In December 2001 while the stock exchange market was going down, I was going up in the air like a gallant eagle, rubbing shoulders with the postcard beauty of a higher galaxy. I was on my way to Africa – Nigeria to be specific, leaving behind the pendulum-minded NASDAQ and DOW JONES (those guys can never make up their minds, one minute they are up and the next they are crawling on the rough pavements of New York City like a bug). I was leaving behind the blue cold that was beginning to eat into my tropical bones, drying up my ears and drawing maps on my thick lips. I was leaving behind fears and furies that were pouring down the streets I used to walk without looking over my shoulder for shadows. I was leaving behind the great SAM AND JOHN steak and cheese club sandwich joint and Seven Eleven coffee that defrosts my mind.
Poetry flows in the street like spilled oil,
The sound of the horns
Like an orchestrated jazz ensemble
The sonorous voice of the bus conductor
The weave of people in alluring colors
You are sure of a known face in a million faces
Beautiful faces like master carvings in ebony woods
Wares, market wares neatly arranged
Colors, beautiful colors*
The rush and stampede, the rhythm
Of a mother and the balance of her baby
In communion with a caring back
A basket well seated
On a yielding head*freestyle life
Hoping for a day that will be fulfilling
Eku aro o* (Good morning!)
GOOD MORNING NIGERIA!
I was sure of a greeting every morning. I arrived Lagos in the night and there were family members who had things to do but decided to put them on hold to welcome me back home. In the morning, everyone had something to do. There was orderliness amidst the chaos, faces full of laughter amidst suffering. Amidst thieving politicians there were some dividends of democracy.
I was stunned when I did not have to undress at the airport. The air-conditioner was actually functioning. The second surprise came when I was able to pass with my luggage without someone accusing me of bringing letter bomb into the country. For instance my last visit in 1999, I had to pay through my nose for having a calculator in my luggage. To the custom officer, my oversized calculator was a computer. Back in 1999, I would have been sent to Kirikiri Prisons for the hand-held PC I had with me this time around.
Smiling broad faces
Looking forward to tomorrow
Like pregnancy looking
to it’s ninth month
Like a cloud looking
Like a ripe boil
looking to its surgical blade
Hope is in the air.
I had to slap myself hard occasionally to make sure I was in Lagos. With GSM (I refuse to call it cell phone) hanging on every ear like giant Swahili earrings, there is hope for Nigeria. Now you don’t have to drive from Ikorodu to Victoria Island just to say Hello. You can call his/her GSM phone. Communication is getting better with the advent of the GSM, though NITEL is still its old self. You pick up a handset and the silence that emanates from it deafens your ear. Who cares about NITEL? Very soon they will become another waste added to the huge governmental heap. People are learning to stop waiting for the Nigerian government and doing things for themselves, and they are excelling in all areas. We shall come back to the Nigerian government later* Right now, It’s time to mark the register at the nearest “Mama put”.
Old style “Mama put” cooking. I could not miss that for anything. My good friend Ali Baba took my brother and me to a joint in Lagos called “Ghana High”. It got its name from its proximity to the Ghana High Commission at Onikan. The place was heavily crowded, but that was the joy of going to the “Mama put” in this little alleyway to nowhere. Behind me were pots boiling at different temperatures. The heat from the pots and the hot sun outside soon got me sweating. I was able to navigate my way to see the great Mama “putting” in all her glory:
Sitting majestically on her throne
Like a giant eagle on the Iroko tree
She is the general of this beehive army
of people and plates and faces, and her battlefield
Is the big sea of rice pots sending smoke to heaven
50 Naira rice 100 Naira meat. No I don’t
want dodo, just put some orishirishi
roundabout, shaki and towel
Mama put brought us all together in unity
The bank manager
The office messenger
The Governor sent his driver*
I found my way to a place I could rest my plate and forgot about the world outside to devour my winning. I relished and realized some things never change. The “Mama put” of yesterday is still here today and forever more, amen. After a second plate of showboy a.k.a. ponmo, I left drenched in sweat. God bless Ghana high.
