Breaking Gods: Palm Sunday
It’s Palm Sunday. Kambili, her brother Jaja, and their parents—Papa and Mama—return to their grand home in Enugu, Nigeria, after attending Mass. At Mass, the family had sat in the front pew as usual, listening to Father Benedict praise Brother Eugene Achike, Kambili’s papa, for his large donations to the church, and Papa was first to take communion. But today, Jaja didn’t go up to the altar. At home, Papa scolds Jaja for not taking communion, and Jaja talks back. In a rage, Papa picks up a huge religious book and throws it at Jaja. The book misses Jaja but hits Mama’s ceramics collection and shatters the delicate figurines. Mama calmly cleans the mess from the marble floor. Papa sits down to drink his tea. Kambili wonders why Papa does nothing more. At lunch, Sisi, the family’s cook and housekeeper, serves them a new flavor of juice from Papa’s factory. Mama and Kambili praise the product as expected of them, but Jaja says nothing and excuses himself before prayers. Kambili chokes on her juice and becomes sick. Lying in bed that night, she realizes that Jaja’s defiance is like the purple hibiscus that grows in Aunty Ifeoma’s garden in Nsukka.
Speaking with Our Spirits: Before Palm Sunday—Part 1
“I was at my study desk when Mama came into my room . . .”
Kambili learns that Mama is expecting another child, due in October. As Mama (Sister Beatrice) entertains her women’s prayer group, Kambili tells Jaja about the pregnancy. The radio broadcasts the news of a military coup. Papa, publisher of the pro-democracy newspaper The Standard, and Ade Coker, his editor, write editorials against the new government. Soldiers man roadblocks on the streets of Enugu, but life at home remains unchanged. Kambili and Jaja follow their strict school schedules. The family worships every Sunday at St. Agnes. On Pentecost Sunday, a visiting young priest angers Papa by singing Igbo worship songs. After Mass, Mama feels sick and asks to remain in the car instead of visiting Father Benedict. That afternoon, Kambili and Jaja hear loud thuds coming from their parents’ bedroom. They see Papa hauling Mama downstairs like a sack. They clean blood from the floor. Kevin, the family’s chauffeur, brings Mama home from the hospital. Mama tells Kambili and Jaja that she lost the baby. Then Mama carefully cleans her ceramic figurines. The next Sunday, Papa makes the family stay after Mass to recite novenas so that god will forgive Mama. Kambili doesn’t even wonder why Mama needs forgiveness.
Speaking with Our Spirits: Before Palm Sunday—Part 2
“The words in my textbooks kept turning into blood . . .”
The authorities arrest Ade Coker, and Papa takes on the role of editor. Kambili takes her school exams and comes in second, though she usually comes in as first. Papa begins to scold Kambili for losing first place when the phone rings. Papa learns that Ade Coker is out of prison but has been severely tortured. Papa decides his newspaper must go underground. Kevin drives Mama, Kambili, and Jaja to market, where they witness soldiers tearing down stalls and beating people. On the first day of Kambili’s next school term, Papa lectures her, reminding Kambili that god expects perfection. At school, Kambili feels shy and nervous. Other girls think she’s a rich snob because she doesn’t spend time with them after school. However, Kambili can’t hang out with them because she knows Kevin will report any delay to Papa.
Speaking with Our Spirits: Before Palm Sunday—Part 3
“I remained a backyard snob to most of my class girls . . .”
The school term ends, and Kambili reclaims first place. Papa tells her she has fulfilled god’s purpose. In December, as is the Igbo custom, the family goes to Papa’s hometown of Abba for Christmas. They travel in three cars and take along enormous amounts of food and drink. Their house in Abba is a four-story mansion, walled and gated. Papa spends the holiday season greeting villagers and hearing their petitions. Mama supervises Sisi and the village women in preparing food and serving the visitors. One morning, Papa subjects his family to an especially long prayer session, ending with a prayer for the conversion of his father, Papa-Nnukwu. Then Papa has Kevin drive Kambili and Jaja to visit Papa-Nnukwu, their grandfather. Papa allows only a fifteen-minute visit and forbids them to eat or drink anything in that heathen house. Papa-Nnukwu’s home is a simple, square house in a small yard with an outhouse out back. Jaja and Kambili obey Papa’s orders about eating or drinking, but they visit for twenty-five minutes. When they return, Papa punishes Jaja and Kambili by sending them to their room. Minutes later, he throws an old man, one of Papa-Nnukwu’s contemporaries, out of the family compound.
