My earliest memory of my father was one of him stealing kisses from my mother when he thought i wasn’t watching. Sometimes he would sneak up on her while she was cooking, he would poke his finger into her solar plexus and she would giggle like a little girl. At night, the strange sounds which i later grew accustomed to and learned it was called ‘ moans’ when i grew older would fill the air. The sound comforted me and it shielded me like a warm blanket, it was good knowing my parents were in the room next to mine and that they would come rushing if i so much as sneezed. Being an only child they doted on me but they applied a disciplined hand whenever it was needed.
Daddy had a little farm few miles from our home, on weekends, he would carry me on his bicycle and off to the farm we went. He would point out each of the herbs and trees with their uses. He knew the names of all the birds, he would tell me folklores about each one of them while i asked one question after another. Daddy worked in a cement factory called Wacem as a driver to one of the Indians on the board of the company. He often came home with foreign chocolates and ginger ale drinks.
” Sly, Indians are very stingy but my boss Mr. Ahmed is different.” He would say, ” it goes to show how people are different from one another. We should never stereotype. ”
I would nod my little head as if i understood what he meant. Mama would give him a big smile and concur with him. My mother wasn’t educated but she was skilled and beautiful. She could do wonders with a brush and paint. We discovered her talent when i was asked to draw ‘ Yesu’ in art class. She smiled when i told her what our assignment was, she simply collected the book from me and before my young eyes, there was an image of Yesu on the book.
” Mama, you are a genius! wait till dad sees this!” I exclaimed, my mouth was hung open in surprise. She pulled me closer to her side.
” You see your mama isn’t exactly an illiterate. Back when we were in Nigeria, i used to help our neighbor’s kids with their art home works.”
” Mama, why did you leave Nigeria?” I asked, ” Is Nigeria as beautiful as our country, Togo?”
” We left in 1993, i gave birth to you in a bush close to the border between Benin republic and Nigeria ” She said with a faint smile, ” we named you after the gallant soldier who helped us across the border. He was an Igbo man, he is a good man my son”
” What is Igbo, Mama?”
” It is a tribe in Nigeria. Igbo people are good people, they are honest and hard working too just like our people.”
” So why did you leave? and why didn’t you give birth to me in a hospital?”
” We had to leave because the president asked all foreigners to go back to their country. You were not due until another two weeks so we decided to leave because the country wasn’t at peace. When we got to the border we discovered that it was closed and the only alternative was to go through bush shortcuts which was equally unsafe. That was when you gave me a fierce kick and popped out your big head, all thanks to that brave soldier who came upon us while i was writhing in pain. He helped deliver you and took us across.” She said, applying color to the image she had drawn.
” Was it painful Mama?” I asked innocently.” Giving birth to me?”
” Yes, very painful” she replied, ” but it was worth it, look at you now, all grown and almost seven.”
Daddy wheeled in his bicycle and i ran to meet him. He didn’t scoop me into his arms as usual, he didn’t whistle or sing a tune. Mama got up and helped him balance the bicycle against the wall. She knew something was up but she didn’t say anything, she greeted him and gave him a cup of water. She served him his meal of akume and light soup and he ate it quietly, without lavishing praises on her cooking.
” The government has laid a claim to our farm land, they said it belongs to them and they have papers to prove it, ” he said after sometime. He brought a folded sheet from his b—-t pocket.
” Yesu Christo!” Mama exclaimed,” How is that possible? it is our land and that land has been in your family for years”
” Try explaining that to the president. You will wake up and find your eyes and my balls gone.” He said.” Bloody government! ”
” Don’t say that please. Sly is here” she cautioned.
That night there was no moaning sound and there wasn’t that familiar sound for a very long time. After we lost the farm, Daddy’s boss was transfered to another country. He worked briefly for another Indian man who treated him so badly that he couldn’t take it anymore.
” We should leave this country,” he stated one evening. ” If somewhere is not favorable, you Leave. Even if it is your country.”
” We can still make it work here” Mama said.
” No, we are going back to Nigeria” he replied and it was final.
That night the familiar sound which had not been a part of our night resumed but afterwards i could hear Mama sniffling which later blew into full blown sobbing.. Seconds later, i could hear their muffled voices and the sound resumed anew but there was cries of ‘please more’ and ‘ faster’. I wondered what was going on in that room as i drifted off to sleep. Few weeks later, we found ourselves in Lagos, Nigeria.
