Up in Smoke: On Death, Identity, and a Flammable Childhood in Nigeria
Akwaeke Emezi Considers Growing Up in the Town of Aba and the Darkness That Dwells in Memory
Kerosene burns nearly everything.
Growing up, our house was sometimes invaded by soldier ants, rivers of red, clacking bodies that ran over our windowsills and bit us with thoroughness. We soaked newspaper in kerosene to make torches and burnt the ants back, singeing our carpets and bathtubs. The price of petrol kept climbing, so we transferred all our cooking over to the small green kerosene stove and watched as the pots blackened. In the dry season, we raked dead leaves into a pile next to the borehole that didn’t work, sprinkled some kerosene, and dropped a flame. I remember being amazed at how a little wetness could lead to such fire. My little sister and I danced around the blaze until we got called in and scolded for getting smoke in our hair.
When you try to burn a person, it is cheaper to use kerosene instead of petrol.
I spent my entire childhood in Aba, a commercial town in the south of Nigeria, where both my siblings were born. When I came back to the country after leaving for college, I knew from my first circling of the Lagos crowd that the location of my childhood could serve as ammunition against people who thought I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t Nigerian enough. No one argues with Aba. It was my best card—better even than being born in Umuahia, where my father and grandfather were born. It made me “authentic” in a way that was absolute; you couldn’t question if someone who grew up in Aba was a “real” Nigerian, even though it didn’t match what people assumed my background was. I looked and smelled too foreign, even down to my blood, so I must have grown up outside Nigeria or, at the very least, spent all my holidays abroad.
The truth felt like a story. I wanted to tell them how we never had running water, how cockroach eggs gelled into the egg grooves of the fridge door, how the concrete over the soakaway broke and stayed open, the rancid smell becoming part of our air. We longed after green apples that were too expensive, three for a hundred naira swinging in a plastic bag, and we knew the intimate taste of ketchup smearing red on white bread, the cheap oiliness of margarine mixed into boiled rice, the accompanying shame. I didn’t say any of this. I just smiled and listened to the jokes about how Aba people can make and sell a fake version of anything, even a glass of water.
I grew up with piles of books to read, bought secondhand from the post office on Ikot-Ekpene Road or sent from our cousins in London or pulled from my parents’ separate collections. While the town was burning from the riots, my sister and I believed in invisible fairies, pixies hiding in our backyard. We had cats spilling over our carpets, a dog with raw, bleeding ears, and several Barbie dolls sent from Saudi Arabia, where my mother had moved in 1996. I didn’t know that I’d never live with her again. When our turkeys got fowl pox, we caught them and pinned them under our feet and learned that you could treat the pox with palm oil.
When the dogs got maggots, we learned that applying careful pressure to the sore made them fall, white and wriggling, to the sand. We learned not to touch your mouth after handling bitterleaf, or touch your eyes after peeling yam, because the first ruins your tongue and the itch of the second can blind you. We mimicked the priests during Mass at CKC, whispering under our breath when we were meant to be silent. Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day. On the drive home, we passed the familiar heap of decomposing bodies dumped outside the teaching hospital, their loss loud in the air. We played in the car. We stayed children.
After a pickup truck shattered my sister’s leg in 1995, my father forbade us to ride okadas, saying that the roads were too dangerous. I disobeyed often, leaning into the wind and raising my heels away from the burning exhaust so my slippers wouldn’t melt. The first time I climbed on one, my best friend called out my name, distracting me, and I burned the inside of my leg on the metal.
She made a face. “Look out for the exhaust pipe,” she said.
By the time I went to school the next day, my burn had bubbled up and split. I packed it with powder and two types of iodine, till it was ugly and crusted in purples and reds. Eventually it scarred flat, and I learned to climb onto motorcycles from the other side.
After I burned my sister’s left thigh, I learned that hot wounds always bubble reliably, whether you make them with metal or, in her case, water. We were all sitting to breakfast at the dining table one morning, the way my mother liked it when she was there, with the Milo and sugar and powdered milk and everything laid out. I reached over to grab the handle of the hot-water flask, but our brother hadn’t screwed the top back on properly, so when the flask toppled over, it spilled a steaming river over my sister’s school uniform, scalding her leg. She jumped up screaming and ran into the parlor, everyone rushing to her while I apologized frantically. I think they cracked a raw egg over the burn, viscous and yellow. It was the second time I’d seen the skin of her leg do unnatural things. The first was when the pickup had dragged her down Okigwe Road, but her skin had opened differently then, more intricately, chopped up by white bone screaming out of the pulpy red. My best friend’s father fixed it. I learned that humans are meat.
