Farafina

The Smell of Oxford

A memoir by editor and writer, Tope Owolabi, published exclusively on The Book Banque.

 

T

he smell of a city, with its hint of nostalgia, lingers in my nostrils like a spirit long after I have left. A distinct reminder of history and culture, one may call it, or of daily hustle or, simply, a peculiar habit. Ibadan, the city in which I was born and raised, smells of rust and burning refuse. Takoradi, where my father lived in the 60’s before I followed in his steps in 2013, arouses one with a heady smell of crayfish and palm oil. A smell like over-perfumed damp feet, conjures images of Dubai and Abuja for me. Two cities where I feel like something is always being covered up. In my hardest times, I find comfort in the once familiar, recollecting the smell and its memories, which inadvertently encourages me to visit again.

With Oxford, the city I am about to bid goodbye, I am unable to conduct this olfactory experiment. Unable to categorise the city into pungent or pleasant, treasured or woody. This, a year after the city greets me at the door with history and enchantment. I arrive here through Heathrow from Lagos. The vibrant pulse of London envelopes me from within the airport. Uber drivers who will not wait, people running as though they are being chased, and a distinctive, caustic smell of stale tobacco and rain. With a blue backpack behind me and my toddler asleep in my arms, I scoot into a waiting minivan, part eager and part anxious to begin life in my fifth city in five years. I mentally pat myself on the back for having done a fine job of hopping from city to city like a nomad.

Soon, I am sharing space in the back of the van with my then two-year-old and four stacked suitcases, four more in the car boot as we speed off the M40 under a light drizzle. I notice broken wheelers and zippers on one of the suitcases, the sides smeared with dirt as if someone dragged it in mud, as if to ensure that a slice of the chaos and disregard of Lagos arrives with me. One hour later, we crawl into an orderly city with hints of an approaching autumn. Leaves have fallen, but not too many. They are yet to be wet nuisances on the floor causing a safety hazard. Red and black berry bushes encroach the sidewalks and smashed apples litter the floor. They look like they were half eaten and angrily discarded.

The road narrows and we join Monday morning rush hour traffic. All the cars are in one fine line, orderly, like soldier ants. The sight would be an anomaly in Lagos, Nigeria. As we approach the nearly thousand-year-old university town, the driver rolls down the window to let the crisp air of Stephen Hawking’s birthplace in. I inhale Oxford; it smells of nothing.


Barbecues and welcome to the city party invites come through faster than I can unpack, but I attend. The parties are strangely all without music. I find this odd yet deeply satisfying. I meet too many people whose faces I struggle to remember. Because my brain has let me down one too many times with regards to remembering people’s names, I save their details on my phone with something remarkable they did or had, like Viri BigSmiler, Efrida ChunkyBraids and Mio d’Tacos. By the end of September, I have met and shook hands with more than hundred people and explained to at least thirty of them that I am not quite seeking asylum in this gorgeous city. I am in Oxford only because my egghead of a partner is getting an MBA. Information that somehow translates to an assumption that he is white. I find it weird that there is no initial assumption that I could be black British. From the tone of such questions as “Why are you here?” I get the sense that they cannot imagine Oxford as home for me.

In the first few days, I attempt to gauge the pulse of the city. I observe an intentional restraint the locals exude. It is obvious in their deliberate patience by the pedestrian light as they wait until it turns green, even when there are no oncoming vehicles. The quietness that broods over the city excites my naturally introverted self. I imagine long, lonely walks on my new quiet street. Soon, I find to my dismay, that my assessment of the city is premature. When the undergrads, the real movers and shakers of the town arrive a few weeks later for a new school year, everything is suddenly rubble and chaos. We are no longer three people eating quietly and watching the Worcester Street intersection from inside Nando’s; we become eleven waiting to get a seat and eight more leaving in frustration. The city becomes packed and everyone is in a hurry, impatiently pressing the pedestrian cross button five, six, seven times, as if that would speed up the appearance of the green man.

Everything I have known about Oxford in three weeks changes, including the weather, which switches up slightly in October. Rain falls without any warning signs, then packs up just as suddenly as it began, as if there is someplace else urgent it needs to be. Umbrellas begin to make an appearance in stores, jackets and thermals too. Winter is coming. They all scream 50% off. I buy a lightweight, long-sleeve running jacket in preparation for the Oxford half marathon in October. What better way to integrate into my new town for the next year than run its streets and feel the tar against my feet?


Friends. One of my new year resolutions is to make more friends. No matter that I am adopting the resolution at nearly the end of the year, I choose MF and SN, deliberately. At a welcome event, we begin our bond over the ludicrousness of an American man who is certain he has come to Oxford from the farthest point. SN has flown with her husband nearly sixteen hours from Jakarta to Oxford. There are New Zealanders and Singaporeans in our midst yawning and noticeably still struggling with jet lag, but Captain America thinks he has come the farthest from JFK. Eight hours away JFK. We laugh a gentle, united laugh at the arrogance in his ignorance. In addition to his idealistic folly, he does not know where Lagos is. We translate this to mean that he very likely voted Trump. And, in true millennial style, we cancel Captain America, all three of us, and a friendliance is formed.

