Where were you while we died? (Half of a Yellow Sun inspired).
Hello everyone, I haven't blogged in about a month, simply because I haven't been feeling great- no, not physically, emotionally. Perhaps, I'll write about it soon. I'm praying earnestly to God for healing and restoration, and I feel led to update my blog despite how I feel because this blog is a covenant- and a covenant is conditional and binding.
Hence, for now, please enjoy my final paper in my African Lit class. I wrote my own continuation/ story inspired by Chimmamanda Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun.
Please pardon any typos, I haven't found the courage to edit yet.
African Literature Final Paper
Where were you while we died?
Richard had stayed up too late at his study table. He rewrote sentences several times, taking out idioms, inserting igbo proverbs in place of simple words, and recreating his dialogue in Nsukka Igbo, because the Abba Igbo he had used previously was too watered. He restructured entire paragraphs, and replaced entire chapters of his book. Still he felt as though he made no progress. Since he was making no progress, he thought to himself, he would tire himself out completely to ensure that he fell asleep once he hit the sheets. But he was wrong. The more he wrote, the more adrenaline fired his entire body. He became giddy and laughed out loud. He was rewriting one of his favorite scenes in the book. He had carefully constructed the scene to capture the burnt red and orange of the sunset, the ice cold of lemonade as he took measured sips by the balcony, and the calm blue of the swimming pool below.
But that was not his favorite part of that scene. He loved writing about Kainene. He described her features to great detail. He was finally able to let himself remember her muscular arms, her little breast that barely filled his palm, and her long athletic legs. Once he asked her is she was an athlete in high school, and she responded “that is a failed attempt at a compliment, Richard”. Her face wore his favorite expression, that measured sacred space between humor and wonder, and the cigarette between her lips wobbling up and down as she spoke. He let himself laugh, and soon, he was reeling over his chair gasping for breath. The laughter filled his heart with warmth, a tiny reminder of what Kainene’s smile did to him. He was pleasantly surprised by the sound of his own laugh, and so he kept laughing until he started laughing at himself for laughing at the sound of his laugh.
But sleep still eluded him. If the laughter was a sure sign of progress, as he thought, why did he still find it so difficult to fall asleep? He no longer had the nightmares, so it definitely was not about the fear of falling asleep. He also no longer woke up in the dead of the night, breathing heavily and sweating profusely. Best of all, he no longer saw Kainene in his dreams beckoning him to follow her. Those were the worst dreams, absolutely nothing terrified him more than a dancing Kainene whom he could not hold, or the boom in her baritone voice that swelled and swallowed him. He had begged her to spare him, but she laughed a wicked malicious laugh and sang louder and louder until he pressed his index fingers into his ears.
That morning, he sat on the balcony and cried. He cried until his sides hurt and his voice was hoarse. Harrison’s chicken cooked in bitter herbs sat in the corner, and although his stomach ached from the hunger, he couldn’t bring himself to move because of the guilt that weighed heavily on him. It was the guilt that stood behind him and pushed him down the stairs that Sunday evening. It was the guilt that walked him to the airport and sat beside him on the flight to London to see a psychiatrist month before. But that day by the balcony, he knew that he cried the guilt away. This was the last straw, and it had broken the camel’s back. It was finally time to start rebuilding. If Kainene ever came to call him again, he would oblige her. He would follow her and leave this meaningless world behind. But she never came to him in his sleep again. And so he decided to write about her.
He would call the novel Love and War, or perhaps Love in the Wrong time, or better still, Love too late. But none of the titles felt true so he decided to leave the title till he was ready to send the book to a publisher. By then, the title would have come to him.
Ugwu was slicing onions by the sink, as Baby stood on the wooden stool by his side, watching him keenly. “Ugwu, is it true that onions clean your eyes?” she asked in her high pitched voice. He wiped his eyes, and smiled at her “Yes Baby, onions clean your eyes”. She leaned in to look at him, smiling too. Then she brought her face closer to the chopping board, “Then I want my own eyes to be clean also!” She smiled a quiet, knowing smile of a child with wisdom beyond her years.
She had become quiet since they returned to Nsukka, and her childhood curiosity was gone. In those early days, she was always perched to Olanna’s side, and she asked about Kainene too often. One day, Olanna snapped at her. “Baby, biko hapu maka!” she shouted, and Ugwu came running from the backyard where he was washing clothes. Baby looked at him and back at Olanna, stunned, until finally, she sat on the ground and cried, refusing to be consoled by anyone, until Odenigbo returned from work.
