Mark of a Man
Reginald R.C. Ofodile
Illustration of a shattered face

Mark of a Man

Reginald R.C. Ofodile

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 ‘You’re a big boy,’ declared Gbenga, gesturing at Izu’s sitting room. ‘You can’t deny who you are.’ The group of friends chuckled. Izu silently accepted Gbenga’s acclaim. The sitting room reflected its owner’s affluence. It was a spacious, sumptuous salon. Izu indisputably belonged in the league of highly successful men, the ‘big boys.’

    Obiora now spoke in an undertone. ‘I hear Izu is really a big boy.’ His companions grasped the naughty innuendo and sniggered. Gbenga glanced around cautiously. ‘Madam is not at home?’

    ‘What are you afraid of?’ charged Izu. ‘You don’t want her to know her husband has bad friends?’

    The group of six men, their ages ranging from mid 30s to early 40s, sipped wine and beer, and took handfuls from plates of nuts and plantain crisps.

    Okon now spoke: ‘I see you have special kekes in this area.’

    ‘Well, they’d have to be special kekes,’ Obiora rejoined. ‘It’s a very posh area. Keke is poor man’s transport.’

    ‘But, whoever invented it is a genius,’ Okon said. ‘When I first saw a keke, I thought, “this is it. Three wheels, so small it can get through bad traffic…” It’s just great.’

    ‘Have you been on one?’ Obiora jested.

    ‘No. I wanted to the other day… just to know how it feels,’ Okon explained. ‘Dele, my driver: “Oga, abeg o. Oga, na me go shame if you ride keke. With your fine Mercedes jeep and Sienna… fine, fine cars for garage. How my oga go enter keke?”1’  All six men laughed heartily.

    ‘Those drivers. He wants his master to stay a “big man”,’ mused Okon.

    ‘But, those drivers,’ Olu opined. ‘What some of them make off us.’ His voice was disgruntled. His friends murmured in sympathy and he continued. ‘Motor maintenance. Always, trouble. The this, the that... Always something going wrong in the car, something to mend or replace or service. You finish one task, another comes up. Some of those drivers are so dishonest. Just milking us and telling us lies.’

    'I beg o. Boss, the shame will be mine if you ride in a keke. You’ve your fine Mercedes jeep and Sienna, fine fine cars in the garage. How could my boss board a keke?'

    ‘You’re right,’ Obiora agreed. ‘If it wasn’t for one’s position in life, I’d just sell off my cars and go everywhere in keke or bus.’

    ‘You can’t be serious,’ his friends laughed. ‘A top man, with property on Lekki and VI, and you ride on a Lagos bus? People will say you’ve gone mad.’

    ‘The worst thing about having cars,’ Dotun now opined, ‘is not even the drivers or mechanics. ‘It’s having a teenage son. My son, Femi, is hell. Always driving around, wasting petrol, showing off in cars that I sweated and suffered to buy. Teenagers!’ He shook his head.

    ‘Well, we weren’t angels in our time,’ Izu said.

    ‘We were different,’ Dotun insisted. ‘We had our wild times, but nothing like this. We had more respect. We looked at our fathers’ faces to know what they thought about us. Today’s teenagers don’t even look at your face.’

    ‘True,’ Gbenga affirmed. ‘There was fear in our time. Young people today have no fear.’

    Izu sensed in their camaraderie nostalgia for bachelordom, the days unencumbered with marital and parental cares, when at the onset of the weekend the overriding concern was to seduce some girls.

     Izu’s wife Nora was away in their hometown for two days. She was attending an important charity church event to which they had both been bidden. Izu had excused himself from the trip. As he chatted and drank with his friends, he was glad he had not gone to the function. The company that Friday night was delectable, recalling university and early career ease, when the middle age in which he now belonged had seemed a century away.

    Izu was sad when the inevitable parting came, and his friends said their ‘good nights’ and drove off.

    Climbing up the stairs to his bedroom, he panicked. Had some violent man crept upstairs to harm his son, Uche? He heard Uche sobbing. Izu bounded up the stairs and sprang to Uche’s door. His teenage son was crumpled up in bed, weeping. ‘What is it, what is it?’ asked Izu.

