Image Credit: Kosoluchi Agboanike
Where I am from, a boy is taught to trace his history beginning from his father’s loins. He is to secure a rope around his father’s manhood, then trace the line, following the thread to get to his father’s father and then to the father to his father’s father. He is to reach for more and more of his forebears in the murky waters of history till he comes to the last of the sentinels and grabs nothing. Only then can he begin to boast that he has found himself.
On the day it was decided that I had come of age, and the rope was placed in my hands, my forebears were long gone, swallowed in a war few people remember. Not only did the war whisk them off as captives, it obliterated every memory of their existence. Thus, there were no mementos left, no pictures to tell me where my nose came from, or my eyes, or my height.
At the beginning of the line, my father stood alone. An anomaly, because it meant that he was the ancestor, the present, the past and the future. I took tentative steps to where my father stood and looked into his face. I saw fear and frailty and failure’s seed. I looked around, but there was no other’s face to whom I could look into to counter that narrative. So I ran. But it was too late. I had seen my future and there was no escaping her claws.
Knowledge has always been an evil thing.
I cannot remember ever feeling my father’s hands around me in embrace throughout my childhood. There are other things I remember, some with startling clarity—like the day I informed my mother that I had won a scholarship, her wrinkles had spread out into a smile, revealing a young girl underneath an old woman’s mask; the day I handed my father the first money I made as a teacher soon after leaving secondary school, I can still cantillate the exact prayer he made that night, his enured palm on my head, his voice weighed down with emotions, entreating God to make sure that pay was not my last—but I do not ever remember my father’s arms circling my back in fatherly embrace. We never performed that ritual where children, on sighting their fathers at the end of a day’s job, ran into their fathers’ embrace and got twirled around, glee and joy accompanying their cries. The absence of this rite—which, if movies are to be believed, is an absolutely lovely bonding moment—was partly because of how we were raised. My family is not a community of people given to a display of superfluous affection. We give and receive love in a subdued manner, little doses, love that manifested more in the doing than in the showing. Embraces would be crossing the line.
However, even if we were one of those families who did all of those mushy things, I still wouldn’t have been able to hug my father at the end of a day’s work. This was because my father spent his entire days grinding tomatoes and peppers and egusi for women at the local market. In the evenings when he returned home, the stench of the accumulated sweat mixed with stale foodstuff would be so bad that it was impossible to hug him. I learnt early that, put on a scale, the pain from the sting that would envelope him if I hugged him, was greater than any warmth that would come from the embrace. So, I didn’t bother.
This became how I viewed love, as something peppery and spicy. Something to be taken in small doses, with your eyes closed and face turned away. Something to be had on rare occasions, once in so many evenings. An entity that hurts and leaves a parchment of scars. Thus, my father’s inadequacy began from the absence of a hug, and has not ended still.
My father is a man of easy acquiescence. He is always ready, almost too eager, to throw his hands up in surrender. He could say, “I can’t,” and be sincere about this inability to do something. His house could be on fire and he could go to bed sleeping soundly, if he was sure there was nothing he could do about it, and most times, he indeed could do nothing about it. So, I grew up carrying around ashes of dreams that burned down while my father slept the sleep of the helpless. The sleep of he for whom on his tombstone it would be fitting to write, “Herein lies our brother, a man who is at home with defeat.”
This kind of resignation, this improbable ability to be completely accepting of the things you cannot change, are the stuff motivational speeches are made of: know when to quit; know when to give up, you can’t win every battle; the entire chapter of the Introduction to motivational speaking. I do believe his position was borne out of inherent indolence than a subscription to any such philosophy, but even if that weren’t the case, I could not let him off because I saw parents stuck in the same mire with us lifting their children’s burdens above their heads. In the place I grew up in Aba, poverty was the common thread that bound us all together. But I still saw fathers who fought the tides, seeking to squeeze lemonades out of the bitter kola life presented them. There was our neighbor, Mr. X who started riding okadas when he lost his job at the bank, exchanging his starched shirts for the helmets and raincoats the bikemen always wore. There was Mr. Y who joined his wife at her fish shop when the governor bulldozed his, helping to bag the fish in the day and hauling the leftovers home each night to roast them into smoked fish. It was from these other fathers that I learnt the value of persistence, that a father is expected to keep on fighting long after the battle is lost.
