ENGLISHMAN IN BENIN CITY: (Part Thirty-Three).
Madam Ngu looked at my most recent painting and from the expression on her face, I could see that she did not like it.
She sat on the big chair in the center of my studio in the Ekenwan campus. I had arranged my paintings around the wall as she requested, ready for her critique.
“Muyo,” she said, “you need more life drawing classes.”
“Yes, madam,” I responded.
“I do a senior drawing class on Tuesday mornings from nine to twelve,” Madam Ngu continued. “I want you to join the class.”
“It’s in the large studio inside the other building,” she continued. “I will give you large drawing sheets. Bring your drawing materials. Whatever medium you like. We will start with charcoal. I will expect you there next week.”
She got up and left the room. Then she yelled from the outside, “Your car needs a good wash, Muyo. It’s an eyesore on this parking lot.”
I said nothing. She expected me to walk her back to her office, but I decided against doing that.
An idea was forming in my mind. I was going to escape to a faraway village to learn a craft.
The idea started forming inside me when Madam Ngu was critiquing my work. I could see why she was worried about my work.
My painting was beginning to venture in a direction totally different from the realism tradition she learned at Slade. I was veering in a direction that she could not understand. She needed to rein me in, and that was why she wanted me to get more drawing classes.
I was weaning myself off her, but she wanted nothing of that.
She was not going to see me again in a long time, I said to myself.
I should flee before she locked me up mentally and I would be unable to break out of her influence.
I went back into the studio to lock up and leave, and as I was turning the key on the door, I heard a voice behind me say, “Moyo!”
I didn’t need to turn around to know it was Gina.
I stopped locking the door, opened it and invited her into my studio.
She sat exactly where Madam Ngu was, and her eyes were popping out of their sockets as she viewed the paintings.
“These are gorgeous paintings,” she exclaimed. “I especially like the ones in which you are adding other things apart from paint to the canvas. They look so vivid!”
“Thanks, Gina,” I responded. “It’s been a while.”
“True,” she said. “I wanted to talk to you about a matter.”
“Perfect,” I assured her. “I’m listening.”
“No,” she protested, “not in here.”
“Let’s go away somewhere else where we can talk,” she said. “I saw your lady professor with you a moment ago and waited until she left before coming to you. She could return again as we talk. Or someone else could come. Do you want me to come to your place later in the evening?”
“Yes,” I said. “That seems better. Rufus and Steve have been asking of you.”
“I would rather not come,” Gina said. “The two women don’t like me. Plus I really don’t want to see the guys either.”
“Why not? Rufus and Steve would love to see you.”
“You have told them about me?”
“You?” I asked, puzzled.
“That I was raped.”
“Of course not,” I said. “I wouldn’t tell anybody.”
“Best not tell anyone, please,” she pleaded.
“If you want anybody to know,” I said, “you have to tell them.”
“Sounds good.” she said, “It’s a secret between the two of us. Just you and me.”
“Hey,” Gina said, her eyes lighting up. “I know exactly where we should go.”
“NIFOR,” she said. “It’s on the expressway to Lagos, fifteen minutes from the main campus of the University of Benin.”
“I know where it is,” I said, “but I’ve not entered the place. I drive past the signboard on my way out of town.”
“We can go there, drink some palm wine and talk,” she said. “It is my treat this time. I know you like palm wine. The best palm wine in the world is sold there.”
Her treat? I was wondering where she was going to get the money to treat us. She was always on a tight budget.
NIFOR is the acronym for Nigeria Institute For Oil Research. It’s a research center for the study of the oil palm, and palm wine is one of their side products at the institute.
We got up, locked the studio and jumped in my car parked just in front of the studio. The traffic was not too heavy, and we were in NIFOR about thirty minutes later.
NIFOR is a large farm with endless rows of oil palms. The research center specializes in the study of the midget varieties of the palm tree, many no taller than six feet. The research palm trees look like ants next to the giant traditional African palm tree. You have to climb these tall African palms to harvest the palm products.
The idea of the research, as I understood it, was to make it easier for the farmer to pluck the seeds and tap the wine, while also looking for other ways to use the palm products.
Once we went through the unmanned gate, we drove along a passage through these rows of palm trees, leading to clusters of buildings that I imagined were offices and laboratories.
Gina said, “We are going to the staff club. It is the building at the end of that row.” She pointed at a building half-hidden by plants, and decorated with potted flowers flashing various colors. I slowed down the car, and packed in the small parking lot at the back.
We entered the building, which consisted mostly of a large hall and a bar. The young man at the bar came to take our order.
“What do you have today?” Gina asked.
“Fresh fish and snail,” the bartender said.
“Get me a plate of the fish and a bottle of palm wine,” she told him.
“I want a plate of snail and the palm wine,” I said.
He left and I turned to look at her. She looked as stunning as usual. She wore a white lace blouse and tied a white wrapper. Her headgear was also white. But her low-heeled shoes were yellow. She also carried a yellow bag.
“You look really good, Gina,” I said.
“Thanks,” Gina replied, looking straight into my eyes. “And you look like a roasted chicken ready to eat.”
A woman brought the food orders, followed by the bartender who brought the drinks.
The aroma of the food was deliciously overpowering. I couldn’t wait to try the snail. It was crispy and spicy hot, just as I like snails done.
I turned to her. “How did you find this place? It’s good.”
She was slowly eating her fish, calmly, not devouring the meal as I was.
She stopped eating, took a deep breath, and said, “It’s been a while, Moyo. Joshua brought me here about three months ago. I’ve been seeing him.”
“Same Joshua?” I asked, surprised. “Obaseki’s Joshua?”
“Yes,” Gina said.
“He treats you well?” I asked.
“Yes, he does,” Gina said. “He brought me this dress.”
“It’s a beautiful attire,” I said. “He always wears white, down to his shoes. Is that why you now wear white?”
“Yes,” Gina said. “And you probably noticed I don’t work at the buka now. He is opening a cosmetics store for me. We already found a big store and painted it last week and we installed the burglary proof metals at the front door yesterday. On Sunday we will travel to Lagos to meet some of his friends in the cosmetics business who will help me to stock my store.”
I was shocked. But I tried to contain my expression. Apparently, I was not able to conceal my feeling of disappointment.
She moved her seat closer and placed her hand on my shoulder.
“Don’t feel so bad, Moyo,” she said. “I must move along.”
“I understand,” I responded, “but I can’t help feeling sad.”
“Obaseki brought him to my place just a couple of days after I saw you some three months ago,” she explained. “Obaseki said he brought him to apologize to me for the way he treated me that night at the club.”
“I haven’t seen Obaseki for a while,” I replied.
“He’s fine,” Gina said. “He’s much calmer these days. But Joshua has also changed. He treats me really well. I even spent weekends at his place.”
“Doesn’t he have two other wives living there?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Each one has her apartment at his house.”
“You will be moving in with them eventually?”
“No,” she said. “He gave me an apartment in his estate. He has an estate that he rents out and that’s where I now live. It’s really been a long time since we last talked.”
“All of this in the last couple of months?” I exclaimed.
“And more,” Gina continued. “I am pregnant too.”
I couldn’t help it at that point. I blurted, “But isn’t there the rumor that Joshua is impotent?” I claimed. “His two wives have no children.”
“It is not his baby,” Gina said.
“The pregnancy is for my stepbrother,” Gina said, looking away from me. “From the rape.”
TO BE CONTINUED