The first time I saw a vulture, I was ten years old. We were in Jebba and it was a peaceful morning, We’d been travelling all night, our bus had broken down several times since we left Lagos at 9pm. We should have gotten to Bida at 5am but we watched the sunrise at Jebba as we waited for the vulcanizers to open.
I was going to secondary school for the first time, secondary school in Niger state. We’d boarded a night bus, at that time night buses were very popular and my favourite uncle was its brand ambassador. Daddy was taking me to school, the buses that passed through Bida on their way to Abuja usually ran at night.
That morning Daddy took me to the Niger bridge, our bus was parked barely 500 meters from the bank of the river. That was the first time I was seeing the Niger before it joined with the Benue at Lokoja which then formed the “Niger” we’d cross at Onitsha. We talked about the Niger and the different countries it passed through before it came to us, about its source at the Futa Jalon highlands of Guinea which was “discovered” by Mungo Park. The explorer was buried in Jebba and Daddy said he was one of the first white men in that part of the world. We’d pass the monument that marked his grave at Jebba and for the next three years, I’d look out for that monument on the to and fro journeys I undertook on that road.
We explored the town a little, it had a lot of little hills and rocks. I have fond memories of Jebba, we always stopped in Jebba on the journeys to and from school. I remember how weird I felt about the women who called me aunty in Jebba when we stopped there on our way to Lagos after first term, women older than my mother called me “aunty”. It was one of the first things I told my mother when I got home, how the women selling bread, coca cola, fish and onions called me “aunty” in Jebba.
I’d like to go there now, to see if the town matches my memories. To see if the beauty only lay in my mind’s eye, the images on Wikipedia seem to suggest otherwise. In a perfect world, I’d get a travel writing gig that would pay me handsomely to lounge in Jebba and write for two weeks.
We were talking about Juju rock when we saw them, Cyprain Ekwensi (one of my favourite authors) had written a book set in Juju rock in Jebba. We saw the birds, the ugliest birds I’d ever seen. They were bald and black and big, they were vultures- the real thing. I must have shrank from them, from the ugliness that reminded me of evil. Daddy said they couldn’t hurt me because I was alive, they didn’t eat things that had life.
He asked if I’d read the book with that title, it had been written by James Hardley Chase. Daddy has read every book that man had ever written and he had a good number of them, I hadn’t read it then, I still haven’t. He asked if I knew why the vulture was a patient bird, I had no idea. I knew the vulture ate carrion, it would only eat meat after the animal was dead, I knew that the god of small pox Ojukwu appeared as a vulture, I’d read that in a book- Things Fall Apart most likely.
“The vulture is a patient bird because it can wait for days for an injured or sick animal to die. It would keep a safe distance but have a direct view of its prey and would only go to it when a swarm of flies signal the end of life for the animal. It’s willing to wait for five days for an animal to die” he said. When I asked why the bird never went for live but weakened animals, Daddy didn’t know. I felt sad, Daddy used to know everything.
I learned to love reading because I had interesting books, the books my father bought. Daddy bought my first story book when I turned four, this one was just for me, and Daddy wrote my name on it. I can’t remember if it had words but I remember the pictures clearly. It was about a little girl- I think she was Asian and her elephant. I called it elephant book and I read it everyday.
The reason I can write fiction is because Mummy is one of the best storytellers in the world, she could make up a story this minute and you’d think it was one of the Grimm tales- as old as time. I like to think I have her talent, even though I’m not as good as she is. I learned to read very young because I wanted to see what was in books that enthralled my Mummy so much, the woman was always reading. She’d read during the day, lying down on her favourite chair with her nose buried in the book but her eyes weren’t. She would still spring like a lioness and grab any of us who’d been involved in mischief. She’d read at night and if there was no light, she’d use a lantern.
When I was seven, I read The Palm Wine Drinkard. I loved Amos Tutuola’s beautiful novel and I knew I had to read more books. By the time I was nine I was reading Jeffrey Archer and James Hardley Chase, I’d read all the books my father had in Lagos and he had brought many more books from the village for me to read. When my father was an undergraduate at the University of Jos, he bought truckloads of novels. He had almost all the books on the African Writers Series- those guys should re-release those books as ebooks, they’d make money from them even now and several other books. You see, my father read English at the university and even though they weren’t required reading for his course, the man bought books, and bought books and bought books until he had enough books to start a library.
When I entered my book buying phase in the university, when I bought books as though books would soon be wiped off the face of the earth, Daddy never complained. Mummy wasn’t happy about the bags of books I brought home every semester and the space my books were taking up in the house, she talked about taking my books and selling them, of giving them away, Daddy never said a word. He understood the sickness.
By my tenth birthday, there was only one book left to read- The Godfather. My parents talked about the book all the time, they even had the films, all three parts. They quoted from it from time to time and didn’t hide the fact that it was one of their favourite books. I desperately wanted to read that book, I hounded Daddy night and day to let me read it but he refused. I didn’t know where it was or I’d have taken it and read it. He’d tell me to wait until I was older, I wouldn’t understand it then, he insisted. He told me when I had finished secondary school, he’d give it to me himself. Who wanted to wait for six years? I thought, Jesus might come before then.
One day in September, I was home alone. I was waiting for admission into the secondary schools I’d applied to and my brothers had resumed primary school. Bored and in need of a distraction, I began to ransack the house. What was I looking for? I don’t think it was a thing, I just wanted something to do. On the top of my father’s wardrobe (I’d climbed a chair) I saw a black book. The book I’d begged and begged to read. Mario Puzo’s best known novel was within my grasp.
After reading it, I wondered why my parents had been so gung-ho about my reading the book, it wasn’t that bad. I knew it wasn’t the sex scenes that made them object to my reading the book, I knew the “facts of life” by the time. It was a beautiful book about a kind man who didn’t mind breaking the law to help others. I wanted to be just like him,
I wrote my NECO junior secondary exams in May and I came home to Lagos after the exams, I knew I wasn’t going back to Bida. During the long days I spent at home with my brothers in school, I had to re-read most of the books in the house again. When I read The Godfather again, I was shocked. Don Corleone wasn’t such a good man, he wasn’t the kind Santa-like old man who helped his friends who were defenceless. He wasn’t so clean himself.
After SSCE, I read The Godfather again and this time I wondered how I ever thought Don Corleone good and wonderful, how I thought him even altruistic. I couldn’t see the big picture back then, I couldn’t understand many things. Something tells me if I read that book today, I’d still be flummoxed by the subliminal meanings I missed.
I’m glad I read the book at the time, how else would I have intimidated my brothers with gems like “revenge is a dish that tastes better when served cold” and “I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse”? or “let’s reason together”. It is good to go for what you want, when you want it- as long as God says it’s ok…
The vulture might be a patient bird but I am not a vulture.