Death has haunted me two Saturdays in a row.
I had just retired to bed on Saturday, March 2 when my home phone rang at 1:30 a.m. Startled from sleep, I dashed for the phone set, reaching it just too late. I was about to turn back into bed when the phone rang again. My cousin, Sunday Akpagu, was on the other end: in Nigeria.
“Is everything okay?” I asked, somewhat apprehensive.
“Eleti has departed,” he said in an even, terse voice.
“Eleti” was his mother and my aunt – my father’s only sister. She was also the last of her siblings to die, outlasting my father (Christopher Chidebe, otherwise known as C.C.) and two brothers – Uncle Augustine, who was her immediate older, and Uncle Linus, her immediate younger.
“Eleti” was her praise name; her real name Mgbogo. The praise name was short for “Electric,” a metaphor that referred to and celebrated her light-toned, coppery skin, her wide, radiant smile and eyes that sparkled with life. News of Aunty Mgbogo’s death stung me, even though a part of me had known for three or so years that the end for her was awfully close. She had had a stroke a little more than three years ago, and had been bed-ridden since. In a country with little by way of healthcare, she had had to depend on relatives. In fact, two of my cousins, Paulina and Uzoamaka, had devoted themselves full-time to caring for their mother. My aunt’s other children as well as nephews and nieces had done their bit to help, sometimes with money, always with affection.
Electric was the least lettered among her siblings. In fact, in the custom of her day and circumstance, she had not attended any formal schools. Even so, she easily stepped into the role of my teacher once I began to ask questions about my paternal grandparents. These grandparents had died long before my parents married in 1958. I was told that my parents and uncles had one or two photographs of their parents. But those prized, irreplaceable photographs went up in smoke when our family home was gutted by a fire set days after the end of the 30-month Biafran War.
One day in the mid-1990s, visiting home from the US, I asked “Eleti” to describe my grandfather, a man who fascinated me the more I heard about his exploits, his mien and mannerisms.
“That’s him there,” Aunty Mgbogo said in Igbo, pointing to my elder brother. “He’s my father come back to life. That’s why I call him Nna.”
Of course, I knew that my aunt always addressed my big brother, John – a medical doctor – as Nna, a word that stands for Father. Yet, I had always imagined it was her quirky way of honoring my brother as a first-born son. No, my aunt insisted; she venerated my brother as her reincarnated father.
“Our father was exactly like your brother,” she continued. “Same height and same build. The only difference is that our father was much lighter in complexion.”
On a different occasion, when a visitor to our home complimented my writing, my aunt said she was not surprised at all about my gifts. “Your grandfather was the first person from Amawbia to learn the English language.”
Uncle Augustine, who was present, said she was mistaken. Their father, he said, did not speak English as much as he entertained audiences with a smattering of English words. Aunt Mgbogo stood her ground. A jovial, filial debate ensued. “What do you know,” Uncle Augustine teased. “It’s not as if you know ABC yourself.” My aunt responded: “I don’t know, but I know that people would gather and beg our father to speak English to them. And he did.”
The truth, I found out, was somewhere along the gradient of their lighthearted disputation. When some British merchants first showed up in Amawbia, my grandfather was one of several youths apparently taken with their promise of great new opportunities. He and these other adventuresome youngsters agreed to venture out with the curious white men into the alien terrain of what’s now called the Niger Delta. They trekked the distance, more than one hundred miles, by foot. Once in the Warri area, they were engaged as sawers of timber for the Europeans.
It didn’t take long before the youngsters realized they had made a mistake, and wanted nothing better than to return to the rhythm of life they knew in Amawbia. On their appointed departure date, my grandfather was too sick to make the trip. He asked the others to explain his situation, and promised to make the trip home once he regained his health and strength.
When several weeks passed without his return, his relatives surmised that he had died. They arranged a funeral to mourn my grandfather, as was the custom, even for an absentee corpse. They dug a grave and threw a tree stump into it, imploring the earth to accept the log in lieu of their relative’s missing remains. A week or so later, my grandfather, Ndibe, sauntered back into the village. His people, unaccustomed to the appearance of the “dead” in physical form, were at once astonished and awed by the augury. They summoned a traditional healer who had to perform rites to expiate the aberrancy and reverse the earlier burial. A new grave was dug and another stump given to the earth, which was entreated to permit the community to reclaim – ritually exhume – the man who had been buried in absentia.
