Copyright © 2001 by Elaine Orr, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.
- We are on a round drive edged with trees. They seem to be leaning slightly inward as if in sympathy or as if they hoped to overhear our faint speech. They were large trees brimming with leaves and yet they threw no shadow except directly underneath. So I think it must have been late morning or even noon and I suspect it was a week day because no one else was around. Looking down at my dress I saw the color already fading out of it. My own skin seemed to be evaporating so that the pale blue of the dress and the light salmon of my skin were swirling away down the laterite road. I did not know what it was that had left us there, my father and sister and me, standing as if for a photograph in front of our station wagon. We might have been there waiting like that for minutes or for hours.
- My sister Becky was straight and prim in her cotton dress, her short brown hair parted on one side and held with a barrette, her mouth closed tightly and her brief hands holding the pleats in her dress. My own more wispy blond hair was parted in the middle in what my mother called a "pixie" cut. I had begun by this time to grow out of my childhood plumpness. Still, my eyes only reached my Daddy's waist and looking up at him through that hard African sunshine was like looking up into the face of God. You had to cup your hands and squint and still you didn't see much. I would have had to back up to see him properly but I was staying close. Besides I knew how he looked in his short-sleeved cotton shirt and khaki shorts and high-top socks and laced shoes, everything proper and fine and selected with care, his tall, thin body and whimsical face with the dent in the middle of his chin like someone had pressed a pencil into it. Up close I saw his hands, his clean square nails, his gold wedding band and his silver wrist watch. He is a man for all African seasons. I already know he will never be ill.
- I stand in my shorts and shirt with my stomach pushed slightly forward and touch my hair which is hot on my head. We could be in church the way we're standing here. I might be listening to my mother playing the piano in the seminary chapel, Crown Him With Many Crowns, and the sonorous Yoruba voices swelling in deliberate praise.
- But we are not in church. We are standing in front of Frances Jones Convalescent Center, a lying-in hospital for white American missionaries in Ogbomosho, Nigeria, the very building in which I was born in 1954, in the middle of the rainy season, a month overdue, just as the guavas were ripening. Frances Jones is a fancy place where important meals are served on white tablecloths by Yoruba men in stiff uniforms with gold buttons. But we are not here for dinner.
- My mother has been gone from home and we have come to get her. I am not afraid. I have no cause to be. I have my family. We live in a pretty bungalow up on the other side of the mission compound. My father is a big man at the Baptist hospital: the business manager. My mother teaches in the nursing school, but more than that, she rules our home and all the other missionaries think she is very wise. The two of them stand above Becky and me like umbrellas in the afternoon sun. So even though my father seems wistful and quieter than usual, I am not afraid. I am simply perplexed because, after all, nothing is ever wrong with our family. And I am a little anxious, not so much about what had happened because I don't really know what it means that my mother has had a miscarriage. Anxious, instead, to please, to strike just the right balance between melancholy and cheer.
- It was that year and maybe that very day that Chinua Achebe's slender novel, Things Fall Apart, came off the presses in Great Britain. None of us knew about that novel. What we were hoping for was to put things back together.
- Looking back, I think it was on that day I first became aware of an incompleteness, an emptiness somewhere, a gap between parents' love and the future they could not secure. It wasn't just the baby my mother had been carrying, a fatality from a bout with malaria. It was the knowledge that things could go wrong. I had the vague and unsettling sense that we had somehow lost ourselves, the perfection of the four of us.
- Finally my mother appeared in the doorway of Frances Jones, leaning on someone's arm. Everything showed in a burst of white light as if we were caught in the elongated moment of a camera's flash. Perhaps after this event I felt even more intensely the sweetness I tasted in our home because now it seemed a more elusive thing.
