Skeletons, Religion and An Inebriated Cigar Maker

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
One woman recounts the tortuous lives of her grandparents against the backdrop of a hot,turbulent Africa. She tells of her father's upbringing, explores the mathematics of prejudice, the constraints of modern religion, and unveils a number of contentious family secrets.

Submitted: December 30, 2011

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Submitted: December 30, 2011

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Skeletons, Religion and an Inebriated Cigar Maker

 

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My grandmother’s father was a cigar making nationalist. Malawi, originally known as Nyasaland under British rule, was seized by the “Thin White Line” of colonial authority in 1891. He was a member of the Nyasaland African Congress, which was formed by the natives to promote the African’s interests to the British. As my father tells it, my ancestor, Ogbonna Edward, joined the organisation, intoxicated by the romantic rhetoric of patriotism. Edward’s views on conflict were quixotic, and political crusades grew less noble upon experience. Ogbonna departed his office and the sounds of a hand press regurgitating revolutionary hand bills. He returned to a life whose poverty seemed less tremendous upon the aftertaste of combat and the hindsight of nostalgia.

 

The means by which my great grandmother, Victoria, was introduced to Edward remain unknown. It is doubtful whether the boundaries of social rank and vicissitudes of fortune could have drawn two antipodal characters into one another’s course. I leave it to kismet therefore that the two met, fell in love and bred. But I am told that their union was a clandestine one: a connection that was best kept secreted behind closed lips. Although my grandmother’s family were relatively poor, their income modest, and their standing more of a crouch, their financial circumstances were vastly greater than the meagre sum which Edward had accumulated. For the most part, he had exhausted his savings on liquor and there was little pecuniary recompense to be had in the business of making cigars. It was out of economic necessity that Edward moved further south, where cigars were in greater demand; here, there was a chance of settling his debts and earning a small profit. Hence, on a current of chaos, Victoria, not yet fourteen, and her first child, Elizabeth, were conveyed to the city of Pretoria: a land of wide boulevards, automobiles and fat opium tainted cigars.

 

Pretoria was subject to the same stifling, sultry climate and fiery tempests as the south of Malawi. Between November and April, temperatures were warm with thunderstorms and heavy rains. It seems, in retrospect, the superlative setting for a sordid love affair, but my ancestors were engaged there on fiscal dealings. Though their alliance may have seemed passionate at the onset, it was considerably short-lived; I can only surmise that the climate was simply too hot to support permanent vows, and like a desert stream love evaporated. I conclude then that in order for love to succeed, one must look to a more temperate clime which yields plenty of irrigation when passion may have cause to run dry.

 

Although the two lovers went their separate paths, the products of the ephemeral union, Elizabeth and Chukwuenika, to whom Victoria had given birth in Pretoria, kept their father’s surname of Odongo. It was inevitable that these children’s minds were warped slightly out of shape, raised as they were in an unhinged domestic environment. After returning to her home town of Wiwongu, Victoria took her second lover, and was elevated accordingly to his high terrestrial status. George Ogunsheye was a landowner and man of property; he owned a farm on the outskirts of the city, on which he produced two sons with Victoria. As for Elizabeth and Chukwuenika, Ogunsheye showed a peculiar predilection for his own offspring, reserving no affection for the produce of another man. He was, according to my father, a “brutal” stepfather, and the rancour of his character was evident in his transactions as a primitive moneylender: a man whose godless way of bargaining defied the church’s most noteworthy strictures on the blasphemy of “dirty dealing”.

 

Victoria’s generation were an austere, pious people. Religion was a congenial fog which spread its wings out over farmers, townsmen and wives, in a time when artless obeisance was enough, and minds were immune to theological misgiving. It was the era where the just man lived by faith alone, and people’s hands had caught the habit of joining together, while not quite knowing why.

