Wednesday, 30 September 2009


Looking back now I think it was because I was too distraught, as I walked out of the hospital room to the car with my father, that I did not hear the crickets chirping. A clear shrill dirge.
I did not hear the engine kick to life. I only heard his voice.
‘I remembered the day my father died and my mother cried and cried. The neighbours held her and tried to console her but she would not stop crying, beating her chest and asking God “why?” Now she is long dead herself and the slow sure wheels of time moves gradually on. ‘
Either Nepa had struck or bulbs in the streetlights lining the road had been stolen or damaged because I distinctly remember turning, with teary eyes, to look at my old man speaking and not seeing his face through the engulfing blackness. Though his grave voice rang clear in the small confines of the car as we made speed to go get a priest while a part of Ewatto died in me.
‘When tragedy strikes...’ He continued, ‘...we think we can’t handle it. We assume the world has ended...’ I sniffed then, not able to hold back the tears that now negotiated a path around my lips, and he paused for so long that I assumed he would not continue talking, that he had now been overwhelmed by the heartbreak that hung over our heads. We had only a few minutes.
‘But the world does not end in that second or that minute or even that hour. ‘
A car dodging a pothole swung into our path, blinding me momentarily with its full on headlights. My father took evasive action at what seemed like the last minute, driving into the bushes and out again into the road to avoid a collision. We survived. At any other time he would have complained about mad drivers who have no business behind a wheel. I think he just silently shook his head instead.
‘No, time moves on. It heals all and we continue with our lives till it is our turn to go. Everybody crying today will go one day as well.’ He did not speak again for the rest of the journey, leaving me to quietly digest the hard-hitting words he had offered as a means of consolation.
There were no priests for toffee at the seminary. It was either very late at night or very early in the morning and they had been called out for duties such as the one we came for. Blessed are you if you do not have to go in search of a priest at ungodly hours for that is the time most people ‘chose’ to do their dying. There was nothing more to do but head back.
The hospital room was still as packed as we had left it – six people with ashen looks standing or seated on the bed and the scant furniture. Barring the blur of a few in there, I remember my two uncles, my mother and doctor Samson. The good doctor (bless him), having been in such situations countless times, I am sure, was trying at light hearted conversation to uplift the sombre mood. He might as well as have used candle light underwater.
On the bed my grandmother, the reason for the rendezvous, still lay sprawled, looking wide-eyed at the white ceiling which she was oblivious of at that moment and wheezing out deep breaths, hanging on feebly to the last vestiges of life that sought an exit from her frail body. The drip had been removed. It had done its best.
Just looking at her made me shudder. I did not recognize the shrivelled up figure, dark against the white sheets, still, except for her heaving breasts, that had once epitomized the joys of travelling to the little village with its dense forests, little thatched roofed huts and a dusty track that tore through its centre like a healing scar. Ewatto; the village which time had abandoned for a while like an unwanted baby from the ‘mistake’ of a night of passion, left to die in the bushes.
The figure lying on that bed was a world apart from the ample woman, strong determined and fiery whose love for her grandchildren was like a magnet ever pulling us to her side so we looked forward to the holidays which would give us a week of two of her company.

