Christmas, longing, loss, home and Babylon 

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

America. New Jersey. Christmas hymns. Sad markers to an interesting past of ever-changing seasons and constant longing. And my thoughts turn to home. Nigeria.

Nigeria. Some of my siblings are back home in Ewu, our ancestral home, determined to enjoy Christmas with our mother, Izuma of the Stout Bush. My brother texts me on WhatsApp; he has spent the past five hours trying to get his money out of ATMs. Five hours seem to be a lot just to get a fistful of dollars from a machine. But then, my brother has always been an unreliable witness, burdened with a vividly wild imagination and an oversized sense of drama. I discount his alleged pains and make all the right noises. My sister independently reports the same problem, she had traversed several clans from Ewu to Ekpoma and triumphantly reports success; she has extracted enough money from moody ATMs to buy the Christmas goat. We all cheer in the family group chat when she texts us a picture of a well-fed goat.

There will be a Christmas feast in our ancestral compound, unlike what we will have here in Babylon. There is food in the country, it is just that this season, ATMs are starved of sustenance. Nigeria is like that; there is always a shortage or two. But then, the stories of deprivation spice our meals and our stories and when we dance the movements are the poetry of triumph over adversity. Our stories always end well, even when they don’t end well. Always.

Nigeria. It just seems all our lives have been defined by want, or at best clarity of limited choices. We are making progress, I guess. We have come a long way from the most primal of shortages. Of water, light, and life that has meaning. They are still with us, these shortages, but now we have ATMs refusing to give us back what we put in them.

Na today? My dad used to wake us kids up at the first breath of dawn to go fetch water from the streams under the hills of Igarra. It was back-breaking work which we did as we sleep-walked. Every day. The pipes that came with the colonial masters had long since stopped delivering water to the public taps. My father said the colonial masters left with their competence and left us nothing but our bullshit. Well, he didn’t say bullshit, but things get lost in the translation. We had water taps, yes, but now they are only good as dry markers, mute GPS sentries to places in the heart.

As a little boy, I liked going to the streams of Igarra to see the little fish and to marvel at the wonder that was the hills. Even in those days I was addicted to dreaming. The Nigeria of my youth was epileptic, giving out promises in bursts and relapsing into incompetence. A vicious cycle of nonsense.

America has too much; here we suffer from the poverty of prosperity. This is not as it should be. Ask Africa. There is a reason for longing. There is a reason for deprivation. If you have never experienced loss, you’ll never be happy, if you’ve never been hungry you’ll never know the joy of satisfying a hunger.

Nigeria is like America; her rivers are fed by the poor. You know that river in Africa that you saw on the National Geographic channel, the one filled with famished crocodiles that antelopes had to cross, or die from famine? What a feast for the crocodiles. I am one of the few antelopes that got away. I should make a tee-shirt: I survived Africa. And now I am trying to survive America.

We are still here. Christmas in New Jersey. The music is beautiful, the people are even more beautiful. They are dancing and the moves, graceful, tell stories of war, loves and losses but each step is of quiet defiance. We are here; we are not going anywhere.

We are trying to survive America. I am almost there. I am approaching the winter of my life’s journey and the house is emptying itself of the laughter and tears of children. Our son, Fearless Fang is the only one left at home. He is my constant companion when he is not swift enough to escape the house before my eyes alight on him. He carries my goatskin bag everywhere I go. Goatskin bag? I don’t know what one looks like but it makes this story sufficiently exotic enough to earn a place in an “international” literary journal. Western editors like bullshit like that.

I will miss my son. He helps me complete my haircuts. I cannot see the back of my head. He is my eyes. At my back. He’s got my back. With his eyes. How will I cut my hair when he’s gone to college in the fall? I’ll cross that river of crocodiles when the time comes. For now, I’ll just enjoy what I can. Life goes on. Always