The village would always be a village to Ajoke, whose memory could recollect every nook and cranny of the deserted street where she’d grown up without second thoughts. Coming back home had never been easy over the years, but now it was almost impossible to move her legs as the jalopy bus dropped her and sped off, raising a cloud of dust.
Mama was dead and gone and the only reason she would ever come back to this outback on the south-western side of Nigeria. Everything remained the same. The same as she’d seen it when she was born. The same as when she was a child, toddling in mud along with her peers; the same as the day she left home. Finally. Nothing would bring her back to this dead end, except when Mama died; if Mama would die here. She’d tried over the years to move her old woman to the city, to no avail. And it had become eventually impossible after her second divorce. That had sealed her fate.
She loved her mother dearly. Abeni had been the only responsible parent she had. Her father, Ade, had been a palm wine tapper, who took in more of his wares than was good for him. He eventually died of his drunkenness when he, unfortunately, fell on the main road in the dead of night. A travelling vehicle had run over him, ending his life. A violent end to a sadistic existence. The apparently long-distance driver of the vehicle was never caught. Ade’s immediate family never missed him either. He had been a heartache and a disgrace in the community of Odebe (the way foreigners chose to call the awkward name of the village, Ojubaladegbe), to his wife and children, eight of them altogether.
Mama combined farming in the family’s small inherited plot with trading. She was hardworking, focused, and fair. She was their rock of Gibraltar. She tutored the children individually and taught them the lessons of life like she learned it. And she ensured they all had an education! But what Mama did for them hurt more now than ever. Now she was gone.
Ajoke swallowed hard and shifted her shoulder bag, the only thing she bothered to bring to the village. It contained just one change of clothes. After the burial, she would never come here again. How she wished she could, but nothing remained for her. Her life was now in Lagos. What was left of it anyway? As the first daughter and only girl, she had tremendous responsibilities toward this burial, but she had failed woefully, by simply thrusting all to her two elder brothers and their wives. The older of the two, Dauda, the surgeon, she dreaded seeing the most. They’d not spoken to one another in ten years; after her second breast augmentation which he had bitterly warned her about undergoing.
Ajoke was perched in a dusty and rusty goat-driven cart which headed towards the village square which was a monumental landmark of Odebe. Someone must have thought he was creative when they put the pitiful piece as a symbol of heaven-knows-what! But the iron cast had lasted as long as Ajoke could remember. The scorching May sun blazed in its full glory as Ajoke carefully dodged the square, taking the age-long path she had secretly used to cut off traffic as a child. She could sneak through Ojubaladegbe in seconds with her knowledge of cuts and corners. Thirty-two years since she left, in a few weeks and nothing seemed in Ojubaladegbe to have changed, except some new rafter roofs, evidently newly mended; and tin roofs that seemed to have rusted to their limit.
Around a sharp bend, Ajoke passed by Okoro’s compound, the naturalised Igbo man who seemed never to age. Here, Ajoke and her friends had stolen cigarettes and sweets in the past. The provisions shop he owned was fully stocked as she’d always remembered it. And Okoro sat right at the spot she’d always known him to sit, watching passers with eagle eyes. It remained a mystery how she and Labake and all her other teenage friends had managed to seduce and steal from this man. A mystery! Nothing had changed, except the grey hair on the trader’s head. Posterity did not allow her to pass quietly. She peeped at the busy trader with a greeting.
“Ha, is it Ajoke my child,” he said playfully, just like he’d said the last time she visited ten years earlier. “You are a big girl now! How are your children?”
“Hmm Okoro, I should ask after your children as you know, I have none,” she said tartly and moved on. Okoro laughed after her. Why would she want to come here again, ever? They all knew she had no children. They all mocked her.
The ancient mud house had been renovated and painted since she last visited. It stood out majestically like a mountain’s peak in the midst of the other houses. Though Ajoke noticed several other houses in different stages of completion, Abeni’s house was state-of-the-art.
At least, I sent something to them for it; she consoled herself quietly. She had been so troubled in the past few years, spending money on repair surgeries; she could only contribute peanuts to the renovations. How true what they say… She hated to remember what Mama said. It was all part of her trouble. If she’d never been told, she would feel sorry, but not so bad.