Speaking with Our Spirits: Before Palm Sunday—Part 4
“Aunty Ifeoma came the next day . . .”
Aunty Ifeoma, Papa’s sister, arrives in Abba. A widow with three children, Aunty Ifeoma lectures at a university in Nsukka. Aunty Ifeoma chats with Mama and describes the civil unrest and shortages of food and fuel that plague Nsukka. Ifeoma suggests that they take their children to a traditional festival, but Mama knows Papa will forbid it. When Papa comes in, Ifeoma nags him to let her take his children sightseeing. Later, Ifeoma’s children arrive. Amaka is a fifteen-year-old girl, like Kambili. Obiora is a slightly younger boy, and Chima is a boy of seven. The next morning, Aunty Ifeoma and the cousins pick up Kambili and Jaja. Then they stop to pick up Papa-Nnukwu. Kambili and Jaja know their father will be furious, but they say nothing, even when Aunty Ifeoma drives them to the Aro festival so they can see the mmuo, masqueraders who represent the spirits. Papa-Nnukwu tells folktales about the various spirits as the mmuo dance along. Jaja envies his cousin Obiora, who has been initiated into the spirit world. After they leave the festival, Aunty Ifeoma drops Papa-Nnukwu off before taking Kambili and Jaja home.
Speaking with Our Spirits: Before Palm Sunday—Part 5
“Papa drove us to Christmas Mass at St. Paul’s.”
On Christmas Day, the family attends church at St. Paul’s in Abba. Aunty Ifeoma and her children come to lunch after Mass. Just before lunch, His Royal Highness, the Igwe himself, accompanied by his wife and four assistants, makes a formal call on the family. At lunch, Aunty Ifeoma pesters Papa to let Kambili and Jaja visit her in Nsukka. She wants them to come along on a pilgrimage to Aokpe, a village where the Blessed Virgin is said to appear. Papa reluctantly agrees. The next Sunday morning, Kambili’s period arrives. She eats some cereal to coat her stomach so that she can take a pill to ease her cramps. When Papa finds her eating before Mass, he breaks into a rage and beats Mama, Jaja, and Kambili with his belt. Then they wash up, change their clothes, and go to church. The family leaves Abba right after New Year’s. When they get back home, they all make their confessions to Father Benedict. Kambili confesses that she enjoyed watching the mmuo and receives additional penance. Despite his reservations, Papa allows Kambili and Jaja to go on the pilgrimage with Aunty Ifeoma. At Mama’s urging, Kevin packs extra supplies for Aunty Ifeoma. Papa cries as their car drives away.
Speaking with Our Spirits: Before Palm Sunday—Part 6
“I looked out the window as we drove . . .”
Kevin drives Kambili and Jaja to Aunty Ifeoma’s home in Nsukka. Kevin bribes a policeman to get through a roadblock—an act Papa would never allow. They reach Nsukka and drive through crowded, potholed streets into the university district. Aunt Ifeoma lives in a flat on the ground floor of a dingy apartment block that features a small garden bursting with flowers. Aunty Ifeoma’s small, crowded flat has none of the luxuries Kambili is used to. Kambili and Jaja must learn to haul water and use buckets to flush the toilet and bathe. Jaja soon fits in with Obiora, Chima, and the neighborhood boys, but Kambili has trouble getting along with Amaka, who makes snide comments about rich people. Aunty Ifeoma uses her last fuel to drive them around the university district. She shows them where students recently rioted over the lack of lights and water. Father Amadi, an attractive young priest, comes to dinner. Kambili remembers him speaking at St. Agnes on Pentecost. Father Amadi discovers that Aunty Ifeoma’s brother—Papa—is the great Eugene Achike, and Kambili feels her usual pride in Papa. Father Amadi leads prayers after dinner and sings Igbo praise songs, and Kambili remembers his musical voice as she falls asleep that night.
Speaking with Our Spirits: Before Palm Sunday—Part 7
“Laughter always rang out in Aunty Ifeoma’s house . . .”
