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“So Yaradua goes to Israel on an official trip. He gets sick there and dies. His entourage is told, ‘Well, you’ve got two options. Your president was a Muslim and so must be buried quickly. We can bury him here at no cost to you since he was our guest, or you can take his corpse home but that would cost a lot. Thousands and thousands of dollars.’ Yaradua’s men beg for a few hours to think about it. Five hours later they come back to the Israelis. ‘Well?’ the Israeli president asks. The head of the entourage clears his throat and says, ‘Your offer is very generous but we’ll turn it down. Thing is we all know the story of the famous someone, the son of a carpenter, who was buried here and who rose after three days. We don’t want to take that risk!'”
[private]The laughter that filters in from the kitchen distracts her for a moment and she shakes a lot more salt than she intends to into the simmering pot. A raised voice says over the laughter, “That’s not right. Muslims are not buried. They are cremated. For their sins, they are burnt. You’ve not told that story well.” The voice is loud in the way people are when they are drunk, but the words are not slurred, so she is sure whoever it is is not drunk, which surprises her, the amount of beer they have been drinking. She can’t say whose voice it is. All the men sound alike. That’s what this place has done to them, she thinks. It has made their voices the same, almost as if they were clones of each other. Their stories are not that different either. They have all escaped from something: religious riots, poverty, deadend lives, and are hoping to resurrect now. But the resurrection is a farce. The promise this place holds out never materializes. Some have, like her, university degrees, but those degrees mean nothing here. The men hold down jobs picking strawberries and harvesting chicken gizzards. They will do anything but clean. “That’s a woman’s job,” Agu said once when they saw a vacancy for a cleaning job at a time when neither of them had work. It would emasculate him to do that, and how could she have thought he would apply?
“Why do you want to spoil a good joke?” another voice asks. She recognises this voice. It is his. Her husband’s. Agu’s. Perhaps he sounds distinct because she has known him the longest. He has a beautiful voice. No. He had a beautiful voice. Deep. Like Barry White’s. Meant for serenading (and indeed he had done a bit of singing) but having been through what they have, it has developed a jarring roughness. These days, he always sounds angry. And really who could blame him? But she has suffered too. He must not forget that. She has suffered as much as he has. Come to think of it, they all have. Every one of them in that overcrowded sitting room with its mismatched chairs and wooden crates that serve as side tables; every one of them drinking out of the jam jars she washes out has suffered. No one can claim a monopoly on suffering. Certainly not Agu. But suffering is not without its lessons. Here she has learned thrift. Not the thriftiness of her mother back home in Nigeria, who bargains for palm oil until she gets a good price and then boasts of it, or recycles paper bags until they disintegrate, and laughs about that, but the thriftiness of the marginalised, the dispossessed. The sort of thriftiness impossible to laugh about or boast of. Hers is the thriftiness of those who stick to their sort, those who laugh so that they do not have to cry, and pretend it is normal to drink cheap beer out of washed-out jam jars.
Why do they have to be so loud? she wonders, not for the first time today. Everything feels wrong here. Especially the laughter, which is too expansive for the narrow apartment. It must crack the walls and seep into the other apartments and then they would have trouble. Neighbours complaining of raucous voices. “Disturbing the peace,” the policeman had said when he came to their doorstep some months ago. How insulted she had felt. Humiliated. Yet she had to smile at the young man, promise they would keep the noise down. Grovelling. She does not want to think about it. And all this talk about Muslims and Christians and burials. The jokes do not amuse her. It feels blatantly inappropriate after what they have been through to laugh at jokes about death. Have they not seen enough of it? The kitchen is hot and she wishes there was a window she could open. It is so hot she feels she is being slowly steamed like the moi moi she has cooking on the other, bigger burner. Moi moi in aluminium foil. The taste won’t be quite right, she knows, but there is nowhere one can get banana leaves (or are they plantain leaves?) to steam the bean cake in.
