(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan
The air felt deliciously warm, and my skin began to burn, a sensation I’d not felt in six years. In my country, it was always hot, seldom cold, and never freezing. Unlike Idaho where I was coming from.
I stepped into the arrival lounge, into the cool world of air conditioners and felt temporary relief. I was surprised that I had forgotten how it felt to be hot, sweaty, miserable.
Of course no one was waiting for me; no one knew I was arriving. For a minute or so, I lounged against a wall, watching the comings and goings around me, drinking in the scenery.
Even while I had been in Nigeria, it hadn’t been my scene. I hadn’t been rich enough to hobnob with the cream of the society, had never boarded a plane until that sunny day six years ago, had never even been to Lagos, the commercial nerve-centre of my country before then.
It began almost like a joke.
Walking the dusty road home from school, telling not-so-funny jokes to Bade, my best friend, I’d stepped on a floating piece of paper. Then I’d crumpled it to give it better weight and had kicked it the rest of the way home.
Later in the evening, as my mother fried gaari in the kitchen and my father sat in the low parlour with his drinking buddies, I’d searched for what to read in vain.
Our house contained no reading surprises. I didn’t have textbooks for school; I was lucky enough to even be in school. I was the first child, the only boy, and my father farmed extra hard, slaved all week long to send me to school.
I had a sharp mind, one that constantly agitated over what books to read, novels where I was swept to distant lands I’d never been, that I might never go physically. In the books that I borrowed from our meagre school library, I traveled to the prairie lands of the old USA, to Canadian canyons, to the Australian outback, to English castles and glades.
That evening, I stepped outside my room and immediately came upon the paper I’d kicked all the way home. I stooped, picked it up, unwrapped it.
It was a cutting from a week-old newspaper.
Students all over my state were invited to send in articles about the United States, the aim of the exercise being to examine how well read secondary school students were and how knowledgeable we were about other countries.
For the very first time in my life, I wrote an article, not because I at that time knew the prize involved, but because it felt liberating to commit knowledge to paper, to test the boundaries of my imagination.
I wrote late into the night, by candle light, the words tumbling out of places I never knew even existed.
The following day, I walked to Ilesha, the town nearest to us, the one that boasted a post office. When I slid my enveloped entry into the receiving tray, I felt free, unchained.
Four months to the day, a postman brought the letter that would change my life.
I was the winner of the competition, was invited to a dinner with the state governor in Osogbo at which ceremony I would be able to choose at which US University I intended to study.
A two-year long preparation, waiting to finish my secondary education, applying to schools that taught writing, being accepted at Idaho State University, buying clothes, attending press conferences with the governor who was determined to show the world the difference he was making in the life of an ordinary village boy with the aid of his wife who was a born American.
And then that day.
I waved goodbye to my parents and sisters in the village, travelled to Osogbo where I slept in the governor’s lodge and was presented with my passport and visa. The following day, I was driven to Lagos, put aboard a plane.
I arrived Idaho in December, in the deadest of winters, the land completely obscured by snow. I was cold, chilled to my bones, as I would be for the next six years. Despite winter coats, despite electric fires, despite everything. I guess I was too much of an African to be used to anything but the yellow sun.
Shaking my head as if to clear it of cobwebby thoughts, I drew myself back to the present. I must have been standing in the same spot for more than ten minutes. Because a man was staring strangely at me, shaking his head.
I picked up my box and stepped outside, into the waiting area of taxis.
“The airport hotel.” I said to a driver whose cap was pulled low over his head and who appeared to want nothing more than just sit where he was, doing nothing.
“A thousand Naira.”
Incredulity coloured the whites of my eyes. A thousand naira? Then I remembered he was not talking in dollars. One thousand Naira was only $8.33.
At the hotel, I gave him ten dollars, signed in at the concierge’s, and finally sank into the warm softness of the hotel bed.
I woke up the next morning to a yellow sky and a dish of white rice and palm oil soup. It was good to be home.
