It seemed almost incidental that he was African. So vast had his inner perceptions grown over the years ...
BESSIE HEAD, A Question of Power
This is the kola nut. This seed is a star. This star is life. This star is us.
The Igbo hold the kola nut to be sacred, offering it at every gathering and to every visitor, as a blessing, as refreshment or to seal a covenant. The prayer that precedes the breaking and sharing of the nut is: He who brings kola, brings life.
Elvis stood by the open window. Outside: heavy rain. He jammed the wooden shutter open with an old radio battery, against the wind. The storm drowned the tinny sound of the portable radio on the table. He felt claustrophobic, fingers gripping the iron of the rusty metal protector. It was cool on his lips, chin and forehead as he pressed his face against it.
Across the street stood the foundations of a building; the floor and pillars wore green mold from repeated rains. Between the pillars, a woman had erected a buka, no more than a rickety lean-to made of sheets of corrugated iron roofing and plastic held together by hope. On dry evenings, the smell of fried yam and dodo wafted from it into his room, teasing his hunger. But today the fire grate was wet and all the soot had been washed away.
As swiftly as it started, the deluge abated, becoming a faint drizzle. Water, thick with sediment, ran down the rust-colored iron roofs, overflowing basins and drums set out to collect it. Taps stood in yards, forlorn and lonely, their curved spouts, like metal beaks, dripping rainwater.Naked children exploded out of grey wet houses, slipping and splaying in the mud, chased by shouts of parents trying to get them ready for school.
The rain had cleared the oppressive heat that had already dropped like a blanket over Lagos; but the smell of garbage from refuse dumps, unflushed toilets and stale bodies was still overwhelming. Elvis turned from the window, dropping the threadbare curtain. Today was his sixteenth birthday, and as with all the others, it would pass uncelebrated. It had been that way since his mother died eight years before. He used to think that celebrating his birthday was too painful for his father, a constant reminder of his loss. But Elvis had since come to the conclusion that his father was simply self-centered. The least I should do is get some more sleep, he thought, sitting on the bed. But the sun stabbed through the thin fabric, bathing the room in sterile light. The radio played Bob Marley's "Natural Mystic," and he sang along, the tune familiar.
"There's a natural mystic blowing through the air / If you listen carefully now you will hear ..." His voice trailed off as he realized he did not know all the words, and he settled for humming to the song as he listened to the sounds of the city waking up: tin buckets scraping, the sound of babies crying, infants yelling for food and people hurrying but getting nowhere.
Next door someone was playing highlife music on a radio that was not tuned properly. The faster-tempoed highlife distracted him from Bob Marley, irritating him. He knew the highlife tune well, "Ije Enu" by Celestine Ukwu. Abandoning Bob Marley, he sang along:
"Ije enu, bun a ndi n'kwa n'kwa ndi n'wuli n'wuli, eh ..."
On the road outside, two women bickered. In the distance, the sounds of molue conductors competing for customers carried:
"Yaba! Yaba! Straight!"
"Oshodi! Oshodi! Enter quickly!"
Elvis looked around his room. Jesus Can Save and Nigerian Eagles almanacs hung from stained walls that had not seen a coat of paint in years. A magazine cutting of a BMW was coming off the far wall, its end flapping mockingly. The bare cement floor was a cracked and pitted lunar landscape. A piece of wood, supported at both ends by cinderblocks, served as a bookshelf. On it were arranged his few books, each volume falling apart from years of use.
By the window was a dust-coated desk, and next to it a folding metal chair, brown and crisp with rust. The single camping cot he lay on was sunk in the center and the wafer-thin mattress offered as much comfort as a raffia mat. A wooden bar secured diagonally between two corners of the room served as a closet.
There was a loud knock, and as Elvis gathered the folds of his loincloth around his waist to get up, the lappa, once beautiful but now hole-ridden, caught on the edge of the bed, ripping a curse from him. The book he had fallen asleep reading, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, fell from his side to the floor, the old paperback cracking at the spine, falling neatly into two halves as precisely as if sliced by a sword.
"Elvis! Elvis! Wake up. It's past six in de morning and all your mates are out dere looking for work," his father, Sunday, said.
"What work, sir? I have a job."
