Aftter meeting my father for the very first time in my life, I wished to flee back "home"
REACTIONS TO A FOREIGN ENVIRONMENT
For a better appreciation of this piece, it will be necessary to read the first in the series, I MET MY FATHER.
The weeks and months that followed were periods of painful adaptation to Nigerian food and weather. They gradually awakened in my brother and me, the longing to return “home”. To us, London, the place of our birth, was our real home, the only region of real life and meaningful existence. Only there could we get the satisfaction of our “European” tastes in food, drink and recreation. What, for instance, were *eba, *ewa, *isu, or *ogi plus *akara, irrespective of the Nigerian tastiness or deliciousness of the soup, meat or whatever accompaniment, beside the semolina, baked beans, potatoes, or sweet custard plus cake we had become accustomed to and even taken for granted for years in London? We certainly did not live the luxurious and baroque existence of high-class citizens in London, yet the sufficiently nutritious and tasty balanced-diet Nigerian food not only lacked “substance”, they struck us for months as dishes of deprivation, as eat-or-die compulsions. Eba and Ewa, for instance, were not “sweet” enough to replace the exquisite chocolates, burger and the exquisite cream and chocolate biscuits we ate to our satisfaction in London. Yes, comparison of dissimilar species— unfair to compare dishes with snacks—but that was how our head and palate saw and wanted to see it! “Substance” lay only in sweetness or customary tastiness. And such snacks as *Cabin biscuit, *Okin biscuit as well as *Nico or *Tom-tom sweet, which we were all that were available to us, completely failed to mollify us during the inevitable transition period. They were as tasty as saw dust and as appetising as treacly chocolate tea botched up with clumsy over-dilution with water by a clueless hand that has reduced it into mere brown water. They were presumptuous mockeries, woeful advertisements of the world of snacks and confectionaries.
During this spell of painful adaptation, the repulsion I felt for my father had given way to a deepening affinity. With an apparent promise to fulfil a good part of my sweet-and-toy expectations, he had succeeded in winning my heart. He achieved this largely by what seemed a diplomatic fatherly friendliness. Far from really giving me these goodies, he showered me with so much attention, so much intimate consideration that it appeared he did embody these goodies and much more somewhere in his loving smiles and embracing countenance. During meals, his watchful eyes were always on me to indulge my silent caprice for an extra piece of fish or meat. He always ignored my mother’s timely sharp restraints, “E ma fun!” – “Don’t give him!”— which came just whenever he was about to drop an extra piece of meat or fish into my plate. In addition, from time to time, on his way home from work, he would buy me (Nigerian) sweets, biscuits or meat pie. He bought these things for my brother and me, but he always made a point on every occasion of first oscillating and dangling them before my eyes and above my head, his shining eyes dignifying them as though they were exquisite imports of the costliest order, before finally handing them to us. This customary parade initially made it appear as though he bought them primarily for me, my brother being a mere marginal beneficiary.
These were a few of the heartwinning glamorisations which my father made of the new environment.
But spade remained spade. Sola and I still felt the difference. We so sorely missed our staple, taken-for-granted London dishes and snacks, and longed for them not only spiritually but also quite physically. Our physical systems visibly protested against the unfamiliar tastes of *Akure food and obviously against the precipitate alteration in diet, which should have been transitional. We suffered continual fevers, stomach aches, loss of appetite and an unnatural indisposition to physical work—but not to physical play. The instinct of children to play and frolic around still remained in us, perhaps largely because we brought along some of the toys and play habits we had in London. But we could not really play and romp about as we did back in London, and had very little to make up for the different physical and social environments.
Gone were the snow and the four seasons—spring, summer, autumn and winter. Summer and winter with their contrasting auras, which held so much glamour for us. Summer was synonymous with sunbathes, promenades to and from parks in company with our mother or playmates, and sunny romps in parks and on beaches. In winter, it was an equally invaluable upliftment. The approach and onset of winter meant Christmas and Holidays! In spite of the need to stay puffed up in warm-keeping outfit and to endure the frosty conditions of freezing doors, painful fingers when exposed in the open and the agony that resulted from the misfortune of accidentally striking one’s head or foot against concrete floor or bathroom bathes, winter added a unique spice to Christmas seasons and holidays. For me, the sting of its iciness was very much welcome— sweet sadism, pleasurable agony. While it bit and beat us so severely, I would never have wished it away. Somehow, I married winter coldness to Christmas presents, end-of-term mystery tours, special pre-Christmas-Day visits to friends and relatives, times for presentation and exchange of toys, gifts and delicious dishes. To my subconscious mind, these glorious delights were inseparable from the winter cold. In fact, they lay within the winter cold.
