Munachim Amah (Nigeria) explores family, loss, and gender through his writing. He is an alumnus of the 2016 Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop and has short fiction and creative non-fiction published in Saraba Magazine, African Writer, Kalahari Review, and forthcoming in Bakwa Magazine.
Class: Primary 6
My cousin, Ikenna. He was fifteen; I was nine. In 2001, mother invited him for a long vacation at our three-bedroomed apartment in Awka, and while we were playing husband and wife in my room, he threw his huge arms around my neck and asked me to kiss him. Suddenly, I couldn’t think anymore. I couldn’t breathe anymore. My head was swollen. My legs felt heavy. Please, he said, bringing his mouth to my face in slow motion. That was when I stepped back. I ran to the bathroom and bolted the door with trembling hands.
Class: Secondary School, Class 2
There was a handsome boy called Ifediba in my school. Ifediba could smile at you and you would throw yourself at his feet and beg him to do whatever he pleased with you. I am not even joking. Boy was fine – cute dimples, fine set of teeth, neat afro (and boy could take care of his hair!). He was our hostel prefect. Everybody liked him. Me, I admired him from a distance. When Ifediba came to my corner and asked me to be his boy, I said nothing. He walked away.
“Boy” was privilege in those days. If you were a senior’s “boy”, you would run small errands for him and enjoy certain immunities – like exemption from manual labour and freedom from bullying seniors. If the senior liked you well enough, you would have the key to his cupboard, and that meant having access to his provisions, to everything; he might even help you with academic work. So yes, “boy” was a big thing. But I wasn’t sure what I wanted at the time. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be anybody’s boy.
The next day, however, I found myself in Ifediba’s room (hostel prefects had special dorm rooms). I was rubbing dusting powder on his back while he tried to fall asleep. The day after that, I was reading stories to him. The day after the day after, I was singing lullabies to him. Each time, he would keep a steady gaze on my lips and I would feel my heart thump in my chest until I could hear him snoring away.Three days after Ifediba came to my corner to ask me to be his boy, he kissed me. I couldn’t breathe. He was looking into my eyes and all I could think of was his handsome face and his slender fingers on my face. Go to your corner and wait for me, he said, pulling his face away. I was trembling by the time I got to my corner.
Ifediba never came back.
A few days later, I saw Ifediba under the dogonyaro tree in front of the girls’ hostel. Our assistant social prefect – the cheeky one – was sitting on his lap and giggling like a sheep. I said, what? What is this? This girl was giggling on Ifediba’s lap and Ifediba was whispering something into her ears, and they were not even hiding it. The effrontery!
I did not say anything to him. I just went to his dorm room, dropped off the keys to his cupboard and left. I would not do again. The cheeky girl should come and be his boy.
Ifediba did not call me to ask why. He did not bother. He graduated a few months later and left the school. Not a word from him, no message, nothing. I kept hoping he would come back one day and tell me that it was all a mistake, that he had realized the error of his ways, but nothing like that happened.
Eventually, my hope thinned out and I gathered whatever was left of me and moved on.
Class: Secondary School, Class 4
Gender: Not sure
Nnamdi zoomed into my life like an ambitious whirlwind. When I say zoomed, I mean zoom-ed, and I mean it in every sense. Nnamdi did not literally let me rest. We were classmates, and all my classmates avoided me because they judged me a snob –I did not fancy throwing my mouth into every conversation that passed by. But not Nnamdi. Nnamdi pursued me round the whole school as though I was a prized trophy. He said I must be his friend whether I liked it or not. I refused to look at him and this boy went to my best friend, Ebube. This boy lay down in front of Ebube, with his sparkling white shirt and khaki shorts, and begged Ebube to beg me to please be his friend.
Ebube came to me with questions. Nkemdilim, why don’t you like Nnamdi? Why don’t you like this boy that likes you so much? Nnamdi is too loud biko, I said. He makes a lot of noise. Ebube told him what I said and next thing, Nnamdi came to me promising heaven and earth if I agreed to become his friend, swearing by God that he would change. I said okay, let’s see.
Let’s see, and we became buddies. Let’s see, and Nnamdi started bombarding me with gifts – NASCO biscuits, satchet ice-creams, Ribena juice, expensive body sprays. I said, But Nnamdi, is this not too much? Nnamdi said, Nothing will ever be too much for you, Nkem. He called me Nkem – Mine – as though he meant it literally and not as an abridged version of my name.
This boy did not stop there. He insisted on washing my school uniforms and day-wears, insisted on fetching my bathing water from the school tank every day, insisted on doing my difficult class projects. Ebube said the love was too much. I did not know what to tell him.
