I was eleven years old the year my family moved from Onitsha to Aba. I am the oldest child and for years to come, I’ll always chide myself for my inability to see through the façade my parents put up on that day they sat my siblings and I down in our shabby living room to announce to us that we will be paying our grandparents a visit in Aba.
I should have suspected something from the onset about the sudden decision because my grandparents every Christmas we traveled home always pleaded with my parents to let us visit them in Aba and my father will always snap back angrily: ‘Aba has nothing to offer my kids. It is not a place for my children’. Whenever my father said this, it always piqued my curiosity and my desire to see this city that my father detests too much increased. I know that my father left the city when he could immediately he completed his primary school. So, the city of Aba fascinated me because I wanted to see the house my father grew up in with his siblings and play along the same paths he did and see the primary school he went to even though he told me that the school shut down years ago, I still wanted to see where it was previously situated.
I wanted to see and breathe in the same city my father did while growing up. Beyond the excitement and squeals of happiness, I should have noticed all the signs that something was wrong hence this sudden visit to the very city my father had sworn we would never set foot in.
My mother said it was a temporary visit. She said we will be back soon after our school break ends. But, when she started packing almost all of our stuffs and sold off most of our properties including our prized Toshiba television and when my father grew silent suddenly with hard lines of weariness etched permanently onto his grim face, I knew something was amiss. People who go to visit their parents are often happy and excited as they look forward to seeing their old folks again so my young mind couldn’t fathom the reason my father looked so unhappy and reluctant.
I didn’t ask the questions that were dancing around in my head though; we never ask questions about anything in my family. Our parents make the decisions regarding our family. They only tell us (their kids) about their decisions weeks after it has been made. They make these decisions and expect us as kids to agree to those decisions without questions and we always acquiesced.
So, we watched as everything we had in our small, cramped flat where we've spent our entire childhood disappear right in front of us. My exhausted parents sold our cushions, curtains, television, old tired noisy fridge and ceiling fans. Slowly, our tiny flat expanded and became bigger especially when all the junk littering the cramped hallway were thrown away or sold most probably. Strangers moved in and out of our house carrying stuffs that were important to us away; we never saw those things again. Heavy ‘Ghana must go’ bags grew steadily and were heaped into a pile in our living room.
One of the smaller bags contained my siblings’ school uniforms, food flasks and water bottles. I remember asking my mother why she packed all those and she mumbled something woodenly about the need to keep them safe from dust, rats and cockroaches. I already know that whenever we traveled to the village, my mother always covered all our essentials with a thick coverall, she’d tuck everything in so properly that the dust and rats’ dung only accumulate on top of the coverall and never ever affect the covered stuffs. I wondered why she just wouldn’t do the same thing instead of going through all the stress of carrying them all the way to Aba.
It never occurred to me to press on and really get to know what was going. It was years later that I realized that we’d been evicted from our house. When I saw the white and black stripped paper authorizing the eviction one day as I rummaged through old bags, it hurt me how much my parents endured in the bid to protect me and my siblings; I tried to imagine how hard it must have been for them lying to us that we were going for a holiday visit instead of saying that we were moving back to my father’s childhood house because we had just been evicted from the only home we’ve always known all our young lives.
They knew it would have been difficult for us knowing that we were leaving our home, friends and school behind to an entirely, different and as we later discovered an even harsher environment. I had just completed my primary school and was studying for my entrance exams into a secondary school that year we boarded the bus to Aba.
In Aba, we learnt quickly how to fold ourselves into this veneer of what we’re expected to be like– Umu Aba. I remember one of my uncles advising us on how to adjust to the new city. My younger sibling had just run into the house weeping because someone had hit him so much that a small bump showed on his forehead.
My uncle left the house, found the scrawny boy and hit him so hard my mother had to plead with him to leave the poor boy alone. When he stopped beating the boy, he turned to us and said exasperatedly: “you don’t act weak in this city. Ihea bu Aba. If you act weak, this city will swallow you whole. You have to learn how to fight back and stop doing so selense”. He really didn’t have to warn us; we discovered this on our own in the hardest way when the neighbors started bullying us for being “different and irritatingly superior”. Even our Anambra accent grated on their ears. The way we said, “ kedu ife o?” instead of “ole ihe o?”, the way we said, “come on si ebe a puo” instead of “taah, gbafuo here”, the way we said, “kita kita” instead of, “ugbu ugbu a” were enough reason to mock and curse us. The way we spoke with “civil gentility” instead of the rash loud Aba way seemed to grate on their nerves.
When my siblings and I stepped outside our grandparents’ gate, the other mean kids pulled our ears, knocked us hard on our head and teased us for being so “umu Anambra”. They never understood how we could stay inside our house from morning to night without growing bored and when we tried to explain that we once lived in a flat and that our mother always locked us inside anytime she left to the market or to her store, they couldn't understand.
