Your time will always pass
And it will pass at a time
Least convenient to you
Just as it came at a time
Not quite expected by you
And lasted for a length of time
Unappreciated by you.
– Che Chidi Chukwumerije
Your time will always pass
And it will pass at a time
Least convenient to you
Just as it came at a time
Not quite expected by you
And lasted for a length of time
Unappreciated by you.
– Che Chidi Chukwumerije
The older I get,
The more I miss my father.
The more knowing I grow,
The more I miss him.
The more I know him.
The more I understand him.
We live life forwards,
But understand life backwards.
When it‘s too late to change anything,
That’s when we understand everything.
The young shall grow.
– Che Chidi Chukwumerije
(I just feel like remembering today)
“Jemila, this your jollof rice and chicken is too sweet oh! Chai! How did you make it?”
“You that can’t even fry egg, how do you want me to start explaining to you how to make jollof rice and chicken?”
Chizo, who was listening, started laughing.
“You people don’t know we are in Africa where you can’t be laughing at your senior anyhow, abi.”
Of course this only made them laugh louder. So I had to take up the challenge.
“OK, next time you want to make rice and chicken, just call me. I will watch, take notes and learn it by force.”
Their laughter became uncontrollable.
Chizo said, “Please, let it be on a day when I am here oh. I have to witness this spectacle.”
It was early 2004. I was abroad most of the time, doing my Aviation Management course. I had given up my flat in Apapa, and anytime I was in Lagos I stayed at Aunty Uzo’s place in Maryland. Jemila, her daughter, had a bad case of sickle cell anaemia. It had taken a slight turn for the worse and she stayed at home a lot. She had bad days on which she lay around and did not say much, but you saw the pain on her face. But she also had her good days. On the good days her voice was loud and her laughter was bright, she would go into the kitchen and cook and there was no end to her cheeky rejoiners and replies to everything she heard. But, good days or bad days, every Sunday she tried her best to get up and go to worship. She prayed a lot and had a pure simple childlike faith. She was 20 years old.
Well, the day finally came. One of her good days. Chizo was there, visiting Aunty Uzo and her younger cousin Jemila like she often did. And I was in the country. I took my notebook and joined Jemila and Chizo in the kitchen.
“So what do you want to learn now exactly?” Jemila laughed.
“That your jollof rice and chicken you made the last time.”
“Everyone makes their own differently oh,” she warned.
“Just that particular one you made, that’s the one I want. It was too delicious.”
“Okay oh. So how do you want to learn it.”
I brought out my notebook and pen.
“Just be doing, I will be watching and taking notes. Anything I don’t understand, I will ask you.”
Chizo had been trying her best to hold back her laughter. At this point she exploded and settled against the doorpost.
“Ngwa nu, let’s go,” she said.
———- ———- ———- ———- ———-
It is 14 years later, I am going through some of my old books and papers, like I am sometimes wont to do. I pick up a little notebook that I have not bothered with for longer than I can remember. Idly I flip open the first pages and suddenly … I freeze. The shock of reawakening memory hits me like a blow. Sadness and joy seize me simultaneously. Slowly, as if in a trance, I start to read:
JEMILA’S JOLLOF RICE AND CHICKEN
1. Put Chicken in small pot with assorted seasoning: e.g. curry, thyme, onions, dried pepper, maggi (1 cube), small salt, any other chicken seasoning. Put everything on fire without water for 2 minutes, turning and stirring. Then add a little water and cover pot on fire. Leave to cook until it gets soft. Along the way keep adding water. Be tasting the broth along the way, adding any seasoning whose taste is missing (e.g. salt, maggi).
– Soft Chicken takes about 10 minues to soften
– Hard Chicken takes about 30 minutes to soften
2. While waiting for Stage 1 to complete itself, grind (or blend) tomato and pepper. Wash the tomatoes and cut them first (if blending). Wash and cut onions also and put into blender. Wash and open fresh pepper (tatase). Wash and remove seeds from Tatase (don’t touch with hand, if possible: tatase seeds peppery). Then cut up and put in blender too. The Tatase is just to make it red, that’s why the seeds have been removed.
We’re cooking 3 cups of rice.
Use e.g. 8 or 9 fresh tomatoes, 1 onion bulb, 2 Tatases, 5 to 8 fresh peppers.