- West Africans, traditionally, believe in the co-existence of spirits before birth, human beings, and ancestors who live beyond this life. In other words, all times are one and spirits never cease to exist. Born to die to the human life, the abiku child is said to belong to a society of spirit children who call it back to their embrace. So now I know that the lost baby was abiku and I consider the wanderings of that spirit child who almost came but did not come and whose sudden absence marked my consciousness like the cut of a knife on a young tree and I think that near-infant must still be in Nigeria, perhaps in the vicinity of those trees at Frances Jones. When I think of that lying-in hospital now, I imagine it empty of human action with only the spirits remaining. I imagine screened doors flapping in the wind, leaves piled up in the corners of rooms, and lizards, unmolested, sleeping in a sun-lit hall. I doubt if any of this conjecture is true. It's just that I have always been aware -- at least as far back as I can remember -- that the life I was born to could not have lasted. Or at least I think I have because my sense of life has always been that I could make few claims on what I loved the most.
- Of course our abiku is not alone. Other missionary women lost babies in Ogbomosho. And the Nigerian women in that town lost many hundreds and thousands of babies. Long before Frances Jones, the first Baptist missionaries to Nigeria lost their own first babe -- Mary Yoruba Bowen. This morning about 9 o'clock the spirit of our only earthly treasure took its flight.
- Now I like to think of those infant spirits comforting one another, cradling each others' heads and combing each others' hair. I hear their laughter early in the morning when the heat has not yet commanded everyone's attention and the breeze runs over the grass like a young duiker and the humans are not yet awake and the babes fly around in their naked dance. And later in the day when the sun is high and they are hot and tired, I hear them telling stories, speaking of the mothers they had whom they loved, speaking of their beauty. I like to think that we did not lose them entirely. In fact, years later, I returned to West Africa briefly with my husband, Andy, and conceived my only child, a son named Joel, knowing that the spirits were still there..
- I am myself an abiku child because part of me has always been claimed by Africa and will never come to America. This is why my body has already begun to leave me.
- I reach for more memories:"You better run. You better run, Elainski. I'm going to get you. Here comes the wolf!"
- It's Daddy. He's on his hands and knees. Becky and I are in our cotton nightgowns, soft from many washings and smelling like water droplets singed by the iron. It's so dark outside the windows seem to be pushing into the yellow light of our living room. Becky jumps from black tim tim to couch, leaving me behind. When I try to follow, I have to step down to the floor -- my legs are too short for the jump. Lucky for me, the wolf has followed her and I make it to safety. I keep pulling my legs up under my gown, one at a time, I'm so afraid -- or is it delighted -- that they may be grabbed by this wild animal in the house. When the monster turns around, I scramble from the couch, running behind Becky into the spare room. Here, we leap onto the extra bed, scramble up and stretch ourselves flat against the wall: "Oh, no. He's going to get us." We fall in a heap as the great wolf pounces, pulling our legs out from under us, gobbling us up. And so we're hauled off to bed. It is the sweetest ending. We're captured, and we're safe, rapturous under the sheet that falls on us like a cloud. When we say our prayers, it's to the sound of Yoruba drums pulsing through our screens from the other side of the compound fence. The color of the sound is burnt sienna. I'm too young to be frightened by God or eternity or even by Egungun. From outside our bedroom, the light in the dining room shines like Mary.
- Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I wake up, my legs aching. When I call, my father comes first, bringing a glass of water. But when I cry with pain, my mother holds me in the living room in one of the mahogany mission chairs next to the square table with the inlaid wood top that holds the radio and turntable. She and Daddy are still up and I hear insects jousting with the porch light, pinging against the door. I'm given one aspirin, and then we sit there, half rocking, she rubbing my knees and calves, reassuring; "It's those growing pains again. You're growing so fast. You're getting too big." And my exposed legs dangle down, confirming her diagnosis. Why is it, I wonder, that my growing pains always came at night? I had gone to bed feeling so safe and now I was feeling over-extended, literally.
