Monday, May 23, 2016

News from home

It is not every day that a Nigerian man leaves his family to go and find work in Italy. My father lost his job because his skills were no longer needed and the company was going in a different direction. The different direction was a young Yoruba man who had just finished his youth service -- a one year required service corps for all Nigerian college graduates -- and had plan that would make the factory competitive and rival the biggest European manufacturer of African textiles. 

The news began with a phone call. My mother screamed at first, collapsing dramatically on the floor and began yelling something about her enemies laughing at her. It all happened so fast, and in a few hours, my father returned home earlier than usual and headed for his bedroom.

In between what sounded like muffled tears, my mother's high-pitched voice could be heard, “Darling it’s okay now. Darling it’s alright. Would it have been better if he were an Igbo boy? Ehn? After all he's Benin. He's your junior brother. It’s okay.” Her consolations were a far cry from her hysterical outburst just hours ago, but we were hardly shock, this was just my mother in character. 

After losing his job, my father would wake up every morning and still drive us to school as he had always done. In spite of the fact that he had lost his job and perhaps had nowhere to go, he still dressed up, some days in a shirt and trousers, other days in kaftan and trousers, ever so dignified, refusing to accept any handouts from friends or family. He managed to keep his head up for a while, but with time, his despair became evident. As we watched television at night, he would rest his chin in his palm, sighing deeply and clucking. The weekends were the worst, as he paced up and down the compound deep in thought speaking inaudibly as he covered the yard with steps that seemed light but were ominously heavy.

After the first two months, my father stopped taking us to school. He became moody and reclusive and began to lose weight. He hadn't expressed this much sorrow even when his father died suddenly a few years ago. We became fearful of him and rarely ever approached him. Conversations with him became limited to invitations at meal time and the necessary greetings in the morning and at night. He was deeply pained. How could they let him go after twenty-two years of service? He was always punctual, he sometimes refused to take his annual leave and he forbade my mother from wearing European wax prints. He had given his life to the company and yet, they decided to go in a different direction.

I knew things were really starting to unravel when I got home one day from playing with some friends and looked up to find that the wall clock that he had received after his twentieth anniversary was no longer stood directly above the family altar.

Although we didn't receive rides to school and sometimes had to walk or take public transport, my father continued to dress up as always and leave the house daily. Every evening, he would explain to my mother that he had been seeking vacancies and talking to his old friends and would soon hear good news. After four months, no good news came and my father became even more weary and distant. He began coming home later than usual, tired and irritable, until one Wednesday evening he didn't come back home, leaving my mother with five children to care for all by herself.

We never lacked anything. My mother especially, who strutted around the city in colorful fabric earning the nickname Madam Peacock or several variations of it that made her strut even harder. My father saw to it that all her needs were met. It must have been because he loved her, but also it was because he had a point to prove.

Marrying her was no easy feat and after enduring a series of insults from her family because of his family background, he made it his duty to stroke his ego by seeing to it that all her needs were met, including her supply of skin lightening creams that markedly changed her from the woman in the studio pictures with the huge afros and bell-bottomed pants that filled albums in our parlor and pictures in frames that circled the seating room.

She was well rounded where it mattered, and wore her rolls of flesh as though they were a badge of honor, a symbol to all, especially her family, that she was not doing badly. In spite of her weight, my mother was beautiful, but I couldn’t help but wish she would lay off the lightening creams. At this point though, she was at the stage where stopping their usage would surely do more harm than good.

I remember a genealogy project at school where I took in old pictures of my parents glued to a piece of cardboard my father had brought home from work. I thought they looked glamourous. My mom, with her huge pompadour reclined ever so lightly against what seemed like a bar stool, while my dad stood tall next to her, neither of them smiling yet radiantly beautiful.

