Down South

Kosiso Ugwueze

When my uncle, Onoima, returned from South Africa, he did not talk about what he had seen there. He only slept for hours, waking in the middle of the night to shuffle around the kitchen for something to eat. Other times, he would park himself in front of the television, and when a news story on South Africa came on, a story about Nigeria and South Africa’s battle for economic supremacy, for example, he would wince, change the channel immediately. I remember that I often found him on the sofa in the early mornings, that I walked past him on my way out the door, listening as he snored, as he fidgeted in his sleep. Sometimes, he would wake screaming, his voice hoarse in his throat. He would glare at me with bloodshot eyes. Then, he would turn away on the sofa and return to sleep.

The story was that Uncle Onoima had spent three years in a South African prison. My mother whispered this to her sister, Chi, as they cooked ogbono soup in the kitchen on Saturday afternoons. She would shake her head and lambast my father’s side of the family. They are all crooks, she said. Wayward people. And I was starting to show these qualities. That’s why I had come home suspended for starting a fight in the schoolyard. My mother shook her head and whistled under her breath. There was a wayward gene in my father’s DNA and it was starting to manifest itself in me.

My mother did not say these things near my father. She only whispered them when he was not home, when he had gone to work or down the street to visit his friends. But she always made sure I heard them. That was her way of punishing me for my transgressions. She was never one to discipline me directly, my mother. She always found a roundabout way to let me know that I had wronged her and these conversations with Chi, spoken always when I was within earshot, were her way of getting back at me.

My father, however, was the direct disciplinarian and he flogged me, without mercy, the day I came home with the headmaster’s note saying I was suspended from school for two weeks. He chased me around the house with his cane and when I broke a vase, he removed his shoes and threw them at my head.

“You will not become whatever you want to become in this house,” my father said.

The next day, he sat me down and told me he would no longer pay my school fees. I was fifteen then. I began to cry. I got on my knees and begged my father. I wanted to tell him what had led to the fight. Emeka, my rival at school, a boy whose skills on the football pitch put me to shame, had called my mother a whore. He had said that he saw her on the streets, her short skirt riding up her thighs.

The other boys stood there looking at me, a crowd had gathered. I had no choice but to defend my mother’s honor. I wanted to tell my father all this. But the tears flowed down my face, staining my cheeks. I imagined myself like my uncle Onoima, lying down on the sofa in the middle of the day, flinching at the smallest noise in the yard.

Onoima must have heard my thoughts because he barged into the room, startling us. He stood at the doorway, his hands on his hips. I had not seen him upright in days. In his eyes, I saw rage.

“What’s going on here?” Onoima said. He marched to where I knelt facing my father and slapped me so hard my eyes rolled in my head.

“What the fuck?” he said, standing over me. My father stood back surprised.

“Onoima, I’ve got it,” said my father.

But my uncle took another step towards me, and it was full of aggression.

“What are you raising here?” he said to my father. “A big boy sniveling like a little bitch. In South Africa, Igbo boys his age were serving hard time for only dreaming of a better life. And here he is, crying like I’m not his uncle. Biko, shut up my friend!”

I thought my uncle would hit me again but he only stormed out the room. “We need to toughen that boy up,” I heard him shout. My father, never one to be at a loss for words, looked at me with his mouth open. It was the first time my uncle had mentioned South Africa since he arrived on our doorstep with nothing but the tattered clothes on his back. Before his arrival, my father spoke often of Onoima, of the way he had broken my grandmother’s heart. He was the youngest of four boys, the one who refused to finish school, who was always the topic of negative conversation, bludgeoned in one fight or another, home every day past his curfew. They had taken my uncle to priest after priest, to the military school, but he never straightened out. Then he fled for South Africa and did not return for a decade. When he arrived on our doorstep two months ago, my father had not heard from him, no letters, no phone calls, in seven years.