- I wish I could say I was a precocious child. I wish I had a story of learning to read. But I have no early memory of any alphabet. Perhaps I was between languages:Mixed in with my emerging English, I learned some Yoruba words: Ekaaaro: good morning, Ekaabo: welcome, Ekushe O: good work, Adupe: thank you for saluting me, O dabo: good by. And there were a handful of words that held such currency that no one remembered if they were English or Yoruba, words like petrol, dash, sack, machete. These I picked up like pennies from the ground. I never called my parents baba and mama, but I understood the designations, as, for example, when the nursing students from the rain forest passed our house, laughing at my mother who was watering a small palm tree in the front yard during the dry season: "Ah, Mama! Come to Eku; we will show you palm trees!" The emphasis would be on trees, not palm. I learned Yoruba in my ears if not in my tongue, like elephants hear rumblings, sent from one to the other through the ground. The language sounds like music, which is why it can be talked on drums.Cowry shell
- The first book I remember was a heart-shaped leaf that grew on a small tree beside our house. We would pluck these and fold them in half and pretend they were hymn books and sing from them.
Listen: a story! Let it come, let it go. God made a small girl and he lowered her from the heavens onto a little land. She had with her a pencil and a mirror. With the mirror she studied her face and with the pencil she drew the world around her: palm trees and guava trees, savannahs and rivers, compounds and houses. She studied her face so much and drew so swiftly that she did not know where her face ended and the world began. She was the world. The world was in her.
- My true alphabet was found outdoors in the physical world of West Africa, in fruits and flowers, and dry grass and sandy roads and gravel paths, in the shapes of trees and the wiriness of the grasshopper. I remember with love the guava tree. For children who like to climb, these are the best, the limbs thin but sturdy and smooth to the touch. They branch often, making progress easy and affording many niches for feet and bottoms. Not only that, but you can pluck the fruit and eat it easily; guavas are sweet but not juicy and they do not require peeling. Inside the yellow skin is a thin edge of pale fruit and then the color deepens to a bold pink, dotted with small, digestible seeds. I consumed all but the puckered spot where the stem was attached. But finding a ripe guava in a nearby tree was difficult because we tended to eat them as soon as they hinted at maturity. Sometimes, though, a guava would be shrouded by leaves and then maybe the wind would blow and you would spy it there in all its yellowness and claim it for your own mouth and that was a gift from God.
- Along with the guava tree beside our bungalow, there was a small stand of guavas in an untamed grove across the road. This was the secret garden I shared with Gary Lynn, another mission kid, and Abike, my Yoruba nursemaid. Walking into it, a wall of green closed behind you and within, the light flickered through the leaves like minnows swimming, falling across your arms and clothing so that it seemed you were in a kaleidoscope. Looking up into those trees was like looking up into the vault of a great church, the way the limbs arched and interlocked together. Everything was soft and green and brilliant and safe. Here we were hidden from the view of the rambling crowd. Here I perched, a leaf among leaves, in my green bower. I was surprised but not too much the first time I heard the guava tree's susurrating voice: the hawk is circling, the breeze is fanning, the rain is holding, the sand is singing. Always, the guava spoke poetry and sometimes the poetry was instructive. The hibiscus does not need money. The road does not need lies. The meek shall inherit the earth. In a guava tree, you could understand why our long-ago ancestors lived in trees. This was not hard to comprehend. Guava trees are also people.
- Indeed, from before I can remember, plants were company to me and I made my own family album:
Caladiums are more trustworthy than God
Croton are braggarts
Mangos are noble
Pineapple is stand-offish
Orange trees are sentinels
Bamboo is a trickster
Flame trees are beautiful without being proud
Elephant ears are gentle
Pepper plants are turn-coats
Golden trumpet is a good friend
Pawpaws are silky
Barbados flower is frivolous with good cause
Hibiscus is the mother of the Gods
Guava trees are brothers
Gloriosa is grace
- Of actual books, I remember the sounds of Peter and the Wolf spooking out of an LP record in our living room after dark in Ogbomosho. The image of Peter in the tree with his cat, Ivan -- the two of them holding the rope that Ivan slipped over the wolf's tail while Sasha, the bird, kept the wolf distracted -- seems to me older than the book of Genesis. Though the wolf is all tied up in the end, his vicious jaws still lash against his confinement, portending a less than happy ending at some future date.
