Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Chinelo Okparanto ‘America’
We drive through bushes. We pass the villages that rim our side of the Bonny River. There are hardly any trees in the area, and the shrubs are little more than stumps, thin and dusty, not verdant as they used to be. This, Mama has told me: that the vegetation around the Bonny River once thrived. That the trees grew tall, and from them sprang green leaves. And their flowers gave rise to fruit. Of course, this memory is hers, from a former reality, one too old to be my own. The roads are sandy and brown, with open gutters, and with wrappers and cans and bottles strewn about. Collapsing cement shacks line the roadside in messy rows, like cartons that have long begun to decompose. A short distance from us, something comes out of the river, a small boy or girl, maybe six or seven years old. Hands flail in the air and another child joins – typical children’s play. Except that it’s too early in the morning for that. Except that their skin, and even the cloth around their waists, gleams an almost solid black. That oily blackness of crude. The bus moves slowly, and for a while, as we make our way out of Port Harcourt, I worry it will break down. The last time I made this trip (about year ago now), there was a problem with the engine. The bus only made it to the terminal in Warri, not quite halfway between Port Harcourt and Lagos. When we arrived at the terminal, the driver asked us to exit. He locked the door to the bus and went inside one of the offices in the terminal. He locked the office door too, leaving us passengers outside to fend for ourselves. We had passed no inns or motels on the way. Just splatters of small shops, their zinc roofs shining in the sun. Lots of green and yellowing grass. Clusters of trees. chinelo okparanta At the terminal, I found a nice patch of ground on which I slept, using my luggage as a pillow under my head. Some passengers did the same. Others, I assume, wandered about the terminal through the night. The next morning another bus arrived. It took us from Warri to Lagos. I made it just in time for my interview. Lucky that I had left a day in advance. Not that leaving in advance made much difference anyway. As with the previous interview, my application was declined. I sit on the bus again, slightly more hopeful about the engine and much more hopeful about the interview. I have not left a day early, but so long as the bus does not break down, I expect that this interview will be a success. This time I have a plan and, even if I hesitate to be as assured as Gloria is, there is a good chance that she is right, that very soon I will be on my way to her. It was on a dry and hot day in November that Gloria and I met. The headmistress had arranged it all: I would be Gloria’s escort. I would show her around the campus for the week. That day, the headmistress stood by her desk, me at her side, waiting for this Gloria Oke. I was already one of the senior teachers at the time; I had been at the school for nearly ten years by then. I’d expected that she’d come in like the big madam she was, ‘big’ as in well-to-do and well known, maybe with a fancy buba and iro in lace, with a headscarf and maybe even the ipele shawl. Even with the heat, the headmistress, and all the big madams who visited our campus, came dressed that way. But Gloria entered, tall and lanky, a bit too thin to be identified as a ‘big madam’. She wore a long beige gown, no fancy headscarf, no ipele hanging from her shoulder. Her hair was braided in thin strands and held together in a bun at the nape of her neck. Pale skin stuck out in contrast to dark brown eyes and hair. Her lips were natural, not lipstick red. On her feet, she wore a simple pair of black flats. Even then, there were things I liked about her: the way her eyes seemed unsure, not being able to hold my gaze. The way she stuttered america her name, as if unconvinced of her own existence in the world. And yet her voice was strong and firm, something of a paradox. That first day, we spent our lunch break together, and for the rest of the week we did the same, me sharing my fried plantain with her, and she, her rice and stew with me. She started to visit me at my flat after her week at the school was up. She’d stop by every other week or so, on the weekends when we could spend more than a few hours together. I’d make us dinner, jollof rice, beans and yams, maybe some gari and soup. We’d spend the evening chatting or just watching the news. Sometimes we’d walk around the neighbourhood and when we returned, she’d pack her things and leave. I grew a big enough garden in my backyard. Tufts of pineapple leaves stuck out in spikes from the earth. They grew in neat rows. Plantain trees stood just behind the pineapple shoots. Behind the plantain trees, lining the wall leading up to the gate of the flat, an orange tree grew, and a guava tree, and a mango tree. Once, while we stood plucking a ripe mango, Gloria asked me what it was like to teach science at the school. Did we conduct experiments or just study from a book? Were all of the students able to afford the books? It was a private school, she knew, but she suspected (quite