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.

Poisonous serpents and demons! I told him that if he didn’t leave my house before I opened my eyes, nobody who saw the bites on his body would believe I didn’t own a dog. He told me that he got his nickname ‘The Go-Go’ because he never turned back. I told him that he would soon discover the difference between the fly that followed the rubbish to the tip and the one that followed the corpse down into the grave. He pulled out a whistle and shook it in my face. He told me I was playing with arrest and detention, that a single blow on his whistle would fetch the police; but his voice was shaking too. So I told him I had no quarrel with that, but that he should also whistle for a hearse. As he was leaving, he shouted that we villagers were idiots, we that won’t pay taxes, we’d keep crying for pipe-borne water. I told him that the womb of a pauper contained many beautiful and still-born dreams. Then I locked my door and went to farm.

It’s the clerk and his Government who are idiots. As if it made any sense to look for something in the pocket of someone who was looking for something.

5 June. The gossips have a new song about me. Whenever I approach they stop singing and start giggling. Anyway, that’s their business. I tapped wine from the single palm on my farm. After all, it’s my birthday. If I can’t dine like a human being let me at least wine like one. Ekiti surprised me at the wine. Before I could dodge it, he was inside, with his own drinking horn. While Ekiti sat there soaking up my wine, I thought about Ma’Abel. All those years I was swaggering because I married a woman who didn’t look her age. My mates’ wives looked like their mothers while mine looked like my daughter. I thought I had paid the price of my privilege when I started hearing rumours about Ma’Abel and the councillor, the butcher and the owner of the postal agency. Then Ma’Abel had to elope with the vulcaniser! Devil, lend me money! Isn’t it better to have a wife that looks like your mother?

I was thinking all those evil thoughts that wrinkle a man’s face up like an elder’s scrotum when Ekiti rose to go. At the door he told me: Sorry about your goat. I spent an hour after the sponger left, trying to figure out his words. Sorry about my goat! My wife left and he didn’t come to commiserate. My sons left and he didn’t come. Then my goat dies and he turns up. How did he know about my goat to begin with?

6 June. I left for church without breakfast. I don’t know what kind of demon pushed me to do my father’s second burial last year. That week of the feast was the last time I had money in my pocket; and it was all borrowed. Even now I still have Fasmin and Kemberi to pay; and what has made me lose weight like this, if it isn’t their insults? Last week a seven-year-old held my wrapper[*] at a village meeting, wailing that his daddy needed his money to pay his school fees.

I was dizzy with hunger when I reached the church, but I couldn’t stay till the end. Reverend Iwu sermonised on the hypocritical Pharisees as usual, but every time he uttered his malevolent ‘woe unto you’s, everyone glanced at me.

Because I saw the entire Mentu family in church, I plucked a pumpkin from their house as I passed their hedge. The sordid crime was a conspiracy between a larcenous machete and my bowlegs. They were already bending before I reached the pumpkin and before I knew it, the pumpkin was in my sack. I felt sorry immediately. But what has happened has happened.

All my adult life, I’ve never taken another man’s thing without asking. Could hunger make me start now – or had the criminal in me been sleeping? In the night I cooked the pumpkin with a little yam.

It wasn’t even sweet.

7 June. Chentus saw a boa constrictor on his farm today. Instead of shouting for help like a well-born Ikerre man, he struggled with it like a lunatic. Greedy idiot. All he did today was roast snake. His shoulder was bleeding but he didn’t mind, so long as he kept the meat to himself.

The sun slowly flayed my back as bitterness grilled my insides. Was I foolish, years ago, not to have headed for Warri with my school certificate?

Yet Edem had done just that. Twenty-eight years in the Ministry before he retired, looking as thin as a palm tree and just as black. The wretched property he acquired after decades of clerking fitted into one small pick-up. He spent two more years travelling to Warri to pursue his entitlements. He had learnt idiotic ways in the city too: when he heard that his gratuity was ready, he borrowed money and threw a foolish party. I still remember the hatred in his daughter’s eyes as she served rice and the meat they rarely ate at home. He died in an accident on his way back with his gratuity. A fraudulent Good Samaritan brought his corpse to the Village Square, denying that he’d found any money on Edem.

