|Jul/Aug 2013 Nonfiction|
Digital artwork by Adam Ferriss
I learned how to eat small green chili peppers raw with dinner (plenty of rice), and, away from the dinner table, I was introduced to dog meat (tough), snake meat (tougher), and roasted grasshopper (crunchy). Like many Indonesians, Lolo followed a brand of Islam that could make room for the more ancient animist and Hindu faiths. He explained that a man took on the powers of whatever he ate: One day soon, he promised, he would bring home a piece of tiger meat for us to share. —Barack Hussein Obama, Dreams from My Father
Exile. I have learned to love America, warts and all. America is another planet, far removed from the one that I walked away from many moons ago. The America that stamped my passport valid for entry is different from the land that houses my umbilical cord, this land whose bananas come in neat boxes and their own SKU tags, people who own guns that can kill dozens in minutes but have no need to hunt, their chickens come neatly beheaded, in plastic wrapping in the meat section. Aisle 12. These days, America no longer fills me with wonder; I have been around here longer than any American under 30. I am an American. An immigrant. From what many Americans would call another planet. Like the proverbial elder who has more broken pots than anyone in his village, I have experienced pretty much everything about America, this lovely country that can shock the senses of an immigrant. It is impossible to describe the pain of dislocation from one's ancestral land. It hurts, but at some point, you stop being Kunta Kinte and bite into Babylon's peach. And enjoy it. For, you are not going back home. You are home, here, in exile.
But the ways of Babylon are strange nonetheless. My mother Mamalolo visited me once from home. She did not understand the ways of Americans, these strange people who see tomorrow. And when it was time to flee back to the chaos of our village, she stepped onto the plane shaking her head, wondering who would believe her stories of America back home, stories of these people who climb heights to touch their God.
Yes, we Americans have strange ways. Take America's love affair with pets. I now understand why Americans love their pets, but I was not always this mushy, sentimental American ogling cute dogs. A couple of decades ago, I worked for this white guy, a strapping, young warrior, who walked around the place all cool, like his heart was made of rocks. Nothing seemed to shake his emotions loose. One day, he came to work and broke down crying. His beloved dog had died that morning. Everyone flocked around him, the bereaved, and started saying all the sensitive things that you say to someone vulnerable who has just lost a child. I think someone sent for bagels and cream cheese, "comfort food" they called it. I sat there gawking at the scene of grief, my mouth agape, thinking, what kind of country is this where grown men weep over a dog?
If I am giving you the impression that I am Early Man, you are probably right. Growing up as a child, we did have pets. We had a parrot. We called her Parrot. We are simple like that. Our villages don't have zip codes, the streets have no names, and there are definitely no lampposts for dogs to pee on. I don't know if Parrot was a pet or a source of income for our mother. I shall explain. Parrot was capable of conversations. She would screech her name all day, I mean screech, "Parrot!" And in our language, too. Parrot was deemed to possess certain extra spiritual powers. Our father Papalolo swears that in the 60s, during our country's civil war, Parrot saved him from the evil machinations of enemy soldiers when they came looking for him. This she did by telepathically whispering their coordinates to him, enabling him to evade capture. Papalolo was always a fantastic storyteller, albeit an unreliable witness.
Parrot's deep-red tail feathers were especially valuable to seers, mystics who used them for mysterious things on behalf of their supplicants. This meant that my mother was always plucking the feathers and selling them at the market to fuel her desire for important needs like shoes, handbags, and fancy dresses. Whenever Parrot was slow in re-generating her tail feathers, our mother would hector her and give her short, abusive lectures on the need to avoid slothful behavior. Mother did not suffer fools gladly, especially those who stood in the way of her earthly pleasures. Parrot's tail was mother's, and like mine whenever I did something wrong, it was always burning from being plucked.
As kids we fed Parrot bananas, her favorite dish. We took care of Parrot's cage and lined the floor with used newspapers after reading the hot air from our thieving ruler's du-jour. I am happy to say that Parrot crapped on a lot of bullshit artists in those days.
