Ugo slides the letter back into the envelope it came in.
Like the evil sword it is, there in its scabbard, it
will not harm anyone. He gnashes his teeth in anger,
glances at his wristwatch, and shakes his head from
side to side. In just under one hour he shall be in
another session at his osteopath’s. It is like
confession. Every other week he goes to Mayer’s,
surrenders himself to painful, trespassing but
awkwardly pleasant stretches of his body and bones.
With each session he borrows a few days’ relief from
agony. “Serves me right for trying to be
Schwarzenegger,” he pretends to tease, but really
reprimands himself. He remembers the precise moment
at a Seven Sisters gym he heard a click in his back
that has condemned him to nearly a decade of hell. A
moment of stupidity that has also taken away the
courage he needs to return to
to settle an old score.
Ugo is definitely in no shape for a wrestling match. At
fifty-two, and with a back waiting for a surgeon’s
knife, something as physical as traditional Igbo
wrestling might just cripple him for life. He tries
to make a mental picture of his challenger, but the
image is fuzzy. It is like trying to conjure the
face of death. A man who has never met death cannot
tell if death’s face is comforting at all or simply
menacing. The only thing he can remember about
Ogele’s face is his ugliness and his evil laughter,
a satanic sound that has haunted his dreams for
years. He is shocked that there are people who just
don’t know how to let go of unpleasantness. Things
have changed now. He must go back to
Nigeria to face the demon he has been running away
from. People that run away from battles tend to hope
to fight another day, but he is a damaged
battlefront deserter, and might after all be unable
to fight. The stake is too high. He cannot keep
running. He has to go home and settle the score with
The trip is going to be a big deal. He does not wish to
face his fate alone. This is something for men. No
need to trouble his wife with it. He is grateful to
God that he has a grown-up son who will understand.
His son is a man of his own blood who will never
judge him. He breathes out with a whisper of relief
and calls Orji on his mobile phone and asks him to
come downstairs, for a quick chat on a pretty
Orji sits by his father’s side in the warm sitting room and
waits for the delicate matter to come out of his
father’s mouth, but Ugo seems unable to find a
suitable introduction. He fidgets like a shy little
man, and his spirit seems to dance away with his
eyes from the keen gaze of his son. He tries to make
sense of it in his head. Orji would never judge him.
Why then is he afraid to talk to him.
“You may after all get a chance to visit
Nigeria.” Ugo finally says. He searches Orji’s face
for a flicker of excitement, or any emotion at all,
but finds none. The only thing the young man’s face
seems to care about is what the bad news could be.
His father is not a man ever failed by words, but
suddenly he seems not to know what words are meant
for anymore. It cannot be good, his face
seems to say.
“There is a small niggling matter of a wrestling contest I
have evaded for thirty-eight years.” Ugo tells Orji.
He eases himself into the story, going back to a
wrestling match in his village in which he had been
thrown by Ogele, a member of his age-grade and a
classmate. Ugo is almost close to tears as he
recalls how Ogele humiliated him for many weeks
afterwards with references to that match. He spoke
of how he was taunted for so long that he became
ill. In those days, even as a young boy, he tended
to tackle issues head-on to stop them getting out of
hand. “Therefore one early morning, I decided that I
was not going to allow Ogele humiliate me to an
early grave. I went to Ogele’s house, it must have
been just before half past six in the morning, and
challenged him to a rematch, many months ahead of
the next New Yam festival. Wrestling in our village
is always a part of the new yam festival called
ikerike ji ona na mmanu.” He suddenly falls silent,
wipes his eyes as they begin to dilate, and casts an
embarrassed glance at his son. It is a first for
him. He that everybody calls Obi Nkume, a heart of
stone, sheds a tear in front of his son! He worries,
rather stupidly, that Orji might actually be
thinking it is a good thing to see a vulnerable,
softer side of him, and begins to take quick breaths
between words to gain composure. “He laughed in my
face, the spotted squirrel. He laughed me out of his
house.” Ugo talks with gritty bitterness, about how
Ogele had said he would never belittle himself by
getting into the arena again with a weakling like
him. “He called me a weakling. That rat! O.K. so I
was plump in those days. He taunted me, and called
me ‘fat man lazy bones’. I was angry. I was so angry
that I said to him, ‘I will wrestle you, Ogele, and
I will throw you. If I don’t, I will give you my
father’s land.’ Can you imagine that?” Ugo laughs at
how ridiculous the stake he raised that day had
been. What was he thinking? He swallows hard as he
recalls the void of silence into which Ogele had
descended, before laughing out suddenly, like a
deranged man, extending his hand for a pact, saying
“I accept. If you throw me, you can keep your
father’s land and take my father’s land also.” They
two fourteen-year-old boys had shaken hands on it and nothing more was
said of the contest as they awaited the next New Yam
festival. Ogele also stopped tormenting Ugo. The
price of that peace was potentially expensive, but
it had been worth it.
