Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Top 5 This Week

Related Posts

Oluseyi Onabanjo | To See Fẹla and Die

The twitch in my left eye had long synchronized with the telephone line’s persistent crackle. I was on hold again ­­ — a need for ‘le Doliprane’ had become paramount for the Abidjan-based trainee that I was currently losing my mind to. I’d asked him to fetch a double dose on account of our joint headache. I don’t think he got it; the phone thunked down while I stuttered over the correct French word for ‘double.’ My eye spasmed through a long burst of static, and I sighed, recalling the exaggerated claims of fluency in French that had gotten me this otherwise dream job. And this tic.

Most of the office was meeting and greeting a visitor to the Lagos regional offices from our Paris-based technical partners. I was stuck in Operations an hour and a half into a fifteen-minute phone call. Just before our Doliprane break, the steady hum behind the line’s sizzle had changed to a French-accented clanking. I recognized the sound of a server in distress, and I swear it was accompanied by a scent, not unlike that of burnt toast. Desperation called for my backup plan, also known as Beatrice — she of the bounteous bosom — the Abidjan office manager and my emergency translator.

#

The company organized a newcomer’s training session shortly after I joined. A spate of recruitment in the neighboring countries meant it was duly expanded to include other new employees, primarily from Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Beatrice stood out for a couple of reasons, but also because of a scheduling error; she was the only attendee from a Francophone territory. I beat off fierce competition to be partnered with her and ostensibly won out because of my bi-lingual advantage. However, once we were alone, I proposed we converse in English only to help her acclimate to Lagos’s lingua franca. In the long moments it took her to consider and then agree with this suggestion, my left eye blinked involuntarily for the first time.

One of Lagos’ many contradictions is that it hosts a misdirection of mega-churches, and Beatrice was determined to receive an anointing at one of them. Not a trivial task, as so-called sanctified oil costs more than printer ink. We ended up at the downtown chapter of the Church of the Redeemer’s Bounty. Known as the CRB, the church’s global domination intentions were well known, and Beatrice had already encountered them in Abidjan.

Built upon the rock that was market forces, the CRB offered a superior mix of uplifting music, misappropriated Bible verse, multiple collections, and pretty ushers in tight skirts. It was tough to keep a straight face, especially when I recognized the gleam in the pastor’s eye when Beatrice sailed into the church hall, a few heartbeats after her impressive chest. On my part, by the fifth collection, I’d been propositioned three times.

Apart from an unfortunate mistranslation of the verse ‘Il est puissant,’ Beatrice got by, and the deep breaths she took to hit the high notes won her even more fans. Otherwise on my best behavior, I diverted her with pidgin English slang when she strayed into French. We were at the jam-packed daily service the next day,  where the pastor notably applied his version of a French accent when he supposedly fell into the spirit and preached, then sang in tongues. By our third visit, even Beatrice noticed his all-over body tremors and the change in how his trousers hung when he was anointing her. She took to introducing me as her fiancée, but from his increasingly shallow breathing, I suspect that only made her more desirable. I was glad when she was re-booked for the next language-appropriate training session and returned to Abidjan early.

A few weeks afterward, she helped me out, lending her translation skills and authority when I had to craft a preventive maintenance plan for the Abidjan office. When my lack of French became apparent, it is possible that I gave her the impression I was still attending ’our’ church. The next time we spoke, during a monthly operations report compilation, she mentioned that she’d told her regular pastor about me.

Our next chat was necessitated by a fault-reporting software installation, which was going awry. She was again helpful but distracted. Afterward, she revealed a series of prophecies from her pastor, dreamed at great expense. The bombshell revelation was of Beatrice’s reported destiny to ‘make the beautiful babies’ with me. I wasn’t proud that I responded with a “Praise the Lord!” or that I only planned to clarify my irreligious state of being, as well as an aversion to babymaking, once my French had improved.

