Seven times over, I return as human, as your child, my father.
Two times before now, I was a little boy, settled at the river bed, covered with algae, with a swollen gut and a distended belly full of Ajulu. I watched them with glazed eyes as they speared flowing ripples with fishing spears close to the shallow parts for my body, shaking and nodding heads towards each other to agree and disagree, pointing with lips to change the direction of their search, squeezing water out of loin cloths knotted at their waists, flapping the light material afterward to somehow keep it away from wet skin. It was pointless, they knew, Ajulu never ate and vomited. It did not matter that my hands were clean and I did not know a single curse word, I did not know how to splay the chubby fingers on my right hand at another child after being beaten and fed with sand, I did not know how to shake my head at my mother.
If I could talk, I would have told the men to go back to their wives and warm huts, to rest for the farming season ahead, to not heed the tears of my mother and father who could make more sons if they put their minds to it, to let me go. I could not, I was already being led away to settle, to drop the already ruined sack of flesh that was once mine, to take on another.
And so it happened that the next version of me was assembled and given an assignment: to finish that which the little boy Ajulu embraced had started. The same house, yes, but a different mother. I did not know this at the time, but as time went, I understood.
The man whose name I bore grieved with the mother of the little boy for a long time, and when her chest could no longer stand the wheezing, she left him behind, letting him wake up to a stiff body and a plastic smile. Cold, the missionary doctor had said as she covered the corpse with a never-used loin cloth. Cold from staying too much at the riverside. At least that was how the interpreter thought it best to say, but her husband knew what had happened to his wife. He’d go to the river bank and find her wading in the water, sobbing and groaning, calling for Ajulu to take her too. After two unexpected blows to the groin on her second visit to the fast-running river, he chose not to go in after her, but to sit in one of the moored boats and listen to her dirge, and afterwards pat her to sleep when she waded out. It continued for weeks, and soon it became their ritual at dawn.
Both of them would walk back to their settlement, the man weary from keeping watch all night long, the woman's skin ashy from being in the water for long, and as she greeted passersby with a bright, yet tired smile, she sounded as though her wind pipe were stuffed.
The death of her son has made her mad, people whispered, as they walked past. Not just her, her husband too. Look how he follows her about like a sheep!
I am a bucketful of adventures, my father.
It happened that I, the son of my father, did not want to be like the other sons of the family. They took up vocations that the tribe with pale skin enforced, and I watched my father replace his loincloth with khaki, stiff fabric that made his skinny legs stand out more.
It became a thing of pride that our household had given the white men a court clerk, an older cousin of mine, an interpreter, this cousin's twin brother, and a nurse, this cousin’s sister. At first, our people jeered at their father, my uncle, for selling his children for a bottle of whiskey and currying the white man's favor, but as the time of gun-breaking came and went, everyone was humbled. The young men chose between serving the white man and learning his ways over fishing and planting yams; the young women, midwifery and sewing over tending to pots and children.
With this, my father’s wife pressed me to go to school, to learn the tongue whose knowledge dripped power. I went, to please her, and to gain power. No man was powerful in these parts without firepower, you see. How else would dominion be asserted? I did not know if my people saw what I saw: that the people who broke our guns still had theirs, that they made us learn their tongue and discard ours, that they took our food and made us buy it, not with our manilas, but with funny looking notes and coins with funnier looking people engraved and printed on them.
Talks of sending these people away came and went, plans extinguished as soon as they were birthed, because our people learned the art of betrayal and selling their own blood for money.
I learned to read books, my father, to glean and wipe my mouth clean.
It was a trick I learned from the wife of my father, who at this time had mastered the art of cutting and joining fabric to fit the body well. Suing, she called it, I’m suing dear, her bespectacled eyes glinting as she passed thread moistened on her tongue through the eye of a needle. She looked so happy doing it I did not have the mind to tell her that it was in fact sewing, not the other word she cherished so much. She spoke the white man’s tongue, near-perfect mannerisms and cadences garnered from being a quiet yet solid presence at meetings held by the missuses and Reverend sisters.
Most of our brothers were now in the positions the white men had created for themselves. The white men were leaving, in minute droves. Talks of ruling ourselves somehow managed to fit in every conversation. Things were changing. I was changing. My parents noticed this, and asked that I get a wife, just like my younger brother had. Soon, I told them, I’m just twenty-one. The wife of my father did not believe this, and asserted her opinion by planting a girl from her sewing class in my way, a shy doe that would not look me in the eye when I brushed past her in the hallway of our home.
The girl would look at me with something akin to wonder in her eyes when I read a book, and when I spoke in another tongue that was not ours, she shrunk into herself, as though the rapid bursts of English sickened her. I tried to teach her, like I did with the eager children at the missionary school, but after four strenuous tongue-biting sessions, on her part mostly, and then mine due to frustration, I gave up.
Besides all of that, I had heard of stories, some funny, some almost unbelievable, of how these shy girls turned to stern stallions after marriage and ruled over everyone and everything in the families they were married into, turning the man into a living puppet. My mother's heart would break, my father would crumble, and my brother would fight and fight till blood was spilled. One thought of this and I bundled the young blood back to her parents, with a wad of pound notes for compensation, and an oath on Ekwensu's name that their first fruit was returned untouched.
I mastered the art of storytelling, my father, and because it was necessary for survival, how to use a gun.
This was years after we brought down the white man’s flag and hoisted ours. Amidst the madness, our brothers wore the ill-fitting coat of democracy and rule of law, I lived. I found an escape in literature, in telling stories with poetry. The piano became to me what the oja was to my father. I found a woman, not necessarily one I loved, but she was good nonetheless, a free thinker with radical views like mine. We had a child. We chose to give her names we liked. I named her Obiageri, because she was the one I had stored up my wealth for. Ibrahimat was the other name, bestowed with a smile on the chubby, curly-haired baby. I did not ask what it meant at that moment, a fleeting choice I still regret.
I taught: children, adults, and with time I found my place with young men and women, at our own university.
It did not take a lot of time after this for the coat to fall off the country's visibly lean shoulders. The suit was coming apart at the seams. It was the massacre from the other side of the country that completely undid the attire. My brothers, said they would not sit back and watch, and in truth and action, they did not.
I cannot believe this: I am on the battlefield, fading in my mind’s eye, and I am alone to witness my homecoming.
I am a woman come back, my father, and I will take what is mine.