From the beginning I believed whatever I was told, downright lies even, about how best to behave, although I had my own inclinations. At an age when other Nigerian girls were masters at ten-ten, the game in which we stamped our feet in rhythm and tried to outwit partners with sudden knee jerks, my favorite moments were spent sitting on a jetty pretending to fish. My worst was to hear my mother’s shout from her kitchen window: ‘Enitan, come and help in here.’
I’d run back to the house. We lived by Lagos Lagoon. Our yard stretched over an acre and was surrounded by a high wooden fence that could drive splinters into careless fingers. I played, carelessly, on the West side because the East side bordered the mangroves of Ikoyi Park and I’d once seen a water snake slither past. Hot, hot were the days as I remember them, with runny-egg sunshine and brief breezes. The early afternoons were for eat and sleep breaks: eat a heavy lunch, sleep like a drunk. The late afternoons, after homework, I spent on our jetty, a short wooden promenade I could walk in three steps, if I took long enough strides to strain the muscles between my thighs.
I would sit on its cockle-plastered edge and wait for the water to lap at my feet, fling my fishing rod, which was made from tree branch, string, and a cork from one of my father’s discarded wine bottles. Sometimes fishermen came close, rowing in a rhythm that pleased me more than chewing on fried tripe; their skins charred, almost gray from sun-dried sea salt. They spoke in the warble of island people, yodeling across their canoes. I was never tempted to jump into the lagoon as they did. It gave off the smell of raw fish and was the kind of dirty brown I knew would taste like vinegar. Plus, everyone knew about the currents that could drag a person away. Bodies usually showed up days later, bloated, stiff and rotten. True.
It wasn’t that I had big dreams of catching fish. They wriggled too much and I couldn’t imagine watching another living being suffocate. But my parents had occupied everywhere else with their fallings out; their trespasses unforgivable. Walls could not save me from the shouting. A pillow, if I stuffed my head under it, could not save me. My hands could not, if I clamped them over my ears and stuffed my head under a pillow. So there it was, the jetty, my protectorate, until the day my mother decided it was to be demolished.
The priest in her church had a vision of fishermen breaking into our house: They would come at night, labalaba. They would come unarmed, yimiyimi. They would steal valuables, tolotolo.
The very next day, three workmen replaced our jetty with a barbed wire fence and my mother kept watch over them; the same way she watched our neighbors; the same way she checked our windows for evil spirits outside at night; the same way she glared at our front door long after my father had walked out. I knew he would be furious. He was away on a law conference and when he returned and saw her new fence, he ran outside shouting like a crazed man. Nothing, nothing, would stop my mother, he said, until she’d destroyed everything in our house, because of that church of hers. What kind of woman was she? What kind of selfish, uncaring, woman was she?
He enjoyed that view. Warm, breezy evenings on the veranda overlooking it is how I remember him, easy as the cane chair in which he sat. He was usually there in the dry season, which lasted most of the year; scarcely in the chilly harmattan, which straddled Christmas and New Year, and never in the swampy rainy season that made our veranda floor slippery over the summer vacation. I would sit on the steps and watch him and his two friends: Uncle Alex, a sculptor, who smoked a pipe that smelled like melted coconut, and Uncle Fatai, who made me laugh because his name fitted his roly-poly face. He too was a lawyer like my father and they had all been at Cambridge together. Three musketeers in the heart of darkness, they called themselves there; they stuck together and hardly anyone spoke to them. Sometimes they frightened me with their stories of western Nigeria (which my father called the Wild West), where people threw car tires over other people and set them on fire because they belonged to different political factions. Uncle Alex blamed the British for the fighting: ‘Them and their bloody empire. Come here and divide our country like one of their bloody tea cakes. Driving on the left side of the bloody road…’
The day the Civil War broke out, he delivered the news. Uncle Fatai arrived soon afterward and they bent heads as if in prayer to listen to the radio. Through the years, from their arguments about federalists, secessionists, and bloody British, I’d amassed as much knowledge about the events in my country as any seven-year-old could. I knew that our first Prime Minister was killed by a Major General, that the Major General was soon killed, and that we had another Major General heading our country. For a while the palaver had stopped, and now it seemed the Biafrans were trying to split our country in two.
Uncle Fatai broke the silence. ‘Hope our boys finish them off.’
‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Uncle Alex asked.
‘They want a fight,’ Uncle Fatai said. ‘We’ll give them a fight.’
Uncle Alex prodded his chest, almost toppling him over. ‘Can you fight? Can you?’ My father tried to intervene but he warned, ‘Keep out of this, Sunny.’
My father eventually asked Uncle Alex to leave. He patted my head as he left and we never saw him in our house again.
Over the next months, I would listen to radio bulletins on how our troops were faring against the Biafrans. I would hear the slogan: ‘To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done.’ My father would ask me to hide under my bed whenever we had bomb raid alerts. Sometimes I heard him talking about Uncle Alex; how he’d known beforehand there was going to be a civil war; how he’d joined the Biafrans and died fighting for them even though he hated guns.
