ENGLISHMAN IN BENIN CITY, 1981 (Part Ten)
Once Obaseki realized that Iya Ngu was busting him, and called him out that it was from him that the smell of marijuana was coming, for some inexplicable reason, his nervousness reduced. He smiled and said, “Madam, it is true. I just smoked a tiny joint.”
Obaseki’s sunken face took on a different appearance. I observed his face holistically the way Madam Ngu taught me to study the human face. On my first meeting with her, in the drawing class, she took a look at my drawing and she said, “Moyo, what am I going to do with you? You don’t know how to draw. Come, let’s go to my office. You are still young. I can mold you.”
As we walked down from the drawing studio to her office, she seemed to be incapable of moving along. It was as if she was counting each step she took. She held my hand. I was trembling. She said, “You are too tense. What is worrying you? An artist is not worried about anything. You are not a brain surgeon. Throw your care to the wind. If the painting is not going well, don’t worry about it. If a drawing is giving you too much trouble, teach it a lesson: just burn it. That would teach the next drawing a lesson!”
It took us almost ten minutes to cover the fifty-yard distance between the drawing studio her office. She said, “Look, look, Muyo, what is that?” She was pointing at something on the ground. I didn’t see anything. She held my fingers more tightly.
I hesitated before replying, “Madam, I don’t see anything.”
“You don’t see anything?” She asked incredulously.
“Ha,” she said. “That’s because your eyes are jaded. You are worn-out. The society, the culture, everybody has taught you not to see anything.”
She tightened her grip on my fingers.
“I’m going to pass witchcraft to you,” she said.
I looked her in the eyes. She looked intensely into my eyes.
“Are you afraid?” She asked.
“Everybody calls me a witch,” she continued. “But that’s because I see things when they don’t see anything.”
She asked me again, pointing at the same spot, “Look again, what is that?”
I said, “It’s the ground, madam.”
“Good!!!!” she said, excitedly. “You said you didn’t see anything a moment ago.”
“I now see it’s the ground, madam.”
She squeezed my fingers. “Yes, it’s the ground,” she confirmed. “What is the ground in your Yoruba language.”
I said, “We call it ilẹ̀, madam.”
“Perfect,” she said. “Ilẹ̀. What you are looking at is millions of years old.” She released my fingers. I didn’t let go. I held on to her fingers. She looked up into my eyes. She smiled. I was now the one holding her hand. And we continued to walk along.
“Ilẹ̀, this is everything,” she said. “You have to look at very carefully. We are standing on it. We are not even aware that she is alive, or she is speaking to us. Until there is an earthquake, we are never aware of her. We take her for granted. But when an earthquake happens, ẹ̀hẹ́n, we realize that she is living, that she has blood, and flesh and bone, just like you. We suddenly understand that she is breathing, that she gets mad, and she can bite back.”
I was silent. “Ilẹ̀ is our mother,” she said. “Look again. What do you see.” At this point she stopped, and we were standing still, I gripped her fingers more tightly.
I saw a tiny ant. And some dead twigs. I saw tiny pebbles and a large stone. I told her what I saw. “Good,” she said. “You are hurting me. I’m an old woman. You trying to break my fingers?”
I let go. And she held back my hand, and she began to lead me on.
“What you just saw, on the ground, is the home of hundreds of creatures,” she said. “For millions of years, many creatures, tiny and big, have made that very spot their abode. There is an entire city there. On that spot, where you didn’t see anything, they are buying and selling, giving birth, preparing food, fighting over kingdoms, marrying, making love, and making enemies.”
We continued to walk slowly. “Your hand is getting warmer,” she said. “Your temperature is rising. Now breathe in deep.” I did. “Breathe out.” I did. “Always remember to breathe. That is where your power lies.”
“Are you a virgin?”
I was shocked. “No, madam,” I said. She smiled.
“When you are with your woman,” she said, “you must learn to control your breathing. Otherwise, you will lose your rhythm.”
We continued walking, now I had learned her rhythm, and was pacing with her, step after step.
“When you are in the drawing studio,” she said, “and you are looking at the model, pay attention to what you are looking at. Your drawing is awful because you are not paying attention.”
“I see,” I said.
“You must see,” she continued. “Until you see something, just keep your pencil on the paper, and keep controlling your breathing. When, finally, you see something on the face of the model, ask yourself what you are seeing. You have to relate what you are seeing with the rest of the face of the model. That thing that you see is a piece of information providing you with a key for unlocking the secrets that that face has kept hidden in plain sight throughout her life. Find out, the meaning of that secret. You will have to think with your eyes, and feel with your breathing.”
We got to the door of her office. She dropped my hand and brought out the key slowly and deliberately from inside her heavy bag. She fished in her bag for quite a time before she found the key. As she inserted her key into the keyhole, she said, “Go away, Muyo. My office is a mess. When it is arranged like I want, I’ll invite you in.”
At that moment, in the buka, I read Obaseki’s face. I saw a pattern of peace that was not there on that face until she busted him, as he said, “Madam, it is true. I just smoked a tiny joint.”
Iya Ngu said, “Here, sit next to me, Obaseki.”
I continued to study Obaseki’s face. He was breathing in and out quite deeply, much more relaxed, as he sunk into the seat next to her.
Gina brought some bowls with water for washing hands.
As she turned her back after placing the bowls on the table, Madam Ngu caught my eyes at an awkward moment.
“Ah, Muyo,” she said, “you like Gina. If you are wise you will marry her. She is probably fifteen and you are, say twenty-four. By the time you are thirty-four, she would be twenty-five. When you are forty-four, she would be thirty-five, when you are fifty-four, she would be forty-five. She is not too bright, and you are brilliant. She is almost six feet tall. Your children together would look really gorgeous. Have you read George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion?”
Everybody turned to me, staring at me. I was sweating. Professor Wangboje was chuckling.
TO BE CONTINUED
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