” Hurry up Sly!” Mama said, walking faster. ” if we don’t hurry up we may not meet her at home.”
I pulled up my falling shorts and ran after her. Mama was going to lend money again but only God knows from who this time around. I was almost twelve years old and was about to be admitted into a high school. Nigeria wasn’t as rosy as Daddy made us believe, he worked hard on construction sites and was paid peanuts. Our dinner became garri with nkatie and even the nkatie was hard to come by on some days. We slept in a tiny bedsit room, Mama aged faster and Daddy grew bitter. We were known in the neighborhood as ‘ abeg borrow me’.
We borrowed all sorts of things from our neighbors even down to the toothpaste we used. The caretaker was an angry bear of a man who even before the end of the month comes knocking on our door. The birth of my baby sister, Bose, also worsened our situation. We had to pretend to be Yorubas because my father was afraid the Nigerian government might ask foreigners to leave again. Ewe became a forbidden language which we only whispered in the sanctuary of our little room at night.
I was enrolled in a public primary school where we sat down on the bare floor to learn. My school knicker was patched severally which earned me the nick name ‘ two yansh’ among my peers. Some days we matched into our class rooms from the assembly only to find a big maggot filled feces in the middle of the class room. Sometimes it was made into the tyres we sat on or smeared on the wall. The teachers taught us English using Yoruba to explain, life in Togo was better for us i often thought but i never voiced it out.
My school was ridiculed with all kinds of myths, there was one about the big iroko tree in the school field. Some said it was there the neighborhood witches held their meetings at night, some said someone once tried to cut down the tree but the tree cried out loud, begging for mercy while some argued that the tree didn’t cry out but blood oozed out of it and an old man in a white robe walked out of it. There was also a myth about the orange tree at the back of the school building and why it never produced any fruit. My friends said the orange tree lured a young girl and she was never seen again but that orange tree became my fortress.
I would climb it and settle on one of the strong branches, wondering when i will see my beloved country again, wondering why i have to pretend to be someone else, why i have to drink garri with a pinch of nkatie. Why baby Bose was giving two scarification marks on her cheeks just to wipe away all doubt that we were truly from oduduwa’s lineage. I spoke Ewe to the tree all the time since it was the only place i could truly be myself.
One day a class mate saw me up in the tree and reported me to the teachers that i was chanting some strange incantations. My parents were summoned and right there in my presence they both denied that i spoke any other language apart from English and Yoruba. The teachers were scared of me and they let me be, the other students avoided me and Daddy could never raise his head up high again or look me in the eyes for he had denied who he was over and over again until he was beginning to believe he was actually a Yoruba man from Oyo State.
” Please open the gate ooo” Mama pounded on the rich woman’s gate. Her gate man threw open the gate, took a long look at us and gave a shrill hiss. He ushered us in muttering under his breath.
” E ka ro ma,” Mama went down on both knees, greeting the fat woman who was decked up in a glittering stone lace.
” Why are you just coming now ehn?” She hissed, ” If i had left home before you got here you would say i am a wicked woman. Young man can’t you greet?”
” Good morning ma,”
” Tell your husband to come and see me tomorrow, i need a driver.”
” Eshey Ma, may God bless you”
” Don’t thank me ooo, I don’t tolerate nonsense so you better talk to him well before he start working for me. The five thousand naira i promised you is on the table in the sitting room.” She said, ” ehen my bathroom is dirty, please wash it before you leave”
” OK Ma, Eshey ma,” Mama replied
We went into the house, Mama untied Bose from her back and handed her to me. She picked up the money on the table and tied it on the edge of her wrapper and disappeared into one of the rooms, after some time i stood up with the baby in my arms and went after her. She was on her knees, scrubbing the dirty bath tub with all her might, i peered into the toilet and almost puked. The once white toilet was brownish yellow and there was a splatter of dried poo all round the edge and there was also a big discolored lump of it in the water.
” Mama, will you wash the toilet too?”
” Yes,” she grunted
” But there’s feces in it”
” I know”
” It is a taboo to clean up someone else’s feces. You will swell up and die.” I said, reminding her of one of our traditions.
She tightened her face and gave me a sharp look.”Not when you are from Oyo State”
To be continued..