Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Africa: Statesmen, executioners, and black-on-black oppression

“The white man may be gone, but the pillage and the oppression he brought are still there. That, we kept. The people in power now are proud of this government, this omnipotent blunderbuss of a thing they didn’t even create, whose sole goal was to oppress and exploit. In the eyes of this elite of ours, the country is a cake there for the eating, not a common project, something we all work at together.

The people who govern us owe everything to the white man: the diplomas they brandish to ‘prove’ their superiority; the high-ranking positions they milk for personal gain; the cars they drive; the suits they wear; and the kids they send abroad to get a decent education. Even the president is a product of the white man! He patterns himself on him – and he’s proud of it. Don’t we say of Paul Biya that ‘he’s a white man’? His whole entourage is expected to act white along with him. There’s little room made for Africa and its traditions in the state apparatus – except for those traditional dance troops that get trotted out at the airport whenever the president travels, as if the whole thing hadn’t been a colonial invention in the first place, created to cheer and stomp whenever some De Gaulle flunky showed up.”

        – Jean-Pierre Bekolo Obama

Visiting South Africa’s Johannesburg in 2005 left me confused. I expected a joyful place, ringing with the bountiful fruits of freedom from the horror that was apartheid. Instead, I saw in the eyes of the poor, fear and despair and one wondered if they knew the difference between the past and the present – or if there indeed was any difference. At this conference, poor blacks served the participants with a certain deference and trepidation that stayed with me all through. The Black and White conference participants seemed fine with it. What seemed obvious was that the black ruling class had merely mounted the saddle of the former oppressors and was now using the same state-sanctioned instruments of oppression to oppress the poor – and amass power and wealth. I looked around me and it just seemed that white on black oppression had been replaced with black on black oppression. No compassion.

This horrific dysfunction is repeated in virtually all black African nations. The poor in my village are blissfully unaware that they were freed from colonialism; huge swathes of the village look like a place time forgot. Take those nations freed from colonialism; not much in terms of the culture and structure has changed. All over the land, the intellectual and ruling elite swagger like drunks, armed with pie charts and PowerPoint slides, mouthing bullshit as the poor ferry them from broken hovel to broken hovel on their backs. No one holds them accountable because they own the bully pulpit.

It is as if the warriors merely took over from the white man, shoved the poor into “boys’ quarters” and ghettos and continued the looting and brigandage. In the case of apartheid South Africa, the oppressors came to stay with their families and so they built robust structures and institutions for their enjoyment and use. The colonialists came, ruled as if from afar, built temporary structures – which was fine since their families were back home attending real schools and being taken care of by real hospitals. Each time they got sick, they would fly back home to have their rashes treated. Today’s post-colonial African ruler is exactly the same as his white ancestor. His families are abroad and each time he has a cough, he flies home to the West to be taken care of in real hospitals. There is no investment in his society – because he does not believe in his society.

The dysfunction is now being aggravated by the uncritical adoption of a form of crippling governance, what I call democracy without accountability, an aping of what happens in the West. Outside of slavery and AIDS, nothing has hurt African nations more than decades of looting in the name of democracy. Why are things the way they are? Why are we like this? Until we confront our challenges with real honesty and rigor, African nations will continue to be the butt of jokes in the international community of nations.

We are headed in the wrong direction. That much is obvious, let’s not lie about things. Our intellectual elite must stop bleating inanities and admit that there has been a rank failure to lead from their end. Our intellectuals have become the problem; lazy and loud parrots of lies and obfuscation all so they can feed their mouths. All I see is mimicry, and loud parroting of stolen ideas. In the absence of a robust infrastructure; of home-grown accountability, in the absence of a real willingness to work, our nations will remain caricature nations. We must think about these things.

And no, I do not agree with Jean-Pierre Bekolo Obama. A return to colonialism would be silly. But read his interview, right here; he has thought hard about these things.

Fiction Faction: New world

I come from a land that has streets with no names. Our people did not name the streets of our village because they saw the coming of smartphones, Google, e-mail and Facebook. Well, the little path that goes from my father’s village to my mother’s village is called the little path. Was. The little path is no more. In the land of my ancestors, people don’t venture far from the earth. There are no mortuaries; when they die they practically fall into their graves themselves. My father’s father was buried by the path half-way to my mother’s people. He is no longer buried there. A government thief built an ugly mansion over my grandpa’s bones.

Today, I stare at the remains of winter in America; earth is frosting on chocolate cake. After all these moons, alien images and clichés stick to me, like white on rice. I have ventured far, very far from home. When I left home many decades ago, no cellphone chats charted my way out of Customs and Immigration into America’s issues. My parents put me inside the capsule to somewhere and hoped that someday I would be back. I am still here in America. I am not going back soon.

Nothing stays the same. Not even in America. The changes make me dizzy and I obsess nonstop about the way things used to be. Here in my part of America, our drugstore no longer has human cashiers. The owners remodeled the store, and replaced humans with machines that talk to you. You simply walk up to the machines, scan your goods, pay and leave. It is very disconcerting; I keep looking for the humans to return, I actually miss them and their attitude. I know now that I love people and I cannot shake this cold unfeeling nothingness I get from interacting with a machine that proves its indifference with faux warmth.

Don’t get me wrong, I am high on the possibilities and the opportunities riding on the strong backs of these new and emerging technologies, but I do wonder now if there are downsides to all of this. The world is becoming more and more shaped by a few powerful cognitive elite. We are struggling to deal with and adapt to the awesome force of these new technologies and the new billionaire dictators that built them.

