For The Love of Amala

I remember being fond of Amala, growing up. As a child who did not fancy eating, surprisingly Amala had a way of whetting my appetite and melting my heart.

Most Nigerians who eat amala, love this food to its light weight morsel and it can be eaten at any time of the day (I don’t mind eating amala in the morning). Popularly paired with ewedu and gbegiri, these partners in crime when garnished with a variety of different cow parts aptly branded as Orisiris’ will leave your stomach rumbling for more.

There is something about amala when eaten hot, it gives the replica of a sauna effect to the body. It is a sweaty contest that engages the two hands while the right hand is swooping the amala in, the left hand is busy wiping the beads of sweat oozing out from the pores of your face. Most people savour the Buka-type of amala but many of these roadside canteens are poorly ventilated, this leaves the armholes of your clothing sticky with sweat and engraved with circular bold patches. But when you step out, there is a wide grin on your face, a toothpick hinged unto of your tooth because it was a keenly contested fight but you knocked the amala out and won.

Amala is a very important food in Nigeria especially among the Yorubas, it is locally labelled as ‘Oka’ and originates from the Western part of the country. It is crowned one of the prime Yoruba culinary especially among the people of Oyo state. This popular delicacy is made from yam or cassava flour. The flour also known as Elubo is processed from yams when they are peeled and dried. Ever wondered why it is dark in complexion, Amala derives its colour from yam when it turns brown after drying it.

Nothing kills the swag of any amala faster, than when there are lumps in tiny clusters all over the food. But thanks to the omorogun, when wielded with precision and just the right amount of muscle contraction, the amala served is soft and uniformly textured. This morsel is believed to have some medicinal powers ingrained within its fibres that fuels its consumers with grit and oomph. A famous Yoruba saying also attests to the medicinal prowess of this food, “Iyan ni onje, oka ni oogun, ki enu ma sile ni ti guguru’.” This saying is translated thus, ‘Pounded yam is food, Amala is a medicine, and popcorn is an appetiser.’ It is indeed a medical prescription for some folks, they cannot do without a dose of amala daily. It is a violation of their fundamental human rights to deprive them of this delicacy.

What the love of amala can do knows no bound. Sometimes while eating, the soup may drip down to the elbow but the mouth refuses to let go and sucks the trickle at the tip of the elbow. This may not exactly be your style, but some folks can go to that extent for the delight of this wholesome food. How do you like your amala, island or mainland style? While some people want their amala swimming in the soup – Island, with the ewedu and gbegiri forming an asymmetrical circumference round it, the stew is poured like local gin over the amala in obeisance and the beefs stand like pillars adjoining it. But others still prefer their amala detached from the soup, served in different china wares.

My late grandfather, Pa Jude Akanbi was an amala aficionado. He loved eating amala with efo riro and ogbufe washed down with freshly tapped palmwine. It was always hard for him to hide his glee whenever my cousins and I visited him in the village during the holidays. Grandpa never failed to share his darling dish with us, having us form a crescent round his table, each taking turns as we partook in this hallowed communion.

There are some unspoken rubrics governing amala, but the principal rubric is, amala must be eaten with the fingers at anytime and anywhere. Lest we forget, the amala contest is best fought with the fingers engaging these steps in no particular order – rolling the morsel slightly into a ball, then lapping up the soup with the morsel quite rounded, while intermittently tearing the beef, showing no mercy and breaking the bones with pleasure. Amala is a hand to mouth affair, how dare you use fork and knife to eat it? This classy act of using cutlery is a disrespect to the holy grail of this esteemed dish.

The teeming number of local restaurants who have carved a niche for themselves as connoisseurs of this local delight ‘Amala joints’ continue to triple every day, with wide tentacles reaching many cities in the country. Foodies who are resident in Lagos, know there is a directory of cool spots where this food is sold with Abula, a combination of ‘Gbegiri and Ewedu’ soup and eaten with its characteristic colours of heat and sweat.

Amala is chiefly eaten by all and sundry, crisscrossing its way through different tribes, borders and it has gained a national status. The Oyo state government hosted a fiesta, ‘Ajodun Oka’ late last year to celebrate and preserve the ‘Amala’ culinary heritage which is a symbol of pride to the nation locally and internationally.

Originally Published on Kalahari Review

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For The Love of Amala

Who Will Greet You At Home || Lesley Nnneka Arimah


The yarn baby lasted a good month, emitting dry, cotton-soft gurgles and pooping little balls of lint before Ogechi snagged its thigh on a nail and it unravelled as she continued walking, mistaking its little huffs for the beginnings of hunger, not the cries of an infant being undone. By the time she noticed, it was too late, the leg a tangle of fibre, and she pulled the string the rest of the way to end it, rather than have the infant grow up maimed. If she was to mother a child, to mute and subdue and fold away parts of herself, the child had to be perfect.

Yarn had been a foolish choice, she knew, the stuff for women of leisure, who could cradle wool in the comfort of their own cars and insecure houses devoid of loose nails. Not for an assistant hairdresser who took danfo to work if she had money, walked if she didn’t, and lived in an “apartment” that amounted to a room she could clear in three large steps. Women like her had to form their children out of sturdier, more practical material to withstand the dents and scrapes that came with a life like hers. Her mother had formed her from mud and twigs and wrapped her limbs tightly with leaves, like moin moin: pedestrian items that had produced a pedestrian girl. Ogechi was determined that her child would be a thing of whimsy, soft and pretty and tender and worthy of love. But first, she had to go to work.

She brushed her short choppy hair and pulled on one of her two dresses. Her next child would have thirty dresses, she decided, and hair so long it would take hours to braid, and she would complain about it to anyone who would listen, all the while exuding smug pride.

Ogechi treated herself to a bus ride only to regret it. Two basket weavers sat in the back row with woven raffia babies in their laps. One had plain raffia streaked with blues and greens, while the other’s baby was entirely red, and every passenger admired them. They would grow up to be tough and bright and skillful.

The children were not yet alive, so the passengers sang the call-and-response that custom dictated:

Where are you going?

I am going home.

Who will greet you at home?

My mother will greet me.

What will your mother do?

My mother will bless me and my child.

It was a joyous occasion in a young woman’s life when her mother blessed life into her child. The two girls flushed and smiled with pleasure when another woman commended their handiwork (such tight, lovely stitches) and wished them well. Ogechi wished them death by drowning, though not out loud. The congratulating woman turned to her, eager to spread her admiration, but once she had looked Ogechi over, seen the threadbare dress, the empty lap, and the entirety of her unremarkable package, she just gave an embarrassed smile and studied her fingers. Ogechi stared at her for the rest of the ride, hoping to make her uncomfortable.
hen Ogechi had taken her first baby, a pillowy thing made of cotton tufts, to her mother, the older woman had guffawed, blowing out so much air she should have fainted. She’d then taken the molded form from Ogechi, gripped it under its armpits, and pulled it in half.

“This thing will grow fat and useless,” she’d said. “You need something with strong limbs that can plow and haul and scrub. Soft children with hard lives go mad or die young. Bring me a child with edges and I will bless it and you can raise it however you like.”

When Ogechi had instead brought her mother a paper child woven from the prettiest wrapping paper she’d been able to scavenge, her mother, laughing the whole time, had plunged it into the mop bucket until it softened and fell apart. Ogechi had slapped her, and her mother had slapped her back and slapped her again and again till their neighbors heard the commotion and pulled the two women apart. Ogechi ran away that night and vowed never to return to her mother’s house.

At her stop, Ogechi alighted and picked her way through the crowded street until she reached Mama Said Hair Emporium, where she worked. Mama also owned the store next door, an eatery to some, but to others, like Ogechi, a place where the owner would bless the babies of motherless girls. For a fee. And Ogechi still owed that fee for the yarn boy who was now unravelled.

When she stepped into the Emporium, the other assistant hairdressers noticed her empty arms and snickered. They’d warned her about the yarn, hadn’t they? Ogechi refused to let the sting of tears in her eyes manifest and grabbed the closest broom.

Soon, clients trickled in, and the other girls washed and prepped their hair for Mama while Ogechi swept up the hair shed from scalps and wigs and weaves. Mama arrived just as the first customer had begun to lose patience and soothed her with compliments. She noted Ogechi’s empty arms with a resigned shake of her head and went to work, curling, sewing, perming until the women were satisfied or in too much of a hurry to care.

Shortly after three, the two younger assistants left together, avoiding eye contact with Ogechi but smirking as if they knew what came next. Mama dismissed the remaining customer and stroked a display wig, waiting.

“Mama, I—”

“Where is the money?”

It was a routine Mama refused to skip. She knew perfectly well that Ogechi didn’t have any money. Ogechi lived in one of Mama’s buildings, where she paid in rent almost all of the meagre salary she earned, and ate only once a day, at Mama’s canteen next door.

“I don’t have it.”

“Well, what will you give me instead?”

Ogechi knew better than to suggest something.

“Mama, what do you want?”

“I want just a bit more of your joy, Ogechi.”

The woman had already taken most of her empathy so that she found herself spitting in the palms of beggars. She’d started on joy the last time, agreeing to bless the yarn boy only if Ogechi siphoned a bit, just a dab, to her. All that empathy and joy and who knows what else Mama took from her and the other desperate girls who visited her back room kept her blessing active long past when it should have faded. Ogechi tried to think of it as a fair trade, a little bit of her life for her child’s life. Anything but go back to her own mother and her practical demands.

