Sunday, October 31, 2010

Barbara the beligerent bandit- A nun???

Barbara the Belligerent Bandit- a Nun???
From the age of about 14-18, I wanted to be a nun. Yes, a reverend sister totally devoted mind body and spirit to God. I know it sounds crazy but allow me to transport you back to that era of my existence and fill in the answers to the many questions I have been asked about this. The first question is the obvious one: why on earth would you want to be a nun? While everyone else around me was baffled as to the why, I was very sure of why I was headed to the convent.
Firstly, I was scared of men. There! I said it! I was terrified of men, who, I had come to learn, were in possession of a missile-like body part that was deadly dangerous. I had done my intelligence and drawn my conclusions. Men were to be feared for this missile they possessed, because its dangers were manifold. I have always had a vivid and somewhat strange imagination and I had conjured up images of all the potential perils associated with the missile. Please excuse me if I seem reductionist in my view of men. This is not so now. However when I was 14, yes, men were reduced, like mixed fractions, to their simplest terms: the missile, the all powerful, invasive missile…
 Firstly, I imagined the missile with the capability to blow my future to smithereens, obliterating goals and shattering dreams, leaving me sitting in a wasteland of unfulfilled potential, piles of ambition strewn all around me like rubble after the blitzkrieg, with a baby sucking at my breast like a parasitic tick on a vagrant dog. My cold cloak of eternal shame would be swathed round me. And the parasite tugging at my nipple.
The missile could blast me into space and land me softly on fluffy cloud 9. I would be stranded there but if I happened to get off, I would land on terra firma with an unceremonious thud. I would forever be an addict, a slave to the missile launches, which would have me wondering desperately from man to man in search of bigger more explosive missiles to launch me to cloud number 9 with greater velocity and precision! Like a crack hoe I would grovel and beg for a launch and scratch my itchy body as I sweated through withdrawal symptoms, unable to think straight until I got my fix.
The missile could torpedo me into a one way tunnel through the various layers of the earth’ crust to molten magna –hot hell. There, I would be forever damned to broil while the devil cackled at my eternal demise and speared me to turn me over with his pitchfork.  All thanks to the missile, this potent, self propelled projectile weapon of woman’s destruction!
Allow me if you will, to place these childish nightmares into a cultural and social context.
Growing up I had seen cousins and aunties and neighbors who had become victims of the missile and it was quite traumatic. The closer these women were to me, the more traumatic it was because forever I would hear:  “You see what happens to loose girls? See what befalls girls with no morals? If you ever, ever do such a thing, you will not live to tell the tale!” I recall incidences where an unplanned teenage pregnancy resulted in a girl having to stop going to school. The boys never suffered such a life changing fate. It seems that the consequences of missile exploration were felt solely by the girls. And yet in most case there were two complicit parties, boy and girl, or one aggressor and a victim, usually the girl. What was frightening was the fact that no matter how it had happened, the girl had no platform from which to state her case. In fact, she had no case. If she had been raped, it was entirely her fault: ‘What were you doing alone with him? Why were you wearing that short short dress? Why do you invite men with those eyes of yours? You must have done something to cause it! Why did you not scream for help? Why didn’t you yank at his missile? (Why did you have to be born a female?)”
 I remember watching a once vibrant, lively girl metamorphose into a downtrodden haggard old woman in one day. It seems the curses heaped on her head were not enough, the admonitions not harsh enough, the vocabulary used to describe her disgraced state not quite florid enough. The aunties and the male members of the family held hold court while she sat on the ground, head bent so far forward her chin sat on her chest. They pointed and gesticulated and spat on the ground in righteous disgust, from one side of the room, while she cowered under the vicious tongue lashing from the other side, all alone. It is these castigation forums, (and I witnessed many) which ignited in me, a visceral fear of the phallus. Then of course was there ever constant question, which knelled like a church bell incessantly in my head; what would my mother say??
Then there was the issue of addiction. Being a control freak, the idea that I would become enslaved to the missile was not one I was at all comfortable with. I had heard stories, mainly through our numerous maids who became more than just the house help. They invariably became the teachers on taboo subjects such as sex and I was a very eager student. This is where I learnt about the cloud numbered 9. I literally thought it was a cloud in the sky with the number 9 on it and I was told that reaching cloud 9 could only happen through a missile launch. It seems my Sisi Emmah had picked up on this metaphorical cloud from reading the sexy parts of Mills & Boon novels which her friend, a maid two houses from ours, stole from her boss madam!  Alas trying to explain such a metaphor in Shonglish  ( a mixture of Shona and English) to a fourteen year old was tricky business.
The problem I had with this aspect of missiles is the part where once you had been launched you needed to be launched regularly and voila: The birth of the wanton woman, whose unquenchable lust for launches had her hopping from man to man. Sisi Emmah had pointed out such a woman to me. She had a languid, long legged stride, hips swinging back and forth, buttocks aloft and swinging rhythmically, for -me for -you for- me for -you for- me for- you, bust thrust out, eyes with a permanent come hither look, bedroom eyes. Sisi Emmah spat on the ground in disgust, ‘Uyo! Anehosha yevarume!- look at her, with her insatiable lust for men!” I had heard this phrase uttered with the same disgust and disdain about other women in our neighborhood and even in the village when I visited my grandparents. Such women were called hure-whores, kikita, gumbo mutsvayiro-she with the legs that carry her everywhere. Fascinating as these names were to me, I had no desire to be called by one of them. These women were outcasts of sorts. They were always on the fringes of women gatherings. They were the subjects of moral teachings at women’s church meetings. They were the thorn in many a married woman’s flesh, and women had no problems meting out jambanja-style jungle justice to such women, if they as much as sniffed in the direction of someone’s husband. Home wreckers! Husband snatchers! Jezebels and delilahs! Harbingers of death and mkondombera (HIV).I did not want Sisi Emmah or anyone else for that matter, to ever spit on the ground and utter those words about me. What would my mother say??
