In Lieu of a Lesson
It is such a tragedy how the potential of this state is wasted. How it strips every citizen of their humanity, their moral consciousness. We toil from dawn till dawn just for our efforts to be in vain. Terrible healthcare for the money earned, time wasted for patience in traffic, early ageing for the stress endured just to stay alive and be able to afford a bit of comfort when possible. “The furnace of depravity” that’s what Samuel called it. And he is right, the true tragedy is the enormous resources wasted, human resources of course, not minerals, those can be found anywhere. All these robust and tenacious citizens sweating it out just for everything to be taken away at the end of each day.
Ekoonibaje, they call it;Lagos will not spoil. The irony in that proclamation is the height of humor.
‘Oga, we don reach,’ the cab driver interrupts my thoughts .
‘Yea, thanks,” I respond, stepping out of the car.
“Afternoon sir, you need trolley?’ one of the stewards at the airport asks, moving towards the luggage brought out by the driver.
‘No thanks, I can handle it.’
He nods in acceptance and moves towards another car which was just parking behind mine. I really hate the long wait for boarding calls when I’m flying, so it’s fortuitous that the boarding call of my flight is being announced as I’m entering the departure hall.
‘Lagos to Owerri please?’ I ask with a faint smile
‘It’s the next counter,’ she replies, pointing in the direction of another check-in counter. Moving towards the next counter, a group of catholic priests standing at a corner captures my attention. It’s amazing how exotic they look. I wonder what life as a priest would be like. All that sanctimonious air they carry. It would be…
‘Hello, are you here for boarding please?’ the lady at the check-in counter asks, interrupting my thoughts.
‘Any luggage to declare please?’
‘Just this,’ pointing to my big bag, ‘and this,’pointing to my hand luggage.
‘Alright, just a moment please,’the lady says to me as she turns to attend to the old man who interrupts us. Seeing that he has her attention, the old man arrogantly requests clearance for his luggage, a request the lady politely declines with a request that he get in line and will be attended to shortly.
‘Here you go sir, enjoy your flight,’ she says, handing over my boarding pass to me.
‘Thanks.’ I pick up my hand luggage to proceed towards my boarding gate.
‘Sir, you’re in my seat please,’ the hasty man declares, tapping the shoulder of the old man who didn’t want to wait in line and to my discomfort had taken the seat beside me.
‘Oh, let me see,’ he replies, looking at his boarding pass. ‘Yea, it seems so. But I quite prefer this aisle seat, could you take mine instead?’
‘No please, I prefer my seat,’ the hasty man responds, now looking a bit irritated.
‘Alright,’ the old man responds as he stands up to move to his assigned seat, muttering something under his breath.
‘You seem to be in a rush?’ I ask the hasty man as he takes his seat beside me. I try to strike up a conversation, perhaps because I’m glad I don’t have to sit next to the old man.
‘Oh, not really. I just want to get settled in. it has been a hectic couple of hours for me.’
‘Alright,’ I nod in response.
‘That’s why I try to get in early,’ he continues, glancing at the old man, now sitting in the middle seat, a row before ours. ‘It’s not the first time this has happened to me, I’m just glad he didn’t make much fuss as the others before.’
‘Yea, people do that a lot these days,’ I smile indulgently.
‘I would have arrived earlier but my meeting ran late. Was it not Eneke the bird that said since men have learnt to shoot without aiming, he has learnt to fly without perching.’ I smile warmly at this, not just because of my love for Igbo proverbs but also the fact that it’s from my new friend whom I believe to be Hausa. We spend the next few minutes having a small talk about passengers who don’t take their assigned seats and the quantity and quality of in-flight snacks. After a few nodding of heads and some laughter, he resigns to a newspaper he’s been carrying whilst I rest my head for a nap.
The movements of my new friend trying to get back into his seat after using the restroom wakes me up.
‘Sorry if I woke you.’
‘Oh, it’s okay. I only needed a little nap.’
He relaxes into his seat whilst I adjust my eyes to my environment. Discovering the surprise snacks on my lap. I open the pack, take out what I assume is a meat pie and hold it up for a second to examine it closely. Glancing to my side, I catch him smiling.
‘Earlier, you mentioned Eneke, the bird. Do you know his story?’ I ask after taking a sip from the juice.
‘Not really, just the reference to his wit in the literature I’ve read.’
‘Care to know?’ I ask, with a soft eagerness in my eyes.
‘Sure,’ he nods affirmatively.
‘Hmm, first, it goes without saying that Eneke himself has been dead for decades now. Secondly, he was a dutiful and respectable hard worker. I must admit these two things or else the story I’m about to tell will not make any sense.’ I pause to adjust on my seat. ‘He was a community favorite. Always on time at the morning gathering of kinsbird for the daily commune. Had the highest number of nestlings at the time, even helped in building numerous others for other families. To say he was beloved would be an unjust caption of his fame.’ I pause for reflection. ‘However, it also happened that in the same extended family of his, there was another, well, let me just say, a well-known bird. But well known for a different reason. The little bird, Nwanza. Have you heard of him?’
‘Yea, I think. The arrogant one?’
‘Yea sure,’ I nod affirmatively.
‘Well, Nwanza actually was a distant cousin of Eneke. But unlike the prowess and diligence of Eneke, he exhibited a different character. He was jovial, a bit lackadaisical and always late to the morning commune. He sang the most, worked the least with the excuse that his size limited his ability to contribute more. In my opinion, a carefree spirit, but some have argued he was too free and I’ve always found such assertion contradicting to say the least. Anyway, he was in short, the very antithesis of Eneke.’
