemed like he was worried about the kind of personality the next Diokpa would have and what their vision for the village would be. He clearly didn't want chaos or conflict and he was very worried that some greedy men would use the unemployed youths in the village to try and take the chair from whoever the rightful heir turns out to be.
"There are always those who support evil as long as it benefits them and fills their pockets with riches", he said.
Nwike watched the movements of a couple of soldier ants trying to carry a crumb of sliced bread to their colony, then slowly asked,
"Grandpa, was my father a good person?"
It took grandpa a while to find the right words he needed to answer such a delicate question.
"I couldn't say Nwike. The events of his marriage to your mum was a bit complicated.
Your father and your mum did love each other very much but they were also very toxic for each other. I only met him a few times and honestly, it would be foolish and arrogant of me, to presume to pass judgement on someone I know so little of."
"But I need to know!" Nwike clasped his hands, pressing his fingers between the calluses of his knuckles. He had always noticed how both his grandparents never talked about his father or what led to his separation with his mother.
"You know grandpa, when I was 5 or maybe 6, I used to amuse myself that my father was a soldier or a sailor and was out there in the world helping people and making a difference.
I used to imagine that someday, he'd walk into the house and we" - he gestured at his sisters inside the house - "would go live with him and our mother in a very beautiful house by the beach."
A little breeze swept across as grandpa Phillip turned to notice some tears fall down Nwike's cheeks. He knew and understood how difficult it was for him to grow up without a father and he knew the thought of being rejected by his father would break him down.
He drew him closer and held him as he sobbed. It was at that moment that he decided never to tell him the truth. He'd always be there for him, he'd play the role of father to him and help him grow into a wonderful and responsible young man but he wouldn't tell him the truth no matter how much he asked. The truth about why his father left would destroy him. He'd tell him some day but just not yet.
There was some peace and quiet for a while and as Nwike wiped the tears from his eyes, he could hear the town crier beat his gong with a stick and shout his message for the whole village to hear. African town criers were quite different from their European counterparts. They neither wore a uniform nor rang a bell and were mostly young boys in their 20s who worked as messengers for the village's ruling council. They went into the villages, beating their gongs with a heavy stick while speaking as loudly as possible whenever the council wanted them to relay a message to every elder and/or young person in the village. This time, their message was that the village's ruling council was about to kickstart the first stage of selecting a new Diokpa.
A few moments after it was quiet again, grandpa glanced at his wristwatch and gasped at how late it had gotten. He rose from his cane chair with a graceful motion, saying, "Don't forget to bring in the chairs, Nwike, and make sure you bolt the windows and the door."
His footsteps soft upon the cement floor, grandpa grabbed his hand fan and disappeared inside. As the wooden door closed, Nwike huffed out his breath and closed his eyes. He knew there was something grandpa didn't want to tell him about his father but he just couldn't understand why he'd hide anything from him.
He picked up the cane chair by the arm rests and tried to open the door as wide open as he could. Grandpa, grandma and his sisters were inside waiting for him to come in so they could pray. They always prayed every night before they went to bed and every morning when they woke up.
They all got on their knees and as grandpa led the prayer session, Nwike thought about what his parents were doing at that very moment.
For a few minutes, the world was silent, save the rustle of the wind-tossed branches of the orange tree in front of the house and the sound of grandpa's voice. He heard everyone recite the word, "Amen" and he did as well.
The day had come to an end and as he lay down on the couch to sleep, he wondered what it would be like to wake up the next morning in the same house with his parents.
And even though it was far from reality, he couldn't help smile with the picture of a perfect family in his mind.
If only wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
To be continued next week ...