I loved my uncle Alex; thought that if I had to marry a man, it would be a man like him, an artist, who cared too much or not at all.
He gave my father the nickname Sunny, though my father’s real name was Bandele Sunday Taiwo. Now, everyone called my father Sunny, like they called my mother Mama Enitan, after me, though her real name was Arin. I was their first child, their only child now, since my brother died. He lived his life between sickle cell crises. My mother joined a church to cure him, renounced Anglicanism and herself, it seemed, because one day, my brother had another crisis and she took him there for healing. He died, three-years-old. I was five.
In my mother’s church they wore white gowns. They walked around on bare feet, and danced to drums. They were baptized in a stream of holy water and drank from it to cleanse their spirits. They believed in spirits; evil ones sent by other people to wreak havoc, and reborn spirits, which would not stay long on earth. Their incantations, tireless worship and praise. I could bear even the sight of my mother throwing her hands up and acting as I’d never seen her act in an Anglican church. But I was sure that if the priest came before me and rolled his eyeballs back as he did when he was about to have a vision, that would be the end of me.
He had a bump on his forehead, an expression as if he were sniffing something bad. He pronounced his visions between chants that sounded like the Yoruba words for butterfly, dung beetle and turkey: labalaba, yimiyimi, tolotolo. He smelled of incense. The day he stood before me, I kept my eyes on the hem of his cassock. I was a reborn spirit, he said, like my brother, and my mother would have to bring me for cleansing. I was too young, she said. My time would soon come, he said. Turkey, turkey, turkey.
The rest of the day I walked around with the dignity of the aged and troubled, held my stomach in until I developed cramps. Death would hurt, I knew, and I did not want to see my brother like that, as a ghost. My father only had to ask how I was feeling, when I collapsed before him. ‘I’m going to die,’ I said.
He asked for an explanation.
‘You’re not going back there again,’ he said.
Sundays after that, I spent at home. My mother would go off to church, and my father would leave the house, too. Then Bisi, our house girl, would sneak next door to see Akanni, the driver who blared his juju music, or he’d come to see her and they would both go off to the servants’ quarters, leaving me with Baba, our gardener, who worked on Sundays.
At least, during the Civil War, Bisi would sometimes invite me over to hear Akanni’s stories about the war front far away. How Biafran soldiers stepped on land mines that blew up their legs like crushed tomatoes; how Biafran children ate lizard flesh to stay alive. The Black Scorpion was one of Nigeria’s hero soldiers. He wore a string of charms around his neck and bullets ricocheted off his chest. I was old enough to listen to such tales without being frightened, but was still too young to be anything but thrilled by them. When the war ended three years later, I missed them.
Television in those days didn’t come on until six o’clock in the evening. The first hour was news and I never watched the news, except that special day when the Apollo landed on the moon. After that, children in school said you could get Apollo, a form of conjunctivitis, by staring at an eclipse too long. Tarzan, Zorro, Little John, and the entire Cartwright family on Bonanza were there, with their sweet and righteous retaliations, to tell me any other fact I needed to know about the world. And oblivious to any biased messages I was receiving, I sympathized with Tarzan (those awful natives!), thought Indians were terrible people and memorized the happy jingles of foreign multinational companies: ‘Mobil keeps your engine, beep, beep, king of the road.’ If Alfred Hitchock came on, I knew it was time to go to bed. Or if it was Doris Day. I couldn’t bear her song, Que Sera.
I approached adolescence with an extraordinary number of body aches, finished my final year of primary school, and began the long wait for secondary school. Secondary school didn’t start until early October, so the summer vacation stretched longer than normal. The rains poured, dried up, and each day passed like the one before unless something special happened, like the afternoon Baba found iguana eggs, or the morning a rabid dog bit our night watchman, or the evening Bisi and Akanni fought. I heard them shouting and rushed to the servants’ quarters to watch.
Akanni must have thought he was Muhammad Ali. He was shadow boxing around Bisi. ‘What’s my name? What’s my name?’ Bisi lunged forward and slapped his face. He reached for her collar and ripped her blouse. ‘My bress? My bress?’ She spat in his face and grabbed the gold chain around his neck. They both crashed into the dust and didn’t stop kicking till Baba lay flat out on the ground. ‘No more,’ he said. ‘No more, I beg of you.’
Most days were not that exciting. And I was beginning to get bored of the wait when, two weeks to the end of the vacation, everything changed. It was the third Sunday of September 1971, late in the afternoon. I was playing with my catapult when I mistakenly struck Baba as he was trimming the lawn. He chased after me with his machete and I ran into the barbed wire fence, snagging my sleeve. Yoruba tradition has us believe that Nature heralds the beginning of a person’s transition: to life, adulthood and death. A rooster’s crow, sudden rainfall, a full moon, seasonal changes. I had no such salutations as I remember it.
(c) Sefi Atta
Note: This excerpt published by Africanwriter.com preceded the book publication of ‘Everything Good Will Come’ by Sefi Atta