I was also obsessed with my future. In fact I lived most of my young life in my future. When faced with a plate of sadza and beans for supper, I would catapult myself into my future and my plate would transform into a beautifully presented platter of filet mignon with béarnaise sauce, sautéed mushrooms and a generous helping of mashed potato. When faced with a boring homework assignment, I would travel into a tomorrow in which I was a famous historian, author, doctor, mathematician, depending on what the tedious subject matter at hand was. In my future I saw the makings of a life totally governed by my every whim and executed in grand style amid applause, pomp and pageantry and a whole lot of sumptuous food! Therefore the thought that a missile could scubber my future and all the goodies that awaited me was something my young mind could not entertain for a second. Besides, what on earth would my mother say??
I admit that I was a coward. Yes, beneath the bravado and the big girl exterior was a really whimpy, sniveling, and lily- livered coward. I was terrified of the fiery pits of hell. The thought of spending a second in skin sizzling heat petrified me, let alone a whole eternity? This fear drove me to my knees and away from the missile. This fear had me reciting my rosary while my buddies snuck out of their parents’ homes at night to go clubbing. This fear made me crop my hair into a short buzz where all my friends sported jerry curls and “Dark and Lovely” perms.  I decided to concern myself with the things of heaven , which by the way was also in my future, while my mates delved into and experimented with earthly and carnal pleasures. I would hear about Talk of the town club on Saturdays, the Miss Teen Queen Pageant and which chick was smooching which dude, and who was trying to hide their love bites and who was caught in the bathroom pants down and I would begin my internal litany to the saints: ‘Saint Francis- pray for us, St. Bartholomew- pray for us, St. Theresa of Liseux- pray for us, the other St. Theresa- pray for us!’
 Paradoxically I was vain and sometimes the things of the earth were so alluring that I would perm my hair and marvel at the prettiness of my features framed by hair…until those of the missile went by, threw me a glance that was a moment too long and a tad too intense and it was off to Budhi Thomas, our gardener, scissors in hand with the instruction-‘half centimeter bhudi wam’- half a centimeter long my brother.” You have to imagine that all this was very confusing to my peers, my aunts and my mother, who would get very upset that I would cut my hair after she had spent good money at Juliet’s hair salon!
Here is another funny factoid: I liked boys! I mean I was attracted to them and even had a boyfriend, though I wanted to become a nun. In my mind the two were not mutually exclusive. (After all Sr. Ludgera (RIP), had a male friend, Fr. Bernhard). However my boyfriends always knew where to draw the line. In fact the line was drawn very clearly for them and none had the nerve to traverse it. I was what you might call a boy beater. Yes, one false move and I would just send a tidy slap sailing across his face, leaving red welts in its wake. This is usually how the line was drawn. After that we were cool and we held hands and kept pesky missiles where they belonged. I had one boyfriend whom I shall call D, and no matter how many slaps I delivered, he did not get it. Heaven knows, I slapped that boy and yet it seemed that the more I slapped the more audacious he got. I finally had to send him packing because I feared I may have had to graduate from slaps to fisticuffs! (This was my intro into Sado-masochism, which is a story for another day!) I imagine Sr. Ludgera drew the line too, though probably in much holier fashion and not with her hands. I bet she controlled that relationship.
 The sounds of music always got my heart fluttering and much to my horror, my body would start undulating, winding and meandering round the base drum , the guitar and before I knew what happening I would be up, losing control of my feet, my waist and my senses to the music. In those days the good jams were ‘Falling in love, Don’t make me over, Let yourself go’ by Sybil. Then there were all the Club Cameo hits and UB40 with Red- red wine. Gwen Guthrie’s with ‘no romance without finance’ sent me into frenzy, nunnery aside!
The only way out of this quandary was to become a nun. I would live by the rules of chastity poverty and obedience and that would be that. Simple. My constant and exhausting vigilance in case missiles were stealthily lurking round some corner ready to fire, would be a thing of the past. The temptations of worldly pleasures would be locked out of the convent gates and would be unable to scale the high concrete wall with its border of barbed wire and broken glass (of course I always kept the option of scaling the high walls and back into the world open for myself…).
The other attraction of the convent was the nuns themselves. At fifteen, I was in awe of the nuns and how they seemed so in control of their own lives. Here was a group of women, running what was the best school in Bulawayo. It was a big school and they managed it with an efficiency and expertise that was breath taking. I envied the power they had to hire and fire men and women alike, to create rules as they pleased and to admit or deny students a place at the Dominican Convent. In my own life the only people I saw wielding such power exclusively were men. In homes men gave commands, controlled the finances, beat their wives into submission, or just for the fun of it or if the mistresses wouldn’t give them any or just because.
I remember one aunt of mine, I was visiting for the weekend, who got a resounding slap that sent her flying across the room to land head first on the corner of a teak table for looking at her husband the wrong way. She ended up with stitches just above her right eye, all for looking at her lord the wrong way. She could have landed on her eye and been blinded, all for looking at the missile monarch the wrong way.
  My images of womanhood were those of disempowered, repressed women, broken down women who seemed to be mere shadows of their former selves, struggling under the weight of some invisible burden, and the domesticity they represented repelled me. It was all so depressing. I did not want to become like them. Surely there was more to life than getting married to missile - led men, having children, getting fat and old and dying. I did not want to be a spinster either because I had seen how spinsters were ridiculed and treated as abnormal for never marrying and having children. Some, in our village, had even been labeled witches, who had sold their wombs to the spirits in exchange for magical powers. The only hope for emancipation from what I saw as a mundane, doomed, boring and stiflingly stale existence was to be a nun.
I recall one Friday after school, the nuns were loading up their white Volkswagen minibus with picnic baskets and grass mats and they were all wearing straw somberos atop their black veils. They were in sandals and chatting and laughing excitedly, eyes behind chic sunglasses. I was standing in the hot sun my school bag in hand just watching with curiosity. I asked Rosina, the lady who watched over us during break time and after school while we waited for our parents. “Aunt Rosina, where are they all going?”
