From Chapter 3 The Memorable Memo
This section describes meeting Clem’s parents early in our relationship, before I knew we were getting married. Clem had asked his cousin Isaiah to take me to them when I was in their part of the country on a Peace Corps vacation project.
We turned down a poorly maintained street with a church and stucco houses that all looked in need of paint. Many had market stalls in the front yards and businesses on the ground floor—vehicle repair shops, typing centers, tire sales, and sewing or tailoring establishments. The sounds of talking, laughter, and car horns mingled with shouts of small children playing. Older children carried goods for sale on their heads. After two more turns on streets that were getting progressively worse, we were at the house Clem had described. I was intrigued by the address, Five St. John’s Cross.
The yard was bare of grass, but a flame tree and a few straggly bushes grew in the reddish-brown soil. The house was a single-story building of cement blocks covered with stucco, set back ten feet. The dimpled exterior had remnants of yellow paint from long ago. The windows had open wooden shutters.
As we got out of the car, children called out, “Onye ocha! White person!” We crossed the narrow board laid across the three-foot-wide gutter, mounted the two steps, and entered the living room, dim after the bright sun outside. There were dusty curtains at the windows, a smooth mud floor, and a low ceiling. Clem’s mother met us. She had the same round face and shy smile as Clem. She wore a red and blue wrapper and matching buba, or cotton blouse, in a Dutch print. Isaiah hugged her warmly, calling her Mama.
Clem’s father looked distinguished in a long, beige, embroidered top, cotton trousers, and leather sandals like those sold by the Hausa traders I saw in Lagos. Several young people peered at us from a back room. Isaiah addressed Clem’s father as Papa, and they shook hands. He introduced me with a few words of English and continued in Igbo. Was he saying I was Clement’s acquaintance, friend, or girlfriend? I had no idea.
“Welcome. How you be?” they said in hesitant English.
We sat in the wooden chairs, and Clem’s parents took seats on the dilapidated sofa. Papa spoke to one of the children who came in a moment later with pinkish-gray kola nuts, green fruits that looked like tomatoes, and a large dab of peanut butter on a tray. “Guests are always given kola as a welcome,” Isaiah said, as he took the tray from Papa to show to me before handing it back. Papa took one of the kola nuts and, holding it aloft, spoke a few sentences in Igbo. “He’s praising God, thanking him for the kola and for our safe journey,” Isaiah said. I nodded.
Then Papa broke the kola nuts into several pieces and held out the tray. “Take one, and dip it in the garnish,” Isaiah said. I did as instructed. I bit into it and felt my mouth turn to fire. My eyes started to water as I swallowed.
“Ndo. Sorry,” Mama said. “Is pepper too much?” I could only gasp. Mama called another child, who went out the door and returned a few moments later with soft drinks. I was grateful for the cold Coke.
“He’s fine,” I said, struggling to speak with my mouth still burning. “He sends his greetings.” He hadn’t, but then I hadn’t known I would meet them.
“How be work?” Clem’s mother said. With Isaiah translating, I explained my teaching jobs at the two schools, Clem’s parents watching me intently.
“How is family?” I said to Mama. Her response was to call Clem’s siblings and introduce them. They wore Western dress, the girls in colorful blouses and skirts and the boy in a sports shirt and khaki pants. Grace was in nursing school, she said, and Geoffrey was in secondary school. The youngest girl, Nebechi, had just finished primary school and was awaiting her common entrance exam results.
The children disappeared again, though I saw them watching from the back. Isaiah kept the conversation going, occasionally directing a question to me about Lagos. When we’d stayed for an hour and a half, Isaiah said, “We should leave so we have time to visit Nanka before night.”
He turned to me. “You are going to see a real Igbo village, mud huts and all.”