Ewatto was my grandfather’s house coming in sight as my mother drove up that dusty track to unload my siblings and me on her parents for a while. I will always remember being proud of that house – it might not have won any ‘best house’ prize in most cities but among the dozens of red earth huts it clearly stood out, being built ‘properly’ of cement and zinc sheets and painted green (that had well faded). My mother would jump out of the car and we would tail her through the open protector cage door and into the corridors while she gleefully shouted for a reception. On occasion, my aunties or uncles would come out shouting to meet us, having heard the horn, and there would be hugs all round. Most times though my mother met them inside and we received our hugs then. I don’t remember Mama or papa ever being around. They had to be sent for. I would run with my youngest uncle or aunt to the market to meet Mama and fly into her bosom – her welcoming laughter still rings in my ears. Ewatto was me laying claim to the village, preparing to optimize my stay as I watched my mother’s tail lights vanish around the corner, the car speeding off lighter than it had come, leaving a handful of admiring, bare-bodied, barefooted children and plenty of dust in its wake.
Ewatto was lazy mornings; waking up to the orchestra of Mama’s kitchen sounds – pestles slamming cassava and yam in mortars while the aroma of freshly prepared ogbono soup wafted in the air mixing with the pungent smell of dung and urine from the goats being led out by my uncle for an early morning forage. The window in the room I slept in with my brother looked into the open yard that separated the kitchen and bathroom from the rest of the house. I would always look out to see the goings on – Mama ordering my aunties and uncles to various chores which, as far as she was concerned, her grandchildren were exempt from. Sometimes she would open the door and poke her head in.
‘Goodmorning mama.’
‘You sileep welli?’ She would ask in that rare form of pidgin English which she reserved for us. I would nod and smile politely, wiping the last ruminants of sleep from my eyes and kick out of bed to get a nice tight embrace. A hot bath followed. We dipped water from a large cauldron balanced on the stove – three stones that had burning wood wedged between them, and carried our steaming buckets to the side of the kitchen into the roofless cement compartment that was the bathroom. Very few things in life beat hot water running down one’s body in the open on a cold Ewatto morning.
Breakfast was four or five of us sitting on the floor, in a circle around two bowls – one of pounded yam and fufu, the other of ogbono soup choked with beef, fish and mushrooms. Back in the city I was used to my mother refusing me a second helping if she felt I had over done it. With mama it was woe unto any who denied me as much food as I wanted.
Then it was time to follow Papa to the farm. My grandfather – the self styled ‘Impregnable Rock of Gibraltar’ was a phenomenon; a retired headmaster who more than impressed the more ‘learned’ with his command of the English language delivered in a slow self assured tone. His carriage, regal as a newly crowned king, was always nice to see. Recalling him to memory still has its pain. He took away the last shreds of Ewatto I still had left in me some years after Mama did. I can still see his brimming wide raffia hat which hid most of his smiley face as we ran circles around his legs, walking the distance to the farm and jostling to carry a hoe, a cutlass or the heavy yam which would be roasted over a small bushfire for lunch and eaten with peppered palm oil. I remember the pathways as we skipped over huge logs and fallen trees, beating back pesky tree branches and leaning grass, out of our path. The swish of dead leaves and the creak of dried twigs added to the soft noises of nature as we crushed them underfoot, making our way deeper into the bushes. At the farm we would play, skipping from tree to tree while we watched the glistening backs of my uncles and grandfather bent over mounds of earth covering yam seedlings, deftly weeding with their hoes. There were times when I tried my hands at it – to good hearted laughter from the Impregnable Rock, at my clumsiness. After lunch and work (and play) it would be time to check my uncle’s traps – dangerous contraptions hidden in the ground that snapped its teeth shut when stepped on. The most I remember them catching was the leg of a squirrel. I hope the three legged animal died of old age.
Ewatto was three trees of note – the massive avocado pear tree in the middle of Papa’s farm that we stripped of all its fruit – it filled more than six sacks and we ate pear with everything for a long time; the tangerine tree at the side of the house that spread its branches to knock intermittently on the window near the dining room where I spent hours poring over Papa’s books by candlelight – that tree had to give way to rest The Impregnable Rock in peace.
Then there was the pear (the small type soaked in hot water to eat with boiled corn) tree at the back of the house. Its sturdy structure gave shelter to the pit toilet, built with zinc sheets, and it provided a ready goal post for the times I kicked a football with dozens of village boys when we did not have to go to the farm. Many a time the ball would knock against the zinc sheets and a voice from within would promise pain to those of us playing.
Ewatto was the evenings when a cool breeze laden with dust swept through the village; Ewatto was sitting just within the protectors in Papa’s chair, watching the dusty track, filled with villagers returning from earning their daily bread, chickens and pigs scouting for a last swallow before their owners ushered them back into pens. It was when Mama returned from the market and pressed gifts of food items into our little hands. It was when we chased the randy hausa ram that had impregnated half the sheep in the village and kept exploring neighboring villages for potential mates.
Ewatto was the glorious night, after Papa’s generator, the closest proximity to electricity for a good number of the villagers, had been switched off and all the children around, who had come to catch a glimpse of some program on the only television within miles, had been sent home. Then we would steal out, prompted by my young relatives, to play with other children in the moonlight. Thus the carefree days, where time stood still, would pass and the future seemed like a million years away.
Ewatto was Sundays, the iron, hollow on the inside to house live coals which generated the heat for pressing the church clothes. Ingenious. I remember the catechist, a dark squat man with a swagger who stood beside the white priest to interpret. He looked very important in his long blue robes. So many little things made that place special but one shone through them all – the comfort of Mama being there, the strength of her love. Knowing that this highly respected woman dotted on me and thoroughly enjoying every minute.