“Ah Barbara! Uthandizintho- you like things too much! They are going to Matopos for the weekend!” I had actually never been to the Matopos but my white classmates (and geography lessons) had regaled us with enough stories that it was not difficult to imagine the weekend of  rock climbing, fun and bliss the nuns were embarking on. As I trekked to the bus stop, hunger gnawing at my insides, my saliva thick with thirst, I decided the sweet life was in the nunnery. “See how they drive their own cars! See how happy they are, just going for some serious enjoymentation! If by taking the vow of poverty, I am forever bound to a life of Matopos visits, great food everyday including during Lent, then I must become a nun. That definition of poverty is definitely more palatable than the real grinding poverty I see in my world. I’ll take poverty of spirit any day as long as my belly is full! Oh to be free of bills and the stress of figuring out where my clothes and books will come from! If all I have to do is say yes Mother Superior, certainly Mother Superior, as you say Mother Superior (and just go ahead and do as I please), I will sing God’s praises morning, noon and night in exchange for this level of freedom and enjoymentation! Away and out of reach of the missile…”
With that decision made I visited the Convents in Bulawayo in search of my spiritual home. My mother drove me to the Franciscans at Mater Dei hospital, where I spent weekends doing my home work and sampling Irish dishes. I wined and dined with the Precious Blood and the AMR sisters (known to me privately as the MNR bandits-it takes one to know one, hint hint!!!!). I visited the American Notre Dame sisters in Phumula but I was put off by the lack of a uniform. I wanted austerity! This desire for asceticism led me on a long bus ride at age16, to the Poor Clare nuns in Waterfalls, Harare. They were of Spanish extraction and for one whole week, I slept on a homemade leaf stuffed mattress and pillow, on the narrowest bed I had ever seen. I gate chunks of homemade bread and pea soup. There was no meat, eggs or bacon. There was no dessert. No apfelstrudel smothered in fresh cream. We prayed communally, at 4am, 6am, 8am, 10am (you get the idea). The time in between communal prayers were spent in private prayer, or baking bread in silence. There was no music, no guitar masses. There was no televisison or VCR to watch holy films. I wore a dark brown baggy uniform of coarse fabric (sack cloth) and manyathela-like sandals. I washed every day in a cold bucket of water with a bar of life buoy soap. There was no juicy gossip. There were no rumors about which sister was in shenanigans with which brother or priest. There was silence and more silence as we worked in the garden. I remember hearing the sound of bicycle bells and gardeners singing little songs beyond the high concrete walls and suppressing the desire to yell “Somebody, anybody HELP MEEEEE!” As I read about the Life of St. Clare, who inspired by St. Francis, forsook all earthly treasures, of which they had plenty, to live a life of prayer, it dawned on me that if I really were to become a nun, then this is the kind of nun I would have to be in order not to see myself as a hypocrite, professing to live a life of poverty when actually my life was a life of luxury compared to the millions of Zimbabweans, who knew what poverty really was. These nuns were poor in every sense of the word, not just the spiritual. They were humble and lived to do nothing but pray. Any other activity was in support of prayer. I even snooped around for chastity belts because I figured these nuns were so holy that they would safeguard their chastity in case those of the missile broke in and tried to ravage them! If I had found any I would have taken one home… I looked for whips because St. Clare was into self flagellation, to punish the body and subdue all carnal desires. If I had found them I would have taken one home and I knew just who to use it on! This visit was the litmus test. Was I ready to enter the cloistered life? Was I able to live in this manner day after day for the rest of my life? Had my desire to jump over the wall and run as though a thousand hounds were nipping at my heels a sign that I was not cut out for this? Was my barely controlled impulse to break into song during morning mass a signal from on high that this was not my path? I had no answers then and as I rode the bus back to Bulawayo, three kilograms lighter, I realized the seriousness of the decision ahead of me…but until I had to make that decision, I would continue my rounds of the convents in Bulawayo (a little competition never hurt anybody), enjoy the food stuffs and have fun toying with those of the missile, dance myself senseless and see where it is I would end up. And this is where I have ended up!
I hope I have explained my nun phase and its role on my becoming Barbara!
 By the way I read somewhere that first time writers are often self indulgent? Well, in the words of my man Steve Biko ‘I write what I like’ in the hopes that you will like it too!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

My love affair with all things Nigerian

In 1992, when I arrived in Glasgow, Scotland, I registered for my classes at the University of Glasgow and was made aware of the African/ Caribbean Students Union. They had a representative at the registrar’s office, who was handing out fliers announcing a welcome party for all new international students. The party would be held in a fortnight and I was very excited about the idea of meeting other Africans. After almost two years of being the only African/Black person in a tiny village in Bavaria, Germany, the thought of a gathering of Africans made me giggle with giddy anticipation.
I arrived at the venue for the party full of excitement and sure enough there were so many Black people, that I was grinning from ear to ear as I warmly greeted each and every person who made eye contact with me. Here I was among a whole bunch of people who looked like me, for the first time in 2 years and all I could think of is how beautiful they all were. Many were dressed in their national dress and speaking and guffawing with a reckless abandon that I found refreshing. I even witnessed two women making merry and slapping each other’s palms as they shared jokes. This is a truly African expression of happiness, and an agreement that indeed that happiness (or juicy gossip) was better shared.
 I was mesmerized by one man in particular (across the room), who was dressed from head to toe in chartreuse (a mixture of purple and pink), in what appeared to be a long flowing robe which he kept hoisting onto his shoulders (I later learnt that it is called agbada or parachute!) and a jaunty hat in the same fabric of his outfit. He threw his head back and barked out a laugh so virulent, that I started laughing as though he had telepathically communicated the source of his mirth with me. He was probably over 6ft and had a generous belly from whence ripples of laughter rumbled up and out of his wide open mouth. I was enjoying being in this crowd of African and Caribbean students in bright greens orange, red, purple, yellow gold brown, black and chartreuse attire.
As I inched my way towards the table laden with food and drinks I found myself wondering what national dress I could have worn as a Zimbabwean. In fact I was starting to ask myself what it meant to be Zimbabwean, when next to me appeared one of the most strikingly beautiful women I have ever met. She was clad in jeans and a simple yet elegant dress shirt, much like I was dressed in and so I could not immediately place her as African. Maybe she was Caribbean. We exchanged furtive smiles, and I in my usual bold faced manner introduced myself. ‘Hi, I’m Barbara from Zimbabwe”. I took an immediate liking to her when she responded “Hi Barbara from Zimbabwe, I am Joy from Nigeria!” and burst out laughing.