Friendships matter to me. It is why I have chosen these ones carefully. That friends - and to speak generally, humans - can hurt and destroy is a triggering and tragic idea for me. Unfortunately, there are no songs recorded to deal with the trauma of betrayal or loss of a friendship. There are no poems to help you find closure when ties are severed between friends. For the crippling fear and powerlessness that a loss of friendship can cause, I find that I much rather prefer to be alone than carry the fear of a potential shattering. I like to think that, over the years, I have done a fairly decent job of selecting friends. Perhaps, it is my mother’s prayers that are still availing. I am not unmindful though that as tightly a safe space you create, with human beings, there is a propensity to break rather than to bind. That humans will be humans in their failings. Yet, when friendships go sour, it is still friends who will be the cloth on your back. The baby will not be thrown away with the bath water.


As winter begins in full force and everyone hides indoor behind layers of clothing for warmth, the brutality of the cold forces me to observe, for the first time, the homelessness situation that plagues the city of Oxford just as it does every other city across the United Kingdom. It is a wonder that when I lived in London in 2014, the homeless were barely noticeable to me. I am ashamed that it is during this brutally cold season that my attention is drawn to them. There is a general unwillingness in people to give to them, hiding behind comments like, “They will only use the money to buy weed, anyway, or alcohol.”

When I first arrive Oxford, a crippling fear of being inadequate engulfs me for a long time. A feeling of not being nearly enough, almost there but not quite, aided by the impressive but equally intimidating ancient architecture that stood unmatched, even to those in the capital city of London. I figure that to work in Oxford would mean you may have attended Oxford University. To attend Oxford University would mean that you were top of your class. I was not. There is fear that this city will consume me before I dare to get my foot in the door. This city where even the homeless are smart enough to solve Sudoku and crossword puzzles in newspapers, read literature I considered boring and undecipherable back in school, and pop into random book clubs - dirtied fingers laced around paper coffee cups - to discuss plot, setting, dialogue, and how the story arc worked or did not, with a dexterity I have mostly paid to learn.

In these low moments, it is in the comfort of friendship that I am able to survive. Oddly, I find myself looking to the friendship fostered amongst the homeless, and the loyalty of it has stopped me in my tracks, literally, too many times. Mindlessly, over bottles of freely gotten cheap wine and packed creamy doughnuts that add on calories just by looking, friendships are formed. Bonds are tightened over calculation and recalculation of living costs on smart phones they own, the breakdown on worn-out newspaper for passersby to see if interested. In my time in the city, I would be fascinated and blown away by BI, who told me every single day we saw in front of the Oxfordshire County Library that I had the most beautiful spectacles in the whole world.

“The whole world, really? I would ask, smiling.

“Yes, my friend, the entire, whole, fucking world,” he would say emphatically with a half wink.

And G, who wrote poetry delicately with salt on the side pavement, ironically about love and family and friendship. G helped out in the Wednesday Gloucester Green Farmers Market to get a few coins and possibly food handed down to him. In July, when I said my usual “See you next Wednesday” as he handed me my produce in a blue plastic carrier bag, he said to me, “No, my love, I am going on holiday to Miami.” I am not certain if he was being serious or sarcastic, but I never saw him again.

I would be enthralled by their phenomenal personalities, and eventually come round to seeing them in the eyes of every other homeless person who sat legs crossed at the knee, on a pile of cardboard paper, a used paper coffee cup in front of them for coin collection. Looking over their shoulder from behind, a pair of eyes with the spark nearly gone but with the love still intact, their most treasured possession on earth comforts them. Pets - mostly dogs of a chunky, hairy breed. I wonder about these giant dogs that need to eat perhaps twice as much as their owners. I struggle to reconcile owning and caring for a dog when you have not eaten. I realise soon that, mostly, the homeless keep their pets for the comfort of loyalty, even safety. The stark difference in the extent of it visible in human friendships leave me powerless, scared even.

Humans love with conditions. There are no ways to rationalise the deep horrors of humans to their fellow humans that does not end in: ‘selfishness’. Over the course of my year here, I have heard the homeless say how much of a lifeline their pets are, or how “dog is man’s best friend”. I have often wondered about the depths of betrayal and selfishness to which humans have plunged such that we are unable to give and receive loyalty and support from fellow humans. How badly our hearts have been wounded and our minds unable to connect with a specie an exact replica of us, choosing instead to receive it from pets on the clear basis that their loyalty is by far a better deal.

In my exasperation over this rarity of basic human decency, it occurs to me that back home in my country, though in a slightly different context, the quality of human life is an illusion, and cattle is currently more valuable than the lives of innocent humans, anyway.


