Nnedinma and I stepped out of the old Volkswagen that had transported us from Sam Mbakwe International Airport in Owerri to Isiekenesi, our hometown. I had enjoyed most of the ride. The dense forests that flanked both sides of the road during our journey conjured up countless imaginations in my head. I wondered what wild animals lived in the thickets near the road and the bushes beyond. I imagined myself as a young savage woman living amongst the animals, a female version of Tarzan. I chuckled when I imagined a young, handsome prince cutting down dried tree trunks and overgrown grasses, swatting at flies and other insects, braving lions and monkeys, just to reach me. I closed my eyes and pictured him kneeling and asking for my hand in marriage, taking me out of the forest to live in his lavish palace while all my animal friends said goodbye. I was rudely jolted from my daydream when the Volkswagen shook violently as we hit yet another pothole in the road. The constant shaking and squealing and groaning of the old car as it struggled through harsh roads irked me. Moreover, I was glad I had my imaginations to keep me company because I did not want to talk to my older sister, Nnedinma. It helped that she was sitting next to the driver while I had the back of the car to myself.
As we stepped out of the car, we were met with an onslaught of relatives. Children ran towards and clung to us in tight embrace. Some danced around the large compound singing welcome songs. Men and women took turns to greet us with “Nno” and “Kedu?” I tried to keep the smile plastered on my face but my cheeks were starting to hurt from faking a smile for so long. I hated the dirty looking people touching me. They all seemed genuinely happy to see us, but I just wanted to go inside the house and rest from the long journey. I slid a sideward glance at Nnedinma. She was warmly embracing everyone, responding to greetings and smiling. Her smile seemed genuine! I couldn’t believe it. What would she not do to please people?
Uncle Ugochukwu bounced out of the house, a huge grin on his face. He was a heavily set man, with strong, muscular arms and wide shoulders. He pushed through the crowd of relatives that had come to welcome us home and held Nnedinma and me, hugging us one by one, and looking us over in that affectionate manner one does when they have not seen a relative in a long time.
“Welcome home my darlings!” his voice boomed. “You must be very tired, come inside. Your room is prepared.” He dragged us by our arms and led us to the front door of the house, yelling in Igbo for the children to help us with our bags.
Once inside, away from the commotion and people, I let out an exasperated sigh. Uncle Ugo took notice.
“You’re tired Uloma,” It wasn’t a question.
“It was a long trip uncle.”
“Yes, I know. But everyone is so happy to see both of you. You must not let them sense your unhappiness.”
“Uncle, pay Uloma no mind,” Nnedinma spoke up. “I’m sure after a long rest she will come around.”
Uncle Ugo smiled, “That’s my Nnedi! You remind me so much of your mother, always wanting peace.”
Nnedinma smiled shyly. We had heard mentions of her striking resemblance to our mother both in looks and mannerisms so many times since we arrived, it irritated me. I bet she was not tired of hearing it.
“Uncle where shall we sleep?” I asked.
“Come with me to the back, my wife has prepared a room for you and Nnedi.” He walked ahead of us, leading the way to the back of the bungalow.
“We’re staying in the same room?” I could not hide my disdain.
Uncle Ugo stopped, turned around and stared at me, “Uloma, you know this is not America.” He smiled, “Manage our small bungalow, i nugo?” He turned around and kept walking.
Nnedinma, who was walking behind Uncle Ugo, turned to glare at me. I returned the glare. I was not going to pretend to be happy to be in this place. Thank goodness there was a power generating set. It meant I would not sweat in my sleep and have mosquitoes sing in my ears.
We entered ‘our’ room. It was a tiny room with a bunk bed. It looked like it had been recently cleaned. The beds had fresh covers. There was only one window overlooking the back of the compound where the outhouse and bathroom were located. It disgusted me that I would have to walk out of the house to be able to take a shower, urinate or defecate. Uncle Ugo opened a tall wooden wardrobe. It was empty. There were a few hangers on a rack and some drawers underneath the rack.
“You can store your belongings here,” He motioned to the empty wardrobe.
“Uncle,” Nnedinma began, “Thank you so much. I can see that you cleaned up for us. Daalu so.”
“Nnem,” He responded, “Both of you are my blood. I’m glad you could come home even if it’s for a short visit. Manage the room.”
“Nonsense,” Nnedinma replied, a wide smile on her face. “Manage gini? You and auntie Ngozi have really tried.”
I plopped on the bed on the bottom bunk. “I’ll take this one,” I announced.
“I guess I’ll take the top bunk then,” Nnedinma replied.
Just then, the children who had busied themselves carrying our heavy luggage entered the room and dropped our bags. Nnedinma smiled and thanked them. I was too tired to care. Nnedinma promised to distribute goodies among them the next day. They ran out excited.
