Uncle Chukwuka is the most famous character in our entire family circle. His popularity is stretched by his refusal to adhere to the normal fabric of life, and coloured by some of the weirdest attitudes that have shocked, amused and infuriated his kinsfolks. I have been trying to write a story about Uncle Chukwuka for six years now. Each time I picked up my pen, the words come out in small, turgid mounds so that after few paragraphs I would conclude that I have been writing nonsense, that these strange words weren’t describing my uncle; these words were in fact dishonouring him. Then I would tear off the paper from my workbook, squeeze it into a ball and hurl it out of the window. And forget about my uncle for a month.
No, I never forgot about my uncle. I only tried to force him out of my mind, succeeding only in pinning him to the backmost part of my mind were he never remained for long, though I pretend to the contrary. These past few days Uncle C, as we fondly call him, has been looming immensely in my mind. His thought in my mind has become like a bad omen which would never go away until the worst happens. And the worst is writing this story. I still feel I am writing lies about my uncle but my conscience is nearly convinced that, though the truth would not be told by these words, but that the truth would seem to have been told. And with little luck, you might be able to construct a viable picture about my great uncle. Or just enjoy the story.
Uncle Chukwuka is actually my cousin but his advancement in age was so much that we had to call him (not Brother Chukwuka, no he had exceeded that level) but Uncle Chukwuka. I have been hearing about my uncle for many years before I finally met him. He was the first among my father’s sister’s family of five sons, and was at home for one of his brother’s wedding. He himself unmarried, a major ulcer in his widowed mother’s heart. He had little excuse for not marrying for he was what my people would call stinking rich. My people believe, if you could feed a woman and send her kids to school, you were ripe for marriage.
Since his youth, Uncle Chukwuka could feed six women and send seventy kids to school but he didn’t marry. He said he hadn’t found his taste. Although he was uneducated, dropped out of secondary school months to WAEC, he had been linked with the most beautiful and educated women in my village; he had, in few whispered occasions, sampled these girls in bed before deciding they weren’t what he wanted. She has stretch marks. Her mother is a world-class trouble-maker. Bad luck runs in that family. She has body odour. She has long-throat. And one million other excuses. These excuses ate his parents’ hearts. Mostly his mother’s.
His mother had first called him when she decided he could feed a woman and support a family and told him, ‘My son, look around Ogbunka and get yourself a beautiful, well-behaved girl. Please let it be Ogbunka; your father and I won’t want to go far.’
Uncle Chukwuka said yes, Ogbunka was the best place to get a wife and he met with an assortment of bevies, slept with few (they said), flirted with all and met one or two pairs of parents. Then he returned to Kaduna, saying he would return at Easter (this was Christmas) and finalise the wedding. No one saw him in Ogbunka for two years. In fact he only came home to attend his younger brother’s wedding. It was largely normal for younger sisters to get married before their older ones. But this wasn’t normal for brothers. The order of marriage for men was age. And for a first son to be bypassed by his younger one and exercise his conjugal rights was a near-taboo, painting the son as weak-willed at best or the ultimate woman.
Uncle Chukwuka was indifferent. He was the first son, yes, he had given his brother the go-ahead, yes; he was pursuing something and would marry as soon as he settled that in two or three months’ time. Of course no one believed him but such was his parents’ anxious hope that they auctioned their doubt for the comfort of his half-truths. Before he returned to Kaduna his mother called him aside and said. ‘Ogbunka is not the only good place to get a wife. The entire Orumba area is not bad. Not as far as Nanka and Awgbu, of course. Women from Umunze are proud but girls from Umuchukwu, Ezira and Ufuma will make great wives.’
He was in a hurry to return to Kaduna to tie up some business venture, Uncle Chukwuka told his mother, but he would return during August Meeting just to take a wife from around Ogbunka. Uncle Chukwuka didn’t come home till December. By now his second younger brother was dropping serious matrimonial hints and the rumours mills were working overtime. People said Chukwuka was a member of an occult and was under oath against taking a wife; they even said he had sold his manhood—no, not really manhood—but his right to manhood to the devil who gave him riches. Some said he was too miserly to get a wife, that money was a trophy he was more interested in heaping than in putting into valuable use. And that the expensiveness of our traditional marriage rites would leave a big hole in his heart and pocket, forever.
