Woman of Independence – Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

Going to meet the man in his homestead is the journey that must be made to avoid death. It is not really my business when you come to think of it. I am undertaking it all as a vicarious duty, and that is cool by me.

The loud jerks of the creaky minibus cannot let one think in peace. The unbidden cracking opening of the moth-eaten bus window rudely snaps my thinking by the bend near the singing stream on the outskirts of Otako. A sudden rush of stabbing cold breeze does woeful damage to my mood as the bus meanders past brown dirt roads almost enclosed by dark-green bamboos and plantains and palms until it emerges on the sprawling thoroughfare leading up to the bridge on the River Niger. Whistling late morning wind laps at the swinging bus windows and doorframes. In the mire I look out of the window and see ill-assorted grasses and brushes moving swiftly in the opposite direction.

“Let’s get the hell out of here!” Francis suddenly says, as though waking from a nightmare at morn.

The handful of passengers in the bus stare at him quizzically, and then at me.


“What is the problem again?” I retort, hushing him as he sits hunched over on the corsage-festooned bus seat.

“Where do we say we are going?” Francis is unrelenting in mouthing gibberish.

“We are going to meet your maker,” I say, looking away from Francis and out of the bus, in the general direction of the large body of water flowing towards the bridgehead ahead.

I pay no heed to the murmurings of the passengers, and Francis somewhat lapses into a sudden lassitude that is quite impenetrable.

Driving up on the Niger Bridge, I marvel at a spot that teems with legends, especially of how the water mermaid, Mammy-water, could not allow for the construction of the bridge until she got mystically corked inside a bottle by the founding father of the nation, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, aka Zik of Africa.

Inside the ever bustling Onitsha town, my mind goes back in time to when the place reigned as the go-to home of market literature. Onitsha Market Literature titles make a funny rush into my skull: “How To Speak To Girls And Win Their Love; Miss Appolo’s Pride Leads Her To Be Unmarried; How To Know When A Girl Loves You Or Hates You; £9000,000,000 Man Still Says No Money; Public Opinion On Lovers; My Seven Daughters Are After Young Boys; Cocktail Ladies; Talking About Love With Mr Really Fact At St Bottles’ Church; Beware Of Harlots And Many Friends; Beauty Is A Trouble; Veronica My Daughter; No Heaven For The Priest; Rose Only Loved My Money; How A Passenger Collector Posed And Got A Lady Teacher In Love; Why Boys Never Trust Money Monger Girls; The Strange Death of Israel Njemanze; Money Hard To Get But Easy To Spend; Drunkards Believe Bar As Heaven; Mabel The Sweet Honey That Poured Away; Lack Of Money Is Not Lack Of Sense…”

“Why are you talking to yourself?” It is the voice of Francis all right but I find out to my chagrin that all the other passengers in the bus are staring at me as though asking the same question, wondering if I’m off my rocker.

I smile foolishly and manage to stutter: “We are stopping at Upper Iweka Roundabout.”

The bus grinds to a shuddering halt. I climb out of the bus with Francis, and I overhear not a few of the other disembarking passengers muttering words about Francis and me being an odd duo of poltergeists who may have come from outer space. The obviously astonished passengers stare unceasingly at us until I feel biting goosebumps all over me. I cannot fathom how to cross the wide and deep gutter by the road with Francis in order to get into any of the shops where we can sit down to make the final plans of our journey to meet the man. I skirt the edge of the gutter, holding the right hand of Francis and walking gingerly. With our light backpacks dangling from our shoulders, we walk for about a hundred metres to where a big wooden plank sets across the gutter for crossing commuters. I feel delighted that our wearing workaday jeans trousers and t-shirts amid the swarm of touts and toughies of the dreaded Upper Iweka, Onitsha is a correct choice of gear. With our suede shoes we can make a dash for it once attacked by the hoodlums – as they are wont to. Francis does not utter a word, somewhat following me with inscrutable sheepishness.

“I am not doing again!” Francis sharply screams and disengages from my hand and runs.

I maniacally run after him by the edge of the gutter to where the minibus that brought us is still parked. Just past the bus, I grab hold of Francis by the mid-section. He frenziedly makes a vain struggle to cut himself loose and free. Meantime, a motley crowd gathers.

“Why is he crying?”

“That dude must be a kidnapper!”

“Cult warfare!”

“Brothers at war!”

“Boys O Ye!”