Onoima’s seven-year silence was strange because as young boys, he and my father had been almost inseparable. My uncle Chima, my father’s eldest brother, had once told me that Onoima and my father had shared a close yet competitive relationship. My father wanted so much to be like Onoima. He and Onoima fought over whom between the both of them would be a great man of history. Like my father, Onoima was obsessed with history, with great men, from Napoleon to Ojukwu. In his room, Onoima had books on Churchill, Azikiwe, even Hitler. Even though I never saw him read any of these books, I knew that they were important to him, the way he dusted them every so often, running his hands along their spines as though by doing so he could absorb the lives of these men.

And even after the ten years had passed and Onoima was home again, I saw that my father’s yearning to be like his brother had not wavered. The first few days after my uncle’s arrival, my father lamented Onoima’s appearance, his tattoos, his dreadlocks. But I caught my father staring at himself in the mirror one morning as he asked my mother whether he should shave or not, whether he should let his hair grow out. For as long as I have known my father, he has never worn a beard or even a mustache, not even when he was ill with malaria and could barely get out of bed. My mother scolded him. “Is it because Onoima has a beard that you now want to grow one? You are older than him, you should be the one setting the example.”

As a child, I had found myself fascinated by Onoima, this uncle I hardly knew. Not a week went by that my father did not mention him. Eat your vegetables or you will become like Onoima. Do well in school or you will become like Onoima. Despite my father’s warnings, I respected Onoima. My father, stiff in his starched shirts, his pressed slacks, his glistening watch, did not have the guts to travel away from home, to a country where he had no family and few friends. When my father lectured me about obeying the rules so that I would not become like Onoima, dead or lost in a foreign country, I’d imagine Onoima rich and happy in South Africa, defying my father and everyone else’s expectations.

Yet, Onoima had arrived on our doorstep disheveled and beaten. I still remember the shock that rippled through me the night he appeared out of thin air. Our gateman had turned him away several times, convinced that the filthy man before him could not have been my father’s brother. That night, Onoima collapsed into my father’s arms and my father howled.

I awoke the next morning surprised to find Onoima not on the sofa but in the yard doing calisthenics. He was jumping up and down, swinging his legs from side to side. I was armed with a broom as it was part of my punishment to keep the yard clean and I watched Onoima complete a hundred push-ups in the damp earth, his body quivering, drenched in sweat.

After his morning exercise, Onoima returned to the veranda and began beating his chest. He screamed at the top of his lungs and my mother came running from her room, asking what was going on.

Our house was a modern two-story construction in the Independence Layout neighborhood of Enugu. It had been gifted to my parents as a wedding present from my mother’s father, a former governor of Enugu State. My father had married up, into a politically connected family, and it was a source of pride for him, something he never failed to throw in Onoima’s face.

But our house now was a cave full of dueling spirits. My uncle had said as much to my mother. He told her, several times, that he didn’t care who her father was. People like her, he said, did not understand what it took to survive out in the world. And when my mother offered to help him find work if he would make himself presentable, my uncle scoffed. “My dreadlocks mean I’m Samson,” he told her. “And you are Delilah, ready to take away my power.”

I followed my uncle up the steps and into the house. In the sitting room, he began to pace, moving furniture around. My mother stood with her arms folded, her anger visible on her face, in the way her eyebrows twitched, and her mouth quivered. She had been told countless times how much she did not understand life for the average man and I know now that it had made her self-conscious, made her hesitate to voice her opinion lest she be seen as just another spoiled, rich girl. My father had already left for work otherwise I knew my mother would have called him into the room and asked him to tell his brother to stop destroying our house.

My uncle continued to rearrange the room. We needed to perform a ritual to eradicate the spirits in the house, he said, as he moved the center table closer to the television mantle. He wiped his brow with his fingers. There were spirits in our house that made boys like me weak, that made us feminine, crying when we should have been marching to victory like the brave Biafran soldiers did before they were betrayed by saboteurs and selfish self-seekers. My mother turned to me, her head sideways. I knew she wanted to say something. But she only shook her head. She shuffled out of the room when she heard her kettle whistling in the kitchen. I could hear her stirring her cooking pot, hitting the sides with such force that the metal rang through the house, loud as the ogene gong that the night watchman blasted every night.