- I also owned a large picture book called Earth's Wonderful Gardens: Marvels of Plant Life in Colour which I must have gotten for Christmas when I was about three. Early on, my mother recognized my love of plants. Indeed, I often scolded Becky when we were helping to garden because she didn't know the difference between a weed and a cultivated seedling.
Here is a girl with her head bent over an open book. A perplexed look. On the pages before her: pictures of little people from Europe--the blond-headed boy in wooden shoes from Holland, the blue-eyed peasant girl in a pink scarf -- and pictures of plants from places like East Africa with a caption that reads: "many of the plants in our gardens have been brought from far-away countries." Listed as examples of exotic plants: papaws, sweet potatoes, coconut, breadfruits, yams, bananas, the fruits in her backyard. A shift in consciousness, a sea change. She is far-away. And who, then is close? And where is the center? She doesn't believe the words and closes the book, digging into her surroundings like a tick.
- I remember growing up a watched solitary girl. This is because in my early Ogbomosho years, I had only a few playmates but many parents, not just Mother and Daddy but all the other missionary aunts and uncles and Sam and Ishola, our cooks, and then Abike who always accompanied me. I have no memory before her. It seems to me, she was with me from the beginning, watching out for me but also allowing me to wander. And so I had space without being abandoned, freedom without being left to chance.
- A teen-ager, Abike seemed to me to occupy a perfect never-never age between the slipperiness of childhood and the governance of adulthood. She was perfectly calm without threat and vigilant without worry. I was enamored by her hair combed neatly into fascinating plaits, topped sometimes -- when she came to visit on holiday -- with a magnificent headdress. On work days, she wore dresses like mine, but hers were uniforms of green checkered fabric which buttoned up in the front with a white collar and white cuffs on the sleeves. Abike spoke fine English and she could switch mid-stream into Yoruba like a hand turning over. I can see her running easily across the yard, her feet cast back and at an outward angle, the light bottoms of her feet showing. My mother tells me that in my earliest years, Abike would wheel me all around the compound every morning in a large black carriage until I fell asleep. I must have spent a great deal of time staring up at African skies.
- It was Abike who was with me that time I fell on the hard cement floor of our porch and was knocked unconscious. She was the one who called me back to life.
- On our walks, Abike and Becky and I often passed Frances Jones on the way to Edna Rachel and Susan's house, Edna Rachel being my first girl friend. The convalescent center was long and rectangular, with two wings sticking straight out from the central building, the whole thing raised several feet off the ground to protect the residents from mosquitos or perhaps to get them closer to God. Frances Jones was painted pale green and across the front there was a deep screened veranda where ferns and caladium overflowed their huge cement pots. Bougainvillea almost hid the side entrance, it hung so heavily. The veranda itself was decorated with columns and archways, high-ceilinged, the screen lacing all together. Among the leaves of the asparagus fern, an inquisitive girl like me could find small red balls that smashed nicely between her fingers. Everything about Frances Jones spoke of abundance and sometimes I think that my later hungers were a natural response to having been born there. After all that loveliness and fullness, most any other place was a lonely road.
- Often, I did not see the big events coming or I did not understand them. In retrospect, I think I studied forgetting them in order that my world not fall apart.
