We were fishermen: My brothers and I became fishermen in January of 1996 after our father moved out of Akure, a town in the west of Nigeria, where we had lived together all our lives. His employer, the Central Bank of Nigeria, had transferred him to a branch of the bank in Yola—a town in the north that was a camel distance of more than one thousand kilometres away—in the first week of November of the previous year. I remember the night Father returned home with his transfer letter; it was on a Friday. From that Friday through that Saturday, Father and Mother held whispering consultations like shrine priests. By Sunday morning, Mother emerged a different being. She’d acquired the gait of a wet mouse, averting her eyes as she went about the house. She did not go to church that day, but stayed home and washed and ironed a stack of Father’s clothes, wearing an impenetrable gloom on her face. Neither of them said a word to my brothers and me, and we did not ask. My brothers—Ikenna, Boja, Obembe—and I had come to understand that when the two ventricles of our home—our father and our mother—held silence as the ventricles of the heart retain blood, we could flood the house if we poked them. So, at times like these, we avoided the television in the eight-columned shelf in our sitting room. We sat in our rooms, studying or feigning to study, anxious but not asking questions. While there, we stuck out our antennae to gather whatever we could of the situation.
By nightfall on Sunday, crumbs of information began to fall from Mother’s soliloquy like tots of feathers from a richly-plumed bird: “What kind of job takes a man away from bringing up his growing sons? Even if I were born with seven hands, how would I be able to care for these children alone?”
Although these feverish questions were directed to no one in particular, they were certainly intended for Father’s ears. He was seated alone on a lounge chair in the sitting room, his face veiled with a copy of his favourite newspaper, the Guardian, half reading and half listening to Mother. And although he heard everything she said, Father always turned deaf ears to words not directly addressed to him, the kind he often referred to as “cowardly words.” He would simply read on, sometimes breaking off to loudly rebuke or applaud something he’d seen in the newspaper—“If there is any justice in this world, Abacha should soon be mourned by his witch of a wife.” “Wow, Fela is a god! Good gracious!” “Reuben Abati should be sacked!”—anything just to create the impression that Mother’s lamentations were futile; whimpers to which no one was paying attention.
Before we slept that night, Ikenna, who was nearly fifteen and on whom we relied for the interpretation of most things, had suggested Father was being transferred. Boja, a year his junior, who would have felt unwise if he didn’t appear to have any idea about the situation, had said it must be that Father was travelling abroad to a “Western world” just as we often feared he someday would. Obembe who, at eleven, was two years my senior, did not have an opinion. Me neither. But we did not have to wait much longer.
The answer came the following morning when Father suddenly appeared in the room I shared with Obembe. He was dressed in a brown T-shirt. He placed his spectacles on the table, a gesture requesting our attention. “I will start living in Yola from today onwards, and I don’t want you boys to give your mother any troubles.” His face contorted when he said this, the way it did whenever he wanted to drive the hounds of fear into us. He spoke slowly, his voice deeper and louder, every word tacked nine-inches deep into the beams of our minds. So that, if we went ahead and disobeyed, he would make us conjure the exact moment he gave us the instruction in its complete detail with the simple phrase “I told you.”
“I will call her regularly, and if I hear any bad news”—he struck his forefinger aloft to fortify his words—“I mean, any funny acts at all, I’ll give you the Guerdon for them.”
He’d said the word “Guerdon”—a word with which he emphasized a warning or highlighted the retribution for a wrong act—with so much vigour that veins bulged at both sides of his face. This word, once pronounced, often completed the message. He brought out two twenty-naira notes from the breast pocket of his coat and dropped them on our study table.
“For both of you,” he said, and left the room.
Obembe and I were still sitting in our bed trying to make sense of all that when we heard Mother speaking to him outside the house in a voice so loud it seemed he was already far away.
“Eme, remember you have growing boys back here,” she’d said. “I’m telling you, oh.”
She was still speaking when Father started his Peugeot 504. At the sound of it, Obembe and I hurried from our room, but Father was already driving out of the gate. He was gone.
