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In Parenthesis

by Maik Nwosu


I grew up in a place that was the beginning and the end of the world to me. Everything seemed so old and yet so contemporary at the same time. It was a market town, with the largest market in West Africa. I still remember the noise. The din was loud enough to make the ear grow deaf—buyers and sellers forever haggling, truck pushers clearing the way with loud shouts, policemen blowing their whistles, bus conductors shouting destinations, money doublers advertising roadside casinos. I especially liked to watch the money doublers throwing their cards and chanting: “Iwelu nkea ilie mu ego, iwelu nkea ilie mu ego, ewekwa na nkea.” It was quite a proposal: “If you take this card, you win; if you take this one, you win; but do not take this one.” The money doublers won more often than their clients did. Usually, their clients won their initial bets, but their winning streak did not always last long. That fact did not stop the forever-hopeful clients from coming back. With so much poverty around, hope was among the few currencies in abundance in Fegge.

So too was religion, the Catholic religion. Fegge was a riverside town on the banks of the Niger, and it was one of the first places that European explorers and missionaries, such as Mungo Park and Father Shanahan, had arrived. They had brought with them a new kind of trade and religion, and both commerce and Catholicism had quickly grown roots. The riverfront warehouses of G. B. Ollivant, the steel doors of Barclay’s Bank, the dome of St Peter’s Cathedral—named after St Peter’s Basilica in Rome—and the legend of John Stuart Young, who had sided with locals against other English merchants, were some of the wonders and stories that I grew up with. So were the masquerades that seemed to emerge from antediluvian dawns at Easter, Independence Day, and Christmas. Those masquerades fascinated me even more than the money doublers and St Peter’s Cathedral, which had in part inspired my name.

Everything seemed to converge in our neighborhood. Fegge was the crossroads of the world.

My father was a warehouse clerk at G. B. Ollivant. He was a man of records both at work and at home. He was the one that everyone deferred to when there was a dispute over records—about how many cows were sold at the church bazaar last year and at what prices, how many overseas companies there were in Fegge, the last time it rained—and for how long—during the August break. How he could know all that often puzzled me, but no one doubted him, because he had an impeccable record for speaking the truth. My father had completed Standard Six, which made him one of the most educated men of his generation. He was also regarded as one of the most honest men in our neighborhood—and one of the most religious. My mother died when I was two years old, so I hardly knew her. But my father, who was no praise-monger, spoke about her only in superlatives. With evident longing, he often talked about their impending reunion in heaven. My father was not just a churchgoer, which he often said was “important, but not the main thing.” He was a believer with a passion for truth. “The greatest religion is to live in, and for, truth,” he would say. He believed completely in the omnipresence of God, in prayer as direct communication with God, in life after death, in the ultimate triumph of good over evil, with the same sort of conviction that most people believe in their reflections in the mirror. Everyone called him Eziokwu bu ndu: Truth is life.

I went to church, attended prayer meetings, even became an altar server. But I was born a doubter. If anyone could have made me religious, that person was my father. It was not so much what he said. It was what he did—and the way in which he sang: his plaintive voice transformed the words of the hymn into levitating sacraments. One of his favorites was about Christian martyrs rejoicing in heaven:

Ka anyi lota ndi otu Christi
Ndi tufulu ndu fa maka Jesu
Kita n’enwe añuli ebebe
E-b-e-b-e!

When he sang that song, with tears in his eyes, I could see the martyrs with their healed or healing wounds living in picturesque bliss in heaven.

The other song was about the divine trinity, the unseen presence that is nevertheless always immanent. My father sang that song at night, and his breaking voice seemed to illumine the darkness. I could hear in his voice both reverence and a desire to be admitted to the visible presence of God:

So ngi anyi na ada afu anya
Ito na ofu ngi di ngozi
Ndi ngozi
Onye kelu uwa na ife diya

What I learned from my father was not simply an adherence to religion. I learned something more profound—an immersion in spirituality. Every time I think about our neighborhood, as I often do, the image of my father looms up. And his memory opens the door to other memories—particularly about two people, two very different people, whose lives conjure for me the wondrous character of our neighborhood.