I was about to begin my talk when from behind me, a classmate, Uloma shouted as though she had unearthed a diamond, "That is not your mother o! I thought your mother is yellow." I ignored her, though my humiliation was palpable. She was clearly a novice at reading body language because she turned to Amara who sat next to her remarking loudly, "but her mother is yellow and fat!" Audible whispers soon began to float around, while my teacher Mrs. Boateng, a short Ghanaian with dried, crispy looking jheri curls that reminded me of Japanese noodles looked on with a smirk, as though the racket in the class was coming from another room.

My mother had once threatened to slap her for hitting me with a ruler and this perhaps was her best attempt at getting back at both of us. While I struggled to keep from crying, the fuss continued until finally a voice I couldn't recognize put the confusion to rest, "her mother is bleaching."

My siblings and I exchanged knowing glances as we sat in the luxurious bus and geared up for the long journey to Lagos. As we sat in our seats I occupied myself with one of the novels I had taken from my mother's nightstand. We began by counting the red cars on the express way, then the blue ones.

The huge lorry that kept pace with our bus was completely covered in local proverbs and scriptures from the Bible. As we finally sped past it, my eyes lingered on the largest sign that ran along the full length of the lorry in large old English text font, "no condition is permanent."

We had taken this route many times to go and see my uncle during our long vacations, but this time, the trip was markedly different. We were leaving Kaduna for good. My mother, not one to be overly burdened had called my uncles to let them know that their brother had left and she was sending their children down to live with them. It was arranged for my older brother and I to stay with my uncle while my other three siblings would go to Akure where my Dad's sister-in-law had a primary school they could attend for free. My mother stayed on in Kaduna to mind the house and wait for my Dad to return, needless to say, we didn't get the invitation to her wedding.

Life in Lagos was exciting. I liked my new school and the friends I was making. Now, I was a Lagos girl too and I could hold my own against my cousins who for years would taunt me and call me a "bush Hausa girl." Life at home however was very interesting. 

My uncle was a walking contradiction. He was a deacon at his church, yet he was sloppy, recalcitrant, and took infidelity to levels not previously attained. His wife was quiet to a fault, existing in his shadow and always had one ailment or another. My cousins, both boys, were boisterous and out of control. I always wondered how I had never noticed how badly behaved they were summer after summer for all these years. 

Thankfully, my uncle's wife was glad to have me in the house. I accompanied her to the market, cooked with her and became her soap opera watching buddy. She was very different from my mother who now paid once yearly visits in the company of her driver, arriving in a different car every year.

I resented her deeply. At first, I was happy each time she came. The boot of the car would be packed with clothes, shoes and books. She also never failed to bring bags of sweets and all kinds of biscuits, treats that we only had during birthdays. With time, I began to loathe her and her gifts. I found it easier to forgive my father for leaving, but could not forgive her for deserting us. She had a choice and she did not choose her children. She would often tell me that as I got older I would understand why she had to leave. Despite my deep anger towards her, I had to swallow my pride when I needed money to purchase a ticket to attend university in Texas. I had won a scholarship and did not need her money for much besides a plane ticket.

I could hear the familiar sound of irritation mixed with anger and sometimes disgust. It was the same tone he had in his voice when he would return from work without his key and would spend minutes knocking on the metal gate while we either played in the yard or were busy preparing dinner in the kitchen.

“Ivie, didn’t you see my call?” he spat out.

“Yes uncle, I did but I couldn’t leave because I was in the middle of an important meeting with my boss, I am sorry Sir.” I said sheepishly.

“How is that your job again?” His question didn’t demand a reply but was just a filler, until he got to the main reason behind his call.

“Eh, there is this head phone.” He said, as though he expected me to know what headphone he was referring to.
At this point, my nerves had subsided. He had asked two seemingly benign questions and he had not delivered any bad news yet. This time instead I was the one who replied with disgust, irritated that he had called me to discuss headphones.

“Yes, what headphones?” I retorted.

