“Shame on you!”
That was what she said, spitting on the dry ground at the same time. I only found out the meaning of what she said days later after I had forced my cousin to translate it for me. After I had had trouble sleeping because I could not erase the bitter look in her eyes from my mind or the sad pitying look that followed it.
“Shame on you!” She said so in Igbo.
They say that language unites a people. That was the common saying. That was why wherever you may find yourself in the world, no matter how remote the place is, when you find someone who speaks your tongue, you are immediately brothers or sisters. You are one because your language unites you. My language instead alienates me from my people. It has made me an outcast, a stranger to my kinsmen. It was long coming and some how I knew.
I remember when I was about five or six years old, mother was sitting in the veranda with two of her sisters and they were laughing with tears streaming from their eyes as they enjoyed their girly gossip. They were as animated with their gestures as they always were when they spoke in their language – Igala. I was always fascinated by their gatherings because I was acutely aware that I was an only child and also because they were so different from me. I was a male child. I wore my short knickers and singlet most of the time and was forever enthralled by mother’s flowing skirts and traditional blouses and wrappers – lapas, which she wore sometimes. Many times I would stick my small head under her skirt to stare up at the darkness. I remember being shocked once when I had crawled under her legs just after she had taken a shower and to my horror when I looked up I saw she had only a turf of hair there and no penis like I did. I remember that also because she had screamed loudly, dragged me from beneath her and slapped me silly until I cried for hours. But this particular day when I was about five or six, I remembered picking out some words of what mother and her sisters had been saying and practising them over and over again that afternoon. The next time they were gathered together in their small laughing-weeping group I had surprised them all when I suddenly announced shyly:
A grave silence followed after that. Three pairs of eyes stared hard at me. Three mouths dropped open in surprise almost all at once. Three pairs of eyes all looked back at one another and suddenly burst out laughing again with inevitable tears of joy in their eyes.
“What did you say?” Mother asked.
I looked around me in discomfort. They were all staring at me with muted interest and awe. I suddenly felt so small and insignificant in their presence. Three pairs of eyes gawked at me. Six arms folded in interest and my stomach sank in fear.
“Oma Onekele.” I said again bravely.
“What does that mean?” Aunty Mercy asked deliberately.
Three pairs of eyes stared hard at me.
“It means boy!” I answered cautiously.
Three mouths dropped open in surprise almost all at once. Their eyes met each other and suddenly burst out laughing again.
“You mean you understand all we talk about?” Mother asked shrewdly.
I nodded even though I only understood a little of what they said, but I was too intimidated to say so.
“Oma Onekele,” aunty Gold cooed. “Don’t tell your father o!”
Three pairs of eyes stared hard at me. I acquiesced and they looked away to continue with what they were discussing. This time they switched to Hausa and I was forgotten.
I remembered that day so well because of what aunty Gold said. Don’t tell your father o! You see my father was an Ibo man married to an Igala woman. My father spoke only English when he was at home with us because he believed strongly that his child should be well educated and must learn to speak English the queen’s way. No vernacular was permitted at home whatsoever. I have heard him speak Igbo many times with his friends, relations and even with mother. My mother even though Igala was brought up in Kano with her sisters and thus could speak Hausa and over the years she had learnt how to speak Igbo and Yoruba to boot. She was a well-rounded Nigerian in my mind. But still I was never allowed to speak vernacular at home. I always wondered whether this rule was an attempt by my father to ensure that I do not take up my mother’s tongue instead of his. Why else would aunty Gold make me promise not to let my father know that I understood what they said sometime?
I guess a part of me had always been curious about how my father came to marry my mother, a non-Igbo. From what I knew of my father then, he was a very proud man, some say a unique trait of the Igbo, but I believe each tribe has its own sense of self-importance. My father had been a young, handsome and very driven man in his days, so mother told me when I was still quite little and her eyes still shone lovingly when she spoke of him. A lot of people who knew him then at the University College Ibadan described him as the most promising young economist major in the Social Science Faculty. He was bright and he was proud and he believed he was better than the whites that thought them then. He mastered the English language and even dazzled his lecturers with the scope of his vocabulary. His friends mocked him jokingly, referring to him as; “Onye Ocha, Nna di Oji.” White man, whose father is black.
Mother met father in those days. They fell in love and language united them. Inter-tribal unions were very rare then, mother used to say, but she had found a good man and language was not going to keep them apart. Those days, she spoke Igbo like an Ada Obi – an Igbo chief’s first daughter. Not many men could resist her charms then, she often boasted, not the least father.
Years later when I was a little older and father had taken to coming home very late and very drunk; I shed many silent tears when I watched my mother worry about this ‘Ononojo’ – Stranger – who we no longer recognised. She still had group sessions with her sisters, but only this time, there was no laughter present in their gatherings, instead many, many tears. Icried silently too. Because by this time, I no longer understood her language nor did I understand the language of my father. I didn’t know then, but I was lost.