The first is Alfredo, the public letter writer who was the self-proclaimed “richest man in the world.” In reality, Alfredo—or Alfred, as my father called him—was one of the poorest men in our neighborhood. He was a short, stocky man with a taste for the tall and the large. His wife was one of the tallest women in Fegge, and his signpost—“Alfredo International. Public Letter Writer Extraordinaire”—was certainly the largest around. It was almost as large as a storefront, and people joked that Alfredo would have been the queen’s letter writer if he had a proportionately large typewriter instead of the small, ancient one that he possessed. Because Alfredo favored flowing robes that sometimes touched the ground, people also teased him about being the public street sweeper. Alfredo only shook his head and laughed his big laugh. Nothing fazed him.

He lived with his family—and he had a large one—in two rooms behind a noisy record store. He loved the fast-paced highlife music that we called “Ghana pieces” and would sometimes stop in the middle of a sentence to dance emphatically. His dancing was often compared to the unpredictable gyrations of the diminutive masquerade known as Ikpa that usually appeared during the festival season.

Alfredo was also an aficionado of “mangala” music. I don’t know the genesis of the name, but mangala was the most expensive and the most delicious type of dry fish—the sort that only the rich could afford to eat often. It was usually brought to the market from the north in Mercedes Benz 911 trucks painted with folk wisdom: “To be a man is not a day’s job,” “The young shall grow,” “No condition is permanent.” These trucks were then offloaded by shirtless, muscled men who grunted beneath oversized loads of the prized fish. As they went to and from the trucks, they moved to the pulsating rhythm of mangala music blaring from nearby speakers. Every time I passed by the dry fish section of the market, I wondered why a certain type of music was the preferred accompaniment. Sometimes, I could even hear the men humming or singing the most popular mangala music: “Mangala mangala, M-a-n-g-a-l-a eee!”

Alfredo loved mangala music, even though he was too short to fit the profile of the typical offloader of mangala fish. But that did not stop him from singing and dancing to it in his own exuberant manner. It was said that his fondness for mangala music dated back to when he used to be a truck conductor. He would make the long journey from the north on the back of a truck sitting on bales of mangala fish with the salty wind peeling his face and encrusting his lips so that by the time the truck arrived at the market he looked like a disfigured masquerade. He would feed on nothing but mangala fish the whole time. All he had to look forward to was the mangala dance at the end of the journey. Alfredo neither confirmed nor denied this story, which suggested that there was some truth in it.

Alfredo’s fondness for music extended beyond “Ghana pieces” and mangala music. Sometimes, especially on the days that business was sluggish and he was even more worried about how to feed his family, he preferred a different kind of highlife music. His favorite on such days was a song by the Peacocks, “Igbuelam, Obieze,” a song that often made me feel as if I were swimming underwater in the period before the origin of time. Alfredo did not dance at such times. He sat with his arms on his chin, listening intently and pondering the soulful lament to Obieze.

When Alfredo was not dancing or sitting with his arms on his chin, he lectured his clients about diction and phrasing. He had completed only Standard Four, which he said was functionally equivalent to finishing high school in our time, but he often boasted that he was “Tesawus.” I used to think that “Tesawus” was some kind of dangerous but knowledgeable animal until I figured out that Alfredo was probably talking about the thesaurus.

Many of the people in our neighborhood were illiterate, so they entrusted Alfredo with seeing to their written communication. They told him whom they wanted to write to and what they wanted to say, and he wrote or typed the letters for them. Many of those who could read could not type, so they also went to Alfredo with their letters. He therefore knew quite a lot about the people in our neighborhood, but everyone felt certain that their secrets were safe with him—regardless of their jokes. People felt at ease with Alfredo because he was good-natured. That he was a perfunctory churchgoer mattered little. In fact, his other name was Uka di n’obi—Church is in the heart.