With time I knew Ewatto would not last, not as I came to know it. But it was not meant to disappear. I planned to visit as a young man and drink in the pride of my grandparents showing off their grownup grandson. I would be the one to bring gifts of foodstuff now, make them smile. I would help mama carry whatever she wanted, showing her how strong I had become. The Impregnable Rock would nod in satisfaction as I weeded alongside him in the farm. I would walk the paths with my peers, drink beer and chase the girls we once played in the moonlight with. All that and much more. So much more.
Then fate dealt its hand. Mama fell ill and Ewatto gradually faded in the horizon. Her illness worsened and she had to spend more time in hospitals than she spent at home. Still I clung to the hope that she would one day get better and bring Ewatto back. The more we hoped the worse Mama got. But I shrugged off any eventualities other than her making a full recovery. This was Mama. She was a fighter. And so I hoped and hoped until that night we went for the priest because we had just been told that hope was of no use.

Her breathing increased suddenly like she had just finished a sprint. While doctor Samson still tried at small talk. Then, as if out of sudden relief, she let out a long sigh, longer and louder than usual, ending it very quietly.

‘Let us now pray for Mama’s soul.’ Doctor Samson broke in mid sentence to say that without turning to look at the figure on the bed. He reached out to hold the hands of my mum and uncle and I think it was at that time it hit the room what had just occurred. I will forever remember the picture of my young uncle standing still, gazing at his mother’s corpse and waving goodbye. He also tried to jump in her grave as she was lowered. I turned and seized my mother in a tight embrace. We were all too shocked to cry out loud. But we cried.

In the very early hours of that morning, Ewatto disappeared.
In the distance I heard the crickets chirp. A long drawn out dirge to welcome a new day.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

I come where ignorance is bliss...

