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Dying well is a serious business. Like Uncle Ebi is fond of saying—which annoys me to no end—“There are three occasions in a man’s life where people will gather to celebrate you: the day you are born, the day you marry, and the day you die.” Of course it’s impossible to remember what happens on the day one is born. Ditto with the day one dies, unless, as some believe, the unseen spirit is a keen observer to all the happenings (like who didn’t cry hard enough, or who was more concerned with the booze, or which of the children was the first to bring up the word ‘inheritance’).
So that leaves the day one marries. And not everyone will marry in their lifetime. On the other hand, some people marry quite a few times which lessens the import of the institution—or so I think. Many will argue that one out, citing reasons and excuses, facts and beliefs. Personally I think marriage is good, but weddings are overrated, especially in Nigeria where it is acceptable to marry more than one wife. But in Ijawland, the men seem to have taken that privilege a notch further and take wives the way some people collect cars. Add all this marriage drama to the fact that the when, how and where you are born is something you have no control over, and that leaves us with the day one is buried. We hear of people who plan and prepare for their funerals down to the last flower petal, but we are Africans, not oyibos. The most we can do is give instructions as to where we want to be buried, and those that survive us can choose to disregard those wishes. Whatever the case, this brings us to the first point:
1) To really enjoy a burial, make sure it’s not yours.
You have to plan BIG. This means you have to forget all the sentiments of what people call a “quiet burial”. Like a so-called “quiet wedding”, this sends a signal that you’re broke, a very wrong signal to send. Of course this doesn’t apply if the deceased is young. We are not totally bereft of the milk of human kindness or empathy, and having lost a number of young friends myself, I know what it’s like. So we’ll go with a minimum age of 60 as the deceased is likely to have grown children, perhaps grandchildren, even. Some people would go with a younger age, but 60, I think, is safe.
Planning big involves canopies, chairs, food enough to feed a village (literally), and enough drinks to close down a couple of bars. It also involves entertainment in the form of music. And this entertainment can’t be a one-size-fits-all. No. There must be music for every group represented. The groups are usually the young, the traditional, and the religious. Anyone who doesn’t feel quite represented by any of these can, with a bit of imagination, easily affiliate himself with one of the three. If you aren’t young in reality, you’re likely young at heart. Traditional or religious? Either have come to possess a plethora of meanings, I mean, it’s a free country. However, when we talk about traditional music, there’s only one accepted way to go: a live band. And not just any band of mismatched wanna-be’s. Here in Ijawland, we have a certain kind of music called owigiri. And only a handful of mature singers with accompanying bands can be trusted to deliver. This brings us to the second point:
2) The only acceptable bands that make sense for a burial are those of Perema Freetown, Barrister Smooth or the late Robert Ebizimo whose legacy is well-represented by Junior Robert Ebizimo.
When we had our first meeting as a family to discuss Papa’s burial and all these were tabled, I could practically read the thoughts of my siblings, Hitler and Preye, as if the words appeared in cartoon bubbles over their heads. You see, in Africa, when it comes to occasions like burials you have to do things the way they’ve been done forever, the traditional way. This means, like we’ve established before, you can’t be quiet about it. It also means you must listen to the elders who are well-versed in these matters. In our case, my father’s older brother, Ebi (I know, you’re wondering how he outlived my father, but shit happens), was spearheading the whole thing. His first son, Asama, sat in on that initial meeting, along with his daughter from another woman, Nora (who thinks she’s the greatest thing since the yam pounder because she spent six months in the Ukraine on some course or the other). The only person amongst them I can halfway abide is Asama, but we had no ally there. When I began to protest as to how this whole carnival would be financed, his pained expression, like that of a constipated glutton, made my words trail off. Uncle Ebi said, “That’s the problem with you oyibo children, you want to tell us that you have arrived, that the white man’s way is better than our own.” Now that shut me up.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been called oyibo, or been called to task about wanting to do things a certain way, whether it’s my reluctance to bribe security personnel (aka ‘sorting’) or my desire to follow traffic laws (which means I’m not a ‘sharp’ guy), or my disgust with the kind of educational system that allows a student to call up a lecturer (on his personal line, no less) and say, “Sir, please I want to see you,” and the lecturer, knowing that the girl either wants to offer him the slickness of her vagina or some money so he won’t fail her, would rather see her and eventually ‘dash’ her ten marks rather than tell her off over the phone. This is termed ‘wisdom’, which is the principal thing as the Bible says, because the man is being cautious. You don’t know who is who. She might have links to cult boys who can make you plead for your life in a dark corner, or links to the Vice Chancellor or politicians who, if they can’t or won’t cause you to lose your job, can make you wish they would so your life would cease being a series of sorry stories.