Life is war. We were all born into a war that we did not ask for. And people write about life, sometimes it is mostly gory. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, they belonged to a certain era when one had no choice but to concentrate all of one’s creative passions on one medium of expression – the book. I read a lot of books, mostly about the condition we find ourselves as people of color in a white man’s world. However, I am first and foremost a writer of creative stuff, whatever that means. Lately though, I am known more as a book reviewer than anything else, which I find interesting. I think that a critic’s work in itself is creative work. We may not like it, but it is what it is. The critic clearly has a role to play and I would say we are in dire need of honest courageous tell-it-like-it-is book reviewers.

Some people should really not be writing and they should be told that. Some writers are also full of it and they should be told that. Some works are fun to read and they should be celebrated. It is a shame that we are talking about books because in my clan we are steeped in the oral tradition. Some of the world’s greatest “books” have been “read” to us in song by our ancestors. My mother is one of the world’s greatest living poets; she has not written a lick. She would be great on YouTube. She would at least help to preserve one of our dying languages.

On social media, walls are colorful wrappers wound tightly around the new municipalities of ME. Social media is falling leaves, hearts fluttering, forlorn, and drying on yesterday’s clothes lines. People are waving hasty goodbyes out the windows of indifferent relationships. It is complicated. Life goes on. There are no nations as we remember them. We have fled lands ravaged by thieves preaching democracy. Soon a generation will come and in their history books they will learn about something called a check and the gallant art of balancing a checkbook.

Social media. The new frontier has edged into our consciousness. America. Deep in the windy beauty of this land, the majesty of Nigeria, the land of my birth goes howling. We fled our gods, mean angry bloody gods foaming blood in their blood thirsty mouths wielding blood drenched cutlasses between steely teeth. Here in Babylon, alien gods kill us with the kindness of indifference. We retaliate by turning their plates on their heads, these patronizing, condescending gods. Africa. We fled her bloody windows for Facebook Nation. Every day children reject what passes for African culture today. They are not all mad. What is going on? Let’s talk about these things.

On beauty and narrative in Jola Naibi’s Terra Cotta Beauty

I enjoyed reading Terra Cotta Beauty, Jola Naibi’s book of short stories. Yes, I enjoyed it a lot; it took me back to Lagos, the land of my birth. It is a quiet little persistent book. As I read, I grew to respect the book before me. The characters are well-developed and unlike the caricatures that characterize the products of poverty porn, they carry themselves with the dignity of thinking albeit long-suffering human beings. There are very few editorial issues in the book, a great feat for a self-published book. As literature goes, this is not what I would call a muscular literary work but it hit my hunger spot. I am happy.

So what is the book about? As far as I can tell, it is about life in Lagos in the nineties and possibly early 200o’s. If you don’t know where Lagos is, you can stop right here, it is okay. There are seven stories in the collection, each connected to each other in a clever and innovative way.TerraReal

Ol’boi, the first story, a thrilling story about family, the violence of robbery and corruption, starts out the collection with great promise:

“They had lived on that street for as long as he could remember. It was a short street that ended in a T-shape at a cement wall that shielded the backyard of another compound on another street. Everyone in the entire neighborhood dumped their rubbish at this end of the street. Very rarely the authorities would clear the trash, but most of the time there was a huge pile of garbage at the end of the street which stunk like rotten eggs.” (p 1)

A Laughing Matter, and Terra-Cotta Beauty, both offer a unique look into the tyranny of military dictatorships and patriarchy and the brave fight against both dysfunctions. They were my two favorite stories in the collection. Terra-Cotta Beauty, the piece that bears the book’s title is a lovely read, with pretty prose like this: “My mother… often smelled of the earth. It was the same matinal smell that my grandmother, who would end up raising me had.” (p 27)

Iridiscent hope is a travelogue of sorts as the main protagonist hawks her hope for a better life in Lagos and in her travels from home of the day to work, exposes the reader to the precariousness of hope, and life in Lagos. It was my least favorite story, it went nowhere fast and it read like reportage from a distracted journalist. By the way, you can read it here online on Africanwriter.com.

Running in the Wrong Direction is a moving commentary on migration, the search for meaning, peace and prosperity in life. It is ultimately a commentary on child labor and the plight of young children who are forced to leave the comfort of home to seek prosperity in the war that is the typical African city, this time, Lagos.

The Fire Starter uses an account of arson to paint a compelling portrait of class struggle. Well done.

The Sacred Geometry of Chance is down to earth African romance, shorn of the mimicry that is much of romance literature by many African authors. It is also a commentary on patriarchy, teen sexuality and pregnancy. It does go on too long and ends strangely, well, it does not end. I loved this line: “Until it jumps into hot water, a frog does not realize that there are two worlds.” (p 117) Now, that is good writing!

There is a good interview of Jola Naibi here. She writes beautifully, several passages in the book are full of gems like “He taught himself to read and write; whenever he saw books, his heart soared.” (p 92). You will not find the unctuous sermons that pass for literature in much of contemporary African literature, feminism, patriarchy, child and marital abuse, blah, blah, blah. She simply writes as she remembers. The issues are not the stories; they are part of the stories’ lives. Nice and refreshing.

