He was buried on that same morning he died.
He was buried so because he died young and painfully. They said it wasn’t fit for the full burial rights to be performed.
His extended family and a handful of neighbours -and me of course- crowded around the hastily-dug grave as his brothers lowered the cheap coffin into the hollowed-out earth. His father beat his chest and gnashed his teeth in sorrow, his mother wept, the tears running down her cheeks, dropping on the sand-papered wood of the slowly descending coffin housing her son in its womb. His sisters cried, their hands clasped atop their disheveled heads in despair. His brothers, in agony did what they had to do; lower the coffin carefully in final reverence.
He was buried, buried at the communal farmland at the boundary with Umunneachi as was the custom, that his spirit, too embittered and exuberant to watch over the ancestral home may roam the highways. He was laid alongside many before him; those who hastily left the land of the living, leaving grief in their wake.
His mother would cry for many nights to come, for although he was a mischievous child, grown into a radical young man, he was dear to her heart. They say that despite her number of chicks, a mother hen will never readily give up the least of her brood to the sharp-clawed hawk. The father would mourn for a time and find quick solace in the company of friends and green bottles of half empty beers clustered atop beer tables, only to give a fleeting thought about his dead son when he staggered into the sitting room tipsy from a late night out with peers and glancing at his son’s enlarged photo which his wife had obstinately refused to remove from its prominent position beside the statue of the Virgin Mary on the mantel piece in the sitting room.
On that cloudy morning when he was buried in the communal farmlands, I mourned with his family. I mourned not because I knew him, for I hadn’t heard of him, but got to know of Omemgbeoji’s son who had died and was to be buried immediately on that morning, and so like a typical son of the soil who adhered to “onuru akwa nwanne agbaala oso, he that hears the cry of his brother should run to his side’ I had followed the quiet procession to the quickly dug-out grave.
I have heard very little of Omemgbeoji’s son but I had never seen him before. They said he left Nigeria for Benin Republic a very, very long time ago when I was still a child. They said he was a teenager then. They said he was hardworking and frugal, that he had worked hard and saved well. They said he had saved enough to pay for his pass across the border. What adventures he encountered, nobody knew but he sent an envelope containing crisp Franc notes and a lengthy letter that chronicled his exploits on his journey and arrival to Cotonou, how he arrived the Seme border only to realize that he bore fake travel papers,, how he had to bribe customs and immigrations at the border with almost everything he had. The letter arrived through a friend coming back to Mbaise, another Nigerian resident in Cotonou. Omemgbeoji as early as the second light of the day had literarily dragged a drowsy-eyed college student from three compounds away from his bed. He needed the lad to decipher and communicate to him the message the brawny scribbles on white paper held. It was written in very bad English, and the college boy stumbled over the words many too often, but in the end, Omemgbeoji was happy to squeeze a fifty naira note into the boy’s hand for his troubles, confident in the knowledge that his son had arrived safely to a faraway town (judging from the strangeness of the name) and now had a thriving shoe shop. The letter said he had arrived the city of Cotonou with almost all of his money gone in crossing the Seme border, but on converting his naira notes into CFA francs, he wondered at how much a few naira notes can buy in Cotonou. For the first two months, the letter said he lost himself to the nightlife of the city, hitting every popular nightclub, drinking and living the carefree life of a lad with means; of course, at the mention that he was a Nigerian, they worshiped him as though he was the god-custodian of a hidden fountain of wealth and he never fell short of such expectations. He thought the country a poor one, but then he couldn’t help but wonder at the ease of life he saw; electricity, pipe-borne water, good roads, security and a kind of complacency, a feeling of trust that the country was in capable hands. Such was the life he saw in Benin Republic, a country dwarfed by the imposing influence of his own country, a country that looked up to Big Brother for validation, a country that yet dwarfed The Giant in upholding the social contract. He had run out of money eventually and fell from fame. When he no longer could visit the nightclubs, he noticed that none of the clubbers cared, they simply went about their frolicking existence, massaging the ego of the next ‘happening guy’ willing to pass free bottles of the local brands of beer around. He had gone hungry for weeks until he met Chike (the guy who later would bring home his first letter home). Chike was also a member of the partying specie, but he ran a successful business in footwears. Chike introduced him to the Ibo community in Cotonou and after he had shown his dedication to becoming a bona fide member of the Association Of Ndigbo In Cotonou, they raised a loan for him and offered to guide him on how best to invest it wisely in a thriving business. Thirteen months later and he had paid off the last installment on the loan, had a big shop that sold shoes in the business hub of Cotonou.
Even though he never came home very often, but Omengbeoji had put much stock to this his son more than his other children, for you heard him brag in the open of how he was amongst those fortunate fathers who had sons resident overseas.
He had fallen ill in Cotonou. They said his legs began to swell and that he was really sick. They said he had expended all of his money in Cotonou on medical care and that he wasn’t yet getting any better. It is believed that it was best for a man to die in his home and not in a foreign land, however, if he did die in a foreign land the cost of conveying his remains back home for burial would be as expensive as it would be stressful- even though nobody dared spelt dealt at that stage while the man was still breathing- and so fellow kinsmen in Cotonou had raised funds to pay for his flight back to his people. He had arrived Nigeria and his family had gotten him to a hospital. When we got to learn that it was the much dreaded kidney problems, spirits began to fall. Periodic dialysis and expensive drugs sucked up all the money his family had. His father sold off parcels of farmland, his mother sold off her new wrappers and all the little money she had stashed away at the very depths of her cloth boxes that reeked of camphor, his siblings emptied their bank accounts of money they each had saved up, they also borrowed to save life of their brother and son, but he was gradually pining away. The dialysis was eating away all their resources, the vague hope of a future, and despair began to set in, giving way to agitated quarrels in the home. They had no money to take him to India and so they took him to an evangelic mission, a shack by the waterside. Long nights of vigils, fasting and prayers, shouting and conjuring up thunder and fire upon some perceived evil persons behind his illness, pouring and drinking of bottles of adulterated olive oil, had all preceded his death on the fourth day, on that morning.
They had done a lot of crying earlier, but they still cried for the realization that their fears did come true. Their pockets had been wringed of all juice that they didn’t want to consider the extra expense of paying for the services of a mortuary. Angry at fate, they had conveyed his corpse to the village. Elder kinsmen were called and after a brief whisper of deliberation, a little procession had followed the coffin lifted shoulder high by youths to the hastily dug-out grave at the farmlands.
I had known him, but I was aggrieved because others grieved.
We learnt he had a woman in Cotonou, we learnt that they had two sons together. It was a comforting knowledge, that he was a father, that he sired sons, two at that. It eased our pain that he wasn’t ‘onye ama ya chiiri echi’, one who had no son to perpetuate his lineage. It wasn’t a total loss after all, even though he died in his prime, but then what father would have no son to read his funeral oration at his graveside? What husband would have no widow to mourn him bitterly wailing as her love was committed to the bosom of the earth, the mother that first gives to take back later. Did she know of her husband’s death? If she knew, was she mourning him at this moment? Would she just shrug off the memory of her ‘Nigerien’ husband and choose to marry a real husband, a fellow native, a Beninese? Would the children like real Africans seek their roots someday or would they grow up with the memory of a foreign father who got sick, travelled to Nigeria and never showed up again?
I pondered on all these while we buried our dead, while the once gaping grave had been filled with earth and the space that was once a level piece of earth became a large mound of earth, impregnated by the corpse of a young man in his prime.