“Yes, Mama, you can have it.”

Mama touched Ogechi’s shoulder, and she felt a little bit sad, but nothing she wouldn’t shake off in a few days. It was an even trade.

“Why don’t you finish up in here while I check on the food?”

Mama was not gone for three minutes when a young woman walked in. She was stunning, with long natural hair and delicate fingers and skin as smooth and clear as fine chocolate. And in her hands was something that Ogechi wouldn’t have believed existed if she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes. The baby was porcelain, with a smooth glazed face wearing a precious smirk. It wore a frilly white dress and frilly socks and soft-soled shoes that would never touch the ground. Only a very wealthy and lucky woman would be able to keep such a delicate thing unbroken for the full year it would take before the child became flesh.

“I am looking for this Mama woman. Is this her place?”

Ogechi collected herself enough to direct the girl next door, then fell into a fit of jealous tears. Such a baby would never be hers. Even the raffia children of that morning seemed like dirty sponges meant to soak up misfortune when compared with the china child to whom misfortune would never stick. If Ogechi’s mother had seen the child, she would have laughed at how ridiculous such a baby would be, what constant coddling she would need. It would never occur to her that mud daughters needed coddling, too.

Where would Ogechi get her hands on such beautiful material? The only things here were the glossy magazines that advertised the latest styles, empty product bottles, which Mama would fill with scented water and try to sell, and hair. Hair everywhere—short, long, fake, real, obsidian black, delusional blond, bright, bright red. Ogechi upended the bag she’d swept the hair into, and it landed in a pile studded with debris. She grabbed a handful and shook off the dirt. Would she dare?

After plugging one of the sinks, she poured in half a cup of Mama’s most expensive shampoo. When the basin was filled with water and frothy with foam, she plunged the hair into it and began to scrub. She filled the sink twice more until the water was clear. Then she soaked the bundle in the matching conditioner, rinsed and towelled it dry. Next, she gathered up the silky strands and began to wind them.

Round and round until the ball of hair became a body and nubs became arms, fingers. The strands tangled together to become nearly impenetrable. This baby would not snag and unravel. This baby would not dissolve in water or rain or in nail-polish remover, as the plastic baby had that time. This was not a sugar-and-spice child to be swarmed by ants and disintegrate into syrup in less than a day. This was no practice baby formed of mud that she would toss into a drain miles away from her home.

She wrapped it in a head scarf and went to find Mama. The beautiful woman and her beautiful baby had concluded their business. Mama sat in her room counting out a boggling sum of money. Only after she was done did she wave Ogechi forward.

“Another one?”

“Yes, Mama.”

Ogechi did not uncover the child, and Mama didn’t ask, long since bored by the girl’s antics. They sang the traditional song:

Where are you going?

I am going home.

Who will greet you at home?

My mother will greet me.

What will your mother do?

My mother will bless me and my child.

Mama continued with her own special verse:

What does Mama need to bless this child?

Mama needs whatever I have.

What do you have?

I have no money.

What do you have?

I have no goods.

What do you have?

I have a full heart.

What does Mama need to bless this child?

Mama needs a full heart.

Then Mama blessed her and the baby and, in lieu of a celebratory feast, gave Ogechi one free meat pie. Then she took a little bit more of Ogechi’s joy.
There was a good reason for Ogechi not to lift the cloth and let Mama see the child. For one, it was made of items found in Mama’s store, and even though they were trash, Mama would add this to her ledger of debts. Second, everybody knew how risky it was to make a child out of hair, infused with the identity of the person who had shed it. But a child of many hairs? Forbidden.

But the baby was glossy, and the red streaks glinted just so in the light, and it was sturdy enough to last a full year, easy. And after that year she would take it to her mother and throw it (not “it” the baby but the idea of it) in her mother’s face.

She kept the baby covered even on the bus, where people gave her coy glances and someone tried to sing the song, but Ogechi stared ahead and did not respond to her call.

The sidewalk leading to the door of her little room was so dirty she tiptoed along it, thinking that, if her landlord weren’t Mama, she would complain.

In her room, she laid the baby on an old pillow in an orphaned drawer. In the morning, it would come to life, and in a year it would be a strong and pretty thing.
There was an old tale about hair children. Long ago, girls would collect their sheddings every day until they had a bundle large enough to spin a child. One day, a storm blew through the town, and every bundle was swept from its hiding place into the middle of the market, where the hairs became entangled and matted together. The young women tried desperately to separate their own hairs from the others. The elder mothers were amused at the girls’ histrionics, how they argued over the silkiest patches and the longest strands. They settled the commotion thus: every girl would draw out one strand from every bundle until they all had an equal share. Some grumbled, some rejoiced, but all complied, and each went home with an identical roll.

When the time came for the babies to be blessed, all the girls came forward, each bundle arriving at the required thickness at the same time. There was an enormous celebration of this once-in-an-age event, and tearful mothers blessed their tearful daughters’ children to life.

The next morning, all the new mothers were gone. Some with no sign, others reduced to piles of bones stripped clean, others’ bones not so clean. But that was just an old tale.
The baby was awake in the morning, crying dry sounds, like stalks of wheat rubbing together. Ogechi ran to it, and smiled when the fibrous, eyeless face turned to her.

“Hello, child. I am your mother.”

But still it cried, hungry. Ogechi tried to feed it the detergent she’d given to the yarn one, but it passed through the baby as if through a sieve. Even though she knew it wouldn’t work, she tried the sugar water she had given to the candy child, with the same result. She cradled the child, the scritch of its cries grating her ears, and as she drew a deep breath of exasperation her nose filled with the scent of Mama’s expensive shampoo and conditioner, answering her question.

“You are going to be an expensive baby, aren’t you?” Ogechi said, with no heat. A child that cost much brought much.

Ogechi swaddled it, ripping her second dress into strips that she wound around the baby’s torso and limbs until it was almost fully covered, save for where Ogechi imagined the nose and mouth to be. She tried to make do with her own shampoo for now, which was about as luxurious as the bottom of a slow drain, but the baby refused it. Only when Ogechi strapped the child to her back did she find out what it wanted. The baby wriggled upward, and Ogechi hauled it higher, then higher still until it settled its head on the back of her neck. Then she felt it, the gentle suckling at her nape as the child drew the tangled buds of her hair into its mouth. Ahh, now this she could manage.
Ogechi decided to walk today, unsure of how to nurse the child on the bus and still keep it secret, but she dreaded the busy intersection she would cross as she neared Mama’s Emporium. The people milling about with curious eyes, the beggars scanning and calculating the worth of passersby. Someone would notice, ask.

But as she reached the crossing not one person looked at her. They were all gathered in a crowd, staring at something that was blocked from Ogechi’s sight by the press of bodies. After watching a woman try and fail to haul herself onto the low-hanging roof of a nearby building for a better view, Ogechi pulled herself up in one, albeit labored, move. Mud girls were good for something. She ignored the woman stretching her arm out for assistance and stood up to see what had drawn the crowd.

A girl stood with her mother, and though Ogechi could not hear them from where she perched, the stance, the working of their mouths—all was familiar. They were revealing a child in public? In the middle of the day? Even a girl like her knew how terribly vulgar this was. It was no wonder the crowd had gathered. Only a child of some magnitude would be unwrapped in public this way. What was this one, gold? No, the woman and the girl were not dressed finely enough for that. Their clothes were no better than Ogechi’s.

The child startled Ogechi when it moved. What she’d thought an obscene ruffle on the front of the girl’s dress was, in fact, the baby, no more than interlocking twigs and sticks—was that grass?—bound with old cloth. Scraps. A rubbish baby. It cried, the friction of sound so frantic and dry Ogechi imagined a fire flickering from the child’s mouth. A hiccup interrupted the noise, and when it resumed it was a human cry. The girl’s mother laughed and danced, and the girl just cried, pressing the baby to her breast. They uncovered the child together, shucking a thick skin of cloth and sticks, and Ogechi leaned as far as she could without falling from the roof to see what special attribute might have required a public showing.

The crowd was as disappointed as she was. It was just an ordinary child with an ordinary face. They started to disperse, some throwing insults at the two mothers and the baby they held between them for wasting everybody’s time. Others congratulated them with enthusiasm—it was a baby, after all. Something didn’t add up, though, and Ogechi was reluctant to leave until she understood what nagged her about the scene.

It was the new mother’s face. The child was as plain as pap, but the mother’s face was full of wonder. One would think the baby had been spun from silk. One would think the baby was speckled with diamonds. One would think the baby was loved. Mother cradled mother, who cradled child, a tangle of ordinary limbs of ordinary women.

There has to be more than this for me, Ogechi thought.
At the shop, the two young assistants prepped their stations and rolled their eyes at the sight of Ogechi and the live child strapped to her back. Custom forced politeness from them, and with gritted teeth they sang:

Welcome to the new mother

I am welcomed

Welcome to the new child

The child is welcomed

May her days be longer than the breasts of an old mother and fuller than the stomach of a rich man.