Bodies in the sun smell unbearable after a week because meat goes bad, but they smell even worse a week later. One evening, it rained while I was walking back home, and in the flooded water of Faulks Road, I learned that a dead body will float and even bob. I learned that brains were gray before I was 11, from the tarmac of Brass Junction, from the cracked calabash of what was a person’s head. We looked at it every day on our way to school, holding our breath as we drove through the junction and turned left on Aba-Owerri Road, heading toward Abayi. I learned that we can bear much more than we predict.
When the armed robberies in Aba got too bad, to the point where you could report one to the police and they would just make sure to avoid the area, a team of young vigilantes formed in response. They called themselves the Bakassi Boys. Their headquarters were in Ariaria Market, and we often saw them as we returned from school, their vehicles whistling down the road. They dangled out of car windows and off bus roofs, waving machetes and guns streaming with red and yellow strips of cloth.We know that life churns on, bloody and normal, as sacrilegious as that sounds.
They killed and burned thieves, hacking them with machetes, throwing a tire and that faithful kerosene over them, then leaving the corpses out as warnings and reminders. No one dared to remove the bodies until it was allowed. When I was 14, we went to Malaysia to see my grandparents, and I told one of my cousins about the Bakassi Boys.
“That’s terrible, that they’re killing people,” she said as we walked on the beach. I looked at her like she didn’t make sense. Even our own state governor had allowed the killings—just like he allowed the riots in 2000 after the massacre of Igbos in Kaduna, after they stacked our dead in lorries and sent them back to us.
Looking back, I think about how casual taking a life was, how young I must have been. I learned other things in Aba: that a mother you see once a year is a stranger, no matter how much you cry for her in the long months when she’s gone. That if my father is a man who will wield a machete at the NEPA worker who came to check the meter, then I cannot tell him what our neighbor who took my sister to the hospital after the pickup accident did to me, because at 12 I am entirely too young for that kind of blood on my hands. They treated that neighbor like a hero; he called my sister his little wife for years. We can, I promise you, bear much more than we predict.
I told a friend some of this during a lunch in Lagos—not the parts about myself, just about the bodies and the curfews and the ritual kidnappings they called Otokoto and the time they burnt down the mosque and killed every Muslim person they could find, murdering 300 Northerners in the two days after the lorries arrived with the bodies from Kaduna, when we got five days off from school and stayed at home and saw the ashes in front of the Customs House. I told her how a classmate had joked with me then that I should be careful. “You know you resemble a Northerner,” he said.
I told her about the rumors of a Muslim man who could pass for Igbo, and so when they came for him, he joined the mob and killed his own people to stay alive, to prove he was one of us. I told her about the woman next door, whose gateman was a shoemaker from the North, how she hid him and his five-year-old son in their boysquarters. When the child heard the noise in the street, he tried to run out to see what it was, but she caught him and beat him and sent him back. He was five. We shared an avocado tree with their compound.
We were sitting in Freedom Park when I said these things, and my friend stared at me the whole time, horrified. “You’re making that up,” she said. “Are you serious?”
“It was Aba in the 90s,” I reminded her. “I thought everyone in Nigeria grew up like this.” I hadn’t expected her to be surprised. She was Nigerian too, after all, and older than me. Surely, she’d seen worse things.
“No, everyone did not grow up like that!” She was agitated. “Why don’t you write about this?”
I shrugged because it was just death and Aba was just Aba. None of it had seemed worth writing about. I could hear how the stories sounded when I said them out loud, dark like old blood, like I was supposed to be traumatized, different, like something in me, perhaps my innocence, should’ve caught a whiff of kerosene and gone crackly and black, too, smoking away like suya edges. Except I felt like nothing had happened. In college, I had a friend from Serbia who wouldn’t even talk about the things he’d seen. I had a girlfriend in New York who’d spent years of her childhood in the middle of the war in Liberia. We know that life churns on, bloody and normal, as sacrilegious as that sounds.
After I wrote Freshwater, I had to reconcile with the fact that I’m not even human. What does that mean about how I see life, or, more important, death? I am thinking of the place I grew up in and the self that was formed there, the version of me who knows that a body is meat but also someone’s child. I am thinking of how the darkness can live inside your memories, even as a town goes aflame 20 years ago.
Sometimes the fire is not fire. Sometimes it’s not everything that burns.
From DEAR SENTHURAN: A Black Spirit Memoir by Akwaeke Emezi, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Akwaeke Emezi. This story initially appeared on Olisa.tv in 2015.