We could have used more Tatase, but because we’re also using tinned tomato, which is very red, 2 Tatases are enough.
NOW BLEND UP! BELND UP!
3. Wash rice. Put in a pot with water. Put on fire. We are parboiling it, maybe 5 to 10 minutes; so it doesn’t get soft, just white. (It may last 20 mins…).
After parboiling, wash again and drain water away (with sieve, if available).
4. Break Maggi into parboiled rice. Put thyme and curry and also any other seasoning you have into the drained parboiled rice.
5. Make sauce in another pot:
Slice a quarter onion. Put enough oil into new pot on fire.
Add sliced onions and little salt.
(Salt helps onion not to burn quickly – CHIZO’S THEOREM!)
Add tinned tomato. Add blended mix of STAGE 2. (Keep stirring all the while). Now cover pot and leave to cook on fire until it boils – might even dry up a bit – because of pepper and tomato. Also add Chicken Broth!
After some 10 or 15 mins, add a little more thyme and curry.
Add a little more water and then transfer the parboiled rice into the ready sauce. Add also a little more oil (groundnut oil oh!). Cook until it cooks fully. (Never turn)
6. While cooking is on, say about 15 mins before end, slice carrots and green pepper.
Add 2 more maggi cubes, soften with tiny water. Slice the carrots lengthwise and breathwise.
When rice is soft, introduce carrots and green pepper. Now turn, stir and mix. Taste for weak seasoning, e.g. salt, maggi, etc. If needed, add, mix.
Turn off fire.
7. WACK UR GRUB.
———- ———- ———- ———- ———- ———-
Quietly I close the notebook and sit still for a long time.
If Jemila were still alive, she would turn 35 today. I remember the picture Yvonne and I took of her. It was at the end of 2004, at Azuka’s wedding. She looked happy. If she was in pain, she did not show it. She was shy, smiled and looked down when she saw the camera. She looked older than she was. A beautiful moment. Our favourite picture of her.
The year after that, in 2005, the bad days came more often. Her face would be contorted in pain. An unending crisis. One round of dialysis after the other. Her eyes wiser, much wiser, than her age. On the 26th of February 2005 , she left. She was 21 years old.
The deepest memories are sometimes stored in the simplest of things.
– Che Chidi Chukwumerije.
In loving memory of Jemila Ibrahim: 25.04.83 – 26.02.05
I’m quiet tonight
Never mind that it’s morning
I’m still dreaming
I remember a friend
We had high hopes for his future
Yet he chose the Easy
Now I’m all alone
On the road we once chose together
Watching it grow longer
This pain I keep inside
Greater than death, worse than loss
If I doubted reincarnation
This life has taught me a bitter lesson
For I must come again
The work is unfinished
The cards will be reshuffled
I will come again.
Then I hear, so soft
The sounds of morning dawning
The past is over now.
Those words, those strange words
That baffle the minds of politics
Of culture and science
You can call me Fool
You can call me mad, and yet
You too will come again.
– che chidi chukwumerije.
The Crack was so loud
We actually failed to hear
The piercing cry
We are dying even whilst they die
You struck me hard
You were hellbent on killing off
All the love in me
So that you could point at my corpse, my heart
And me the coffin housing it
You see! He was dead all along!
And everybody will nod wisely
You cannot murder a dead man.
Africa vanished like smoke in the wind
And left Africa behind
Battling the barrenness you and I…
Strangers stood back
Watched us tear one another to pieces
And when we’re through
They’ll step in calmly and calmly pick up the pieces
And build anew an other Africa again
Empty of all Africans
Biafrans and Nigerians
Hutus and Tutsis, Zulus and Xhosas.
Nationalists, Traditionalists, you
And all that will remain
As a memory of a people that once was
Are the poems and songs we
Even the slogans will be forgotten.
– che chidi chukwumerije.
THE BEGINNING is the end.
Dawn is just about to break, I awaken from a deep sleep. The sleep was dark, I dreamt of demons and devils running after me. My life is at its lowest ebb. I am unhappy.
Tired I rise to my feet, slowly limp out of my hut, into the little dirt track dragging its way across the outer hamlets far away from the nearest, secluded, village. Dim twilight prevails. My head hangs and the story of my life briefly replays itself in my memory.