Whatever New York has to offer, Lagos has more. Fast food joints, great restaurants, high-tech, telecommunication companies*and GSM in every ear. I can’t get over that*because telecommunication is actually knocking on the doors of the not so rich. Lagos is bustling with hard working individuals as well as the not so hard working ones who want to reap where they did not sow. I won’t say anything about armed robbers because I did not encounter any. I only heard of their desperado escapades. If the story of armed robbers is what is keeping you from visiting Nigeria, well good luck to you!
Nigeria is safe. Every society has its bad spots. Washington, DC has the South-East. LA has South-Central. New York has so many. Check your local listings. You will find spots you can not go to at certain hours of the day or night. Reflecting on the current situation in the United States, when was the last time you traveled by air without saying mini-prayers every few seconds? In Nigeria I flew from Lagos to Abuja and I wasn’t afraid some crazy bastard would run us into Aso Rock. My only concern was the cold dry meat-pie and guava/mango juice the beautiful air hostess served me.
Just play it calm when you go to Nigeria. Don’t be loud and please remove the expired NY tags on the car you imported. Behave normally and you will live long.
The pumpkin is pregnant
But the monkey is faster than the farmer
The palm-kernel is ripe
But the squirel is quicker than the owner
The groom is ready
But the rapist has killed the bride.
NO POLITICS PLEASE
I am not going to talk politics here. Before I left the US for Nigeria, I buried my political senses and decided to look at the good side of my country. What is there to talk about? The roads are still death traps. The universities are still epileptic. The hospitals are still abattoirs. And the politicians are still a bunch of dogs. Do you know the Governor of my state gets multiple orgasms from closing down the State University at will? Yes, and he goes about like Bone, Thugs and Harmony, with thugs that are ready to snuff life out of any opposition? Do you know that the vice-chairman of my Local Government is an old classmate of mine in secondary school, and he could not spell his last name at the ripe age of fifteen? Do you know that the Chairman himself is suffering from sleeping disease, and the only time he wakes up is when they want to share the loot?
That is just a small spot in a bigger picture of modern Nigerian politics. People are disappointed with the President. This makes me laugh. What did you expect from an ex-soldier? A soldier will always be a soldier. He will shoot everyone before he finds a better solution. Ask the people of Odi. In addition, the president is a farmer, he sees the country as his farm so it is time for harvest right now, and he is raping the country blind* Sorry, I said I was not going to talk politics. Oh, the senators and legislators are thieves, lawbreakers, 419ers, dubious, cowards, bank robbers and rapists. The same reason you go to an ATM machine is the same reason they go to either the Senate or House of assembly.
I am home to maiden dance and warm welcomes
I am home to smiling faces and known faces
I am home to beaded waists and long necks
I am home to the roundness that flattens the flatness
Of the western buttocks
I am home to happy children without guns
I am home to the strong backs of mothers
I am home to palm-wine the holy water of the gods*
It still amazes me how a single tree can be so resourceful. I am talking about the palm-tree. I never really realized how productive this wonderful tree could be: Palm-wine, palm-kernel, local pomade, roofing material, broom. Oh, palm oil! My breakfast was roasted yam and palm oil, and I substituted my usual US coffee with fresh palm-wine.
Civilization has waylaid
Us in broad daylight
Stripped us of our culture and deposited
a caricature of what it used to be
America has sneaked in
And stripped our women naked
Europe has pierced the ears of Benin boys
And coiled their hair like a wet vulture
Big chains on every neck
Our women no longer wear buba and wrapper*
These have given way to jeans, very tight jeans.
My village is going through the Jeans revolution too. Every girl wore a pair of Jeans on Christmas day. They have done away with the “native” and colorful prints I used to know. It was a sight to behold. Some were so tight I began to fear for the blood circulation of the wearer. And some were so funny! I could not help but shake my head and turn my face away to watch the beautiful palm-trees at the back of my grandfather’s house. I enjoyed their careless romance with the wind. I enjoyed seeing them holding tightly to the palm fronds and the ripened palm-kernel bunch. I envied the power of the palm-tree bearing such a heavy load of kernels and yet so happy. Certain things just never change. These palm-trees were fanning the wind out here before I was born, having survived many seasons. But the girls in my village have resorted to tight jeans and funny looking tank tops. And they paint their lips like Catrina in Okot’p Bitek’s Song Of Lawino.