Later, I met Nwozuai on Katai Road. He looked left and right and brought his melon-head near my ear. He said that what he overheard concerning me in the market was so disgusting that he could never have brought himself to repeat it, were we not near-kinsmen, and I told him to say his piece and let me go my way. So he told me how people were saying that hunger had made me eat my decomposing goat. I told him that my goat died of snake poison and if the rumour was true, I’d be dead myself. He said he thought it was a foolish rumour, but that he was repeating it exactly the way he heard it.

It was fortunate for Nwozuai that my machete was at home. I knew his next listener would learn how people were saying that the decomposing goat Meme Jumai ate had even died of snake venom. And I realised the content of the new mocking songs, and the reason for the laughter that kept breaking out behind me. I cursed Nwozuai all the way home.

8 June. One tuber left and seven days to go! God will help his own. I left the farm early to attend the burial of my cousin, Journeyman. For a pauper’s burial it was well attended; although most people came to admire the coffin.

Journeyman died last December but because of his son in Rome, our greedy elders refused to bury him. Bury him, bury him, his age-grade kept pressing, but no, the elders wanted to eat Italian lire. They knew that once Journeyman was in the grave, they wouldn’t squeeze anything from his son; so they left him in the mortuary. Imagine that! For five months, a man who died of hunger has been sleeping naked in a dormitory for corpses, where the rental is even higher than Warri hotels!

The elders have now accepted that Journeyman’s son, who abandoned his father in life, also abandoned him in death. I don’t know how they settled the mortuary bill. All I know is I’m not paying any levy.

The dead man’s body was laid out in Ifetu’s casket. Some people called Ifetu a wicked man, but that was a naked lie. The truth was that his wickedness had fermented. In fact, known wizards were careful not to quarrel with Ifetu for fear of haemorrhoids – which was his preferred means of afflicting his enemies. Ifetu knew he was friendless. He also knew Ikerre’s penchant for avenging people’s misdeeds on their corpses; so he bought himself an expensive coffin which he kept under his bed. He also dug and plastered a shallow grave in his courtyard. He calculated that whatever grievances his neighbours nursed against him, when his corpse started to stink, someone would tip him into his coffin and push it into the grave.

Unfortunately he was crushed by a truck in Ipoti. His body festered for a week, but Ipoti is far from Ikerre-Oti, and nobody troubled to fetch him back home to his coffin. As for Journeyman, kind pauper though he was, nobody was willing to contribute a kobo for his coffin after the lira fiasco. The elders commandeered Ifetu’s coffin for the burial; which is how Journeyman came to lie in state in a coffin more expensive than his house.

When I saw Journeyman’s body, I shivered. And I realised why they say that the chick should heed what happens to her elder cousins at Christmas, because that would be her fate, come Easter. One look at his bony head, and I also realised why they say that it’s only what a person eats that he carries to his grave. Journeyman’s children have been carrying the story that Aids killed their father. What I want to know is, where did Journeyman get Aids? Do people get Aids from eating cassava peels? Nonsense and tenpence! Posing with a big man’s disease, as if it is hard to recognise the body of a person who died of hunger!

9 June. I lived on fruits yesterday so that I can eat yam today; and when you’ve tried both, you’ll notice a difference between blackberries and food. I measured two inches of yam and boiled it with a tray of spinach. My trap is empty. So I fried dried termites in palm oil. That trap of mine is a puzzle; the last time I caught an animal was the week before Chentus started farming the land between mine and the river. No matter how early I reach the farm, he’s there before me. One of these days I’ll catch him. As Ikerre people say, the grain a chicken scratches up is not destined for the stomach of a goat.

On the matter of goats, there is no sleep to be had. Every time I close my eyes, I see flies streaming into the red nostrils of my goat. Why did I carve that goat anyway? It was desperation, short and simple. And see where the whole thing has landed me now.