This marked the birth of a friendship between Joy Odili and me, and the beginning of an obsessive fascination with Nigeria and Nigerians. Under the expert tutelage of Joy, I learned about the Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo, of which she is a member. I learnt how to cook jollof rice and how to fry plantain. I was introduced to the exquisite flavor of red palm oil which can redeem the most tasteless of meals. I learnt how to make akara (fried bean cakes) and how to eat food with “peppe”  (hot habanero peppers or some other bitingly red hot pepper), and how to make hot “peppe soup”, either with fish or chicken. I learnt that ebba was a lot like sazda and that garri  could be eaten with sugar and milk for breakfast. I learnt how to cook “three meats soup” in which goat with skin (fur singed off), chicken and beef (or smoked turkey) were cooked together in a spicy, flavor-laden tomato based sauce.
Apart from the culinary delights which poor Joy churned out for me to feast on, I also learned passively by being around someone ( and the other Nigerians she introduced me to) whose sense of self was defined first and foremost by her cultural identity.
 “I am Igbo first then Nigerian, then everything else”.
This was very new to me, because in the world that I had known thus far, I had ferociously insisted on being seen as an individual. At school, I struggled not to be seen as “just one of the African girls”. I longed to be seen and heard as an original human being with my own ideas thoughts and feelings, not as one of the Black girls and all the connotations associated with being categorized in this way. “African girls stink! African girls are slow, these African girls are allergic to sport, they cannot swim…” the list of all the negative things that African girls were is endless and I refused to be part of that motley crew. Instead I became notorious, the original bandit/ prankster/ rebel without a cause. I got into trouble for calling the physical education teacher a cow. I threatened to report one nun who relished telling us how the country would disintegrate under African leadership to my uncle the minister of education. During church services when other knelt down in the pews, I would stand. When they sat down, I would kneel. The school rules stated that no chewing gum was allowed on school premises. I would chew mine and blow huge bubbles that burst and left a stringy mess of chewing gum covering half my face. I wore bright red nail polish and rolled my socks down to show my ankle bones. I folded back the sleeves of my school blazer so I looked cool like Michael Jackson. There was a time when because we were forbidden to speak Shona and Ndebele on school premises, I would speak nothing but Ndebele in a loud voice daring, anyone who had the guts, to go and report me. No one ever did, because the consequences of such a treacherous act would be pure hell on earth meted out by yours truly and my band of rag tag followers which changed from day to day. All this I did because every sinew in my body cried out to be seen as me, not as ‘the African girls”. I had carved out an identity for myself, as Barbara, who may as well have had a desk in the principal’s office, I was there so often. Interestingly the countless hours I spent with Sr. Angela in her office were far from punitive. Instead she got to know Barbara and figured out what was really behind the madness she exhibited on a daily basis.
 In places where I was a distinct minority of one, I had found it burdensome to be viewed as “African” because somehow that meant that I represented the entire expanse of culture, language and geography of the vast continent of Africa. I was supposed to know details about the ravages of famine in Ethiopia, or the oil troubles in the Niger Delta or the killing of albinos for ‘medicinal body parts” in Tanzania, or why Whites in South Africa hated blacks. I was even supposed to know people’s friends in Burundi, Cameroon and the Gambia! All because I was a self professed African. For an 18 year old, away from the familiarity of home where language and the ability to communicate effectively were a given, being the only embodiment of Africanism in a sea of sometimes ignorant Europeanism was onerous. Meeting Joy made me revisit the whole issue of cultural identity and as I systematically chewed through her delicacies, I found myself wondering what in Zimbabwean culture could I be proud of. Was it our food? What were our traditional dishes? They seem to pale in comparison to Nigerian dishes. Sadza nenyama nemuriwo.  Was it our dress? What dress was Zimbabwean? Was it our languages, Shona and Ndebele? Those languages which we had been banned from speaking on school premises? Being around Joy and her fellow Nigerians always left me with plenty to digest, both figuratively and literally.
I was struggling with making myself understood in and understanding German and I shirked my responsibility as African Ambassador to the West, along with the crazy notion that somehow I was supposed to speak “African”. Sprichts du Africanisch- Do you speak African? This question I bore with long sufferance and a tight, pain- filled smile initially. However, after I had mastered sufficient German, I would respond with my own question, eyes wide open in feigned innocence; spricht du Europeisch- do you speak European?  I wanted to have fun, to get legless, to flirt and date and be myself. Yet I felt that I had to be in a perpetual state of seriousness and reflection, as I bore the weight of the troubles of my continent. How could I possibly enjoy a beer and dance with such hedonistic pleasure while children starved to death in Ethiopia? How dare I forget for a minute that in the time it takes to toss back a tequila shot and bite the lemon, 100 women across Africa would have perished in childbirth?  Where was my conscience as I played basket ball and went to movies when I should have been devising a plan to end female genital mutilation in the Senegal? My quest for self discovery and personal fulfillment and the activities I engaged in did not fit the profile of an esteemed ambassador from the African continent. What a relief that was!
 It was through Joy that I realized how I had been hoodwinked. I happened upon the painful fact that while my well meaning history teachers at school had been feeding me a steady diet of Gladstone and Disraeli, Otto von Bismark (first chancellor of Germany in 1871), the Congresse of Verona (1822) and the Treaty of Versailles (1919), Napoleon Bonarparte (1769-1821), Stalin (1878-1953) and Hitler (1889-1945), I had been deprived of the history of my own country as well as the history of the Continent of Africa. The only African history we had done in school was the Bantu migration delivered in a very perfunctory manner as a prelude to THE GREAT PARTITION OF AFRICA (1881-1914)! Which, to my understanding was when the real history of Africa began.
Joy educated me on the Biafran uprising from the 1967 to 1970. She explained Nigerian politics since its independence from British colonial rule in 1960. From there, I started to read the history of Africa, from Ethiopia to Kenya to the Sudan to the Congos to Angola to Namibia to Mozambique and Zambia to Zimbabwe and South Africa, then heading up to Ghana, Sierra Leone, Gambia and Senegal and all the other countries interspersed. This re- learning of history became a re- education about myself which liberated me from being in a continuous and exhausting state of internal struggle for visibility and uniqueness. The fear of disintegrating into a pile of nothingness with a plaque that read ‘just another African’ loosened its vice-like grip around my neck. I was unique by virtue of coming from a continent with such a rich and deep cultural legacy. There was nothing mediocre about my cultural heritage.