accurately) that that didn’t mean all the students were able to afford the texts. I straightened up to face the wall that led up to the metal gate. Lizards were racing up and down. I told her that teaching was not my job of choice. That I’d much rather be doing something more hands-on, working directly with the earth, like in my garden. Maybe something to do with the environment, with aquatic ecology: running water-quality reports, performing stream classification, restoration, wetland determinations, delineations, design and monitoring. But there were none of those jobs during the time I did my job search, even though there should have been plenty of them, especially with the way things were going for the Niger Delta. chinelo okparanta But even if the jobs had been available, I said, perhaps they would have been too dangerous for me, with all that bunkering going on, criminal gangs tapping the oil straight from the pipelines and transporting it abroad to be sold illegally. The rebel militias stealing the oil and refining it and selling it to help pay for their weapons. All those explosions from old oil rigs that had been left abandoned by Shell. Perhaps it would have been too dangerous a thing. She was standing with her hands on her hips, showing surprise only with her eyes. I suppose it was understandable that she would have assumed I loved my job to have stayed those many years. We became something – an item, Papa says – in February, months after Gloria’s visit to the school. That evening, I was hunched over, sweeping my apartment with a broom, the native kind, made from the raw, dry stems of palm leaves, tied together at the thick end with a bamboo string. I imagine it’s the kind of broom that Gloria no longer sees. It’s the kind of broom we use here in Nigeria – the kind that Americans have probably never seen. Gloria must have come in through the back door of the flat (she often did), through the kitchen and into the parlour. I was about to collect the dirt into the dustpan when she entered. She brought with her a cake, a small one with white icing and spirals of silver and gold. On top of it was a white-striped candle, moulded in the shape of the number thirty-four. She set it on the coffee table in the parlour and carefully lit the wick. I set the broom and dustpan down and straightened up. Gloria reached out to tuck back the strands of hair that had come loose from behind my ears. I’d barely blown out the flame when she dipped her finger into the cake’s icing and took a taste of it. Then she dipped her finger into the icing again and held the clump out to me. ‘Take,’ she said, almost in a whisper, smiling her shyest sort of smile. Just then, the phone began to ring: a soft, buzzing sound. We heard the ring but neither of us turned to answer, because even as it america was ringing, I was kissing the icing off Gloria’s finger. By the time the ringing was done, I was kissing it off her lips. Mama still reminds me every once in a while that there are penalties in Nigeria for that sort of thing. And of course, she’s right. I’ve read of them in the newspapers and have heard of them on the news. Still, sometimes I want to ask her to explain to me what she means by ‘that sort of thing’, as if it is something so terrible that it does not deserve a name, as if it is so unclean that it cannot be termed ‘love’. But then I remember that evening and I cringe, because, of course, I know she can explain; she’s seen it with her own eyes. That evening, the phone rings, and if I had answered, it would have been Mama on the line. But instead, I remain with Gloria, allowing her to trace her fingers across my brows, allowing her to trace my lips with her own. My heart thumps in my chest and I feel the thumping of her heart. She runs her fingers down my belly, lifting my blouse slightly, hardly a lift at all. And then her hand is travelling lower, and I feel myself tightening and I feel the pounding all over me. Suddenly, Mama is calling my name, calling it loudly, so that I have to look up to see if I’m not just hearing things. We have made our way to the sofa and, from there, I see Mama shaking her head, telling me how the wind has blown and the bottom of the fowl has been exposed. Mama stands where she is for just a moment longer, all the while she is looking at me with a sombre look in her eyes. ‘So, this is why you won’t take a husband?’ she asks. It is an interesting thought, but not one I’d ever really considered. Left to myself, I would have said that I’d just not found the right man. But it’s not that I’d ever been particularly interested in dating them anyway. ‘A woman and a woman cannot bear children,’ Mama says to me. ‘That’s not the way it works.’ As she stomps out of the room, she says again, ‘The wind has blown and the bottom of the fowl has been exposed.’ chinelo okparanta I lean my head on the glass window of the bus and I try to imagine how the interview will go. But every so often the bus hits a bump and it jolts me out of my thoughts. There is a woman sitting to my right. Her scent is strong, somewhat like the scent of fish. She wears a headscarf, which she uses to wipe the beads of sweat that form on her face. Mama used to sweat like that. Sometimes she’d call me to bring her a cup of ice. She’d chew on the blocks of ice, one after the other, and then request another cup. It was the real curse of womanhood, she said. Young women thought the flow was the curse, little did they know the rest. The heart palpitations, the dizzy spells, the sweating that came with the cessation of the flow. That was the real curse, she said. Cramps were nothing in comparison. The woman next to me wipes her sweat again. I catch a strong whiff of her putrid scent. She leans her head on the seat in front of her, and I ask her if everything is fine. ‘The baby,’ she says, lifting her head back up. She rubs her belly and mutters something under her breath. ‘Congratulations,’ I say. And after a few seconds I add, ‘I’m sorry you’re not feeling well.’ She tells me it comes with the territory. That it’s been two years since she and her husband married, and he was starting to think there was some defect in her. ‘So, actually,’ she tells me, ‘this is all cause for celebration.’ She turns to the seat on her right, where there are two black-andwhite- striped polythene bags. She pats one of the bags and there is that strong putrid scent again. ‘Stock fish’, she says, ‘and dried egusi and ogbono for soup.’ She tells me that she’s heading to Lagos, because that is where her in-laws live. There will be a ceremony for her there. And she is on her way to help with the preparations. Her husband is taking care of business in Port Harcourt, but he will be heading down soon, too, to join in celebrating the conception of their first child. ‘Boy or girl?’ I ask, feeling genuinely excited for her. ‘We don’t know yet,’ she says. ‘But either one will be a real blessing for my marriage,’ she says. ‘My husband has never been happier.’ america I turn my head to look out the window, but then I feel her gaze on me. When I look back at her, she asks if I have a husband or children of my own. I think of Mama and I think of Gloria. ‘No husband, no children,’ I say. The day I confessed to him about Gloria, Papa said: ‘When a goat and yam are kept together, either the goat takes a bite of the yam, bit by bit, or salivates for it. That is why when two adults are always seen together, it is no surprise when the seed is planted.’ I laughed and reminded him that there could be no seed planted with Gloria and me. ‘No,’ he said, reclining on his chair, holding the newspaper, which he was never reading, just always intending to read. ‘There can be no seed.’ It had been Mama’s idea that I tell him. He would talk some sense into me, she said. All this Gloria business was nonsense, she said. Woman was made for man. Besides, what good was it living a life in which you had to go around afraid of being caught? Mobile policemen were always looking for that sort of thing – men with men or women with women. And the penalties were harsh. Jail time, fines, stoning or flogging, depending on where in Nigeria you were caught. And you could be sure that it would make the news. Public humiliation. What kind of life was I expecting to have, always having to turn around to check if anyone was watching? ‘Your Papa must know of it,’ she said. ‘He will talk some sense into you. You must tell him. If you don’t, I will.’ But Papa took it better than Mama had hoped. Like her, he warned me of the dangers. But ‘love is love’, he said. Mama began to cry then. ‘Look at this skin,’ she said, stretching out her arms to me. She grabbed my hand and placed it on her arm. ‘Feel it,’ she said. ‘Do you know what it means?’ she asked, not waiting for my response. ‘I’m growing old,’ she said. ‘Won’t you stop being stubborn and take a husband, give up that silly thing with chinelo okparanta that Gloria friend of yours, bear me a grandchild before I’m dead and gone?’ People have a way of allowing themselves to get lost in America,’ Mama said when I told her that Gloria would be going. Did I remember Chinedu Okonkwo’s daughter who went abroad to study medicine and never came back? I nodded. I did remember. And Obiageli Ojukwu’s sister who married that button-nosed American and left with him so many years ago? Did I remember that she promised to come back home to raise her children? Now the children were grown, and still no sight of them. ‘But it’s a good thing in this case,’ Mama said smugly. She was sitting on a stool in the veranda, fanning herself with a plantain leaf. Gloria and I had been together for two years by then, the two years since Mama walked in on us. In that time, Gloria had written many more articles on education policies, audacious criticisms of our government, suggesting more effective methods of standardizing the system, suggesting that those in control of government affairs needed to better educate themselves. More and more of her articles were being published in local and national newspapers, the Tribune, Punch, the National Mirror and such. Universities all over the country began to invite her to give lectures on public policies and education strategy. Soon, she was getting invited to conferences and lectures abroad. And before long, she was offered that post in America, in that place where water formed a cold, feather-like substance called snow, which fell leisurely from the sky in winter. Pretty, like white lace. ‘I thought her goal was to make Nigeria better, to improve Nigeria’s education system,’ Papa said. ‘Of course,’ Mama replied. ‘But, like I said, America has a way of stealing our good ones from us. When America calls, they go. And more times than not, they stay.’ Papa shook his head. I rolled my eyes. ‘Perhaps she’s only leaving to escape scandal,’ Mama said. ‘What scandal?’ I asked. america ‘You know. That thing between you two.’ ‘That thing is private, Mama,’ I replied. ‘It’s between us two, as you say. And we work hard to keep it that way.’ ‘What do her parents say?’ Mama asked. ‘Nothing.’ It was true. She’d have been a fool to let them know. They were quite unlike Mama and Papa. They went to church four days out of the week. They lived the words of the Bible as literally as they could. Not like Mama and Papa who were that rare sort of Nigerian Christian with a faint, shadowy type of respect for the Bible, the kind of faith that required no works. The kind of faith that amounted to no faith at all. They could barely quote a Bible verse. ‘With a man and a woman, there would not be any need for so much privacy,’ Mama said that day. ‘Anyway, it all works out for the best.’ She paused to wipe with her palms the sweat that was forming on her forehead. ‘I’m not getting any younger,’ she continued. ‘And I even have the names picked out!’ ‘What names?’ I asked. ‘For a boy, Arinze. For a girl, Nkechi. Pretty names.’ ‘Mama!’ I said, shaking my head at her. ‘Perhaps now you’ll be more inclined to take a husband,’ she said. ‘Why waste such lovely names?’ The first year she was gone, we spoke on the phone at least once every week. But the line was filled with static and there were empty spots in the reception, blank spaces into which our voices faded. I felt the distance then. But Gloria continued to call and we took turns reconstructing the dropped bits of conversation, stubbornly reinserting them back into the line, stubbornly resisting the emptiness. The end of that first year, she came back for a visit. She was still the same Gloria, but her skin had turned paler and she had put on just a bit of weight. ‘You’re turning white,’ I teased. ‘It’s the magic of America,’ she teased me back. And then she chinelo okparanta laughed. ‘It’s no magic at all,’ she said. ‘Just lack of sunlight. Lots of sitting at the desk, writing, and planning.’ It made sense. Perhaps she was right. But it was the general consensus in Port Harcourt (and I imagine in probably most of Nigeria as well) that things were better in America. I was convinced of it. I saw it in the way her voice was even softer than before. I saw it in the relaxed looks on the faces of the people in the pictures she brought. Pictures of beautiful landscapes, clean places, not littered at all with cans and wrappers like our roads. Snow, white and soft, like clouds having somehow descended on land. Pictures of huge department stores in which everything seemed to sparkle. Pictures in which cars and buildings shone, where even the skin of fruit glistened. By the time her visit was over, we had decided that I would try to join her in America, that I would see about getting a visa. If not to be able to work there, then at least to study and earn an American degree. Because, though she intended eventually to come back to Nigeria, there was no telling how long she would end up staying in America. The best thing for now was that I try to join her there. I think of Gloria as my head jerks back and forth against the window of the bus. I try to imagine her standing in a landscape like the one in the pictures she’s sent. A lone woman surrounded by tall cedars and oaks. Even if it’s only June, the ground in my imagination is covered with white snow, looking like a bed of bleached cotton balls. This is my favourite way to picture her in America. I think back to my first interview. The way the man dismissed me even before I could answer why I wanted so badly to attain a visa for the USA. The second interview was not much different. That time, I was able to respond. And then the man told me how foolish I was for expecting that a job would be waiting for me in America. I held an African degree; was I unaware of this? Did I not know that I would not compare at all with all the other job applicants who would probably not be from an African country, whose degrees would certainly be valued more than any degree from Nigeria ever would? america I cried the whole bus ride home after that second interview. When I returned, I told Mama and Papa what I had done. It was the first time they were hearing about my plan to join Gloria in America. By that second interview, she had been gone over two years. Papa was encouraging. He said not to give up. If it was an American degree I needed, then go ahead and apply to American schools so that I could have that American degree. It would be good for me to be in America, he said, a place where he imagined I could be free with the sort of love that I had for Gloria. ‘It’s not enough that I won’t have a grandchild in all of this,’ Mama said, after hearing what Papa had to say. ‘Now I must deal with losing my only child, too.’ There were tears in her eyes. And then she asked me to promise that I would not allow myself to get lost in America. I shook my head and promised her that she’d not be losing me at all. All the while, the woman I loved was there, worlds away. If I didn’t make it that third time, I thought, there was a good chance she’d grow weary of waiting for me. If I were to be once more declined, she might move on and start loving somebody else. And who would I blame more for it? Her or me? All this I thought as I booked the third appointment. By then, I had already gained admission into one of the small colleges near where Gloria lived in America. All that remained was for me to be approved for the visa. About a month before the third interview, Gloria called me to tell me the news. An oil rig had exploded. Thousands of barrels of crude were leaking out into the Gulf every day. Perhaps even hundreds of thousands, there was no telling for sure. She was watching it on the television. Arresting camera shots of something like black clouds forming in waters that would usually be clear and blue. It was evening when she called, and mosquitoes were whistling about the parlour of my flat. They were landing on the curtains and on the tables and on the walls, making tiny shadows wherever they perched. And I thought how there were probably no mosquitoes where she was. Did mosquitoes even exist in America? chinelo okparanta ‘A terrible spill in the Gulf,’ she told me. ‘Can you imagine?’ I told her that I could not. It was the truth. America was nothing like Nigeria, after all. Here, roads were strewn with trash and it was rare that anyone cared to clean them up. Here, spills were expected. Because we were just Africans. What did Shell care? Here, the spills were happening on a weekly basis in the Niger Delta area. But a spill like that in America? I could honestly not imagine. ‘It’s unfortunate,’ I said to Gloria. ‘Something good must be made out of such an unfortunate event,’ she said. The bus picks up speed and I watch through the windows as we pass by the small villages in Warri. Then we are driving by signs for Sapele and for the Ologbo Game Reserve. The bus is quiet and the woman next to me is fast asleep, and I wonder how she can stand to sleep on such a bumpy ride. Hours later, we pass the signs for the Lekki Lagoon. We reach Lagos at about 2 p.m., an early arrival for which I’m very thankful, because it gives me plenty of time to make my way to the embassy on Victoria Island. At 3 p.m., I arrive at Walter Carrington Crescent, the road on which the embassy is located. Inside the building, I wait in a small room with buzzing fluorescent lights. There is an oscillating floor fan in the corner, and a window is open, but the air is still muggy and stale. I think of Gloria and I imagine what she is doing. It is morning where she is in America, and perhaps she’s already at her office at the university, jotting down notes at her desk, preparing lectures for her students, or perhaps even rehearsing for a public reading somewhere. I imagine her in a gown, something simple and unpretentious, with her hair plaited in braids, the way it used to be. It’s gathered into a bun at the nape of her neck, but there are loose strands dangling down her back. Just the way she was the first time I saw her. I continue to wait. The fan oscillates and I follow its rotations with my eyes. I think of the spill and I remember Gloria’s description: america something like black clouds forming in waters that would usually be clear and blue. The waters of the Niger Delta were once clear and blue. Now the children wade in the water and come out with Shell oil glowing on their skin. I’m imagining stagnant waters painted black and brown with crude when finally someone calls my name. The voice is harsh and makes me think of gravel, of rock-strewn roads, the kinds filled with potholes the size of washbasins, the kind of potholes we see all over in Nigeria, the kind I imagine America does not have. I answer the call with a smile plastered on my face. But all the while my heart is palpitating – rapid, irregular beats that only I can hear. They are loud and distracting, like raindrops on zinc. The man who calls my name is old and grey-haired and wears suspenders over a yellow-white short-sleeved shirt. He doesn’t smile at me, just turns quickly around and leads me down a narrow corridor. He stops at the door of a small room and makes a gesture with his hand, motioning me to enter. He does not follow me into the room, which is more an enclosed cubicle than a room; instead there is a clicking sound behind me. I turn around to see that the door has been shut. In the room, another man sits on a swivel chair, the kind with thick padding and expensive grey-and-white cloth covering. He stands up as I walk towards him. His skin is tan, but a pale sort of tan. He says hello, and his words come out a little more smoothly than I am accustomed to, levelled and under-accentuated, as if his tongue has somehow flattened the words, as if it has somehow diluted them in his mouth. An American. He wears a black suit with pinstripes, a dress shirt with the two top buttons undone, no tie; and he looks quite seriously at me. He reaches across the table, which is more like a counter, to shake my hand. He wears three rings, each on its own finger, excepting the index and the thumb. The stones in the rings sparkle as they reflect the light. He offers me the metal stool across from him. When I am seated, he asks for my papers: identification documents; invitation letter; bank records. chinelo okparanta ‘Miss Nnenna Etoniru,’ he begins, pronouncing my name in his diluted sort of way. ‘Tell me your occupation,’ he says. ‘Teacher,’ I say. ‘Place of employment,’ he says, not quite a question. ‘Federal Government Girls’ College in Abuloma. I work there as a science teacher.’ ‘A decent job.’ I nod. ‘Yes, it’s a good enough job,’ I say. He lifts up my letter of invitation. The paper is thin and from the back I can see the swirls of Gloria’s signature. ‘Who is this Miss Gloria Oke?’ he asks. ‘Who is she to you?’ ‘A friend,’ I say. And that answer is true. ‘A friend?’ ‘A former co-worker, too.’ I tell him that we met years ago at the Federal Government Girls’ College in Abuloma. That we became friends when she was invited to help create a new curriculum. He can check the school records if he wishes, I say, confidently, of course, because that answer, too, is true. Next question: proof of funding. I direct him to the bank statements, not surprisingly, from Gloria. He mumbles something under his breath. Then he looks up at me and mutters something about how lucky I am to have a friend like her. Not many people he knows are willing to fund their friends’ education abroad, he says. Then the big question. Why not just study here in Nigeria? There are plenty of Nigerian universities that offer a Master’s in Environmental Engineering, he says. Why go all the way abroad to study what Nigerian universities offer here at home? The question doesn’t shock me, because I’ve anticipated and rehearsed it many more times than I can count in the month since that phone conversation with Gloria. I begin by telling him of the oil spill in America. He seems to be unaware of it. I tell him that it has drawn some attention for Nigeria, for their plight with the issues of the Niger Delta. I tell him that going to America will allow me to learn first-hand the measures that the US america government is taking in their attempt to deal with the aftermath of their spill. Because it’s about time we Nigerians found ways to handle our own. He doesn’t question me as to how I expect to connect with the US government. He doesn’t ask how exactly I expect to learn firsthand about their methods of dealing with that type of environmental disaster. Perhaps, having made a life for himself here in Nigeria, he, too, has begun to adopt the Nigerian mentality. Perhaps he, too, has begun to see the US the way most of us Nigerians do, as an abstraction, a sort of utopia, a place where you go for answers, a place that always has those answers waiting for you. I tell him that decades ago, before the pipes began to burst (or maybe even before Shell came into the area – and of course, these days, it’s hard to remember a time without Shell), Gio Creek, for example, was filled with tall, green mangroves. Birds flew and sang in the skies above the creek, and there were plenty of fish and crab and shrimp in the waters below. Now the mangroves are dead, and there is no birdsong at all. And, of course, there are no fish, no shrimp, and no crab to be caught. Instead, oil shoots up in the air, like a fountain of black water, and fishermen lament that rather than coming out of the water with fish, they are instead harvesting Shell oil on their bodies. I tell him that the area has undergone what amounts to the American spill, only every year for fifty years. Oil pouring out every week, killing our land, our ecosystem. A resource that should make us rich, instead causing our people to suffer. ‘It’s the politics,’ I say. ‘But I’m no politician.’ Instead, I tell him, I’d like to see if we can’t at least construct efficient and effective mechanisms for cleaning up the damage that has been done. I tell him that Nigeria will benefit from sending out students to study and learn from the recent spill in the US, to learn methods of dealing with such a recurrent issue in our own Niger Delta. He nods enthusiastically at me. He says what a shame it is that the Nigerian government can’t get rid of all the corruption. He says how the government officials themselves are corrupt. ‘Giving foreigners chinelo okparanta power over their own oil, pocketing for themselves the money that these foreigners pay for the oil.’ I look at him, in his fancy suit and rings. I wonder if he is not himself pocketing some of that oil money. But something good must be made out of such an unfortunate event. And of course I don’t question the man in the suit about where the money for his rings and suit is coming from. He fusses with the collar of his dress shirt and says, ‘Sometimes when Nigerians go to America, they get their education and begin to think they are too cultured and sophisticated to come back home.’ He pauses. Then, ‘How do we know that you will?’ I think of Mama. ‘I don’t intend to get lost in America,’ I say, more confidently than I feel. Because even as I say it, there is a part of me that is afraid that I will want to get lost in America. There is a part of me hoping that I will find that new life much less complicated, much more trouble-free than the one here. Still, I say it confidently, because saying it so might help me to keep Mama’s fear from becoming a reality. Because I know that it might break Mama’s heart if I were to break my promise to her. But mostly, I say it confidently because Gloria is on my mind, and if I am to be granted permission to go and be with her, then I must give the man the answer I know he wants: an emphatic vow that I will come back home. He smiles and congratulates me as he hands me the greencoloured card. He takes my passport and tells me to come back in two days. The sun is setting as I make my way down Walter Carrington Crescent. I look up. There are orange and purple streaks in the sky, but instead of thinking of those streaks, I find myself thinking of white snow, shiny metals reflecting the light of the sun. And I think of Gloria playing in the snow – like I imagine Americans do – lying in it, forming snow angels on the ground. I think of Papa suggesting that perhaps America would be the best place for me and my kind of love. I think of my work at the Federal Government Girls’ College. In america America, after I have finished my studies, I’ll finally be able to find the kind of job I want. I think how I can’t wait to get on the plane. I cross over to the next street. It is narrow, but there are big houses on each side of it, the kinds with metal gates, and fancy gatemen with uniforms and berets, and small sheds like mini-houses near the gates, sheds in which the gatemen stay. I imagine the insides of the houses: leather couches and stainlesssteel appliances imported from America; flat-screen televisions hanging in even the bathrooms, American-style. But the road just in front of these houses, just outside the nice gates, is filled with potholes, large ones. And in the spaces between the houses, that corridor that forms where one gate ends and the next begins, there are piles of car tyres, planks of deteriorating wood, layered one on top of another. Shattered glass, empty barrels of oil, candy wrappers, food wrappers, old batteries, crumpled paper, empty soda cans. I stop at the entrance of one of these corridors. Two chickens squirm about, zigzagging through the filth, jutting their necks back and forth, sniffing and pecking at the garbage, diffident pecks, as if afraid of poison. I tell myself to continue walking, to ignore all of this foulness, just like the owners of the big houses have managed to do. Maybe it’s even their garbage that saturates these alleyways, as if the houses themselves are all that matter, and the roads leading to them inconsequential. But for me, it is a reluctant kind of disregard that stems from a feeling of shame: shame that all that trash should even exist there, shame that empty barrels should be there, between the fancy houses, littering the roads after the oil they once contained has been made to do its own share of littering. Several streets down, I find a hotel, not one of the fancy ones, more just an inn. The room to which I am assigned smells musty and stale, and I can feel the dust on my skin. I scratch my arms with the edges of the green-coloured card. I chinelo okparanta think of the possibilities, of the many ways in which I might profit from the card. I am still scratching and making plans for America when I drift into sleep. The story should end there, but it doesn’t. A person wishes for something so long that when it finally happens, she should be nothing but grateful. What sympathy can we have for someone who, after wanting something so badly for three long years, realizes, almost as soon as she’s gotten it, that perhaps she’s been wrong in wanting it all that time? My second night at the inn, the night before I am to return to the embassy for my paperwork and passport, I think of Mama, her desire for a grandchild, and I think: Isn’t it only natural that she’d want a grandchild? I think of the small children emerging from the waters of the Delta covered in black crude. Their playground destroyed by the oil war. And I think: Who’s to say that this won’t some day be the case even in America? It all starts small by small. And then it gets out of hand. And here I am running away from one disaster, only to find myself in a place that might soon also begin to fall apart. There is a folk tale that Mama used to tell me when I was still in primary school. She’d tell it in the evenings when there was not much else to do, those evenings when NEPA had taken light away, and there was no telling when they’d return it. I’d sit on a bamboo mat, and she’d light a candle, allow its wax to drip on to the bottom of an empty can of evaporated milk, a naked can, without its paper coating. She’d stick the candle on the wax and allow it to harden in place. And then she’d begin the story. In the dim candlelight, I’d observe the changes that took place on her face with each turn of her thought. Soft smiles turned to wrinkles in the forehead, then to distant, disturbed eyes, which then refocused, becoming clear again like a smoggy glass window whose