Two worlds

Two worlds

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

The air felt deliciously warm, and my skin began to burn, a sensation I’d not felt in six years. In my country, it was always hot, seldom cold, and never freezing. Unlike Idaho where I was coming from.

 

I stepped into the arrival lounge, into the cool world of air conditioners and felt temporary relief. I was surprised that I had forgotten how it felt to be hot, sweaty, miserable.

 

Of course no one was waiting for me; no one knew I was arriving. For a minute or so, I lounged against a wall, watching the comings and goings around me, drinking in the scenery.

 

Even while I had been in Nigeria, it hadn’t been my scene. I hadn’t been rich enough to hobnob with the cream of the society, had never boarded a plane until that sunny day six years ago, had never even been to Lagos, the commercial nerve-centre of my country before then.

 

It began almost like a joke.

 

Walking the dusty road home from school, telling not-so-funny jokes to Bade, my best friend, I’d stepped on a floating piece of paper. Then I’d crumpled it to give it better weight and had kicked it the rest of the way home.

 

Later in the evening, as my mother fried gaari in the kitchen and my father sat in the low parlour with his drinking buddies, I’d searched for what to read in vain.

 

Our house contained no reading surprises. I didn’t have textbooks for school; I was lucky enough to even be in school. I was the first child, the only boy, and my father farmed extra hard, slaved all week long to send me to school.

 

I had a sharp mind, one that constantly agitated over what books to read, novels where I was swept to distant lands I’d never been, that I might never go physically. In the books that I borrowed from our meagre school library, I traveled to the prairie lands of the old USA, to Canadian canyons, to the Australian outback, to English castles and glades.

 

That evening, I stepped outside my room and immediately came upon the paper I’d kicked all the way home. I stooped, picked it up, unwrapped it.

 

It was a cutting from a week-old newspaper.

 

Students all over my state were invited to send in articles about the United States, the aim of the exercise being to examine how well read secondary school students were and how knowledgeable we were about other countries.

 

For the very first time in my life, I wrote an article, not because I at that time knew the prize involved, but because it felt liberating to commit knowledge to paper, to test the boundaries of my imagination.

 

I wrote late into the night, by candle light, the words tumbling out of places I never knew even existed.

 

The following day, I walked to Ilesha, the town nearest to us, the one that boasted a post office. When I slid my enveloped entry into the receiving tray, I felt free, unchained.

 

Four months to the day, a postman brought the letter that would change my life.

 

I was the winner of the competition, was invited to a dinner with the state governor in Osogbo at which ceremony I would be able to choose at which US University I intended to study.

 

A two-year long preparation, waiting to finish my secondary education, applying to schools that taught writing, being accepted at Idaho State University, buying clothes, attending press conferences with the governor who was determined to show the world the difference he was making in the life of an ordinary village boy with the aid of his wife who was a born American.

 

And then that day.

 

I waved goodbye to my parents and sisters in the village, travelled to Osogbo where I slept in the governor’s lodge and was presented with my passport and visa. The following day, I was driven to Lagos, put aboard a plane.

 

I arrived Idaho in December, in the deadest of winters, the land completely obscured by snow. I was cold, chilled to my bones, as I would be for the next six years. Despite winter coats, despite electric fires, despite everything. I guess I was too much of an African to be used to anything but the yellow sun.

 

Shaking my head as if to clear it of cobwebby thoughts, I drew myself back to the present. I must have been standing in the same spot for more than ten minutes. Because a man was staring strangely at me, shaking his head.

 

I picked up my box and stepped outside, into the waiting area of taxis.

 

“The airport hotel.” I said to a driver whose cap was pulled low over his head and who appeared to want nothing more than just sit where he was, doing nothing.

 

“A thousand Naira.”

 

Incredulity coloured the whites of my eyes. A thousand naira? Then I remembered he was not talking in dollars. One thousand Naira was only $8.33.

 

At the hotel, I gave him ten dollars, signed in at the concierge’s, and finally sank into the warm softness of the hotel bed.

 

I woke up the next morning to a yellow sky and a dish of white rice and palm oil soup. It was good to be home.

 

*

 

Six years in a foreign land where things worked as they should had wisened me. I looked at my village with new eyes. Dusty roads, more mud houses than concrete, little children that ran about naked or almost so.

 

The taxi stopped in front of my father’s house and I stepped out, paid the fare and walked hesitantly towards the front porch.