Over the months, as I make memories, I re-learn that there is as much beauty in implausible friendships as there is in the plausible ones we often nurture by phone calls and hangouts. That, if the intent of our daily actions are based on love - undiluted and unselfish love that does not humiliate or discredit another person in the process - then this collective energy will reproduce itself enough to ease the turmoil the world is currently in. I learn this in the gentle but reassuring smile of R, sitting across me on a train, her age close to my father’s. I guess. Her voice quietens me. Forces me to be slow to speak but listen intently. It is subtle and somewhat familiar. It quietly reaffirms my invaluable work as a mother. I try to hold a decent conversation about our shared love of literature, and coincidentally our recent move to Oxford, while also ensuring my now three-year-old does not crawl under people’s seats or into another carriage.

We would later become friends. Books plus the continuous struggle to get parenting right would become revisiting topics for us. She would tell me about her now-married son who is expecting a baby but who does not speak to her and with whom she has not had a relationship in years. In her eyes, I see both the pain of the situation and the strength to respect it. I only meet her up in her home once after that eventful train ride, but when I tick off the most courageous steps I took in my year at Oxford, finding the rumpled little piece of paper where she scrawled her email and phone number and sending a text message to let her know that it was indeed lovely to meet her, makes the list. That magical moment of doing the exact opposite of what is usual for my introverted self remains one of my favourite things about being in Oxford.

My other friendships require some effort. Celebration of our pets and kids and new jobs or new purchases over scones and tea. Coffee meetups to exchange small talk and important info, such as how bank-breaking it is to fly with your dogs or how there is a three-for-the-price-of-two sale on salmon in M&S.

MF and I begin a Friday morning coffee ritual at Barefoot Ox. I am a 'once in a blue moon' coffee drinker. She tells me it is because what I have had prior is junk coffee, the McDonalds equivalent of coffee. She shows me her best coffee place in the city. She thinks their coffee is great; I think their cakes are lovely. I still do not drink coffee and she does not eat cake, but it is a perfect cosy café to nurture friendship. Relaxed enough for our similar banter about the lousiness of both the Nigerian and Egyptian government and equally as sacred to unpack personal struggles when the coffee or hot chocolate, in my case, has settled. Her nearly ten-year struggle with infertility, the overwhelming feeling of incompetence I struggle with trying to raise a child, and both our questions around women being able to have it all.

We conclude that living the best version of yourself at whatever point of the journey you are at is what is important. Every week, I pause to soak in the generous luck I am afforded with this friendship, where vulnerability and strength explain themselves to me in a way I have never quite known, and only faith reassures any hopelessness. I learn that hope does not mean that what we want will necessarily happen tomorrow. It, however, has power to ensure that our basic survival instinct to anticipate, to expect earnestly, and to create tomorrows that we cannot yet see, does not die.

Once, I find myself in an unusual conflict and at a loss whether to ever introduce MF to another friend I have made who has unequivocally let me know that she wants nothing to do with children ever. I debate if it will cause friction. If this major difference in opinion would find a meeting point somewhere. If this yearning for something on one hand and the dismissal of it on the other will intersect and cause a commotion at the centre. Though there does not end up being that crossover moment where I introduce them, mostly due to MF’s work schedule, I leave Oxford certain that I made two exceptional friends who would have been compassionate enough to understand the legitimacy of each other’s journey. Who at the centre of their different views to life would have had respect as an anchor.


In the first week of December, there is snow in the forecast. Everyone is thrilled. We are like children waiting to open gifts on Christmas morning. It has not snowed in the UK in seven years. In the year I had my daughter, it came close by a frost full. Gathered round a big table in J’s apartment in Abingdon, at what is supposed to be a potluck, I introduce the four friends I have made since I arrived to the legend that is Jollof rice (the Nigerian version) as we have a 'waiting for the snow' party.

We have dinner and make Christmas wreaths from scratch with hangers and pine cones, holly bush, yarn and everything else foraged by J and MD days before. For a minute, I feel like I am in an episode of The Real Housewives of some city, without all the ratchetings. It is the weirdest, most diverse friendship I have ever formed, making it easily susceptible to disaster, but there is a truthfulness about it that I love. We sit around with home-made mulled wine in our mugs, waiting patiently for snow. Our eyes are earnest, as if the experience of snow will somehow seal our time in Oxford as valid.

MB, born and raised in New Jersey, informs us you can always tell when it will snow by what the air feels like. We send her out through the backdoor to inhale the air. She returns to say there is a brittleness to the air and so, yes, it will snow. It does not snow that night. But by morning, it does. The flakes are light and so do not settle much, but we take it with both hands. MB’s prediction is spot on and we all send photos of our transformed front yards to our telegram group like excited little children. That weekend, it snows properly - eighteen inches or more of it - and we are delightfully trapped indoors. White blankets the city to the bridges and the parks and the train tracks. The Oxford portion of the Thames freezes up and nowhere is accessible. The noise of children sledging and adults reliving their childhood with snow fights fills the air from block to block. It is a happy time. A perfect one. It seems as though all homes agree in a secret meeting to a pumpkin recipe, the aroma coming through kitchen windows and drafts. The city is infused with the smell of mulled wine and minced pie and Christmas is indeed the most wonderful time of the year. I tell myself that if I remember nothing of Oxford, I will remember this magical and enchanting time.


