Debris of Life

Umeano sat among his kinsmen, his face carried no expression and he rested it on the elbow of his wooden staff. There was no laughter or loud murmurs as almost customary with kinsmen gatherings in Azigbo. There were crates of beer and plates parked neatly and some heaped with kola nuts and garden eggs at the corner of the large sitting room. No one was drinking, no one was talking, just a freezing silence . The corpse of Mazi Umeano’s only son returns today. He took his own life two weeks ago.

The Okuefetum kinsmen amidst all other facts were known primarily for a rather simple character; they love to eat meat and they are not rowdy like some other kinsmen in the town. Yet, in such a day, as Umeano’s wife, Ogochukwu, led a group of three young girls into the sitting room, bringing in big coolers containing jollof rice and assorted meats, the room although saturated by the poignant smell of fried meat and jollof, remained seized by the thought filled silence.

The yellow room had five sofas forming a rectangle at its center, the larger space behind the rectangle was for proposed dinning stationery, but presently occupied by a huge book shelf. It was the visitor’s sitting room at the down floor of a green one storey building. The room was properly ventilated as it was dotted with six set of louver blade windows artfully situated and separated. The huge shelf was today shifted to the extreme corner beside the enamel wash hand sink and filled with wooden benches. The eldest and noblest of the kinsmen sat on the sofa alongside Umeano, while the rest occupied the bench.

Ibekwe, the eldest among them shifted on his seat, he cleared his throat.

“Umeano, there’s no doubt you are a good man, but history of our people has taught us that even the house of good men, men pure at heart and character, gets visited by the greatest of evil. It has visited yours but you must carry on bravely. You know we are a brave people, ndi okuefetum, we are. Oga adi mma nwoke oma. It’s well.”

Umeano raised his head from his staff which he supported to stand firmly by placing in between his thighs. He moved the staff, dropped it on top of the black thinned side stool. He needed a staff to support himself just only after the news of Chijioke’s death hit him. The news hit him harder with a partial stroke. 

Rubbing his palms against each other, he wagged his right leg and looked straight at Ibekwe. 

“My good friend, and also our good leader, I have heard what you said. I am even glad you consider my house a nest of a good man. It’s well already.” Umeano replied almost emotionlessly. It was hard to determine what he felt or thought, harder was it to know if he meant what he just said; “it is well already”.

 He must have been truly glad that Ibekwe considered his house that of a good man. Ibekwe was famed not just for his agility in old age, the sagacity of his intellect and unassisted sight. He still lived in the city at eighty-eighth years of age. He was popularly respected because he spoke only what he felt. He doesn’t sugarcoat words or butt licks anyone.

Umeano returned his back to the holder of his sofa throwing his head backward and continued wagging his leg. It appeared that Ibekwe and Umeano have flung the gate open for discourse as discussions gradually began to trickle in. 

“Umeano, we do not need to tell a kinsman that he has our full support. Though not written down anywhere, it is indeed the duty of kinsmen to have each other’s back. Isn’t that so? O na oburo ya?” quipped in Afamefuna the medical doctor practicing in Lagos.

Everyone in the room replied in the affirmative. Such questions in Igbo land evokes general answers that usually come in unison, different voices sieved in together, forming a stew of noise.

“ O eziokwu, that’s true Afam”, said Ikechukwu, a trader in Aba who deals with foot wears and clothes.

“Afamefuna, O ife melu eme ka ina ekwu, it is just as you said it”, added Ibegbunam, a Lawyer who practices in Port Harcourt. 

“Okwu gi kwu oto, Afam, I agree totally with you”, caressing his always bushy beards, Okezie said, now looking at Umeano.

Afamefuna continued; but be that as it may, as true as it is, understanding your circumstances and the plight you suffer, it is more than necessary to reiterate and remind you that we all in Okuefetum are ever willing to help out in any way.

Somehow, age still plays a great role in determining the structure and workings of the Igbo society. The only factor that has come close to challenging this is the position one occupies in the society, how much money he has and what work he does. At any introduction, one is directly or covertly asked what he does now, what is his work. The nature of your job determines how much regards you are given. An engineer and a trader are never seen in the same light, unless the trader has much more money. That is the reason why in this gathering, those who openly air their views are either the well aged or the noble professionals or the rich. If you are not in this bracket, you are equally free to express yourself, but who listens or take what you say?

“Bia nwoke m, come closer first. Why did that boy kill himself? Is there any truth to the rumor that it was because of a girl? A girl who refused to go out with him”, Udochukwu in a hushed voice, whispered to Obinna.

“If you ask me who will I ask? But I also heard that the boy used to have business in bed with his fellow boys…”

“ehhhh, isi no gini nwoke m, What are you saying? What did you just say?”, Udochukwu covering his mouth with his right palm, looking left and right, investigating the room to ascertain if anyone overheard Obinna’s reply or their discussion. He looked shocked, and then interested. He shifted in his bench, adjusting to sit closer to Obinna.