 

An old man sat there, cleaning his teeth with a piece of chewing stick, spitting at a dog that lay at his feet and refused to budge despite the missiles.

 

“Excuse me…” I began to say before I realised that the old man was not an old man at all; it was my father gone to seed.

 

“Baba?”

 

He looked up and squinted uncomprehendingly at me for a bit. Then his face blossomed into a large smile, full of yellow teeth.

 

“Gboyega?” He asked.

 

I hadn’t been called Gboyega in five years. One year of students and lecturers alike tripping their tongues all over my name at Idaho State had necessitated a change. To George.

 

“Yes Baba.”

 

He grabbed me around the waist and I was about to hug him back when I remembered that in Africa, in my village, children prostrate to their parents, not hug them.

 

I dropped to my knees, genuflected and allowed myself to be lifted up.

 

“You’ve grown so big. How are you? You never even said you were coming? You…Come, your mother is in the backyard.”

 

As usual, Mama was frying gaari, huge beads of sweat glistening on her dark face. When she saw me, she turned the shade of a colour hard to define, closed her eyes, opened then again, and asked, “Gboyega?”

 

Again I prostrated, again I was pulled up, again I was pulled into a warm embrace, one that smelled of cassava and sweat.

 

“Good God, see how you’ve grown.”

 

I’d not eaten gaari in all the time I’d been gone, and the smell of the one frying taunted my nostrils. I took some from the huge frying pan, transferred it to my mouth and ruminated on how heavenly it was to be home, even if it was for s short while.

 

*

 

It was no longer fun to be home. The relentless heat (and our house had no air conditioner, only the parlour had a rickety ceiling fan) was unbearable, and so was the tiny grits of sand that found their way everywhere; into my nostrils, underneath my clothing, in between my teeth and onto my tongue, into my hair.

 

Then there was the business of passing waste. I’d been born , twenty-five years ago, to the knowledge of our pit latrine, to the drone of flies as one did one’s business. Six years ago, I started unlearning my intimacy with the pit latrine. Got used to the water system.

 

The first day after I returned, using the pit latrine was an adventure. Two days later, it was an inconvenience. By the fourth day, it was a major irritation.

 

Our one TV, the one Baba bought after I left for the US, was black and white and had to be slapped severally before the picture would stop jumping.

 

In ten days, I wished I had not planned to stay for a month, was longing for the coldness and starkness of Idaho streets, the warmth of my bed-sit, the intellectuality of my fellow writing students.

 

On the eleventh day, Baba and I had a serious talk. He was the first to knock on my door in the morning, his perpetual chewing stick stuck in his mouth.

 

“Oluwagboyega.” He called me by my full name as I staggered awake. “I’ve been meaning to have this talk with you for a while.” He said as he lowered his body onto my childhood bed.

 

“Good morning Baba.” I managed to say as I sat up.

 

“I’ve been meaning to ask you. Are you planning to come and stay back in the village after you finish from school?”

 

I would finish school the coming year, was vacillating between staying back in Idaho and coming back to Nigeria. But never, not once had I considered coming back to the village. If I ever came back, it would be to Lagos. For heaven’s sake, what would a dramatic writer do in a village that seldom got newspapers?

 

I weighed my answer carefully. Coming back or not depended on many things that I could not yet tell Baba, one of which was Valerie. To a white, pampered girl, even Lagos would be a jungle. How could I bring her to Iperindo?

 

“I am still thinking about it, Baba.”

 

He scratched his head, cleared his voice and said the most unimaginable thing. “Because I was thinking if you were planning to move back here, you would have to pull down this house and build a more befitting one.”

 

I bit back on what would have been an abrasive reply and nodded in agreement, too sleepy to even contemplate argument.

 

*

 

I never stayed the whole month I’d intended to. Much as I loved my parents and my siblings, there was an unease that constantly sat on my shoulders. Of not fitting in, of not remembering the customs I was supposed to.

 

Twenty days after I arrived, I was on another plane headed towards the US, towards Valerie, towards life as I had come to know it.

 

 

 

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Alone

open hands

January 4 1905

Oyo, Nigeria

 

She was pushed from a safe and dark warm place into coldness, into the waiting arms of the nearly exhausted midwife. They’d been waiting on her, been desperate for her arrival for more than three days.

 

For those three days, the cries of Kikelomo, her mother could be heard in the neighboring farm. The days were colder than usual and at night, her five older children could be heard speaking in low tones outside the delivery room. They were petrified that their mother would die, were shaken each time her screams rent the still night air, only went to bed when the last candle was put out.