Three months later, just as the city begins shedding off winter weight like a bug going through reverse metamorphosis, and flowers are beginning to bloom, I sink slowly into a depression. There is colour and sunshine everywhere, still, I am unable to go through a photosynthesis. I struggle with my work. I struggle to be a parent. I struggle for my life. I feel my body collapsing into itself, piece by piece, my mind forcefully ejecting everything that Oxford has been about. As if to, in some way, ensure that I never return to it and, if I ever did, it would be to a void. Everything changes and despite having lived in many cities, my life plays out to me as before Oxford and after it.

I grieve a loss. A loss of faith and friendship. A loss of life as I used to know it. I grieve to the point of devastation, where everything halts abruptly - eating, sleeping, running, writing, being. Everything that my life circles around, including my proclaimed love for reading, a deeply intimate experience that I have cultivated since childhood and isolated even from every other thing that forms a critical part of my human experience. To be handicapped by this powerlessness in my mental state while living in the historic and academic atmosphere of a city like Oxford, traversing across the exact same spots where some of the world’s greatest and brightest minds have gone before me, is the biggest atrocity of my time in the city.

I come out of that depressive bout wondering – What could possibly top that?

Worse, I am unable to receive comfort, even from my sacred groove of friends. I learn that our friends are our very backbone when we experience the hardest time, but some things are so difficult you cannot tell a friend for fear that even they will crumble and be unable to hold you up.

Oxford feels like a lie, the entirety of it. I want to pinpoint the exact moment it began to feel so. I replay it all, in slow motion. It is like watching the replay of the reason a false red card was awarded in a football match, very keenly, over and again. You want to see the exact moment, the exact push, the exact jerk, the exact whatever that made the referee blow his whistle. You do not. And even if you do, you cannot undo the already blown whistle. You are left with a reaction you have no control over. One minute, your life is a perfect, untainted blanket of snow, the next, it becomes a dirty, slippery, dangerous slush. I feel hopelessness like a burning sensation, the smell of it gagging my throat like a noose.

My days became a fiesta of recalling pain from a deep and sorrowful vault of memory, a rumble of emotions rising up from deep inside me. Shame, bitterness, anger, disappointment, regret, more shame, all causing a storm spiralling into my throat. Not until I open my mouth to let the storm out as hot tears streaming all over my face do I feel a semblance of sanity, only to have to go through it all again.

I am exhausted.

To say my life fell into shambles is to understate the degree of chaos erupting inside. Yet, the thing about the show called life is that it must go on, with or without you. And here is another thing about the process of grieving any loss. It does not move you away from it. You may feel yourself navigating away from the pain when, suddenly, you feel like you have been flung right back into its hands again but, eventually, you give yourself permission to make a choice. Your choice. The choice of celebrating your victorious come through on the other side of pain, never forgetting exactly what it was like but knowing it now from a place of succour and even compassion.

I give myself the permission to see and receive the nod and smile from the elderly couple who walk their dog past us as I go to drop off my daughter at nursery. Our commute overlapping very often implied that if we met them as we descended the bridge into Walton Street, our pace was good enough to get to school in good time. If we met them before ascending the bridge, however, then we needed to speed up because, for sure, we were running late. They had a level of discipline I aspired to. Discipline enough to stick to the same time every morning for their walk. It made me look forward to this sweet spot in my day that involved exchanging no words. Albeit unintentionally, I find myself fighting to leave home in time. It required no effort to exude love in such a different way, and the idea of a pure and delicate thing formed without dilution is a magical thing I will treasure from my time here.

I take a break from the city and from the life that I used to know. I take on yoga - inhaling progress with each warrior pose, exhaling pain with each downward dog. I resume working and reading. I begin a short course in writing, struggling through each class but clinging onto it for dear life.


By May, there is an overwhelming number of summer and end-of-school-year activities in my inbox, making me angsty. But, when I am able to call my daughter’s ballet school owner to order over a dissatisfactory, nearly racist comment, very gently, without going off on her, I figure the coast is starting to get clear. That the turmoil in my head recognises a lighthouse in sight. Summer is the lighthouse. Although it arrives with unbearable heat – sticky hands and smelly bodies to show for it – there is the incredible luck of being able to have ice cream on a cone, lying in the warm grass under the shade of an oak tree. Ice cream makes everything better. There is no lie in this. The wholeness of dime bar crunch vanilla and the contrast of a refreshing mint chocolate chip flavour. Barbecue smoke rises to the heavens and the rivers are full of shirtless bodies and shrieking girls.

