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My mother had prepared dinner. She had made eba, a lumpy Nigerian dish one swallows without chewing, and egusi soup, cooked with bony kote fish. My elder siblings were served theirs, but being the youngest child (five years old at the time) I wasn’t immediately given mine. I could not feed myself and had to rely on my mother to ‘put in my mouth’. I waited for my mother, but she was busy in the kitchen, seemingly more concerned about serving my father’s meal than mine. By the time she finally had time for me, my stomach was growling.
As she always did, my mother sat me atop the dining table before starting to feed me. And her feeding me, thereafter, was almost rhythmical―she’d put in my mouth, she’d put in her own mouth, in that fashion. However, after some time, I noticed she wasn’t putting as much in my mouth as she was putting in hers. I complained, saying, “Put in my mouth; you’ve put in your mouth thrice.” My mother smiled at this, and ‘put in my mouth’ three times in compensation.
At that moment, the power was switched off; quite typical of Nigeria, where there has never been a constant power supply. The dining room became dark. I was suspicious of my mother. I thought that she was secretly ‘putting in her mouth’ in the darkness. I cried out again, “Put in my mouth!”, making my voice sound tearful, which I was certain she couldn’t bear. She capitulated. She put food into my mouth. I swallowed, feeling self-satisfied. But there was something different about this mouthful. There was a bone lodged in the morsel of eba, and it stuck itself in my oesophagus.
I coughed, trying to get out the bone. No change. In fact, the pain seemed to worsen. It was as though a large needle had been sent through the sides of my throat. I held my neck. It stung. I screamed in pain. My mother was thrown into confusion. “My God, my God!” she exclaimed.
I was rushed to a dental clinic. My mother explained my plight to the dentist, and the dentist, a bespectacled middle-aged man, inserted a wooden spatula into my mouth in a bid to either push the bone down or to force it out. The bone shifted in position, and my pain intensified. I shrieked.
Of course, the dentist couldn’t get the bone out. This was the mid-nineties, after all. Hospitals in Nigeria were deficient of equipment, and there was no x-ray machine in the hospital to ascertain the exact position of the bone, to determine if it was lodged in a dangerous position. The dentist advised my parents to take me for an x-ray in another hospital, which they later did, and told them to bring me back in a couple of weeks for a check-up, but nothing seemed to help.
I lost my voice because of this experience – perhaps because of all the screaming. I recall that I’d go to school and be unable to read out the nursery rhymes we were taught. I was distraught. Naturally loquacious, I was being forced to be worse than laconic. Yet I could still somehow communicate with my mother. I remember once asking her if I was going to remain speechless forever. Nothing frightened me more than this. I had come to realise that having a voice, being able to express myself in sound, was in itself no small gift.
My mother didn’t answer my question immediately. Perhaps she did not know the answer. But, later on, she told me to promise God that I would do something for him should the bone come out. My young mind wondered what I could possibly offer God. What did I have? I asked myself. Then I had an epiphany. I told my mother (not vocally, but by our own special means of communication), that I would sing for God. For I had loved music and had a memory of being able to sing before I lost my voice.
The bone came out the night I made this promise. I had been roused from my sleep at one in the morning, with an urge to cough. I coughed, hard, and out of my mouth came a three-cornered bone amid the phlegm. It was a miracle. It had to be, I told myself. And though I now realise that there must be some medical explanation for what happened, something within me, on some profound level, still believes that that bone’s exit was miraculous.
I fulfilled my promise to God after I got my voice back. I joined the church junior choir. My soprano, at the time, was breath-taking to say the least. I was given a number of solos. My mother would sit on a pew at the front of the church, watching me minister to the congregation. I’d look into her eyes, savouring every passing moment and being deeply appreciative of my voice, which had seemingly been renewed upon its restoration.
And, now, even though I no longer sing for any choir, and have substituted writing with singing in a way, I still sing. I see singing as more than just a recreational activity, and I strongly believe singing chose me because of the experience I had. So I sing in the shower, renditions of contemporary songs, ad-libbing and adding some jazz of my own. I sing everywhere I can, without feeling even the slightest embarrassment, even though the quality of my voice has waned drastically over the years, never recovering from the moment when my voice cracked and I became a big boy.
I sing. For it reminds me of my experience of seventeen years ago; the pain of a bone lodged in my throat; the resultant loss of my voice which I thought would be forever, the miraculous exit of the bone from my throat, and last but not least the restoration of my voice. Singing, for me, is a profound appreciation for the gift of sound. Singing, for me, is gratitude.
Israel Okwuje writes from Lagos, Nigeria. His works have, or will, appear in the Eclectica, Vox Poetica, Saraba and other literary spaces. In 2015, he was selected for University of Iowa's International Writing Program for Creative Nonfiction.