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Dregs of the Urn: Fiction by Uzoma Nwaekpe

Image: Ralf Kayser via Flickr

The ‘Grow Today Council,’ perhaps in an unflinching adherence to its down to earth purports, established an outpost in the Bronx borough of New York City. I remember clearly the first day I walked into the office of this supportive foundation by the side of the New York City Public Library, off the busy Fordham road in the Bronx.

Jasmine who managed the Bronx center took out time to instruct me on the foundation’s vast support system, as soon as I was ushered into her straggly office space. I had come for final discussions and contractual fine-tuning as it were of my papers and work file as I prepared, of course with help from the council, to undertake this journey to the country where my forebears had their origin.

My parents being people of means, had assisted me to gain formidable access to the good things of life. I had just graduated with an excellent degree from the Columbia University, one of the American Ivy League colleges, majoring in Literature and Classics. It is therefore needless to state the fact that I had a number of mouth-watering job offers waiting for me. In the course of my stay at Columbia, I had of course travelled widely, and been a participant in a number of transfer programs especially in the Scandinavian countries, as well as some parts of South East Asia. I was groomed in culture, as much as any man of my time could be, no less formidable in scholarship, with a world view of a real time scholar. I was aided in this regard to pluck fervently from as many trees as I could reach in the endless vastness of the forests of world culture, of thought and literary expositions.

It was a burning desire to explore and draw as much as could be drawn from the labyrinth of African history, magic, thought and world view that led me to submit the proposal over which I was invited to the Grow Today Council for conclusive discussions. The foundation which supports American youths who intend to spend time studying other cultures out of the United States had accepted my proposal and was ready to support me with needed materials and stipends during my proposed one year sojourn in Nigeria.

Attempting to stem the flip side of assimilation was also a quiet aim of this outfit. The theory was out there and actually it would seem that numbers support the position being pedaled that children of immigrants – or second generation immigrants – as the studies describe them, correctly or incorrectly, are playing catch up with the born Americans. It is the position which the council has come to accept as having been properly verified that since the young immigrants are noted to mimic more of the criminally aligned and or anti-social attitudes, and so tend to struggle more to meet up with the original natives, that they are oftentimes caught in the mix of crimes and the criminally minded. It is a secondary aim of their outfit to stem this apparent growth within these groups that nudges the council also to support young folks to interact as much as they possibly could with their original home cultures. It is, in Jasmine’s own words, another attempt at creating new first generation immigrants out of the so-called second generation immigrants. What has, however, irked me incessantly about this proposition is the realization that those dubbed the second generation immigrants are in my mind and actually if properly examined, nothing but native born Americans. But, this not being the crux of my mission, I never allowed it to nudge deeply within me.

I decided on a homecoming, to revisit my roots. I agreed within myself to take a personal look at that which I had heard so much about and to examine its relevance or validity, not by what I have been told or what I have read from books and magazines, but by direct, firsthand experience of that culture and that society which I readily claim at all times. For how could this culture be mine and how could I attempt to integrate it into my adaptation to the present culture and by extension, the ecumenical views that I have attained, if I know by real experience, nothing about it? If all that I know are historical thoughts, descriptions, pictorials and or representation of cultural practices gleaned from the stories of parents or uncles, and gathered from the accounts of others’ experiences, I would not be an actual cultural participant. I would at my best rightly claim to be associated to this culture mainly by virtue of my ancestors having lived and had their roots in it. I could never in the real sense of the word, call this culture mine. I knew within me that twenty full lifetimes would not be able to completely decipher this culture, that I would only scratch the surface, yet I sought so much to scratch that surface, and gain life again by it. At this point I am then forced to ask: ‘where the hell do I belong’? Having arrived the city of New York with my father at the age of three, and consequently grew up here, all I knew was the culture of the Big apple. The pictures, the dancing, the videos, the shows, the music, the subway, the cursing, the slang, the dressing, the under the butt pants position, the women, the life at college and the beauty of vast New York was all that I knew as culture. I struggled through school and moved out of my parents’ home when I got into college. Perhaps it was what I saw and heard in college, perhaps it was the several evening arguments that ensued in our apartment, perhaps it was due to the fact that I had become increasingly bored with being reminded of the fact that I own and or that I am part of something which I do not feel in my mind that made me decide to go back home. Or yet maybe, my various journeys to various parts of the world, my various visitations to various homes, settlements and practices, made me think of some other home among all the other homes. Sitting back to think again, I say it was an aggregate of these factors, neither this nor that, and still all of this and that.