“My darlings,” Uncle Ugo said, “Relax, OK? Ngozi is making dinner. It is already evening. If you would like to shower, let Ngozi know. In fact, whatever you need, let us know. We’re here for you. OK?”
“Yes, Uncle,” We chorused.
Uncle Ugo walked out.
Nnedinma opened one suitcase and began taking out clothes and toiletries and placing them inside the wardrobe.
“Don’t fill up the entire space with your stuff,” I spat.
Nnedinma paused, “What’s the matter with you Uloma? You’re so cranky.”
“Don’t tell me you’re glad to be here,” I said and lay down on the bed. The mattress was soft, and the pillow even softer. I stretched.
“Of course I am.,” Nnedinma replied. “Why wouldn’t I be? Look how happy everyone is. When was the last time we came here? Was it not when mom and dad were buried?”
“We don’t even know most of the people who came to welcome us.” I sneered, “And you kept smiling like ewu.”
“Watch your tongue Uloma,” Nnedinma’s tone turned angry. “Show some respect. I really hope this is only tiredness, and that by tomorrow morning you’ll be better.”
I scoffed, “I need to get back to New York.” I said.
Nnedinma ignored me and continued unpacking.
Later that night, when all the relatives who had welcomed us returned to their homes leaving myself, Nnedinma, Uncle Ugo, auntie Ngozi and their two young children Adaora and Chike – who were five and three years old respectively – alone, we sat around a large fire in the backyard and ate fufu na ofe egusi. After dinner, I decided I needed a shower. Auntie Ngozi gave me one of her rappa and I tied it around my chest. She showed me the well that was dug in the middle of the compound where I had to draw water from. After adding some of the hot water she had boiled over the fire, I carried the heavy metal bucket as she led me to the bathroom. The generator had been turned on, and a single, yellow incandescent bulb lit the bathroom. Once inside, I nearly vomited. The cement wall was slimy and caked with green, filamentous matter. There were iron nails sticking out of the wooden door where I was to hang my towel, rappa, and sponge. I carefully showered, making sure my body did not touch the wall. Nnedinma did not seem to be irritated by anything at all. She even offered to carry Chike on her back to help auntie Ngozi put him to sleep. She seemed at home in this horrible place. She disgusted me even more.
It was afternoon. The sun was hot and the sky was a clear blue. Nnedinma had just finished distributing candy to the children who had come around, and they had gone outside to play. We were in the wide living room where uncles and aunts sat eating garden egg and ose. Uncle Ugo came in with a keg of palm wine and everyone cheered.
“Nwoke, you have come with what we have been waiting for.” Uncle Ndubuisi chimed.
Uncle Ugo laughed heartily, “I had to wait for Okoro to bring the best. Sorry to have kept you waiting. Biko, ewe n’iwe.”
Cups were passed around and everyone poured some palm wine and began to sip, making smacking sounds with their lips as they relished the taste of the drink.
“Try some,” A woman who had identified herself as auntie Amaka said to Nnedinma.
“Yes, give them cups to try.” Another uncle responded.
Soon, everyone in the room was urging me and Nnedinma to taste some palm wine. I vehemently refused, while Nnedinma succumbed to their pressure and had a sip. Her facial expression made everyone in the room to burst out in laughter, and then idle chatter began. The men and women in the room teased us, saying we had become too ‘Americanized.’ I did not find their jesting funny, but Nnedinma seemed to have no problem with it. She even contributed to the conversation by describing an exaggerated version of New York, simply to entertain them.
“So, what do you do now Nnedi?” Uncle Ugo, who had taken a seat amongst the guests asked. “You know we have not seen you girls since you were much younger.”
“I’m done with medical school,” Nnedinma answered. “I work at a very big hospital in New York now.”
“Chai!” Uncle Ndubuisi exclaimed. “Won’t you come home and build a hospital here for us?”
Nnedinma giggled, “Maybe when I have enough money to do so.”
“What of all the dollars you make?” Uncle Ndubuisi continued teasing, “I hear doctors are well paid. O wu eziokwu?”
“It’s somewhat true Uncle,” Nnedinma replied, “But the hours are terrible, and it’s a lot of hard work.”
“Ngi kwanu, Uloma? Gini ka i n’eme? What do you do?” Auntie Amaka asked.
There was silence in the room. I had tuned out of their boring conversation because I simply wasn’t interested. I knew Nnedinma would get all the attention as usual, so I didn’t bother pretending to pay attention. When I heard my name, my head snapped from admiring my colored toenails.
“I—I am still looking for a job.” I responded.
“And what did you study? Medicine too?” Uncle Ndubuisi asked.
“I did not go to university,” I muttered.
