Category Archives: Fiction

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.

“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


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 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

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?”



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

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

Sometimes The Fire Is Not Fire – Akwaeke Emezi

Sometimes the fire is not fireIn this memoir piece, Akwaeke Emezi chronicles a specific Nigerian childhood with starkness and poetry and truth. It entertains. It disturbs. It is exquisitely written. I particularly loved her ability to turn Aba – a town about which I hope more will be written – into a rich character. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did.

Chimamanda Adichie

Kerosene burns nearly everything.

Growing up, our house would sometimes be invaded by soldier ants, rivers of red clacking bodies that ran over our windowsills and bit us with thoroughness. We soaked newspaper in kerosene to make torches and burnt the ants back, singeing our carpets and bathtubs. The price of gas kept climbing, so we transferred all our cooking over to the small green kerosene stove and watched as the pots blackened. In the dry season, we raked dead leaves into a pile next to the borehole that didn’t work, sprinkled some kerosene and dropped a flame. I remember being amazed at how a little wetness could lead to such fire. My little sister and I would dance around the blaze until we got called in and scolded for getting smoke in our hair. When you try to burn a person, it is cheaper to use kerosene instead of petrol.

I spent my entire childhood in Aba, a commercial town in the south of Nigeria, where both my siblings were born. When I came back to the country after leaving for college, I knew from my first circling of the Lagos crowd that the location of my childhood would be ammunition against people who thought I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t Nigerian enough. No one could argue with Aba. It was my best card, even better than being born in Umuahia, where my father and grandfather were born. It made me authentic in a way that was absolute; you couldn’t question if someone who grew up in Aba was a ‘real’ Nigerian. No one could say anything. Aba didn’t match the background they assumed for me: that I must have grown up outside Nigeria, because I smelled too foreign, right down to my blood. The truth felt like a story. I wanted to tell them we never had running water, that the cockroach eggs gelled into the egg grooves of the fridge door, that the concrete over the soakaway broke open and stayed open. The smell became part of our air and when one of the little chicks fell into the hole, my sister called me wicked for not helping it out. I said none of this, though. I just smiled at their shock and listened to the jokes about how Aba people can make and sell a fake version of anything, even a glass of water.

What I did tell people was how impressive it was that my parents kept their children as sheltered as they did in all the chaos of Aba during the 90’s and early 2000’s, with the way the town felt and tasted lawless. We got piles of books to read, bought secondhand from the Post Office on Ikot-Ekpene Road or sent from our cousins in London or pulled from my parents’ separate collections, and that’s how my sister and I ended up believing in fairies in the midst of riots. We had cats spilling over our carpets, a dog with raw bleeding ears, and several Barbie dolls sent from Saudi Arabia, where my mother moved to in ’96. I didn’t know I’d never live with her again. When our turkeys got fowlpox, we caught them and pinned them under our feet and learnt that you could treat the pox with palm oil. When the dogs got maggots, we learnt that applying careful pressure to the sore made them fall white and wriggling to the sand. We learnt not to handle bitterleaf and then touch your mouth, or peel yam and then touch your eyes, because the first ruins your tongue and the itch of the second can blind you. We mimicked the priests during Mass at CKC, driving home afterwards past the bodies dumped outside the teaching hospital. We stayed children.

After a pickup truck mowed down my sister in ‘95, my father forbade us to ride okadas, saying that the roads were too dangerous. I disobeyed often, leaning into the wind and raising my heels away from the burning exhaust so my slippers wouldn’t melt. The first time I climbed on one, my best friend called out my name and distracted me. I burnt the inside of my leg on the metal and she made a face. ‘Look out for the exhaust pipe,’ she said. By the time I went to school the next day, my burn had bubbled up and split. I packed it with powder and two types of iodine, till it was ugly and crusted in purples and reds. It scarred flat and I learnt to climb on motorcycles from the other side.

After I burned my sister’s left thigh, I learnt that burns always bubble reliably, whether you make them with metal or in her case, water. We were all sitting to breakfast at the dining table, the way my mother liked it when she was there, with the Milo and sugar and powdered milk and everything laid out. I reached over to grab the handle of the hot water flask, but my brother hadn’t screwed the top back on properly, so when the flask toppled over, it spilled a steaming river over my sister’s school uniform, burning her leg. She jumped up screaming and ran into the parlor, and everyone rushed to her while I apologized frantically. I think they cracked a raw egg over the burn. It was the second time I’d seen the skin of her leg do unnatural things. The first was the time with that pickup truck, when it dragged her down Okigwe Road, but that was her right leg and her skin had opened differently then, more intricately, chopped up by white bone screaming out of the pulpy red. My best friend’s father fixed it. I learnt that humans are meat.

