When father announced that Zeluwa was being sent to Egbu to begin secondary school our mother disputed against it. “I know you schooled there and it was good in your generation, but I want him close to Me.” she fussed.
We watched television, and it was a Saturday. Our parents watched television for news daily but for me and Zeluwa it was for two hours at night and then we went to bed, it was at that time father made important announcements.
Mother’s protests were lukewarm because father’s word was final. Zeluwa looked sad like he came second or third in class again and father spat deploring sentences at him. “The boy who took first he really has two heads like I heard teachers say in PTA meetings? All the money paid for you in that school and you cannot come home with first prize.” father tossed the report card on the table, dissatisfied. Mother was the one who encouraged- she bought gifts for at least not coming last. I thought father was too strict and mother spoiled him a little too much to make up for the tough love. I came first all the time, not like it mattered to anyone- only sometimes did they treat me like I was their son.
I wasn’t paid attention as much as it was paid to Zeluwa. I never gave it much thought but sometimes I felt adopted. Doubts took root when I realized that I had never celebrated a birthday, I had no memory of any. I went through the photo albums and found pictures of me behind Zeluwa who held the knife to a cake that read, “Happy Birthday Zeluwa” or “Zeluwa is…” I ever saw a cake with my name, Olisaemeka. One day I asked mother why there were no pictures of me being the celebrant in the family photo album or if I had by chance celebrated any birthdays.
“Whenever it was your birthday something happened, we became broke or your father lost business, but we got a card and marked it.”
I never understood what that meant.
I could be sent home from school for fees but Zeluwa remained in school. When I was sick I was treated with homemade remedies and a first aid box but Zeluwa was sent to a hospital. Also, I wasn’t taken to see our grandparents- I was left behind with someone to look after me. There were other things, clothes, toys, such-and-such.
When it was time for Zeluwa to leave for boarding school Mother bought everything she could find in Lagos, two or three of each. She bought so much I thought he was going away forever and needed supplies to last him. Two mattresses, two large Ghana-must-go bags of easily made food items and provisions, four iron buckets, new clothes and yards of materials for school wears, and all kinds of shoes. For unknown reasons she also bought a sewing machine, a pocket knife, torchlight, hurricane lantern, a mat, an empty keg to store water to drink, blankets and a stove, all that for a single term- there was still second term and a third.
When it was time for Zeluwa to go, mother, took him to Owerri even though father wanted to send him through bus services, and then when he arrived a relative would be there waiting to take him to school.
“That is too risky for a boy his age- I cannot let you treat my son like that.” Mother had just returned from work and Zeluwa briefed her at the door. She took off her wristwatch and then her earrings. She meandered as she spoke. I saw and overheard their conversations from where I sat on the dining eating bread and butter.
“I can’t leave work and drive all the way to Owerri because a boy of twelve is going from primary to secondary school.”
“Then I would drive, a bus service is risky, not on that shaky river Niger Bridge.”
“You cannot drive, you would destroy that car.” father waved her off. He got up from the bed where he sat scanning a newspaper and strolled out. He paused and lit a cigarette when he got to the mouth of the door, then continued outside through the kitchen.
“I can drive.” mother mumbled.
Father did not let mother drive any of our cars, it was from him I first heard that women cannot drive.
I remember that day. I and mother were on our way to the market one fine morning. I remember it was a Saturday and it drizzled. Mother ran a red light and got hit by a sand truck reversing- the whole bonnet and the bumper bent and the corners scratched.
“Jesus Christ of Nazareth it is because of this rain, I couldn’t see!” she got out to access the damages- from my side it was bad.
There was traffic and drivers got out of their cars, they came to see what happened, before long a small crowd gathered in front of our car. A policeman intervened and mother had to get father involved, she rushed to the car for her phone, and then waited beside it until he arrived.
Father came on an Okada. He looked like he just woke because of how squeezed his face was, and his beards were scruffy. He came first to my side of the car.
“How are you?”
I nodded. He rubbed his large hands on my head, and then bent down to examine the scratches. Father shook his head. Afterwards, he walked up to the crowd and greeted everyone with a handshake.