Since my grandfather had spent a longer time with the British merchants, he came equipped with their corruptions of English speech, mostly sharp, scolding expressions. Some evenings, some people would gather around him and ask that he speak the white man’s tongue to them. “Bladder fooloo!” my grandfather would recite, mangling the English “Bloody fool!” Or he’d say, “Sucalawag!” or “Ah deal wid you!” Thus was born the legend – which “Eleti” embraced but Uncle Augustine found amusing – thus arose the legend that Grandfather was the first in his town to be versed in English.
In December 1988, as I was about to set out to the US in 1988, my aunt made one request. “Whatever you do,” she said, “don’t marry a white woman.” “Why not?” I asked. “Don’t you think there are some good white women?” She gave the matter a thought, her face lit up with that smile that seemed fixed. “White women are good, very good,” she said. Having disarmed me, she underscored her point: “I want a wife whose tongue I can understand. And who can understand mine.”
I was still wrestling with the fact of Aunty Mgbogo’s death when, last Saturday, an old friend, Mudiaga Ofuoko, rang me with news of another death. This time, the deceased was Ashikiwe Adione-Egom, also known as Peter Alexander Adione-Egom – but I called him, simply, Ashiki. Mudiaga had seen a note on Facebook announcing Ashikiwe’s death. He immediately called me for two reasons. One, he knew that Ashiki was my colleague at theAfrican Guardian magazine and a dear friend. Two, he’d read my first novel, Arrows of Rain, where an intriguing character named Ashiki – forged out of the real-life copy – makes himself felt.
Ashiki had died after a long battle with cancer. He was a truly remarkable man who once was one of the most fascinating personalities in the character-choked city of Lagos. When I first met him in the mid-1980s, he was a fashion statement personified. He always wore a pair of shorts pulled up to his navel, his white shirt tucked in – and then sported a long pair of socks that often reached his knees. A teetotaler in his last few years, he used to combine a reputation as a rare renaissance man of culture with the image of a reveler who loved his cognac, cigars and women. A legendary athlete in his days at King’s College, Lagos, he had proceeded to Cambridge University in the UK. There, he raced and beat the novelist Jeffery Archer in an Oxbridge track meet.
Ashiki had traveled through much of the world, living for some time in Denmark and serving as trusted economic adviser to former Tanzanian leader, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere. At the Guardian, he self-deprecatingly adopted the name “motor park economist,” but wrote a column on economic affairs that – as the joke went – only a handful of economic theory gurus understood.
Ashiki was a library of dramatic events, some of them deeply painful. An unspeakable tragedy had drawn us close. I arrived at work one day and Ashiki beckoned to me. He was red-eyed, several bottles of beer by his side, but he was trying to write an essay. He asked if I remembered his sister and nieces who had visited the Guardian just a week before. Of course I did. They had come to see Ashiki on their way back to London where they lived. Proud, Ashiki had showed off his relatives to everybody in the newsroom. A week later, he came to work and was asked to go to the publisher’s office and take a phone call from the UK. The news was horrid: his sister and the older of her two daughters were dead. Ashiki’s brother-in-law had stabbed them both to death. All day, I stood by my confused, grieving friend, attentive as he reminisced. Other times, when grief overcame him and he shook with tears, I did my best to speak a comforting word.
Ashiki was once a deeply eccentric figure – as well as a master of a certain kind of mischief. At a time when the military was in power, he was at a general’s 50th birthday party when the then second-in-command walked in. Everybody else rushed to meet and greet the big man at the door, but Ashiki sat in his spot, attending to his cognac. Amazed, the officer approached him. Barely looking up, Ashiki said, “I don’t like your face, sir. You look like a hippopotamus.” The rest of the shaken party apologized to the stunned officer and – to save Ashiki from grave harm – told the huffing, humiliated man that the economist was crazy. Then they heaved Ashiki out the door, letting him thud to the earth. He got up, dusted himself off, and staggered away into the night.
In recent years, whenever we talked, he seemed wryly amused by all the silly, and often dangerous, things he did when he still lived a hedonist’s existence. But even at the height of his deployment of a lacerating tongue, he was never driven by malice. He merely expressed himself directly, when sobriety might have led to circumspection.
Years later, with drinking consigned to the past, he turned his prodigious mind to writing books that addressed a variety of subjects, including religious themes and global economic inequities. The last time we met in Lagos – in June 2011 – he’d become visibly slowed by illness. Even so, he retained something of his exuberant, buoyant charm. His stubborn laughter rang in the restaurant where we shared lunch – and many, many stories. A star has departed, and Nigeria is a duller address because Ashikiwe Adione-Egom has danced his last dance and left the stage.