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Jul/Aug 2012 Fiction

The Okani-Nkam Modern Day Project

by Esame Okwoche


The Okani-Nkam Modern Day Project is a dual carriage road that my best friend Comfort said leads to the world. Every day, truckloads of goods and traders bursting from each side rattle along this modern thoroughfare, on their way to the other side of the world. The road is busiest at Christmas, bringing back diseases and woes and Okani-Nkam people who have lived in the world for so long that they look at us (the ones who have not been outside the village) the same way we look at them, like aliens. My father refers to the road as the broad way: smooth, easy, and plagued with whoredom and drunkenness and rottenness that stinks and ranks to the high heavens. The narrow way, however (a road he fervently prescribes), is gnashing, winding, and unfrequented.

The first time I met my father's younger brother Kumasi, I knew he traveled the broad way. He was tall and muscular and had a careless air about him that Comfort called sexy, while father was short and pudgy in areas where he had no business being pudgy. Comfort said father was just fat. Uncle Kumasi was nothing like my father's other brother, Godswill, who visited the village every Christmas until he met a woman from God-knows-where and now he says he doesn't believe in God anymore. Comfort says he is lost. Uncle Kumasi never even worked in the Chinese restaurant where Godswill and father were assistant cooks and where father had only recently been promoted to cook after over a decade of dishing out Chinese food and smelling as if he was carrying rotten meat in his pocket.

But my Uncle Kumasi smelled of someone he called "Issy Miyaki" in a soft, sensuous voice that Comfort also deemed sexy.

"I thought it was his body that was sexy?" I asked.

"Idiot, don't you know that a person's voice can be sexy, too? In Europe everything is sexy, even dogs."

"Really?"

"Do you not see how they dress up their dogs and carry them around to salons and dog parties, and some of them even wear sunglasses."

"How can a dog wear sunglasses?"

"Bush girl," Comfort hissed and kissed her teeth at me. "You do not even know anything."

"Eh... because you are lying."

"Okay, ask Kumasi."

"Uncle Kumasi..."

"Yes," Uncle Kumasi said, clearing his throat unnecessarily like father does whenever he wants to say something important. "Dogs do wear sunglasses. Even cats and monkeys. In fact, I have seen a dog wearing sunglasses in Cape Town. Eh... my friend's dog, it was."

The bit about his friend's dog wearing sunglasses sounded like a lie, because he stammered at the end of the sentence, and father says when someone stammers it is often because they are lying. I tried to imagine Lucky, our neighbor's hungry dog, wearing sunglasses. Lucky would probably eat the sunglasses before realizing that they were meant for his eyes, the same way he had eaten Comfort's fancy slippers that one of her man lovers had brought her from Mombassa or Nampula or someplace close to the Indian Ocean. The same way he had dug into my ankle meat and left a deep scar that Comfort said I must hide if I was to be successful in finding a husband.

 

My Uncle Kumasi used to perch underneath the mango tree to serenade the young women as they made their way to the evening market. When the faint, pitchy vibrations from his harmonica greeted their ears, the women would abandon their chatter and gather to hear my uncle sing and blow on the harmonica. He sang original, vulgar songs that compared women to different soups.

"Soup, soup, soup, O sweet soup. I have eaten soups—Egusi Soup, Okra soup, vegetable soup—but none is as sweet as you, my sweet, sweet soup. I will die happy with you in my belly, sweet, sweet soup."

The young women would smile coyly, fluttering their eyelashes relentlessly as they sang with him, smiled at him, swaying their hips rhythmically from one side to the other, hoping that they might be that next soup, that next woman, that next song.

Uncle Kumasi left after he and my father had an argument. The argument started just before midnight and lasted until the small hours of the next morning. After my father called him a fornicator and a drug addict who was burning his lungs with ganji and was a couple of steps away from the grave. Uncle Kumasi said father was short and fat and smelt like dung and that our house was dirty and poor and smelt like an abattoir. My father threatened to blow Uncle Kumasi's head off with his shotgun that he had stopped using to hunt when he became a born-again Christian, but which still hung in a sling in his room. Uncle Kumasi said he was going to pluck out my father's eyeballs with his bare hands and feed them to Lucky. I clutched the thin curtain that separated the living room from the kitchen and prayed that they would stop. They did stop shouting at each other, but only to start fighting. Uncle Kumasi punched father's fat stomach, but father pulled Uncle Kumasi's dreadlocks until he begged him to stop. Father stopped, lurched violently at Uncle Kumasi, and they struggled for a while until Uncle Kumasi punched father off of him. Father's head hit the floor, and Uncle Kumasi ran out of the house, leaving him on the floor looking dead.

 

Many years later, Comfort brought back news from the Okani-Nkam Modern Day Project. She said Genesis, the skinny lorry driver who supplied her the oranges she sold by the side of the road, was the news carrier. He said Kumasi was coming home to hold a concert at the town hall.