My apartment at the corner of 209th street and Park side place in the Bronx, New York, was a socio cultural and political hub. I had a roommate, Deecee (as in Washington D.C), a Kenyan of the Luo tribe who was as political and cultural as I was. My deep love for the African culture which was being imposed on me at every turn of the street led me to love anything African and pristinely cultural. I had taken out time to study the vastness of Africa’s great past. I had known the great kings and kingdoms of Africa. I could tell one off hand, about the exploits of the ancient Carthaginians, of classical Egypt, of the Kush, Axum and Ethiopian empires. I knew of the early civilization strides, of the West African kingdoms, of the Yoruba, the Benin, the Songhai, the Wolof, the Mali, the Ghana, the legendary Kanem Bornu, and the warlike Ashanti. As I knew my way around New York, so did I learn the ways and lives of the peoples of the Congo, the Luba, the Lunda, the Rwanda, the Buganda, the Lozi, the Malawi, the Kilwa, the Zimbabwe, the Monomotapa, the Merina, and of course the organized and warlike Zulu kingdom.

In my apartment we gathered, my friends and Deecee’s, to talk and brainstorm. In there, we sat and glossed over the glorious days of Africa. The exploits of Carthaginian Hannibal, the great battle of the Zulu army against the British in 1879 and other classical battles thrilled us beyond limits. Dare devil General of Carthage, twenty eight year old Hannibal had led his army into Northern Italy, crossing the most frightful part of the Alps, wreaking havoc through routes and maneuverings that were before then thought to be entirely impassable by any army on earth. He decisively defeated the Romans in Cannae, in 219BC.

Led by the British commander, Lord Chelmsford, there was an attempt to destroy the stubborn Zulu army. It was the last remaining native force attempting to thwart the conquering efforts of the British in the Southern African region. The famous Zulu army had used the legendary horn of the beast formation to encircle and defeat the British at the battle of Isandlwana. Apart from these exploits we did not hide any form of African thought away from ourselves. I was most particular about the stories from the mother land. My bookshelves were then littered with endless African literature books.

In a frustrating attempt to learn this culture that is supposed to be mine, I devoured Peter Abrahams, Chinua Achebe, Thomas Akare, T.M.Aluko, Eddie Iroh, Hugh Lewin, Mugo Gatheru and city chronicler, Cyprain Ekwensi. AmuDjoleto, Mongo Beti, Ayi Kwei Armah, Steve Biko, Dennis Brutus, Okot P’Bitek, and Wole Soyinka were like brothers to me. I was not so much into the modern African writers, I respected them and read their works, but I preferred the older ones and so an evening with Ngugi wa thingo, or John Munonye, or Nuruddin Farah, or Nadine Gordimer, or Luis Honwana killing many dogs was always a big feast. L.S. Senghor, Gabriel Okara and Lenrie Peters sang to me, Rabearivello and Christopher Okigbo chanted spiritedly. Nkem Nwankwo, Onuora Nzekwu, John ya-Otto, Sembene Ousmene, Ali Mazrui, Pepetela, Stanlake Samkange, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chinweizu, Obafemi Awolowo, Mokwugo Okoye and the lord Nelson Mandela among numerous others lined my path with wisdom about this culture which should be mine.

We had our poetry nights too, and we relished in the works of African poets. Without these chroniclers of our times, I would know nothing. Without them, nothing else would have fired the zeal in me to rise up and go to my father’s house. It was from our little enclave at Park side place that we planned and contributed to various struggles. We led demonstrations to express our views and we made our points in our own way.   I must mention that as part of my vast interest in literature, I had come across the writings of William Ernest Henley, his poem, ‘Invictus’ was framed and hung in my living room from my days as a sophomore. The wordings spoke to me every morning:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.


In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeoning of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.


Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.


It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

Beside Invictus was of course that other one that Deecee stole into my study on the afternoon following the night when Tasha first passed a night on my bed. She was believed to be unconquerable. Tall, dark and smooth skinned. Voluptuous and yet most shapely. Tasha was no doubt one of the prettiest sisters in the whole of the Lehman College. Generations of college ‘dudes’ had tried and failed. College professors had tried and failed. She had vowed, as they believed, to remain single for life. It was this beauty that followed me home to Park side place, passed a night with me and after we did all that had to be done, woke in the early morn with a half-smile and half shock on her face. Quietly surveying my naked body sprawled next to hers, she muttered:

