Diary of a Dead African

Chuma Nwokolo

Name: Meme Jumai. Occupation: Farmer.
Residence: Ikerre-Oti, Delta State, Nigeria. Date of Birth: 5 June 1950. Date of Death: 15 June 2000. Cause of Death: Awaiting Inquest.

1 June 2000. When I woke, I was sweating as if I were on the farm. Yet it wasn’t the sweat of hard work that wet my bed-sheet so. It was the sweat of fear. I was feeling as if a witch had poured fear inside me. If you saw how my chest was doing!

As I opened my door onto the compound and hung my bed-sheet where it became my curtain, I tried to remember my exact and particular dread. I couldn’t; and I’m not surprised. My problems aren’t the sort you confide to a native doctor and he laughs before starting treatment. My problems are the sort that the bravest witchdoctor will hear halfway and flee. Isn’t that how I met Catechist before Easter and he said he won’t waste our time by praying, that my problems had surpassed the kind that prayer and fasting solve. It’s just that adversity isn’t something people boast about; otherwise, in this Ikerre-Oti, I’ve no rival.

What I didn’t know then was that a bigger crisis was coming from Warri.

It wasn’t quite dawn, but as Ikerre people say, only a ne’er-do-well needs sunlight to gather his farm-gear. I got dressed. Nobody can call my house a mud-hut any more, ever since I plastered it with sand and cement. (Except those who have jealousy running in their veins and they think it’s blood. Those witches can never forget what’s under the plaster.) On the harvest poles opposite my clay bed were the remnants of my 1999 harvest … only three yam tubers? As soon as those tubers filled my eyes, the silence also filled my ears. Ma’Abel was not cursing her stove from her kitchen. My two sons Abel and Calamatus were not quarrelling over who forgot to tether the goat yesterday. I was alone in my compound with only three yam tubers!

That was when I remembered my exact and particular fear, and my chest kept quiet. Because Ikerre people also say that when you recognise the sickness that will kill you, doctors will stop eating your money. I remembered the name of the fear that filled me like the urine of a witch; and when a disease has a name, at least one can salute him politely.

His name was Starvation.

It was two weeks until harvest and tradition decrees that not a root may be disturbed in the fields before the day of the new yam festival. The situation was serious.

I released my pregnant goat to graze. Another week and the lazy thing should bear. As I feared, young idiots with empty pails were already loitering by my gate. They were sent to the stream but here they were, singing their silly songs. Nonsense and tenpence! I went to the kitchen. I cooked a pottage with six inches of yam and an armful of ‘vegetables’ from the hedge between my compound and Ma’Caro’s.

I didn’t go to farm today.

Later I watched the black and white TV I inherited from my father. To keep the pictures from flickering like the thoughts of a lunatic, I have to tap it every now and again. That’s how I spent my first day away from the farm this year: slapping a thirty-year-old television in a mud-hut pretending to be sandcrete, watching programmes from the other side of the universe.

I should hate Meme Jumai, if I were not Meme Jumai.

2 June. Nwozuai’s voice woke me. The shameless forty-year-old gossip was wheedling akara from Ma’Caro. I stared at my yams. Fourteen days before the village harvest and only two tubers and 13 inches left! Just two days ago my harvest wall had poles strung with yams. Then my calamity occurred, threatening me with starvation: Ma’Abel, my wife for twenty-five years, left me for a vulcaniser at Warri. She took ten yams for every son she gave me. Me, I quarrelled with her arithmetic. Three of the sons for whom she claimed compensation died before they started farming. The others, Abel and Calamatus, often gave me cause to wish them dead as well.

It was Ma’Abel’s shamelessness, not her arithmetic, that won the argument. Come and see her screaming the day before yesterday, when I woke up with three tubers of yam. The whole Ikerre-Oti gathered! Her fellow women circled me like vultures. The men came, too, but where the women supported Ma’Abel with abuses, the men stayed silent, like a lunatic’s embarrassed relations. Come and see her yanking my loin-cloth around, with me inside, crying that instead of making her Mrs Jumai, I made her Mrs Suffer-Head.

Yes I’m poor; but I hate disgrace. I had to yield my yams. That very evening, while I was at a village meeting pretending that I wasn’t shaken at all, Abel took my transistor and electric fan and followed his mother. Calamatus had left a week earlier on another of his get-rich scams. Idiots!