"Dancing is no job. We all dance in de bar on Saturday. Open dis bloody door!" Sunday shouted.
Elvis opened the door and eyed him. The desire to drive his fist through his father's face was old and overwhelming.
"I'll just wash, then go," he mumbled, shuffling past Sunday, heading for the backyard, passing Jagua Rigogo, who stood in the middle of the backyard cleaning his teeth with a chewing-stick, preparing for his morning ablutions and the clients who would soon start arriving to consult him on spiritual matters. He reached out and squeezed Elvis's arm as he passed. Elvis turned to him, opening his mouth to speak.
"Before you speak, my friend, remember, a spiritual man contain his anger. Angry words are like slap in de face."
Elvis took in Jagua's dreadlocks, gathered behind him in a long ponytail by a twisted tennis headband, and the distant red glare of his eyes. He didn't have his python with him, and Elvis wondered where it was. Probably asleep in the cot Jagua had salvaged from one of the city dumps, and which sat in the corner of his room. Merlin, his python, slept in it, comfortable as any baby.
"Jagua. I ..." Elvis began, then stopped.
Jagua smiled, mistaking Elvis's resignation for control.
"Dat's de way," he said.
Elvis just sighed and silently fetched water from the iron drum sunning in a corner of the yard. He snatched his towel off the line and entered the bathroom, trying not to touch the slime-covered walls and the used sanitary pad in the corner. How did they come to this? he wondered. Just two years ago they lived in a small town and his father had a good job and was on the cusp of winning an election. Now they lived in a slum in Lagos. Closing his eyes, he rushed through his morning toilet. On his way back inside to get dressed, he passed his father in the corridor again.
"Are you still here?"
Elvis opened his mouth to answer but thought better of it.
The road outside their tenement was waterlogged and the dirt had been whipped into a muddy brown froth that looked like chocolate frosting. Someone had laid out short planks to carve a path through the sludge. Probably Joshua Bandele-Thomas, Elvis thought. Joshua was the eccentric who lived next door and spent his days pretending to be a surveyor.
Elvis and his father lived at the left edge of the swamp city of Maroko, and their short street soon ran into a plank walkway that meandered through the rest of the suspended city. Even with the planks, the going was slow, as he often had to wait for people coming in the opposite direction to pass; the planks were that narrow.
While he waited, Elvis stared into the muddy puddles imagining what life, if any, was trying to crawl its way out. His face, reflected back at him, seemed to belong to a stranger, floating there like a ghostly head in a comic book. His hair was closely cropped, almost shaved clean. His eyebrows were two perfect arcs, as though they had been shaped in a salon. His dark eyes looked tired, the whites flecked with red. He parted his full lips and tried a smile on his reflection, and his reflection snarled back. Shit, he thought, I look like shit. As he sloshed to the bus stop, one thought repeated in his mind: What do I have to do with all this?
Sitting on the crowded bus, he thought his father might be right; this was no way to live. He was broke all the time, making next tonothing as a street performer. He needed a better job with a regular income. He pulled a book from his backpack and tried to read. It was his current inspirational tome, a well-thumbed copy of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. He read books for different reasons and had them everywhere he was: one in his backpack, which he called his on-the-road book, usually one that held an inspirational message for him; one by his bed; and one he kept tucked in the hole in the wall in the toilet for those cool evenings when a gentle breeze actually made the smell there bearable enough to stay and read. He opened the book and tried to read, sitting back as far as he could in the narrow seat. He hated the way he was being pressed against the metal side by the heavyset woman sitting next to him, one ample buttock on the seat, the other hanging in the aisle, supported against a standing stranger's leg. Elvis shifted, careful of the loose metal spring poking up through the torn plastic of the seat cover. Giving up on reading, he let his mind drift as he stared at the city, half slum, half paradise. How could a place be so ugly and violent yet beautiful at the same time? he wondered.
He hadn't known about the poverty and violence of Lagos until he arrived. It was as if people conspired with the city to weave a web of silence around its unsavory parts. People who didn't live in Lagos only saw postcards of skyscrapers, sweeping flyovers, beaches and hotels. And those who did, when they returned to their ancestral small towns at Christmas, wore designer clothes and threw money around. They breezed in, lived an expensive whirlwind life, and then left after a couple of weeks, to go back to their ghetto lives.
