Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Study of Pure Emotions

It floats somewhere above the base of the gut, sometimes rising, bobbing, into the throat, where it grows dense and heavy and dark.

There are times when you wish it would rise higher, just an inch or two, where it will pop like a geyser and spew heat all over your skin, wetting your skin, releasing you from your skin that is stuck in this place like a poltergeist with nowhere to rest.

This is what sadness feels like.

I wait in a field of blond grass, taller and wispier than I, yet just as fragile. With the grass, I stand and sway, listening to something on the horizon. It is low, but there is danger in the rumbling. I hear it getting closer, louder, the sound of it developing ominous tones, deep with bass. I cannot see it, but I know that it is black. I know that it is black, and I know that it is hot, and I know that I will not be able to outrun it and so I don’t even try.

As it comes, I stand still, outwardly and unto myself.  There is nowhere to look but inside, and so I shut my eyes and contemplate my final destruction.

The heat is closer now; there is a wind blowing toward me, flagellating me with the grass that is my flimsy shield and camouflage. My skin is cut and bleeding. Still, I stand, unmoved and unmoving but for the quickening of my pulse as I steel my soul for what is about to consume me.

That is what rage feels like.

Run the sharp edge of a knife along smooth, almond-colored skin and watch it burst open, revealing hues of ivory and ruby.  Listen to sighs of ecstasy, of delight, of finally feeling a feeling that is so horrific, so painful, as to not be ignored.

To bleed. This is what relief feels like.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Queen of Vagina

I've been in a funky mood for about two weeks. Vinegar is flowing through my veins, I spit fire when I talk. I don't love my friends as much as I did on October 16th. The only person guaranteed to make me smile these days is Majela Zeze Diamond, a.k.a. Queen of Vagina.

She is my hero.

She doesn't write songs; she writes public service announcements. Did you know that 2 + 2 is not actually 4 but vagina? Actually, 2 + 2 is vagina, vagina and vagina. The sum of two twos is also vagina and "pinis", which means that one pinis equals two vaginas, which may or may not be an argument against monogamy. Queen of Vagina is deep, man.

Q of V's songs/PSAs typically last about three minutes and are astoundingly effective. She keeps 'em simple: no more than three parts, the message of each segment repeated rhythmically until it is hammered so deeply into all three layers of your psyche that you will not forget it, no matter how hard you try. Listen to her, I dare you. Queen of Vagina is like crystal meth: all it takes is once. I entered what I now see is a lifetime contract innocently, and now, no matter what I'm doing, no matter who I'm talking to, whatever song I'm listening to on my iPod, Queen of Vagina is there, wailing, "Vaja, vaja, vaja, vagina o-oo-o-o! Vaja, vaja, vaja, vagina eh-eeh-eh-eh!"

I like that she keeps it clean, in her own way, for the most part. She doesn't cheapen her privates by referring to them in feline terms. And even though she is very clear on the fact that she doesn't even respect men, who are "very stupid", she obviously accords much respect to their genitalia, which she sometimes refers to by its formal name, "John Tomos."

I fear I'm growing too attached. As she is currently my only source of true and complete joy, I've begun to study her, trying to find out (or make up) her story. I want to know: do her shoes match her earrings or her eyeshadow? Does she own a MacBook? Does she really bark out orders like, "Give it to me, baby!" when she's doing John Tomoses "until they are knackered"? And is that person in the cap-and-gown on the wall photo behind her the self she used to be before she became the Queen of Vagina too few of us know and love? So many questions....

I'm going to wear a blonde wig, tight red tee, denim jacket and shiny, purple hot pants for Halloween this year. Some people will call that my costume. I think it'll be the banana peel on my slide into Nigeria-induced mental instability, kinda like the Ted Levine character in Silence of the Lambs who skinned women to make himself a body suit. I promise to take loads of pictures and paste them all over my room.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Ofada, Where Art Thou?