Dandy, you deserve an Oscar’, to which I had smiled and whispered in her ears, ‘you are greater than a million Oscars’ I saw the poem placed beside the frame of my Invictus, scribbled definitely hurriedly in Deecee’s unmistakable handwriting. I recognized the poem as I scanned through the first two lines. He had wrongly or would I say rightly re-titled Edgar Guest’s poem ‘It couldn’t be done’. Deecee’s copy bore the title ‘you did it’. He was without a shade of doubt referring to the ‘Tasha offensive’, a code name which I came up with when I announced my intention to try to conquer Tasha, after I convinced her to join me to listen to the Union band play at the village underground nightclub in New York city. I read the rest of that great poem with a smile:

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done,
But, he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
At least no one has done it”;
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat,
And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
Without any doubting or quit it,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure;
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle it in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start to sing as you tackle the thing
That “couldn’t be done,” and you’ll do it’.

I am thankful that these poems came into my life, for they were the strongest companions I had as I left my known family and friends in New York city, to sojourn with my unknown family and friends in the mother land. I knew and saw in and through them that I had to be the master of my soul, the captain of my ship, and that if I could only put a right foot forward, and rightly tackle that which couldn’t be done, that I would see myself doing it. Nothing was more strengthening, nothing, in the midst of the chaos of cultures, in the midst of the confusions that trailed my young adulthood, in the face of the conflicting models before me, was more forthcoming with sparks, and light for my wavering mind.

Then that message for all exiles which I gleaned from the pages of Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’. I had read ‘Things Fall Apart’ a number of times, but its personal message to my fate stood out after the last reading I undertook before I left for home. It was two passages: a question asked by an unnamed man, and part of Okonkwo’s thoughts in exile that came down on me so stark and clear that I was greatly touched. The unknown man’s question came during the gathering in the Mbanta clan, when the people came to see the white man and to listen to his message. After a solemn attempt to introduce the God of the Christian religion to the men gathered, a certain man in the crowd came up with  a burning question: ‘If we leave our gods and follow your god…who will protect us from the anger of our neglected gods and ancestors?’  The white man wasted no time in replying: ‘your gods are not alive and cannot do you any harm…they are pieces of wood and stone.’ Thematically speaking, the derisive laughter that followed this reply from men of the Mbanta clan was an absolutely right response. I sat to think again; could the white man be right? Were they really wood and stone at their best, or was this a kind of theological metaphor, like the ones often used in the holy book of the Christians? Either way, I was on my way to find out a path for myself. I was no longer going to live on the interpretations of others. Such a life, I came to the grave conclusion, was not worth living. I was on my way to see these gods of wood and stone, to talk to them, to feel what they feel, or failing to do that, to conclude indeed that they were wood and stone.

At a point when Okonkwo of Umuofia was exiled among his mother’s kinsmen in Mbanta, his son Nwoye joined the Whiteman’s religion. Sitting all by himself and thinking of the consequences of Nwoye’s act, Okonkwo transformed himself beyond his present status of a father grieving over the death of his son. At that point, Okonkwo became the father of a race, of a culture at the brink of extinction. He had thought: what if after he died and all his male children decide to follow Nwoye’s steps and abandon their ancestors. Then the prospects of cultural annihilation loomed all over him. Again he pictured himself, and all the other ancestors crowding around their family shrines waiting in vain for worship and sacrifice but finding only ashes of by gone days, and their children the while praying to the white man’s god. The death of the culture was more in line than the singular death of any aspect of it with this prophetic vision of the warrior from Umuofia.

Uncle Joe must be given due thanks. He it was who secured a research position for me at the Institute Of African Studies, University Of Nigeria, Enugu Campus.  He had also gone ahead to speak to the traditional leaders of Ete, my mother’s home town, and to their chief priest who had agreed that I could serve as a quasi-assistant during the period of my stay. In all, she was there to support me. Tasha was not a regular girlfriend in an everyday sense of the world, she was a great friend. She had refused all my attempts at kicking off a formal relationship. She was not ready to be with ‘any man’ she repeatedly affirmed. This position I had come to sadly respect, and we remained just very good friends, and never thought nor spoke to each other about the starry night of the Oscars. She was so excited over my home going odyssey, and her encouragement helped to buoy me on. ‘May they be blessed,’ I would murmur repeatedly, all those that saw to it that my worthwhile venture in the plains of that land among the cultured folks of South Eastern Nigeria, West of Africa, among my indomitable Igbo folks materialized out of the spheres of many dreams.


Image: Ralf Kayser

Uzoma Nwaekpe
Uzoma Nwaekpe
Uzoma Nwaekpe wrote in from the USA.

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