Chemist’s son, Walai, has returned from his trading trip to Dubai. Back in his secondary school days, we didn’t know if the young Walai was going to end up an armed robber or a chartered accountant. He was that type of boy. His report card was the best in the school, but they called and called him to take his prize, only for the gatekeeper to drag him out of the bush surrounding the Headmaster’s fishpond – with three stolen Tilapias wrapped in newspaper and stuffed into his school bag.
Anyway, he became an international businessman and Ikerre-Oti people raised their hands and thanked God.
Any time he returned from Dubai, Barika’s shop could not sell clothes until Walai’s huge suitcases were empty. He knew how to choose all those stupid Yankee T-shirts that Ikerre boys would steal to buy. Yet, this time around, Barika didn’t look bothered, despite the huge boxes off-loaded from the airport taxi that brought Walai home.
I could see that Barika had heard the rumours as well.
In the evening, several hours after Walai’s boxes had come down from the airport taxi, the usual crowds were absent from the frontage of Chemist’s house. To tell the very truth, there was nobody there at all. Finally, a worried Walai left his father’s house and strolled around the Village Square, as if to show people that truly, he was back from Dubai. People noticed all right. They followed him around, asking him about Dubai: there were a lot of ‘How was the weather there?’ and, ‘How was the plane journey this time?’ And there was a lot of listening attentively and nodding – because like any young man, Walai liked to boast.
But not a single person asked whether he even had a handkerchief for sale.
The very truth is that there’s no honesty in Ikerre people. That’s the problem with them: they can kill a person and you won’t even see a drop of blood. As for me, the reason why they don’t like me, is that I don’t chew my words. I spit them out the way they are. Walai knew that very well.
That evening, somebody knocked on my door. I covered my disgraceful yams with a sack and opened the door. It was Walai. He didn’t look proud like a successful businessman who had just come back from a trip to Dubai. He looked miserable, like a chicken soaked by torrential rain. He entered the house, came very near me, and whispered – even though we were alone in the house: Uncle Jumai, what happened? Nobody came to look at my clothes today. Did Papa quarrel with the villagers? Did the Igwe ostracise my family?
Can’t you see this useless generation of ill-bred idiots? Here’s a boy who will pass me thirty times in the Village Square without greeting me once. Now that he wants something from me, I’ve become his ‘Dearest Uncle Jumai’. Idiot. I told him that his father hadn’t quarrelled with anyone, but that next time he travelled to Dubai he should make sure none of Barika’s friends spotted him doing his shopping at the local Oshodi Market in Lagos.
He said he didn’t know what I was talking about.
So I explained to him that somebody had recognised him shopping at Oshodi Main Market – which was just a bus trip from Ikerre – when he was supposed to be shopping at Dubai, and that his parents were probably the last two adults left in Ikerre who were not in the know.
He did not talk for many, many minutes.
I don’t like silence in my house when visitors are around. Silence is what you do in the house of bereaved people. My goat may have died this morning; my wife may have left three days before; but I’m not bereaved. So I made conversation: I asked him how he got the baggage tags. He said, Which baggage tags? I told him, The ‘Emirates’ baggage tags on his boxes, which made it look as though he was just stepping off a plane. Again, many minutes passed before he told me about the small shop in Oshodi Main Market where one could even buy used boarding passes, customs stamps from sixty-six different countries, or shopping bags from hundreds of famous foreign stores like Sell Fridges and Marks and Denser.
The silence was beginning to grow again. So I asked him if his problem was the raising of the money for a plane ticket to Dubai. In my mouth, that question was as clumsy as a pencil in a left hand, because at that very moment, even the raising of the bus fare to Warri was a serious problem for me. He shook his head. He said it was the visa. That after his first trip to Dubai, they had found a little ‘something’ inside his shoe and stamped his passport so angrily that there was no point venturing near a real embassy again.
So I asked him why he kept deceiving Ikerre people that he was going to Dubai, only to charge them double for stupid T-Shirts that were probably made in a boys-quarters in Aba. I asked him why he couldn’t be open about his source. – That was when he hissed: this boy that is even younger than my youngest son, Calamatus. He hissed and said to me that Ikerre people were fools who queued up and paid double for thrash, once they heard the word ‘Dubai’. He said the profit margin of an Oshodi trader could not maintain his kind of lifestyle, and that anyway, he would rather die than become a local Oshodi trader. I scratched my head. Then I asked him what he was going to do, now that a disrespectful breeze had disclosed the anus under the fowl’s beautiful feathers.
He didn’t speak for a long time, then he told me that his own concern was that his parents must never find out what I had just told him. I assured him that if his parents ever heard about their disgrace, it would have been from another pair of lips. He said he was leaving that very night for his mother’s village near Onitsha, where he would sell off his stock.
Then what? I asked him.
Then I’m going to Dubai. He said.
I looked at him very well. I was standing next to me and I could smell no burukutu in his breath. Without a visa? I asked him.
I’m going the caravan route. He said. I’ll join a group who will cross the desert through Niger, Mali, Algeria and Tunisia. It’s only two or three thousand miles.
I didn’t say anything for a very long time, as I came to realise that a boy could graduate with the best result of his secondary school, without having any common sense of his own. One of my own classmates had been swallowed by the caravan route, twenty years ago. Yet, today if you ask for people who have sons in Italy, his mother will jump up, all the while explaining that her son was very lazy at writing letters. Twenty years lazy. I knew that my second-cousin Chemist was about to lose a strong-headed son. The particular idiot standing in front of me had decided on a grave either in the Sahara desert or the Mediterranean Sea. There was no keeping a firefly from the fire.
Then I remembered that my own sons were also in dire need of common sense. I wasn’t there to advise them. Maybe if I advised this particular goat, some other good Samaritan would be there at the point of my sons? greatest idiocies. So I said to him: Leave Dubai for the Dubaians, Walai. Your father’s chemist has made him rich, at least by the standard of this village. Join him. Become his assistant?
His face twisted in the kind of vex that I last saw on Isimpi’s corpse on the expressway, after he was crushed by a lorry as he chased a chicken that escaped from his coop.
They were laughing at me! he said very, very bitterly, as though to laugh at Walai had replaced the sin of Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as the unforgivable sin.
Who? I asked him. When?
Ikerre people! He replied. He was shaking as he said that. Today, more than twenty times, they asked me about Dubai’s weather! Can you imagine that? – And they knew I didn’t travel! They let me talk and talk and they were laughing at me all the while… Look Uncle Jumai, I’m returning to that Dubai! I swear by my mother’s future grave! And I’m going to become big. Very, very BIG. So big that when I fart from there, these Ikerre ants will smell it here!
His eyes became deep like a well: Then I’ll ask them what the weather feels like, down here! Walai walked out as he finished speaking, slamming my door – as if I was one of those people who had been twitting him about Dubai’s weather.
Better get yourself a camel, I told the closed door, sadly.
I wasn’t going to see Walai, ever again, I knew that very well. Just what exactly was going on in this village?
It would be nice to read the rest of the book. Just the beginning promises an honest, true-to life account of being the son of such a great man. Having a father who is similar (I suppose many African fathers of colonial education suffer the same ‘opportunities and responsibilties-syndrome’)I’m going “yeah, I know what you mean” with every line. Great stuff.