If I had to describe Oyofo in July, that is the word I would use.
My hometown, which was usually a hive of activity and merrymaking at Yuletide, was as dead as the man I recently buried.
I breathed in the crisp air and let out a sigh.
At least the air still smelt the same.
“Onyinye, let’s go!” My Aunt Nkechi yelled from the other side of my bedroom door.
I sighed once more, this time because I would rather not leave my room.
It was an understatement to say that the last three months had been challenging.
The indisputable love of my life, my father, had lost his battle with pancreatic cancer.
It was sudden, and yet it was not.
He had been self-medicating, and ignoring all my advice to see a doctor. When the symptoms kept changing and he was not getting better, I dragged the stubborn man to the hospital for a proper diagnosis.
The cancer had already spread to other organs, and the doctors had given him a month to live. It did not matter that he hung on for two more, death was inevitable and I should have been prepared for it; but from the moment he drew his last breath, I felt my world go dark.
I had not fully come to terms with the loss when the meetings began.
As an only child, I did not have the luxury of an older sibling who I could pass on the task of making funeral arrangements to. I was it, and there was no escape.
Burials were typically long, drawn-out processes in the Igbo culture; but I could not have envisaged the overwhelming fanfare that came with burying a titled man.
My father was a Chief in our hometown, a member of the Order of the Knights of Columbus in his church, and a prominent member of his community’s Rotary Club.
That meant engagements with several groups of people, four different Services of Songs in four different locations, various meetings to make sure no group was left out, and lots of money spent on every single activity.
It was over now. He was buried, and I was financially and emotionally drained. All I wanted was to be left alone with my thoughts and the gaping void in my life.
When my Aunt had woken me up to tell me that my uncles had summoned me, I realised that the freedom I sought would only come after I had left Oyofo and returned to my life in Enugu city.
My uncles were talking angrily among themselves when my Aunt and I walked into the expansive living room of my father’s palatial village home.
The home was mine now.
That knowledge sent a wave of sadness washing over me as I trailed behind my father’s only sister.
My uncles suddenly went silent upon seeing us. I greeted them, and all three responded in a harmonious grunt.
I held in the sigh before it could escape my lips.
The Agu brothers, my late father included, were not talkers. They spoke only when they needed to, and preferred to make their points in as few words as possible.
I sat beside my Aunt on one of the two-seaters, and carefully glanced at each of my uncles.
Uncle Nnamdi, the oldest of all present, and my father’s immediate younger brother, was seated on one end of a three-seater.
He wore a scowl, but it was nothing new. I honestly could not remember the last time I saw him smile.
Uncle Azubuike, the youngest, sat on the other end of the same couch as Uncle Nnamdi. He was my favourite. When we talked, I often forgot he was old enough to be my father. I tried to send a smile his way but my face would not cooperate. Surprisingly, his face was grave. He rubbed his left thumb with his right repeatedly, and avoided eye contact.
Uncle Okeke, the son that was born after Uncle Nnamdi, sat alone on a single chair. He was the arrogant brother who constantly reminded everyone that he achieved his own wealth without the assistance of my father.
As the first child, my father was raised with the understanding that it was his responsibility to look after the family when his parents could no longer do so. Troubled by how his parents were struggling to cater for the family, my father dropped out of secondary school to assist.
He started a business selling beverages, and was able to send all his siblings to school from the proceeds. Over time, he grew the business to a multi million naira distributorship. As each of his siblings graduated from University, he brought them into the business, then helped them grow theirs when they were ready. All except Uncle Okeke who insisted on a corporate job. They had a falling out because my father believed that a person could never truly be rich if their only source of income was a corporate salary.
Uncle Okeke went on to achieve success in his chosen field of Banking, and made a good show of displaying his wealth whenever he was among his brothers. What he did not know was that his brothers secretly pitied him. If he ever lost his job, all he had to show for it would be the monstrosity of a three-storey building he constructed in Oyofo – another attempt to throw his wealth in my father’s face.
Uncle Okeke usually walked around with a smug expression on his face but today, his face was expressionless.
Their motives became clear to me.
I had seen it play out many times in Nigerian movies.
Uncle Nnamdi’s scowl, Uncle Azubuike’s fidgeting, and the lack of Uncle Okeke’s ever-present pride could only mean one thing: my uncles had conspired to take over my father’s businesses and property.
They were probably going to tell me that as a girl child, I had no rights to any of it.
I already knew that the traditional laws in Oyofo barred women from inheriting family land for fear of ownership of the land going to the woman’s husband and his kin.