That’s what almost six years in a foreign university will do to you (yes, including the Masters—perish the thought of extensions due to strikes like we have here); I can only imagine the frustration of those Nigerians who have lived abroad most of their lives and come ‘home’ for a visit. Talk about culture shock. But I digress, forgive me. Anyway, Uncle Ebi assured us that apart from money which we should have saved up to give our father a befitting burial (of course, knowing somehow that our old man must die one day), every member of the family would be taxed at the next meeting, even those I had never laid eyes on before. Yes, that’s how it’s done. The more prosperous you are, the higher your levy. This brings us to the third point:
3) Make sure you have a large extended family, to better ease the pressure on your pocket.
Of course, I know how this works. I myself have doled out thousands of naira for sundry burials and weddings, many of which I was in no position to attend. Uncle Ebi wasn’t off the mark; it’s just that it feels very different being on the receiving end of people’s contributions. And not all a bad feeling, I must confess. In the words of…someone I can’t remember now, it is what it is. But what happens when, like us, most of the members of your extended family aren’t—how does one put it delicately—loaded? Because your family members’ finances, like birth and death, are also one of those things you have no control over. What am I saying? Few people have control over their own finances and fortunes, let alone another’s. I have to give my uncle credit for being aware of this. To cater for everyone who would turn up to pay their last respects to my father, Chief Barrister Ayakoromo, we would have to bring out the big guns. Namely, Senator D.P. Azibalua.
4) If your extended family doesn’t consist of influential and/or wealthy people, that is, politicians, ensure you have established contacts with those who do.
Senator D.P. Azibalua represents our constituency in the Senate. Not that he does much representing generally, if you know what I mean. But he can be quite generous if you go to him through the right people. I know a number of people who have gotten jobs in oil companies through him, secured contracts, won scholarships abroad and the like. In some quarters he has gained the reputation of being a stingy man, but there are those who will gladly testify to how he has changed their lives.
The link to the senator was through one of such beneficiaries, a young man called Fortune, who used to be a militant. It is said that he still carries rubber boots in the boot of his car to show that he hasn’t quite resigned from militancy, although he’s one of the beneficiaries of the amnesty programme introduced by the late President Yar A’dua. Apparently he was also present when one of the self-named generals of the militant groups impulsively burnt his Hummer to the ground because it was giving him too many problems. The same one who berated a newly transferred bank employee for not rising to her feet along with her colleagues when he entered with his escorts. Or maybe it was another one? I don’t really know the whole story but Fortune and Uncle Ebi have known each other forever, through Fortune’s late father. Anyway, I had assumed Fortune and I would visit the senator alone but Uncle Ebi would not be left out. He was waiting in his starched Sunday best, complete with walking stick. He stepped gingerly in his fake patent leather shoes, and sat in the owner’s corner of Fortune’s Lexus. There were three different air fresheners in the car—I counted—and I was convinced my modest cologne would have bid farewell by the time we got to our destination.
But when we arrived, scent was the last thing on my mind. I was aghast at the potpourri of architectural designs that met my eyes. I knew my mouth hung open, but seeing the satisfaction in Fortune’s gaze, I knew he mistook my horror for admiration. He had that air of someone who was personally responsible for all this garishness.
“It’s… massive.” I offered the only truth I could part with.
Fortune smiled, the gap between his teeth somewhat appealing. “Money. God has just blessed the man.”
Of course, being in the good books of the powers that be had nothing to do with it. I only smiled as we got down.
The compound was full of people so that, for a moment, I thought we might be interrupting an occasion. It turns out the man’s house is usually like that especially when he’s in town. Half the people come over for favours—which usually translates into money—the other half are hangers on, young boys and men with no jobs and/or education who live off the Big Man. My mouth had twisted on hearing about people waiting on him for favours until it dawned on me that I was really no different, barring the head start of having an inside man. I swallowed an unwilling dose of humility at that realization. Which brings me to my next point.
5) Be prepared to suck ass.
It was an hour before we could see the senator. When he finally came to us in the over-furnished sitting room we had been shown to, he was accompanied by four men, one a pock-faced young man whose dark suit almost matched his skin tone. I guessed that was his PA. The others were two stone-faced hulks with dark glasses and a policeman in full uniform. We stood respectfully as Fortune introduced us. While they exchanged pleasantries, Fortune’s voice nauseatingly agreeable, I studied the man. He’s in his mid to late forties, rather good-looking if you ignore his jowl and massive paunch. I wondered if he had eaten his first wife; apparently from all accounts, when he began making money from politics, he’d traded her for a younger, yellower model. Fortune was asking how madam and the children were.