When my father returned home from work that evening, my uncle gathered the two of us in the yard. The sun was dying. There were both shadows and patches of light all over our compound. Onoima stood with his arms, dark as coal, folded over his tight, white shirt, the same shirt he had worn for his calisthenics practice that morning. I remembered his grace, his smooth movements, a dance as beautiful as any we watched at Okpara Square during the Independence Day celebrations every year.

At Onoima’s feet was a white chicken. It squawked and flapped about, its legs tied together with pieces of rope. Onoima looked at me, then at my father, before beginning his chant. His voice rose from his abdomen and filled the sky, an ugly cry that made the goosebumps rise on my skin. My father and I stood transfixed, glued to our spots in front of Onoima, wondering what he would do with the bird.

When Onoima was done with his chant, a song about brotherhood and loyalty, he reached for a knife that neither my father nor I had noticed and slit the chicken’s throat. The animal writhed and flapped about on the blood-soaked soil. I had always hated watching my uncles cut up goats and cows at Christmas and so I looked away. But Onoima laughed a humorless laughter.

“What have you done with this boy?” he asked my father. “He’s just like you. He can’t even gaze upon a dying animal without flinching. How can a man survive this earth when he cannot look death in the face?”

My father said nothing. Onoima went on.

“You have to understand that every day, young Igbo boys leave home in search of greener pastures, food for their bellies.”

Onoima reached for my face. He turned me towards him, his blood-soaked hands on my chin. “This is a ritual for boys who will one day be men,” he said. “This is to prepare you for the day you will have to fend for yourself.” Onoima’s breath smelled like tobacco and the fish we had eaten for lunch that day. I stared into his eyes, into his pupils rimmed by veins. “Never speak about this to your mother,” he said. “Men do not run their mouths to their women.” My mother had gone across the street to get her hair done. I knew that if she was home, she would have yelled at my father for bringing witchcraft and juju into our home. My mother would have run for her Bible and her Holy Water, dousing us in the salt-sweet liquid, praying and thumping her good book. I nodded at my uncle. Right then, I wanted more than anything to redeem myself, for my uncle to see me as a man.

Onoima gutted the animal, reaching his hands into the bloody innards and taking out the chicken’s heart. He rubbed the heart into the soil, mumbling words I could not understand. When he was finished and the heart was caked in dirt, he took a bite out of it, then he reached over and smeared each of our foreheads in chicken blood.

“This is to protect you from feminization,” he said to me. “From turning into a bitch.”

My father and I stood spellbound as my uncle placed an amulet around our necks.

“When I was in South Africa,” Onoima said. “We never went on a mission without protecting ourselves first. You’ll need this at work,” he said to my father, pointing to the amulet now hanging around his neck. “There are evil eyes everywhere, people trying to undermine you.” Then my uncle turned to me again. “That amulet is your protection for the journey to manhood we will embark on together.”

My father was a skeptic, the type of person who questioned every little thing, who argued with newscasters on television when they made claims about the current governor’s dedication to infrastructural development or childhood education. “Show me the proof!” he would shout at the television. “Our roads are still as bad as ever, our children learning nothing in our dilapidated schools!” He was an accountant in the civil service, and he came home every day with stories about the corruption and rot he saw in all aspects of his work. My father and I never had much to say to each other. He would complain and I would listen and nod my head. But after the ritual, there was something that now bonded us, my father and me, this secret we kept from my mother. We would look at each other across the living room and smile, touch our hidden amulets.

Onoima and my father soon began to sit together on the veranda in the evenings. I would sit in the living room, my ears pressed against the window, trying to make out their conversation. I wanted to know where my uncle had learned such a ritual, what he had really been up to in the ten years since he left Nigeria. I imagined him in a jungle with other men, cutting up chickens and using their innards to construct amulets he handed out to young boys for protection. I imagined him leading a battalion of young Igbo boys clad in his trademark combat boots and cargo shorts. I knew my uncle had been great abroad because his eyes, his mouth, his ears belonged to someone who had seen things.