Whenever my bush-er Nigerian friends start to make bota/pako comparisons, placing me in the former category, I have a tendency to balk with indignation. Ah no be bota, I will usually say in Pidgin, just to prove it. And I really believe I'm not. I may have been born with a silver spoon in my mouth but the advent of SAP quickly saw that utensil replaced with something plastic, something with rough, unfinished edges. How many ajebotas can say they spent a good part of their adolescence living in a two-room boys' quarters with seven other people, including a senile grandmother who considered this living large and her illiterate, village-raised granddaughter whose frustration at not being able to express herself in idiomatic English usually led to a fist fight?

I have handwashed white denim to blinding success; I have de-husked rice with a mortar and pestle; I considered soaked gari a staple in my diet. Hell, whenever I came into money, I would go crazy and buy five nairas' worth of kulikuli, raising this dish from dull to delicacy. I even rode a night bus from Jos to Lagos once (and back!). Granted, most of my family doesn't know (or care) that I lived this way for years, but the reality of this part of my history surely earns me at least part-time membership in the Pako Hall of Fame.

But there are times when I concede to the razz, the local champions, the akpu nwas, that they may be right after all. That no matter how much gari I have soaked, no matter how hard I had to scrounge for kulikuli, these are not the things that make me a pako. Food is not the great equalizer in Nigeria; the perpetuity of generational hardship is. No matter how much a wealthy man loves to eat akpu, he and his gardener will not eat from the same plate, or even at the same table. And we do all eat the same things; yet rich and poor are divided by how much meat they can afford to put in their stews. There will always be a way to separate the 'us' from the 'them' in Nigeria, whatever the context.
Still, there are many things I love about living pako. And the signs that I, indeed, have lived across the tracks from 'las pako', are glaringly apparent. Like when I had to confess that I had never heard the term takpas before this year, or eaten ofada rice. What a wretched omission of joy from my bota'ed life! It is my own private delight when I espy a Nigerian man dressed to the nines for a formal event, and he is wearing takpas. I laugh 'til tears are pouring from my eyes, because the word sounds like the catapult he must have used to get himself into those tight pants. Takpas! It was not just elbow grease he used to squeeze his sizeable African thighs into resistant cotton; it was sheer willpower. Takpas! I love that word.

And now I can't believe I went my whole life without ever eating ofada rice. When I discovered mama-put jollof, I honestly believed it was the final frontier. The smoky flavor and aroma, the individual grains dancing a spicy tango on the tongue, getting intimate with your tastebuds. There was nothing like mama-put jollof, also fondly referred to as party rice. But now there is ofada. After one plateful, I converted and never looked back. Today, I am passionate about ofada rice. I eat ofada rice with my eyes closed, leaving my left hand free to caress my throat, chest and stomach as this deliciousness travels to my gastric cavity. I don't know what it is that makes me feel so...satisfied. Perhaps it is the rice grain itself. Not content to resemble its tame, ivory-tinted cousins from Asia and the Americas, ofada wears a brown-flecked coat. This gives it character. Like the plastic spoon in the mouth of pako newborns, ofada grains are rough around the edges and create a mild, popping sensation around the gums while one chews.

Or maybe it is the stew. If only I knew how to make ofada stew. The ubiquitous tomato and tatase paste of all our stews is fried to within a hair's breadth of utility in palm oil then flavored with stockfish, pomo and MSG. Pomo: that emptiest of nutritious foods, yet so much fun to eat. Someone had the brilliant idea to cut pomo into tiny cubes when making ofada stew. It was probably to stretch the availability of the "meat", to disguise the fact that there wasn't much to make this cheap meal properly attractive. (After all, what is food in Nigeria without meat? A mere waste, a whiling away of one's life until real food makes its appearance, preferably bleating, crowing or mooing on its way to slaughter.) Whatever the case, one man's deception is my happy time. I love tiny cubes of pomo. When I bite into a cube, unexpectedly, as I savor ofada rice behind closed eyes, it's like eating caviar. It's like finally being able to soak gari with kulikuli. It's like eating February 29th: oh my goodness! Is it you? Here? Oh...and just like that, you've gone but, I know, you shall return.

