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Imagine africa volume 3, p.2

Imagine Africa, Volume 3, page 2

 

Imagine Africa, Volume 3
 


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  My Washington Agenda

  You want to invite me?

  What’s in the oven?

  Mmmmm…eat!

  I like my coffee black,

  My bread white,

  And my sauce red,

  But your greens,

  Please, give them

  To the goats.

  You know what I mean?

  You want to invite me?

  What’s in the oven?

  Mmmmeat!

  Habereita nWashington

  entay qeribkley abti eton

  nA zbelkni Washington

  eta buney

  aSelm ablya

  eta engeiray

  aSaEduw ablya

  eta SebHey

  aQiH ablya

  qeTelya meTelya keytblni

  qeTelya meTelya nTeil,ya

  entay qeribkley abti eton

  nA zbelkni Washington

  Bitter and Cold

  Born on the sixth day,

  Adam

  Has the power

  To say

  “Hey, World.

  You better listen to me.

  Obey,

  If you want to live.”

  But she

  Has the power

  To give

  Or take away.

  mereret/qWereret

  adam wedi Qedam

  tefeTre / af aTre

  wSíe ilu kurba

  jemere medere

  Alem teberaberi

  ente día ktnebri

  kab SbaH senuy

  zbelkuwo tgebri

  etlgselu Tafa

  keytmlselu beyanay afa

  zdeleyo neygeberet

  mereret día qWereret

  Adam, You

  Adam,

  Son of the sixth day

  Of creation,

  But no better

  Than a slave?

  No lion,

  No tiger,

  No eagle?

  You obey

  Like an ass,

  A mule,

  Or a cow—

  No better than a slave.

  Why not free?

  What?

  Your ancestors say

  That I’m the slave

  If I blame you

  For helping?

  emo barnet aleka!

  wedi Qedam

  kem enssa zebeitdo

  kem enssa zegedam?

  kníedo do kewardo?

  eske awardo!

  adgi! beQli! bEray!

  eske níaddo!

  nebri! ambessa!

  shla zeíemsemay!

  emo barnet aleka!

  entay belka?

  msla eyu msla abotatka

  barya eyu / Hagaziu / zSelíe / ebleka!

  No Regrets

  Forget Eden.

  We’re not going back.

  Adam and Eve

  Had no regrets.

  “Good riddance,”

  She said.

  “So we were fed.

  He treated us like animals.

  Adam, I love you.”

  “I love you, too,”

  He said.

  “Nothing beats bread

  Baked with your sweat.”

  Forget Eden.

  We’re not going back.

  Adam and Eve

  Had no regrets.

  CHIKA UNIGWE

  Heart of Darkness

  CHIKA UNIGWE was born and raised in Enugu, Nigeria. She was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2004. Her writing awards include a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, a UNESCO Ashberg Fellowship, a BBC short story award and a Commonwealth short story award. In 2012, she won the Nigeria Literature Prize for her novel On Black Sisters Street (Random House). She now lives and works in Atlanta, Georgia.

  THE DAY I MET Conrad, he rescued a snake about to be eaten by a tiger on his way to school. That was why his uniform was dirty. Our class teacher let him off. He did not get five lashes of the cane which was the regular punishment for untidiness. Maybe it was because he was a new student. Maybe our teacher liked the daringness of his excuse. Whatever it was, he got off a lot more lightly than any other student would have imagined possible. Later that day Conrad told me his father was wealthy but that he had died in a car accident on his way back from work earlier that year. Two weeks later he told me his father died in a fire that razed their humongous house and all the money in it. That was why his mother had to move them to a new city and a small house. By then we had become best friends. Even after many years, not even I, privy to his secret crushes and his desire to travel the world, knew where Conrad lived before he moved to our Uwani neighbourhood or how he lost his father. His story changed with each telling.

