These are the words of lovers, of dancers, of dynamite singers. These are songs if you have the music.— AMIRI BARAKA, BLUES PEOPLE
Delphine, Stella and Daphne
whenever, wherever, whatever
It seemed almost incidental that he was African.
So vast had his inner perceptions grown over the years …— BESSIE HEAD, A Question of Power
This is the kola nut. This seed is a star. This star is life. This star is us.
The Igbo hold the kola nut to be sacred, offering it at every gathering and to every visitor, as a blessing, as refreshment or to seal a covenant. The prayer that precedes the breaking and sharing of the nut is: He who brings kola, brings life.
Elvis stood by the open window. Outside: heavy rain. He jammed the wooden shutter open with an old radio battery, against the wind. The storm drowned the tinny sound of the portable radio on the table. He felt claustrophobic, fingers gripping the iron of the rusty metal protector. It was cool on his lips, chin and forehead as he pressed his face against it.
Across the street stood the foundations of a building; the floor and pillars wore green mold from repeated rains. Between the pillars, a woman had erected a buka, no more than a rickety lean-to made of sheets of corrugated iron roofing and plastic held together by hope. On dry evenings, the smell of fried yam and dodo wafted from it into his room, teasing his hunger. But today the fire grate was wet and all the soot had been washed away.
As swiftly as it started, the deluge abated, becoming a faint drizzle. Water, thick with sediment, ran down the rust-colored iron roofs, overflowing basins and drums set out to collect it. Taps stood in yards, forlorn and lonely, their curved spouts, like metal beaks, dripping rainwater. Naked children exploded out of grey wet houses, slipping and splaying in the mud, chased by shouts of parents trying to get them ready for school.
The rain had cleared the oppressive heat that had already dropped like a blanket over Lagos; but the smell of garbage from refuse dumps, unflushed toilets and stale bodies was still overwhelming. Elvis turned from the window, dropping the threadbare curtain. Today was his sixteenth birthday, and as with all the others, it would pass uncelebrated. It had been that way since his mother died eight years before. He used to think that celebrating his birthday was too painful for his father, a constant reminder of his loss. But Elvis had since come to the conclusion that his father was simply self-centered. The least I should do is get some more sleep, he thought, sitting on the bed. But the sun stabbed through the thin fabric, bathing the room in sterile light. The radio played Bob Marley’s “Natural Mystic,” and he sang along, the tune familiar.
“There’s a natural mystic blowing through the air / If you listen carefully now you will hear …” His voice trailed off as he realized he did not know all the words, and he settled for humming to the song as he listened to the sounds of the city waking up: tin buckets scraping, the sound of babies crying, infants yelling for food and people hurrying but getting nowhere.
Next door someone was playing highlife music on a radio that was not tuned properly. The faster-tempoed highlife distracted him from Bob Marley, irritating him. He knew the highlife tune well, “Ije Enu” by Celestine Ukwu. Abandoning Bob Marley, he sang along:
“Ije enu, bun a ndi n‘kwa n’kwa ndi n‘wuli n’wuli, eh …”
On the road outside, two women bickered. In the distance, the sounds of molue conductors competing for customers carried:
“Yaba! Yaba! Straight!”
“Oshodi! Oshodi! Enter quickly!”
Elvis looked around his room. Jesus Can Save and Nigerian Eagles almanacs hung from stained walls that had not seen a coat of paint in years. A magazine cutting of a BMW was coming off the far wall, its end flapping mockingly. The bare cement floor was a cracked and pitted lunar landscape. A piece of wood, supported at both ends by cinder blocks, served as a bookshelf. On it were arranged his few books, each volume falling apart from years of use.
By the window was a dust-coated desk, and next to it a folding metal chair, brown and crisp with rust. The single camping cot he lay on was sunk in the center and the wafer-thin mattress offered as much comfort as a raffia mat. A wooden bar secured diagonally between two corners of the room served as a closet.
There was a loud knock, and as Elvis gathered the folds of his loincloth around his waist to get up, the lappa, once beautiful but now hole-ridden, caught on the edge of the bed, ripping a curse from him. The book he had fallen asleep reading, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, fell from his side to the floor, the old paperback cracking at the spine, falling neatly into two halves as precisely as if sliced by a sword.
“Elvis! Elvis! Wake up. It’s past six in de morning and all your mates are out dere looking for work,” his father, Sunday, said.
