“We’re Africans. We’re a people without brain for learning,” the old man said. He would have sang it if he could. If he hadn’t forgotten the tune to the old colonial song.
He never did forget these words which he said changed how he saw himself. From the day the white colonial teacher made him and the other pupils sing that song, he knew he would fight for his right to exist beyond the confines set by his white masters.
“But you were merely a child,” Darlington said, struggling to find a tone which sounded sufficiently respectful, and yet retained a hint of the insightful professionalism he had received praise for in high quarters.
“A child yes. But a precocious one. I was certainly ahead of my time.” He coughed, a throaty cough, it surprised Darlington that anything that strong could come from such a frail body. The old man may long have lost his vigour but he was far from beaten, yet.
Darlington waited for the old man to resume speaking but his great grand nephew smiled at him. “He is sleeping now.”
“Just like that?” Darlington asked, looking up, but not at the old man’s white bearded face.
“Yes, he has been that way since he returned. One is not the oldest man in the whole of the country for nothing. You can try again tomorrow and if you’re lucky he will speak. But I will not allow you to tire him out.”
The truth was Darlington would take whatever offer was on the table for he could not believe his fortuitous luck. An unplanned return to the village had unearthed the most sacred of gems. The oldest man alive in the east, possibly in the country, his great grand nephew claimed at their chance meeting at the local beer parlour. A huge claim, Darlington did not thoroughly believe it. No matter though, the old man had all his faculties, he had seen the country in colonial times, he had fought the civil war, gone into exile, returned a decrepit man – when the government of the day confirmed his pardon. More, he was willing and able to talk, and Darlington would find a childhood mystery finally unlocked.
Sir Maxwell Oriji had always been something of an enigma. Or at least his house was. To a young Darlington, he was the man who they said could not return home. His house, a one storey building at the heart of the village stood large amongst others, catching young Darlington’s eyes as he ran along the path to the village market. There were mutterings that he had been killed in the war along with the rest of his family. Some heaped ignominy on him – he had absconded, leaving his wife and children to the wrath of the Vandals. Soon his time passed and the whispers would cease. The young Darlington would move to the UK, to return, first and too eagerly, as an aspiring musician, failing, and then returning a second time as a seasoned journalist with international recognition. His big scoops included a bird’s eye report on the civil war in the Congo and the genocide in Rwanda. He was proud of his visceral work reporting on these evils. But he always held a yearning for the untold story of his own country. The story of the lost opportunities after the colonial masters left. He titled this work, What Happened?, but soon realised there were too many versions of what happened and too few personal accounts he cared much for. Until, Sir Max.
“Where did you go on exile?” Darlington asked, deciding to strip the journalist out of his tone, to keep it respectful, though more to his own ears than Max’s, who did not seem to care. What more, Max – Darlington finally could place it – spoke the Queen’s English, so Darlington couldn’t possibly tell what measured as respectful in the ears of a nonagenarian who spoke the Queen’s English.
Darlington had arrived early and had sat waiting on a bench outside the house. He did not remember the mornings being so cold and dry as a child and wondered if he was losing it, if the years in the UK had made him too sensitive, too observant, too soft.
“Quite simple. I liked the name. I mean Ivory Coast also supported us. But the name was too English. Tanzania, now that is an African name. It comes from…wait….yes yes it comes from Tanganyika and Zanzibar.”
Darlington knew this of Tanzania already but of course he made no play to show this. Zanzibar, was not strictly African, the bar in it stood for shore in Arabic.
“Anyway, Ivory Coast was too close. Haiti too far. Gabon, I couldn’t place in a map. But there was something quite seductive about Tanzania for a man wishing to be forgotten. For a man who could no longer go home. It was like, if I couldn’t go home, then I could make a home there.”
“You knew about Tanzania before you went?”
“Oh yes, but as Zanzibar.”
“They say you left your wife and children when you went on exile. Is this true?”
Darlington was surprised. He’d assumed this to be untrue, no less because he was said to have left them right at the mercy of the soldiers. The story went that he had snuck away from his house as soldiers stormed in, leaving his wife and children in the living room.
“Life in exile is no life for a woman with children. It is a misunderstood life. Not worth living.”