I’d buried the goat’s foetuses and entrails right away, but I’d also fed a portion to Ma’Caro’s dog on the sly. The greedy mongrel had never eaten that much meat in its life. I had to drive it from my compound with burning firewood.

By evening when I returned from the farm there was no sign of it. It was around six o’clock that Caro started wailing. Come and see my chest knacking! I allowed one whole hour to pass, then when things quietened, I inquired of Caro over the hedge: Where’s your dog? It’s dead, she told me, beginning to wail again. That was when I dumped the rest of my goat down the pit latrine. The crying I cried when I buried my goat was nothing compared to the one I cried when I buried the pieces of my goat.

At least I didn’t cry when Ma’Caro informed me that their dog had been run over by Johnny Bus-Stop’s taxi. What puzzled her was why the dog was too lazy to dodge a thirty-year-old banger. That exact and particular news, I took like a man. Shouldn’t I also have eaten my goat-meat like a man and let what happens happen? Now, my reputation is in tatters because of meat I didn’t even taste.

10 June. Five days more before the harvest! Sleep finished from my eyes at 4 a.m. I tried and tried but my eyes were staring like a bereaved widow’s. I lay there, recalculating my last 11 inches. If there’s one gift we didn’t discuss on the day God made me, it was the gift of fasting. The very thought of a full day without food gives me headache. Particularly when I imagine the vulcaniser eating my yams and sleeping with my wife. Face to face with Starvation, I have to confess he’s an ugly beast. Maxwell Otombri, I’ve noticed, is drastically losing weight. Even Otudo was recently caught stalking Oba’s fowl with his son’s catapult. Shameless man. Yet Ikerre-Oti people have been saying it for years, and it’s true: the crab in the pot finds no solace in the fact that his family is boiling with him.

Kai, but I’m hungry!

I took some pirim seeds and left home. That early, I could hear cackling in Ma’ Etibang’s darkened house. No wonder people call her a witch. As I neared my trap, I heard that beautiful sound of a crying animal. My chest started again, but this time with good reason: there was a bush rat struggling in my trap.

If I can’t say the truth in my diary I don’t know where else I can say it. I was just shaking and swallowing saliva as I looked at the rat. If you saw how its eyes were shining! In the light of my torch, its whiskers were dancing as if it was already roasting on my brazier. A bush rat is a bush rat; but maybe because I hadn’t eaten meat in months, it looked as big as a buck. I reached into my bag for a knife to remove its entrails … and my fingers touched the pirim seeds.

Kai! There’re many kinds of hell, apart from the one waiting for sinners in the grave.

If you saw the kind of fight I fought with myself! I knelt there in the darkness before my breakfast, with my knife in one hand and the pirim seeds in the other. My stomach was screaming that I should dagger the rat and have breakfast. My head was telling me to poison the rat and the trap-thief. In the end common sense settled the quarrel: if I were to leave my house at 4 a.m. again to check my trap people would call me a wizard on top of my troubles. If I wanted to eat meat from my trap again, I had to solve the problem of the thief once and for all, that very morning.

So I dropped the sweet pirim seeds. The bush rat started chewing, convulsed and died. Some animals are cursed. The same long throat that landed it in soup had now put it into fire. I rose and left at once. I’ve cried over a woman. I’ve cried over a goat. I won’t cry over a rat as well.

I returned home and boiled four out of my 11 inches of yam. By 6.30 a.m. I left for the farm as usual. I checked my trap and found that the rat had been removed. I didn’t know it was possible to sing after being robbed.

11 June. At the farm I noticed a termite trail that led from a new anthill and emptied some kerosene on it. I hadn’t worked long before I grew tired. During the worst of the heat I sat in the shade and dreamed of roast bush rat.

In the evening I boiled and ate four inches of yam. Then I put on the lace outfit I made for my father’s second burial and went to Chentus’s house. His wife was counting the eggs laid by their chickens. Where’s your husband? I asked. He went to Chemist to buy diarrhoea medicine, she said. Is that so? I asked sympathetically. Since this afternoon, she confided, all of us in the house have been shitting like agric fowls.

