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Walter’s Wake-keep By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo

Wakes of Nigerian-Americans who died in America is a different ball game. Some consider that the more legitimate kind of wake. Friends and associates sympathize more and understand the need to raise money to support the family and in some cases, to transport the body back to Nigeria.


In the Boston metropolitan area is a Liberian who loved to attend Nigerian parties. (Let us call him Walter, because we have no permission to use his real name.) He loved Nigerian music, jollof rice, pepper soup, Shoki dance and watching Nigerians spray dollar bills like snow flakes at these parties. Trust Nigerians in America, they come up with every reason to throw a party - child dedication, wedding anniversary, birthday, graduation, send-off, wake-keep, etc.

Every party is special but none is as special as a wake-keep. If you rent a hall to celebrate your 50th birthday or 25th wedding anniversary, or even your child's 5th birthday, or your child’s dedication in church, the general feeling is that you have the money to spare. People will still come, enjoy, and may even give you gifts, but it is mostly not seen as obligatory. But when it is a wake-keep, the party from conception to execution is aimed at raising money to assist the bereaved to go home and attend the funeral of the dead. The MC makes that clear every ten minutes of the event. And since people are expected to "drop something," organizers make sure that there are a lot of food and drinks to justify the things people will "drop".

Another feature of these wake-keep, other than the fact that most of those for whom the events are held had never been to America, is that there is an unwritten understanding between the organizers and the attendees that whatever the attendee gives is documented, noted and permanently preserved for the time when it would be necessary to return the favor. In Igbo community, they even have a proverb that backs it up. It says: whatever a man gives to another man is a loan waiting to be repaid.

This last part accounts for the proliferation of wake-keep. It is like a form of isusu. You wait for your turn to collect return on your investments. Those who had lost their parents before coming to America waste no time in holding wakes for their uncles and aunts, not minding whether they were close or not.  Some will roll out the wake-keep red carpet for their step-mothers and step-fathers, even if they never saw eye-to-eye in life. All that they needed to say was that their parents died when they were young and it was this uncle, this aunt, this step-father, this step-mother, even step-sister and step-brother that stepped in and raised them.

Who are you to argue with a grieving fellow? After all, the ever-increasing cost of burial at home means that no matter who dies, once the 3 am call comes, the demand for money follows. And having someone abroad means pressure to go for “a befitting” oversea-higher-standard burial.

Wake-keep is so ubiquitous that people now simplify it by saying Peter's wake or Angela's wake, instead of properly labeling it as the wake of Peter's father or Angela's mother. It saves everyone the headache of figuring out the real relationship.

Once you are part of the wake-keep-going circus, it is expected that, sooner or later, you will get your own wake. One guy having difficulty completing his house in the village manufactured his own wake out of the death of his maternal grandmother.

Recently, the expectation of going home for the funeral has been waived. It is now acceptable that the person who collected all those money at the wake did not even go home for the funeral. That he or she presumably sent the money home is satisfactory.

Wakes of Nigerian-Americans who died in America is a different ball game. Some consider that the more legitimate kind of wake. Friends and associates sympathize more and understand the need to raise money to support the family and in some cases, to transport the body back to Nigeria. Though recently there has been the increasing grumble for Nigerian-Americans to obtain life insurance to cover transportation of their body home, if they so wish, and still leave something for those they left behind.

Walter is a permanent fixture at these wakes. He drinks to his heart’s desire, dances until his waist aches. He once inquired about joining People's Club after he watched the display of the club members at some of these wakes, but he pulled back when told how much it costs to join the club.

Then, one day, Walter's mother died. And Walter had his wake.

He contacted his Nigerian friends who told him how to plan a wake. He did not have close friends to constitute his Committee of Friends so he became his own one-man Committee of Friends. He did all the running-around and spent all the money needed for drinks, hall, DJ, photographer and food. On the day of the wake, Nigerians came in large numbers. They ate, drank, danced, and, went home.

The morning after Walter's wake, he went to the office of a friend of mine who had given him $50. The average money given at these wakes is $100. Walter thanked my friend so profusely that my friend found it odd. Something a phone call would have taken care of, Walter came in person. 

When Walter left, my friend called around to find out why Walter was super appreciative. Could it be because someone who didn’t know him very well gave him $50?

What my friend found out was that all those Nigerians who came, ate, drank, danced, and then went home, none gave Walter any money because he never gave any money at all those wakes he had attended over the years.


Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo is the author of “This American Life Sef.” His latest book is “The Secret Letters of President Donald J. Trump age 72 1/6.” This piece was first published in the Catalyst International magazine.