Alfredo loved big words, almost as if he felt he had to keep showing his superiority in that regard. He was like a magician conjuring syllables out of a hat. He did not just use a new word once or only when he had to. Once he discovered a word, he used it again and again until he found another. One time his word of the week was “magnificence.” That week, every letter that he wrote had “magnificence” in every sentence:

             To your magnificence, the Personnel Manager:
             It is with supine magnificence that I write to apply for the job of a gateman. I have several years experience in the magnificence of security and hereby undertake to execute my contract with magnificence if availed of this opportunity.
             I remain, yours, sir, your magnificence,
             
Boniface Ekwusigo

Another week, Alfredo’s magic word was “personification.” That was generously used in virtually all his letters, or “missives,” as he preferred to call them:

             My dear brother,
             I send this letter to you with humble personification from Fegge. I hope you are experiencing the goodness of healthy personification in Ogbete. And that your whole family is also experiencing this personification. If so, ditto.
             This letter is to report the good personification of progress in the house that I am supervising the personification of its construction in the village. I will forward more details soon.
             Yours truly, in personification,
             
Okeke Agu

Almost everyone accepted Alfredo’s authority on diction and phrasing. To the few who dared doubt or question him, he opened the box-chair on which he normally sat to type and revealed his library. He would then ask them if they had “perused” any of the “classics” that he had “digested”—pamphlets such as Veronica, My Daughter; How to speak to girls and win their love; How to speak and write better English, good letters, receipts, agreements, compositions, business letters, telegrams and applications; How John Kennedy suffered in life and died suddenly; When Love Whispers; Wonders Shall Never End; Beware of harlots and many friends, the world is hard; Money hard but some women don’t know; and Be careful! Salutation is not love.

Those who could have successfully challenged Alfredo on such issues as diction and phrasing, people more educated than him, usually came not for composition but for typing. So, he had little opportunity to spray their “missives” with a generous dose of “magnificence” and “personification.” Still, that did not stop Alfredo from suggesting to such people the value of “words with weight.”

Alfredo attended every event that took place in our neighborhood and sometimes made pledges of money far above his means—as if daring anyone to challenge him or to try and claim those pledges. These events were usually the “launching” of something or the other—almanacs, neighborhood improvement projects, photo albums—and he was not always the only defaulter. But people tolerated him because he was virtually everybody’s letter writer and knew so many secrets. They made jokes about him, but no one went as far as barring or evicting him from these events.

Emboldened, Alfredo showed up at a church bazaar at St Mary’s Catholic Church one Christmas season and bought a lavish Christmas meal for his family—a goat, a bag of rice, tomatoes, pepper—with pledges that he never redeemed. His manner puzzled many of the people present because they knew he was almost destitute. He would watch in silence as others made their bids. As the auctioneer began to wrap up a particular sale with the cry of “Going, going . . .” Alfredo would double the offer made by the last bidder. In this manner, he pledged thousands of naira. Everyone wondered: Had Alfredo come into sudden wealth? What was his secret? That Christmas, he and his family “dined like emperors,” he told everyone that would listen. He even said he had “developed a bazaar belly” in his “mid-anatomy.”

When the church tried to collect the bazaar debt, Alfredo calmly promised to pay but then wrote a letter of complaint to the archbishop instead. The unimpressed parish priest, who would probably have done well as a prizefighter, threatened to have him arrested. Alfredo promptly sent to the Vatican a retouched version of his letter of complaint. Perhaps swayed by the sort of excitement the matter was causing in the neighborhood, the priest decided to let it rest.

The next year, Alfredo turned up at the same bazaar and actually began to bid and make more pledges. The enraged parish priest had him forcibly removed from the premises, but in the process the enforcing churchwardens injured Alfredo’s knee. The next morning, he hobbled to the police station to complain about his manhandling by the church and the “transgression” of his “human dignity.” The police asked him what he wanted. The arrest of those who had manhandled him, he said. The police arrested him instead. It took the intervention of the parish priest to get him released.

People then advised Alfredo that the days of the public letter writer were passing and that he had better learn a new trade. Typewriters were becoming common and many people in the neighborhood had either learned to read and write or had someone in their family who could do so. Besides, his quarrel with the church had tainted his reputation and many people felt they could no longer entrust him with their secrets. For days, Alfredo sat in his box-chair beside his oversized signpost pondering his situation. People began to predict that his wife would disgrace him with a public beating for starving his family.

