Independence came one frantic Saturday morning. I was six years old, dressed in pink and waving a small green-white-green flag from the balcony of our apartment in New Lay Out. My feet hurt in my too-new shoes. I told no one. Not even Mother. Cars drove by blaring their horns non-stop as if they were all going to a wedding party, beepbeepbeepppppingbeep. Sometimes the people in cars waved at me and shouted, “Happy Independence Day,” and I shouted back even though I knew they could not hear me above the beepbeepbeepings of the car horns.
I waved until my right arm hurt and I transferred the flag to my left hand. I knew what the colours of the flag meant. The green was for our rich land. And for Joy. The white was for peace. Father taught me all that when he bought me the flag. “We are a rich country. And now with Independence coming, we shall be richer still,” he had said. Independence was here and I was supposed to be happy. But the truth was that I was not entirely sure how I felt about it. And my feet hurt in my new leather shoes.
It had rained the day before and so the streets shone like an invisible hand had taken the time to scrub them clean. I could hardly bear to look at them; it was like I was looking at a splintered mirror in the sun. If you looked at a mirror in the sun, you went blind. And no doctor could make you see again. It would take a miracle like Jesus rubbing sand and spit in your eyes like He did in the Bible story we were told at Sunday School. And Father said we should not expect Jesus to come down from heaven to perform the miracles He did long ago and that was why we had to be grateful for people like Zik and Awo who fought to bring us Independence. “If we waited for miracles, we’d never be free.” Independence put a shine on everything. Made everything new. I heard Father say from the sitting room, “ I’ve become a new man.”
Everything glittered. Even the hills surrounding Enugu lost their angry stare. They looked clipped and their greenness was fresh, the colour of spinach. I was going to go to the Polo Park to welcome Independence, which was why I was all dressed up.
But Father changed his mind when the stranger came. He said Independence had come to him. And that was much more important. And Mother was in the bedroom. She would not let me in. My left cheek smarted. And my feet hurt in my new shoes. There was nobody to tell.
In the sitting room, the strange woman sat with a smile on her face and Independence in her arms. Father sat beside them asking, “Can I hold him now? See? He has his father’s nose. See? He has his father’s hands. Let me hold him now. Can I hold him now? Such a spitting image! Can I hold him now? Isn’t he wonderful?” He sounded like I had never heard him sound. He sounded like Ije from downstairs asking if she could hold my doll, if she could comb the hair, if she could dress it up. Father begged as if holding the baby was the one thing he wanted to do most in the whole wide world. And when he finally got his wish, he sighed, “Aah Independence” as if that one word was the weight of a thousand words. Counting to a thousand made my jaws ache and my throat dry. Mother said when I got older, I would be able to count beyond a thousand. I could not imagine any number beyond a thousand. One thousand was already aguta aguta gbawa. The Uncountable number. Ije could only count to a hundred. And the twins swore they could count to a thousand but they always found an excuse not to do so when Ije and I challenged them. Ije said she was sure they could not even count to a hundred.
For weeks, nothing else had been spoken of but of Independence that was coming. On the streets, highlife music boomed from cars, throwing the word, “Independence” into ears. Visitors to the house spoke of how things would change with Independence.
“Life would be so much sweeter,” Agu, Father’s friend said, smacking his lips as if life was the bowl of chin-chin he had just polished off, chewing with his mouth open, the way my mother had said I was never to eat.
“And you, you don’t know how lucky you are. To be here to see Independence,” another friend pointed at me.
“Independence will kick the whites out,” Father said.
“This. We’ll own this!” Agu said, his voice loud, his hand flailing, his good foot stomping the ground so that I wondered if he meant that he would own our house, the furniture, the TV at the corner of the living room. But Father did not challenge him. Just said, “ Independence” in a drawn out way as if he were relishing the taste of it on his tongue. Then all three men burst into laughter and started clapping each other on the back. Independence made my father laugh. I laughed along too. Father lifted me on to his shoulders and Agu said, “I swear, this one looks very much like you. If she were a boy, she’d be your exact copy. You swallowed this one and spat her out one time.”
“Yes, “ Father said. His shoulders sagged, he put me down and sent me off to play, but his voice had lost its laughter, his face had lost its joy.
I went out into the backyard to play oga with the twins from next door who always cheated me when we played. I imagined Independence, a burly bullying man who would kick oyibo out. But out of where exactly? And why? And who was this man that could make my father laugh? And make him carry me on his shoulders? And turn the days preceding his arrival into one long party.
Three days later, when Mama Boy, the woman who lived in the apartment below ours saw me in my tight braids, she smiled and said I was ready for Independence.
I did not know who Independence was, but I was sure that Independence was more important than a chief because my mother took me down to the market to have my hair braided. And Father bought me a new dress that same day. A pink dress with a satin bow. And matching red shoes with white stripes. The dress looked like something out of my mother’s magazines. “For Independence,” he said. I wanted to try them on immediately, but my mother tied them up in a Kingsway plastic bag and stowed the bag at the bottom of the cupboard in the bathroom. “When Independence comes, you can wear them.”