Do I Have Regrets?
– An Excerpt from Deep Sighs by Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku
ISBN 978-1-906963-44-6 (2011),
StepOut Creatives Publication,
Birmingham, United Kingdom.
It is to be assumed that when somebody from this part of my world happens to find himself in that place we fondly refer to as ‘America’, he has the world in his pockets by the time he’s back home. If that is the way it is with everyone, not so my case. For me, America was far from being a bed of roses especially with the subtle form of Apartheid that was practiced there. When 32-year old Rodney King was being beaten to pulp by six or seven white American policemen, I was at a corner of 12th Avenue, close to where the incident took place, watching the madness from where I hid. The cops behaved like some rabies-infested dogs tearing away at a helpless bunny – I counted as much as fifty blows that the policemen rained on the helpless 32-year old bunny and about ten kicks to the head as though they were in a football practice session. The bunny crawled about helplessly on the floor, and at the various times that he attempted to get up and defend himself, more and more blows rained on him until he passed out. The 32-year old bunny’s size too did not seem to help matters: he was a six-footer who had driven on when the police asked him to stop for driving badly along the highway. As he ran, they gave chase, cornered and gave him the beating I just described. I later found out that I was not the only one watching the madness: someone else somewhere recorded the incident with a camcorder and before long, it was on prime time television. For about six days after the policemen who pummeled Rodney were acquitted of any wrong-doing, there was pandemonium – houses were torched, lootings took place on a large scale and several people were shot dead. His ordeal has a certain resemblance with that of another African-American who was also beaten to pulp because he threatened to sue certain policemen that arrested him for a crime he allegedly did not commit. When those cops were through with him, they dumped him paralyzed on a wheelchair and deported him, even though he had valid documents that guaranteed the protection of his fundamental human rights as an American citizen. The man spent a lot of years in a Mahatma-Gandhi-Mandela-like protest at the foot of that country’s embassy in his country.
You may want to know – how did I even get to America by the way? What was it that motivated me? Yes, I recall how I had sold one of our ancestral houses and with part of the proceeds gone on ahead to buy an American visa from a well-known joint known for all manner of forged papers. Of course my father never forgave me. He never responded to any of the letters I wrote asking and begging him to forgive me, his millennium prodigal son. My younger sister told me that he had asserted that even though I brought back the whole of America home in my pockets, his decision that he had disowned me stood.
My name is Kunle Aja and I’m from a much extended line of traditional Yoruba ancestry. My great grandfather was a popular and ferocious warrior and even though it was he who it was said handed a part of Yoruba land to the Hausas during the Almoravid invasion of our territory in the 18th Century, it did not diminish or devalue the esteem with which we still held him. My family is an extended one but most of the times we like to see it as a nuclear unit because we grew up in the village where everyone was the other person’s brother or sister and every grown up person was either a father or a mother. My cousins and nephews and nieces did not bear those tags – cousins, nieces or nephews. They were just aburo or egbon – a generic name in Yoruba which stood for either ‘brother’ or ‘sister’, and the grown-ups were either Iya or Baba. And I had lots of them.
My uncles and aunts were a whopping nine in number – and all had sired among them something close to eighteen siblings. All things considered, I was among the eldest of this brood and was not particularly doing very well either in school or any other endeavour I was assigned. But quite a lot of my cousins, brothers and sisters did very well in their bookwork and one of them actually won a scholarship at the behest of the American government to study what was said to be a new field of scientific or academic inquiry, ‘computer engineering’ at an important school known as Harvard. When he came back home to the village on holidays after about two years in America, he was the cynosure of every eye. Everything about him was different – the way he dressed, his speech mannerism and patterns, and his general comportment. He also seemed to always have a lot of money in his pockets. Another one of them, this time, who was not academically well endowed as this other aburo of mine also found his way there and he too came back looking and behaving funny. He talked strangely, dressed strangely and was well to do. That was not all. This brother of mine that ordinarily may not have been better than the local palmwine tapper in the village bought a big car and nearly brought the village to a standstill the day he drove it around the square. That was what motivated me to sell one of our ancestral houses. I could not win a scholarship and I didn’t have the acumen to steal; it was not going to be easy for me to convince anyone, particularly my father, to look for ways to send me to America – he was not as wealthy as my uncles, though you had no reason to describe him as poor either – he was the custodian of all family land and legitimate sale of some of it had guaranteed for him a life of relative comfort and some subsistence – he being the owner of a couple of choice property in the city, most of which I sometimes oversaw as caretaker. It was one of these I sold.
