A Letter from Home
by E. C. Osondu
My Dear Son,
Why have you not been sending money through Western Union like other good Nigerian children in America do? You have also not visited home. Have you married a white woman? Do not forget that I have already found a wife for you. Her name is Ngozi. Her parents are good Christians and her mother belongs to the Catholic Good Women’s League like me. Please do not to spoil the good relationship I have built over the years with Ngozi’s family.
I beg of you not to become like Kaka’s son who was sent to America with the community’s funds, only to come back with a white woman, and then would not let his parents visit him in his white man’s living quarters in the Lagos government reserved area. He has large dogs and his white wife treats the dogs like her children. The only time he visited his family, he refused to sleep in his father’s old house, complaining that it was dirty, and took his wife to pass the night in a hotel. He stretched out his hands to shake the hands of the elders of the community and would not prostrate on the ground like a well-brought- up child.
Or don’t you consider Ngozi beautiful enough from the picture I sent to you of her dressed in a long gown, holding a hibiscus flower? She attended the Catholic Women’s Teacher’s College and comes from a lineage of women who bear strong sons.
Ogaga’s son who went to Germany only a few years ago has sent his father a big black BMW and has already completed a twenty-room mansion and is laying the foundation for a hotel. I am already in the evening of my days and want to rock my grandchildren on my tired knees before I go to heaven to live in the many mansions that God has prepared for me. I have become the laughingstock of the village because I sold my only stall in Oyingbo Market to raise money to send you, my only son, to America, and now I have no stall in the market and am forced to hawk my wares on a tray like a housemaid.
Remember your promise to buy me a car and get me a driver, and I’ll sit on the back seat like the Prime Minister’s wife and give commands to the driver and he will take me to visit all my friends and they’ll be green with envy. My prayer is that you have not become like the prodigal son in the Biblical parable who squandered his inheritance on wine and women.
I am sure you remember Obi’s daughter. She went to Italy to work as a prostitute after you left for America. Just last year she came back with lots of goodies for her parents and has even married a boy from a responsible family. They had their wedding in the church and the priest said that though her sins were like scarlet she has been washed clean by the blood of Jesus (after she made a huge donation for the repair of the church roof). She has gone on to bear a son and now nobody remembers that she was once a prostitute in Italy.
Do you associate with other Africans so you can still remember your roots? Do you still find African foods to eat? Because I fear the white man’s food will make you reason in the white man’s ways. My son, reconsider your ways and retrace your steps like the prodigal son, so I can bless you before I die.
I spent too much sending Ngozi to the fattening room. I sent her there at my own expense so the women can teach her the ways to take care of her husband, and feed her, and fatten her up so she can be plump like a ripe melon. God forbid that a girl from a responsible family, like Ngozi, should be looking like dry bonga fish on her wedding day. Sending a bride-to-be to the fattening room costs a lot of money these days because the women who run them are dying out and the younger generation consider it bush. The young prefer their women thin and dry like broomsticks. They seem not to know that men prefer to hold something ample when they reach out at night.
My son, do not to make me a laughingstock. I beg of you not to let those who borrowed toothpaste from me end up with brighter teeth and cleaner breath. I am sure you remember Odili’s son, (you were in primary school together). He used to be the neighborhood rascal who smoked marijuana and pinched young girls on their buttocks, and can you imagine, that efulefu, that idler, woke up one day and announced that he was going to Europe by road! We all thought that marijuana had finally crossed two wires in his brain, but how wrong we were. He joined a truck carrying tomatoes to the North and joined a bus from there to Mali and joined a caravan of camels across the Sahara desert. Some of them died of thirst in the desert but he survived. He found work in a construction site in Morocco and saved enough money to pay the Tuaregs, who helped him to cross by boat into Spain. He told the Spanish authorities he was a Liberian fleeing the war going on there and was given a work permit. You should have been there the day he came back exactly five years later: he was loaded down with television sets, gold and trinkets, clothes and lots of money, which he spent like water. For the few days that he was around, his father’s house was the place to be; it was where everyone went to eat and drink. In my heart I did not want to go there with the throng but I did not want to be accused of not wishing him well. So I dragged my feet there and ate and drank and rejoiced with the family like everyone. All eyes there upon me, and asking what about your son, when will he return with goodies, when will he invite us to come and eat and drink like the Odilis have done? You whose son flew to America. Look at Odili’s son who went on foot, he has come back with goodies. Not that anyone said a word to me, but I could see it in their eyes. Their eyes never left me as I drank the Coca-Cola, and ate jollof rice and fried beef and danced foolishly like a chicken with its head cut off. The young man has gone back, by air this time, promising his father that when next he comes, he will destroy his father’s old house, and put up a mansion in its place.
I have been tempted to give your young bride Ngozi to your younger cousin Azuka so she can produce a baby for me to rock on my knees before they become too rusty. But Ngozi’s mother will not hear of it. She clapped her hands cynically and hissed like a snake and asked if her daughter was now a piece of beef on the butcher’s table that people tossed and weighed and tossed aside for the next person. She spat derisively at me, narrowly missing my face, and told me that if her daughter was going to marry again, she would look for a better family for her, a family where things grow and not an arid one like ours. Since that incident, she has stopped attending the meetings of the Catholic Women’s League and hisses and crosses over to the other side of the street whenever she sees me coming toward her.