But on most days, my father and my uncle would shoot the breeze, there on the veranda. They would drink beers and talk about various people they knew from their childhoods. Many of these men had already left Nigeria. Some were in America, others had gone to England, a few had disappeared in Eastern Europe, in Cyprus and Ukraine. Others were in South Africa, in the Gambia, Ghana, Burkina Faso. I wondered if there was anyone left in Nigeria, if the country would soon be hollowed out like the coconuts we ate on Saturday afternoons. I imagined returning to school and finding it empty, my classmates vanished, searching desperately for a future elsewhere.

Onoima called me to the veranda three days after the ritual. I had been home from school for ten days and I was becoming restless. As soon as I heard my name, I ran to the veranda and stood before my father and uncle. I was unsure what to do with my hands, but I stood, bold as I knew how, puffing out my chest as I had seen wrestlers do on television.

Onoima stood up and pulled his singlet over his head. On his chest were scars I had never seen before. They glistened with his sweat, slippery lines that snaked from his neck down to his abdomen. They were beautiful in the light and I stared at them, stunned.

“Do you see these scars?” Onoima said tracing his flesh with his large fingers. I looked at my father who had the same awed look in his eyes. Onoima towered over the two of us.

“Do you see my scars?” Onoima said to me. I swallowed hard, nodded.

“Use your words,” Onoima said.


“Yes what?” he said.


“How do you think I got these scars?”

I couldn’t guess. Onoima looked at me again. His eyes were red, and they bore into mine. And I couldn’t help but blink. I tried not to look away but before long I cowered. Onoima appeared like a spirit, glowering in the dim light.

The evening breeze blew leaves from the orange tree in the front yard onto our feet as my uncle shook his head and sat back down. He put his singlet on and brought his beer to his lips. My father looked at him as though he no longer knew his brother.

“Those are bad scars,” my father said catching his breath.

I nodded. “Yes, they are.”

“Do you want to know what it takes to be a man?” my uncle said to me.

“Yessir!” I shouted again at the top of my lungs.

It was then that my uncle told us of his first night in a South African prison. He had driven from Zimbabwe into South Africa with 80 kilograms of cocaine strapped to the bed of his truck and covered with cheap Chinese goods his boss was going to sell in a Johannesburg market. When he reached the border, he searched for the agent who he had bribed into facilitating his every passing. But the agent was nowhere to be found. In his place were drug enforcement officials, tipped off that a Nigerian man was coming into the country with a shipment of high-quality Colombian cocaine. The men arrested Onoima and hulled him off to the local jail, into a cell with a South African kingpin they had nabbed the week before.

My uncle took another swig from his beer bottle. He looked at me with his beady eyes, sweat pooling in the folds of his skin. He was clad in khakis, his combat boots laced almost to his knees. The sky was a purplish pink and the breeze washed over us like tidal waves. But I continued to stand at attention, wanting to let my uncle know that I appreciated his opening up about what he had seen in South Africa, his trusting us with this thing that he had never told anyone in our family. In the waning light, we were bonded, by blood, by honor, by the secrets we no longer kept.

That first night in jail, Onoima was asked to sleep on the floor. It was covered in vomit and feces, maggots crawling down the walls and into the cracks that crisscrossed the pockmarked cement. He knew that if he slept on the floor that night, he would be announcing his weakness, opening himself up to be taken advantage of. It was a code he had learned on the streets. Never acquiesce. Never give anything, not even an inch. So, my uncle refused. He argued with the drug kingpin instead, a man who hated Nigerians, who saw us as fierce competitors, unwilling to play second fiddle, to rise up the ranks like everyone else. The kingpin and his minions cut up my uncle with the ends of a plastic spoon. As my uncle told his story, my eyes widened in disbelief.

I slept that night with my uncle’s scars dancing in my mind. I imagined myself in a prison, facing off with a kingpin and his minions, giving them nothing, not even an inch. I imagined myself fighting for my life in that jail cell, beating off five attackers, getting cut up and stabbed but fighting until the bitter end. In the darkness, I clutched Onoima’s amulet and I felt invincible. Suddenly, the fight in the schoolyard felt like child’s play.

