“Notes From My Father’s House” by Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera
It is late October 2019, and I am on my way to Lagos for a Literary and Arts Festival, which kicks off tomorrow in Ikoyi, one of Lagos’ elite towns. I am coming from Asaba where I am currently living, over 440 km from Lagos. I board a bus from Summit Road to Benin City since it would be easier for me to get to Lagos when at least a 100km is out of the journey’s way. My uncle and his family live in one of the apartments in my father’s house in Benin. I had already put a call through my cousin, Ngaalebu, informing them of my coming. I plan to pass the night in their apartment.
I arrive in Benin late in the afternoon, and the bus stops me at Akpakpava Road. I find my way to the ever-bustling New-Benin Market, where my parents once plied their trade. Megaphones along Mission Road towards Upper Mission Road call people to buy their Bibles for as cheap as Three-hundred or Four-hundred Naira. Passing here reminds me that part of my childhood was spent in this market helping my parents in their wholesale and distribution business. We left Benin almost a decade ago after my parents’ business failed. But I had returned in 2016 to do my internship at the plant pathology department of the Nigerian Institute For Oil Palm Research (NIFOR), located on the outskirts of the city. Since then, each time I have passed through the city, it seems there is nothing much changing here, except that the commerce seems to have intensified.
Returning to the place of one’s childhood is mostly an arbiter of memories. It so happens that the road through New Benin Market through Upper Mission to my father’s house at Obazee Street is a route I know so well. The first half of the road from the market I am familiar with, as I walked the route almost every day for the first five years of my secondary education. The second half was the way to my primary school. It brings me closer to the days of my beginning now, to walk these roads once again.
Two emotions trail me as I walk the roads; nostalgia, and a bit of shyness. Nostalgia, for the predictable reason that this is my home where I grew up, this place holds some of the fondest memories of my formation as a person; shyness, partly because deep down, I am a bit embarrassed by what I see of the place. These streets are not experiencing their degree of development and growth, like the vast world I have been in since I left here. The houses and the roads only get older and dilapidated, while maintaining the same appearance I knew from my childhood, which began over twenty years ago. But each time I am here, I return a bigger person than I was the last time I visited, and so our contact becomes like the embrace between a child and his aging and unkempt mother whom he has not seen for years. Somehow, I manage this feeling until I walk down the junction and down the very street where I grew up. Here, I am overwhelmed by shame and helplessness. I had known the street as a pretty good road in my childhood; it bustled with motorcycles and cars plying the route frequently. I was even hit a few times by cars as a child, one of which sent me flying mid-air and scrambling on the floor.
The road was a bit bad the last time I was here, but now it is an eyesore, and everything looks so compact. On getting to my father’s house, where my uncle and his family with whom I am to spend the night lives, my disappointment deepens into quiet despair. Like most of the houses in the area, my father’s house was unattended, silently getting older, and unappealing; this big four-flat house which in my childhood, I used to admire for its largeness and modest look. This house where it seemed all the epiphanies in me as a person occurred, was slowly becoming a shadow of its former self.
My father’s house is standing in a small expanse of land, well fenced and floored, and secured in front by two pairs of bar gates, which were left open for most of my childhood, except at night. There is a shootout balcony at the front corner of the front portion of the house upstairs and two stores downstairs. My uncle’s wife sold drinks in the store by the right, and my mother sold drugs and later provisions, at the shop by the left. In front of the house, a small house was built where a grinding engine used to be. We called it Engine house. In the Engine house, my uncle’s wife used to grind foods like tomatoes, beans, corn, cowpea and so on for people who wanted to cook stew, moi-moi, ekusi ekpo and many other foods which required the main ingredient to be grinded. Now, the engine house is occupied with the crates of drinks which she still sells.
Everything looks so compact, from the benches to both my uncle’s cars parked in front of the house; the unpainted fences are lent an ugly look by the dark-green colours of dying algae. My cousin who runs the shop is not around. There is no light, but his generator buzzing as can be faintly heard from the backyard, supplies light to both of his shops. His attendant is around, and I briefly speak with him, and he tells me, my cousin, Jioke, was not around, but Ngaalebu, who I called before coming, was upstairs.
Upstairs, Ngaalebu opens the door for me and we exchange pleasantries. He asks me how my journey was and I tell him it went well, we chat a bit, he welcomes me again before going back to his phone. I go to the boys’ room in the house, drop my bag there, and return to the sitting room. Coming back to the apartment gives rise to nostalgia within a nostalgia. The upholstery of the couches has been refurbished, the green walls repainted with the same colour.
It seems that a lazy attempt has been made to renovate the sitting room, but the effort isn’t entirely successful because the tiles were not changed, and they had gotten a bit old. The large wooden amber dining table is crowded with electronic gadgets and clothes. It was on that table that I sat in 2016, a year after the plague of writing had caught up with me, to write the comic and short stories, and poems which made me a writer. It was also there that I sat and wrote my short story, Obioma, the story which permitted me to write more stories. It was on that table that while struggling to substantiate the images which plagued me on my way to and from NIFOR every morning that the reality hit me that getting the inspiration for a story and writing it are two different things. It was on that table I laid the real foundations for my art, and so this was a homecoming in a homecoming.