  Conrad was always turning up late. If he told you he would be at your place at 1 pm, it was safe for you to assume that he would not turn up before 3. Very often he did not offer any apology. When he did it was always something bold, and delivered with a deadpan voice and a straight face as if he was reading out a shopping list. “Aliens abducted me and forced me to peel a huge pile of yams before they would let me go.” “I bumped into the ghost of my great-grandfather and he begged me to keep him company.” “I helped a pregnant woman deliver her quadruplets.” Once when he held a group of us up for an inter-school football match, he told us the taxi he came in had been involved in accident. “I had to be cut free from the car. Better to be late than be late.” We could have called him Pino- Pino- Pinocchio like we did liars but we never did. Instead we nicknamed him Conrad the Late, and asked him to elaborate, to put some flesh on the skeleton of the stories he fed us. Sometimes he obliged us. Conrad had a hold on us. He was tall. The tallest boy in our class, not only taller than our headmaster whom we called Shortmandevil but as tall as many of the female teachers by the time we were in primary 4. By primary 5, he had a sprinkling of fine hair over his upper lip. That commanded respect. Perhaps the truth is that although we never acknowledged it, we admired his ability to spin these tales, perhaps even enjoyed them.

  Their sheer daringness immunised them against our ridicule. The manner of delivery inspired deference. So, we always forgave Conrad his tales and his lateness. Not everyone did.

  Once, Conrad came very late to school. Even by his own standards, he was late. We were in the middle of our second lesson for the day when he came in, his uniform crisp and clean, his school bag hanging from his back. Shortmandevil spied him from his office and followed him into our classroom. When he asked him why he was ‘sauntering in’ at that time, Conrad said, “Sir, on my way to school I saw a lion at the end of the street. I ran for dear life and did not dare come out again until I saw the lion run past in the opposite direction.” The same story he had spun us. In the same manner he had delivered it to us. Face as bland as a bucket of water. Shortmandevil was not impressed and was not as forgiving as we were and gave Conrad a thorough beating with the leather belt reserved for disciplining unruly pupils. Two days later, it was announced on the 9 o’clock news that a lion had escaped from the zoo. Conrad told us that what he had seen was a vision. He started charging classmates 30 kobo to tell their future. The shinier the coin, he said, the better he could see. For the girls, they could make their coins “spiritually shinier” by kissing the back of his hand.

  I did not believe him but I never told him. We were best friends. The obligations of friendship mandated my complicity in his game. There was also the way in which Conrad frowned while reading palms that made you think that he believed he had the gift. His thin neck, bent over the palms, lent him an air of fragility so that I believed that any aspersions cast on his ability to see the future—in jest or otherwise—would snap off that neck of his. On his part, as our intimacy demanded, his predictions for me were never bad. He always told me the same thing: “You will move overseas and marry a woman with red lipstick and generous melons like Miss Priscilla.”

  Miss Priscilla, our class teacher, was the most glamorous woman we had ever seen. She made primary 6 heaven for all 12-year
-old boys on the verge of puberty. She wore tight tops which stretched across her chest and showed off her huge breasts. Even now, when I think of Miss Priscilla, I get aroused.

  I asked Conrad once what he saw in his own future. He said he could not read his own palm but he knew that his future was golden. He would go abroad. He would make money. He would have many girlfriends. Then after he had sown his wild oats, he would settle down, marry a beautiful woman and have sons to carry on his Obiohia name. As the only son, it fell on him to make sure the father’s name did not vanish. Whenever we joked about not having children until we were very old, at least thirty, he would say in the voice of an old man, “My sisters will marry and take on other men’s names. The responsibility of keeping the Obiohia name alive depends on me. I’ll have to start as soon as possible.” The weight of this responsibility made him seem much more grown up than the rest of us. He insisted on being called Mr. Conrad Obiohia at an age when we still wore shorts to school and reserved ‘mister’ for adults. “Name is identity,” he said once when I asked him to stop going on about marriage and sons, and concentrate on the Jackie Chan film we were watching. “Name is identity.” I had no idea what he meant. He was always saying things like that. “Love is power.” “To be or not to be. Therein lies the dilemma.” “The road less travelled is where treasure lies.” Aphorisms that he must have collected from his mother, an English lecturer at the polytechnic.

