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August Debut

Issue 2; October/November


Chielozona Eze


Chielozona Eze

Eze grew up in Enugu, Nigeria. He studied philosophy and literature at Purdue University. His short story, Lessons in German, was the winner of the first Olaudah Equiano prize for African Literature. He is presently assistant professor of African and African American literatures at Northeastern Illinois Univeristy, Chicago.



The Mercedes coach looked new. The brown leather of the tightly arranged seats squeaked as I adjusted my tote bag full of books with my right leg. The engine hummed while the driver fumbled on the dashboard as if he needed to make sure every button was at its right position. More passengers boarded the bus, exchanging greetings, adjusting their bags and belongings. My neighbour was a corpulent, elderly woman with Nsukka-specific facial marks. Responding to my good morning greeting, she sat down, dug up her rosary, closed her eyes and began to count the beads. Like my mother would, I thought.

At a quarter past ten o’clock, the bus lurched forward, and gyrating to the shock of the many potholes typical of Enugu roads, finally drove out of the crowded Ogbete Motor Park. This was my fourth time using a public bus since I returned from the US. I closed my eyes and attempted some kind of autosuggestion: Think about Obiora. How does his wife look? Is she beautiful? Are his children beautiful and as intelligent as he is?


Obiora and I became friends in the second term of our first year at Nsukka, and in a most unlikely manner. We had argued about the applicability of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Nigeria. I had believed it suited only a Western audience while he argued that the renowned existential question couldn’t be more adequate than in the face of Nigerian military brutality. He won the class over with his eloquence. We had sex the evening of the following day after he had invited me to a plate of nkwobi, (cow leg) pepper-soup at Mama-Koso buka at the outskirt of the campus. In the last year of our undergraduate studies, he proposed to marry me. But I was an ohu, descendant of ex-slaves and therefore an untouchable, while he was of a pure blood. He argued that it didn’t make any difference for him; he was rather too enlightened for such form of Igbo bigotry; it was a dead culture that must be done away with.

“Your parents,” I said. “They don’t seem to be willing to do away with that.”

“My parents, ach, my parents. They lived their lives. I have to live my own life.”

I refused to buy into his storm of protest, insisting that he discuss the marriage proposal with his parents. He did that, but without broaching the thorny issue. As was usually the case, his people asked about my family at Agbani. Having sniffed out my family background, Obiora’s parents promptly forbade me to visit him: I was undeserving of their son, for I had slave blood in my veins. Obiora fought as much as he could to bring his relatives to accept me. He broke up all communications with his parents and siblings, and adopted my family as his. But it didn’t last long. It couldn’t. The pressure became too much for him to bear. After a while, he began to lose his sense of humour; he became cynical and irascible, buckling under the weight of his family’s rejection. I suggested that we call off the marriage plans. I didn’t want to lose his friendship.

After ending the relationship, I had no other friendship that lasted as long. Every now and again we would exchange emails lamenting our lost opportunity to be together in family, sometimes concluding our mails with words of affection. And this went on even after his marriage to Joy.


My taxi stopped in front of Nr. 7 Ikejiani Street – a two-bedroom bungalow, hedged by bright purple bougainvillea. The white paint had flaked off most parts of the walls. A mango tree stood by the right of the house a few meters to the entrance of the spacious compound. I paid the taxi, and turning to the house, heard the door click open. A young girl and a four-year-old boy rushed out. I waved at them and at the same time, my eyes fell on a small display board at the entrance of the compound: BEWARE OF GERMAN DOGS! The girl rushed and grabbed my box while I lavished my attention on the boy who had Obiora’s eyes. I felt my throat contract as he ran up to me and held my hand. I stroked the girl’s shoulder. “I’m Anna,” I said. “And you?”

“I know,” she said and giggled. “My name is Nonye.”

“You’re Anna,” the boy added. “I’m “Obiora Jr.”

I thought as much, I said to myself. “A beautiful name,” I praised in response. He carried the bag containing the treat I bought for the family. “I know what’s inside this bag,” he announced as we approached the house’s staircase.

“I bet you don’t know,” I played along.