The car ended up being towed to the police station with me and mother at the backseat. After we arrived with the tow-truck father came on another Okada with the truck driver. I and mother waited at the backseat in silence until father came out of the building and said he was going to a panel beater. We alighted, and then he gave mother money for a taxi. As we turned to leave father said in Igbo, “I told you women can’t drive but you never listen to me, woman.”
Father would not let mother drive to Owerri so she hired a driver, it was the load she sent through bus services. From time-to-time mother left work and travelled to visit.
Father didn’t want Zeluwa home until it was for the long vacation. Those times it was me and father at home, and mother, and then I got a little attention that made me feel like I existed. Father drove me around town and to bars he frequented. Those times mother traveled I even met father’s lady friend.
Father’s lady friend was light skinned like mother, she owned Father’s favorite bar. It was a small shop that had a few wooden chairs and tables in it, but at evening white plastic chairs and tables were arranged outside for people to sit and drink beer and eat pepper soup. When mother was in Owerri I ate dinners there.
When the third term ended and Zeluwa came back he was scrawny and tall like a sugarcane plant. His hair was a thick mass of what felt like dried rag and his almond eyes sunk in. He said it was the beans they ate, the schedule, deprivations, punishments to put you in place, manual labour, and so on.
“We are up at three A.M to prep for two hours and then we had devotion, and then prepared for school. If you were last in the hostel you were punished.” He paused and continued as though the faucet of complaint inside him was turned on. “After school, eat and then observe siesta for two hours and if you were caught awake you were punished. We ate rice and other foods, but mostly beans. One day I and another boy complained that the beans were getting too much, the seniors in charge of the kitchen gave us a pot each to eat. I ate until I couldn’t swallow. The other boy threw away his when he was caught they added my remnants, he fainted and shit himself before he made it to the toilet.”
I lay on the lower bunk bed and Zeluwa was up. “Don’t you have somebody you can report to? Like a teacher.”
“If you did that they gang up and made life unbearable. Make you wash toilets for fun. Those things mom bought, they took most of it, my mosquito net, and my extra mattress and buckets. They came with plates and asked you to submit your provisions for sampling, they scared us with stories of bush babies, and they said our school was built on a cemetery.”
“Don’t worry, when you become a senior do it to your juniors.”
“I don’t want to go back- I don’t think I can take it for another term.”
“Have you told mom?”
“And what did she say?”
“She would talk to dad about it and I would not go back there.”
“Maybe, but don’t worry.”
Mother spoke to father and Zeluwa cried his eyes out but he was sent back. Mother and father had a small fight about it like they always did over Zeluwa, but he was sent back, father said it would make him a man.
“I was six when my father took me to be initiated into the age grade fraternity. I and other boys were quarantined in a house for weeks. At eleven I won a scholarship and my father sent me to Lagos to study and live with his brother, another hardship I endured. It made me strong and look how good I turned out.” Cigarette smoke exited his nostrils and mouth as he spoke.
Mother stood hands akimbo in front of him, poised for a fight. “That is why all the parts of your body are bone, no softness, even your heart, even your eyes, that is why you want to kill my son because of masquerade tradition.”
“Okay, Mrs. Masquerade tradition, if you know you have two heads change his school, you just try it.”
Again, mother bought more things to make Zeluwa comfortable in school, and also visited time-to-time.
I saw father in the morning when he woke me for school, in the afternoon when I returned I got inside the house with a spare key, and there was lunch or money to buy. At night father sent someone from whichever bar he was at to bring me food, the taste most consistent was his lady friend. I slept alone in the vastness of the house most nights- in the sitting room because the rooms felt wide and alone.
Even when mother was around I didn’t feel much difference. When she was in Lagos she worked to make up for the time she spent in Owerri. I cannot remember if she spoke to me except to say the food she cooked was ready. It was never deep that she called me into her room to spend time talking or that she noticed when I was unhappy.