Laughter and music fill Aunty Ifeoma’s house. Amaka’s girlfriends come over after school, but Kambili can’t join their conversation. She overhears Amaka asking Aunty Ifeoma if Kambili is abnormal. Jaja fits in more easily. He likes watching TV and helping Aunty Ifeoma in her garden. Sisi phones from Enugu to tell them how soldiers ransacked The Standard’s offices and arrested Ade Coker again. Aunty Ifeoma fears for Papa. Another phone call, this time from Abba, brings the news that Papa-Nnukwu is sick. Father Amadi loans Ifeoma a gallon of gas so that she can get her father and bring him to Nsukka. At Aunty Ifeoma’s, Papa-Nnukwu sleeps on the floor in Amaka and Kambili’s tiny bedroom. Kambili and Jaja don’t tell Papa that Papa-Nnukwu is now staying at Aunty Ifeoma’s house. They help care for Papa-Nnukwu. Aunty Ifeoma gets him what medical care she can, although most university medical personnel are on strike. When the electricity goes off one night, Obiora begs Papa-Nnukwu for a story. Kambili and Jaja hear Papa-Nnukwu recount an Igbo folktale. Kambili wishes she had joined her cousins in the traditional response.
Speaking with Our Spirits: Before Palm Sunday—Part 8
“Papa-Nnukwu had woken up before everyone else.”
Papa-Nnukwu tells stories about his village. Amaka begins painting his portrait. Aunty Ifeoma prays for Papa-Nnukwu, and Kambili asks why Our Lady would intercede for a heathen. Early the next morning, Aunty Ifeoma asks Kambili to watch Papa-Nnukwu. Kambili overhears him praying for blessings on his daughter Ifeoma, his son Eugene, and their children. Papa-Nnukwu’s prayer surprises Kambili because Papa only prays for Papa-Nnukwu’s conversion. Amaka continues her portrait project. Father Amadi drops by and talks with Papa-Nnukwu about missionary work. Father Amadi invites Kambili to the football stadium. In the car, he tries to get Kambili to talk about Papa. At the stadium, Father Amadi persuades Kambili to run across the grass and tells her she has good legs for running. A team of boys arrives, and Kambili watches them play. Kambili feels sad that Father Amadi is a priest. Back at the flat, Aunty Ifeoma tells Kambili and Jaja about an angry phone call from Papa. He has heard from a family member in Abba that Papa-Nnukwu is staying at the flat. Kambili knows that she and Jaja are in trouble.
Speaking with Our Spirits: Before Palm Sunday—Part 9
“Amaka shook me although her movements had already woken me.”
Amaka and Kambili wake up to discover that Papa-Nnukwu has no heartbeat. Amaka screams, and Aunty Ifeoma hurries in. Aunty Ifeoma wails and clutches Papa-Nnukwu. An ambulance takes the body away. Just then, Papa arrives. When Ifeoma tells him that Papa-Nnukwu has just died, Eugene berates her for not calling a priest. Then Papa takes Kambili and Jaja home. Before they depart, Amaka secretly gives Kambili her unfinished portrait of Papa-Nnukwu. Back in Enugu, Kambili notices Mama’s swollen face and black eye. After dinner, Papa summons Kambili upstairs. He makes her stand in a tub of boiling water. Mama cries as she tends to Kambili’s burned feet. The next day, Jaja hobbles into Kambili’s room. She shows him Papa Nnukwu’s portrait, and Jaja shows her some purple hibiscus cuttings from Aunty Ifeoma’s garden. Papa and Ade Coker meet with leaders of the Democracy Coalition, who warn Papa and Ade to be careful. Aunty Ifeoma calls from Nsukka. Jaja reports that he’s planted the hibiscus cuttings, and Kambili thanks Amaka for the painting. Amaka tells Kambili that Papa sent a generous amount of money for Papa-Nnukwu’s funeral. That night, Kambili stays in her room and writes Father Amadi’s name over and over.
Speaking with Our Spirits: Before Palm Sunday—Part 10
“It rained heavily the day Ade Coker died . . .”
