first time I stayed at a Hotel it felt like I crossed a threshold from chaos to
order. I was ten. A lot of bad things had happened, but my father and I were
going home now. Everything was going to be all right. We spent a night in
London at the Intercontinental, and I imagined that’s what the rest of our life
was going to be like. The illusion was shattered soon enough: We arrived in
Lagos a day later. Our hotel in the notorious Ajegunle neighborhood was nothing
like the Intercontinental. After a week—or two—I was relieved to leave Lagos
for Umuaka in rural South-East Nigeria.
There was only hotel in Umuaka in 1976: Sunrise Hotel. But we didn’t move into a hotel when my father and I returned from America. This was my father’s ancestral homeland after all. He moved us into one of 20 rooms in my grandfather’s old homestead.
The homestead had no plumbing and no electricity. An old Lister generator stood on deflated tires under a pine tree at the end of a short sandy driveway that led into a dirt court yard. Three sepia, stuccoed, colonial style buildings with high tin roofs stood on three sides of the courtyard. Each building had a double door at its centre, flanked by shuttered windows and smaller doors. A slap dash combination of concrete, mud and thatch add-ons and lean-tos clustered behind them.
The women cooked on open fires under thatch roofs they called kitchens. And adults bathed out of buckets of water, behind screens of palm fronds under coconut trees in the rear gardens. A claustrophobic outhouse in the back north-east corner with 3 pit latrines served between 20 and 40 people who came and went with the seasons, drawn home by weddings, burials, festivals and personal triumphs or failures. Privacy was the ultimate luxury.
Sunrise Hotel was on the main trunk road that passed through Umuaka. During the day, it wasn’t much to look at, just another shabby bungalow shimmering in the heat. Only a big shingle outside identified it as a hotel. But when they put on their little generator at dusk, a string of blue, yellow and red light bulbs twinkled in the dark with magical allure. And the sound of music and laughter beckoned the feet closer. During the new moon, when the sky was a deep inky black, the glow above the Hotel was visible over the tree line from a distance. And the muted pulse of highlife music mingled with the sounds of the bush.
“Don’t go to that place,” my father’s toothless older sister told me. “O wu akwura akwura na ndi abali di egwu na gah ngagh. Only prostitutes and bandits go there.”
I was skeptical. I wasn’t expecting the Intercontinental but I was sure Sunrise Hotel would have proper bathrooms, toilets, a few hours of electricity a day, a fan and, most of all, privacy. And besides, I didn’t discriminate against prostitutes and bandits.
On humid nights when it was too hot to stay indoors I would stretch out on the cool surface of my grandfather’s raised concrete tomb and wish I was in a room at Sunrise Hotel. The tomb was near the entrance of the compound where my grandfather’s obi used to stand. And sooner or later I would find myself having a conversation with him.
My grandfather, Aga’ekwe, son of Agwubuo, was a mild and kindly man who loved his children dearly. I felt cheated when I found out he died before I was born. I counted back the months between his death and my birth wondering if he knew I was expected at least. I was seeking in that awareness some sort of consolation and connection. He was a herbal healer. He could cure anything from appendicitis to addiction. Cholera was the only thing his medicine could not cure—cholera and death. He was the one who talked me out of my obsession with Sunrise Hotel.
“It’s a filthy place,” he said to me and showed me dark sooty walls, peeling cracked paint, a stained slab of foam in a rough bed-frame and a slimy shower stall. So, with his encouragement I adapted.
I learnt to take long swims in Njaba River instead of long baths. I swam farther and deeper than anyone else. My playmates warned me about The Lady of The River. I felt her hands in the undertow ready to pull me under if I let her and kicked out with a laugh. Surprised, my playmates followed me. She just wanted to play too. It’s exhausting to be constantly feared, worshiped and appealed to. And it’s very lonely too. People told me stories of seeing her on moonlit nights on the bridge alone, combing her long flowing hair. It was common to find offerings of Fanta and biscuits left for her beside the footpath to the river and sometimes a cheap plastic doll from a supplicant asking for a child.
I learnt to take my constitutional in the bush like all the other children in the homestead. My favorite spot was the Ajo Ohia, or Bad Bush, where the community used to cast away new born twins, dread diseases and pots of strong magic. It hadn’t been used for decades and was shit free.
Till I came along with my playmates, that is.