We tried explaining that we didn’t even need much persuasion to stay inside the flat because every other kid were in their own flats too watching television, playing whot or any other thing to keep boredom away. We didn’t even know what being bored meant. That was the life we were used to; it was hard understanding this new existence where kids seem to run effervescently and aimlessly around the morbid streets that had small houses with so many rooms than the houses can carry lining the dirty, puddle-filled streets throwing stones at each other and at trees, shouting obscenities even at adults, playing rough games we didn’t understand.
For a very long time, my parents struck us mildly for running around the streets with the other kids. They were aghast when we started rolling the Aba slangs and language out of our lips almost as smoothly as our Anambra words. For a very long time, my mother snapped at us for speaking like “umuazi Aba a na enwero home training”. It was hard for all of us. It was like sewing on another skin over our original skin; one that we desperately needed if we must survive and thrive in this new city.
Soon enough, she stopped harassing and scolding when she realized that she too need to pull on that new skin. The only way we could free ourselves from the bullying and adjust properly, finally was to shed ourselves of our former skin and take on more and more of our new skin. We learnt how to divide and section ourselves into different fragments and layers. One layer/fragment is our true selves while the other is one we must pull on in order to fit in survive and thrive in our new environment.
So, we let more and more of the Aba slangs seep into our vocabulary and took on more of the accent and language. We pronounced things the Aba way, yelled the loud Aba way, fought and cursed the Aba way despite how much we detested it. That was the only way we could be accepted and allowed to breathe.
We soon stopped complaining about the terrible roads, incessant power cuts and non-stop heavy rains. We soon learnt how to jump gutters like pros. We learnt how to pull up our skirts, fold the hem of our trousers and wade through the muddy floods and puddles without hesitation; how to turn our eyes and pinch our noses close without covering them physically to avoid the stench emanating from the burnt bodies that often littered the rough, potholed roadsides.
Our ears became accustomed to the sounds of gunshots that often ring through the nights. Sometimes, they sounded so distant and faint and other times it sounded so close that one can hear them even when dreaming.
My mother began hurling insults back at strangers and barrow pushers’ in the market when they nudge her roughly out of the way. Once, when we were returning from the church one Sunday, my mother dropped her bible by the roadside to fight with a keke driver who splashed dirty water all over her dress. They spent a great amount of time cursing and insulting each other and did not stop until a crowd appeared.
That is also one of the things we learnt shortly after we moved to the city – how quickly Aba people started fights and how much they enjoyed watching fights. At every slightest provocation, someone is already cursing and ready to fight. My uncle once said everyone in Aba wants to be always right and no one is ready to accept defeat or that he/she is wrong about anything. They will rather fight it out than accept being wrong, they will blame anyone and anything rather than themselves even when they are at fault. So, the keke driver that Sunday morning screamed at mother for “blocking” the way, he said that she should have moved out of the way when she saw the tricycle coming. My mother screamed at him for driving when he knew he was blind. He yelled at her to blame the government and not him for the bad roads. It amused and frightened me seeing my mother like that especially how freely the Aba curse words flowed from her lips. It amused me because she is always scolding and hitting us for speaking like Aba thugs but that morning, she spoke like a true thug without mincing words or cringing at her choice of words; the way she dropped her bible to fight was frighteningly amusing, almost embarrassing. It frightened me that my mother is becoming somebody she’s not, that she’s forcing herself into a skin that is not hers; someone who can easily drop her bible to fight on a Sunday morning right after church is not who she is but someone she had to become urgently.
Gradually, we began losing tiny parts of ourselves, shelving them away, locking parts of ourselves we will never need away in the darkest places that'd be hard to reach and recollect.
Aba taught us how to be strong; the city strengthened our limbs, muscles and voices. Adapting to the new city meant adapting and accepting its people, ways of living, beliefs even if you disapprove of so many things. Adapting to the city meant living with people who are quite different in many ways to the people one has become accustomed to living with. And living with these new people meant sometimes lowering one’s standards to tolerate in order to be at peace not only with them but also with one's self.
I learnt how to break bottles during fights, how to hurl insults at ''enemies", how to push back at people in the markets, how to.....survive and be a proper nwa aba.
Often my dad spoke about returning back to Onitsha. Until I left secondary school, he spoke about leaving Aba. When he had to come for me at the army barracks where I was detained and tortured for cultism, he lamented about how the city was taking his children away from him. When my younger sister, Nneka almost died trying to have an abortion, he locked himself in his room for days.
The weight of his parental failure bore down on him heavily. The weary lines on his face tightened. He lost his faith. Soon he stopped going to church. He'd sit with the other men drinking kai-kai and arguing. He stopped talking about leaving Aba. He accepted what cannot be.
Cities give and take. They can swallow, consume and absorb but they can be kind too. Till I left, Aba was home. And sometimes homes are not the safest places but it's those experiences that form us and give us memories to look back at. Our old house is no longer standing. In its place, a bungalow with peeling paint stood. The new owners cut down the guava tree that once stood in the middle of the compound. Homes can fall apart and disintegrate. The only real home remains the memories and scars we carry within and on us. Home are all the places and with all the people we feel safe around.