The last rumour was nearer to the truth than we might want to accept. My cousin was indeed a great magnet of money. He would quarrel and curse over 50 thousand naira contribution to bury a dead aunty or uncle. His younger ones suffered in school because he queried every request they made, agreed to render only half of them, giving a quarter of the requested amount. In one or two occasions his mother had to call him on phone and cried before he sent his brother money to pay for his accommodation.
There were even those who claimed that Uncle Chukwuka worshipped money. This was almost true. After the post-election violence of 2011 forced my parents to leave north, I began to spend short holidays in my big cousin’s house. There were two other cousins (Uche and Nono) who lived with him. Chukwuka owe the house—the entire house was made up of four two-bedroom flats and he lived in one and rented out the other three. His sitting room had just the plasma TV set, the sound system and a table. No furniture for sitting. When he had visitors they sat on the floor like Arabic scholars or they sit on the veranda, or, if she were a girl, he took her to the bedroom. He had no plates. When Uche or Nono finished cooking they go to the tenants to borrow plates. He had only one pot so there was no talk of cooking rice and stew or something that requires two pots—every meal was a cook-all. The boys, Nono and Uche sold cooking oil on retail which Chukwuka supplied to them. And even though he got half of the profit he required them to pay the shop rent to him, and the two parties took turns to contribute for meals.
Chukwuka hardly used the bank. He usually carried his money in a rucksack while he moved around in the market place. When he was ready to go home, he would lock the money in his boot. At home we would put it under his bed and lock his door. If he made out to get something from the shop across the road he would carry his fortune with him. He wouldn’t leave it in his bedroom lest Nono or Uche or I, or all of us, break down the door and cart away with his treasure. Once rain beat him and his money, drenching the notes badly. Chukwuka had to spread all the notes on the sitting room tiles. That night we boys didn’t sleep in the house. ‘I hope you little criminals know you won’t sleep in this house tonight,’ was how he dismissed us.
In appearance, my uncle was imposingly tall and well-fed, almost overfed. His neck is fleshy and his cheeks full as though he carries a permanent piece of meat in each cheek. His face was fair and clean-shaven and his cunning teeth shone like the inside of a coconut. I holidayed thrice or so in Uncle Chukwuka’s house and each time he was wearing a T-shirt that had been worn in respect for some dead uncle with the inscription ‘Adieu Papa’ on the back, over some whitewashed jeans and matching boots. His head was always in a flat cap, even when he slept I suspect. A cap so old it now took the appearance of a battered motorcycle seat. I couldn’t see what he spent his money on, so I refused to dismiss strongly the claim that he worshipped money or belonged to an occult group were marriage was a taboo, and spending money attracted harsh penalties.
When Chukwuka’s second brother wedded, Chukwuka didn’t even bother coming home. He only returned when news repeatedly reached him that his father was ill, and he was sure it was true and not just a ploy to get him home and rope a wife around his neck. When he got home, he met his father in a stroke. The old man said he was going home; indeed most of his age grade members had gone, but he wanted to see his grandchildren from his first son before he left. He might not carry them, but would his first son deny his fading sight this honour? And Uncle Chukwuka wept.
Then the search for wife for my kinsman became a worldwide hunt and names poured in from the four corners of the world. Bevies, well-educated, refined, well-cultured, even retired society ladies were mentioned. Every friend and relation had one or two candidates for Prince Chukwuka. A prankster, perhaps an outright idiot or someone who spoke on behalf of gallons of sour palm wine, actually suggested Tonto Dike.
Long lists were drawn. Then a shortlist. Then a master list. These were discarded and redrawn. His mother was anxious and before his majesty returned to Kaduna to tie up that thing he had always been tying up, would tie up forever, she pleaded with him. ‘Any Anambra girl would do. Apart from those girls from Onitsha and Nnewi who don’t stay at home, any girl from a decent home would do. Don’t forget, a Catholic.’
Our hero returned to Kaduna. And he forgot everything. Then his father died. The words in the lips of everyone in Ogbunka were that Chuka had killed his father. Oh, what a kind-hearted innocent man, so unlucky to have a walking evil as son; now that he was dead the wayward son would now settle down. What a wicked generation! His mother wailed at him, ‘Give me babies before I joined your father. Give me children; I want to lay hands on my grandchildren’s heads.’ And Chukwuka shook with tears of regret and conciliation. Chukwuka told his mother he would be bringing a woman home during his father’s funeral. ‘Any girl will do,’ she told him as he got into his car. ‘Any Igbo girl will do,’ she added as he shut the door. ‘Real Igbo girl. Please no girl from Rivers or Delta o.’