My father went to his shop, faithfully, each day, returning with the sun well behind him, but that was all. Income in the shop came in trickles and was subject to such vagaries as whether the students of the nearby Abia state Polytechnic was on strike, in which case the customer base would be cut in half, or whether it was the festive season, in which case people would have food at home and thus have no need to make more food or grind ingredients for them even. Expectedly, he did not make much at the end of a day’s toil. But what baffled, and equally infuriated me was his stubborn expectation that the income from that shop would be enough, should be enough. That belief, and the resignation that came with it, bordered on the ridiculous. As my five siblings and I grew older and our needs grew with us, I increasingly understood how unfair life’s balloting was, thus my anger wasn’t with the fact that he didn’t have so much, it was in the deluded fact that he only relied on his shop, that he did not bother seeking any other alternatives.
When okadas were banned in Aba, the tricycle business began booming. Bike men simply took them on hire purchase, and the legend was that such was the profit from that business that they made so much money and paid off their loans in no time. My mother begged my father to get one on hire purchase. Each day they argued about it, with my mother vacillating between entreating and cajoling. She painted scenarios, pointing out again and again how the shop was a vortex sucking in everything, promising to shoulder the burdens of the family till he was stable (which wasn’t anything she wasn’t already doing at that point), but my father had more pride in him than any poor man should, so each time, he refused. Yet he stood in surety for other people to get tricycles on hire purchase. My mother has never forgiven for that.
The thing about saying no, to anything, is that it becomes easier to say it again and again. It rolls off your tongue a little faster. There is no twinge of guilt, no “perhaps you could try harder?” With my family, it happened that because my mother always managed to carry the world on her back, ignore the sleeping man beside her and fight for her children; because we always survived, despite him, my father stopped trying. “I don’t have,” became his default answer. He disappointed us so many times that we stopped asking him for anything. He became someone we could afford to ignore. And that is the thing with indifference, it brings with it a certain type of contempt. Thus, my brothers and I became sons who hold nothing but contempt for their father. We were boys who had a father, but had outgrown him. We were a generation, headless.
When we spoke in public, my siblings and I, we did so with a certain level of guardedness. We lowered our voices to emphasize that there was no force behind our words. We knew we were both child and parent. Child-parent. We were hesitant, more careful, because not only did we not have access to the cleansing power of money, we also lacked anyone willing to take the risk to get us some. We knew that although our mother would go through hell to see us through any challenge, she had gone that road so many times that even the thought of asking her to do so again seemed like a sin.
When we went after opportunities, we ran after them with all we had, seizing every chance, every scholarship competition, anything with the promise of a monetary reward. We learnt early that we could not treat opportunities with the same level of levity as other children did. We could not turn up our noses at hand-me-downs. We had no such luxury. And with time we perfected the art of being our own saviours.
I look back and wonder about the relationships that may have raced by while I was focused on winning competitions. What if that girl from St. Bridgets College had not been to me just another contestant, another obstacle to the first prize, could we have had a high school romance? And that other boy from Adventist’s college, what if I had not been so enraged at losing to him at that Spelling Bee, what if the first prize had not meant so much to me, could we perhaps have been bros right now, awesome pals, another number on my contact list?
Regret never tastes quite right, however hard you try.
As I grow older, I find myself increasingly impatient with my father. When I observe how little I have, compared with everyone else, and see myself constantly scrapping to make do with this little, I am irritated with his helpless shruggings. I am less forgiving, less prone to making excuses for him. Often times this feeling is so alien in its workings that it frightens me. It is only recently I found a word for it: resentment. Sitting, brooding, good old-fashioned resentment.