I remember the child, carefree, sanguine. The happy family that was its home, the humble abode that housed their love. The carefreeness.
I remember standing up like an impatient tree into manhood, searching for the sun, but my crown got lost in the dizzying clouds, pregnant with temptation. Then came the fall.
It was not the bacteria that killed my wife, it was the aching heart that closed its eyes to me, full of regret and disappointment. It was not the whispers of untrue friends that led my children astray, but the missing guidance of a self-absorbed father. It was not my friends who abandoned me, but I who abandoned what I could have been. Even my foes deserted me, they have nothing left to shame. Twenty years later, I emerge, destitute, beggar, soulless, lifeless, into the cool dark morning before the sun…
Dawn is for new beginnings. The hour before dawn shall be my coronation. Death. And should dawn come before, then let me start anew on the other side. These are my thoughts this morning, dark fruits of that dream. For once in your life be a man, and put an end to it.
Wearily I return into the hut. For some reason I wait until I smell it. Then I re-emerge into the slow brightening twilight of fore-dawn, a dagger in my hand. Why exactly have I come out into the open to do it? I do not know. Maybe simply because I want to die facing the sky, the big all-seeing eye.
Poised and ready, one last time scenes from my life rush like a highspeed freight-train across the charred landscape of my memory, then I raise my blade, firm, gripping with both hands… point it towards my innards… I close my eyes.
No last prayer awakens in my soul. No final thought. No closure. All I want is the deep dark plunge, the sharp pain, the flowing warmth of exit, the blurred eternity of death.
That moment when you are about to say goodbye to a familiar place, when you stand on the hilltop like Lot’s wife, knowing you should hurry on, don’t look back, yet unable to resist the last goodbye. It is the moment of betrayal that brings about the reversal of fortune. How long did I perch on the brink of that moment, looking at the end of my life?
Everything drew itself into one spot, like a raincloud, and suddenly it was time. I bend my knees, steel myself for the hard, fast plunge into the lightless waterfall. Did I breathe in or out? …
Dimly, as though from far away, I hear footsteps.
Footsteps? I have never heard footsteps down in these deserted outlands, at such an early hour, before. Am I sure? Have I heard right? I wish to set off on my journey into solitude… in solitude.
I listen. For a long time I hear nothing. My resolve is not brittle, it turns around again and refocuses on its way. But, softly, I hear them again – slightly louder. Footsteps. Yes. Frozen like a statue, I manage to blink a few moments later when he appears… an old man with a walking rod, his head completely bald. I recognise him. It is the hermit.
My knees are still bent, the cold steel still points to me, the sacrifice, when he reaches me. He stops. He looks at me in the grey twilight. I see a look of surprise grow on his face.
“Son?…” he asks, starled. “What are you doing?”
I look into his eyes. Within me something akin to emotion refuses to stir. Serenely I say:
“I am about to kill myself, oh hermit…”
“To kill yourself?” I hear the surprise also in his voice. “But why”
Serenely still, I reply:
“My life is empty, meaningless. I have lost it all, wife, family, everything. Friends, money, life’s work. With them went my will to work too. Now I too must depart.”
It is an odd feeling to speak into eyes that steadily grow softer the harder your words become. It is quite distracting, because you begin to wonder why.
“My son, are you satisfied with this decision?”
“Indeed, oh hermit, I am.”
He smiled, as though he were the keeper of a secret.
“But child – “
“You have lived twice the length of my life, it is true, yet call me not child, for I do know what I am doing.”
“It is not knowing what you are doing that matters, my son, but knowing why you are doing what you are doing.”
Thought is the enemy of blind resolve. Why is he talking to me? Obligating me to a logical answer. A trap. I cannot kill myself until I free myself from it. For conviction, standing on irrefutable clarity, is my justifier. This proud I am, and he knows it. I see it in his amused eyes watching mine, challenging me to convince him too. I mustn’t, I know. But it seems to me the last duty I owe a failed life. I want to die proudly. Nobody had ever asked me this question. I want to find the answer to it before I go, not for him but for me, that I may go in peace. Everybody might plain know what he is doing – but the deeper reason? Did I not know it?