In April, towards the end of the second term, father woke me that morning and it was like every other day, though I felt odd, like the day would give birth to unwonted events. Mother travelled in time for Zeluwa’s visiting day so it was me and father as usual. I had breakfast- it was bread and tea. And afterwards, I joined Father outside to wait for the bus. I met him where he sat on a bench smoking cigarettes- he dressed in a white sleeve shirt, brown plain trousers, black socks and a brown shoe. Beside him was a clear bag with files in it, folded house drawings, stencils, pencils, a pack of Rothmans and a red Bic lighter.
“At what time does your bus come for you?”
“Soon, what happened that you aren’t at work?”
Father checked his wristwatch. “The two cars are bad, one won’t start and the other has flat tires just this morning. I called the office to send the staff bus my way but it won’t come until nine-thirty.”
The bus took longer to arrive. We sat outside until the sun came out. Like me, father looked at the junction for when it would arrive. After what seemed like two hours father shook his head and told me to go inside. I stood from the bench and the bus arrived.
As I walked to the bus father called out, I waited. He walked briskly to where I was.
“Happy birthday, Olisaemeka, I almost forgot.” He put his hand in his shirt pocket and gave me three five hundred Naira notes that squished when I rubbed them together. “Your mother had a cake made before she left, it would be delivered before you return.”
I stuffed the money into my pocket and walked to the bus. I was happy.
Anxiety gripped the better part of me in school, I couldn’t focus. At break, I bought everything I had ever wanted from the shop and I still had two squishy notes and pocket change. I couldn’t wait to get home to see my cake either, what it looked like, what was written on it. I felt loved.
I returned home from school and was surprised to see mother. She sat and sobbed in the parlour, her eyes were red-rimmed. Father too was home, too early to be home from work. He was still dressed as he was that morning. He sat crossed legs with a cigarette in his hand, lost in thought. I greeted but I doubt anyone heard or paid attention, and so I went to the room and changed. When I came back out I went to the kitchen to check if the cake was in the fridge, it was there. I brought it out and placed on the counter, “Happy birthday” was written on it. I took a knife and sliced out a small part of where “Happy” was and stuffed my mouth, and then I kept the rest. I moseyed back to the parlour.
I took stock of the environment, no celebrations, awkward silence, spiky eyes, and full lips that failed to part- the pall of sadness made the sitting room a grave, a convention of death eaters. It was quiet but the hush wasn’t peace. Mother was in a mood, father kept smoking and now had a bottle of scotch close – I was as confused as Johnny when he first came to town. I went back to my room to wait. I waited until I slept.
When I woke it was evening. I went to the parlour and found mother and father seated on the couch watching television like nothing happened, they held hands and mother appeared tiny tucked into the side of father’s body. They looked calm, but in the light of the television, mother eyes were bloodshot.
“Nna, Olisa,” mother raised her head and saw me. “How are you?” her voice was feeble like she had found and lost it over and over again.
“I am fine.”
She nodded. “Sit down we have something to tell you.”
I sat down and father muted the television, it made the program showing seem like a pantomime. Mother adjusted her sitting position but didn’t take her hand away from fathers. Father used his free hand to take out a cigarette from his breast pocket and then lit it- he blew the smoke out in what sounded like a sigh, and then reclined. Mother cleared her throat.
“Zeluwa…” I saw tears well up at the corner of her eyes- it gave them a rheumy look. She blinked them back but a few dropped and on her silk blouse. “Zeluwa killed a senior with a pocket knife, it was an accident. But… the boy died on the spot, the knife lodged itself in his throat.” she spoke almost in whispers. “He was arrested, he might not come home for a lon…” she choked.
The words hit me like a thunderbolt, I had just woke and my mind was impressionable. My legs arms and body, even my lips trembled. “W-why?” my question was pointless. What I wanted to ask was how? How did it happen? How did Zeluwa with his hilarious wit and boyish charm kill anyone with a pocket knife? Though I knew underneath were stubbornness, self-entitlement and anger fit when things didn’t go his way.
Father had to step in because mother couldn’t find words anymore, her heart, I imagined as she spoke crumbled. “It was a mistake, the knife lodged itself in his throat and killed the boy, and he was arrested and charged with murder. We thought you should know.”
