In a coffee shop in New York City in New York City, I sit beside a man with impaired speech. I nod to him, he nods back, and we begin a conversation with arms, fingers and haphazard gesticulations. Between us on the table is the day’s New York Post. Soon – in what sequence this happened I can’t remember – he writes a note to me on the back of the newspaper: ‘Have you ever changed into a thing?’ After a pause he writes again: ‘Me? My heart is small & I have suffered long but I can become many good things when I am in pain.’
A year later, I see a Black father and son in a crowded train.The son sits, the father stands. We get to a stop and there’s space beside the son for the father. ‘Dad,’ son calls out. Dad comes and sits, but both son and dad are too burly to fit as close as that comfortably. They manage to sit, regardless, for a fraction of a minute. Son’s head is bent, with his hands held over it. Very soon dad begins to say, ‘I am tired, I am tired, I am tired.’ He punctuates these declarations with unclear cautionary whispers to son, who is bobbing his head around. Then dad stands, walks towards the door of the train, and keeps saying loudly, ‘I am tired, I am tired, I am tired.’ Son keeps bobbing his head. And when he looks up, I see him crying.
For years, as a foreigner in America, I gathered scenes based on my brief encounters with the interior lives of others, surveying agony at a remove. I self-published those scenes as blog posts – as dispatches from a world I was growing familiar with. Yet that familiarity could not allay my sense that I had traded being with my family in Nigeria for . . . what? Descending the subway one day in my sixth year, I began to weep, with a quiet intensity that lasted throughout the train ride from Brooklyn into Manhattan. I was unaccompanied, and so my desolation wasn’t dramatised, as that of the man and his son, or clearly defined, like that of the man with his self-absorbed scrawl. The remote causes of my weeping were clear to me. All the while, like the faraway trace of an image I couldn’t yet discern, I knew I had begun to plan my relocation to Nigeria.
When my father graduated from the University of Ife in 1983, he was advised by one of his professors to enrol in a master’s in psychology in nearby Benin, Nigeria’s best programme of its kind at the time. Only one other student was favoured with a similar nudge: if the two students were so inclined, said the professor, they could return from Benin with their MSc and get teaching jobs. At that juncture in his life, my father chose a different, uncommon path. He entered into Christian ministry. Psychology, he argued, was the science of interrogating the inner life of others, and catering to it. A minister of the gospel attended to similar needs. As if to examine this intuition, he volunteered with the Scripture Union, an interdenominational Christian organisation, for his first post-university year. The following year, he accepted an offer of employment. His designation was ‘travelling secretary’.
Posted to Akure, a town in south-western Nigeria, he was required to travel throughout the surrounding area. He’d visit what was known as ‘pilgrim groups’, when they met each Sunday or later in the week, exhorting with a sermon and staying back to offer individual counsel. He came to Akure as a single man, but within a year he married my mother. From Akure, four years and two sons later, he was moved to Port Harcourt, 500 kilometres away. Thus, his lifelong dislocation began; the longest he’d ever stay in a place for work was six years, even after he shifted loyalties, in 1997, to the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria.
What notion of belonging might have been possible for my family if he had chosen life as an academic? The preceding condition for any life is found in one that predates it: my life unfolded within the net effect of my father’s choices. From his impermanence I grew into mine, remaining in New York after graduate school on the assumption that I could put off the decision of whether to return or settle.
Until the day on the train when I began to sink on shifting ground.
The word ‘Presbyterian’ – from presbyter, ‘an elder in a church’, from ecclesiastical Greek presbyteros, ‘one that presides over assemblies or congregations’ – reflects the system of a rotating cast of parish ministers in a church governed by laity. Founded by Calvinists in Scotland, it is a church in which a coterie of elders, known as the ‘Session’, is the highest-ranking body in each parish, moderated by the current minister. The unintended consequence of this structure is that its clergymen might never define belonging in relation to the places where their life’s labours unfold. They transfer its meaning elsewhere, to their ancestral homes, or to a period when – finally exhausting their patience for the petty politics of parishes or chapels – they retire to a self-sustaining ministry.