It occurs to me how peculiar of Oxford to reveal itself to me in calculated phases of roughly three months each, like going through a semester per time, so I can possibly take it all in, gently. The good, the ugly, the pleasant. By August, when I begin the painful chore of packing up, for the first time, I have no anxiety about the next city. When, occasionally, a painful remembrance of how tough it can get crashes over me like sudden waves of sea water, I remind myself that no matter the city, you still have to wait till tomorrow to find out what tomorrow will bring.

I wait.

"

ABOUT TOPE

Tope is an editor and a writer whose work explores the delicateness of love and effects of loss on people. In 2015, she was one of the 25 selected to participate in the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop. A literature enthusiast and collector of books, she runs a book club for kids age 3-6 in her spare time.

Image: Haneefah Adam for The Book Banque.

This memoir may not be republished, modified nor stored in a retrivial system without prior written permission from the author, Tope Owolabi, or The Book Banque. All rights reserved.

 

Kemefu

 

An original short story by writer, teacher and speaker Lola Busari, originally published (in print) in her collection entitled Papa's Little Girls.

 
"

I

t was raining heavily on the morning that Kemefu decided to get out. Her fake passport was already hidden securely beneath the folds of her head- tie and she was fully confident that she wouldn’t get caught. Not again. Not this time. This was her last chance. Her large brown eyes contemplated the droplets of rain as they exploded against the small window in the downstairs landing, like millions of mini water bombs. For the 57 th time that day, she raised a scarred hand to her head tie, confirming the position of her secret with a swift, yet firm pat.

The faint sound of soft snoring trailed through the long corridor behind her, stinging her ears as she made her way towards the front door of her home. Tears began to form at the corners of her eyes and her breath began to quicken with each step that her bruised feet dared to take. Reaching the door now, Kemefu refused to turn around and look back at the empty corridor. She could feel the weight of the open space in the passage way - heavy on her back – like a burden – one that was speaking to her – singing to her – a condemning tune that penetrated through to her soul.

Again, the sound of gentle snoring coming from the two large bedrooms where her children lay stung her ears. That melody of reproach sailed out towards her, collided with her frame, her emotions, her heart, as it crescendoed and smacked her against the oak door. Kemefu fell against it shaking. She was a shivering mess, trying to shield herself from this inexorable musical opus and scratching and clawing at her skin which had now become prickly – not with heat or sweat – but with guilty anxiety.

After only five minutes of this poignant oeuvre, it was as if in a trance that Kemefu finally did it. She could feel herself opening the large oak door. Could feel her feet carrying her slim, hunched frame across the threshold onto the front porch. Could feel herself watching the clear raindrops as they splashed against and ran down the green leaves of the well-kept plants that lined their lawn – that same lawn where her husband had publically disgraced her before the whole neighbourhood. That was the day he broke her left arm. And her Spirit. Of course the arm had eventually healed with time but there’s nothing that a sling can do for one’s spirit.

She could feel herself closing the front door behind her. The distinct click of the latch as it shut, confirmed it for her. Confirmed that she was finally leaving behind all of the hurt, the cruelty and whatever shards of love that had managed to survive in that place. However, that haunting tune, laced with the soft wailing snoring had managed to escape from the house.

Kemefu didn’t understand how because she had ensured that all of the windows were closed and she didn’t recall hovering in the doorway long enough to let even the cool air from their air conditioned home escape into the wet humid world beyond. But the tune was out. It had gotten out just as she had. Whether it had seeped through the faint cracks beneath the window sills, been puffed out of the chimney or even if the brick house itself had taken breath and exhaled the tune from within its core…it was out. The tune was out of the house and inside Kemefu. She closed her eyes to the life around her and she could feel it banging out rhythms deep within her blood stream.

Minims, quavers and crochets - competing with her heartbeat for her attention - without cessation. This tune was coming strong and hard and rhyming with her blood! But there was nothing she could do. Despite this haunting tune, she would not turn back to her home, to her children. What use was she to them dead? One more mistake and he would surely kill her.

His reputation meant a lot more to him than anything else. “Being a general is no joke you know! I have responsibilities and an image to uphold! How could it have made sense to you to prepare plantain and egg to my fellow generals! Isn’t that the food of peasants? Or do you want them to think we are poor? Is that it? You want them to think that we don’t know how to live and to eat well!”

She tried to block out last night’s confrontation as she made her way to the car but the pain in her lower back refused to let her forget. Her husband, angry with the meal of fried plantain and egg, had reheated the remaining oil from the pan that she had used to cook, taken it to their bedroom and slowly poured it down her back as she slept. He had firmly held her down as she screamed and struggled. He would not let her go until every last drop of the piping hot oil that she had used to prepare such a menial meal, was on her body.

