In this memoir piece, Akwaeke Emezi chronicles a specific Nigerian childhood with starkness and poetry and truth. It entertains. It disturbs. It is exquisitely written. I particularly loved her ability to turn Aba – a town about which I hope more will be written – into a rich character. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did.
– Chimamanda Adichie
Sometimes The Fire Is Not Fire
By Akwaeke Emezi
Kerosene burns nearly everything.
Growing up, our house would sometimes be invaded by soldier ants, rivers of red clacking bodies that ran over our windowsills and bit us with thoroughness. We soaked newspaper in kerosene to make torches and burnt the ants back, singeing our carpets and bathtubs. The price of gas kept climbing, so we transferred all our cooking over to the small green kerosene stove and watched as the pots blackened. In the dry season, we raked dead leaves into a pile next to the borehole that didn’t work, sprinkled some kerosene and dropped a flame. I remember being amazed at how a little wetness could lead to such fire. My little sister and I would dance around the blaze until we got called in and scolded for getting smoke in our hair. When you try to burn a person, it is cheaper to use kerosene instead of petrol.
I spent my entire childhood in Aba, a commercial town in the south of Nigeria, where both my siblings were born. When I came back to the country after leaving for college, I knew from my first circling of the Lagos crowd that the location of my childhood would be ammunition against people who thought I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t Nigerian enough. No one could argue with Aba. It was my best card, even better than being born in Umuahia, where my father and grandfather were born. It made me authentic in a way that was absolute; you couldn’t question if someone who grew up in Aba was a ‘real’ Nigerian. No one could say anything. Aba didn’t match the background they assumed for me: that I must have grown up outside Nigeria, because I smelled too foreign, right down to my blood. The truth felt like a story. I wanted to tell them we never had running water, that the cockroach eggs gelled into the egg grooves of the fridge door, that the concrete over the soakaway broke open and stayed open. The smell became part of our air and when one of the little chicks fell into the hole, my sister called me wicked for not helping it out. I said none of this, though. I just smiled at their shock and listened to the jokes about how Aba people can make and sell a fake version of anything, even a glass of water.
What I did tell people was how impressive it was that my parents kept their children as sheltered as they did in all the chaos of Aba during the 90’s and early 2000’s, with the way the town felt and tasted lawless. We got piles of books to read, bought secondhand from the Post Office on Ikot-Ekpene Road or sent from our cousins in London or pulled from my parents’ separate collections, and that’s how my sister and I ended up believing in fairies in the midst of riots. We had cats spilling over our carpets, a dog with raw bleeding ears, and several Barbie dolls sent from Saudi Arabia, where my mother moved to in ’96. I didn’t know I’d never live with her again. When our turkeys got fowlpox, we caught them and pinned them under our feet and learnt that you could treat the pox with palm oil. When the dogs got maggots, we learnt that applying careful pressure to the sore made them fall white and wriggling to the sand. We learnt not to handle bitterleaf and then touch your mouth, or peel yam and then touch your eyes, because the first ruins your tongue and the itch of the second can blind you. We mimicked the priests during Mass at CKC, driving home afterwards past the bodies dumped outside the teaching hospital. We stayed children.
After a pickup truck mowed down my sister in ‘95, my father forbade us to ride okadas, saying that the roads were too dangerous. I disobeyed often, leaning into the wind and raising my heels away from the burning exhaust so my slippers wouldn’t melt. The first time I climbed on one, my best friend called out my name and distracted me. I burnt the inside of my leg on the metal and she made a face. ‘Look out for the exhaust pipe,’ she said. By the time I went to school the next day, my burn had bubbled up and split. I packed it with powder and two types of iodine, till it was ugly and crusted in purples and reds. It scarred flat and I learnt to climb on motorcycles from the other side.
After I burned my sister’s left thigh, I learnt that burns always bubble reliably, whether you make them with metal or in her case, water. We were all sitting to breakfast at the dining table, the way my mother liked it when she was there, with the Milo and sugar and powdered milk and everything laid out. I reached over to grab the handle of the hot water flask, but my brother hadn’t screwed the top back on properly, so when the flask toppled over, it spilled a steaming river over my sister’s school uniform, burning her leg. She jumped up screaming and ran into the parlor, and everyone rushed to her while I apologized frantically. I think they cracked a raw egg over the burn. It was the second time I’d seen the skin of her leg do unnatural things. The first was the time with that pickup truck, when it dragged her down Okigwe Road, but that was her right leg and her skin had opened differently then, more intricately, chopped up by white bone screaming out of the pulpy red. My best friend’s father fixed it. I learnt that humans are meat.