Those words three words rang in my ears- “In his throat” It was the last thing I’d ever expected to hear, not on my birthday.
It is true that when a relative is in distress, the whole family suffers.
I went through the months that came in a fog. I felt guilty that maybe somehow it was my fault. That maybe my dislike of Zeluwa being doted on and my underlined delight in the idea of him being sent far to school cursed his actions, because if he wasn’t there it wouldn’t have happened. If I had pushed with him when he refused I knew father might have listened. A part of that guilt also came from the fact that I had more time to spend with our parents, all their attention was lavished on me that I soon resented it. I had nobody to share with, it felt like I had no brother and I was now as I had always wanted it to be, an only child. It was bittersweet, but the bitter being the dominant taste.
I and mother formed a relationship and talked more, mostly about Zeluwa’s case. One night we sat in the parlour watching television on mute because the sound annoyed her. That night she told me about the circumstances surrounding Zeluwa’s birth. She had given birth to three children, a girl first and then twin boys who died- afterwards, she was barren for a stretch that made father’s sisters doubt her fertility. It was at that crucial point in the marriage that she had Zeluwa- she said it in a way that meant he saved the marriage. That was the first time we ever had a mother-son moment, and even then, I couldn’t imagine why she chose that time to be effusive, as she spoke I listened, but not fulsome. I was embarrassed to hear her talk like that, all that emotion made me uncomfortable.
The simplest way to explain the dynamic of our family was to say that it was like a triangle, and in the right angle was me. I had a kind of relationship with our parents- I was closer to our father in a way than I was to mother and another with Zeluwa. He was like a friend who was also a relative. The relationship between my parents and Zeluwa was the most hard-hitting to witness, especially mother, I watched her wilt. Even father was saddened, guilty maybe. Mother sometimes talked like he was to blame.
We tried to thread out the truth with bite-size stories told by undependable narrators, most of which were students. The superlative was that the senior had been a bully and on that day, he wanted Zeluwa to surrender an orange he happened to be peeling with a pocket knife. I knew at that point Zeluwa’s stubbornness came to life, one thing led to another and as they struggled. All we knew for sure was the charge was assault with a deadly weapon with a sentence of ten to fifteen years.
It proved difficult to piece together facts because at the time nobody had full access to Zeluwa. What we knew was that when he was arrested he was taken to fire service police station in Egbu road and locked in a cell. From there he was to be transferred to zone nine in Umuahia where he was looking to do more time. Mother said he was lucky to be locked up because the family of the boy wanted reparations.
The bail money was exorbitant, so it was advised instead that bribes were paid out to high ranked Officers. Family and friends suggested other means too- they knew this medicine man that could make the case disappear overnight.
I was surrounded by comforts in life. A bed, hot meals in a house and warmth of family and Zeluwa was on his own in undesirable living condition. Mother said his cell was twenty feet by twenty with seventy people in it, and sometimes he couldn’t find a spot to sleep. There was only one pot to piss in and the queue was long, the cell stunk of disinfectant,piss, and shit, and there was no medical care to monitor his deteriorating health. It was bad for me- I could be watching TV or eating and then thought of him.
The plaintiffs were aggressive and head bent on punishing Zeluwa with the death penalty. As mother and father paid bribes to get him out, they also paid for him to be singled out and dealt with. After six months in Egbu Zeluwa was transferred to Umuahia and before anyone could get hold of time it slipped into three years. I had long written my common entrance examinations, got into secondary school and was preparing for my junior examinations. Zeluwa was taken when he was fourteen- he was almost eighteen, still locked up and awaiting trial.
As a family we travelled to see Zeluwa, a privilege mother bribed through to get.
Road travel to the East was exciting the first few times. I loved the road to travel- I loved the feel of being on the road, endless arrangement of tall trees, vast green lands, the cars that swish past, involuntary naps I drifted into and woke to the sun and breeze on my face. I liked to watch the bushes and let my imaginations run wild. I wondered if wild animals ran out of those forests, Snakes, Monkeys, Antelopes, or even wilder animals like Lions and Tigers, except most times the creatures that came out were persons running with provisions to sell in traffic. Young boys and girls my age hawked water and beverages, Yellow Bananas, Groundnuts, Bread, Walnuts, and Cashews. Women, sucklings perched on the cusp of their backs, men with black Jerricans with funnels and hoses waited patiently for cars that needed a black market.
