ENGLISHMAN IN BENIN CITY, 1981 (Part twenty-Six)
“I just discovered a river!” Steve announced, breathless, as he ran into the sitting room with enthusiasm. “And it’s just fifteen minutes from here.”
I said, “Mungo Park.”
Rufus, spreading out on the sofa, said, “Where is it?”
“Hidden in plain sight!” Steve said. “I was driving down Ekenwan Street, and there was this dirt road by the side. I decided to explore it.”
“What’s the name of the street?” I asked.
“No signboard,” Steve said.
“There is no Benin street without a signboard,” Rufus said. “Benin people are good with signboards. Even narrow paths have signboards.”
Steve went to the fridge and brought out a beer. We had no bottle opener in the house since Josephine’s transition. Nobody talked about it. For some reason, we were also unwilling to buy a bottle opener. It felt as if buying one was unethical or immoral. It was as if doing so was tantamount to replacing Josephine. We were unenthusiastic about doing that.
But Steve had already mastered using the keyhole to open the beer bottle. He went to the back door and opened the beer bottle.
“To my new river!” Steve proclaimed jubilantly, raised the bottle up, and drank it straight without first pouring it into a glass.
Rufus and I were off beer. We had not touched alcohol for more than two weeks, since Josephine’s funeral ceremony.
Rufus’s condition had improved considerably. But he had not yet returned to classes. He was eating more, and his skin looked better. After losing more than twenty pounds, he started regaining weight, but he still had a long way to go. But he was no longer throwing up, and he spent long periods by himself on the balcony. Steve used to go and join him on the balcony, but after figuring out that Rufus wanted to just be by himself on the balcony, Steve began to leave him alone.
I didn’t know what was wrong with me. The night Josephine was buried, after we laid Rufus on his bed, I went to my room exhausted. That was when I discovered that I was feverish. I turned off the fan, covered myself in my blanket, and promptly fell asleep.
In my sleep, I was transported to the early sixties, as I sat in front of my mother’s textile shop in Iremo Road, Ile Ife. It was my favorite place to sit and draw. I had no drawing book. I drew on the margins of my school textbooks. My teachers had complained, and given me a couple of strokes of the cane, but I did not desist. I couldn’t help myself. I doodled all the time. The problem was that my classmates admired my drawings. And, whether I admitted it or not, I was also in competition with Segun, a classmate whose drawings I admired and considered better than mine.
My classmates said my drawings were better than Segun’s, but I didn’t believe them. Segun also thought my drawings were better than his, but I thought he was too humble. I always spied on Segun as he drew. We had the same favorite subjects—guitarists, goats, horses, mansions, farmers, our class teachers, etc.
The day I drew Mrs. Durojaiye, our class mistress, in her large gown, writing on the blackboard, I showed it to some of my classmates. To make matters worse, Segun and I had the habit of writing the names of our subjects on the drawing, just to make sure everybody was clear about what we drew. When Sola saw it, she said, “I’m telling her!”
I didn’t like Sola. Apart from always coming first in class, she had an attitude. Her handwriting was always posted on the wall as examples for the rest of the class. We were not allowed to use an eraser when we wrote. But no matter how hard I tried, her writing was better than mine. She had this style in which she made each alphabet large and clear, while managing to arrange them so neatly within the lines of the special writing books we used for writing assignments.
Sola sat next to me on a seat made for two tiny pupils. The desk had the same design. The first day of classes in Primary Two, when Mrs. Durojaiye placed us together on the same seat, I grabbed white chalk and a ruler. I measured the exact middle of the seat and the desk and drew lines to separate my space of the desk seat.
How did Sola react? With a mischievous grin, she deliberately sat across the line, almost pushing me out of the seat. I raised my hand and complained to Mrs. Durojaiye. She came to find out what was happening. Rather than chastising Sola for crossing the line, she pulled my ear for messing the furniture with chalk. She made me collect some water and use a piece of rag to erase the white line!
That was when my dislike for Sola started. I was therefore not surprised when Sola brought Mrs. Durojaiye’s attention to my portrait of her. I knew she was going to punish me. She only smiled at the drawing. Her concern was not that I drew her. She complained that I should never draw inside my textbooks again.
But that was impossible. Whenever I started reading my textbooks, I automatically drew in the margin. I just couldn’t stop myself from doing so. After realizing that I had drawn in the textbook, I would grab an eraser and try to remove the pencil marks. I always succeeded in messing up the textbooks, because the drawings got smudged while remaining visible.
My mother said I should stop erasing the drawings because they never got removed and the pages got smeared. She bought me a drawing book, which I never used, because I wasn’t trying to make drawings, I was just trying to read. But as I advanced to Primary Three, I began to consciously use the drawing books she got for me. Yet, I continued to draw in the margins of my textbooks.
In my feverish dream following Josephine’s burial, I sat in front of my mother’s shop and watched the funeral parties parading the street of Ile Ife, pencil in hand, with my textbook open.
Those dance parades down the street of Iremo Road etched themselves permanently in my memory!
The women dancers, scores of them in festive attires, led, and the drummers followed them.
The women, typically slim working-class folks, would pad their behinds with towels and then topped the padding with their ìró wrappers.
The idea was to make their behinds look bigger.
The drummer, with the talking drums, would go:
Ọmọ olókùú dà o? (Where is the child of the deceased?)
Ó ti wówó lọ (Gone hounding for money)
Kò ha jẹ̀bà bí? (Was s/he able to swallow anything?)
Ó bu gíńgín jẹ. (Managed to down a couple of morsels)
They would proceed for about two hundred yards, and then, abruptly, the drumming would change to:
Ìdí ńlá ńlá, ìdí (Check out these huge and sexy behinds)
Ìdí bẹ̀rẹ̀kẹ̀tẹ̀, ìdí. (These large and erotic buttocks)
Then the women dancers would stop moving ahead, and start dancing backward while still facing forward, threatening to run down the drummers with their behinds. The drummers, to avoid being run down, would also start moving back. After they push back for some twenty yards, the drummers would change to:
Ẹni ọmọ́ sin ló bímọ (Only those whose children live to bury them are true parents)
Ọmọ́ layọ̀ lé… (The broods often depart young)
And the women would take the cue, and resume dancing forward.
There could be up to two hundred of them in the dancing parade.
Then, toward the evening, bands of women, with their mats tucked under their arms, would comb the neighborhood, asking folks, “Ka bi olókùú wọ̀ sí o?” (Where is the funeral party happening?) Since I was always there watching the parade, many would approach me and ask me for direction to the party scenes. I would gladly point these venues out to them.
It didn’t matter that they didn’t even know the celebrants. They were prepared to spend the weekend at the party, because they already brought their sleeping mats with them.
They drank and smoked. They had a habit of taking only a few puffs of their cigarettes at a time. They would put out the cigarettes, and hang the rest on top of their earlobes until they were ready for the next smoke. They ate to their hearts’ desire, and on Sunday evening the party ended and everyone went home.
The following Friday, a new party would begin.
I was in this dream when I suddenly woke up. I found Adolo, Felicia and Steve standing over me. Adolo had a bowl of cold water and a soaked towel that she used to wipe my body. They had removed the blanket from my body. Someone had pulled my underwear on me, because I always slept totally in the nude.
“Thank goodness you are now awake,” Adolo said. “You were screaming in your sleep. And when I came in to see what was happening to you, I found you in a feverish spell, covered in sweat.”
TO BE CONTINUED.