I am a bit irritated by the fact that no clear-cut answer jumps out of my observant soul immediately, and that I have to think it out. It makes me a bit uneasy, such a simple statement.
My arms lower under the weight of thought, I raise them up again, reposition the blade. I wish I had not done that, for he notices everything, down to my thoughts and the movement in my heart. I can see it in his curious eyes.
“But I know very well why I am doing what I am doing, oh hermit.”
“I have already said it all to you, but I will flesh it out now, father. You see, I had a beautiful childhood, a quiet youth, the journey of manhood began well. I married a beautiful woman. I had no reason to stray from the path. But I did. In the beginning I had life, now I have lifelessness. I have heard that the beginning is the end, but not in my life. My life ends in nothing. My beloved wife is dead, she died from the inner loneliness and pain into which I thrust her. My sons and daughters are monsters and thieves. My people have ostracized me, my friends deserted me, my wealth squandered, my fame evaporated.
“Even enemies… Hermit, do you know what it means when enemies no longer concern themselves with one? That is the ultimate mark of meaninglessness.”
“Don’t you think you can start all over again?” asks the hermit tenderly. “Start afresh? Pick up the threads? Build anew?” His tone, though tender, is conversational, as if we were talking about the weather.
I shake my head, I’m not sure if wearily or angrily.
“No, hermit, there are no threads to pick up. There is no foundation upon which to build anew. I must go. These reasons suffice.”
“Life is a gift, my friend,” says the hermit. “Measure it not according to what happens on the outside, but by the forces within your soul. And there is so much life in your soul, my son. This I see.”
His words are getting too close to home. I am trying to block them out, but it is not easy. They are penetrant, threatening to inject into me a dose of reflection. Seeds of new life, warmth, vitality. But I don’t want the pain that comes with the warmth. I don’t want the exertion that the vitality demands. I don’t want the new thoughts of reflection that a fresh lease of life would bring. I am afraid.
Afraid. Surprised I gaze at this recognition, almost amused, wondering how and why I missed that point all along. Quickly following upon the trite amusement is seriousness, as I feel my consciousness slip into the pool of fear in which my subconscious has been drowning all along. I am afraid. I had all these things before and I wandered away, into the darkness. No. Let me alone. I don’t want life that will remind me of my sins, and demand that I atone, and put me back on the crossroad where I fell before, demanding that I choose again.
Oh, no. I fear.
Leave me alone in my pitifulness and self-pity. Leave me in my dejection and self-pity. I don’t want responsibility. My inner life is weak. I don’t want to take another shot at life. I might lose again. I want to die.
Like bolts of lightning, flashes of clarity, these thoughts, these intuitive perceptions surge through me, shaking me. Goodbye and welcome. He is smiling, the hermit! I have to face him one last time.
“Let me be, Hermit,” I breathe out wearily. “I am a nobody, a nothing, life has passed me by, I am finished. Depression and despair are all I have now. The deep clear confusion of seeing no way forward. “
“If you see no way forward, then stand still… but don’t plunge into the abyss.”
I shake my head. “I am tired… of life.”
Now he shakes his head. “I would put it differently. I would say that you have merely decided that you are tired of life. Is that not so?”
For a moment our eyes remained locked on each other. Then, without warning, he turns back to the road and begins to walk away, continuing on his journey. The sun is pushing up from the valley, the hermit reaches the hill’s zenith and then quickly begins to descend. I watch him disappear, the sun appear.
Now I look down at the knife which I still hold in my hand. Curious, but I’m suddenly wandering why exactly I picked it up in the first place.
– Che Chidi Chukwumerije..
I SOUGHT MY daughter whom I had not seen for hours now. It was already at the start of that unfailing daily event called Sunset. I sat down outside the little bungalow; well, I call it a bungalow, I’m sure there are some who’ll call it a hut. I was happy, but a certain restlessness stirred in my soul. Maybe she was playing in the woods downhill; I could imagine her admiring and memorizing the shapes and colours of all the wild flowers and little insects in the bushes, her enduring passion. She would soon be back.
The sun, setting, was beautiful. I saw him playing with the clouds lazily travelling by. The wind tickled the whispering grasses, and I was alone.