I am hearing so many voices and utterances all at once, and I keep telling myself that a dangerous den such as Upper Iweka is the worst place to create a scene. The miscreants can descend on us and bite us to pieces like Crackers biscuits. As the crowd keeps gathering with not a few hands threatening to yank on me, I remember an advice given to me by a university cultist acquaintance of mine: “When accosted by a barrage of policemen or thugs, go to the leader!” In split seconds I decide that the thick-set dark man in cashmere overalls must be the leader of sorts here. Somehow getting a breather from the assailing crowd, I tell the man of our bounden mission in a rush of words, confessing how Francis has been hurting for all of his life, revealing the need to meet the missing man of his being, and stressing that I am only trying to help him meet his destiny…

The man gasps in wonder upon catching the meat of my story. He glides over to where Francis is standing with head bowed and tears dropping slowly and freely. The man grabs Francis close to his heart in a softening father-figure embrace that can melt any heart. He places his gloved right hand on the head of Francis and says: “Son, don’t cry for it shall be well.”

The man waves the crowd away in short seconds, places his heavy right hand softly across the shoulder of Francis and holds my right hand with his left hand. He leads us over the wooden plank across the huge gutter, and in about a minute or two we are inside a food-and-drinks canteen presided over by a mammoth fortyish lady wearing rainbow-tinted boubou over a yellow skirt.

“Madam Hohaa, give these my guys whatever they want to eat and drink,” the man says, waving at us to sit on any of the dozen or so blue plastic chairs in the canteen.

“Oga DSP, thank you for always finding fine-fine husbands for me,” the woman says to the man and laughs.

The man ignores her and stares at Francis for some moments and then says: “Son, never go back!”

Time stands at a spot in enduring silence. The tang of sizzling onions stings my nostrils while a wave of boiling hot pepper draws wetness from my eyes. The music of the frying stew playing from the stove behind a cardboard counter ups the ante of the dance inside my stomach.

“Boy, you are a man!” The man is speaking, pointing his gloved hand in my direction. He swipes at a buzzing greenfly and misses, and then says to the two of us: “Whenever you are back in this town after this your journey of a lifetime, tell anybody you see to bring you to the office of DSP Okogba.”

The man pats Francis on the head and me on the shoulder and saunters away in the general direction of an assemblage of bus drivers and conductors and their melee of buses and vehicles and passengers.

The madam of the canteen stares at Francis for a brief moment as if making an uncanny recognition, and says, “You must be the son of Chief?”

“Any chief can be a thief!” quips the scrawny man downing a handful or so bottles of Star lager beer on the blue table at the frontage of the canteen.

“What is your own, Beer Dictator?” Madam remonstrates with the beer-guzzling intruder, and then turns her attention to us. “What shall I bring for you?”

“Coke,” I say. “Two bottles of Coke for us.”

The woman’s mouth opens wide in surprise and shock. “DSP Okogba brings you here and you open your mouth with which you eat yam and cocoyam to tell me you will drink only coke? You wait!”

The lady bounds behind the counter of her canteen and after a handful of minutes comes back with two hefty pots of Bush-meat pepper-soup that she sets before Francis and me. She bulldozes us to fall to, and then places two chilled bottles of Star beer before us as supporting cast. She lords over us as she who must be obeyed! She brings another two bottles of beer only for a somewhat stimulated Francis to beg her that there is still a long journey ahead of us.

“You talk like your father,” the woman is saying, staring at Francis. “A politician begets a politician just as a snake cannot give birth to tortoise.”

“How much is our bill?” I ask.

The big woman laughs loud and long until I fear she would rupture herself. “I can see that your head is not correct!” The woman guffaws, quaking. “DSP brings you here and you want to pay his bills. Mad boy!”

It is with lifted spirits that we make our departure. We walk for about a pole to the overhead bridge dominated by an almond tree beneath which a barrage of aggressive taxi drivers asking for passengers. The clincher is that our destination is known to all the taxi drivers – a place they call “The Lodge”. We in the end settle for the taxi driver looking most sober among the weird lot, a gangling beanpole darker than midnight.

The journey takes about a long hour through many congested streets and side-streets until we get to an expansive boulevard that ends at a mighty bronze gate emblazoned with the legend in letters of gold: CHIEF FRANCIS AKANKPA LODGE.

Paying off the taxi driver, and wondering how we can penetrate the big gate that may be manned by an impenetrable gateman, I see a pre-teen boy throwing stones and broken sticks up at the mango tree by the side of the gate in hopes of bringing down some of the ripe mangoes. I beckon to the boy to make an enquiry, and some unbearable revelation strikes me. The boy is the exact copy of Francis while in primary school. The boy notices the two of us and stops in his tracks, his eyes diligently fixated on Francis. The wisdom of the ancients rings true. Blood calls to blood, and blood does not lie. Still staring fixedly at Francis, the boy says: “Daddy is inside.”