I looked again over my shoulder and she caught my eye from across the dance floor. Ever wonder how you just seem to know when someone, even out of a hundred odd, in perpetual rhythmic motion, is checking you out? The ladies, I think, have inbuilt mental sensors for sniffing out visual admirers but for us guys it’s a hit and miss thing. She may just be focused on the wet patch on your collar and wondering how a guy could be so sloppy. Nevertheless you sense when someone has had a fixed, more-than-normal, stare on you. In spite of the dance lights flickering dots and flashes of luminance every shred of doubt as to me being the focus of her undivided attention was zapped with that third glance in her direction. Now I was either that attractive – I had taken time out to groom myself – or she had never seen a black man before (unlikely, but..hey). I had been slightly uncomfortable seeing that I was the only person of colour (as they say) in the club but had shrugged it off, got myself a beer and sauntered to the centre of the floor, determined to have a good time regardless. Dancing comes naturally to me but it has got to be with a partner. Instead I swayed in rhythm to Eminem amidst gyrating bodies, taking occasional sips from the bottle, with my free hand in my pocket, till I discovered her levelled gaze. I turned, to give her a proper eyeful, choking the neck of my bottle with my index finger so it swung from side to side like a pendulum. A few dancers engrossed in frenetic movements threatened to knock me out of my ‘cool’ posture and I dodged, not breaking the eye contact. For one brief moment we were alone in the world and absolutely nothing else existed. Maybe I imagined it but I believe the disco lights fell on her face long enough for me to catch her wink. That was my cue. As I wadded through the densely packed floor, slightly pushing people aside to create a path, I half expected her gaze to wander or her eyes to go cold so I could blame it all on my far reaching imagination. She could have been a statue for all the head movement she made and her gaze was still as fixed as a tennis match a mafia boss had bet on. She waited till I was close enough to get a good whiff of her Elizabeth Arden then turned ‘English’ on me – releasing a plastic smile and wheeling about, suddenly self aware. She sank into a stool at the bar that was just behind her. I quickly altered course and leaned on the bar, nodded at the barman and pointed at my near empty bottle. With the acoustics threatening to bring the roof down, blended with the dancing crowd’s half drunken and cacophonic version of the blaring music, there was no way a normally spoken word could be heard. But he understood my gesture and slid a cold bottle towards me. I could have sworn he raised a mischievous eyebrow and tilted his head slightly towards her seated by my side.
‘Would you like a beer love?’ If I had said it to her in the same pitch anywhere else she might probably go deaf for a day and two seconds. She hadn’t flinched as I leaned in. Now she turned her head to me, nodded and smiled. The barman was ready even before I looked at him and poked the empty space just in front of her. I waited for her to guzzle it down, focusing on doing the same while we exchanged furtive glances. Conversation was impossible anyways. Up close she was not your typical Victoria Secret model and she was a tad chubby but she had done something with her make-up that thoroughly enhanced her positive qualities – eyes, smooth skin, lovely hairdo and fantastic nails. Her strapless red dress, pleated at the top, propped her boobs up, sensually disclosing two half moons of flesh and leaving the rest to lust. She couldn’t be any more than twenty five, certainly not a teenager as well – thank goodness. With a bow that erased the fine line between gentlemanly and cocky, I offered one hand and waved the other across the dance floor – dance with me? She nodded and smiled. She had the girl-next-door, innocent look when she smiled. I led her to the centre and this time I let fly. It would seem that I was putting up a show for her as she moved ever so little but watched me boogie, nodding approvingly. Whenever our eyes met I had a ready smile to match hers, otherwise I danced hard, not bothering about her passive participation. Without warning she squashed the space between us with one step forward and looked into my eyes, forcing me to stop and study her facial features. Everyone has what I call a radius of intimacy – about half a foot from every part of the body – reserved for the very familiar. We feel uneasy when that space is occupied by strangers, more so when the invasion is deliberate. But it is nothing but excitement when the invader is an attractive member of the opposite sex. It had been a while and I needed this right now. There was no letting this one get away. She put her arms around my neck, gingerly, like she wasn’t sure what to expect. I responded in kind but fancied her waist. She pressed closer. That gave my hands the license to slip southwards. I gently squeezed her buttocks half expecting a stinging slap but she held me even tighter, pulling my head down so that her lips were now against my ears.
‘I have a boyfriend!’
I raised my head and looked in her face. She had the smug look of one that had hit a bull’s eye on first try. And she did nothing to break my hold. I released my breath. I actually thought she said she had a boyfriend so I shook my head slightly and leaned in so she could repeat her words.
‘I have a boyfriend!’
It had to be the music and all the noise in the place. If you have ever arrived at the airport with time to spare, so looking forward to your holiday then think you just heard an announcement that your plane has just left, you know exactly how it feels – that desperate need to find some official to quickly clarify the ‘mistake.’ I seized her arm and led her outside in search of quiet.
‘What did you say love?’
‘I have a’ she replied in a tone bordering on sarcasm, staring into my very confused face with eyes that still showed interest. What in heaven’s name was all the flirting for? Not that the news was anywhere near devastating, it was just that I thought I had scored. All my senses were up...okay, that too. I studied her teasing eyes with the knowledge that whatever she came out with next would determine how the night would end up.
‘But there is something I would like to know about you.’ She cocked her head to one side and looked askance at me in a rather coy way which, in the dimly lit alley, I found sensual. Clearly she was in the driver’s seat and it was only in a bid to seize the initiative that I asked gruffly, pretending to be annoyed, ‘What?’
‘Is it true what they say about black men?’ I understood instantly what exactly she asked about. Every mannerism with which she had asked the question had ‘sex’ stamped indelibly on it. My pulse raced again, we were back on track. She had just laid the power of the very immediate future in my hands. It could go two ways: I could educate her and shatter the myth right there, possibly end up with a kiss on the cheek and a cheery wave or I could play along, heighten her curiosity and get to ‘show’ her. Intensely. I decided then that if she was to learn any truths then it would be from experience. Who made me an educator anyways?
I looked into her eyes, nodded and smiled.