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African Writing Archives


Chuma Nwokolo


Chuma Nwokolo, Jr.

Nwokolo, author and advocate, is writer of Diaries of a Dead African and publisher of .

Detribalizing Kroma is the prologue to his recently completed novel, The Extinction of Menai. His regular Tales by Conversation returns next issue.



 Detribalizing Kroma

Extracts from the Interim Psychiatric Evaluation of the Menai

The Brief:
As the notorious Topless Procession case has demonstrated, the Menai ethnic group manifests an insular clannishness and resistance to modernity. Is this a symptom of an underlying psychiatric condition afflicting the entire tribe? Are those traits likely to spread to Nigeria’s 500 other ethnic groups? Do they threaten Nigerian nationalism? Is this condition treatable, and if so, by what means?

The Subject:
The Menai ethnic group is a minor, endangered tribe whose global population numbers, at the date of this interim report, less than five hundred adults living in two hundred households. 95% of all known Menai live in Kreektown, an impoverished village on the Agui Creek in Nigerdelta State. Although the only known instance of public nudity among the Menai was the Topless Procession case, they are pathologically incapable of adapting to city life, and are victims of a tribe-wide indoctrination that prevents them from emigrating from Kreektown. They address themselves as Menai, call their language Menai and (although apparently of average intelligence) stubbornly speak Menai to the exclusion of official Nigerian languages in their village square…

Chief (Dr.) Ehi A. Fowaka
J.P. F.R.C.Psych. W.A.C.S. M.B.B.S. F.M.C.(Psych) F.W.A.C.P.


Ubesie | January, 19th 1994

I was at dinner that evening at The Great, Ubesie, when the character called Jonszer arrived. My chief regret for taking this assignment is my new familiarity with souls like Jonszer. He was halfway across the restaurant, filthy, wild-eyed and pungent, when I saw him. Fortunately the headwaiter, an elderly soul from my town (smart fellow, I knew his godmother, would have done well if he got his 4 GCEs) was just serving my food. I spoke to him with my eyes (really sharp fellow, that headwaiter, doesn‘t miss a trick) and he intercepted Jonszer two yards from me, and took him outside. I then made quick work of my pounded yam. Apart from the bills for my daughter’s school fees at Loyola Jesuit College, nothing brings tears to my eyes like a fresh fillet of catfish steaming and trembling in a hot plate of egusi soup. I had one such on my plate, and I ate it with many prayers of thanksgiving to the munificent God that watches over Ehi Fowaka.

Then I went out to meet Jonszer. This is what I am wearing today: a white linen top and bottom, one of a dozen I ordered at the start of Mr. President’s assignment. It is a light but dignified outfit, perfect for getting around, especially in these wretched parts where efficient air conditioners are few and far between. He was quaffing his beer when I came out. That chief waiter! He is cunning at things like that. He knows the best way to keep someone like Jonszer engaged for a while.

‘Yes?’ I asked.

When he saw me he put his bottle to his mouth and gobbled efficiently, putting it down when it was empty. He wiped his mouth with the back of a hand. He came close to whisper. I didn’t see the burp coming. He tried to suppress it but it only came out more violently in my face. ‘You come, now.’ He did not mean to be rude, or imperious. His English was careful and instrumental. Like all Menai, it was very much a second language for him, spoken only when the other person couldn’t be forced to speak Menai. He turned to go.

There were five or six good reasons not to follow the drunk and drug addict. Yet, Kreektown’s only hotel was a major apology. Ears like Jonszer allow me to stay in the relative comfort of The Great, Ubesie (the appalling name alone was enough to take my business elsewhere, but my regular hotels were full), while doing excellent fieldwork in Kreektown. I wanted to ask more questions, but we were attracting attention. This is not the sort of riffraff you want to be socially associated with. I summoned my driver and we set off, I in the owner’s corner, and Jonszer in the front with Sule, who received the full benefit of the unwashed man. Beside me was Akeem, my P.A, cameraman, interpreter and general dogsbody.

‘So tell me about this place you’re taking us to.’

‘Is a funeral. A Menai funeral.’

‘A funeral?

‘Yes sir, a funeral.’

I sighed. This assignment was moving me closer to anthropology than pop psychiatry. I had no interests in funerals where I knew neither the corpse not its relatives. Yet, it was better I was called out to too many things than too few; besides it would be an opportunity for me to meet people, for the Menai were notoriously quiet, at-home types. And frankly, I’d rather be doing this than sitting at my desk at Yaba Psychiatric Hospital contesting seniority with the likes of Dr. Malik.

‘So who died?’ I asked.

‘Nobody,’ replied Jonszer, ‘is a funeral, not a burial. Is for Sheesti Kroma, Ruma’s daughter.’

