We stayed at our family homes when we came to Benin City on vacation, but we do not anymore. Take Dafe, for instance. His parents have a mighty house at Akhionbare Street in the Government Reservation Quarters. If he goes to stay there, his mother will not tell him: “All your mates from London are building houses in Benin City. It’s time you build yours.”
Rather than staying at his parents' home, Dafe lodges at Hotel Benin Plaza when he comes to town. I asked why some years back. He said it was for security reasons but did not go into details. When I asked him the second time, he confessed: “I saw pots of sacrifices under my window. Not one, not two, not three, but seven. Somebody wants me dead." When he decided to stop staying at home, his mother did not say no.
Caine is another example. "Cane" is what the small boys in Benin City call him. My friends and I call him ‘C for Conquer’. Caine is the first among our the London set to build a house through the assistance of his elder brother. "Omo no mose, Smart man," we hailed him when we saw him at Grosvenor Square in London before our vacation. “’Uwa wese, Thank you,” he replied.
Caine looked forward to staying at his completed house when he came to Nigeria. “We go shack there, drink tire, from morning till night,” he told his friends. But when he came home, he packed out of the house his first night of staying there. When I asked him what happened, he said the house was not conducive for shacking. I later learned mysterious bees chased him out of the room. People say Caine's elder brother used juju to drive Caine away so he could occupy the house.
Caine’s story is similar to mine. The inscriptions at the top of my father’s house are PEACE HOUSE. But when I stayed there during one vacation, I found war and not peace. The children of my father’s second wife made sure I saw hell.
“My brothers, I’ll tell you the real meaning of the PEACE on my father’s house,” I later told Dafe, Caine and others. “It means Pain, Eerie, Abuses, Cobra, and Envy.” I saw a cobra under my bed one night, but I did not wait for it to bite me before I packed out and rented a room at Hotel Benin Plaza.
It was Caine who advised us three years ago when we came on vacation that rather than stay in hotels we should build our own houses. “Don’t allow your brother to build it for you; bees will chase you out of it," he said. "Don’t allow your sisters to build it for you; you’ll find cobras under your beds. Let a friend build it for you, and you’ll enjoy the fruit of your labour.”
I ignored his advice and decided to build my bungalow with the help of my younger sister. At thirty-five, she was five years younger than I am. If she could not help me complete my house, I thought, no one else could. I felt like this because she was frugal with the chop money I sent from London. How was I to know while she was frugal with her chop money she would be reckless with money I sent for my house? To cut the long story short (I can't tell all because my stomach will be filled with a substance as bitter as bile), I could not finish building the house.
I decided to continue the project with the help of Iyobosa, my half-brother. I felt since he was an elder brother and ten years older than I am he would not cheat me. “There’s no better person to build the house for you," his friends told me. Two years later, I found out I was wrong. Anytime I sent money to him, he would say: “Igo ma se, The money is not enough.” I would send more money, but it was the same story, “Igo ma se.” Before long, he bought a tokunbo Mercedes Benz though he had no steady work. After three years, my project was less than thirty percent completed. Desperate, I took to praying: “Behold, lord, send a Daniel to help me complete my house.”
But my prayers went unanswered. Why this always happens to me I do not know. In any case, birds of similar feathers not only dance together they also discuss with each other. So I went to my friends, Dafe and Caine.
“Peku,” Dafe called my name, “I’m having the same problem.” After he gave his uncle money to build his house, he went to him for the key when he came on vacation. “Come tomorrow,” his uncle told him. When Dafe went to meet him the next day, his uncle said: “Come tomorrow.” When Dafe got there the next day, his uncle said once again: “Come tomorrow.” Dafe did not bother to go again because he was tired of the “come tomorrow, come tomorrow” business. Later, he learned his house was only twenty percent completed.
When I met Caine—who had come on vacation too—he laughed. It was not the laughter of a happy man but one of someone who had to laugh so he would not cry. “Wetin I do?” Caine asked me. “What have I done wrong?” What he did wrong was to give the house-building contract to a friend who wanted to sell the half-completed property on the day Caine arrived in Benin City.
It happens to all of us who come from abroad. We give some of our brothers and friends money to build houses, buy cars, buy everything—including toothpicks, brassieres and packets of matches. We give them the money to buy these things for us and themselves, thinking they will monitor our properties while we are in London or elsewhere. But when things go wrong with the houses, it is always our houses. When cars get stolen in the parking lots, it is our cars. When toothpicks get stolen, it is our toothpicks and toothpastes. “It’s the work of the devil, ‘area boys’ and enemies,” our friends and relatives tell us. We agree with them but wonder why the devil, 'area boys' and enemies always seem to steal our things and not their own. We pretend not to hear the rumours pointing accusing fingers at them.