Nonye turned to him and hushed him. Too late. “Eeh, I know,” he insisted. “It’s okpa.” He laughed.
A child was crying inside the house. Then I heard a woman call Nonye, and she answered between gasps as she dragged my box. I offered to help her carry the box.

“No, no, it’s not heavy at all,” she objected, grunting.

Some of the books I bought for Obiora were in there: Derrida, Coetzee, Appiah, Mbembe, Bhabha, and the host of writers and cultural theorists.

“Auntie!” Nonye called out, opening the second door that led to the sitting room, “Auntie-America has come.”

A man’s voice boomed from the background, “Go and welcome our visitor.” It wasn’t Obiora’s, I was sure. Strangely, the words our visitor echoed in my mind as I held the opened door. The living room was stuffy; I felt the sharp contrast to the outside as a hot, sour-smelling wall of air hit my face like a delicate invisible slap. I held my breath for a second. The space between the outer door and the one that led to the sitting room was about three paces, separated from the room by a thin wooden wall. Garden boots, umbrellas, two tins of groundnut oil, rolled carpets, bags of rice and beans, tubers of yam were stored by the right hand side.

A tall young man with full hair walked up to me, carrying a two-year-old girl in his left arm. “Welcome,” he said and extended his hand for a shake. A firm handshake. Titus, Obiora’s cousin. He had a pair of slippers and yellow brocade shorts. His grey sweatshirt was loose on him. I introduced myself and reached out to stroke the girl. She shrank and clung firmly to Titus. A woman came into the sitting room from one of the rooms. She wore a broad, woman-of-the-house smile, yelling a warm welcome from afar. No doubt, Joy. She had a bright coloured wraparound cloth with butterfly decorative motif. Her very loose blouse was the same stuff. She held her newborn baby in her left arm so that the child rested on her chest. We embraced, a soft warm milky smell pouring into my nose.

“Mama, look, look,” Obiora Jr. showed her the bag of okpa.

“And also this,” Nonye reached the other bag containing bananas and peanuts.

“Oh, Anna, why did you bother yourself?” Joy sighed.

“Mama I’ll bring a knife,” Obiora Jr. called.

I couldn’t suppress a laugh.

“No, let Nonye handle it,” Joy said and instructed Nonye to have the okpa cut for us. “I’m happy to see you finally,” she said amid her many welcomes and unending smiles. “We have been waiting for you since morning.”

“Our bus took off late. How are you?” I asked Joy, reaching for the child. “What’s his name?”

“Chika,” Joy told. “I fed him a moment ago,” she warned. “He’ll throw up.”

“It’s fine,” I said, balancing him the way he had laid on his mother’s chest, every now and again patting him lightly on the back.

Joy had a hearty, guileless smile that exposed a fine gap in her upper teeth; a broad forehead and fleshy lips that reminded one of Sade, the Nigerian-British musician. Obiora went for an emergency meeting, she explained. The academic staff union had called a meeting to consider actions against President Obasanjo’s recent oil price hike.

“Nonye,” she called. “Send the box to that room,” she pointed to the room at the right side of the living room from the entrance.

We sat on either side of the sofa, which backed the wall, with the doors of the two bedrooms flanking it left and right. Joy sat near the door she had pointed to earlier. Parts of the sofa were faded from many years of use. Titus sat on a swivel chair diagonal to us, leaning on a navel-high embankment that separated the sitting room from the dining corner, which shared a common space with the kitchen. Every time our eyes met, he issued a nervous smile, and then swivelled on the chair or tapped his feet on the worn out vinyl carpet. On my right was an easy chair padded just like the sofa, and opposite it, by the entrance to the room in which my box was carried, was a wooden chair. I explained my profession – assistant professor of African literature and films at UCLA – and that I was in Nigeria to conduct a research on Nollywood. Titus recently lost his job with Merchant Bank, Nsukka branch.

Nonye had cut some balls of okpa into smaller pieces. She brought them to us. Obiora followed her into the sitting room, biting into a chunk. Swallowing the last bite, he called: “Mama, I want some banana,” guiltily eyeing me from beside his cousin. His sister helped herself to the delicious specialty, also attempting to catch my eyes and then averting hers whenever I looked at her.

“Did it rain in Enugu?” Titus asked.