The rice and stew are served on a banana leaf, for reasons unbeknowst to me, but since this leaf is usually the only green that appears on the plate - inedible or not - I welcome its verdancy, the way it complements the brown-red stew. My mouth is watering. The first and only time I tossed this delightful culinary creation, rice on stew on rice, I had no idea what to expect. I was just hungry. Hungry and visiting Henrietta (not her real name) whose chef I will now worship forever and ever. Henrietta felt like cooking and offered to make me grilled salmon and roast potatoes. If I were any less hungry, I might have agreed. But now I am grateful to whichever spirit it was which told me to resist the lure of exotic foods in Nigeria and just eat whatever I could smell coming from the kitchen (which only smelled hot and fresh, not great. Ofada, like most other African meals, promises far less than it delivers. If we Africans judged food by its smell, we would never cook).

I'm in Europe now, in a large city where food from all over the world is never more than a bus ride away and always available at reasonable prices. But all I want is Henrietta's chef to make me ofada rice. I want to scrape up the last few grains of rice from the bottom of my plate, destroying part of the ceramic design, before helping myself shamelessly to a second helping I know I have no business eating. I want to eat alone, so that I can moan euphorically as I chew, without raising eyebrows. But I cannot: there is no ofada here. (Or is there?)

Just as soon as I possibly can, I am going to swoop into a lowly canteen (or Henrietta's kitchen) and place my order for this thing of delight. Like manna to the desert-roaming Israelites is my ofada to me. If you chance upon me on this occasion, I beg you, ignore the palm oil running down my chin. I will have been oblivious to it, not caring in that moment what class of person I am, just that I relish what I am doing.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

How to Speak Nigerian

Nigerians are very good people.

And never better than when they are dealing with non-Nigerians. It is more or less common knowledge that a Nigerian will bend over backwards (or in most cases, forwards, holding his ankles and willing his butt cheeks to spread) to please a foreigner in our country, shunning all other culturally acceptable practices and even self-respect in order to fulfill the every wish of this visitor to his fatherland.

I haven’t quite determined whether my people do this simply because they want something huge in return and don’t know how else to ask for it, or if they are just natural doormats and can’t help themselves. Whatever the case, the good Lord finally saw me fit to experience a firsthand taste of this brand of obsequiousness.

It was a cool evening in Abuja and I was planning an all-nighter, so I ventured to a coffee shop to purchase a latte (which was surprisingly good. Thank you, enterprising Lebanese people, for introducing this delicious, frothy, steamy beverage to our society). When I walked up to the counter to order my drink, I absently and automatically did something my fellow expats will relate to: I used my formal accent.

If you’re an African who has ever lived abroad, you already know what this means. But for those who may not understand, I shall explain. The African is known for possessing a most unique accent, usually comprised of deep, bass notes, lilting intonations, colorful vernacular. When we speak, we mesmerize (or perhaps, stupefy) foreign listeners, who realize they have never heard English (or French or Spanish or…) spoken quite like this before. Indeed, it sounds so strange to them, they hardly recognize these languages for what they are.

Therefore, in order to accommodate our Western hosts in their native countries, several of us have chosen to adopt a speaking style that mimics theirs, so they will not have to strain their ears and brains in order to engage in simple communications with us. We practice these speech patterns for months, years, imbibing them like smooth whisky, so that we may order our drinks and pick up our prescriptions in peace.

Some, like me, are more fortunate than others: attending school with Americans and Britons since we were children, the accent comes naturally to us. We roll our r’s like experts; when we say innit, additional consonants don’t pop up randomly to turn the word into hinni. In short, we blend in. At least, phonetically. Which is why, when we adopt these foreign speech patterns, Nigerians say we are “speaking foneh [faw-NEH].”