Senator Azibalua sat, taking his time to allow his folds fill the crevices. “Oh, they travelled to Dubai on vacation. I told her to go and rest. You know these women.” He laughed and we all took our cue to laugh even louder, although if you’d asked me I couldn’t have picked out the humour. I wasn’t sure what brand of women he was talking about. Nigerian women? Politicians’ wives—those women? Or women who suddenly see a load of money to spend? I’ve dated more white women than Nigerian, and they can be simpler to deal with. First off, they don’t expect you to pay their bills from hairdos to recharge cards. But that’s a matter for another day.
By this time Uncle Ebi was simpering on our behalf, I’ve never seen him smile so wide. It was a little painful to watch. And then the senator was looking at me.
“Sorry about your father.” He looked to Fortune for confirmation as he added, “You say you lost your mother some time ago?”
I thought it was time I spoke up. “A long time ago, sir.” I had been sixteen. A botched surgery for fibroids.
He nodded sagely. “It’s not easy. I lost my own father while I was in the university.” He laughed suddenly, startling me. “So I’m your senior in this matter.” And off he went again, and everyone followed suit. Including me, I’m ashamed to admit, although mine was more a cross between a series of hiccups and a grimace. That must be how a prostitute must feel when dealing with a customer who fancies himself the next Basketmouth. Close your eyes and think of the money. Or in our case, open your mouth…well, maybe hers too.
“I’ve heard about your father, but didn’t have the opportunity to meet him. Fortune has told me about the challenges your family is facing.” Azibalua spoke in measured tones, like he was speaking to the Press. By this time, drinks and kolanuts were being served by a sweating boy in a sleeveless shirt. My gaze didn’t shift from the senator but from the corner of my eye I could see Uncle Ebi nodding vehemently at what he was saying. Great. Now we sounded like we couldn’t afford three square meals.
“I will contribute my own quota,” Azibalua concluded and looked at us expectantly.
“Thank you, sir.” I bobbed my head in respect.
“God bless you, sir.” The humble tone of Uncle Ebi’s voice belied the almost thirty years’ age gap between the two.
Senator Azibalua nodded, slapped his palms on his padded knees and held out a hand to his PA who whipped out a number of chequebooks from a folder like a pack of cards. “Which one, sir?”
“Zenith,” he said, after a moment’s consideration. The room seemed to hold its breath as he wrote on the cheque, signed his name with a flourish, tore it out, turned it over and wrote again. When he held it out, I didn’t begrudge the way Uncle Ebi sprang up to receive it, both parties holding on to the piece of paper a little longer like a photographer was about to immortalize the moment.
“Thank you, sir,” I said again as Uncle Ebi tucked it away without looking at it—it would be rude.
The senator nodded again, and whispered something to his PA. “Take Fortune with you when cashing the cheque, he knows my contact at the bank.” Heaving himself out of the chair, he said, “Enjoy some drinks before you go. I have to be in Abuja tonight and have some things to take care of before I catch my flight.”
We had risen and with nods, goodbyes and effusive “thank you”s, we watched our benefactor leave the room with Fortune, his entourage in their wake. I took a deep breath as I resumed my seat, the tension leaving me slowly. Strangely, there was a sense of anticlimax as I had expected that there would be a huge Ghana-must-go bag from where the senator’s minions would dole out as much cash as needed. At least that’s how I hear it’s done. After a beat, Uncle Ebi began pouring himself some schnapps but stopped when I called his name. If he thought he was going to hijack the show, then he could think again. When he saw the look in my eye, he let out a stilted laugh and produced the cheque. He handed it over, but not without looking at it first. When I saw the way his eyes widened slightly, I smiled even before looking at the figures.
By the time Fortune walked back into the room, I was feeling almost giddy, like someone who had just won the lottery. He asked if the amount was up to the two million naira the senator had said he would give. We chorused yes and he smiled, adding that Senator Azibalua was giving us preferential treatment as the usual entertainment for those who were allowed into his house were the usual soft drinks, at most maybe Maltina. On hearing this, those rumours of him being gay partners with the senator crossed my mind fleetingly, but I discarded them. Not my business, although if they were true, it was obvious the young man’s services were well-rendered. I thanked Fortune, even as I knew that we would have to give him a percentage of the money to show our appreciation for setting everything up, maybe a hundred thousand? I toasted him with my glass of Hennessy VSOP.
6) Give the glory all to God.