I explained that it rained the whole night. But it stopped early morning. It rained in Nsukka until about ten o’clock, they explained. A light throat-clearing sounded outside the house, and in seconds, the front door opened. A young man, probably in his early twenties, entered and scanned the sitting room in a familiar manner before his eyes settled for some seconds on me. He greeted and stuck out his right hand for a shake, clutching in his left hand an NYSC synthetic folder. He was Nnamdi, Obiora’s cousin.

Joy took time to explain the relational constellation so far: Titus was Obiora’s paternal, while Nnamdi was the maternal cousin. I smiled, now handing over to her the baby who had fallen asleep on my chest. I inquired for some more explanations. Titus was the son of Obiora’s father’s elder brother while Nnamdi, a pharmacy student, was the son of Obiora’s mother’s sister. Nnamdi was all smiles, evidently amused by the ensuing lighter moment during the explanation. He shyly slunk through the small pass that ran diagonal to the dining niche, and left through the door that led to what looked like a room. After about thirty minutes, a middle-aged woman came in, closely followed by a six-year-old girl. The woman bore an unmistakable likeness to Joy. Eunice, Joy’s elder sister. Her husband left for Germany six years ago and had never returned since then.

About thirty minutes later, a vehicle horn beeped in the front yard. “Papa is back,” Obiora Jr announced and rushed outside the house to welcome his father. Obiora came back, and with him his youngest sister, Mary, a Theatre Art student.

Obiora was nearly bald, with splashes of grey hairs at the temples, and a practically hanging belly. A wobbling paunch. “Hello, Anna,” he crooned. His voice hadn’t lost its soothing base. He extended his hands for an embrace as I stood up. He smelled of sweat. I sat back to my position, welcoming his excitement at seeing me after seven years.

Adjusting to my position, I felt my armpit become wet and a familiar smell of stress exude from there. In spite of my Coco Channel perfume, I perceived an acrid smell issue from within. I glanced at my watch. Quarter after two o’colock. I called Obiora to the side and inquired who among the people around was a visitor. Perhaps it was a mistake to have asked; perhaps I thought too much of my comfort. He was surprised at the question. “They live here, ah, ah, they live here,” he said, staring at me askance.

“I won’t spend the night here,” I said and clenched my teeth.

He scowled rather fiercely as thought I had trod on a familiar but unfriendly terrain. “What do you mean? My wife prepared our bedroom for you. What do you mean?”

“Your bedroom belongs to both of you,” I said crisply.

We glanced at each for a second during which the truth of my utterance must have become evident to both of us. “The university has got guest houses,” I said in a more calmed tone of voice in an attempt to assuage the hurt my utterance might have caused..

“Yes, they have,” he said with resignation in his voice.

“Let’s go and get a room there now,” I urged him.

He stared on, gnashed his teeth. “Can’t we do it after the meal?”

“Let’s go now,” I insisted.

He went to the kitchen and informed Joy, who rushed out, face contoured in a deep but controlled show of disappointment. I was standing beside the exit. Our eyes locked on one another’s. “Oh, but, but,” she stammered.

“We’ll be back soon,” I said, feeling my throat choke. It was evidently a betrayal of our recently welded friendship. Nevertheless, I refused to consider the option of spending the night there, with eleven people sharing a two-bedroom house. Not while there were alternatives.

There was an uncomfortable silence between Obiora and I as we drove to the office. The harsh whistle of his nostrils blended with the noise of his teeth. It promptly evoked some scenes of our past. Whenever we had misunderstanding he retreated into himself, gnashed his teeth, orchestrating a punishing silence, which almost always wrenched apologies from me; I took the blame regardless of who was at fault. That was a way to be a good girlfriend, we learnt; a way to be a good wife and mother. My mother had drummed that into me. My father was never at fault regardless of what he did. How could he be ever at fault - the Lord of the house?

Eunice and Mary were in the kitchen when we came back. Shortly after our return, they announced that lunch was ready. The big pot of unripe plantain pottage and fresh Ogbaru fish and utazi bitter leaves was placed on the table in the dining room. The blend of utazi, oregano and parsley and yellow Hausa pepper spun its way to my nostril and I swallowed a mouthful of saliva, walking to the table. I opened the pot and promptly paid my compliment. Joy laughed and expressed the hope that it tasted as well as the smell promised. Eunice served all of us. Every person had his or her dishes in their hands sitting at different places – in the sofa, on the swivel chair, in the veranda and in the kitchen.

