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Dominic Okafor: Lessons in dying

 1.     How to kill a bull There’s kill and there’s slaughter. Both involve the words gbuo and ehi, which means “kill” and “bull”-cows…

 1.     How to kill a bull

There’s kill and there’s slaughter. Both involve the words gbuo and ehi, which means “kill” and “bull”-cows are female and technically not suitable-but they are different as light and day.

I get a bull slaughtered at an abattoir and bring the carcass home for the ceremony. That means I have enough meat to go round. I haven’t killed for my father.

To kill for him, I have to lead the bull home and kill it on site. The head and one back leg go to Umunna, the waist goes to Umuada and the entire chest goes to his mother’s maiden family.

Then you have what’s left for the first day of the ceremony and have to buy another half cattle to make it up for the second day. That’s when you have done it proper; otherwise it is just meat.

Without that, it will count until such a time when you may decide you need a cattle for a big occasion, say I die and my son decides he’s crazy enough to buy one to bury me. Then he has say to first kill one to offset the debt-if I hadn’t killed for my father-before he can kill for me.

There’s an ugly romance between Igbo and cattle, and I don’t get its origins.

When my granddad died, his children were too young to afford a bull, so they used goats. His children grew up and killed for him.

When my grandmum died, her children were told they couldn’t use a cattle without first clearing the cattle death of some woman who had died in the family decades ago. Which meant two bulls.

(Note that if a man’s daughter is married, then his burial means live goats for several hands to lead away. And live chickens in any case.)

I don’t know when eastern societies grew this fixation on cattle and shifted from goats.

If it were some northern Fulani society with established links to cattle keeping, it might make sense.

As it is, kill or not, there’s always cattle in the picture somehow. And it is good business.

And they decided it had to be part of things because, Okafor’s son works in Abuja (translation: the seat of money, so he must be really loaded).

I was taken to a man who deals in cattle. Four hefties chewing cud lolled in a stall slightly removed from a mini bakery that supplied bread to the market.

Each started from N220,000, he said. No way was I paying that, I told myself.

He said he also planned, in the absence of sale, to use them for a string of funerals in the family.

I’m considered the moneyed one in the picture but this man is so poor he has three cars in his compound, a bakery on the side, vast farmland around and has fattened four bulls he could sell or indulge in ceremonies where he could plunk down N200,000 worth or cattleflesh just for the heck of it. That’s so rich, it is sad.

2. Real estate and landed property.

Everyone wants to own their own home. An Igbo man with 16 mansions in Maitama is nothing, if he hasn’t got one down east.

That one down east usually comes first. It is a tie that binds, ensuring continued connection, a safety net of sorts. It is like both umbilical cord and placenta to every Igbo man.

Two elders took me through history lessons pointing out the vague origin of obsession with home-first growth model.

When the Civil War broke out, many families living and working in different parts of the country abandoned their property–homes in Port Harcourt, estates in Lagos, shops in Owerri, businesses in Kano.

They had made the seemingly wrong decision to focus on the cities where they resided. Now back east, they found themselves without a roof over their heads, several male elders told me over hours.

Some scratched red mud out of the earth, made bricks out of them, arranged the bricks into what looked like a house and threw thatch or raffia over it for a roof.

“No place like home,” added Joseph, a distant uncle of some sorts.

But that’s only good if you have land.

Or at least some land. Because that will be the final resting place. My father’s final real estate is a space 3½ feet by 7 feet carved 6 feet into earth.

3. Brotherhood of Umunna

Never mind the shenanigans they get up to in Nollywood. They are bloody humans. Actually, men. It literally means sons. In my case, my immediate umunna are the sons of four men-Okafor, Onyekwere, Afunanya and Ikwuetoghu-to whom the town trace their fatherhood.

Every son is automatically one, but it takes conscious effort to “enter” the brotherhood, which makes it sound like some mysterious fraternity.

At a family meeting I mentioned it could be possible young men stayed away from any umunna things because they felt the members were spirits. It got some laughs. The man at the top of the totem pole fairly screamed, “Parents, what have you been teaching these children?”