I had never cared for that particular law, but I did not mind giving up my father’s piece of the family land in Oyofo. They could have it, and choke on it.
Everything else though? They would have to kill me first.
Aunt Nkechi fussed loudly about the damage the red earth native to Southeastern Nigeria was doing to her pedicure.
She too could not stand it when elders felt the need to observe several minutes of dramatic silence before speaking. If I was not bracing myself for the ugly battle ahead, I would have actually smiled.
Uncle Nnamdi finally cleared his throat. It was about time too. The saliva that lined Uncle Okeke’s upper lip when he licked it moments ago had already crusted.
“There is no need to mince words.” Uncle Nnamdi began in Igbo, our native tongue. “Against my advice, Obiora left everything to you, Onyinyechukwu.”
My head snapped up.
I was not expecting that.
Aunt Nkechi squealed, leaned over, put her arms around me and squeezed.
I turned to her, unable to hide my surprise.
The tears in her eyes, and the genuine joy that radiated from her made the back of my eyes tingle.
At least she was on my side.
I turned back to my uncles to make a statement about how I did not intend to let my father down, when I noticed that Uncle Azubuike’s countenance had not changed.
He did not look angry, he looked…guilty.
Something was wrong.
My phone buzzed, and I glanced at it. It was a text from Ugochukwu, my boyfriend. He was checking on me. I smiled despite the tense situation. He always made me smile.
“However,” Uncle Nnamdi continued, “he had a rule.”
The room went deathly silent as I jerked my head up from my phone.
“You are not allowed to marry. You must remain unmarried, retain the Agu name, and keep the lands, businesses and all of your father’s property within the family.”
My mouth fell open.
Aunt Nkechi screamed something, but I could not make out the words.
I turned to look at Uncle Azubuike, my mouth still open.
His eyes met mine briefly, then he looked away.
A screaming match had begun between Uncle Okeke and Aunt Nkechi.
“I said it is a lie!” Aunt Nkechi spat.
“How dare you call brother Nnamdi a liar? Is he your mate?” Uncle Okeke fired back.
As the last child, Aunt Nkechi was used to being told to “shut up” by her older siblings. She usually heeded, but today, she was not backing down.
“Call yourself whatever you want brother but all I know is that those words cannot be true. There is no way brother Obiora would have condemned his only child to a life of spinsterhood. You cannot tell me that!” She screamed, eyes blazing.
I shared her sentiments, but screaming had never been my way. Besides, I knew Uncle Nnamdi was lying through his teeth.
I walked to where she stood staring down Uncle Okeke, and placed a palm on her shoulder.
“It’s enough.” I said.
I turned to Uncle Nnamdi. “Ever since papa started involving me in the business, you have never supported his decision. How am I supposed to believe that this is not your way of trying to punish me because he chose to leave everything to me and not you?” I asked, calmly.
“Look at this small girl! How dare you talk to him like that?” Uncle Okeke said, lunging for me.
Aunt Nkechi got in his way, but I paid him no mind.
“Onyi, it’s true.” Came Uncle Azubuike’s quiet voice, as he reached for me.
“Uncle don’t say that!” I said, stepping out of his reach.
“That’s enough!” Uncle Nnamdi barked at his brothers.
He was the only one that had remained sitting.
He turned to me. “We had hoped to ease the blow, but I can see that it was a waste of time. Your father did say you would not believe it.”
He got up, and walked towards the smaller living room – the one that only close family and friends were allowed into.
This was the room that had a full entertainment system, while the bigger one was for receiving guests and having meetings.
I exchanged looks with my Aunt. Neither of us understood what was happening.
Uncle Okeke trailed after Uncle Nnamdi.
Uncle Azubuike indicated for me to follow suit, but said nothing.
I walked into the smaller living room cautiously.
Aside from my uncles, there was a man I did not recognize standing beside the flat screen television.
He greeted me, and introduced himself as my father’s lawyer.
He explained that he was there to read my father’s Will.
I just stared at him.
I had met all my father’s lawyers, but never this one.
Aunt Nkechi tugged my arm and pulled me down to a sitting position beside her on one of the leather sofas.
The lawyer cleared his throat, and began reading.
I listened, in horror, as the lawyer read words that echoed what Uncle Nnamdi had said moments earlier.
I was to inherit everything, as long as I never married.
If I did, I lost everything.
All of my father’s property was my rightful inheritance, but I would have eventually got over that loss.