“See, I don’t know why you are shifting closer to me. I said nothing to you, and am telling you nothing again. Don’t say I said. Asikwana na m si.” Obinna retorted, keeping his face mean and straight, and away from Udochukwu.

Unbeknownst to them, Umeano who still threw his head back, resting it on the sofa’s backrest eavesdropped at their discussion. He stood, quietly, and for the first time since Chijioke’s death, without the help of his staff. This made all the men present there to cast their look on him. He turned towards Obinna and Udochukwu, and few other men seated at the bench zone, he painfully waved his head, turned and sat down again.

Ibekwe quickly asked him, “Umeano what is it?”

“Nothing. Ibekwe, just nothing. Perhaps you ask these two rascals…” Pointing behind him with two fingers at Obinna and Udochukwu. “…who knows what these two boys do at Onitsha. They claim to be traders but no one knows what they trade in. I don’t even know who invited them here; do I need the tears of rascals in my mourning?” He obviously was infuriated.

“It’s ok Umeano. Whatever they did, it’s ok. They are your kinsmen and they worked hard to find time to come and pay last respect to your deceased, unlike some of us that are not here.”

“Is it not rather disrespectful coming here to discuss the cause of the boy’s death? You tell me, ehh, is it not disrespectful especially as they rehearse unfounded rumors? Where is the respect in that?”

“It’s ok Umeano. Ozugo!!!” Ibekwe blurted, almost shouting. Turning to Obinna and Udochukwu, “be careful you two young men, be very careful. Let’s do what we came here for and go in peace.”

Obinna and Udochukwu were in their early thirties and their means of livelihood was unclear. They were the youngest in the gathering. They were addressed almost rudely and at this circumstance where apparently they deservedly earned the rant, they were talked at any how and unapologetically. Silence returned to the room.

The last Saturday, a full week from this day, Ibekwe paid Umeano a personal visit. Ibekwe sought to understand the cause of Chijioke’s death. Why will that boy at such prime age kill himself? He asked the father, a man who equally could not get it why his son took his life. Rumours were there, theories attempting to paint a logical reason why such unfortunate thing happened. True to Obinna and Udochkwu’s gossip, they were strong rumours that he died for a girl, that he was gay, and that he had a blood disease.

No one knew Chijioke. Not his father or younger sisters. Not even his mother. He lived such a cold life that randomly comes hot and lively and then suddenly goes ash. He built walls around him and held the only key into his essence. He chooses when to come out of his cocoon and when to withdraw from people; no one knew how to access him. Even when he speaks, he has mastered the art of revealing less or nothing. He was in third year studying Business Administration.

“My son do not have any blood disease, that I do know for sure Ibekwe”, Umeano said, shoveling his hand into the right pocket of his Ankra trouser. He brought out a ruffled piece of paper, a page torn out from an exercise book.

“Ibekwe take. This is it.” He extended the piece of paper to him.

“What is that?”

“That was the note he left at his death scene”

Ibekwe took a glance and shook his head. He dropped the paper on the brown table. The paper read ‘I AM TOO WEAK TO LIVE.” They were briefly engulfed in silence. 

“You know Ibekwe, his Whatsapp status was equally something similar. It read ‘This is not my home, the dark is neigh.’ His friends who found him dead were meant to go to that morning’s lectures with him. They said he drank a powerful insecticide called ‘Sniper’. It must have been a painful death.”

“But Umeano wait, if truly he slept with fellow men, and got caught by his girlfriend who would broadcast it, he should have told you, it shouldn’t be one of the reasons he should kill himself. I mean, your work was recently published in national dailies, where you are of the view that same s*x engagements were permissible to you…”

“Ibekwe you see, those were my views on the national dailies, but that won’t be my view in my home. Common Ibekwe, the world can go crazy for all I care, they can sleep with their parents or animals, they can change their s*x if they like, but you see, not in my home, not a member of my family, it is not the natural order…”

“Wow, Umeano you amaze me. It is not even your disheartening hypocrisy that awes me; it is the fact that you permit the world to go crazy but not your house, not your home. It astounds me that you fail to understand that your house is part of the world and your children interact with the world.” 

Another round of silence. Ibekwe was looking out through the window. Umeano fixed his eyes steady at an almanac hung on the wall behind Ibekwe’s chair.

“Ibekwe, let’s just eat the food we were served before it gets cold”, Umeano said, adjusting his belt so he could comfortably accommodate the incoming meal.

After few spoonful scoops, Ibekwe paused.

“Now that he is gone, and you are fifty-seven, will you try again?” He stared straight at him, with much authority. Umeano interrupted and his eating forced to a halt, wore an expression of shock but yet acknowledging it was a necessary question.

“She is fourty-two you know, I mean my wife. I may have to try, but who can assure it will be a boy.” He spied the curtain blinding the parlor from the corridor, as if to make sure no one heard him.