Had that witch left me fifteen years ago, by the next weekend, I swear, I’d have married again. I swear. But, considering today’s bride-price, there are certain things that shouldn’t happen to a 49-year-old man whose nostril-hairs have started to whiten.

I chewed chewing-stick, wondering whether Meme Jumai had died years ago and forgot his body in Ikerre by mistake. I crept into the compound to untie the goat. Nwozuai had succeeded. Pretending not to see me, he swallowed his bean cakes, moving his neck like a boa constrictor doing in a rabbit. I squatted in Ma’Abel’s kitchen, warming the leftover pottage. I ate some and returned to my bed, missing my transistor badly and studying my yams the way witchdoctors study the position of kola nuts on their divining mats. Kai! How would I manage to make them last the remaining two weeks until harvest? The young day matured and aged before my eyes. I lay on my bed. I sat up. I lay down and sat up. That’s how I spent this shameful day at home; without my radio I couldn’t shut out the mockery of the giggling girls who changed their route to the stream to pass under my window. Witches. In the evening I ate the last of the pottage and tied up the goat.

I didn’t leave my compound all day.

What face was I supposed to put on to look at the villagers on the day after the day after the day my family left me for a vulcaniser? Tomorrow should be better; a village as useless as Ikerre-Oti should have found fresher gossip. Later I tried to find something worth watching on television. As all the dials were broken, I used my pliers to hunt for a station, but they had all agreed to be idiots today. I slept early.

3 June. At 2 a.m. my goat began to bleat and my useless chest started again. There are two short and cogent reasons why thieves shouldn’t go near my goat. First, it’s my only one; second, it’s extremely pregnant. If they wait another week they can steal her without destroying me completely.

Yet if Penis would listen to reason, would they have named him Penis? It was pitch-dark outside. None of those reasons were good enough for me to risk my life over an animal, so I took down my late father’s double-barrel and aimed at the moon. I broke that night into pieces. If I can’t sleep, why should anyone else? Afterwards, even my goat fell silent, yet my heart was knacking as if the bullet had entered my body. I swear, if by morning that goat is no longer tethered to my onugbu, I’ll take the gun and my last four cartridges to the Village Square and let what happens happen. People should realise that a small penis is no reason to seize a man’s wife.

By morning, flies from the pit latrine had taken over my goat’s nostrils. Witchcraft and black magic! On one leg were the marks of a snakebite. The sight of that huge, dead pregnancy hit me more than my wife’s desertion. I hurried into the latrine and considered the suffering in my life. Nonsense and tenpence! If they want to bury me with all my problems, they would need a very big coffin! It was months since I last ate meat of any kind and here was this small mountain of meat, for which I had great plans. God has plenty cases to judge in heaven! Why couldn’t a snake wait for my goat to bear and swallow a whole kid if it wants?

Yet, if the devil leaves wickedness, who else will employ him? Come and see all the saliva I swallowed as I cut up that goat. Serpents and demons! If I tell you there were four kids inside it, you won’t believe me. Four. Part of the carcass I buried in the compound, by evening the rest went down the pit latrine. What has happened has happened and if Reverend Father preaches everything in his mouth, Mass will never finish.

I went to farm today. They’re still looking at me funny-funny, but that’s their business. I’m not the first man to lose his wife and I won’t be the last. If only my wife had had the decency to follow a landlord or something. A roadside vulcaniser!

4 June. I’ve never studied yams like this before. Two tubers and eight inches. I cut and boiled four inches. Is it not the scarcity of venison that made deer the delicacy that she is? To think the day would come when Meme Jumai would boil yam by the inch!

The local government clerk arrived as I was leaving for the farm. He wanted his council tax. I told him that money was something my pockets haven’t seen for months and he said that maybe there was a conspiracy afoot because everyone in the village was saying the same thing. The moon everyone had seen, I replied, was not a mirage. He said he wasn’t leaving my house without his tax. I took my implements and told him to look after my house. Then he said he would seize my yams! I looked at the two tubers and four inches and my chest began to knack again.

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[*] A piece of cloth wrapped around the waist or worn over the shoulder.

[†] A cane rat.