"Genesis said Kumasi's posters are all over the world." She rolled her big eyes as she spoke. "He is coming with his manager to perform at the town hall. Genesis says his manager is some man from China."

"China?" I repeated unnecessarily, stunned that anybody related to me would know someone from China.

"Yes, the manager is from China. Genesis said Kumasi met him during one of his concerts in Asia."

"Asia?" I said ponderously.

"Why are you repeating things like an idiot?" she said and cut her eye at me.

"My father said I am not an idiot."

"Genesis said Kumasi is touring Asia," she carried on. "You know, like all those big rock bands in big trailers drinking alcohol, smoking ganji, and fornicating."

"Big rock bands, fornicating," I repeated, trying to work out in my head what big rock bands looked like.

"Genesis said Kumasi is big. He said everybody in the world is talking about him. Genesis said he is like a celebrity now."

"Celebrity!"

"Am I speaking Swahili?" she asked and kissed her teeth at me.

 

Uncle Kumasi's homecoming was like that of a hero. Comfort and I waited for him along with the rest of the villagers by the side of the Okani-Nkam Modern Day Project that leads to the world. We brought our jugs of water and our mats and waited patiently, sweating profusely, singing choruses, hymns, folk songs, made up songs that made sense, that did not make sense. We waited. Then our hands became tired of clapping and our mouths refused to open anymore, so we sat silently and waited until finally Uncle Kumasi arrived with a Chinese man he called manager. They reeked of marijuana and sweat and the unwholesome stench of an impending disease.

The town hall was sold out. Layabouts made extra money constructing makeshift shelters and selling fake tickets at half the ticket price. By the time the sun started making Comfort's short neck look longer on the sand, and the manic crowd of adrenaline- and alcohol-charged teenagers had been sufficiently amused, and the middle-aged women who sold bean-cake and cold-pap had been pushed to one side, Uncle Kumasi staggered onto the stage. Comfort and I started counting our goose bumps. We were at 504 when Uncle Kumasi finally began to play the harmonica. He blew and sucked, moving the rectangular organ gaudily from one side of his thin lips to the other in a drug-fueled performance that left our lips parted. He finished, and we clapped first before anyone else. I was, after all, his only relative... well, direct relative (because every other person in Okani-Nkam is related in some way). I was certainly the most related of all the relatives in the hall. Uncle Kumasi's other relatives had refused to come to the concert, like father and father's younger sister who lived in Nkam and father's cousin who lived a couple of houses away from the town hall. Even me, I was not supposed be there because father had forbidden it.

"No child of mine will go to the devil's party. I forbid you. If I see your two left legs anywhere close to that hall, I will disown you."

"But..."

"No buts. Remember the Fifth Commandment: obey your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land which The Lord your God gives you. He who has ears let him hear."

Comfort told me that in Europe and America, when people turn 18, they become adults, and becoming an adult means you can break all the rules set for you.

"Which rules?"

"Idiot, the rules of your parents, of course," she said and kissed her teeth at me.

"But the Ten Commandments say that thou shall not disobey your parents."

"Don't you know that things like Ten Commandments are for children, under eighteens? once you become 18, you become an adult. You are grown up. You can disobey your parents, start telling lies, move out of the house... many things you can do." Comfort was the type father called a wolf in sheep's clothing. When with father, she would cower and open her eyes so wide I could see cherubs singing in paradise, but away from him, she would tell me bewildering things.

"But how come Fine Boy, who is nearly 30 years old, is still leaving with his parents and still fetching water for his mother?"

Comfort looked at me with eyes that could kill. "Stupid girl, how can you call someone like Fine Boy an adult? Do you not see how water drips out of his mouth like a tap that is not closed properly? Does he look like an adult to you?"

I stared at Comfort like an idiot.

When I returned home that night, I met my clothes in the yard. I cried and banged on the door and flung myself on the ground and screamed for my father to let me in. My screaming brought out the neighbors from behind their worn curtains. They stood in loose clusters and stared at me from afar. They stood shaking their heads, cradling loose bosoms in the crook of their arms, muttering amongst themselves.

Comfort emerged from the crowd, a frown smeared across her handsome face. She looked like someone who had just finished quarrelling. She pulled me up from the floor, dusting my hair with her bare hands, cleaning the kohl and mascara that clogged my eyes and blackened my cheeks with the collar of her dress. She straightened my flared skirt, pulled the tube dress she had let me borrow from her firmly over my almost uncovered breast, trying to bring back a semblance of decency to my lewd state.

The neighbors stood there, folding their hands and unfolding them.

"You are behaving like an idiot," Comfort whispered into my ear as we walked by the uneven margins of the Okani-Nkam Modern Day Project that leads to the world.

"Eighteen-year-olds get thrown out of the house every day in Europe and America. They don't make a fool of themselves like you have."

"But what am I going to do now? I am not like all those adults in Europe and America. I don't know what to do. I am scared!"

