The morning my grandmother’s kitchen fell, she was cooking rice. My grandfather, Ochiabuo, was in his 20s when he built the kitchen with clay. Before the mud house was constructed, they lived in a thatched hut that offered little space but demanded frequent repair. My grandfather wanted to build a house with cement and bricks, but he was afraid the rainy season would arrive before he completed the project. So, in the end, he called an engineer and showed him the area where he intended to build the mud house.
The engineer surveyed the land and told my grandfather that the house would be small. This was because there was a well in the area, and if he insisted on building the house to cover the entire space, the hole, even when filled, could cause the home to sink into the earth in the future. My grandfather agreed. In those days, if a man wished to build a mud house, he called on his kinsmen to assist him in gathering clay and erecting the house, one layer at a time. Soon, the house was completed. It had two rooms, two windows, and a thatch roof. My grandparents moved into the house along with their children. A few years later, when the modern homestead was built in front of the mud house, they moved into it, and the mud house became their kitchen. My grandfather’s mother lived in a small hut in front of the modern homestead, and beside her home was a neighbour’s property. When I was eight, my father began erecting a two-storey building on the land in front of my grandfather’s house.
My grandmother would point at one of the rooms in the large building and say, “That is where my husband’s mother lived.”
When I was in primary school, there was a woman who lived in the house where my great-grandmother’s neighbour used to live. The woman was a tenant of the descendants of the couple who first lived there. The woman was called Nwanyi Sabbath. As children, we traded stories about the woman, some of which portrayed her as a witch. She sold bananas, oranges, and pawpaw, pushing her wheelbarrow or carrying her tray on her head from one busy part of the town to another. And on Saturdays, she would put on her white garment and walk to church with her daughter. There was a path that led across Nwanyi Sabbath’s front yard. I walked with speed and caution each time I took that path, especially when she sat in front of the house. There was a big pear tree at one end of the trail. One day, I threw a piece of brick at a bunch of dark pears on the tree from a window on the second floor of my father’s new building, and it fell on Nwanyi Sabbath’s zinc roof. I squatted. When I raised my head to the window, I saw her standing, staring at me, her lips moving, her finger pointing at my face. I was convinced she had placed a curse on my head. I never raised a stone near that tree afterwards. A few years later, when Nwanyi Sabbath’s house began to fall, starting with the vacant rooms, she moved out. The pear tree was cut down shortly after; its position threatened the houses nearby. Then, some boys in my village discovered that the house had become home to fat rabbits. I didn’t enter the house with them, not just because the mud had gaping cracks big enough to accommodate agama lizards, but also because I was discouraged by the memory of the woman and disturbed by my imagination of the evil medicine she may have left in the house.
The boys from my village, some of whom were my age mates, did not succeed in catching any of the said rabbits after digging into the rabbit holes in the house. It was rumoured that a young man called Adiki, who was a prominent hunter from Umuokwu, a neighbouring village, had explored the area before the boys did and had, in his abundant hunting wisdom, captured and cooked pepper soup with all the rabbits. One wouldn’t disregard such speculations, especially when there were many stories about Adiki’s hunting prowess and the various animals he had killed in his career, some of which he used his hard, bare hands to kill and some his bright-edged cutlass, capable of beheading a goat in one swing. Each time a story about an Ediabali he had caught was about to fade, a new one, more stunning than the previous one, would emerge. The animal, a wild cat that spent most of the day sleeping, was every hunter’s nightmare because it made the night its day. I was 10 or 11 the first time I saw one. It looked like the leopard from my grandmother’s folktales. My younger brother was lying on the ground face down in front of our house. I was standing a few feet from him. The animal squeezed out of the bush on the right and disappeared into the one on the left. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t think.
However, Adiki would lose my respect one night, some years later. We were picking snails in the bushes that night during the period of the first rain of the year. We started from the bushes surrounding our houses with our handmade kerosene lamps, the kind that left soot on your nose. There was a bush close to our border with Adiki’s village. We knew from our previous outings that the brush was thick with big snails. But while searching in that area that cold March night, we grumbled in disappointment. Well, I wouldn’t swear for others: people were fond of hiding their excitement when they picked the great snail, Iko, during our snail-searching endeavours. I didn’t pick a single snail in that area that night, and it was, according to an eyewitness, because Adiki was seen walking in that direction with his luminous torch earlier that night. I wondered why he couldn’t ignore little things such as snails, squirrels, and smaller rabbits for us children.