Now, we wait for a contractor we are sure will build our houses. His name is Aghatise Azua, and he is the head of a firm known as Bob Azua Associates. His firm builds the houses of many of us from the United States, Spain, Holland and the UK. “He go build the house, and it go fine well well," one of my trusted friends, Nosakhare, told me. And Azua satisfies our criteria: No brothers, no sisters, no relatives. We feel if Aghatise defaults we can easily take him to court, something we cannot do with our relatives and friends.
But I feel uneasy about the decision to use the services of Aghatise—it means I will discard my brother like a piece of rag. "Don't you want your brother to eat your money?" many of his friends will say. "You want to chop alone," my sister will say. "How can you be so wicked as to sack your own brother?" my relatives will cry.
Another issue making me feel uneasy is when I remember what my mother told me the last time I came on vacation. “You’re always staying at the hotel, are you not tired of it?" she asked me. "And when you’re tired of it, please, be very careful.” My mother is like those prophets in the bible who speak in roundabout ways. I understand her, but I’ll come to her later.
As I muse on this, I hear a knock at my door. My half-brother once told me there are three types of knocks at a door. The first type is a soft knock. This means a gentleman is at the other side of it. The second type is a soft and a hard knock. This is the knock of someone coming to beg for money or other favours. When the knocks are hard and insistent, this means trouble. The knocks at the door while we wait for Aghatise are hard and insistent, as if a creditor has come to ask for his money. I leave the table where Dafe, Caine and I play scrabble and throw the door to my room open.
“What’s the meaning of this?” I ask, then stop.
It is Agho Idahosa, the contractor my half brother uses for my house until I stopped work on it. Has Agho come to say—as my brother used to say—Igo ma se, Igo ma se? Or am I owing him? But this is not likely because I paid all money due him when I stopped work. Or is this the first visit of brothers, sisters, cousins, past business associates, church members, neighbors, former colleagues and other hangers-on who want to handle my project? Whatever it is, I do not welcome Agho's visit.
Also, my father once told me it is sometimes good to see a supplicant first thing in the morning. He said it prepares people for the hassles coming up later in the day. However, one is unlucky if one sees a sweating supplicant. When it happens, one should either bang the door or run away. Agho sweats profusely, and his eyes look bloodshot. He looks like a sweating supplicant. I cannot run away because he has seen me, so I tell him, "Come later in the day”, and want to shut the door against him.
But he places his hand against the door and plants his foot in the doorway. “How can you do this to me?" he asks. "They tell me small boys of nowadays who go to London do not respect their elders. I tell them you're different. But you're proving they're right."
“What is the problem?” I ask.
“Your brother sent me to you."
“What for?" I ask. "I've told him to leave me alone for now. Why can't he respect my decision?"
“Ah!” Agho exclaims and claps his hands. “Are you talking like this about your own brother? Truly, wonders shall never end.”
As soon as he says this, I move away from him. When Agho is sad, he says: “Nigeria is a useless country.” Or he will say: “That's the way of this wicked world.” Or he will say: "It's a very terrible thing.” But when he is excited, he claps his hands and says: “Truly, wonders shall never end!” If he says this two or three times, he can do some very crazy things. After doing that once months ago, he pulled off his shirt and told me: “If you don’t give me money, I’ll walk naked on the streets.” I'm in no mood for that now.
“Come later,” I insist, “and I’ll speak with you.”
“Your brother says you must not hire any other contractor for your house,” Agho goes on. “If you do, and anything happens to you, you have yourself to blame.”
My mind goes back to the cobra I found under my bed in my father’s house. A day before I saw it, my half brother said: “If anything happens to you, you have yourself to blame.” Is he thinking of sending a cobra to my hotel room? I ask myself, and my opposition against him grows.
“All right, I have heard,” I tell Agho, and he leaves.
My brother has a peculiar brain. When he threatens you the first time and you are rattled, he feels happy. As far as he is concerned, it means he can handle you. If he threatens you the second time and succeeds, he becomes doubly happy. He feels he can not only handle you but also take your lunch. If he rattles you a third time, he feels he can not only handle you but also take your breakfast, lunch, dinner and defecate on your head. He has rattled me many times in the past and feels he can do it every second of every minute of every hour of the day.