Those early years in Akure were marked by severe immiseration. This is what my father implied when he recalled how he began full-time ministry. Once, he had driven to a midweek evening service in Owo, fifty kilometres away. He went knowing there was no meal at home for the next day, and felt embarrassed by his inability to meet a basic need. When the service ended, a woman waited by his car, with tubers of yam and an envelope of naira notes. He was thrilled by the miraculous turn in events, evidence, as he characterised it while relaying the story to me, of divine providence.
During those years, going about his chosen work with the overhanging ache of want, did he ever lose faith? I do not think so. I see him in my mind’s eye as I grew to see him, perhaps as he was then, rising to pray before convening the rest of the family in the living room at 5.30 a.m. After the joint prayers, he spent additional time alone with multiple devotionals. Then he went to his bedroom for a shave and shower. Most days his breakfast was quick, and most days he took great care never to arrive at his first meeting late. On occasions when no one required his immediate attention, he was no less sparing with his schedule, going to his office to outline a sermon. In his last decade, he often returned to his writing after dinner, working on a table on the veranda or in his study.
In 2018, back to my family’s duplex in the University of Port Harcourt for the final time, my brother and I entered the room he’d worked in. We gathered his bibles and sermon notebooks in a worn carton. We were now at a stage of grief when it was rare to break into a sudden wail. Yet we didn’t dare browse through the stacked books. On our way out, I took a photo, standing at the point where he would have sat as he faced the window. I recorded a dense scattering of shrubs reaching the furthest limit of the frame. The view was unspectacular. Not that I cared. My impulse was to illustrate a sense of the irrecoverable – true as well of a second, better composed photo, showing the length of the university’s interdenominational chapel, his terminal outpost.
As soon as my father settled there, he began to make plans for the aftermath of the job, due to end in three years. He hoped to launch a freelance ministry, earning income from preaching gigs and the sale of his books, and settling in Umuahia, where my mother worked full-time as a schoolteacher.
In one sense he achieved the stasis he sought. His ambulatory body is stilled.
During the last twenty years of his life, my father’s chief enthusiasm lay in writing. I consider the dedication – the regimen, the prolificacy – with which he self-published eleven Christian books in nineteen years. By grounding himself in literature, I suppose he felt he could rise above the constraints of constant mobility.
In 1998, he used a large table in the church hall as a desk to write Nakedness: Secrets of Enjoying Marriage, the book that remains his best selling. At the time my youngest brother had just been born. In search of an apt illustration for the cover, my father thought it best to use a photograph of his naked, toddling son. According to his telling of what happened next, I warned against the idea. When my brother grew older, I argued, he could be so embarrassed by the ubiquitous cover photograph that he could sue my father for displaying him nude without his consent. My immature legal advice seemed reasonable to him. He chose, instead, a cover with an illustration of two bells twined with a ribbon. Afterwards, I wonder if he felt discomfited when he recalled how he considered using his naked offspring for publicity.
When I was fifteen, he launched Family Values in a Changing World, his fifth book. In the third chapter, he included a poem I had written for my mother. ‘The poem,’ he wrote, ‘was a gift our second son gave to his mother on the Mothering Sunday of the year 2004. I secured permission from both the boy and his mother to use it to introduce this chapter.’ I return to his prefatory note, and all I imagine – since he wrote his books longhand – is his limber fingers copying out what I’d written. I secured permission, he noted, as though it were his honour, not mine, for the poem to be reproduced.
By my mid-twenties, either due to my impatience with his refusal to work on a computer or my growing angst about my own writing, I took his work for granted. On one visit home, he handed to me nearly 200 pages of a new manuscript – Banner of Love, a couple’s devotional – and implored that I type it up for him. A year later I had finished no more than a dozen pages, but when asked, claimed I was almost done. Then he asked for the typewritten document. To compound matters, he made the request a week or two after I moved to New York, and days before he was to arrive in Lagos to gather the rest of my things, including the handwritten manuscript, from the house I’d lived in.
I search my inbox to see with what words I apologised, but what I find is a different email, from January 2014, when I attached a new draft of the manuscript. He got someone else to type the entire manuscript, and then sent it to me to edit. ‘Once again I am really sorry for how I dealt with this and I promise to make up for my failure,’ I wrote. But still I feel my impropriety skulking in the shadow of my memory, due perhaps to the discrepancy between my actions and his reaction. Only once, after the book was published, did he mention that I delayed the work. He was often so conciliatory he could be mistaken as guileless.