Terra Cotta Beauty is not a perfect book. For one thing, it is a bit too restrained for my liking, somewhat of a victim to be liked by all, especially the West. Still, it is a good read; I recommend it highly, especially for teenagers and young adults. Illustrations, perhaps using pencil sketches would have been nice to break up the monotony of text and still my attention deficit disorder. Every now and then, the prose is too clinical, a mechanical clack clack clack of the keyboard – a writer, writing as if unsure of herself. Again, the use of italics for indigenous words rankles. Why capitalize molue in the 21st century? It is an English word, for heaven’s sakes. Google it.

naibi2Naibi deploys impeccable Pidgin English which she promptly italicizes and explains with standard English. I really hate that she does this.

“Wetin dey do you now? (“What is wrong with you?”), his companion spat at him. “You just dey do like person wen don lose im mama, you no hear de tin wey Ol’Boy talk—im say mission accomplished! So why you dey slack now?” (“What’s wrong with you?” “You are acting like someone who has lost his mother. You heard what Ol’Boi said—-mission accomplished! Why are you slacking?”) (p 93)

Again, I don’t like that Naibi italicizes the Pidgin English, and then helpfully translates it, presumably, to Western readers. It is what it is but I prefer this approach to the bastardization of pidgin preferred by Nigerian writers who write primarily for the West’s consumption. A lot is lost in the unnecessary translation. It is perhaps true that the paying audience is in the West and the writer is under a lot of pressure to get as wide an audience as possible, but there are unintended consequences. The writers of the West gained traction in other climes by being relentlessly insular even before the advent of Google. That insularity bred a nagging curiosity in readers. It is counter-intuitive but I suggest strongly that African writers need to find the muscle to be insular, to force Western readers to be curious enough to want to learn about African communities by getting off their duff and doing the research themselves. But then, we are not negotiating from a position of strength. They have the money and the publishing houses. This is why I love Facebook and Twitter; you can’t italicize egusi over there. At least not yet. Don’t mind me jor, Terra Cotta Beauty is a good read. Stop reading me and go buy a copy. Now. It is an order. LOL!

Yesterday’s tales: Everything is as it should be

So the other day, I had surgery done. It was no big deal, really. There was this needy benign growth on my left shoulder that, well, kept growing. I called it the monkey on my shoulder. My family hated it. They called it names, awful names. They wanted it gone. It became a conversation piece in our household; my family came together around my monkey, it had to go. This, even though my doctor had decreed that it was not a problem. My wife overruled our doctor. It had to go. You do what your wife tells you. Your doctor does what your wife wants.

Before the doctor slices into you, they take you to a private room for “prep” work, in which you are handed over from one medical busybody to the other. They ask you things, you mostly lie to protect your dignity. Sample stupid question: “Would you consider yourself a light, moderate or a heavy drinker?” Heh! They wanted to know if I was allergic to any medicine. I said quinine, hoping to be quarantined; I needed the rest from work and home. The nurses googled quinine on their laptops (yes, they didn’t know) and huddled anxiously when they saw the word “malaria.” The nurses were smart, pretty and sweet, almost shy. One brunette seemed to take a liking to me, the way a cheerleader takes a liking to a bespectacled nerd. “He is so sweet,” she enthused breathlessly to anybody who would listen. She fussed over me, paid every attention to me. I was flattered. I overheard her teaching several other nurses how to mangle my name.

Brunette Nurse went and found a Nigerian nurse to say hello to me, I don’t know why. She was Ndiigbo, we grinned sheepishly at each other as we struggled to humour this white sister trying to forge a kinship. We did not understand the rejection; why, culturally we were each closer to her than we were to each other. Through contrived accents we happily rejected each other and Ndiigbo fled into the mess of rooms and broken patients. I missed my wife and I asked for her to be with me. Brunette Nurse went and got my wife. My wife sat with me and nobody came again to fuss with me. Then some stalwarts came to wheel me away for the operation. They would not let my wife come with me. Brunette Nurse wished me luck.

Going to the operating table is interesting. There is a strange finality to being wheeled away. It feels like going to one’s execution. In the operating room I am strapped to a gurney by pretty chatty people, babbling nice things. They are trained to be affirming, encouraging me even when I am not following directions. The surgeon is chatty, but indifferent to knowledge outside of his profession. I like him. He is in his forties but he is still wearing the spirit of a boy. He tells me that his parents bought this house in this great neighborhood in the 60s; he doesn’t know what the house is worth today. He has trouble converting the past to the present value. I help him. He grows quiet. Except for a colonoscopy, I have never really done anything this invasive. As I lay there shivering on the operating gurney, I remember my uncle Elephant in my ancestral land; poet, griot and herbalist. He believes that witches and wizards are responsible for the fate of the living. All ailments including apparently cancer, were treated by an enema which he gleefully administered to the unwilling. He made some of the most awful-tasting concoctions out of plants that grew around our compound. I have not-so fond memories of trying to swallow his creations in the sixties during the Nigerian civil war. At those times, the war didn’t seem too far away.

The doctor starts snipping away at my monkey with a studied nonchalance. I loudly marvel at the invasive techniques of Western medicine. He asks me: “What do you mean?” I think to myself, this man is an idiot. How did his ancestors get to the moon? I survive the idiot’s knife. I actually like him. He is not an idiot. He is a professional who has little patience for the undisciplined flourishes of a literary mind. Surgery over, my wife retrieves me and takes me home. It has been a long day; my wife wants a sandwich. We get one from a bakery. I don’t like sandwiches, something about meat between slices of bread I find merely fascinating. I want to go home to comfort food; my wife’s white rice and goat meat stew. I reach into the hospital bag that houses my belongings and my friend waits patiently for me in my iPhone. My friend’s question lurks anxiously, “How did it go?” I type back, “nbd, I am still here, everything is as it should be, lol.” The response returns dripping with relief and exasperation: “You!” I am still here. And the beat goes on.