Akeem caught my eyes and we indulged some exasperated headshakings Nobody died! Yet, we were going to a funeral! This is the sort of thing that happens when you are compelled to recruit drunks as local contacts. It was like that old joke, It was a very fatal accident, but, thank God! Nobody died. Yet, Kreektown was only twenty or twenty-five kilometres away, and frankly, my car was more comfortable than my hotel room (no surprise, since the car was more expensive than the entire hotel. Which is the crazy thing about Ubesie. This is the cultural heart of the Sontik, maybe the third largest ethnic group in Nigeria. Sacked and burned down by the British in the colonial wars of the late nineteenth century, it had been resettled from 1933 onwards under Governor General Cameron, who permitted the deposed Nanga back from exile, yet, with a local economy more stunted than the national average, it has never quite moved from township into city status.) So I let the driver on.

Every business in Kreektown was closed when we arrived. There was a funeral there alright. Literally the whole village had turned out in black robes like Jonszer’s. Never seen that many Menai out at the same time. The centre of the event seemed to be the village square. It was depressing and ill-lit, none of those high-wattage bulbs that the organizers of a party, or funeral, should have thought to provide in any civilized village. It was like stumbling into the really Dark Ages. There was food but nobody was eating. There were people but it wasn’t a party. There was music – of a sort – (and it is really stretching it, to call that menacing witchery, music, but I’m being scientific here) but no dancing. What there was – and this they had plenty of – was this sad weeping in song. People stood there like tree trunks and wept and sang these haunting Menai songs, songs that made you feel wretched, like the end of the world happened yesterday night, and they sang them one after the other. You really don’t want to be in this square for a real funeral. The most… sinister thing was to see the children, some of them as small as six and seven standing and chanting like their parents, children that in other funerals I’ve attended, would be running around at play. It was clear that a severe order of group psychosis was at play here. I don’t mind admitting to a most unscientific unease.

I stayed there more than twenty minutes. Akeem was taking photographs while we waited for something else to happen, but nothing else happened. They just stood there and wept.

We walked through the crowd in the village square. I recognized quite a few people that I had met in the course of my fieldwork. They were harmless, simple folk: Mary Kana, Aida Hasnal, that old scoundrel, Kiri Ntupong, normally the most polite and respectful people you will find anywhere in Nigeria, but today, they waited for me to greet them first – which I did, in the interests of scientific enquiry – but even then… it was like speaking to people in a trance… the wailing and the singing… it was enough to drive a fellow insane.

Then I saw the old man.

I had seen him before of course, literally the oldest man I had ever seen. When I first arrived, I confused the Menai by asking for their chief. They were like the Igbos used to be, not having kings as such. Eventually they took me to this old man who has some kind of authority over them – what exactly it was, I still haven’t discovered. His house was rather outside the village proper. They called him Mata, which I suppose was Menai for Master or something. But apart from that there was nothing chiefly about him. Had probably forgotten how to be a chief, if he ever was that. His house was probably the poorest in the village. Doubt if it was electrified. I mean, I won’t give, even my houseboy, that sort of house for living quarters, oh no. I went to see him a couple of times and all he ever did was offer me a dirty cup of water – which of course I could not have drunk – and sit and stare at the skies. I am not exactly a guru in old age psychiatry (I despise the speciality) and without sticking out my neck – in the absence of an appropriate history and all that – I’d say this was a case of dementia: answering every official query of mine with perfect silence.

He didn’t look very senile today. He was playing an out-sized wooden xylophone like a man possessed. Although it wasn’t a very energetic performance – I mean, he was playing a dirge – still it was an immensely accomplished performance for a man of his age. Incredibly evocative too. And even if this was not a funeral for a dead person, in my professional opinion there was going to be a dead old person in their midst very soon. It was almost an entertainment on its own, watching him play, but it was also like waiting for a fatal accident.

Eventually I turned to go. To listen to their sad songs wasn’t a problem, I could have taken that all night, but to be very candid there are some things that I won’t do, even for Nigeria. To come to a funeral and stand! In the last twenty, thirty years I can count on one hand the number of wedding, funerals or house-warmings that I attended and wasn’t immediately invited to sit on a high table. I mean, sometimes I’ve accompanied colleagues to their occasions and the organizers, even without knowing who I was, have called me up to the high table, perhaps on account of my personality, I don‘t know. And then I attend an occasion in a village like Kreektown and stand! Really, there’s a limit to patriotism. To make matters worse, as soon as Jonszer arrived, he just stepped out of the car and became a tree trunk as well. Speaking to him was like addressing a statue. He became just another voice under the sad metronome of the xylophone.