 

On the third day, on a surprisingly warm Sunday afternoon, Bose was born. She was wrinkled, bald and her eyes were strangely bright, brighter than that of any baby the midwife had ever delivered.

 

She was an accident. Her father had wanted no more children yet couldn’t forgo intimacy with his wife. When she’d told him she was expecting a child, he’d smiled grimly and spat out the kola nut in his mouth. That was all he needed to do for her to know he wouldn’t care for the baby.

 

She was the fourth girl. Had she been a boy, her father might have viewed her birth differently, might have been glad to have two sons rather than one. But since she was a girl, he ignored her thoroughly, went out of his way to do so.

 

The day after her birth, her mother was back in the kitchen pounding yam and sweating over a pot of Egusi soup.

 

 

*

 

June 14 2008

Lagos, Nigeria

 

Exhausted from the walk from the bedroom to the living room, Bose holds on to the walls for support. She is slower than ever yet insists on walking by herself.

 

She settles her 103 year old frame onto her grandson’s sofa and clicks on the TV remote. TVs have ceased to be a source of amazement to her, for her daughter had bought one as soon as they were mass-produced. Today, Bose is consternated by DVDs, TiVos, and android phones.

 

“Mama?”

 

She turns at the approach of Maureen, her six-year-old great-granddaughter. Maureen is a striking image of Bose when she’d been a child growing up on her father’s yam farm. There is a bond between the two of them, an unspoken emotion that connects them in a way that no one else understands.

 

“Your legs are shaking, Mama.” Maureen folds herself into a chair opposite Bose and stares at her questioningly.

 

For the first time, Bose becomes aware that she is cold and that her sight is more blurred than usual.

 

“Perhaps I need to lie down awhile.”

 

This time she gladly receives Maureen’s help in returning to her room because she realises that she needs it. She leans heavily on the little girl and both of them slip at one time that Maureen misses her step.

 

In the room that now smells perpetually of an old person’s dying flesh, Maureen buries Bose underneath an avalanche of blankets. Yet the old woman cannot stop shivering.

 

“Are you sure you’re okay, Mama?”

 

When Bose’s nod gets lost in an onset of tremors, Maureen races out of the room, yells for her mother.

 

Bose jerks uncontrollably for a while, until the tremors fade, then stop. Her life flashes before her in cinematic blur. Being raised by an indifferent father, sold off into marriage at 15, the loneliness of her marriage, the redemption she’d found in her children, her husband’s death, her children’s marriages, her grandchildren’s birth, then the birth of her great grandchildren.

 

Suddenly, the images freeze.

 

She dies as she had been born.

 

Alone.

Scorned

african baby

When your water breaks, you feel a dull roar of panic. You are not afraid of the delivery or scared for the baby. You’ve put to bed five times, and this pregnancy never gave you problems.

It is the scorn on their faces that you fear. It is the snorts and hmphs of ridicule. What makes your heart contract in fear is the fact that the birth of this baby could mean the final lid in the coffin of your condemnation.

From the day your belly started to swell, you suspected that it would be a girl. Again. Just like the others, this baby sat very high in your womb, close to your breasts in that delightful way girls are wont to do.

Soon your contractions are fast and furious and you send for your mother-in-law in the next hut. When she appears at your door, it is with a scowl on her face. This woman has single-handedly run her family for twenty-eight years. Widowed at an early age with four sons and a daughter to care for, she drew on an inner strength no one knew she had, raised her sons to be good farmers, selected wives for each of them, filled her late husband’s compound with dozens of grandchildren, majority of which are boys.

You are the only wife yet to produce an heir for the lineage.

When you got swollen with child this last time, your mother-in-law paid you a midnight visit and laid down the ultimatum. A boy or another wife for dear Leke.

That night, you cried yourself to sleep, your husband’s back turned to you. You don’t blame him. You don’t blame your mother-in-law. It is the way of your people to care for sons more than they do daughters.

Sons carry on the family name. Sons contribute to the family wealth by farming the cocoa plantations. Sons are an honor.

Two of the other wives arrive to help. Soon you are on your back, the leather tong clenched in between your teeth. Screaming during delivery brings bad luck to one’s husband so you bite hard each time the pain hits.

Your legs are held apart, your wrapper discarded as the women probe and prod you. You are instructed to push and you do so with all of your might. You push a second time, a third time.

The wail of a newborn rends the air. The three women fall absolutely silent.