The second the words were out, they went back to work, as though the song were a sneeze, to be excused and forgotten. Until that is, they took in Ogechi’s self-satisfied air, so different from the anxiousness that had followed in her wake whenever she had blessed a child in the past. The two girls were forced into deference, stepping aside as Ogechi swept where they would have stood still a mere day ago. When Mama walked in, she paused, sensing the shift of power in the room, but it was nothing to her. She was still the head. What matter if one toenail argued with the other? She eyed the bundle on Ogechi’s back but didn’t look closer and wouldn’t, as long as the child didn’t interfere with the work and, by extension, her coin.

Ogechi was grateful for the child’s silence, even though the suction on her neck built up over the day to become an unrelenting ache. She tired easily, as if the child were drawing energy from her. Whenever she tried to ease a finger between her nape and the child’s mouth, the sucking would quicken, so she learned to leave it alone. At the end of the day, Mama stopped her with a hand on her shoulder.

“So you are happy with this one.”

“Yes, Mama.”

“Can I have a bit of that happiness?”

Ogechi knew better than to deny her outright.

“What can I have in exchange?”

Mama laughed and let her go.

When Ogechi dislodged the child at the end of the day, she found a raw, weeping patch on her nape, where the child had sucked her bald. On the ride home, she slipped to the back of the bus, careful to cradle the child’s face against her ear so that no one could see it. The baby immediately latched on to her sideburn, and Ogechi spent the journey like that, the baby sucking an ache into her head. At home, she sheared off a small patch of hair and fed the child, who took the cottony clumps like a sponge absorbing water. Then it slept, and Ogechi slept, too.

If Mama wondered at Ogechi’s sudden ambition, she said nothing. Ogechi volunteered to trim ends. She volunteered to unclog the sink. She kept the store so clean a rumor started that the building was to be sold. She discovered that the child disliked fake hair and would spit it out. Dirty hair was best, flavored with the person from whose head it had fallen. Ogechi managed a steady stream of food for the baby, but it required more and more as each day passed. All the hair she gathered at work would be gone by the next morning, and Ogechi had no choice but to strap the child to her back and allow it to chaw on her dwindling nape.

Mama was not curious about the baby, but the two assistants were. When Ogechi denied their request for a viewing, their sudden deference returned to malice tenfold. They made extra messes, strewing hair after Ogechi had cleaned, knocking bottles of shampoo over until Mama twisted their ears for wasting merchandise. One of the girls, the short one with the nasty scar on her arm, grew bolder, attempting to snatch the cover off the baby’s head and laughing and running away when Ogechi reacted. Evading her became exhausting, and Ogechi took to hiding the child in the shop on the days she opened, squeezing it in among the wigs or behind a shelf of unopened shampoos, and the thwarted girl grew petulant, bored, then gave up.

One day, while the child was nestled between two wigs, and Ogechi, the other assistants, and Mama were having lunch at the eatery next door, a woman stopped by their table to speak to Mama.

“Greetings.”
“I am greeted,” Mama said. “What is it you want?”

Mama was usually more welcoming to her customers, but this woman owed Mama money, and she subtracted each owed coin from her pleasantries.

“Mama, I have come to pay my debt.”

“Is that so? This is the third time you have come to pay your debt, and yet we are still here.”

“I have the money, Mama.”

“Let me see.”

The woman pulled a pouch from the front of her dress and counted out the money owed. As soon as the notes crossed her palm, Mama was all smiles.

“Ahh, a woman of her word. My dear, sit. You are looking a little rough today. Why don’t we get you some hair?”

The woman was too stunned by Mama’s kindness to heed the insult. Mama shooed one of the other assistants toward the shop, naming a wig the girl should bring. A wig that was near where Ogechi had stashed the baby.

“I’ll get it, Mama,” Ogechi said, getting up, but a swift slap to her face sat her back down.

“Was anyone talking to you, Ogechi?” Mama asked.

She knew better than to reply.

The assistant Mama had addressed snickered on her way out, and the other one smiled into her plate. Ogechi twisted her fingers into the hem of her dress and tried to slow her breathing. Maybe if she was the first to speak to the girl when she returned she could beg her. Or bribe her. Anything to keep her baby secret.

But the girl didn’t return. After a while, the woman who had paid her debt became restless and stood to leave. Mama’s tone was muted fury.

“Sit. Wait.” To Ogechi, “Go and get the wig, and tell that girl that if I see her again I will have her heart.” Mama wasn’t accustomed to being disobeyed.

Ogechi hurried to the shop expecting to find the girl agape at the sight of her strange, fibrous child. But the girl wasn’t there. The wig she’d been asked to bring was on the floor, and there, on the ledge where it had been, was the baby. Ogechi pushed it behind another wig and ran the first wig back to Mama, who insisted that the woman take it. Then Mama charged her, holding out her hand for payment. The woman hesitated but paid. Mama gave nothing for free.

The assistant did not return to the Emporium, and Ogechi worried that she’d gone to call some elder mothers for counsel. But no one stormed the shop, and when Ogechi stepped outside after closing there was no mob gathered to dispense judgment. The second assistant left as soon as Mama permitted her to, calling for the first one over and over. Ogechi retrieved the baby and went home.
n her room, Ogechi tried to feed the child, but the hair rolled off its face. She tried again, selecting the strands and clumps it usually favored, but it rejected them all.

“What do you want?” Ogechi asked. “Isn’t this hair good enough for you?” This was said with no malice, and she leaned in to kiss the baby’s belly. It was warm, and Ogechi drew back from the unexpected heat.

“What have you got there?” she asked a rhetorical question to which she did not expect an answer. But then the baby laughed, and Ogechi recognized the sound. It was the snicker she heard whenever she tripped over discarded towels or dropped the broom with her clumsy hands. It was the snicker she’d heard when Mama cracked her across the face at the eatery.

Ogechi distanced herself even more, and the child struggled to watch her, eventually rolling onto its side. It stilled when she stilled, and so Ogechi stopped moving, even after a whir of snores signaled the child’s sleep.

Should she call for help? Or tell Mama? Help from whom? Tell Mama what, exactly? Ogechi weighed her options till sleep weighed her lids. Soon, too soon, it was morning.

The baby was crying, hungry. Ogechi neared it with caution. When it saw her, the texture of its cry softened and—Ogechi couldn’t help it—she softened, too. It was hers, wasn’t it? For better or for ill, the child was hers. She tried feeding it the hairs again, but it refused them. It did, however, nip hard at Ogechi’s fingers, startling her. She hadn’t given it any teeth.

She wanted more than anything to leave the child in her room, but the strangeness of its cries might draw attention. She bundled it up, trembling at the warmth of its belly. It latched on to her nape with a powerful suction that blurred her vision. This is the sort of thing a mother should do for her child, Ogechi told herself, resisting the urge to yank the baby off her neck. A mother should give all of herself to her child, even if it requires the marrow in her bones. Especially a child like this, strong and sleek and shimmering.

After a few minutes, the sucking eased to something manageable, the child sated.
t the Emporium, Ogechi kept the child with her, worried that it would cry if she removed it. Besides, the brash assistant who had tried to uncover the child was no longer at the shop, and Ogechi knew that she would never return. The other assistant was red-eyed and sniffling, unable to stop even after Mama gave her dirty looks. By lockup, Ogechi’s head was throbbing, and she trembled with exhaustion. She wanted to get home and pry the baby off her. She was anticipating the relief of that when the remaining assistant said, “Why have you not asked after her?”

“Who?” Stupid answer, she thought as soon as she uttered it.

“What do you mean who? My cousin that disappeared. Why haven’t you wondered where she is? Even Mama has been asking people about her.”

“I didn’t know you were cousins.”

The girl recognized Ogechi’s evasion.

“You know what happened to her, don’t you? What did you do?”

The answer came out before Ogechi could stop it.

“The same thing I will do to you,” she said, and the assistant took a step back, then another, before turning to run.

At home, Ogechi put the child to bed and stared until it slept. She felt its belly, which was cooling now, and recoiled at the thought of what could be inside. Then it gasped a little hairy gasp from its little hairy mouth, and Ogechi felt again a mother’s love.

The next morning, it was Ogechi’s turn to open the store, and she went in early to bathe the baby with Mama’s fine shampoo, sudsing its textured face, avoiding the bite of that hungry, hungry mouth. She was in the middle of rinsing off the child when the other assistant entered. She retreated in fear at first, but then she took it all in—Ogechi at the sink, Mama’s prized shampoo on the ledge, suds covering mother-knows-what—and she turned sly, running outside and shouting for Mama. Knowing that it was no use calling after her, Ogechi quickly wrapped the baby back up in her old torn-up dress, knocking over the shampoo in her haste. That was when Mama walked in.

“I hear you are washing something in my sink.” Mama looked at the spilled bottle, then back at Ogechi. “You are doing your laundry in my place?”

“I’m sorry, Mama.”

“How sorry are you, Ogechi, my dear?” Mama said, calculating. “Are you sorry enough to give me some of that happiness? So that we can forget all this?”

There was no need for a song now, as there was no new child to be blessed. Mama simply stretched her hand forward and held on, but what she thought was Ogechi’s shoulder was the head of the swaddled child.

Mama fell to the ground in undignified shudders. Her eyes rolled as if she were trying to see everything at once. Ogechi fled. She ran all the way home, and, even through her panic, she registered the heat of the child in her arms, like the just-stoked embers of a fire. In her room, she threw the child into its bed, expecting to see whorls of burned flesh on her arms but finding none. She studied the baby, but it didn’t look any different. It was still a dense tangle of dark fibre with the occasional streak of red. She didn’t touch it, even when the mother in her urged her to. At any moment, Mama would show up with her goons, and Ogechi was too frightened to think of much else. But Mama didn’t appear, and she fell asleep waiting for the pounding at her door.

