By Edward Eremugo Luka (S. Sudan)
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Mama tells me that there is going to be a family meeting. I like family meetings. Well, this is not because of the many relatives converging in our house or the many different types of food that will be cooked. I love family meetings because my cousins will be coming. There have always been family meetings in our house. Given that my father is the eldest son, it is done in our house. It has more or less become a tradition, something that had been passed on from one generation to the other. That is what Mama tells me, but I am not sure how true that is. I guess she made it up so that it looks special I did not think many families have these kinds of meetings.
Whenever I tell my friends in school that my cousins are coming because we are going to have a family meeting, they think it is weird. I forgive them because they do not understand the importance of such meetings. For me it is another opportunity to meet my cousins who live in Yei, a good hundred miles away from Juba, where I live. They drive to our house and stay with us for two days before they return. We catch up on each other’s news, play together and run around the house. We do things that all girls our age do. And we talked a lot.
The last time we had these meetings, it was much fun. The topics ranged from updates on family issues to marriages. It also discussed the funeral arrangements for my grandfather, my dad’s father. It was a big occasion when it was held last year. Dad said it was a success because of good planning and the family gatherings that bring ideas and sharing. He makes these gatherings something that we children always look forward to. Mama says the next family gathering will be next week, on Saturday. My cousins will come on Friday afternoon.
I have many cousins. My father has three brothers and two sisters. On my mothers’ side she has also a brother and two sisters. So you can see how many cousins are going to come to our family meetings. When we were growing up, I used to find it hard to believe that all of us are related. We only know that we are very close because of the regular visits. I came to know some of my cousins when we are quite older.
I have two older brothers and a younger sister. One of my older brothers has completed university and is working with a company in Juba. He is one smart man, my brother is! My younger sister goes to the same school as me, although she is two years my junior. I will do my senior leaving exams next year and hope to go to university too. Two of my cousins are in the same class as me. We are age mates, actually. One remarkable thing is that our birthdays are on the same date with two of my cousins. My parents used to throw birthday parties for us in our house. When my cousins come for the meetings, they all help in the house. The boys bring the chairs, put up the tents and do many of the heavy chores. The girls are around the kitchen, helping my aunts with the cooking and going to the market. Since we were that many, we never hired anyone to help with the cooking. We did all our cooking and stuff.
Our house is not very big, but it is big enough for the gathering. The children are herded in one room and the women occupy two rooms adjacent to each other. The men have to manage in the verandahs or outside in the courtyard. When the gathering take place during the dry season, it is good because rains will not disturb us much.
* * *
Dad calls on everyone to take their seats. My uncles and aunts sit on the chairs arranged in a semi circle. The seating arrangement ensures that they sit close to their wives and husbands. The young children will have to make do on the ground. Mats are laid out in front of the semi circle and we crowd on them. However, my eldest brother and cousins are given seats as well. They have all made it to the family gathering. Earlier, they had food and drinks and just talked about many things except the meeting.
“It is good to see you all together again,” my Dad begins. Dad has a loud voice. He can speak without a microphone and many people far off can still hear his voice clearly. He prides himself with that voice, and distinguishes himself as a speaker of the family. Many years ago, I learned that my cousins call him the “Bull” behind his back. He knows nothing about the nick name. The gathering is one such occasion that he feels proud of hosting. “It has been a long time since we met like this. Our meeting today has many issues, which are very important indeed.”
Mama has not informed us about the topic. She is very secretive about it and we find it strange indeed. Previously, she would brag about what is going to be spoken in the meetings. When her younger sister was about to be married, she was very talkative about it. Mama was really worried about her sister. She was completely different from her, as if she was cut out of a different baobab tree.
I remember when she last visited us. Mama talked to her a lot. She came to introduce her boy friend to Mama. They talked a lot that day. Mama gave her blessing and the marriage took place. She had spoken highly about the gentleman. Mama knew his family and immediately approved the plan. Mama had feared that her sister will fall for some of the young good-for-nothing men whose sole aim was to spoil a girl and move on. That is how Mama described them: good-for-nothing souls.
My sister is now here with her husband and their little daughter, a cute little thing that resembles Mama more than her mother. They call her Hadia, in Arabic meaning a gift. She giggles and runs around the group every now and then, with her hands outstretched, before returning to her parents. Her mother scoops her up every time, and wipes the saliva dripping from her mouth with a napkin.
When the talks started, everyone fell silent as Dad narrated the issues and the uncles and aunts joined in the discussions and agreeing with many of the points. I noticed that most of the issues were general in nature: farms, housing and school for the children. A few things about the family business in town also came up.
At that particular time, a beautiful young lady walked into the compound. She found her way to an empty seat at one corner of the group and sat down. I lost track of the discussions immediately as I focused on the new arrival. She wore African attire, a long flowing dress that swept the ground as she walked and had a big head gear as well. She looked gorgeous. I had never seen her before in my life. All eyes settled on her briefly and returned to the speaker. I saw that the women in the group were stealing glances at her, curious glances of those who wanted to discover her secret.
“There is something important that we are going to talk about now,” Dad says.
Everyone turned to the young lady sitting at the corner. My mind went on a free fall of ideas as it tried to fathom the state of affairs. Was she the subject of the discussion? Why all the secrecy from the start?
“My son wants to marry,” dad continues. “As you know in our family, it is our tradition to introduce the bride to everyone.”
There was a murmur of approval from all seated. The murmur was something between a “yeah” and an “aah”. It suddenly downed on me that my elder brother was at last going to marry. He had been very quiet about it for some reason that I was yet to understand. So he confided in Dad and the family was being officially informed. The secret was coming out in bits. My brother just sits there, unmoved by the voices coming out and shouting congratulations to him. It was obvious that many of the family were taken by surprise.