“This is heavy, Dad. Why are you telling me all these
things now?” Orji asks.
Ugo takes out the envelope from his pocket and hands it to
his son. He watches the changing expressions on
Orji’s face as he reads the letter.
“Is this guy for real? Nearly forty years since your
challenge, he wants you to wrestle with him now? At
your age? With your bad back? Can’t you just tell
him to go to hell?” Orji asks.
Ugo laughs again, this time with a tightness of lips and
heaviness of heart, rasping through grating teeth
that he wishes it were as easy as that. Without
another word, he takes the letter back from Orji,
puts it back into his pocket, and agonises to his
“I have to go to Mayer’s.” Ugo announces, “At this rate I
won’t be able to walk to the plane.” He chuckles.
“Why didn’t you wrestle this Ogele guy back then, Dad?”
Ugo smiles at his son. “Come. Drive me to Mayer’s, I will
tell you in the car.” He says.
As Orji edges the Mercedes unto the road en route to
Mayer’s, Ugo tells him how the circumstances of his
life had changed beyond his control just a few weeks
after he challenged Ogele. He had come home from
school one day and was told by his father Okazuo,
that the whole family was to travel to
for two weeks. It was for the Golden Jubilee
anniversary of the marriage between Mr Stuart Moss
and his wife Priscilla. Mr Moss used to be Okazuo’s
boss in the Eastern Nigeria Civil Service many years
before, and though he had been back to his own
country for over twenty years, he had kept in touch
with his old friend. Ugo had been too young to
understand what happened exactly but he just found
himself and his younger brother being enrolled in a
and his parents went out everyday to work and
nothing further was said about going back to
Nigeria. Each time he asked if they were not going
to return to Nigeria, he was told that it was not
yet time. Time for what he was never told, and when
he got tired of asking, he just went on with his
“I wrote a letter to Ogele, you know” Ugo says. “I told him
what happened, and that whenever I return, I would
be ready for him. But he did not believe me. He
wrote back to say I was well aware of the family
plans, and that that was the reason I tricked him
into the challenge. Don’t race him, please!”
“What?” Orji asks.
“Sorry, I thought you were racing that car” Ugo points at a
blue sports car speeding away from them right
through a red light.
“I don’t race people on the road, Dad, you must know that.”
“If you didn’t I would not have…” he stops himself. “I am
sorry, forget I said that.”
He goes on with his story and tells his son that when he
got older, he learnt that during that anniversary
party, Mr Moss had introduced Okazuo to a British
charity of some sort looking to recruit former
officers of the old colonial regime for an
off-the-record programme called ‘Healing The Social
Wounds of Colonialism’ which sought to sponsor
projects that would help Africans overcome lingering
pains or complexes inflicted by the invasion of
their homelands, and any untoward acts by the
imperial colonising powers.
“That’s deep. You never told me any of these things before,
Dad.” Orji says.
“That’s because I never saw any real benefit of the charity
to our family except the relocation to
Sheffield, if that is a benefit. Neither did I see
any benefits at all to anybody in Africa for that
matter.” Ugo said rather impatiently. “Well son, you
know the rest of the story. I finished my education
England, moved from Sheffield to London, and married
a beautiful Canadian lawyer I met at a dinner party
and before I realised what was happening, I am was
fifty-two years old with a 21-year-old son.”