Ogechi woke in the middle of the night with the hair child standing over her. It should not have been able to stand, let alone haul itself onto her bed. Nor should it have been able to fist her hair in a grip so tight her scalp puckered or stuff an appendage into her mouth to block her scream. She tried to tear it apart, but the seams held. Only when she rammed it into the wall did it let go. It skittered across the room and hid somewhere that the candle she lit couldn’t reach. Ogechi backed toward the door, listening, but what noise does hair make?

When the hair child jumped onto Ogechi’s head, she shrieked and shook herself, but it gripped her hair again, tighter this time. She then did something that would follow her all her days. She raised the candle and set it on fire. And when the baby fell to the ground, writhing, she covered it with a pot and held it down, long after her fingers had blistered from the heat, until the child, as tough as she’d made it, stopped moving.

Outside, she sat on the little step in front of the entrance to her apartment. No one had paid any mind to the noise—this wasn’t the sort of building where one checked up on screams. Knees to her chin, Ogechi sobbed into the calloused skin, feeling part relief, part something else—a sliver of empathy Mama hadn’t been able to steal. There was so much dirt on the ground, so much of it everywhere, all around her. When she turned back into the room and lifted the pot, she saw all those pretty, shiny strands transformed into ash. Then she scooped dirt into the pot and added water.

This she knew. How to make firm clay—something she was born to do. When the mix was just right, she added a handful of the ashes. Let this child be born in sorrow, she told herself. Let this child live in sorrow. Let this child not grow into a foolish, hopeful girl with joy to barter. Ogechi formed the head, the arms, the legs. She gave it her mother’s face. In the morning, she would fetch leaves to protect it from the rain.

Lesley Nneka Arimah has been published in The New Yorker and Granta, her story ‘Light’ was winner of the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa, and the title story of ‘What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky’ was shortlisted for the Caine Prize 2016.

Originally Published on The New Yorker

Who Will Greet You At Home || Lesley Nnneka Arimah

Nights of the Creaking Bed || Toni Kan

My mother was a kept woman.
It was something we knew. We – my cousin Meze and I. It was something we knew without being told, the sort of knowledge that creeps up on you and without announcing itself makes your acquaintance.

We knew and even though we didn’t deny it, it wasn’t something we went screaming from the roof-tops.

And we preferred that those who had gained this knowledge kept it to themselves.

I got my first black eye the day Damian bared the naked rump of my secret before the whole school.

“Your mother is fucking somebody’s husband!”

It was enough to bring the bile to my tongue, the rage to the fore of my being and my fist slamming into his mouth.

When Damian saw a pre-molar fall out with the blood he spat out he’d screamed and turned my left eye into a camera flash bulb. I saw stars.

It was all my fault: the secret that had bared its rump; the premolar in the sand, the new milky way.

It was my fault. I’d just seen The Omen and for days I’d been needling Damian and calling him the anti-Christ.

How he tried to fend me off, to make me stop. But I was like an airplane drunk on Jet A-1. I wouldn’t stop.

And fed up, he had dredged up from the pit of his rage a sentence that ensured that I never looked my mates’ in the eye again.

“Your mother is fucking somebody’s husband!”

And it was all my fault!

* * * *

“Somebody’s husband” was Uncle John to Meze and I. Tall, dark, pot bellied and heavily bearded he cut the picture of a burglar.

But Uncle John was a gentle giant. Mild mannered and ever polite he gave the impression that he was somehow sorry for being so big. He never screamed and he never sent you on an errand without saying please.

He came to see my Mom twice a week. On Wednesdays and Fridays. He would come in at about 6.30pm. He would park his car in the garage we had and never used because my mother didn’t have a car. Then he would lift his bulk out of the car and walk into the house refusing to let me carry his bulging briefcase.

I would serve him water and he would ask about school if schools were in session or about the holiday if I was home.

“Evening Captain!” He would hail Meze.

He called my cousin captain because according to him he had served under a captain called Meze during the war.

“Good evening, Uncle John,” Meze would greet.

“I remain loyal,” Uncle John would say then rise to join my mother in the kitchen where she would be busy preparing a delicacy for his pleasure.

With Uncle John around my mother was a woman transformed. Flush with excitement she would sing old songs made new by the passion with which she sang them. Her laughter rang loud and was like music even to ears for which it was not meant and there was a bounce to her gait that slashed off years from her age.

There was magic in those heady, fun-filled moments they spent those two nights of the week.

And you could smell her despair even before you saw her the next day when Uncle John would leave. She would be grouchy and tetchy, snapping at nothing and speaking to herself even as she stared out into space.

And then I would sit and watch her and marvel at how something that brought her so much joy could sire such misery and dejection in its wake.

When they had played all the LPs and danced to all the songs, they’d rise and retire to my mother’s room. And once the key turned in the lock the bed would begin to creak.

* * * *

I never met my father.

By the time I was old enough to recognise faces and tell one from the other my father had disappeared wherever vagabond husbands and vagrant fathers fade into. He was gone and my mother had wiped him off her mind.

She never spoke of him. She kept no pictures, no keep-sakes to remember him by. I was the only reminder that there had been such a man in her life.

People who say absence makes the heart fonder never knew the kind of absence I knew. It was absolute. One that did not seem to exist because the presence that had been looked vaguer than the absence I lived with. I know nothing about my father. And I can’t tell whether the bed used to creak when he went in with my mother!

* * * *

We lived at No. 56 for so many years that I came to see it as home and even after we moved because my mother couldn’t stand the crowd of memories that assailed her, I came to see the other places we lived in as strange abodes. I felt and continue to feel like an alien in a foreign land: a radicle in search of its own clump of earth.

No 56 was large and like all big houses had its fair share of gossips. We lived in front, in a two bedroom flat. A tenement building stretched out behind us like a tail.

Everyone saw us; Meze, my mother and I as the rich ones. We were the ones who had a garage and could park a car if we bought one. We were the ones who never missed school because of unpaid fees and we were the ones who always had light when others didn’t because we could afford to pay our NEPA bills on time.

Our neighbours had conceived a perfect life for us, one that was free from want or lack. They knew the truth had a different face but the over-bearing misery of their own lives had blinded them to that other reality. So, to explain it away and bear up under the burden of their own lack and want they concocted a lie which served as a palliative for what ailed them.

But it was a fragile reality. One that came crashing the moment we stepped out of line or designed to live as citizens of that world they said we belonged to.

Unsheathing their tongues they would flagellate us with verbal strokes that left lasting scars.

Their anger, like Jehovah’s rage, kindled at the enemies of the Jews, burned against us at long intervals because linked closely to their awe was an incipient fear peculiar to all poor people, that sense of dread that leaves you feeling naked because you have nothing.

Then one day a neighbour’s wife had unsheathed her tongue and told my mother things that made her quake.

Her child had taken ill at a bad time (not that there is a good time for falling sick). Doctors were on strike, which meant that government hospitals were shut.

The lab diagnosed typhoid fever and the doctor at the private clinic demanded a deposit of two thousand naira. It was evening and rushing home from the hospital it was our door she knocked on first.

“Your mama, nko?” She asked.

“She’s not back from the shop,” I said and she had sighed, a drawn out expiration of air that seemed to drain the life out of her.

“What’s wrong?” I asked watching the tears escape her lids and slither down her face. “No worry,” she said and turned.

By the time my mother came in, her trip around the fourteen rooms in the compound had dredged up a miserly five hundred and twenty – four naira. She needed more if her child was to live.

Then my mother came back laden with provisions and food stuff.

Her plea was desperate and when my mother said she had no money her eyes had turned to blazing coals rescued from a smithy.

“My son dey for hospital. If I no carry dis money go, the boy go die. Abeg, help me.”

“Mama Chisco, I have no money on me. I have just finished shopping. I have only two hundred naira left.” My mother explained but her words only served to fan the embers of our neighbour’s desperation.

“Abeg, Mama Andrew. I take God beg you, save my pikin.” The woman cried.

“I can’t. I have no money, true.”

As we watched a change came over Mama Chisco. She took a step backward. She dabbed at her eyes and then she loosened her tongue and spoke words that sent sharp darts into my heart and almost killed my mother. Words that echoed Damian’s words at the playground. Words that spoke of old scorn curdled to hate. But it was her final words that packed the most bile.

“Okay, make I ask you one question, wetin you go do if that man wey you dey fuck, if im wife come here come catch you, eh Mama Andy? My pikin dey die and you no wan help me, eh. Why?” The woman wailed and crumpled to the floor.

My mother looked across at me. Our eyes met and I could read fear and desperation and shame in her’s. Then without a single word she walked out of the compound.

She was gone for less than ten minutes and when she returned she gave the woman a wad of naira notes; five thousand naira in all.

Her child survived but she never forgave herself. It took them six months to raise the money but my mother refused it and for years until we left they took to giving me money, small change, at well-chosen intervals. They hadn’t become rich, they were merely making expiation for that sin.

And it was from them that I learned that, sometimes, the verbal pains we inflict on others can scar us for life.

* * * *

My mother would have been happier if she were a widow. But a woman with a husband, who was not there, she looked more like a bat surprised by sunlight.

