I stood around and listened to their talk
But I am an educated man, a retired professor of seventy-one, and I am supposed to have armed myself with enough science to laugh indulgently at the ways of my people. I did not throw sand at him. I could not have done so even if I had wished to, anyway, since we met on the concrete grounds of the university bursary.
I was there to ask about my pension, yet again. “Good day, Prof,” the dried-looking clerk, Ugwuoke, said. “Sorry, the money has not come in.”
The other clerk, whose name I have now forgotten, nodded and apologized as well, while chewing on a pink lobe of kolanut. They were used to this. I was used to this.
So were the tattered men who were clustered under the mango tree, talking loudly. The education minister has stolen the pension money, one fellow said. Another said that it was the vice chancellor, who deposited the money in personal high-interest accounts. They cursed the vice chancellor: his penis will quench, his children will not have children, he will die of diarrhea.
When I walked up to them, they greeted me and shook their heads apologetically about the situation as if my professor-level pension is somehow more important than their messenger-level or driver-level pensions. They called me Prof, as most people do, as the hawkers sitting next to their trays under the tree did. “Prof! Prof! Come and buy good banana!”
I chatted with Vincent, who was our driver when I was faculty dean in the eighties. “No pension for three years, Prof. This is why people retire and die,” he said.
“O joka,” I said, although he, of course, did not need me to tell him how terrible it was.
“How is Nkiru, Prof? I trust she is well in America?” He always asks about our daughter. He often drove my wife, Ebere, and me to visit her at the College of Medicine in Enugu. I remember that when Ebere died, he came with his relatives for mgbalu and gave a touching, if rather long, speech about how well Ebere treated him when he was our driver, how she gave him our daughter’s old clothes for his children.
“Nkiru is well,” I said.
“Please greet her for me when she calls, Prof.”
He talked for a while longer, about ours being a country that has not learned to say thank you, about the students in the hostels not paying him on time for mending their shoes, but it was his Adam’s apple that held my attention; it bobbed alarmingly as if just about to pierce the wrinkled skin of his neck and pop out. Vincent must be in his early sixties—since the non-academic staff retire at sixty rather than sixty-five—but he looks older.
He has little hair left. I quite remember his incessant chatter while he drove me to work in those days; I remember, too, that he was fond of reading my newspapers, a practice I did not encourage.
“Prof, won’t you buy us banana? Hunger is killing us,” one of the men said. He had a familiar face. I think he was Professor Eboh’s gardener, next door. His tone had that half-teasing, half-serious quality, but I bought groundnuts and a bunch of bananas for them, although what they really needed was some moisturizer. Their faces and arms looked like ash.
It is almost March but the Harmattan is still very much here: the dry winds, the crackling static on my clothes, the gritty dust on my eyelashes. I used more lotion than usual today, and Vaseline on my lips, but still the dryness made my palms and face feel tight.
Ebere used to tease me about not moisturizing properly, especially in the Harmattan, and sometimes would stop me and slowly rub her Nivea on my arms, my legs, my back. We have to take care of this lovely skin, she would say with that playful laughter of hers. She always said my complexion was the persuading trait, since I did not have any money like her other suitors. Seamless, she called it. I saw nothing particularly distinct in my dark umber tone, but I did come to preen a little with the passing years, with Ebere’s massaging hands.
“Thank you, Prof!” the men said, and then began to mock one another about who would do the dividing.
I stood around and listened to their talk. I was aware that they spoke more respectably because I was there: carpentry was not going well, children were ill, more money-lender troubles.
They laughed often. Of course they nurse resentment, as they well should, but it has somehow managed to leave their spirits whole. I often wonder whether I would be like them if I did not have money saved from my appointments in the Federal Office of Statistics and if Nkiru did not insist on sending me dollars that I do not need. I doubt it; I would probably have hunched up like a tortoise shell and let my dignity whittle away.
Finally I said good-bye to them and walked toward my car, parked near the whistling pine trees that shield the Faculty of Education from the bursary. That was when I saw Ikenna Okoro.
He called out to me first. “James? James Nwoye, is it you?” He stood with his mouth open and I could see that his teeth are still complete. I lost one last year. I have refused to have what Nkiru calls “work” done, but I still felt rather sour at Ikenna’s full set.