    A few minutes later, Izu left the room, angry and disgusted. Later, lying in bed, he thought of the object of his fury and revulsion: his son Uche. The foolish, feckless, feeble, fey boy had been crying over some pathetic scene in a novel! Less than thirty minutes earlier, Dotun had complained of his son Femi’s boisterousness. Izu would have preferred a son like Femi, exuding assertiveness, manliness.

    Izu recalled his own personality in his boyhood. He had been assertive, a sturdy lad seldom defeated in a fight. ‘Odogwu, odogwu,’2 relatives would acclaim his feats of brawn. During mid-morning breaks in his primary school, no sooner would the bell ring than he would run to the school field and disconcert schoolmates in the impromptu football games. Those were not proper matches but casual, ball-kicking exercises by the boys, without the correct numbers of players at the goal posts. Izu had skillfully improvised miniature carts, and other feats of juvenile engineering.

    Izu had developed into an impressive adolescent and young man. He was a natural leader. He was not extraordinary in school work, and often stayed close to average. Izu was never a victim of school bullying – he bullied and cowed weaklings like Chide… Now Izu started at the revolting thought that he had ended up fathering a Chide.

    After a day of work and an evening of socializing, the combination of his cushy bed and air-conditioned temperature of his bedroom normally lulled Izu into deep slumber. Tonight, his memory activated, nothing could induce somnolence.

    He recalled Chide sitting at his desk in class, a few rows in front of Izu’s. Chide was a good-looking, fair-complexioned boy. He showed remarkable ability in arts subjects. A tutor once hailed the boy, ‘Professor!’ Once, in a history class, Izu had made certain remarks about Ghana. He had said that Ghana was over a thousand years old, being the first of the three great Empires of the ancient West African savannah: Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. The teacher had been appalled, asked, ‘Which Ghana?’ then enquired if no student had another answer. Izu recalled the promptness with which Chide had stood to educate him. ‘Modern Ghana geographically is at least a thousand miles from the ancient Ghana Empire. They are two different entities.  Modern Ghana was the geographical entity termed “Gold Coast” by the colonial masters.  On its attainment of independence in 1957,  its leaders decided to give it the grand historical name of Ghana, rather than retain “Gold Coast” which was given by the colonial masters…’

    In a literature class, there had been an assignment to present an appraisal of John Munonye’s novel, The Only Son. Two pupils had been called, and been halted when they could  not have been more than a couple of minutes into their presentation. ‘Stop, is that English you are speaking?’ the literature tutor had snarled at the first speaker. ‘Go back to primary school and start to learn English from scratch. Your standard is too low.’

    The next speaker had also been stopped peremptorily. ‘I did not ask for an imaginary biography of “Nnanna”,’ the teacher snapped. ‘I asked for an appraisal of the novel.’

    Chide was then called. The brat stood in front of the class, and began in his disgustingly high voice: ‘The Only Son is the story of a widow, Chiaku, and her only child, Nnanna. From the beginning, we are plunged into their lives of struggle and oppression. Chiaku is just returning from an annoying meeting with her brother Oji and…’ Izu’s gaze had alternated between the confidently prattling boy, and the teacher’s adoring countenance. When Chide’s presentation ended, the teacher and most of the class erupted in cheering, the sort of acclaim usually accorded a national football team returning from a world cup triumph.

    Izu’s enduring contempt for the boy was not caused by envy of his academic flourishes. Indeed, Chide was too insubstantial for Izu to envy. Izu simply harboured deep disdain for Chide. Chide was too weak: easily bullied by other lads, emotional, lacking assertiveness, sitting about absorbed in story books or novels. On completion of secondary schooling, Chide was one of only three students in their school who passed the Joint Matriculation Examinations and was admitted to university to study the much-coveted law. That achievement had not lessened Izu’s scorn, although Izu had to wait a year before he passed the examination and was admitted to university.

    Tonight, Izu winced at the thought that he had fathered a Chide in Uche.

