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!