You really have no excuse for not sending money, because Western Union now has an office on our street. Daily, I see men and women who have caring children in America marching majestically into their offices and swaggering out with huge bundles of Naira notes in large paper parcels. They wave with their free hands and clutch their parcels of money as if afraid I’m going to ask them to lend me some.
Do not to imagine that my ears are not filled with all manners of suggestions from different people. After all, as our people say, the day an elephant dies is the day you see all kinds of knives. A native doctor once suggested to me that he could cast a spell on you over there in America that would make you abandon whatever you were doing and board the next flight back to Nigeria. He said the spell was so effective that even if there was no flight you would board the nearest boat and return home. But you are my son, you came into this world from between my legs and I will not do something that will harm you. Okolosi’s son was forced back from America by such a spell. He is back home now; he wears an old jacket and walks up and down the street frightening children on their way to school with his hyena laugh while reciting aloud to himself the names of the capital cities of America.
I am not threatening you but please do not force my hand. You were born the year the Americans landed on the moon and returned with that strange eye disease called Apollo. I still remember everyone’s eyes turning red and dripping water like a tap as soon as the men came back from the moon. It was said that the disease was God’s punishment to the people of the earth for peering too closely into his eyes and leaving an imprint of their feet on his face. It did not surprise me, therefore, when you said you were leaving for America to study. Even as a little boy watching Bonanza on our old black- and-white television, you were always taking on new names every week. One week you were Dan Blocker, Purnell Roberts the next, down to Michael Landon and Lorne Green. As a child you would wear a cowboy hat, put a dry piece of wood in your mouth, pretending it was a cigar, curl your lips, and speak through your nose like the actors on television. It did not surprise me when you said you were leaving for America because you were born the year the American flag was planted on the moon, and during moonlight play, while other children saw the man in the moon, you always ran back home to tell me that you saw the American flag waving to you from the moon.
And now I want to share a family secret with you. In the early 1940s your father secured a place at Howard University. The same Howard that produced the great Pan-Africanist and leader of our country’s independence struggle, the Right Honorable Nnamdi Azikiwe. Your grandfather sold his entire rubber plantation to the United African Company to raise the funds for your father’s boat trip via the Elder Dempster Lines. Your grandmother sold her gold ornaments too. When your father got to the Lagos wharf, he fell into the hands of con men, who convinced him they could double his money. The con men were soldiers of the West African Frontier Force, recently discharged from the army after fighting in Burma. They spent their days idling around the wharf looking for gullible bumpkins like your father. Your father reasoned that if they doubled his money he could send half back to his family and travel with the other half to America. The con men collected his money and handed a black wooden box to him, telling him not to open it till the next day. On opening it, he discovered it was filled with neat rows of newspapers cut to the size of pound notes. He was distraught and was about to throw himself into the Atlantic, when a woman selling bean cakes by the wharf stopped him and took him home. He got a teaching job in a private school and managed to save enough money to travel to Sierra Leone in search of better opportunities. His family back home assumed he was studying in America. He was in Sierra Leone when his father, your grandfather, became sick. As the first son, he was expected to be there to lay his father’s hands across his chest when he breathed his last. The elders conferred and decided to consult a medicine man to cast a spell on your father to bring him back home. It was this spell that brought your dad back from Sierra Leone. By the time he arrived, your grandfather had breathed his last, but not before placing a curse on his son who had broken his heart. He said that just as your father had disappointed him, your father’s own children would in turn do the same to him.
Do you still recall the birds that migrated all the way from Australia to our village to nestle in the rice farms? They wore shiny gold bangles around their feet, embossed with the words “Melbourne Zoological Gardens”. You must remember going to watch them play and sing all day, as they pecked at rice seeds and bathed in the pools of water by the rice paddies. They were large colorful birds with feathers that looked as if they had been painted on them with a hand brush. The farmers didn’t bother them; they looked like royal visitors and behaved as such, never being overly destructive, unlike the local kwela birds, and only pecked at the rice seeds that fell on the ground. As soon as it was time to harvest the rice, they gathered themselves together, conferred for a few minutes as if praying for journey mercies for the trip ahead, and flew off together as a group.
But one year, one of the visiting birds stayed back. While the other birds gathered together, limbering up, preparing for takeoff, it sat on the ground pecking without concern. The departing birds made signs at it and spoke to it in their shrieking bird language, but it did not pay them any heed. Discouraged, the other birds left it behind. When the farmers came the next day, they tried to drive it away and persuade it with signs to fly away and return to its homeland but it just stayed there pecking at rice seeds. After some time, it flew slowly towards a group of local kwela birds and joined them in their destructive scattering of the unharvested rice. The farmers said to themselves that the bird no longer comported itself like a visitor, and decided to do to it what they did to the local birds. They shot it with an arrow and used its meat to prepare rice stew. My son, I hope you have not become like that strange Australian bird that forgot its homeland.
E. C. Osondu was born in Nigeria. He lives in Syracuse, New York, where he is a Syracuse University Fellow. (8/2006)