There were other pets in our neighborhood. The cats were especially useful for chasing the army of rats that shared our homes with us. There was never a shortage of rats; the cats were always well fed. One family had a monkey. They called it Monkey. I remember Monkey. He was always in chains, and he bit and scratched like, well, a mean monkey. Every now and then he would break free of his chains and chase us. And we would fly on the wings of our terror. No one wanted to experience the thrill of being caught alive by a mean monkey.
One book that has had an incredible influence on me is Dreams from My Father, by the African-descended writer and President of America, Barack Hussein Obama. In that beautiful book, Obama talks about living in Indonesia and mentions having eaten dog meat, making him the first American president to openly acknowledge doing so. Obama ate a lot of weird things, and that has gotten him in some trouble now that he has become the most public of figures. The most hilarious part of the book for me is when he eats something spicy in Kenya, and on the way home he cannot sprint fast enough to the latrine. Obama should write more. He is pretty good. He might win the Nobel Prize for Literature. They like him in Oslo: a black man who can do things like speak in articulate sentences and become president and kill people with weaponized drones!
Where I come from, we love us our bushmeat, what Americans unctuously refer to as venison. Smh. Some days in America, my morning commute to work is rudely interrupted by herds of deer darting into traffic from the side of the road. They are usually healthy, well-fed animals that would keep my ancestral clan chomping meat for several moons. I see deer, and I start salivating as traffic stops in awe to watch the "beautiful" sight of dinner strolling leisurely across the highway.
About a decade back, ugly obnoxious bugs called cicadas visited America by the billions. They were a nuisance, blanketing everywhere with their show of mass suicide. I have never tasted cicadas. I have, however, tasted termites. Well, in my language, we don't call them termites. English is the language of the oppressed. Everything gets lost in the translation—along with one's dignity. We shall stick with the unfortunate pejorative, "termites." As a child, I loved termites. They were tasty little bugs, every one of them. Every year, with the coming of the rains, like drunken fools, they would appear as if from nowhere and fly all over the place. Plump termites would be everywhere, and we would gleefully go out and place buckets of water under anything that had light. In those days, there were lamp posts that actually worked in the city of my childhood, and they were the favorite hunting spots for termites for me and my friends. The termites would be attracted to the lights, get dazed by them, and soon enough our buckets would be filled with dinner!
I took the buckets of termites to my waiting mother. She would place a huge pan on a tripod of fire. Soon the termites would be frying in their own fat, and the heat would separate their wings from their sautéed bodies. Once the feast of termites cooled down, my mother would sift the singed wings from the meat, and the feasting would begin. I am having a difficult time thinking of a more delicious snack than my mother's sautéed termites. I remember experiencing this same sense of loss decades ago, when I visited the pigeons of Trafalgar Square in London. What a waste of protein! Why were those pigeons being fed, I wondered? They should be feeding us! Exile hurts. Sigh.
I once stayed in a hotel in Orlando, Florida, whose highlight of the day was a parade of ducks. Every evening, we would repair to the hotel lobby bar, grab drinks, and watch, along with virtually all the hotel guests, these highly intelligent ducks parade along a red carpet. Amazing! Why are these ducks walking on carpets? Someone give me some pepper and salt! Once, at work, an American colleague of mine invited me to look out my window across from a man-made pond. I looked and saw a family of very plump geese playfully romping and gallivanting around the pond. My colleague had invited me to witness what he saw as a pretty sight—a gaggle of plump geese playing around with nothing to do. Me, I saw food. I remarked to him that in my country it would be extremely unwise for those geese to be gamboling around in such a reckless fashion in broad daylight. They would not live to repeat the mistake of taunting the palate. Only in America.
The deer in my neighborhood know that I would love them to fall dead on my big barbecue grill out in the yard. They avoid our house like the plague. One day, my white neighbors asked me why deer avoided my flowering plants. I told them how in my youth, this tribe of monkeys was always bothering my father's vegetable garden until we caught two and had rice and stew with plenty of monkey meat. They hurried off and never came back—the neighbors, I mean. It was not true, of course; we only caught one scrawny monkey, and getting meat out of the sucker was like raiding a starved crab. I have not seen the neighbors and their two dogs ever since. We don't eat dogs where I come from. We are civilized people.
