By Adedoyin Ajayi
No matter how much he tried, he could never quite pronounce my name the right way, with the stress on the first syllable. His Igbo tongue hopelessly mangled my name, and I didn’t mind, not one bit. I loved his company, quivering accent and mangled name notwithstanding. His lips were always moving, like he had a bit of palm oil between them and he found it hard to keep them still.
Mr. Okereke lived just opposite my home, and he always strolled home after work, pushing his motorcycle ahead of him as he walked into our street, waving left and right like a politician who won an election, a big smile on his face. I never needed an invite to his house. It usually seemed they were expecting me. I always strolled into their house like I did mine, and felt as welcome as rain on parched ground. He would clasp me to his belly, while his wife welcomed me like a long-lost son. He was just full of surprises. A lawyer who rode a motorcycle? I always wondered how he would look in his lawyer’s regalia, riding his bike, his heavy garments probably rolled to the sleeves, billowing behind him and his wig atop his head. Unfortunately, I never got an answer to that question, whether through my witnessing it, him telling me, or from the embellished imaginations of others. He died when I was seventeen. His death was as swift, sudden and mysterious as the man himself. It was something no one could fathom nor could see coming, like the thought of him riding his bike on his way to defend a client. To the many questions Mr. Okereke posed, yet was never asked, I created answers, and in my own weird way, I ended up knowing more about him after his demise.
My father always told me there were three types of Africans — those who treated life as a jolly procession, those who strived for more, and those who despised who they were. It was one of those conversations I enjoyed having, when he spoke at length about the beauty beneath our dark skin. Mr. Okereke fell into the first category, the ones who placed an excessive amount of belief in their glass of wine.
I remember him laughing over glasses of wine that never lost their smell, no matter how many times they were washed. He always offered me a glass, but I usually took nothing more than a sip, more to make him happy, not because I cared for the drink that much. Gradually, it grew on me, unlike him, who made an instant imprint on my mind when I met him.
Imagining him in the courtroom, God rest his soul, I sometimes wondered if he was a real lawyer. He was far too relaxed, far removed from who you would expect a lawyer to be. At home, he would tie a wrapper over his singlet and sit outside, and we discussed whatever was on his mind in that moment, whatever nuggets of wisdom his enlightened mind wanted to drop in mine, or any tidbits of manly cockiness his wine sent his way. His hand roved down the backside of his generously-proportioned wife every time she walked past him, and she giggled and playfully tried to swat his hand away, her pendulous, unencumbered breasts jiggling beneath her thin t-shirt.
“No corrupt Doyin o, he never reach to dey touch woman,” she would say, her eyes shining with mirth.
They had two girls who were both older than me, and had left the proverbial nest. I imagine Mr. Okereke and his wife craved the chance to have these exchanges with a son. They never showed any sadness over it, though. They had me to talk to about it, and were happy with that. I always liked these sessions, when they sparred over my masculinity over a meal of fufu and whatever soup Mr. Okereke preferred that night. They would then argue over the appropriate time for me to feel the warmth of a woman’s thighs. Inasmuch as his wife disagreed with him over the time for me to know a woman, she would tell me to ensure my wife was built like her, as she would make me a very happy man. Mr. Okereke would nod emphatically. He was clearly a very happy man. It was hard to picture him being unhappy. Even his features made him look in a perpetually cheery state. His wide grin would split his face into two, his heavy-looking moustache a wide umbrella over his rubbery lips. Sometimes I would chuckle to myself as I imagined him welcoming me into his house playing a drunken beat with a stick on an empty beer bottle, while his wife danced merrily beside him. He embodied the very deepest, unuttered rules of African hospitality.
I never saw Mr. Okereke complain for better fortunes. He always seemed at ease with what he made out of life, sitting with his palm wine every other night while his wife did what she loved doing — making him happy. His life was easy. He never tried to overcomplicate it, neither did he ever try to make it more of a meal than it was. Every other night, I saw him gobble the utazi leaves and stock fish in his onugbu soup with relish. What more could a man crave for?
I often thought that with more men like him on earth, it would be quieter, yet merrier; less of a hassle, and more fun to live in. To Mr. Okereke, life was a parade you reveled in, swayed along to its rhythms, and any attempt to make it more than it was would tip the scales and upset the balance. With his outlook on life, hence, I wondered why he chose to become a lawyer. With such thinking, he would probably never win a case.
“It’s hard to think of Mr. Okereke defending anybody in court,” my father said, shaking his head in amusement.
“Why?” I asked.
His look turned serious. “A lawyer should have more fire in his belly.”
I understood, even if I didn’t totally agree. “I think he’s content with whatever comes his way,” I said. While Mr. Okereke was at ease in his own skin, it was quite a challenge for me to reconcile the two images I had of him – a lawyer who tried to do his bit to change the world, and a man who swayed to life’s rhythms.
While the simplicity of Mr. Okereke’s life fascinated me, it was harder to come to terms with that of Mrs. Koffi. She had lived on our street for as long as everyone could remember, with her heavy, billowing grey skirts swishing in the wind each time she walked. It was like her signature. Her little bungalow was old, and looked like it held as many secrets as its sole occupant. Mrs. Koffi would leave her house looking like she wore every piece of jewellery she owned, her wrists a flashing array of bright colours. They were tacky, locally-made and cheap, all from beads and shells (I would realise later they were made of more). Her shaved head made her look younger than her age, and added to her mystery. Not many people knew much about her, for she was rather aloof. The distressing rumours that were bandied about concerning her were varied. No one knew why or how she became shorn. Some said that she lost her hair when her husband left her. Some said it was as a result of the miscarriages she had in the early days of her marriage. Others said it was as a result of practicing witchcraft. I didn’t know if she was bothered by these whispers, but she never seemed to care. In some ways, she served to conform to the things said concerning her.
