It was a Saturday in 1984. I was playing with my little brother, Kenechukwu, near the water tank in our large, flower-filled compound in Nsukka—the dusty, serene university town in eastern Nigeria where I grew up. My mother stood by the back door and said, “Bianu kene mmadu.” Come and greet somebody. Our new houseboy had arrived. He was sitting on a sofa in the living room, his legs cradling a black plastic bag that held his belongings.
“Good afternoon,” Kenechukwu and I said. “Nno.” Welcome.
Later, after my mother showed Fide his room, in the detached boys’ quarters behind the house, she told us, “Fide has come from the village and he has never seen a telephone or a gas cooker. So we will all help teach him and get him settled.”
I stared at Fide, fascinated. Our former houseboy, who had left the week before after stealing some money from my father’s study, had been knowingly urban; he had sometimes even fixed the stereo. Fide had never seen a refrigerator. He was light-skinned, and his lips were so thick and wide they took up most of his face. He spoke a rural dialect of Igbo that was not Anglicized, like ours, and he chewed rice with his mouth open—you could see the rice, soggy like old cereal, until he swallowed. When he answered the phone, he said, “Hold on,” as we had taught him to, but then he dropped the receiver back on the cradle. He washed our clothes in metal basins, and pegged them on the line tied from the mango to the guava tree in the back yard. It took him hours. At first, my mother shouted, “Don’t stop your work to stare at every single lizard that goes by!” Later, she left him alone until he was done.
Kenechukwu and I sat on the steps while he worked. On hot afternoons when the sun made topaz patterns on the glass louvres of the kitchen, Fide told us stories about birds—folk stories in which birds flew up to the sky to ask God for rain, and nature stories in which birds made their nests with bits of hair they had picked up outside the barber’s hut in his village. “I can catch some birds for you,” he said. And he dropped bread crumbs in a staggered line from the dustbin outside, up the short steps that led to the house, through the open back door, and into the kitchen. He crouched behind the door. When the birds arrived in the kitchen, he slammed the door and dashed after them. Once, he cracked a louvre; once, he tore the mosquito netting on the window; once, he broke a bowl. But he always caught the birds. He put them in punctured cartons for us and we fed them bread and garri. The birds died after a day or two. One lasted four days, and when, finally, it died Fide held its rigid feathery form in his hand and said, joking, “It’s in the sky now, asking God for bread.” Years later, after Fide died, I would think about this: a bird raising a stiff wing to ask God for bread.
My mother often shouted at Fide. She was creative with her Igbo insults. “You are a fat millipede, nnukwu esu!” she’d say when he took too long with a task. “Look at him, ike akpi, with the buttocks of a scorpion,” when he forgot yet another thing she’d asked him to do. Or, “May dogs lick your eyes!” when he didn’t tell the truth. She asked Fide to start dinner in the afternoon because it took him so long—jollof rice alone kept him busy for four hours. One afternoon stands out in my mind. Fide was at the Formica-topped kitchen table, scraping the scales off a tilapia with a knife. He worked with slow, deliberate motions—scrape, pause, scrape, pause. There were transparent scales on his chin, on his arms, on the floor. “You’re taking forever to do that!” I said. “It’s like preparing a body for a funeral,” Fide said. “You take your time to do it well.” It was a joke, and he was laughing. But, after he died, I would think about this, too.
Fide was enrolled in a commercial school, the Universal Secretarial Academy, a grand name for a small building that had four rooms and rusty typewriters, and a grander abbreviation. On his schoolbooks, beneath “Fide Abonyi,” Fide wrote, in bold, proud letters, “U.S.A.”
When my brothers borrowed videotapes of British and American films from friends, Fide watched them with us. When we borrowed books from the library, Fide would hold them and move his lips. When there were military coups in faraway Lagos, my father placed the radio on the dining table and Fide joined us as we crowded around and listened to announcements spoken in English with a northern Nigerian accent, interspersed with stretches of melancholy martial music. The coup in 1993 happened on a blustery Harmattan day. General Sani Abacha had taken over the government. “Fellow-Nigerians,” he began, and already we were numb. Coup announcements made you numb: the choicelessness, the fact that you were being told just for your information, just so that you would not be surprised to see a different portrait on the walls of airports and government offices. Because there was nothing you could do about it.
It was the custom to “start a life” for your houseboy or housegirl, after he or she had been with you long enough. Fide was with us for twelve years. When my parents asked him what he wanted to do after he left us, they hoped that he would want to continue his secretarial studies. But Fide wanted to join the Army, and did so.
At first, he wrote excited letters, and sent pictures of himself in camouflage holding a long, gleaming gun. He took special pride in his boots and wrote about how he polished them with Kiwi polish, the way he had polished the shoes my father wore to his lectures. His handwriting was barely legible and his English was comic. “Hungry is killing me,” he said. He wrote about the poor state of the barracks. He wrote about not being paid. Slowly, the letters cooled. Then, in a hasty letter, he wrote that he might be sent to Liberia, as part of the Nigerian Peacekeeping Force. Civil war was raging there. People were being skinned alive, he wrote. People were being dragged to their deaths.
“He won’t go to Liberia,” my father said. “He’ll be fine.”
Fide did not go to Liberia. Months later, a military coup took place in Sierra Leone. And General Sani Abacha, who routinely killed activists, who routinely shut down the media, who routinely jailed opponents, decided to send in Nigerian troops to restore democracy.
When my parents told me that Fide had died—he was blown up by a land mine in Sierra Leone, on September 3, 1997—I stared at them for a while and then started to smile because I knew that they were wrong.
“Which Fide?” I asked, as if he were not the only Fide we knew.
“Our own Fide,” my mother said, and those words will never leave me, because even as grief enveloped me I realized how lovely they were. Our own Fide. He was our own