    Uche was Izu’s first child and only son. Izu’s wife, Nora, bore three girls after Chide. Izu’s bids at having sons by girlfriends had resulted in the births of two more girls by his mistresses. His favourite girlfriend, Nwanma, had borne no child. Nwanma was a source of mingled ecstasy and intense vexation in Izu’s life. He had pursued her determinedly, and winning her had been tremendously thrilling.

    Nwanma was a lawyer, highly placed in the corporate world of Lagos. She had told Izu she operated a strict contraceptive regimen and had no intention of having a child outside wedlock. ‘I know it’s what some of our girls like. Have a child for some “big man” and hold on to him, so he’ll be giving you money and coming over when he can leave his main  family… Not for me o!’

    Izu shared the outlook of most of his community – female children would marry and leave to build up their husbands’ homes. The son would perpetuate the family name and homestead. Izu had built up a considerable fortune as a chartered accountant and financial consultant. Much would devolve on Uche. Uche was proving utterly incapable of bearing the responsibilities of his destiny. How could he hold his own in the tough world of finance, how command staff and other subordinates, with his too amiable, too malleable disposition? Would he, Izu, devote so many arduous years to his business only for the yield of his toil to be wasted and lost?

   Uche was approaching fourteen, and attending a very costly private school. His grades were often respectable. He seemed to manage to do enough work to get by. When Izu asked him about sporting activities, Uche would cringe. ‘They’d break my legs.’ ‘No soccer, not even table tennis?’ Izu enquired. His son’s countenance ranged from disinterest to distaste for those activities.

    The following day, Izu felt his son would impel him into murder. Izu had returned from work, and was informed that Nora had returned from their hometown and gone to a meeting. As Izu walked wearily towards the staircase to ascend to the repose of his bedroom, he glanced into the kitchen. He saw Uche attending to a pan on the hob. Izu approached just as Uche took two slices of nicely browned French toast off the frying pan onto a plate. Uche then placed dainty tomato slices on the French toast. He was absorbed and content as some housewife making dinner for her cherished husband. In a swift, deft movement, Izu grabbed the plate of food, hurled it on the floor and hardly noted his son’s bemused countenance before stomping out of the kitchen. He knew that if he stayed just a second longer in that kitchen, Uche would meet the same fate as the plate and bread slices.

    Uche’s trying traits were made more annoying by the fact that other aspects of Izu’s life were satisfactory. Izu’s career was booming. He had the conspicuous prosperity and comforts which conferred society’s respect in Lagos. His wife had a good life, with her usually undemanding job. Izu provided generously for her. Now, in his early middle age, he lacked nothing that was expected of someone of his education. His son’s effeteness was the snake slithering into his Eden.

    Some days later, Izu drove to Nwanma’s. He wondered sometimes how it would feel to have Nwanma move into his home. He had told Nora once in jest: ‘I’ll bring other women in here. We’re African, after all. It would be nice for you to have a co-wife, you know, help you with running the household.’ Nora had merely glanced at him from the corner of her eyes, and he continued. ‘Our ancestors were wise. They knew a household needed more than one woman. That’s why they said a good woman wouldn’t want to keep her husband to herself alone.’

    ‘Our ancestors were chauvinists,’ Nora retorted. ‘They also said, whenever two people hated each other and quarreled at length, “you two are just like co-wives.” So, they knew that two women over one household quarreled incessantly. Those ancestors of ours oppressed women.’

    ‘Oh, feminism,’ sighed Izu. ‘You new African women are turning away from the wisdom of the past.’

    ‘The oppression of the past,’ Nora rejoined. ‘In the past, if a man died, his wife spent seven months in ashes, without having a bath. If a woman died, her husband did not have to suffer that.’