- One day, for example, I found myself hiding with Gary Lynn under a double bed in his house, next door to ours. He was hiding because he had been bad and when his parents got home from the hospital, he might get a spanking. Gary Lynn was always getting into trouble for things like shooting other mission kids with his BB gun. At the moment, I was watching the little bits of thread covered with dust that were hanging from the bottom of the mattress. There was plenty of room under there for us; I was small and Gary Lynn was skinny. We whispered as we waited but every time there was a sound, we fell silent as geckos. Before long, I began to think that I was in trouble too and laughed out of nervousness. Suddenly, Gary Lynn was pushing into my ribs: "Go go," he commanded, and I did, charging out of the room and out of the house, bounding across the yard and up my front steps and through the screened door which slammed loudly behind me. For a moment, I thought I was really in trouble because Daddy was home, and he looked at me without his usual delight. "Quiet," he instructed, lifting his forefinger. "We're listening to the radio." Leaning into the room from the kitchen were Sam and Ishola. So I stood still in my tracks, wiping back my wet bangs, my heart aloud in my ears. A Nigerian man was talking through the static but I only caught a few words, something about "giant steps," which I recognized from the game "Mother, May I." And then he used other words I vaguely knew, like "freedom" and "nation." I didn't think I would be able to stand there much longer; I needed to go to the bathroom.
- My parents seemed happy when the speech was over, Mother saying something like "Awolowa is very eloquent"; she always talked like that. I was pleased that she was occupied with things other than Gary Lynn's mischief and my slamming the door. "Ah, Madam, tis a big day for Nigeria," Sam agreed. "We must follow our leaders." And he laughed like the Yoruba sometimes do when they are very serious. I did not know it at the time but in my pre-school years, Nigeria was planning its independence from Britain, and Awolowo, our regional Premiere, was one of the country's great leaders. Speaking on the radio, his voice was reaching high and low because the radio was ubiquitous in Nigeria. Like all the Premieres, Awolowo had a hard job: trying to make ten thousand villages think like one nation when each region was also looking out for itself. My parents would have been wise to take the radio static as a sign that not everything was quite as wonderful as it seemed -- how are things going to work if you've got several Premieres in one country -- but I think they missed the clue. Maybe Sam picked up on it and that was why he laughed. In any case, everyone seemed pleased, so I was free to follow my basic needs. When I came out of the bathroom, my mother only asked if I had washed my hands and I offered them for her to smell the Ivory soap. Things were going well. We were all reassured.
- End-stage renal disease doesn't just slip up on you, at least not if you're seeing a doctor. You see it coming like a rotten place expanding in the siding of your house. There's too much protein in your urine. Even with diuretics, you begin to retain fluid, especially as the day goes on. If you press your ankles, your fingertips leave indentions. Your blood pressure gets out of hand. You begin to be sick at your stomach.
- Sitting in the hospital waiting room the night I was admitted, I saw people moving in slow motion. I was surprised when a receptionist picked up the phone because there was no ring. I saw my sister's lips moving but she seemed to be far away.
- The next morning I was wheeled into surgery, the turns of the bed in the hall like a long journey into a maze. A surgeon planted two shunts in my body, a temporary one in my neck for hemodialysis and a more permanent one in my abdomen for peritoneal dialysis. I would go to the clinic for hemo while the abdominal shunt healed sufficiently for me to begin the dialysis that I would do at home, four times a day, every day, until and if I could get a transplant.
- At the clinic, I was struck by how many of the patients were African Americans. First we were weighed so the technician knew how much fluid to "pull off." Then we were hooked up, in rows, to dialysis machines. All of the decisions were made by someone else. In your station, one of many, you sprawled in an aquamarine plastic recliner so that you couldn't even sit up properly. The room was bright but cold. Masked robed technicians were our ministers. Here I was again, the minority white person among black people. But our prospects did not seem as good this time as they were in Nigeria when I was young and the federation was looking forward to independence and the country was taking off like a young cobra. Most of us in the dialysis clinic slept through the treatment because dialysis wears you out, exhausts you, leaves you limp, less like a cobra and more like a discarded skin. We were skins there. We were not intellects.