While growing up, I lived with my parents for fifteen years in the apartment downstairs. I have remembered pretty much every important event in my life from the age of four. Ngaalebu and his younger sister, Ann, were born in the same year my brother and younger sister were born respectively. We all grew up together in this house in an eventful childhood, not devoid of conflicts, mostly inspired by the fracture in the relationship between my mother and their mother.
Memories assume a striking chronology of events in my mind. It becomes apparent how the disjoint events over the years of one’s life become an almost perfect narrative crafted by fate. The picture of how all my dreams in life which faded away were formed here, and the one which has carried me thus far, which was not conceived here, fate had brought me back here to lay the final bricks for its perfection.
When I was seven years old, I told my mother in her shop downstairs, that I wanted to become a doctor. But as the years went by and we began to play football a lot and I began to watch football with my older cousins, right here in their father’s sitting room, I fell in love with footballers like Thierry Henry, Gaucho Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, Robin van Persie, and I decided that what I wanted to be was a footballer. It was also here that over the years the reality grew on me that the dream was far-fetched, and I slowly became disillusioned. I remember sitting in this sitting room in 2008 with my cousin, Ugonna, and on MTV Base, we watched the music videos of the day. I fell in love with T.I’s Live Your Life featuring Rihanna and Dead and Gone featuring Justin Timberlake. The songs formed the beginning of my romance with hip-hop which led me to consider a future career as a rap artist.
When we left Benin in 2011, both dreams were all I had, and they formed the basis for my place in the world in the following years, which were to be haunted by an unceasing nostalgia. When I returned to Benin in 2016 for my internship, I was about to enter into my final year in the university where I was studying Botany. I had become very bookish and introverted. And though I still loved to listen to hip-hop, the lifestyle and the culture was no longer something suited for me. In place of it, I now wrote poems, and I still planned to study medicine as a second degree. In those six months of my internship, the magic of words,imageries and nostalgia ganged up against me and one day, I sat down in this very sitting room, after reading Chinua Achebe’s Arrow Of God, I decided that I wanted to be a writer.
When we left Benin in 2011, it was because my parents’ business had failed. The whole family was distraught at the time, and leaving seemed just the right thing to do. I didn’t think I would miss this place, because the reality of what had happened lay heavy on my mind. But soon after we left, it dawned on me that a large part of me stayed behind, and nowhere else was going to recreate for me the magical years of childhood.
I only have it stuck in my memory and to reconstruct it, it would always boil down to this place. Five years down the line, I succeeded in returning and the world assumed for me a canvas. Here was my duty, an artistic destiny before me, I took it and my vision of writing was perfected in this sitting room. My mind is overwhelmed by visuals of the petulant beginning, which through the eyes of memory now appear beautiful. Difficulties make us who we are. Facing the challenges in our lives is an equivalent of a farmer toiling his land in the season of work. All his labour makes sense on the day of harvest. When from his table of harvest, he looks back at the days he toiled under the sun and the days he was beaten by rain, the meaning of it all becomes apparent. Sometimes our struggles through the shade of memory acquire a stunning and necessary beauty. We realize that we could only become strong by encountering difficulties and that certain obstacles which we encounter are necessary for us to learn the route of the labyrinth that life is. And little beginnings often carry us all the way.
I will be leaving tomorrow and I do not have much time. So I decided to go downstairs and take a long walk down the streets to my church, another route which I walked thousands of times in my childhood. What used to be a fairly long walk then, now seems less than a stone throw away to me. The whole place now resembles a ghetto. It is quite shocking to me how the place deteriorated more in three years in my eyes than it did in five years the last time I came. It is now clear to me that there is nothing to be joyful about my return home.
All Obazee Street has to offer me is the ugliness in the mushy encounter between a moderately prosperous child and his unkempt mother who, for some reason, he’s unable to cater to. She has become older and has shrunk from her original size, according to the dictate of my senses. Maybe the distance between my father’s house and the church is smaller, just like the distance between the market and my house because I have gone to bigger places over the years, walked longer distances. To see this place the way I used to see it, I would have to shrink back to my childhood sensibilities. Maybe, Obazee Street has slowly been deteriorating since my childhood, but I was unable to see it because I was living through it myself. That childhood is gone, and all that is left now is the homesickness and a painful reality which haunts me.
Arriving at our parish, it appears to be the one thing which appears to be excluded from the rot. I have always known the church to be repainted every few years and renovated accordingly. Maintenance culture is a luxury the church can afford that the ordinary citizens of a country that is becoming poorer by the hour cannot. There are cars parked along the Church Street, some already moving out which is unusual for a weekday, because it is not yet time for evening mass. People are coming out from the church. Everybody is holding a foil of food and a can of malt. Just before I climb on the pavement and proceed to enter the church, a dark blue Hilux van honks repeatedly behind me. I turn to see my uncle’s second son, one of the people who we all grew up to see as an elder brother. He is now married with two children and lives around Ikpoba Hill with his family. He has for about twenty years been a choirmaster in this parish and still comes here.
“Edozie how far, na?” he says to me.