Initially, for me, the need to speak foneh only arose in formal situations, which was usually the only time there was a white person in the room. Over time, this formal accent became my polite accent became the way I spoke when I wasn’t yet comfortable with who I was speaking to, white, black, Asian, Arab….whatever. And now, it just pops out whenever it feels like it, and I’ve stopped trying to figure out why. This is what happened this day, when I opened my mouth to order a latte at this coffee shop somewhere in Abuja, and discovered that, to Nigerians, foneh is the gateway to heaven.

Ah! Foreigners enjoy Nigeria sha. I will never know what it was about the way I ordered this latte, but the lady who took my order was clearly impressed. Her eyes lit up and she leaned in towards me over the counter, soaking in my every word. She smiled at me, and was very attentive, trying to make sure that I received everything I wanted, that I received it promptly and that I would have no complaints about my service. I had to reassure her repeatedly that I was certain I didn’t require anything but a simple latte, no, not a delectable pastry, not even of the caramel variety; no, not extra foam in my milk. When I paid, I gave my money to another attendant, but the order taker traveled the length of the counter to ensure that my change and receipt were handled to me with care and a smile. I have never been wished a good evening by so many Nigerian staff in one shot.

I walked out of the store, high on life and feeling momentarily like a human being until a scruffy-looking policeman stopped me at a checkpoint, gruffly ordering me to “Stop there!” and put on my inner light, reminding me that I am merely Nigerian after all. There was no time to pull out my new secret weapon; I could tell from his red eyes that he wasn’t the sort of man you refer to as ‘officer’ – a man that high should only be called ‘sah’, and preferably with some groveling involved.

The preferential treatment is obviously not right or fair, but I must admit I was ever-so-slightly heartened to discover that my people’s biases have nothing to do with race, which is all I’ve contended with since I moved to America. Here, what separates the wheat from the chaff is money. Money by all its names: ego, owo, cheddar, bread…it spins Nigeria on whatever skewed axis we happen to be on. But for all our faults, it appears anyone can get a chance to hop on that ride.

My lady at the coffee shop has seemingly realized that gone are the days when only non-Nigerians could be considered wealthy – now you never know who is going to help move you up that social ladder. So best to be kind, at least to anyone who sounds like they’ve been where you want to go. Of course, I look forward to the day when I can expect good service just as a matter of principle, but until then, I’m using my cheat sheet: foneh all day, baby!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

romancing the keys: an ode to my compaq

ah, how i have missed you.

the words come to me slowly. i have been out of practice.
these fingers: they move more quickly than before, but clumsily. i do not remember you as i once did.

this is our last hurrah.
soon it will be the last time.
i have fallen for another.

three years we have known each other.
you have brought songs out of me, poetry. stories.
of discomfort. soreness.
new beginnings.
unexpected ends.

the tale is complete.

and now your turn has come.
discarded onto a heap of electronic garbage, perhaps.
pulled apart by the deft fingers of the impoverished,
experts at discovering hidden value.
exploited for needing and knowing so little.

or handed down to one more needy, also lacking,
though more privileged in many ways.
little brother.
distant cousin, learning you in a ghanaian village.

you are magic.
but your sparkle has dissipated.
it is time to move on.

but for now
you remain
to tell the story of a closing chapter.

of romance that bloomed only to disappear sharply into a void of 'once-was'.
i am grateful.
of misery that tugged and pulled at itself until it discovered the hard seed of self-fulfillment.
my eyes have been opened.
of friendships, both quick and long-lasting.
i will cherish them. all of them.
of that which is new and will continue to reveal itself.
i will explore.
i have explored.

there is much to offer, and you have shown me this.
at once a tool and confidante,
you have served me well.
with fondness,

i bid you adieu.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

love on july the fourth: through a slit in the drywall

we will wake in poor man's luxury, a soft wind blowing through my subterranean window. on these summer days, i can peer out from underneath it to see the sun, hot and yellow, gleaming off the emerald leaves of the trees. the window's position does not permit those rays to warm me, instead letting in a smooth chill that hovers cozily above my eiderdown quilt. it will do.