- Coming back from Edna Rachel's in the afternoon, Abike and I would pass under the lovely teak trees on the seminary drive with the leaves big as plates and the tree trunks painted white from the base about five feet up. The dirt would be settling into the creases of my throat as the breeze met our faces. Later that evening, I would show these rings to my Daddy as I prepared to bathe. They were the badge of a day well lived.
- I guess Abike must have thought me an ugly child: I was white and heavy and slow to perambulate. Apparently, my mode of operation around more agile peers who had begun to walk was simply to pull them back down to my level. It must have seemed odd to her that such a child could be so favored. If this was the case, her self-will was remarkable because she was always kind to me though not especially over-indulgent. She sometimes laughed when I cried; but this was not a mark of cynicism; it was a lesson in survival. Looking back, I wonder what she heard when she returned to the city of Ogbomosho in the late afternoon. The three great nations that had been pressed into British Nigeria -- Yoruba, Hausa/Fulani, and Igbo -- were vying for control of the emerging national government. The tens and hundreds of minority tribes were hardly even in the game.
- Through the wisdom or the forgetfulness of the gods, I went to boarding school around the time Nigeria's civil war began, or at least the coups that led to the war. Newton School was located in Oshogbo, still Yoruba land, about thirty-five miles from Ogbomosho.
- The most fascinating person in that town in 1966 did not live on our compound but on the shores of the sacred Oshun River, home to the river goddess Oshun, the divinity who showed all the other gods the way down to earth. Her name was Suzanne Wenger and she was the second white-woman-gone-native I encountered in Nigeria. Her name itself -- Wenger -- was tantalizing, suggesting she could fly. What was more tantalizing to me was the idea that a white person could stay in Nigeria indefinitely because at this point in my life, I could see I was going to have to leave. My sister was bound to take off soon for Decatur, Georgia, a place I had never seen and didn't even care to visit. All mission kids left West Africa at the end of the tenth grade to go to America so we could shake the native out of our hair in time to go to college. I say "America" like many people say "Africa" because that's how I thought of the whole bulking continent west of me that kept inserting itself into my consciousness like some of the bullies I had encountered in boarding school. But Wenger was staying in Nigeria. She had her hair in a wrap, keeping the native in.
- Oshogbo was and is a great Nigerian arts center. Here one finds the Duro Ladipo Travelling Theatre, the artist Twins Seven Seven, and Nike Davies, maker of batik and head of the Nike Center for young artists on Iwo Road. When I was young, we had a cook named Abraham and my mother cast him in a mission study drama she was writing; he played the part of a Muslim imam. No doubt he was converted to a Christian in the play. But what actually happened was that he joined an acting troupe in Oshogbo and became famous and got away from us entirely.
- I don't know about Abraham, but Wenger still resides in Oshogbo today, at least she did at the last printing of West Africa: The Rough Guide:Traditional religion is perhaps no more prevalent [in Oshogbo] than in other Yoruba towns, but it's more obvious. Ironically, the renaissance of the religion and art of the town was in part due to an influx of European artists and philosophers who moved here in the 1950s, the most notable of whom was Suzanne Wenger, an Austrian painter and sculptor. Wenger came to Nigeria the decade of my birth, devoting herself to Obatala, Yoruba God of Creation, that wonderful God riding an elephant who molds people with fair precision until he has too much palm wine and then he makes some deformed ones. While I was at Newton School, Wenger was occupied with local artists, rebuilding shrines and temples in the Sacred Forest of Oshun. Women worshipers in the area even made Wenger a priestess.
- Once a year, we made a visit to the Oshun River. I remember helping our house mother pack lunches of fried chicken and peanut butter sandwiches and finger-sized bananas in brown paper bags to take on such a trip. The Oshun was approachable only by path through the dense forest surrounding it, or that's the way I remember it, or that's the route we took. The river was not close to our usual haunts in Oshogbo: Mr. Manu's store -- which would soon be burned out in the second coup -- or the open market or the BP station where we filled the VW vans with petrol, or either of the cathedral-like Baptist Churches.
