The Commonwealth Short Story Prize has announced the five regional winners from Africa, Asia, Canada & Europe, Caribbean and the Pacific regions. In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, Granta will publish each of the winning stories online this week. This selection introduces some of the most exciting emerging talents in the world, writers who bring a thrilling and essential glimpse of the world and the worlds that are within Britain. Today we publish the winning entry from Africa (Nigeria), ‘Morrison Okoli (1955-2010)’ by Jekwu Anyaegbuna. You can also read an interview with the author here.
Morrison, my brother. You came in fifty-five and left at fifty-five. What a coincidence! The coffin has killed you. So this is the end of it all, Morrison. I warned you, didn’t I? But you lied to me that everybody in America kept a coffin as household property for preserving valuables – things you do not want others to see. I could not argue with you because you resisted my point of view, saying I was rustic. I sealed up my mouth. After all, our people say a traveller is more knowledgeable than a white-haired old man sitting on an armchair. It’s true I have never travelled beyond the map of Nigeria. I don’t even have an international passport, to start with.
At the airport, customs were worried about the empty coffin you carried. When they opened it, they did not see a corpse. They saw dollars, and their faces migrated from sympathies to smiles. They rubbed their palms like starving squirrels, and flaunted their coconut teeth like precious stones plugged to their gums. They knocked on their stomachs. They were hungry. But you did not understand until I told you what they meant. Did I say it with my mouth? No, I didn’t. I clicked my fingers, and you understood the sound and sign with your quick American brain. When you handed some crisp dollar bills to them, they let us go. They did not see the narcotics buried underneath the dollars. They did not even bother to check. If they had checked and found out, there could not have been any problems because a kilogram or two handed to them would have made them happier, and of course richer.
We are at the cemetery. Military cemetery. Jehoshaphat is here with us. You told us to address the dog as a fine gentleman. We’ve been doing that ever since. He has been wagging his tail around your coffin, and we do not know what to tell him. Nobody is educated enough to speak American English to him, to tell him that you are dead, that you’re now the one inside the coffin. Those things you used to tell him are very difficult to say with our own type of stiff tongues accustomed to our heavy Nigerian English: Hey c’mon, darling. Ovurrr here, ovurrr there.
When I asked you years ago to marry a woman, you told me that you were married to Jehoshaphat and had a marriage certificate issued for the union. I did not understand, but you made it clear to me. ‘Jehoshaphat is a dog,’ you said. A beautiful bulldog. Born and raised in Ohio. Women should be kept on invitations, you said. To kiss and let go. Never for a permanent keep. That was what Adam did to Eve after they ate the ominous apple. You argued, he kissed her on a bunch of green leaves on a cold winter morning, and then he went into the bush to hunt, and he never returned to her any more.
Now there is no woman to cry for you. It is always an honour to have women cry during someone’s burial, but yours is too silent for comfort. No one is going to shave their hair to mourn your death. Nobody is going to be widowed. No children rendered fatherless. I cannot hire mourners for you; my civil service salary has no provision for that, although I managed to bribe one of the cemetery priests working here, to pray for your Americanized, non-transferable soul. If we died the way we came, I would have to die first because I am your elder brother, and I imagined your death would be more ceremonial than this, with expensive obituaries on radio and television announcing your departure. Or is it easy to acquire American citizenship with a valid green card? How many Nigerians can achieve that without engaging in a dehumanizing job or a ruse in America? Well, I cannot outline the jobs here, but I understand that there are some jobs in America that turn a man into a breastfeeding nanny. I am afraid to tell you that we will kill Jehoshaphat any moment now and destroy the marriage certificate since we cannot keep either. He does not recognize any of us; he doesn’t even consider us humans worthy of his plays. We will give him a befitting burial; I can assure you of that. We will ensure that his grave sits very close to yours. I know you will miss him. In fact, we ought to have killed him and buried both of you together in one coffin because you both arrived in Nigeria together, as a couple. You should die and depart together. I blame myself for not recognizing this logic earlier on.
Up till now I could not understand why you chose to consider a purchase receipt as a marriage certificate. Is that how they interpret things in America? Over-education can be counterproductive sometimes. Too much science spoils common sense. It seems in America small things are big, and big things are bigger. If you had died in America, your students at Ohio State University would have opened a beautiful condolence register and written heartfelt poetry for you. Can you compare poetry to a real woman, a real wife crying and screaming for you? Handwriting can never be equal to tear-soaked handkerchiefs. Your students would have sold the condolence register to major libraries, to immortalize you. That had been your wish because you never expected to die at home, to die in Nigeria. Who is interested in condolence registers here? I am sorry I have not opened one for you. Accept my apologies, but nobody would write anything meaningful on it because they did not know you, did not know I had a younger brother who was an Associate Professor.