In those slow, dreary months after they returned to Nsukka, Olanna spoke to herself very often. To everyone else, she responded in her British accented English. One day, Ugwu heard her laughing loudly by herself in the kitchen, the fresh tomato stew burning on the fire. When Odenigbo rushed into the kitchen and asked “Nkem, ogini? what is it? She ignored him and kept laughing, clapping her hands and fanning herself intermittently.
He held her gently, and rocked her back and forth. Ugwu did not know if to walk in to stir the stew on the fire. That would somehow kill the moment they were having- the scene was picturesque; Olanna laughing, fanning her face, Master holding her close, whispering in her ear “Its okay, Nkem, its okay”. It was Baby who had turned off the burner.
That was months ago. And slowly but surely, Olanna’s spark returned to her eyes. She laughed often and told jokes about Kainene. She attended St. Vincent’s the Paul meetings with Baby, and took Ugwu along when they went to rebuild the Parish priest’s house. Ugwu was moulding mud blocks with the men, while Olanna joined the women in making the raffia roof.
As Ugwu and Baby stood by the sink, Baby suddenly started laughing loudly. She had been watching Ugwu all along. Thinking of Olanna always made him smile. It was as though she was the measure of their healing from the war. When Olanna was happy, Odenigbo was happy, and Baby too, was happy. And when they were all happy, Ugwu was happy.
And Baby laughed louder, as though she knew the happiness he derived from her own high-pitched, almost nasal laughter.
They were both still laughing hard when Olanna’s called out from the sitting room.
“Ugwu, osiso, come!” He had almost not heard, as her voice was so still, so quiet. A shiver ran down his spine as he walked in. No one was speaking. He stood awkwardly in the silence until Master motioned to the sofa closest to the radiogram, and asked him to sit down.
“Sah?” Ugwu asked unsure.
“Sit down”. Master’s voice, too, was calm, almost inaudible. Very much unlike him.
Ugwu shivered. Master and Olanna had never summoned him like this. Were they sending him back to the village? Had his father had also died? Had Kainene been found?
He brushed the thoughts about Kainene aside. It was simply too exhausting to hope. There was simply nothing else to hope for now that Biafra had been defeated. Not even Kainene’s return. Hadn’t they given the dibia a goat? Hadn’t Olanna distributed jollof rice to all the beggars on Onitsha Road as Father Amadi advised “Perhaps the good Lord will have mercy on your sister and save her from the pangs of death?” Fr Amadi had said, and Ugwu found his Abba-accented Igbo humorous.
Yet, nothing happened. Kainene still wasn’t back home, and Mr Richard’s eyes were still as bloodshot as they had been since one week passed and she didn’t return.
“Ugwu”, Olanna had a small smile on her face. She looked pleased. For a second Ugwu imagined that she had good news to deliver. Again, another too expensive thought.
He did not respond. His tongue was too heavy in his mouth. Olanna edged closer to him and produced a notebook. His heart began to race. On the cover of the notebook was written “The World was Silent While we Died”.
He had last seen his manuscript two days ago when he finished transferring his story to the notebook he got from Jomo.
What happened next surprised him. Olanna walked up to him, and placed her hands in his hands.
“Daalu. Thank you Ugwu. Biafra thanks you. We thank you.” She placed her hand on his shoulder and began to cry.
It was near evening when Richard drove into Odenigbo and Olanna’s flat. “Uncle Richard, Uncle Richard” Baby was singing and clapping her hands as he swept her up and threw her into the air. She giggled and exposed her white teeth and dark gums. She was a replica of her father, and Richard wished that he too, had a child. A child with Kainene. He would call her Nkechinyere, “what God has given”. Because what God had given to him, to them, no one could take away.
But today was not the day to dream dreams. Today was not the day to hope. Today was the day to prepare for the drive with Odenigbo and Olanna to Abba and meet with Chief Ozobia and his wife. He still couldn’t bring himself to think of Chief and Madam, as they were called by their domestic staff, as Kainene’s parents. The apple had fallen too far from the tree.
Olanna looked even more beautiful than he last remembered. She had not put on weight since he last saw her, but there was something that looked different about her. There was a slight bulge in her midsection. Perhaps the blouse was a bit too big for her slender body, or perhaps she had had a big lunch. Her face was smooth and her breasts looked rounder, fuller. He thought about that day many years ago: how the small of her back fit perfectly in his hand, how their movements became one and the hard carpet stung his back. How he vigorously scrubbed his body as though to purge his memory of the guilt that descended on him.