“Is it me, you’re talking to like that? Anyway, there are these headphones I want to take to Benin when I go and visit next month. I heard some musician is producing them. See if you can send them to me in blue. My friend’s wife is visiting Dallas and can bring them back for me. That is why I called.” He finished off the last sentence with a tone of authority the words ringing in my ears long after he uttered them.

If I could slap him, I honestly would have done so. I was so furious that for a few seconds I held the phone to my ears, speechless, the venom rising inside me.

“What the hell did this old man just ask for? Headphones by some musician. Do I even own those damn headphones?”

When I finally gathered myself to respond, I was so disgusted but yet again I failed to stand up to my uncle and rather than tell him that the bulk of my discretionary spending that month was earmarked for a friend’s bridal shower, I agreed to buy the headphones and give them to his friend.

After I hung up the phone, I stood in the restroom for what seemed like minutes rehearsing the conversation with him and telling him exactly what was on my mind. He had a gravely sick wife and he was concerned about headphones to take to Benin. Again I was overwhelmed with the desire to want to slap him once again and I felt so small as I reached for a paper towel to pull open the restroom door.

My uncle had won again as he had several times before. I hurriedly walked back to my cubicle, convinced I left a trail of smoke from all the anger behind me as I walked. I sat down in my chair, tapped on my keyboard lightly and entered in my password and mechanically began the search for those headphones he needed to use in Benin.

If only my uncle were computer savvy, I bet he would be lining inboxes of unsuspecting foreigners and requesting for bank account numbers.

On numerous occasions, my cousins who had become known as the neighborhood touts would go and rescue my uncle from getting a beating from some woman’s husband. Ironically, he only got saved from one beating to be brought home to receive another.

There was this particular lady I remembered who made blouses for my aunt. My uncle was rather fond of her, so much so she began to make his clothes even though it was known that she only made outfits for women. She was a superbly skilled seamstress, but she had other brilliant skills besides sewing. On numerous occasions when I would ride in my uncle’s car he would find reason to pass by her house slowing down deliberately as he drove by giving her enough time to walk up and chat with him.

Yes, that was her son. I had just seen his picture the other day, and Facebook suggested him as a person I knew. Once when I perused his page, I was shocked at the number of obscene memes he posted on his wall, most of them referring to the prowess of whatever it was that hung between his legs. It didn’t take long for my shock to dissolve into laughter. This kid had to be joking. He was skinny beyond belief and his face was severely riddled by acne. I respected him though because he had an unrivaled amount of self-confidence. However, I was in awe of the girls who commented on his pictures, vying for his attention, they truly were the stars of the show.

So when I saw his name suggested again, I chuckled a bit and moved the cursor to the right to see other profiles. I don’t know what it was that made me stop, but I realized his profile picture was different. He still had acne but there was something different about him. He had headphones hanging around his neck. They were headphones made by an American musician and they were blue. I quickly proceeded to search his profile and read where he thanked a certain unnamed uncle for giving them to him just in time to wear for a talent show at the private school he attended.

I am not sure how it all happened but within seconds, the only sound audible was the ringing of the phone in my ear, drowning out the sound of oil in the frying pan where the plantains I was preparing for dinner danced around.

In a few minutes I heard his voice. He sounded super excited to hear from me.

“How is that your boyfriend?” He asked jokingly.

“And your work?”

 “Fine Sir,” I responded and mumbled some mundane stuff about how stressful work had gotten the last few days.

“Okay, we just finished our hundred day fast and we are praying for you. The God of Abraham will enlarge your coast and give you rest in due time. He will promote you and make you a manager in that your job. The people that are directing you will soon be under you. I prophecy that your promotion will not pass you by.”

He went on for what seemed like a few minutes, becoming mildly incoherent as he began to speak in tongues.

When he finally stopped to catch his breath and conclude the prayer, I thanked him and said something about having to go.

“It is well.” He uttered with much assurance.

“Thank you sir.” I responded.

I hung up the phone just as the smoke alarm when off, my once golden brown plantains now charred slices bobbing around in the oil.