With the key to the guesthouse in my purse, I began to feel at home at Obiora’s house. But the more relaxed I felt the more uptight Obiora seemed to be. He rarely responded to my words so that Titus, Joy and her sister became my interlocutors, asking me how the US was, why the terrorist attacked the World Trade Centre, and why I was interested in Nigerian films.

After lunch, Obiora sent Nonye to buy some drinks from the nearby store. I took a bottle of Gulder while he had Guinness Stout. Titus and Eunice went for Heineken while Joy – breastfeeding – had coca-cola. The first bottle of Guinness loosened Obiora’s tongue and he began to express gratitude at seeing me. He told about our friendship; how we loved European socialist thinkers, and how we had the best two results ever recorded in the humanities. We were the stars of UNN, the revolutionaries of the campus; we wanted to stamp out tribalism, nepotism, and so many other isms. We were this, and we were that. Then, as though anticipating that I had become too Americanized, he went on to praise Africa: Africa was real humanity; humanity in the West was in a mess because of modernity and science. The white people had no respect for the elderly; they dumped their parents in old people’s homes.

I welcomed his soliloquy as much as the rest did: with smiles and head-nodding. On few occasions, I tried to interrupt him by interjecting issues that have semblance of present day cultural discourse - Cultural hybridity, Postmodernism, globalization, transculturality. Every time I interjected any new term hoping that it will steer our discussion to some more fruitful end he looked up, held some seconds’ silence, and then continued. Then again, I asked, “Have you taught Derrida in your class?” He looked up, blinked naively, hummed inaudibly and then went on with his narration.
Obiora, I realized, still had the eloquence and the brilliance for which he had been known in our student days, the brilliance that lured me to bed with him. But it was brilliance frozen in an apotheosized past.


When Obiora came to pick me up for breakfast, the alcohol-induced joviality of the previous evening was gone, replaced by a moody face a few creases short of a scowl. We drove back to his house; I walked to the table where Joy had set out a flask of hot water, a mini can of Nescafe coffee, teacup, sugar, bread, pineapple jam and butter. I made myself a cup of coffee, downed it to half. Minutes later, I was all smiles. After breakfast, I sat back in the sofa, ready to play with Obiora Jr, and his siblings. But I was never able to enjoy the children’s attention. There were too many voices wanting attention. Chika whimpered for his mother’s attention, Chinwe cried for the same, Titus played with Obiora Jr, Eunice’s daughter argued with Nonye, Eunice asked for some information from Joy, Nnamdi wanted my address in the US; he loved my university.

Obiora didn’t stay long in the house. He announced that he was going to the office.

“This office again,” Joy snapped. “Why? We’ve got a visitor and you’re going to the office?”
As though he had peeked at darkening clouds that would soon pour down with rain, Titus quickly left the living room through the backyard door. A bit nervous, I wanted to exchange some words with Obiora. “Do you like the books?” I asked.

“Oh, oh,” he blurted. “Thank you very much. Derrida! Thank you very much. And that Ghanaian guy – In My Father’s House!”

“Kwame Anthony Appiah?”

“He’s half cast, isn’t he?”

“You mean biracial?”

“Biracial?” he asked, frowning.

“Yes, biracial. His mother is white.”

“Okay, thank you for the gifts,” he said again.

Yet he didn’t stay. He was holding his key in his right hand. He stroked his children, then, ignoring Joy and I, left. I took it personally. This was intended as my punishment. He was still the same, I thought.

Mary and Nnamdi were long gone. Joy, Eunice and I were left alone with the children. Chika began to cry. Joy was sobbing. Eunice went to her, hugged her tentatively, then took Chika from her. Racking with sobs, Joy walked into their bedroom. An intense pain tore through my heart. Was I the cause of it all? My decision not to sleep in Obiora’s house? I followed Joy, sat beside her on the bed, brought out two wrapped sheets of Kleenex for her, and then placed my hand on her shoulder in silence. She began to lament her situation: she thought she was the happiest woman on her wedding day; she gave up her studies in order to raise a family with Obiora. Now he had more time for other people.