The morning constitutional became an adventure. Every morning I went deeper and deeper into the Ajo Ohia. I was never afraid. And I was never alone, though my entourage would thin out the further I went, till there was only one person left. My brave sidekick was probably more afraid of what my father would do if I didn’t return unharmed than whatever sprites and fairies they expected to encounter in the Bad Bush. We would emerge hours later pockets stuffed with rose apples and miracle berries, the ones that made everything sweet in the mouth so we could drink garri without sugar. There were no footpaths in the Ajo Ohia and the trees were bigger than the surrounding bush. The deep emerald canopy blocked out the sun. Mushroom shaped anthills sprouted undisturbed from the forest floor. They crouched in the gloom like grotesque apparitions. The ruby red fruit of the wild almond, which the villagers called Utu Nkita, gleamed like the many eyes of Cerberus.
My great-grandfather’s compound was a short walk away from my grandfather’s. So were my grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s natal homes. Visiting them gave me a deep sense of history and meaning but walking ancient footpaths through farmlands and thick bush also made me remember stories of slave raids. Walking down one path, one day, surrounded by people I stopped abruptly and broke down crying as the image of someone being hunted popped into my head. I couldn’t explain.
Okwaragu, an udara tree planted by my great-grandfather almost 200 years ago, dominates the entrance to his compound. Okwaragu was his totem. My great grandfather, Agwubuo son of Duru Abali, was an only son and a powerful Ago Mmuo. His descendants are as numerous as the fruit of the big gnarled tree. The udara tree is fickle and an omen of abundance where it sprouts.
When I wasn’t playing with the children I was pestering the old people to tell me about my various grandparents. I was certain that there was something they wanted me to know. That there was some mistake that they weren’t there to meet me because I was sure I came for them. The old people were kind to me and told me many stories. Like one about my great-grandmother, who got tired of one of her brothers in-law always asking for and emptying her snuff box so she put some pepper in it. They told me how she saved her son Achinike, my great-grandfather, from being sold into slavery when he was a child. He grew up to be known as Agwubuo Duru Abali. He was so rich he was the first to initiate four of his sons into the Nze Na Ozo leadership cult at the same time.
My father and his kinsmen, worried that I was going native, sent me off to a Catholic boarding school where I was forced to endure pit latrines, slimy shower stalls and fatuous sermons. But Umuaka had stolen my heart. The people and the spirits had welcomed, accepted and adored me. And I loved them right back.
For a long time Sunrise Hotel remained the only Hotel in Umuaka. Umuaka isn’t exactly a tourist destination. As a matter of fact, its reputation for banditry meant visitors usually rushed to leave before sunset. They mostly came to trade in its famous market, Afor Umuaka. Every eighth day they would come from near and far to buy and sell.
The Igbo market place used to be a woman. The Lady of Afor Umuaka was Lolo Ocha, daughter of Njaba. Then about 200 years ago, Aro Men convinced the Good People of Umuaka that she needed a husband and brought Iziokwu, son of Ibinu Okpabi, the Long Juju of Arochukwu to be her spouse and consort. The Aro Men told them only Iziokwu could stop the incessant kidnappings plaguing the kingdom. Iziokwu demanded slaves and human sacrifices to appease him and his father. So, the Good People gave Isiokwu the unwanted people and the criminals. Some of these served and lived with Isiokwu and Lolo Ocha in the market and some were sent as tribute to Ibinu Okpabi in Arochukwu.
The Good People ostracized The People of The Market and called them bandits and they, in return, called them Osu. They would not socialize with them openly. Yet every time a certain man visited the homestead I could hear my grandfather weep. I found out the man was his son. His mother, one of my grandfather’s wives, fled when she was pregnant with him to The People of The Market. And she became one of them with her baby because he was born among them. And that’s how he was excluded from his father’s house. There were not enough rooms for him. But when he rode into the compound on his White Horse bicycle to visit his older brother, we would greet him, ‘Dede.’ And we only bought our garri from him in the market though we were never allowed to visit his house.
I left Umuaka when I was 20. I would visit once in a while but there was no place good enough for me to stay for too long. Still, 30 years later when I returned to Nigeria after some years away and nowhere else to go, I went back to Umuaka, just like my father had.
There are more rooms than ever in my grandfather’s homestead. The lean-tos and rear gardens have been replaced with more rooms and buildings. Every family has their own WC, shower stall and a proper kitchen now. We’re even connected to the national power grid though we rarely have more than 3 hours of weak power a day. So at night the air sings with the sound of a dozen small generators. The big Lister was sold off for scrap a long time ago. And children no longer play on my grandfather’s tomb. Each family sits inside their rooms watching TV.
It’s not how grandfather and I envisioned it all those years ago. The only reason his sons and grandsons, my uncles and cousins, stay in the compound is to hold on to their portion of it. Everyone is waiting for everyone else and their children to move out. Or die. Everyone suspects everyone else of trying to force them out. Or kill them. The whole family is spilt into uneasy factions. I’m the only one who refuses to take sides, eating and drinking freely with everyone. I’ve always argued for peace, reconciliation and co-operation and helped anyone in need no matter their allegiance. Yet even my father resisted me before he died.
