Our family, like most families from the southern part of the country, succumbed to the pressure to travel for the first time in many years.
The red sand of Nsukka, its soft green hills and green trees welcomed us to the East. We stayed at our grandparents’ place. My mother’s. Their old mud house was still standing. There was the 12-inch black and white TV, and the roof without a ceiling that howled when the wind blew. The wall clock still ticked, ageless. Photo frames hung on the walls. There was one of Grandpa’s large face staring at you like it was daring you to do anything silly. The seats with their foamless arms still sat around the spacious parlour. The parlour housed the door that led to Grandpa’s room, inches away from the entrance door. It was always ajar. Another door led through to the back door. Within the passage were Grandma’s room by the left and another room by the right that served as the store.
Everything seemed familiar as when I lived there years back. We had travelled home for Christmas. Grandma requested that I be brought to stay with them. I was three or four years old. I was driven in a Volkswagen by their neighbour from my own father’s house. I was naked. I held my clothes in my hands, crying. My clothes were still in my hands when we arrived. I had not stopped crying. Grandpa was lying in a camp bed, in front of the house, reading a newspaper or was it a book? He didn’t move or say a word to me. He was too engrossed in his reading to notice me, perhaps.
Now, having spent much of my growing up in the north, my Hausa was fluent. Better than my Igbo. Though we spoke Igbo at home, it was an exclusive preserve of communication with my parents especially Papa who would never want me to speak anything else. Igbo was my mother tongue. I should speak it. I should be a master of it. Hausa was not. He wanted me to be good at English too.
I was glad to effortlessly switch to Hausa, once Papa was not there. Mama was not strict about it. With her I was flexible – Hausa mainly, bits of Igbo, some English, mostly Pidgin. With Tema, I didn’t have to worry.
At the village, the task of conversing in Igbo alone limited me to just few utterances. The words felt heavy on my lips. They sounded like I was learning the language anew. I listened more than I spoke. I didn’t want to be laughed at, let alone be rebuked by Grandma when I pronounced the words wrongly. There were times when I was caught off guard. When I didn’t know which words to use – the appropriate words. I’d utter the Hausa or the English equivalent. They came easily. And readily.
Once or twice, I went to Grandma to request for soap to wash the plates. The word had skipped me. I didn’t say ncha. Instead, I said sabulu, soap. She said she didn’t understand. She went about doing what she was doing – stitching our torn clothes. My cousin who came along told Grandma what I needed. I was relieved, but disappointed. Grandma looked at me with a knowing smile.
There was also a growing feeling that had crept into me, clothing me with sensitivity – that felt like the whole world was staring at me, at my every deeds, expecting me to be flawless, and I responded by coiling back into myself. I could hear it said that I was quiet and shy.