    Izu seldom rowed with Nora. He felt he knew why Nora hardly ever raged about his stealthy, amorous outings. When Uche was two, and his younger sister Amaka only one month old, they had been visiting their hometown. Nora had been infuriated over some love affair of Izu’s. She and Izu were screaming at each other, Nora hurling saucers, Izu threatening murder, Nora vowing to set his cherished house ablaze…

    A cousin of Nora’s had walked in and quelled the fray. Izu, feeling he wished to be as far away as possible from the wife he had just called a ‘wild beast,’ left the house. Later, he needed cash and came back to take his wallet. He entered the house through the back door, and overheard the advice Nora was receiving from her cousin.

    ‘Nora, you’re behaving like a fool. Yes, listen to me. I’ve asked you how he is as a husband. You say he provides well for you. Only problem is he has affairs. Does that surprise you? A successful, handsome man of thirty? Why shouldn’t he have affairs?  Are you the one who circumcised him?  Doesn’t it say in the Bible – Book of Proverbs – it’s better to live in a corner of the roof than with a nagging woman? Listen. You go on behaving like this and you and Izu split up, nonsense women will come from outside to enjoy your home. Then you would start preying on other women’s husbands, doing to others just what you’re complaining of. Then even gutter men will think they can sleep with you, all because you are single. Time goes fast. Izu is the one who will get wearied by womanizing. Before he knows it, he’ll be tired. I know there are dangers from disease, but there are dangers too if you leave him and start having affairs…’

    The women remained unaware of Izu’s presence in the house. However, he noted a considerable change in Nora’s attitude after that day. Her outbursts over his infidelities became very infrequent. She even mustered humour over his adultery! Once, as he was about to leave the house for an assignation, muttering that he had an important appointment, Nora giggled. ‘Indeed, and your driver can’t take you for this important appointment? Please, protect yourself. AIDS is everywhere.’

    Today, brooding over his son’s behavior, Izu sought Nwanma. Nwanma, that source of exasperation and fascination and object of grudging respect! She made it clear that she appreciated him, enjoyed their affair, but kept a certain independence. Nwanma was highly intelligent and cosmopolitan, well-read and well-travelled.

    Izu relaxed in Nwanma’s bedroom. Having taken off his jacket and shoes, he reclined on the bed and sipped wine. Nwanma moved about, tidying up. She suddenly spoke: ‘I won’t pry. If you don’t want to talk about it…’ she made a gesture indicating the decision would not bother her. ‘But, if you want to… if there’s anything I can do… you never know.’

    The perceptive girl had noticed his preoccupation. Izu seldom mentioned his family in Nwanma’s company. Indeed, he never discussed Nora with her. Now he sighed, ‘My son, my son.’

    ‘What’s happened to him?’ Nwanma was concerned.

    ‘Nothing. But everything. He…’ Izu tried for a second to restrain his feelings, then blurted out. ‘I think I’ve got a homosexual on my hands. With this fourteen year jail sentence in the house of Representatives for gays and now my son might…’ To Izu’s annoyance, Nwanma burst into laughter.

    ‘What’s funny?’ he raged. Nwanma’s mirth continued for some moments before it abated. ‘Did you catch your son with a man?’

    ‘Did I catch my son with a man?’ Izu was incredulous. ‘If I did, my son and that man would be dead before you could say “Jack Robinson”. Indeed! Nwanma, please, don’t tell me such stupid things again. In fact, if he proves gay, he just can’t be my son. I’d know my wife had him by another man.’

    ‘World of Things Fall Apart again,’ Nwanma mused. ‘Okonkwo and Nwoye.’ After a while, she spoke again. ‘I’m only trying to help.’

    ‘I’ve been busy, making money,’ Izu reflected. ‘But what can I do? If you’re penniless in this Lagos, how could you hold up your head? I can’t be everywhere at once. I could have corrected things earlier. But should I have been a stay-at-home husband and asked my wife to earn our family’s living so that I could supervise our son?

    ‘Uche liked wearing girls’ dresses. He even liked dolls. His sister Amaka was born two years after him so he played with her dolls and we didn’t see the danger in that. We thought it was sweet; he was being a good brother. Even now, he sometimes puts on make-up… how could I discuss this with my friends?… I’m so ashamed. His mother often defends him. She’s his best friend… My own son disgusts me… When I think of Uche, I want to vomit…’  

    ‘I thought you were intelligent,’ came Nwanma’s scornful comment.

