A story written by Jakemond… If you missed part 18, read it Here
with the workers’ pay. Everyone on the payroll got paid except for me. I didn’t know the reason for it, but it didn’t matter anymore; I had already given up hope of getting paid, and I had actually started to enjoy the work. Before Robert left that day, he was kind enough to give me some money out of his own pocket, and I continued working.
One day, during the last week of the job, some of the workers and I visited a nearby town to buy food. There, I saw someone I recognized: Eric “Ricky” Ukachukwu.
Ricky was my childhood friend from my village; we had attended the same primary school. We were excited to run into each other in the most unexpected of places. He said he lived with his uncle in the town, and was returning from the police station where his uncle was being detained. His uncle was involved in illegal oil bunkering and was constantly getting into trouble with the law. In these bunkering operations, typically conducted in the bush, dealers would illegally cut open oil pipelines, siphoning barrels of oil and selling them on the black market. Ricky told me that this wasn’t the first time his uncle had been caught and detained. On many occasions he would bribe the police and be released. To them, giving bribes, being arrested, and getting detained was just the cost of doing business.
Ricky told me that he had also been detained on many occasions as he worked with his uncle. He was fed up with the whole business and wanted to quit, but if he did, he would have nowhere to go and no one to help him. He was desperate to start making an honest living. I told him I was working for my uncle, and the manager was always hiring people at the construction site. He said he would think about joining me.
Two days later Ricky showed up at our rented house. He could no longer tolerate his uncle’s ways and was willing to tough it out with us in construction. I spoke to the manager, and Ricky was hired.
Three days later, our work in that location was completed, and we were relocated to another state in a more austere environment. We spent about three months in the new location. The work was still tough, but it had become relatively easier for me with Ricky around. After the day’s work we would sit together, talking about the past and where we wanted to be in future. All this time, I still wasn’t getting paid. I only hoped that my uncle appreciated what I was doing and maybe, if I impressed him enough, he would send me abroad.
After six months doing construction work, I returned to Aba to sit for the General Certificate Exams, which I had applied for during my last term in class five. After the exams, I decided not to return to the construction site; instead, I remained at my uncle’s house. Once again, I was determined to do my best to impress my uncle. If he saw me every day, maybe he would realize that something had to be done about me.
From then on, I sold myself into servitude at my uncle’s house. I did everything, including the work of the maids and servants. I would wake up before everyone else and sweep the entire compound, and iron my uncle’s clothes as well as those of his wife and kids. I would polish their shoes and set the breakfast table. During this time, I still lived in the boys’ quarters, where all the servants lived. It was a three-bedroom building with a toilet and a bathroom. Robert and Stephen stayed in one room, while four other male servants and I stayed in another. The third room was used as storage space.
My uncle’s wife exploited my situation. Seeing that I had humbled myself and was willing to do everything, she kept piling up extra work for me. She made me do the laundry for her, her husband, and their seven children. It didn’t help that I had to do it all by hand, as washing machines weren’t common in Nigeria then. Nevertheless, I felt I had to endure all of this—even washing my uncle’s stained underwear—in order to realize my ambition of being sent abroad. Many times I wondered if my uncle was really related to my mother; it was hard to imagine that an uncle could be so cruel to his own nephew. While other people in the house, including the servants, watched television, I was running errands, mowing the lawn, or clearing the grass in the compound.
I began washing the cars in the mornings as well. My uncle had several cars and the drivers would usually come in early to wash them before driving him to work and his wife and children to school. Washing the cars meant that I had to drive them out of the garage first, and I did this with the hope that my uncle would notice me and realize that I knew how to drive. Maybe then he would start sending me on errands with the car or, if I was lucky, ask me to be his personal driver. Having stopped my Dymo tape business, I needed something to take me out of the house apart from the errands I ran.
So far, no one knew that I could drive. During one of the holidays, when I was in primary six, I went every day to a park where some guys unofficially taught driving for a fee. Later, when I was in class three, I had wanted to get my learner’s driving permit, so while I helped my Aunt Comfort with her soap business, I also enrolled at a driving school. This was the fastest way to get a learner’s permit; besides, I also needed to learn driving rules and regulations. It was a brilliant idea because I learned how to drive a medium-size trucks as well as sedans.
Before I washed the cars every morning, I would crank up the engines and move them around a bit, not knowing whether my uncle was observing. Just when I was starting to think he would never notice me, I got lucky. One day, one of the drivers didn’t show up for work and my uncle’s wife and kids were running late for school. To my astonishment, my uncle ordered me to drive them to school. I did a quick victory dance in my head. That day I drove them to school and also picked the children up afterward.
Driving on Nigerian roads was—and, in most cases, still is—very challenging. Defensive driving was absolutely critical. Though there were road signs and all sorts of traffic rules, most Nigerian drivers didn’t care about them. There was no punishment for disobeying the rules, since there was nobody to enforce them. The traffic police, like the regular police, were so concerned with extorting money from drivers that they completely forgot what their job was in the first place. Knowing that the roads were like a jungle, I did my very best to avoid getting into an accident.