Contrary to the dictates of religious convention, my grandmother, Elizabeth, left the Catholic Church in 1920. She had become a Catholic upon emigrating to Chicago. In those times, people did not renounce the church voluntarily, with the exception of the rare excommunication, for which one would have needed to be uncommonly debauched. Her radical decision was kindled by an unpleasant interview with a local minister. She said that he had asked her directly, celebrants being not so prone to periphrases in those days, about the nature of her interactions with men. He had assumed from her mother’s show of dissipated and unchristian behaviour that the daughter should naturally follow suit. This dialogue transpired not long after Victoria had delivered her fourth child, and it became within the interests of the local clergy to forestall what one might call an infectious heat rash from disseminating.

 

In the years that followed, all communication between Elizabeth and her brother, Chukwuenika, dissolved. Their estrangement was owing to an accumulated collection of petty slights and inane resentments. Elizabeth’s profound spite was founded on two of what she perceived as her brother’s most unmitigated faults: his unwillingness to seek formal education to account for the absence of childhood tuition, and his marriage to a coarse woman who barred him from bettering himself.

 

My grandmother’s antipathy towards her mother was obvious, and my father had observed it from quite an early age. He had never known Victoria, and any allusion to her name within the family was consciously avoided. As a younger man, he had often pondered over the possibility of Victoria’s having suffered from a mental illness: a handicap which might have been the cause of much social embarrassment. But these contemplations were eventually discarded: Victoria was of sound mind, although her actions may not have reflected a sound judgement. The mortification of having been reared by a child crouched heavily upon Elizabeth’s heart. She never spoke about her mother openly; perhaps Victoria was someone whom she wished to forget, but every so often the subject drifted idly to the surface of conversation. My grandmother would whisk it aside obliquely, with such a serene nonchalance as if it were nothing more than an undesirable insect.

 

Elizabeth kept an old photograph in the third drawer of her oak dresser. The photo was in black and white with a long crack trotting through it, and was bordered by a jagged white frame. The photo was taken in Lilongwe, in a small, ramshackle photo studio. She and Chukwuenika stood in the centre, against an artificial sky. Their faces were indistinct, but I could discern my grandmother’s tall, wide nose, her ample cheeks and the voluptuous knob that hung like a pendant dew drop in the centre of her lips. She wore a simple, unpatterned pinafore with fluted puffs, out of which sprang long arms with curled, nervous fingers. Next to her, petrified in a rigid stance, Chukwuenika stood: a wiry, skeletal boy with gaunt eyes. He wore a dark jacket, a button down shirt with a starched collar, a clip on tie and short pants. He was holding a fedora. My grandmother and great uncle looked like soulless pickets in a crumbling theatre. Grandfather Pula said, “They were the saddest children he had ever seen.” But there was something not quite right in his phrasing; the word “children” was mysteriously inappropriate. It seemed as if their tragic precocity placed them beyond childhood and yet not in adulthood, but floating unclassifiably somewhere in between, like pioneers in an unexplored region.

 

 Elizabeth occasionally visited the large church, two blocks from her apartment building. It was uniformly grey, and prefaced fourteen shallow steps to an almond coloured doorway. The steps were arranged in platoons of four, and the walls were embroidered with long pee stains. Grandma went but seldom, and on those rare occasions, she wore a frivolous lime green scarf.

My father and I visited Elizabeth and her husband every year. They lived in a small Chicagoan suburb inhabited by a sundry of black, Caucasian, brown and faintly sunburnt people, who spoke a variety of fast-clicking patois. Spanish was the tongue that prevailed over the miniature pocket; most signage was in Spanish, with the exception of “Learn Spanish through English” adverts, hurtling by on the flanks of buses. Boundless chains of bright yellow vehicles with smiling license plates sat on hot tarmac, excreting long strands of carbon dioxide, and burping up the occasional cigarette butt. Incensed taxi drivers waved their heads and sprawled their arms over yawning windows, gibbering away to invisible little men in their ears. The sidewalks were speckled with little white trimmings: an assortment of chewing gum and bird droppings. Infant trees tottered by the edge of paths, whispering and looking down whimsically at the wooden anchors that barred them from flying. Air conditioners buzzed monotonously above the heads of passers by like gauche mechanical bees, anointing them with errant water dribbles. People scuttled across halted roads, like a synchronistic hoard of ants in sagging blue pants and wayward hats. Ants with thirsty Dobermans, exhibiting muscles that rippled like tidal waves beneath gleaming coats. Ants that paused to exchange a bottle green dollar for a fat pretzel embellished with cubes of salt. This radiant, pulsating city of infinite, tortuous boulevards was the city I loved most in the world; the only place where I felt at home.