* * * *

When you’re fifteen and in the full grip of adolescence, your mother’s nakedness is not the best thing to behold.

So, when my mother ran out of her room stark naked and screaming at the top of her lungs I’d felt a stirring that leaves me flush with shame when I recollect it.

I found her a wrapper then Meze and I tip-toed into her bedroom. Uncle John lay naked, his bulk filling up the bed.

He was naked save for the condom that covered his erection like a shroud. Meze had covered him up while I stood there shivering and sobbing.

And today, years later when I think of that scene I remember two things – his condom-ed manhood and the thought that occurred to me before grief settled over me – his erection looked really small.

* * * *

We left No 56 soon after.

There were too many sniggers tugging at our sleeves as we walked past and many eyes that suddenly began to look everywhere else but at us.

And then Uncle John’s wife came to see the woman who had fucked her husband to death. “Where’s your mother?” she asked.

“She’s not at home.”

“So, your mother is the ashewo who killed my husband?” she asked before I shut the door on her and the neighbours that had gathered.

We left No 56 soon after.

* * * *

Today, Meze is married and my mother is dead. When her bed stopped to creak, her heart began to slow.

I am not married but once a week I visit a widow and act as father to her only son.

I wear a bushy beard, I nurse a small paunch and I carry an old and bulging briefcase in memory of the only father I knew.

Toni Kan is a poet, writer, and Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of Sabinews.com. He is the co- founder of Radi8, an Ideas and PR/Communications company is currently Deputy General Manager at ntel, Nigeria’s first 4G/LTE Advanced network.

Originally Published on African Writer

Nights of the Creaking Bed || Toni Kan

Beautiful | Helon Habila


There are two ways to enter Ajegunle: from the front, past the noisy market and the frenetic traffic facing the store-front displays of clothes and household wares; or from the back by boat over the dirty, shit-lined lagoon separating the ghetto from the Apapa Industrial neighborhood. I decide to go over the Lagoon. This access is closest to my office at Vanguard newspaper, about two bus stops away. Here you measure distance in bus stops, not in minutes or hours, because a ten-minute bus ride could end up taking over an hour. Like this one.

Our bus is hardly moving in the deafening, chock-a-block traffic that has something almost apocalyptic about it. God, if you get me safely out of this traffic, I’ll never sin again.

I sit next to a fat lady who is eating corn on the cob with one hand, and with the other she holds a sack of groceries in her lap. She appears oblivious to the intolerable heat that is oppressing everyone else in the overcrowded bus. The danfo bus is cramped and smells of sweat and armpit and hair oil and food and, as if that isn’t punishment enough, loud Fuji music blares out from a speaker located somewhere above, or below, but it feels like it’s coming from deep inside my skull.

I am next to the open window. The lady is crushing me. I try to make myself smaller. I think thin. I turn my nose to the window for air only to find my view blocked by a sachet of water being thrust into my face by a hawker. Another hawker, a scrawny girl selling gala meat-rolls shoves the first hawker away and tries to push the pack of gala through the window.

“Oga, buy gala, fresh gala,” she commands. The two hawkers are now squeezed between the bus and another bus in a noiseless combat of wills, and any moment now, they would be crushed by the converging buses. But the moment never comes; it is just another day in the office for them. It seems every space between bus and bus, and between road and curb, is alive with hawkers: young and old, male and female, selling wristwatches and cigarettes and groundnuts and sachets of water, also known as pure water, which is anything but. The ‘pure water’ is most likely obtained from their rusty bathroom taps at home, sealed in plastic sachets and sold by these girls to thirsty and tired passengers and pedestrians.

How much does the gala girl make a day: ten, twenty, thirty, a hundred naira? Well, say two hundred on a very good day, which she turns over to her handler who employs a battalion of little gala girls. Each one takes home about ten percent of whatever they turn in, say: twenty naira a day. Six hundred a month. A cheap meal in a buka costs around thirty fifty naira. How does the girl survive? Impossible. But when you add her sisters and brothers, say about five in all, all bringing in about the same amount, and the mother bringing in twice that from her buka, and the father bringing in about thrice that from his driving job, then it all begins to look possible. But still marginal.

There will be no new shoes for the kids, no new clothes, no school—well, maybe primary school since it is mostly free, but every day spent away from hawking gala is a day without income—certainly no university.

“Hey, give me a gala,” I shout at the girl. I am not going to eat it. But by buying one I am contributing to her day’s income.

What hope do these kids have? It is part of the reason I am going to Ajegunle. The largest slum in Lagos, possibly in all of Africa.

*

Earlier that morning my editor called me into his office and asked me if I felt like covering this assignment. I didn’t have to say, yes. This is my last day at work; I’m retiring, moving on, recalibrating, or whatever you want to call it. I am not old, I am just tired. I want to do something else with my life, I am not sure what, but first I am taking this year off to think of my next move. I have a few plans but nothing concrete.

“It is the Buzuzu case. I know you are a fan—you wrote a story on him when you first came here. I think it is one of your best pieces. How about you write another one, a long feature about what he was; what it means to go for glory, to believe in something? These kids have no idea what that means.”

I said, yes, of course. Reluctantly at first but then the excitement grew. There is a pleasing symmetry to it, a feature on the same person at the start of my career at the paper and now at the end of it. I knew Buzuzu. His death had shocked many like me who knew what he was, who he was, and there aren’t that many who can say they knew him. His death, a month ago, sparked a huge riot in Ajegunle. A legend like Buzuzu, killed so randomly on the streets, over a football argument. Chelsea versus Arsenal, or was it Manchester United versus Manchester City? Who knows what is what when the same players keep popping up in different teams? They are all brands owned by billionaires in Russia or America or the Middle East. We are their consumers, mindlessly buying whatever they manufacture, from their players to their t-shirts, and candies and shoes and shaving creams. That’s why I am retiring. I have lost my faith in sports; I don’t want to write about it anymore. But Buzuzu was different.

I leave the bus and pick my way through a path strewn with discarded plastic bags – some of them spilling what looks like human feces – down to a lagoon on whose other bank lay Ajegunle. I pass men sitting beside abandoned canoes, eating amidst the garbage and oil-covered puddles of rainwater. A woman selling ogogoro under a tree laughs at a lewd joke with two men who look about ready to flop down in the mud any minute. I take a boat with a dozen other people from a little jetty and slowly we head for the opposite bank of the lagoon. My contact, Daga Tola, a local activist, is supposed to meet me when the bus comes in, but I am early. I have 30 minutes. I decide to take a walk.

I follow the trash-hedged streets; most of them are deserted at this time. Soon I’m approaching the community football pitch. They call it the Maracana Stadium – rectangular piece of land, 100 meters long by 64 meters wide, with two goal posts at either end. Unfenced, untended and at the moment, unoccupied. Like everywhere else in Ajengunle, most of it is covered in trash.

I remember when I first came here to do my story on Buzuzu many years ago; Daga Tola brought me to this same playing field and said, “Behold, the Maracana of Ajegunle!” Like now, there wasn’t much to see. In the distance a mad man stood against a wall talking to himself, smoking a cigarette. Farther in the distance, from a sort of platform hanging over the water, a man squatted by the lagoon, defecating. Nearby, another man on a ladder dangled from a light-pole, fiddling with the wires, perhaps re-connecting them after having been disconnected for not paying his power bill.

“This playing field is our dream and our hope.”

Daga Tola, 42, had lived most of his life here. He was a poet, and a pro-democracy activist. He had led many protests and riots against the military and civilian governments. “Ajegunle has seen a lot of changes,” he said. “Our main industry used to be fishing from that very lagoon, but now, nothing much is left.”

“How do the people make a living?” I asked.

“Did you notice that between that road to here we have passed about seven churches and a couple of mosques? So, religion is a big industry here, just like in the rest of Lagos.”

I hadn’t noticed the churches and mosques because they all looked like peoples’ houses.

“Here,” Daga Tola went on, pointing to the football pitch strewn with garbage and half-under water, “is the real hope of the Ajegunle youth.”

There were two football pitches, owned by opposing clubs, the most popular being the Maracana. He said the football teams were perhaps the only organized institutions available to young men in Ajegunle. They had a fee-paying membership and were run by managers who sometimes were actually able to get their members a connection with big clubs, some of them foreign. It was said that the former Nigerian national fullback, Taribo West, began his career on one of these pitches.

Now I stand alone on the pitch. It is dusty and uneven and I wonder how this piece of ground could nurture so many dreams, so many hopes. Surely a dream falling on this field would break like an egg on concrete? I walk all the way from goal post to goal post, and then I stop in the little circle in the center of the field. This is where everything starts. The first whistle of the match. I close my eyes and I am faraway somewhere. I am young again. All around me are spectators watching a match between two neighborhood teams. I shouldn’t be here at the football pitch. My mother warned me against it.

The neighborhood football clubs were well known for violence. Our own neighborhood club, The Super Jets, was started by our older brothers playing with a tattered ball, glued and stapled and sewed together, playing with no shoes till the local politician saw them and bought them a ball and registered the club, renaming it after himself. He lost the election, but that, like they say, is another story. The club was at first more famous for its dying-minute fights than for its members’ athletic prowess. It was not unusual to see a player, on being handed a yellow card, pick up the ball and give the referee a blow before walking off. Referees were often hired for their toughness, not necessarily for their knowledge of soccer. Often a referee would only blow the final whistle when he was safely on the baseline from where he would make a mad dash to a getaway bike or into the nearest house, away from the reach of the losing side.