Mother asked if I wanted anything as hawkers clamoured our car windows. The first time I ate a lot and fought sleep for the rest of the journey until we crossed the River Niger, and then I fell asleep and woke in the village.
The village was fun, I met relatives who had heard of me but had never seen me. They took me everywhere, but everywhere I went came with the sudden apprehension that I was free as air and Zeluwa was not, and that the reason we came was not a vacation but to keep his spirit strong.
On the arranged day of the visit, we travelled from Owerri to Umuahia to see Zeluwa with food and fruits we bought on our way, from women who already knew mother’s face.
When we got to the Prison we sat in the backyard, a bench and table was made available. Father stood and smoked like he was trying to exhume his lungs, I and mother sat and watched possible points Zeluwa could appear from.
“Olisaemeka, are you okay?”
I nodded. “I can’t wait to see him.”
Mother smiled a sad smile.
When Zeluwa appeared he was with a guard. He was taller, hands and limbs and neck like a northerner. He was shirtless and his shorts were held fast with a rope, the flesh on his feet cracked and peeled at the heel, and the edges of his fingers were dried dirty. He washed it with water and soap but the edges retained their colour. His hair was bushy, thicker and stronger than an iron sponge. His face was rough with pimples in formation like chicken pox, his lips were chapped and he had beards. As he ate, breathing in and out, his ribs were visible enough to count. He ate in silence, with calculated speed.
“Calm down o nna, drink water, eat an apple, lick orange, and eat meat- I put enough for you to eat.” Mother’s voice broke off and then she kept quiet. It mattered not what happened, if Zeluwa lost it and stabbed the boy intentionally or if it was a mistake. It mattered not because when I thought about it, I didn’t know how to judge, who was at fault or not. One was dead and would never come back, the other was my brother.
I asked how Zeluwa was, though I knew he was not fine, not in there. I asked what the inmates were like, talking about them gave him cheer, and like one would get anytime they talked about friends or family.
Zeluwa told me about a guy his age, locked up because he spent the night in a church that was robbed, the thieves carted away properties worth almost a million naira and he took the blame. Also about an old man whom his wife ran away with money that belonged to investors, he was arrested and dumped in jail, forgotten in the system, no family no friends came. Zeluwa said it wasn’t always bad, sometimes they sang and clapped and were like brothers in a slave ship, and that even the warden was nice.
“On his birthday we got properly cooked rice, at night he ordered the cooks to include bread with our beans.”
“What about the food?”
He laughed. “It’s still the same beans I hate, half-done for that matter.”
Mother listened while we spoke and soon started to sob. Father watched and said nothing. I assumed he spoke with his spirit when he voiced out he gave hope.”
“We would get you out boy- I and your mother would never abandon you here to die.”
Zeluwa nodded and looked at father with wild eyes, he was now a man.
The road trip wasn’t fun after the first time. I was bored and slept throughout. When I woke mother or father asked if I needed anything but I shook my head, closed my eyes and tried to catch more sleep. Mother bought anyway and muttered that Zeluwa might need it.
Zeluwa needed items to bribe his inmates, but buying was a void mother needed to fill. It was her way of dealing with problems. She looked emaciated, hardly ate or slept. She prayed, fasted and cried. Father, on the other hand, smoked and drank more, his pot-belly reduced and his frame became lean. We had to sell two cars to meet up with bribes and prayer materials for intercession to God. We were exhausted, but strong.
We visited Zeluwa three more times- the third time was the last time. He was taken from Umuahia, after four years, to Calabar. He spent another year there.
Calabar was the transfer father planned- he had a high-ranked relative waiting. When Zeluwa got there his file was destroyed and he was released.
Now out of jail, Zeluwa was still in danger. The family swore to kill him. To save his life mother took him to her maternal village to stay before other plans were made. He remained there for another year until his papers to Germany were completed and then he left.