“Look at you, an academic talking such thing. Meet your fellow lecturers in the science departments and they will tell you what to do, how to lay with your woman and be sure that a boy is coming”

“It is only God that gives and determines what a child will be…”

“Just like God determined your son will kill himself, have s*x with fellow boys and even die right under your watch in a school you lecture at. Sometimes I even wonder the kind of man you are, your philosophy and how much confused your principles must be.”

“Whatever, I may decide to try again. Actually, I must try again. I’m not leaving here without any one to take over”, he smiled briefly.

“Someone’s brain is now working.” He laughed; they both laughed a little bit loud.

At the sitting room, the space gripped by decorum, the quiet was disturbed only by the arrival of the Anglican Reverend of the village parish who will oversee Chijioke’s remittance to mother earth. He was generally greeted with stupendous handshakes and hugs and then given a seat specially reserved for him. 1pm, the chatter of women whom gathered at the car park space were overheard. Most of them who joined in the cooking were done and changed into their proper clothing. The Umuada leader was calling out names from their membership register when a faded noise began to wave in. The blare of the ambulance siren was sharp, accompanied with noisy chants of vivacious mourn songs and thuds of footsteps from the village youths and Chijioke’s classmates who were all adorned in black apparel, the hazy atmosphere and terrifying silence that once tormented Umeano’s compound, quickly flew away together.

Ululation filled the air. Ogochukwu, Chijioke’s mother was of notable participation, the mourn leader. The women who gathered to hold her, who were meant to console her, were seen crying too. They held her, but she held herself more. The men trooped out in twos and threes. 

The ambulance pulled to a full stop inside the compound few meters away to the moist freshly dug grave. Umeano’s two other brothers, Onyedika and Chukwudi came down from the ambulance, eyes red in sorrow. The brothers were charged with the duty of bringing home their nephew’s corpse; the man who lost his son shouldn’t do anything.

Before he is committed to the red soil, the coffin was opened for few minutes for the last viewing. Ogochukwu was now weeping profusely. She couldn’t be held by the women anymore, she couldn’t hold herself any longer, and her brother in-laws kept talking to her compassionately while they now did the holding. They wiped her tears.

The little congregation of men, women and priest rounded the grave. Umeano, the last person to approach the site, walked up quietly to the grave. He was expected to wave them on and his son will be buried. He rather signaled they should wait. The casket now shut and lowered six feet down; Umeano didn’t take a last glance. He walked up to the mouth of the grave, very close that a step more, he would join his son down there. Many thought it was what he wanted to do, some of the kinsmen walked quickly behind him to avoid such scene. Then he stopped, his head bent downward like he was looking at his feet, he took a deep breath and cleared his throat:

“Chijioke my son, should I even call you my son anymore? I now have none, do I?  All thanks to you. Chijioke, you do not understand that in this part of the world, you do not take your own life; because you do not live your life for yourself alone and your life do not belong to you alone. Just as I was not living for myself alone when I sacrificed everything, sold the only land left after the Obi when I was yet unemployed just to put you and your sisters through school. Now what remains of you? You were weak; with your death you remained weak and tell the world that my family is weak. Suitors will run away from your little sisters because…”

His voice cracked, he shook his head, and tears left his eyes, trekking down his cheeks. He didn’t care to wipe them.

“…because we are now a family of suicide, weak people who take their life when met with challenges. People will tell their children not to marry from us or have anything with us. Evil is in their blood, they will say, and run away from us…”

He looked at the Reverend and then at Ibekwe, and now crying fully:

“Ibekwe, Reverend, this boy was just twenty-two. Just look, twenty-two…”

Umeano began shaking, his stroke seem to have returned.

“Umeano, Ozugo. It’s alright, you can’t be crying more than your wife, act like a man.”

Ibekwe signaled to the Reverend to commence and to the excavators to take over when the priest is done. The Reverend said some rites and a brief prayer.

The kinsmen whisked Umeano away from the site. For a man who was known for not knowing how better to express himself when emotional, in pain, he cursed. He tried to resist being removed from the site, but what possibly can he do in the hands of four young men?

“…Obinna, that boy was just twenty-two. My only son. He is a fool, is he not? Chijioke, you are a fool and a weakling. Taking your own life, what have it done for you? What do they now say of you, that you climb fellow men? What are you going to tell God, that you belong to Sodom? I know you don’t do such, but who is going to prove that. It is enough reason to live and clear your name. Or is it really because a girl rebuffed you that you rejected life? Weak fool, why won’t you answer me now?”

His kinsmen were confused between consoling him and beating him into shutting up.

“Aja rara aja” Sand to sand

“Ntu rara ntu” Ash to ash

“Izuzu rara izuzu” Dust to Dust

Dust rose as the excavators filled the grave. Umeano’s wailing faded into abbreviated cry and then to silence. When the excavators were done, the dusts settled sealing the news of Chijioke’s demise. Dead men don’t speak, so was it that his thoughts, such as his talents and potentials rested with him in the red belly of the earth. The shallow rain that showered briefly,  tarred to earth, the remnants and debris of his life.

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