Every evening from then on, Onoima told us more stories, stories of running from the South African police, of the corruption and hypocrisy he faced from the local police officers to the government officials. Everyone wanted a piece of Nigerian money, he said, but continued to treat us with such disrespect. On those evenings, my father and I would listen, with rapt attention, to the way my uncle described South African night life, the prostitutes and johns who hovered on street corners, the businessmen who supplied a steady stream of drugs to young university students. It was a hedonistic country, my uncle said. A Sodom and Gomorrah, not like our beautiful Nigeria where girls were not easy and men knew discipline.

Soon, my father and I wanted Onoima to think of us as the type of men with stories to tell. We wanted him to approve of the life we had built in his absence, my father’s solid job, his elegant house. My mother warned my father that he was coming under a spell. “Your brother is very charismatic,” she said one evening. “And he knows just how to manipulate you.” My mother even suggested that Onoima was turning me against my father. “Be quiet,” my father hissed.

“You know nothing about brothers.”

Despite my mother’s warnings, we soon fell under Onoima’s powerful influence. When he began to dictate when we woke up, what we ate, how we ate, we did not question him. He would come into my room at six o’clock in the morning with his cargo shorts and combat boots and pull me out of bed by my ears.

“Men do not lounge around like bitches,” he would say. “They rise with the sun!”

Heeding my uncle, I began to wake up before six o’clock. I would sit on my bed already dressed, my school uniform pressed, my hair cut sharp on the contours of my head. At school, I no longer feared the boys who teased me, who called me names. I thought only of Onoima’s words, that I was a soldier. I wanted nothing more than to please my uncle, to see his mouth widen into a rare smile.

My father too began to do as he was told. He shouted at my mother when she burned the soup. He would sit on the sofa with his legs spread wide and bark orders at my aunt, Chi. It was only my mother who resisted my uncle’s growing influence over the household. When he yelled at her to prepare pounded yam instead of jollof rice, to warm water for his evening bath, my mother would look at my father with a face that seemed to say: “How can you let him treat me this way?” When I saw that look, I became angry. Why couldn’t my mother understand that we were on a new horizon? I had seen in Onoima’s scars the future, a road burrowing up a steep hill to a summit that reached God. It was a future where men made their own rules, where simple accountants like my father could become gun wielding cowboys, ready to defend their honor at the drop of a hat. I felt that my mother was disrupting our new awareness, the hardness that had settled and transformed our soft shells, letting us run through fire, fling ourselves against concrete without so much as a scratch.

A few weeks after my return to school, my uncle began spending more of his evenings outside the house. These weeks were the hardest for my father and me. We wished he would take us with him, that he would invite us on his excursions. When my father returned home from work, he would ask about Onoima: “What foolishness is he up to today?” But my mother and I could tell that Onoima was getting under his skin, that Onoima’s sense of freedom, his ability to get up and fly, was making my father rethink his own life. It wasn’t that my father now wished he could break the law without qualms. But there was something in him that envied Onoima, that wished he could be as agile and fearless as his brother. I could also tell that my father was jealous of my interest in Onoima, an interest I had never taken in him. He would ask me why I was spending so much time hovering around Onoima, washing his clothes, cleaning his room, buffing his boots. “Am I not your father?” he would say with pain in his voice.

For weeks, Onoima would return late at night with more stories and my father and I would wait for him like children waiting for Santa, ignoring my mother who muttered under her breath the whole night, accusing my father of indulging in foolishness. When my uncle returned in the dead of the night, long after my mother had succumbed to sleep, we would sit on the veranda and he would regale us with tales of brawls at the local bar, a near arrest. My father and I relished these stories. We would look at my uncle with our eyes wide, licking our lips like we had just eaten the most delicious egusi soup.

My uncle’s influence over my father grew so much that when he started coming home with strange packages, my father did not question him. He did not ask Onoima why he slept with a pistol under his pillow, why he jumped at the sound of cars at the gate. My father even held the gun in his hand.