Enter Halima Ado, my Nigerian friend from the North. I met Halima when she joined my African dance class at the Minority Women’s cultural Center in Glasgow. Again note the terminology. An African dance class implied a class that teaches dances from all over the continent. That is a tall order given the huge number of cultural groups and therefore dances from north to south and east to west. What I taught was an exercise class to Congolese music. It was an aerobics class with elements of African dance. Halima pointed this out to the director, a Scottish woman, after the first class and she stood arguing with the poor woman who finally said “well its African music and you are exercising through dance, therefore it is African dance!”
Halima came to me with a big smile on her face and said ‘it was worth a try shaa! See all dese Oyinbo people wan com mek we Africans one ubiquitous amoeba!”
I got the gist of what she was saying and I loved her immediately! Halima introduced me to pounded yam and egusi soup and on that first night I ate it sitting on her bedsit floor, I poured libation for Okwonkwo the invincible, indomitable warrior brought to life on the pages of the classic novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, whose mounds of pounded yam and egusi soup had made my mouth water during my English literature class in 1988. It tasted better than I had imagined it and as I moulded a ball of yam with my fingers and scooped up some spinach and ground melon seeds cooked in palm oil, I knew my love for Nigeria had been permanently cemented. I ate suya and yam porridge and listened as Halima talked about Allah the Almighty. She showed me how to make amala and ewedu. I even fasted with her during Ramadan, though that only lasted a day, while she fasted from sun rise till sunset for 40days! Through Halima I was able to see Islam practiced. Halima was what I might call a spiritual Muslim to differentiate her from a religious Muslim among which we also find those of terrorist (jihadist) tendencies.
Halima prayed and her life was grounded in the practice of the spirit of Islam not the in the literal or fundamentalist interpretation of the letter of Islam. She was kind and forgiving, she lived in a spirit of gratitude and was always conscious of how she affected others and the world in which she lived. She strived to have a positive effect at all times and her response to the question “How are you” was always, “I am fine, Al hamdulillah, may God be praised”. She read parts of the Koran to me and she enlightened me through a new, personal perspective on religious violence, something which I had only understood in an abstract way. Halima freed me from the guilt which had plagued me since leaving home in 1990. The guilt was caused by my “lapsed Catholic” status. I had found my experience of church in Germany to be very traumatic and I knew I could no longer attend services and still remain a believer, when one day during a rapidly delivered, cold, sterile 20 minute service, which left me feeling empty and depressed I asked, “where are you God??” Halima straightened me out by stating in her very simple philosophy, “God is everywhere so why u de worry yosef over one building or de oda?” She was right; I did not need to go to a church with people I had no affinity for. If I wanted to pray I could do so anywhere.
In  January,1998 when I came to America, I enrolled as a student of public health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. There I met several Nigerians one of whom became a very good friend and source of help as I navigated the academic system at Hopkins. Gbenga Obasanjo educated me on the deep rooted problems of corruption and poor governance in Nigeria. His father at that time was in prison for speaking out against the human rights abuses of the Abacha regime. The son of the late Rivers State activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa was also a student at Hopkins and Gbenga educated me on the curse of the liquid black gold of the Niger Delta and he explained that Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed (1995) for agitating for social and ecological justice for the Ogoni people, whose livelihood was threatened by oil drilling operations in the Niger Delta. Talking with Gbenga made me understand that while I was having a love affair with this vast country of many layers and political, religious, social and moral complexities, its indigens had an oscillating love/hate relationship with it. The love fueled by its beauty, the creativity and ingenuity of its people, and the hate, foddered by the frustrations due to poor governance, wasted potential, squandered and plundered national resources and violent repression of political freedoms.
 It was a moment of great jubilation when Gbenga’s dad was released in June of 1998 after the sudden death of Sunny Abacha. There was an atmosphere of hope as African students looked on at the political proceedings in Nigeria, which we all believed would usher in a new era both in Nigeria and the rest of the continent of Africa. My love for Naija deepened and widened as I tasted snail, dried grass cutter bush meat and palm wine, and stood at the brink of endless possibilities with the others.
Enter Nollywood, home of the Nigerian filim industry, the third largest in the world after Hollywood of the U.S.A and Bollywood of India. So the movies are low budget and sometimes a bit corny, however, if anyone was ever going to create a thriving film industry in Africa, with movies entertaining Africans on the entire continent and in the diaspora, it had to be the Nigerians. I have a collection of over a thousand of these movies which are cheap, sometimes with poor picture and sound quality, but oh so entertaining. It is through these movies that I get a glimpse into my beloved adopted country. From luxurious Victoria Island mansions with piles of garbage on the streets to Ikoyi, to Ikeja and the beaches, as well as to the slum called Adjengule! (It is at the mention of this ghetto that every Nigerian I have met so far becomes convinced that I am a Fulani or Igbo Nigerian, who for numerous valid reasons has decided to disguise my true identity! It is hilarious when from some proper Niaja brother, the outburst of  ‘Na lie! You bi Naija babe for real! You no bi Zimbabwean!’ spills out of its own volition.)
 The screaming okada riders, the yellow buses, the motor parks and the motor park touts, the man sized potholes and the huge bill boards with Nollywood stars such as Genevieve Nnaji, Chioma Chukwuka, Rita Dominic, Desmond Elliot, Kenneth Okwonkwo etc. all make for a vibrant, electric Lagos, one which I will visit, enshallah (God willing). Some of the most beautiful historically themed movies about village life before colonization are among Nollywood’s offerings. The stories of the traditional rulers, the Igwes and their Lollos in the east and the Obas in the west are fascinating. I have learnt about the Osu, outcasts from normal civic life because their families were sacrificed to deities and the caste system persisted generation after generation. I have even learned some Igbo through watching these quaint films that always leave me nostalgic.