#

Now, she picked up and allowed me to practice my sweet nothings until two distorted reflections appeared on my computer screen. I spun my chair around as a middle-aged white guy approached my desk. His bowtie underlined an ‘I-know-how-much-you-earn’ sneer, and our CEO, Mr. Balogun, hovered a half-step behind him, frowning while twisting a pinkie ring. I guessed that bowtie-guy was the French big cheese and listened with increasing alarm as I was introduced, “… a new but valued member of our team, fluent in French … .”

“Je suis Yves. Ça va?” Bowtie-guy lifted his left eyebrow as he thrust a pasty-looking palm toward me.

“Ça va.” I grabbed hold and grimaced when he squeezed.

I’d heard white people like to stare you down when you first meet, so l locked my eyes on the space between his. He looked away first and, nodding at the drawn blinds, asked, “Quel temps fait-il?”

”Je n’ai pas le temps,” I pointed at my bare wrist.

The sneer relaxed into a smile, and I knew I’d goofed. Mr. Balogun took the phone from me and smiled, nodding like a proud parent at a playdate.

“Somebody else will handle this. Yves wants to see the city, but I’m tied up, so you’ll take him to dinner.” Mr. Balogun patted my shoulder, just like old friends do.

“Yes, Sir.” I rubbed my left eye.

 “I recommend the Museum Kitchen. The food isn’t too spicy, and there’s a jazz band tonight. Get him to his hotel before midnight, eh? We can’t have him missing his flight tomorrow.” Mr. Balogun thrust a sheaf of high-denomination notes at me and held my gaze while he made this last point.

“Yes, sir.” I bobbed my head.

“Take a charged walkie-talkie. I’ll have one with me, so you can let me know when you’ve dropped Yves off.” Mr. Balogun said as we left.

#

Yves was quiet during the short elevator ride to the car park floor. I stowed his briefcase in the trunk and let him into the passenger seat. He secured his seat belt, and I opened my mouth to speak, but he cut me off, “You will take me to the Africa Shrine.”

My mouth stayed open.

 “I don’t want bad Jazz; I want great Afrobeat. In Lagos, that means Fẹla, and I must see him play before I die. You, my non-French speaking friend, will help me.” His sneer was back.

My left eye shut down.

 “Mr. Balogun…” I stuttered.

“Your boss is going into politics; it seems this is an expensive venture. He has to explain some large, unauthorized expenses and will be busy tonight.”

“My French. What gave me away?”

“I asked after the weather; you told me of the time. A common error.”

“We should get something to eat first. Fẹla doesn’t come onstage until after midnight.” Resigned, I cranked the engine into life.

“Fine by me. By the way, how did you qualify for a bi-lingual position? And why the walkie-talkies?” He had to raise his voice as my car, adjudged a ‘versatile, fuel-efficient, runabout’ back in the 70s, tends to announce her presence.

“Failed ‘O’ level French and memorized phrases will get you past most interviews. Our phone network is still mostly pre-colonial; we use the walkie-talkies when trouble-shooting from client sites.”

 “Well, we can practice if you like. Maybe you’ll improve enough to do the job.”

I ignored him.

#

The traffic, heat, and humidity didn’t help my mood, especially as Yves waved at everyone and flicked coins at the kids singing “Oyinbo pepper… .” He also refused to perspire or even sweat, but I was damp enough for us both when we arrived at the Museum Kitchen. In a fit of pettiness, I ordered the murderously spicy goat meat pepper soup as a side dish for us both. I think I gasped out loud as he lapped his up. When the food came, he called for a water bowl to wash his hands. I picked at my jollof rice and chicken while he demolished two mounds of pounded yam, accompanied by a rich vegetable stew, and expertly took the chunks of smoked fish apart with his fingers. I had a Sprite while he had two Star beers.

“Okay, tell me.” I had to ask.

“Tell you what?” He slurped up a morsel, his bow tie still in place and his clothing spotless.

I nodded at his plate.

“Oh, that. You can thank my first wife, Fòwòkẹ́. She turned me on to ẹ̀fọ̀ and all that goes with it.” His pronunciation wasn’t bad.

“You married Naija?” My eyes widened.

“Yes, oh.” He grinned.

“She introduced you to Fẹla as well?”