Darlington kept unusually silent. He would normally chase this down in a clear eyed hunt for the truth, but no, he waited for Max to expand, in his own time. Rush him at your own cost, he thought.
“I knew the soldiers would not kill them. There was talk about them being animals, incapable of waging a decent war, savages, vandals. Some of it true, most were falsehoods. The soldiers had a brain. And some emotion. They were after me. What good was it to kill a woman and five children? It is the greatest folly for a man to run away from his home. So as long as I ran without them, they were safe. But I was running to nothingness. The soldiers knew this. They knew my life was finished. They became bait. You ever go fishing?”
“Shame, if you did, then you’d know, to catch a prey, bait is best kept alive.”
Darlington swallowed hard. He tried to choose his next question carefully. He could hear the tiredness in Max’s voice and his great grand nephew as always was lurking close by. Darlington wondered if his great grand nephew knew all these of Sir Max already. He did not strike Darlington as too educated but he was not a simple villager either. Surely, he must hold an interest in the travails of the old man too. Or perhaps not.
“You will let him rest. Come with me, my wife has made us something to eat and you must not refuse, less she takes offence this time.”
Darlington returned to his seat. He set his tiny recorder to play. Sir Max was gazing at the long palm tree by the rusty gates.
“That tree has been there since before I was born.” Sir Max smiled, half his front teeth was missing, the rest did not look so browned. He had kept well in exile, Darlington thought. He would let Sir Max speak as he willed, no more steering, perhaps that way he would let loose his true gems.
“There were no cars when I was born. We used to trek from here to Onitsha. We were strong. Ojukwu and his father before him, were born not far from here. I knew him well. I fought with him. I knew what his biggest problem was.”
Darlington saw an in. “What was his biggest problem?” he asked, quickly discarding his promise not to steer.
“Trust. He trusted too much. Even before Aburi. The people he was dealing with, they did not believe in keeping their word. They learned too well from the white man. The white men, they said they came to bring us God, they condemned our fetish gods, now they hold our gods prisoners in their museums.”
“Why did they let Ojukwu return but not you?” Darlington wondered who he meant by they. The government? The military? The North? The East? The people? Ojukwu’s own mind even?
“Because he was a figurehead. A symbolic gesture of true reconciliation. What is hidden is what happened to most of the foot soldiers and their commanders.”
“You were a foot soldier?” A flippant question. Max hissed.
“No, a commander. I was older than Ojukwu.”
Darlington chided himself.
“I was in charge of the biggest assault on the Vandals at the trenches just beyond Uli.”
“What happened in Uli?” He was back in.
“We lured them and massacred them. We killed hundreds, all the while something was singing in my head.
“What was in your head?”
“The song. Have you forgotten? We’re Africans. We’re a people without brain for learning.” Max sang it this time. And this time, Darlington thought it could only have come from a hateful and insipid mind.
“Because the Vandals had become the colonial masters. Their flesh had turned white. Remember I said never again. And for that the Vandals could never forgive me.”
“What happened to your wife after you left? Your children?”
“Oh, life carried on for them. They spent time in Lagos. Always watched. Always followed. They are all buried in graves behind this house.”
“How? Why? What?”
Darlington’s question was how did Max outlive his children if they were not killed by the soldiers, but he could not shape his mouth to ask it. Instead, he reeled out open ended nonsense.
“That was my retribution. To watch from afar as my family died one after the other.”
“Why did you not return? To stem it?”
“Ah, the ultimate sacrifice. Because I had another family. A Tanzanian local bore me six children. So there was my choice, I could return, to certain death, and lose it all. There comes a time when a man counts his losses.”
“So why return now, after all these years?”
“Because this is where I was born. I have returned so that I may die here, laid amongst the family I so betrayed,” Max said, suddenly sounding tearful.
And Darlington knew it was time to go. A soft wind swept up the leaves of the palm tree. He looked up at the thick stem and the fruits hanging aloft and wondered how old the tree truly was. A 100 years? 200? 300? Perhaps it had stood even before the time of the colonial masters – still bearing fruit, unimpeded. Great grand nephew shifted. Darlington stood. He had long to go with the old man, but he’d be patient, and listen as he let his pearls drop, one at a time. Tomorrow he would ask the old man what the white colonial masters did, which could not be undone over half a century later. Tomorrow, he would ask him: what happened?