Ejiofor knew his life wasn’t going to be the same when he heard he was assigned to be Miss Clara’s tour guide and interpret the ways of his people to her, but he had no idea about the extent to which things would change.
By Ikechukwu Henry
The first time you saw Mama run mad, you were sixteen years old. Perhaps she had already run mad prior, but Papa’s actions must have been the ultimate catalyst.
You were returning from the stream, your head supporting an iron pile the white men gave Papa for an unimportant job he executed for them a few days prior. If you removed the scarf that balanced the pile on your head, it would gleam like a newly-dug diamond.
You walked across your father’s Obi and saw Mama sitting on the wooden bench, chewing her lips, tapping her feet as if willing the ground to let her soar to the sky. Your siblings were at the doorpost of Papa’s hut. Perhaps it was Chimsidiri you saw when you squinted closer, standing like a rock in front of Papa’s hut. Eziada lay beside the large stone Papa used for smashing kernels whenever he was home, which rarely happened. She crushed kernels, putting them inside an ivory bowl beside her.
“Diri, come and help me bring this thing down,” you said, staggering forward while trying to balance your feet. Mama sighed as she glanced at Eziada, who must have heard your voice but chose to act as though you were a ghost.
“Help him bring down the pile, Ezi.”
“Who helped you carry it, if not yourself?”, Eziada grunted.
You rolled your eyes and brought down the pile with her aid, taking it to the kitchen behind the huts. You wondered why Diri had been standing in front of Papa’s hut like a guard, and why Mama was scowling.
“Is Papa inside?”
You wanted to ask, but laughter slid through the air from Papa’s hut. A quaint female voice and Papa’s baritone. You gazed at Diri who shrugged.
“Who is that?”
You headed inside, ignoring Diri’s warning not to venture.
Ejiofor’s heart jolted as the black car stopped abruptly in front of the large compound owned by the white men. As he sighed slowly, he could feel that his days would never be the same again.
Ejiofor shifted on his feet, gawking at the two men scrambling to get the back door open. Silence rented the air as they waited for the occupant of the back seat. He heard a grunt behind him and he realised it came from Mr. Clarke, the district officer supervising the new building at Umuchima clan. Ejiofor had heard that the building in question would be used for warehousing imported tobacco.
Mr. Clarke grunted again, dabbing sweat off his skin, sun-tanned and pallid like it could melt from the intensity of the sun. His large frame just about managed to fit into his tuxedo, with his hair matted sideways.
Amidst murmurs, Ejiofor’s eyes darted to the car, viewing the one foot that was out, then two feet before the whole body of a female figure in a sequin dress began to scurry towards them. Not far off, he heard the sucking of teeth from the mouth of Okoro, a nwa diàlà of the Umuchima clan, clad in native attire. He had once wondered if Okoro volunteered to be his clan’s interpreter for his own interests or for the benefit of the clan. But now he couldn’t help but sneer at the airs that Okoro walked with. The contempt was mutual.
“Clarke, oh my God!”
The woman engulfed Mr. Clarke in a bear hug, allowing him to peck her on the cheek.
“You look so tanned. This African sun is doing its bits on you.”
“I’m glad you came, Miss Clara”, Mr Clarke replied.
Ejiofor felt his breathing quicken in pace as Miss Clara sauntered towards him. She looked him straight in the eye and stretched for a handshake.
“Mr. Clifford, the interpreter of the Amachi clan.”
He winced at the sound of his adopted name, which he had to pick when the white men came and couldn’t mutter ‘Ejiofor’ or care enough to shorten it. It was a name he had needed to practise frequently just to get the pronunciation right.
“Oh! Nice to meet you, Mr. …Clifford.”
Her voice pulled him out of his reverie, temporarily easing his dislike for the name he picked. She headed towards Okoro as they introduced themselves. From the look on his face, Okoro clearly wasn’t excited just to stand under the sun for someone who wouldn’t be putting a tuber of yam in his barn.
They trudged to the white men’s headquarters, a building made of cement, roofed with zinc and comprising three large flats. Ejiofor knew his life wasn’t going to be the same when he heard he was assigned to be Miss Clara’s tour guide and interpret the ways of his people to her, but he had no idea about the extent to which things would change.
Two almond-shaped eyes landed on you the moment you scurried in. You were struck by the rubicund pallid skin which lay behind a crushed silk dress, blonde hair, and a black handbag. It was your first time seeing a white woman.
“Papa, ñno,” you greeted your father who was seated on a wooden-carved armchair, turning to glance at the woman with him.
“Good Evening, mah.”
You mimicked Mr. Churchill, your standard six school teacher, a wan-skinned man with grey hair who always flashed a toothy grin as if he was getting paid for exhibiting his dentures. You always found yourself amused by his baggy jeans, oversized t-shirt and the way he always flipped his hands in emphasis whenever he stood by the classroom blackboard. Now you were stressing the ‘ing’ in the ‘evening’, just like Mr. Churchill always instructed.
“Is he your son?”, she nodded. You thought her voice was small.
“Yes, he’s my second son and last child,” Papa replied, pleased that she was pleased.
“Wow! He looks quite big. I would have thought he’s a twin to the girl outside.”
Later in the future when you would stare at the opaque picture of you on your sixteenth, you began to wonder if you were really that huge to be mistaken for Eziada’s twin, or even being her age, when you knew you were three years younger than her.
She slumped on her seat languorously, belching. “You must be really hungry,” Papa said to her, propping himself up from the chair, then reclining once again and directing in Igbo, “Go and tell your mother to prepare something for my guest.” The white woman tilted her head in a manner that resembled an attempt to understand the language.
“You don’t have to worry, Miss Clara.” You wondering how switching between languages came so easily to Papa. One hour later, Papa walked out of the hut with the white woman whom he had referred to as Miss Clara. Her heel creaked on the hard floor as they both sauntered out, smiling and laughing. Mama was visibly seething.