Alfredo’s wife, Beatrice, was a tall, beautiful woman. People joked that Alfredo must have enticed her with bales of stockfish because she was too tall and beautiful for him. Alfredo responded that such people lacked his “good taste.” They had eight children, which was not as many as some other people in our neighborhood had. People only commented on the number because Alfredo’s income was small—both because he charged small fees and because quite a number of people managed to defer paying him indefinitely. Alfredo talked about such people with big words that they barely understood, and swore he would never write another letter for them, but he always did.

Perhaps because Alfredo and his wife—who was a petty trader at the motor park near the market—were quite poor, they could sometimes be heard discussing such things as their children’s school fees or other needs with rising voices. Sometimes, there were sounds that suggested fisticuffs. But they always kept their disagreements inside their two rooms, so no one in our neighborhood ever actually saw them fight. That did not stop some people from saying that Alfredo had married a pretty husband-beater. Otherwise, they asked, why was it always Alfredo who looked bruised after the apparent disagreements between him and his wife? Alfredo responded to such comments, when he did at all, by saying that the problem with some people in Fegge was idleness and that “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” Beatrice told such people off and asked them to leave her “darling husband” alone. They were an interesting couple.

While these people were watching out for a public fight between Alfredo and his wife after his quarrel with the church, Alfredo reinvented himself by getting a job with The Mirror newspaper. Beatrice danced with joy and said that her husband had shamed his “detractors.” It was unclear what Alfredo did at the newspaper, but The Mirror was so well-respected that it would not have mattered if Alfredo had been employed as a monkey there. Every evening, he could be seen returning from work slowly with rolls of newspaper and waving to everyone like a parade leader. He enrolled for a correspondence course in journalism. Ahead of his course completion, he printed business cards bearing the legend: Alfredo Nwachkwu Esquire, Dip. Journalism, London.

As if working at The Mirror were not enough of an image boost already, Alfredo placed himself further beyond the reach of his detractors by writing a book in the style of what would later become known as “Fegge Market Literature.” The book, a pamphlet really, was entitled This Life! Fegge Before and Now and described on the cover as “an adventure in fiction and nonfiction.” When the book came out, people almost forgot about Alfredo’s poverty and looked at him as if he were from another planet. Even though many in Fegge were illiterate, or because they were illiterate, authorship was something they greatly respected. And they considered Alfredo’s authorship to be the ultimate proof of his education.

Whenever our paths crossed, Alfredo would ask me about school and encourage me to study hard because “education is illumination.” I liked Alfredo. I respected him. He taught me faith—faith in one’s self, faith in one’s ability, faith in the elastic nature of the world. I cannot say the same about the other person I often remember when I think about my old neighborhood—the rat charmer who emerged from “the wilderness,” in his own words, and founded his Church of the Resurrection. I neither liked nor respected him.

His real name was Martin. He had originally come to our neighborhood as a rat charmer. Some people said he had started as an apprentice snake charmer but was too much of a coward to actually handle the snakes, so he had settled for rats. It didn’t matter. He had come to the right place. Our neighborhood was infested with rats, more so than anywhere else I have been.

Martin soon became the most sought-after man in Fegge. He put up a sign—“One-Man Rat Brigade”—and opened a shop. No one knew exactly what Martin did to the rats because he always worked alone—and at night. But he never returned to the same house twice. There was no need. Some people, like Alfredo, said that he feasted on rats. Others said that he used them for magic. Martin made no response. Unlike Alfredo, he was rather taciturn. He did his work, and that was that.

Since our neighborhood was not infinite, Martin soon charmed himself out of a job. But for some reason, he was unwilling to work outside the neighborhood. This reluctance created another spiral of speculation and gossip—that he was in hiding in Fegge and could venture outside only at his own peril, that his rat magic could work only in Fegge and was not renewable. Martin’s response was silence. He sat in his shop probably pondering what he had done to himself. People like Alfredo said he was a rat charmer in need of a brain. Martin said nothing.

He lived beside St Mary’s, and he would get up early to watch people going to church for morning mass. On Sundays, he watched all day as people went to the church for the different masses, Sunday school, and the evening mass. In his first years in our neighborhood, Martin himself had gone to morning mass, Sunday mass, and evening mass. Back then, he always sat in the front pew. A new parish priest reorganized the seating arrangement such that only knights of the church could seat in the front pew. Martin tried to become a knight. His application was rejected because he lacked the right references. He tried to join the choir, which normally sat in an alcove. But his voice disqualified him. He tried to become a churchwarden, but there was no opening at the time. Finally, Martin stopped going to church. He just watched the churchgoers, which made some of them uneasy.