he turns heavily, and in his sleep, his lips search for me, to kiss the first stretch of brown they find: a shoulder or its blade, the apple of my cheek. in these moments, i quietly enjoy being the center of his world. were he awake, i would swat him away and roll my eyes. but here, when i know i'm too far away, i nudge myself closer, hoping he will throw an arm around me or encircle me with his legs.

when i am sated, i will free myself from the custard-and-ivory tangle of sheets to lounge on the sofa and do a few crosswords, my newest obsession. or i will make myself a bowl of bran cereal with sliced bananas and only the smallest sprinkle of pure cane sugar, and read soyinka, levy, saro-wiwa or lahiri. i will not be wholly in the moment. i will be waiting for him to wake up.

if i am impatient, i will wash my bowl noisily, as the kitchenette sits but three feet away from my bed. he knows what i'm doing and i catch him smiling, eyes still shut. even in sleep, his eyes are beautiful. i am envious of his eyelashes, which are thick and dark and rest too close to his cheekbones when he blinks, but i'm grateful that i can look into them every day, where they frame a profound love for all that i am.

we play "whose breath smells more like manure?" for the umpteenth time, and though he always wins, he also leaves the bed with welts and scratches on his body, proof of my indignation at being pinned down while he tortures me, seemingly without end.

now we shower, now we change. the temptation to just sit and watch television in our underwear is strong, but we resist: it's the fourth of july and all sorts of american traditions await. he wants wings and beer; i want a burger and mojitos. we fight over lunch about how much of elvis's act was 'borrowed' from african american culture and, in anger, i stalk off and abandon him at the table. by the time i get to the door, i instantly regret my action, but i'm part leo and have committed to the drama. thankfully, he calls and tells me to stop walking - he's coming to get me so we can continue to enjoy our day as planned.

as the car pulls up, i fight the grin threatening to rend my face apart. i'm trying so hard not to meet his eyes, which i know will be laughing at me, forcing me to laugh back. in the end, i have no choice: he pokes me in the neck, and i have to turn to retaliate. inevitably, i break into a fit of laughter and lose my third fight that day.

much of the day is lost as we drive from one spot to another, in search of anything interesting but atypical to participate in, finding nothing. not that it matters: we have each other.

in the end, we find MF and his beautiful KR on a dark rooftop with belgian beer and an assortment of cheeses, encircled by the exuberance of a capital city celebrating 233 years of national independence, if not freedom. 360 degrees of explosive lights and sulfur: the national monument stood as always in phallic erection, its own fireworks more splendid and enormous than the rest of the city's combined. the climax was impressive. partly in jest and for my american comrades, i belted out a pitchy rendition of the star spangled banner. MF and KR, unable to withstand the poetry, kissed repeatedly. i avoided CB's amorous looks, but let him hold me from behind. pda embarasses me.

the night was full of ladders. we climbed one to get atop MF's roof. then we took a taxi a few blocks to scale another. it was splendid. fifty, sixty people spread into the night, tamping the tar roof sheets of their neighbors unknown, drinking (yet more) oaky wines and vinegar-and-malt beers. exotic elixir of the night. we could barely see each others' faces; the sky lit up only briefly and sporadically, as more roman candles exploded above us, showering us with fiery bullets and ashy debris. i knew but two guests, but felt peaceful, at home. their stories kept me amused for hours.

it was over for us too soon. we left at midnight, as the call of duty grew louder and we could no longer ignore the imperativeness of a good night's sleep, lest the next day be spent between my cotton sheets at someone else's expense. CB could barely find the energy to undress before he collapsed on the mattress, falling asleep almost instantly. as i always do, i turned off the light and slid in beside him, traced the waves in his soft, soft hair with my right index finger. my eyes were heavy, but before i succumbed to sleep, i succumbed to my obsessesion: the NYT crossword, a classic from january 16, 1998. early sunday morning, i fell asleep on the uncompleted friday grid, after his arm found its way to me and began to stroke the skin above my navel.