On Valentine’s Day, Nnamdi bought me a nice-smelling handkerchief and a Valentine card on which was scribbled, “Nkem, I love you.” I read it and burst into laughter. Someone must have written the words for him. Who did not know that Nnamdi’s handwriting was terrible? Ogini, what? he asked, studying my face to be sure I was pleased with his efforts. I held out the card to him, still giggling and said, Nnamdi, whose handwriting is this? He hissed. You are stupid, he said, onye ala. He hissed again. I did not stop laughing.
I started sleeping in Nnamdi’s corner, on his 6-inch spring bed. There, I found comfort. I found laughter with him and it baffled me, how someone whom I had instantly dismissed at first suddenly became the most important person in my life.
Nnamdi and I learnt to carry his mattress outside the hostel and sleep under the local fruit tree in front of the hostel when the heat became unbearable inside. Sometimes, in the pretense of sleep, he would slip his hands into my shorts, and in the pretense of sleep, I would snuggle into his arms. One day, Nnamdi said to me, maybe we will get married someday, Nkem. Maybe. I called his name and said, Nnamdi, ka ana ejegodi; let us be going.
Two months later, a rumour found its way round the school that Nnamdi was dating one of our classmates and that, in fact, she was pregnant. I was stunned. I said no, tell me this is not true. I ran to Nnamdi’s corner with barrels of questions and there, I saw him throwing things from his cupboard into his big iron box. Nnamdi, I said, gwam eziokwu, is this thing I hear true? He did not stop to look at me, did not stop to say yes or no. His hands kept travelling from the cupboard to his box. He was sweating under his armpit and on his forehead and clearly avoiding my eyes. And so I concluded for myself that Nnamdi might have been doing it with the girl. Nobody saw him after that day.
We had been “friends” for three academic terms and a half.
Class: Year 2, Department of Mass Communication, University of Nigeria, Nsukka
Nwando painted herself into my story like a fairy tale. When you imagine Nwando, think of a collected person. Think of a young girl wearing dull, loose-fitting clothes, carrying her hair all natural and kinky, walking to school with an earphone plugged into her ears and paying no attention to the world. Think of a young girl that was completely comfortable being by herself, a young girl with a kind of measured confidence. When you think these things, imagine Nwando.
This girl, Nwando, started coming to me with questions. She would stand before my desk and peer at me through her spectacles, her notebook and pen in her hand. Nkemdilim, can you please explain the Poynter’s pyramid? Nkemdilim, what do you think Professor Okunna wants from us in this assignment? Nkemdilim, can you please elaborate on the concept of technological determinism? It seemed I was the only one in the class she trusted well enough to engage in a conversation and this pleased me very much.
We eventually exchanged numbers. That was the day we talked for over three hours. That was the day we thought we were both going to die if we stopped talking to each other. We had both lost our fathers: hers from a stroke; mine from oesophageal cancer. Both our mothers worked for the government: hers as a civil servant in the State Ministry of Health; mine as a Secondary School teacher. Both of us adored Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: she had applied to her workshop but did not get in; I hadn’t even tried. The list of common things went on and on until we got tired.
We were walking to the bus stop together one day when she told me that I was a nice guy. You are amazing too, Nwando, I said to her. She smiled. Will you be my girlfriend? I asked. It was not as if I was ready to love yet, not that I was afraid of loneliness either, but every time I was with Nwando, every time I looked upon her, something told me she was the one, something told me this was my ultimate destiny. Nwando hesitated, and then she held my hands and said yes.
Next day we were sitting in a Mama Put close to school gate, eating roasted plantain and beans with uziza and looking outside the shed. Occasionally, she would glance at me and I would hold her gaze before looking away. Are you shy? she asked at one point. I smiled and continued eating. Later, when the woman came to collect money for the food, Nwando waved my hands away – a gesture that meant that I should not bother – and brought out a 500 naira note from her purse. I was puzzled. I was supposed to pay. I was the man. Don’t bother, she said, holding my hand as we stood up. I would later pick up, somehow, that it did not matter who paid – what mattered was that somebody settled the bill.
We did it in her room, a few weeks later, after trying so hard to quell our raging emotions. Nwando tried to make everything seem so normal. She led me. When I rolled off her and she asked, Did you come? and I did not know what to say because I did not know what exactly “come” meant, she looked away. She grabbed the bed sheet and flung it across her body, as though she suddenly needed to shield her body from something, as though she was fighting some monster that suddenly appeared in the room.
When Nwando did not say a word to me again, when she did not stand up to walk me to the gate when I was leaving, when she started avoiding me and refused to answer my calls and refused to respond to my constant what-is-happening, when I did not see the excitement that had been in her eyes when it all started, I did not need a soothsayer to tell me that it was over. I picked up what was left of me and, again, drifted off.