Orji edges the car into a bay outside Mayer’s and just
before he turns off the engine, he asks Ugo why
Ogele did not challenge him twelve years earlier
when he went to Nigeria for a month.
“Because I was there to bury my father. Not even a mad man
like Ogele would bring up a wrestling contest under
those circumstances.” Ugo replies, and gets out of
the car slowly.
After about fifty minutes, Ugo returns to the car. It is
only when he closes the door that Orji wakes up.
Orji falls asleep at the drop of a hat anyway.
“Dad, I have been thinking about the letter from Ogele. I
think I can do it.” Orji says and watches his
father’s face light up in a smile.
The letter from Ogele says that the score has to be settled
one way or another. Ogele is a dying man putting his
house in order. The elders of the village have ruled
that if Ogele and Ugo are no longer able to settle
the score themselves, then their children must do
it, and it must be done in their lifetimes.
“Are you sure?” Ugo asks.
“The recompense of the flippancy of fathers will be visited
upon their sons.” Orji replies with a warm smile.
“I am afraid so.” Ugo replies proudly.
Orji frowns. He is saddened by the fact that the only
reason his father has considered taking him home was
to take part in a local wrestling march to save a
piece of land he neither knew existed nor has any
“I don’t need that land Orji. But your uncle Uwanka spends
a lot of time there with your grandmother as he
prepares to run for the local council elections.
When your grandmother passes on, that land will
belong to your uncle and I. God forbid that I should
make him destitute over this. You will honour me.
You will not back down now. You will wrestle Ogele’s
son and you will throw him.” Ugo says.
Orji laughs. He says he knew his father had been
play-acting all the while. The demanding, commanding
father he has always known had been hiding inside
the pitiable man he saw all day.
“I thought you were asking. Now you are ordering me to
wrestle. Nothing will get me into that Arena” Orji
“Then I will do it. I always bear my cross. All I ask is
that you come with me, so that if I get paralysed,
you will see to it that I get immediate medical
attention and arrange to bring me back here.” Ugo
“If you get paralysed! If you get paralysed? That is
blackmail. Why are you doing this to me Dad? Was I
the one that went challenging your mate in the wee
hours of the morning?” Orji protests.
“You don’t have to come if you don’t want to” Ugo says,
“but I must ask you a favour. Don’t mention the
purpose of my trip to your mother.” He says.
Horrified by this Orji gasps in disbelief, “You will not
tell mum? You will get on the plane, go to
Nigeria and wrestle with your bad back and may come
back in a wheelchair and you will not mention it to
your wife?” he asks.
“She is a woman. She may say things that will cloud my
judgment. Besides, her cultural background, like the
one you have soaked up, might blind her to the
reason. She may not reason with me. Do I have your
word?” Ugo asks.
Orji feels like a man hit by a truck. His father is a
complex man with many unsubtle attributes, but one
thing Orji always felt he could swear by was his
father’s total honesty with his mother. This very
chauvinistic trait surfacing suddenly has never been
there. Does it take one traditional African
wrestling contest to awaken the savage in him? He
looks his father over, almost expecting to see a
physical feature on him that would make it all make
sense that he is talking to a different man. But it
is all seventeen stone, six feet of him in his green
corduroy jeans and chequered V-necked jumper out of
which the crisp cream collar of his shirt works
around his enormous neck. He studies his father’s
face, and wonders what secret each of the new lines
appearing on his face each day holds. And then for
the first time, he notices the vast strands of grey
hair on his head and eyebrows. He simply hadn’t
noticed they were that many before.
“Dad you are getting old.” Orji suddenly says.
“It feels as if it was just yesterday I turned twenty-one,”
Ugo laughs. “You don’t have much time son.” He
continues to laugh, so hard that tears course down
his cheeks. But since Orji does not see the funny
side of his comment, he does not laugh. He rather
drives off without another word, into a darkening
After a few minutes of driving, Orji says he will go to
Nigeria and will wrestle Ogele’s son, but only if
Ugo told his mother why they were going. Ugo chews
it over in his mind for about five minutes before
saying in a very low voice. “Alright. I will tell
your mother tonight. We leave in three days.”