The businesses however…
I spent the last decade of my life slaving away at, and transforming my father’s businesses. The first seven were spent learning and improving the distributorship business. I was more interested in the Hospitality sector but as my father’s only child, joining the family business was not optional. In my seventh year, I had helped my father attain the highest net profit the business had seen since its inception. It was then that I convinced him to allow me go to the UK to attain an MBA with a concentration in Hospitality Management.
He had dabbled into Hospitality by buying a hotel from a friend who had gone bankrupt, and was in urgent need of money. He thought hotels were easy to run, but found himself stuck with a run-down hotel after a year of unsuccessfully trying to run it.
I convinced my father that I would not only revive the hotel when I got back, but I would make it profitable within two years; and I kept my word.
The distributorship and the hotel had been my blood, sweat, and tears; but they had also become my life.
How was I supposed to give them up?
It could not be. That could not be his Will. There was no way that the same father I worked tirelessly with would do this to me.
The father that loved me unarguably.
This lawyer had obviously planned this with my uncles.
I stood up; my face heated, ears ringing, and ready to lash out at the lawyer when I heard Uncle Nnamdi’s voice boom across the room.
“Sit down Onyinyechukwu! He is not done.”
I halted the words in my throat. Anything else the lawyer had to say could not possibly be worse, but I found myself sinking back into the couch.
Aunt Nkechi’s gentle strokes on my arm calmed the flames that were raging in my head.
I turned my gaze to the lawyer. A lanky man with hard lines on his face.
He placed the Will he just finished reading on a stool beside where he stood, then reached into his brown satchel. When his wiry hands re-emerged, there was a compact disc in one of them.
Although the way Aunt Nkechi wrapped her free arm around herself was a sign that the air conditioner was fully functional, the room suddenly felt warm.
That could not be what I thought it was.
I took long, deep breaths; calming myself as I watched the lawyer slide the disk into the DVD player positioned a few inches beneath the TV.
The silence that followed as we all stared at the blank screen wrapped itself around my neck and squeezed.
Suddenly, my father’s face appeared on the screen and I was sure my heart stopped.
I heard Aunt Nkechi gasp beside me, but I could not tear my eyes away from the screen.
For a moment I thought he looked healthy, younger even. Then I noticed the brief wince when he tried to adjust himself on the chair where he sat. The video must have been shot within a month of the diagnosis because by the time he died, he could hardly move.
He squared his shoulders and asked the person behind the camera if the recording had began.
My vision blurred. I blinked, letting the tears fall aimlessly down my cheeks.
Oh how I missed him.
“If you are watching this Onyinye’m, then I am gone.” He began in Igbo, choking on the last word.
The weight of what his death would do to me was making him emotional.
I raised my right hand to my mouth in the hopes of hiding how bad it quivered.
He cleared his throat to continue.
“I know my Will must have come as a shock to you. I also know you, and I know that you will not believe a word of it. That is why I decided to do this video, so that you know that those were my wishes.”
Aunt Nkechi yelped.
I just kept watching. He had not said those words, he had only said “my wishes.” He must be referring to the real Will that the lawyer had not read.
All he had to do was say what those wishes were, and all of this nonsense would be cleared up.
“You are not just my daughter Onyinye,” he continued. “you are my heir. My sole heir, and that comes with responsibilities, and sacrifice. I realise this is a lot to ask, but I ask it because it is you that I trust the most. You are the only one I know that will grow the businesses to heights that even I could have never imagined.”
He straightened, his features hardening.
“The Will is correct. The houses, the lands, the business, the hotel – everything is yours on the condition that you remain unmarried. You can have children. In fact, it will be great if you have children because customarily, any child you bear while unmarried takes your father’s name. I have made it clear to my brothers and the traditional chiefs that all your offspring, granted that you do not get married, will be considered rightful children of the soil and full-blooded Agus – with all the entitlements that come with that. Including the ability to inherit property from you.”
“If you refuse, and insist on getting married…” his voice broke.
When he cleared his throat, he did not raise his head fully to the camera. “…you get nothing Onyinye; nothing. Nnamdi gets it all, and he can choose to do with it as he pleases.”
He turned from the camera completely, and indicated to the person recording that he was done.
Aunt Nkechi flew off the couch screaming. “Obiora! What have you done to this child? What have you done?”
She threw herself to the ground, wailing.
My eyes remained transfixed on the screen. It had gone blank now, and the lawyer was ejecting the disc from the player, but I could not move. My hands were still over my mouth, but now they were drenched in tears. My brain would not formulate more excuses. It was much too rational for that. The video was not doctored. That had been my father speaking. I knew his mannerisms, and quirks.