One early morning, Martin woke up the entire neighborhood with the loud tolling of a bell as he went from one end to the other announcing that he was “the new resurrection.” So began the Church of the Resurrection. Alfredo called it the Resurrection of Rats. But such cynicism did not stop the church from flourishing, even though almost everyone in our neighborhood was a churchgoing Catholic. Many of Martin’s early followers, and they were really only a few people, came from outside our neighborhood. How they even knew about him was a mystery. Pope White, as Martin now called himself, in part because he was always dressed in white, promised pregnancy to barren women, wealth to the destitute, marriage to aging spinsters, life to the mortally wounded. His church blossomed. He was making dated promises while the Catholic Church only asked the faithful to pray and hope. Some people in the neighborhood began to pay attention, particularly when a number of Pope White’s promises came true.

Meanwhile, the Church of the Resurrection began a complicated battle with St Mary’s Catholic Church. For a long time, the Catholic Church had been virtually the ultimate law in our neighborhood, and people were often judged by their relations with the church. But Martin had never cared about being liked by everyone. As Pope White, he went a step further by patterning his church after the Catholic Church—except that his was noisier and more dramatic. His morning mass began five minutes earlier than St Mary’s. And there was so much shouting that worshippers inside St Mary’s often had a difficulty hearing what the parish priest was saying. The Sunday service at the Church of the Resurrection began ten minutes earlier than St Mary’s and was even noisier.

The police emerged from their shadows and asked Pope White to relocate or be charged for disorderly conduct and for constituting a public nuisance. Pope White astounded everyone by hiring a lawyer and going to court. The court would eventually throw out the case, but in the meantime he remained where he was—getting noisier and doling out promises the way the Ding-Dong ice cream van doled out cones.

Some people in our neighborhood believed at the time that the Church of the Resurrection had already reached the limit of whatever it was capable of. They were amazed by what happened next. On Palm Sundays, the Catholic Church normally staged a palm procession around the neighborhood—a reenactment of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem. That year, on the same day, the Church of the Resurrection staged a flower procession. According to the mythology that Pope White quickly constructed for his church, it was a reenactment of the flowering of the species. As the Catholic Church marched from one end of the neighborhood, Pope White and his followers marched from the other. Eventually, the two met at Zik Avenue, the most popular street in Fegge. Some of the enraged members of the Catholic Church might have pummeled Pope White and his followers but for the intervention of the parish priest.

Pope White himself was no longer of the world. Soaring in whatever esoteric sphere he occupied then, he sang and danced in a way that I would not see again for a long time—as if he were lightning on the verge of thunder. As he sang and danced, Pope White entered the words of his song, about the spirit of God flowing in the air: “Muo nso Chukwu ne erughalu nu-o.” Some members of the Catholic Church began a song about the defeat of Satan in battle: “Ekwensu oya emeli unu na agha, si mba-o!”

The parish priest prevented a clash by diverting the Catholic Church’s procession.

In a neighborhood that had once regarded Martin or Pope White as a taciturn rat charmer, the new question became: Who was Martin, really? Where was he from? What explained his transformation from a seemingly quiet young man into an apparent rabble rouser taking on the great church? No one knew. But Martin had once been Alfredo’s client, so people began to direct their inquiries to him. The public letter writer, who did not really care for Martin or Pope White, declared a “sacred covenant” between the letter writer and his clients and would make no revelations. The only thing he ever volunteered was that Martin was “different.”

Our neighborhood certainly did not lack imagination. Alfredo’s statement was enough for people to build a narrative about Martin as an escapee from a mental hospital in Benin City. Martin, the story went, was more educated than he pretended to be. He had in fact gone to college but had been unhinged by poring over books such as those by Lobsang Rampa, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Path of Light, The Sacred Tarot, The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, and other such “occult books.” Martin was also said to suffer from “delusions of grandeur” which made him think that he was more than he really was, hence his renaming of himself as “Pope White.” Pope White did not bother to respond.

