Oct/Nov 2005 Nonfiction

Life In America: Cow Foot By Candlelight

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

For you Uche, wherever you are...

I am thinking of going home to Nigeria to visit my papa, Chief Papalolo of Nigeria. I miss the old man very much. America has been very good to me, and I can't complain. I learnt all my bourgeoisie ajebutter habits here, you know, like using fork and knife to eat ice cream, cleaning my ajekpako peasant lips with paper napkins, stuff like that! Before America, my foray into the rich man’s world consisted of occasional trips to supermarkets like Leventis and Kingsway to munch on "sangwages," "scottish egg," and, eh, "meat pipe" washed down with odeku, Guinness Stout. How many of you remember those days? Let's form a mailing list! But I miss Papalolo very much.

About my dad, Papalolo. I am the son of a man whose education never went beyond Standard Six, which was the height of primary school in those days. Like all our fathers, he was always first in his class (there were apparently no dunces back then). But my father never went beyond Standard Six. A bright man nonetheless, who was fond of talking wistfully about an illustrious education interrupted by a marriage (to my mother, Mamalolo) and the birth of Babatunde (me!). Why Babatunde? Well, I was born somewhere in Lagos three weeks after the death of my grandfather. And our Yoruba neighbors promptly nicknamed me Babatunde ("the old man is back!") to my father’s disgust. He had heard a vicious rumor that I was so named because I looked like an old man with wrinkled skin and sad eyes sunken into a cow's head. But Allah is great; I turned out to be handsome. More on that later...

In the early Fifties, my father was fond of taking me to the wharf to watch the traditional dancers and masquerades welcome the new African oyinbo white men and women, the new Nigerian intellectuals arriving in the big ships after sojourning in England. In those days nobody went to America (except the great Chief Nnamdi Azikiwe). Everybody went to England where they visited Trafalgar Square and took grainy black and white pictures of themselves in winter clothes with thousands of plump pigeons doing the unthinkable all over their heads and other body parts. They came back home to Africa with something called the Golden Fleece. Papalolo would watch with envy the arrival of these Nigerian graduates, the Tokunbos that Chinua Achebe talked about in his books No Longer at Ease and A Man of the People. These tattooed Nigerians would step gingerly into the steamy hot tropical sun, wearing thick winter coats, and hand gloves. They would fan their sweating faces with a London Daily and exclaim in their British-Nigerian accent, "Eet is rada het!"

English Translation: "It is rather hot!"

And Papalolo would turn to me and say with extreme bitterness, "Son-of-your-mother! If not for YOU and YOUR mother, I would have been one of them!"

I have such fond memories. When last I visited Nigeria twenty years ago, it was with great excitement. I was going back to the Festac pepper soup joints, to all my friends—maybe they were still sitting on crates of Gulder beer just the way I left them. Ah, to taste Gulder beer again! I love America, but eh, American beer leaves a lot to be desired. I was going back to my girlfriend, the one who swore at the airport in Nigeria that she would wait for me, no problem. I was going back to her, and we would buy piping hot plates of rice from Mamaput the fleet-footed food vendor on two wheels (her two feet!) and we would dine on cow foot by candlelight while listening to the joyous music of Rex Lawson, Chris Okotie and Jide Obi... Just like the white man taught me. Boy was she going to be proud of me! And you thought African men aren't romantic! This man is one exception to that unfortunate generalization. By the way, there are more men like me where I came from... nine of us, if you are interested! Be warned: IF you do not possess a green card or your citizenship papers, do not even think of responding to this solicitation! I shall call Homeland Security on you! Love has its limits!

On landing at Murtala Muhammed Airport, there was a slight problem. Actually, there were quite a few slight problems. The air-conditioning wasn't working, and the luggage chute was now being operated by manual labor in the shape of several skinny guys, something about a late arriving spare part. But I found the immigration officials to be exceedingly kind and helpful. They kindly offered to relieve me of all and any electronics equipment in my suitcase plus all unnecessary American dollars on my person. They seemed disappointed that I had none of the above. One of them asked me after an exhaustive and disappointing search of my suitcase revealed that it was filled with old underwear and books: "Oga, are you sure you are coming from America?" I could hear his colleagues muttering under their breath: "Nor be di better America dis one go!"

As I say, I miss my father Papalolo. The last time I visited him, things didn't go very well. I neglected to bring him the VCR and Mercedes Benz [v-boot] I had promised him. My father found this lapse in judgment extremely distressing. He made a point of taking me around the village to see other proud papalolos who had color pictures of their sons and daughters abroad posing by Mercedes Benzes they would be shipping home as soon as they could take a lunch break from their jobs as CEOs of McDonald's corporation. Until then, I didn't know that McDonald's had so many Nigerian-American CEOs! Allah be praised!

I will also point out that at the time of my visit home, it was fashionable to fry one's hair to a greasy mess, and speak double negatives as in, "Sheeet men! I ain't gonna do no sheeet!"

When I left to visit Nigeria, I had only been in America ten years and so I hadn't acquired the accent expected of a Nigerian-American. As for my hair, even in those days I had so little hair left, I was afraid that if I fried my hair, I would go bald! So I went home nappy-haired and with my original Nigerian accent. Unknown to me this was a major source of embarrassment to my dad.

Whenever Papalolo needs to tell me something important, he interrupts my sleep at 3:00 a.m. in the morning. This he accomplishes by coming into my room armed with a lantern and nothing really important to say. Why does he do this? I don't know. I suspect that he picked up this habit from reading Chinua Achebe's books where the heroes are fond of waking up their sons to tell them things like, "He who swallows an udala seed will pay in the latrine!"

So this morning, he woke me up with his lantern. "My son," he began, gritting his teeth, "people are talking!" "Talking about what? Who are these people?" I asked, clearly irritated at being interrupted from my beauty sleep. "People are talking," he repeated, ignoring my scholarly inquiry even as he was intent on telling me the answer. "They are saying that you don't look like someone who really went to America! You did not fry your hair, and you do not begin and end your sentences with 'men!'"

"Son-of-your-mother, tell me, is it true what Akpeteshie our village drunk is saying about you? Have you been hiding somewhere in Nigeria all these years? Apkpeteshie says his brother Saturday once spied you in Sokoto!"

So, if you are thinking of going home to Nigeria soon, your first challenge is to find a travel agent who won't take your money in return for not giving you an air ticket. Good luck! By all means necessary, get rid of that Nigerian accent. Next, you must find a barber who will give you the latest haircut in the 'hood. Also have both your ears pierced (why pierce just one?). K-Mart has some good earrings on sale. It helps also if your brother or sister waiting for you at the airport is "immigration" or an interloper posing as one. And please, whatever you do, when you get home, begin your sentence with "yeah" and end it with "man!" They like that! As for a Mercedes Benz with a DVD player in its trunk, do not even THINK of leaving America without one!

Oh, about my girlfriend... she was waiting for me alright—with eight children and a hefty husband named Johnbull!


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