Here in Nigeria, the cold of the Harmattan and rain was a paltry funny substitute. My brother and I did not experience them as real cold but as mild, tolerable “coolness”, until about four years after our arrival.
Autumn and spring! Foils for summer and winter. Certainly it should not be winter or summer all year, or both would lose their attraction to the tedious lack of variety. The rainy and stormy weather of autumn and spring made me look forward to summer and winter. While I loved summer and winter more, I did not frown at the arrival of autumn and spring; for I found them meek and unobtrusive, making only modest demand for adaptation.
During the several years of adjusting to my new, Akure environment, I bore a silent contempt for the Nigerians around me— for the fellow Nigerians whose speech and look did not suggest they had lived, or might have lived, long enough in Europe to have become anglicised in taste and manners. My parental language was Yoruba, but my mother tongue was English and for the first few years after our arrival, our parents spoke to us only in English. This fact maintained my linguistic connection with “home”, and gave me a sense of superiority to people around me who communicated in Yoruba—or in any of the other two major Nigerian languages, Ibo and Hausa. Though I did not have an ear for Ibo or Hausa, in my unspoken perception, their cadence and articulation clearly marked their speakers as inferior, “unanglicised”, BLACK Nigeria people, just as the Yoruba speakers. I did not consider myself a black or a Nigerian. I thought myself a non-black European, though my complexion was dark brown. Of course, not everyone around me was dark in complexion, a good number were brown while others were fair, but I considered all “black”,with a few exceptions—my father , my mother and me. My father and Sola were both fair, while my mother was dark. We were illustrations of the main shades of Nigerian “blackness”. However, the “un-London” texture and sight of the faces of these Yoruba, Hausa and Ibo-speaking people made them blacker than black in my unconscious perception. I saw no similarity between my complexion or that of my parents and Sola, and the complexion of these people.
The strong rapport that had begun to develop between my father and me made his strange looks less and less abnormal in my eyes, much better now than they were when I first met him. His looks had grown increasingly “London” in my eyes, and the inner gulf I felt at his first sight had been nearly bridged. Hence, only the three members of my family—my father, my mother and my brother—belonged to my social world.
It followed then that the eba, ewa or isu that my mother prepared must be superior to those prepared by the Nigerians around me—by the black people— who must gratefully consider it a privilege to be permitted to taste of my mother’s cooking. Every one of them allowed into our rented apartment must think themselves highly favoured. I expected such a one, especially if he were a child, to proudly talk to his friends and relatives, after leaving the average-looking apartment, about the “privilege” of entry which he received—entry into the uncompleted, three-bedroom apartment, the only building in the neighbourhood that was painted within but not without, except for its veranda, a temporary bungalow endlessly begging for upliftment into a two-storey building. The mere flat, concrete rooflessness of its black top (blackened with age), not to mention its obtrusive outward paintlessness, seemed to mark it as irredeemably confirmed it in its uncompleted state.
But “privileged” callers should still boast about the eba or rice they were served by my mother, who I considered an anglicized gentlelady of rare distinction. They should announce how they had the grace of playing with the *Tokunbos of exquisite manners— my brother and me— how they got the rare privilege of playing with their exotic “European” toys, of listening to my true or fabricated stories of London or of America , to which I had never been; how they enjoyed my mesmerising, wild and whimsical dreams for better living conditions, my boasts of how our average-looking conditions would soon become so transformed that it would harbour every possible and impossible type of amenity, comfort or convenience. I tended to half-justify this snobbery, though, not from our average-tasting dishes, but from the fact that of all the houses around ours in the street, our apartment was one of the neatest-looking, internally and externally, in spite of its uncompleted state.