“Richard, kedu? how was your trip” Her words jolted him out of his thoughts, and he smiled feebly. Baby was smoothing his hair as he perched her on his neck. He bent his head to enter the front door, and Odenigbo was seated by the radiogram, his back to the door. The sitting room looked very different, more vibrant, if looked lived-in. There certainly were less books, and many more fresh plants in vases and clay pots. There were two on each side of the radiogram, one by the large window, and two by the front door. A bit too many, he thought, but Olanna had the tendency to delve completely into any new hobby she discovered. Clearly, she had developed an affinity for live plants in the living room.
“Odenigbo, kedu?” He called out, stretching his hand forward for a handshake. Instead, Odenigbo came in for a hug, and slapped his back playfully.
“You look well, Richard. Your last trip to London did you a measure of good”
“Yes,” Richard responded, freeing himself from Odenigbo’s awkward side-hug. “I needed the break. And two weeks doing nothing felt good. I also needed an escape from the harmattan”. He smiled, and took a seat next to Olanna.
Ugwu came out with a tray of bananas and groundnuts in a small saucer. Richard pulled the side table by his seat and Ugwu placed the tray. Richard peeled a banana and took a bite. “Hmmm, Olanna where did you get this banana from? I haven’t had one this nice for a while.”
“Remember I planted a small garden in the back yard? I still have some of my fresh fruit left.” She laughed. “Perhaps, we should pack some fruit for Richard to take back to Port Harcourt when he returns” Odenigbo said.
“That would be nice, Harrison is still unrelenting with his foreign dishes that he enjoys alone.” Richard took another bite of the banana and scooped some groundnut into his mouth.
“Then you should think of planting a small fruit and vegetable garden for yourself. You live by the ocean in Port-Harcourt, that land is definitely fertile” Olanna said.
“Ikejide would have been fantastic for that.” Richard said and forced a smile. A brief silence followed and Richard sighed when Ugwu returned with a glass and a jug of water.
“Mr Richard, how is your book going?” Ugwu asked, as he poured the water.
“It’s going on well. I think I’m close to the end”
“Oh, what is the book about?” Olanna asked him. Richard pretended not to hear her and turned to Ugwu. “Daalu” he said, “remember to pack some bananas for me, I’m sure Olanna would not mind”.
“Richard, what is your book about?” She asked again, aware that he was trying to change the topic.
Richard took a drink of water, and reclined on his seat before he replied.
“Kainene. The book is about Kainene.”
“Oh, I did not know you were writing a book about the war.” Odenigbo said.
“it’s not about the war, it’s about Kainene.” Richard responded “I had to process my thoughts. I live alone, I had to find a way of moving on. You have each other to heal together and move on”.
“Richard, no one is forcing you to move on, take the time you need. And I hope your book does Kainene justice” Odenigbo said.
“You are brave Richard. Very brave” Olanna’s words surprised him. He expected her to snap at him the way she had done in the first few months after the war ended whenever someone mentioned Kainene with the slightest hint of uncertainty or sadness.
The drive to Abba that morning had been slow although the roads were dry from the harmattan and easy to maneuver. They rode in Odenigbo’s new toyota highlander. Olanna sat in front while Richard and Ugwu sat in the back seat, with Baby sitting intermittently on Ugwu’s lap and standing to see the road ahead. The car was quiet enough, so Richard stole a few moments of sleep while Ugwu and Baby played games to while away time.
The compound was quiet when they arrived. There was a canopy close to the orchard, and the white plastic chairs were stacked by the fence. Odenigbo revved the engine, and Baby squealed. He parked the car facing the gate, with the boot by the front door of the mansion. Mrs Ozobia appeared at the front door looking resplendent in her black, knee-length sleeveless dress. She wore a pair or embellished black high heels, which matched the embellished bow on her waist. She had rows of pearls around her neck and round earrings shaped her oval face. She was very nicely dressed, a little to dressed up for a funeral.
She greeted Olanna last, and held on to her for a long time while Ugwu offloaded the yams, bags of rice, and crates of beer from the boot. Mrs Ozobia inspected Olanna’s face, her neck, and spun her around. Olanna laughed in delight as she showed off her dress. She had given very specific instructions to Onyinye, when she had the dress sewn. It was very loose fitting, mid-calf length, and the sleeves stopped right above her elbows. She had a dress made for Baby from the same material as hers, and Baby looked like a miniature version of Olanna. Baby was also developing Olanna’s mannerisms and although they did not physically look alike, they acted alike. Like Olanna, Baby clapped her hands when she laughed, and chewed her food very slowly. She did not take sips of water while she ate, but waited until she was done eating before she drank her full cup of water all at once. She did not have Odenigbo’s brisk, impatient steps but her steps were slow, calculated, and purposeful.
