Uche Egonu

Prof. Jo

Oga how far[1]? Do you want me to take your bags?”

                  Chinedu looked up at the boy talking to him. He couldn’t have been more than 18, maybe 20. The youth these days looked younger and younger and sometimes he just couldn’t guess whether someone was 15“ or 25. His eyes begged for acceptance from Chinedu and Chinedu suddenly remembered the fervent hustle attitude embedded in the people back home. This boy probably wouldn’t stop offering him services until he stops the car in front of Chinedu’s house and asks him for 100,000 naira because he saw the JFK on his luggage tags.

                  “No, I dey fine. My sister is coming for me,” Chinedu says making sure to switch into his heavy Imo State accent.

                  “Eh ok”

                  The boy sulked away disappointed for a bit before darting towards another gentleman that just exited the airport.

                  Chinedu smiled and walked over to a bench on the easternmost edge of the pickup area. Port Harcourt airport had changed considerably since he had last been there. For lack of better of words, the old airport was abysmal. There were still remnants of the airport that he was familiar with though – the brutalist cement architecture, the bland color scheme of gray and green, and the faint smell of “Ghana must go” bags filled with stockfish. However, everything else seemed to be brand new. Gone was the dusty road pickup lot interspersed with dehydrated tufts of grass, instead replaced by sleek pavement surrounded with black-and-white checkered borders. The ceilings of the terminal were dotted with bright recessed lighting that reflected off the sterile white floors that replaced the old cream colored linoleum. Even the types of travelers coming into the airport have changed. Before, the only people you really saw were locals trying to get back home to Owerri, Calabar, or Enugu. However, the number of foreigners has greatly increased as Chinese businessmen were now walking alongside Igbo financiers, heading to their drivers perched by fleets of Range Rovers and Chevy Suburbans.

                  Chinedu reached into his duffle and pulled out a pack of Newports and a lighter. He flicked the lighter aflame, lit the cigarette, and breathed in. As he let the air out, he could taste the tobacco mixing in with the humid summery air. After a few puffs, his phone started to vibrate.

                  “Nwanne m[2] where are you? Are you just going to keep me here waiting out my whole retirement?”

                  “Ah ah, relax! I got caught in a go slow[3] on the way. I’ll be there”

                  “Go slow? I no sabi[4]. This isn’t Lagos. How many cars can actually be on these roads?”

                  “Brother it has been too long since you have been here. Port Harcourt is getting big now. All these Americanah[5] kids are coming here to secure contracts with the government and fighting against all the British, Chinese, and American businessmen. Even just to get to Choba market is a hassle because they all cluster around the university.”

                  “Ehhh really? Ok ok. I won’t give you anymore wahala.”

                  “Ehh big chief America thank you o! I am honored.”

                  Chinedu let out a chuckle followed by a series of coughs.

                  “Are you smoking? Chinedu, your daughter told me specifically not to let you smoke. She said your doctors are worrying about you.”

                  “My doctors are not worrying about anything. You know Ada just keeps hassling because she has nothing else to do right now. Ever since she’s been put on bedrest with her pregnancy, she wants to micromanage everybody else since she is bored. Honestly, I wonder how her residents in the hospital are able to live? If this is the way she is with us, it must be too much at work”

                  “Well either way put it down. If I find them on you, you go see peppeh[6].”

                  “Ok ok no problem. I’ll talk to you when you get here.”

                  “Ok, be there soon.

                  As he placed his phone back in his pocket, Chinedu thought about what his sister said. It had been a long time since he was back home. The last time he was in Nigeria, Babangida had just recently seized power and his oldest daughter was just 2 years old. Chinedu himself was the picture of strength, looming over his friends at 6’4 with broad shoulders and an athletic stature. He was instantly recognizable wherever he went with his signature three-piece suits and the confident swagger in his gait. His hair was always crisply lined up and trimmed closely to his scalp. Back then, his life was well pieced together and he was on the fast track to success and wealth. He had it all - a career on Wall Street, a beautiful growing family, and the envy of all his friends. He had loved Nigeria but at that time, he thought his home was beneath him. After Black Monday, that beautiful lifestyle crumbled quickly. He stayed in America all these years out of necessity, fighting to climb back to stability. When he was younger and struggling to rebuild his career, he never thought about heading back to Nigeria. However, as he aged he started to miss the memories of his youth and the company of his old friends and family.

