It is dawn in America. Spring is coming. I think the trees are excited about the coming re-birth of the earth. The trees, they are lined up along the boulevard to nowhere, brown gods holding up the sky, the beginning of green rising from their roots, harbinger of the coming of the sun. Spring is coming and I think I should pick myself up from where I got shoved off life’s train, find my hat and my chewing stick and continue on in search of what I do not know. For it has been several moons now, when shock garroted my voice box and left me a speechless gesticulating lunatic running alongside a train gone crazy. This is the rotted echo of a voice gone unused for several seasons. Be patient, listen and the wind rush thru this valley will eventually make sense to one of you.
What I tell you about America is what I know. America is like the big elephant that is surrounded by a hamlet of blind people. The heart talks about that which it touches. I am one blind person and I tell you of that part of the elephant which my inquisitive hands have touched. America is like a marriage; you have to be in it to understand it. But I shall tell you of that which my feverish hands touch. Sit down and I shall tell you a story.
It is another Saturday morning in America and I am up. My wife is gone to the hospital where she ekes out a living from snatching the wretched from the valley of death. It is quiet and dark in our townhouse. Cecilia, my trusty laptop is sitting on the kitchen’s island, its monitor’s glow bathing the kitchen in the warmth of its night light. Sometimes I think Cecilia has eyes and a mind. This morning I think it is mocking the frailty of my creative juices.
My wife is gone for the weekend and I am alone with my four children. Soon, the boys will peel their itty-bitty eyes open and I shall have to give them a bath. They love hanging out in the bathtub. Getting them out of the bathtub is like wrestling sharp-toothed alligators in a Florida swamp, and I am not looking forward to the ordeal. I don’t like weekends in America. My wife, my best friend works all weekend and not having her around hurts. When our children go to bed on Friday, they don’t see my wife, their mother until Monday morning when we rouse them up to go to school. So all day Saturday and all day Sunday our four children have me to torment until Monday morning.
As tough as life is for me as a man in America, I think that it must be harder on the woman. I look around me and my wife has everything organized to minimize my hardship, if that is possible. The boys’ diapers are arranged in a neat pile on the crib that we bought that they never use. The boys sleep with us, coiled tightly in fetal positions, deeply comforted by the warmth of our stressed out bodies. The children’s clothes are laid out neatly on the spare bed in the other room that will be theirs when they grow up, the room that is now used by the weekly pilgrimage of immigrant relatives from Nigeria come try their luck in the new Lagos, the new gamble that is America. My wife has laid out all of the children’s clothes; clothes for roughing it, clothes for the birthday party of the week, and pajamas for everybody. The food for the weekend was cooked yesterday night – rice of various colors and styles – white, yellow, fried, and jollof rice, ogbono soup, egusi soup, okro soup, pounded yam wrapped in aluminum foil to keep it warm, for the children, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, ravioli, and all sorts of breakfast foods that Westerners (and my children) eat. Things like eggs, sausage, bread, croissants, and breakfast drinks like orange juice and apple juice. Boy we must have grown up severely malnourished in Nigeria. I can recite the exact date that an all-knowing uncle fed us sausages in Nigeria. Man that was quite a production. My father worried that his in-law, our uncle was trying to ruin his children with delicacies like Satis sausages! I always laugh when I see a platter of fried eggs. I remember the joke about a mother in-law who went to visit her son and daughter in-law in Lagos. The daughter in-law wanting to impress the old lady put her on a daily regimen of fried eggs. When the old lady returned to the village, she wailed that her son had been cursed with a wife that was so extravagant she ate the eggs before they hatched! She should see America. The eggs are eaten before they are laid!
The only thing I have to do all weekend is feed the children, make sure that the boys are dry and generally keep the peace until my wife returns from work. I think it is harder to be a woman immigrant in America but I can’t prove it because you see, I am not a woman. Can you imagine what it must be like to put in 12 hours at work earning minimum wage, come home to the kitchen to cook for your husband and children, serve them food, clean up after them and go to bed to most probably satisfy your husband before you go to sleep? And all the time while you are pregnant and or nursing a baby? I can’t imagine it because, you see, I am a man.
The Nigerian woman in America is fighting a losing battle – holding on to a tradition that is sadly out of alignment with the reality of our existence in America. And the Nigerian man is fighting a losing battle – holding on to archaic traditions that demand that the husband should ignore menial tasks in the home. The increasing burden on the woman to be a super housewife is an unbearable burden on the marriage that keeps the divorce rate very high among Nigerian couples living in America.
“Daddy! I can’t eat this anymore! I am going to throw up!”
I retrieve the breakfast from my 5-year old daughter and wolf it down myself. The daily ritual of eating what my kids will not eat saves me from making meals for myself. American children! Can you imagine turning down a breakfast of croissants, eggs, sausage and orange juice?
The stress of living in America is unspeakable; it is beyond the telling of it. Sometimes I think that I should have never left Nigeria. I remember visiting Nigeria several years ago deep in the heat of the shame that was the Abacha-Diya regime. Years of driving taxicabs on the streets of America for a living had reduced me to a shriveled coconut of a man. I was so embarrassed at how I looked, a couple of weeks before I left for Lagos, I enlisted the help of a crash diet of protein enriched drinks, mountains of foofoo, spaghetti, and vitamin pills, all in a vain bid to put on weight before my departure. In Nigeria, I listened with skepticism as ruddy-cheeked Nigerians wept buckets over their Stout and Gulder as they described in gory detail their “suffering” in the hands of Abacha and fellow hoodlums. I didn’t tell them then, but I would have killed to exchange their suffering for a pair of ruddy cheeks.
