On December 22, 2014, three days before Christmas, Matt’s journey was slow and seemingly endless. A forty-minute road trip from Owerri to Umuezeaga, his home village, stretched to over three hours.
The reasons were obvious. The roads were clogged with vehicles lined up bumper-to-bumper, each diving into valleys and emerging on the mounds of hills that served as routes. Three cars sought to occupy a single car lane. Hawkers, mostly women, carrying bananas and groundnuts on flat trays balanced on their heads, inserted themselves in the remaining tight spaces between the motorists.
In spite of his fatigue, Matt was overflowing with anticipatory nostalgia. He couldn’t wait to reach the village. There would be tranquility and he could finally get some rest. After all, he was on vacation. Umuezeaga was where people went to get a good night’s sleep. It was where natives went to get away from the noise pollution, the filth and the mosquito raids that existed in cities like Onitsha.
Folks would come to the village on Friday evening and leave on Monday morning. Three days of village retreat usually restored sanity. The sick sought out the village as a refuge for recuperation. The bereaved sought tranquility. The heartbroken sought a haven for restoration.
Upon arrival at the village, Matt was greeted by pitch darkness at nine pm. Not a surprise; he conquered the gloom with a set of lanterns and flashlights. Greetings, bathing and dinner over, he went to bed. Lingering dust from the window panes and bed sheet found its way to his nose. Sniffling and sneezing kept him awake for an extra thirty minutes, then nature won and he fell asleep.
Boom, boom! Bang, bang! More booms galvanized his soul into wakefulness. His body followed suit, leaping six inches off the bed. Both body and soul remained levitated for three seconds before collapsing back in shock. The fireworks, also known as ‘knockout,’ had begun.
Forty-five minutes later and there was still no end to the bombardment. When the noise finally abated, Matt let out a sigh of relief. ‘Thank goodness,’ he muttered to himself as he lay back on the bed. No sooner had he fallen asleep than another bout of fireworks began, endless and even louder than the first, all happening on the strip of dirt road in front of his house.
People in this community must be deaf, he concluded. Who the hell was tormenting the village? Was there no longer any consideration for the sanity of other people, the elders, the sick, the babies and the exhausted? The only clinic in the village was in the midst of this madness. It wasn’t until three in the morning that the bombardment stopped.
When daylight came, Matt was determined to find out how his beloved village became a boom box. In seeking an answer he visited a man named Nnamdi Chikelu, the acting leader in the community, a boyhood friend of Matt’s.
Nnamdi lived five minutes’ walking distance, several street dumpsters and two right turns away. What a dramatic change, Matt noticed as he walked. The corner pub from where as a kid he fetched fresh palm wine for his dad was now a home for Ogogoro, adulterated gin. The strip of soil where he’d played soccer had given way to trails and piles of garbage.
Chikelu’s house was along the road, enclosed in a black painted fence finished with barbed wire on top.When Matt opened the metal front gate, he could see Nnamdi already seated in the yard, talking to a couple of early visitors. Matt surveyed him quickly before he got to him. Nnamdi had only a wrap around his waist in baby diaper style. His trunk was bare, exposing his pot belly.
‘Boy oh boy, good to see you!’ Nnamdi began, rising from his chair. ‘I learned you were in the village.’ Both men clasped hands and swayed locked palms up and down, displacing still humid village air. Matt gave him an incomplete bear hug and sat down on a long wooden bench, resting his broad shoulder on the wall behind.
‘The noise, pal, the noise! I couldn’t sleep last night,’ Matt complained. The village leader was flustered momentarily, for though he’d heard of Matt’s dislike for the thunderous noise, he hadn’t had time to formulate a response. He ran his left hand over his chest to stroke the crop of sparse hair, then turned to his left flank and pinched a fold of fat as if to reassure himself of his bulk. Still mulling, he began pulling on a lone gray hair jutting out of his nostril.
Then he had an epiphany. ‘The noise is for Jesus – it’s all about Jesus,’ he said. ‘People are happy waiting for the newborn Jesus to come. What’s wrong with screaming for the newborn Jesus? I see nothing wrong with the atmosphere exploding to herald the birth of Christ.’
Matt listened in awe to this line of argument. He had heard this logic before. A common tactic used by many people in this part of the world was to throw God’s mighty name as a wedge against differences of opinion. Nobody wants to be known for arguing against the desires of the Almighty.
The noise escalated each day. The house to the left of Matt’s served as a community hall during the day and a church during the night. The congregation gathered every evening until three in the morning. They conducted their services with a mega loudspeaker. The intention was clear; they were preaching to the whole village, a community of about twenty thousand people.
On December 24, unable to sleep, Matt went down to listen to the preacher. He stayed behind the block fence that separated his house from the community hall.
The preacher was finishing a prayer against infertility: ‘jejejejejejejejejej——————-Jesus,’ he repeated over and over and again. His voice, magnified by the megaphone, was so loud it could wake the dead. To the men he instructed ‘Hold your crotches,’ and to the women he ordered, ‘Put your hands over your wombs.’ Then he invoked Aphrodite to descend upon them.
That over, he quickly pivoted to fundraising. ‘Those who want to give five thousand to Jesus stand up.’ Few probably did because he went down a notch. ‘Those who want to give Jesus two thousand naira stand up. Come over.’ He continued down the naira slope until he got down to those who would give fifty naira.
‘Search your pockets!’ he yelled continuously to a few poor fellows who remained seated. ‘Dig your hand in your pocket; bring whatever you have to Jesus. Don’t waste my time; don’t waste my time!’ he roared again and again, the echo of his voice shifting to the left and then to the right. When he was done picking their pockets, he offered them some gibberish prayer to the god of greed. They packed up at 3.15 am.
Two hours later, at about five in the morning, the town crier showed up in style, a megaphone fixed to the roof of his small Toyota truck. ‘Listen everybody!’ he broadcast. ‘At ten o’clock this morning, there will be a meeting of all males in the community who are of post-pubertal age, married or not, to discuss issues of importance.
‘Hairs on the chin and armpit are an indication of puberty,’ he further elaborated. ‘Failure to attend will attract a steep fine.’ He covered the entire village in fifteen minutes, then repeated the run six more times, making sure he woke up the sick, the elders, women and children. He made similar rounds the seven days that Matt was in town. Matt made an attempt to confront him, to ask him who gave him the authority to disturb the peace of the community. But the crier was quicker than a village squirrel.
Villages are a microcosm of a parent country. The disrespect for self and others that exists in Nigerian cities is now coming to the villages to roost. An ordinance that would reinstate peace and quiet to the community is long overdue.