Today the town’s two best teams were playing. The light was almost dying; the match had entered into extended time, 30 minutes extra, 15 minutes for each half. It was some sort of final, and there had to be a winner, even if it has to go into penalties. The spectators were rabid, pushing and screaming, half inside the field. Then, at the very last minute, a corner kick was taken and the pitch watched in silence as the perfectly curving ball rose and dipped, the players jumped to head it into the net, and then, when it was almost outside the eighteen, a leg rose in a bicycle kick and connected with the ball, redirecting its trajectory to the back of the net. It was beautiful. Of course the fight that followed was ugly, but that goal, that kick, the dying light and the spectators in collective disbelieving silence before the wild applause – “Buzuzu! Buzuzu!”

I saw him carried high, young and frail and as surprised as the men carrying him on their head.

It is the most beautiful feat of athleticism I have ever seen, as beautiful as the famous scorpion kick by Rene Higuita, the Columbian goalkeeper. In the feature I wrote when I joined the paper, I said that was the day I became a fan. That kick redirected the course of my life as surely as it redirected the course of the ball. I went on to become a sportswriter.

*

Daga Tola’s office is a pokey windowless room overlooking the street. There are copies of a workers’ union newsletter, which he edits, piled on a table in a corner. He gives me a copy.

“You are a busy man,” I say. “I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. Tell me more about the violence.”

He shrugs, his long dreadlocks shake and swirl around his head. The office is too cramped to sit in so we pull up chairs and sit outside on the stoop.

“When a people have no security, no money, no justice, they put their hope in other things, like religion. Or football. To us, football is not something that people watch to pass time; it is everything. You must understand that. Football has created a thriving industry of managers who run their own clubs, and they train boys and girls with the hope that they will get them to some team in Europe. Every kid you see in Ajegunle wants to go to Europe to play. They want to be the next Obi Mikel, the next Kanu Nwanko, the next Okocha. They follow the European leagues on TV. Every weekend these youths are able to find N100 to N150 to go watch football at the viewing centers.”

“Why don’t they watch it in their homes?”

“They have no TV, and even if they have TV, there is no electricity. And besides, it is more fun to watch in a group with members of their team.”

I have been to the “viewing centers” many times — mostly a shed, or somebody’s living room, with a TV mounted on a table, sometimes with plastic chairs or benches for the viewers and a man at the door collecting money. There is a generator in the rear of the house to supply electricity.

“For most of these youths, football is their career, they can’t afford not to watch the next Arsenal match, or Chelsea game, or Barcelona. You should come here on a weekend when a big match is on—the whole street is closed down, it is like a carnival with the young men all dressed up in their team’s jerseys.”

Buzuzu owned a viewing center. A fight broke out at his viewing center between supporters of two opposing teams. It was 19 May, 2012. Bayern Munich of Germany was playing Chelsea of England at the Allianz Arena in Munich. It was the UEFA Champions League final. There had to be a winner, and it went on to penalties. Chelsea won, 4-3. The Police came. Buzuzu tried to intervene when a young man was being taken away by the police. He was shot. He died on the street, in front of his house; his wife threw herself over his body, crying.

*

After that bicycle kick, after that goal, we knew it was just a matter of time before he was bought by one of the big teams in Lagos, or even outside the country. He moved to the state capital to train with the state team. A year later we heard he had been called to camp by the junior national team, the Golden Eaglets. He was just 17. That day our little town celebrated like never before. He was putting us on the map. He was our ambassador. He would show the world what kind of people we were.

*

Back in the office I sit in my cubicle and begin to empty my drawer. Somehow the visit to Ajegunle has awakened so many suppressed memories. I remember that little town I grew up in, how we all left as soon as we could. Buzuzu was the first to leave. He went to the Olympics in 1996 Atlanta, USA. We watched in front of his father’s house, on benches similar to the plastic ones in the viewing centers. The whole town would gather to watch, and we’d all break into cheering whenever the camera showed him, sitting on the bench, waiting to be called in. We waited for him to play when we faced and beat Spain, and then Brazil, and even when the Olympics ended, and Nigeria won the first ever Olympics Football trophy without our Buzuzu taking a single shot, we cheered. We celebrated. And when he came home in his fancy car, wearing his green and white Olympics tracksuit, the whole town gathered in front of his father’s house, waiting for him to come out, to shake hands.

And then he disappeared from sight. We heard that he was on his way to Europe, to Ajax, or Napoli, or Real Madrid. Then we saw him on TV playing for Zamalek of Egypt during the African clubs championships. And many years later he was in Cote D’Ivoire playing for ASEK Mimosa. And even though by now we were all busy with our own life, our own hellos and goodbyes, our own arrivals and departures, we still watched the news, waiting to hear his name in the big time in Europe. We travelled, we graduated university, we got married, we had kids, we got divorced; some, not me, remarried, and still we waited for Buzuzu to make it to the big league. But by now he had completely stopped appearing on our screens, only rumors abounded of his whereabouts. Some said he was still in Abidjan, not as a player, but in some coaching capacity. Some said he had died. Some said he had moved to Ghana and was now a businessman, the owner of a football academy.

And then I came to Lagos to work for Vanguard newspaper as a sports writer. One day I went to Ajegunle to write a report on the rise of the football viewing centers, part of a larger story on the decline of local clubs due to the influence of European soccer. Daga Tola was my contact man, and he offered to take me to some of the viewing centers to see what they looked like. The first one we went to was the same as the rest, a narrow room with plastic chairs and a large TV screen, sometimes with a counter in a corner where the owner’s wife sold drinks and food. We sat down, and when the owner came in, it was Buzuzu. I recognized him immediately, even though he was fat now, and shorter than I remembered, his skin darker and coarser. And he didn’t recognize me.

I wondered how he ended up here, in Ajegunle. I wanted to ask him so many questions – what happened between that day of the bicycle kick till now, between A and B. But I didn’t. I asked him perfunctory questions. He looked cheerful, and many a times, when his wife came in to replenish our drinks his eyes would light up, and he’d gently reach out and touch her, and she’d smile back and put a hand on his shoulder before leaving us to attend to her other customers.

Why did I not tell him who I was that day? Shock, perhaps. Surprise. But also temperament. I am a man who likes to think and see clearly where each event leads to before acting—my wife cited that as one of the reasons she left me, but again, that is another story. I decided to do a feature on Buzuzu. My editor gave me his blessing and I went back to Ajegunle, in the canoe, across the shit-spattered lagoon. And this time I introduced myself properly to Buzuzu. He had a lot to say. When I asked him if he had any regrets about not making it to Europe, he shook his head.

“No,” he said. “Perhaps if I had gone I wouldn’t have met Fatou. She is the single most important thing that has ever happened to me.”

“More important than going to the Olympics?”

“Yes.”

*

What really happened?” I asked Daga Tola. “How did he die?”

“Well, the police come here routinely to harass the people, to take money from the viewing center owners. So, on May 19 at Buzuzu’s viewing center, there was a fight after the loss by Bayern and the win by Chelsea, which is the usual, but the police came and threw tear gas to disperse the crowd. This particular kid, Charles Okafor, was beaten and gun-butted by the police. That was when Buzuzu stepped in and one of the policemen raised his gun and shot him, point blank. They left him there; they didn’t even know he had died otherwise they would have taken the body to go and concoct whatever cover-up story they wanted. But they left him there. They went somewhere else and rounded up about 14 young men and locked them up in their station, then went to yet another place. That is what they do to extort money. So, when the people saw that Buzuzu was dead, they organized a protest and took the corpse to the station. The youths set a police car on fire. Three more young men were gunned down.

“They came at us with armored tanks and shot into the crowd because they said the people were throwing stones and missiles at them. To make matters worse, they refused to acknowledge that they had killed Buzuzu. They finally sent their PRO, a certain Frank Mbah, to visit the wife, and one officer identified as the one who fired the shot, was suspended. But somehow, they managed to get an autopsy report that claimed that Buzuzu died of heart failure, not the gunshot.”

“Are things going to change?”

Daga Tola gave a sad smile. He thought for a long while then shook his head and shrugged. “Well, for Ajegunle things will continue to be like this for a long time to come. I don’t see any change coming, not with our kind of leaders. This is not to say that one, or two, or three people will not distinguish themselves and get out of the slum. They will; they have in the past. But for a large chunk of people that make up the community – the women you saw smoking fish, and these children running up and down, and those at my school, the real people that make up the community, I will say that out of 10,000, or 20,000, or 50,000 youths hoping to play football in Europe, only about 5 or 10 will make it.”

*

Now I sit in the crowded bus on my way home. I will finish my piece this night and email it to the editor. I wonder if I should go and visit Buzuzu’s wife, see how she is doing. I could even travel, go back home, to that small town I grew up in. I wonder if there’s any one there left who will recognize me. I close my eyes as the bus crawls through the after-work traffic. And once more, I am back to that playing field, the light is dying, the corner kick is taken, the spectators watch in disbelief as the bicycle kick rises, and rises and connects. Beautiful.

Helon Habila is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at George Mason University, USA. He worked in Lagos as a journalist before moving to England in 2002. His novels include Waiting for an Angel (2002), Measuring Time (2007), and Oil on Water (2010).