Having successfully driven that day, it became my responsibility to drive the kids to school and back. I was still taking care of my other duties in the house, but I didn’t mind. The most difficult thing—other than washing the stinky underwear—was that when everybody went to bed, I would have to stay awake in the living room, waiting for my uncle to return so I could lock the gate. My uncle always returned home late, usually between 11 p.m. and midnight. I could understand why he came home late sometimes. He often traveled from city to city, and sometimes his flights would be delayed, in which case he would return home even later. But most times he would return late because he was out drinking with his friends or visiting his numerous girlfriends. My uncle hadn’t changed his old ways. In my opinion, he was a nymphomaniac. His wife must have known or long suspected that he was cheating. My cousins and I all knew about his adventures, but none of his other relatives did.
After a while, when I felt my relationship with my uncle had become relatively normal, I approached him to discuss my future. He asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him I would like to go to England to study. He wasn’t surprised; everyone knew I had always wanted to travel abroad, and he had even promised when I was little that he would send me to England. He consented—and I was elated! I left even more determined to please him so he would keep his word.
In the meantime I started corresponding with pen pals. I bought an old magazine and searched the classified pages for young girls from different parts of the world, including the United Kingdom and America. This was before the era of the Internet and email, so people only had access to local newspapers or old foreign magazines that were sold on the street. I picked a few addresses of girls my age who had specified in their ads that they were seeking pen pals from anywhere in the world.
I maintained correspondence with three girls. There was Jenny from the Netherlands; Tracy McNeily from Edinburgh, Scotland; and Ann Jane Langland from the United States. I explained to them that I needed someone to invite me over because my uncle wanted to send me abroad, and an invitation from someone living abroad would motivate him to do it even sooner.
Of all three girls, I was closest to Tracy. She was very sweet and kindhearted. Going by the pictures she sent me, she was blonde with blue eyes, about five feet seven inches tall, and very cute. We sent each other letters often, but it usually took a few weeks to receive each one due to the inefficient Nigerian postal system. Months went by and I kept working hard for my uncle, but he didn’t seem to be making any effort to send me anywhere.
By this time, my uncle was no longer getting so many road construction contracts from the oil companies, but he had a new line of business. He had become involved with Eze Abey, a wealthy traditional ruler in Mbaise Town who had lived and studied in England. Eze Abey was very well connected in the federal government and knew a lot of influential people. He returned to Nigeria after his father, the former ruler of Mbaise, passed on. As the first son, he was first in line for his father’s throne. Eze Abey had a few wives, one of whom was a lady called Ngozi Onyejiaka. The Onyejiaka family was one of the richest and most influential in Aba at the time. One of the Onyejiakas was a traditional ruler in Nkwerre Town.
Eze Abey, Ngozi, my uncle, and some others started dealing in abandoned property. During the Nigerian civil war, the Igbos who had been living in cities outside of the east had fled, abandoning their properties, which were either confiscated by the government or taken over by non-Igbos. A few years after the war, the Nigerian government started a program designed to return those properties to their rightful owners, and where this was not possible, compensate them financially. My uncle and his group started a scheme and teamed up with a bank manager in Port Harcourt, as well as some government officials in Lagos and Abuja, to defraud the Nigerian government. They would present themselves as legitimate property owners, armed with faked documents, and apply for compensation for abandoned properties. Their inside man would accept their documents and, without following due process or investigating anything, would approve their claims. The money would be paid into my uncle’s bank account in Port Harcourt. Since the bank manager was in on the scheme, there would be no questions asked when my uncle and his group went to make withdrawals. On the average, each withdrawal was more than the naira equivalent of one million United States dollars.
On these occasions, when they would go to get the money from Port Harcourt, I would be their personal chauffeur. Once the money was withdrawn, it would be loaded into cartons or paper bags and put into my uncle’s Mercedes. I would drive them back to his house in Aba, where they would throw a party and celebrate before sharing their loot. Most times, on the way back to the house, they would make several stops at various five-star hotels and leave me waiting in the car with the money. Sometimes I would be hungry and not have money to buy food, but no one cared. They would emerge from the hotels accompanied by girls who looked drunk and well fed. On many occasions I was tempted to bolt with the money. I couldn’t understand why, with all the money my uncle was making from the government, he wouldn’t send me abroad.
Soon, my fortune turned in a moment of indiscretion on my uncle’s part. One day, I returned to the house to find my uncle having s*x with the maid at the bottom of the stairs. As soon as he saw me, he jumped, holding his pants up and running up the stairs; the maid also took off behind him. I went to the boys’ quarters to clear my head and think of how I could exploit the situation.
Later, I walked back into the main house. By this time my uncle had left, so I called the maid. I scolded her and threatened to tell my uncle’s wife what had happened. She pleaded with me, crying, and after a while I told her that the only thing that would stop me was if she started showing a little more respect to me. Up until that time no one in the house respected me. I also told her that she should make sure I was always fed very well. She agreed and I kept the secret.