By the time Father Marcel arrived, they had dug a hollow grave by the palm tree at the entrance of the orchard. Chief Ozobia had personally mapped out the grave, and while the stewards cooked the food in the kitchen and arranged the chairs under the canopy as the guest trickled in, he went with the driver to purchase the casket. Father Marcel walked round the house with his altar boys sprinkling holy water. Odenigbo watched him surreptitiously and Richard stood by the grave diggers. Olanna and Baby followed Mrs Ozobia to the kitchen where she was dishing out orders to the cooks “Add more salt to that jollof! That’s too much oil, do you think money grows on trees? Did your mother not teach you how to peel a yam properly?” She looked slightly out of place in her black lace dress swallowed by the cooks in their white aprons.
Ugwu was standing by the canopy when Chief Ozobia returned home. The driver sped into the compound and a cloud of dust trailed him. He rushed out of the car and ran to the front steps. Then two stewards dashed out the front door and to the car. They took the white casket out of the car and into the sitting room where a table sat in the center. There were white orchids arranged around the table, and candles burning. The music was soft and pictures of Kainene lined the walls. There were mostly pictures of Olanna and Kainene. As children, Olanna was very chubby and Kainene was even more skinny. Ugwu never thought a child could be as skinny as she was in those pictures. There was a picture of them in white dresses holding candles, as they flashed their missing teeth at the camera. There was another picture of them by a birthday cake, their father and mother squatting on either side. Their graduation picture from high school was their last picture together. Olanna was holding her diploma and grinning at the camera, while Kainene was looking at her sister, as though she were about to whisper something in her ear. Their eyes were glowing, and Kainene’s gown practically swallowed her.
Father Marcel walked into the sitting room. His altar boy walked beside him holding a silver bowl of holy water. Father Marcel dipped the pine stem and sprinkled holy water around the sitting room. The guest came in after him, each clutching a candle. Odenigbo was carrying Baby, as Richard walked beside him, wiping his eyes. Chief Ozobia and his wife were at the end of the procession. Ugwu stood by the door, repulsed by the absurdity of saying prayers over an empty coffin. “Eternal life grant unto Kainene Ozobia” Father Marcel said, solemnly. “And let perpetual light shine upon her” they all responded mechanically. Ugwu wondered why everyone acted as though their actions were perfectly normal. No one said prayers over an empty casket. If Kainene were to have eternal life granted unto her, or perpetual light shone upon her, God would definitely have made his decision a long time ago. They recited the Gloria and responded “hear our prayer” as Father Marcel read out the Litany of the Saints.
The scream pierced the air and sent everyone running in different directions. The steward burst into the front door, clearly out of breath “Madam oh! Madam!”. She stood in the doorway beside Ugwu. The lady was young, in her late twenties. Her eyes were wide open and she gesticulated as she spoke.
“Madam, small madam don jump oh”. The crowd chorused “Who?” and the lady continued “small madam don jump oh, she don jump enter inside”. Her story was incoherent, as she spoke between tears and snort. Odenigbo walked to the woman and gave her a resounding slap. Everyone, including him, was stunned. The finger marks across the Lady’s face were neat, four horizontal red lines neatly drawn across her yellow face. What happened next was unprecedented. She grabbed Odenigbo’s collar and wrestled him to the ground. She rained blows on his back, and Odenigbo was taken aback by her swift motions. He soon regained himself and held the woman by her wrists and Ugwu pinned her to the ground.
“Madam don jump inside grave! Na im I dey tell you wey this yeye man dey slap me. You no know say i fit to born you? Abi na because I small like this wey you dey allow that mumu worry you?. Oya follow me, all of you” She spat into Odenigbo’s face and hissed.
In the backyard, Olanna was pinned to the ground beside the grave. She was laughing hysterically and fighting the men to jump back into the grave. It took four men to hold her to the ground, each of them sweating profusely. Her eyes were red, and black lines of tears and eye pencil ran down her face. Her dress was wet and there was mud in her hair. Baby ran ahead and cupped Olanna’s face.
“Mummy Ola, O gini? What is it?” She asked. “Why are you crying? Who is chasing you?” She rubbed Olanna’s back, and cooed her until Olanna stopped laughing. “Mummy Ola? Mummy Ola?”. The calmness in Baby’s voice surprised everyone. She stared very hard at Olanna and held her hands. Then she placed her head on Olanna’s tummy.
Odenigbo edged forward and knelt beside Olanna as he asked “Nkem, O gini? Nkem? What do you want?” His voice was broken, and hoarse. He had been crying.
Olanna placed her hand on her stomach and began to cry silently. “My sister is gone. But she is coming back to me in this child. I will name her Kainene. Let’s see what will happen next. Let’s look to the future. We cannot bury anything. Kainene. Let’s wait and see.”
Image from here.