I remember what happened when I told him a few days ago I wanted work stopped on my project. He placed his hand on his left ear, drew it, almost pulling it out of the side of his head.
“What did you say?” he asked. “I want you to say it again.”
“I said I want to cool down about my house for some time,” I told him. “I want to stop work on it.”
“Ah! Ah! Ge we rio! Don’t say so!” he said. “People must be advising you wrongly. I have always told you your London friends will put you in trouble.”
“My London friends have not been telling me anything,” I told him. “It’s a decision I took on my own.”
Rather than reply me, he walked up and down the room, his trousers pulled up to the middle of his belly, pretending as if he did not hear anything.
After Agho leaves I shut the door, go back to my game, and tell Dafe and Caine what happened.
“Are you not going to learn from your lessons?” Dafe asks.
“No, but, I have to consider.…"
“Don’t consider anything," Caine tells me . “You must tell your brother off, or your house won’t get built in the next ten years.”
I nod, but I am still not sure about the Aghatise deal.
We soon become silent as we play scrabble. Outside, thunder growls in the sky. But this is not unusual. It is November, and thunders usually herald the beginning of the dry season. Apart from the thunder, cigarette smoke from other returning immigrants drift into the room from the swimming pool. But the smoke is not from St Moritz , Rothmans, Benson or Target. It is from real Cuban cigar. Also, we can see a little dark cloud gathering in the sky. It is one of those unpredictable clouds at the beginning of the dry season. It may or may not bring rain, but I pray against rain.
An hour later, I hear another knock at my door.
“Wa se mwen a he, Leave me alone,” I say with irritation and continue with the game. When the knock sounds again, so loud it seems to shake the door, I stand up. Has Agho come back again? I think as I head for the bathroom.
“Peku, I can see you,” the voice comes from the keyhole of my door. “Open and allow me come in.”
I recognise the voice; it belongs to Osa Omoregie, one of my half-brother’s friends. Nosakhare, my trusted friend, once told me were a rat, a goat and Osa to give thanksgiving in the church as a popularity contest, Osa would lose out. According to Nosakhare, when the pastor calls out the rat, many in the congregation will spill out of their seats to rejoice with it. When it is the turn of the goat, a lot more will come out. But when the pastor calls out Osa, not only will people refuse to come out, confusion will occur. The congregation will say: “We won’t come out. This man is worse than a rat.”
But since he has seen me, I have no option than open the door for him, rat or no rat. Why won’t my brother and his friends leave me alone? I think as I open the door.
Nosakhare and Osa stand in the doorway.
“Your brother sent me to you,” Osa says without preambles. “It’s about how you want to build your house. Have you thought properly about it?”
“What kind of city is this?” I ask. “If I want to build a house, it’s trouble. If I don’t want to build, it’s also trouble. What am I supposed to do?”
“You’re supposed to act like the son of your father,” Osa says. “Don’t cheat your family. Don’t throw your money out to strangers. Your father will curse you in his grave.”
“But is it fair I should be badly cheated?” I ask. "How can a man build a house for three years, spend a lot of money and he can’t make head or tail out of anything? I don't pluck money from the sky. I only operate an African-food restaurant in London.”
“Bear it,” Osa tells me. “God will bless you for it. Just bear it.”
We—those of us who come from London—are supposed to bear everything. Take my friend, Dumbi Moka, for instance. He came on vacation from London after making a lot of money from his real estate business. When he got to Benin, he decided to build a borehole in his former street so people could get clean water to drink.
On the day of project commissioning, people sat under six canopies, waiting for the ceremony to start. Dafe, Caine and I were there. The Chairman of the Landlord’s Association, Mr Nosa Onoghise, told the crowd: “If Nigeria has one more person like Dumbi, the nation will develop.” Another man said: “Dumbi deserves a national award.”
At the end of the ceremony, Dumbi went home, and the celebration continued. At 12 o clock in the night, thieves raided his house—they must have heard about him from the earlier ceremony. “Where’s the pounds sterling?” they shouted. “I don’t have any at home,” Dumbi pleaded. “All these thieves from London are Godless liars!” one of the robbers said and gave him a blow.
They beat him almost to the point of coma. “Pity me!” Dumbi shouted. “Where’s the pounds sterling?” the thieves shouted. “I don’t have any here,” Dumbi said. “You’re a liar!" shouted one of them. “Tell the truth so the devil will be ashamed.”