Yet, I got to my car, and something about the evocative aura of that performance held me back from leaving. I am not much of an ethnographic investigator, but the scene unfolding before me seemed quite crucial to the construction of a psychiatric profile of Menai. I was probably the only scientific eye ever to behold this sight: 95% of the world population of a tribe, gathered in one square, weeping and wailing. I could hardly leave the scene of such scientific, linguistic and cultural significance out of mere physical discomfort. So I compromised. I ordered Akeem to begin a video recording of the event, which he did, bringing out the mike from the boot, and setting up the tripod six feet from the car, and about a dozen feet from the nearest mourners, thus enabling me to keep a close eye on proceedings, while sitting in the comfort of my Mercedes 500 SEL (at the time of writing, this is an 8-month-old import and I hazard a guess that there are not 12 of its specifications within the borders of Nigeria).

This was the point at which Jonszer turned up again. I let down my window as he approached. His hand was out, his grin loop-sided, with that effrontery that only drunks can muster. I gave him a half-litre of a cheap brandy and it disappeared into a baggy pocket. (I carry this questionable pedigree of alcohol purely for the appeasement of area boys and rough boys) It was difficult to know if his eyes were red from weeping or from drinking. ‘Just come,’ he said.

‘What now?’ I asked, but he was gone, walking hurriedly, in that demented gait of his, through the crowd and down a side street that led off from the square. My driver had gone to ‘make water’ (to use his charming euphemism), and Akeem was tied to his recording. Reluctantly, I followed him alone. We did not go far, at all; we walked down Lemue Street right up till the bend in the road that led towards the creek, and there he stopped. He waited in the darkness beside a car, the only one on the street. When I joined him, he tipped his head sideways, towards a small huddle in the doorway of the house opposite. I looked, but it was too dark to make out faces or figures.

I was angry. It was dark. It was dusty. There was neither CNN or BEN TV in my hotel in The Great. In my hospital, the sly Dr. Malik was positioning himself for the office of Chief Medical Director. My fellow consultants and contemporaries were attending conferences and seminars in Jo’Burg and Stockholm, touring with escorts of polyglot, lanky ladies smelling of eau de parfum. I was walking dangerous streets with a drug addict reeking of beer and three-month-old sweat.

‘That’s Sheesti,’ he said.

‘Who, where?’

He pointed with a jaw, and then he was gone.

I was afraid. This was precisely the point for me to call it a night. I had to urgently return to the safety of my car and the security of my boys – because scientific research is best conducted with two feet solidly on the ground. Any robber looking at my clothes just then could legitimately anticipate three or four hundred thousand naira between my wallet and mobile phones. I was an obvious target, but the speed of Jonszer’s withdrawal made it impossible for me to remove myself from the area of risk without physically taking to my heels – an undignified option which was out of the question. I was still undecided when a man stormed out through the huddle. He was carrying a box, and he was cursing under his breath. The scientist in me paused, warring with the human in me, which urgently desired the owners’ corner of my Mercedes Benz. ‘Are you okay?’ I asked, as the man flung the box into the boot of the car.

‘I am a detribalized Nigerian!’ he shouted, seemingly, addressing not just all of Lemue Street, but the entire Kreektown itself, ‘My father is Yoruba, my mother is Ibibio…’

‘Calm down,’ I told him.

He only shouted louder, ‘My hospital is in Onitsha! I have lived in Kano! In Calabar! in Lagos!’

‘Just like me,’ I told him, but he had slammed the boot shut and stormed back into the house.

I was free again to go, but by now the human in me was even more curious than the scientist. I approached the house, whose number I now saw was 43. The huddle resolved into two women. The younger was weeping, begging the older, who was going, ‘there’s nothing I can do now, there’s nothing I can do.’

I clasped my fingers over the gentle rise of my stomach and, using a voice developed over thirty-five years of clinical medicine, I asked, ‘Are you quite alright? I am Chief Dr. Ehi Alela Fowaka, JP, is there anything at all I can do to help?’

I got the polite response I have worked so hard to get, anywhere I go in this great country. They greeted me, the younger one curtseying, but before they could speak further, ‘I-am-a-Detribalized-Nigerian’ stormed past, fuming, ‘You are all wizards and witches! I’m sorry! Wizards and witches, that’s what you are!’

‘Easy, Denle, this is…’ began the younger woman, but the man was having none of it. He had a half-packed bag in his hand and with the other hand he grabbed the woman’s arm and pulled her towards the car.

‘Let’s go, Sheesti, before they actually kill you. Wizards!

‘Is because we love you…’ began the older, but two doors slammed shut and one very angry BMW pulled away in a scream of tyres.

I was standing before the older woman when suddenly I recognized the transcendental moment of the entire research project. A river of wisdom and calm understanding flowed through me, and I understood how the gurus of the fallen religions of the world can become seduced into the delusion of godship. I deduced the elaborate social mechanism used by this atavistic society to corral her sad, individuals into communal compliance. ‘You must be Sheesti’s mother,’ I said gently.