I liked this new bungalow of mine, perched on this hilltop, giving me a true view of the entire countryside, the village, and those ancient forbidden caves in the distance of which all kinds of impossible tales are still told even until today; yes, this hilltop and this bungalow up here had a strong hold on me, unlike the old hut further down in the valley where I had been born, where I had grown up.
I missed my wife and longed for her return. She had travelled a hundred kilometers away to care for her sick mother for a few days, leaving our daughter and me alone until she would return.
My mind slipped to my childhood back in the old hut. To my brothers and sisters, my parents and old friends. Everybody was gone now. The old ones had died. The young ones had grown up and moved away. Only I had remained here on these hilly south-eastern plains. Now I lived with my wife and daughter in a new bungalow, well to be honest, a big hut really, on a hill, not far from the old one, the last keeper of our culture. For some reason, my heart just could not detach from these environs. Born freely to farm my village lands, I did just that everyday, walking down into the village, then beyond it, to our ancestral farmlands. This week had been a quiet week, though, as I stayed at home with my daughter and waited for my wife to return from her mother.
It started to grow dark. My thoughts came back to the present. I began to worry. Where was my daughter?
Then she was there…
I saw dimly her fragile lithe form slowly mounting the gentle slope, a small basket clutched to her side. Normally she ran, hopped and skipped. I hoped she was not feeling ill.
I let her come to me. I heard her footsteps. Then I saw her face – drawn… her eyes wide, starring… – something was wrong.
“Neanya!” I gasped, springing up.
She walked on straight towards me, her widened eyes never leaving mine, as though searching for answers, a hold, something. What? And then suddenly, a few paces away from me, she abruptly stopped. I walked quickly up to her, bent down, held her; just eight years old; she stood stiffly; her eyes were white.
“Neanya,” I whispered, “What’s wrong? Did something happen? What happened? Tell me!”
She took a deep breath, swallowed. Still these questioning eyes gripping mine. An uneasy apprehension began to grow within me. With a quick glance I briefly scanned the declining grassland behind her; saw nothing, nobody.
“Neanya…” I began again. Her lips parted.
She spoke. A whisper:
“I saw… a… strange man – ”
“Down the hill, near the old hut, behind the forest… on that other path that leads to the farmlands…”
“What were you looking for there? I thought you were on the edge of the forest.”
“After playing with the flowers in the forest, I went to the other side, to the giant ụdara tree, I was hoping to pick some ripe and fallen ụdara berries… for you.”
I looked into her basket, expecting it to be empty. It was full of ụdara. I stretched out my hands, one reaching for the basket, the other her shoulder. She veered away, but remained standing where she was, her basket of wild berries still pressed against her body.
“And what happened?”
“He was very sad, father. He was crying.”
“A strange man? Crying? Where?”
“By the woods, downhill, near the old hut… he was not an old man… he was crying…”
Her answers came in phrases. Her eyes still gripped mine. Something had happened. But what?
“So I held his hand – ”
“You what? Neanya! Who was he? What did he do to you?”
But she simply continued as though I had not interrupted her.
“ – and asked him why he was crying. He looked at me, father, and he was sad. And then… he smiled a little. He said… he said…”
“What did he say?”
“He said that I looked familiar – ”
“And have you seen him before?”
For the first time the starry look in Neanya’s eyes dispersed somewhat. I could see she was thinking. Eight years old; what was she thinking about?
“I don’t know, father… but he looked very familiar too – ”
All at once I felt very uncomfortable, psychically and physically, as if I was subject to a strange, invisible pressure. My throat went dry. I swallowed, took a deep breath and said slowly to my daughter:
“Now Neanya, just tell me everything! What happened? What did this stranger tell you?”
Standing as though rooted to the spot, my daughter looked at me for a few seconds with that thoughtful, questioning glow in her eyes again, and then, after what seemed like a moment of consideration, nodded and slowly began to speak.
“He said he was trapped there, that he could not move on… that’s what he said… because, he said, he said that he had been torn by guilt, he had…” She paused a while, breathe deeply once, then continued. “He had… killed himself when he was on earth, that’s what he said, that he rejected the gift of earthlife God gave him…” She paused, took another deep breath, quietly exhaled. She seemed to be thinking, yet for a second I almost had the impression… that she was listening.