Bodies in the sun smell unbearable after a week because meat goes bad, but I learnt that they smell even worse a week later. When walking back home after taking JAMB, it rained, and in the flooded water of Faulks Road, I learnt that a dead body will float and even bob. I learnt that brains were grey before I was eleven, from the tarmac of Brass Junction, from the cracked calabash of what was a person’s head. We looked at it every day on our way to school, waiting to turn left onto Aba-Owerri Road to head towards Abayi, holding our breath. I learnt that we can bear much more than we predict.
When the armed robberies got too bad in Aba, to the point where you could call the police to report one and the police would just make sure they avoided the area, a team of vigilantes arose and called themselves the Bakassi Boys. Their headquarters were in Ariaria Market, and we often saw them as we returned from school, their vehicles whistling down the road. They dangled out of windows and off roofs, waving machetes and guns, streaming with red and yellow strips of cloth. They killed and burned thieves, hacking them with machetes, throwing a tire and faithful kerosene over them, then leaving the corpses out as warnings and reminders. No one dared to remove them until it was allowed. When I was fourteen, we went to Malaysia to see my grandparents and I told one of my cousins about the Bakassi Boys as we walked on a beach. ‘That’s terrible, that they’re killing people,’ she said. I looked at her like she didn’t make sense. ‘Those people shouldn’t have stolen,’ I answered. Even our state governor allowed the killings, just like he allowed the riots in 2000, after the massacre of Igbos in Kaduna, after they stacked up our dead in lorries and sent them back to us.
I learnt other things in Aba, that a mother you see once a year is a stranger, no matter how much you cry for her in the long months when she’s gone. I learnt that if my father is a man who will wield a machete at the NEPA worker who came to check the meter, then I cannot tell him what our neighbour who took my sister to the hospital after the pickup accident did to me, because at twelve, I am entirely too young for that kind of blood on my hands. We can, I promise you, bear much more than we predict.
I told an acquaintance some of this during a lunch in Lagos, not the parts about myself, just about the bodies and the curfews and the ritual kidnappings they called Otokoto and the time they burnt down the mosque and killed every Muslim they could find, murdering three hundred Northerners in the two days after the lorries arrived with the bodies from Kaduna, when we got five days off from school and stayed at home and saw the ashes afterwards in front of the Customs House. I told her how a classmate had joked with me then that I should be careful. ‘You know you resemble a Northerner,’ he said. I told her about the rumors of this Muslim man who could pass for Igbo and so when they came for him, he joined the mob and killed his people to stay alive, to prove he was one of us. I told her about the woman next door whose gateman was a shoemaker from the North, how she hid him and his son in their boys quarters. When the child heard the noise in the street, he tried to run out to see what it was, but she caught him and beat him and sent him back. He was five. We shared an avocado tree with their compound.
We were sitting in Freedom Park as I said these things, and she stared at me the whole time, horrified. ‘You’re making that up,’ she said. ‘Are you serious?’
‘It was Aba in the 90’s,’ I reminded her. ‘I thought everyone in Nigeria grew up like this.’ I hadn’t thought she’d be surprised. She was Nigerian too, after all, and much older than me. Surely she’d seen worse things.
‘No, everyone did not grow up like that!’ She was agitated. ‘Why don’t you write about this?!’
I shrugged. It was a normal childhood, and besides, Aba was just Aba. None of it had seemed worth writing about. I could hear how the stories sounded when I said them out loud, dark like old blood, like I was supposed to be traumatized, different, like something in me, perhaps my innocence, should’ve caught a whiff of kerosene and gone crackly and black too, smoking away like suya edges. Except, I was fine. I felt like nothing had happened. In college, I had a friend from Serbia who wouldn’t even talk about the things he’d seen. I had a girlfriend in New York who’d spent years of her childhood in the middle of the war in Liberia. I know that life churns on, bloody and normal. I know I’m fine.
Sometimes the fire is not fire. Sometimes it’s not everything that burns.