My Legendary Uncle
and Other Awful Memories
It was in 1994 when I realized people could generate enough heat to fry fish. Men, women, boys, girls and anybody who was anything in Ijeja, would all cram themselves into our sitting room, sometimes even dogs. Some sat on the floor. Others stood and kept hitting the head of those who blocked them, in a jostle for the right to see the black and white pictures of men in round necks and shorts running after a ball from one end of a rectangular pitch to the other on our television.
The World Cup was on and our house was the meeting point for the entire neighbourhood. The games that involved Nigeria were naturally the most seen. People would sit on all the chairs in the house including the dining room chairs, some would even bring chairs from their houses or stools or on some occasions big black 25litre kegs which they would sit on and sometimes drum with when the frenzy of excitement caught up with them. The refrigerator with rust blending into its original brown, sitting in the corner of the dining room would witness a surge in visits on those days, as it would be opened back and forth, whining with age.
When Nigeria lost a game you could always tell from the maniacal anger in the voices of the men, the resigned look on the ladies and the interest-less bants of the children since some of them had no idea why they were seeing the games anyway. During games that Nigeria won, you could hear their laughter rumbling like thunder on a cloudy day as they jeer and boo the opposing teams as if those ones could hear them. I remember that goal scored by Rashidi Yekini in the opening match against Bulgaria and how he went inside the goalpost to shake the net.
How the house erupted into celebrations. Chairs in the air, fists bumping, rhythm-less dancing, football-players-styled hugging. The screaming and hysterical emotions running from one individual to the other. How the heat in the small space tripled. I didn’t really understand why we were screaming or dancing at the time and I didn’t care, it was more important for me to be a part of the jamboree.
Father purchased the black and white, second hand television just three days before the World Cup began. It was the reason our sitting room played host to the whole neighbourhood. Most of the folks that lived in ijeja were either artisans or low-level civil servants and since my parents were middle level civil servants, we had it better than most of them.
We lived in a three bedroom flat, with a large compound where on most days, I and the other kids in the compound would hold a track and field event. This event was usually rigged to my favour because I was the youngest. During our version of the relay race, I would be placed on the team that had the older and faster kids. I would then do my best impression of my favourite American athlete Michael Johnson as I had seen him do on television countless times whenever he was about to swoop in for victory. Pushing my chest forward and swinging my arms and legs slowly, with my tongues out, to get that slow-motion effect that I see him do often.
On some occasions, my impressions would land me into trouble and cost us the race. The other kids in my team would be livid and swear never to allow me on their team again while the opposing team would laugh at me till I cried and ran inside the house to hide myself.
It was Easter and Uncle Yomi was around, he was father’s Uncle’s brother in law’s son or something like that but he liked calling himself father’s younger brother because father’s parents had raised him and he had adopted the family name as he came to them as an orphaned child. He was tall and had a moustache and he kept an afro like father although his own afro was much taller and bushier, with a comb hanging just in between to give it the shape of a police beret.
Uncle Yomi claimed that he was once an athlete for Nigeria and was training for the Olympics when injury struck, an injury he never recovered from. He liked making up stories, stories that could not be confirmed. He once told us about chasing a vehicle speeding at 80km per hour with his superfast legs, how he caught up with it, dragged the driver—who was a known carjacker—out and beat the shit out of him. Another time he told us of a wrestling match up between himself and a bear while he was training to take on Andrew the Giant in a World Wrestling Federation match-up. Uncle Yomi even showed us some scars on his shoulder to prove his story, saying it was where the bear pawed him.
The Friday night after the day Uncle Yomi arrived, the moon came out to play and the stars along with it. Despite the absence of Nepa light in the neighbourhood, night looked like evening. Uncle Yomi said he was tired and not in the mood for stories. I was disappointed, so I looked for something else to do. Mother was in the sitting room listening to NkanNbe on her transistor radio. After a few minutes of listening with her, the anchor of the program, Kola Olawuyi and his toad like voice came on and in very smooth yoruba began talking about how a little boy's severed head was discovered under the bed of his step mother after several days of searching for him. I found myself imagining how it would be like to be headless, thinking whether the boy endured any pain while parting with his head. The thoughts sent shivers through my body. I ran to our bedroom and hid myself under the blanket, teeth clattering and shivering.
I must have slept off while hiding, because the next time my eyes were opened, it was as a result of a sound I heard from the intangible land of sleep. It was brash and harsh and it pierced through my subconscious. It reminded me of the goal we celebrated during the world cup, that almost senseless noise that followed.
We lived in a three bedroom flat and ours was the first from the gate. I stood from my bed and made my way to the sitting room. I was by the veranda that led to our rooms, when I remembered that the door to the sitting room from the veranda might be locked, I checked and true to my suspicions it was. Mother always ensured that the door stayed locked whenever we were about going to bed. I peered through the big round hole at the center of the door into the sitting room and noticed that the sound that had awoken me must have been what broke our front door down because the door was lying flat on the ground, the nails and the side hooks were gone and there was dust everywhere.
Father was out of bed—just his singlet and boxers shorts were on him. Mother was by his side, dancing from left to right to a soundless music and muttering something incoherent to herself. Their room was closest to the sitting room. The way the house was designed, the master bedroom was the first room from the sitting room and it had a different entry point from the other rooms. They were both in the sitting room facing the broken door and the men of the night.
Uncle Yomi was on the floor too like the broken door. I think he had passed out. Or maybe feigning a sleep was part of his plan to immobilize the advancing burglars and beat them. He had done worst things in his tales. He usually slept on the longest couch in the sitting room but this time he slept with his face to the ground and his arms spread as though he was trying to do an impression of a bird in flight. I walked back to our room to wake Tobi, my brother, but he was sleeping as though he had been drugged, he did not even stir.