I know he forgave me, or at least understood my failing. One day, after his death, I turned to the acknowledgements in Banner of Love. I was one of two people, he wrote, who edited and formatted the book. ‘Though outside the country, he still opted to be part of it because of his love for me.’ Did I do it because I loved him? Once, during the first of two final visits to Port Harcourt, he came to my room while I was working on my computer. He stood at the entrance, holding the door. I looked at him with an uncomprehending frown. ‘Sorry to disturb you,’ he said. ‘No, daddy, it’s fine.’ He had come to ask how much progress I had made with editing the manuscript of Living Above Reproach, what became his posthumous book. ‘Can you finish it before you leave?’ ‘Yes, daddy,’ I replied, and he said, ‘Thank you,’ then turned away in a gentle, inobtrusive sway.
It is the duty, I thought then, of a son not to say no to his father. But love, I am now inclined to believe, was defined for him as the convergence of small gratitudes, including for any help he got in his life work.
I recall the preceding fall, a year before I wept while on the subway. I was at the peak of my itineracy – travelling for writing residencies, conferences, book festivals – on one occasion with just a single day between transatlantic flights. I was, equally, beginning to shed my greenness: I could state the distances between train stops, speak of the gentrification of the South Bronx, suggest meetings at a coffee shop that had become my favourite, even produce itineraries for visiting friends. Money was easier to come by – although, as I was often waiting to receive cheques from writing or teaching gigs, I repeatedly asked for small loans from friends – and hence I decided that it was the best year to return home for the Christmas break. Once I managed to buy my ticket, I shopped for gifts for each member of my family. I wanted it to be clear that, after four years of sending news of my impoverishment, I had come into some means. Those weeks at home sparkled with happiness, reaching a climax when my father shyly took a photo of me with his phone as I sat with my younger siblings, the unprompted gesture of a man who had never bothered with new technology.
Now I wish to see the rich twilight between that height of contentment and the sadness I’d begin to feel later.
Seven weeks after our Christmas reunion I returned again. First to Lagos, to participate in an arts festival, then to Afikpo, the Igbo town where my father was born. His close friend from adolescence, Auntie Nnenna, was being buried, and all members of our immediate family, save my older and younger brothers, were in attendance. As we began to leave, he asked his driver to stop. Then he returned to the school field where the funeral service was coming to a close. He had to attend a meeting that evening, and so it made no sense that he delayed our departure. Ten minutes passed before he re-entered the car with packs of takeaway food, to be shared on the journey. My mother asked why he had taken so long, and he replied with a snappish grunt. We sat squashed in the back, my two sisters between my father and me, my mother in front.
As we pulled back onto the road, the mood brimmed with irritability. I put it down to the urgency with which we needed to return to the University of Port Harcourt. How could I not have read the signs? I was blinded to the real cause of his prickliness, clear in hindsight. He’d reached a point in his life when each new bereavement – all his brothers were dead, for one – was like a scald on an old wound. Seven months later, when he was diagnosed with a liver inflammation and lay in the hospital, he told my mother it was time for him to go.
I pick at the significance of that day in Afikpo, and the morning that followed in Port Harcourt, the last time I was with my father.
Once, while I was a boarding student in Abuja, I sought home with a shameless desperation, prompted by a longing unlike any other I had known. One way I could get an exeat – a card signed by the principal, his vice, or an authorised teacher – was to be certified ill enough to require treatment outside the school. For that to happen, I needed the head nurse in the sickbay to append her signature to my application letter, which, when taken to the administrative block, would almost automatically guarantee my freedom. Yet, of course, the nurse could only sign my letter if I showed symptoms. And so, one afternoon, I spent several minutes hammering my head against the goalpost in the football field. My hope was to get a headache, to exacerbate what was a distant, surely psychosomatic fever, to run a temperature, making it inarguable to all concerned that I had contracted malaria.