The tight black skin on her back, fleshed out as it sizzled, swelled and bubbled up with a hiss. And the heightened sounds of her cries were accompanied by the overpowering smell of burning flesh. Her children ran from their rooms, banging profusely on the hard, locked wooden door, begging and crying out, “Daddy please! Daddy! Leave her! Abeg! Leave our mother alone oh!”

On hearing his boys using the word “Abeg” and ending their pleas with the word “Oh!” Kemefu’s husband became more outraged. He wasn’t paying for his sons to receive a good education at a private international school, only for them to be mixing base, common-place colloquial phrases like “Abeg” and “Oh” with their English. It was their mother’s fault, he conceded. That’s exactly how she spoke. But what else could he have expected from nothing but a bush girl? He only had himself to blame.

When his parents advised him to marry someone from his university, he refused, claiming that an educated woman with her own opinions and her own intellectual circles was to be no wife of his. How would he control her? There was just no way! At the thought of this, ensuring that all of the oil had now been drained on to his screaming wife, he dealt her a powerful blow with the now empty frying pan, crashing it down upon her head before dropping it on the floor by the bed. Breathless, he clambered off of her, rolled across to his side of the bed and warned her that her punishment would be much more severe, should she even try to consider using this episode as an excuse to not perform her Wifely duties that night when he was to call on her.

Now, the large white jeep was waiting for her in a side road further away from the house. Kemefu quickly ran towards it, using her handbag to shield her head from the rain. She climbed into the passenger seat, leaned across and hugged General Mandu who sat behind the wheel, ready to take off. He had arranged for her husband to be at an early morning training, so as to eradicate the problem of his watchful eye during her attempt to escape.

Nevertheless, they had to be quick as they were not to be seen by anyone. ‘You have the passport right?’ he said as he reached for the gear stick with a large black hand. His voice was so deep. Kemefu stared at him in the dim interior of the car. She thought to herself, this here is a real man. Strong, with a gentle soul. With the back of her scarred hand, she wiped away the cool raindrops that were trickling down her forehead. "I have it."

Her head tie was wrapped securely and her fake passport was safe. The car drove off with a grating sound of the engine. They exchanged few words between them but just the fact that this man - a general in rank just above her husband’s division – was so willing to help her, made Kemefu feel like she’d known him on a much more intimate level. She would trust him with her life.

The jeep travelled far out beyond the outskirts of the city and the rain poured down more heavily the further away they drove. As they pulled out onto the muddy tracks of the village roads, the rain had ceased to rescind. In fact, it began to pour uncontrollably, the most it had rained after a completely dry spell of sixth months. Kemefu believed it was a sign. A sign of a great cleansing. A purging of the misery that her husband had brought her. She looked out of the window, admiring the beauty of the landscape. It was as though God had dipped his paint brush into the oceans of the world and painted over the scenery with a watery veil.

The once dry dusty roads upon which hard brown toes had strolled and heavy muddy boots had marched - craved to be drenched whilst stretched – across the village paths under the blazing rays of the African sun. And the tall god-like trees seemed to spread out their palms and tiptoe just enough to taste the finest of the sky’s pearly drops. And the people!

Kemefu was astounded by how happy they all were to enjoy the rainfall. They had been waiting a good six months for it – excitement gripped their hearts on that day when the heavenly banks had finally burst and pelted down all over the dry, parched land. She watched with delight as the villagers, old and young, all ran out in to the road, applauding and running alongside the jeep as it trudged along the wet muddy roads.

General Mandu locked the car doors. Kemefu looked at him, with a puzzled expression on her face. “Safety precaution. You can never trust these guys…some of them are pure crazy” he said. They both chuckled at this as they watched the villagers singing and dancing with their dark gaping mouths and wide eyes – they had all poured into the muddy streets like a flood of shiny dominoes - their glistening black skin sparkling as droplets of rain mingled with their sweat and dripped from their bodies like oil.

Their happiness made Kemefu think of her little boys. She could picture herself with them playing outside and enjoying the rain whilst their father was away at work. They would never be allowed to do that in his presence though. He would make it perfectly clear that it is beneath them to be dancing like wild monkeys outside in the rain for all to see. At least her husband would not grab her boys by the back of their necks and hold down their heads in a bucket full of the rain water, forcing them down until they almost drowned.

He had done just that to her in their second year of marriage. It happened one afternoon when he arrived home from work. He was jogging from the car to the house, shielding himself from the rain with his General’s Beret, when he saw her just sitting there outside on their front lawn in the pouring rain, claiming that she liked the way the rain felt on her skin, when he enquired as to why she was there. But no, he would never do anything like that to the boys thank God. He loved them too much. She missed them terribly now and the haunting tune that had mixed with the rhythm of her heart began to play loudly in her ears, drowning out everything else.