But can’t you see the wickedness of humans? They have their chickens at home, they eat eggs every blessed day, but they won’t leave my rats alone for me. That’s too bad, I told her. Tell him that next time he takes meat from my trap it will be real poison, not pirim! The woman’s mouth fell open, giving the game away.

I went home thinking the sacrifice of my rat meat well worth it.

12 June. I really don’t know how I entered Barika’s shop on my way from the farm this evening. A greying poster behind the richest man in Ikerre-Oti advised, No Credit Today, Try Tomorrow. He smiled genially at me. We haven’t seen you for a long time, Chief Jumai! For Barika, every customer was a chief. I told him that people didn’t pay condolence visits with empty hands, and that it was the emptiness of my hands that had kept me away.

Barika laughed and replied with his own proverb. True, Chief Jumai, but all that’s necessary for a condolence visit in respect of a dead goat is a skinning knife. I paused. The proverb was in standard use, though hardly apt, but my unfortunate association with dead goats caused me to examine the old trader’s face for sly undertones. I realised why Ikerre people said that in a dwarf’s presence, bending down could be construed as an insult.

I decided I wasn’t in a position to be sensitive. I have come to you in respect of a two-day c-c-c-credit, I said, putting a 2kg bag of semolina on his check-out counter. I continued: You know very well that harvest is three days away, and that I planted a few hundred bushes of yam.

You remember that story of Tortoise and Hyena, he replied, and I asked him which one in particular. I didn’t like the trend of the discussion. I’d come for food and not stories, but, if the hearing of a tale was the price of food then I was desperate to pay it.

Hyena was cooking the pottage for which he was famous, began Barika, resting his head on the No Credit Today poster. The smell of it was so bewitching that all the animals gathered in envy. Yet it was Tortoise and his sweet tongue that got to eat it. You don’t remember how? He promised Hyena his beautiful daughter in marriage in return for his pottage. It was an irresistible bargain for Hyena, whose foul breath had made him a notorious bachelor. Months later, when the debt became bad, Lion’s court sat and Hyena made his case. You remember Tortoise’s defence? Oh King, Hyena gave me his pottage knowing I have no daughter. I still have none, but when I have one, most certainly, he shall have his bride …

Barika broke off to sell some loaves. Several gossips who seemed more interested in Lion’s judgment than their shopping were waiting patiently. I drifted around his shop and, when I got near the door, slipped out.

They can have the story.

I headed for my trap, only to find a grasscutter[†] struggling there! I didn’t know, as between my dinner and myself, who was shaking more. It was the back of my hoe that killed it. I didn’t know, as between the sweat on its fur and the saliva in my mouth, which was more. I returned home right away. It must have been a small animal, because I ate it once and it was finished. In fact it must have been an infant because the only bones left in my pot, from which I ate directly, were claws. Hunger is a terrible thing. Once I started eating, I just couldn’t stop. I threw in my last three inches of yam, planning to stretch the meal till harvest, but I couldn’t stop eating until it was all gone. Food is good, and anyone who disagrees should just step aside for me.

13 June. And I thought I was suffering before. Today was the pomp and plain beginning of my nightmare. From morning until 5 p.m. the only thing that moved inside my mouth was my tongue. It’s still two days to the village harvest, yet my pots were as empty as the mind of a simpleton. This village must be dedicated to the devil. The wicked traditions that it has! Why shouldn’t a man uproot a yam before the collective sacrifice is made at the village harvest festival?

When I returned from the farm, I hobbled over to the bathroom stall like an invalid. Over the hedge, Nwozuai told me that while Calamatus was duping people left, right and centre, my senior son, Abel, was sending emissaries from the vulcaniser’s clan to seek the hand of a girl from Ubiaja in marriage. Even so, I remained on my feet.

After bathing, I discovered a lizard in one of my barren pots. It had been dead a couple of days. I threw it away. I saw how it was possible to die the death of a lizard, a death without heritage, lying three or four days in my bed before I am discovered, and even then, thrown into the ground with neither outcry nor mourning. I washed my pot grimly. The passing of a man should be different from the passing of a lizard.