“This is power,” he conceded one evening. “This is what it must mean to have no fear.”

My uncle’s friends were like him, gruff and oily skinned. They wore cargo shorts and combat boots, smoked cigarettes under the mango tree. They came for the packages my uncle kept hidden in the backyard. I would watch from the boys’ quarters as my uncle pulled bags from the chicken coup and stacked them into a black suitcase. I would follow him to the veranda of the main house and watch as he counted stacks of naira notes, whistling under his breath. When he left each night with his suitcase full of money, I always wanted him to take me with him, to take me to this glorious place he went where men spoke to each other with voices that came from deep within their abdomens and filled the night sky.

We carried on like this for seven more weeks, my uncle running his operation in the yard, men coming in and out of our house, my mother murmuring and then shouting her displeasure, my father telling her to shut up and learn respect. “I married you,” he would tell her. “And I can still send you back to your father’s house.”

Before he headed out one night on the seventh week, Onoima pulled me aside. His face was worn, and he looked tired, as if he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. I wanted to put my arms around him. But I knew that this would be sacrilege. Men did not need to be touched and caressed, he often told my father who liked it when my mother kissed him in the doorway or patted his back at the dining table. Men only took and gave what they wanted.

“I know you love your father,” Onoima said to me. “But he can’t teach you how to really survive in this world. He’s a square, stuck in his ways. If you stick with me, I’ll show you all you need to learn.”

I nodded and saluted my uncle.

“Who do you respect more?” Onoima asked, looking away from me.

“You,” I said without hesitation.

“Good,” Onoima said grinning. “I was thinking you saw me as an ehurehu, a useless person. That’s what your father used to call me. I would call him from Johannesburg and he would berate me. Call me names. That’s why I stopped calling or writing. I was sick of being told I would never be like him.”

I had never considered that Onoima could feel inferior to my father. The competition had always felt one-sided, Onoima doing as he pleased, my father trying to be like him. Plus, Onoima seemed so confident, so sure of himself. I was taken by this moment of vulnerability, wracked with a myriad of conflicting feelings. I was angry at my father for the way he had treated Onoima. But I also felt a tinge of betrayal, as though I was now part of a plot against my father. Nevertheless, I was happy to have shared this moment with my uncle. Onoima shook my hands and patted me on the back as if to say, “Keep this between us.” On the stone steps, I watched him hop down the veranda and march into the night.

Things came crashing down on our heads two days later. At three o’clock in the morning, my father rushed into my room. He did not switch on the lights.

“Quick,” he said. “Jump the fence and go to the neighbors.”

“What’s happening?” I said into the darkness.

“There’s no time to explain,” my father barked. “Just do as I say.” But it was too late. The police had already surrounded the house.

The lead police officer, a stout man with a large head, marched into my bedroom and pointed his flashlight into my father’s eyes. Behind him, my mother was wailing. In the dim light, I saw her lift her hands to her head.

The lead officer glared at my mother and then my father, like he had not slept in days. My father was covered in sweat, his singlet stained. My mother was in her nightgown, her new hairdo protected by a silk scarf.

“When last did you see your brother Onoima?” the officer asked my father. His stomach bulged in front of him and the sight of it disgusted me. He was the type of man my uncle would have despised, a man with no regard for the temple that was his physical body. I wanted to fight him, to take the lamp on my desk and bash it against his head.

“We haven’t seen him in weeks,” my father said looking at me and then at my mother. I saw a panic in his eyes that angered me. He looked like he had just woken from a terrible nightmare and still could not tell what was real and what was not.

“In short,” my father continued, “he said he was going to Lagos the last time we saw him weeks ago.”

The lead officer sucked his teeth like he did not believe my father. He commanded his subordinates to search the house.