“What was that for?” Mama asked the moment Papa returned with a grin on his face. She tightened her wrapper, her hands poised on her waist.
“What was it for?!” Papa retorted with a frown.
“Don’t you have any shame, bringing in a woman into your home, in the presence of your three children?”
“She is the new road administrative officer brought from the white men’s land—”
“I don’t care to know what she is. Your job is to interpret their language to us, not bringing in a woman here.”
When Mama felt that she was done, she marched towards you and your siblings sitting in the obi, but suddenly Papa began to yell at her retreating figure.
“What’s wrong with you, woman? Isn’t that what I’m doing? Showing her around the community, and interpreting how our culture works to her. What do you even know, you foolish woman!”
After his tirade, Papa stormed inside, his feet upheaving red specks of dust as he went. But the second and third time Miss Clara visited, Papa wasn’t being anything close to a tour guide.
You hunched your back against the sun lounger, listening to the sound of the friction between the stones Eziada used in crushing palm kernel, the laughter from Papa’s hut threatened to muffle the reverberation of the stones. You first heard their voices filtering through your ear when Mama appeared, a basket of cassava roots on her head since it was early March. Bush clearing had already begun, and Diri was behind her with bundles of grasses.
You sat up from the chair as though stung by an ant, stealing glances at Papa’s hut and then at Mama, as Diri offloaded the basket.
“ Ugonna, where is your father?” Mama asked.
Her body spurred in animation, and her voice lit up in a manner that belied the fact that she had just walked two miles with a basket on her head. You fiddled with the hem of your shorts. Laughter whisked out from the hut, subduing the word you wanted to utter.
Mama wasn’t having it. She pursed her lips, clenched her left fist and stormed into the hut.
“Ngwa, leave my house!” she clapped both hands furiously in Miss Clara’s face, then motioned towards the door. You stood beside her, fidgeting. Miss Clara’s eyes were in a state of befuddlement, her brows crinkled.
“Nneka, Enwere ìhè na eme gị n’ise? Have you gone mad?”
Papa’s eyes usually did the talking, but this time he, too, let his voice fly. Miss Clara, whose face was a myriad of reactions, rose from her seat, flanked her handbag over her shoulder and stormed out,
“Miss Clara, it’s not like that. Please forgive her outburst”, Papa pleaded.
“What does she take me for?” she barked, flipping her hand to face Papa. “I won’t take this inanity from her. I’m leaving.” And that was when Mama ran mad.
When he realised that his attempts to pacify Miss Clara were an exercise in futility, he walked into the hut, and you could have never imagined what he did next. His palm greeted Mama’s cheek with significant force. Your lip cleaved open as Mama wailed, grovelling on the floor. She tore her wrapper, sprawling her hands upward as her voice bloomed around.
“Ejiofor, you must kill me today!” She jolted to her feet, hauling herself at Papa, who shoved her away from him before walking back inside.
You watched keenly as Mama sobbed, scooting back and forth in front of the household, scratching her kinky hair now loosened from her scarf.
“Diri, do something and stop watching!” You bellowed. Much later, you would regret that action.
Diri snapped out of his trance, trying to soothe Mama who had begun to scrape her hair. You scurried to the basket of cassava roots, and with the help of Eziada, you took it to the backyard. It was not what Papa was doing the third time Miss Clara visited.
Papa became different. He was rarely home even when he had nothing to do for the white people. Whenever he stayed indoors (as was seldom the case), he would be either in his hut, sulking, staring at the space or flipping through the booklet he called BBC magazine. Mama had become dead to him.
At first, you thought mist was blurring your vision as you saw Papa and Miss Clara locking lips in his hut when you were passing by. You dabbed your eyes to be sure you weren’t seeing double. Miss Clara’s hands caressed his cheeks as he made a sound you thought was a grunt.
“What are you looking at?”
You flinched, a sudden chill draping your skin. You pinned your second finger at your lips, glancing at Diri who slid beside you to co-watch what you had stumbled. Diri scoffed, shook his head and scurried out. Sometimes they would clasp hands together, Miss Clara pinching the bridge of Papa’s nose or Papa flipping her blonde hair that seemed to be obscuring her view whenever you saw them returning to Papa’s hut. If Mama was close by, she would sneer, curse and burst into laments.
Now you’re twenty years old, sitting beside your grown-up siblings and Umunna, two from your maternal hometown and three from your clan. You looked at Papa, taking in his now scrawny body, black lines circled his eyes. He rose from his chair with great difficulty. You knew what had sucked the life out of his eyes: Mama had left him, and when the country gained her independence from the white men, Miss Clara had left him too.
“Thank you for honouring my call. Our people say that a toad doesn’t run in daylight in vain. It’s either he’s chasing something or something is after him.” He paused to observe everyone.
You glanced at Eziada, scratching her shaggy hair as she stared at Papa with a doe-eyed expression.
“I will go straight to the point. I want you all to help me return my wife back to me.”
Abruptly, Chisimdiri stood up and left Eziada on his trail. You know it wasn’t going to be possible because Mama had become a second wife to a man from Umuchima.
Ikechukwu Henry is a Nigerian writer who loves to explore the adversities and darkness of human minds and his surroundings, along with his fervour for books. His hobbies include reading, surfing through websites for Kdrama/Cdrama movies or browsing the latest magazine to submit to. He’s a myth enthusiast and when he’s less busy, he could be found beta reading for writers. His works have appeared in Kahalari Review, Afrihill Press, Swim Press, The AfterPast Review, Icreative Review, Synchronized Chaos, and others. He tweets at @ Ikechukwuhenry_.
Cover photo: Stephan Schmidt from Pixabay.