My dad would often spend the night with me at the hospital while my mother tended to my siblings at home. Although angry that I had gone to play where mosquitoes could bite me, my father would not reprimand a sick child. Instead, I’d be treated with the utmost care, garlanded with endearments and brought an assortment of tasty treats I’d say I was hungry for. Then, once I’d eaten and he’d changed from his suit and tie into a shirt and pants, I would seize the moment I’d been waiting for all day.
“Eh, Uko,” he’d say.
“Please tell me a story.”
It was during one such hospital stay that I unearthed the greatest treasure of my life. I’ve come to understand that we stumble on the best things by serendipity. There are no preparations, no choreographed rehearsals. A man decides to plant a tree in his compound, on a piece of land that his parents have owned for decades. One day he digs up crude oil. In a year, his life is transformed! What he’d been just moments before his hoe dug into the earth becomes history.
My father was a gifted storyteller. At the hospital, he would tell me a story or two, or, sometimes, if he was not too tired, many in response to my request. I would try to imagine the worlds that opened up through his carefully chosen words. When, for instance, he told the story of the first white man who arrived in Igboland riding a bicycle, he made bicycle sounds, tapped his feet and gasped. He would imbue these noises with so much dread, so much significance, that vivid pictures would remain in my mind for days afterward. So riveting were these moments that I sometimes wished to prolong my hospital stay.
Between the ages of 5 and 7, I must have been admitted to the hospital at least four times, during which my father told me stories. I returned home after each stay to tightened surveillance, and it became increasingly difficult to steal out of the compound in the evenings. No longer sick, and with my father returning late from work, I was not able to get him to tell me stories. So I turned to my mother.
But my mother’s stories did not please me. They often seemed childish because they were peopled with animals, usually tortoises or hares. Only a few times did she tell stories of people; once, even of herself, ambushed on her father’s farm deep in the forest by what must have been two dozen chimpanzees. Moreover, my father told stories in English; my mother in Igbo. In a way that I could not understand at the time, the stories sounded better in English.
I discovered the reason for all this in my eighth year. My father had not told me a story in a long time. Frustrated, I barged into his room one evening just after he returned from work, and demanded he tell me a story. I had half hidden myself behind the curtain at the threshold of his door, afraid he would be angry at my intrusion.
“Oh,” he said. “Come in, Chigozie.”
“I si gini?” he said to me in Igbo, even though I had spoken in English.
“You tell me a story only when I am sick. Please tell me a story now that I am not sick.”
My father laughed. He rocked back and forth and shook his head.
“Eight,” I mumbled.
“You can read now. Why don’t you read these stories yourself?” With that, he reached down to a small shelf filled with Central Bank bulletins and handed me a book whose cover had fallen off. He straightened a wrinkled page, tucked in a thread hanging loose from the spine and gave it to me.
“Go and read that, and it will tell you a story.”
I remember that night clearly. I took the book to the front porch and sat down on the floor, a foot from a trail of white ants. I opened the book to what I judged was the first page and read what turned out to be the most fascinating of the stories my father had told me.
The story was about a man who lived in a village long ago and who had magical powers. For years, the other residents fail to consult him, and, despite having performed wonders in the past, he is almost forgotten. Then, one day, the king of the village knocks on his door. His daughter, an only child, had followed an “unknown man” of extraordinary beauty to a secret location. Distraught, the king asks the shaman to find his daughter and return her to the village in exchange for half his lands. The shaman sets out only to discover that the princess had followed a skull — a member of a race of creatures who lived as skulls — that had borrowed body parts to become “a complete gentleman.”
I lay awake in bed all that night, mesmerized, even shocked, by the discovery. My father had told me this story as if it were his own creation. I had been in awe, believing him possessed of the most spectacular of gifts: that of storytelling. I had no idea that he was reading these stories and then recounting them to me.
While my mother, who had less education than my father, relied on tales told to her as a child, my father had gathered his stories from books. This was also why he told the stories in English. It struck me that if I could read well, I could be like my father. I, too, could become a repository of stories and live in their beautiful worlds, away from the dust and ululations of Akure.
What I discovered that night transformed my life. I devoured that book, “The Palm-Wine Drinkard,” by Amos Tutuola, and became a voracious reader. I read in the mornings, at nights, and, when that seemed insufficient, I read at school, in between classes. Sometimes I read during classes, placing books under the desk while the teacher taught. I was unmoved by punishments, by failing grades from not paying attention. When I had read all the books on my father’s shelf, he unearthed more from a box on top of his wardrobe. I read those, too. My head swirled, my mind brimmed. I felt as though I were walking on a metaphysical plane where no one else but me could walk, and whose pathways were known only to me.
I read while eating. I did errands hastily. I dressed hastily. My existence became mere machinery engineered to give me time to read. My mother complained, and my father began to panic. They put out strict orders that I not read anything while at school. I complied, but took to making up the lost time at odd hours, waking up in the dead of the night, when everyone was asleep, to read.
By the fifth month, I had read every book my father owned. One Saturday, he returned home and asked me to get in the car.
“I have a surprise for you.”
We drove through streets clotted with people until we got to a newly painted building with an arch over the gate that read, Ondo State Library. We walked through the arch into the building, the likes of which I had never seen. There were books everywhere, on shelves, on tables, on the floor.
“I want to register you here and bring you every Saturday here to read,” my father said.
I waited breathlessly as he completed the registration at the counter with an elderly, bespectacled woman who seemed in awe of the idea of a child coming in alone to read. My father, proud, agreed and said that it was all I wanted to do.
“That is good,” I heard the woman say. “Very, very good. Reading is like finding light, you know. Jesus said a light cannot be hidden under a bushel.”
“That is true,” my father said, nodding as the woman wrote my name on a small, square yellow card.
“Your son has found the light under the bushel.”
She handed me the card, and my father said he would pick me up at noon. I waved him goodbye and disappeared among the crowded shelves.