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Fiction

The Day Independence Came by Chika Unigwe

 

Two days before Independence, my father killed two chickens, asked Mother to pluck them and get them ready for independence. On the day before Independence came, Mother went on all fours and scrubbed the sitting room floor until it gleamed.  I asked her why and she said, “We’ve been waiting for Independence for a very long time.” Father bought himself a face cap with the green and white colours of the Nigerian flag. “It’s the patriotic thing to do,” he said when I asked. “Independence is big.” I did not ask what ‘Patriotic’ was but I wanted a cap like my father’s. He said face caps were not for girls and brought me home a flag. “You can wave that when Independence comes.” 

 

I imagined Independence to be bigger than my Uncle Eze. Uncle Eze was so big that when he walked, the earth shook. Mother said he was that big because he ate little children and I was never to go near him. She also said if I told him she told me, he would gobble me up and I would go to expand his waistline. He was so big it was difficult to believe he was Father’s brother. He called Father “Stick” and  teased him that he was that skinny because he married a woman who could not cook well. Sometimes Father laughed. Sometimes he said not being able to cook was the least of his wife’s faults.  I liked it better when he laughed. It eased his voice, made it fly and tickle us all, including Mother. When his voice turned gruff, Mother would turn into herself and try to become invisible. Her body would slouch from her trying to hide inside it. Mostly, she disappeared into the bedroom. And mostly, he followed her in there.  He would come out afterwards and leave the house and when Mother eventually came out, her eyes were always red like she had apollo,  and she would hug me and say, “A daughter is also a  child. I’m not God. Nwa bu nwa. ”

 

On Saturday morning, Mother dressed me up in my pink dress. She put a red ribbon in my hair, looping it between the braids gathered into a basket at the top of my head. She had on a new wrapper with the faces of Zik and Awo patterned on it, and encircling the faces, the date of Independence’s arrival: 1 October 1960. Father was not yet ready. He said we had to wait for him. I danced on the spot to stop my toes from hurting. Mother said, “We’ll wait for you downstairs. Ezi cannot keep still.” We went downstairs to wait for Father. Mama Boy was in front of her door. She was going to welcome Independence too. “I’ll wait with you, she said. It’s no fun going alone.”  She teased Mother that she looked like a new wife.

 

“ I feel like one too, “ Mother said and winked. “ Independence is a good thing. I wish it came everyday.”

 

“If it did, you’d no longer be able to walk!” Mama Boy said.

 

I asked why, but Mother looked at Mama Boy and they both started to laugh a grown-up laughter that firmly locked me out.

 

Mama Boy said I looked beautiful. I did not tell her that my feet hurt in my new shoes. I wriggled my toes to ease the pain but it did not help. Mother said, “Ezi, stop being so fidgety please.” I thought of telling her the truth. Then I thought better not. I did not want her to take my new shoes away from me. A taxi stopped in front of the house. Mother said, “Isn’t it too early for guests? It’s not even gone ten o’clock yet.”  Mama Boy said, “And on Independence day sef! I hope no one has died. ”

 

“God forbid, “ Mother said. “This is not the day for such bad news.” 

 

The stranger was a woman with huge braids and a bundle in her arms. She looked at a sheet of a paper in her right hand, looked at the address on the house and came out. Slung from her shoulders was a big brown bag. She walked with slow measured steps as if she was marching to a rhythm played out for her. One -two, one-two, igba nni na ofe. One- two, one-two,  igba nni na ofe. She looked like a photograph: the smile on her face that was directed to no one, the serenity in her eyes, the stiffness in her arms with the rainbow-coloured bundle, all had the same set to them as the photographs displayed in front of Goodwill Lucky’s International Photo Studio; Your Photographer for Every Occasion. One Trial Will Convince You.

 

We took a family photograph there once. Goodwill Lucky, sweaty and firm, told Father that we looked like a family that would look good behind the sunset. He told Mother, “Imagine standing at the sea side with the sun setting gloriously behind you. I shall make you look like superstars.” Father said he just wanted a picture, he did not want to be a superstar. Goodwill Lucky looked at Father as if he pitied him, pulled out a huge cardboard drawing and sat us on three stools in front of the sea and the setting sun and a little white boy stooping with his feet in the water and his back turned to us. He told us when to smile, how to fold our arms, how to tilt our heads, how to fix our stare.  He said when we came back for another photograph, he would place us in Parees with the Eyefil Tawa beside us. “Many people like that one, but today you looked great in the sunset. When you come back with a son, nothing but the Tawa for you.”  Mother said nothing. Father said, “May your words reach God’s ear. Every man deserves a son, no?” 

 

When the woman who looked like a photograph came close to us, Mother smiled at her and Mama Boy smiled at her. Mama Boy asked, “Boy or girl?”

 

“Boy,” the woman said in a voice sweetened with pride. I thought if I cut into her voice, if I took a slice, it would taste like the birthday cake Mother bought for my birthday last month. She bought it from  a Filipino woman whose bakery had just opened. It had fruit and cream on top and soft, soft cake underneath. It was the softest, tastiest cake I had ever eaten. It was September and school had just opened and I took a slice for my class teacher and she said she had never eaten any cake as tasty. When she asked if my mother baked it, I said yes.

 

Mother’s eyes looked sad when the woman said it was a boy.

 

“He’s only five days  old.” She pushed the bundle in front of Mama Boy and Mother.

 

Mama Boy peered in. “Beautiful baby,” she said.

 

Mother peered in. She put a finger in his fist. “ He has quite a good grasp for his age,” she said.

 

The woman lowered the bundle for me to see. The baby looked angry. His face was powdered. His head and ears were covered with a knitted cap. He opened his mouth and yawned. He was toothless, all gums like the oldest man in my village. The man scared me and every time we went to visit him, I would hold on to my mother’s hand. I did not like the baby. I looked away.

 

“What’s his name?” Mama Boy asked.

 

“ We call him Independence. But his real name is Sylvanus. Named for his father. I’ve brought him to see his father. He lives here. Upstairs.”

 

‘Sylvanus is my daddy’s name,” I said.

 

Mother slapped me. Hard on my left cheek.

 

Mama Boy let out a gasp.

 

Mother ran upstairs screaming my father’s name. I ran after her, my palm soothing my hurt.

 

Behind us, the woman with the baby called Independence walked with the same sure steps . One-two, one-two, igba nni na ofe. One-two, one-two, igba nni na ofe.

 

Independence started to wail.

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