It was the early hours of the day just before dawn. Mrs. Ikemefuna Odinaka woke up her children and her husband for the morning devotion which is a daily routine for the catholic family. The weather was so cold that it can freeze the balls of a brass monkey. This explained why the children who slept in the parlour covered with blankets were reluctant to wake up for the morning devotion. But they had no choice. Some of them were still in sleepy mood as they sauntered into the bedroom, covering themselves with a blanket or wrapper; the girls covering their head with scarf. When they all gathered, there was a little debate as to who would lead the morning prayer because in order for them to finish in time, anybody could lead the prayers but not their mother. She was fond of making the prayer lengthy and boring with the litanies of prayers she said. On her part, their mother loathed the children’s style of the morning devotion describing it as ineptly and hurriedly done. Like most days, she had her way today.
She began with praise songs which lasted about half an hour. Though some of the children were already irritated by the long praise section, they could not leave the scene. Her husband however seem to have developed a sort of immunity to her prayer pattern as he would always curl himself nicely on the floor unperturbed and barely responding to the prayers. According to him, his wife was fond of wasting time in her prayers with the invocation of all the saints in heaven as though God wouldn’t answer their prayers if the saints were not mentioned. Occasionally, he would tease his wife about her method of praying. He would say, “If God should send all His angels and saints to come to the aid of my family, there will be an explosion of blessings in my house. But that will also mean that God is partial because there won’t be any angel or saint left to be sent to assist other people”. The prayer eventually came to an end after an hour and a half. The family members greeted themselves with the peace of Christ and then went about the day’s chores.
Ikenna was in the parlour with his elder siblings watching a TV drama series after the Saturday’s clean-up. The programme was quite interesting and funny that they were so engrossed as not to notice that someone was knocking at the door. After a while, the knock became more intense. Ikenna called out to one of his younger sisters who was in the bedroom to go and see who was at the door. But before she could surface in the parlour, Ikenna’s elder sister, Ujunwa who was sitting next to him on the cushion asked him to go and see who was at the door. He reluctantly stood up and walked grudgingly to the door.
He opened the door and standing before him was an unfamiliar face. A young man of average height and fair complexion. He wore a multi-colour short-sleeve shirt on a brown pair of trousers. Ikenna was certain he didn’t know the stranger and that he had not seen that face in the barracks before. After a flash observation of the stranger’s physique, he realized that his body structure was just a carbon copy of his mother’s.
In Ikenna’s house, it was an offence to allow an unknown visitor into the house without making proper assessment of the person. This thought made him stand in front of the door with the door closed behind him. He greeted the visitor and inquired about his name.
The visitor made a laconic introduction. “My name is Mr. Tochukwu from Marba and I am your mother’s brother.” The words: “I am your mother’s brother” caught Ikenna’s attention but he was still adamant in letting the visitor in. Besides, his mother never told any of them that her brother would be coming to pay them a visit. At this point he recalled one fateful Sunday afternoon he received a severe punishment from his father just because he failed to ask of the name of a visitor before allowing him into the house.
Ikenna excused himself and went back into the house to inform his elder sister of the development. After a cursory description of the person to her, she too was very surprised because their mother never made mention of such a visit. She asked Ikenna to go and inform their mother who was in the kitchen. He sauntered to the kitchen and told his mother who looked at her son with eyes on stalks. He asked his mother if she was aware that her brother would be coming that day. Her reply was in the negative. She came out from the kitchen with her hands covered with grime like that of a man mixing mud and water to construct a mud-house. Immediately both of them saw each other, they simultaneously made an exclamation of surprise.
Ikenna noticed the joy shimmering from the face of his mother like a sparkling water being poured inside a clean glass cup. That joy and excitement from his mother revealed that both had not seen each other for many years. After a brief exchange of pleasantries at the entrance, both entered the house. Ikenna and his siblings all stood up to greet their uncle. Their mother introduced the children to him because he didn’t know any of them except Nkem, the eldest daughter who he saw last many years ago when she was about seven months old.
The visitor sat between Ikenna and Nkem, placing his hands on their shoulders. He asked them their names to which they responded accordingly. Ikenna’s mother later joined them after tidying up her task in the kitchen. She called Ikenna aside and handed him a naira note to buy a bottle of soft drink from a nearby kiosk. After a short while, Ikenna came in through the back door and handed over the drink to his mother. She collected it and grinned merrily at him. She placed the soft drink in a tray together with some biscuits inside a saucer and brought them to the parlour. As soon as she appeared with the ‘kola’, the children left the room one after the other. It was an unwritten code to leave the vicinity once the ‘kola ritual’ is in place. In this context, it was a mark of respect for both the visitor(s) and their parents. They began chatting and laughing hilariously while Mr. Tochukwu was busy doing justice to the soft drink and biscuits. After a while, they both left the parlour and went to the corridor just behind the house and started another discussion but this time around in a low tone. About what? No one knew, only the walls of the corridor could tell the subject of their conversation. How Ikenna wished walls could speak because he did hear his name frequently mentioned in the discussion. He strained to get a wind of what they were talking about but to no avail. He eventually lost interest in their discussion and continued with his work in the kitchen. Later, the topic of their discussion changed as one could easily hear their voices, filled with guffaw and exclamations.