    ‘Hey, Nwanma, don’t insult me,’ began Izu. Nwanma reclined beside him on her bed, hands folded behind her head, apparently oblivious of his words and outrage.

    ‘Your son disgusts you. Why aren’t you disgusted at yourself?’

    ‘Why should I be? I’m a solid citizen, I’m a respectable man.’

    ‘And if your son is homosexual, as you say, you’d disown him?’

    ‘I’d do worse. I’d kill him because I’d know he’s a bastard. My biological son can’t be homosexual. It’s forbidden in the Bible. It’s the …’ He was again irked by Nwanma’s laughter.

    ‘Is fornication not defined in scriptures as a deadly sin, Izu? You commit the deadly sin of fornication most days you come here. Yet you quote the Bible. Did Jesus not say that even if you looked lustfully at a woman, you’ve sinned with her in your heart?’

    ‘You heard of the famous Italian designer killed by a male lover?’ asked Izu.  

    ‘And how many people are killed by lovers and spouses of the opposite gender?’ asked Nwanma.

    ‘Nwanma, I never knew you had such abnormal views. That’s what happens to our people who stay abroad too long. You forget our culture which…’

    ‘Oh, yes, your culture. The submissive woman, beaten up by the husband whenever he wants to, the woman to be seen and not heard. Did your culture not say that twins should be murdered, because only goats and dogs could have more than one issue at a time? So twin birth, which is just a biological process, became abomination. Our culture buried human beings alive with dead chiefs. Our culture tortured widows but not widowers. Should culture be static? Should we shut our eyes to scientific fact?’

    ‘You’ve been brainwashed by the Western media, that’s all,’ declared Izu.

    ‘Izu, if you insult me again, I’ll throw you out of this house,’ Nwanma warned. Izu stood up instantly and sought his shoes and jacket.

    ‘Problem is, your son is only thirteen, isn’t he?’ Nwanma said. ‘You’re not sure what he’s going to be. But, we’re all made differently. What riles me is, our people don’t even know what morality is. It’s just selective immorality that they call morality. So, a man could make hundred girls pregnant and abort the babies… some of the girls are left barren by these abortions, some of the girls even die from septic abortions, yet the man is respectable, the man even condemns gays as ‘anti-procreation!’ From my school days, I knew girls who died aborting babies. These of course were caused by straight men, not gays. Nature has its varieties, for goodness sake.

    ‘Some people are albinos, some are left-handed, some are white and blue-eyed, some black and some gay. In any case, would we have culture or civilization in the world without the people seen as “odd?”’

    Izu, tying up his shoe laces, had been halted by the conviction in Nwanma’s voice. Now, he was dismayed. ‘The Western brainwash…’

    ‘I’m not brainwashed. I’m informed,’ insisted Nwanma.

    ‘You’re one of those who follow everything the West says,’ accused Izu. Nwanma ignored his sneer, then remarked, ‘You know what happens in the animal world? The male lion finds a female to mate, kills the issue the female had by other males, makes her pregnant and protects the issue she has by him. Then, when the male is old, his own offspring kill him.’

    ‘What’s the point of all this?  You’re now a zoology lecturer?’

    ‘Trying to help you, my darling. Boys kill fathers. First sons often have a special relationship with their mothers, and hate their fathers. That’s nature. Don’t make your only son hate you more than can be helped… You know Uche might be a genius. That “odd” boy could make your name immortal in a way that hundred “normal” sons can’t.’

    Izu merely gazed at her. He had stopped trying to fathom her reasoning. Nwanma stretched in bed, enjoying her languor. Then she spoke, her tones even and candid. ‘Izu, you   are a macho man, my type. But, not every man is the same. Nature has its varieties. And each has its uses. If there were only warriors, there’d be no peace. Peacemakers have their role.