Morrison. You spent years harvesting American degrees like vegetables, one PhD after another. From Columbia to Harvard to Yale to Princeton. Some time ago, I fantasized about having my name, Edward Okoli, written on one of the PhD certificates. Yes, people do it here. One could go to school in America and have another’s name written on the certificate. The acquisition of knowledge is different from the ownership of certificates. Certificates are among the things immigrants in America send back to their native countries. They say Americans don’t value certificates that much, but they value knowledge.
Here in Nigeria, we value certificates more than life itself. People enrol in a school and come back years later for their certificates. A certificate wins you a government contract, connects your mouth to some source of power, and makes you a demigod. It is a meal ticket here. That’s what we call it. The name sounds crisp, certificate, like the paper on which it is printed. But I did not ask you, Morrison, to send me one of your PhD certificates. I did not because I know my conscience has a peppery fire that burns whenever I think a bad thought. I am approaching retirement from the civil service, you know, and I don’t want the ghost of a PhD certificate to hunt me, to torment me in retirement.
And I must recognize your stardom. For the few months you spent here, you were a star, in fact a celebrity. People copied your lifestyle. Americanism is attractive, addictive, infectious. Once you’re infected, there is no cure. One man cancelled his wedding because he saw you return from America without a wife. So he thought it unnecessary, too, to marry because an American citizen like you, educated and exposed, did not marry.
Morrison, it is unfortunate you still wore jeans trousers at fifty-five, and kept your belt halfway on your buttocks to reveal your white underwear. You called it ‘sagging’. Wearing jeans this way is a fashion destroyer, a disaster. I wish you could stand up and watch young boys and girls ‘sagging’ on the street, their buttocks exposed as they walk like turkeys and tortoises. Well, they will remember you for bringing ‘sagging’ to Nigeria. You said people in America wore solid jeans even when they had broken legs and arms, and needed to wear something more comfortable. And that’s why you’re dressed in jeans trousers today and an Ohio State University branded T-shirt.
You did not return with your PhD certificates. I would have loved to bury you with them. Perhaps my people would copy that, too, whenever they want to bury educated relatives. We copy a lot here in Nigeria. Neighbours bought coffins and kept them in their houses because you came back with one. I did not really notice the emulations until a boy, thirteen years old, ran into my flat one day shivering, asking me to protect him. When I asked what the problem was, he told me this story, which I taped with my recorder:
‘My father now keeps our yams in a coffin to preserve them, to protect them against the invasion of rats and other rodents. He detests rats, their snotty mouths. They devour our loaves of bread and abandon them in crumbs. They eat our yams in haphazard attacks.
‘The evening he hauled the coffin home, sweating, a chill froze our entire house, but he smiled as though he had brought with him a big box of progress. It was a revelation, he said. A dream. An instruction. The coffin is his size, tall, beige and befitting. Glossy. A mahogany coffin. A rich man’s coffin. A respectable coffin.
‘My mother carried herself like democracy and opened the door so wide that he and the coffin entered without a scratch. He ducked, the coffin balanced on his head, when he got into the hallway. Then he stowed the coffin away in our storeroom. I imagined he was getting ready to die. I am told that rich men prepare for their own deaths in advance, dig their own graves, decorate them and sculpt suitable words on the marbles.
‘When he opened the gold-rimmed coffin to place our yams inside it, my mother and I gaped at him, cringed to our bones.
‘‘Freddy, aren’t you bringing death home to wipe off the rest of us?’ my mother asked him. I grabbed her skirt and tried to hide behind her, shuddering. ‘Freddy, our Owen is about to convulse. Does this not portend a bad omen?’
‘Owen and Omen. Twin names with separate identities. I saw death lurking everywhere. The omen pursued me that day. It punched my head, mortally. I guessed it lay inside my mother and her skirt, so I abandoned her and ran into the bedroom. I imagined death was on the pillows, so I rushed back to my mother for protection.
‘‘Oh darling, there’s nothing maleficent about the coffin,’ my father said. ‘It’s a device to protect our yams.’
‘‘You can see it’s already affecting our son, badly. He can’t bear the sight of this coffin, Freddy.’
‘‘He will get used to it,’ he said. ‘Pronounce it backwards so it doesn’t scare him. Call it a niffoc instead of a coffin.’