“What work, sir? I have a job.”
“Dancing is no job. We all dance in de bar on Saturday. Open dis bloody door!” Sunday shouted.
Elvis opened the door and eyed him. The desire to drive his fist through his father’s face was old and overwhelming.
“I’ll just wash, then go,” he mumbled, shuffling past Sunday, heading for the backyard, passing Jagua Rigogo, who stood in the middle of the backyard cleaning his teeth with a chewing-stick, preparing for his morning ablutions and the clients who would soon start arriving to consult him on spiritual matters. He reached out and squeezed Elvis’s arm as he passed. Elvis turned to him, opening his mouth to speak.
“Before you speak, my friend, remember, a spiritual man contain his anger. Angry words are like slap in de face.”
Elvis took in Jagua’s dreadlocks, gathered behind him in a long ponytail by a twisted tennis headband, and the distant red glare of his eyes. He didn’t have his python with him, and Elvis wondered where it was. Probably asleep in the cot Jagua had salvaged from one of the city dumps, and which sat in the corner of his room. Merlin, his python, slept in it, comfortable as any baby.
“Jagua. I …” Elvis began, then stopped.
Jagua smiled, mistaking Elvis’s resignation for control.
“Dat’s de way,” he said.
Elvis just sighed and silently fetched water from the iron drum sunning in a corner of the yard. He snatched his towel off the line and entered the bathroom, trying not to touch the slime-covered walls and the used sanitary pad in the corner. How did they come to this? he wondered. Just two years ago they lived in a small town and his father had a good job and was on the cusp of winning an election. Now they lived in a slum in Lagos. Closing his eyes, he rushed through his morning toilet. On his way back inside to get dressed, he passed his father in the corridor again.
“Are you still here?”
Elvis opened his mouth to answer but thought better of it.
The road outside their tenement was waterlogged and the dirt had been whipped into a muddy brown froth that looked like chocolate frosting. Someone had laid out short planks to carve a path through the sludge. Probably Joshua Bandele-Thomas, Elvis thought. Joshua was the eccentric who lived next door and spent his days pretending to be a surveyor.
Elvis and his father lived at the left edge of the swamp city of Maroko, and their short street soon ran into a plank walkway that meandered through the rest of the suspended city. Even with the planks, the going was slow, as he often had to wait for people coming in the opposite direction to pass; the planks were that narrow.
While he waited, Elvis stared into the muddy puddles imagining what life, if any, was trying to crawl its way out. His face, reflected back at him, seemed to belong to a stranger, floating there like a ghostly head in a comic book. His hair was closely cropped, almost shaved clean. His eyebrows were two perfect arcs, as though they had been shaped in a salon. His dark eyes looked tired, the whites flecked with red. He parted his full lips and tried a smile on his reflection, and his reflection snarled back. Shit, he thought, I look like shit. As he sloshed to the bus stop, one thought repeated in his mind: What do I have to do with all this?
Sitting on the crowded bus, he thought his father might be right; this was no way to live. He was broke all the time, making next to nothing as a street performer. He needed a better job with a regular income. He pulled a book from his backpack and tried to read. It was his current inspirational tome, a well-thumbed copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. He read books for different reasons and had them everywhere he was: one in his backpack, which he called his on-the-road book, usually one that held an inspirational message for him; one by his bed; and one he kept tucked in the hole in the wall in the toilet for those cool evenings when a gentle breeze actually made the smell there bearable enough to stay and read. He opened the book and tried to read, sitting back as far as he could in the narrow seat. He hated the way he was being pressed against the metal side by the heavyset woman sitting next to him, one ample buttock on the seat, the other hanging in the aisle, supported against a standing stranger’s leg. Elvis shifted, careful of the loose metal spring poking up through the torn plastic of the seat cover. Giving up on reading, he let his mind drift as he stared at the city, half slum, half paradise. How could a place be so ugly and violent yet beautiful at the same time? he wondered.
He hadn’t known about the poverty and violence of Lagos until he arrived. It was as if people conspired with the city to weave a web of silence around its unsavory parts. People who didn’t live in Lagos only saw postcards of skyscrapers, sweeping flyovers, beaches and hotels. And those who did, when they returned to their ancestral small towns at Christmas, wore designer clothes and threw money around. They breezed in, lived an expensive whirlwind life, and then left after a couple of weeks, to go back to their ghetto lives.