But for one brilliant moment, they dazzled: the women in flashy clothes, makeup and handbags that matched their shoes, daring to smoke in public and drink beer straight from the bottle; and the men, sharp dressers who did not rat on you to your parents if they caught you smoking. They let you take sips of their beer and shoved a few naira into your shirt pocket.
Lagos did have its fair share of rich people and fancy neighborhoods, though, and since arriving he had found that one-third of the city seemed transplanted from the rich suburbs of the west. There were beautiful brownstones set in well-landscaped yards, sprawling Spanish-style haciendas in brilliant white and ocher, elegant Frank LloydWright-styled buildings and cars that were new and foreign. Name it and Lagos had a copy of it, earning it the nickname "One Copy." Elvis had read a newspaper editorial that stated, rather proudly, that Nigeria had a higher percentage of millionairesin dollars, not local currencythan nearly any other country in the world, and most of them lived and conducted their business in Lagos. The editorial failed to mention that their wealth had been made over the years with the help of crooked politicians, criminal soldiers, bent contractors, and greedy oil-company executives. Or that Nigeria also had a higher percentage of poor people than nearly any other country in the world. What was it his father had said about statistics?
"If you have it, flaunt it; if you don't, flaunt statistics."
He had been fourteen when he arrived in Lagos two years before, miserable and unable to fit into school, where his small-town thinking and accent marked him. The differences did not seem that obvious, but they were glaring to the other kidshe'd never played cricket at school, his experience of the movies had been with old dubbed-over silents and the Americanisms he knew were old and outdated. Where the other kids used slang like "cool" and "hip," he was limited to cowboy lingo like "shucks" and "yup" and "darn those rustlers."
So he cut school, spending long periods of time on a deserted beach, not too far from the ghetto of Maroko where they lived. He practiced his dance routines for hours to the sound of his little radio. At first the sand slowed him down, making his movements jerky. But he persevered until his moves appeared effortless. Subsequently, when he danced on smooth surfaces, he seemed to float. The beach was also refuge to the homeless beggars moved on by the police; always polite, they offered to share their "tickets to paradise." Elvis always refused the marijuana, but the smell hung in the hot air, and it soon became difficult to engage fully with the reality around him.
A man arguing loudly in the back of the bus intruded on his thoughts and reminded Elvis of his first molue ride. Molues were buses unique to Lagos, and only that place could have devised such a hybrid vehicle, its "magic" the only thing keeping it from falling apart. The cab of the bus was imported from Britain, one of the Bedford series. The chassis of the body came from surplus Japanese army truckstrashed after the Second World War. The body of the coach was built from scraps of broken cars and discarded roofing sheetsanything that could be beaten into shape or otherwise fashioned. The finished product, with two black stripes running down a canary body, looked like a roughly hammered yellow sardine tin.
The buses had a full capacity of forty-nine sitting and nine standing, but often held sixty and twenty. People hung off the sides and out of the doors. Some even stood on the back bumpers and held on to the roof rack. The buses wove through the dense traffic so fast they threw the passengers about, and caused those hanging on to sway dangerously. An old man on the bus had told him that the spirits of the road danced around the buses trying to pluck plump offerings, retribution for the sacrilege of the road, which apparently, when it was built, had severed them from their roots, leaving them trapped in an urban chaos that was frightening and confusing. Elvis never knew whether these spirits inhabited a particular road or all roads, or what they looked like. But the old man's story sounded so plausible it had stayed with him.
Elvis yawned, closed his eyes and rested his head on the cool metal side. Suddenly a man in the front got up, rapped his knuckles noisily on the roof of the bus and cleared his throat.
"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen."
His voice had a curious ring to it.
"We get new product for sale today call Pracetmol. It cures all pains, aches and fever caused in de body. If you look at de package, you will see dat de expiry date is December eighty-three. Dis is a new drug from de white people's labs and plenty research done go into it. It is manufacture in Yugoslavia. In dat country dey call it narcotics and it is costing plenty money. We in Star Advertising Agency with head office in Orile Lagos have been choose by de makers to promote dis drug in Nigeria. Today you can obtain your copy at cheap rate from me. Due to and because of advert purpose, dis packet containing twenty tablet is costing only one naira. If you check any chemist it is costing three naira dere. Buy your own now, for mama, papa and childrens too ..."