The silence that followed was unnerving. Uncle Ugo stared at me with wide eyes. Perhaps too stunned to address me, he turned to Nnedinma and asked, “Why?”
Nnedinma glanced at me. I gave her a menacing look. “Um,” She began, “In America, not everyone goes to university, Uncle. It’s not a problem. She can still find work.”
“So, where does she live?” He asked.
“She lives with me, Uncle,” Nnedinma answered.
“You mean you pay house rent and provide money for food and she stays at home and does nothing?”
Uncle Ugo turned to me. “Is this true Uloma?”
I was seething. I was sure Nnedinma was happy with the sudden turn of the conversation. She was always the goody-two-shoes and never hesitated to show off. “And what if it is true Uncle?” I spat, “She makes a lot of money, she might as well share it.”
“Uloma!” Nnedinma exclaimed, shocked at my rudeness.
The guests were alarmed at the way I had responded to uncle Ugo but I didn’t care. “What?” I shouted. I was too angry now, “Is it a crime not to work? I enjoy my life, and I hate this fucking place!” I stood up and walked out of the living room to the bedroom and began packing my belongings into my suitcase. I heard Nnedinma hurriedly apologize to everyone and rush after me.
“What is wrong with you?” She shouted as she entered the bedroom, “And what do you think you are doing?”
“Are you blind?” I shouted back. “I’m leaving this God-forsaken village. So dirty. So irritating.”
“Uloma,” Nnedinma relaxed and spoke softly. “You are overreacting. Please go to the living room and apologize to everyone. They came here to welcome us and find out how we are doing. Your behavior was unacceptable.”
I paused and gave a wicked laugh. “Me? Apologize for what? I’m not sorry for anything.”
Uncle Ugo and auntie Ngozi rushed into the room.
“O gini?” Uncle Ugo asked. “Both of you are shouting. What is it?”
“I was only asking her to go and apologize,” Nnedinma sounded distraught. “Now she is packing her things and saying she is leaving.”
“But where are you going, Uloma?” Auntie Ngozi asked.
“I’m going to Lagos.” I screamed. “I’m going to book myself into a nice hotel and actually enjoy my stay in Nigeria!”
Auntie Ngozi stumbled backward, shocked at how I had screamed at her. She ran out of the room, crying. Uncle Ugo was furious. He glared at me for a few seconds, breathing heavily. He looked like he was going to say something, but decided against it and ran after his wife instead, perhaps to console her. At this point, I didn’t care. I was tired of living under Nnedinma’s shadow. She was the excellent one, the one who made all the right decisions, who was never wrong. She was the one who looked and acted like our mother, the one everyone turned to for advice, the one with the handsome boyfriend who confided in me that he would be proposing to her in a month. The one with the well-paying job, the kind one, the one who would put others before herself, the one who would be comfortable staying in a dump like this village! I hated her for convincing me to come here. I hated her for feeling at home here knowing that I wasn’t comfortable. I hated her!
“Uloma!” Nnedinma screamed. “How dare you shout at auntie Ngozi like that? What did that poor woman do to you? Have you lost your mind?”
“Shut up, bitch!” I responded.
Nnedinma walked forward and slapped me. I placed my hand on my cheek, astounded that she had dared to hit me. My eyes glanced around the room and fell on a pair of scissors lying on a side table. Without thinking, I picked it up and stabbed her in the chest.
Nnedinma’s eyes widened. “U—Uloma…” She spluttered.
“Yes?” I could feel the rage coursing through my veins, “Let me see how you will be a doctor in New York now,” I whispered. I withdrew the scissors and stabbed her again. “Let me see how Marcus will propose to you now,” I stabbed her again. She fell to the ground. “Let me see how everyone will like you now. It’s good I’m your next of kin. I will inherit everything you have!” I laughed. Nnedinma lay on the concrete floor. She had died.
No one had seen me kill Nnedinma. I hurriedly stuffed a suitcase with the rest of my belongings and ran out of the house. The living room was empty as I fled. All the old fools were gone. Uncle Ugo was somewhere consoling his fat, ugly wife, and his children were probably with him. What a disgusting way to live, I thought as I ran out of the compound. An okada was passing by. I stopped it and quickly hopped on the motorbike, instructing the rider to take me to the nearest motor park. I knew it would be a matter of time before Nnedinma’s body was discovered, and I wanted to be as far away from Isiekenesi as possible. There was no way they would find me. There was no way I would ever return to this nasty village anyway.
The rider dropped me off at the motor park and I paid him. Thankfully, only one passenger seat was left. I quickly paid for my bus ticket to Owerri and boarded the bus.
I had escaped.
I felt free.
Image: Surian Soosay via Flickr (cropped)