ENGLISHMAN IN BENIN CITY, 1981, (Part Four)
Obaseki’s eyes were boring into my back as I pretended to flirt with the young woman behind the food counter.
She couldn’t be more than 16, and her golden skin glowed from within.
Nature is a beast. Why make a vulnerable girl look so absolutely stunning in the world of predatory men! In other species, she would be disguised with thorns, or her body would be covered with prickly hairs that sting like thorns if you dared touch her. Even pineapples have thorns, just like roses. And to get inside the magical seeds of mucuna prurient, otherwise known as the devil’s beans, you must go through a pod with prickly growth that would make you itch and leave you with horrendous welts. But the human young, both male and female, begin to glow at a point when they are yet unripe for the picking. You can’t do anything with a 15 or 16-year-old girl. The body appears appealing, but the brain is not even functional yet, and the only sensible thing to do is pray for her to survive the attacks of the prowling wolves in the neighborhood.
“Hello, there,” I said as cheerfully as I could. “What’s your name?”
“You have to be careful around here, Gina,” I said. “Not all these young men flirting with you are responsible people.”
She nodded with a shy smile. “I know.”
Nature is too unkind to these girls, making them look so beautiful, and leaving them unprotected in the wilderness of an urban jungle like Benin City in 1981. I realized that the young woman behind the desk expected me to be aware of her dazzling beauty. She must have looked at the mirror that day, and be absolutely awed by what she saw staring back at her. She was still learning to understand that she was the one in that mirror, as she tried to reconcile her fledgling self-esteem with the amazing natural endowment that she embodied.
She looked shyly at me and asked what I wanted to buy. Her glittering white teeth were perfectly set, and the white of her eyes sparkled like diamonds. The gems in her pupils were golden-brown, and they were luminescent, as they both reflected and refracted rays of light from all directions. I was sad for her. She didn’t stand a chance here in the restaurant of the Ekenwan campus, within which there were student hostels, art studios, drama theaters, and classrooms where hundreds of students, faculty and staff lived, worked and played.
It was so irresponsible to make Gina work, unprotected, in that environment. She was what they regard as a “housemaid” in Nigeria. The Yoruba called it Ọmọ Ọ̀dọ̀. She was paid almost nothing, beyond the free food that she ate. And she was vulnerable to domestic abuse and sexual predation.
Gina’s employer sat next to her to handle the cash part of the transaction. The employer used to do everything so efficiently before hiring Gina. But in a small mall with many sellers, there was a lot of competition to get the attention of the patrons. Gina was apparently hired because of her youth and beauty which drew many young men to her food counter. The queue was long at her stand.
I was right. Six months later, her smile had been replaced with a bottomless sadness. And her tummy was protruding. The line in front of her had all but disappeared. A couple of months later, she had disappeared and when I asked Gina’s boss where she was, all I got was, “Oh Gina, she got pregnant and returned to the village to nurse her child.”
Gina did not heed my warning. And as I stood before her that day, chatting with her as I perfected my move to approach Obaseki at his table, I knew Gina was not going to heed my warning about men. But it occurred to me that I could use a trick my father taught me about drawing attention and catching people’s interest.
My father, a novelist, couched it dramatically, as usual. “Drop a bunch of keys,” said Baba. “As the keys make a clattering sound on the floor, the person who is looking at you behind your back would now look directly, thinking your attention is focused on picking up the key. But as you bend down to pick the key, turn sharply in the direction of that person, and you would catch him or her red-handed staring at you.”
I had used that trick a couple of times before. And as soon as Gina finished dishing my food, and I paid for it, I let my bunch of keys fall to the floor. As I bent down to pick it up, I also turned sharply to look in the direction of Obaseki’s table. There he was staring at me. Before he could turn away, I grinned wide, and said, “Oh, there you are, Obaseki! I didn’t realize you were here.”
Quickly, I picked up my food tray and made for his table. He looked like he was about to evaporate from the spot. I placed my tray next to his on the table, and still grinning wide, said, “Obaseki, such a long time! We haven’t met since that unfortunate incident with Steve.”
“I know, sorry about that,” Obaseki responded. “I wanted to come and see you after they discharged me from the native psychiatrist hospital. But I am fainthearted about visiting you guys, after what I did the last time I was there. I really offended Rufus….”
“Never mind, Obaseki,” I said, taking my seat in front of him. “We will pull another table and join it with your table and create a bigger surface. I hope you don’t mind my joining you?”
“Oh, no, you are welcome. Please relax,” Obaseki said, untruthfully. It was clear I was the last person he wanted to see. “How is Rufus? I really need to apologize to him.”
“Rufus is fine,” I responded. “Good thing I found you here. Just a moment ago, Rufus and I were painting the stage for his new production, “Kurunmi,” by Ola Rotimi. When we were finishing up the painting, he asked me to go and get a seat for two at the buka here. He will soon join us.”
I read panic on Obaseki’s face. A high yellow light-complexioned man, his face was flushed and red with blood. It was the first time I saw a black man blush.
“Ru-Rufus is-is-is coming here?” Obaseki asked, as if in disbelief. When he was worried, he stuttered.
TO BE CONTINUED.