“Nene, you don’t understand,” he would say. “You have to listen to me! You have to do what I say. He is my enemy.”
His brothers and half-brothers and their sons are the same. Each one only wants to impose his own vision and manipulate the women; wives, daughters and sisters, into supporting them. They don’t know about my conversations with grandfather or that he was the one that inspired a lot of those ideas they rejected. Some find out later, when they join him.
Between 2 and 3 in the morning the generators go off one after the other. When the last one sputters to a stop, crying bush babies, chirping cicadas and croaking frogs reclaim the night. And the spirits of my homeland reclaim my restless dreams. I dream it starts to rain while I am having lunch at the poolside of the Eko Hotel in Lagos. Big fat rain drops wake me on the concrete deck outside where the heat of the night had driven me in search of a cool breeze.
When chaos threatens to overwhelm me I move into a hotel, and not just any hotel. A proper hotel. When I found myself homeless during law school I checked into the Eko Hotel Lagos for three months. When the Lagos crime rate made me move to Abuja, I checked into the Hilton for 4 months before I got an apartment. And when the plumbing in my apartment burst, I moved into the Sheraton for 6 months.
I didn’t expect to find a Sheraton or a Hilton in Umuaka. The Sunrise Hotel closed long ago but Umuaka has at least two other hotels now. Akah Hotel beside Afor Market, which belongs to The People of the Market. And Chisayama Hotel, which is near my great-grandfather’s compound. Distant relative Mike, and his Afrikaaner wife, Atlanta, own Chisayama. She abandoned a comfortable life in South Africa to follow her husband to Umuaka and build his dream hotel. It’s still uncompleted. Only 6 rooms were in use. But the rooms were spacious, air-conditioned, ensuite, the plumbing worked and Atlanta kept them scrupulously clean.
Chisayama also had a bar with cold drinks and a pool table. The generator was on every day from 6pm to 6am and sometimes during the day. Atlanta said she grew up on a small farm in rural South Africa, so she was kind of used to African bush life. She dealt with an endless stream of hard luck relatives, short time customers and drunks in a firm booming voice.
I didn’t move in immediately. I hesitated to offend my kinsmen or make them feel unappreciated. Then one night after a contentious family meeting a male cousin asked me, ‘Why do you like to talk like a man in this family?’ They say a woman’s money is sweet but her words are bitter.
The next day I moved out. This time even my grandfather didn’t try to persuade me to remain. I stayed at Chisayama till I moved back to Abuja five months later. Every morning I would sit with Atlanta and have coffee and a cigarette before going to sit with Okwaragu and share kola and palm wine with Ako, his care taker. Every evening we drank copious amounts of cold beer, listened to highlife and had loud philosophical and political debates at the bar. Not a bandit or prostitute in sight. My scandalized kinsmen sent the Umuada, my sisters, to talk some sense into me. I talked some sense into them.
“We do everything for these our brothers that’s why they don’t do anything for themselves. Continue but I’m not doing again.”
Atlanta moved back to South Africa with her children shortly after I left. The local schools just weren’t good enough anymore. The most expensive private education in Imo State was still not as good as free public education in South Africa. Her husband moved to South Korea later that year in search of more money to finish his dream hotel.
Without them to run things, standards at the hotel crashed. So, when I had to travel to Umuaka for the 2019 general elections I was really worried about where I was going to stay. Someone mentioned a new hotel near Chisayama that opened during Christmas to serve the growing population of sophisticated global citizens from Umuaka that still like to come home for the holidays. The owner was a businessman in Abidjan. I went to check it out. As soon as I entered the Hilltop Hotel I relaxed. It was new. It was modern. It was clean. It could’ve been a mid-range hotel in Dakar or New York City.
“I’ll take it!” I blurted out as soon as they showed me the only executive room, irrationally apprehensive they would tell me it was all a joke or hallucination. I almost paid without haggling. The rack rate was half what I paid the previous night for a hotel room in Owerri that was half as nice. But if you don’t haggle they’ll think you’re not very smart or just have too much money. Both are invitations for a good-old guilt-free fleecing.
After I checked in and unpacked I lay on the white bed and watched the shadows move down the white walls as the sun set.
“I am home,” I whispered to the spirits of Umuaka.
“Welcome home,” they whispered back.
Chinwe Aga’ekwe (The Writer & Poet Formerly Known as Lesley Agams)
Recovering Woman, Lawyer & Aid Worker, opinionated & neurotic.
Lives in Abuja with the ghost of her black cat Felix.
Farafina Class of 2016. Published in Brittle Paper, Praxis Magazine & The Mojo Review.