When Ikenna’s father came back from the Sergeant’s Mess, he was happy to see his brother in-law. They exchanged greetings. Few minutes later, Ikenna’s mother joined them on the invitation of her husband. Not too long afterwards, Ikenna was invited by his father to join them. Mr. Ikemefuna cleared his throat. “My son, your uncle here has come to take you to his place at Marba in Bungudu, where you will live with him. He has volunteered to assist us in taking care of you and your education to reduce the burden of training you and your siblings.”
“Ikenna my son, are you willing to go with your uncle?” his mother asked. At first, Ikenna didn’t know what to say because of the mixed feelings he had: the joy of going to a new place to continue his education and the sadness of leaving his parents and siblings for an unknown number of years. After few minutes of thought, he gave his consent. Ikenna’s mother made it clear to her brother that she was not all that comfortable with the departure of her son because of his selfless services in the house. She saw her son as the heart of her house and trusted him to the fullest once it has to do with house chores and other activities. She would always jovially tell his other siblings how she wished Ikenna was her first child. He was really living up to his name, ‘Ikenna’ meaning ‘strength of the father’.
Many things kept troubling Ikenna that very day. He imagined the number of friends he would miss both in the barracks and in the school, the warrior’s praises he used to receive from his mother after he rescued his elder sister single handedly when she was beaten up by a group of boys, and the stories from his father every Saturday evening after supper.
It was early morning of the third day of his uncle visit. Ikenna’s mother woke the family a little earlier than usual for the morning devotion. The prayer which started by 4:30am ended around 6am. The duration and mode of the prayer was typical of special days, perhaps it was because of the imminent departure of her son Ikenna to Marba. To capture the mood of the prayer, Ikenna’s father jokingly told his brother- in-law to caution his sister over her style of praying. He said she would invoke and pray to all the Saints in heaven after the normal five decades of the rosary. He suggested to him that in the event of another visit, and if his sister were to lead the prayers, he should have a mat handy in case he is unable to keep up with the barrage of prayers and decides to go back to sleep. This joke plunged Mr. Tochukwu into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.
Ikenna’s siblings were elated that their brother was travelling to a foreign land where there is ‘milk and honey’. For them, he was going to live with an affluent man as it was a well known fact in the whole extended family that their uncle was a wealthy business man. Ikenna’s siblings hoped that their brother would one day make life more comfortable for them. As soon as the breakfast was ready, Mrs. Odinaka invited her husband and her brother to breakfast in the parlour while Ikenna and his siblings took theirs to the bedroom. After the breakfast, Mr. Ikemefuna called Ikenna in the parlour and asked him to kneel down in front of them. His parents laid their hands on his head and prayed:
"Almighty and ever living God, look upon your son Ikemefuna David Ikenna our child who is about to leave us to another land. Guide and protect him for us, let him not depart from the spirit and doctrines in which he was brought up in this family. Grant him the courage to change what he can change, the grace to place into your hands what he can’t change and the wisdom to differentiate between them. May he be an obedient child to his uncle as you bless them with good health of mind and body and protect them from every evil. Grant them safe trip to their destination and may we all rejoice one day to welcome both of them back into this family again with happiness and joy. This we ask through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord amen.”
After the short prayer, his father bid them farewell and left for work immediately. While Ikenna was taking his bath, his mother was busy preparing his favourite meal “akpu and anabala soup.” It was a toothsome meal that Ikenna cherished most right from his childhood. His mother brought in the meal and placed it on the centre table before Ikenna and his uncle.
His uncle was surprised that his mother could prepare such a sumptuous meal in so short a time. Left for him, the simple breakfast they had would have sufficed. Ikenna’s mother told him that the meal was the only precious thing she could offer her son on that special day because he liked it very well right from childhood. While Mr. Tochukwu was busy trying to convince his sister that he was already satisfied with the breakfast served earlier, Ikenna was already doing justice to the meal. He wouldn’t miss it for anything. After the meal, Ikenna’s siblings came to bid him farewell. Some of the neighbours also came to say their farewell among who was Mama Sani. She loved Ikenna dearly like her own children. She called Ikenna aside and spoke to him in a low tone in pidgin English. ”make you try respect your uncle well well oh! But no allow am use you like boy-boy, always say your mind ooh." The whole family once again bid them farewell as they left for the motor-park.