They took everything Dumbi had—his money, jewelry, clothes, shoes and passport. After this, one of the thieves returned the passport, saying: “God bless you. Take your passport so you can go back to London and bring more money for us.”
Everybody on Dumbi’s street trooped to his house the next morning. “This is what happens when a country has gone to hell,” said one of the sympathisers. Nosa, the chairman of the landlords, continued to tell Dumbi, “It has happened, bear it. It has happened—bear it.”
Remembering this, I nod at Osa.
“Don’t worry,” I say with bitterness. “I’ll bear it.”
He lifts up one finger like a student about to ask a question in the classroom and bends forward.
I become cautious. When he speaks with anybody and sees he is not getting through, he will lift up a finger like a student in the classroom, squeeze his face as if pepper has entered his eyes and say, “Don’t forget it’s for your good.” When he does this, according to my half-brother, Osa will get through. But I am not prepared to fall for his tricks, so I harden my heart.
“Don’t forget it’s for the good of the family,” Osa says. “Even if your brother is cheating you, the money remains in the family. But if you get another person to build the house, the money goes out of the family—which is very very bad.”
Wanting him to leave, I tell him, “All right, I have heard you. I'm not giving the contract to any person apart from my brother."
“Think about what I have said,” Osa says. “Your brother is very annoyed with you. When he comes, you’ll understand what I mean.”
This is his own way of putting me in line. People say my elder brother is fond of visiting native doctors for juju to subdue his rivals. My mother is convinced he was the one who conjured the cobra under my bed years ago with juju. “No offend your brother,” said one of his friends. “He go kill you before you know anything.” But my fear of him is not based on his ability to commune with cobras, rats, rabbit, owls and others. My fear is physical, which is why Osa’s method of putting me in line does not stop me from thinking about my plan.
Osa soon leaves, but Nosakhare does not follow him.
“Don’t mind Osa and your half-brother,” he tells me. “They can’t do anything to you. Just do what is best for you.”
I shake my head and hold his hand. He is one of the most reliable of persons in Benin City. As a result of this, I call him “Son of His Father.” His other friends call him “Mr Gentleman!” When I want the correct price for cement or sand, I meet Nosakhare, who will tell me the truth. Nosakhare will never put a higher figure on the price of anything in order to make a gain. When I want someone who will not cheat me on the prices of buckets, food, accommodation, clothes, toothpick, matches, packets of cigarettes, bottles of beer, Biro—anything—I meet Nosakhare.
“Thanks, 'Son of His Father',” I tell him. “Let’s see tomorrow. I’ll give you some money.”
After he leaves, I look outside. The sky has darkened, and swift clouds race across it. The rumble of thunder fills the air, while the flashes of lightning cut across the sky. It is going to rain, but I do not want it because I hate being touched by raindrops.
I close the door and come inside my room. Rather than continue the scrabble game with Dafe and Caine, I go to the bed and lie down. As I do this, the dam holding back my anger bursts.
Why are the streets of Benin City filled with people ready to suck the blood of the returning immigrant? I ask myself. Why do they want to suck us dry? We are sucked in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening. Brothers, sisters, uncles, cousins, friends, long-lost schoolmates, acquaintances, photographers and others crowd the hotel lobby everyday. “Peku, I have just given birth to triplets, help me.” “Peku, you promised to give me money for the burial of my great-great-grandfather.” “Peku, today is the last day to pay the school fees of my girlfriend’s sister's son.”
After we satisfy them, we sigh, thanking God they have left us alone. When we go to the bar, hangers-on will come around. “Emai re ewaye, I have not eaten,” they will say. We will run from them and go to the side of the swimming pool, but they will be there. “I need some money for an operation on my testicles,” Osa once lied to me. We will leave the swimming pool, as fast as the wind, and go to the restaurant, but we are sure to see others. We know all these are happening because people in Benin City call returning immigrants Money Miss Road people. One day, exasperated by all the attention, Caine shouts: “Si me a e! Leave me alone! Si me a e! Leave me alone!”
If I stop to patronise my brother, I will not have it easy. Some of my other brothers whom I have been giving chop money for years will say: “Peku is very selfish. He has forgotten home.” Their friends who have been drinking my beer and eating my plates of suya free-of-charge for years will say: “We’have always said those people who go to London are very unreliable people.” My half-sister, who still collects chop money from me, will say: “Don’t mind the bastard. He did the same thing to me. London has made him selfish.”