The men are laughing at another joke. She wonders what this new joke is about as she heaves out the bag of powdered pounded yam from the cupboard under the sink. At the beginning, she was unable to eat it, firm in her belief that the powder was not yam, could not possibly be yam, but a combination of chemicals not fit for human consumption. One of the wives, older in the experience of living abroad (and therefore older in the necessary experience of substituting one thing for another), had laughed and told her, “You’ll get used to a lot of things soon. This pounded yam included.” Now she does not even notice that it does not taste like the real pounded yam of back home: fresh yam, sliced and cooked, then emptied into a mortar and pounded to a stretchy, firm mound, perfect for rolling into balls and dunking into soup. She can no longer recall when she stopped noticing the taste. Or stopped noticing that the perfectly yellow bananas she bought here from the supermarket lacked the sweet, rich taste of the spotted bananas of her homeland. Or that her days had become one monotonous cycle of waking, cooking, and cleaning (not just her house but other people’s, young white couples who left sanitary towels and condoms exposed in the dust bins she had to empty, and twice a week an architect’s office close to the train station).
Her life has come to this. Her years of study have come to this, her degree in banking and finance from the University of Nigeria and five years’ experience working in a bank in Jos, going to her job in power suits and climbing steadily up the ladder. It does no good to think like this, she chides herself, finally dipping her spoon to taste the soup. Hmm, not bad. She had feared that it would be too salty. She stirs in spinach from a can and lowers the fire of the burner. Soon, the men will start asking for their food. She is the woman and must provide for all of them. It’s her duty. Her new job.
She lifts the pot with the moi moi off the burner and almost drops it for the heat.
Wiping sweat off her forehead, she makes a mental note to warm some stew for those who might prefer stew to soup. This too is her duty: to anticipate the needs of Agu and his friends. She remembers a story she and Agu listened to once on the BBC. A man comes home tired and hungry from work. He asks the wife for food, but there is no food at home, there’s a famine, and so not wanting to see her husband hungry, she cuts off a breast and feeds it to him. The next day the same thing happens. And while she’s clearing the table, the husband asks why her shirt is all bloody. She tells him what she’s done and he says, “Great! Now we have to start on the children!” Agu laughed and said, “What a silly tale.” But she did not laugh.
It was not always like this. Not when they were back home, she climbing the corporate ladder in her coordinated power suits. Then he respected her job, her need to rest after work. Weekends were spent in bed, talking about colleagues and dreams and whether or not to go Saturday-night dancing, and should they start having babies? They had young maids, cousins of cousins, to help with the cleaning and cooking. It was a different life and she misses it. She and Agu were equals then. Now he tells her he wants babies. They should have children. Maybe four. A sensible, even number. And where would they put the babies? In the one small cupboard they have in the bedroom? Of course she doesn’t ask him this question out loud. Their apartment has one bedroom, one small bathroom, and an even smaller kitchen, like a toy house. The hallway is narrow and will not hold a baby pram. Where will their children play? Where will they run around and learn to walk?
When she and Agu go to bed in the small bedroom, he holds her tight and empties himself in her. She does not always want to, but she does not resist when he starts making love to her. “Are you on the Pill?” he asks. And each time she says, “No.” The only response he wants to hear. The room is not big enough, the space is too limited, for any other answer.
She ladles soup into a huge bowl, careful not to be stingy with the gizzards (special discount from Emmanuel who works in an abattoir) and stock fish (special discount from John who helps out at the Oriental Shop). It helps to have friends in useful places, she thinks, now dishing out the too-white pounded yam into a wide platter edged in a pattern of trellis (bought secondhand from the Web). Even here where it no longer matters, where it should not matter, they still keep away from Ali and Abdul, who are Nigerians, as they are, but of the wrong religion. “The Muslims,” Agu would say when asked. “I keep away from the Muslims.” As if the Muslims were a highly contagious disease.
“But you can’t blame Ali and Abdul for what happened in Jos,” she would answer, trying to convince him to return their friendship, their hellos, in hopes of eliciting more than a tart response. “You work in the same factory.”