I once had a pet goat. My uncle ate my pet goat. He claimed it got on his nerves by stealing his one piece of meat, and my goat took the place of this missing morsel. I cried. I loved Goat (his name). My father consoled me by assuring me that any goat that ate meat was a witch and needed to be delivered to the hottest part of hell. Who has ever heard of a meat-eating goat, my father asked me as he chomped on my goat's head. My goat was pretty. You would have liked her. I am still traumatized by that incident.
Yes. Where I come from, we don't play around with our animals. We eat them or put them to work. The revered Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka once risked his prestige and name by smuggling a frozen eta, a wildcat of the civet family, into Italy so that the cast of his play could experience a proper home-made bushmeat feast. He survived his subversion, and a grateful cast had a blast. I am not making this up. Read his wondrous memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn. Man, that dude is a born drama queen. Why not just go to an "African" market and buy the stuff under the counter? Here is the gleeful conclusion of the offending ritual:
In Siena, when the beast was unveiled, the delight on the faces of the company was, as I anticipated, an unquantifiable reward. Then, to cap it all, the Nigerian ambassador in Rome, Rekya Attah, having learned of the artistes' privations, arrived in her car with pots and deep bowls brimming with Nigerian food. By now, a rough fire had been built by the company in the field outside the Nigerian quarters, and the smell of singeing hair and burned skin soon attracted the other troupes. In twos and threes they emerged from their rooms, incredulous eyes confronted by a roasting eta, the size of a medium-sized sheep, at the edge of the rows of vines that dipped vertiginously from the artistes' row of houses. What followed, three hours later, was a riot of a feast, with the eta as center-piece. Music flowed, and a spontaneous festival began. That evening, there were no patrons in the festival cafeteria. The bus that came to take the actors for dinner was sent back empty, prompting even the organizers to jump in and return with it to investigate. Again, the bus returned empty; they opted to remain and partake of the festivities. —Soyinka, Wole (2007-12-18). You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir (pp. 284-285). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
A friend gave me two kittens once. In 1981. He'd just come from America, and he did a lot of things people who'd just come from America do, like smoke a pipe and stink up the place, speak in fake American accents, drive long cars, own pets, and complain about the country and corrupt politicians. Over there, these baboons would be in jail, he would exclaim in between puffs from his tobacco pipe, as he waved in the general direction of America, over there. I so badly wanted to go over there. I don't remember bonding with the kittens. I named one Cat and the other one Cat. They were extremely intelligent. They stayed with me and joined me in mooching off our dad. Papalolo did not like them much because they were expert thieves. They would steal his meat right before his eyes. That would infuriate him no end. I was so proud of them for standing up to our dad, who it seemed had spent much of his life bullying us into giving him the best parts of our dinners. When I left for America, they were shipped to the village, where according to my brother Andrew, our uncle Elephant seized one cat, cut him up into delectable pieces, and sautéed him with salt, pepper, and one tomato, and the entire clan feasted on cat meat peppersoup. The other one dashed into the woods, where he grew up into a lion that torments our uncle Elephant to this day. Cats look out for each other. We don't eat cats in our village. Andrew is a fantastic storyteller but an unreliable witness.
As I previously mentioned, we don't eat dogs, either. We keep them as pets and as mobile baby wipes. I shall explain the baby wipes business later. In the 80s, my family had a dog in the village. The dog had a real name, Botha. Andrew named him after that awful man P.W. Botha in South Africa who would not set Nelson Mandela free. When Botha the dog died, Mandela was still in Robben Island. Andrew cried buckets. Andrew was always a drama queen.
In our village, we love dogs because they do diaper duty for toddlers. Babies do their business butt naked on the sandy yard, after which someone yells for a dog. The dog races to the defiled spot, gobbles up the mess, and wipes off the baby's butt with his tongue. End of toilet. We are the world's best recyclers. Let's just say that diaper makers would go broke in our village. That is what dogs are for.