This American life: Coming of (old) age

I have always wanted to be an old man. Growing up in Nigeria, childhood seemed to be an overrated experience. We were not poor, but my parents were spartan in affairs that mattered to me a lot. I was always hungry but it always seemed that the best meals were reserved for elders, certainly the choicest parts of meat and fish. The elders of my childhood had problems with their teeth, I think because they ate too much meat. I had problems with my teeth because I hissed a lot at their greed and I did not get enough meat to keep them busy and fit. Old men also did not do any chores. I never quite understood what old people did, outside of supervising women and children nonstop and demanding things meant solely for their comfort. They rarely strayed from their favorite chairs after returning from work. And everything they said seemed to make sense even when it didn’t make sense. In any case, any child or woman who dared question the inanity of their alleged wisdom would find a suddenly spry “old man” connecting painfully with sensitive parts of their body or heart.

For me, as a child, all parents were old people, especially the men. My dad enjoyed being an old man. Everything I loved was reserved for him. I loved chicken gizzards, that was for him. I loved chicken legs, that was reserved for him. I loved to do nothing but supervise other people as they cleaned the yard. That was his responsibility as I cleaned the yard. When he bought his car, becoming an old man became even more attractive and sexy. He would get up and go and come as he pleased and return demanding things. I started going to church every Sunday praying to God that he spare my life so I could become an old man with the necessary benefits that accrue to old people. God answered my prayers, but in the wrong country. It is great to be a man in Nigeria. It is even greater to be an old man in Nigeria. I live in America now, I came here as a young man, I am now an aging er old man. In America. Trust me, you don’t want to be a man in America. You are not in charge, never will be. You certainly do not want to be an old man in America. Your children cannot wait to take you to an old people’s retirement home where if you are lucky you would spend your days staring out of a fake window as a nurse forces you to down pureed pounded yam and egusi.

It is not always a bad thing. There are some good days. Saturday morning. I feel great. Feeling really great is a rarity at my age. Energy comes in limpid spurts, the mind adjusts, learning to be super-efficient with time and energy. The older you get, the scarcer they are as commodities, I mean, time and energy. Hurry up children, hurry up, daddy is feeling great today. Daddy has energy today, let’s do all our chores before daddy has to take a nap! The kids are happy to see the return of my energy and my sense of responsibility as a father. We are going to the optician to finally get those eye-glasses for Netter_Shoks, we are going to the shopping malls, Ominira has some gift cards she must spend or I will lose my mind from the constant asking to go to the shops because Ominira has gift cards that must be spent, we are going to the shops to rescue things we don’t need from bankrupt stores, we are going to the barbershop, me and the boys. Why, I feel do great, I have already played two rounds of cards with my son, Fearless Fang. He has this card trick he plays endlessly, starting with the chant, Daddy, pick a card, any card! It is a card trick that doesn’t even annoy me, even after a hundred chants of Daddy, pick a card, any card! Life is good today, life is really good. I wish my wife was at home with us today, life would be really great. But she is the real breadwinner of the house, she is out making money and I am here at home doing baby nurse! America get as e be sha! America is no respecter of age. But life is great today, life is really great. Maybe I’ll have a drink to celebrate a golden day. And ruin a golden day.

 Drink! Man, I was young once, and I could really down a few Gulders. And a few bottles of Odeku Stout. And some ogogoro. Yep, I used to be able to drink up a storm. Not anymore. At my age, a decision to down a single shot of cognac (yes, VSOP, my favorite life’s nurse) is not made lightly. The timing of the indulgence has to be just right, the calibration (of the number of drinks) has to be just right. Too late at night and I am groaning all night and groaning all morning. More than one drink and I am groaning all night and all morning (WHO has just ONE drink?).

 My eyes are going bad on me, they are not usually the first to go, but they are a close second, or third, or fourth, many things begin to abandon you in the twilight of your journey. The problem is that they abscond at exactly the time you need them the most. Try reading without your eyes. My eyes are so bad these days, I have to take off my eye glasses just so I can read,

 I remember Wole Soyinka’s ruminations on his first white hairs. I only remember it now, because I didn’t understand it then and I don’t understand it now. Here, see if you can understand it.

To my first white hairs

Hirsute hell chimney-spouts, black thunderthroes
confluence of coarse cloudfleeces – my head sir! – scourbrush
in bitumen, past fossil beyond fingers of light – until …!

Sudden sprung as corn stalk after rain, watered milk weak;
as lightning shrunk to ant’s antenna, shrivelled
off the febrile sight of crickets in the sun –

THREE WHITE HAIRS! frail invaders of the undergrowth
interpret time. I view them, wired wisps, vibrant coiled
beneath a magnifying glass, milk-thread presages

Of the hoary phase. Weave then, weave o quickly weave
your sham veneration. Knit me webs of winter sagehood,
nightcap, and the fungoid sequins of a crown.

My objective, indepth review: Very nice poem. Very nice. But wetin di man say? End of review of head-breaking poem by olodo (moi!). I don’t remember my first strand of white hair.; I remember a wave, a mean army of amebos outing my mortality before pretty damsels. That is the other thing, all the beautiful women start coming out of everywhere once your white hair starts sprouting all over your ancient body. Maybe, your eyes are so bad, every woman looks beautiful. But either way, life is unfair. While my father’s white hairs came out in steady dignified spurts, mine simply overwhelmed my vanities and I just knew there was no need trying to cover them up with hair dye. America does not pay me enough to buy the amount of dye I would need to recover my youth.

