In the Wake of Atlanta 1996

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Mama had known Papa like the back of her own palm, and if one had asked her ten years ago the happiest moment she thought Papa had, she wouldn’t have hesitated to drag you down through memory lane. She would have started her tale with the story of the Biafran War, how it had robbed Papa of his smiles, she would then go ahead to tell you about Musa the Muslim, who during the Kano pogrom had stolen them from their bungalow at night and stowed them away for days in his thatched home, before she and Papa finally escaped to safety.

She would have equally told you of Chukwuka who had stopped his Igbo brothers from burning down the mosque in Aba. She would tell you about Toyosi, the charming Yoruba woman that sheltered Papa and her at her house in Idumota Lagos, before they could finally make it to the east.

She would then go ahead to tell you why Papa had refused baptism until ill health buckled him to his death bed. It wasn’t because he didn’t believe in the Christian God, rather he had thought it quite unreasonable to change his name so as to be accepted by the Christian God. He had seen it as a kind of denigration by the whites, whom he thought saw it as a way of salvaging the black savages, at least to raise them to the level of humans. So baptism for them was not salvation but mercy shown to the blacks.

Fr. Coughlan had insisted he changed his name, but that eventually stopped Papa from going to church altogether; he saw nothing wrong with his name Izukamma na nne ji. He only changed his mind days before he died; he accepted baptism and took the name Paul. But Mama would say, you don’t be at war with God all your life and then decide to bribe him with baptism on your death bed. But Chimelueze would always say that the fate of Papa is not left for Mama to decide but God. Mama would always say the only issues she had with Papa was that of his blatant refusal to go to church.

It is after these that Mama would tell you about the happiest moments Papa had, she would tell you about Atlanta 1996, how the Nigerian Super Eagles made smiles spring from Papa’s face. She will tell you how the Super Eagles were mercilessly tucked in among the Brazilian, Japanese and Hungarian football teams in the group C of the men’s tournament. She would tell you how Papa had lost all hope that the Nigerian team would ever make it, but this didn’t stop him from dutifully plugging his radio to his left ear each time Nigeria had a match to play.

She would tell you about July 21, 1996, at 6:30 pm, how Kanu Nwankwo’s 44th-minute goal in the Super Eagles’ first match against Hungary, boosted the hope of Nigerians. She would tell you about the 8:30 pm of 23rd of July, 1996, when Tijani Babangida’s 82nd-minute goal and Jay-Jay Okocha’s 90-minutes penalty kick sealed the Eagles’ victory over the Japanese team.

She will tell you about July25, 1996, how Ronaldo saved the Brazilian team with his lone goal at about 30 minutes of play. She will tell you about the late afternoon about the quarter-finals of July 28, 1996, when Nigeria beat Mexico 2:0, with Okocha’s 20th-minute goal and C. Babayaro’s 84th-minute goal gave Eagles the lead.

She would tell you of the ambivalent feelings of July 31, 1996, the semi-finals of the tournament, when the Super Eagles had to play against Brazil. She will tell you of the oscillation of hope and despair, how Roberto Carlos’ own goal gave the Eagles hope, and how Flavio  Conceicaos 1st and 38th-minute goal and Bebetos 28th minute goal poured a rain of despair on the Eagles hope.

Mama would always say she had gone into labour because of the painful numbness that clouded Papa’s face, as the commentator described how the Brazilians were toying with the Eagles. She had gone into labour and was taken to the nearby maternity home just behind our yard. She wouldn’t forget to tell you that Papa had to come along with his radio to the maternity, and that it was while she was being taken into the labour room that another goal came from the Eagles. Papa couldn’t help himself but shout “Nigeria is a goal” in excitement”.

Mama would always call me about Obioma on days I didn’t get on her nerves. She would say I didn’t give her much trouble in the labour room; that I just came out like water at the first instance that the doctor/nurse had bellowed “push”. As prideful and funny as Mama would make it sound, she would tell me I had brought luck to the Super Eagles for it was the moment I surfaced that Kanu Nwankwo’s second goal equally surfaced to see the Super Eagles to the finals.

She would often tell me how she and Papa had argued on the name to give to me – Papa had suggested Oluchukwu, and Mama had insisted that I answered Amanda. At the end of the day, Papa allowed her have her way, but Papa never called me Amanda till his death.

On 3rd August 1993, two days after Mama was discharged from the maternity, Nigeria faced Argentina in the finals. A third-minute goal from C.Lopez of the Argentinean side bruised the morale of the Eagles, but the 28th-minute equalizer by Babayaro just before the end of the first half, tightened  their belts.

A 50th-minute penalty kick from Crespo had stepped up the game of the Argentinean side. However, the 74th and 90th-minute goals from Amokachi and Amuneke gave Eagles the gold cup. People still wondered how Mama could be so detailed about the Atlanta of 1996, with the facts and figures at the tip of her fingers.

Apart from the fact that the Atlanta Olympics was a memory she has treasured so much and had known it like a sibling, the way she talks about it bares in full glare all the emotions and passion buried in her words. For her, Atlanta Olympics was the only time after the war that she saw smiles, that she saw life spring from Papa’s face, and because it was important to Papa, it was very much important to her also.

But none of my friends does herself the disservice of coming to our house when I am not home, else she’s ready to get an earful of Mama’s unending tales of her teenage years, the Biafran War and the Atlanta Olympics.

Now with Chimelueze having left home for studies I’m the only one stuck with Mama, listening to her unending tales. Mama has never hidden her love for the West, so in 2008 when Chimelueze won a scholarship to study abroad Mama went bananas in excitement, and her tales shifted from the Atlanta of 1996 to mirage utopian tale of America.

Before Chimelueze left for America with uncle Izunna, Mama had changed his name. She equally changed mine, when she discovered to her outmost dismay that Amanda was the shortened form of the Igbo name Chimamanda, and wasn’t an English name.

So, she renamed me  Frieda. The day Chimelueze left for America she gave brother Izunna strict instruction that Chimelueze be called Isidore so he wouldn’t look primitive in America. But I knew there was more to that, and Chimelueze does too.

When Chimelueze left, Mama and I still called him Isidore over the phone. Mama equally insisted that anytime she called, that I must answer “yes mummy” and not “mama”. She was hell-bent on it, as though it validated her motherhood. Mama wasn’t a graduate in the strict sense of the word, but SSCE holder. She was only lucky to have been blessed with a fair share of shrewdness.

It’s now ten years since Chimelueze left, but he’s coming back as Mama’s Isidore.  When ‘Isidore’ returned, Mama was disappointed, nothing in him looked American after ten years. He still had his brown kinky hair; it wasn’t coiled and could never form a ponytail.

He still had his raucous laugh, that threw his lips apart each time he laughed. He hadn’t learnt to cup his laughs. He still snored at night. Though Mama serves his garri with cutleries, he still asks me to get a bowl of water so he could wash his hands. He hadn’t learnt to say “fuck up” or “shit” at the slightest provocation.

Mama was mad with these, the frown that built up in between her brows spelt out her disappointment, yet she swallowed it all like a bitter pill. But one thing had hurt her most, she wasn’t ready to gulp it down. Her Isidore still had our Nigerian accent, he still spoke with that strong husky voice he used to, as one who had had too much corn.

He hadn’t learnt to dribble his “r”, he hadn’t learnt to swallow up letters and roll out gibberish while he spoke. He still greeted his friends with the normal intro of “guy kee way gi” and didn’t garnish it with “what’s up men “. He stubbornly remained Chimelueze and not Isidore. Mama was embittered and nursed the wounds of her disappointment the way Nigerians do.

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