Not long after father changed, after mother and her sisters called him Ononojo and after I had shed many silent tears, Grandma Nne came to live with us for a short while. She was very old and was suffering from a liver problem and as father was her eldest son, it was decided that she would move in with us. Old she may have been, but she still had her wits about her. And that old hatred for my mother, who was never her choice and who sacrilegiously was not Igbo.
Grandma Nne spoke only Igbo and all of a sudden my home was filled with the strange language. I was still not permitted to speak vernacular or broken English at home, yet I had to think up a way to communicate with Grandma Nne who regarded me with the same evil eye she cast on my mother most times.
No one could really blame me then for not knowing how to speak any of the languages of my parents for lack of trying. I tried. I tried every night before I fell asleep and in the morning when I woke up, but the words and meanings eluded me. Sometimes, I would feel the words coming to me, baiting me ever so seductively, but as soon as I opened my mouth to say something the words withdrew themselves back to their secret place in the corner of my mind – not quite hidden, just barely there, enough to tease and taunt me. Enough to make me give up trying eventually.
It was a harrowing experience the first time I witnessed my parents’ fight. It rained that night. I remember it so clearly because I had been frightened by the claps of thunder outside and the cruel darkness the house was thrown into after the electricity tripped off. I got out of bed and made my way toward my parents’ room. I stopped by their door. It was opened slightly and I could see mother standing with her hands on her hips, tears in her eyes as she shouted at father. Father glared at her and warned her to shut up. They both were speaking in English. I understood every word they exchanged; every abuse they hurled at each other. I watched father hit mother and the force of his blow pushed her face the other way and as mother crouched in pain, her eyes caught mine. I stood frozen to the spot. I watched mother approach me. When she got to the door, she slammed it shut in my face. Shutting me out.
Grandma Nne’s moving in was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back. Her fights with my mother were legendary. They ranged from the mundane to the totally bizarre. You see, there was that episode when she explicitly told mother that she could not eat meat due to her weak teeth and that mother should not bother putting any in her meals and as soon as mother carried out her instructions, she ran crying to father with her meatless meal, complaining to him that his wife “my mother” wanted to starve her in her son’s house. Mundane! There was also that time she accused my mother of being a witch who was sucking her blood at night. Bizarre! Yes, their fights were legendary but Grandma Nne’s coming played its part in destroying our family. As father’s excesses grew, she encouraged him night after nights. On the night mother packed her bags and left with me in tow, she had overheard them talking of father’s other wife in the village, father’s true Igbo wife. He had another family that we knew nothing about. It seemed nothing then could save our family.
Mother had confronted them, but I knew nothing of what they all said. Grandma spoke rapidly in Igbo so did father. And mother, in her tears, responded in Igbo – even though she was not one of their own. Many times they all pointed at me and I just sat still, listening to all the strange words being hurled about and feeling so out of place and helpless. I didn’t share their language with them. It was the language that bound them together; the same language that severed me from them. Even at that age, I worried that there was no place for me in their world or this world.
We left that night, mother and I. I remember we stayed with aunt Mercy for a little while and when her husband began to fidget we moved in with aunt Gold until mother found somewhere small for us to move into. It was tough afterwards, but we survived from year to year.
In those passing years, I could not shake off that old instruction from my old home about not speaking any form of vernacular and thus I grew up to be an adult who could speak no local language. I tried listening to mother and her sisters when they met, but it was no longer there, my ability to pick out their words and learn their meanings. It was as if one had erected a huge iroko tree to shield the sun from shining through. That was how it felt when I heard a local language; it was as if something was blocking me from deciphering its meaning.
So, that hot August afternoon as I stood in my father’s compound in his village, waiting to see his dead body and pay my last respect, I felt like an alien among his kinsfolk. They spoke to me in their language, waiting for me to respond, but all I could do was offer an appeasing smile while I shook my head. I knew my discomfort was visible in my eyes and they all saw it. I was a full-grown man now and mother had told me to go for his burial, he was after all my father. I agreed and came, knowing that I was the one who had finally become a stranger. I was now the “Ononojo”.
“Shame on you!” My stepmother said bitterly as she spat in front of me.
She said so in a language I had disassociated myself from. These days, it never occurs to me to think of myself as an Igbo man. In my subconscious I am a black man, an African man and finally a Nigerian man. For a long time now, there has not been room for any language to claim a part of my identity.
Looking at her brought back a flood of memories, most of them not so pleasant. She was after all the other woman, the Igbo woman who made it possible for my mother to raise me alone. She spoke of shame in a tone that exonerated her from any, yet she was the one who had the most to be ashamed of. Not once had my father made any attempt to find me after mother and I left all those years past. I remember I wrote him some letters and one in particular when I had finally gotten admission into Kings College. I thought he would be proud of me, but I heard nothing from him. I gave up then.
I feel no shame. Maybe some regrets, but no shame whatsoever. When the red cloud of dust rose as the vehicle taking me away from the village sped off I was glad somewhat that the link that tied me to my father and his people like an umbilical cord was finally severed by my father’s death and burial. Now, they would always be strangers to me and I to them.
© Jude Dibia, 2006