Though our modest building, in which I had to live and to grow up, was part of my physical environment, I felt it quite beneath me. Compared to where we lived in London, the apartment was wanting in several special respects: Its floor lacked tiles or terrazzo; its darkened bedrooms had no window blinds, only heavy curtains of deep blue or brown; in its stuffy living room there was no complete set of furniture, no television, no air-conditioner, a puny, cheap-looking fan its only means of cooling the air; there was no bath or boiler in its bathroom; and its supply of chlorinated water was hardly regular. To worsen matters, I believed that, in common with all the other buildings around, the apartment repelled the milk man who supplied us fresh milk in London on a weekly basis. This was my interpretation of the fact that the milk man no longer turned up. I never really accepted my mother’s explanation that they were no milk men in Nigeria.
Though the conditions of the rooms did not remain beyond four months, they had a say in my conceptualising of the physical environment. They were complemented by the unchanging sights outside the apartment, in the streets: Wild weeds and thickets were common, and everyday one came upon scattered litters of tins, papers, dirty polythene bags and animal droppings, not so close together but obtrusive enough in their distribution; occasionally, as I passed by some houses or merely on ordinary walk along the road, choking odours from pits of sundry organic or dry wastes, or irritating smells from the roasting of corn, yam or fish filled the air, and not to be ignored were the sandy or muddy street grounds, which became horribly messy during the rains, and untarred roads, which were fraught with gaping clefts, shameless bumps, treacherous contours or deadly declivities.
Back in London, roads were tarred, street floors cemented, there were no street weeds or little bushes. No offensive odours— generally no odours. At worst, fumes from cars’ exhaust pipe would fill the air, but very seldom. From time to time, I perceived aromas of perfumes on passers-by, or those from cakes, chocolate tablets or groceries from supermarkets. For some reason, my imagination invested most part of the London streets with aromas from the supermarket, so that, mentally, I smelled these scents in most streets. Thus, in the London streets, as far as I was concerned, it was either an odourless or an aromatic situation.
Having observed all these repulsive, unchanging oddities in my new surroundings, I believed I had experienced the unappealing character of my physical and social environments in their very quintessence. I imagined all I had seen to be completely representative of the nature of entire country, and the word “Nigeria” therefore began to evoke in my subconscious mind, an insipidity, an embarrassing insubstantiality which classed every “uneuropeanised” Nigerian as of unreal existence, ignorant of the joys and pleasures of real living. Such joys were to be found only in London – or, by implication, among the Caucasians or the Europeanised blacks living in Nigeria whose food, recreation and apartment were largely or entirely “London”. Nigeria beside London became for me, raw pods of cocoa beside refined tablets of delicious chocolate confectioneries. According to my unworded definition, a Nigerian was any black person who had never lived long enough in Europe to reflect the physical and social influence of the foreign environment in his polished looks and prim character.
Our adaptational resistances to our environment lingered for years. Bodily resistances went on for about three years, mainly through illnesses. But the emotional and psychological resistances persisted for more than one decade. These manifested in unbridled indulgences in wishful imaginations, in wild fantasies that sought not merely to make up for our losses, but to overcompensate for them. They continued until the onset of Sola’s early adulthood, when, influenced by his more realistic outlook on life, he delivered himself and me from the irresistible verisimilitudes. We would allow our imagination to wander far beyond our immediate environments, to create fabulous worlds of an ever-broadening Eldorado, worlds in which all our whims and caprices would be gratified with the speed of lightning. They were our cherished realities, these fanciful worlds, realities that we believed were certainly forthcoming with their promises of undreamt-of material upliftment.
Now, the gratifications were to come not through some unearthly invisible entity or an ever-ready angel of the Almighty that would dance perpetual attendance on us, always on hand to answer all our desires; not through us becoming so suffused with such superearthliness that we could readily create whatever we wished out of nothing or condense our thoughts or imaginations into material reality as soon as they came to our heads; not through an endowment of the ability to etherize our beings, so that we could transport ourselves at will to and from invisible worlds of instant wish-realisations…no! None of these. Rather, the gratifications would come through… a heavenly wrist watch, belt, mobile “factory” or calculator. Only Sola and I would have access to them.
