Short story: The smell of home
Nigerian novelist Chika Unigwe explores what Nigeria means to her in this short story about home and identity.
The letter came in the morning, but Emeka did not read it. Not straight away. He was convinced that whatever it contained would be harmless, nothing that could not wait. An invitation to an official function, maybe. It was not until he was getting ready to go home that evening that he remembered it.
He pushed his chair away from his desk and began to read in a rush, hardly comprehending the words at first. And then he read it again, standing up, as if by that singular act, he could make the contents of the letter disappear; make the whirlwind swirling around him and uprooting him stop. He felt something – tennis ball-shaped and fluffy – lodge itself in his throat, its fuzziness tickling. For the rest of his life, he would associate this feeling with heartbreak.
He wanted to smash things. To fling his computer through the window. He sat down, his head in his hands. He could not go home. He could not carry this news back to Kaitonne, his pregnant wife. Instead, he called his friends and asked if they wanted to meet up for beer and catfish at the popular Best Restaurant. He wanted a moratorium from the news.
“Gentlemen! Gentlemen!” Emeka said as he tilted his glass and filled it with beer. “Lend me your ears.” He wondered that his voice could so easily skip over the thing lodged in his throat and come out light and loud and feathery, the voice of one for whom everything was right with the world.
“A long time ago, at the beginning of the world, God went AWOL for six days. On the seventh day, the archangel Michael found him resting in the garden, looking very pleased with Himself. He asked God, ‘Where have you been? I’ve been looking everywhere for you.’
God smiled a deep, mysterious smile and pointing downwards through the clouds, He said proudly to Michael, ‘I’ve been making something. Come and take a look.’
The archangel peered down. He saw sunshine and green rolling hills and rich soil on one side, and on the other he saw ice and snow and the sun covered by clouds. ‘What is this thing you have made, God?’ he asked. ‘I see beauty very much like heaven on one side, and then I see darkness and gloom and cold on the other – a bit like a really cold hell.’
‘You’re very wise, Michael,’ God said. ‘What you see there is a planet which shall be called Earth. I shall fill it with creatures made in my image and beasts that shall be subordinate to them. But do you know why the two parts of Earth are different?’ The archangel shook his head. ‘It is a place of balance: The green hills and the sunshine is Africa. There, my people will have good weather and they will be blessed richly with resources.’
‘And the other place?’ The archangel asked.
‘That is Europe,’ God said. ‘My people there will have to endure harsh winters and what little sunshine they have. They will worship.’
‘That does not seem very balanced, God,’ the Archangel said.”
Emeka paused, lifted his glass of beer off the table, his hand trembling as if he was trying to hold in his laughter.
“God looked at the archangel and smiled His deep, mysterious smile again and said, ‘Ah, Michael, wait until you see the leaders that I will give the Africans. That will rectify the unfairness.'”
Emeka drained his glass as the laughter he anticipated erupted from his friends: a loud, joyous, jocund thing which wrapped itself around him. He joined in, his whole body convulsing. He had now permitted himself to laugh and could not stop every part of him from partaking in it. He carefully placed the glass back on the table. “And I tell you, Nigeria seems to have got the worst of them! Give me the cold and the snow any day over this bunch of leaders that we have here,” he said. He had to shout to be heard above the din of the ubiquitous generators powering the entire city and Flavour’s crooning pouring out of the speakers overhead.
“Have you seen my beautiful baby? Have you seen my tomato baby oooh, Iyele … baby na sugar sugar …”
This was a nation of noise, he thought, remembering a time when owning a generator was an indulgent luxury. Now generators were everywhere, vying for attention with the noise of cars and car horns and bells from churches and itinerant preachers and loud music from street corner music stores.
“I’d rather a million winters,” he said.
This was not true. Emeka would not rather have the cold. He had dreaded the winters in London when he still lived there. His first winter, he had gone to bed every night in his coat, stunned by the intensity of a cold that found its way into his bones through layers of clothing. Yet, that was nothing compared with the cold of Ukraine – his friend, Peter, who had ended up there, told him when he complained.