"You have to be strong. You have to be courageous. Those adults abroad do courageous things because they have, eh... something called, eh..." she paused, thinking for a while. "Guts. That's it, guts."

"How can I get this, uh... this guts?"

As we delicately treaded the uneven margins of the Okani-Nkam Modern Day Project that leads to the world, Comfort told me some gut-inspired tales that made the blood in my heart pump faster. She said there was a world out there waiting for idiots like me. The world would take me in, she said. It would embrace me, like a mother's arms wrapped around a child. I tried to imagine how it felt to have my mother's arms wrapped around me. All I could remember was her cold, black body lying motionless in the wooden coffin that held her. Comfort said it was time to get drunk. She said alcohol was good because it made you do extraordinary things, things you could only do when you had guts. Comfort showed me how to do some gut-inspired things. She showed me how to light a cigarette from the dying flames of firewood. She taught me how to cup my hands around the cigarette. She warned me to be wary of crosswinds and to watch out for my fingers. She taught me how to hold a smoke in my mouth, how to inhale without choking, and how to pucker my mouth and exhale with the careless abandon that is synonymous with the people of the world.

Comfort taught me how to use slang and swear words like "Cool," "Chillax," "Watsup," "How far," "Fuck off," and "Fuck you."

She taught me how to do short laughs.

"Hehe... hehe."

"That sounds like a she-goat in labor," I said.

"They call it giggle. No, giggling."

"Gingle? You mean they gingle like that? Like she-goats?"

"Giggle, gi-gg-ling. That is how teenagers in the world laugh."

"Teenagers! I thought they were adults?"

Comfort looked at me like I was an idiot. Then she took my hands in hers with a sobriety and deliberateness that befuddled me.

"There is something I should tell you," she began. "I am leaving. I am going away soon, away from Okani and Nkam. I am going to the world."

I was speechless.

"Not now, though, not straightaway. Maybe a week, maybe two, but I will come back and take you with me, I promise."

My befuddlement endured.

"Senator Brown will send me some money. He said he will send it through Genesis when next he comes from the east. Enough money to buy a one-way pass, he will send, and some more to buy boiled eggs and plantain chips on my way there. He said he will take me to Lagos and Onitsha and Freetown. But we will return, and I will leave him after he has bought me a car like he promised. I will come back and take you with me in my car, and together we will live in a small room I will rent with the money I will steal from him, and I will get a job making people's hair. I hear it is big business in Lagos. And you can fall in love like you always want to and have as many children as you want to. But I... I will meet another Senator, who will buy me shoes and designer clothes, and he will build me a house, a proper house made from glass, and you can come and visit, your husband and you and the children, but you mustn't throw stones, neither must the little ones. That I will not allow in my glass house."

"You promise?"

"I promise."

 

The road took Comfort and didn't bring her back. Didn't bring back news of how she was, where she was, or which man warmed her bed. For a long time the road was silent. Then on a colorless, damp day, just before the rains started, the road opened its damn jaws and spewed out news. Comfort was not coming back home. The road had swallowed her, all six feet of her. It had compressed her chunky flesh and long legs and distributed them minuscule bit by minuscule bit, all over the road, and now there was nothing to bring home and bury. But Uncle Kumasi was gravely ill, the road said, and he was on his way home in the back of a goods-only lorry.

We received my Uncle Kumasi's gaunt body from an equally withered man who sweated profusely from invisible pores and whose sweat smelt of onions. My Uncle came alone, without his manager, the thin bony faced Chinaman who chewed on tobacco and smiled constantly at imagined things. He came without fanfare and without women hanging off his arms. He came without alcohol, without drugs, only him: blood, water, and bones encased in blue, baggy pants and a yellow shirt inscribed with the words LIFE IS SHORT, LIVE IT.

"I saw him in the hospital like that," said the onion-smelling man. "The doctor said he doesn't have long to live. He told me he came from Okani. I told him I would drop him off on my way to the north." The man carried him easily from the back of the truck and dropped him on the plank we had brought. Uncle Kumasi's long frame, which used to be an object of great fascination to many women, lay now on the plank like Mr Bones, the deformed skeleton dangling by its neck in the health center at Nkam. His lips were parted in what resembled a smile, a continuous deathly smile that troubled me. His sleepy white eyes, now the color of chili and dripping with rheum, stared at me.

In silence, we carried my Uncle Kumasi away from the villagers and their hollering and their prying eyes that thrived on gossip. We carried him past the thick coppices of shrubs and rows and rows of dense undergrowth inundated with copulatory chirps from male crickets who had successfully wooed a female and those who were in the process of wooing. We carried him past the sluggish bayou filled with dead fish and dead leaves and live salamanders with their rudimentary legs dangling lifelessly behind them. We carried him through winding waterways, littered with drying excreta and maggots and the smell of decay that hung about us, unshakable like death.

In silence we carried him home.

 

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