A month later, the funeral festivities were in full swing. In honour of my father who had been a well-known wrestler at one time, this morning a number of wrestling matches were arranged by the village. Much to the glee of my siblings, I was shocked to learn that I would have to participate. I, who had never even participated in an arm wrestling contest! It was very daunting, but I was lucky enough to be paired with a scrawny guy—or so I thought. What he lacked in muscle, he more than made up for in light-footedness. I found myself eating dust before I knew what had happened. In fact, ‘til now, I still don’t know. Bless a cousin who pressed Ibuprofen on me immediately afterwards. I ignored his teasing when he called me aje-butta.
Later, leading the procession were the hired pallbearers. But they were a special group who dance with coffins. No boring church steps for the deceased. Onlookers cheered and gasped in turn as it bounced off their shoulders a couple of feet into the air, but my heart was in my throat as I thought they would surely drop it and my father’s remains would tumble ignominiously in the dust. Their dance of death, however, was well choreographed so it didn’t happen.
Now, the wake is underway with spread canopies and deafening music as evening settles us in her humid and increasingly dark embrace. Everywhere is lit up like the Silverbird Galleria and insects flirt with the lights. The family sits a few metres from the stage where Perema, who is famous for standing throughout a performance no matter how long it is, plays. Several times friends of the family have come up to commiserate with us, easily recognizable from any distance with our matching clothes. Senator Azibalua, with his entourage, had made a token appearance for a few minutes before saying he had to be in Port Harcourt for something or the other. Fortune, however, is well and fully present, presiding over the cold van. Indeed he’s been very helpful in running errands and making his car available. Although I can’t say I’m comfortable with the light in his eye when he looks at my sister, we have become friends of a sort. The fifty thousand naira thank-you seems to have helped. So, although this won’t make the major list, I’ll add: Be generous to those who are generous to you. Which means we might have to think of something for the senator.
I revel in the new respect I read in people’s eyes, the way they speak to us. As they witness the festivities, they are rife with their praise, their kind words for the deceased, their prayers for the family. When anyone congratulates us on a job well done, we say, modestly, lightly, “We thank God.” Or in Asama’s words: “No be God?” There is no mention of who gave what—unnecessary. Fragrant plates of jollof rice, banga soup and loi-loi, native soup and garri, plantain pepper soup and goat meat, are plentiful. The beef is even more so, as two cows were sacrificed for this very purpose. The amount of booze is obscene. During the preparations none of us mentioned the fact that had my father been alive, he would never have set foot in the senator’s house, let alone taken one kobo from him. Such was his scorn for the politicians of today. He had often talked about those of the old days, who had lived simply, served wholeheartedly and expected little, if any, remunerations. When my brother muttered to me one evening about the old man likely turning in his grave at all the goings-on, I only said, “He hasn’t been put in it yet.”
I am exhausted and broke, but happily so. With the money from the senator and the contributions from family members, we’ve pulled it off. It’s amazing how friends and acquaintances, as they saw in the preceding days how much we were spending, quickly made their own contributions. I guess the saying that money attracts money is true. The elders’ mouths are shut, although I have a new respect for Uncle Ebi. Nora is in her element, basking in as much reflected glory as she can, strutting up and down in a lace blouse and two George wrappers, ostensibly busy. At six a.m. tomorrow morning, there will be more: drummers’ hands will fondle their instruments and more of the guests from our village and neighbouring ones will come again, dropping more contributions to the family on the mat before them. What we will realize from that should hopefully be enough to take care of the final burial rites which will take place three days from now. Yes, you guessed right. More overnight eating and drinking to send my father even further off, as he seems to be hovering halfway between here and there. You gotta love culture sometimes. Although I’m not down with the idea of getting all my hair scraped off with a new blade before that happens. I mean, really, how does that quite translate into final respects for my father?
As I sip on a sweating glass of Orijin and catch—yet again—the brazen gaze of a girl whose braids brush the generous curve of her vibrating buttocks as she dances, I think I can get used to spending money like this. Politics the Nigerian way isn’t such a bad idea, but thank God my father isn’t privy to my thoughts. Chief Barrister Ayakoromo, may you rest in peace. Because, with all due respect, if all this activity doesn’t do it, I doubt anything will.
Hannah Onoguwe’s stories have appeared in Adanna and BLACKBERRY: a magazine, as well as online in Litro, The Missing Slate, Cassava Republic, African Writer, Kalahari Review and Lawino. Her collection of short stories, Cupid’s Catapult, was recently published under the Nigerian Writers Series, an imprint of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). When she’s not reading or writing—or being distracted by the Internet—she enjoys watching movies and experimenting with new recipes. She lives in Bayelsa with her family.