Things improved right away. A few days later, my uncle called me into the living room and was unusually nice. He told me that he was working hard to send me abroad as soon as possible. He asked me what country I wanted to go to, and I told him: Scotland. Fortunately, I had been able to obtain a passport with money I had made from my Dymo tape business. I told him this, and that I had a good friend in Scotland who had already invited me to visit. Tracy had already sent me an invitation letter, as well as a recorded message in which she had pleaded with my uncle to allow me to visit her and her family. I played the tape for my uncle and he seemed convinced. The next day, he bought a ticket for me and gave me five hundred US dollars for my basic traveling allowance, as required by the British embassy.
A week later I traveled to Lagos to apply for a British visa. I waited in a long line at the British embassy, and when it was my turn, I presented all my documents, including Tracy’s invitation letter. The immigrations officer asked me a series of questions, which I answered to the best of my ability, concluding with my reason for going to Scotland. I said that I was going there to visit my good friend and would only be there through the holidays, after which I would return to Nigeria. Of course, I couldn’t tell him that I had no intention of returning to Nigeria.
He rejected my application.
I felt a huge lump of pain in my stomach. My life had been turned upside down. Somehow I managed to pull myself together and walk out of the embassy.
I wasn’t ready or willing to return to Aba without the visa. At this point it no longer mattered exactly where I would go; I just wanted to get out of Africa. All the countries I had studied on my map flashed through my mind. I thought of all the ones with embassies in Nigeria, and which ones would be easier to obtain a visa from. One that came to mind was Trinidad and Tobago. Trinidad and Tobago and Nigeria were both Commonwealth countries, and I had learned that Commonwealth countries were supposed to grant each other visas easily. I hurried to the Trinidad and Tobago embassy to fill out an application, and was granted a three-month tourist visa.
I was pleased that my trip to Lagos was not a complete waste. I now had the opportunity to leave Africa, but the question remained how I would convince my uncle that it was a good idea to go to Trinidad and Tobago.
Back in Aba the next day, I approached him during breakfast. Before I could start, he asked how my trip to Lagos went. I feigned enthusiasm and told him what had happened, adding that I had heard there were a lot of opportunities in Trinidad and Tobago, and that the island was much closer to the United States—which meant that within a short time, I could possibly migrate there.
My uncle jumped from his chair, screaming at me, asking if I had lost my mind. He demanded to know the reason why I had chosen to go to a slave country, yelling and screaming that Trinidad and Tobago had no prospects for me; it was a country where America had dumped their freed slaves, and Nigeria was much better. He insisted that he would never send me to Trinidad and Tobago. I tried my best to convince him, but he wouldn’t listen. He ordered that I be patient while he found someone who could help me get a United States or British visa.
I was deeply disappointed and became very depressed. I knew it would take a long time before he would ever try again, but I did not give up hope entirely. I remained determined to continue to serve him and his family. Later, I started going to his office regularly, hoping that my daily presence would remind him that something still needed to be done about my future.
Occasionally I would drive him and his friends to different places for their money laundering schemes. As time went on, I realized that he was also sleeping with his secretary, Felicia. I befriended Felicia so she could put in a good word for me from time to time. Of course, she had little choice in the matter. She knew that if she didn’t dance to my tune, I could tell my uncle’s wife about the affair.
Eventually, my uncle called me and advised me to look for a business that I could do while he tried to find a way to send me overseas. I still had the five-hundred-dollar traveling allowance he had given me, as well as the refund from my plane ticket. I told my uncle I wanted to use that money to travel by road to Cameroon, where I would buy some goods to bring home and resell in Nigeria. He thought it was a great idea, and asked me to bring anybody I knew who was already in the business and willing to show me the ropes. With Okey De Boy’s help, I was able to find someone, and I brought him to my uncle to explain how the process worked. The man said that they usually went by road from Aba to Cross River State, at which point they would use a ferry or speedboat and cross over to Cameroon. After purchasing their goods, they would return the same way. He explained the profit margins as well as the frequency of the trips.
As soon as the man left, my uncle told me he would never support a business like that. Once again, I tried my best to convince him that this business seemed like a good idea and would keep me busy while I waited for the opportunity to travel. If he allowed me to do it, I argued, I might just be able to make enough money to pay for the overseas trip by myself.
My uncle refused to listen to me, and the next day ordered me to return all the money that I had with me, claiming that he needed it do something very important and promising to return it later. He had probably sensed that I might run off with it and embark on the Cameroon business without his consent. I immediately gave all the money back to him. He must have realized how angry and disappointed I was, so he came up with a trick. Every few days he would call me and tell me what I wanted to hear: that he was working hard and was almost at the end of the process to send me abroad. Each time he said it, I would be happy for a few days. He continued with this teasing for almost a year, but nothing happened.
My uncle was busy stirring up more drama outside the household. One of his best friends, Dee-Ebere, lived with his wife, three children, and niece on the street adjacent to ours. He specialized in the import-export business and frequently traveled to London to buy his goods. Dee-Ebere was estranged from his wife, who had found out that he had a mistress and a daughter in London. This time, Dee-Ebere was having financial problems in London and didn’t return to Nigeria for more than six months. He had thrown his wife out of his house in Nigeria, so his niece, Uzoamaka, became responsible for taking care of his house and children..
To Be Continued…