  After we left secondary school, Conrad moved to Lagos. He was done with school, he said. It was time for him to give his future a chance “to unravel,” as if his future were a tight ball of wool. The last time I saw him, he told me, “Ejike, my future begins now. I am off to build my business empire.”

  Conrad’s first postcard to me came 4 years after I saw him last. It was a picture of a castle in water, coloured lights bouncing off the water. It looked like a scene from a film.

  On the back, Conrad scrawled,

  Ejike nwoke m,

  Turnhout by night. This is where I live. It’s a city shaped like a dog standing on its hind legs. The statue in the water is an exact replica of my amazon of a woman. Check out the melons on her! I wish you were here, my friend. Here too enjoying life in this beautiful city. Remember, Experience is not what happens to a man. It is what a man does with what happens to him – Aldous Huxley

  Conrad Obiohia

  I did not even know that he had left the country. I turned the card over to see the statue that I had missed, stunned as I was by the mesmerizing vision of the house on water. It was a huge woman, generously endowed, lying on her side. All her features seemed exaggerated, designed to draw attention to her voluptuousness. I had never heard of Turnhout and scanned the stamp closely for clues of which country it had come from. Belgium. What was Ejike doing in Belgium? Trading in cars? No one I knew had been to Belgium. Abroad was London and America. And these days, South Africa and even Ghana. Or if you got a Catholic scholarship, Cuba or Ukraine. Belgium did not exist for us except as a synonym for the secondhand cars flooding the Tokunbo market. My trusted car was a Japanese-made Belgium. It still bore the sticker of De Rode Duivels it had when I bought it. I knew De Rode Duivels even if the only international matches I watched were the ones played at Old Trafford.

  Two weeks later, another card came from him. This time the photograph was of a modern building with the statue of a small man Conrad referred to as “the Prof” in front of it. “De Warande” was printed in block letters across the house. On the back of the card, Conrad wrote:

  Ejike nwoke m,

  This is my vacation house. People here have vacation houses the same way we have second homes in the village. The “Prof” is my wife’s great-great-great grandfather. He was the 1st man to perform open heart surgery in this country. Luckily he had the good sense to marry a woman far taller than he was. He is said to have come up only to his wife’s waist. She too had amazing melons. It is to her that I owe my wife’s size. I am having a brilliant time here. Enjoying life.

  Never forget: True heroism consists in being superior to the ills of life, in whatever shape they may challenge us to combat: Bonaparte

  Conrad Obiohia

  The next card arrived less than two weeks later. Across the photograph of a sculpture was inscribed, Adam and Eva. The sculpture was of a couple entwined so tightly that it was difficult to tell where one ended and the other began. It was as if they flowed into each other. Hands, legs, buttocks. It looked like a massive trunk.

  Ejike my friend,

  This is a very famous artwork. People from all over Belgium come to Turnhout to admire this. It was made by my amazon’s mother. Talent and genius run in their family. You reckon Eve had such impressive melons?

  The sculpture is a temple to naturists. They come and worship at its feet. Also women who have difficulty getting pregnant come here on pilgrimage. All they have to do is rub their palms over Adam’s tight buttocks 10 times, go home, sleep with their men and bingo!

  I am having the time of my life here nwoke m. I am happy. Surrounded by people.

  Remember: It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all: Alfred Lord Tennyson.

  Conrad O.

  Every few weeks another postcard would come. He had stopped signing the cards with his last name and after a few weeks, the O. disappeared too and he signed off simply as Con. For as long as I had known him, he had never abbreviated his name. It was also around this time that he told me that he was writing a novel, “an epic that will revolutionise the way critics and readers think of the Novel. The mother of all novels. It’ll be about my life here, about immigration, about migrants, about my discovery.” I always thought that Conrad missed his calling. He should have been a writer. But in primary school, when we all enjoyed writing English compositions, Conrad found them a chore. Perhaps his imagination rebelled at being defined, so that an essay to write two pages on “What I Would Do if I Won 5 Million Naira” was an exercise in torture for this boy who held us spellbound for hours telling the most thrilling stories. Our Primary 5 English composition teacher would have been pleased to know that he was writing a novel. Each time Conrad came up with an excuse of why his homework was late, the teacher would tell him gravely that “a mind was a terrible thing to waste.” That with such imagination as he had he would make a fantastic author. “I do not want to be a writer. You’re right. A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” was Conrad’s confident default response.