I listened to their tales of woe and decided not to compete with them in the macabre “woe is me” story-telling category. I wasn’t going to win. How do you compete with a tale of suffering in a country held hostage by a most evil dictator? How do you explain that there is suffering in the land of freedom – America? Before I came to America, I didn’t believe the tales of suffering that my friends in America scrawled on the backs of color photographs. I thought they were trying to make me envious for being stuck in Nigeria. When I read Nnamdi Azikiwe’s great book, My Odyssey, I laughed hard at Azikiwe’s tales of suffering in America. Sleek Nnamdi, I thought he was trying to keep the beautiful secret that is America to himself. I know better now. Armed with enough degrees to take Nigeria to the moon and back, I have become an expert on virtually any menial job that exists in America. I have done dishes for a million restaurants, changed diapers on incontinent elderly Americans, been shot at while being a security guard, and I have had a near-death experience while being a cab driver.
Driving a cab in America is beyond backbreaking work; it is the closest to indentured servitude that I have ever experienced. You wake up at the crack of dawn and start ferrying passengers from one potentially dangerous place to another. You have little choice in the matter because all requests for cab service are called into the central office and the dispatcher assigns passengers to you by radio. I hated taking passengers to poor neighborhoods because your chances of not being robbed and perhaps badly hurt were very low. You just prayed that you were not assigned to a poor neighborhood because all the way there and back you almost wet your pants anticipating that bullet with your name on it. Cab driving is a dangerous, dangerous job but it put food on the table and it helped satisfy some of the insane requests for money via Western Union from home. This one day, my bullet came calling. The very minute I picked up these two youngsters, I just knew I was in trouble. You could sense the tension in the cab; the hairs at the back of my neck were literally wetting their own pants begging for mercy. The young men said very little to me as I drove them downtown to the area we cab drivers dreaded so much, we called it Beirut. I could tell I was in trouble as soon as they directed me to a point I knew from experience was a dead end. Even before I stopped, I could feel the gun at the nape of my neck, “Give it up, asshole!” one of them barked. I wet my pants right there. I had just started working that morning and I had only eight dollars on me. I gave the other chap the eight dollars on me and that seemed to infuriate the thug with the gun.
“DON’T FUCK WITH ME, KUNTA KINTE!! I SAID GIVE IT UP!”
I mumbled something about not having any more on me and he pressed the gun against my head and I closed my eyes as I heard something click from inside the gun. As I always do when I am under stress, I started a silent prayer to the gods of my forefathers for deliverance, if not, for forgiveness, I started a silent prayer for my dead grandfather to come get me out of there. In the darkness of my consciousness as I was waiting for death to free me from the horror of my existence, a siren started wailing our way and I heard the other chap without the gun, the chap with my money scream for them to run away from the cops. They thug with the gun hit me savagely with the butt of the gun and they both fled. I was on the street bleeding profusely when the ambulance with the siren wailed right past me perhaps to save the relatives of the thugs that had just traumatized me. A wailing ambulance had saved my life. The thugs had thought that the siren was a police cruiser coming our way. My cousin, Monday, was not that lucky. They took his two dollars and killed him anyway. I performed the awful rite of passage of going to the morgue to identify his body. That was ten years ago. His mother still moans in the dark, waiting for a son that will never come back.
So my wife decreed that cab driving for me was out of the question. And in return for that principled decision, she remained the major, at times, sole breadwinner of the family. I stayed at home to take care of our four children and perhaps to write that great novel. It was a burden that kept her tired all the time and one that invited medical ailments of mysterious origin that doctors ascribed to stress. She must rest, they said, but how, when, and why, when the demands on our family wouldn’t go away? She disagreed with me, but it was a most unfair burden that kept me wrapped in guilt. Sometimes it seems that in this new dispensation, it is the extended family system that nurtured us that is trying to bring us down. We cannot cope with the economic demands of everyone in Nigeria. But they don’t understand. Who was it that said the extended family system spreads poverty, not wealth?
The end of the road.
She has been crying. Tomorrow I start driving my taxicab again. She has been crying. All day she has been crying, wiping her face with the wrapper that my mother brought her to strap the boys to her back with. That was on mama’s last trip to America. Her last trip, she said. The pain of watching her children suffer so in an alien land was too much for her ancient heart. Don’t invite me back to America, she said; I won’t come. Send me the money for the air ticket through Western Union. And I shall eat and drink and not knowing shall delay my sadness.
Yes, tomorrow, I start driving my taxicab again. I have the same cab, the one the police returned to me, scrubbed clean of my blood. I have been drinking. They let you drink before they shoot you. It dulls the pain. The scotch giggling on the cold rocks of ice drains the fear from my beating heart. When the kidneys flush the scotch down the bathroom, the fear returns. And I must drink again. I don’t want to go out there in that cab, but our needs outweigh the terror wetting my pants.
I am the new warrior, the reincarnation of my father the warrior who was the reincarnation of his father the warrior. My father died for somebody’s dream of one Nigeria. Every morning he would go out to fight. And every morning my mother would cry. One day my father did not return, felled by the bullets of the thug that has Ikeja International Airport named after him. I am the new warrior, ashes born of the massacre in Asaba.
Leaning against the tired walls of her dreams
In this smoke-filled alcohol soaked tavern
She stared at the solo horn gasping for breath
Sobbing wailing sweet sorrow into the limp air
Of an alien land relentlessly hostile to her dreams
And wading listlessly through the fog
Of this smoke-filled alcohol soaked tavern
She handed me her PhD and her pocket book of dreams
I’ll be right back, she said, don’t worry, I can still do it
And with the solo horn leading the way
Through the bush path of her childhood
She stood on this one spot
And with her nimble feet and her eyes of dreams she told me
Of a distant past that soothes today’s pain that won’t go away
And as her feet and her eyes brought joy and tears to my heart
I raised my gourd to my lips
And drank deep from the pain of knowing and not knowing.