The pilot’s announcement apologizing for something I didn’t quite catch, briefly interrupts us. It’s quite cliché but I always find the smiles of the hostesses quite reassuring. It appears it was just a casual announcement.
‘So on the occasion of Eneke’s wedding,’ I clear my throat, resuming the story, ‘Nwanza and of course, other relatives of Eneke were invited, close or distant. It was the custom. Also customary was the act that every bird, exclusively to relatives of the celebrants, must attend the wedding with their chi. You know what a chi is? No? Okay. In my culture, your chi is your personal god.Not the maker of the world but a god brought into existence on the day you were born or your soul was created, with your fates entwined for eternity.Some say it’s the equivalent of a guardian angel but I disagree, it’s…’
‘You seem to disagree quite often’ he cuts in.
‘Haha,’ I smile. ‘Not really, but even so, I’m a storyteller. It’s my position to disagree with conclusions.’ He nods indulgently and I love the fact that he is listening keenly.
‘Yea, so it’s more than just a guardian angel. Your guardian angel’s duty is to protect and guide your path whereas your chi, in many cases, dictates it…that is your path, and can even abandon you knowing fully well that your fates are entwined. So as was customary, each relative of the celebrants must attend the wedding, if invited, with their chi so as to bless the union and ensure its success and longevity. It is unheard of and a taboo not to do so. However, on the day of the wedding, whilst the initial feast before the ceremony was going on, Nwanza flew in looking quite dejected and to everyone’s surprise, without his chi. Called aside by Eneke’s brother, he was asked why he didn’t arrive with his chi, to which he replied that he doesn’t know and that he had agreed with his chi to meet at the ceremony. Dismissing or unaware of the gravity of the situation, he asked for food as he claimed he had not even eaten all day. At this point, Eneke himself shows up as the whole incident was drawing the attention of everyone. When his brother explained what was going on, he got really angry and said Nwanza would not be served any meal until his chi was available because the ceremony won’t hold without him. As it unfolded into a back and forth argument, Nwanza’s chi showed up in the form of ant. Now, some legends say it was an earthworm or a centipede but the common factor is that it was a really small creature. He was surprised that everyone was staring at him, so he enquired for the reason. When he was informed of Nwanza’s claim, he looked shocked and denied he was even informed of the wedding and only came in because he was passing by and noticed there was an event going on. Maybe Nwanza’s chi has his pedigree in Yoruba and was looking for owambe.’ I added with a smile, to which my new friend laughs warmly.
‘Anyway, another back and forth ensued between all parties, during which Nwanza, in a surprisingly high voice, accused his chi of being a liar. Now, that was uncommon and probably unprecedented, you can disagree with your chi, even abandon him but what you can’t do is, contradict his nature. In the midst of shock and silence that followed after, Eneke challenged Nwanza to prove his claim, a task only accomplished through a combat challenge. It’s still a matter of long debate as to why Eneke made such a suggestion rather than suing for peace and reconciliation, afterall, it was his wedding. Nevertheless, without a second passing, Nwanza challenged his chi to a single combat! And that my friend, I can absolutely assure you, was unprecedented!’
This time, I’m interrupted by a lady going to use the washroom, I guess. Quite attractive, I must say. Glancing away from her, I realize that the old man and at least, everyone that is two rows ahead of us have been keenly listening to the story so far. This gives me a warm feeling as the voice of the pilot comes up again, this time, announcing that we will be approaching our destination in a few minutes.
‘So what happened next,’ my new friend asks, after the announcement.
‘Well, there are many versions as to what happened next but by my father’s account, after a space was cleared, and just as the signal for the combat to begin was declared, his chi lifted Nwanza up to the sky with one hand and flung him to the ground, then both Nwanza and his chi vanished shortly after. Since they both cannot die, some believe they are still lying somewhere on earth, waiting for any intercession on their behalf.’ I pause to take a sip of the juice, and I notice the tension on the faces of my listeners.
‘I must apologize to you my friend. I have clearly not given you the story of Eneke but of Nwanza. I did so because I believe it’s the one account my ancestors made an error in judgement’
‘Which error,’ he asks.
‘The error of giving us a lesson rather than a story. You may not be aware but the poor Nwanza has been used as a cautionary tale over the years to deter people from fighting their chi, something I believe never happens. Rejections yes, but never a challenge. I believe it is my duty as a storyteller to offer another account of the events that happened and perhaps, start a real conversation as to this great tragedy.’
‘But he clearly was at fault challenging his chi. You said it yourself,’ he interjects
‘Yes, he did. But under which context? Believe me, I’ve looked at this story ever since my father narrated it to me and I’ve always reached the conclusion that it doesn’t add up, at least until some years ago. Why was something so unimaginable, so terrible, perpetuated by someone of Nwanza’s character? It doesn’t add up, didn’t add up until some years ago when I came across a quote which said, “whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.” Could it be that Nwanza’s carefree spirit was too much for their gods to condone? Was he a victim of kindred animosity? I can’t say for sure. As a storyteller, I can only offer perspectives and not conclusions. I only offer that the quote itself, however foreign, helped me reach a personal conclusion I find satisfying for myself.’
‘Hmm, I suppose that’s possible too,’ my new friend adds. ‘I guess we may never really find out what happened.’
One of the hostesses interrupts us with the landing call and asks that we fasten our seat belts.
‘Thank you for listening, I’m Chris by the way.’
‘Yusuf. Yea, thanks for the story and the company. We should definitely get together sometime again.’
‘Sure,’ I respond, shaking his extended hand.
‘Sometimes the truth doesn’t make sense. It just is.’ The old man declares, looking at us. I respond with a warm smile, already feeling warm and light from the whole experience.
Written by Ugochukwu Udorji.