There were boys, and I suppose girls, who took a more daring approach, and left the school without seeking permission. We were enclosed in an estate of several hectares in a rural, mountainous region of Nigeria’s capital state. There was a fence, but where it ended – if the cluster of streams behind the hostels were enclosed within it – I could never tell. No one, however audacious, could aim for home from the rear of the school. The only route was a track across seven hills, and unless you had the ambition to walk for days through an unmapped forest, it was best to seek out a route closer to the school entrance. Of course, there was an exception to this exception: one day, a group of boys went hiking, and whether by whim or premeditation, decided to follow the trail of the hills. Despite it being an hour by road away, they ended up in Wuse, a commercial hub of Abuja, close to a week later.
I never had the misfortune of being paraded on the assembly ground as a luckless student caught seeking an illegal route – or better to say I feigned illness because I lacked the courage to return home by any other means. Under the steaming heat that Friday, I stood beside the goalpost. After each sequence of striking my head against the scalding metal, I touched my neck and forehead for a rise in symptoms.
The supplementary provisions with which I arrived each term – a staple of cornflakes, biscuits, powdered milk, Bournvita, sugar and garri – ran out within a fortnight. The food served by the school was almost always undercooked or bland, sometimes a plate of beans with sediments of stone in it, or yam porridge as pale as if no palm oil had been used. The bad food was compounded by another distress: there was the matter of beatings. In theory, no senior student was allowed to punish a younger fellow. In practice, there was sufficient opportunity to be brutish without consequence, particularly when we retired to our hostels. During my first year, just a day or two after I was enrolled, a group of us were commanded to kneel, and take turns standing to approach a senior. Then, when we were in front of him, bend over in a pose known as ‘touch your toe’. His arm-length stick landed against our lower backs, and on being struck I bawled and fell over, prompting the amused senior to spare me the promised second lash.
But I do not attribute my longing for home that weekend to either the fear of a senior’s wallop or the need for a good meal. My desperation was sudden and primal, yet had amassed weight over the previous weeks, when the fact of being away from my parents and younger siblings loomed as a persistent threat to my well-being.
Spurred by nostalgia I return to photographs of myself as a boy. This one, taken in front of our house in Nyanya, in the first three years of my time in secondary school: I am smiling without baring my teeth, resting my back on my father’s grey Volvo, whose roof is only a few inches above my head. Our bungalow – cream-coloured, burglar-proofed and mud-bricked – stands behind the car. The shadow of a gmelina tree is cast against the trunk of the car, falling past the edge of the frame. I beam with what must be sheer pleasure. Even today I think of the years spent in Nyanya as holding the clue to one version of my happiest self.
More than an hour from Karshi, where the boarding school was, Nyanya was a suburb bordering Abuja and the neighbouring Nasarawa state. Our family was the first to occupy the newly built manse, in the year following my father’s ordination as a minister of the Presbyterian Church. The bungalow was one of three structures in a compound of almost a hectare. From a gatehouse at the entrance, a path led to the church hall and curved rightwards towards the manse. The rest of the unoccupied land was a terrain of much uncertainty – the occasional scorpion and cobra, the frequent litigations about ownership – but with its vastness it was equally the source of idyllic consolations. I broadened my vocabulary about farming, learning about ridges, hoes and rakes, as well as the planting seasons for maize, beans, fluted pumpkin and tomatoes. My mother, who taught me all that, kept dogs and a cat, raised chickens, built a kiosk to sell odds and ends, concocted a drink from lemongrass to treat ailments – making do during what, from the stance of twenty-two years, now seems to have been a disorienting season of austerity. Still, it was the only home I knew. Every term in Karshi was an expulsion to a foreign ground. Not once did I imagine the end of term, and the holidays that lasted for six weeks, without the jubilant air of return.
I was deemed sick enough to be allowed home that Friday. I borrowed my transport fare from a friend. The bus was headed to a central terminus in Nyanya, from where I would take a motorcycle taxi to the church compound. We drove past a rush of sparse landscape. Then buildings gathered in density. Only as I alighted in the bustle of the park did it occur to me that I also needed to convince my parents that my trip was necessitated. I scrunched my face and hunched my gait, tottering towards the church compound. My mother began to laugh as soon as I gave my excuse. ‘Just say you are tired of school,’ she said. ‘Look how thin you are!’
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