My Son’s Home is an Ibo Village

My Son’s Home is an Ibo Village

By Catherine Onyemelukwe

IBOPeace Corps training had not prepared me for motherhood. It wasn’t intended to. My marriage and motherhood in Nigeria were unexpected by-products of being a Peace Corps Volunteer in the country for two years. I met my husband halfway through my second year in the Peace Corps.

We married a year later, and had our first child a year after that. Clem is Ibo, one of the three major tribes in Nigeria, and I am a white American. Our first child was a boy with skin of a lovely light caramel color. He had tight black curls and dark eyes. We settled in Lagos, the capital.

We had talked about names before he was born. “You know the custom is that my father will give the baby his name,” Clem said.

I agreed, as long as I could supply a middle name. So a week after our son was born, I opened the telegram that arrived from Clem’s father. There was the selected name—Chinakueze.

“I know that Chi means God, ku is to grow, and eze is king,” I said, handing Clem the telegram. “But God grows kings?”

“A name isn’t necessarily a literal translation,” Clem said. I could tell that he was grappling with his father’s intention behind this long name. “I see what it is,” he said suddenly. “God is the one who creates kings. I like it.”

“It’s a mouthful,” I said. “Whatever are we going to call him?”

“Why not the whole name, Chi-nakueze?”

“Five syllables for the first name, and another five for his surname? I think that’s a heavy burden for a small boy.”

Within two days we had shortened it to Chinaku. I added the middle name Danforth, my mother’s maiden name and my middle one. “He can use Dan as a nickname when he’s older if he wants,” I said.

Clem called his parents to tell them we liked the name. A few minutes into the call, he turned to me. “My father says we should come for a naming ceremony.”

“A naming ceremony? Is that like a christening?” I said, looking up from the baby in my arms to watch Clem.

“You’ll see,” Clem said. Turning back to the phone, he said, “I think we can come next weekend?” He looked at me to see me nod my head in agreement. I was being pulled deeper and deeper into Clem’s Ibo culture, and I loved it.

I had been to his village, 300 miles from the capital, Lagos, only once, and just for a couple of hours. Now we would spend two nights there, with no electricity and no running water. Although I was thrilled with the traditions, I wasn’t sure how I would manage with a three-week-old baby. But I had help. Clem’s cousin Rosa, age 12, had come to stay with us before the baby was born. She and I were communicating better every day, as I improved my Ibo language skill and she mastered English.

It was already dark when we arrived on the next Friday evening. Clem’s mother, whom I had learned to call Mama, had gas lanterns lit for us and dinner of pounded yam and egusi soup, my favorite, ready.

The ceremony would take place on Saturday afternoon and evening. The whole clan had been invited, so there would be 70 or 80 people. We had to provide a feast.

“Do I need to help prepare the food?” I asked Mama in my faltering Ibo.

“No,” she assured me. “The ndi nutaru di, the women married into the family, will cook.” Ejike, Clem’s oldest uncle and the patriarch, had already slaughtered the goat when we arrived. I caught the pungent smell from the next compound where it was suspended over a fire to burn off its hair. After that it would be cut up and added to the dishes for the next day.

Before we went to bed, I went over to thank the seven women who had begun cooking. They stirred the contents of huge iron pots set on tripods over open fires. I took the baby with me. I had seen two of the women each married to one of Clem’s uncles on my brief visit 18 months earlier, but had not spoken to them or even seen the others who were helping.

“Dalu. Thank you,” I said to one and then another. They were dressed for cooking, in wrappers—six feet of cotton cloth tied at the waist—and blouses that looked well-used. One woman had her baby tied on her back with an extra piece of cloth.

“Nno, nwunye Clement, welcome, Clement’s wife,” they said. Obele reached out to take the baby, holding him so the others could see. “O maka, he’s good-looking,” a younger woman said, and the others chorused their agreement. I thought their boisterous voices would wake him, but he slept on. With their warm greetings and obvious joy at seeing my baby, I felt close to them. I was now part of the extended family and I belonged here.

A few minutes later, I took Chinaku back to our house. Our bedroom faced the compound where the women were cooking. Well into the night I could hear them singing and talking. The aroma of the cooking goat meat was much more pleasant than the burning hair had been.

Benches borrowed from the nearby Anglican Church were put in place in front of the house on Saturday morning. At 3:00 in the afternoon I nursed Chinaku and dressed him in his blue cotton kimono with embroidered flowers. I changed into the fanciest item in my wardrobe, a fitted dress of woven Akwete cloth in blue, green, and red, which barely fit my recently pregnant body. I re-applied lipstick, eyeliner, and mascara which had faded after the day in the heat. Clem wore his suit trousers with a loose paisley-print shirt. Around 4:00 pm people started to gather. Clem and I had seats of honor with Clem’s parents and uncles in front of the house. Mama wore her best wrap- per, a blue print with matching blouse and head tie. Papa was dignified in his long gown of the same fabric. He had added a felt cap of dark blue and a walking stick.