How he would start out speaking Igbo in his mother’s dialect, then catch himself and switch to his father’s. How he never let his discomfort show even when he was in pain. How he, despite his best efforts, could never look me in the eye when he punished me.
“He told me to give this to you.” The lawyer said, startling me.
I had not seen him approach. His right hand was outstretched, and there was a white envelope in it. I just stared at him, unable to speak.
He sighed, and put it on the arm of the chair where I sat, along with the compact disc, and a thumb drive.“This is a copy of the video, in case the DVD ever gets destroyed.” He said, tapping the thumb drive.
“He said the letter is for your eyes only, and that you must read it when you are alone. Take heart.” He added, then thanked my uncles and left.
“Onyi…” Uncle Azubuike called to me.
My eyes must have been lifeless when I looked in his direction, because he began to stammer. He was saying something about being sorry, but I could not process anything.
I was not sure how, but I managed to get myself to a standing position. I reached down and grabbed all the items the lawyer had left behind, then walked towards the stairs to my room. I heard footsteps running behind me, but I did not stop until I got to my room.
“This girl is going to throw herself from the balcony!” I heard my Aunt say, as she raced into the room behind me.
The ridiculousness of the assumption loosened my tongue.
“I am not suicidal Aunty, I am angry!” I screamed, throwing the items in my hands onto my desk.
“I understand Onyi.” My Aunt said, reaching for me.
“No! You don’t! If he had a son, he would be allowed to marry and have a life. There would be no risk about the loss of the Agu name or any of that nonsense. I am being punished purely because I am a girl!”
I was pacing now.
I knew my Aunt wanted to say anything that would make me feel better, but her silence meant she knew I was right.
“How many people’s lives must be ruined before this man can finally understand that I am enough? Even my own mother died trying to give him the son he so badly wanted!” I screamed.
My Aunt rushed to where I stood. “Don’t say that Onyi. Your mother died of pneumonia, and you know it. Please.”
“She developed pneumonia because she stood in the rain for a week because some quack man of God told her that it was the key to unlocking her womb and releasing the sons that were trapped in there!” I snapped.
I had never spoken the words out loud since I heard my father whisper it to the doctor when my mother was rushed to the hospital. It had been twenty years, but I had kept it to myself because I swore to be a child that was worth more than all the sons that never came. I made good on that promise, and this is how he thanks me?
My Aunt averted her eyes. I knew she was aware, but like most adults around me, had decided to keep the truth from me.
“I also know that his decision not to remarry was not in honour of my mum.” I said, my tone quieter.
Aunt Nkechi looked at me in surprise. I maintained eye contact. Words unspoken passed between us, and she averted her eyes once again.
There had been women in his life, but none of them stuck around for long. I overheard one of them complaining to my Aunt several years before. My father had insisted on not marrying her until she was with child. The way my Aunt quickly sympathised with the lady and said “men will be men” confirmed my suspicions about my father possibly having fertility issues.
I was essentially his miracle child, but I was still not enough.
“Aunty how could he do this to me? Me? I have been nothing but a good child to him. I did well in school, I took over the business, I did not give him ANY trouble, and then he pulls this?” I sat on my bed, head in my hands. My elbows vibrating from the sheer force of my anguish.
My Aunt sat beside me and stroked my back.
“Would it be such a bad thing if your Uncle Nnamdi took over the business?” She said quietly, moments later.
My head snapped up at her. “You can’t be serious Aunty.”
“I know you worked hard for it all, but perhaps we could convince him to let you keep a percentage of it. Or at least put you on the payroll.” She explained.
“It’s not about the money Aunty, don’t you get it? I have two degrees, and tons of business connections, I can survive independent of the family business if I have to. This is about what is rightfully mine. By sweat, and by blood!”
I was on my feet again.
“What do you want me to say Onyinye? Tell me what you want me to say and I will say it. I can’t bear to see you like this.” My Aunt said tearfully.
It hurt me to see her cry, but I was too broken to be bothered about that at the moment.
Suddenly, I remembered my boyfriend.
“Oh my God, Ugochukwu!” I gasped. “Ugo and his family have been waiting for us to conclude funeral rites so that they can kickstart the marriage process. He proposed to me just before I took Daddy to the hospital the first time. I told him to wait until I nursed my father back to health. What am I supposed to tell him now?” I covered my face with my hands and sobbed.
“Come, come. Sit.” My Aunt guided me back to my bed.