“You’ll get used to it,” Peter said.
Emeka never did. In fact, his dislike of winters was one of the major reasons he moved back to Nigeria. That and a homesickness that could no longer be assuaged by the parcels of foodstuff he bought at the African store every Saturday morning. Or the monthly meetings of all the organisations he belonged to – Igbo People’s Union (of which he was the secretary), and the Enugu Born and Bred (of which he was the vice president, charged with organising the Enugu Old Boys and Girls Gala on Christmas).
He hated the pounded yam that did not taste of yam, the bananas that were so yellow, they looked like plastic fruit but lacked the sweetness of the mottled bananas of back home.
When the opportunity came to head a new government bank in Enugu, the same city he had grown up in – a city as familiar to him as his own palm – he did not need any encouragement to accept. And when he met Kaitonne in that same bank – a tall, glossy woman who looked to him like she had just slipped out of a fashion magazine – it seemed then that returning to Enugu had been preordained.
But tonight, lies rolled off his tongue. The truth was huge and dark – a giant, alien bird of prey waiting to carry him off. He had to keep a lid on it.
He noticed that the laughter had stopped and around him; an argument had broken out. Chido’s deep baritone boomed over the voices of the others. Even with the generators humming and music playing, his voice was crisp and clear. Emeka often thought that Chido would have made a good pastor. These days, with a church on every street corner, he said once, Chido would have been very successful with his “pulpit voice”.
“Sexy.” Chido corrected him. “The right term is ‘sexy’.”
Now, Chido slapped his palm on the table as he spoke, rattling the plates and spoons and empty bottles of beer.
“Who was it that said that we get the kind of leaders we deserve? Look around you. Filth everywhere. We have created a system where we do not hold our leaders accountable for anything. We have taken over the government’s job, doing things for ourselves that rightfully they should be doing for us. No power? We buy generators. No water? We dig wells in our front yards. No quality public schools? We build our own schools. Or send our kids abroad if we can afford to. We are part of the problem. Our activism and sense of social responsibility begins and ends on social media. We are hashtag activists.” Chido wiped his mouth with a paper napkin and dropped it on the floor beside him. It landed on top of the rumpled newspaper that the suya he had eaten earlier came wrapped in.
“Well, no one is stopping you from doing more,” Emeka shouted, surprising himself with his childish petulance. “That’s what is wrong with you Abia people.You complain, yet you do nothing.” A group of three young couples, probably students from the university campus nearby, stopped their conversation and turned to look at him.
He knew his anger was exaggerated, his attack unwarranted, but he could not help it. Suddenly, he felt tired. A staggering exhaustion that made him groan. He did not want this to descend into another explosive discussion. He had just wanted a good night full of light conversation and laughter. Nothing serious. A night when he could pretend that everything was as it had been. Something to distract him for just a little while – make him forget just how suddenly life could change. He had told the joke because he had wanted to be consoled by the merry laughter of his friends. He tried to block the arguing voices, to concentrate on Flavour singing about his “Chinny Baby”. But Emeka still caught snippets of the argument between Chido and John. “Pro-PDP! You APC supporters! Blah. Blah. Blah. Jonathan. Buhari.” He could not deal with this tonight.
It doesn’t matter whether they are talking about sex or food or cars, the subtext of every adult Nigerian conversation is politics. He tried to remember who had said this, which of his friends would use a word like “subtext” in a casual conversation, but he could not. This irritated him and he got up abruptly, almost upending the table in front of him. He drew his wallet and threw a wad of notes on the table. His share of the bill.
“Leaving already? You never even touched your catfish. Sit down, my friend. What’s eating you up? You were the one who wanted to come out, now you want to go? You know, once the baby comes, you’ll be homebound for a long time. Better enjoy your freedom now while you’ve still got it.” John tried to pull him down. Chido waved his hand, but Emeka wasn’t sure if he was shooing him away or asking him to sit back down. Emeka shook his head.