African mornings are never quiet. Alarm clocks are not needed. If the muezzin calling to his faithful doesn’t wake you up at 5am, the early morning preacher announcing the end of time will certainly wake you up at 6am with his inextricable clanging bell. If these don’t succeed, the market woman getting her wares ready for the day’s business will. All these cacophony of activities woke me up in the ancient African city of Benin in Midwestern part of Nigeria. This city is one of the oldest empires still left intact after the British withdrew the daggers of colonialism from sub Saharan Africa. The Benin people still respect and pay homage to their monarch known as OBA. His word is law, and his prayer is peace.
Benin is a city that thrives on art; art in all it’s shapes, forms and splendor. Benin is known for her great bronze castings. Any great museum in the world has one or two pieces of Benin art. The Smithsonian in Washington, DC has a whole section dedicated to artworks, photography, and ornaments from this great city sitting in the sun. Most of my childhood years were spent in Benin City whose streets are paved with bronze and ebony. Every corner of the street is adorned with huge sculptures or some form of art assemblage. Even home utensils are art works. Visiting Benin again in 2001 was like taking an old book and dusting it for another bout of second reading. But this time, the book seems to yield new revelations, hidden meanings, different understanding and knowledge. I rediscovered my own city again, like a cocoon revealing a beautiful butterfly. Benin has not changed. Rather, I’m the one who has changed. What do you expect after all the Seven Eleven coffee I have drunk all these years in America?
Poetry flows in the street
Dances on the road
Drummers living life
Festival around every corner
Laughter on every lip
A mother balances her child on
The back and a basket of hope on her head
A father has a bag full of yams
The songs of the troubadour fill my ears
Babuwa has come to town*
“OGA WET GROUND”
Benin is still the old ancient city submerged in beauty. It is a city where culture and nature are in harmonious marriage. What else can I say of a city that has closely maintained her traditions despite the invasion of CNN and the Internet? Benin is a city where poetry flows like water through a broken dam. There are troubadours traversing the entire land, looking for ears to sing to and men to praise. I encounter a duo known as BABUWA. Babuwas are usually outrageously dressed, somewhat like the American jester. They are praise singing poets, drummers and dancers all rolled up in one package. For a small amount of money, I heard the best poetry ever and witnessed an undulating gyration of happy hips. I also realized they are social commentators, who would not hesitate to denounce an unruly act by the Government. They have an inexhaustible poetic repertoire. They have the tongue of a razor, and the venom of a snake. They bring laughter to every gloomy face; they bring more sunshine to a city already brimming and baking in 105 degrees of unshielded heat.
Oga wet ground*
Oga I say wet ground na belle wey sweet
Pikin dey stay*
Na yansh wey e big phallus dey tanda for
Oga you be big man*
(a staccato of drums and sonorous Yoruba rhythm)
oga I say you big man
na big big motor you go dey ride
dem no dey push the motor wey you dey ride
another man no go give your wife belle
your pikin no go resemble your landlord
(some more songs, circling and serious gyration
of the padded buttocks.)
Being an artist, I usually visit the bronze casting quarters of the city called Igun. Igun is a long street filled with clusters of bronze casters and mini artisans. Bronze casting workshops spring from every corner. Here art is a family business passed down from father to son, from generation to generation and it is taken very seriously. Somewhat of a sacred profession, yet open to anyone who might be interested in learning the art of bronze casting. The elderly ones are very meticulous with their crafts. Igun Street art works boast of an array of themes like the king’s mother, dead kings’ head, the king’s wives, the king’s ancestors, royal animals, milk maid, shepherd, etc. (The artist is forbidden from sculpting the likeness of a living or ruling Oba; it is a taboo). There are sculptors especially reserved to decorate the king’s palace; these groups of artists are the best, whose work can only be appreciated around the royal thresholds.