I didn’t know what to say. After a while, she turned her big, soft eyes pleadingly to me. “Could you please talk to him?” she asked.

“Talk to him?” I asked, surprised.

She puckered her lips and looked down to the floor then turned her head to me once more. “He has another woman elsewhere,” she announced.

A wave of heat swept past my face and I feel dizzy.

“Obiora still loves you,” Joy went on. “If you talk to him, he may listen and change his life.”

I couldn’t fathom why a woman would tell another woman to talk sense into her own husband. Throughout our years of friendship I never suspected him of straying. For some reasons I didn’t want to believe Joy, yet I allowed room for that possibility. “Are you sure he’s cheating on you?” I asked.

She shook her head. “No, I’ve never caught him,” she said.

“Did you hear somebody say he does it?” I asked, feeling stronger in my position.

“Why does he run away from us?” she asked despondently. “Every time.”

“Has he been doing that all the time?”

She looked at me meekly as though some voice whispered to her that I was on the verge of solving her problem. “He has not been doing that. It began after the birth of Obiora Jr,” she added.

I said nothing, wanting her to keep talking. I was ready to listen.

“My two sisters were living with us then.”

“Your two sisters?”

“Yes, younger sisters. I thought he liked them. But they no longer live with us. My elder sister came to live with us after I gave birth to Chinwe,” she said. “And then Mary and Titus.”

I was irritated, but I struggled not to reveal it. At twenty-six, Joy was fourteen years Obiora’s junior, and thirteen years younger than I am. “After your sister others came,” I said noncommittally.
She turned to me, her red eyes glowing apologetically. She said nothing. I promised her I would talk to Obiora. And I was sure I would.

Back in the guesthouse, I lay in bed staring at the whitewashed asbestos ceiling of my room. Have I really lost track of Igbo reality? Shouldn’t I have spent the night in that house? Obiora’s pride wouldn’t have been hurt. He wouldn’t have walked out on us. I wasn’t sure of anything. Not any more. It has been a while now since I endured uncomfortable situations just to keep the peace. I have since learnt to appreciate myself, my comfort and convictions.

The sixty-watt Phillips bulb jutting from the position a fluorescent bulb used to be appeared to burn more aggressively than usual. It was held by red and blue wires, which brushed against the grey curtain on which the bulb poured its harsh light. After a short while, I heard some knocks on the door. Obiora called my name, “Hei, Anna. Anna, here you’re. Oh, we’re waiting for you. It’s time for lunch. Eeh, you left without a word.”