Class: Year 3, Department of Mass Communication, University of Nigeria, Nsukka
Gender: Male/Not Sure
Father Albert slipped into the story at a time when I was searching for something bigger than faith. I had gone to mass that day, and as I sat in the congregation listening to Father Albert’s sermon, listening to the rise and fall of his voice as it rang out like a metal gong, like a sweet melody rising up to heaven, I wondered how people managed to concentrate on his sermon. By the time the mass ended, and Father Albert and his retinue of altar servers marched into the sacristy, I was certain I would return to the Chaplaincy again.
It was a Tuesday morning when I went to see Father Albert in his office. I did not mind waiting in a long queue for over two hours and watching the overzealous catechist prance around in an effort to assert his authority. You do not make noise here o, he told one woman trying to talk to a pregnant woman beside her. The man’s drama made me laugh and I imagined him as a character in a story.
Father Albert’s small, air-conditioned office looked simple when I finally went in to see him: an almanac hanging on the wall, one table, three chairs, piles of books on a wooden shelf. There was a laptop and a glowing crucifix before him. He turned all his attention to me as I sank into the chair directly facing him and it felt as though Jesus was truly there, truly present. Maybe Jesus would help me. Maybe Jesus had the answers to my questions.
Father Albert asked why I came to see him and I told him I wasn’t sure. I told him I hadn’t been to confession after my First Holy Communion when I was eight, hadn’t been going to the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist either. I told him I no longer believed in the Christian God. I acknowledged that there was a force behind creation, but I did not think it was anything like the God that Christians had set up for themselves. I told him I did not understand myself, had never understood myself and particularly my sexuality, and that this was a source of great worry to me. I did not stop talking until I started crying, until I could no longer choke back the tears in my eyes.
God is a mystery, he said. We may try all we can but we will never fully comprehend him or his actions. He is always calling us, always willing that we draw nearer to him. His voice alone was therapeutic. Father Albert did not exactly clear my doubts, but in the following days, I wore those words around me as my second skin. I could tell that he was making an effort to understand and accommodate and not condemn like other priests whose stories I had heard. And this made me love him even more.
Every Sunday after mass, I would rush to the back of the sacristy to greet him. Smiling, he would hold my hands and ask how I was doing. The Lord is good, he would say in his sing-song voice. All the time, I would respond.
On one of those solemn Sundays, I went to greet him as usual after mass. He asked me to stop by the parish house for lunch. It was when I went to the parish house that I saw it in his eyes. It was there, the affection, soft and tender, lurking behind the veil of caution. In some ways, this excited me. I imagined myself the subject of interest of a powerful person, a priest leading a large congregation of young people like me, and just thinking about it made me feel worthy, made me believe that, at least, there was something left of me worthy of admiration. But I was not to be the reason why a priest derailed from his preordained path, so I packed up and headed out again.
Father Albert gave up after several attempts to reach me.
Class: Graduate; University graduate, National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) graduate, Working-class graduate
Gender: Not Sure (Sometimes male, sometimes female)
If, at 24, you have not fallen in and out of at least five relationships, you have not doubted your entire existence, you have not questioned God and life and death and after-life, maybe you have not started living. Because at 24, I was drifting. At 24, I was paddling my way through life’s deep oceans. At 24, I was searching for answers. I was searching for pieces of me everywhere – in people’s faces and stories, in different places I visited, in people’s hearts.
And that was how Udokasi waltzed into my life when I was beginning to form my own impressions of love, when I was beginning to have a sense of what mattered to me. It was his name that I had first taken a special liking to. Udokasi. Peace is the greatest. Then, his smile. Then, his gentleness. Our friendship started off on Facebook but eventually blossomed out of it.
It was at Freedom Park that we first met and I remember thinking – as we sat before the pool, watching the noisy ducks – that our conversation was the most honest I had ever had, that I had never been freer in my entire life. I remember thinking also that there was a piece of me in him. I wanted more; there had to be more. This was the first time I was truly wanting something, truly needing something.
Udokasi held my hand and said, Nkem, look at me. It’s okay to love anyone, really. I mean, I really care about you. But I feel the right thing to do is to get married to a woman. And I want to get married to a woman someday.
He said this looking deeply into my eyes, and even though I thought the same thing too, I realized that my lines were not as clearly drawn as his. My boundaries left room for possibilities. I stared back at him and wondered who was right – he , for acknowledging what was growing between us but pointing out the bane of it at the same time, or I , for acknowledging what was growing between us, realizing the bane, but still allowing room for anything.
He said we should be friends, said we should not sentence our lives to something we did not yet fully comprehend, said that did not in any way invalidate how he felt about me. I said okay, all the while struggling to push back tears.
Four months later, communication between us had soured. When we talked – which was once in a while – there was this irritating silence that hung over us like dark clouds and our conversations became shallow. I made faces even when I tried so hard not to and looked for reasons to stay away from the phone.
And so, one day, I decided to move on again. This time, I made sure not to leave any piece of me behind. I picked up everything. I had become a tiny, little bird, moving and perching, looking for some safe place where I could at least rest and find something to eat.