I noticed that my house was beginning to dance gently in front of my eyes.

I dressed slowly, deciding that it had to be the Etongs, a large, wealthy family of eight sons and not a single daughter. It wasn’t an easy decision. Back in ‘89 when Calamatus had his appendix operation, Chief Etong had visited us in hospital. To impress the villagers at the bedside, he rebuked me for not coming to collect his contribution towards the hospital bills. That very night, I was at his house and he told me tomorrow. I was at his house the next day and he told me tomorrow. He told me tomorrow eight more times before I abused him and left.

Yet wasn’t that ten years ago? Since then we’ve started greeting each other and eating kolanut together. I reached his compound just before 6 p.m. and stayed two hours. Despite the stunning aroma of afang soup coming from the kitchen, Mrs Etong didn’t bring the dinner into the parlour as usual. Instead, the family took turns disappearing into the kitchen, from which they later emerged with a glass of water and a toothpick. Chief Etong himself, with whom I shared a locker in Form Five, shamelessly made his own disappearance and returned only to fall asleep in front of me. It was when he started snoring that I left.

It wasn’t me who wrote a desperate letter to Abel. I sat there, watching my right hand scrawling the most sycophantic idiocies. I sat there, watching my hunger consume my shame: I don’t know what miracle has happened to Abel in two weeks, but if he has money to marry an Ubiaja girl, he should have money to feed his father for two days. I can’t sleep much tonight. If I send the letter through Johnny Bus-Stop first thing tomorrow, I could get Abel’s cash by evening.

14 June. Too weak to farm today. I lay here dreaming of food and listening to voices from the street talking of masquerades and dances for the harvest festival. I reread the letter to my son. It read like something written by a man lying prostrate on the ground. Shame struggled with my hunger. I tried to tear the letter, but I watched in amazement as my trembling hands folded it away.

At noon I visited my cousin Chemist. Nezianya eats well, harvest or no harvest. It’s just that wickedness has poisoned people’s minds; nowadays ‘brothers’ are only those who came from the same womb. If only people will listen to their memories once in a while. Wasn’t it just nine years ago that the fake drug scandal blew open and the CID came for Nezianya? Didn’t he spend two nights in my pit latrine before someone ate bribe to quench the case? Yet the last time I mentioned that favour, he had asked insolently what the rental costs of my latrine amounted to, so he could pay me once and for all.

Anyway, my arrival at Nezianya’s house was perfectly timed. The pestle had just stopped pounding the yam and the heady aroma of banga soup was in the air. One of those Ikerre traditions that no one can complain of is this hospitality that mealtimes evoke. In Ikerre it is more honourable to skimp on your children’s rations than to deny food to a visitor fortunate enough to walk into a meal. Not only had I walked into a meal, I found my cousin in a jovial mood, for I heard Nezianya’s expansive laughter as I knocked on the door.

The laughter ended as if its owner had fallen inside a river; then a child asked: Who’s it? It’s Uncle Jumai, I said. Open the door. There was some whispering. Then, in a voice apparently strained by a resolve not to have her ration cut by half, the child said: They’re not in! I shook the door handle. It’s me, Uncle Jumai, I assured her. I was getting angry myself, I mean, who was this brat telling me that I couldn’t enter my brother’s house? Open I say, let me message you! Then something strange happened to the voice. It started out childlike, cracked mid-sentence, and ended up an angry roar: I say they’re not in, what is it? Go away! I staggered back, shaken by the venom in Chemist’s voice.

I stumbled away, burning with shame.

My feet were taking me towards the motor park to dispatch my SOS to Abel. It was a good thing, all told, that I ran into Nwozuai on the way. He brought his mouth so close to me that I caught a whiff of stale bean pottage. Nonsense and tenpence! This world is an evil place. Here was Nwozuai’s mouth smelling of beans, a man who hasn’t done one morning’s work in ten years! If it weren’t for the fact that we have the same lineage, he began, and I told him I was in haste. So he told me how Abel’s marriage bid had ended. The emissaries had been asked if it wasn’t true that the groom’s family was so poor that they lived on the meat of dead animals and they were chased home in disgrace. I think Nwozuai would have said more, but by that time I had bitten him twice. He set off down Katai Road screaming as if it was a lion, not a man, that he had been talking with.