“Ikenna? Ikenna Okoro?” I asked in the tentative way one suggests something that cannot be: the coming to life of a man who died thirty-seven years ago.
“Yes, yes.” Ikenna came closer, uncertainly. We shook hands, and then hugged briefly.
We were not good friends, Ikenna and I; I knew him fairly well in those days only because everyone knew him fairly well. It was he who climbed the podium at the Staff Club, he who would speak until he was hoarse and sweating, he who handed out simplified tenets of Nyerere, the type smudgy on cheap paper. The social sciences people had too much time on their hands and worshiped radicals of all sorts who were thought by those of us in the sciences to be empty vessels. We saw Ikenna differently. I’m not sure why, but we forgave his peremptory style and did not discard his pamphlets and rather admired the erudite asperity with which he blazed through issues.
He is still a shrunken man with froglike eyes and light skin that has become discolored with age. One heard of him in those days and then struggled to hide great disappointment upon seeing him, because the depth of his rhetoric somehow demanded good looks. But then my people say that a famous animal does not always fill the hunter’s basket.
“You’re alive?” I asked. I was quite shaken. My family and I saw him on the day he died, 6 July, 1967, the day we evacuated in a hurry, with the sun a strange fiery red in the sky and nearby the boom-boom-boom of shelling as the federal soldiers advanced.
We were in my Peugeot 404. The militia waved us through the campus gates and shouted that we should not worry, that the vandals—as we called the federal soldiers—would be defeated in a matter of days and we could come back. The local villagers, the same ones who would pick through lecturers’ dustbins for food after the war, were walking along, hundreds of them, women with boxes on their heads and babies tied to their backs, barefoot children carrying bundles, men dragging bicycles, holding yams. I remember that Ebere was consoling our daughter, Zik, about the doll left behind in our haste, when we saw Ikenna’s green Kadet. He was driving the opposite way, back into campus.
I horned and stopped. “You can’t go back!” I called. But he waved and said, “I have to get some manuscripts.” Or maybe he said, “I have to get some materials.” I thought it rather foolhardy of him to go back in since the shelling sounded close and our troops would drive the vandals back in a week or two anyway. But I was also full of a sense of our collective invincibility, of the justness of the Biafran cause, and so I did not think much else of it until we heard Nsukka fell on the very day we evacuated and the campus was occupied. The bearer of the news, a relative of Professor Ezike, also told us that two lecturers had been killed. One of them had argued with the federal soldiers before he was shot.
We did not need to be told this was Ikenna.
Ikenna laughed. “I am, I am!” He seemed to find his own response even funnier because he laughed again. Even his laughter, now that I think of it, seemed discolored, hollow, nothing like the aggressive sound that reverberated all over the Staff Club in those days.
“But we saw you,” I said. “You remember? That day we evacuated?”
“Yes,” he said.
“They said you did not come out.”
“I did.” He nodded. “I did. I left Biafra the following month.”
“You left?” It is incredible that I felt, today, a brief flash of that deep disgust that came when we heard of saboteurs—we called them sabos—who betrayed our soldiers, our just cause, our nascent nation, in exchange for a safe passage across to Nigeria, to the salt and meat and cold water that the blockade kept from us.
“No, no, it was not like that, not what you think.” Ikenna paused and I noticed that his gray shirt sagged at the shoulders. “I went abroad on a Red Cross plane. I went to Sweden.” There was an uncertainty about him, a diffidence that seemed alien, very unlike the man who so easily got people to act. I remember how he organized the rallies after Biafra was declared, all of us crowded at Freedom Square while Ikenna talked and we cheered and shouted, “Happy Independence!”
“You went to Sweden?” I asked.
He said nothing else and I realized that he would not tell me more, that he would not tell me just how he had come out of the campus alive or how he came to be on that plane; I know of the children airlifted to Gabon later in the war but certainly not of people flown out on Red Cross planes, and so early, too. The silence between us was tense.
“Have you been in Sweden since?” I asked.
“Yes. My whole family was in Abagana when they bombed it. Nobody left, so there was no reason for me to come back.” He stopped to let out a harsh sound that was supposed to be laughter but sounded more like a series of coughs. “I was in touch with Doctor Anya for a while. He told me about rebuilding our campus, and I think he said you left for America after the war.”
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