 Life is a cycle. I am at a certain age now, and my children treat me like their son. I know now why old folks look so calm, wise and all-knowing – they have no energy to do anything else. Everything has to be rationed, I mean everything – emotions, food, booze, because there are consequences for overindulgence. I was a warrior once, jumping off rooftops, beer in hand, walking around fertile markets with my manhood as the weapon of choice. Now I watch today’s warriors, fools, jumping off rooftops, beer in hand, walking around markets pregnant with mischief, wagging their manhood at the unimpressed. They are unimpressed, right?

Old age is not that bad, my stomach is still trim. Well it is not bulging yet, but I see the beginnings of a paunch… My passions have aged, mellowed. I give advice to the young and they pretend to be awed by my inanities. America. I am in the wrong place and time. The old don’t get much respect in America and I miss Nigeria. In my time in Nigeria, the toothless ate all the best pieces of meat and the children simply looked on and prayed to get old enough to own their own piece of meat. In America, my doctor says I should avoid red meat, because, get this, I am aging! Na my turn form five dey wear knicker!

I am officially an old person in America. The mail came some moons ago and I got my membership card to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). With your AARP card, you get pretend-perks like airfare and hotel room discounts. Big deal. At my age, in my village in Nigeria, you get a chieftaincy title. In America I got a piece of paper screaming “old man!” Old age robs you of memory also. Anything that is not inside Amebo my iPhone might as well not exist. I have to write everything down or else I forget. My doctor says not to worry, as long as I know that I am forgetting something I am fine. He says when you forget that you forgot then you are in real trouble. Sigh!

Ikhide loves Pablo Neruda

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is the most romantic novel ever in the history of mankind. Tears run down my cheeks whenever I remember the only love scene in the book. It lasted exactly 30 seconds from when Okonkwo swept his bride onto his arms to the glorious end when he growled, “Oya go cook peppersoup or I will use your skull to drink palmwine!” Achebe’s famous words are engraved in the canon of great literature: “Even in those days, Okonkwo was a man of few words.”

That was before the white man came with his wahala, declaring African men savages because they don’t coo “I love you!” to their wives. In Chukwuemeka Ike’s The Potter’s Wheel the character Obu declares his love for Margaret by giving her six plump sautéed delicacies he had caught under a lamp post. They were thoughtfully wrapped in the sports section of the Daily Times.  You should have seen the “I go love you die, Obu!” look in Margaret’s eyes. Did the white man see great romance here? Nope! He observed two savages initiating a courtship with six plump termites. Obu and Margaret had no idea they were eating termites. This was in 1946. We are the conquered; everything gets lost in the narrative. And Achebe reminds us: Until the lions gets their own historian, the hunt will always glorify he hunter.

The British introduced subversion into our marriages by introducing weird customs into our bedroom; foreplay, after-play, flowers, breakfast in bed, dinner by candle light, Pablo Neruda, climax, G-spot, G-string, blah! Blah! Blah!  It is a wonder African men can still go to farm, after all these exhausting activities (most of which cost lots of money by the way.) When the Americans came they laughed at us for being British because we only knew the missionary position, what the British imported here along with Marmalade and toothpaste. The things our women now make us do are unprintable in a family newspaper like Facebook. They even have books for making love (yes, making love, God forbid you will call it sex or nacking, that is the last time your African ass will ever get any).

My friend Mazi Uche married Nkechi, a delightful 28-year old medical doctor with a PhD in brain surgery from the University of Lagos. My friend is a 56-year old cab driver living life subversively in Baltimore praying everyday not to be shot by his clients.  Nkechi was fond of calling him “Oshodi! one way!” It turns out that Nkechi like many unreasonable young people, prefers a methodical approach to love making while Mazi Uche prefers to have sex one way, same way, and very quick, hence the pejorative,  “Oshodi! One Way!” Nkechi likes breakfast in bed, a bottle of Moet champagne cooling its heels in ice, and Adele crooning lustily in the bedroom. She hates the great love ballads of Osita Osadebe. Mazi Uche believes anyone that does not like Osita Osadebe is a cave woman. I agree.

Nkechi loves long baths in something called a jacuzzi, preferably together, followed by a book reading in bed. Nkechi loves Pablo Neruda and loves to be slowly fed freshly baked Godiva chocolates in bed; not the ones you buy at a 7-11 convenience store, no, freshly baked Godiva chocolates. You can buy them $500 a pound on sale. She also likes whipped cream; don’t ask what she does with that, tufiakwa! After all of this, if she does not have a headache, you may negotiate next steps. Unfortunately, Mazi Uche hates baths, certainly not with another person. Mazi Uche is a real chief; a titled chief must not be seen naked by a mere mortal. That is why he refuses sex in the daytime; it is taboo according to the gods of his ancestors.

Mazi Uche and Nkechi are now divorced – irreconcilable differences. Nkechi is now happily married to a 32 year old American pediatrician, a fawning woman wrapper who treats her like a goddess. We hear they take baths together and he reads Neruda to her nonstop, tufiakwa! His lovemaking lasts longer than that of a randy elephant, we hear. And he does magical things with whipped cream. Mazi Uche is suing Nkechi for all the money he paid for her medical degrees while he was slaving in America, driving cabs and fully expecting to be shot by a thug looking for money to buy chocolates and whipped cream for his baby mama.