He holds tight to Francis and leads us past the heavy gate where the wiry gateman has no say to query the son of the master of the house. Following the boy’s lead we walk past well-paved green lawns and a handful of outhouses all painted white. We eventually stop at the ornate silver door of a burnt brick duplex. The boy does not knock before opening the door. Two middle-aged men, knocking on sixty, are seated at the dining end of the posh living room, tippling expensive Remy Martin cognac champagne. The boy leading us jumps on the lap of his father and points at Francis. Quizzical looks shoot about, to and fro, and no words are spoken for I-don’t-know how many minutes thereafter.

“Rank Xerox!” screams one of the two men at the table, staring back and forth like an astonished dog from Francis to the man sitting with him.

When he eventually finds his voice, the obvious man of the house says to Francis and me from above the head of the boy on his lap: “Please have your seats.”

I cannot in good conscience count the spell of time that sprawls into infinity save to stress that tears are shed and words are spoken and I am not in good stead to put the utterances and emotions in proper order.

The much I can tell is that the unseen woman is at the very heart of the boy-meets-girl legend unfolding before our very eyes in the present tense.

To begin at the beginning, there’s the invisible woman who comes to compelling light as the story of the night unfolds.

A love tango starts during the frenzied political campaigns for Nigeria’s independence.

An inspirational young politician comes with Zik of Africa to campaign in Otako.

A starry-eyed young girl falls madly in love.

Francis becomes the love-child unbeknownst to the father.

The lover-girl takes the beating of family and society to bring up the boy as a young single mother.

The only child among his mates without a father, Francis bears the burden of traumatic growing-up years.

The many fights are uncountable because of the absence of a father.

And many tears are shed along the dark, dreary pathway of growth.

The suffering mother perseveres and borrows money from a loan shark to train the son to take a law degree.

Now that Francis is due to conclude his studies at the Law School in Lagos, the creditor strikes by seizing his certificate.

Francis and his mother must perforce become the son and wife of the creditor in settlement of the debt.

Mother would rather die, commit suicide, than consent to that.

There is no escape for Francis save to make the move to find his father.

I am in the fray only because I am the best friend and classmate of Francis.

“What again is the name of the man who gave your mother the loan?” asks the man of the house, sipping his cognac as silvery tears track down his beefy cheeks.

“High Chief Ekempa Ekempa,” Francis replies, staring fixedly on the floor.

The man of the house picks up the NITEL phone on the table, makes some mental calculations and dials a number.

“Jim Hawkins!” The voice from the other end is stentorian.

“Long John Silver,” the man of the house says in a measured tone into the phone. “My black spot is on you for daring to annex my wife and son. You wait for me.”

The pause that follows is gripping.

Jim Hawkins? The character taken from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island makes a mark as I stare at Francis who appears to be rolling some unutterable words in his mouth.

Francis and I cannot but perforce bear witness to the revelation by the mother of Francis that Jim Hawkins was the name her lover’s mates were hailing when he was proudly parading her during the independence election campaigns.

“But why did your mother not come here instead of suffering?” the man asks, deeply troubled.

“She must have,” Francis says, still not looking at the eyes of the man. “I am sure she must have come here before because she gave us the address of this house with certainty.”

“But why did she not just walk in here?” The man shakes head, puzzled.

“Mother is a proud woman,” Francis says.

The man stays pensive for a few moments and then says: “God has been so kind to keep for me who to dedicate the story of my life to.” The man stands up. “Let’s eat and then catch some sleep.”

The meal of white rice, fried plantain, red stew and roast chicken is served by stewards in blue and white uniforms. Francis and I are taken to a lavish room where no wink of sleep comes.

There is an abstract painting on the white wall that bears the legend: “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” – St Therese.

By the side of the painting are the words of the South African poet, Dennis Brutus, rendered in cursive:

Somehow we survive
and tenderness, frustrated, does not wither.
Investigating searchlights rake
our naked unprotected contours;
over our heads the monolithic decalogue
of fascist prohibition glowers
and teeters for a catastrophic fall;
boots club the peeling door.
But somehow we survive
severance, deprivation, loss.
Patrols uncoil along the asphalt dark
hissing their menace to our lives,
most cruel, all our land is scarred with terror,
rendered unlovely and unlovable;
sundered are we and all our passionate surrender
but somehow tenderness survives.

I cannot stop myself from reading, and repeat reading, the poem until morning. Francis uncannily joins me in the reading act. At a certain point, he brings up the clapping of hands as though we are participating in a Christian Pentecostal ritual. The break of dawn surprises us with soft sunlight.

The man of the house comes into the room and announces that he needs to meet with his political associates on how best to tackle the matter of his woman of independence. He then summons one of his drivers to take Francis and me back to Otako. The white Peugeot 505 car that the driver brings out is in mint condition and bears no registration number.

Francis stares steadily at the car and asks the lanky and personable driver: “How can you drive a car without a number plate on the road?”

The driver waves the car key in the face of Francis and laughs, saying: “Some people own this land, and you have joined them.”





The End

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