condensation had been dispelled suddenly by a waft of air. The folk tale was about an imprudent little boy, Nnamdi, whose wealthy father had been killed by a wicked old man who envied his america wealth. Having killed Nnamdi’s father, the wicked old man steals all of the family’s possessions, so that Nnamdi and his mother are left with not even a small piece of land on which they can live. And so it is that they make their new home in the bush. There, they find a twomonth- old goat kid, a stray, with a rope around its neck. Nnamdi’s mother ties the goat to a tall iroko tree. Still, they continue to eat the green and purple leaves of the plants in the bushes for food, because Nnamdi’s mother decides that they are to save the goat. It will grow, she says, and when it does she will sell it for so much money that they will be able to move out of the bush, or at least build a nice house for themselves there. But one day, foolish Nnamdi leads the goat by its rope into the marketplace, and he sells it to a merchant who gives him a bagful of what the boy assumes is money. But when he returns to the bush, to his mother, Nnamdi opens the bag to find several handfuls of udara seeds, some still soggy, coated thinly with the flesh of the fruit. His mother, angry at him not only for selling the goat, but also for doing so in exchange for mere seeds, furiously tosses them into the bush. The next morning, Nnamdi finds that a tall udara tree has grown, taller even than the iroko, so tall that its tips reach into the soft white clouds in the sky. Nnamdi climbs the tree against his mother’s wishes. In the uppermost branches, he finds a large, stately house-in-the-sky. He parts the branches, those thin stalks at the tip of the tree, and pushes through the rustling leaves. He arrives at an open window and enters the house that way. First he calls out to see if anyone is home. Once. Twice. There is no response. There is a large table not far from the window. Nnamdi walks to the table. It is covered with a white cloth fringed with silk tassels. Nnamdi runs his fingers across the tassels. In the air, there is the scent of something savoury, a little curried, perhaps even a little sweet. Nnamdi follows the scent into the kitchen and there, on the stove, the lid of a large pot rattles as steam escapes from beneath. Nnamdi lifts the lid and breathes in the savoury scent. And then he sees it, through chinelo okparanta the doorway of the kitchen, in the parlour: a lustrous cage sitting atop a white cushion. The cushion is nearly as tall as he is. Inside the cage is a golden hen, perched on the top half of the hutch. All over the parlour floor, he sees coins, glistening like the cage. Glistening like the hen. Nnamdi goes into the parlour. He climbs the cushion and takes out the hen. By one wall of the parlour, lined on the floor, are half a dozen small bags. Nnamdi peeks into them and sees that they are filled with more gold coins. He ties some of the bags around his waist, others he tucks to the hem of his shorts. He removes his shirt and makes a sack out of it. He slings the sack across his chest and carefully places the golden hen inside. The wicked old man returns in time to see Nnamdi climbing down the udara tree. He pursues the boy, catching him by his shorts just as Nnamdi leaps from one branch to the next. The wicked old man gets hold of the bags of gold coins, but Nnamdi manages to wriggle away, escaping his grasp. Nnamdi races off, gains ground, and finally lands safely in the bush. In fact, he gains so much ground that he is able to begin chopping down the udara tree before his pursuer has made it past the halfway point. Feeling the sudden swaying of the tree, the wicked old man scrambles back up to his home in the clouds before the tree falls. But he scrambles back without his golden hen, and with only the bags of coins. The story always stopped there, and then I’d pester Mama to tell me more. ‘What about the rest?’ I’d ask. Did the hen continue to produce the gold coins? If so, for how much longer? And what did Nnamdi and his mother do with the coins? Did they build for themselves a huge mansion right there in the bush? Or, did Nnamdi give all the coins away like he did with the goat? Did he perhaps even give the hen itself away? Did they live happily ever after? ‘There’s no rest,’ Mama would say. Or sometimes, ‘The rest is up to you.’ That night, my final night in the inn, I sit on my bed and I recall every twist of that folk tale. I think of crude. And I think of gold. And I america think of crude as gold. I imagine Nigeria – the land and its people – as the hens, the producers of the gold. And I think that even when all the gold is gone, there will always be the hens to produce more gold. But what happens when all the hens are gone, when they have either run away or have been destroyed? Then what? The next day, I collect my paperwork from the embassy, and hours later, I head back to Port Harcourt to pack my bags. The bus bounces along the potholed roads, causing my head and heart to jolt this way and that. But I force my eyes shut as if shutting them tight will prevent me from changing my mind, as if shutting them tight will keep regret from making its way to me.