The women in my life are allergic to suffering. The other day we had to take our teenage daughter Ominira’s late model truck to the shop for servicing. I timidly suggested that she take Anikeleja, my 20-year old van to school. Come see drama, “You hate me daddy! You don’t love me!!  You want me to go WHERE in THAT THING??? What IF a boy sees ME in THAT THING???” (Pretty princess’s cute arms sweep with unspeakable disgust in the direction of THAT THING before princess faints!). We are now in psychological therapy to address the post-traumatic stress disorder occasioned by my poor judgment. I do love my van; you have to push it to start it and it leaks everywhere like an old man in diapers.  But I love my van. Love is blind.

Please talk about it or else…

Americans talk about everything at every opportunity. They talk during meals and sex. I once had an apartment below a young American couple who liked to make love and talk at the same time. Loudly. I was miserable whenever I had to leave the apartment to go to work, so entertaining. Nigerians are simple people; the British taught us to keep mum during sex. That is what the missionary position is for. I don’t know why the British call it the missionary position; they should simply call it the (only) position since well it is the (only) position they know about. Maybe the Americans invented the missionary position. They have names for everything because they talk a lot. The British are famously tight-lipped about everything. The story is told about the British couple enjoying their annual one round of sex in the missionary position when the woman began to squirm with enjoyment. The man is said to have stopped work and curtly declared: “Dear, you should not enjoy this!”

I love watching American TV food channels. They talk to food as if they are making love to it. They close their eyes as the food meets their palate and they make sensual noises as if they are climaxing and then the storytelling begins. By the time they are finished talking the food is cold. Americans love to talk about their houses. If they like your house they will talk about it all day. If a Nigerian likes your house you will not hear about if from the green-eyed monster. Bad belle jealousy will not let her say anything nice about your house. She will keep quiet even if it kills her. Meanwhile she will start memorizing everything she likes in your house. The next time you visit her house you will think you accidentally stepped into your own house. She would have faithfully reproduced everything in your house down to the bathroom towels. You will of course not say a word even though you are dying to tell the asshole how much you appreciate her perfidy. You are a Nigerian.

I have been loitering around Americans for many decades and I have mastered everything about them down to their accent. So, let me offer a few tips for acculturating in Babylon. Say you have a dinner date with an American lady at her house. This is an opportunity to show that you are not an ajepako half-human, you know those pretend-people who brush their teeth with twigs and hold cutlery like mass murderers. Before you leave your house, brush your teeth vigorously with toothpaste, and buy breath mints because you are going to be talking. If she offers you breath mints, my brother please take it. She will offer you wine. This is not palmwine. You can tell that it is not because unlike great palmwine, it tastes like pond water. She will offer you the wine and watch you intently like a white anthropologist watching a mountain gorilla. Do not simply swallow, make a face and keep quiet. Worse do not sip a large quantity and spit on her white carpet in honor of your wretched ancestors. You are not coming back; the police will make sure of that. Sip a little, close your eyes as if you are suffering from great sex, and then say something absolutely inane like: “This is a great well aged red. Fruity, bold, with a hint of nuttiness. Sensual, like you. You have great taste in wine!” Man, she will like that, an African who knows wine; you are getting some (sex!) tonight!

You are getting close to the bedroom for the ultimate test. But first the food is coming. If the lady has cooked a meal for you, this is a good sign. She must really like you. Please do not wolf the food down like a ravenous subsistence farmer eager to go back to his yam tendrils. Be inquisitive. Ask questions. Sometimes, the American, eager to impress you, will do some research about Nigerian food and cook you egusi. You are going to be miserable all night, but this is nice of her. Ask questions that show you really care: “Wow! This is sooo nice! Was it your idea to put chunks of carrots in the egusi sauce?” Please do not call it “soup” bush man! If the rice is half-cooked, compliment her on her creativity. “I like the texture of the rice. The almonds and the peanuts give the rice a robust nutty feel.” Abeg do not say groundnuts! Drink some more red wine. You will need it.

If she offers you sex, whatever you do, don’t duplicate the only one sex scene in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. It lasted one minute and ended with the memorable line; “Even in those days Okonkwo was a man of few words.” If you behave like Okonkwo, you are not coming back to her bedroom, unless to clean it. Make love for at least two minutes. And talk a lot of nonsense. Please. Oya go for it, tiger.

 

Lost in America: At the bookstore

America. I am at the bookstore shopping for a gift to celebrate a friend’s retirement. She must leave with a piece of me. Procrastination dropped the day on me without warning and I had to go to a bookstore to buy a book. Who does that anymore? I will give my friend Teju Cole’s new book, Open City. She loves New York, classical music, art, museums, classical music, pretty people, gourmet food and wines, and stuff like that. She will like Open City, there’s lots of that in the book.

At the bookstore. There are computer monitors everywhere, you can look up who and what you want and you can even print a map that takes you to the book inside the store. I don’t like going to bookstores. I feel sheepish inside this huge bookstore. I ignore the computers; I did not come to the bookstore to play with computers. Customer Service. I tell a young man, I guess I can look it up myself, but maybe you can help me, do you have Teju Cole’s book, Open City? He looks at me with practiced faux enthusiasm, Oh sure, glad to help! I spell T-E-J-U C-O-L-E and tell him proudly, he wrote Open City. The clerk looks it up on the computer, nope, it is not in stock, I can order it for you. Nope, I say, not unless you can postpone my friend’s retirement party. What about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? I spell A-D-I-C-H-I-E. I do not spell the other names. He divines his computer again. Ah yes, Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, The Thing Around Your Neck. He says they are in Fiction upstairs. Wow, Fiction upstairs! Not in “Black American,” not in “African-Caribbean,” not in the back of the bookstore, gathering dust with losers. Nice.