When the space in front of the house was full, Ejike stood up. “Ndi be anyi, kwenu, my people, rejoice.” The guests shouted, “Kwenu.” He turned to his left, then his right, with the same greeting. Each time the response was louder and Chinaku began crying. I rocked him in my arms. “Don’t worry. You’re safe here.”

I knew breaking kola was the first major agenda item of any Ibo event. Ejike reached down and took one of the kola nuts from the plate in front of him. “With this kola I offer thanks to our ancestors,” he said in Ibo as he held up the kola for everyone to see.

“The ancestors have honored us by making our son Clement a chief engineer. They honored us by giving him a wife from America. Now they have blessed us with a son.”

He broke the kola nut he’d been holding into three pieces, took one himself, and placed the rest on the plate. Then he called several young men to carry the other trays of kola nuts to pass to everyone present, men first, then the women. When everyone had a piece, jugs of palm wine and bottles of Star beer were brought out and served. Most men had their own calabash gourds with them. Some, I suspected, had started their drinking earlier in the day. Chinaku stopped crying.

After the drinking was well underway, Ejike took Chinaku from me and held him up before the crowd.

“I have given this child the name Chinakueze.” He poured a libation of palm wine on the ground. “I consulted the Dibia who said the ancestors approve.”

The baby was handed around to all the senior men. Then the women took turns holding him. He was passed back to me as the women brought out and served the food. After everyone had eaten their fill of jollof rice, garri, pounded cassava and okra soup, a men’s dance troupe performed, accompanied by drums, the high-pitched wooden Ibo flute, and maracas. Then the women, the same group who had cooked and served the food, began to dance.

“Bia, gba egwu. Come dance with us.” They pulled me up. Clem held out his arms to take the baby as I rose and joined the circle. I found it easy to follow their steps and after a minute, lost my embarrassment and enjoyed the music, the movement, and the feeling of belonging. This was, after all, my group—the women married into the Onyemelukwe family. The crowd ap- plauded, Clem most of all, as I sat down, sweating and dusty.

The stub of Chinaku’s umbilical cord had fallen off when he was two weeks old. Clem had told me to save it and bring it along for the ceremony. Now Papa asked me to bring it to him.

“I bury this cord which binds Chinakueze to Nanka, to our compound, and to our people forever,” he said. “Whenever he returns he will know that he belongs here. When he is away, he will always know that part of him is here.” He placed the cord in the small hole that had been dug earlier. I felt an incredible surge of emotion for the family that had embraced me so warmly.?I returned to Lagos the next day, leaving a tiny part of my son behind in his father’s village. Would he feel this connection? I knew that I did; it was now my village, too.

Author’s Note: This story is from chapter 6 of Nigeria Revisited: My Life and Loves Abroad, my memoir of my twenty-four years in Africa. The story about my son’s name and naming ceremony is one example of how I was drawn into a culture completely different from the one I knew growing up in the U.S. It reflects my embrace of the Ibo culture not only for my children, but for myself as well. In August 2013 my husband and I took the umbilical cord of our newest grandchild and buried it in the village, as we’d done with our son’s so many years ago.

Catherine Onyemelukwe and her husband now live in Westport, CT. Their children live in London, Philadelphia, and Lagos, Nigeria. Another selection from her memoir is forthcoming in the anthology Love on the Road.

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A Figure of Speech

A Figure of Speech

By Aleksandra Andrejevic-Bullock

FIgure of SpeechI never dreamt that Ana and I wouldn’t speak the same language.

We are on the living room floor, surrounded by the debris of the afternoon’s play. The carpet is a mine field of Lego blocks and toys. My husband Wayne is wisely sitting on the sofa and listening in casually, until suddenly he interrupts me.

“A cockerel says what?!”

“Kukureekoo,” I say, seriously. A book about animals is on the floor next to me. Ana’s little hands are busy pressing the buttons to hear the noises.

Wayne falls off the sofa laughing.

“That’s what it says!” I protest. “If you listen carefully.”

“I could listen extremely carefully, with a hearing aid, and still it wouldn’t say that,” he says.

“Well it does,” I insist. “It really says kukureekoo, in my language.”

“A cockerel says cock-a-doodle-doo, in any language.” My husband is howling with laughter now.

Ana is looking at us with big blue eyes, which seem to say she finds both equally unlikely. But this moment spells trouble. We don’t just disagree on how a cockerel, a dog or a horse sound in which language (although cats and cows turn out to be strangely non-controversial). This becomes a symptom of an unexpected division within our home.