“I have to leave. Long day at work today. I haven’t seen Kaitonne all day. You guys enjoy. Sorry.” As he left, he heard Chido say something about Kaitonne wearing the trousers in the house. It was nothing Emeka hadn’t heard before. Because he refused to go clubbing without his wife, his friends often teased him about being “joined to Kaitonne’s hips”. Even his own brother, Godsown, had told him once that Kaitonne was the one marrying him, hurling the accusation at him like a sharpened spear, intent on drawing blood, angry that Emeka would not commit to a family holiday until he had spoken to Kaitonne. “It’s not even like she works and has to take permission from her boss. She is free all year round. All you have to do is tell her when. You paid the woman’s bride price for heaven’s sake.”
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Emeka walked to his car and slid in behind the wheel. He turned on the ignition and then the air conditioner, shutting his eyes against everything, letting the cool air caress him. He heard a tap on the window. A middle-aged man with a tobacco stained grin held out a bowl. Emeka wound down his window and glared at him, even though he was not sure the man could see him in the darkness.
There were no street lights, and what little light was there was provided by the headlights of passing cars. “Oga, please. I haven’t eaten in three days,” the beggar said in Igbo.
“Go and work. This is your state after all,” Emeka said putting his window back up.
For a second the beggar was caught in the blinding glare of a car coming from the opposite direction. Emeka saw him flinch, then he hobbled off slowly, like a dog with its tail between its legs to another car. On any other day, Emeka would have given him some money, and glowed in the beggar’s “God bless you, Sah.”
He would not even have noticed that the beggar spoke Wawa Igbo. He would have complained when he got home that the government was not doing enough for its poor. He would have sat at the table and talked about the insanity of a world where the country produced oil, and yet more than half of its population lived on less than a dollar a day.
Kaitonne would have agreed with him, her outrage matching his. Giving beggars money was his way, his small way of trying to balance out the unfairness of it all. But today, he was not in a charitable mood. He wondered why the man would not work. There were men renting themselves out at Kenyatta market as labourers, he thought as he drove home, honking at cars which did not move fast enough, adding to the noise. No able-bodied man had an excuse for begging. His own life was falling apart; he did not have it in him to be generous to others. The closer he got to the house, the more his thoughts turned to his wife.
Kaitonne was sturdy. There was a tautness, a firmness to her that was reassuring. When she worried about her weight, Emeka told her truthfully that he liked that she was solidly built. It suggested dependability, he said. It was like nothing could shake her. Kaitonne reminded him of his own mother, and he had told her this in the early days of their relationship, meaning it as a compliment but somewhat upsetting Kaitonne, who didn’t like being compared to her boyfriend’s mother. But later, she came to understand what he meant.
Emeka’s mother was a widow who had single-handedly raised five sons. “We never felt we lacked a father,” Emeka said. “She was both mother and father to us. And she did a great job. We had everything we needed.”
She had kept a shrewd eye on the electronics business Emeka’s father owned with his brothers and where she had worked as a book-keeper. The day after he died, still grieving, she turned up for work saying she had to keep busy and had five mouths to feed. “We will look after you,” his father’s oldest brother told her.
“Thank you,” she said. “But I’d rather look after myself.” And she did just that.
Her extraordinary business sagacity and unabashed outspokenness surprised her brothers-in-law, who had always thought her shy and quiet. When neighbours gossiped about her, when they said that it was unheard of that a woman who was still grieving worked, and when rumours began to spread that maybe she had been responsible for her husband’s death in the first place, she brushed them off her capable shoulders with one hand. But Emeka had caught her crying once while she was doing laundry. So he knew that even sturdy women had their limits.
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It scared him. Words from the letter flashed before his eyes. Immediate. Effect. Policy. Directive. Words that on their own were innocent enough, but taken together, signalled the loss of a certain kind of innocence, the ending of a lifestyle, the shattering of dreams and a heart splintered by it all.