As for Nwanyi Sabbath, when nature reduced her house to farmland, pawpaw trees sprang from the land. At first, my brother and the landowners who came by occasionally were the only ones who enjoyed the sweet fruits. But as time passed, I grew the courage to pluck from the trees.
At the time, when I was in primary school, my grandmother still had hens and chicks, so at night, the chickens returned to a round hole by the lower left corner of the mud house. Sometimes, young goats would disappear into the hole or just sit beside its mouth during the day. But at night, when the chickens returned from their daily wandering for food, the hole was blocked with a stone. The other room, the kitchen, had a narrow door; once, my brother had forgotten to bow at the entrance, and its wooden frame had greeted him with a knock on his forehead. Inside, by the right, there was a green bucket that contained water for cooking, beside it, pieces of firewood were stacked, and further, in the middle of the kitchen, stood the iron tripod on which food was subjected to fire. About five feet higher, the mkpoko hung, and suspended from it with metal wires were two baskets, one containing fish and, sometimes, roasted chicken, and the other containing ogiri and ugba. On top of the mkpoko, pots, both clay and metal, were kept in the company of animal skulls and other ancient vessels that no longer had any use in our modern world. Everything was clothed with a layer of soot. Also dangling from the mkpoko were corn, melon, and akidi seeds. At the extreme end of the kitchen, on the left, there was a door that led to the chicken room. My grandmother stored wet firewood in that room. She wouldn’t allow me to enter the chicken room, perhaps because it was always dark. It had one window, which was always shut. The window was on the wall that divided the other compound from ours.
Some decades before, the family that lived in that compound could be considered the same family as ours. Initially, the back wall of the kitchen was the only fence that separated the two compounds. In those days, my father or any of his siblings could walk into their house from our backyard. The fence that stood between my grandmother’s kitchen and their house was yet to be erected. This was how the barrier came in: my grandmother bathed her children in the backyard, beside the kitchen. The water from the bath ran down to their yard. My grandfather’s cousin’s wife was not pleased about the dirty water. So the two sides decided to raise a dwarf wall to stop the flow. In the years that followed, the wall would grow taller. At the time I was in junior secondary school, there was a small path at the back of our house, which led to their compound, but as of today, a narrow black gate, locked from behind, stands in place of the path.
More than half of the people in my village could be traced back to one father. But time walks into a family and stands like a wall between siblings, dividing the things that once held them together. I don’t think there’s much division among us who share the surname Ukwuoma. Ukwuoma had one son, my grandfather, Ochiabuo, who then had five sons who still have a common surname. I think names, too, weaken family bonds, especially when there are few or no honest stories from the past. If one day, we all decide to change our surname to Ochiabuo, we would still have a name in common. But a time will come when my cousins’ and brothers’ children will answer to their immediate fathers’ names, then, there will be fences and gates that may turn kin into strangers.
My great-grandfather once fought for a kinsman’s right. The colonial system in Nigeria at that time demanded that each village have a chief. The eldest son of the village could have taken the title naturally, but he was denied it by those who were powerful and feared. Everyone knew the truth, but nobody came forth to say it except Ukwuoma. He stood up and said, “This man should be the head. He is the eldest son of his father, who was the eldest son of his father.”
“If you’re so sure about that,” they told him, “you should swear an oath. If you live, we will know that you’re telling the truth.”