- I have no idea what we were supposed to do on these outings to the Sacred Forest. The trips were not intended to be educational, certainly not religious. I guess these picnics were a diversion. At least we had the decency not to have fun. Because of the steep decline to the river itself, you couldn't run. No one thought to throw a ball or a frisbee. Either one would have been lost in the forest. The one activity that offered itself, and it was sobering rather than entertaining, was to walk across the river on the swinging bridge suspended high above the river itself. I made this traversal several times, and I was always frightened, enormously frightened, by the vertiginous nature of the bridge, by the movement of something that should have been stable.
- At the river, we could see the shrines for the goddess: rounded white sculptures close to the ground and rising out of the greenery like a dispersed herd of humped and grazing animals. The temples and Wenger's house, however, were "taller" and here you saw, in white cement, the large circles and flowing lines of modernist art. Remembering Wenger's handiwork, I am led to say that modernism found its way home with her because if you look at a book of modernist art -- influenced as it was by earlier African art -- and if you then look at Wenger's art on the banks of the Oshun, you will see that she simply returned what was brought from here in the first place.
- On the banks of the river, we were quiet, and, frankly, we were lost. In The Rough Guide, I read that normally priestesses will offer a visitor a dip of water from the river and expect, of course, some sacrifice to the goddess (blood isn't necessary; money will do). No one ever offered any member of the Baptist mission this sacrament and I think the devotees of Oshun believed we were too far gone to call back. The river spoke, rippling in her bed, but perhaps her song was a dirge. In any case, none of us swam in the brown Oshun.
- I saw Suzanne Wenger from afar, imagining her mostly by seeing her house and her sculptures. I was a twelve-year child trying to become an American girl so Wenger was a woman beyond my ken, a woman outside my line of vision. How could a white woman live in Nigeria like that? What did she do at night with her windows open and the air coming in? What language did she speak on her knees in the forest? How did she position her body when she thought of her home in Austria and her girlhood and the people she had known? What did she do with her hands then, remembering the houses of her girlhood or the teachers she had in grade school or the boys she knew on the street?
- I have never known the answers to those questions. And I continue to wonder, but now about myself: What have I been thinking all these years in America, forgetful of Nigerian skies . What gods have I ignored, bowing to American universities? What family have I lost? What rivers?
- Since we didn't swim in the Oshun, we rode in the vans -- piloted by one of our teachers or house parents -- over to Ede, about twelve miles from Oshogbo, to swim in a small blue pool, not a very satisfactory body of water. This little basin was surrounded by a fence, clearly intended for the few white folks in the area, not the general population. It was here that I was first told by a sophisticated tenth grader that I had fantastic legs. She told me that they were perfect because they touched at the knee and did not touch again all the way up to my swimming suit and they were long and well proportioned. Unfortunately, this new knowledge did not save me. No one liked me more because of it, and I did not know how to use my legs to advantage. I was entering a stage in which my body was something to be overcome. What I did not know then but have since conjectured is that I would not pass easily from my Nigerian childhood to an American girlhood. My younger self was bold and boyish and impetuous, but in boarding school I was being encouraged to become shy and resigned and studied.
- In my present life, my husband Andy and I have reunited. We had separated about the time that I saw the handwriting on the wall. The handwriting said you are declining into kidney failure. I left him; he did not leave me. Perhaps I left before he could. I have never gotten over wanting to be bold. I have never sufficiently shaken the Nigerian out of me.
- I cannot say why exactly Andy and I have agreed to this reunion, except that in composing this memoir I have come to see that I cannot lose any more homes. Leaving Andy was only the last in a succession of break-ups; I was doing what I know best how to do. First I left my village for boarding school and then my boldness for forgetfulness and then Nigeria for America. I should have cut off a finger with each leaving. At least I could have kept count, been aware somehow of the trauma. Instead, leaving was presented to me as progressing. Of course one leaves Nigeria for the U.S., the land of interstates and better haircuts and rock-and-roll. Of course one does not, not easily, not successfully. Which is why after thirty years, I am remembering Suzanne Wenger who has been in Oshogbo all these years, digging in like one of those grand iroko trees that lives through several generations.
