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Dressed in a long, white Nigerian robe, my uncle Ikenna passes around a dish filled with hard, dark brown kola nuts to about 30 Nigerian World Bank officials and community leaders as they sit in my grandfather’s “little palace” in Amator, one of the villages of Amuzu in the Aboh Mbaise local government area, in Imo State, Nigeria. The tradition here is that when a guest arrives, the host offers a kola nut, one of Nigeria’s many natural resources — if that person is welcome. “If you come into my home and I don’t give you a kola nut,” says my 85-year-old grandfather, who is the grand chief, or eze, of nine villages here in Amuzu, “it means that person should get out of my home or I go kick them out, Oh.” On this day, my grandfather gives me a kola nut — not to welcome me as a guest, but as a member of the family who finally made her way from across the Atlantic. “This is your home. This is where you belong. We are your family,” my grandfather, uncles, and other family friends tell me and my 21-year-old sister, who also made the journey. After 27 years of hearing stories about my grandfather and other relatives in Nigeria, I’ve finally made it to the country. I’m a first-generation Nigerian-American, meeting my family here for the very first time. The extending town of Mbaise in Imo State — surrounded by tall palm, mango, and plantain trees and unending cassava and yam fields — is about 20 miles east of bustling Owerri, which itself is a five-hour drive southeast from Lagos, Nigeria’s former capital. At my grandfather’s little palace inside the family’s gated compound, tall pieces of sharp, broken glass line the top of the concrete walls that surround the compound. Inside, the crowd discusses the opening of a new marketplace, which will bring hundreds of thousands of Nigerian naira a year into the community. The marketplace will sell goods like bread, cashews, toilet paper, baskets, and phone cards. It’s been a while since a new market has opened in this area, where most of the homes don’t have indoor plumbing or electricity. Very few families, like my own, are lucky enough to afford generators. WAR’S DAMAGES My family fled to this village from the oil-rich southern delta of Port Harcourt. My family and other Christian Igbos in Nigeria’s bloody 40-year-old civil war — known as the Biafran war — fled from the Nigerian army after Col. Emeka Ojukwu, the head of the Igbo-populated southeastern region, declared that region the Republic of Biafra on May 30, 1967. After years of ethnic rivalry amongst the three major tribes — Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba — and the struggle to improve the socioeconomic and political standing of Igbos in this West African nation, the Igbos, in a failed attempt, decided to form their own country. Today, many still refer to the southeastern region of Nigeria as Igboland. On this day, my father, a business professor in D.C. who fled with his parents to the compound at the outbreak of the civil war and later fought as a teenager in the war, prepares to welcome the World Bank officials to my grandfather’s palace. Later, my family and World Bank officials will continue down the bumpy orange dirt road for the opening ceremony of the marketplace where traditional women dancers in red skirts and intricately tied head scarves will open the celebration. A lottery will assign each family to a particular shop in the marketplace. “It’s a special event,” my father says, “So no jeans, no sneakers, no sandals.” I quickly sift through my overflowing suitcase to find a long skirt and a sleeveless top. As I enter the palace, camera crews from the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria follow. This local economic project is not only opening new market centers in our village, but in other villages as well. With its help, more families will have access to better health care and education. Some in the village can’t afford the 1,250 naira — only about $10 in U.S. currency — to send all of their children to school. “My parents work,” 12-year-old Olamachi says. “But I have brothers and sisters and they can’t send us all to school.” My father sits in the center of the palace, wearing his crisp pin-striped suit with suspenders as my grandfather announces to the World Bank officials that along with the opening of the marketplace and the hope that it will restore to the community, he is also celebrating the arrival of his eldest son and grandchildren from America. My grandfather, G.I. Elugwaraonu, formally called the Igwe, Uzu 1 of Amuzu-Mbaise, has been the eze for more than two decades. People say that not even a pin can drop in any of his villages without his consent. And although he’s 85, he has a vivid memory — and imagination — telling magical stories of the war as if it all happened yesterday. As one story goes, a soldier ripped the shirt from my grandfather’s back and began flogging him with a whip, once, twice. Suddenly the whip jumped from my grandfather’s back and began to flog the soldier. “That whip leapt from me and phew, phew, hit that man,” my grandfather says, his eyes widening and his thin but strong body leaping forward, as if imitating the whip. “It was because I was on Ojukwu’s side, I told them.” That night, after the ceremony, my Nigerian cousins and I sit together, glued to his every word and quick gestures, as he recounts the incident. We simultaneously erupt with laughter after hearing his story, feeling privileged to be in his presence, as the young princes and princesses of the village. My father had heard the story of the flying whip many times, along with dozens of other stories. But we watch him as he thrusts his head back and holds his stomach, still amused. With the sounds of animals rustling in the bushes and the melodic buzzing of dragonflies surrounding us, I realize that as I am getting to know my