Taking an oath was a noble thing, but it also meant placing your life in the hands of those who proposed the ritual because the ritual was one thing, but staying alive until the stipulated period elapsed was another. The person whom your truth did not favour could use evil medicine to eliminate you, and afterwards, it could be claimed that the oracle killed you because you were dishonest. I think what Ukwuoma did was silly and brave. On the oath day, he smeared his body with ojukwu oil for fortification against evil medicine and took the oath. When the given period passed, he was still alive. So the people who wanted the title saw that there was little else they could do and stepped back. Meanwhile, the kinsman for whom he had vouched refused to accept the title. Perhaps he was afraid of the man who wanted to rule. Or, as he claimed, the idea of being elevated above his kinsmen didn’t appeal to him. Such a manner of leadership was still strange and new anyway. In those days, communal strength was the norm. That was how they conquered their enemies, drove them south, and won new lands. That was how they made progress. So in the end, the title fell to Ukwuoma for his courage. He had become old. He didn’t want the title either.
On the court day, he appeared before the government officials and his kinsmen. “I have become an old man,” he said. “Soon, I’ll be with our fathers. However, I was blessed with a son. You can see my son over there in the field, chasing grasshoppers. He is too young for such work. However, I have a brother in whose capable hands I could place what is mine. So that the boy can grow, and also learn some valuable lessons, including how to read and write, while the task of ruling is taken care of by strong hands. Therefore, this man should take the title in lieu of me and my son, for the time being.” The title was handed to Ukwuoma’s kinsman. Years later, the kinsman’s son inherited the title when his father died. My grandfather was, perhaps, not as stubborn as his father, or maybe he only pursued the title as one of the things his father left for him, not as something he truly desired.
The fence in my grandmother’s backyard is what demarcates our compound from the chief’s. Here’s one of my earliest memories: I’m standing at the door of our sitting room, staring at my sobbing mother who’s kneeling before my agitated father, begging him to drop the heavy car part with which he wanted to break the chief’s skull. A few moments earlier, the chief, flanked by his sons, had invaded my father’s compound. They attacked my father. I was too young to play any role in that irrational violence.
My grandfather died when I was in Primary One. This is the only clear memory I have of him: my older brother does something my father doesn’t like. My father breaks a stick from the bush and begins to lash him all over. My grandfather walks down from the old house and takes my brother by the hand, away from my father.
When my grandfather died, his ten children, in their wisdom, saw that it was not good for their mother to stay alone at night. So, they tasked me with spending my nights on the spring bed in her parlour. The house we lived in then, a bungalow built by my grandmother, stood a few feet from my grandparent’s house, but at night, I was reluctant to leave the warmth of the bedroom I shared with my siblings and journey to the old house that reeked of soured fufu.
The parlour of the old house is situated at the centre of the house. At the entrance of the house, there are two doors, one on either side and one in front of the parlour door. When you enter, there’s a door at the other end, opposite the entrance door. And at the centre, there are two doors on either side, the left door leading to my grandmother’s room, the right door to my grandfather’s room. Back to the entrance of the house where two doors stood on either side, the one on the left has not been opened since I was born. It is my grandmother’s precious store room, and I had just once or twice peeped into it through the other door in her room. There’s a bicycle, lots of bowls, and boxes of clothes kept in the room. Many years ago, the room was home to my grandfather’s cousin. The other door in front, by the right, leads to a room that now hosts junk, including a blue bicycle that swallowed all my savings as a young boy. The door inside the room leads to my grandfather’s room. His motorcycle used to lean against that door. It was sold not too long ago. There’s a spring bed in the room, boxes of clothes, and other items that have become dusty because their owner left the world. He was a fabric merchant.
At night, when I came to my grandmother’s house to sleep, she often told me folktales. What those stories did was paint the olden days as a place close to utopia. These days, when she tells stories of tribal war, of white men who came and seized the guns of those who fought, of learning the ways of the new God and unlearning the ways of the old one, of the civil war, I realise that my grandmother had been intentional with her storytelling. I miss my grandfather; he died before I could listen to him tell his story. Perhaps he wasn’t a storyteller; there are many things I could have learnt from him, such as trade, or craftsmanship, or agriculture. His barn became a bush after he died. I’m terrible at trading. All I had when I realised the finality of his loss were his ancient television that showed a swarm of grey bees when switched on and his cupboard that smelled of drugs and inhalers when opened. I played with his used inhalers, pretending they were pistols. I’m grateful for the things I’ve learnt from my grandmother. There’s always a story on her lips. When you visit her and take a seat, a story begins to echo. It could start with a goat that came loose and stretch to the one that fell into a pit. It could start with how terrifying hearing some footsteps the night before sounded and end with how dark life gets in a bunker.