Then, with a sigh, and a slight nod, she continued:
“And… and he said that amongst other things he did not stay to take care of his only child… and that now he is torn by even greater guilt… that’s exactly what he said, father… – he said he wants me to go to his child today, right away, Father, to tell his child that… that…,” she choked, stopped.
“What?” I whispered. Was this a dream? Had the imaginative powers of her mind gone too far?
“He told me to go to his child – ”
I shook my head and held Neanya’s shoulders.
“Ssssh. Sssshh. Ssssshhh. You’ve had a bad day-dream, that’s – ”
“He even told me his child’s name, father, and where I could go to find him this evening,” Neanya whispered, interrupting me gently and raising her eyes to the sky. Her eyes were suddenly old. The sky was a deep dark blue and, all around us, the night crickets were chirping.
“What is his child’s name?”
“Norondu – “
My heart stopped beating.
“Is that not your name, Father?” whispered Neanya, her eyes coming back down from distant skies and reclaiming mine. “Is that not what Mummy calls you?”
My heart had still not started beating.
… My biological father had died when I was a baby. I had grown up with my mother and stepfather and their children, my half-brothers and -sisters. I had never known what my original father died of. I only knew he had been some kind of restless adventurer travelling through the lands. I always assumed he died by some kind of accident. People did not like speaking much about him…
“What did the man want you to tell Norondu?” I whispered to Neanya.
“That the old Book of Knowledge which his grandfather had given to his father, and his father had given to him, and which he would like to give his son … is buried exactly beneath the spot on which I am now standing… – ”
– Che Chidi Chukwumerije.
THERE IS a bridge across the River Niger. A cold, old steel bridge across the long-travelling river. It is to this busy bridge that once the painter came everyday, every evening – oblivious, as one drugged, to the noise of the hawkers around, and the cars behind, her – as she stared into the hurrying water, and tried to exchange her sorrow for joy.
Unfortunately she was rarely ever able to achieve this, but just as she had come with her sorrow, she would depart with it as well.
Life is especially uncomfortable for artists, living as they do in their two worlds – the tangible world we normal people see and the other, invisible, one seemingly perceivable only by the inner eyes of artists. They cannot help it. It is their destiny, their perpetual calling, their fate. It seems as though the Divine has assigned to them the painful task of bridging for mankind groping blindfolded on earth the gap of the river of sightlessness which flows between that which was, that which is and that which will be, the perceived and unseen.This, they say, is why artists suffer, torn in different directions by irrenconciliable forces.
Ijeoma the painter had had quite a happy childhood on the other side of the river, in a small town called Obosi. She played with her brothers and sisters and was all but completely unconscious of the adult life around her. Her most insistent love manifested itself in the urge to gaze upon pictures – in books or in nature or even upon the faces of her fellow human beings. To paint however she had never attempted, never contemplated. Neither the urge nor the idea had ever occurred to her.
Until she became an adolescent and the strange, irresistible longing and pain gripped her and forced her to spread out upon plain, empty waiting sheets the pictures of the secret knowledge which she found that she already, unaccountably, bore inside her mysterious soul. And she painted…
Painting made Ijeoma happy. Gave her release and, simultaneously, gripped her inexorably. A caged, skyfree bird. The bane of artists, their incentive, their riddle, their sorrow, their reward.
But then she fathomed the world no more. And in return the world fathomed her no more too, gradually proceeding to pin such labels upon her as queer… funny… disturbed… unbalanced… mad. She however, she knew that those labels fit not her but the world which sought to stick them on her. Like they also say, in the society of mad people, the sane one becomes crazy.
Ijeoma drew away from people and drew herself into art. Loneliness became her companion. She tried to understand herself. Was her heart a running stream that flowed into the sea? Was her heart a sky upon which angels had painted since forever? Or was it a universe, a meeting place of forces, a tended garden, blended carefully? Or just another ordinary human heart?
Then arrived the time in which she had to begin to fend for herself, for as childhood becomes youth, so becomes youth adulthood. And adulthood must hold its head high, and be self-dependent.
She had learned no other trade but the trade of images, illustrated moods and pictures. So she began to frame and sell her paintings. But nobody bought them; nobody bought these paintings which one day in the future would suddenly become masterpieces. But artists, who see well humanity’s future, are notoriously incapable of seeing their own.