And Chukwuka said, ‘Okay,’ and returned to Kaduna.
Kaduna, the cemetery of his marital wills. He would come home, get charged with the fire of marriage, then come to Kaduna and this fire would die. It was like there are a group of people who live in the entrance to Kaduna, on the ready, waiting for Chukwuka’s car to appear, blazing with a beacon of marriage and they then throw a tank of water on it and quench it. Chukwuka didn’t come home with a woman for his father’s burial. He loved his father so much and marriage was the last thing in his mind, all he wanted to give the old man a befitting burial. Before he returned to Kaduna his mother sighed. ‘My son, they all say you have sold your manhood for money, why don’t you prove them wrong.’
Chukwuka laughed. ‘Do you believe any gossip you hear?’
‘It’s not for me, just prove them wrong.’ But she couldn’t resist adding, ‘Any girl will do, provided she is not Hausa. Any girl who prays to Jesus.’
‘What if she is Hausa and prays to Jesus?’ There was mirth in the corner of his mouth.
The woman shrugged. ‘Bring her home.’
Chukwuka’s mother had first hinted marriage to her son when he was twenty-seven, now he is forty-five. His three younger ones had married and the eldest of his nephews now in secondary school. I was a boy when I first met my famous cousin, now I had grown, gone to the university, come out and almost finished my youth service. Uncle Chukwuka is still unmarried. Still searching.
Last month I went to Zaria to get my transcript processed for my master’s and stopped by in Kaduna. He didn’t take me to his house so I couldn’t tell if he now have furniture and utensils at home. Nono and Uche have since moved on; they now study in Nekede I think. Some younger cousins are slaving in Uncle Chukwuka house.
Chukwuka took me to a restaurant and we sat facing each other before the ambitious dishes. ‘You are now a big boy,’ he said.
‘Very soon you will make money and start talking through the nose.’
I chuckled. ‘Thanks a lot. You contributed a lot to it.’
He waved me quiet. ‘It is my duty.’ As we exhausted the little avenue of conversation we shared, I asked him the question that had been burning me for more than one and half a decade. ‘Uncle C, when will you settle down?’
And he pushed his chair back and laughed so loud and uncontrollably that everyone stared at him like he had lost his mind. I straggled the embarrassment threatening to colour my face. ‘Now you sound like my mother… huhuhuhohuho!’ He brought out his hankie and wiped his tears. ‘Did my mother send you?’I shook my head.
‘I will marry when I see the woman I like. Girls nowadays are so sharp eyed, looking for whom to devour.’
When he dropped me at Kawo Motorpark I asked him if his mother still gave him specification of whom to marry. He opened his mouth wide and for a second I feared he would resort to his crazy hilarity, but he only chuckled and said, ‘The old woman ask me to bring anything home, any living thing of my choice. Hahahaha.’ He was still laughing as he drove away. What a man.
As my bus drove off, I felt the tell-tale signs of a major depression. I shut my eyes and refused to give this any power by thinking of it. I dozed off and dreamt that I was fifty years, unmarried and my people were in my house throwing my things out, saying that I have been excommunicated, that their town was a normal town, not for people who had sold their manhood for money. I woke up with a bad headache and a foul anger.
‘Marriage is not by force,’ I said aloud. Every passenger turned to glare at me. ‘Nonsense,’ I spat. Their look of ill-concealed astonishment lingered for a few long seconds, then everyone returned to their troubles and business. I shut my eyes but I fought to remain awake. The fear of facing my people’s resentment in dreamland was enough to send me clamouring for the joy of transit insomnia. I began to turn Uncle Chukwuka’s issue more carefully in my mind. Here I was afraid to dream of being scorned for shunning marriage. But Uncle C had survived intense scorn for nearly twenty years. This really requires an overdose of guts. And Uncle C seems to have it. You may call my great cousin whatever you may, but one thing is clear, he is not a coward. And perhaps, for a few, he has earned the status of a hero.