My grandmother stopped entering her kitchen a few years ago, when the roof began to leak and couldn’t be repaired because the cracks on the walls were growing wider. She continued cooking outside, next to her goat house beside the kitchen. As time passed, some parts of the kitchen fell, but the wall which was part of the goat house stood. Even when her children bought her a gas cylinder to cook with, my grandmother preferred cooking with firewood, claiming she did not understand the white man’s thing.
The morning her kitchen fell, her pot was on the fire. But she was in the front corridor. My father had just finished talking with her. He hadn’t walked far when he heard the fall. The remaining part of the kitchen had collapsed, the goat house with it. The rubble fell on her pot. One goat was missing, a young black one. It was under the heap, presumed dead. When my brother came and lifted the things off the goat, it sprang to its feet, a gift from God. When I returned home and talked with my grandmother, she reflected on the things she was grateful for. “If I wasn’t talking with my son, that thing would have killed me. How would the world tell such a story?” she said.
My grandmother was pregnant during the Biafran War. The day she went to the hospital to deliver her baby, the clinic was empty. The people there were anticipating an air raid. The aircrafts strike at houses, they said. She knew that. At home, they had covered their zinc roof with palm fronds, so that from above, the enemy would think their houses were bushes. They had a bunker dug close to the house, their abode during air raids. Bunkers weren’t always safe, they knew. In a neighbouring town, a strike had fallen near the mouth of a bunker and buried a whole family instantly. My grandmother had just delivered her baby girl when the roar of the jet was heard. Everyone ran for safety. She took her baby, ran into a bush, and leaned on a coconut tree. A grenade hit a nearby tree and shattered it.
My grandfather was stranded at home. He wanted to go to the hospital, but the air raid was a present danger. A relative had just returned with the news of the tragedy that had happened in Owerri some days before. An air raid had occurred at a place where people gathered and annihilated them. When the flames settled, their relatives went there to collect the bodies to bury them. The enemy struck again and killed them too.
Later, when my grandfather found my grandmother and their baby, they went home. The couple who lived in the house that later became Nwanyi Sabbath’s was fond of cooking salt water until it dried. The problem with this economic activity was that smoke signalled life to those who wanted to end it. People complained about the threat of their endless cooking, but the couple just wanted whatever meal they could afford to have a taste of salt. Fortunately, nobody in the village died from the air raid, even though they had to flee whenever they sensed danger. Some sons were waited for at the end of the war, but they never returned. They were buried without their bodies. On one occasion, a buried man came back after his young wife had gone past grief.
Older indigenes of Orlu like to say that the war did not reach Orlu. Perhaps that is how they choose to remember it. Their idea of war involved two active parties attacking each other, which was not what they saw in those days. None of my grandmother’s children died of hunger during the war, and this is one thing she is thankful for.
I was not at home when my grandmother’s kitchen fell. Due to the tension in Orlu, I spend more time in Owerri. When I am in Owerri, I hear of the deaths of young men in Orlu on social media. Such reports are rarely heard in the news, and when they are heard, the narrative of the deceased often changes to that of a terrorist. Of course, the only ones who believe such narratives are those who fabricate them. But one thing is certain: your home is no longer yours when it’s a headline about a crisis. When my grandmother talked about the situation in Orlu, she remembered the time of war and said that then, they knew who their enemy was, the weapons they used. But the current situation is different. People are scared of leaving their homes on Monday and other days, for unclear reasons. People are kidnapped and killed by those they do not know. And the tragedy is that when the chaos lessens, people move on with their lives as if it never happened. Until it happens again.
Anthony Ukwuoma is a writer whose works have appeared in Praxis Magazine and African Writer Magazine. He is a feature editor for Ngiga Review. He lives in Owerri, Nigeria where he’s currently a student of Mechanical Engineering.
*Image by Tope. A Asokere on Unsplash