I remember going to our hometown from Awka.
My father, bless him, was always excited on these trips. He would enchant us with stories of walking long distances in bare feet to fetch water and swimming in rivers, the games they played along the way, the palm kernels he collected, shelled and sold for pocket money. Sometimes there was a new story and at other times it was simply a rehash of ones we had heard many times before. His voice pitched in the juiciest parts of the story, he swivelled his head to ensure we were listening to every word. My mother would cut him off with a reminder to keep his eyes on the road.
These days I know the journey took all of 45 mins to an hour tops, but it seemed much longer then, especially when we got stuck in Onitsha traffic.
I passed the time watching for shapes in the clouds; here a rabbit, there an elephant’s head, and God’s hand waving. Sometimes, they just reminded me of pounded yam made from the newest, whitest tubers, the kind we ate during New Yam festivals. My stomach would grumble and I would focus on hawkers tapping on the windows of our car and take the deep breath needed to interrupt my father.
My mother always bought sensible things like loaves of bread and bunches of bananas with their accompanying groundnut parcels for people in the village. If the traffic jam was particularly bad, we could have some Gala to stave off hunger. There were always sweating bottles of water in the car which had started out the journey a little more than cylinders of ice. We weren’t allowed to have the ‘omiyo-omiyo!’ sweets that their sellers announced with piercing whistles.
Soon, we would leave the bottleneck behind, my father speeding to make up for lost time. We were allowed a respite from trapped air behind windows wound up to dissuade theft, my mother resting her fingers from clicking the air conditioner on and off.
The breeze would lift the hairs on my arms and make me smile. There was always a thick liquid sliding down my arm from having whichever sister was near me at the time resting on my shoulder; I never slept in cars. I didn’t mind the saliva by then. My mind was on the one thing which my dad never failed to get us: a local snack from his childhood. The hawkers sold it straight from the fire in front of the failed airport leading to the Igwe’s palace in our hometown.
He called it ‘Ie-iee’. They were the larvae of palm tree beetles roasted over a wood fire.
We would bite into them, feeling the fat from their bodies dribble down our chins in a fragrant stream. It is like biting into al-dente pasta, but the taste is nothing that I can describe. It’s like if chicken and fish and lamb and game are combined in one capsule. The crunchy heads were the best. I liked to eat those last.
Sometimes, he also bought us ‘Kwoi’ or ‘Akwa ogazi’, eggs from a guinea fowl and taught us knocking games that helped you claim other people’s eggs. Of course he always won. He gave the eggs back to us and we ate as many as we could before my mother could catch us.
When I left home, I was a ‘girl’. I met my husband here. I had my child here. And so anytime I think of home, I am alone. I am young. My grandmothers are still alive and the clouds are pounded yam. I know who I am, there. I eat and breathe literature, I am confident I will win the Caine Prize before I am 24 and my voice is strong. I have not yet lost my way. I have not yet been knocked about by life.
I know that going to Nigeria with my husband and my son is the reason I have been having nightmares.
In them, I am walking on familair road and the sunlight is on my face. I have just stepped in cow dung on Works road. I turn around laughing as I normally do. My husband should be by my right but he has disappeared. And yet I know he is there somewhere. It’s as if he has stepped behind the curtains hiding this world from another just like it.
I might be laughing one minute with my friends and the next, I am trying hard to remember something important that I have forgotten and I keep coming back to this …forgetting. I know on waking that it’s Tot. I never see Tot in any of the dreams. It is as if he never was.
I like to think I am a realist. I know that my brain is trying to create a world where my past and present are married and coming up short; it’s like that film Inception when the sub-conscious know there is foreign body and seek to exterminate it.
I cannot blame my brain. It cannot make memories where none exist; this will be Tot’s first time in Nigeria, yes, but it will also be a first for me too. It will be my first time there as a mother with all it’s added responsibilities and traditions and unspoken rules and expectations, expectations, expectations. I know how to be a mother here and I know I can be a mother anywhere else, especially in Igboland. I’ve witnessed it done often enough. But after decades of watching from the outside, I know it will seem as if I blinked and woke up in someone else’s body in a play I haven’t rehearsed for, where everyone expects me to be the part.
And that’s why I can never go home again.
Home as I know it, no longer exists.