    ‘You know what I said earlier about genius? Tchaikovsky, the composer, was called “a child of glass.” So fragile emotionally. Throughout history, people like Michaelangelo, Thomas Gray, Proust, Housman, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton… without the effeminate man, the extremely sensitive man, there’d be no culture or civilization. So, my man, people like you will be forgotten and people like Uche could become immortal. Their names imperishable.’

    Izu strove to suppress his swelling ease and amusement. ‘A man comes to his girlfriend for fun and relaxation and he gets a lecture on history and sociology and psychology. Na wa oh!’ 3

    Accustomed bliss and amorousness displaced their earlier friction. When, some two hours later, Izu drove off from Nwanma’s, he was tranquil. He always dispensed with his driver when visiting a girlfriend. Although a middle-aged married man with girlfriends was not scandalous in Nigeria, Izu felt gossip was best kept at bay.

    He mentally devised gentler, more patient methods for supervising his son. He hoped to make him more assertive, more masculine, but would be sensitive and intelligent about it. Izu was suddenly struck by a sense of calamity. It was like an electric shock. He braked. Several minutes must have passed before he became aware of the pedestrians screaming at him, accusing him of having nearly killed three children. He remained bemused. Izu reflected later that what happened to him in the car was psychic.

    Tragedy had befallen his son, and the occurrence was devastating him, the father, well before he learned of the incident…

    Izu’s phone rang. He panicked – the sound portended doom.  Managing to edge his car to the side of the road, he remained too terrified to take the call. The phone’s seemingly interminable ringing ceased, only to resume almost instantly. Trembling, Izu answered it. Nora sounded insane.

    ‘Uche is dead, Uche is dead. Where are you?’ Izu could not afterwards recall all his actions. He must have lurched out of his car, hailed a taxi, somehow managed to give his address to the driver.

    Nora was not at home. His servants said she had suddenly left with their driver. Her number remained busy through numerous calls. Izu, alternating between hysteria and lucidity, passed a hellish hour. He reached his good friend, Gbenga, who drove to Izu’s house at the shocking news that Izu’s only son was dead.

    Gbenga continued the onerous task of making calls, using the numbers listed on Izu’s phone. Nora was reached finally, her voice barely audible.

    ‘Nora, what do you say happened to Uche?’ Izu shouted.

    ‘I don’t know. They are still fighting.’

    ‘Who’s fighting who? What are you talking about?’

    ‘In the theatre.’

    ‘Are you mad, Nora?’ rasped exasperated Izu.

    Gbenga took over the phone. His patient and composed enquiries eventually revealed the situation to the two men. Uche had poisoned himself and been rushed to St Nicholas’ Hospital. He had left a note saying that paternal bullying added to schoolmates’ bullying had made his life unbearable. He was still breathing, as far as Nora knew. The doctors were closeted with him in the theatre.

    Izu was shortly in Gbenga’s car as his friend drove to St Nicholas’. Izu had not prayed for over twenty years. Now he kept trying to kneel in the car, praying frenziedly. ‘Dear Lord, please, please, forgive me my sins. How could I start to list them? Am I not an adulterer? Did I not vow to cherish Nora and keep myself to her only for life? Have I kept my vows? How many abortions did I cause as a bachelor? One of my girlfriends even died aborting my baby. Why did I think I was morally superior to so-called effeminate men just because I obeyed the laws of man, the selective immorality of my community? Why was I so idiotic as to judge and condemn my kindly, caring, gentle son because I refused to see my own filth… we’re told about seeing the beam in another’s eye while ignoring the log in ours… Lord, please don’t let Uche die. Please, don’t take him from me. Not today, please, not today…’

    The car drove into view of St Nicholas’ Hospital. Izu distantly heard Gbenga urge: ‘Be a man. You’ve wet your trousers.’


© R.C. Ofodile

(first published in From Sin to Splendour by JusticeWatch, 2015)


1 Master/Boss (oga)

2 Warrior, or valiant one.

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Reginald R.C. Ofodile

R.C. Ofodile is the author of 'From Sin to Splendour', which won the 2016 Association of Nigerian Author's Abubakr Gimba Prize for Short Stories. He also won the 2017 Association of Nigerian Author's Prize for Drama.

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