TO A REMARKABLE FATHER – IN-LAW
I never knew he would be my father-in-law. Nothing on the horizon could, at that point, hint at the big development in my life which was going to take place shortly, eternally bonding the Adinuba and Nzeribe families of Ihiala and Uli respectively.
I was visiting Lagos for the weekend from Abuja and had gone with a female friend to see Julie Nzeribe, whom I was meeting for the first time. Our initial contact was rather uneventful. It was the father who caught my interest first. He was speaking heartily with visitors whose number kept on increasing every minute. They were eating and drinking. I was struck by the fact that these strangers were speaking my home dialect of the Igbo language, so I turned to Vivien, a mutual friend of Julie's and mine, and inquired if they were from Ihiala culture area. 'Yes', she responded. 'Uli specifically'. 'They are my people!' I exclaimed.
'What a pleasant surprise!' I spoke in a very low tone, making sure no one, except Vivien, heard me
It was only at this point that I took a good look at the people talking excitedly. The person who appeared to be the centre of action had bandage on his arm. I soon learnt that he came all the way from Cameroon where he was doing business.
He was in Lagos to keep an appointment with one Dr Bryant Orjiako, described as a dashing and talented young surgeon at the National Orthopaedic Hospital, Igbobi, in Lagos, and an indigene of Uli. Ben Nzeribe, Julie's father, had been shot months earlier by Cameroonian brigands right in his house in the dead of the night. Four of the robbers gained access to his bedroom, well armed. But neither the sophistication of their arms nor the gangsters' numerical strength could stop my future father-in-law from challenging the robbers with his lone double barrel gun! He actually wrestled one of the bandits to the ground.
This brief, casual encounter I had with Ben Nzeribe in October of 1993 provides an insight into his person: a man of valour, a fighter against vices, a man of the people and a fascinating raconteur with acute energy.
I was to meet him again, this time in his home in Uli in 1994 when he was visiting from Cameroon. As usual, there were so many people coming to greet him and share drinks and food.
He treated each with infectious courtesy. Anytime I was introduced, the new comer would say about my would-be father in law: 'He trained me', or 'He took me to Cameroon and I lived in his house free even after I got married' or 'He paid the school fees of my children', etc. When the daughter of one of them secured an admission into the university but the resources to train her were not available, Dee Ben, as he was popularly called by his kinsmen, pleaded with his first child, who was then getting married to me, to take up the responsibility.
She complied. And the young lady lived with us for quite some time after graduation; her immediate younger sister even joined us a few weeks later. But he was secretly inquiring how I was feeling about being 'swarmed'. He was a very sensitive fellow. Though he was prepared to carry the burden of the whole world on his shoulders, he was ironically not enthusiastic to bother other people with his own problems or those of people around him.
Shortly after his return to Nigeria in 1996, he decided to establish a cement distribution business. Many sellers were making a lot of money through re-bagging, that is, furtively reducing the quantity of a 50 kilogramme cement bag by up to 10 kilogrammes and using the scooped cement to form new bags weighing 40 kgs but sold to unsuspecting people as 50kgs. Any dealer who refused to indulge in the deception became the target of all manner of attacks by the dealers association, which was just a cartel. When he knew this was how cement business was done around our place, he told me with a tone of finality: “I would choose to die of starvation instead of engaging in profiteering and exploitation and cheating”.
Ben Nzeribe cared deeply about his family, and the care is sometimes reflected in some of his very funny statements. On a particular Sunday during Christmas when he and I were discussing the day's biblical readings at mass and the priest's homily, he suddenly remarked: 'My in-law, I wish you had seen the huge tubers of yam, crates of eggs, fowls bigger than turkeys which people from our new outstation called Stella Maris Church presented to the priest during offertory.
'You would have salivated very well if you had seen them. I sent Uzordimma, my last son, to the seminary in Ihiala so that he could enjoy like these priests in Uli. But instead of trying to be a priest, he ran away from the seminary after only one term on the grounds that seminarians say too many prayers and too many times everyday. Uzordimma is a foolish boy, a pagan!'
On another occasion, a hilarious discussion was going on about the activities of ritualists across Nigeria who were killing people, including their own parents, and sacrificing them to deities in the silly belief that they would become wealthy. Everyone thought the head of the family was not listening to the discussion until he cleared his throat and said as a matter of fact: 'I have for long been searching for witchdoctors. I want them to kill me or magically turn me into a money minting machine for the Nzeribe family and their in laws and relations. I have tasted poverty, and I don't want anyone around me to experience wretchedness.' A Homeric laughter naturally ensued.
There was a time I came back home for a cousin's wedding taking place in Uli. As the nuptial mass at St Theresa's Church was ending, I took a dash to see my in-laws, and was accompanied by a couple of my relations. On realising that he was not in his house but somewhere in the neighbourhood holding a meeting with the elders of the community, we all set out for the place.
As is customary, we greeted the kinsmen and donated different amounts of money to them which were rather big in the eyes of the locals. We also spoke glowingly about the excellent behavior of my wife, paying tributes to her family, her kindred and the entire Uli town for nurturing her well. Her father was conspicuously radiating with joy and pride.
As we were leaving I heard him tell no one in particular, 'You villagers, how long should I tell you to train your children well and send them to very good schools so that they could find wonderful husbands. You have refused to listen to me because I now live in the village as you. Haven't you heard of the first anniversary birthday party in Lagos which my daughter and the husband held for their first child which was attended by different heads of state?'. Well, my father in law had such a sense of humour and hyperbole that if he had taken to fiction writing, he would have long retrenched the magical realists in Latin America from the literary scene.
What is no joke or exaggeration is that Ben Chukwudi Nzeribe was a most worthy father-in-law and his daughter who is my wife the most beautiful girl in the world. She and the rest of the Nzeribe family have been a blessing to me and many others. I have been their in-law for about 15 years, and not once have I had a disagreement with them on any issue.
As the remains of my 78-year-old father in law were lowered into the grave on Friday, June 25, in his hometown of Uli after a pontifical mass led by the bishop of Orlu Diocese, we prayed that the Lord judge him with so much compassion and mercy.
Adinuba writes from Lagos.