There are days, though, that I feel generous. Days when I force myself to acknowledge the gift of fatherhood. In those moments, I berate myself for setting him a standard too high. I mean, really, what chance does an uneducated Nigerian male stand against the beast that is life? Those are the times I (try to) convince myself that physical, tangible possessions are not the only parameters to judge love by. I find other ways to make him measure up. I zoom in on how he is really ever patient. I make bold the fine prints that say he hardly complains. I blow up the pictures of him smiling encouragements, the many times he has said congratulations my boy. Those days I feel like a fraud.
I love my father, but I fear that it is a love borne out of pity. Kindness thrown out because my mother could get all of our love without even trying. When I examine this emotion, when I try to be honest and lift this feeling, standing it with the image of how I understand love to work, I find it falling short. I explain it to myself that love is love, whatever be the form. But I do know that that is not right. There is something sad about a man who is the subject of love laced with pity. Isn’t it wrong to wash down your pills with coke? What kind of analogy is that even; love as a pill, love as a bother, duty?
I have seen my father cry twice. The first was during the burial of a relative. The woman had been so old, and so far up the family tree that trying to trace the entangled branches to find her relationship with us always gave me headaches. We had been indoors, my sisters and I, taking a rest from all of the dancing we’d done earlier when he’d burst in, tears running down his face. My mother had herded him into their room, out of sight. It had been funny that my father cried because we really did not like the woman. My mother explained his tears by saying he was crying because it reminded him of the death of his own parents.
The other time was the day my sister told him he had contributed nothing to her life. That day, they had been in the middle of a shouting match. My sister had been sixteen or seventeen then, old enough not to cower in the face of my father’s anger. The fight raged from the parlour to the kitchen and back, with my father hurling expletives at my sister, and she murmuring her replies, being respectful even in her defiance. My other sister and I found ways to be busy, staying out of both their ways. Somehow, the duo had managed to be in the parlour at the same time, with my father plodding along in his anger, and then my sister, visibly exasperated, had said, “What have you added to my life sef?” The fight had gone out of my father as my sister uttered those words. He had seemed shocked and my sister had looked like a bully, her accusations weapons against his defenseless hands. He had become deflated, his breaths coming in gasps as he mouthed,
“So after I have spent days and weeks being stung by pepper for you people, you turn around to say I did nothing for you? It is God who will judge you!” He said and retired to his room. That was the end of the fight.
My sister had had to apologize later. But I do think it was because of the weight of the guilt that she had made our father cry than because she thought she had been wrong. His reaction, however, did strike me as odd. I kept wondering, did he not know? Did he not know that whenever my brother wanted to lament to strangers about why his life was messed up by marijuana he always heaped the blame on my father? Did he not know that my mother’s favorite refrain was: “This your father, he doesn’t have foresight oo”? Was he genuinely unaware?
It was this incident that made me begin to think that perhaps his was a design flaw. Perhaps whoever had configured us humans had forgotten to install whatever it was that made other humans industrious. It was hence not his fault; it was something he could not help. And as I assumed some measure of independence and there were fewer instances when I demanded money from him, it became easier to live with this truth. That thought pattern was inconsistent with what I believed in as a Christian because of course, God never makes mistakes and would not have forgotten to make him hardworking. But I knew it was the only way we could co-exist, my father and I. Believing the blame was on an external entity for which he had no control is the only way I have learned to live with my father’s indolence.
I was once at a barber’s shop when he remarked that it looked as though I was going to go bald later in life as my hairline was already beginning to show signs of it. We’d laughed about it, I more because of the fact that the barber was usually taciturn and it surprised me that he could be humorous. Then he asked if my father was bald. I’d laughed some more, and when it became obvious he was waiting for a response, I told him that my father had always been clean-shaven as long as I remembered and so I couldn’t tell. That was the truth, or some part of it actually.