“I wish. Her father was a diplomat who had rotated through most of the European capitals. She had lived quite a sheltered life; her French is much more formal than mine. I pursued her for years, though I am still unsure why. I remember how horrified she was when she learned how much I like gbẹ̀dù. Despite all my efforts, she still prefers gospel.” He sniffed and rubbed at his nose with the back of his hand.

“But you say that was your first wife? You left her so you could marry oyinbo after, abi?” My tone was sharper than I intended.

“She left me. I’m not sure why you are, but my family was also surprised. Probably a little relieved.” He stopped eating, sighed, and smiled crookedly.

“Aaah … okay. And your second wife?”

“Chinwe? We met at Les Noctambules, on the Place Pigalle. The band tried to cover Fẹla’s ‘Lady’ after she walked in. The lighting was so bad I remember thinking I looked yellow and had zero chance with her. She was and remains stunning. I’ll never forget how she scanned the room, smiled when she saw me, and dragged me to the dance floor.”

“Chinwe? You married Naija again?”

He belched and nodded, beaming.

“Hmmm.” This time, I looked away first, mumbled something about the time, and went to settle the bill.

He drained his beer, washed his hands, and we headed to the Shrine. As usual, parking was tricky. The place has its own rules, including one that encouraged the sale and consumption of premium ganja.

I’d often gaped at the sight of highly-placed government officials at the Shrine, blazing up, then getting down. It barely makes sense because, in this city, admitting that you are thinking about a smoke could probably get you arrested, and simply possessing a blunt would draw you five years behind bars.

Some of the sexiest women on earth sat at the entrance with large trays on their knees. The platters were loaded with leaf, and seeds rattled loose as the ladies rolled, then stacked tidy rows of joints.

“Oyinbo!” One of them called out to Yves.

He stopped and picked out a compact, mid-sized spliff. They had a brief exchange in which she proposed marriage, but he recognized her accent and responded in Ibo, saying something to the effect that he was already married and to her sister at that. Her smile was a delight, and she refused to take any payment for the kaya. Yves thanked her, borrowed a light, and walked ahead. In a daze, I followed him.

I learned a valuable lesson that night; never to judge a bookkeeper by his bowtie. For the duration of the night, to say that Yves owned the Shrine would have been a massive understatement. Before the main event, he sang along to every song the band cranked out and owned every creaking board on the dance floor.

Fẹla showed up at close to 1 am. As always, he took his sweet time getting into the show, first paying obeisance to his posed saxophone, then to gods major and minor, seen and unseen. Between his genuflections, he took copious draughts of an oily-looking liquid from a clear bottle. I’m a fan of ògògòrò, but Fela tends to splash the stuff around as if it were holy water. I don’t know who distills his local gin, but the last time I got a few drops on me, it left my skin a shade lighter and burned for days. I squirmed away from the edge of the stage.

After a couple of false starts, the band got going. As always, when Fẹla was onstage, they played only new stuff, and he jammed while wielding a joint fatter and longer than most plantains. Yves was nearly delirious. Almost teary, he promised he’d name his second-born child after me. I presumed the first would be called Fẹla.

Yves went missing for a while, but I eventually located him in one of the cages. The rickety constructs are thrown together from old packing crates and chicken wire. They’re wobbly as hell and are set high in the gallery to display the gyrating, oiled-up babes that keep the crowd moving. I recognized the one he had gummed himself to as the weed seller from earlier. He was grinding against her so long and hard that Fẹla stopped the music to hail them and even sent Yves a complimentary joint.

By this time, I’d switched the walkie-talkie off. Mr. Balogun was a regular at the Shrine, and if I answered, he’d recognize the background noise instantly. It was about 4 am before I could peel Yves away from another of the dancers. I gave her his bowtie as a souvenir and half-carried, half-dragged him to the car. I wound his window down, hoping the air would do him some good. The seatbelt kept him mostly upright, and he was still singing one of Fẹla’s oldies when my stomach dropped at the sight of a torchlight, nodding at the roadside ­— the sign of a makeshift police checkpoint.