Originally Published on Adda

Beautiful | Helon Habila

Pretty | Maryam Kazeem


Before I officially moved to Lagos I was quite certain that prettiness was not a question of when but where. It was neither a question of properly blending the different layers of my contour with the perfect highlighter, nor the length of my lashes. Rather it was dependent upon who was doing the seeing – I had evidence to this of course.

When I arrive in Kwara state to spend one year at Adesoye College Offa (ACO), in the few seconds it takes to drive through the gates, sepia tinged dust creates a Cinderella-esque entrance to a 200-acre compound, which declares me definitively a ‘babe.’ Before then, in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York, my physical appeal is never quite the topic of conversation — or at least not in a way that I can understand. There, when I am pretty in the sea of white faces it comes with conditions. It is “for a black girl” whose “ass and boobs have developed early because she is black,” — Allison’s mother’s explanation for why she has no use for a training bra just yet. She and I will develop differently, her mother assures her. There my pretty is dependent on the layers that make me visible –— the 14-inch micro ropes that are attached to my scalp through the intricate coiling motion, that too often elicits a groan as the loop forms a knot that conjoins the human 16-inch 1B hair with my own seven-and-a-half inch mane.

But at ACO my classmates share one day in the laundry room, in between the showers and the hanging lines, as we iron our blue checkered house dresses with Sisqo’s Unleash the Dragon (our informal album of the year) playing loudly in the background, that even though I ‘form shy’, the boys in the class have ranked me as the finest girl in our set (this is with a buzz cut, by way of the school policy). “It’s not just your face,” my friend says. During an inter-house sports race where I compete in the breaststroke against my sister (she for yellow house, and I for pink), one of the seniors in red house (him 16 and me 11) comments to another senior that I have a ‘perfect hour glass shape’ — he is curious for my name.

In the year marking the new millennium, ACO, among other things, enlightens me to understand that my prettiness is out of my control. I leave ACO with a clear impression — I am pretty in Nigeria, and not quite in New Jersey, where the beholding eyes can’t see past my skin coat.

***

There are over one hundred million posts tagged #pretty on Instagram. Most of them showcase the #flawless movement that has consumed both women and men, validating and on occasion complicating the various ways we define pretty. A few weeks ago while browsing, I come across an image from @naijabestmua. It shows one side of her face, beat to purple perfection and the other half completely bare. She shares a note, “Beautiful before and after. Discoloration, dark spots, dark circles and all, but I still love me and am very much comfortable in my own skin…you should too!” Noted. I see another image that talks pretty too. It’s one of those visuals that try to captivate the viewer by framing a meaningful quote with an auspicious multicolored sky in the background. It reads, “I am pretty, but I am not beautiful. I sin but I am not the devil. I am good but I am not an angel.” I do not know about this distinction between beautiful and pretty – the supposed classification that defines

Beauty as what is within and pretty as the surface level compliment, “Yes she was the pretty girl in black that came in with Bolaji.” I’m not sure that is what I mean when I call someone pretty or beautiful, although I do use beautiful for emphasis. Amidst these hundred some million posts of #pretty I cannot overstate how much it matters that in the sea of faces I see black and brown silhouettes sometimes conventionally #onfleek, but often a redefinition of #flawless and its malleability.

I wouldn’t say I’m very good at Instagram or have the strong selfie game that so many before me have mastered. I rarely pose for said selfies because my angles have absolutely no memory. But when I do pose, I find myself looking for pretty while desperately trying to escape from it, and this little game has made tired of looking at my face. After all, I see it all the time. When I wake in the morning, in the mirror in front of my bed, then again by the entrance to my bedroom, in the bathroom, by the door on my way out. Again when I get in the car and open my social apps; with my face smizing back at me in the profile photo on my Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Peach. Sometimes when I look at my picture I think, “Is that me?” And while scrolling through those selfies where I attempt to find my pretty and put it on display, that very pretty is often disfigured as I ask myself, “who is that?”

When looking at the black and brown sea of faces framed with long weaves, perfectly fluffed tresses and contouring game akin to KylieJenner/KimKW I find myself stuck on pretty, searching for the times when pretty feels like something I can hold and feel – those times when I am in sight.

***

Now in Lagos, I am convinced that these questions of when and where to find pretty can be found, quite easily. In Lagos women show me that when the face is beat, no one can convince you that you are not pretty. For a fee of 10,000 Naira (sometimes beyond 50) on Wedding Saturdays we can all be flawless.

At first I try to find pretty on Wedding Saturdays too, not immune to the beauty bug. The first wedding I attend in Lagos, I tag along with a friend to his cousin’s special day. It is short notice, so I grab one of the few formal dresses I bring with me when I make the somewhat impromptu move from Brooklyn. The dress is black, pleated, and almost fancy so it will have to do. When we arrive at the venue and walk into the tented reception hall, the room is a vision of the chosen wedding colors — pink and green. I am the guest who dressed for the funeral in New York while avoiding the dance floor at a wedding in Ikeja GRA. A couple months later I am convinced to attend another wedding — a friend’s sister. This time I have a few weeks to prepare so I search for the perfect guest attire that says I tried, but not too much — I settle on a sleeveless slate grey wrap dress that I plan to wear with a statement grey- jeweled necklace and off white pumps. When the morning of finally arrives, there is no electricity, which induces streams of sweat I resent for interrupting my preparations. After I cool down a bit, I spend some time on my makeup eager to blend in a bit more this time around. I reach for my dress hanging in front of the armoire and bring my hands through the sleeves carefully pulling it down over my shoulders. But while I do so, my dress takes half of my makeup with it. My previously almost, nearly #onfleek face is now smeared on the bottom of my dress, but I have little time to find another outfit so I grab a big clutch that I’m sure

will hide the mixed brown magenta stain, if I commit to hold it in front of me the entire evening. “What happened to your dress?” my friend asks once I arrive at the hall.

Then at a friend’s wedding a few weeks ago I am sitting in the car with a fellow bridesmaid on the way to the ceremony. She is upset with the makeup artist’s unpolished craft visible in the already cracked foundation on her face, also two shades too light. I am fanning my face, which carries layers and layers of makeup through which I feel the exact opposite of #onfleek. I look like a clown, I am sure but I do not wipe the makeup away even though I am itching too because it is not my day (I’ve learned this is the best strategy for being a bridesmaid on Wedding Saturdays). The other bridesmaid is still venting about her makeup when she shows me an image on her phone from another wedding a few weeks earlier, “Can’t you see how much prettier this was? Can you see the difference?” she asks. I can’t really but nod my head in agreement while trying to keep still so I do not start sweating profusely all over again – this is makeup induced stress that we share so we can be allies in our misery this Saturday afternoon.

***

I have come to a conclusion from Wedding Saturdays and every other day I spend in Lagos, whether physically or digitally, browsing through my Instagram feed. Nigerian woman have either made pretty shallow and accessible, illuminating its transience or the exact opposite. We own pretty – we hold it, share it, use it, blend it, blot it, and then remove it with gentle but firm strokes of ultra gentle cleansing wipes mixed with a few drops of coconut oil. The layers come on, and then off, and then on again. But sometimes when we hold pretty like this, those layers fold into pretty and become pretty itself rather than an extension of pretty – the depths of its colors, the warmth of its tones.

And of course there is nothing wrong with wanting to feel pretty or wearing tons and tons of makeup. Yet I also want to ask – are we okay? Are we good and sane? When I first move to Lagos, I think there is something nice about always being able to be seen as pretty in a place. But even though pretty is here for everyone’s taking, there are so many caveats.

Can I only hold pretty, if I take a selfie where I find ‘my light’, if my edges are laid like baby hairs – or if the ropes hanging from my head are the right kind of heavy and long? My body is disposed to flinch the first few days when my scalp aches from Senegalese or Havanna twists; those ropes of varying weights that hang from my scalp seem to cause quite the stir here as well. Everyone I encounter is delighted to share, “your hair looks really good! You look pretty,’ delivered with a bright smile of course. Or that time a colleague sounds particularly convinced while she exclaims, “Your braids are a good look!” lending approval for my appearance now pretty, but the day before – what exactly?

These images that talk pretty either through the stroke of the foundation brush in the reflection gazing back at me in the mirror, or while my thumb swipes left, right, forward and back are inescapable. And pretty’s silhouette seems so rigid at times – stiff and unyielding to my beck and call.

***

I do not take compliments well. I get a little angry, I think, simply because I do not want to need them. But of course I do. I want to capture in a mason jar that firefly buzz in my lower abdomen where I can feel my heart beat from the bottom when he says ‘you are a vision.’ If I could keep that glowing reflection for whenever I need to be warmed from the inside out.

I have another period where I am fanatically obsessed with pretty. I am consumed with trying to understand why he disappeared. I buy lipstick, eye shadow and foundation – committed to finding my light, or angles so I can document the woman that I can be. I am thinking then that this is the way to show him that I am of something, like him. I can be the Nigerian woman who has the dress with matching shoe and bag for the wedding, or burial or whatever. So I buy four dresses with the appropriate accessories. I even make a note on my phone, ‘Outfits’. I detail the hair, lipstick shade, jewelry, dress, shoes and bag for each dress; I note which dress a sleek high-bun is most befitting and which will look best with a sleek and wavy blowout. They are still hanging in my closet.

