It is difficult for me to celebrate my own birthday. It’s all hearsay after all. Fine, I was technically an eye witness to my birth but considering the traumatic nature of the event it is understandably hard for me to vouch that the deed was actually done on the day in question. My parents are now deceased you see, and although I have a laminated certificate to corroborate their testimony, it is a little dodgy, this blue certificate of mine. It is a copy, you see. The original was consumed by a certain war in the ’60s [I am not complaining, mark you, rather the certificate than me] and after the war a certain Dr. J.G.M. Murray signed a copy of an extract from the Jos Birth Register for my parents. I still have it;
but it’s all hearsay if you ask me.
What I am more certain about is the instant, the very hour of the day my stories are born. Take ‘Diaries of a Dead African’ for instance. I don’t have a birth certificate to prove this, you understand, yet I can definitely vouch that a few minutes before dawn on 22nd October 1998 the inspiration that birthed Mr. Meme Jumai’s first diary first manifested, full-grown, in my mind… or perhaps it was 21st November 1999… Anyway, beyond the shadow of a doubt, sometime between 22nd October 1998 and 31st December, 1999 [to be on the safe side. I cannot tell a lie] I wrote that first diary. I did. Of course the first entry of the first diary is dated ‘1st June, 2000’, but you are to ignore that evidence, honest. Once you open the pages of a novel you see, you embark fully into the realm of fiction…
Now fictive characters do not have the egos of real humans. I don’t suppose they are much bothered whether we mark their birthdays or not. Even if we can testify with absolute certainty as to the date of their birth. In any case, Meme Jumai died in the last page of his own diary, so the pertinent day is probably his deathday – on the principle that a fiercer nail driveth out the tamer. But then, the combination of the words ‘Happy’ and ‘Deathday’ do not sound to me too celebratory. So I shall just gloss over the detail of Mr. Meme’s demise. (Okay, so I should have had a SPOILER ALERT up there, but the title of the book does suggest at least one DEAD African, and I am keeping mum concerning the fate of the other two African diarists in my novel.) Look, the bottom line is that this is a Friday and whereas a legitimate reason for a celebration is needed, Happy Birthday, Diaries of a Dead African. Technically, it should be Mr. Meme Jumai’s birthday, but it is a bit complicated, marking the 10th (or so) birthday of a 50-year-old man who died a decade ago. So Happy birthday DoaDA it is.
So I am officially celebrating. If you run into me in person, today, and I am wearing a smile, and I am carrying a copy of the birthday book in the pit of my left arm, do demand your cupcake. For all the rest, enjoy this first entry in Meme’s diary.
1st June 2000
WHEN I WOKE THIS MORNING I was sweating like a slave on the farm. Yet it wasn’t the sweat of hard work that wet my bed-sheet so. It was the sweat of fear. I was feeling as if a witch had poured fear inside me the way Ma’Abel used to pump our sleeping sons with pap, more than twenty years ago. If you see how my chest was doing! That my heart did not cut was a miracle.
As I pushed my door open into the compound and hung my bed-sheet where it became my curtain, I tried to remember the exact and particular reason why I was so afraid. I couldn’t; and I’m not surprised. The problems of my life are not the sort that one narrates to a native doctor and he laughs before he starts his treatment. My problems are the sort that the boldest witchdoctor will hear halfway and flee. Is that not how I went to meet Catechist just before Easter and he said he won’t waste his time and mine by praying, that my problems had surpassed the kind that prayer and fasting solve. It’s just that adversity isn’t something people boast about; otherwise, in this Ikerre-Oti, no one can stand beside me.
It wasn’t quite dawn, but, as Ikerre people say, only a ne’er-do-well needs sunlight to gather his farm gear. I got dressed. Nobody can call my house a mud-hut any more, ever since I plastered it all over with cement. (Except those people who have jealousy and witchcraft running in their veins and they think it is blood. That type of people can never forget what is under the plaster.) On the harvest poles staked to the wall opposite my clay bed are the remnants of the 1999 harvest… only three yam tubers… As soon as those three tubers filled my eyes, the silence also filled my ears. Ma’Abel was not cursing her stubborn stove from her kitchen outside. Abel and Calamatus were not quarrelling over who forgot to tether the goat the night before. I was alone in my compound with only three tubers of yam.
That was when I remembered the exact and particular reason why I was so afraid, and my chest kept quiet. Because Ikerre people also say that the day a man recognises the disease that will kill him is the day doctors stop eating his money. I remembered the name of the fear that filled me like the urine of a witch; and when a disease has a name, at least it has a salutation.
His name was Starvation.
It was two weeks until harvest and tradition decrees that not a root may be disturbed in the fields before the day of the new yam festival. The situation was serious.
I untied my pregnant goat. Another week and the lazy thing should bear. I watched her climb to her feet and drag herself out of the compound to graze, scratching herself lazily on the broken gatepost. Just as I feared, young idiots with pails as empty as their brains were already hanging around the gate in front of my compound. They’re waiting for me to come out to start their giggling and idiotic singing. They’ve left the water they were sent to fetch from the stream, and are looking for gossip. Nonsense and tenpence! I turned away to the kitchen in the backyard. I cooked a pottage with a little yam and a lot of the vegetables that grew in the hedge between my compound and Ma’Caro’s. I put away my farming gear. I didn’t go to farm today.
In the evening I watched the black-and-white TV I inherited from my father. It is almost my age-mate and to keep the pictures from drifting up and down like the thoughts of a mad man, I have to tap it every now and again. That was how I spent the night of my first day away from the farm this year: slapping a thirty-year old television in a mud-hut masquerading as a sandcrete house, watching programmes from the other sideof the universe.
I should hate Meme Jumai, if I were not Meme Jumai.