I pulled over, switched on the inner light, and hushed Yves, to which he began to sing louder. The policeman approached, his belly wobbling in counterpoint to his shuffle. He reeked of ògògòrò and clutched a rifle that, even in the dim light of his torch, I could see hadn’t been defaced by oil in years. A filthy length of twine replaced its missing strap, and his uniform shirt had few buttons, no rank, but plenty of almost-joined-up stains. I’d have bet good money he’d hired or borrowed the gun and uniform so he could shake down passing motorists, and I let out a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding.

“Ọga, wetin you carry?” The feeble beam from his torch petered away, halfway into its probe of the car’s interior, and his eyes flicked over Yves as if measuring him for a coffin.

“I no carry anything, oh….” I reached across my unruly passenger; a few notes curled in my fist.

All might have been okay if Yves hadn’t chosen that moment to belch. It was a mighty belch, loud and malodorous. It made Mr. Policeman jerk his head back and speculate aloud if I’d drugged this white man and was taking him somewhere for nefarious reasons. Finger on the trigger and rifle pointed downward, he fumbled the torch into a pocket, crouched in a combat-ready stance, and yanked the door open.

Yves unclicked his seatbelt, leaned over, and promptly threw up over the startled policeman’s flip-flops. I’m unsure which of us was more shocked when the rifle went off. I suspect it was the policeman, considering the speed with which he took off, calling out to “Chissos, chissos… .” His slippers went flying, he dropped his rifle, and then his speed after a few strides. Then he settled into a steady jog, wielding the torch like a relay race baton, and then he blended with the dark. There was smoke oiling out of a hole in the glove compartment. I couldn’t hear a thing, and my shorts were full. I felt something crack and splinter under my wheels as I drove away. Yves wouldn’t stop laughing, even after I handed him and his briefcase to his hotel doorman.

I doubt I blinked more than two or three times on the drive home and spent the rest of the night composing my resignation letter. At work the following day, the same fault update file swam before my eyes until Mr. Balogun came in and called me to his office. I was shaking when I went in and reached for the letter in my back pocket, but he spoke first. I listened, confused, as he praised me for how I’d “… handled the situation.”

On his way to work, Mr. Balogun had stopped at Yves’ hotel and found him still euphoric. So much so that Mr. Balogun was able to convince him that a ‘friend’ in government would benefit their existing partnership, so Yves confirmed that he and his partners would sponsor Mr. Balogun’s political run.

“The right hand must not know what the left is doing, but one hand must still wash the other. ” He nodded, looking at and through me at the same time.

“Sir?”

“There’s an Ops Manager position that needs to be filled in Abidjan.”

“Abidjan?” I squeaked.

“Yes, I can tell you’re excited. I’m sure you realize it’s a significant promotion and how unusual it is to move you so soon, but I’ve authorized your immediate transfer. I spoke with Beatrice; she has promised to help you settle. She says she has even found a church near the office for you.”

“Thank you, Sir. But..” my left eye fluttered.

 “By the way, I tried to reach you several times last night and this morning. What happened to your walkie-talkie?” He cut me off.

“It didn’t work.” With my thumb placed over the jagged bullet hole, I pulled it from my back pocket and clicked the “speak” button several times, to no effect.

————

Image: Dall-E 3 AW modified

Oluseyi Onabanjo
Oluseyi Onabanjo
Oluseyi Onabanjo currently lives in New York City with his wife, as do their two grown children. He holds a BSc in Electrical Engineering from the University of Lagos, an MBA from Columbia Business School in the City of New York, and an MA (with Distinction) in Creative Writing from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. Oluseyi has published his stories in the Potomac Review, Rock and a Hard Place magazine, and Writer's Space Africa. He recently completed an 85,000-word fantasy novel, which he hopes to publish this year.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Hello Kweku and I hear you. I also hear that “Failed ‘O’ level French and memorized phrases” will get you quite far 😀 Thanks for reading, and for taking the time to comment. Best regards.

SAY SOMETHING (Comments held for moderation)

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Popular Articles