Three days later they arrive
International Airport. Uwanka’s driver meets them
there. Apart from a phenomenally high number of
black faces at the airport, Orji is pleasantly
surprised that checkout at the airport is not
anything as traumatic or dramatic as portrayed in
the Airports programme shown on British television.
However he notices something about every black voice
he hears – it is unpretentious, free and assertive.
There are no obviously false accents and he could
swear he hears as many different languages as there
might have been on the day the
“Port Harcourt is an oil city, so you have the
Kalabaris, the Efiks, the Igbos, the Yorubas, the
Hausas, the Itshekiris, the Ijaws, the Tivs.
Everybody comes here for the money. Somehow they
seem to find each other and just speak the language
of their fathers.” Ugo explains as they head away
from the airport to the village.
Two hours after leaving Port Harcourt airport, they
arrive at Amaba-Alayi, his father’s village, where a
big impromptu party erupts. It had begun with the
odd old man that stuck his white head through the
door without knocking and asked “Obu eziokwu na Ugo
lotara?” which Ugo translates to Orji as “Is it true
that Ugo has returned?”
“How do I say it is true?” Orji asks.
“Obu eziokwu.” Ugo replied.
And shortly after the twelfth head stuck through the
door, it is Orji who eagerly tells every body ‘obu
eziokwu.’ He feels welcome. At home. He receives
more warm hugs than handshakes. The fraternal
bonding is overpowering. His father is a little
uneasy, and whispers to him not to eat anything
anybody gives him until he has cleared it with him.
“Remember son, our family has enemies. Remember
that.” Ugo says.
Orji does not want to think about enemies. All his
life he has never had this much sense of community.
For some reasons, his father does not interact much
with the Nigerian community in England. Orji always
felt it might have to do with the fact he married a
white woman. Perhaps he did not like it when some
people showed disapproval. In the village, he begins
to feel that his tough father stayed away out of
fear. He might be a coward inside, he reckons, and
decides that it will take more than his father’s
fear to stop him from having fun among these people
who seem to have nothing but love for him.
Interestingly, most of the villagers speak Igbo to
him as if he understood a word they said. He tries
not to smile stupidly and nods his head even when he
should have shaken it to disagree with something.
Everybody laughs. It is all part of the fun. Later
on, the men bring out their drums, and with their
spirits freed by many gourds of palm-wine, and deer
meat, they sing and make merry way into the night.
Led by a spirited soloist, the men chant their
Onye chokwa i ga ala bekee
ihe oma ihe oma
Onye choo i su okwu bekee
ihe oma ihe oma
O maruhaala nge o si futa
ihe oma ihe oma
Dika okuko kpalatara bu aku
Ihe oma ihe oma
- A la agba ulo oku o bu ohia?
- mba nu
- A la agba ulo oku o bu ohia?
- mba nu
- A la eke nwoke obu o bu ewu?
Orji is glad he brought his camcorder. He likes everybody
and is glad to find that most people actually can
and are willing to speak English to him. Therefore
he makes news friends quickly and one of them
Chidozie, a local wrestling hero who knows about the
impending contest takes him aside to give him some
“Don’t worry yourself, Chidozie, I am into kickboxing in
London, you know.” Orji tells him.
Chidozie laughs and tells him that there is no violence
involved in traditional wrestling, and that it was
more of dancing, grace and trickery than strength.
“I watched the Kickboxer video. Van Damme. That is
common violence. Nonsense wickedness. Here in the
village, wrestling is different. Do you understand?”
Orji nods his head. He wants to say something, but chooses
not to. His head is working differently from
Chidozie’s. This guy does not understand, he is not
here to dance. He has come to fight for his father’s
honour, and if he has to kick and punch Ogele’s son
out of the village, that’s exactly what he is going
“You look strong. If you put some wiseness on top you will
win. Finish. When the xylophone begins to play,
listen to it. Forget your father, forget your
mother, forget what your father and Ogele are
dragging, just say to yourself, ‘the xylophone is
saying my back will not touch the ground’, allow
yourself to be carried by the cheering and clapping
of the crowd. Never look away from the eyes of your
opponent, lean forward and keep your feet away from
your opponent’s feet unless you are sweeping them
off the ground. If he sweeps at your feet, move them
out of the way, one by one, fast. Remember, if he
successfully sweeps or lifts your two feet from the
ground at the same time, you have lost. If he throws
you on your back, you have lost. So keep your feet
on the ground.” Chidozie explains.