In my village, it is tradition and customary that at a very tender age, distinct tribal marks are slashed on our faces. Whatever reason made our people leave permanent marks or scars on us like they did me and our brothers, sisters and cousins I cannot tell and we never bothered to ask, apart from the fact that we accepted it as custom. Some said that it was a totemic mark of identification to distinguish the various tribes of the Yoruba that inhabited Ile-Ife, Osun, Ogbomosho, Ile sha, Badagry and etcetera. There were certain times that we were told as children by the local bard that if our totemic spirits visited and you had no marks of identification on, you were either seen as a stranger or left out of their supernatural or spiritual protection. As I grew up, I was able to understand that there were certain questions that had no answers and the most we needed to do is adjust ourselves to the norms and values of our clan.
But I know that the tribal marks on my face cut me out as somebody who may have had a boxing match with a tame tiger that did not have its gloves on. It was only when I got to America that I was told the story of a certain American-American who fell for a young man from my village with tribal marks as sharp and as keen as mine. They got married only when the lady insisted that plastic surgery should be carried out to repair the damage ostensibly done her heart-throb’s face by what she described as a coarse culture. When they heard the story here in my town, most of the villagers felt really scandalized that a true son of Ajah could lower himself to discard his tribal marks for the thighs of a strange woman. Some elders of the town were upset at this and met at the village square to conduct rituals to bring the erring son home to ascertain if this was indeed true and if so, for him to be punished for that reason. Nobody knows what became of that meeting. But the rumour mill had it that because that son of Ajah had intentionally chosen to sever his link with his ancestors, there was nothing anybody could do about it. In fact, this was why it was suggested to let well alone because whatever rituals were conducted to bring the so-called erring son back home may not have the desired effect.
But with me, I tried to cultivate some sideburns to hide my own marks, though I soon discovered that the whole thing made me look rather unkempt and much more visible. Still with this, I managed to manage a somewhat distinct personality – my name ‘Kunle’ became obscure because most people I come in contact with always referred to me as ‘that Yoruba chap’. Moreover, my tribal marks made of me a head-turner anywhere: they fetched friends, people with misguided notions about other people with scars on their faces, sniggers, understanding or knowing looks, and most times direct questions from strangers why I chose to scar my face so. I had no answers because it was my state of mind that usually told me who I am and how I felt about those marks. What this implied is that I was not always conscious that I had marks on my face until somebody made allusions to them or was staring at me in a certain manner. The most important way I remember who I am was not because of my tribal marks – I remember who I am only when I thought of my inability to succeed academically or otherwise.
Therefore, it was with this face and mindset that I got to JFK International Airport. The attention I got from the immigration officials was unprecedented and undeserved as far as I was concerned and very upsetting to say the least. My marks and colour seemed to mark me out for sudden death, as a cockroach would in a parliament of fowls – first, an obviously hostile and stern looking official separated me to a little corner the way a shepherd separates a goat from his lovely sheep. Much, very much later, two of their security guards bundled me into another little room and asked me to ‘bring it’ out before they worked on me. I was bewildered. But after they were through with me, my entire luggage was scattered about the floor like some rubbish. Next, they took me to another room that had an X-ray machine and subjected me to the distressing experience of being stripped naked and those rays beamed across my abdominal section. By now, it was clear to me that they were after hard drugs. It just then occurred to me that some of my compatriots had been arrested earlier on, with great doses of these hard drugs in their tummies. It had made headlines across the world and not so long after that, some of them were again caught with those harmful substances and were eventually tied to the stake and shot dead. Shooting them at the stake and in public raised another unprecedented local and international outcry against the death penalty.