“I can’t forget.” He lost more than a job in the riots. He lost his faith in his country. “And that’s a huge loss,” he would always say. He spent his days reweighing the value of everything gone. Agu had a supermarket. On a street full of supermarkets, it was a testimony to his business acumen that his supermarket stood out above the rest. He said it was all down to strategic planning. It wasn’t anything he had picked up while studying for his accounting degree (although it helped to have a degree in accounting), it was just that he knew how to place his products so that they caught the eye. The male deodorants with the chocolate bars so that a man who came in with his girlfriend for some chocolate was confronted with the deodorant he might need. At Id ul Fitri, he rewarded his Muslim customers with parcels of ram’s meat dripping blood in clear plastic bags, for which they thanked him effusively. Yet when the riots started, that did not save him. Did not save his shop. The name marked him out as a southerner. Agu and Sons (there were no sons, but surely those would come?). His supermarket was razed, and Agu lost everything in one night. All his investment. His will to strive.
There was no question of his wife continuing in her job at the bank. She was marked too.
They cleared their bank account to buy a passage out. No choice. The man who helped them out had only one country he could get them into. Belgium. “They don’t even speak English there,” she said, wondering what she would do in a country where the languages she knew did not matter. But for Agu it was enough that the place was far away from Nigeria. “I don’t care if they speak cat-language. I need to get out of here,” he said.
She does not want to think of the corpses she saw the day after the riot. Nor does she want to think of the trouble it took to get them here. Or of the lies they had to tell, the new identities they had to wear. Their passports say they are from Liberia – should she die, the authorities would probably contact the Liberian embassy.
She lifts the moi moi from the pot and places them in a round dish, a present from one of her employers, a lonely woman who tells her often, “No one gets my toilets as clean as you do. You are a treasure.” She knows how to scrub toilet bowls until they gleam. Nothing escapes her attention. She is dedicated. That was how her boss in Nigeria described her too. And now how easily she has transferred that original dedication to toilet bowls and wooden floors. How she has adapted to this life she could not have imagined.
She puts the food in a tray, and carefully balancing it in her hands carries it out to the sitting room, where the men are now playing a game of WHOT. The sight of the cards makes her homesick. For a moment her eyes mist and she has to hurry to drop the tray and retreat before they see her like this, but the men hardly look up from their game. When she re-enters with plates and spoons, all four drop their cards as if on cue and Emmanuel (small, slight, with the fan-shaped ears of an elephant) says, “At last. Smells delicious, nwunye anyi.” Nwunye anyi, our wife. That is what she has become. “Wife” to whichever guest her husband invites home: cooking, cleaning. But sometimes when she sleeps, she still sees herself at the counter in the bank discussing the current economic crisis with colleagues.
Her mother suggested that they move in with her while they looked for new jobs. Agu refused. “I am a broken man,” Agu told her. “I cannot begin to pick up my pieces here.” But she would have liked to stay back, to try to find a job in another bank in the east. It would have been easy to find something, she had experience after all, but what sort of wife would she have been if she put her career before her husband? And who was to say she could not make a career in the new country? Agu had a plan: he would work in Belgium just long enough to regain everything he’d lost in the North, and then they could move back. Did she not want to see the world? Had she never looked with envy at those returnees who came back at Christmas with foreign accents and wearing the latest fashion? Well, she had, she could not deny it. “Here is your chance to be one of them. Be the one to be envied. Be the one to come back from abroad.”
Now they no longer talk about their work. Agu’s in the bread factory, transferring hot loaves from one machine to the other (at least that is what she thinks he does, she is not entirely sure), and she no longer talks of vacuuming floors and wiping windows in light tones as if it did not matter.
The words they do not say fill the distance they keep from each other except when there are faults to be found. And some days there are those: when the food is not ready on time, or the house is not tidy enough, or her voice is not wifely enough, and then Agu unleashes his frustrations on her. He uses his hand to thump sense into her. In this way, he has also changed. Afterward he cries and says he is sorry but a man works all night in a bread factory and it changes him.
She thinks, I too have found my way, as she fingers the Pill – several of them, small and pink – in the pocket of her denim pants.[/private]
Chika Unigwe is a Nigerian-born author who writes in English and Dutch. Her debut novel, De Feniks, was published in 2005 by Meulenhoff and Manteau (of Amsterdam and Antwerp) and was shortlisted for the Vrouw en Kultuur Award for female writers. She is also the author of two children’s books published by Macmillan London. Her latest novel is On Black Sisters Street (Jonathan Cape, UK 2009; Random House NY, 2011).