Felix Chukwuma Nwokolo 1933-2009

I am writing this in a sprial notebook that once belonged to my Dad. I have just run out of power on my laptop, and on my not-so-smart smartphone. PHCN is not forthcoming with electricity, and at this early hour, a thundering generator is just evil. There are thus no other extensions to writing fingers save the humble paper and pen.

And what is this spiral notebook sitting close at hand? It is of course Nwachukwunedu’s. I have these mementoes of his passing – I really have no need of ‘mementoes’, of course, for he sleeps with his wife at the bottom of my garden – but I have them all the same: cufflinks he once favoured, a battered attache case he once carried, which now follows me around the world… but what is this spiral notebook?

I like to stumble upon Nwachukwunedu’s notebooks. (This was not his natal name, of course. His given name was Chukwuma, which he gave me, and which he gave my first son too. But among the Igbo there is yet an opportunity for a man to choose a name of his own volition. At my father’s mkpalor ceremony in the ’70s, he chose for himself the name Nwachukwunedu, the Child Led of God. My mother’s new name was Eziogolibuno, the good wife IS the home. It is of course unthinkable for the well-bred African to call his own parents by first name, and there are many respectful monikers that ensure that that breech of protocol does not occur. But post-mpalor, when once they take their new names, parents can finally get on first name terms with their progeny. They are praise names, you see. Specially modulated to caress the spirit of the owner. So mere men have taken title names such as The Sun That Moons Revolve Around, but this was my father’s name, which is now my younger brother’s too: Nwachukwunedu, The Child led of God. I see him now, as I enter his retirement home, with him recumbent in the chair of his generous court, as I call – as I hail him – as his face wreathes in a smile. And his wife… I only called her EziOGOLIbunor in my teens… after that she was always EziNNEbunor to me: The Good Mother is the home. I remember my father grumbling now and again: that’s not your mother’s name, Chuma. But I’d persist: she may be wife to you, Nwachukwunedu, but she is Mum to me. And she would glow too, as we called and praised her, in- and out-of-season.)

I like to stumble upon Nwachukwunedu’s notebooks, because they evoke the most luxuriant memories of him. They are not his soul, of course, and I will rest this notebook when the empty interstices of it are also full of my own jottings, but for now, it is good to see his handwriting, as unique to my eyes as his face, as his laughter was. To see the hurried notes he made when life was urgent, when days were plenty, and when the car was waiting downstairs to ferry him off to work…

How good it is to have my own writing slowed down by a contemplation of my father’s. To pause in my thought as I muse over a thought he interrupted, what? twenty, forty years ago, and never continued. His handwriting is a confident, barely legible, swagger, lovely to my eyes. And I can always recognise it in a sheaf of strange letters, the way I can single out his burgundy voice, his charismatic laughter in the hubbub of a benighted room. So my father doodled? I do not remember this. He always seemed as focused as a train on a schedule. So possessed of a programme for every errant hour of every day he was gifted. Was this a sofa he sought to draw, or a bloated alien? Aha… this is a map he tried to sketch. This is a boomeranging street. These are two houses. X marked the spot… what spot? Who sat beside him, watching these directions come to life? Who raised with him a glass of his gregarious lager as he set his pen down all those years ago, never to return it to this page? Was it his friend George Spiropoulous, now dead as well? Or Paul Maijeh, long dead too? Or Okafor Mba, lately killed by a negligent pothole on the Lagos-Benin Expressway? What a laugh they all must have, watching me decipher this. He loved lists. This one a list of 15 insurance companies… as for these numbers beside the names… I’d have to rouse him from his long slumber to decipher them. Notes for the formation of the West African Insurance Institute… ‘school starts 30th March 92… site to be in The Gambia…’ He was once president of the WAICA, as I recall…

This was his life’s passion, insurance, a career he found by accident, for by his birth, the grandeur of his grandfather, Obi Nwokolo, late Asagba of Asaba was quite dimmed. He did not know his own father, who died in his infancy. He was therefore the last of over a dozen children, only three of whom survived. His path was different from mine. As a teen, with his beloved sister Regina he would forage fruits and process cassava all afternoon and evening and – come 5 am – carry them on headpans miles and miles to market in Ibusa. Regina would stay back to sell, while he ‘ran’ the marathon back to class. Thus he finished primary six, and she did not. And thus their sibling knot was plaited, that only death severed. Afterwards, a year or two of ‘commercial school’ at the great Mordi’s institute and thence to a secretarial job… Of course under UAC’s Abebe, he did not long warm the typist’s chair before he set off on the trajectory he had planned with ‘the God that led him’. But this is why there are some notebooks I cannot decipher now. Because he also wrote in a language I cannot understand: the stenographer’s shorthand. I remember him showing me this skill. He had forgotten much in his years in the management suite, but he still remembered enough to show his son how to write, sans keyboard, at the speed of speech…

I close the book and sit back. PHCN obliges. The sleeping neighbourhood does not cheer. To know the clay from which you were formed. To know he was a work in progress, a book that was not, could never have been finished. Just as I will never be finished. To wonder if my own progeny will one day find me in pages just as redolent. To see that humanity is a collaborative work in progress, where everyone drinks generously, and gives too. And writes their lives in a book that no one fully owns, or knows.

6 Replies to “Upon Writing into my Father's Notebook”

  1. Awele says:

    There is a sense of calm reading this piece … of course holding the black Cartier ink- pen he once cherished and scribbling notes with does help. My six year old is pointing at his picture posted as an intro to this blog, announcing, ‘Grand Pa’ to her almost-one year old brother who is playfully pulling at her long braids. She likes this black ink-pen and often scribbles her ‘intelligent’ drawings with it.
    I wonder what is going on in her mind. I don’t remember much of being six but she seems to remember being three years of age and feeding the birds with Grand Pa. Perhaps one day, she will share that memory with her brother.
    You strike a disturbing, yet amazingly calming cord when you say “as he set his pen down all those years ago, never to return it to this page?” Disturbing because I relate to the piles of incomplete thoughts scribbled on numerous spiral notebooks and hard-drives scattered across three continents. It is also calming because the black Cartier ink-pen’s genes could be traced to those on the spiral notebook in your possession and now, etched also in the spiral notebooks of a six year old.
    History continues … PHCN or not …

    Reply
    1. Chuma Nwokolo says:

      Indeed Awele,
      History continues.
      And it continues best, if we grow the awareness as we set down each pen, shake hands on each deal, each conversation that This could be It.
      Nodu ofuma.

      Reply
  2. Anne Okwuni Maijeh - Umaru says:

    Chuma,
    Your writing brought me to tears.It took me down memory lane.It is a very poignant and descriptive piece of work.Would love to read more! God bless and keep you as you continue to write for us to enjoy. Okwuniazo

    Reply
    1. Chuma Nwokolo says:

      Okwuni
      nice of you to drop by here.
      Indeed death may raid the deepest of pockets but cannot scorch our memories.
      Be well.

      Reply
  3. Anne Okwuni Maijeh - Umaru says:

    Chuma,

    This is really nice as it taken us through the memory lane . I

    Reply

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