That’s why she didn’t hear General Mandu’s words as he pulled up outside an old, abandoned stone building. She could faintly hear his voice as though he were far away. She could make out that it was something about how she was planning to recompense him but Kemefu wasn’t paying him any attention. Her focus was on her boys. Her sweet little boys. She was so far away from them now. Her little boys…General Mandu’s large black hand came down heavily upon her face as he reached over, knocking off her head tie and attempting to unbutton her shirt.

He pushed her back into her seat. In a moment of desperate confusion and despair, she tried to open her passenger door but it was locked. She remembered how he had previously locked it when the singing and dancing villagers had come out onto the road. Kemefu fought back, reaching for his face and scratching at his eyes. She didn’t understand what was happening or why it was happening but she hadn’t come this far to give up now. General Mandu was trying to unbuckle his seat belt so that he could get a better hold of the situation.

Kemefu quickly reached for one of the biros from the dashboard and thrust it deep into his right eye. He screamed out loud in agony, instinctively raising his hands to his eyes. In his distressed state, she stretched past him and flicked the auto lock switch. General Mandu swerved round in his seat, still struggling with the buckle of his seatbelt and trying to snatch at Kemefu’s wrist as she flung herself out of the jeep. Her head tie had come undone and dropped to the ground along with her fake passport but she didn’t care. She just kept on running. Her feet slipped and skidded as she ran along the muddy soiled roads and turned off into a small clearing which opened up to a forest that separated the city from the villages.

Kemefu didn’t know where she was or which direction she was supposed to be going in. She was lost. But she didn’t care. She was lost and she didn’t care? And she had just stabbed an army general in the eye. It all sounded so ridiculous to her but it was the truth. She began to laugh. Feeling winded and sore, she kept on laughing, uncontrollably now. She could feel the rain on her skin. She loved it. She was free! She was carefree! Just like her boys when they were lost in play. Her boys. She saw them in her mind’s eye. The haunting tune began to play again – pumping with her blood – its steady beat accompanying the rhythm of her steps as she tried to find the long road back to her life – to her loving boys – to His Hate.



About Lola

Lola is an English lecturer, publisher, editor and relationship adviser with a particular interest in marriage, motherhood and children's education. Lola was an award recipient at the 19th annual GAB (Gathering of Africa's Best) for Youth Empowerment.

Image: Sophia Dawson.

This short story may not be republished, modified nor stored in a retrivial system without prior written permission from the author, Lola Busari, or The Book Banque. All rights reserved.

 

What The World Does To Daughters

 

A review of What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah.

Cover image: Farafina Books; Art: Victor Ehikhamenor.

I

n 2014, a friend sent me a link to Lesley Nneka Arimah’s short story The Future Looks Good, published in Pank Magazine. I read it twice, then I put my tablet away and waited for my heart to stop racing. For a while, it did not. A mix of wonder and envy sluiced through me, pooling into a question: just how did she do it? Four years later, with the publication of her debut collection, What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky, Arimah has again stunned me with the radiance of her prose.

In this collection of twelve sharply humorous and sometimes heartbreaking stories, Arimah tells myriad miniature stories about the lives of women. The author flits across continents and realities, gathering threads to weave a brilliant tapestry of the lives of Nigerian girls and women, both home and abroad. Shying away from the stereotypical sympathetic female protagonist, her stories portray girls and women in their varied and complex selves.

Arimah gives us girls as manageably pretty; girls who demand and take more than they are offered; wild and disappointing daughters; those who have learned to protect themselves from their mothers; those who must learn how to mother; mothers who hoard love and those who suffocate; and mothers who do not know how to love at all. In all these women, the author finds a way to subvert societal notions of what it means to be a good daughter, a good wife, a good mother, or a good woman.

 

MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS

In an interview with The Rumpus, Lesley Nneka Arimah revealed that in writing her collection of stories, she found herself drawn to the “many different ways family dynamics can manifest.” One familial relation that this collection seems to focus on is the relationship between mothers and daughters. Generally, the mother-daughter relationship can be fraught with tensions. In this collection, magnified under strict societal rules and pressure to be ‘good’ mothers who raise ‘good’ daughters, the relationships become landmines, a source of worry and disappointment to the mothers, and painful pressure to the daughters. Many of the daughters in the stories share a similarity: the propensity to disappoint their mothers.

Bibi, in The Future Looks Good, earns her mother’s ire by ignoring her advice. When Bibi realises her mistake and returns home, her reunion with her mother is not tender and loving. Neither is the one between Uche and her back-from-the-dead mother in Second Chances. In Wild, War Stories and Light, mothers try to smoothen the rougher edges of their teenage daughters, so that they can better fit into the mold that society has pre-designed for good daughters, good girls. To do this, they try to flatten their daughters, make them fold themselves away and subdue the bright flames of their personality by convincing them that the world needs them to be less.