True, many were surprised. Alex is the quiet one. Among my brothers and cousins, he was the one that many did not believe would ever get married. He was very shy, afraid to talk to ladies and minded his own business. When in company of ladies, he spoke only when spoken to and a man of few words. My cousins used to tease him that since he couldn’t speak to ladies, they would have to steal one for him.
“But we have a problem. When I spoke with my brother here, he says we need to talk about it as a family because of a certain reason.”
Dad turned to uncle Buni. My Uncle Buni liked to speak little. We always likened Alex to him; that he had taken after his uncle. The way things were moving there could be something in the air. Uncle Buni gets up from where he is sitting and goes to the front.
“I am happy to be here with you today,” he began. There was no emotion in his voice, just the normal matter-of-fact voice, revealing nothing of the surprises to come.
One of my cousins crawled over to my side and whispered in my ears.
“Nana, do you know that lady?”
I looked at her. She was beaming, grinning from ear to ear, as if happy to have that lady among us.
“No, I don’t.”
“She is nice looking, isn’t she?”
“Wait and see what happens, Tanya,” I said and turned away from her.
The other people were engrossed in what Uncle Felix was talking about.
“Come over here, Alex,” he said.
My brother got up from his place and moved to stand beside Uncle Buni. He stood there, his face still in the fixed non-descript mode. He did not look at any one straight in the eyes. He was focusing at a spot in front of his eyes that he alone could see, his face scrawled in a stare.
“My nephew here has brought up something that I had feared for a long time,” he said. “I want to make things clear today. Some weeks ago he brought a lady to see me and he told me that she is his girl friend and they intend to marry.”
He paused a long time. I was sure something awful is going to be revealed. His eyes started to look funny and his voice getting shaky. Everyone anticipated something is going to happen but did not know what. The family gathering was getting juicer.
“Before I got married to my wife, I had a relationship with another girl that resulted in pregnancy. However, she had to go away to another town and I never heard from her again. I forgot about the incident and married my current wife.”
He paused again. I looked at the faces of my uncles, aunts and cousins. No one seemed to know where this was leading. But I was not sure. I could not tell exactly whether they had prior information about the news unfolding or not. Dad sat with his arms across his chest, looking straight at his brother. It was like he did not want to catch the eye of anybody. And what had it got to do with Alex, now standing there like a robot? He was as far away as he was near.
“As fate would have it, my nephew fell in love with my daughter, the cousin they have never seen and known. When they came to me I knew immediately. She had been living under a different name. Her mother died; she was raised by relatives, who gave her their name. That is why Alex never knew they are cousins until I told him.”
He started sobbing. His voice died and his chest started heaving up and down like waves. He pulled a clean white handkerchief from his right pocket and wiped his eyes. It turned blood shot with the few tear drops. He composed himself and looked around, as if looking for sympathy from those gathered around him. Dad started fidgeting with his buttons and looked away towards the fence, where a group of birds had settled gracefully. Mama turned to speak to her sister in whispers.
“I have known all along where she is; I never told anyone about the incident. No one knew what happened. This is what I want to inform you today. Also, I would like to apologies to my daughter, for all the years she was kept in the dark about her family. I want to welcome her back. For this reason, it is not possible for Alex to marry her.”
I smiled. So the beautiful lady sitting in the background is a cousin after all. I mustered some courage, stood up and walked over to where she was seated. I extended my hands and she took it in a firm grip, all the while looking at me in the eyes.
“Welcome, cousin,” I said, still smiling.
She gets up and we hug. I take her hands and lead her before the relatives. The two of us stand there and suddenly everyone start clapping and shouting.
I guide Alex quietly back to his seat. He ambles like someone who was in the rain all day, drenched and with shoulder drooping. The weight of what had just transpired is too much for him to carry.
“There is something that I want to add”, Dad says, as he stands up and walks to the front. The smile in his face shows that the evening surprises are still not over. He stands there and takes his time before he speaks. It is like he wants us to go through some heart breaking moments to figure out what is coming.
“The situation is not as grave as it looks, people,” he finally says. “There are more than what has been said here. I can assure you that all is not lost for Alex and Sheila here. When I heard of this, I made my own enquiries and feels now it is time to share it with you all.”
This must be the most curious family meeting I have ever attended. It is laden with one surprise after another. What does he mean by that statement, I wonder to myself?
“When I heard from my brother about the issue, I made my own investigations. What I have discovered is very interesting, to say the least, he continues. There are two things which are important here: the status of my brother and that of Sheila. First, let me start with Uncle Buni, as everyone calls him. I have found out that he is not my real brother.”
A long sigh goes through the people gathered as Dad utters these words. Everyone turn to his or her neighbor in complete disbelief and amazement.
“That is not true,” someone says from the back.
“What evidence do you have against Uncle Buni,” another says.
I am shocked. I turn to my cousin Tanya. She too is in a state of utter disbelief. Her face is dull and lackluster. Her expression ranges between a stunned shock and to a sad depression.
“Hear me out, please,” Dad urges. “I am not telling lies and Buni knows about that. He was brought to stay with my family when he was a babe when his mother died. He was left in the care of my father. His real parents and close relatives are never known and that is why he found home with us. Because he is not a blood brother, his children are not related to us. However, because he is raised in our household he becomes a brother to me. But since there is no blood relationship, my son can still marry his daughter. We just need to slaughter a goat to break any of this relation that has developed because of his stay with us.”
My brother is speechless. He gets up from his seat and falls back again. He turns around to look at me, sitting right behind him. His mouth hangs open, like a panting dog. Then his face breaks into a smile as he catches the eyes of his fiancée.