 

Dada grew up in Chicago, Elizabeth having given birth to her only child two years after emigrating to the USA. In those days, Papa was a cloistered African-American who wore pink t-shirts and an impeccably cultivated afro. He was remarkably tall, and walked in a slightly lopsided manner due to a hereditary dysfunctional knee, a knee that dislocated in the lotus position. Papa’s head had always been slightly pointed: an imperfection endemic to those of forceps delivery. This became less noticeable as he got older, and by the age of forty, hats fit him quite snugly.

 

One might suppose that with such a cranial irregularity, there would be a drought of interior intelligence. This however was not the case. My father had achieved an acme of intellect that qualified him for Mensa, and other clubs reserved for the “meritorious”. He possessed a certain something in his voice and deportment, an ingredient that excluded all earthiness of mind and a tongue-tied eloquence that was the hallmark of mediocrity. He had that happy knack for manifesting odd scraps of information, like pedagogic footnotes to appropriate settings: details of the artists’ birth in a crowded gallery, the history of ogham stones in a Mesolithic burial ground, an effusive definition of “coup d’etat” in the Politics cubby of a hushed bookshop. He awed me. How could one simply pluck fact from a mixture of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water vapour? Over the years I have come to an appropriate conclusion. My father did not imbibe knowledge. Knowledge galloped to him like an animated fridge magnet or a hungry micro-organism gorging upon a sponge. But in the manner of all things with purpose, knowledge does not approach without an enticement. Just as a pitted sponge serves as a domicile for bacteria to inhabit, my father offered knowledge a permanent residence in his unfissured memory. Facts sashayed around his head; that insatiable organ where data was forced to the bottom beneath the weight of more contemporary deposits, akin to a beautifully stratified ocean of things.

 

My father was a devout Catholic. He believed that we both arrived and departed this world with God to keep us company. I however was a sceptic. I did not believe that entering the world was as simple as walking through a doorway, nor did I ever trust in the reincarnation of peripatetic souls. But I can never entirely dismiss lingering impressions of déjà vu; those feelings of pale reproduction that make life seem a little less novel. It is upon these mysterious feelings of ghostly correspondence that I, as a writer, pause to wonder why I have stumbled upon the same metaphor or scene twofold. It seems almost as if some superior authority is manipulating us like puppets. Mimicking certain conditions and effecting coincidences just to relish their sense of pre-eminence, they laugh at us as we try in vain to sift for a faint impression: something ethereal like a memory obscured by a livery of hoar frost. Hence, I could never entirely snub the idea of reincarnation. In fact, we once had a cat whose stiff, unruffled character reminded me of my late grandmother, Elizabeth. She had a white coat, bedecked with little brown marks and long streaks of black. The loose white folds of skin around her collar were the fond likeness of my grandmother’s dewlapped neck.

 

Papa entered a house that tapped its foot to Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, and Elvin Jones: the best and the brightest of jazz. Over the years after my father’s birth, his father Pula’s old jazz records morphed into a dust-coated tower beside his closet: the sounds of childhood carefully stacked away. The bouquet of Malawian cooking slowly faded, and pale echoes were only to be evoked at the back of dark cupboards, that once housed provisions of crushed chillies, sorghum, ripe plantains and kale. Elizabeth had crafted her own, scrupulous décor: a form of cheap decoration that tried at elegance. She attempted to harmonize each room based on a principle similar to that of establishing a mother colour in a painting. She inadvertently painted everything to a uniform colour, creating a monochromatic apartment fraught with luminous yellow.  

