My Storyteller Father
by Kevin Eze
We were eight in all: my parents and six kids, all born in a sixteen-year period beginning in 1964 and in a different city, a sign of my father’s journeys as a civil servant across south-eastern Nigeria. Although I didn’t have words for it then, I knew my father loved telling stories, after dinner or when he had visitors. Stories set in our milieu; stories of a tortoise that attended a wedding with an empty calabash of palm wine, or of how the people of my town attempted to pluck the moon with palm fronds. Stories within stories, anecdotes, folklore; and snippets of our people’s legends. I enjoyed hanging around when someone knocked at the door. When I started school, my father read stories to me. They were different from the ones he told spontaneously, but I loved them too. I was introduced to stories of other people and other lands from his lips. In one of the stories, I remember being fascinated by the weird things, once about a wizard who lived in Nigeria and went to China to find a lamp. These details were mesmerizing to me because they evoked things that were remote, almost ethereal.
Telling stories made my father happier; so when a visitor arrived he laughed often and nodded frequently while he shook his hands, or “gave him four” on clenched fists. If that person was a title holder he’d let the edge of his wrapper fall out long enough so you could actually think he was unaware, but that was part of the ritual. Often at night before bedtime he’d come over to our room and he’d sit me, my brothers, and sister down and he’d tell us stories, most often that he had invented: adventure stories in which the hero and heroine were Igbos defending their families and their people from invaders. One character was Onwanetilora – The Sun that Shines for the People – a kind and brave prince who lingered in my imagination long after we’d been tucked in under the blankets in a large room I shared with two of my brothers.
My memory of that time in Enugu is one of story tales. Once a month the State Library sold tickets for noisy cultural events, much like parties. They happened on Saturdays, the hall filled with talk and laughter and the migratory air of cigarette smoke. There were outdoor parties too. Blankets laid out on the grass under the sun. Men and women eating sandwiches, sipping soft drinks, and reading poems out loud to each other.
Some parties were at the Macmillan House. The “Macmillan kids” were about our age, so the program officer, Andrew, my father’s friend, would sit with us in a room and watch an adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart on the small black-and-white telly. He smoked one cigarette after the other. He laughed a lot and made jokes, and once he squinted down at me through the smoke and said: “Who’s your favorite author?”
“Um, my father.”
He smiled, his face a warm mix of mustache and round eyes and curly hair. “Your father is not an author, but I like the answer.”
Set into the bedroom floor was an air vent that overlooked the living room, and sometimes when visitors came to solicit my father’s service as Master of Ceremonies for an important government reception, we kids would huddle around it and spy on our father and his visitors, our mother serving kola nut, garden egg, her home-made peanut butter and pepper soup. We would watch them chat and chop and laugh, the men always louder than the women, the smell of pepper curling up through the grate onto our faces. I remember hearing proverbs then but also words like story, novel, and poem. Cyprian Ekwensi and John Pepper Clark.
In the morning we’d be up long before our parents. Before we’d get our custard and akara, we would poke around in the reception ruins, the table and floors of our small apartment littered with empty beer bottles, kola nut covers, the dull aroma of pepper soup, and the diminished bowl of peanut butter. Once we found a coconut cake in the living room. Its sides were covered with white frosting, but the middle was nothing but a mashed crater. I remembered the cake from the night before, a mouth-watering three-layer one with frosted icing on the top. I had asked my mother who it was for and she said it was for the retirement party of the Director General at the Ministry of Education. I asked her why those visitors were coming to our house. She dug a finger into the frosting, and then smiled at me.
“Just your father and his crazy stories, honey.”
Did that mean he was a crazy storyteller? I wasn’t sure.