‘He came and wanted to touch me, to calm me down. I shouted and avoided him. I didn’t want his coffin-niffoc hand to touch me. He smiled and told my mother how ingenious it was to carry a coffin in an expensive car, a Toyota Prado Jeep. Policemen never harassed him on the highway, he enthused. They accosted him and said sorry, thinking he had lost a loved one. When he met a traffic jam, other motorists made way for him to pass because they thought the jeep was an ambulance. It was so clever, he said.
‘My mother got used to the coffin, and days later she suggested he should buy a small baby coffin, too, and keep it permanently in his backseat, to send the wrong signals to the police. He praised her for the novel suggestion and kissed her, dearly.
‘She invents strange perversions and makes hideous discoveries, my dear mother. She told every woman on the street that old hair attachments had another use and should not be thrown away any longer. She melted her old attachments with a chemical and told everyone who cared to listen that she had invented a hair dye.
‘Yesterday, my mother gathered all our family photos and kept them inside my father’s coffin, beside the yams. It was to direct death to kill the photos, instead of killing any of us. She shut the coffin and said things with similar purposes went together.’
When the young boy finished his story, I told him to see the coffin as powerless furniture. Morrison, can you now see the influence your presence here has had on the people who copied you? If a finger conveys red oil to the mouth, the rest of the alimentary canal will turn red and excrete red. That’s exactly what you did.
Morrison Okoli (1955-2010). I almost sing it like a song these days. Morrison Okoli (1955-2010). It rings like a bell in my head, even now. But do you know how devastating it is to see your name written this way, the years enclosed in disquieting brackets? Does it mean you cannot come out of these brackets? Does it mean nothing can be added to these brackets, like (1955-2010) +1 or 2 or more? Does it mean they are the brackets of finality? I cannot believe that the sign between 1955 and 2010 is a subtraction. It’s not; otherwise we would have a negative number (-55), according to the laws of arithmetic. So, you’re not dead. The symbol is only a concatenation, a hyphen, a waiting sign showing you’re coming back, coming back to marry a woman and take traditional titles like me.
Morrison, how can I bury you without a single traditional title? It’s unthinkable. I wrote you some years ago that our village king wanted to bestow on you a suitable title. You wrote me back saying the king should rather confer the title on a rat. When I persisted, you said I should inherit the title; but it was most adequate for you, for someone educated like you. I have nine titles already. I acquired the latest during the New-Yam festival last year. You could consider them my own PhD achievements. It was during that festival that a stinking maggot, a frustrated freak, who had just returned from Germany for the event, foolishly wrote down my name as Edward Okoli (1948- ). I charged at him and deposited two slaps on his temples.
‘Are you expecting my death soon? 1948 to what?’ I asked him. Writing a name this way has always seemed for me some sort of disturbing impermanence, a blinding expectation, a questioned uncertainty.
‘No. No . . . Chief,’ the maggot stammered. ‘I’ve written it that way as a mark of respect for an elder.’
‘An elder you expect to die soon?’
‘Not at all. It is how we write it in Germany where I live and work.’
‘Go back and tell them it is wrong. Would you have written your own name like that? You’ve written my name this way because you don’t see me living longer than a few years more. You want to invite death and invoke calamity on me, so you will quickly fix in my year of death in the space you’ve already provided behind the hyphen. I don’t court death.’
‘I am very sorry, Chief,’ the maggot said.
I let him go.
Maggoty idiot! He did not see the wisdom in the tufts of white hair clustered near my forehead, by the right. People love this so much that some have tried to copy it. One man once poured a white powder near his forehead and attended an occasion that I attended too. When the rains came, his powder was washed off, but mine remained intact. If it is not Edward’s, it cannot be the same as Edward’s. Never. The copycat does not even have a single traditional title, like you, Morrison. A life without titles is a wasted one. Without titles I would not have been able to secure a place in this esteemed military cemetery to bury you. My titles made it possible for me the day I came here to make an inquiry. I wore my akwanze chieftaincy dress, a befitting traditional red hat (embellished with two spotless eagle feathers) on my head. I held a walking stick emblazoned with a lion’s head, my neck surrounded with pricey beads and cowries. Top military personnel filed out and started to prostrate before me as though I were a king. I swaggered like a crowned peacock, as if I had never visited a toilet. They hailed me, ‘Chief, Chief, Chief,’ and took me to the officer in charge of the cemetery. They offered me a bottle of aromatic schnapps, and I prayed for their promotions with it.