Well, these people seemed a lot surprised and disappointed at not finding any cocaine or heroin on me. One of them again went through my things carefully and after that, I was allowed in but not before he told me rather brusquely at the point of entry that he did not like my face and he was sure I would be up to no good in his country. He said he would personally come and bundle me out if I made a false slip. With this kind of tension already built up in me and with the harsh cold wind blowing against my face, I strolled along with my luggage before I took a cab to another state, Delaware, one of the South-Western states of the US and lodged at a cheap hotel in Wilmington. Wilmington is a key city in the US famous as a shipping, manufacturing and trading centre. Its founder, Eleuthere Irene du Ponte de Nemours was a French-born industrialist and alchemist. At the onset of the French Revolution, his father who was a royalist had to migrate to the Americas because of the anti-royalist tendencies that characterized the French Revolution and which cascaded into the Reign of Terror of 5 September 1793 to 28 July 1794 – executions perpetrated by the Girondins and Jacobeans against perceived enemies of the French Revolution of 1789.
Here at Wilmington, I was due to meet a friend but at the last minute and at the appointed time and place, I waited and waited in vain for Babatunde to show up and take me to his place. I really became downcast because by now whatever money I had left from sale of one of my father’s houses was fast depleted. With only a few phone calls and a hot dog for lunch, I was already a stranded man in this so-called country of God. I had to go back to New York and get myself a job, any job if I was going to survive this city infested with so many sharks, as I was later to discover about New York. New Amsterdam or New York reminded me of some places in Lagos that are well-known slums. Like Lagos, there are fine places but there were many Marokos and Ajegunles and worse of all there were beggars in New York. At first, I could hardly believe it – beggars in America? It was when I was looking for something to do that I ran smack into Amanda. Running right smack into her meant that I was hardly looking where I was going, what with the very tall buildings close to that East River where sightseeing activities are at their peak; the tall buildings were having a meeting with the clouds; there was a potpourri in the different kinds of people that jostled along, and the sleek cars that ran hither and thither. It would not have been possible, my second day in New York not to have been awed and wowed silly and stupid by the resplendence and the lights and the semi-order that was the character of the city.
Amanda was a New Yorker, that term for someone born and bred in the city of New York. Sassy, snazzy and single and vivacious, Amanda could traverse the length and breadth of New York as though the place was her living room. Chocolaty brown with dark wavy hair, Amanda’s eyes were large and the way they bored through me like drilling instruments when I knocked her down seemed to imply she thought me an extra-terrestrial being. As I gathered her stuff which were all scattered all over the pavement, she just stood there watching me with those large brown eyes of hers.
‘What happened to your face?’ Amanda asked. I did not respond to her question but turned and walked on after I gathered her stuff together and left them there on the pavement. She overtook and stood in my path, blocking my way, gazing at me so intently that I could barely look her in the face.
‘This your first time here, innit?’ she asked again
‘You from Africa, aren’t ya?’
Some silence before I said, ‘Yes ma’.
‘You gat no place to stay an’ you wanta jab?’
‘Yes’, another monosyllable from me.
‘Come with me!’
I stood my ground and then took two steps backward. This must be a plain clothes policewoman arresting me less than 24 hours after my arrival in America, I thought. Suppose I beat a hasty or nasty retreat? But just as I was going to break into a run, she said again:
‘Come with me – I ain’t no cop!’, and before I knew what was going on, she took my hand and practically dragged me along.
