January 7, 2018
I went to church again. Nothing had changed since the last time I worshipped there, three years ago. The security men at the gate still handed out yellow cards to drivers, and there were still dedicated teams ensuring cars were parked in an orderly manner and that worshippers who came for an earlier Mass had no difficulty driving out. Six Masses are held in that Catholic church every Sunday, and it was this seamless format of arranging hundreds of cars in a compact environment that had struck me the first time I visited in 2002, after I married and came to Aba to live with my husband.
I was born in Kano. I worshipped with my parents at the Anglican church close to our home, where, every Sunday, we witnessed chaos at the church’s park. If you didn’t find a good spot by the gate, you got clumped with other cars in the parking lot, like seeds in a guava. Once, my father had to wait until the end of second service for the owner of the car blocking him. At a certain point, the church sexton took to interrupting services just to announce the number plates of cars blocking others in; over time, this became normal.
This Sunday, I drove to church with my daughter, Chidinma. At the gate, the gateman handed me the yellow card, and another man in a brown uniform waved me over to the parking lot east of the gate. I eased into the space between two cars and got out. Chidinma grabbed my bag, and we hurried to the huge door leading into the church, just as worshippers from the 7:30 a.m. Mass were filling out. We found the best seats (the second row, close to the altar). Mass started with the usual procession led by the priest and the servers. The priest opened with a prayer, invited the faithful to perform the act of penitence—which he ended with the prayer of absolution—and the Kyrie was sung in melodious Igbo. Chidinma sang along in a sweet, small voice. She is 15 and gangly, standing at almost at 5′10”. I looked at her and wondered where time went, how quickly she had grown, like ugu planted during the rains. It was only yesterday that she was nestled in my arm, suckling while Mass was being celebrated.
The first and second Scripture readings were read in Igbo by two men whose voices pushed against the walls; they didn’t need the help of the microphone. When the priest mounted the pulpit for the gospel reading, we all stood. After he was done, he said in a singsong voice, “Okwu nke, osebulu uwa”; alongside other worshippers, our voices reached for the ceiling: “Ekene dili chukwu.” I felt a vague chill settle on my body; I had not forgotten the order of Mass. I still remembered what to say and when.
Then, the sermon. The priest talked about the importance of giving, of loving our neighbors, especially at a time when many people can no longer make a pot of soup with ₦1,000, unlike how it was in the past. He urged us to give to our poor neighbors, the second greatest of all loves. I had heard such sermons before, but it was different: I had prepared for the kind of sermon that scared me away from church, after the earthquake off the coast of Sumatra had caused a tsunami that washed into the coastal areas and killed more than 230,000 people.
It happened on December 26, 2004. I still remember watching footage on the news of the devastation, the bloated bodies piled up by the ocean. It was the worst natural disaster at the time. In my city in Aba, Nigeria, newspapers carried photos of the devastation. In church, our priest themed his Sunday’s sermon around the disaster. The tsunami was God’s punishment to Southeast Asia for worshipping other gods apart from Him, he said; he cited biblical stories of when God exacted similar devastation. I felt something wither inside me. His words did not make sense, did not conform to the New Testament teachings of grace. And in years to come, I heard variations on the same sermon; priests asking worshippers to thank God for sparing them during road accidents where people died, for healing them when others died. We were alive because God showed us mercy and turned His back on the others.
One Sunday, I chose to stay at home, and then, the Sunday after that. Again and again. Weeks bled into months, and then years.
Something had changed and stirred interest in church again. My daughter Chidinma had wanted to wear my old dress that day, and I fancied the idea of dressing up
too, and going to church with her; people would look at us and ask if we were sisters. I had her when I was 20, and at 15, she stands just an inch shorter.
I enjoyed the somber songs, and I sang out loud with my daughter, whose face was set in the serious lines of piety. I knelt beside her when it was time to kneel. I still knew all the songs and prayers and responses, as if I hadn’t missed a Mass at all. But I did not go to receive the Holy Communion. It had been ages since confession, and my sins were 10 kilometers long and would require serious penance.
After Mass ended, we returned to the car park. The next set of worshippers were already hanging by the door, ready for the next service that would begin in a few minutes. We drove out seamlessly.
Chidinma wanted us to stop over at the nearby market to buy foodstuff. “I am making chicken stew today,” she told me.
“Wasn’t that what we had last Sunday?” I asked her.
“Nope. We ate ofe akwu. You know I don’t like ofe akwu,” she said.
“You don’t like it or you don’t like the process it takes to prepare it?”
She laughed. “The time it takes to cook the palm kernels until they had softened, then pound them and squeeze out the fat, before even beginning the cooking proper, Mummy, I would have finished cooking the chicken stew, the rice, and even made some salads. Which is healthier.”
“Ofe akwu is healthy.”
“Ofe akwu is fatty.”
“Your grandmothers and grandfathers didn’t die from eating it. In fact, they lived more than a hundred.”
“They went to the farm every day and worked under the sun. Mummy, you sit by your computer from morning till night.”
The Afor Ule market was packed when we got there. Chidinma did the shopping; I simply followed. We stopped first at the chicken stalls to buy a hen. The sellers keep them in large cages set by the roadside so that buyers can easily point out the one they want, before negotiating a price. Chidinma bought a large brown one and handed it over to the seller’s child, a boy of not more than 14, who slaughtered the bird and tossed it into a large basin. It flapped and flailed, making choking sounds from its slit throat. When it stilled, he dipped it in a large pot of boiling water set atop a small kerosene stove, and stirred it round and round. After he pulled it out and set it on his table, his fingers worked quickly until the chicken was defeathered. Chidinma told him to cut it up in medium-sized pieces and gave him ₦100 for the job.
The next stop was to get the ingredients for the stew. I watched my daughter buy the foodstuffs, tomatoes, pepper, and onions, and then vegetable oil and spices. I wondered where time had gone. She didn’t need my help at all. She had learned the art of negotiation after years of watching me do the same on such trips; she even walked away from the first tomato seller when they couldn’t agree on her price, and bought cheaper at the next stall.
At home, I returned to my study to read the manuscript that I had been working on for months. My other children—Chisom (who will turn 14 this April), and Chukwubuikem (who turns 11 by March)—had yet to come home. They went to church with their father; they were possibly still in the parking lot, sulkily watching him chat with friends.
The second part of my manuscript was not flowing well. I erased two chapters and began rewriting them again. I had set a deadline for myself, but each time I thought I had gotten what I wanted, I took a knife to a few chapters and started over again.
Chidinma brought me a steaming plate of chicken stew and a bowl of rice later, and a bowl of salad. She pulled up a chair and gazed into my laptop. “Mummy, when are you going to finish this novel?” she asked.
“I think I have gotten it right this time,” I said.
“Good!” she said, and grinned. “So, will you go to church next Sunday?”
I laughed and said I didn’t know yet. And truly, I don’t. Maybe. Or maybe not.