You saw the suspicion in his darting eyes fade over a few visits, enough for him to recline in his tattered, once golden-brown cushion, speaking of how unkind your mother is, how nasty your grandfather – his father – was. You knew it was gone because he didn’t ask you a third time if your mother did not warn you against coming to visit him. Your most senior uncle told you how, decades before, your grandfather communicated in spitting, kicks and slaps; how the eighty-year-old man accepted a new, 'strange' religion and created a permanent rift in the family.
You were twenty when you realized you knew next to nothing about most of your relatives. Deep religious differences made social interaction between your immediate family and the uncles and aunts impossible: each side was convinced the other was going to hell or at least not going to heaven or paradise. But you had non-religious questions.
Being in a new city for university made it easier to start a relationship with your uncle and his wife who lived only one motorcycle ride away from your campus. One accusation at a time – against everyone but himself – and through equal periods of sobriety and inebriation, your uncle weaved a tale of multiple dysfunctions, across generations. However exaggerated, you got to hear another side of your quiet, stern-faced grandfather who always looked at you curiously like he was trying to make out if you were human or not. The summary is clear: your uncle blames everything but his childlessness on your grandfather and his new religion.
These days, when someone asks whether you believe in juju or black magic, you say you prefer not to express strong views about things you cannot explain. It is for the same reason you think declaring yourself to be an atheist requires too much certainty, too much faith and perhaps more emotional energy than it takes to believe that there is some God at the helm of affairs.
Your youngest uncle’s wife, a soft-spoken, religious Christian, lost some money she had kept locked in her office drawer. When all her colleagues swore they didn’t know who took the money, she phoned her mother over 200 kilometers away for advice. That same day, her mother called back, providing the name of the young man who had taken the money. A few creative hours of police interrogation later, the named man confessed and took the policemen to where he had hidden the money. One hundred thousand naira, still wrapped as it was in her drawer.
As you stared, puzzled, she explained a mystical procedure called “turning-key” which could accurately reveal the identity of a thief. It involved spinning a key on a table. You were too stunned to ask questions. Turning-key had recovered her money. Or maybe it was the zealous interrogation of the police that did. Or both.
A third uncle, the one in the middle, who himself had found a new prophet and become increasingly devout, started inquiring into his fortunes and misfortunes. His prophet looked into his past and gave him a divine revelation: the reason that, as a man in his 50s, his hustle was yet to make him wealthy and successful, was that his father had a wife before his mother, and this woman, in a moment of jealous rage after being dumped, cursed all the children of the new woman. This made him pack a bag and travel to confront your grandfather regarding the identity of this mystery woman so that she could be found and begged or otherwise prevailed upon to lift the curse. Your grandfather, irritated – you think understandably so – but admitting to a previous marriage, refused to engage in a conversation about a purported 50-year-old curse. Over his dead body, he said. While your uncle was frustrated with this response, he could at least provide an explanation to why he wasn’t rich and famous.
Your grandfather died with all his secrets and, as far as this uncle is concerned, the key to his hustle.
It is easy, you find, for one to fall into the trap of explaining Nigeria in terms extraneous to oneself and one’s family; too easy to find examples far removed from oneself to illustrate theories of why this country is like this. And always when people complain, it is impossible to identify that Nigerian – the one who gives us all a bad name by jumping queues, giving bribes, using witchcraft or superstitiously blaming all their problems on phantom enemies. Except perhaps in Nollywood movies.
You find the answers to Nigerian mysteries around you in things and people you can feel and touch. The answers are sometimes as plain to see as simple cause and effect. Other times they raise more questions. Nigeria is in your family, both hell and heaven-bound, in turning-key, in Lagos prophets who can trace where your ball dropped 50 years ago, in your grandfather and his secrets; it is in you.