But for one brilliant moment, they dazzled: the women in flashy clothes, makeup and handbags that matched their shoes, daring to smoke in public and drink beer straight from the bottle; and the men, sharp dressers who did not rat on you to your parents if they caught you smoking. They let you take sips of their beer and shoved a few naira into your shirt pocket.
Lagos did have its fair share of rich people and fancy neighborhoods, though, and since arriving he had found that one-third of the city seemed transplanted from the rich suburbs of the west. There were beautiful brownstones set in well-landscaped yards, sprawling Spanish-style haciendas in brilliant white and ocher, elegant Frank Lloyd Wright-styled buildings and cars that were new and foreign. Name it and Lagos had a copy of it, earning it the nickname “One Copy.” Elvis had read a newspaper editorial that stated, rather proudly, that Nigeria had a higher percentage of millionaires — in dollars, not local currency — than nearly any other country in the world, and most of them lived and conducted their business in Lagos. The editorial failed to mention that their wealth had been made over the years with the help of crooked politicians, criminal soldiers, bent contractors, and greedy oil-company executives. Or that Nigeria also had a higher percentage of poor people than nearly any other country in the world. What was it his father had said about statistics?
“If you have it, flaunt it; if you don’t, flaunt statistics.”
He had been fourteen when he arrived in Lagos two years before, miserable and unable to fit into school, where his small-town thinking and accent marked him. The differences did not seem that obvious, but they were glaring to the other kids — he’d never played cricket at school, his experience of the movies had been with old dubbed-over silents and the Americanisms he knew were old and outdated. Where the other kids used slang like “cool” and “hip,” he was limited to cowboy lingo like “shucks” and “yup” and “darn those rustlers.”
So he cut school, spending long periods of time on a deserted beach, not too far from the ghetto of Maroko where they lived. He practiced his dance routines for hours to the sound of his little radio. At first the sand slowed him down, making his movements jerky. But he persevered until his moves appeared effortless. Subsequently, when he danced on smooth surfaces, he seemed to float. The beach was also refuge to the homeless beggars moved on by the police; always polite, they offered to share their “tickets to paradise.” Elvis always refused the marijuana, but the smell hung in the hot air, and it soon became difficult to engage fully with the reality around him.
A man arguing loudly in the back of the bus intruded on his thoughts and reminded Elvis of his first molue ride. Molues were buses unique to Lagos, and only that place could have devised such a hybrid vehicle, its “magic” the only thing keeping it from falling apart. The cab of the bus was imported from Britain, one of the Bedford series. The chassis of the body came from surplus Japanese army trucks trashed after the Second World War. The body of the coach was built from scraps of broken cars and discarded roofing sheets — anything that could be beaten into shape or otherwise fashioned. The finished product, with two black stripes running down a canary body, looked like a roughly hammered yellow sardine tin.
The buses had a full capacity of forty-nine sitting and nine standing, but often held sixty and twenty. People hung off the sides and out of the doors. Some even stood on the back bumpers and held on to the roof rack. The buses wove through the dense traffic so fast they threw the passengers about, and caused those hanging on to sway dangerously. An old man on the bus had told him that the spirits of the road danced around the buses trying to pluck plump offerings, retribution for the sacrilege of the road, which apparently, when it was built, had severed them from their roots, leaving them trapped in an urban chaos that was frightening and confusing. Elvis never knew whether these spirits inhabited a particular road or all roads, or what they looked like. But the old man’s story sounded so plausible it had stayed with him.
Elvis yawned, closed his eyes and rested his head on the cool metal side. Suddenly a man in the front got up, rapped his knuckles noisily on the roof of the bus and cleared his throat.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.”
His voice had a curious ring to it.
“We get new product for sale today call Pracetmol. It cures all pains, aches and fever caused in de body. If you look at de package, you will see dat de expiry date is December eighty-three. Dis is a new drug from de white people’s labs and plenty research done go into it. It is manufacture in Yugoslavia. In dat country dey call it narcotics and it is costing plenty money. We in Star Advertising Agency with head office in Orile Lagos have been choose by de makers to promote dis drug in Nigeria. Today you can obtain your copy at cheap rate from me. Due to and because of advert purpose, dis packet containing twenty tablet is costing only one naira. If you check any chemist it is costing three naira dere. Buy your own now, for mama, papa and childrens too …”