He turned into the beginning of his tree-lined street, where the houses were huge and satellite dishes stood like fancy hats on their roofs. He began to tally up his impending losses. The house. It was one of the perks of his job: a house he could rent from the bank and eventually buy. He had been given two weeks to move out. Where could they move to in such short notice?
The baby was due in three weeks. How would he be able to give it the kind of life he had dreamed of? His four-year-old son, Debe, was in a private school where the school fees were paid in dollars. He would have to go to – God forbid – one of the public schools, where the teachers barely spoke good English and went on strike constantly to protest their pay or lack of it.
There would be no more holidays in London, the US or Dubai. Vacations spent sightseeing, shopping and taking pictures to upload to Facebook (accompanied by status updates listing the places they were visiting and very often the words: “East, West, Home is Best.”)
From the driveway, he could see that the lights were on in his sitting room, which meant that Kaitonne was still up. He looked at his watch. It was only 10pm, but it seemed to him to be much later than that. The closer he got to his front door, the more the weight of the news bloated his body so that he could hardly lift his feet by the time he opened the door to let himself in.
This morning, when he left for work shouting, “See you this evening, enjoy your writing,” to Kaitonne, already seemed like another lifetime. Kaitonne did not work. Her gynaecologist had put her on complete bed rest in her fourth month of pregnancy with Debe. After Debe was born and Kaitonne could go back to work as a journalist with the Daily News, Emeka had suggested a permanent break from work.
“Every child needs a parent at home,” Emeka said. He had missed out on that with a dead father and a mother who always worked.
He was making enough for the two of them, he had job security, and would she not think about quitting? She could finally begin writing that book she always wanted to write. Although Kaitonne said it was not just about the money, she enjoyed her job, she had eventually given in, seduced by the thought of spending days chasing her dream of being a novelist, “and because it makes you happy”.
She wrote while he was at work and Debe was at school. She enjoyed those hours she had to herself, she told him more and more often. “This arrangement is not such a bad one,” she said each time she got a short story accepted for publication.
Kaitonne was watching a soap on DSTV and eating a mango when Emeka walked in. She waved a greeting from the couch, and started to say something, perhaps to ask where he had been all night, but Emeka said, “I have bad news.”
The mango dropped from Kaitonne’s hand and landed with a soft plop on the rug. The words came out before he lost the courage to say them. “I lost my job. I am sorry.”
He was not sure what he was apologising for. He remembered Afuluenu, his cousin, who told him that after her husband lost his job, they could not seem to stop arguing. “He became small and mean. I could no longer live with him.” He wondered if he was, perhaps, apologising for something yet to happen.
The tennis ball in his throat grew bigger so that his voice came out bedraggled. He told her of the letter dismissing him. Top positions in government-owned companies, it said, were now reserved for indigenes of the state. No warning. From one day to the next, he had lost his claim to call himself an Enugu Boy because his ancestral home fell outside of the boundaries of the new state. They had to leave Enugu. Begin afresh elsewhere, but how? Where? His head was spinning so hard he had to fight the urge to hold it still.
At first, Kaitonne said nothing. Her eyes darted around as if she was looking for an escape route. She looked like a startled, trapped animal, and Emeka imagined that her solidity was rapidly melting like candle wax, that his news was burning her. Love isn’t always enough. He had read that somewhere and now the phrase taunted him. Where had he read that? “I am scared,” he whispered.
She stood up, straightened herself and spread out her arms as she closed the gap between them. “We’ll weather this,” she said. Gratitude and joy washed over Emeka who leaned against her. Her sturdiness consoling him, her smell familiar and sweet, a promise that all would, in time, be well. A confirmation that love was sometimes enough. He held her close and inhaled. She smelled of home.
When asked what Nigeria is to her, novelist Chika Unigwe said: “Nigeria is home. It is chaos. It is security. It is imperfect. We grapple a lot with the question of cultural identity, and, over the past years, with the drawing of new state boundaries, allegiances have been forced to shift. People who belonged to one state were suddenly no longer welcome once the new boundaries excluded them. People lost jobs, homes. Yet, Nigeria remains home.”