A pipe bomb kills Ade Coker. Papa sets up a trust fund for his widow and buys her a house. Mama tells Kambili and Jaja to hug Papa more often because he’s under so much pressure. Thugs plant rats in his factories as an excuse to shut them down. Father Benedict visits often. During one of those visits, Jaja asks Kambili to show him Papa-Nnukwu’s portrait again. Papa enters the room, sees the portrait, and flies into a rage. He tears up the portrait and kicks Kambili until she loses consciousness. Kambili wakes up in a hospital bed. Her body is burning all over. Papa, Mama, and Father Benedict pray over her. Kambili asks for Aunty Ifeoma. Aunty Ifeoma arrives with Father Amadi. While visiting, Aunty Ifeoma insists that Kambili and Jaja come to Nsukka to live with her. In Nsukka, Aunty Ifeoma, her children, and Father Amadi help Kambili recover. Political unrest grows at the university. When soldiers barge into Aunty Ifeoma’s flat and tear it apart, she starts to think about moving to America. Father Amadi takes Kambili to the market to have her hair braided. The hairdresser thinks Father Amadi must be in love. On the way home, Kambili and Father Amadi sing together.
Speaking with Our Spirits: Before Palm Sunday—Part 11
“The green sign outside the church was lit with white lights.”
Amaka and Kambili go to hear Father Amadi say Mass. Kambili sings the Igbo praise songs. Aunty Ifeoma exchanges university gossip with a colleague and discusses moving to America. When Obiora speaks disrespectfully to Aunty Ifeoma’s colleague, Aunty Ifeoma punishes him. Later, a battered taxi arrives, and Mama climbs out. Her eyes are glazed over. Mama tells them that she has been in the hospital, after Papa beat her and caused a miscarriage. Then Mama breaks down and cries for a long time. However, after talking to Papa on the phone, Mama decides to return home. Aunty Ifeoma protests, but Mama reminds her of all the stress that Papa’s been under, how much good Papa does for their people, and how many mothers had wanted their daughters to marry him. Aunty Ifeoma shouts but fails to change Mama’s mind: She and Kambili will return home. Papa arrives the next day in the Mercedes. Kambili notices that his face appears swollen and covered in tiny pimples. Kambili hugs Aunty Ifeoma and Amaka goodbye. Back home, as they drive through their compound’s gates, Jaja points out that the purple hibiscuses are about the bloom. The next day is Palm Sunday.
The Pieces of Gods: After Palm Sunday
Everything changes. A storm uproots trees in the garden and brings the family’s satellite dish crashing to the ground. Jaja stays in his room all the time. Aunty Ifeoma calls on Good Friday to tell them she’s been fired for illegal activity. She will try to get a visa for America. Jaja informs Papa that he and Kambili are going to Nsukka. Papa agrees to let Kevin take them. In Nsukka, Father Amadi informs everyone that he is going to Germany as a missionary. Amaka and Kambili go with Aunty Ifeoma and Father Amadi on a pilgrimage to Aokpe. There, they stand under a flame-of-the-forest tree, and Kambili sees an image of the Blessed Virgin. Soon, Aunty Ifeoma’s visa comes through. She cooks a last dinner for Father Amadi, who bids a tender farewell to Kambili. Later, Aunty Ifeoma drives them all around on a final tour of Nsukka. That evening Mama calls. Papa has died. Back at their home, Kambili, Jaja, and Mama sit silently in their living room. Mama refuses visitors. A phone call relays the autopsy reports: Papa died from poison. Mama tells Jaja and Kambili that she’s been putting poison in Papa’s tea. However, when the police arrive, Jaja confesses to the crime.
A Different Silence: The Present
Celestine, the chauffeur who replaced Kevin, drives Kambili and Mama to the prison to see Jaja. Today Mama and Kambili have good news for Jaja: He will be out of prison next week. The Head of State died months ago. Now, pro-democracy groups accuse the old regime of killing Papa. Mama’s lawyers have managed to get Jaja classified as a prisoner of conscience. Jaja sat in prison for thirty-one months, officially still awaiting trial. Jaja just stares when Kambili tells him he will soon be released. They sit in silence as he eats the food she and Mama brought. Jaja doesn’t hug them, and the guard takes him away. Outside the prison, Mama hugs Kambili and thanks her. Kambili makes plans for their future, and Mama smiles. Kambili gets letters from Aunty Ifeoma and Amaka, who now live in America. Aunty Ifeoma teaches at a community college and works in a pharmacy. Amaka reports that everyone is getting fat but that they are too busy to see each other. Father Amadi writes Kambili from Germany, mostly with news about his mission. She carries his letters with her because she loves him.