So umunna aren’t spirits. They begin meetings with the sign of the cross, then bicker, argue, curse, laugh and end with the sign of the cross.

They are the sons, cousins, nephews, uncles who dug my father’s grave on Tuesday, followed me to the mortuary to fetch his body on Wednesday morning and lowered it into his 6ft residence by noon on April 26.

4. Going home

Elephants have long memories. That’s nothing on umunna; they never forget, though might forgive.

When you hear someone say “I’m going home” and travellers all head east at Christmas, it isn’t because festivities are horrible in Lagos or Abuja. It is to stay in touch with their clans up east, stick their children’s nose into community business and generally maintain their roots. (A WhatsApp or Facebook group would be nice here. Have you heard of it? Lovely.)

Umunna-and umuada (daughters)-keep score: burials, weddings, levies you have skipped, and will wait to visit the wrath when you have reason for your child’s wedding or a parent’s funeral.

5. Money that folds, not jingles

There’s a burial everyday in any eastern community. Not because there is a plague of death, but because all who died in their residential cities hundreds of kilometres away are compulsorily flown east. Umunna will even levy themselves to fly home relatives who die overseas.

Funerals are a multibillion-naira industry, and it takes every son or daughter burying a loved one to keep it well stoked.

After reading a post about my father’s death, a friend Vera, said, “Burial rites in Igbo land are like weddings.”

And those are considered the most expensive anywhere in Nigeria if not Africa.

“My uncle was buried last month in Anambra and what you narrated in the story was exactly what we went through. Paid nearly N100,000 to clear church debts before a Christian burial was accepted.”

Her father is 82 and ailing. “I had to call a cousin to check my father’s debts so we can be making payments in instalments.”

Any Igbo firstborn who has to bury a parent doesn’t mourn mourn.

I was trying to spare my kid sister the sad news but she got wind of it and said, “Is it true?” Not a tear, no breaking down.

I said, “Yes.”

“What do we do now?”

“How do you mean?”

“So that we can bury him.”

She’s a 300-level student at UNIBEN, so what could she do? But that’s how the mind works. I only saw tears in her eyes once when my dad’s coffin was opened for viewing as he lay in state and again as it was lowered into the ground.

Tears are an expensive luxury. Once that awful call announced my dad’s death, I didn’t have grieving time. I was doing mental acrobatics, the running about for clearance, the arrangements for his burial, scheming to scale the hurdles sure to stand in the way, calculus for how many hundreds of thousands of naira the entire enterprise would cost (six figures and up), how lean my bank account would be.

When all’s done, you’ve spent money that folds, and if you are not wiped out, you still have money that jingles.

6. High levels of insensitivity

Toughen up or you will be ripped raw. It takes the death of a loved one to expose you to the most caustic tongues you will hear.

And it is because they care (after all, the nice comments from others are a nice counterbalance).

It is worse if, like me, you work in Abuja-like cities where the streets are paved with solid gold, it rains naira and you have Aso Rock Villa on speed dial. You are a big boy.

Which is why no one might ask how they can contribute a dime, and you might contribute for others.

Which is also why an aunt will invite her friends to a funeral you are paying for,  house them under canopies you paid for, sneak her group of friends onto your guest list and begin commandeering food by the basinfuls while the funeral mass is still in progress. And then the friends disappear without even coming near the bereaved family’s condolence table.

Oh, that table! I sat there dawn to dusk, welcoming visitors, receiving condolence. It was my duty for being a firstborn. My sibs could go anywhere, but, “don’t leave this table,” I was told. And no food or drink.

Joyce buried her mother early this year and was so worn out by the table part, she zoned out, and realised later she had fainted when a group of faces above her were trying to resuscitate her.

An uncle told me he came close to fainting but was saved by a keg of palm wine he kept hidden under the table. I have no experience to prepare me for my table business. But it is not an experience I care to repeat.

So when you see a mourning son, it is not about the dead but about the notes with dead presidents on them, it is about the work, duty and struggle.

Isaac Onah, my Benin City neighbour visited my condolence table.

“Your father is done with life’s struggle,” he said. “Now it is for you to continue where he left off.”

Daddy, I’m still thinking where exactly that point of departure is.

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