“That’s interesting. Interesting! Can we practice now?”
“Why? Is it because your uncle has put on the plant and
there is electric light? No, my brother, night is
not for winking.” Chidozie says.
“Alright bro, we’ll do this tomorrow. God bless.” Orji hugs
him again and he leaves with two of his friends.
Orji returns to the house and joins his father in his room.
Ugo has pumped himself full of Nurofen and looks a
bit stoned. They stay up for about another hour
talking, mostly about how terrible Priscilla had
felt about not knowing of the contest all through
the years of their marriage. They are pleased anyhow
that she gave her blessing to Orji and had prayed
for his success before they flew out. She would have
come with them if she did not have to work.
“Dad, this land may not mean much to you, but it does to me
now. I will not lose it. I think this is where I
belong.” Orji says, moving the discussion topic away
from his mother.
“Don’t worry son, the novelty will wear off and you will
run back to
Ugo says with a knowing smile.
“I don’t think so, Dad. The difference between you and me
is that I have found what I have always wanted. For
once I don’t feel like a balloon floating over
hostile grounds, through tight gaps in branches of
trees, trees with long thorns, if that makes sense.
This is where my feet have felt as one with earth.
But you father, you are afraid to find a treasure
you lost years ago, because you don’t want to
confront the fact that your sojourn in a foreign
land has impoverished your life.” Orji says.
“I don’t need you to psychoanalyse me, Orji. And I have
told you to stop going to that Marcus Garvey group.
Those people have their own agenda. Stop talking
poetry to me. I want to know when my son speaks and
when his group speaks. As for this land, you love
this land? Save it. I don’t. If I had my health, I
would save it for you, but please don’t delude
yourself for one second that you know what has
enriched or impoverished my life. It is afterall my
life. Good night son, try to sleep well, you have
big days ahead of you.” Ugo says, and raises his
legs unto the bed.
“Come on Dad, how can you take the son of Amadioha to a
night of fireworks and ask him to shut his eyes?”
“What do you know about Amadioha?”
“Just what Grand-dad used to tell me. Amadioha is the great
God of thunder and lightening.”
“Well he is also the God of rain. So he knows when to send
down the rain to wash away fires started by his
lightening. Like this is the time to stop talking
and go to sleep.” Ugo said with a hint of finality.
“Good night Dad.” Orji concedes, and lays back on the
mattress spread on the floor for him. He is unable
Ugo walks side by side with his son and Chidozie to the
market square. The music from the xylophone has
reached fever pitch, and a big crowd has gathered in
a perfect circle. They look through gaps between
heads into the arena where a fierce match is taking
place. In a few minutes it is over and the victor
grabs the Onanikpo, a champion wrestler’s rattling
staff and begins to wave it in the air inviting a
Chidozie pushes his way through the crowd and steps in to
face the man. The champion digs the Onanikpo into
the ground and as the music reaches a crescendo,
Chidozie is thrown after five minutes of stretching
muscles and breathless gasps from women. On three
occasions, Chidozie nearly got the man, but he just
could not make it. And as Chidozie walks off with
his head bowed, the champion raises the Onanikpo
again, and this time another young man challenges
“Oh God, Orji, it is Emeruwa, Ogele’s son. Take good look
at your opponent.” Chidozie says.
Emeruwa is a frightening sight. He stands no shorter than
six foot four and has muscles that look like they
are carved out of a rock. The match is over in less
than one minute. Then Emeruwa takes the Onanikpo and
begins to prance around, but nobody steps forward to
“What are you waiting for?” Ugo asks Orji, “Nobody is
challenging him because the entire village knows why
he is here.”