I decline the young man’s offer to take me to Fiction, and thank him profusely, nice man. I will go to Fiction upstairs, browse around and pick out something nice for my friend. At Fiction, I start with G for Petina Gappah, yes, my friend will like An Elegy for Easterly, I love that book, I must have given away half a dozen to grateful readers. There is no Gappah, too bad. This is why bookstores are dying all over America, who needs this? My laptop Cecelia always has these books, point, click and pay, and they show up in three days, plus free shipping.

I scoot over to the A section, A for Adichie, Chris Abani, Chinua Achebe, Uwem Akpan. Abani’s Graceland is there posing with attitude, no, I don’t want my friend to attempt suicide with such a depressing book. Akpan is there with Say You’re One of Them, no, I don’t want my friend to attempt suicide with such a depressing book. All of Achebe’s books are there; Arrow of God, Things Fall Apart, etc. No more Achebe, please, we have skyscrapers in Africa now and we eat ice cream, she won’t like reading about cute yam farmers. I settle on Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. I also grab a copy of Pablo Neruda’s 100 Love Sonnets; don’t ask me why, it is a long delightful story.

The cashier’s line is a pleasant line, summer is all lined up. A pretty lady behind me keeps smiling at me, I wonder what is wrong. There is a mother-daughter couple in front of me; they seem to thoroughly love being with each other and my heart yearns for my daughters and sons. I wonder where they are, what they are doing. My turn. A cashier with auburn tresses calls me up to the counter. I am a member of the store’s club; I give her my identification number so she can shave off a few pennies from my bill. She pulls up my information and pronounces my name the way my ancestors like it. Her tongue wraps around my father’s name like she owns it and she goes, Mr. Ikheloa! Wow! Lovely! I beam with pride at the mention of my name in all the right places, and I compliment her, Impressive!

She squirms happily like a puppy offered treats. Did I pronounce it right? Yes, thanks! Good! When I was young I had an impossible to pronounce name also so I take care to pronounce impossible to pronounce names correctly. Thanks, I gush with gratitude. From West Africa? Yes, I cry with pleasure, I am going to fall in love with this soulmate! Which country? Nigeria, I say with pride. I passed through Nigeria once. Really? Which Airport? Lagos. Her eyes lower into pretty ice picks, I was going to Senegal and the Congo. They stole my luggage in Lagos, it was awful. She spits out the dagger-words sweetly. Her pain stabs my anxieties. I deflect. How was Senegal? It was okay, a bit too sleek, I liked the Congo. The Congo was innocent. Innocent! Oh Africa! I flee with my bag of books. Memo to self: Please begin to catalogue all the losses you have endured everywhere in America. Beginning with this bookstore.

 

Yesterday’s tales: Of coaches and fathers

Dusk in America. I am watching our son’s team practice American football on a fall evening. There are about two dozen 8 – 11 year olds prancing around the coaches. The coaches stand around, hands in their pockets watching these lion cubs gamboling around trying to make plays for tomorrow’s playoff game. They are called the Bears but they look more like lion cubs fearlessly prowling and prancing in the shadows of their coaches, aging lions. In their helmets, the boys look like little masquerades, preening, beating their chests, talking trash to imaginary opponents. Our son Fearless Fang loves football. He probably prefers the game to going to school or doing something like the dishes. Only the threat of being banned from football practice keeps his dark side still. He does his homework because he needs to play the game.

The head coach sports a Bear Bryant hat; dark, and brooding, he is a cross between Bear Bryant and Obi Okonkwo of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Our son lives in awe of his coaches. We have never been late to a football practice; we don’t know the consequences because our son refuses to find out. My favorite image is of the head coach taking my son aside and giving him a stern lecture about a technique he hadn’t mastered. The look of respect on my son’s face was priceless. One game that they were supposed to win, at half time they trailed the visiting team 0-12. He took all the boys to the woods. The boys came back fuming angry; they tore into their opponents something ugly and won with a 20-point spread. Later, I asked my son what happened in the woods. He simply said: “Coach wasn’t happy, coach wasn’t happy, daddy!”

 Sunday morning in America, the day after Halloween night, spent scavenging for candy. I am alone with many children, several not our own. It is a United Nations of Children. America is browning. The world is browning. Voices are merging into new languages sautéed from the accents of remote ancestral lands. Tomorrow is Monday, there is no school, smart move, these children are going to be eating candy all day and you don’t want to be their teacher tomorrow; you’d be too busy peeling hyper kids off the walls. I am alone with these children, my spouse having gleefully fled for work; I could see her skid marks on our carpet as she enjoined me to have a great day with children suffering from sugar intoxication.

Fearless Fang, our ten-year old comes into the bedroom, and nudges me awake. He wants scrambled eggs, with onions and tomatoes for him, his siblings and his friends. He wants to make the eggs himself. At the age of ten! He would need to be supervised. I half joke to him that at his age in Africa I was already a general in the Nigerian Civil War. But this is America, why would a 10-year old be subjected to the trauma of actually making a hot meal? I shudder at the thought of our little bear setting our house on fire, inviting the drama of fire engines, ambulances, incredulous neighbors and the news media gawking at the ruins of our home – and my atrocious judgment. Who needs the stress? I get up and assure him that daddy is going to make eggs for everybody and of course Fearless Fang is welcome to supervise daddy. Fearless Fang deserves a good breakfast this morning. Yesterday, his football team had the visiting team for breakfast, Yum Yum.

