ENGLISHMAN IN BENIN CITY, 1981 (Part Sixteen)
“Hold it, hold it,” Obaseki said, “here come your people.” He gestured with his nose in the direction of a couple of flickering lights in the dense darkness.
“What is going on there,” I asked?
I was drunk, anyway, so I asked for one more bottle of beer.
“We are out of ready-made snails,” our attendant explained. “We can make some for you by order. But I recommend you try our ram. There is no better ram in the world than ours.”
Obaseki said, “Yes, Brother Mo, “try the ram. Should have told you in the first place.”
So I asked for a plate of ram pepper soup with my beer.
“Excuse me,” Obaseki asked the attendant.
“Yes, Crown prince,” she answered.
“Has Mama been here today,” Obaseki asked.
“Yes, Crown Prince.”
“She asked of me?”
“Yes, Crown Prince.”
“What did you say?”
“Manager said you’re fine.”
“She left anything for me?”
“Yes, Crown Prince. Your envelope.”
“It’s with the manager?”
“Yes, Crown Prince.”
“Tell her to bring it.”
“Yes, Crown Prince.”
As she left, Obaseki signaled to me to pay attention to the spot that he described as Joshua’s. “Looks like she is about to get up.”
I asked, “Who?”
“Gina,” he responded.
Soon, the manager came with Obaseki’s envelope.
“Joshua is here,” Obaseki asked the manager.
“Yes, the Crown,” said the manager.
“No,” she said, “With a lady.”
“No. They were here before. Once. Last week.”
“She is very tall?”
“Yes. Very young. And beautiful.”
“She is wearing a short red dress?”
“Yes,” the manager said. “No makeup.”
“Did Mama ask you to tell me anything?”
“Yes, Crown. But I will tell you alone,” said the manager.
“Let’s step inside.” Obaseki, touched me briefly, “I will be just one moment, Brother Mo.” He rose and left.
I returned my attention to the distance where Gina and Joshua sat. Then she rose. I could see her silhouette clearly and had no doubt that it was her. If I hadn’t been baying full attention to the spot, I would not have noticed.
A wave of nausea wafted across my face. I forced it back. The attendant and Obaseki returned. The attendant placed the steamy ram pepper soup in front of me. I used the spoon to taste the pepper soup. It was sharp with mouth-stinging spices. I needed that feeling to take the edge of alcohol off my tongue. I grabbed the fork and lifted up a fat cut of the steaming meat and bit into it. A new shot of energy surged through my body as I chewed the tender flesh, saying, “I saw her. Yes, it’s Gina. She got up.”
“Oh, she probably went to the toilets,” Obaseki said. “Like the ram?”
“Superb,” I responded. The cold taste of the beer and the hot feel of the pepper soup was the perfect combination.
“She is back in her seat,” Obaseki said, indicating the distant spot.
“You mean Gina?” I asked, although I knew he was referring to her.
“Yes. She seems happy with him.”
“I’m happy for both of them,” I said.
“You look like you are not,” Obaseki said.
“Seriously,” I explained, “I’m relieved. The idea of dating a sixteen-year-old girl did not appeal to me. It’s probably not legal.”
“Using the indigenous marriage system,” Obaseki said, “there is no legal age. As long as both parties and families are happy. My mother was fourteen when she gave birth to me.”
“I see that Gina looks matured,” I continued, “and the street has taught her to take care of herself….”
“If she was streetwise,” Obaseki objected, “she would not be in Joshua’s hands. She is unable to identify a snake just because he is walking.”
The center of the dark arena began to light up gradually to show a small white object on the stage.
Obaseki leaned closer to me, and said, “I wanted you to see this dance-drama that I wrote and directed. I thought of the entire thing while I was sitting, shivering, on the floor of a freezing prison in Belgium. There was no other way I could have survived that solitary confinement for about eight months, before I was upgraded to the status of regular prisoner. My offence was madness, the way it was read to the local magistrate, who gave me five years in prison with hard labor within thirty minutes of standing before him. He looked really petrified of me and believed I was still a great risk to the public with my hand and leg cuffs.”
The white object on the center of the stage looked like a bundle of rags piled together without any order. A slow gong percussion piped out of the dark section of the stage, and, as if by remote control, the bundle of rags on the floor began to move to the strokes of the gong. A slow and soft flute joined the gong, and between them, a dialogue began with the body of rags floating to the sounds of the wind. It continued in the background for almost five minutes, rather subdued into the background, except for sudden jarring movements from the body of rags, and slight light changes.
“As I was thrown there into that cold prison,” Obaseki continued, “they didn’t think I could last one week before dying. The eyes of the prison guard told me that it was a death penalty. I smiled back. Only five years? I was going to survive unless beaten or starved to death. The very first night, as the cold descended on my body, my mother found me lying dead in the six-by-six stone cell. And she picked up my dead body, and breastfed me back to life, and began to tell me stories that I wove into the dance-dramas we perform here regularly.”
It was overwhelming to listen to Obaseki’s story while watching the unfolding drama on the stage. Every flicker of light animated the body of rags, and at some point, it seemed that two bodies were intertwined into what looked like a body of rags. But at some other point, everything merged into this strange-looking alien from another galaxy.
“I used the plays to transform my body from the cold prison-cell of Belgium to the warm land of Benin City,” Obaseki recalled. “And gradually, my body was tricked into believing it, as my mother never left my side, assuring me that everything was fine.”
The gong had stopped for some time, and only the flute was playing in a manner that sounded contradictory; as the bundle of rags moved to the light, the flute combined the deepest feelings of wailing with moments of triumphant delight.
“My skin became thicker than the bear’s hide in the winter,” Obaseki said. “The prison guards were scared of looking at my eyes when they came to push the food under my cell once a day. There was no day or night. The light was always the same in a cell with no window. I had a potty that they emptied from time to time—most times left full for several days in the cell. It was just me and my mama playing thrilling games of joy, sunlight and sounds.”
I shifted my eyes from Obaseki to the stage.
“Do you know the strangest thing, Brother Mo?” Obaseki asked. “At that same time, my mama had gone mad in Benin City, after looking for me without any luck for months. My mama simply dropped physically and mentally and refused to function again in Benin City. And at the same time she was reunited with me in the cold cell of that Belgium penitentiary. The food they fed her in Benin, she passed on to me in Belgium. And we shared the warmth of her body. It wasn’t until I was removed from the cold cell during the summer and upgraded to solitary-normal, that my mama began to get well in Benin City.”
I was captivated by his word. He sounded magnified ten times as he narrated his delivery. You could hear the air breathe.
But, S-L-A-P! Out of nowhere, at that same time, a loud cracking sound of a slap rang out of the night. It was followed by a shriek of sheer horror, followed by S-L-A-P/S-L-A-P: two quick slaps that stopped the shriek inside the throat, with a choking gulp. “Shut up, filthy whore!” came the piercing voice of Joshua.
“He is battering Gina,” Obaseki said, flat and emotionless, just like a reporter announcing something inevitable.
TO BE CONTINUED
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