Whenever I think of our story, how that morning would mark the last time we’d live together, all of us, as the family we’d always been, I begin—even these two decades later—to wish he hadn’t left, that he had never received that transfer letter. Before that letter came, everything was in place: Father went to work every morning and Mother, who ran a fresh food store in the open market, tended to my five siblings and me who, like the children of most families in Akure, went to school. Everything followed its natural course. We gave little thought to past events. Time meant nothing back then. The days came with clouds hanging in the sky filled with cupfuls of dust in the dry seasons, and the sun lasting into the night. It was as if a hand drew hazy pictures in the sky during the rainy seasons, when rain fell in deluges pulsating with spasms of thunderstorms for six uninterrupted months. Because things followed this known and structured pattern, no day was worthy of remembrance. All that mattered was the present and the foreseeable future. Glimpses of it mostly came like a locomotive train treading tracks of hope, with black coal in its heart and a loud elephantine toot. Sometimes these glimpses came through dreams or flights of fanciful thoughts that whispered in your head—I will be a pilot, or the president of Nigeria, rich man, own helicopters—for the future was what we made of it. It was a blank canvas on which anything could be imagined. But Father’s move to Yola changed the equation of things: time and seasons and the past began to matter, and we started to yearn and crave for it even more than the present and the future.
He began to live in Yola from that morning. The green table telephone, which had been used mainly for receiving calls from Mr Bayo, Father’s childhood friend who lived in Canada, became the only way we reached him. Mother waited restlessly for his calls and marked the days he phoned on the calendar in her room. Whenever Father missed a day in the schedule, and Mother had exhausted her patience waiting, usually long into midnight, she would unfasten the knot at the hem of her wrappa, bring out the crumpled paper on which she’d scribbled his phone number, and dial endlessly until he answered. If we were still awake, we’d throng around her to hear Father’s voice, urging her to pressure him to take us with him to the new city. But Father persistently refused. Yola, he reiterated, was a volatile city with a history of frequent large-scale violence especially against people of our tribe—the Igbo. We continued to push him until the bloody sectarian riots of March 1996 erupted. When finally Father got on the phone, he recounted—with the sound of sporadic shooting audible in the background—how he narrowly escaped death when rioters attacked his district and how an entire family was butchered in their house across the street from his. “Little children killed like fowls!” he’d said, placing a weighty emphasis on the phrase “little children” in such a way that no sane person could have dared mention moving to him again, and that was it.
Father made it a tradition to visit every other weekend, in his Peugeot 504 saloon, dusty, exhausted from the fifteen-hour drive. We looked forward to those Saturdays when his car honked at the gate, and we rushed to open it, all of us anxious to see what snack or gift he had brought for us this time. Then, as we slowly became accustomed to seeing him every few weeks or so, things changed. His mammoth frame that commandeered decorum and calm, gradually shrunk into the size of a pea. His established routine of composure, obedience, study, and compulsory siesta—long a pattern of our daily existence—gradually lost its grip. A veil spooled over his all-seeing eyes, which we believed were capable of noticing even the slightest wrong thing we did in secret. At the beginning of the third month, his long arm that often wielded the whip, the instrument of caution, snapped like a tired tree branch. Then we broke free.
We shelved our books and set out to explore the sacred world outside the one we were used to. We ventured to the municipality football pitch where most of the boys of the street played football every afternoon. But these boys were a pack of wolves; they did not welcome us. Although we did not know any of them except for one, Kayode, who lived a few blocks from us, these boys knew our family and us down to the names of our parents, and they constantly taunted us and flogged us daily with verbal whips. Despite Ikenna’s stunning dribbling skills, and Obembe’s goalkeeping wonders, they branded us “amateurs.” They frequently joked, too, that our father, “Mr Agwu,” was a rich man who worked in the Central Bank of Nigeria, and that we were privileged kids. They adopted a curious moniker for Father: Baba Onile, after the principal character of a popular Yoruba soap who had six wives and twenty-one children. Hence, the name was intended to mock Father whose desire to have many children had become a legend in our district. It was also the Yoruba name for the Praying Mantis, a green ugly skeletal insect. We could not stand for these insults. Ikenna, seeing that we were outnumbered and would not have won a fight against the boys, begged them repeatedly in the custom of Christian children to refrain from insulting our parents who had done nothing wrong to them. Yet they continued, until one evening when Ikenna, maddened at the mention of the moniker, head-butted a boy. In one quick flash, the boy kicked Ikenna in the stomach and closed in on him. For a brief moment, their feet drew an imperfect gyre around the sand-covered pitch as they swirled together. But in the end, the boy threw Ikenna and poured a handful of dirt on his face. The rest of the kids cheered and lifted the boy up, their voices melding into a chorus of victory complete with boos and uuh uuhs. We went home that evening feeling beaten, and never returned there.