I have also perfected my pidgin through watching Nollywood movies. Much to my husband’s embarrassment, I have been known to break into pidgin the minute I hear that someone is from Nigeria. “My broda, how you dey?” Unfortunately for me not every Nigerian wants to be associated with pidgin, which is a language spoken on the streets and by those without pedigree or good schooling. I think that this is a shame on two levels:
 Firstly in a country with many diverse languages, Nigerians (and other West Africans) should be proud that they have evolved a language which they can use to communicate across language barriers. It’s is an inclusive language through which the “oga” can speak to his workers and vice versa, and workers can speak amongst themselves, across tribal lines. For me it symbolizes relaxation and an incorrectness which appeals to me, given the rather hectic lives we lead in the diaspora, and the ever present pressure to speak correctly and to be politically correct. To me its very incorrectness is appealing because it represents the letting go of airs and niceties which often hinder honest,’ stripped to the bare essentials’ communication, through which true progress is made. I sometimes imagine that if peace talks were held in pidgin, the participants would really let it all hang out! A few ‘your mama’s!” would fly but in the end I imagine big finger snapping handshakes and “We go gree! We go let peace reign!”
 Secondly, the total bastardization of English is something I absolutely love. The anarchist, non conformist, rebel without a cause in me does a little dance of defiance when I can bend, break and scatter de queen’s own English wit impunity!
Personally, I find pidgin very energy conserving. I like its precision. For example instead of ‘I am going to put the milk in the fridge’ it is “ I go fridge de milk.” Instead of I need to switch off the TV it is “I go off de T.V.” You will understand that for a busy mother of 4, energy conservation is vital for survival. I find myself thinking in pidgin when I am tired.

The scintillating sounds of P-square’s Do me I do you (man no go vex), and raunchy renditions from the Koco Master himself (D’banj) can be heard blasting from my Bose system as I streak across Ann Arbor, ferrying my kids to and from school. At these times I be true Naija chick, bouncing up and down in my seat while my moto vibrates rhythmically. This music is my source of sanity and sunny disposition in the middle of Michigan’s brutal winters, when a weak pallid sun peers from behind grey, snow- pregnant clouds to mock and taunt with its ineffectual rays. I am carried away to the hustling bustling streets of Lagos, where everybody has a terry face cloth to wipe away the humidity/heat induced sweat episodes.  
Having had to work very hard to convince Nigerians of my “non-Nigerianess”, I believe I have earned honorary Nigerian citizenship. With citizenship also comes responsibilities, such as being  part of the effort to eliminate fraudulent activity among our people, which is tarnishing our country’s image. Fraudsters are ruining the image of the Federal republic and this is not acceptable. We will deal with these never do well types. My contribution to this endeavor to get rid of 419 criminals is, rather than delete their email solicitations for me to gladly send them my money like one big “mugu” ( stupid cash cow), I respond thus:
“Wetin de worri u sef? Tief! God go punish you! May the eggs of a thousand lice infest dat your head and suck all your blood finish! Dis ting weh u de do, com take people moni no good at all at all! I de sorri for your mama weh born you. Ewu! He- goat, foolish man, useless mumu! Come na!  Come take my moni see! I go show you peppe! As I dey here so eh? As I dey here so, I de call EFCC quick quick!! If seh na me, I go commot dat internet café faaast! Your own don finish jo! Na  detention cell weh go be your home for twenty good years! Na EFCC koboko weh go be your chop and drink nite an day. See, if you write dis rubbish again eh, thunder go fire dat your useless fingers! You tink seh I be Oyinbo or one akata pessin weh u go rob for broad daylite so? Me sef I be bigga criminal dan you! No jus de try me today!!! I dey vex! Wakka for you!
Peace out!
 Chief- General Uchenna Ogwenyagba. MM. (Master Masquerade)”
In true Naija style!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

chicago marathon, 10-10-10

Barbara’s first marathon- Chicago 10-10-10
Pre race- a petit preamble
This whole running thing has always been a part of my life. I ran at school all the way from first grade to sixth form. We competed in inter house and interschool sports. I ran and won certificates. I ran relays and jumped hurdles. I ran sprints and longer 800-1000m races.
When I left home in 1990, I ran some more. When I first got to Germany and my taste buds delighted and revelled in the sweet, smooth, creamy taste of German chocolate, German cakes, German bread, German Kattofel Knodel (potato dumplings, with gravy!), snitzel und spetzle (pork and home made noodles, with gravy!), German potato salad and  bratwurst and of course, German BEEER! My body’s adipose tissue was ecstatic as it gorged on the fatty acid chains and sugar molecules. The more I ate the bigger I grew and the bigger I grew the more I wanted to eat. My solution to this problem of  “ see food eat it”, was to run, mile after mile after mile of mindless running. In my early twenties body aesthetics was of paramount importance to me ( it still is important, but to a lesser degree now and for different reasons), and so to keep ‘in shape” I had to balance my “scoffing” with some form of physical activity that I could do consistently. That was running.
I got to Glasgow in 1992. I ran. I worked out at the university gym, but my ultimate form of exercise was running. I tried running on the streets of Glasgow, but resorted to the treadmill after a couple of “dog poop on sneaker” and “puke on the pavement” incidents. I have to say the British binge drinking then throw up on your way home on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday night and leaving their pet’s poopi where it was deposited was something I couldn’t stand!
When I got to America in 1997, boy was I in for a shock. Not only were there amazing culinary delights and beautiful looking drinks with little umbrellas, the sizes of the food portions and the glasses of drinks were huge beyond anything I had ever seen or could imagine. And it was cheap! Of course I fed my face and drank my fill and yes it went straight through my lips and down to my hips. I had to run. I joined a gym and worked out regularly, just so I could eat regularly (which to me means having something in my mouth every hour on the hour- I am a food addict and I don’t want a twelve step program either!).
My pregnancies were all an excuse to EAT anything I wanted at anytime I wanted it. I ate everything because for the most part I had no morning sickness and if I felt queasy, I ate and felt better! Six years of back to back breeding like a rabbit, changing diapers or nursing took their toll and once again running was my friend. However as I ran, I realized that it was no longer only for the physical benefits that I was doing it, it was for the mental health benefits as well. I was a nicer, calmer, more relaxed mom of four crazy, highly energetic girls aged 8,6 and three. I began to schedule my running as I would all my other “things to do”. I made running appointments with myself, on the roads where I do my best thinking and praying and working out of stuff that is bothering and threatening to choke me. I stomp the pavement pounding all the junk out of me and into the asphalt. I return home unfettered and unencumbered, with a renewed sense of purpose and a quiet fierceness that whispers “bring it”!