Ajadi’s jeep was parked inside the garage beside Dauda’s; though both men had changed their names; Ajadi was Frank; Dauda, David. Of course, she berated herself several times that it was not quite an offence to change your name to modern names. For her, she called them their names. They hated it and called her a bitter woman, but she cared less. Anything to hurt them back was good enough for her. The five boys after her had all followed the path of the older boys. She was the black sheep, by all means.
Ajoke expected there to be more cars in the compound. Bankole should have come with his family from Abuja. Durojaiye and Ponle were supposed to fly in from the United States without their families but Akano and Ige would since they were more established than the youngest two. Ajoke would have expected her elder brothers to arrange vehicles for the out-of-towners.
The quiet of the compound was unnerving. Had she come a week early? She hoped to God not! Anything that would bring her back to this forsaken village was a number one enemy of her progress. She was fifty, and she’d already made all the necessary arrangements for her funeral. She was just ticking the clock now. Travelling to and fro Ojubaladegbeor, Odebe or whatever anyone called it, was not one of the ways she intended to spend the last of her days.
Dauda had left a message about the burial arrangements with her Cameroonian house-help. She hadn’t thought to call him for details, or confirmation. One thing she knew though was that funerals attracted people. In Ojubaladegbe, the eve of a funeral, especially of an old accomplished trader like Mama, who had all her children coming in for the funeral from cities, half of them from outside the country, was busier than the square on a market day. They’d all known they would feed the whole village for at least three days before the burial. Where was everyone?
The sitting room was quiet and clean as Ajoke entered through the unsecured front door. The old furniture had all been removed and replaced with Italian leather chairs and settee. An old rocking chair of sturdy wood sat directly opposite the 21” TV set and DVD player. Mama’s seat, apparently. Ajoke had not expected to see this luxury in the least. Inside the house, you could almost imagine you were anywhere in the world except Odebe. It brought tears to her eyes. At least, Mama lived well to her end.
A Thermocool brand double-chest refrigerator stood at the corner of the dining room, and Ajoke walked straight to it. Thankfully there were a few bottles of soft drink and stout in it. She picked a small bottle of stout, the only one there, and opened it with her teeth, surprising she could still do that. The chilled drink ran a cooling path through her parched throat past her chest into her stomach, and she sighed.
When she turned to sit, she jumped. Ajadi stood in the middle of the sitting room, glaring at her. Did she blame his anger? No. She blamed no one but herself. The realisation shocked her. She had never blamed herself for anything. Someone always took her responsibility. Her admission humbled even her. Ajadi’s face read anger and disgust, but when he opened his mouth, his words were surprisingly soft and considerate.
“Welcome,” he said. “How was your journey?”
“Fine, thank you,” she said. Oh, let’s be polite then, she thought. “Am I early? Where’s everybody?” she asked looking round.
Instead, he peeped out of the framed window and back at her. “You came with public transport?” He sounded surprised.
“I didn’t want to drive …” she said and stopped. What did he care, or any of them for that matter? “It’s cheaper to pay the transportation. After all, I’m alone,” she said with a tinge of her bitterness. She’d glazed almost all her sentences to her family with it in measure as the circumstance warranted over the past few years.
“I would not be presumptuous to offer you a lift back, would I?” he said stiffly.
“Did I miss the burial, or it’s still a week away?” she asked flippantly.
His reply affected her more than she’d ever expected. “We buried Mama last week. David and I are only here to finalise the sale of the house,” he murmured.
Her knees gave way, and she slid into a nearby seat, Ajadi remained ramrod in front of her. Was it a pity she saw on his face? It was well-deserved. She had just missed her mother’s burial. She had missed the last opportunity to pay her last respects to the greatest woman in the world; a woman she had fought and blamed almost all her adult life. Ajadi’s sigh brought her to. He was just two years older than her, but their sibling relationship seemed to have to be severed their whole life.
“She told me not to miss her burial. Begged me,” Ajoke whispered.
Ajadi stood still; tears shimmered in his eyes. What had gone wrong? She had been the darling of the family. She’d been their mother’s pride. Mama had taught her to hold her head up, to be proud; never to allow the boys to cheat her. Where had who gone wrong?
Continued in Part II