  Conrad never included a return address so I could not write back to him. I could have asked his mother who still lived in the same house in Uwani but I figured that if he wanted me to respond, he would not have omitted his address. Conrad was deliberate like that. Even with his stories. He measured what he said, carefully, like a meat seller weighing meat. He never gave more than he intended to. His moving to Turnhout, this place nobody else had ever heard of, was also most likely a calculated choice, not a random decision picked by fate.

  His stories fascinated me. At the beginning, I looked up the names of the places he mentioned on Google search, looking for what he might be hiding, clues to why he had chosen to settle in that city. But every time Google spat out the truth about Turnhout, about the buildings, about the sculptures on the postcard, it depressed me with its truthfulness. The truth was precise. Dry. Detailed. It left no room for wonderment, did not keep me amused, so I stopped seeking it out but stuck instead to Conrad’s version.

  Once he sent a card with people walking through what was obviously a shopping street. They all had paper bags and some clutched children or carried dogs. Conrad wrote that they were all walking through his private driveway after a birthday party for his wife. And the paper bags I could see were filled with party favours. Another time, he sent me a card of a place called Begijnhof. On the card, a church and a narrow, cobbled road were visible. He said that Begijnhof was the last name of his wife and her great grandfather had placed every stone on that road by hand. To show their gratitude, the city named the area after him. His
stories were never the same but they always ended with him saying what a great life he was living. Always.

  From his postcards, I could sketch Turnhout, this city I had never seen, in a country I had never been to. I could tell you it had a restaurant called Hof Ter Duine (Conrad’s wife’s family owned it); it had a big cathedral (St. Peter’s, in which he and his amazon got married); De Herentalstraat (where the bakery he always got bread from was: Guylicx. Named after his wife). In the spring flowers bloomed like in the Hollywood films we watched; the old lived in care homes even if they had children who could care for them, people pushed their dogs in prams like babies and on a street called Gildenstraat, a woman lived who spoke to elves and fairies. Conrad said he had started writing. Sometimes the cards said nothing. At other times the stories were disjointed as if Conrad could not decide what to write to me about. But I delighted in receiving them all.

  I got so used to the postcards that when they suddenly stopped coming I missed them. At first, I would check my mailbox as soon as I got in from work and if there was no card from Conrad I would get the same hollow feeling in my stomach as if I were hungry. After a month, I started checking my mailbox twice a week. After three months, I no longer opened it with eager anticipation and I no longer felt the emptiness like a hunger in my stomach when my hopes were dashed. In his own good time, he would get back in touch, I thought.

  In the year that he wrote to me, Conrad never sent me a photograph. Not of him. Not of his amazon. Or of the children he said he had (twins: a boy and a girl with eyelashes like a giraffe’s). I was certain, they were nothing more than figments of his imagination. Yet I read the cards, I imagined his life in a castle with a woman with enormous melons and the twins who called him Papa and sucked their thumbs identically.

  I soon forgot about Conrad and it was two years before I thought of him again. I was married and had a son of my own. Holding my son, I felt a longing for my oldest friend, the one who always dreamed of sons. I had been twice to Europe in the six months since he was born. Once to England and once to Holland. Both times I was told Belgium was just a train ride away. “Small country. Like a handkerchief. I’m sure it wouldn’t take you much time to find your friend,” one of my Dutch colleagues joked when I told him about Conrad living in Belgium. I wished I had an address so that I could have gone over to see him.To be so close yet so far.

 
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