The conflict between the Church of Resurrection and St Mary’s was eventually resolved by the new church’s prosperity. When he started, Pope White had been an out-of-work rat charmer barely managing to feed himself. That was once upon a time. He was now a rich evangelist perpetually dressed in white robes. His church had grown from the few people that had answered his call at the beginning to hundreds of worshippers both within and outside our neighborhood. He bought two houses at the other end of Fegge and built his Cathedral of Mercy, where he also lived. “I know now why God created this world” was the glittering inscription he put at the entrance.

The Church of the Resurrection continued to flourish. Pope White took to making advertised predictions every New Year’s Eve about what would happen in the coming year. Sometimes they were general pronouncements: “The Lord has asked me to tell you that many politicians will die in vehicle accidents next year, markets will be threatened, and the world will see things that it has never seen before.” Some of the predictions were specific: “Next year, says the Lord, there will be a flood in Fegge that will amaze the world, the parish priest at St Mary’s will be transferred to a parish in the wilderness . . .” The year of the predicted flood turned out to be the year with the least rainfall that anyone could remember. The parish priest at St Mary’s dismissed Pope White as a fraud who already knew, as the priest himself had announced, that he was due for a transfer—not to the wilderness though.

Initially, Pope White attributed his predictions to divine revelation. After a time, he began to sometimes replace “The Lord has told me” or other such references with phrases like “As the great Rampa has foreseen” or “As the Seventh Book of Moses causes us to believe.” Occasionally, he would even read passages from the cited books. Some people began to say then that Pope White was “mixed up” or that he was going mad. Pope White’s promises did not always come true. Barren women did not always conceive as he promised, the poor hardly prospered, the sick did not always recover. But it did not seem to matter. The Church of the Resurrection prospered, and Pope White continued with his antics.

One New Year’s Eve, Pope White made his most provocative prediction to date: “The Lord has shown me this: I see a glow, a huge glow, around the market.” A glow around the market? People interpreted his prophecy to mean that the market would burn down. In Fegge, the market too was sacred. The next day, irate traders descended on the Cathedral of Mercy and burned it to the ground. Pope White went berserk and threatened to “obliterate” Fegge from the face of the earth. The traders then bore him up on their shoulders and expelled him from our neighborhood. But the market did indeed catch fire one night, which made the prophecy one of the few true ones that Pope White ever ventured. The damage was minimal, and the traders committee saw to a reconstruction almost immediately. Pope White was a profound lesson in community relations.

After his departure, we never saw or heard of Pope White again. Many years later, when I visited Fegge from Adelaide to see my ailing father, I still heard nothing about Pope White, as if he had never existed. But there were many stories about Alfredo—including how he had been dancing to mangala music when he collapsed.

“He was taken to a hospital after he collapsed,” my father said. “It was as if he knew what would happen. He refused to be admitted, and it took his wife and several other people to talk him into staying. He couldn’t walk—otherwise, he would probably have walked out. He made his peace with death on the operating table.

“But Alfredo didn’t just die, which was not surprising. He left as his legacy a riddle. He was a man of many sides, more so than many people realized, and he had been thinking about deep things. ‘Is zero indeed the same as nothing?’ That was the question he asked before he died. For some time, the question resounded everywhere. Today, half of the people feel that Alfredo was just being himself and only wanted to play a final trick on us. The other half still talk about Alfredo’s riddle.”

Perhaps it’s a bit of both, I thought.

In Fegge, zero was a number or thing or person that was valueless. But Alfredo did not believe that anything was without value. He believed in converting zero, in transforming the impossible. He was an alchemist of sorts, which was why he challenged himself and rose from being a poor letter writer to the sub-editor of a newspaper in his old age.

 

Maik Nwosu is the Nigerian author of the novels Invisible Chapters and Alpha Song and the story collection Return to Algadez. His poems, stories, and novel excerpts have appeared in Okike, Drumvoices Revue, New Writing, Dublin Quarterly, El Ghibli, and Fiction International. He is assistant professor of African and world literature at the University of Denver, Colorado. (10/2010)


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