***

Most days I spend a solid three minutes on my makeup. Sometime four if I apply blush and mascara. I like looking like a slightly polished version of what I look like when I wake up in the morning. The reflection feels more manageable like this. Yet Lagos demands that I am presentable at all times. No bum days. No grocery shopping in unruly hair – you might be seen and forgo the potential meet cute of the tall guy you first see at a friend’s house party. Or see your ex’s new girlfriend decked in a silk printed dress walking into the restaurant with an 18-inch shadow of silky Brazilian hair solidifying the outline of her silhouette.

By virtue of being a dark skinned woman, I have accepted that in some places people are not willing to see my pretty. And I have enjoyed that invisibility. Sometimes, I find it freeing. Then other times, I envy the confidence of a Naija babe, looking at herself in the mirror, not feeling bored of her face and thinking, “I look amazing!” (because of course, I can read her mind). I am not that confident about most things. I do not really believe that I can have anything I want, or that “I’m going to marry a man who drives a Range Rover, by force” (overheard in the front seat of a gold Kia Cerato while reversing onto Tiamiyu Savage Road, Victoria Island June 2013).

One last thought. What does a localized beauty mean now when a second flesh allows us all to share an image with appreciative eyes anywhere, somewhere? Pretty is global (truly it always was). I am sure my 12-year-old self would have appreciated this when returning to the U.S. from my year as a babe, finding herself once again hypervisible, yet invisible. But the 28-year-old me still has doubts about pretty’s global appreciation tour. We have been able to capture pretty, yes. But I thought we were trying to free it from the sleek copper case, the bunch of clip-ins of soft and perfectly coiled virgin-remy hair? Or maybe we have found the balance that @naijabestmua seems to exude? In exploring Asian American women and oppression, Mitsuye Yamada notes, “To finally recognize our own invisibility is to finally be on the path toward visibility. Invisibility is not a natural state for anyone.” So yes, we have made pretty visible, but can we still see ourselves?

Maryam Kazeem is the Managing Editor of Ventures Africa, a writer and a multimedia visual artist. Her writing and art focus on questions of feminism, race, memory, and diaspora within Nigeria and beyond.

Originally published on Brittle Paper

Pretty | Maryam Kazeem

My African Literati Love Story

african-literati-love-storyOur love story began years back, over two decades ago. Every weekend I ransacked my mother’s makeshift library which was a stack of books piled up in termite bitten and dust laden cartons on her wardrobe. Despite stern warnings to stir clear of the books, reminding me all the time that some of those books were older than i was and that she had bought them before ever thinking of marrying my father, the bond between us grew stronger and there was no turning back.

I remember the sleepless date nights we had with the Pace Setter Series, my favorites still remain Too Cold For Comfort, The Undesirable Element and The Deliquent. These series stirred my thirst for adventure, they were the perfect dessert after a long hard day at school solving algebra and calculus. Then I stumbled on the Chinua Achebe series, breaking into the world of young Chike and how he had to navigate his way around the river. No Longer at Ease and Okonkwo’s journey to death in Things Fall Apart opened my eyes to the rich culture in Eastern Nigeria. Wole Soyinka’s Ake: The years of childhood and Ola Rotimi’s The gods are Not to Blame stimulated my appetite to dig into the archives helping me to embrace our political history. From Buchi Emecheta’s Bride Price and Joys of Motherhood to Elechi Amadi’s Sunset in Biafra, Chukwuemeka Ike’s Bottled Leopard, the list is endless. They formed the building blocks of my addiction to fiction and flair for writing.

But along the line, I fell for the seductive lines of JK Rowling and was whisked off to Hogwarts, spellbound from Harry Porter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Harry Porter and the Deathly Hallows. As I moved from JK to Danielle Steel, Sidney Sheldon and Tolkien, the flame of our love began to fade as I lost track of time engrossed in their pages. Then I felt a shift in my taste buds, as I sailed across the Trans-Atlantic Ocean on the hardbacks of Stephen King, Patterson, Grisham and others, I felt you were not good enough for me again.

Years have gone by, and I had to join the rat race in the daily hustle to have butter on my bread which has eaten a large chunk of my time. But thanks to the likes of Adichie, Wainaina, Ama Ata Aidoo, Habila, Sefi Ataa, Okoroafor and more, my heart yearns for those late nights we had in the past and to hide myself in your embrace. You were a great companion who never complained when I needed a place for my loneliness. I do not fear death when things fall apart because I have you as a thread of gold beads around my neck. I will always remember the memory of love, we shared under the udala tree on the famished road. But I know everything good will still come because I am no longer at ease to write about your brilliant literary exploits.

Your Runaway lover and reader

Originally published on Brittle Paper

My African Literati Love Story

Buchi Emecheta’s Legacy: Women are not Second-class citizens – David Adeleke

buchi-emechetaI was in SS2 when I first read Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood. Like most of my classmates, I was only concerned about doing well in the Literature tests and exams. All that talk about Nnu Ego and motherhood meant very little to me and so I didn’t understand most of what I was reading. Or maybe I understood but the weight of the subject matter hadn’t dawned on me yet. Many years later, it has become impossible for me to ignore the burden and pain that women go through every day – now when I read The Joys of Motherhood, it is enough to weigh me down. Emecheta did not pluck Nnu Ego’s story of suffering, sorrow and eventual loneliness out of thin air; it is a complex and authentic illustration of what many mothers in Nigeria and Africa go through every day.

On Wednesday, January 25, Buchi Emecheta, author of some of the most riveting books of African literature, passed on in her sleep in London. Emecheta wrote more than 20 novels and plays in her lifetime, covering topics ranging from motherhood to the independence and freedom of women through education. In 1974, she published one of her most critically acclaimed novels, Second-Class Citizen. It tells the story of a woman named Adah Ofili, and, like many of Emecheta’s books, it was a fictionalised autobiography.

As a girl, Adah, the main character, spends her days at home with her mother while her father is away at work. Adah’s brother goes to school but she isn’t allowed to because she is a girl, even though she is determined to. One day, she sneaks out of the house while her mother is distracted, and bursts into a classroom during an ongoing lecture. Even though she disrupts the class, the teacher, whom she had already met a couple of times, lets her stay in school for the rest of the day.

A few years later, Adah’s father dies. After his death, she marries a man called Francis and does her best to support him. Francis travels to the United Kingdom alone at first but eventually, Adah and her children join him. While there, she works hard to pay for his education while also taking care of their children. As the story develops, Francis transforms into an abusive husband who has become too lazy to work. To him, they (his family) are second-class citizens in the UK.
Adah, however, is determined to succeed against the odds. She strives to become first-rate in the UK while thriving as a pillar for her children in spite of Francis’ lack of support.

Second-Class Citizen depicts several aspects of Emecheta’s life. Like Adah, she was not allowed to go to school; instead, her younger brother was favoured over her. However, she eventually persuaded her parents to let her go to school, after convincing them of the benefits of her education (the more educated a woman, the higher her bride price). Emecheta first attended an all-girl missionary school. But a year after her father was killed as a soldier in the British army in Burma, she was sent to a Methodist Girls’ High School in Lagos with a full scholarship. In 1960, when she was 16, she married Sylvester Onwordi, whom she had been engaged to since she was 11. By the time Emecheta was 22, she had given birth to 5 children and her marriage had turned bitter, with Sylvester constantly abusing her.

At that age of 22, she walked away from the abusive marriage and set out on her own, with her 5 children. In the years that followed, Buchi Emecheta earned a BSc degree in sociology from the University of London, published 19 novels, 2 plays, 1 autobiography and had several articles featured in reputable publications. In 2005, she was bestowed with the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE).

There’s a lot Buchi Emecheta’s life and success can teach us. One of such is that it is possible for a woman to succeed without a husband by her side. There are many other successful women whose lives can attest to that fact. Marriage is not the measure of the success of a woman. No woman should be forced to stay in a marriage that is gradually and constantly eating away her soul. She can be independent if she so chooses and she is not an inferior being to a man. A woman is not a second-class citizen that cannot survive without the support of a man.

Emecheta was influenced by Flora Nwapa, and she (Emecheta) in turn inspired writers like Chimamanda Adichie, Lola Shoneyin, and Nnedi Okafor. Africa’s literary mainstage is no longer male-dominated and all evidence points to the fact that it will yet be mounted by many more women in the near future.

Perhaps Emecheta’s grandest legacy was making us realise that feminism isn’t alien to Africa. She clearly defined African feminism as one that is different from that of the West. “African feminism is free of the shackles of Western romantic illusions and tends to be much more pragmatic,” she once said. “Working and achieving to great heights is nothing new to the woman of Africa… An African woman has always been a woman who achieves.” This definition of feminism recurs in her books; it is evident in the lives of Nnu Ego and Adah Ofili. Through Emecheta’s works, we are challenged to think about gender inequality from within (and by ourselves as Africans) and not swallow the West’s idea of it, for every society is different in its own way.

So when we fight for the right for women to be considered equal to men, we are not punching above our weight. No! We are simply asking society to open its eyes to see that gender equality is not a fruit hanging from the tree in the middle of the garden. It is not forbidden. Emecheta’s work and life are a testament to this.

Originally Published on Ventures Africa

Buchi Emecheta’s Legacy: Women are not Second-class citizens – David Adeleke