Elvis tried to tune out the voice of the drug vendor but could not. Luckily the vendor got off at the next stop and Elvis watched him cross the road and hop onto a bus going the opposite way, relieved that hedidn't have to listen to him all the way to Iddoh Park. Sitting back, Elvis closed his eyes again, and just as he drifted off, the insistent calling of a mobile preacher woke him. The preacher was wearing a grimy, threadbare white robe and unkempt dreadlocks; he had a Bible in one hand, and in the other a huge bell with which he punctuated his ravings. He must have gotten on when the drug vendor got off.
"Repent, I say. I am a voice crying out in de wilderness. Repent and come unto de Lord before it becomes too late. I saw a vision from de Lord and he did reveal many things to me. ListenI say, listen," he said, reinforcing his ranting with loud and generous peals from his bell.
"De Lord says de only road to salvation lies in de Yahweh Adonai Latter Day Prophetic Spiritual and Messianic Church of God and His Blessed Son Jesus of Mount Carmel. Amen. Listen, brethren, I am de representation of dis wonderful Church of God and I call on all who will be saved from damnation to visit us on Sundays near Ojo bus stop and see miracles happen. Witness de power of prayer, de lame shall walk and de blind see. Listen ..."
Elvis couldn't take any more and got off at the Bar Beach stop. It was a nice day, not too hot, with a nice breeze coming off the ocean, and he thought he might make some money off white expatriates and the odd tourist tanning on the beach. They were always surprised and pleased to see an Elvis impersonator here, particularly the Americans, who were often quite generous. He crossed the hot sand of the beach that abutted the Hilton Hotel. As he walked toward the makeshift raffia changing stalls, he noted who was there.
Sprawled on a deck chair was a heavyset man with a gargantuan stomach on which sat an open book. The sun was burning the skin around it and Elvis wondered if the resulting white patch would contain any of the text. A harried-looking woman with red hair and skin reddening to match chased after three excited children, ranging from around five to nine. In her hand was a white smudge of sunscreen, and with her distracted expression, she looked as though she suddenly realized she was holding a bodily secretion. Her husband (if he was her husband) was dozing on another deck chair, which was missing a leg. With every snore it tottered precariously but, defying the laws of physics, remained upright. An elderly couple stood looking out to thehorizon, hands cupped against the glare of sun on water as though looking for their lost youth.
Meager pickings, he thought, as he ducked into a stall and shed his street clothes. He slipped into the white shirt and trousers, pulled on the socks and canvas shoes, and jammed the wig down on his head. He couldn't see himself properly in the small pocket mirror he carried. In Iddoh Park, his usual spot, he had come to rely on the glass shop fronts for his reflection. He hoped he looked fine. He rummaged in his bag for his can of sparkle spray. He couldn't find it, so he began pulling everything out of the bag, including a journal tied with string. Its leather binding was old and cracked.
Elvis paused for a moment and untied it, flicking quickly through the pages as though in search of a spell to find the lost sparkle spray. His fingers traced the spidery writing. It was his mother's journal, a collection of cooking and apothecary recipes and some other unrelated bits, like letters and notes about things that seemed as arbitrary as the handwriting: all that he had inherited from her, all that he had to piece her life together. He stared at the page he had opened it to and read the recipe as though it were a fortifying psalm. Closing the journal with a snap, he retied it and returned it to his bag with the other items he'd taken out.
Although he found the sparkle spray, when he tried to use it, he realized he'd run out. He shook the can angrily and depressed the nozzle repeatedly. There was a tired hiss of air, but no sparkle. With a defeated sigh, he turned to the small tin of talcum powder stuck in one of the pockets of his bag. He shook out a handful and applied a thick layer, peering into the mirror. He was dissatisfied; this was not how white people looked. If only he could use makeup, he thought, the things he could do. But makeup was a dangerous option, as he could be mistaken for one of the cross-dressing prostitutes that hung around the beach. They were always hassled by the locals, and often beaten severely. Besides, Oye, his grandmother, used to say in her Scottish accent, "Dinna cry about tha' things you canna change." Pulling on his gloves, he grabbed his bag and stepped out.