Life became to Ijeoma like an empty desert. If she could eat once a day, she was lucky. She moved to the other side of the river, to a town called Asaba where she lived alone, away from home. But somebody once said that home is inside.
Her family, although they did not understand her, continued to communicate with her every now and then however, as families like to do. And to offer help, if…
She did not always reply, as offsprings and artists are wont to do. But whenever she did she never dwelled upon the fact of her poor financial and living conditions, but deliberately insisted she was fine. Ijeoma sent home tiny pretty parcels every once in a while, parcels she had bought with her few small savings, not because she wanted to buy them, but because her pride would not let her project any other but this picture of herself to those from whom she wanted no pity.
And then things came to a peak. In order to be able to hang on, it turned out that she would have to open her heart to the well-meant charity of a certain man who had met her and who could not help but love her with his whole wide soul.
It was not that she did not want to, or that she felt it would be wrong to do so with regards to this particular man in whose eyes she saw distant, radiant things that made her heart jump, for then her compulsive resistance would have been understandable. It was just that she did not want to let go of her tenacious pride.
She was sad, angry, bewildered and embittered by the fact that her paintings were not loved, sought after, bought. It hurt her deep within her soul.
She took to visiting the bridge across the river every evening, standing on its central spot and staring into the non-chalant waters, like many lonely people do.
And one day as she stood there, under a humid sun, a lurid idea with which she had long toyed gripped her anew with near ineludible force.
Her head swam, she became dizzy. She was aware of herself toppling over the railing into the river of blindness, but she made no effort to arrest her fall; silently she gave herself up to that fate which she had decided would be hers. The water rushed up fast.
She fell voluntarily into the river and drowned and died so that everything would at last come to an end…
And this is where the story begins. I have spoken to many a native who hawks upon this bridge or casts the net from his fishing boat into the waters of River Niger, and they all swear that this is true.
Ijeoma was very surprised, after she dumped herself into the river, to experience that everything did not come to an end. Although her body died, she herself continued to drown in the watching water, drown but not die, drown and yet not die, unremittingly.
Meanwhile Okeke, that man with the distant, radiant things in his eyes who loved her more than he had ever believed one human being could love another, came to look for her at the old bridge, her bridge of sighs, seized of a sudden and inexplicable apprehension. Amidst the agitation of the crowd that had gathered on the bridge, pointing in consternation into the river, he saw her scarf hanging from the railing, but her he saw no more…
Decades later, Ijeoma watches an old man emerge from a parked car by the side of the road and slowly limp his way up the bridge. The hawkers, peddling everything from smart phones to impotency-curing ointments, seem to know him well, they make way for him. He takes no notice of them, or of the hustle and bustle of traffic and trade, the stench of sweat and exhaust fumes. In one hand he holds a scarf, faded yellow, with his other hand he rubs his tired old eyes wearily. Finally he gets to where Ijeoma is standing, in the middle of the bridge, peers briefly at her with a confused, introspective look in his eyes, blinks, then turns and stares quietly down into the river.
Standing beside him, she watches him, says nothing, so as not to disturb the solemnity of this ever-recurring magic moment. She drinks in the love that emanates like waves with his thoughts. After a while, he lets out a soft long sigh, straightens up, rubs his thigh where the old shrapnel is still embedded, and looks at the sky. This is her cue; she decides to try again. Taking a deep breath, she raises her hand, places it on his shoulder and says gently:
He does not stir, does not react.
She shakes his shoulder again, and again; her voice is laced with resignation as she utters his name. She knows he will not hear, yet she can’t help but try. Each time. Each evening. The same words…
“Okeke… thank you… but move on. My burden is mine alone to bear… to make good.”
… she reads in his thoughts that the few finished works she left behind on earth are now masterpieces. In his heart she sees his memories of a proud and beautiful eighteen year old lady from decades ago when he was just a young eager man of twenty.
Before he walks away, he looks at the river again, an introspective, philosophic look on his face, softening the longing in his eyes. As always the last thing he does before he goes is to whisper her name…
“Ijeoma…” Safe journey.
Then he turns and limps away, a phlegmatic old man. With tears in her eyes, she watches him walk away, wants to follow, to try one more time. In vain she looks around again for the invisible chain that holds her to this spot, this spot to which she has cumbersomely dragged herself after decades of struggle, of laboriously climbing out of the water and struggling up the bridge.