For the entire brisk walk back to Amanda’s apartment, we did not say much to each other. Once in a while, she would steal a glance at me and smile. On my part, I was a little shaken by what was going on and I did not respond to this feeling in my gut to break free and make a run for it. I had no way of knowing whether or not she was a security agent on mufti and that she was arresting me. The one thing however that neutralized that fear that I was being arrested was that she looked much too young to be a police officer and the way she turned from time to time to look at me and smile a certain smile that was neither friendly nor unfriendly. When I reflect upon it now, it was as though she was some poacher whose deadly rifle just bagged a deer of some value and was going home proudly with her kill.
Amada’s apartment, as I came to find out much later was an ordinary example of what a normal American abode should look like. It was in a block of flats within a terraced building in the South of the Bronx. I was to find out again that this part of town was a predominantly black neighbourhood where only the tough at heart considered living. I say ‘the tough at heart’ because it was a place known to be a haven for all manner of small-time criminals, carjackers, drug couriers and pimps. In fact, a certain American president had compared it to the bombed-out German city of Dresden after World War II. Maybe that was why a lot of the white folks moved out of the borough, leaving Blacks and Asians as the dominant ethnic groups in that culturally diverse a place. But all of the dilapidation outside was a sharp contrast to the luxury that was Amanda’s apartment – it was a beautiful place, furnished to the taste of a high-class uppity executive. At first, she seemed to live all alone with her cat, Lyn. The living room had pictures of Amanda as a toddler, a teenager with awkward clothes on and as college student, together with pictures of her parents on the mantelpiece. The apartment had three rooms, a kitchenette a bar with an assortment of spirits. There was one piece of interior decorative decorum that caught my fancy in Amanda’s house and it was this: nearly every item in the house had a certain colour that blended with the cream colour of the sofas.
Amada took her grocery from me, dumped them in the kitchenette and showed me up to a room. She asked me to wash up and feel at home and put on any of the clothes in the wardrobe. As I gingerly went through the motions of freshening up, she fixed me brunch. Taking my first bath in this so-called land of fortune and opportunity, I wondered if I was dreaming or not. Anyway, I washed up, changed into fresh clothes and sat at table with Amanda later on. The meal was a simple one that consisted of potato chips and chicken. After I ate all of it up, Amanda asked me to tell her all about myself and my country and why I had come to America. Well, fool that I was, I told her everything – everything about my upbringing, my hopes, my aspirations, how I sold one of our houses and how my father disowned me consequently. I told Amanda how I had gotten the marks on my face, how it was tradition like the tradition of the Jews to circumcise their young eight days after they were born or like the native American Navajo Indians who scarred themselves as evidence of the number of people that they killed in warfare.
All of this time, Amanda listened attentively. After I was through, she ventured very little information about herself even though I was not curious to know that much about her anyway. I had a knack for putting things that didn’t add up together, with time. Nevertheless, Amanda assured me that I need not worry because I soon will surely get a well paid job pretty soon that would make my stay in America very comfortable – she had the connections, so she told me. If only I knew. If only I knew that Amanda, cool and vivacious Amanda was a drug czarina. If only I knew. Sure thing on the morrow, I got a job. All I had to do was deliver certain parcels to some pre-arranged spot to a new face every day. This face, as expressionless as possible, gave me some money and took the parcels away. I did not ask questions and I did just fine. Amanda did not agree to accept rent from me nor did she agree to allow me augment the meals in the house. In fact, if there was anything that needed to be done in the house and I spent my money on it, I incurred Amanda’s ire. I made no overtures of sex toward her and this was because I already had started seeing her as a sister and a very good friend who took me in when I was desperately in need of help and succor. I made very few friends indeed and this was mostly because the environment was one that did not encourage the growth and cultivation of friendship and relationships even between neighbours. It was a different one from where I came from, where the first thing you told a neighbour being “Ekaa ro’, an ebullient ‘Good Morning!’ In the Bronx, every one watched the other person suspiciously. In fact, there was a certain day I almost walked into a shootout between rival gangs of what was then known as the ‘east ‘and ‘west’ coast rap groups. I had to jump into a garbage heap to hide until the war was over. There, for the first time in my life, I heard the bang of gunshots and the chatter of automatic guns, with bullets flying all over the place. For three days after that, Amanda and I had to stay indoors until the wailing of police sirens receded. Most times, when her male and female friends were about, I go out of the house and just hang out with myself and refuse to draw any attention to myself. Yes, those walks. They made me think quite a lot about Amanda and her friends. They were like rock musicians, and big stars that lived very big like Amanda without any visible means of livelihood. They mostly wore black leather jackets and would party all day and night by the pool and generally just let go. And then, what were those parcels that I delivered that brought in so much money? The thought hit home that I must be involved in the delivery of cocaine or any of those harmful substances that made those immigration official humiliate me at the airport, but I dismissed the idea. The cool and adorable Amanda I had with me was much too sensible to be involved in the cocaine racket. I naïvely reasoned that Amanda was a self-employed entrepreneur who had a respectable courier business and was a fitting representative of the capitalist temperament of the United States and of her people.