In answer to our ceaseless prayers, from Above, from Heaven on high, would they descend directly onto our out-stretched hands on one blessed dawn or night, according to a prior spiritual arrangement with the holy ghost, through dreams or through some prophet.
These sacred contraptions of our fantasies underwent metamorphosis over a period of eight years: First we imagined it would be a wrist watch, then a belt seemed more appealing, next, it was factory, before it finally became calculator. Each of them had a sophisticated system of buttons with many-sided imagination-and-desire-gratifying functions. The wrist watches would be meant only for our wrists, the belts only for our waists and the calculators only for our palms. The factories ( two, one for each of us), which would each be about as high as we were tall, about three and a half feet wide and roughly one foot thick, would be capable of omniferous manufacturings. They would grant our desires the liberty to wander freely within and beyond the bounds of every-day possibility, and everything we desire, however fabulous or unearthly, would materialise without further ado. The materialisations would always come in an awesome manner: On each occasion of our request, the factories would dialogue with us, quite humanly, to confirm, refine or modify the request. Then, immediately, an epiphanic mass of white light would emerge from the belt, watch, factory or calculator; the light would first assume the shape of the substance of our desire before finally materialising it. Considering our deep longings, about which we talked and sang everyday, such materialisations would certainly not exclude:
The most expensive London or American clothing or toys for our parents and ourselves; out-of-the-world, futuristic models of cars for our parents, such as could serve not only on roads, but could also develop wings to fly at a moment’s notice, readily float on rivers and oceans and go beneath the waters if need be, disappear whenever thieves threaten and reappear when the threat is over, conjure up the most delicious meals from its front panel, just anything eatable arising in our parents’ or in our ordinary or wild imagination; for my mother, the most sophisticated cooker, washing machine, etc and access to an inexhaustible money-making mill (resident in our belt, watch, factory or calculator: only my father and she would have access to the passwords to these money-making mechanisms)— an end to her endless worries about money; omniferous kinds of exquisite snacks and dishes combining all the ingredients and recipes and imagined flavour of the snacks and dishes we watched some family enjoy on an English or American television program or saw in a foreign cookery book—these must have nothing or very little in common with even those delicious, expensive dishes or snacks we had eyed on the table of a neighbour or in some supermarket here in Nigeria (All the materialisations must include the least possible amount of Nigerianness. )…
Strong belief in God coupled with frequent serious talks and exchange of ideas and fantasies about our belt, watch, factory or calculator brought to our consciousness the approach of these catholicons. We saw their arrival draw nearer every day. We were, however, careful not to let our mother know about our precious dreams, because we suspected she would dismiss them outright as ridiculous trifling, perhaps dampening or killing our enthusiasms with a sharp mockery. We were not on such informal communication terms with our father, so thoughts of concealing them from him did not arise.
During sessions of such serious talks, my brother’s eye would glow with assured enthusiasm as we rambled from one unearthly fantasy to another, deeply savouring them in our boundless imaginative promenades until it was time to fulfil some domestic responsibility or work on a school assignment. Then, very sadly we would descend back to the dry and dreary world of our apartment, the world against which everything within us so rebelled. The painful anticlimax of such decent was always written on our rather pensive faces; it increased the fervour of our prayers for the prompt fulfilment of our glorious dreams. Such discussions really kept alive our hopes for a revolutionary improvement in our lower-middle class living conditions. Moreover, they temporarily suppressed our wish to return “home”, to London, for it had become an assurance, a moral certainty, that much more than any one there could ever hope to have, we would soon own here at home. Trust the powers of prayer and of faith.
*Akara: Bean ball — prepared by frying ground beans.
*Akure: A town in South-West Nigeria, my actual home town where we first arrived
*Eba: An African food prepared from processed cassava
*Ewa: Cooked beans
*Isu: Cooked Yam
*Tokunbo: An arrival from overseas.
*Yoruba: The native language of the people of South-Western Nigeria
*Cabin biscuit, Okin biscuit: Nigeria-produced biscuits readily available in every Nigeria town and city.
*Nico and Tomtom sweets: Nigeria-produced sweets, equally available.