As he walked over to the foreigners, unable to tell the tourists from the expatriates and embassy staff, he noticed that one of the hotel securityguards was spraying water from a hose onto the beach. It seemed odd to Elvis, and the only thing he could think of was that it was meant to cool the sand near the foreigners.
They stopped what they were doing to take in his approach. The gargantuan-bellied man sat up, unread book sliding off his stomach. The sleeping husband woke up with a start, promptly falling to the sand as his deck chair finally gave out. The harried woman stopped chasing the children, who gathered around her legs as the wraith that was Elvis drew closer. Even the old couple had given up the search for their youth to watch him.
"Welcome to Lagos, Nigeria," Elvis said.
He put his bag down and took several steps away from it, the freshly watered sand crunching under his heels. He cleared his throat, counted off "One, two, three," then began to sing "Hound Dog" off key. At the same time, he launched into his dance routine.
It built up slowly, one leg sort of snapping at the knee, then the pelvic thrust, the arm dangling at his side becoming animated, forefinger and thumb snapping out the time. With a stumble, because the wet sand, until he adjusted to it, sucked at his feet, he launched into the rest of his routine. It was spellbinding watching him hover over the sand, movements as fluid as a wave, and it was some time before any of the foreigners moved or spoke.
"What d'ya think he's doing?" the gargantuan-bellied man asked, turning to the father prone in the sand.
"I don't know."
"Does he work for the hotel?"
"I don't know."
"So what d'ya think he wants?"
"I think he's doing an Elvis impersonation," the harried woman said.
"He doesn't look like any Elvis I know. Besides, ain't that wig on back to front? Do you think he speaks English?"
"Don't they all?"
"Hey, son, what do you want?"
"Money," he replied.
"Like a tip?"
"Anything you want to give."
"I don't have any money," the harried woman said. "But I have some chocolate. Have you had chocolate before?" She reached into her bag and held a Hershey bar out to him.
"No thank you, madam," Elvis said.
"Hey, Mom, that's mine!" one of the kids said, grabbing the Hershey bar and running off.
"Bill! Bill!" she called, setting off after him.
"Say, son, are you going to stand there all day?" Gargantuan Belly asked.
"Do you want me to dance some more?"
"No! No!" Gargantuan Belly said.
"I don't think he's gonna leave until he gets some money," Prone Husband chimed in.
"Here," Gargantuan Belly said, reaching into the pocket of his pants lying in the sand. "Take. Now go, vamoose. Before I set the security guard on you."
The guard, who had been watching silently, put down the hose when he heard himself referred to. Elvis took the two naira; it hardly seemed worth it. His bus fare cost more.
"No dollars?" he asked.
"Dollars? Beat it, son. Go on, vamoose."
Elvis watched the guard approaching and, with a sigh, picked up his bag and headed away to the bus stop. Chocolate indeed, he fumed. He got to the bus stop just as a molue was pulling up. He waited for a rather generously proportioned woman to get off. She paused in front of him, taking in his clothes and wig and the talcum powder running in sweaty rivulets down his face.
"Who do dis to you?" she asked.
But before he could answer, she turned and walked away laughing.
Elvis strolled down to the ferry jetty as a cold wind began to blow. It had been a long day, and between Iddoh Park and Bar Beach he had barely earned enough to get a good meal. It was hard eking out a livingas an Elvis impersonator, haunting markets and train stations, as invisible to the commuters or shoppers as a real ghost. This evening he had found himself dancing frantically against the coming abruptness of night, but nobody paid any attention; they all wanted to get home before the darkness brought its particular dangers.
The nocturnal markets on the beachfront came alive and the flickering oil lamps winked like a thousand fireflies. He wandered aimlessly through the jostling crowd of people, wondering if they were all human; markets were supposed to be the crossroads of the living and the dead.