grandfather for the very first time, I am also still getting to know my own father. When I watch the two of them together, I finally understand why I had always viewed my father as not only one of the most intelligent people I know, but also as a strong and resilient man. My father had last visited Nigeria 13 years ago, but it’s evident hat the closeness between him and my grandfather has not dissolved with distance. More than 20 years ago, my grandfather had taken over as eze from my great-grandfather. A stone statue of my great-grandfather sits alongside the road leading up to our compound. It is believed that he had about 10 wives. When I am greeted with hugs and smiles from two of my grandfather’s three wives the first day I arrive in the village, I’m amazed. It’s important to note, my grandfather says, that times have changed. Today, a man can marry only one wife, his first wife, in the Catholic church, and the others through traditional African ceremonies. My grandfather’s first wife is known as the ugoeze, or mother of the village. She accompanies him to events, takes photos with him, and is regarded as a queen. EVERY SUNDAY Every Sunday the ugoeze attends the small, windowless Catholic church, where she and my grandfather sit in a designated area. My grandfather’s second wife — and another grandmother for me — sits in the congregation. On this Sunday, lizards scurry beneath the chairs and across the walls. Women and girls arrive in colorful Nigerian lace dresses and skirts, their heads covered in scarves tied in styles that reach high into the air. During the service, the congregation of about 120 people dance their way up to the priest, drop their tithes in a huge straw bucket, and receive a spray of holy water in their faces from a white 409 bottle. After church services, my 14-year-old cousin Chidemma makes her daily round of chores. Like many of the teenagers here, she carries responsibilities that add levels of maturity to her young age. “Faster!” Chidemma yells. She’s sitting on the back of the bicycle as I pedal my way down the dirt road. It’s almost dark and the ugoeze wants Chidemma to hurry to the pump to fill our bucket with water so we can have our usual dinner of rice and chicken-tomato stew with fried plantains. My pedaling accelerates as I try to impress my cousin, a mature teenager who carries her wooden desk and chair to and from school on the back of her bicycle every day and who thinks that this 27-year-old from America doesn’t know how to ride a bike. Chidemma has many duties on the compound, gathering firewood and water, cleaning, cooking, and sometimes killing the chickens that are served as delicacies for special guests. “ Chinaeke! [Oh, my God,]” Chidemma says with a smile as we reach the water pump, where three men stand guard. “ How do you know how to ride a bike? Who taught you? When did you learn?” Approaching the water pump, Chidemma tells one of the men to fill her bucket. The two have a conversation in Igbo, and Chidemma’s voice escalates. “ Owu ashi [that's a lie],” she responds to the man. She says he’s wrong; she did pay him for the water she received days ago. He wants more money. “No, we pay 50 naira. No more,” she tells him, handling herself more like an adult than a junior high student. Earlier in the week, she had demanded that I dispose of a red rose and a small pear given to me by a young man who had come to welcome me to the village. “Throw it away,” she said in her soft but authoritative tone. “I don’t know him, but I don’t trust him. I don’t like his character.” At the water pump, Chidemma doesn’t back down and the man eventually gives us the water at a fair price. I pedal back to our compound, passing groups of children strolling down the long, winding road with huge machetes in hand, chopping down fruits and vegetables to take home to their families. Boys climb the tall barks of palm trees to gather palm leaves or fruit from the vines to be used later to make sweet palm wine or as cooking oil for things like egusi or ogbono stew for fufu, a traditional West African dish. All of this is so new to me. I am discovering a part of me that had been hidden for 27 years. NEXT IN LINE A week before we head back to the United States, my grandfather’s official cabinet — the elders in the villages — holds a ceremony where my father is installed as nze, a title given to the eldest son and the next in line to succeed my grandfather as grand chief of the villages. The title is also given to prominent residents with outstanding community service and leadership skills. But knowing that he can’t stay is hard for him. Knowing that we’ll have to leave at the end of our journey here is even more difficult for my sister and me. We’ve felt so welcomed since the day we arrived. This is a moment we had all been praying for under two different skies, hoping that we would start a connection between our family in Nigeria and the United States. I think back to our first day on the compound. My grandfather has returned from a meeting with the other elders in the village. My aunt Ifeoma calls my sister and me and tells us that our grandfather is home. We walk toward the back of the compound in anticipation. We stand side by side as our father walks toward us with his father, their arms intertwined. My grandfather, dressed in a long burgundy and gold robe with a matching head garment, holds out his right arm to embrace us. We all hug. “I have been waiting for this day forever,” my grandfather says to us. His voice is deep and rhythmic, different from what I remember from our brief static-ridden telephone conversations. “I am finally seeing my grandchildren from America, face to face. I am so happy. I know that if I die today, I will surely go to heaven.”
Osita Iroegbu, formerly a reporter for Legal Times , is now a reporter at the Richmond Free Press .

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