Some people in our country eat dogs. I once lived in this place where the locals ate them. They call the meat naman kare. I remember them as very generous people, always inviting me to their homes for dinner. Always the gracious guest, I never required them to label their sauces: "NOT MADE FROM DOG MEAT." I simply ate and prayed. Unlike Obama, I couldn't tell you that I have eaten dog meat. Or not. America is a different planet, sometimes very generous in allowing different customs and cuisines to co-exist. However, I don't care where you are from; it would be unwise to assert your right to eat meat that came from a pet. Your immigration status would be revoked, and you would be frog-marched right back to the creepy crawly cave your sorry ass came from.
Our kids love pets, especially our son Fearless Fang. He wants a dog, but my lover says the day a dog comes into our house is the day she walks out on all of us. I love my lover. We are not getting a dog. My lover is the smart, sane one in our family. Having a dog in America is an expensive undertaking. It is like having a child, only a lot more expensive. I guess that is why each dog has a name other than just Dog. Fearless Fang wants a dog really badly. In third grade, Fearless Fang put together a PowerPoint presentation titled WHY A DOG IS GOOD FOR OUR FAMILY MOMMY PLEAS PLEAS PLEAS WE LOVE YOU CAN WE HAV A PRETTY DOG PLEAS WE WILL TAKE GOOD CARE OF IT! PLEAS???? It was a moving presentation: pictures of all sorts of dogs, doting on nice dog-loving parents. Even hypo-allergenic dogs. The boy stood in front of us, prayed silently, and asked us to listen to his presentation. He did a great job. The presentation was very moving. Alas, not very effective. At the end we thanked him, and my lover said, nope, no dog. I couldn't say anything. I was crying tears of joy, knowing that our cute boy would be going to Harvard. Who does PowerPoint in third grade? When Mommy said no for the umpteenth time, Fearless Fang cried, and it was awful. My lover and I locked ourselves up in our bedroom for days. Fearless Fang was miserable, and he made us miserable.
Fearless Fang had a gerbil once. When the gerbil died, we held a funeral in the house. It was heart breaking. That boy cried like you wouldn't believe. My lover cited that as evidence that having a dog would be criminal. If that child would cry his heart out for the cousin of a rat, WHAT wouldn't he do for a dog?
One night, Fearless Fang walked into the house with a dog he claimed he'd found in the woods, and could we keep it? The dog tag had an address. We all piled into our van, turned on the GPS, and went looking for the dog's owner. Fearless Fang held on to this beautiful dog as it whimpered all through the trip. Our kids and the dog chatted all the way to the house, they assuring Dog that he would soon be reunited with his folks, but that in any case, we live in a big house and he could stay in our huuuuuuge basement and live happily ever after. But sadly, we found the grateful owner. That night was a funeral in our home. The wailing and carrying on was something to behold. I think our kids could make a killing as rented mourners.
"Your dad comes from a clan of peasants and destitute warriors, and he married into royalty," my mother likes to remind me and my siblings. "They eat animals that should be pets or call them Bingo and make them eat baby shit. Canine diapers. Cave people. That is why your uncles are named after animals and inanimate objects," she would explain helpfully, with an evil glint in those pretty eyes. "I mean," she would ask, with exaggerated drama, "who names a child Elephant? Or Diesel?"
Diesel? Well, that would be my other uncle. He was named Diesel because he was built like an 18-wheeler, a bare-footed Mack Truck. During the first civilian government of our country, Diesel was a thug for hire. Politicians killed to hire him to do their dirty work. He was cheap, too: fill him up with palm wine and he would sweep away all your enemies with just one contemptuous wave of his mutant arm. On the other hand, my mother's people were gentle royalty. They smiled a lot and spoke wondrous things in awesome prose-poetry.
My maternal grandfather had a dog named Jack. And a large cocoa farm in his backyard. Jack and I used to love going to the cocoa farm with grandpa, where grandpa would make me lick delicious cocoa seeds fresh from their pods until my teeth ached. Grandparents are wonderful creatures. Jack was a large brown dog, named after the Union Jack, I am sure, because my grandfather never really cared for Independence from the colonial masters. He was always complaining about the big thieves in government and how he regretted that the white man gave us our freedom so that now we were no longer free, thanks to the new vagabonds in power.
Well, he couldn't have called them vagabonds in power. The musician and iconoclast Fela Anikulapo Kuti said that, long after my grandfather was dead.
It is true. I am an unreliable witness.