They have been decades of cavernous emotion. Unnoticed by any, she watched the civil war that brought down the old bridge and catapulted the souls of the many massacred out of the realm of flesh and bone. She was there when the bridge was rebuilt and the war survivors, walking reservoirs of devastated trust and defiant hope, slowly repopulated the bridge.
And still, the longing to fulfil her art burns in her heart. Often has she tried to turn around and return to some distant luminous home… but she cannot. She is held here as by an invisible chain. Destiny unfulfilled, she must cross the bridge again, one day.
And soon she will be born anew into the earth as a baby. She will grow into a deep dreamy teenager and then mature into a restless and intense artist. Perhaps she will cross your path. Attract you with her art, intrigue you with her nature and remain incomprehensible. If she does, do meet her with understanding. She is a bridge. She paints for you and me.
– Che Chidi Chukwumerije
For more stories and thoughts that touch on the deeper threads that run through our lives, read my book “There Is Always Something More”.
THE MOURNERS came, with lots of noise and tears, crying their dry eyes out. No one stopped them. They were left to wail and weep, even though they made all that din.
And the merry-makers, theirs was even more dramatic, their lives are simple, they simply make merry. It does not matter the occasion which has brought them together. Their occupation is to sing and be happy, that is their job, their life. In large numbers they came out to lighten up the place, all three categories of them – the clowns, the eaters and the musicians – merrymaking from dawn until everyone else is gone.
And then of course my old friends, drawn out of the distant mists of childhood, reappeared with appropriately long faces. They murmured here and there about a few breaches of tradition but generally they held their peace. Rice and stew were very plenty, palm wine flowed as if the very trees wept, drowning their complaints in their throats; they left everybody alone and except for their ponderous thoughts nobody remembered their presence.
Two T.V. reporters with their camera men, a few newspaper journalists, a couple of ministers and princes, a former president, a galaxy of celebrities, a throng of socialites and a pride of leaders. Soon the whole place was turned from a place of solemn silence to something like the setting for a television talk-show. Who was going to be interviewed? The departed spirit? I chuckled; good that no-one heard me.
The few people who knew me well wondered at all the noise, all the crowd. Could I, who had so dearly nourished simplicity and quiet while still alive, have really wished my departure to trigger this breach of it? They tried to voice their discontent, but my relatives silenced them with the counter-claim that I had always said that everyone was allowed to do as they wished, and so they did not feel it right to disobey my injunction upon my departure.
Clergy of different religions dragged the aura of their history into my home and solemnly spewed prayers into the air, while everyone closed their eyes and kept on chewing their food. And the liars. They were everywhere, telling lies. The gamblers were gambling. The drunkards were drinking. And the lies the liars told were shattering to the core, for the liars had once been my friends.
But, with love, with compassion, my eyes did rest on one or two visitors in whose heart I saw pain at my departure, in whose eyes I saw the glittering pearls of true tears ever and again wiped away with a sigh. I was sad for them, I wished they could feel the touch of my hand on their shoulder, hear my voice as I whispered to them, I’m still alive.
But what can you do? Each person will react in his own wto death, the victor. Each, according to his or her nature, will bring their character to the fore upon your departure and, symphony or cacophony, there is nothing you can do about it, not anymore.
And so I did not stay there long. I had known it would be like this – who doesn’t? And I had made her promise, she who I loved, who I love, promise me, yes I had made her promise me that she would take my body away, far away. And far away, in the heart of the beautiful woods, she and the children we bore, now adults, and our closest closest friends, they stood in a circle around my body. And though they did not see me, they sensed me, sensed that I was there, standing too in the circle with them, our unbroken circle of love. Far away from the noise and noisy thoughts of the world.
One of them played a flute, and the flute was enough, and spoke the language of our hearts; and every thought they thought of me was a thought of love, and my soul was full. And my spirit sang.
And soon the body, old and tired, rested deep in the cool depth of mother earth. There was a prayer my love was praying, and that was when I heard it, the other flute, the heavenly flute, it came from far away, from high high above, gripped my heart, and I saw the way home. At that moment her eyes opened and her love held me one more time, then with a gentle whimsical sigh she let me go.
– Che Chidi Chukwumerije.y