You are exhausted but anxious and ask to see your baby. They don’t show you the face; rather your mother-in-law almost shoves the genitals in your face.

You’ve had a sixth girl.

But instead of the panic that plagued you all through the pregnancy, you suddenly feel a sense of calm. Love washes over you.

It doesn’t matter if you are scorned. It doesn’t matter that Leke will be given a second wife. It doesn’t matter if all your children are girls.

What does matter is that you are a good mother. There is tremendous love in your heart for this little baby just as there is for her siblings.

You cuddle your baby and look up into the eyes of your mother-in-law. She frowns. You smile. She shakes her head. You nod yours.

She walks out of the hut.

 

***In most African communities, male children are preferred above females and a woman who produces only girls is often ridiculed.

All over again – Short story

black family 2

All over again

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

Hope. Her name is both a reflection and a supplication. Hope because we waited eleven years to have her. And Hope because we anticipated that her arrival would bring more babies.

We were mistaken.

The adoption process was smooth. The surgery to remove my numerous fibroids was not. I eased in and out of pain for so many days that I lost count. By the time I became aware of myself, my baby had been home three weeks, cared for by Jeremiah’s mum. Weak as I was, I took over immediately.

It has been five years. Last year, my gynecologist told me there wouldn’t be any natural babies, except adopted like Hope. But I’m used to it now, I guess…most of the time anyway. I have been barren for sixteen years, but now Hope has deadened the pain. She’s my daughter, and I want no other. When she hugs me, which is often, I get a glimpse of heaven.

“Mamee…” she breezes in from the bathroom, her hair tangled and smeared with shampoo.

“Hey, baby.” I reply even as I try to turn away. She’s going to rub soap all over me, and I’m already dressed for work. Pudgy hands grab mine and I smile despite myself.

“The toilet won’t flush, and the floor’s filled with water.” She begins to pat the soap onto her hair. Proper grooming, I think.  “Where’s dadee?” she has a unique way of jumping from conversation to conversation, as if all the time in the world wouldn’t be enough to talk.

“Gone to work. Now we’re going to bathe properly.” I have to rush her back into the bathroom and clean her up properly.

“But I’ve…”

“Shh.”

At last we’re done but I’m irreparably late. “Come sweet, let’s get going.”

“I love you, mamee.” She says it every morning. And it still sounds fresh and original.

“I love you too, Hope. More than anything else in the world.”

“You’re hugging too hard.” She laughs and pats my back with her chubby little fingers.

 

****

 

Jeremiah sits across the table from me, his fists curled into balls. His eyes are two red slits in his face, and he is not yet done with weeping.

Me? I haven’t been able to cry. I sit rigidly. My heart feels like melting ice and the cold is freezing my toes and tongue.

Didn’t you send someone for her? He had a note signed by you, authorizing him to take her home. Her class teacher had said.

I didn’t send anybody. I never did. Afternoons were our special time together, and I couldn’t have sent someone. I couldn’t.

You have to wait twenty-four hours before you can report. That’s when we regard someone as officially missing. They’d said at the police station.

Didn’t they understand that my only child was missing? A child I’d waited eleven years for?

We can only wait and hope, honey. We can’t lose hope now. Hope will come back home. Mum’s words didn’t make sense to me. Could she wait and hope if I ever got missing? Would she have the patience?

My head is aching now, and my eyes are burning. The tears are struggling for release but I won’t cry. If I start, I’m never going to stop. I rise shakily to my feet. Jeremiah looks up at me but refuses to talk. He hasn’t said a word since he heard his daughter was kidnapped.

“God, please. I love that girl more than life itself. You can’t take her away from me. Hope? Lord, that girl is my only hope.” I walk to the gallery of her pictures, stop at the one she’d taken at her fifth birthday party. Her face is scrunched up in concentration for the camera, but I am aware that there is a half eaten chocolate bar partially hidden underneath her dress.

Do as your mother says, I hear so clearly I almost trip, wait and hope in me. In me.

“But…”

No buts.

 

****

 

We didn’t sleep at all. Jeremiah is still not talking to anyone but he has stopped crying. Mum’s been in the kitchen all morning but the smell of food nauseates me. My heart still feels like the North Pole. We’ve made our report official at the police station. We’ve contacted all our friends.

We can only wait.

And hope.

The phone rings. My husband and I both lunge for it.

“Let me answer it.” I request and he obliges.

“Hello…”

“Hello, madam. I’m calling from Onilekere police station. It’s about Hope.”