“Brother good evening,” I greet, before I answered, “I dey oo.”
“When you come?”
“Okay we go see when I come house na.”
“No wahala,” I say, not remembering to tell him I am leaving tomorrow as he drives off. I notice some children running after a lady with a bag in which it appears there is still food. Fifteen years ago, my brother and I were exactly in the place of these children; we never missed church on the day of any event in which food was to be shared.
Before I am seated in the church for long, the mass servers are already making up the altar for mass. I look around, and the church, too, has become smaller in my eyes and no longer as glamorous. When mass begins, I find that I am feeling something quite different from what I used to feel as a child. Trying to get into that state of mind which the beginning of this ritual used to usher me into, is like trying to force myself into a favourite piece of clothing which I have long outgrown. If I was attending mass in Obigbo, Igwe Ocha, Lagos, Oka, Onicha, Enu ugwu or anywhere else, I wouldn’t have this feeling. But every single action I take around here is automatically matched with a feeling it used to bring because there is almost nothing I am capable of doing here that was not done in childhood. It brings to mind how life is a long winding narrative of monotonous routines. In my childhood days, I truly believed, and when the mass began, I had no doubt that Christ was descending. How could I not, when we had the best choir in Edo state at the time which sang entrance hymns so angelic that you felt your head leaving your neck as goose bumps flooded your skin.
During consecration, when the priest raised the chalice and we heard a ringing sound which seemed to be coming from nowhere, I suspected the sound was coming from Heaven. When I attended catechism here, I did not just learn the doctrines of the church and how to pray the rosary, I learnt to rejoice in them and seek comfort in them when I was distraught. I carried it on to my university years. But here I was, over a decade after childhood, a freethinker who engaged in the ritual of his childhood religion for the sake of nostalgia and the hunger to relive those powers of prayer which often drove one to the point of transient emotion. The meditative prayers of the church, the beautiful hymns, especially those in local languages, still affect me. I am convinced that as long as these effects do not wear away, I shall continue attending mass as regularly as I can.
As I embrace the path of seeking answers, I have kept parts of the religion that made childhood beautiful for me and helped me cope through the turbulence of my teenage years. I can no longer adhere to the church’s beliefs the way I used to, but I will keep coming to her as long as the poetry of the religion speaks to me. As I kneel during consecration, St. Theresa’s Catholic Church peers into my heart; she knows I am one of her own, but she struggles to recognize me. We are so near, yet struggle to come close as we used to do.
The simplicity of my heart in the days when her influence shone clear is a sharp contrast now that many worlds have passed through it and left various footprints. It seems there are no more vacuums being filled by hope, and the love in me is taking life’s blows in strides. A different reality from what she and the promises of childhood gave to me now mans the door. I hope she sees that at least, the light which now guides my feet is the insufferable power of the light of that love and hope which I got from her—that light which despite all odds will not go away, that light which came alive when every other thing died within.
Back home that evening, watching the football matches, I find myself subconsciously avoiding eye contact with some familiar faces. Something in me did not wish to be bothered by the familiarity which the past might bring. But then, some of them coming to me, helps unnerve me from the same dread. The delight with which my cousin, who runs the shop welcomes me when he drives in makes me more at ease. Somehow, it is now as though I have settled a bit into the present.
The next morning, after writing briefly on the table in the dining room—where I had laid the final bricks for the foundation of my trade— I have tea and bread, say goodbye to my uncle’s family and set out for Lagos.
I have to walk down the road to my church and take a taxi to the park to get a bus going to Lagos. On my way, I meet people who greet and recognize me, but make me uncomfortable with their small talk and questions of where I was living now and if I am a student or working and all that. I am already haunted by a misguided guilt of how the lives of people who still live here seem stagnant.
One of the people I meet includes the catechist who taught me catechism at Edokpolo Grammar school, who often accused me of missing catechism for weeks on end, when in fact, I was at the last class. I suspected at the time that he had mild amnesia. I do not expect him to recognize me but he is looking at me so keenly as I walk past that I am compelled to go up and greet him. Surprisingly, he says he recognizes me and makes allusion to when I was very little. I don’t know if to believe him. There is a bit of chemistry between us as we chit-chat a bit before telling him I am headed to Lagos and I have to get going.
Returning to the stage where the events of my childhood occurred, every light points back to the boy I was with a certain nostalgia, struggling to recognize the man I am now. On the other hand, the place appears to have shrunk. Everything seems to float around memories. Nostalgia is a kind of sadness, and we often mistake returning to the place we are nostalgic as the cure. I return to Obazee and find that it awakes a deeper form of nostalgia—a homesickness in layers. I realize that what the home here holds for me has gone away with childhood, and I can only find them in my imagination. It is a thing of sadness now to see that this place I thought would always be a safe landing is only the beginning of another pitfall into the abyss that life sometimes assumes.
Feature image courtesy of author.
Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera is an Igbo writer from Nigeria. He currently works as a journalist at Voice Of The East Media. His works have appeared and are forthcoming in Kalahari Reviews, African Writer, Poets in Nigeria, Praxis, Fortunate Traveller, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter and Medium @ChukwuderaEdozi
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