The challenge I have always wanted to conquer was the 26.2mile marathon. I have been running with my two older girls for the last two years and competing in 5k and the odd 10k race. The girls love running and so it has become one of those things that we girls do together. They love the atmosphere at the races and they are both fierce competitors, who relish the fact that they fly past all these adults puffing and panting at a 14minute mile pace while they do an 8 minute mile without breaking a sweat.
Race day
Here I am at the starting corral for the Chicago marathon. The date is October 10, 2010 or 10-10-10!  There is something about those numbers that gives me the feeling that I will be OK. Maybe its superstitious, however I sense it and despite my frayed nerves and pounding heart, I feel confident that I am able do this.
My training has been really inconsistent despite my best efforts. However, I feel strong, am uninjured and my mind is in the right place. I have had to sit out one race due to an injury April 2010 but I will run this one. I have thrown out my Garmin GPS and my training plan so I am not interested in time or pace. I have only one goal and one goal only-to subdue the demon that this 26.2mile distance has become. I dream of it, it howls in the recesses of my mind as I cook, do laundry, bathe the girls, write my papers, eat and sleep.
 “How is that marathon training going”? Ask my neighbors, friends, my kids’ teachers, and the servers at my local coffee shop!!! It is an obsession and I have to wrestle it to the ground and free myself.
 However long it takes me I am catching that MegaBus back to Ann Arbor with a marathon medal round my neck. It has taken the mentoring, nagging and threatening of a friend to get me here. Thenji is waiting with a sledge hammer to knock me out if I continue to whine and wring my hands like a three year old. My husband has sent me off with lots of love and my girls have told me that I will bring home the medal. I have foolishly posted what I am about to do on my Face Book wall and I have left myself very little room to wriggle out of this one.
There is a sea of humanity as far as my eyes can see. People of all shapes and sizes and wearing all kinds of gear. Some are pacing, some are chanting mantras out loud, others are stretching, doing moves that I have never seen. One guy in his 50’s is lying on the ground and tilting is pelvis back and forth in a rather disturbing manner. Others still, are standing at attention like soldiers, gazing into space, eyes glazed over. It dawns on me in this moment, that every human being who has come here today, has come to run this race for their own personal reasons. While we will all run together we are really running alone, propelled forward by some deeply personal inner drive. The marathon is not a race that you run to win against anyone. With 45, 000 participants, it’s a race about the self. It is a race that forces you, challenges you to dig deep within and figure out why you are who you are and what you are made of. It’s a race that is physically painful and demands that you surmount that pain. It tests your mental fortitude, your self- discipline and courage.
 I notice long lines formed outside these blue rectangular units-Ah!! The porter potties!!! Suddenly I need to pee and I dash over to join a line while my companions “du jour”, Nancy and Maggie also join a line. It is my turn and I stride up to the innocuous –looking blue box and yank the door open. My face is slapped by an overwhelming putrid stench of human excrement so forceful that I take an involuntary step backwards. I have to make a split second decision as to whether I go in there or not. If I don’t, chances are I will pee on myself and not want to run the race in wet gear. If I do go in, chances are I will suffocate or dissolve, bones and all, in the acidic sulphurous fumes trapped in that blue box. The decision is made and I go in. Having never used one of these before at the shorter races I have been to, I am sickened by what my eyes have to, are forced to, are compelled to look at. If I close them the worst could happen, which is that I might slip and fall into….
You see, unlike the more ‘civilized’ pit latrine or Blair toilet (LOL!), you see everything that the 1900 people before you have deposited in the potty!!! YES my friends, it is a  nauseating concoction that could be used as an interrogation method (forget waterboarding), and even the most hardened terrorist will buckle, cave and crumble and reveal all  state and family secrets if dangled from a tree by the foot, head directly over the pungent potty!!!
So I look and I force myself to do what I gotta do and get out. After applying oodles of hand sanitizer and wiping my hands raw with baby wipes, I wait for my sister and Maggie to emerge from their hell holes. “Hmmmm” Nancy mumbles through clenched teeth “If this is what one has to go through at these races then I don’t think I can do this! Siss man!!!!”
It’s almost 7.30am  and time to say bye to my companions and head to the starting corral. The way this works is that the elite runners who stomp out the distance in oh, say 2hr 5minutes!!!! are placed at the very front of the 45,000 runners. So by the time we the plebian, no money- winning, wanna -conquer -the -distance runners get to the start line, those elite athletes, a.k.a poetry in fluid motion, are halfway done.
The experience of moving as part of an ocean of people is phenomenal. It’s difficult to describe the sensation, save to say it is like sailing on a calm ocean and being on a roller coaster at the same time. The adrenalin rush is enough for you to hear your blood thumping in your ears and your heart knocking against your rib cage. This is just being among the other runners. There are thousands of spectators cheering from the sidelines, and holding up signs. One of the ones I remember is “MARATHONERS DO IT LONGER”! That gets a laugh out of me just before I start running, putting one foot in front of the other.  I don’t turn on my music yet because there is U2’s “It’s a beautiful day”, the theme song for the Chicago marathon 2010, blasted from mega speakers all along the first part of the course. Then it’s off we go in the tunnel, to emerge on the other side. The first couple of miles are great, the crowd is enthusiastically cheering us on and I am doing by usual thumbs up with a big old smile on my face. I am loving these strangers who root for us as though we are the most talented courageous, athletic runners ever! My mind harkens to Sam Wanjiru and as I look up at the 10 mile marker and the time I cannot help myself: Sam is nearing the finish line very soon. He will roll in way ahead of 44,000 other runners. Love Sam. Sam is one of the most humble people I have ever seen. His running takes my breath away and I feel honored to be running along the same course he has just hurtled through with lightning speed.