Afterwards, I stood like a palm tree whose crown has withered. Inside me was the emptiness of a man who buries two sons at once. I didn’t need a soothsayer to tell me I would never see them again. It wasn’t me who told my hands to tear up the letter I had written to Abel.

15 June. Harvest day – dawn. Even the dead could feel Ikerre’s excitement. I was so weak I could hardly lift a hoe. By nightfall I would be prosperous again, but first I needed strength to harvest yams. My father left me four things: the house, the gun, the TV and my surname. As I pushed my black and white set into a jute bag, I felt as though I were selling my birthright.

At the electrician’s house; his wife was busy folding up their mattress, converting their home into a shop. Okosisi himself sat on his high stool, soldering the guts of a small transistor. All around him were various appliances that hardship had pushed their owners to sell. He had cleaned them up now in preparation for harvest and the seasonal prosperity of Ikerre people. I put my TV on his work bench. It works like new, I told Okosisi, who wasn’t a very polite man: You know they don’t make televisions the way they used to. At first I thought he had seen something funny in the radio he was mending, but when he continued to laugh after it fell and broke, I realised he wasn’t going to make me an offer. My heart was doing that nonsense again and my saliva had become a resinous gum. I went home.

The sun had come out well well before shame allowed me to enter Ma’Caro’s house. Please can I have a plate of pap, I asked. I had never done that before. She looked at me. From her eyes I could see that she was frightened I would start weeping in her presence. She hurried to her kitchen for some food. By the time I made the cover of my house, I was actually weeping from the shame.

It was eight o’clock before I was ready for the farm. It was just as I stepped out of the house that the first villagers returned, leaping and rolling on the ground. They were screaming: Termites! Beetles! And the way they were rolling, you would think the problem was in their pants not in their yams. I dropped my harvest basket and went to the farm with just a hoe. It was my longest journey ever. I met many more devastated, hysterical villagers. I saw many tubers riddled with holes, but I said not a word. It was that resin thing in my mouth again.

Yet, my mind was sparking. Kai, but this world is wicked. Is there nothing like mercy any more? Is there nothing like justice? Is there nothing like salary after a hard month’s labour? Like harvest after a terrible, terrible planting? The first tuber I dug up was riddled with holes. It had just enough starch to keep the yam plant healthy, not enough to sell, not enough to eat. I didn’t dig up another.

The walk back to my house was my shortest, but full of memories. I remembered the day I named my second son. I had written to my father requesting that he send a name. He was in Utagba-Uno at the time, a messenger at the postal agency. So he sent a letter back: Calamatus. I turned the name up and down. Calamatus. So I asked Johnny Bus-Stop, who’d delivered the letter in his taxi, whether there was a name like Calamatus among the people of Utagba-Uno, and he said that his own business was to bring the letter, not to interpret it. So I named my second son Calamatus, and when people asked me, Calamatus? I told them to keep the question until my father came. Was that not how, that Christmas, my father visited and asked whether it was a species of plant we were referring to when we spoke the name Calamatus, or a human child. So I asked: Weren’t you the one that sent the name? And he said, No, it was Clement that he told the letter-writer and that the boy knacked his head, knacked his head, and wrote what he wrote. But by then it was too late. Calamatus had become Calamatus. The tailor had erred in his cutting, and it must become a new style.

I’m home, now. The double-barrel has four more cartridges. It is enough. I’ll take it to the Village Square and square up to the wicked. My father left me a heritage, and I’ll leave my village one. If a man finds no rest for his elbows, he can at least use his knees. I have crawled through life like a lizard but I won’t die like one. I am leaving now for the Village Square, and let what happens happen.

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

[†] A cane rat.