But if I use Aghatise’s firm, I will have no such problem. And the house will get completed within a year. My mother will no longer look at me with scorn and say: “Are you not tired of living in hotels?” I will no longer have to beg friends for money for flight ticket to return to London after spending all on my brothers and sisters.
Thinking about the situation, I come to a conclusion. I am a bastard for using the services of my elder brother and one for not using him.
After a long moment, I come to a decision. If my half-brother comes and says: “Sorry, things would change”, I will continue to be the bastard using his services. But if he comes and says, “Why are you disgracing the family?”, I will stop using him.
A dog outside my hotel room starts to bark, and I know something is seriously wrong. I am worried because the bark does not sound like when a dog sees its master. It does not sound like when a dog sees anything good. It sounds like the bark of another dog miles away at my father’s house on the day before I see a cobra under my bed.
On hearing the bark, I get to my feet, sweating. Caine and Dafe are still playing scrabble in the middle of my room. Both of them will continue the game even if Benin City is hit by an earthquake.
“Is the dog not barking strangely?” I ask them.
“We should learn to leave dogs alone,” Caine says. “Is it not bad enough that they’re animals?”
“Forget the dog,” counsels Dafe. “Come and join us.”
“It sounds like someone is coming here,” I tell them.
Someone knocks at the door before I finish speaking. As I go to the door, the feeling I should not open it comes over me. It is the feeling that comes over me when my elder brother is near. I try to stop the feeling, but it does not go away. Instead, it intensifies, and anger comes over me.
If it is my elder brother, I tell myself, I will scold him: “Why can’t you leave me alone? Why are you always sending people after me? Don’t I have the right to live my life the way I want it?” But when I open the door and see him, my old fear comes over me. Instead of what I plan, I tell him: “Sorry for not opening the door fast enough. Your friends have been coming here, but I can assure you they’re feeding you with rumours.”
He stands in the doorway, wearing a frown on his face. It is the frown that almost makes me pee in my pants when he threatened me as a young boy of five. Along with the frown, he chews his lips. This is what makes his friends say: "Take cover. Your brother is angry.”
He is furious now, pointing a finger at me as if he wants to poke my eyes with it.
“You said I’m cheating you!” he shouts. “When did I cheat you? After all I’have done for you, is this the way to pay me back?” He grabs my hand and pulls me outside so he can speak without my friends hearing what he says..
At that moment, thunder rumbles in the sky, and lightning flashes across the dark clouds. Some of the returning immigrants who sit by the swimming pool grab their bottles of beer and run towards the bar. “Rain! Rain!” they shout. One of them slips and falls to the floor, his bottle of beer shattering in an explosion. Rain—which I do not like—begins to fall. I try to steer my brother into the room so as to avoid the rain.
“Igwen gwan, I’m talking to you,” my brother shouts and pulls me into the rain. "Are you mad?"
I grow annoyed, and the accumulated anger of over thirty years explodes in my brain. And I know if I do nothing or don't fight him the cheating will continue.
“Will you leave my hand!” I shout at him.
"Me? Are you talking to me?"
He slaps me on the face. A week earlier, I would have begged him “Please, brother, Please, brother, take it easy” and tried to pacify him. But I remember my mother’s voice: “Are you not tired of living in hotel rooms?” I slap him back. “You slapped me!” my brother roars. “You slapped me!” He wraps his hands around my neck, but we slip and tumble to the floor in the rain. “Stop fighting!” Caine shouts, trying to separate us. “Let me kill him,” my brother says. “You can’t do anything,” I yell back, and he lunges towards me. I step to a side, and he falls to the ground. "I’ll not have two grown-up men fighting in my hotel!” shouts the hotel proprietor. My brother leaps at me. “Hold their hands!” shouts Dafe. “Hold their hands!” At last, those around succeed in separating us. Or, at least, they push my brother towards the bar.
“You and your blood money can go to hell!” my brother yells as they take him away. "As from today, I wash my hands off you."
I understand him. People in Benin City believe most of us who come from abroad only make money through credit-card fraud, 419, and the sale of hard drugs. This is why they always say: “Make we finish their money. Make we finish the thieves.” That is why my brother always says Igo ma se. If my brother is ready to leave me alone, good for him and me, I think, as I head for my room.
As I open the door to my room, I decide to sign the contract with Aghatise when he comes over later in the day. At least, my house will get built within a year. And I won’t have to go borrowing to get a flight ticket for the return trip to London.