Aunty Kemi, mother’s younger sister who usually slept in the nursery with Tolu—my little sister—opposite the room I shared with Tobi fumbled out, I think she was on her way to the bathroom. Her eyes were sleep laden like they would shut by themselves if she didn’t shut them soon. “You this boy, what are you doing there?” she said as she walked to me and squeezed my ear, dragging me towards the entrance of my room. I tried to scream out the pain but she held my mouth. As she was dragging me, we heard a slap that was swiftly followed by two more. We stopped as if on cue. Aunty Kemi put her fore finger on her lips to silence me and moved in the direction of the sitting room, squeezing the handle of the locked door as stealthily as she could. I wondered what kind of sleep she was sleeping before that didn't allow her to have heard that the door to the sitting room had been broken and why she didn't remember that the middle door was never left unlocked. I pointed at the big hole in the middle of door and she smiled at me. I expected an apology.
There were three armed men in our sitting room. One of them was designing father’s face with slaps and asking him where he kept the money. “Please sir. There is no money here sir,” Father was saying, his mouth bloodied, as though he was their butler and our house was a castle and the robbers were the owners. I think he believed he could reason with them.
Another man stood by Uncle Yomi’s sleeping form, kicking him and hoping to wake him but my legendary uncle didn't move. Another one leaned on the brown fridge, gun in hand, watching all that was happening. Mother was crying as she watched father receive the slaps. I had never seen Mother cry. She didn’t cry when she was informed that Grandma, her mother had died, Aunty Kemi had been inconsolable that day.
The one leaning on the fridge walked up to father. He told Father to address him as Askari. “Where is the money?” he asked. His voice was gruff, his hair dyed brown like he was hawking fire. Father stared at him as though he hadn’t heard or understood the question. As he would later tell us, he had assumed that they meant his personal money. But when the robber pointed his gun at his temple and asked where the money he had withdrew from the bank the previous day was, shock seemed unworthy a word to describe the feeling that registered itself on him. How could they have known that he collected money at any point yesterday when it was only him and his superior at work that knew about the money? Money that had been withdrawn for immediate disbursement, but how do you explain that to a gun slinging robber, how would he comprehend that all the money was gone. “Do you want me to refresh your memory?” Askari screamed at Father, his finger on the trigger.
“Erm…erm it was for work sah!” Maybe it was the threat of imminent danger, the inability to find answers to questions from a raging gun slinging maniac that knocked the senses back into father or maybe the shock just registered in his mind because the finesse with which he spoke earlier took a race. Askari’s face took on the cloak of a charged up bull running at a bright colored cloth. “Do you think I came to your house to count the ceiling?” He screamed to nobody in particular as he paced the sitting room. He released the safety hammer of his gun and pointed it at father.
Mother screamed in that piercing way that seemed as if she unleashed hundred sharp pins from her throat and as she would later tell us, she had thought Askari would blow father’s brains off and she may have been right. She had heard too many stories of armed robbery for her not believe that father would meet his end. Askari pulled the trigger twice but strangely the gun jammed. The bullet that was in the revolver refused to come off.
Perhaps the bullets were stuck in an unreachable cavity; wonders flew out the window and ushered in Askari's wrath. Askari threw the pistol on the floor in frustration and kicked it towards Uncle Yomi who moved involuntarily bracing himself for the ensuing impact of the gun despite his supposed unconsciousness. The other men started protesting about how killing someone wasn't part of the deal. Father, who was on his knees with his face soiled with tears, bowed his head as if praying. Mother had joined Uncle Yomi on the floor as she went butt first in a faint.
In his fury, Askari picked up the gun and went outside our compound. The deafening sound of the gunshots heralded his return back into the house looking all pleased with himself as he announced that his gun still worked as if we cared. The sound of the gunshot had gone off to distil the silent noise of the night. He walked up to father and placed the round mouth of the gun on his temple again and said, “Where is the Money?”
Father’s face became colourless like a corpse in a morgue, raising both his arms up in surrender. “Oga, there is no money sah... Please sah I have children sah, don’t kill me sah. I beg you sah,” Father pleaded, bending down in a motion, which looked as if he wanted to prostrate but not sure if he should.
“Open ya bloody mouth, you stubborn fool. I go show you today.” Askari commanded, a heavily drawl on his voice indicating that he could be Igbo; but there was no deciphering if he was Igbo or not, anybody in Nigeria could speak like that if they wanted. Askari squeezed the trigger and the gun refused to work again. “Bloody Hell!” Askari cursed out loud.
Our next door neighbour, Mr. Elema—a police officer—must have heard Askari’s shot into the air because some minutes after Askari tried to shoot father again, a police siren started wailing beside our house. The noise was so close; I guessed it must have come from Mr Elema’s flat. The thieves would not ask questions, nor wait for any answers before taking off.
Our house was like a circus the next day because there were several well-wishers sprawled at different angle in the house just like it had been during the world cup, some of them came to see for themselves the extent of the damage done by the robbers, and some just came for the fun of it. The door was still broken. Father’s face had been stitched up by his friend Doctor Ajayi, but he was now boasting about the incident with Askari and the gun, just the way Uncle Yomi would have, had he not passed out, saying that his forefather’s juju were at work.
Mother had been revived with two bowls of cold-water splashed on her face by Aunty Dupe. Uncle Yomi had awoken coincidentally at the moment the robbers were taking off and had started screaming, “Wey dem? Konidafun iya nla ya anybody,” like a street thug as he crouched and tightened his fist like Mike Tyson in a boxing ring. I was ashamed of him.