Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Category: Faction Memoir

Life is not short: This life as haiku

I came to America from Nigeria several moons ago, me, a frightened man-child armed with a suitcase, the hopes and blessings of my ancestors. Today in America, my two daughters go to school in the suburbs and they come back home and teach me something new about America. Every day, my little girls come home to me with a little piece of America. The teachers touch my children and my children touch me. A thousand moons after America adopted me, I still marvel at the America that I see through my daughters’ eyes.”

Ikhide Roland Ikheloa, The Washington Post, July 7, 2002

 

I am not a writer. But I practise being one because you don’t need a license to write. You just write and gbam! you are a writer.

I hate to brag; The Washington Post once published me. 100 words. I think it was less, after they’d edited my fantastic tales. I was over the moon. Literally. And figuratively. I shall explain.

Every Sunday, the Washington Post would invite the reader to write something short and personal and if it suited the Post’s fancy, the piece would get published on a Sunday along with a picture (yes, a Post photographer actually comes to you, takes a billion pictures out of which the one you hate the most is used). For the picture, I wore a wretched tie dye shirt that reeked of the West’s Africa and suffering, and held on to my kids, an African grateful to America for saving me from a war that was Africa. Truth is, when I left Africa, I left heaven and came to a former haven that had been paved into hell (that is not original, do not applaud me please!).

Many African writers, me included, should be hauled before a Truth Commission and made to apologize profusely to Africa for all the lies we have told against her, for fame and fortune. We are ingrates. And hustlers.

Well, truth is, I knew once I started writing that I would be published. Why? I started my fable thusly: “Many moons ago..,” and ended with a weepy expression of gratitude to America for what, I don’t remember. Africa as the exotic other, America as the savior of the cute African. The Washington Post loved it. And I became a published writer.

I have since written a few other pieces to great and enthusiastic reception by Western editors enthralled by my “enthusiastic” prose. There are days I hate writing, it is so phony, many times.

Many American publishers seem fascinated by the bullshit narrative of immigrants; “aliens” who come from places where the natives measure time in moons, go to the river to bathe and shit, etc. I write about moons a lot. I don’t know why moons appear often in my narrative, in real life the moon holds no special fascination for me, except for a brief stint in our ancestral village, during the Nigerian civil war, I lived in the cities of Nigeria most of my life there and I don’t remember the moon much, the cities are very civilized, hehehe, there’s a lot of smog and so I am proud to say that I did not see any pristine moon.

About wild animals, I have an uncle we call Elephant and there was this other uncle who lived in the forests of a place called Omolege, who used to bring us meat he claimed was from an elephant. Our mother Izuma would cook the hide for hours, and offer it to us kids. The hide was thick and as tender as a stone, you could chew that sucker for months and we did.

I digress, excuse me. I believe I did see an elephant in a zoo in Ibadan or Benin City in the early 70’s. There are unreliable reports that the elephant was converted to dinner by irate zookeepers who had not been paid for months. Or maybe that was the Zoo in Washington DC, they have had issues with being paid over there on occasion, the almost annual federal government shutdown and whatnot, dunno jor.

Why do we write these things? Well, every African writer will deny this in public but will tell you privately that his or her dream is to be published by a Western outfit, journal, newspaper, publishing house, etc,, etc. – Guernica, Eclectica, The New Yorker, The New York Times, etc. etc. Our elders say you have not arrived until you have been published by Guernica. An email acceptance is usually cause for raucous joy.

Our star writers would never be seen dead writing in a Nigerian newspaper; that would sully their brand, who does that? Do you blame them though? I don’t know about the rest of Africa, but Nigeria is undergoing a crisis in its newspaper and publishing industries. The quality of the output over there is highly suspect and ambitious writers know to go to more robust institutions in the West where your work is guaranteed to be raked through the coals by a beady-eyed eagle of an editor, and at times subjected to a peer review.

Over there in Babylon, their bullshit factor is low. I once submitted a piece for Guernica, my experience was hellish; the editing was relentless, the editor politely but firmly asked me to substantiate assertions and claims in my essay, who does that? They could tell my bullshit factor was high. It was a lot of work getting published over there. I made a mental note never to return to Guernica to write again, ever. Nonsense. Why, outside of Molara Wood and NEXT and Farafina, and Nkem Ivara, no Nigerian editor has ever as much as edited a letter in my pieces. It is all cut-and-paste.

What is my point? I don’t know. I am just rambling, bored to my gills and writing whatever comes to my head. I crave elephant ponmo. Literature is dead. Long live social media. Good night.

Haiku

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.