I was six months old in America, with a five-figure bank account. By the standards that I set for myself when I got here, I was doing just fine. If not for my tribal marks, anybody would take me for an African-American. This was mostly because I cultivated an American accent and I was fitted with the all-American image. But I avoided places bursting with any intense social, human activity like parties and the local pubs. Whenever there were games at the Super Bowl, I was there mostly because I was a pin in a haystack in that crowd. I did not have friends or a girl friend and I managed to curtail the urge to get down, let go and unwind, at least for once. Each time I saw a policeman I was mostly on edge and this was because my fake visa had already expired. When I discussed this with Amanda, she asked me to quit worrying, as she’s got everything under her belt. Thoughts of my father and how I had behaved so callously often assailed me but I pushed these thoughts to the recesses of my mind mostly because I just didn’t care anymore. He did not respond to any of the letters that I wrote to him and it began to dawn on me that he actually was serious with his threat to disown me. But I was persuaded that with the money I had made working with Amanda so far, it was possible for me to build him a mini-estate if that was what he wanted.
But my curiosity got the better of this cat telling this story on a certain day. I opened one of the parcels and discovered the inevitable. For all of the time that I spent in that place, I had been an accessory, well that is putting it very mildly – I had been a drug pusher and that was it. For my entire life here, I had been pushing drugs and was lucky I have not been caught and thrown in jail. I know that I have this quality of being wet behind the ears but I also know that I am that type that realizes that he’s on a train travelling a zillion miles in the wrong direction and starts to think of jumping off, even if that would lead to the end of my life or the breaking of all of the bones in my body. That evening, I did not deliver Amanda’s parcel. I would tell her that I couldn’t do this any longer, I thought to myself. That night, when Amanda came back and discovered that I did not ‘deliver’, changed the course of my stay in America. She flew into a rage and by the time she came at me with a gun pointed at my head, holy Moses, you can bet your life that I was very ready to lick her butt if she wanted me to.
Amanda’s soft large eyes were like two huge stones. If she were to be white, her colour could have changed again and again. I begged Amanda not to shoot me and I just about convinced her that I was ready to continue with my job. You know, for the next month I continued with this abominable jab though I was very well aware that I was an agent of Dr. Death. In that year alone, statistics obtained by the FBI revealed that there were an estimated 21, 495 under age people who used cocaine and other related substances. Of that number about 1, 538,813 were arrested mostly by bicycle police in the state of Seattle alone. The number of black people who had been arrested for dealing drugs was less than that for white people, and it was indeed a surprise that I wasn’t among the lot.