I am always gripped with trepidation whenever anyone asks me if some trait: hairline, gait, height, is inherited from my father. I am careful with the way I respond. I phrase my words carefully, making sure that what I convey is a certain kind of ambivalence, a nonchalant ‘I could care less’. I usually do not want to betray the erratic beating of my heart. I try not to let the river of dread welling up in my insides overflow through the words tumbling from my lips. This fear stems from my belief—however irrational—that if I inherited one thing genetically from my father, who is to say that that would be the only thing? What if I inherited his unsteadiness? What if it is in my DNA, lurking behind the murky waters somewhere? What if I transfer this trait to my children?
I often wonder if my relationship with my father affects my relationship with others. I know it does. I see it in the instances when I need reassurances, when what someone says is insufficient. I see it in the way I always have a backup plan, in the event that people fail. I see it in the insecurities, in my skepticism, my distrust of humans. I see it most importantly in my relationship with God. Trusting God completely is still something I struggle with daily. It is manifest in the instances that I hesitate when he whispers to me, “Lovest thou me more than these?” I am slow in answering because I know what it means to live without the ‘these’, and how recklessly debasing lack can be. I take a little longer to tell Him how much He means to me. He notices the hesitation.
And this is not the kind of person I want to be, this cynical, questioning skeptic, continuously treading water within the bounds of cautiousness. I want to be full of hope and laughter. Full of dreams and light. I want to be a person who is comfortable with the darkness of not knowing. I want my heart to beat a little less with trepidation when I cannot feel the earth beneath my feet. I stand and I look at that person and hope that that is a version of me that exists in some alternate universe.
I am always mildly appalled by the things I hear whenever I visit my father’s shop in the market. The market men and women often present as though they have no inhibitions regarding the limits of what they find permissible to utter. There is usually a raucous air, a kind of free for all where everything goes. Some of the young boys there, referred to as ‘engine’ boys because they manually ground food stuffs for customers, find it easy making uncouth statements about others. The sparring is often amongst themselves, although sometimes innocent bystanders or even customers are made the subject of their jokes. The jabs usually are good-natured, but it isn’t uncommon to see such supposedly harmless teasing descend into a fist fight.
One particular fight is still etched in my memory. It had been evening, right about the time when the market usually got busy so when the noise started climbing, it wasn’t immediately apparent that it was a fight that had broken out. When the two fighting boys were eventually separated, a small hedge of both market people and customers circled them. The boys had revealed that the fight had started from a joke, one of them had called the other, “opara nwanyi” to which the other responded with a punch. When the “offended” boy, bloodied nose and all, recounted the tale, there was a unanimous sigh of “oooh” from the gathering. It was an acknowledgement that the punch was deserved because being called, opara nwanyi, a woman’s first son, is deemed to be a really terrible insult. The insult resting in the fact that it called to question the masculinity of a particular male, and is usually made when said male person performs an act deemed unmanly. Even though most of those boys are below thirteen, they have been indoctrinated that a boy has to be, first, his father’s son. They have been taught that somehow, it is emasculating for a boy’s identity to be traced from his mother. And of course it is for this reason also that a boy being called sissy or effeminate is taken to be an insult.
As a generous woman bought the ‘offended’ boy a bottle of fanta as though in compensation, I contemplated the fact that I did not understand what the barb in the insult was. Insults should sting, at least a little at the least, but what then is the sting of being called opera nwanyi? Right now I know I probably reason this way because I have come across arguments that make rubbish of the reasoning that made that phrase an insult, but even then it had always been easy to recognize that statement’s silliness when applied to my particular situation. I mean, how could I ever think it an insult being called the son of a woman who would ford two rivers to get to me? What is inappropriate about being identified with that? Who laughs at being called the son of your mother if you cannot be the son of your father?
I am at peace being my mother’s son. This peace has wrapped me in sheaths of clothing that even shame cannot uncover. I am comfortable taking root from where her stem remains and branching out, bearing seeds in her name. There would have to be a title for this generation of boys whose throng I seek to join, but till then, I would remain a son whose father isn’t enough.