After this fight, we got tired of going outdoors. At my suggestion, we begged Mother to convince Father to release the console game set to play Mortal Kombat, which he seized and hid somewhere the previous year after Boja—who was known for his usual first position in his class—came home with 24th scribbled in red ink on his report card and the warning Likely to repeat. Ikenna did not fare any better; his was sixteenth out of forty and it came with a personal letter to Father from his teacher, Mrs Bukky. Father read out the letter in such a fit of anger that the only words I heard were “Gracious me! Gracious me!” which he repeated like a refrain. He would confiscate the games and forever cut off the moments that often sent us swirling with excitement, screaming and howling when the invisible com- mentator in the game ordered, “Finish him,” and the conquering sprite would inflict serious blows on the vanquished sprite by either kicking it up to the sky or by slicing it into a grotesque explosion of bones and blood. The screen would then go abuzz with “fatality” inscribed in strobe letters of flame. Once, Obembe—in the midst of relieving himself—ran out of the toilet just to be there so he could join in and cry “That is fatal!” in an American accent that mimicked the console’s voice-over. Mother would punish him later when she discovered he’d unknowingly dropped excreta on the rug.
Frustrated, we tried yet again to find a physical activity to fill up our after-school hours now that we were free from Father’s strict regulations. So, we gathered neighbourhood friends to play football at the clearing behind our compound. We brought Kayode, the only boy we’d known among the pack of wolves we played with at the municipality football pitch. He had an androgynous face and a permanent gentle smile. Igbafe, our neighbour, and his cousin, Tobi—a half-deaf boy who strained your vocal chords only to ask Jo, kini o nso?—Please, what did you say?—also joined us. Tobi had large ears that did not appear to be part of his body. He was hardly offended—perhaps because he couldn’t hear sometimes, for we often whispered it—when we called him Eleti Ehoro—One With a Hare’s Ears. We’d run up the length and breadth of this pitch, dressed in cheap football jerseys and T-shirts on which we’d printed our football nicknames. We played as if unhinged, frequently volleying the balls into neighbouring houses, and embarking on botched attempts to retrieve them. Many times, we arrived at some of the places just in time to witness the neighbours puncturing the balls, paying no heed to our pleas to give them back because the ball had either hit someone or destroyed something. Once, the ball flew over a neighbour’s fence and hit a crippled man on the head and knocked him off his chair. At another time, the ball shattered a glass window.
Every time they destroyed a ball, we contributed money and bought a new one except for Kayode, who, having come from the town’s sprawling population of the acutely poor, could not afford even a kobo. He often dressed in worn-out, torn shorts, and lived with his aged parents, the spiritual heads of the small Christ Apostolic Church, in an unfinished two-storeyed building just down the bend of the road to our school. Because he couldn’t contribute, he prayed for each ball, asking God to help us keep this one for much longer by preventing it from crossing the clearing.
One day, we bought a new fine white ball with the logo of the Atlanta 1996 Olympic games. After Kayode prayed, we set out to play, but barely an hour into the game, Boja struck a kick that landed in a fenced compound owned by a medical doctor. The ball smashed one of the windows of the lush house with a din, sending two pigeons asleep on the roof to a frantic flight. We waited at some distance so we could have sufficient space to flee should someone come out in pursuit. After a long while, Ikenna and Boja started for the house while Kayode knelt and prayed for God’s intervention. When the emissaries reached the compound, the doctor, as if already waiting for them, gave chase, sending us all running ankle-to-head to escape. We knew, once we got home that evening, panting and perspiring, that we’d had it with football.