Friday, June 05, 2009

the divorcee

amaka rose early on a sunny monday morning, not requiring assistance for the first time in a long time. the furthest thought from her mind was that she would marry that day. and yet, like it or not, that is precisely what would happen.

she rubbed the crust from her her eyes and looked across the room at her younger sister, chisom, who was still asleep and drooling quietly onto her care bear pillowcase. satisfied that she could finally enjoy an unprecedented amount of freedom, she hopped down from her bed, tiptoed carefully past the crucifix that hung over the armoire and glowed eerily in the dark of night, opened the door and left.

at this hour, the house was quiet save for the hum of electronics and a thunderous snore down the hall. her older brother's, no doubt. she turned away from the bassoon and walked round the corner to the bathroom. reaching up, she turned the knob and entered: she was going to get ready all by herself today and shock everyone.

the response to her display of independence was better than she could have imagined. her mother high-fived her, her sister sulked. her brother, contrary to his usual indifference, rubbed the top of her head and messed up her afro puff, but she didn't even mind. as she chewed on her creamy golden morn, she couldn't help but feel that today would be a good day. the girls at school would let her play ten-ten with them, even though she didn't really know how to play; and that one girl who was bigger than everyone else wouldn't punish her for coming first in class last year by ripping up her art projects and denying her her "friendship".

it didn't matter as much that her mother once again chose to give her the grown-up coffee flask with brown stripes instead of the my little pony one she much preferred. it was some consolation that chisom didn't get a flask at all because she was still too young to drink consistently from a cup, unsupervised, without ruining her clothes. she would have to suffer the indignity of sucking her juice from a box of ribena. she, chisom, wasn't having it and let her discontent be known as loudly as she could. children! amaka shook her head, already weary of dealing with those so much younger and more immature than she. to her, chisom was the most foolish person she had ever encountered in all her years on earth, all six of them.

at her desk in school, which she shared with five other boys and girls, she became engaged in a staring match with chinedu, a long-faced boy who, for some inexplicable reason, caught her fancy today like never before. the feeling appeared to be mutual, because he didn't once look away. the air was virtually prickling with the sparks from their unvoiced attraction.

the ceremony unfolded in an organic manner, seamlessly and without announcement. as the other children looked on, stupefied, amaka and chinedu lowered their heads in near-unison below the table top and exchanged looks in lieu of the customary rings - at each other's underwear. hers bore pink pastel flowers; his were navy blue with a white, elastic band. it was a rite performed speedily and without pomp - overly simple, she would one day recall. but beautiful in its own way.

their marriage now sealed, they proceeded to spend the rest of the day in a version of holy matrimony, performing all requisite acts like seasoned professionals. they switched seats with some of their cohorts so they could sit side by side while they colored by numbers. at lunch time, they shared their jam sandwiches equally and each politely insisted that the other's was more delicious. they declined to split their beverages, but only because chinedu was not in the mood for amaka's blackcurrant ribena, preferring instead to sip on his orange-flavored capri-sun. and when it was time for siesta, the elderly mrs. singh amusedly watched them clamor to share the same mat.

alas, all good things must come to an end, and end they did. perhaps it was the forty-five minute nap that erased chinedu's memory of the rich morning that had transpired between him and his new bride. perhaps it is true that, as they say, all marriages are not meant to last. but as they rose from their siesta mat, amaka eager to behold her handsome partner with her eyes and embrace him with her arms, chinedu gruffly pushed her away as he rubbed his eyes and tried to remember where he was. proud as she was, amaka could not stomach his rejection. she stalked off.

and just like that, their actions signaled the end of a beautiful romance that had barely begun. by the time the mothers, drivers and house helps came to pick up their respective wards, the boy had teased the erstwhile love of his life mercilessly on more than one occasion, leading her to pummel him with her bare fists in order to save face. that day, she was accompanied home by a note in her school bag that was addressed to 'mama amaka', admonishing the little girl and cautioning her parents to ensure her ill behavior was not repeated lest she be sent to learn her sums elsewhere.

to this day, amaka claims that the tongue-lashing she received was worth every punch she laid on chinedu's fickle horse face. he insists that he does not remember.