Growing up, kids my age feared different things –gbomo gbomo or ojuju catching you for frolicking about in the streets after dark. It was those things, or that wicked primary 4 teacher with the huge Koboko and tiger whisker type tribal marks, or maybe one of those electric ants which released acid on your sleepy face. Some youngsters feared the dark especially after watching Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. Almost everybody dreaded catching conjunctivitis – as it earned you torment and quarantine from your friends and family members. There’s no lonelier planet than one where an Apollo sufferer dwells.
I was scared silly of my Uncle Akanti. He was a tyrant who stopped over at our house when he liked, and commandeered our living space during his unannounced visits – like a rent hungry landlord, who does not respect a tenant’s right to quiet enjoyment. He was old school Igbo too – barrel chested with the girth of Goliath, with coarse armpit hairs that could blunt a Bic razor, and a back hand slap that belonged on a tennis court. I once saw him use that slap to break our driver down to the very last compound, when he used our Peugeot 505 for kabu kabu.
Uncle Akanti was a grumpy man. He grunted a reply when you greeted him good morning and never laughed in front of women and children, preferring to put his macho image on show at all times.
I couldn’t imagine Uncle having sex with his wife, who he loved to bark orders to. He seemed too harsh for such trivialities, like engaging a female in the cabaret of love or sexual stupor. His son Nwataewu must have come into being by means of some scientific curiosity like the Big Bang (no pun intended).
I remember a particular episode when I was eight years old and three of us were having breakfast – I, Uncle Akanti and my sister Nnochiaha. It was a delightful feast too – scrambled eggs, Agege loaf, fried plantain and cups of Vitalo. Uncle Akanti was having something else instead – a spicy Igbo delicacy called mkpuru-oso, which he shoved into his face hole, with a licking clink on the spoon, while reading Vintage People magazine. He routinely criticized plantain as “sugar food” with no nutrients.
Nnochiaha had wolfed down her meal, and kept on nicking slices of dodo from my plate. As she took another particularly juicy slice, I snapped like a Ninja tortoise. Waving my fork, I issued a threat: If you touch my food one more time, I will fork your hand!”
On hearing that, Uncle Akanti dropped his newspaper and laid into me, scolding me for daring to use the word “fuck” and saying that he was sure I was watching blue film or reading Dauda the Sexy Guy comics somewhere. He was right on the later score.
You see I was raised in the era where other adults apart from your parents could reprimand or discipline you. Uncle Akanti would not dare put hands on me, as my father would have put hands on him, and stopped financial hand-outs to him. That didn’t stop me and siblings from being afraid of Uncle, the same way corpers fear the NYSC soldiers who are not allowed to strike corpers.
As I grew older – and taller – my fear of my uncle dissipated, and I saw less of him around as I went off to boarding school and then university. The next time I saw him was at a village wearing-cloth ceremony event a few years back, and I didn’t even recognize him at first as he had greyed considerably. He asked me that time-honored question every Igbo urbanite has been asked again and again by older villagers during visits to the hamlet – Do you know who I am?
I drew a blank.
He repeated the question, like a Nigerian policeman interrogating someone he really wants to incriminate.
I was www.confused.com
He finally gave me a clue “It is me, Papa Nwataewu”
I exclaimed “Uncle Akanti! It has been an Imo State minute…”
He was done with the small talk, and went straight to the point like an Aristo who foregoes foreplay “Esco nwa m. Biko find me something. I hear you are now a former overseas scholar. What did you bring for me from the land of the white man?
I wanted to reply “my diploma”. I even wanted to add “mirror and guns” like the ancient colonialists.
I decided to bestow cash upon him, as I didn’t want to tango further. I reluctantly pulled out a 20 pound note – as I did not have any Naira in my wallet, and my Uncle was not about to let me post him to rendezvous later. He had a vulcanizer type grip on my arm.
He screamed in disbelief when he saw the pound note with Prince Charles’ mother’s portrait, and I saw a smile I had never seen beamed in front of woman and child “Pound Sterling! Sweet baby Jesus! Chai, Esco, you have done very well”
Queen Elizabeth’s portrait on a piece of legal tender is enough to make the most hardened man smile with glee. With that, Uncle Akanti shuffled into the sunset.
My fear of my Uncle is gone, but new fears have arisen since at different times during my journey into middle life. I hate being afraid, and I have had to find ways to dismantle or face them.
– A doubt that I am not good enough and I will be found out when asked to submit my intellectual certificate. Unlike a physical certificate, an intellectual certificate cannot be forged. Or hidden by the army secretariat during an election. An intellectual certificate is tied to your IQ and brain matter.
– Overcoming doubts and wondering if I would follow the successes and uphold the legacy of my father, or if I will be the weak link generation. Chukwu a ju!
– Scared that cancer and diabetes will murder me like it did my father and grand-dad. Is cancer the new malaria? When I was growing up typhoid was the new malaria. Diarrhea and dysentery were the old malaria – until Oral Rehydration Therapy. Let us kick cancer out of Nigeria.
– Fear of what the future holds, and what kind of world my daughter Otaakara will grow into. Will her cultural influences keep her grounded? the good Igbo values of work, pride in community and defiance in adversity. Will she be a runs girl or run for president?
– A fear of flying. I love to travel, but I hate airplanes. Airplane food sucks too. First class seats are not bad, but it doesn’t help when you have someone snoring in the next compartment. It doesn’t help if you cannot afford them. It also doesn’t help if you are in a comfortable reclineable chair, but you are still 50,000 feet in the sky flying above ice-bergs in the bloody Atlantic. Men forget all those drills the air hostess does at the start of the trip, talking about what to do if the aircraft hits the water. I usually do yimu whenever they start their gesticulations, or bury my head in the aircraft magazines reading each sentence again and again. Tell that stuff to the birds (no pun intended). My thing once I board is to shove my hand luggage into the overhead compartment, say my prayers and then drink as many coolers of wine as I can extract from the air hostess, so that I can pass out. These are not available on our local-champion flights.
We all have our own fears, and a life well lived is a life bracing them. In University I knew a chap who confessed that he was terrified of leaving the school system. We teased that he had more extras than Panadol.
Some have a dread of descending into a cycle of poverty, despair or addiction, and being abandoned to our fates. Of the above despair is the worst – the quicksand trapdoor of any affliction. Or venturing out from under the care of their parents, or starting a new project, or taking a full plunge into an endeavor – the wages of failure in Nigeria is financial death and social suicide. There are no training wheels in our system for the youthful start-ups.
I read an article a while ago, which gave some tips for overcoming your fear of something. One is to try to take control of the fear by confrontation to sort of desensitize yourself to it (avoid doing this if you have a fear of dogs – a bite is worse than a bark). Another is to re-channel the fear so that you see it as opportunity for victory (very useful – start that business as the fear of starting hurts less than the insults/see finish which come with begging successful people for help all the time).
Another method is to analyze what scares you, by writing it down – which is what I have done in this article. I feel stronger and more courageous already. You should try it.
Hope for the best, prepare for the worst/
No fears, on nothing on earth/
Nas (Life Is What You Make It, 1999)
Photo Credit: Dreamstime | Frizzantine