As you may have deducted, my relations with Amanda took a plunge even though we both carried on along as though nothing was wrong. I always tried to avoid her and she in turn became my shadow and my alter ego – she was interested in every move I made or didn’t make. Two days after we had this glitch, she told me that it would be a mistake if I made any move to ditch her. Yes, she used that word ‘ditch’ and I really wondered what it was I had there. She warned me that I would get caught if I dared such a move. Much later however, she began to tread on the road to my sentiments. Often, she would tell me whenever we had dinner together in her house how she had fed and accommodated me when I had had nowhere to turn. Did I want to repay her act of kindness with ingratitude, she demanded of me on a certain evening after I came back from ‘work’. On my part, my mind was made. I would bolt. I made arrangements to make a run for it and whether I lost my life doing so I didn’t care. I dared not let the police in on this because Amanda had some of them on her payroll. It was unbelievable but there were some chaps at the Drug Enforcement Administration that were Amanda’s friends. Moreover, I was an illegal alien and a drug courier. But to make Amanda a little relaxed concerning the surveillance she had placed me, I feigned a relaxed and friendly disposition, carrying on as though I had put thoughts of the incident behind me and had become more ‘sensible’. My plan was to run away, first to another state or probably to Canada where, with any luck, Amanda may not know wherever I hid. I took care not to make any elaborate arrangements: all I needed were the clothes on my back and my cheque book. With the money I managed to save as an accessory to couriering drugs, I would be a semi-billionaire if I was able to bring all of it home.
I fled New York and ran down to Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In that city there was a little borough, Ponca, a quiet and sleepy place that did not have any of the hurly-burly and muscle of New York City. The people there minded their own businesses and hardly bothered about you, at least for the brief time I spent there. Yes, for the whole week I spent in Walter’s Motel, I had real peace of mind after I stopped couriering those parcels. I tentatively pushed away all thoughts of Amanda and cocaine and proceeded to work out a plan to invest my money or look out for a much more decent job other than couriering coke. One morning the inevitable happened. I was lucky I had just had breakfast, had put on some decent clothes and had a lot of my money tucked away safely in my boots, my boxers and trousers. Two policemen kicked my door open and dragged me to a van outside. They did not beat me. They did tell me anything like: you are under arrest; you have a right to remain silent as whatever you say will be used against you in a court of law. They just drove on until they got to their station and dragged and dumped me in a cell. For the two donkey days I was in this cell, I knew of course this was Amanda’s handiwork. On the third day, I was driven to JFK International Airport in hand and leg cuffs, I guess, after deportation formalities had been concluded. The officer that had told me that he did not like my face was there and when he saw me said, ‘My hunch paid off eh, Nigger boy!’ I was bundled into the next available flight and before I could say my name, I was here in Lagos, Nigeria once more. I was lucky I was not a real drug case because that could have complicated matters for me. I was made to understand much later that there was an arrangement between the US and Nigerian governments that all deported drug convicts from America to Nigeria got an extra five-year jail sentence whether they had served time there or not.
Back home, everyone was surprised to see me back being so haggard and woebegone. Those who had gone there from my extended family circle had come back in one refined manner or the other. Not so with me. Failing academically and otherwise, I had sold one of our ancestral houses with the hope that at least I could be able to make something out of life, if not for myself or for my brothers and sisters but for the children that I may have someday. Luckily for me, my father was not mad at me anymore: there had been stories of killings in America and naturally, he had been afraid for me. Again, I was lucky I had nearly all of the money I made from the courier of drugs on me. I converted my money into local currency and got something in the region of some cool millions in local currency. There was a dilapidating house very close to the one I had sold. I made enquiries and bought it off the owner. After renovating and bringing it back close to the standard of the one that I had sold, I invited members of our extended family and some elders of the town to come help plead with my father to accept this one in lieu of the one I sold. Everything went fine. My father took me back, his prodigal son. But believe me, the scene was very emotional.
Today, I am the owner of a motor-vehicle spare parts shop and by the standards of success here in my country, I am a successful businessman. My father once made it clear to me that a man, a real man should never regret any of the consequences of his actions. Rather he should live with and be guided by them as the compass with which to navigate the turbulent waters of life. Casting my mind back now however, I do regret all of that time I was in that cell in America and I curse that day that I sold that house, bolted to America, met Amanda and got involved in her coke business.
(c) Bobo Majirioghene Etemiku