We teach girls shame ... They grow up to be women who silence themselves. They grow up to be women who cannot say what they truly think.
— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists

To paint an accurate portrait of the lives of Nigerian girls and women, Arimah addresses the culture of shame and the ways it manifests. In Buchi’s Girls, Buchi struggles, in the wake of a heavy tragedy, to do what she thinks a good mother must do, and realises too late that she is hurting her relationship with her daughter Louisa. Glory, the eponymous protagonist of Glory, despite her forceful personality and tendency to blurt out exactly what is on her mind, finds herself biting her tongue when she has sex with her boyfriend, Thomas.

Though Arimah said in The Rumpus interview that she wanted to explore the many ways family dynamics can manifest, this collection seems to focus solely on the negative, without any example of a healthy, well-balanced mother-daughter relationship to hold up as foil. This is noteworthy. Perhaps, it is impossible for such relationships to exist under the heavy cloak of shame and pressure to be ‘good’ that permeates Nigerian society.

 

HUMOUR AND THE HUMANISATION OF WOMEN

Arimah’s characters are exquisitely crafted, but one in particular struck me: Glory. Born with “a caul of misfortune hanging over her face,” Glory makes all the wrong decisions, says and does the wrong things, and cannot resist a low thrum of schadenfreude at the misfortune of others—even people she claims to care for. She is small and petty in the most ordinary ways. Yet, I found myself inexplicably drawn to this character, empathising with her, seeing myself as her. Here, Arimah turns away from that easy-to-follow route of writing likeable characters.

Instead, she creates a character who, ordinarily, should repulse the reader. Yet, I rooted for Glory. This, the author achieves through the use of delightfully droll humour. Arimah displays masterful dexterity in deploying a particular brand of humour I like to refer to as ‘Achebean.’ It is difficult to write humour into any work, but this brand is particularly troublesome. Chinua Achebe is, of course, the master of this technique as can be evinced from the timeless A Man of the People. With this collection, however, Arimah shows that she is a force to be reckoned with.

On the surface, Arimah’s use of humour serves a more mainstream purpose: introducing levity to relieve tension in the stories. The last story, Redemption, narrated by an unnamed 13-year-old girl, proves to be Arimah at her hilarious best. Though she is dealing with sexual abuse, underage domestic workers and the blossoming of forbidden feelings between two teenage girls, she makes the reader laugh with lines such as: “Mrs. Ajayi was very old, creeping on that age when life begins to lose all meaning, fifty, I think.”

On a closer look, the humour in the stories does far more. By employing deadpan humour and off-the-cuff quips which are not overly concerned with themselves, Arimah does the very necessary job of humanising women. With an unrelentingly witty internal monologue, she creates characters like Glory—not always likeable but definitely relatable. Perhaps the best thing about this collection is that Arimah imbues all her female characters with what Lilith in Marlon JamesThe Book of Night Women calls ‘true womanness:’ the freedom “to be as terrible as you wish.” She kicks away the uncomfortable pedestal of the ‘good’ woman, the ‘good’ character, and shows us, through the lens of humour, how terrible people can be in the most quotidian ways.

 

MAGICAL REALISM

Some academics and literary enthusiasts might have a problem with Arimah’s collection being labelled as magical realism. In the academic community, the term ‘magical realism’ is widely accepted as the purview of Latin-American writers, who explore colonialism and postcolonialism by drawing on mythical or fantastical elements in an otherwise mundane setting. Critics label Arimah’s work as surrealist fiction or slipstream—a term best defined by American writer, Kelly Link. Arimah herself has no problem with whatever name is given or not given to her work, “as long as what is said is understood.”

I, however, consider what Arimah does as more than ‘magical realism.’ There is a fluid blending of the fantastic and the realistic, so that the realistic stands out in stark relief. In doing this, she shows the baser side of human character. People like to believe the best of themselves. We like to think that, given the chance, we will prove ourselves as unequivocally good. However, there are stories in this collection that use fantastic elements to disprove this belief.

Stories that ask what you would do if you were given a second chance with the mother to whom you were an utter disappointment? And, what you would do if the world turned on its head and, suddenly, you were in possession of the power to relieve people of their grief, pain, and anxiety? Most would like to think that they would do the ‘right’ thing. With Uche in Second Chances and Nneoma in What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky, Arimah shows that there is no single right thing, and each choice made has consequences—the terrible cost of being human.

This collection is a stellar mix of singularly unique and brilliant stories. At the heart of it lies Who Will Greet You At Home—a story that deserves special mention. Using a brilliant combination of fantasy, humour and intricate world building, Arimah captures the texture of yearning—for love, belonging, and material wealth. Though all the other stories in the collection can hold their own, none quite live up to the exquisite high that is Who Will Greet You At Home. I consider this collection to be a first-rate work of literature, and a brilliant debut for an author with a sterling career ahead of her.

 

A review copy of Lesley Nneka Arimah's What It Means When A Man To Fall From The Sky was kindly sent to The Book Banque by Farafina Books (an imprint of Kachifo Limited), in exchange for a review. All thoughts expressed in this review are honest, and that of the writer, Naaki.