We had, of course, discussed what it would be like, raising a bilingual family. It will be very exotic, said our friends. Well, neither of the languages we speak are that interesting. I mean, English and Serbian? I’d much rather it was Spanish and Chinese, or some other combo suitable for world domination. As it was, we could bask in the glow of bilingual-ness, but it would have to be a mediocre glow at best.

People would bring up other random benefits this early exposure to two languages would apparently give to our children.

“It just wires their brains up completely differently,” someone had said to me. In what way, I wondered? Would they be able to bend spoons just by looking at them? (That should make weaning more interesting).

“It really helps with mathematics, later on,” someone else had told me. I didn’t even know how to respond to this one.

My mum summed it up well when she said to me: “Please teach the children Serbian, because at my age I really don’t fancy learning English.”

Like many children from bilingual families, Ana developed a little later than her peers. At nineteen months, she could say perhaps ten words in total, but then everything seemed to explode. At two and a half she now speaks in a way I could only describe as fluent, with a vocabulary to shock. A strictly English vocabulary.

“Do you speak to her in Serbian, like I asked you to?” my mum interrogated.

“Of course I do! All the time.”

“Even when Wayne is in the room?”

“Especially when Wayne is in the room. I like it when he doesn’t know what we’re saying.”

In reality, I am mixing the two languages a bit. I know it’s strictly against the rules of how-to-bring-up-amazing-bilingual-children. But a friend has been telling me about a woman we both know, whose children speak the most incredible Serbian but who is now divorcing her (English) husband. It is, of course, crazy to assume that they are divorcing just because she spoke too much Serbian to the kids and he felt excluded. But the story scared me.

And so in our family Wayne and Ana speak English, Sacha speaks unintelligible words yet to be identified as belonging to any language (but he is only 9 months old), and I speak both English and Serbian, frequently swapping between the two, often getting confused in the process.

Wayne has told me that the time I’m most likely to speak to him in Serbian (and not even know it) is immediately upon waking up.

“Molim te skuvaj mi kafu,” I apparently said once. (Well, I am making this up, because he couldn’t actually repeat what I’d said, but I’d definitely said something. He was at liberty to ignore it because he didn’t understand. And I was asleep again within seconds).

I also get confused on Ana’s play dates, where sooner or later I start to talk to other people’s children in Serbian. Toddlers don’t particularly listen even when you talk to them in the correct language.

I dream and write in English but still, swapping between languages for different members of my family for twelve or more hours a day can be exhausting. For example:

Ana (in English): Mummy, look, I’m making a tower!

Me (in Serbian): Wow, that’s a big tower!

It may not seem like much (we’re still on page 1 of The Life Manual, and it’s mostly about Lego towers), but two pregnancies in quick succession didn’t leave me with enough brain cells for doing this all day.

Other aspects bother me too. When I talk to Ana in Serbian, my voice is soft, I have a whole dictionary of loving words to choose from. Even strangers sometimes comment on how soothing it sounds. Like a song, with a lilt, like a lullaby. A language made for nurturing.

When I talk to her in English, my voice strains. The high pitch of ‘motherese’ doesn’t come naturally to me. My throat rebels. I struggle to find the right words. “Poppet” and “sweet pea” will do, but it’s just not the same. Perhaps I can scold her more efficiently—Ana come here at once!—but to love her, I feel I need Serbian. And then, what I hear in return, is a foreign language. From my baby.

Or, she says something to me, but I just go blank. I stare. I’m trying to translate, paraphrase it in Serbian, and I just can’t. My mind has gone AWOL. I’m tired and exasperated. Why can’t she just speak like me? I gave birth to her, surely it’s not too much to ask? Then she puts her hands around my neck and says I loves you mummy. It’s the bridge I run across.

Sometimes, very rarely, when she says a Serbian word, everything changes in a single breath. It’s like she comes from a great distance and rushes straight at me, closer and closer, until we become one. Like it is supposed to be. When she calls me mama instead of ‘mummy’ I seem a different person even to myself.

I know that none of this is really about the language. It’s about shared identity, it’s about the long line of Serbian life and thought I hope my children will continue amidst all the challenges that living in England will present to that. It’s the two worlds fighting in me, and I haven’t yet learnt how to make peace between them.

It’s good to remember that words we speak are just one way we communicate.

In the evenings, when we are reading the bedtime story and she snuggles into my arms all soft and fragrant from her bath, her small body relaxing with all the trust of someone who feels loved and safe in this universe—that’s a language anyone can understand. Everything else is just a figure of speech.

Aleksandra Andrejevic-Bullock writes short stories, theatre plays and poems, and her work has appeared in The Dawntreader, Literary Mama and other magazines. She lives in leafy Cheltenham (England) with her husband, two small children and a whole lot of books. She blogs at

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