- Going home after a bad break is hard but I have finally realized that not going home is harder.
- One night in my present life, I awoke with the sense that my bed was on a ship, rolling back and forth with the waves. When I turned over, I lost my balance, though I was lying down. There was an ocean in my ears.
- The next morning when I sat up in bed I nearly fell over and when I stood, I did fall. I kept getting up and falling, teetering to my left. And all the while, the ocean was still in my ear. And that is how I lost my hearing in my right ear over night, just like that, like a light turned out.
- I know better than my doctor who tries to diagnose this latest catastrophe. My body is leaving me in parts, winging back to Nigeria. My ears want to hear their native music. They are not happy with the sounds of American television and American malls and American grocery stores. Give me a Yoruba drum, I beg you.
- In Nigeria in 1966, after the rainy season, the Western and the Northern states found themselves adjusting to the vacuum left by the flight of the Igbos in the wake of the second coup that would lead to civil war. Just as our Igbo cooks had evacuated, so all the good mechanics were gone; public services suffered because so many technicians had left in the night; intellectuals vacated university posts. The New York Times printed a headline about the growing crisis: A Time-bomb Ticks in Nigeria. In the East, drums and pans and nails and glass started walking out of the market and into sheds to dedicate themselves to the weaponry of Biafra. In Oshogbo we heard the story of a train coming out of the North bearing an Igbo corpse without a head: what muteness, how great a cry.
- One day, I left the compound, climbing over the fence behind the athletic field. Before long, I found myself on a path; it was hard to see at first because just beyond the fence the woods were thick. Under two trees I saw a woman resting, a load of wood beside her. As I continued I was met by two young men carrying loads on their heads and they stepped aside into the undergrowth to let me pass. I met a younger boy, just younger than I, and I asked him where the creek was and he only pointed back in the way he had come. I kept going and for a long time I saw no one. Then I nearly ran into a very old man with a walking stick, his head facing the ground and this time I stepped aside and he did not even look at me as he passed. His tongue was clicking. I was about to turn back when I saw the ground ahead shift downward and I could see the bright brook and two small logs laid across it where the path crossed. I ran to the brook and then I stopped and only looked. In the water were fish swimming upstream.
- At twelve years of age, I was not conscious of why I was looking for the brook. I had heard about it from some of the mission boys who were always ignoring the fence and wandering in the forest around the boarding school. Girls never ignored the fence. We always stayed in our place where the grass was cut. But on that particular day, I climbed the fence and went looking for the brook and now I think I was trying to cross to Oshun, to get as close to her as I could, to return to a time of peace. I was already trying to get back to the country I could see I was losing, or would lose soon, to war and then my own fate.
Brass and parrot feathers
on a velvet skin.
. . . .
Her eyes sparkle in the forest,
like the sun on the river.
She is the wisdom of the forest
she is the wisdom of the river.
Where the doctor failed
she cures with fresh water.
Where medicine is impotent
she cures with cool water.
She cures the child
and does not charge the father (Beier and Wenger 33).
- As I look back, I covet so many I lost in growing up and leaving Nigeria, like Abike and Abraham. And all of my parents and priests, even Suzanne Wenger. And the family of the guava tree and the gloriosa lily. So many gods and goddesses. So many lost to me for so long; I will them back to me, or rather, I carry myself back to them.
- Beier, Ulli, and Suzanne Wenger. Yoruba Poetry: An Anthology of Traditional Poems. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1970.
- Hudgens, Jim, and Richard Trillo. West Africa: The Rough Guide. London: Penguin, 1995.
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