Drums, rhythm of drums and voices
The ancestors are invited
The spirits are free to mingle with the mundane
The moon will stay much longer this day
The stars will be harvested today
Songs are filling my ears like a million waters
Songs are moving my feet like great winds
The drums are rising, rising up in quickened frenzy
The king is dancing the dance of peace
The drummers cannot hurry him
The king takes his time, today is his day
It is Igwe festival oh forefathers come
And cleanse the land oh ye gods bring
Your drinking horn libations are flowing
On New Year eve the king with all his chiefs dance and celebrate what is known as the Igwe festival in the wee hours. This is a major festival, not the carnival of skimpily dressed women and chest baring men, with reggae and go-go music thumping from electronic speakers. This is a different kind of festival. This is a time when the mundane and the spiritual mingle into a single entity, growing goose pimples in the heart of the heartless. It is a festival with a purpose, meant to cleanse the city of evil and usher in peace and harmony in the New Year. The drummers go into frenzy, while the monarch and his selected chiefs’ dance regally in the eyes of the common man. Everyone in the convoy carries a leafy branch, sweeping the red dusty earth as a form of evil cleansing. This is also the only time of the year the king dances before his subject in the open.
The king’s regalia is a sight to behold, his radiance belittle a diamond set in the eyes of klieg lights. The king is bedecked in coral beads and the finest gold. His crown is a motif of ivory beads and gold and all sorts of adornment. His regal skirts (a large cloth worn round the waist) drips with talisman, beads, mini bronze art works and things one cannot decipher with the ordinary eyes. As he dances leisurely round his vast kingdom, he prays to his ancestors to bring peace and wash away the evils of a waning year. He prays and blesses his subject and city. Before the first rays of sun start baking the heads of festival-goers, the king retires to his enclosed palace, contented and sure of another year of peace. Oh by the way, the king never dies, (God forbid, may the king live forever, amen). He only joins his ancestors.
BACK IN THE US OF A!
I love Nigeria. Her people are industrious and hard working. They will do anything to put bread on the table. My people are doing well. They call it the dividend of democracy. The Government might not be doing much, but they are happy to be under democracy, no matter how lousy and rotten it may be. A lean democracy is better than a fat Military Government.
I love my country, I am proud of her. Those of us in exile with a fierce sense of protection should try and visit home occasionally. We are living borrowed lives in America. Anyone in doubt should miss a payment on the car or mortgage. In Nigeria, your house is really your house, same as your car. We should try not to get alienated. That tingling headache and the weird feeling that gets us hooked on Percocet and other anti-depressants can be fixed with a glass of foaming palm-wine and a prayer from your aging mother.
I am up at 4.47 am
Wild and wide awake
The rain that hits my roof has
A different rhythm to it
The quietness and the cleanliness
Around me is sickening
I have learnt to enjoy chaos
My ears are used to the music
Of the horn and the thunderous
Rolling of life in Lagos…
Nigeria has the noise
and smell of a poultry
With beautiful cocks and layers
While America is the unhatched egg
Quiet, nice and clean but boring
And pregnant with uncertainty.
When I told my boss I was going to Africa for my annual vacation, he asked me to bring him lion meat. Unfortunately I did not come across any living lion or any other wild animal for that matter. Sorry boss, no lion meat for you today. You will have to do with SAM AND JOHN’S steak and cheese.
And please watch less of National Geographic Television!
I am back to midnight sweats in a cold country. I am back to exile, drinking imaginary palm-wine and dancing imaginary dances. I am back to strange rains and strangers that see me as a fly in their jolly soup. I am back to a country that does not consider me human. I am back to a false sense of belonging* I am back to a country where only a cup of coffee can stimulate my laughter and sustain my day. As I arrive America, the image of Babuwa and his beautiful woven praise songs are still in my head. A country that has poetry, drama and so much art flowing from every pore is forever blessed beyond potholes and dead governments.