Bodies in the sun smell unbearable after a week because meat goes bad, but I learnt that they smell even worse a week later. When walking back home after taking JAMB, it rained, and in the flooded water of Faulks Road, I learnt that a dead body will float and even bob. I learnt that brains were grey before I was eleven, from the tarmac of Brass Junction, from the cracked calabash of what was a person’s head. We looked at it every day on our way to school, waiting to turn left onto Aba-Owerri Road to head towards Abayi, holding our breath. I learnt that we can bear much more than we predict.

When the armed robberies got too bad in Aba, to the point where you could call the police to report one and the police would just make sure they avoided the area, a team of vigilantes arose and called themselves the Bakassi Boys. Their headquarters were in Ariaria Market, and we often saw them as we returned from school, their vehicles whistling down the road. They dangled out of windows and off roofs, waving machetes and guns, streaming with red and yellow strips of cloth. They killed and burned thieves, hacking them with machetes, throwing a tire and faithful kerosene over them, then leaving the corpses out as warnings and reminders. No one dared to remove them until it was allowed. When I was fourteen, we went to Malaysia to see my grandparents and I told one of my cousins about the Bakassi Boys as we walked on a beach. ‘That’s terrible, that they’re killing people,’ she said. I looked at her like she didn’t make sense. ‘Those people shouldn’t have stolen,’ I answered. Even our state governor allowed the killings, just like he allowed the riots in 2000, after the massacre of Igbos in Kaduna, after they stacked up our dead in lorries and sent them back to us.

I learnt other things in Aba, that a mother you see once a year is a stranger, no matter how much you cry for her in the long months when she’s gone. I learnt that if my father is a man who will wield a machete at the NEPA worker who came to check the meter, then I cannot tell him what our neighbour who took my sister to the hospital after the pickup accident did to me, because at twelve, I am entirely too young for that kind of blood on my hands. We can, I promise you, bear much more than we predict.

I told an acquaintance some of this during a lunch in Lagos, not the parts about myself, just about the bodies and the curfews and the ritual kidnappings they called Otokoto and the time they burnt down the mosque and killed every Muslim they could find, murdering three hundred Northerners in the two days after the lorries arrived with the bodies from Kaduna, when we got five days off from school and stayed at home and saw the ashes afterwards in front of the Customs House. I told her how a classmate had joked with me then that I should be careful. ‘You know you resemble a Northerner,’ he said. I told her about the rumors of this Muslim man who could pass for Igbo and so when they came for him, he joined the mob and killed his people to stay alive, to prove he was one of us. I told her about the woman next door whose gateman was a shoemaker from the North, how she hid him and his son in their boys quarters. When the child heard the noise in the street, he tried to run out to see what it was, but she caught him and beat him and sent him back. He was five. We shared an avocado tree with their compound.

We were sitting in Freedom Park as I said these things, and she stared at me the whole time, horrified. ‘You’re making that up,’ she said. ‘Are you serious?’

‘It was Aba in the 90’s,’ I reminded her. ‘I thought everyone in Nigeria grew up like this.’ I hadn’t thought she’d be surprised. She was Nigerian too, after all, and much older than me. Surely she’d seen worse things.

‘No, everyone did not grow up like that!’ She was agitated. ‘Why don’t you write about this?!’

I shrugged. It was a normal childhood, and besides, Aba was just Aba. None of it had seemed worth writing about. I could hear how the stories sounded when I said them out loud, dark like old blood, like I was supposed to be traumatized, different, like something in me, perhaps my innocence, should’ve caught a whiff of kerosene and gone crackly and black too, smoking away like suya edges. Except, I was fine. I felt like nothing had happened. In college, I had a friend from Serbia who wouldn’t even talk about the things he’d seen. I had a girlfriend in New York who’d spent years of her childhood in the middle of the war in Liberia. I know that life churns on, bloody and normal. I know I’m fine.

Sometimes the fire is not fire. Sometimes it’s not everything that burns.

Akwaeke Emezi is an Igbo/Tamil writer and filmmaker based in liminal spaces. She was born in Umuahia and raised in Aba, Nigeria. Her short fiction has been published in Sable Literary Magazine, Golly Magazine, Specter Magazine, and the 2015 Caine Prize Anthology.

Secret Santa

As the year winds down, I always yearn for Christmas with so much anticipation towards the festivities which colours the atmosphere and fills the air with nostalgia. My perspective of Christmas changed six years ago by a traditional ritual which I have participated in for over two decades of my life.

My father died of prostate cancer while I was writing my final SSCE exams; this was chiefly because we too poor to mull over the option of surgery, when we could not even pay for his second round of chemotherapy.
Being the eldest child, I had to put my dream of becoming a doctor on the shelf and step into his shoes to fend for myself and the family, so I took up a job as an office assistant. But the zest to earn the most coveted prefix, did not stop me from sharing with whoever cared to listen, how I planned to save the world one day at a time.

My heart sank as I stepped forward to accept my gift from the Secret Santa exchange which was hosted by the Admin manager on 20th December 2009, it was a white envelope. While everyone in the office was all smiles as they opened up their gifts, the Christmas card I got read thus –

          "Christmas is doing a little something extra for someone"
                               Charles Schulz

Although the words did not mean much to me, especially when I was hoping to get a Tom Ford shirt or Michael Korrs wristwatch. By the time reached home, it was quite late and all my siblings were in bed but my mother was still awake.