She nodded.

‘She looks quite well to me, why would you hold her funeral?’

She opened her hands. ‘It has nothing to do with me. It is custom, it is alright for her to marry a foreigner – we encourage our daughters to marry foreigners, but they must come and live in Kreektown, that is our custom.’

‘Otherwise you apply the emotional blackmail of a symbolic funeral?’ I shook my head gently, as non-judgmentally as it is possible to be, without partaking in stupidity, ‘This is 1994 you know, not 1794. We have laws, federal laws… And what does your husband have to say about this?’


‘You don’t mind if I have a word with him? Is he in the square, partaking of this... ah... custom?’

‘He’s inside, but…’

‘Oh, don’t worry,’ I smiled. This is one thing that thirty-five years of senior medical practice gives you, the ability to say grave and serious things with a smile. People are used to getting bad news from doctors. Anyone else gives the news and they go to pieces, or go ballistic, but a doctor – with the experience – breaks it, and you see the difference. I pushed past the woman – now, this is not something I would normally do, pushing myself so precipitately into private affairs, but… the things one does for nation… I stood in the middle of a largish living room – desperately poor of course by my standards, but in the context of Kreektown, quite middleclassy, really. There was a colour television, a fancy sofa and most bizarrely a chest freezer; and in the middle of all that sat a sad-looking man in a wheelchair. ‘Good evening, sir.’ I began.

He just leered at me. I began to vex. I normally would not have given him a ‘sir’ but for the wheelchair… ‘He hasn’t said a word since his stroke in 1989,’ she said, from very close behind me. Munificent God! This guru thing is quite exhausting. She continued without a break, ‘he has nothing to do with this, it is custom. He himself is an Igarra man. We married in February, 1963 and he moved here in the April of that very same year. Since then he has only visited Igarra maybe five or six times before his stroke. Is what I told Sheesti… Is it cold enough?’

I touched the bottle of wine she had produced for my inspection from the chest. There was a strong smell of goat meat from the exterior of the bottle.

‘It’s very nice, thank you.’

She opened it and poured me a glass, talking all the while, as her physical proximity forced me backwards and heavily onto her sofa ‘Is what I told Sheesti, I told her, marry him and bring him here, like me and your daddy did, but no…’ and she went on and on.

I sat there sipping the wine, ignoring the smell of meat, and trying hard not to stare at Sheesti’s father in the chair. Ruma was clearly woman’s woman; her English was clearly as fluent as her Menai and her sentences flowed steadily, brooking no interruption. She manifested the Menai custom of aggressive hospitality, which I was prepared to indulge in this case, since her offering was a sealed, if pathetically cheap, bottle of wine. (A few weeks earlier I was forced to reject an unhygienic offering of locally brewed gin invested with an eye-watering reek, and observed the subsequent hostility and animosity which forced my visit to end rather more precipitately than I planned.)

The eyes of Sheesti’s father seemed quite alive, despite the long dribble that led down from rubbery lips to a wet shirt. I couldn’t pull my eyes away from this Igarra man who could not attend the funeral of his Menai daughter who was not yet dead. Yet, I was a scientist with a job to do. I turned to his wife, feeling the Igarra eyes burning paralysing lasers into the side of my head ‘Who is behind this thing?’ I asked, firmly, cutting off her chatter, ‘who organized this funeral?’

‘Excuse me,’ she said, and disappeared into the house, apparently to produce some documentary evidence. This was the good thing about dealing with people of a better quality than the Jonszers of this world. Documentary evidence would go down very well on a presidential report. In the meantime I was forced to return to the scrutiny of the ‘master’ of the house. I wondered whether to attempt a one-sided conversation in which I would supply commentaries, questions and suggested answers. This is usually not a problem for me. With my thirty-five years’ experience, armed with a treatment chart, I can hold a ten-minute ward-round conversation with a comatose patient, particularly with a dozen student doctors and nurses clustered around me, trying to pick up useful hints for their viva exams. But there was something about that Kreektown parlour that threw me off my stride. This did not seem the proper forum to review the pessimistic prognoses of cerebro-vascular accidents.

Then she returned. She did not have any facts, figures or documentary evidence, but she had painted her face, and although she still looked like my mother’s marginally younger sister, she no longer looked like the mother of a woman whose funeral dirge we could hear from the street. Then she came and sat next to me on the sofa, close enough for me to perceive a rather rancid variation on the eau de parfum theme. ‘As you were saying,’ she said, and there was something else in her voice, which was when I looked at the sadness in the eyes of the Igarra man and realized that, president or no president, this fieldwork was ending right there, right then.

‘By the way,’ I asked kindly, ‘what's your name?’

‘Ruma,’ she simpered,

‘Ruma,’ I said, ‘good night.’

I left for my hotel.


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