Now at 70 years old, he had made the decision that he would return back home to Nigeria and retire in the comfortable environments of his old home. Although still relatively tall and strong for his age, Chinedu was coming back home the complete opposite of how he left the country. His hair had receded deeply into the back of his head, leaving just a ring of coarse dark gray hair around his head. His signature suits had long been traded in for loose agbadas[7] that covered his entire body and flowed down to the middle of his shins. As he grew older, he started to prefer the versatility that these robes gave him. They also allowed him to feel closer in touch with home and gave off the impression that he was more important than he was due to the regal embroidery on each his outfits. It also didn’t hurt that they covered the belly that he grew after years of subsisting on a diet of Guinness stouts and pounded yam with egusi.

It wasn’t just his physical appearance and the city that had changed since he had left. As soon as Chinedu landed back in Lagos before his flight to Port Harcourt, his rose colored glasses about his come country started to fade a little bit. The conversations and mannerisms of those around him felt familiar but not comforting in the way that he anticipated it would be.  Sitting on this bench, he started to ponder if Nigeria was still his home? He may still be able to hold conversations in Pidgin with any Lagos local or converse in Igbo with villagers in Orlu, but he was not truly one of them anymore. The country had gone through major political, economic, and social shifts and he wasn’t there to witness any of it. He kept up with news via the internet or emails from his sister, but it wasn’t the same as living through the changes. What he knew best at this point was America. He grew a taste for the affections of his life in America and the memories that he had built over there as well. New York was where he raised his three children, learned to adapt and thrive, and grew of network of friends that he considered his family. Back in New York, he could walk down Central Park and relive the memories of teaching his kids how to ride bikes or the chess games he used to play with his first neighbor, Khizar who had also just moved from Pakistan. A few blocks down from the park stood the catholic church where he and some of his friends spearheaded an effort to have a mass one Sunday of the month that was spoken in Igbo and could serve as a focal point for Igbo community in the area. Decades of his time and devotion were spent building that community into a space for people like him that wanted to see a blend of their old culture mix with their new home. Although Nigeria was home to the glories of his youth and family, New York was home to his struggle for acceptance and the strong community that he forged out of that.

Breaking his stream of thoughts, the sound of a car horn blared through the arrivals lot. Looking up, Chinedu saw a dusty silver Toyota Rav4 stop right in front of him. When the front window lowered, he could see his sister beaming at him and waving her arms around.

“O ya big chief! Welcome home!”

“Ehhh, look at you howling like a goat. So you will just balance there and not come help me with my bags?”

“Of course I am coming. Biko[8], have patience.”

Back before he left, Chinedu’s younger sister, Nneka, was just an unruly teenager. Fifteen years his junior, he had always acted like more of an uncle to her than a brother. Although she was his favorite sibling, he hardly saw her since he left for home. She visited New York once when his twin sons were born but hadn’t come after that due to the costs of travel and the difficulty in getting a visa. Looking at her now, she was still as wiry and tall as she was when she was a teenager. The only thing that really changed about her was the small wrinkles that were entering her face and the long braids that she has now traded in for a short afro.

“Eh look at you! You haven’t changed one bit!”

“Nwanne m thank you. My daughter told me this hairstyle is now in vogue apparently because everybody is going natural.”

“That is what my daughter says too. Every few years it changes, I no sabi but that isn’t any of my business.”

“Look at you wearing agbada now like some eze[9]. I can still see you have gained weight though. Don’t think you can hide that from me. It’s all those hamburgers and cola that you eat and drink in America.”

“Hamburgers gini? I only eat eba and ogbono[10]. Don’t make mistake, I am still more fit than any man my age.”

“Ok ok. Whatever you say big chief.”

Chinedu sucked his teeth in mocking dismay and grabbed some of his bags. Heading to the car, he thought quickly again about all the fears that he listed earlier. Nigeria may not be the same place of his youth, but it was one of his homes nonetheless. It no longer was the only place his heart cared about but it still filled him feelings of love.

[1] Oga is a term used to show respect for a male who might be a boss, elder, or respectable figure. Also, in this phrase how far is a greeting

[2] Nwanne m - My sibling (can be used for brother or sister)

[3] Go slow in this context means traffic jam

[4] I no sabi – I don’t understand

[5] Americanah – term for young people who were educated or lived in America and move back to Nigeria. The term is sometimes derogatory as these people are thought to lose some aspects of their Nigerian heritage

[6] There’s going to be trouble

[7] Loose, flowing robe worn by Nigerian men over a matching pant and shirt combo. It covers the whole body and has wide sleeves that are usually rolled p to the shoulder. 

[8] Biko means please

[9] Eze means king

[10] Eba is a dish made of dried, powedered cassava that is made into a doughy paste. It is usually eaten with soups like ogbono soup that is made out of dry ogbono seeds and mixed vegetables

Joel CampoComment