Where Do We Bury You When You Die?

 [ Masterweb Reports ] - A few years ago while we were young students in Atlanta, a young Nigerian student at Clark College went to work and a heavy box he was lifting with a forklift fell and broke the poor student’s neck. We ran around looking for money to send the body home after the Nigerian Embassy in Washington informed us it had no money budgeted for flying bodies home. We asked the family back home to bury Ejike in Atlanta, and the answer we received was: “No, send our son home.” That was a tall order, particularly coming from the order giver who had no kobo to contribute but who would perhaps be at Lagos Airport crying about “Nwa anyi jere Obodo Oyibo” (our child that went to the white man’s land). The round-trip fare to Nigeria by Pan American Airline then was dirt cheap ($425) so there was no problem. When time came to send the corpse home no one was willing to accompany Ejike because we all were illegal aliens and Immigration was hot on our heels. How time flies!


Nigerians are still very touchy about death, and giving loved ones befitting burials is a significant feature of the Nigerian cultural life one is not easily allowed to tamper with .What is more befitting for a dead man than washing him and sticking him in the soil to rest from his earthly worries? And why must talking about death and burial be removed from public discussions as a matter of urgency? Few friends had warned me to stay clear of discussing controversial Nigerian traditions after I wrote the piece “Wake Keeping or Wake Begging.” A Nigerian woman whose ideas I always seek when thinking on some of my topics, asks “Who forces you to attend wakes? Why do you write on such topics? Are you asked to donate money? Why are you becoming so unpopular that people are beginning to hate you?” Hate me for expressing innocuous thoughts on sensitive issues- innocuous in the sense that my thoughts are inoffensive to me, safe to the environment, harmless to others, and strictly personal?


If hatred is what I get for questioning my people’s oppressive tradition or status quo, I don’t want to be loved. And if omenala (traditional ways of doing things) will oppressively dictate how we live, love, sex, die, and bury our dead (by transporting a corpse thousands of miles across continents at exorbitant costs to the family), are we allowed to ask: “Does it mean that’s the way things ought to always be done? Does it? And why doesn’t it?” Assumimg arguendo it is found that you are entitled to how you want to be buried, it doesn’t preclude battling for “uche gi” (your mind) or struggling to manipulate your mindset and change the way you think about traditions. This essay speaks to that. We owe no apology.


How about making death a bit painful?


I am thinking about changing the way I behave at wakes. The gentlemanly way of spraying dollar bills has got to stop. I have tried pressing the dollar bills hard on the men’s sweaty foreheads or the women’s pancake (that hideous, gummy substance called makeup) which African women enjoy plastering their faces with. I would like to press the dollar bill hard on pancake faces that it sticks like dried-up pus and covers the dancers’ vision. The idea is to get dancers to trip and fall down, giving the impression they are helping children collect the IN GOD WE TRUST. Now, I have thought of coming up with heavy rolls of quarters which would allow me to stay on the dance floor a bit longer and which I shall throw with ferocious force at the celebrants’ cringing eyes, noses, mouths, lips, ears, necks, or teeth if they try to smile at Okafor Naira Sprayer or me during Sweet Mother number. A wicked friend of mine suggested I come up with bags of rocks to be thrown with the energy of a baseball player at the dancers begging for money. There would be pandemonium as the women run into bathrooms with rocks sticking out of their heavy make-up and the men dive under tables with their onyeagba pot bellies filled with osikapa and isi ewu mixed with a half gallon of foaming Heinekens.


Does death defy time and place ?


As I was planning on what moves to take to discourage carrying corpse home, I ran into a Nigerian woman at Riverdale Bank of America. She had been counting Dollar bills for over an hour. I recognized her as one of the dancers at Igbo wake-keeping social gatherings and that grabbed my inquisitiveness. As I carefully approached her so as not to create the impression I wanted to rob her, I sarcastically asked: “Madam, you need help counting all that money?”


“Oh, no,” she said. “My brother just died, and we had a wake for him two days ago.” Two days ago? In the very town I live? I didn’t go to her wake because I didn’t read the email or because the name of this woman and her bereaved family didn’t ring a bell. It could be that I hadn’t wanted to write more checks when some Nigerian MC begins to say: “Folks, this body got to go home .” I didn’t kill the man, and I hadn’t stopped the corpse from walking home across the Atlantic, did I? Anyway, running into a recently bereaved Naija lady counting money at a bank was a picture in comedy. It is comical in that the lady’s brother doesn’t know his sister would be using his death as excuse to prostitute and count her proceeds at a local bank.


I said: “I’m so sorry, Ma’am. Did your brother die in Atlanta, and when did he pass?’ Her response baffled me and led me to want to grab the money from her, put it back into her account , and then lecture her on the evil of her people’s wake-keeping habit of “ichughari akpati ozu” (chasing after the wooden coffin)? Why are we always (a) shedding crocodile tears; (b) bothering friends to organize wakes; (c) begging friends to bring food and beverages to a rented hall; (d) collecting money to spend on business back home or to build a doggone house under the pretext that we are honoring the dead and paying respect to family members who once lived and are no more; and (e) getting drunk to ease the pain or fear of facing our impending death? “Oh, no, he died in Nigeria a few years ago.” The dollar-counting woman finally said in front of a heap of green Dollar bills that were unkempt, ragged, scruffy, bedraggled, disheveled, or simply rumpled.


What Do I Care When I’m gone?


I once had a funny dream in which I was attending a wake party somewhere at Atlanta. Something terrifying happened. As I was carrying two hefty plates of food to a table in the midst of Osadebe and Sweet Mother pieces of music and people were milling around the dance floor ready to throw down, the man whose life and death we were celebrating suddenly appeared in the hall and snatched the microphone from the befuddled MC. He gave a little speech and disappeared as miraculously as he had entered:


He said: Igbo Kwenu, Rienu, Nuonu, Kwezuenu! I’m just coming from the grave. Did I ask you people to place me in this box? Wha t do I care how you dispose of my remains when I die? Did you say some kind words to me while I walked among you? Did you smile, pat me on the back, slip a loving arm around my neck, or put a lone Dollar into my palm to buy a bottle of Crystal Sparkling Water? How come now you are going bananas, looking for a place to get drunk and talk your trash? Weren’t you gossiping when my wife and I were fighting and going through a bitter divorce? What’s this jankara all about?” And pi

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