I sat up; looked at him, my eyes squinting from the abrasive rays of the bulb. It couldn’t be the same Obiora who walked out on us in the morning. My silence and indifference to him promptly checked his affected excitement. He drew out the only chair in the room from the table and sat, averting his eyes from mine in the first few minutes of his sitting down. We stared at each other for a long time without words. For the first time I felt like crying. “I’m leaving for Enugu this evening,” I said in an indifferent tone of voice and glanced at my watch. Three o’clock pm.
He jerked. “Why? Why so sudden?”
“Joy knows,” I said. “She understands. Two of you have to be alone sometime.”
“What’s wrong? Why?”
“Don’t ask why. You know.”
“But is this the way you intend to treat me?” he yelled rather helplessly. “You came yesterday. You refused to sleep in my house and now you want to leave us a day before your intended date of departure.”
“Why did you walk out on all of us?” I challenged.
“I didn’t walk out on you. I went to my office.”
“You ran away from the mess of your house.”
“You’re calling my house a mess?” He jumped up, fiercely looking down on me.
“Don’t play the offended,” I said.
“You just called my house a mess.”
“When you allow the whole world to settle in your house, you can’t expect to feel comfortable there.”
He walked towards the window. “I knew it. Your years in America have changed you,” he said as though in a disappointed reflection. “You’re no longer African.”
“You’re no more African than I am,” I shot back, infuriated.
“Then why do you hate our culture? Why do you hate our way of life?”
I stared at him, amazed by his words. “You once called it a primitive culture. You remember?” I looked at him.
It dawned on him. He had been more aggressive towards the Ohu caste than I ever was. “You know that you’ve become part of the problem you’ve always wanted to solve.”
He pursed his lips, his eyes glancing past mine in a cowardly speed.
“Joy suspects you of having an affair,” I said, hoping to shock him a bit with that. I achieved my goal as he looked up, frowning as though to ask from where she plucked that absurd idea.
“I know you’re leading a false life,” I added.
“You didn’t travel all the way from America to accuse me here of leading a false life.”
“You know what I’m saying, Obi,” I said in a whispering but solid tone of voice and calmly stood up and began to pack my bag.
He held my left arm. I looked up. He smelled of beer. An amalgam of pity and revulsion churned my inside. Beer before lunch? I quietly withdrew my arm from his weak grip, letting him know I perceived the beer smell. He still stood at a spot, his breathing becoming faster, more stressed. “Please don’t go,” he pleaded. “I’m sorry.”
I felt sorry for him. Looking at him standing an arm’s stretch from me, oozing a stale stench, shoddily shaven, his stomach sagging pitifully, I felt intense pity for him. I sat back on the bed. He sat beside me. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t tell him not to sit there. I told him about Joy’s tears that morning, what I thought about his walking out on us, and the presence of Titus, Eunice and others in his house.
But I didn’t tell Obiora what he didn’t already know. And that was the problem. Obiora knew that more people lived off him than he could afford. But he couldn’t do anything against that, he said. Titus came to him after his father appealed to Obiora’s father and Obiora’s father appealed to Obiora to do him that favour as a personal once-in-a-lifetime request. The same line of reasoning went for the rest. In the end, Obiora didn’t want to appear like a heartless rich man who had everything but wouldn’t share it with his needy neighbours.
“Can I turn down anybody if there’s a sleeping space in my house?” he asked weakly.
Of course, the living room was spacious. There was space in the dining niche, the two bedrooms were large. How could he convince his village people and the relatives that these spaces weren’t meant to be occupied at night and that he, a university lecturer, couldn’t take care of all these people, couldn’t have time for his own family, and for reading and writing.
“I did it all for my parents and relatives,” If you sent any of these people back there’d be trouble in the village. People would call you all sorts of names.”
I had nothing to say against that. Those were apparently untouchable aspects of his cultural world. Then, suddenly, Obiora opened up in a dramatic change of tone and personality: He had no girlfriend, he said. But he wasn’t sure he still loved Joy. Since we went our different ways he had never been himself anymore. It was the mistake of his life to have allowed our love to fall apart. He had never stopped loving me.
Did I stop loving him? Perhaps not. Yet another reason to leave now and never look back. He should have time to be with Joy alone.


I was in the bus back to Enugu. It was a different Mercedes Benz bus: old, rickety. The seat leather was worn out. On the right arm of my seat was a thumb size clump of freshly chewed gum. Like you had under almost all the seats at college lecture halls. A man in his early thirties hollered his message: Jesus would save Nigeria from its descent into hell if only we all believed in him. Ironically I was thrilled by his efforts, nonetheless remarking that these preachers must be deeply unthinking not to have realized how jaded this line of preaching had become. Indeed, how stupid. Sweat streamed down his face. The armpits of his white shirt have yellowed.
The lush green leaves of suburban Nsukka glimmered against the soft late afternoon sun. I could imagine the whisper of the leaves against the caress of a gentle breeze. Yet, my brows were drawn. I couldn’t wish away what I felt was a gathering headache however I tried. Or was it nausea? The type philosophers talked much about? Some form of fed-up that occurred when you could no longer understand your world. Neither the scenery nor even the loud voice of our preacher was potent enough to fix my mind to the life of now. At what point did I begin to be different and dead to this part of the world? How didn’t I realize it; why didn’t I do something about it?
Looking out from the bus at the undulating chain of Udi hills, I did not notice the abundance of green spread as far as the eyes could see; Obiora was at the Nsukka motor park to bid me farewell. He waited for my bus to drive off, his eyes bloodshot like a wolf’s. I took in his alcohol laced breath, his poorly ironed shirt. My eyes clouded with tears. He didn’t deserve to be wasted. Nor did Joy. Nor Eunice, who was still waiting for her husband to come back home. 


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