Morrison, I am going to give you a military burial today without paying a farthing, except the bribe I paid to the hungry priest. It is a rare honour to be granted to a complete civilian like you. You will be buried without parades, without guns, without boots stomping on wet grounds, but in a military environment where war veterans are buried. All your neighbouring graves have military ranks inscribed on them: General Timothy Danjuma (1930-1989); Colonel Musa Abubakar (1960-2000); Captain Sunday Adebisi (1945-1982); Brigadier John Obasi (1967-2009); Major-General Robert Nengi (1933-2002), to mention a few. Beautiful graves they have here. Immaculate graves in white coats, as if the occupants neither killed nor held a gun. How many civilians get buried this way? I wish I could inscribe all the PhDs you acquired on your grave, too.
Morrison, the atrocity you committed should not take you to hell – the place white people have told us of where fire burns sinners forever. Ha, what a wicked God they have brought here to torture us? A God that throws his children into a mysterious fire, without giving them a second chance to make amends. We are told this same God is the most merciful. What a contradiction? Well, contradiction or no contradiction, I will continue to be a Knight of St Mulumba and accept more traditional titles from my community.
Heaven must have been full by now – too many people dying and praying for a space there. Hunger and frustration and unemployment here. Genocides in Rwanda. Terrorist attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hurricanes with exotic names in America. Earthquakes in Haiti and elsewhere. Tsunamis in Japan. Just name it. It is a mass departure to heaven, because nobody wants to be trapped in a wild, eternal fire.
Please, ask Jesus Christ to allow you a space on his left hand; I am sure his right hand must be filled up with the people gone before you. I have never heard anyone asking that a departed relative should stay on the left. Let me be the first to ask for this. Be the first to stay on his left because I cannot bear to imagine your lustrous beard melting like plastic in the conflagration. One day Jesus Christ might turn around to examine what is happening behind his back, a sort of U-turn, and those on the right now find themselves on his left. Imagine only you being on the right, after the U-turn of our Lord.
Lest I forget, if Jesus Christ refuses (which I doubt very much), you should turn your search for an eternal home to the Islamic section of heaven. Ask Holy Prophet Mohammed, peace be unto him, to save you from the impending fire. Who knows if he has a place for people like you? We are told he is merciful, too. After all, it is Ramadan, the peak season of mercy and atonement for sins. If these options fail, search for your own ancestors and forget these foreign saviours. Foreigners should favour their own people and save them first, I know, before considering a black sinner like you. I am very sure that the foreign messiahs lobby the Almighty God to give their own people the most comfortable portion of heaven. It is most unfortunate we do not have home-made saviours. All the saviours we have in Africa are imported. But your forefathers should be somewhere around the perimeter of heaven; I know. Morrison, seek them out. Let them know you are around. Let them know your mind. Ask them to lead you to the Almighty God for the forgiveness of your sins, just to avoid hell fire – if it really exists.
My daughter’s wedding is over, but I have lost you. I did not want you to come home for the wedding, but you insisted on coming. You wanted to see Geraldine decorate her husband’s finger with a ring because you considered her your own daughter, too. You used to send her some biochemistry textbooks when she was in the university. My wife is here with me. She has been restraining herself from crying aloud because I have told her to reserve her tears for the day I will die and join my ancestors. That day she may cry as loud as she wants. But I can still see some residual tears trickling down her cheeks. Anyway, when one remembers how you died, it becomes impossible not to feed the soil with tears.
Morrison, how could you do this to yourself? Why? Did you ever have the premonition that you would not go back to America? I cannot even imagine a Morrison-less America. Why did you return from America with unimaginable items: a coffin, a bulldog, cocaine, cannabis? Such things should not be associated with the educated. Perhaps, they thought you brought a foreign coffin to bury a loved one who had died here. If you had returned with a gun, I would not have bothered myself this much. I would have assumed you wanted to protect yourself.
You could have shot those boys first. Uncouth boys, especially that one, fire-eyed, who chewed a cigarette like a piece of chewing gum, who smelled like domestic cooking gas, and helped to convey the coffin to the taxi the day you returned. But you had known them before returning and never predicted they were so deadly. All of you had been in this drug business for a long time, making me wonder if the only PhD you got from an American university was a narcotics-infested PhD:
I cannot tell what really transpired between you and them at the hotel, but the call from there still rings loud in my head. It was a terrible call in a terrible night in this terrible Lagos. I was in bed with my wife when it came. I answered the call and what I heard wrapped my whole body in goose bumps. As I pay this tribute to you and grab a handful of sand, to perform the dust to dust rite, let me call your name for the last time and close your memory: Morrison Okoli (1955-2010).
Photograph by Takomabibelot