I am making breakfast to order for Fearless Fang, his friends and siblings. Just like the warrior my son wants it. Just like my dad used to make it for us. My dad’s spirit fills the room. I am channeling my dad. He is making scrambled eggs his way. He is humming Jim Reeves’ Welcome to My World. First, he cuts up fresh tomatoes from his garden (my dad always had a garden, no matter his accommodations; he could grow vegetables in his bedroom if he had to), Then he cuts up onions. He breaks the eggs, adds salt and pepper, whips them into a nice emulsion, adds condensed milk (to give them a fluffy shiny look, he claims). He sautés the tomatoes and onions in groundnut oil and after a while pours in the eggs. The result is always scrumptious.

America. Necessity teaches us several lessons. I can cook now. I can care for as many children as the day throws in my face. It is called survival. My father taught me how to fight back and thrive. My father taught me how to deal with defeat – with song, dance, poetry and the stoicism of our ancestors. My father was my coach. Sometimes when I didn’t have the physical fight in me he taught me to charm my way through hell. I see my father in my son’s football coaches. They demand all that my son can give and more. And they do it lovingly albeit sternly. I shall never forget the look of respect and fear in my son’s eyes as a coach confronted him for forgetting a piece of his uniform at home. He has not forgotten anything ever since. We need men in our lives. I salute my father. I salute my son’s coaches.

For “Allah Dey” Odunewu: Ikhide, Meet Chekhov

I once wrote some nonsense on Facebook right after my second glass of cognac, the sort that comes easily to me after ogogoro has started making me see tomorrow. It went something like this: “America. Night. The trees lean on the road, limbs gnarled with need, pawing weary cars, leaves whispering, ‘Oga sah! Anything for the boys?’” An impressed white writer who happened to be at home drinking also, asked me: “There is something Chekhovian in your use of language. Do you write short stories and, if so, was Chekhov an influence?”

I had heard of Chekhov, a great white writer who wrote many great things. All African writers are on first name basis with him including those who have never read Chinua Achebe. Over the years I have acquired Chekhov’s books hoping to bone up on them in case I get that all important call from The New Yorker for an interview in which a great legendary writer, say Salman Rushdie, would ask me questions on the post-Chekhovian influences in my profound works. Unfortunately, each time I try to read Chekhov; I fall asleep on his book. It is an embarrassing medical issue. Ben Okri’s books fill me with wonder also, that there are human beings on earth that have managed to finish one, just one of his books. I have all his books and I can assure the world that I have fallen asleep on every one of them, beginning with The Famished Road. Okri is a genius but many of his books are quite simply unreadable. I said it, sue me. Life is too short to be miserable just because you want to brag that you have read Okri.

So when the writer asked me about Chekhov’s influence on my works, I panicked. This man was going to disgrace me today on Facebook with over one thousand pair of amebo eyes watching gleefully. Before I could google Chekhov, my good friends, the writers Olu Oguibe and Obiwu Iwuanyanwu (Obiwu) rushed to my rescue. Well, sort of. They assured him that Ikhide would not know Chekhov from Czechoslovakia, that indeed my drunken words were influenced by ogogoro – my number one influence in life. I am not making this up, here is word for word what Obiwu wrote: “Now dem dey say na Chekhov dey make Ikhide write as im dey write! But no, no be Chekhov at all. Na Chike Offia im next door neighbor for Okpanam dey influence Ikhide im grammar! “Chike Offia! Right after that hurtful but awfully accurate analysis of the degree of my vacuity, my white friend immediately unfriended me on Facebook. Now, thanks to my friends Oguibe and Obiwu, I have no white friends on Facebook. With bad belle friends like those who needs enemies?

It took me exactly two weeks to finish reading Teju Cole’s Open City because every sentence required a visit to Google, all these dead white people that have written wondrous things and played heavenly music. My nightmare is that I will one day meet Teju Cole AND debate him on Alexander Solzhenitsyn and something called the Gulag Archipelago, gulp!

Whenever I am going anywhere stressful, like work, I always take Chinua Achebe’s Thing Fall Apart with me, don’t ask me why. One day, at the hospital, this doctor glances at the book and said casually, “I have read that book!” I was so excited, I almost wept with gratitude, why, a Westerner has actually read the greatest book ever written by a human being who happens to be African. I don’t know any white writer who can name an African writer besides Chinua Achebe. We should call them shallow insular illiterates. I am now studying important dead white writers because this newspaper would like to interview me (yes, I am a superstar, may your bad belle not kill you). If they ask me to talk about my literary influences and I respond truthfully, it would be full of nonsense: “Well, my most powerful literary influence is Achebe, followed by James Ngugi (that’s what we called him before he got confused and started writing in Swahili!). Also, my uncle Elephant taught me about the power of words especially after a very tall tumbler of apeteshie. My mother Izuma, Razor Blade of Nigeria taught me how a woman with the right words can get a tall strapping powerful man like my Papalolo flying across a room whimpering with hurt. And Alade Odunewu (Allah Dey!) and Andy Akporugo and the comics. Fearless Fang used to ride his elephant in Boom. There was Rabon Zollo and Lance Spearman And of course all the njakiri poets I have hung out with on the rugged streets of my village, prattle prattle prattle!” I can just imagine the pen in the interviewer’s hand freezing stiff with shock, her face going, “You are shitting me! YOU don’t know Chekhov?” Now, dear oyinbo interviewer, do you know “Allah de” Odumewu? Nonsense.

 

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