He chose a cheap gutter-side buka and ordered a wrap of pounded yam and egusi sauce. He thought wistfully of Oye's cooking as he hurriedly ate the tasteless food. He missed her. Comfort, the woman his father had moved into the house, never gave him food. It was hard to think of her as the evil stepmother, because she didn't always feed her own children, all three of whom were under ten and lived with them. He bought a few wraps of moi-moi for his stepsiblings and rapidly left the hustle and bustle of the market behind.
Negotiating the ghetto plank walkways with care, he made his way home. One wrong step could cause him to lose his footing and fall headlong into the green swampy water that the ghetto was mostly built on. Raised on stilts like some giant millipede, the walkways' many legs were sunk below the surface.
"Where have you been since morning?" his father grunted at him.
He was sitting on the front veranda with some neighbors, slowly getting drunk on palm wine and talk. Elvis noted who was there. Jagua Rigogo with his dreadlocks and his pet python, Merlin, wrapped around his neck (Elvis returned the snake's deadeye stare and lost). Joshua Bandele-Thomas, head bent, sipped on his glass of palm wine, avoiding eye contact with Elvis. Even Madam Caro, who owned the bar down the street, was there. Maybe she had brought the palm wine.
Elvis regarded his father contemptuously, trying to remember why he had feared him for so much of his life. A muttered greeting thrown casually over his shoulder as he entered the house was his only reply. He met his stepsiblings in the corridor, where they sat playing a game of Ludo.
"Good evening, brother Elvis," Tunji, the oldest one, said.
"Good evening, broder!" Akin and Tope, the two younger ones, chorused.
Elvis grunted, barely looking at them as he gave them the moi-moi before continuing out to the backyard. He did his best to avoid them, not wanting to get too involved. He knew it was unfair, but it was his way of punishing Comfort.
Just to annoy her, he strolled over to the kitchen, where she sat gossiping with some women. The laughter died on her face when she saw him.
"Good evening, Ma," he said. He was met with stony silence. "Is there any food for me?"
"Look at dis mad boy O! Since morning he go out only to walk around. Him don come back, the only thing him can do is to find food. Get job like him mates he cannot. Oga sir!" she said, addressing Elvis. "I wait for you until I give dog your food. Food no dey for you." As if to confirm this, the family mongrel licked his empty plate with a scraping sound.
Sighing, he turned and left the kitchen. "God, I hate her," he muttered under his breath as he walked away, contemplating setting her aflame with the smoldering remains of the charcoal fire. He didn't know why he bothered; he only ever succeeded in annoying himself. He lay on his bed and tried to read. But he couldn't concentrate and soon dozed off.
The cold breeze coming in through his open door woke him. He could see his father outside on the veranda, sitting in a drunken stupor, oblivious to the biting-cold sea breeze, head inclined at an impossible angle. Flies hovered over pools of spilled sweet palm wine, crawled into his nostrils and over his bald head. Joshua and Madam Caro had left. Jagua Rigogo lay asleep on a bench, boa in a pile on his belly.
The rage when it came surprised him. He slammed the door so hard, plaster rained from the lintel. He heard his father fall off his chair with a startled yelp, but it brought him little comfort.
BITTER-LEAF SOUP AND POUNDED YAM
(Igbo: Ofe Onugbo Na Nniji)
Bitter leaf Palm oil Crayfish Salt Hot peppers Cooked oxtail beef or chicken and its stock Ogiri Uziza Stockfish Dried fish Yam
Wash the bitter leaf repeatedly until it no longer exudes green foam. The bitterness is in the chlorophyll. Cooking is always a good time for healing, so you must wash your pain, rinse and wash again until you too have washed out your bitterness in the green bile.
Next, heat some palm oil in a pot and add the crayfish, salt and peppers. Fry for a while, then add the stock from the meat with some water. Leave on a medium heat for about fifteen minutes before adding your spices, in this case, ogirian alkaline not just for the soup, but the soul as welland uziza, which tones down the ogiri while letting the pepper burn hot Next, add the meat, stockfish, dried fish and then the bitter leaf, Leave to cook for another twenty minutes. Boil the yam in chunks. It is cooked if it passes the fork test. Pound it in a mortar until it has the consistency of soft dough. Eat by dipping balls of pounded yam in the bitter-leaf sauce and swallowing.
Copyright © 2004 by Christopher Abani