“Somebody from a courier service delivered this here today, she said handing a brown envelope to me”. A short note was inscribed on it, ‘With Love From Secret Santa’.

Still a bit confused, I open it, the content of the envelope was a scholarship letter offering me admission to study Medicine and Surgery at University College Hospital, Ibadan fully funded by Hopevine Foundation.

Dear Secret Santa, if you are reading this story, I want you to know that I graduated as one of the best graduating students of my set in 2015 and I am presently working with the Lagos University Teaching Hospital. Thanks for believing in my dream, going the extra mile and showing me that Christmas is love in action.

Alien Taste || Binyavanga Wainaina

alien-taste-topmuseThere are times that even Graham believes the story he has peddled for so many years, about how he came to be gay. That he had always known; that he used to dress up in his mother; that he had been riveted by the biceps of Mohammed Ali, the anger of those black panthers on television; that he had played the kerfuffle game in public school; that the old gay friends of his mother, who had hosted him when she was in rehab, or consulting her guru in Lucknow, had made it easy to see possibilities in this world. These things are all true, but only small accessories to the main event.

But the main event, as seen by him now, is also untruthful: it was not as clear a sexual selection as he prefers to imagine, and he knows this enough not to share this story– it could well be that he was always gay, and that he would have come to it in one way or another, despite his self-protests to the contrary. But the unambiguous epiphany that the first gay fuck gave him marked not his sexuality, but his approach to life itself, it was his Woodstock, his civil rights movement. And inside himself, he remains unconvinced of his visceral homosexuality, believes that he has willfully created himself.

He was fifteen, had committed himself to liking beer, but found it gaseous and filling and bitter, and spent much time in the Gents burping and sometimes vomiting in the toilet to make space for more beer, to keep up with his friends, who seemed much more comfortable in pubs.

He had already slept with one woman, Diana, an American friend of his mother’s, a sculptor. It was peculiar – he had so persuasively constructed the sensation of sex in his fantasies, that he found the act itself unconvincing. It smelled wrong, felt wrong, was too slippery, far less efficient than a firm, lubricated hand. The hairy, soft, oddly naked layers of her pussy were confusing; and more so the conflict between his desire to thrust hard, and hers to be manipulated this way and that. There seemed to be too much to take into account—her mouth was startling—he had expected it to be tasteless, as his own mouth was to him, and her alien taste and familiar texture was confusing. But that he could make somebody moan, relinquish pride and self-possession, was repellent and exciting.

He assumed that sex was like beer—that soon it would create an unquestioning language in him, and he could lose himself in its subtleties.

The day all that changed, he was in the buffet car, on his way back from visiting his mother in rehab in Suffolk, a whole daunting pint of bitter in front of him, and a pack of cigarettes in his top pocket. Today he would smoke in public for the first time.

“Can I join you?” The voice was deep, and careless, from a roughly used throat. The man sat – placed his beer on the table, a big brown hand curled around the glass, stony, hairy knuckles standing in relief. His name was Fred, accent was Irish, and he was black, face ashy from the cold, and a recent shower. He explained himself: He worked in buildings, removing asbestos, made good money. He had worked on ships for years, till containerization cut jobs. He could speak Mandarin Chinese and Filipono. He imitated the high, brittle voice of the woman who he was presently working for, and told stories about his train ride in Communist China in 1981. His laugh rolled, smoky, phlegmy even – big, smoke-stained teeth running evenly far into his mouth. Time rolled downhill, a little bit of Graham’s mind gathering tension as the rest loosened, and the man talked, and laughed, and they drank, and the usual surround of public silence vanished, and Graham found his throat swelling to take in the beer.

Then, with the suburbs of London undulating alongside their table, Fred leaned forward, warm breath in Graham’s face, smelling of leather jacket and concrete and soap, and sweat and rollup tobacco, and said, can I tell you a secret? Graham nodded, the warm breath narrowed the world, “I like to fuck men. Fuck them silly.” Then laughed, hoarse and deep and free and Graham found himself laughing with him. Found himself shaking and warm, as that big hand, here in a public train, reached forward and brushed his chin, softly.

And, hours later, in a small house in the East End, as a large lubricated finger prized him open, Blues guitar counting sluggish strings far behind his mind; rough, soft Irish laughter, he was cut loose for the first time, head above a certain water, knew he could release his mother from being his whole belonging. He had a tribe, or a reasonable fucksimile thereof. He laughed.

Binyavagan/TopmuseBinyavanga Wainaina is a Kenyan author, journalist and winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing. His debut book is a memoir titled One Day I Will Write About This Place (2011). In April 2014, Time magazine included Wainaina in its annual TIME 100 as one of the “Most Influential People in the World.”