 My running is going super. I have found my stride and a comfortable pace so I am enjoying the moment. I enjoy going through the various Chicago neighborhoods, where spectators are out in full. There is a band blasting rhythm and blues tunes and a few miles later there is a group of men doing a routine to Madonna’s “ Vogue”. My salacious mind and eyes wonder as I take in these gorgeous hunks in nothing but white loin cloths and black boots, gyrating and prancing to the music. I am tempted to squeeze a tight tush or two, then I remember what I am supposed to be doing. Besides they probably don’t care for such moves from people of my gender…
 The weather at this point is just perfect. Clear blue skies, fall colors of brown, gold, yellows and burnt orange swirl through my eyes as I run . I am filled with a sense of gratitude at being able to do this. I am thankful that my body is not rebelling and at this point I am sure that if I hold my pace and do not get over excited I will be able to finish. I am stopping at the aid stations and taking in those fluids. I am amazed at the thousands of crushed paper cups that form a blanket around the stations and gradually thin out as I leave the station and its drinks behind, careful not to slip on them and lose my footing.
 At the half way point, I look up and realize that it’s a little over three hours. Sam has long since crossed the finish line, about an hour ago, to be precise. I run on as I wonder whether he beat is own record. Last year he finished in 2.05.24. I wonder what he is doing right now. He has probably changed or showered, getting some food and waiting for his check so he can get on the plane and get back home to the beautiful plains of Kenya. At this point I am tempted to kick up my pace a notch, but I remember my not so well trained body and my singular goal: to go the entire distance. It’s getting hot and to pick up speed means ultimately to explode, crash and burn at mile 20. I reign myself in and I feel like a tightly coiled spring. I turn on my ipod and move and groove to Kofi Olomide, Awilo Longomba, Werra Son, and my girl Yondo Sister. For those who do not know, these are Congolese artists who, as far as I am concerned creat the most danceable or shall I say dance -inducing music in the world. I am a worrior! Kwasa- kwasa, the medal is mine, Kwasa kwasa! The miles fly by as I stride out to rhythmic drums and a mean baseline.
 I look up and I see the mile 22 marker. The time on it reads 5.25. Sam has eaten, received his check and his winner’s medal and is probably already at JFK airport in New York or Chicago O’Hare waiting to board an airbus back home. Or maybe he has decided to stay in Chicago and do some shopping on Michigan Avenue. Maybe he is so exhausted he is asleep in his hotel room…
Suddenly, my body rebels. I feel an achiness and all the nerves in my back, legs and feet seem to be firing continuously, sending signals to my brain that enough is enough. My back feels tight and my hamstring muscles are in spasm. I stop and lean forward, hands on my knees. This is it. I cannot do any more. I look up briefly and its carnage at mile 22! People are sitting on the side walks, throwing up, the sirens of ambulances are blaring shrill sounds into the air. The sun is beating down relentlessly, sucking out all moisture from me, mocking me: “So who’s the Warrior now ya big chicken? What, did you really think you could do this? Who do you think you are anyway?” My throat and mouth are dry and I have nothing to swallow. I am looking around for some place to plant my backside and wait for the meat wagon that will cart my carcass to the finish line. I am done!
Someone taps me on the shoulder and asks if I am OK. I manage to nod and he says come on lets go. I tell him that I am done and I am not going any further. He asks me where I am from and I force out Ann Arbor. “Well Ann Arbor, you’ve hit the wall and you will be fine. Lets go.” I am quite baffled by the audacity of this stranger who sounds so sure of himself. I actually stand up right so I can take a good look at him, tell him to mind his own business and be on his merry way! He is an elderly looking Black man, with a bald head and twinkling eyes. He assumes that my standing upright is my assenting to the command “lets go” so he grabs me by the hand and half drags me for about 4oo yards. “That’s right he says, just put one foot in front of the other. Here take this”. He hands me a Gu -gel and I suck on the little pouch loaded with sugar, greedily. He continues to hold my hand and it feels good. He is so sure of himself as he declares “Pretty soon you’ll feel better. You’ll feel so good you’ll start running again so you can cross that finish line and get that medal. There’s no way in hell I’ma let you bail out with less than 4 miles to the finish, uh- uh, Ann Arbor! You got this Ann Arbor, you got this!  Just imagine what you’ll feel like tomorrow if you bail out now! You’ll still be sore as hell with nothing to show for it! Now imagine waking up tomorrow, not being able to walk but knowing you did 26.2miles and you got yosef a medal!!! This my 15th marathon and the worst! This here heat’ll suck you dry as a prune!” My stranger- friend keeps this monologue up, dragging me with him at a brisk walk.
As suddenly as I felt like I was dying, I feel strong again. I look at my saving grace, the man who saved my marathon and before I can say thank you he says, “OK Ann Arbor, off you go!!! Run, run and get that medal! See you at the finish line!” The sound of his voice jolts my heart and adrenalin starts pumping and yes I run, slowly but I run all the way up this horrible hill, then down to cross the finish line at 6hrs 45mins 22seconds! I snatch my medal from the official who smiles and says congratulations. I look at it and I burst into tears. Suddenly I have to sit. I am vanquished and I am exhilarated. I look at my medal again and I think of my husband, Cyril, and my daughters, Chichi, Kai, Shami and Tendo, and I cry some more. I think of the cap on my head which has my nephew baby Dennis’ footprints on it and I cry. I look up to see if my stranger- friend to whom I am known as “Ann Arbor” is among the folks crossing the finish line. I do not see him then or ever.
It’s a done deal. I have conquered 26.2 miles with the help and encouragement of family, friends and strangers alike.
Post race
I am still euphoric, which is why I am up at writing this piece. I wear my race t-shirt everyday and I look at my medal at least 5 times a day. I am already preparing to start training after a couple of weeks because I am running another one and another one after that and on and on till ….
By the way, my other hero is a lady by the name of Jeanne Bennet Samuelson, who is such a graceful and fabulous runner at 54. She ran the Chicago marathon and finished in 2hr, 47mins!!! I still wonder what Sam did after his victory on Sunday. Here are a couple of my favorite quotations which I have loved for a long time in an abstract kind of way. I lived through it and now I own these two quotations. They really sum up what I have been trying to say in the last 6 pages!!!!
“I've learned that finishing a marathon isn't just an athletic achievement. It's a state of mind; a state of mind that says anything is possible.”
John Hanc, running writer
The body does not want you to do this. As you run, it tells you to stop but the mind must be strong. You always go too far for your body. You must handle the pain with strategy...It is not age; it is not diet. It is the will to succeed.
Jaqueline Gareau, 1980 Boston Marathon Champ