Six years in a foreign land where things worked as they should had wisened me. I looked at my village with new eyes. Dusty roads, more mud houses than concrete, little children that ran about naked or almost so.
The taxi stopped in front of my father’s house and I stepped out, paid the fare and walked hesitantly towards the front porch.
An old man sat there, cleaning his teeth with a piece of chewing stick, spitting at a dog that lay at his feet and refused to budge despite the missiles.
“Excuse me…” I began to say before I realised that the old man was not an old man at all; it was my father gone to seed.
He looked up and squinted uncomprehendingly at me for a bit. Then his face blossomed into a large smile, full of yellow teeth.
“Gboyega?” He asked.
I hadn’t been called Gboyega in five years. One year of students and lecturers alike tripping their tongues all over my name at Idaho State had necessitated a change. To George.
He grabbed me around the waist and I was about to hug him back when I remembered that in Africa, in my village, children prostrate to their parents, not hug them.
I dropped to my knees, genuflected and allowed myself to be lifted up.
“You’ve grown so big. How are you? You never even said you were coming? You…Come, your mother is in the backyard.”
As usual, Mama was frying gaari, huge beads of sweat glistening on her dark face. When she saw me, she turned the shade of a colour hard to define, closed her eyes, opened then again, and asked, “Gboyega?”
Again I prostrated, again I was pulled up, again I was pulled into a warm embrace, one that smelled of cassava and sweat.
“Good God, see how you’ve grown.”
I’d not eaten gaari in all the time I’d been gone, and the smell of the one frying taunted my nostrils. I took some from the huge frying pan, transferred it to my mouth and ruminated on how heavenly it was to be home, even if it was for s short while.
It was no longer fun to be home. The relentless heat (and our house had no air conditioner, only the parlour had a rickety ceiling fan) was unbearable, and so was the tiny grits of sand that found their way everywhere; into my nostrils, underneath my clothing, in between my teeth and onto my tongue, into my hair.
Then there was the business of passing waste. I’d been born, twenty-five years ago, to the knowledge of our pit latrine, to the drone of flies as one did one’s business. Six years ago, I started unlearning my intimacy with the pit latrine. Got used to the water system.
The first day after I returned, using the pit latrine was an adventure. Two days later, it was an inconvenience. By the fourth day, it was a major irritation.
Our one TV, the one Baba bought after I left for the US, was black and white and had to be slapped severally before the picture would stop jumping.
In ten days, I wished I had not planned to stay for a month, was longing for the coldness and starkness of Idaho streets, the warmth of my bed-sit, the intellectuality of my fellow writing students.
On the eleventh day, Baba and I had a serious talk. He was the first to knock on my door in the morning, his perpetual chewing stick stuck in his mouth.
“Oluwagboyega.” He called me by my full name as I staggered awake. “I’ve been meaning to have this talk with you for a while.” He said as he lowered his body onto my childhood bed.
“Good morning Baba.” I managed to say as I sat up.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you. Are you planning to come and stay back in the village after you finish from school?”
I would finish school the coming year, was vacillating between staying back in Idaho and coming back to Nigeria. But never, not once had I considered coming back to the village. If I ever came back, it would be to Lagos. For heaven’s sake, what would a writer do in a village that seldom got newspapers?
I weighed my answer carefully. Coming back or not depended on many things that I could not yet tell Baba, one of which was Valerie. To a white, pampered girl, even Lagos would be a jungle. How could I bring her to Iperindo?
“I am still thinking about it, Baba.”
He scratched his head, cleared his voice and said the most unimaginable thing. “Because I was thinking if you were planning to move back here, you would have to pull down this house and build a more befitting one.”
I bit back on what would have been an abrasive reply and nodded in agreement, too sleepy to even contemplate argument.
I never stayed the whole month I’d intended to. Much as I loved my parents and my siblings, there was an unease that constantly sat on my shoulders. Of not fitting in, of not remembering the customs I was supposed to.
Twenty days after I arrived, I was on another plane headed towards the US, towards Valerie, towards life as I had come to know it.