The men ransacked our house, overturning my mother’s cooking pots, the Ghana-Must-Go bags in my room. They rummaged through our closets and sifted through my father’s stacks of papers. When they were satisfied, they paraded us out into the yard and made us sit in the dirt. The lead officer flashed his light in our faces. He told us to be very careful. There was news that we were aiding and abetting the selling of drugs in Enugu. The lead officer looked at my mother. He told her that, as a former governor’s daughter, she knew better than to become involved with miscreants. My father shook his head. “It must be a big misunderstanding,” he said. He looked pained, the look he got when he had made a mistake.

A few hours after the police left, our next-door neighbor, Timothy, came banging on our gate. I thought it was Onoima, so I ran down the sloped driveway and unlatched the deadbolt on our gate. When I saw Timothy, I heaved a sigh of disappointment. “Why are you here?” I wanted to say to the middle-aged man. But I bit my tongue. “Come in,” I said instead. It was almost daybreak and Timothy was still in his pajamas. “Where is your father?” he said wiping his forehead with a soiled handkerchief. I led him to the sitting room and stood at the hallway where I could hear their conversation.

Timothy cleared his throat. Then he told my father the news. My uncle had been shot in a secret police operation. Onoima had been killed with seven of his friends, their bodies riddled with bullets as they came out of a drinking spot.

“They were executed,” Timothy said standing up. “Shot in the back as they fled.” In the hallway, I crumpled to the floor, clutching my amulet. I closed my eyes and fought back tears. I wanted to run out into the street, to go looking for my uncle. But I remembered what the police officer had said, that we were being

suspected of participating in a drug smuggling ring. I ran to the backyard instead, picked up a rock and threw it hard against the coconut tree. Then I sat in front of the chicken coup and drew stick figures in the sand, tears falling down my face.

The next morning, I found my father bleary eyed on the sofa. He was dressed for work, but it was a Saturday.

“Go put on your clothes and join me outside,” my father said.

I dressed up in silence, thinking only of my uncle, of how my father had disavowed him. In my mind’s eye, I saw Onoima alone at the morgue now, his body covered in gunshot wounds, blood pooled around his head. Before I headed out the door, I went to his room and surveyed it, tracing the books on his desk. I went to his closet and brought his shirts to my nose, inhaling his smell, a mixture of tobacco and dried sweat.

When I went outside, my father already had the car engine running. I climbed in and shut the door beside me. The tears stung my eyes, but I did not let them fall. I bit my lip instead until they almost bled.

We drove down Bisalla Road in silence. The news was all over the radio. Armed robbers and drug dealers killed in a standoff with police. I looked out of the window and watched the hawkers selling peanuts, bananas, oranges. I inhaled the dust that rose into the early morning sky, glistening in the sunlight.

“Why did you lie?” I asked my father.

He scoffed.

“So I should have told the police that I lost my head and let my yeye brother disrespect my wife, turn my son against me, and upend my family?” he said. “Onoima would have fought for you,” I said.

My father laughed. “My brother was a criminal. Thieves have no loyalty.”

Then he grew serious. “I heard what he said to you. And for days I’ve been wondering how to get you back, how to re-earn your respect. I’m sorry I let a crook into our home to poison you. I’m sorry that I let you think he’s someone to emulate.”

We arrived at the edge of the bush on the outskirts of town. I was covered in sweat. I climbed out of the car as my father rummaged through the trunk. He pulled out a shovel, then he pulled Onioma’s heavy, black suitcase from the depths of the car.

I followed my father without a word. We arrived at a part of the forest where the trees grew so dense we could barely see the sky. My father handed me the suitcase and began digging. He dug for half an hour, deep enough to bury a small child. He took my uncle’s suitcase from me and opened it. There were stacks upon stacks of money, naira notes piled in neat and protected from rats by camphor rocks. When he zipped up the suitcase, my father gave me a look that frightened me. He wiped his forehead and stared into me with his eyes low. Then he threw the suitcase into the hole and began to cover it with dirt.

When we returned home, my father parked the car beneath the mango tree and cleared his throat.

“Never speak of this,” he said.

He opened the car door without waiting for a response. He marched to the veranda where my mother was standing in her nightgown, her arms folded across her chest.