he lived, and let me watch him do it”
― Clarence Budington Kelland
“You know if anything happens, Lagos isn’t really your home, you have to go back to the village,” he would say seriously, as we merged onto the expressway. “They chased so many Igbos out of here years ago, they have no reason to not do it again.”
He never looked back or spoke about Lagos when we were leaving. But the three of us, sometimes sitting together or in different cars, because of his fear that we might all perish if we were unfortunate to meet a road accident, would have our necks craned staring at the city, our lives becoming miniature pieces of contained adolescence the farther away we were.
The house in front of us used to be a thatched brown hut with raffia and palm sealing the roof. He grew up here, the only son of a woman we never got to know, someone his people say my sister is a reincarnation of. The once wooden door is now metal, with a shiny doorknob, and another man lives here. We are to call him Chief Rufus, his greetings are deceitful, his hands forever outstretched, his eyes continually lingering on the things he does not have. He is a man who wears his bought chieftaincy like a badge that he has earned.
“This is where I grew up, I want you to see where my mother raised me,” he says, beckoning us towards the small unit. The sides of the bungalow are ravaged with cracks, roots from a fifty-year-old Odala tree have begun creeping underneath the house, winding their way through the walls, creating long crevices like veins against the walls, the door, and even the concrete floor. The next year when we visit, his eyes water as we watch the local farmers chop the tree down, unripe odala fruit scatters to the floor, the local children run after the ripe ones they were unable to reach due to their elevation, the birds squawk and fly into nearby trees. Where the tree is cut, an ugly scar remains on the trunk with tree rings that have latched onto each other. He turns away and walks back to the main house without saying a word to any of us. The trunk eventually rots and the local children use it as a stool when they play in the evenings. His mother planted the tree when he was a boy, and for as long as he was away, during the war, it had grown.
Our life here in the village were my father grew up is a double, a suspension bridge, hinging the two worlds we straddled in adolescence and now adulthood. A living room with Baker Street style furniture he lifted from the old house in Twickenham, photos of all his children, and his mother. There is no intimacy in this room, the curation here is tired, and whoever sits here knows the setup is just to appease one for the purpose of functionality. This room leads to another one where every piece, fabric, sculpture, is pre-meditated, weaving all the pieces of family history and tradition together. There are Ivory elephant tusks standing beside a regal chair lined with leopard skin. The traditional family clan crest is etched on the marble floor. Brown bowls filled with kolanut sit on tables next to alligator peppers and cow horns through which local palm wine is drank.
This house with its duality, its Igbo character and its Anglo-American discomfort, is one we now refer to as the “Obi.” It is built in front of my deceased grandmother’s home, a towering castle over a thatched hut where my father lived as a boy. He walks passed it every morning, and stares at it from the front porch at night. The grandeur is intoxicating, but the story that leads here isn’t. It is one entrenched in a deep home-sickness, a brutal civil war, alienation in a foreign land suffering from racial hate and prejudice, an unexpected American education, and a homecoming mired by extreme responsibility and a deep loss.
There is a house, and a palm kernel factory, a symbol of my father’s need to create value in our village. The mornings smell like palm oil and coconuts. At night when the industrial generators have shut down, the crickets whisper, the frogs bellow in the swimming pool at the back and one can still smell the faint scent of palm in the air right before sleep. Giant birds swoop from the mahogany trees, diving occasionally to clasp unto chicks and chickens. There is an empty swimming pool behind the house, where hundreds of frogs have gathered because it is the rainy season. The pool is filled with rainwater. The water is a lime green, and my siblings, in our reel of adolescence, wielding catapults given to us by our father and stones picked from the ground, we have shooting matches to see who can kill how many frogs easily. When you kill a frog, it turns upside down, and sometimes its white belly ruptures. The second swimming pool is filled with dry leaves, and we stopped going in there, someone said something about rattlesnakes.
What is home really? Is it the place you feel most at peace, a special comfort? Or where your family resides? I want to say that my father found home with us, somewhere in our house in Lagos, on an island where people lived side by side despite their heterogeneous ethnic and economic backgrounds. A city where the bananas were smaller, the feeling was metropolitan, the sun did not tint to a light red while it set in the evenings, people did not ride bicycles as much as they drove cars, the songs at the local parish where not chanted in a demurred Igbo with tints of Latin; where the air did not become chilly as it passed over the hills; and the rain did not fall as if God was weeping over his own inability to decide. I did not want to accept that despite his education here in the U.S. and the years of service he had accumulated all over the world as a banker, that he was most comfortable in a place where he felt most at home, the village. And many years before this one, we jokingly taunted him about this choice, to return ever so often, to a place we regarded as “backward.”
These thing we carried, these things that we said to him, came not out of cruelty but a deep misunderstanding of what is civilized and what is modern. He often asked us where the profit lay, in embracing modernity or what is “civilized, when all he wanted was to be at home.
He was alive in the village, woke up early in the mornings, took long walks, visited elders who asked us questions in Igbo, while we replied with splinters of Igbo-English that seemed to dig into his side when we tried. And because we were so far removed, every visit was intentional, a way to bring us closer. We went to farms he worked on, walked to the rivers he used to swim in, ate on the floor of the Obi with cousins whose relation to us we were unsure of, eating ubeh and awka and soon enough the roots began to break into the concrete. We began to understand. We took all those moments for granted, but I suppose that they make these moments in passing much easier to confront.
While the cars drive off, and we pass rivers and the deep gullies mired by erosion that is very common in the southeastern part of Nigeria, I look at him through the mirrors and what I see is a crippling sadness. The hands of incoming nostalgia that paralyzes him when he is in Lagos are coming back, creeping into his skin, holding him close as he grips the steering wheel, and we all know that soon enough, while we are in school, he will return here.
But there is also a happiness, the realization that we are also a bit confused by this new found experience, that this place is changing us, too, and suddenly we are connecting. He knows now that we like the food here, we know the names of our cousins, we respond better to Igbo, we are curious, and this is the opening in the deep wall of city life he has tried to create. Like the Odala tree, its root permeating a deep concrete, who we are, what we know of ourselves is becoming more than what we have learned from our time on an island off the coast of Lagos. Home could be anywhere, but where your parents grow up? It is a different kind of magic that takes space in your memory. You see who they were as children, how little things like cracks in a thatched roof, an Iroko or Odala tree have created something deeply etched into who they are. You become them. My father is a village man, this is the place where his mother lived, his father ruled, his sisters gave birth and where he thought about when he was far away. He is free here, broken from the strong ties of alienation and loss that seem to hold him when he is in Lagos or driving on the highway in California. He knows that we understand now.
“Never forget where you come from,” he says holding me on my shoulders. We are in Muritala Mohammed Airport, and I am about to board a plane to the U.S. I know he doesn’t mean Lagos. To him Lagos can be found everywhere, but the village where he grew up, the things we learned there can only be found there in a place where the earth was a deep red, men in their 80s still climbed on trees to tap palm wine, people rose at 6 a.m. chanting incantations and speaking deeply of what our ancestors had said before them, and where the food made your tongue feel as though you were a new born, and had just tasted food for the first time. I hug him back and tell him that I will not forget.