However, despite her somewhat detached public demeanour; brisk greetings and little chit-chat, you would always be welcomed in her home with a loud “Karibu!” even if you had accused her of killing her own mother the night before. She told me it meant “welcome” in Swahili. I couldn’t imagine welcoming into my house someone who bore ill-will towards me. To her, it was more than a duty, welcoming others into her home. Most of the time I was in her house, we often sat outside, beneath the boughs of her tree, which always did have almonds to eat no matter the season, and seemed to be aging as well as she did. I remember the interior of her home, with the rusty edges of the dusty fan that usually whirred slowly, as if tired from an age-long servitude, and the calendar that hung on her wall, elaborately decorated with paintings of smiling women with white paint dotting their faces, forming intricate patterns. The quiet simplicity in the woman herself was reflected in everything one saw in her home. The “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” feeling you got in her home summed up who Mrs. Koffi was.
She believed she had no choice in choosing who she was, just as she had none being born black. She had a peculiar attitude that made me realise how deep her obligation to whoever came under her roof ran. Mrs. Koffi wouldn’t guffaw like Mr. Okereke, nor would she joke with me about my virility, but would always ensure I had a piece of ugali to munch on along with vegetables, or a honeycomb to enjoy. My parents remember visiting her on a certain day, and my father, to this day, recounts her taking his briefcase into her room for safekeeping.
“Let me have your bags,” she said, her arms extended, as if about to hug my parents. For my mother, giving up her bag to another woman wasn’t so hard, but my father’s protectiveness found it harder to relinquish his briefcase, if only for a few moments. If danger came to her door, Mrs. Koffi wouldn’t look out of place standing guard with her axe, while I was in her room, safely locked away.
She was so different from Mr. Okereke, and yet was so much like him. I wondered if they could have had more if they didn’t give out so much of themselves to others. They saw those norms that constrained them differently than I did. Their homes were shelters you could spend the evening as well as the night, with your presence as eagerly anticipated as the morning dew. After Mr. Okereke’s passing, I used to run a few errands for her, and I got to know her a little bit more than others did. Her mystery should have scared me off, but my curiosity won out in the end. She had a magnetism that drew me closer each time I went over to sweep the fallen leaves that littered her compound, or give peeled yam skins to her goats that never seemed to stop bleating. She would smile at me, and say, “thank you, my son.” She would sit under the boughs of her huge almond tree, a wrapper tied from her chest to beneath her knees, the zigzagged wrinkles of her feet evident. She would polish off her honeycombs with a little amount of locally made gin. She would then invite me to sit with her, and tell me of her younger days in Kenya, when she grew up with her playmates in Athi River, and later when her parents relocated to Nairobi, where she and her classmates would chase matatus on their way back from school in girlish mischief, leaving them caked in dust, hoping for some change tossed through the windows by elderly people, and happy at the chance to enjoy a cold drink in the hot sun.
She had spent her adolescence in a small town in Abia State, and was about as Nigerian as it got. The thought of her as a young girl was like a morsel of hard fufu that I found hard to swallow. She made it sound like a very long time ago, yet, it sounded, curiously, like the day before.
Like probably everyone else, what I knew about her had been shaped by others, and I found it hard to wrap my head around what she told me.
“It’s one of those things I can’t do anything about, why should I bother myself?” she would ask wearily. She and Mr. Okereke were alike in that regard. They were comfortable in their own skins. They did not conform to the images of others, but rather, embodied a part of us that we tried to cast away, that we tried to hide in the shadows of enlightenment. I enjoyed their zest for life, plainness in living, and their beaming welcome they showed in their own divergent yet pleasant ways. Mr. Okereke, in another life, could have been a jester at a circus, while Mrs. Koffi would have looked at home serving tea to young schoolchildren as they tugged at her flowing skirt.
Their calloused, rough-around-the-edge nature didn’t in any way reduce their lustre, their clean, pure hearts and best intentions. This probably explained why they paid such little attention to how they were perceived. Mr. Okereke’s clownish buffoonery contrasted with the grave, almost intractable nature of Mrs. Koffi. They were misunderstood lights, their radiance glittering behind their beautiful personalities. They invited you to be with them, insides bared, wine glasses and honeycombs for company. You met people like them only a few times, however, they left you with enough memories to last a lifetime.
When I clocked nineteen, Mrs. Koffi gave me a bracelet, similar to the one she wore. It was carefully made, and had feathers of a hornbill adorning it. I had never seen a hornbill before. She told the last time she saw one was just before she left Athi River, and had bought some feathers much later as a reminder of her home. By then, our meetings were getting more and more infrequent. I had begun to crave more adventure in life than conversations with Mrs. Koffi. Her eyebrows had begun to grey, and she finally began looking more like her age.
I saw Mr. Okereke’s wife a couple of times after his death, before she moved east to be with her own family. She had a bushy appearance about her, the light in her eyes put out. None of us ever really recovered. Still, I had those tidbits of manly wisdom left of him, and the taste of palm wine on my palate.
Mrs. Koffi still welcomed guests into her house, her loud shout of “Karibu!” each time she saw me walk through the gates of her house. I wondered when all that would be left of her would be memories, like Mr. Okereke. Memories of almonds, honeycombs, hornbill feathers, and of ugali.
Doyin Ajayi studied Economics from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. To him, writing equates creation. He loves the feeling of taking hold of a reader’s mind and taking them to a world of his making. His work has appeared in Brittle Paper and The Kalahari Review. He tweets @AjayiAdedoyin14.