“Let’s think about this carefully. All is not lost. I don’t know what Obiora was thinking but I, Nkechinyere, must hold your child in my arms before death claims me.” Aunt Nkechi said, beating her chest.
I rolled my eyes dejectedly.
“You have me.” She continued in a more somber tone. “You also have Azubuike. If we have to bully Nnamdi and Okeke, we will; but I will make sure you do not walk away empty-handed.”
My Aunt’s words of encouragement only stoked the fire burning within me.
It should not have to come to that, and even if it did; those were the two brothers that could not be bullied.
Why did I even have to beg for what was rightfully mine?
I scoffed as I remembered the part of the video where my father talked about me having children.
“He sat there, in the video, talking like he gave me options. Surrender your life, or give everything to your uncle. Are those options?” I asked my Aunt dryly.
My Aunt wanted to say something but I kept speaking, my tempo going up.
“He had the audacity to encourage me to have children. Illegitimate children. Last I checked, our society was not kind to single mothers. Their lives are filled with constant ridicule, and shaming. He would rather have me live through that than let me marry properly? How does that even make sense? He was telling me to trade one nightmare for another. How on earth are those options?” I bellowed.
“Onyi, please.” My aunt pleaded, getting teary-eyed again.
“Why does my case have to be different? Look at my friend Onyeka. She is an only child like me. She did not have half the kind of relationship I had with papa, but before her father died, he made his brothers swear to leave his properties in the city and in Aba for her. He fought for her till his dying breath! While my father…” my voice broke.
Aunt Nkechi reached for me again, and I pulled away.
“I want to be alone.” I said, wiping away my tears.
“No.” She said flatly.
“Aunty, I told you, I am not suicidal.” I groaned, climbing into my bed.
“Then you should have no problems with me staying here.” She insisted, sliding under the covers beside me.
I rolled my eyes and turned away from her.
I awoke to the sound of my Aunt’s gentle snoring. I had not planned to fall asleep, but I was glad I did. The haze that had taken over my head hours earlier had cleared.
As I stretched and gently slid out of my bed, I pondered the events from the morning.
It was clear that the man I had known, and loved for all of my life, was much more complex than my innocent mind let me think.
He was also cruel.
What he forgot, however, was that I was his child in more ways than one.
“You should never make decisions when you are emotional.” He always used to say.
He was right. I preferred the clarity that I was experiencing at the moment.
If my father felt that putting me between a rock and a hard place was his way of forcing my hand, then he did not know the girl he raised. I was going to get married to Ugochukwu, have lots of beautiful children, and have the life I deserved; but If I could not have the businesses I worked so hard to grow, then nobody could.
I walked over to my desk, and unlocked my laptop.
The first thing I needed to do was change all the passwords to the software and databases that housed all the information for both the distributorship and the hotel.
The setback from having to manage inventory manually was only the first step.
Next, I was going to make my father’s biggest competitor an offer he could not refuse: double his market share by convincing my father’s loyal customers to patronize the competition. Let’s see Uncle Nnamdi try to dig himself out of that hole.
I leaned back in my chair after changing the password on the last software, a corner of my lips going up a little.
“Oh, you are awake?” Aunt Nkechi said amidst yawns, startling me a little.
I knocked something off the table in my surprise.
I bent to pick it up. It was the white envelope the lawyer had handed to me.
There was only one word written on it.
It was in my father’s handwriting.
My chest tightened.
“The lawyer said it was for your eyes only.” My Aunt said, realising what I was holding. “Perhaps he has a solution where you can win on both fronts. Maybe that’s why he did not want your uncles to see it.”
Aunt Nkechi’s hope was admirable, but I knew my father. The man I watched in that video had made his decision. If anything, this letter was probably to serve as proof that the video was not doctored.
Whatever it was, my mind was made up. I was going to get my “happily ever after”, whether his soul rested in peace or not.
I pulled out the single, lined sheet of paper from the envelope and unfolded it.
There were only two words written in it.
Every ounce of rage I felt melted away.
The calculated calm, the plans, even the ice that had surrounded my heart all melted away leaving raw, naked sorrow.
I slid to my cold bedroom floor and wept.
I wept for the father I lost.
I wept for the life he had taken from me.
I wept, most of all, for my unborn children because I knew I would never have them.
My father had broken me. He had made sure that I would do his bidding, with words he knew I could not walk away from.
I would remain an Agu, and I would grow his businesses and become a legend among my people; but for what he took from me, Ephraim Obiora Agu’s lineage was going to end with me.