 

In the twilight of her life, Elizabeth reminded me of an ancient book, or a sweet-smelling anachronism that sat in a cluttered city, beneath a sky choked by eddying tusks of smoke. Her face, beneath its coating of blush and heavy burgundy lipstick, was perpetually puzzled, like a ruminative animal that chewed its way over life. To my grandmother, this world of unfamiliar opulence held a semblance to an artichoke: one kept peeling away one splendid layer after another. For the first time in her life, she experienced frivolousness: the hidden pleasures of hot chocolate fudge cakes and pretty jewels which had no rational function other than to sit on swan-bowed necks, as an ostentatious garnish. Now, she did not have to bathe herself in a pond stippled with faeces and crushed sardine cans, while watched by an invidious Malawian sun. Now, Mammon pulled her chariot, where once he had imprisoned her with his manacles. Where Elizabeth grew up, the children went barefoot through fields of resentful sugarcane to get an education. Even now, my grandmother refused to wear dresses that were too short.

** *

 

As a child, my inquiring mind tilled the same field over and over: how and why did I come into the world? Grandpa Pula said that I had come floating down the Colorado River in a wicker basket. Ever since my fifth birthday, I had had doubts. I was never religious, and from a very young age I had that stubborn, dogmatic disposition that would not swoon to any authority, especially one that considered Himself too eminent to step down from His venerable anonymity. I wondered if the reason God was not incarnate in a human shape was to avoid promoting unwarranted affectations. If he took the form of a black man, the black race might exult in a biased worship. But if God happened to morph into a white man, the white tribe would swell with pride, and the unsaid proof of superiority. If he was half black and half white, a deified mulatto, society would evaluate him as being manufactured of tainted stuff, repudiated by both races, floating in no man’s land. And what if he was a woman? Surely if God was a woman, society would think her weak and corruptible, and men despite themselves would find it testing to submit to a female, having had no substantial practice at it. Although some have experienced the submission and concession of marriage, this was a different class of contract: set against the vows of faithfulness and love, there were sexual intrigues, adulteries and clashes of intellects. The respect expected of a parishioner to a female God was one quite different, perhaps similar to a filial reverence. God incarnate as a woman would sow confusion amidst those who abjure fleshly felicities. Where can a famished clergyman safely feast his eyes?

 

God could never satisfy the entire of the human race. The Indians could not love him if he did not cook with coriander and cumin. The Chinese could not love him if he did not burp after banquets to signify his reflective appreciation for the victuals. The crude Westerners could not love him if he appeared as either of the latter. As for the Japanese, with their timeless etiquette, God’s bow could never be acceptable to such fastidious tribes if it did not have the correct degree of depth. Moreover, one God could never be pleasing, as he would never be free of those grotesque outcroppings and eccentric protuberances that marked every one of us, just as two faces have differences in shadow and highlight. 

 

My mother and I were never religious, not in the conventional manner at least. We were not Catholic, Protestant, Hindu or Muslim. Our religion, if it was to be thus defined, did not so neatly condense itself into one edible morsel of grammar, to which thousands of correspondent believers could relate, as if welcoming a spiritual affiliate. We did not live by a manuscript containing constellations of carefully honed dogmas, signs, and laws of behaviour. Our religion, in comparison with the prescribed ecclesiastical armies of the world, was a mere nutshell of a faith.

 

We simply believed in the antidote of pure, natural human relationships.

 

That, in one wonderfully distilled nugget was our religion. It was overtly simple, and undoubtedly offensive to those with a fondness for mazes of ecclesiastical etiquette and scripture, and complicated jurisprudence. But this, nonetheless, was the essence of our faith, which depended entirely on one sole tenet: to live abundantly.

 

 


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