“You want me to face that thing?” Orji asks, “That’s the
“This is where your feet have felt as one with earth my
son. You have to earn it.” Ugo replies.
“OK. What is the worst that can happen?” Orji says and
steps out to face Emeruwa.
“White boy come fight for him coward papa” Emeruwa says
aloud, and the crowd breaks into a roaring laughter.
Orji says nothing, only beckons on him to get on with it.
The music is worked into a frenzy. The crowd grows
wild. The more Emeruwa comes at Orji, the more he
dances around him, pawing at his shoulder like a
tiger, and looking for one opportunity to sweep
those strong feet off the ground. Finally Emeruwa
gets hold of him by the shoulders and flings him to
the left and to the right. Orji manages to keep at
least one foot on the ground, but never gets
balanced enough himself to give Emeruwa any
concerns. He keeps resisting the urge to kick the
man in the testicles. He resists the urge to kick
Emeruwa, and knows it in his heart that if he were
allowed to kick, he would take this man out. He
knows it, but with the rules, he feels totally
bound, and suddenly, without seeing it coming,
Emeruwa lets go of his shoulders and dives straight
for his legs, grabs him on both legs and tips him
over on his back. The music ceases. The chanting
stops. The crowd falls mournfully silent. Orji
springs to his feet and it takes all the discipline
in him not to attack Emeruwa and kick him into the
Disappointed and hurt, Ugo takes his son home. Although
everybody keeps telling him he had nothing to be
ashamed of and that Emeruwa was unbeatable anyway,
Orji cannot not help feeling that he has just lost
his father’s land, and that his grandmother would
live out the rest of her days effectively on
somebody else’s property. It is not a pleasant thing
to know and he feels a small pang of hatred towards
his father for placing that responsibility on him.
But as Orji nurses his wounds, mostly mental wounds, there
is a knock on the door and when Ugo opens, it is
Ogele and his son Emeruwa.
“You can’t wait to claim your trophy, I see” Ugo says.
“Shut your mouth Ugo. You were a coward then, you are a
coward now. You are not half the man your son is.”
“What do you want, Ogele? Can’t you wait for my mother to
die first before coming for the land?” Ugo is
seething and just stops short of punching Ogele in
“My son wants to talk to your son. That’s why we are here.”
Ogele says. “I have nothing to say to you. My
business with you is done.” Ogele says.
At this point, Orji anxiously searches Emeruwa’s face for a
hint of what he wanted to say. He hopes the man
wants a rematch, because he wants to do it
differently. He wants a second chance to save the
Emeruwa smiles. He actually looks human and pleasant when
he smiles, and it is a pretty good smile. “My father
and your father are both fools.” Emeruwa says.
“There is no sense for your father to continue
running. No sense. He can return home now. You have
redeemed him.” Emeruwa said.
“You think my father has not been back here because of your
father?” Orji asks.
“Everybody knows.” Emeruwa replies.
“That is a lie.” Ugo protests.
Emeruwa ignores him and continues to address Orji. “But
you, you are a man. You have no fear. If you have
courage to face me again next year, whether you win
or you lose, I will not take your father’s land.”
“What is the catch?” Orji asks.
“The catch? What do you mean?” Emeruwa asks.
“It makes no sense. Your father has wanted this all his
life. Then you win it and you want to give it back.
What are you really after?” Orji asks.
“I don’t want anything from you white boy - ”
“I am not a white boy - ”
“I am saying let us not be fools like our fathers. You
don’t want?” Emeruwa asks.
“Are you kidding? I want to face you next year. You have a
deal. I will thump your big back so hard on the
ground it will leave a crater in the market square.
The crater will be so deep it will take the
villagers two weeks to fill it up.” Orji rattles on
and on, and then gives Emeruwa a big hug, fighting
back tears, he whispers, “Thank you.”
“I have a big match at Otamkpa next tomorrow. Come and
watch, and learn.” Emeruwa said.
“Well I don’t know where that is, but I am sure Chidozie
will take me there.”
“Good.” Emeruwa offers his hand again for a handshake. “I
will call you Orji from now until…forever.”
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