or Afiniki Kyari
Rasheed has come on study leave. He brings
the taste of home, borkono, daddawa,
some of those little smoked fish coiled in rings
tail into mouth, that villagers from Hanwa
used to catch. As though under the water
now I walk the dried up river bed,
as steep banks slowly lift over my head.
For me, part of him isjust this: the bush,
the sun as dark as a tomato, spokes
of big bike wheels along the paths, the hush
of kaftans as the farmers called their jokes
and greetings across that low sky, with hoes
on shoulders, and sometimes that motorcade
wailed far off like a spirit from the dead.
The river gravel now exposed in tapered
wedges getting finer at the tips,
the steep bank showing roots that went down deeper
than the plant grew up, my dry footsteps
clinking the pebbles, no wind on my lips:
as if I’d been allowed to walk beneath
the water just this once and yet still breathe.
borkono, daddawa: condiments
What do I know about that land of his,
of yours, the bungled country where I found-
oh, all these findings, these discoveries,
these looted treasures stashed away in mind
to be brought back and labelled with the sounds
of English words whose meanings I don’t know-
an ignorance? That’s what I have to show.
Oh how socratic is the wood-carved head
which I unwrap as if from waterproof
like Livingstone, and put next to our bed
still as a soul. I have to keep it, love.
Such contradiction has to be enough
although it’s not, I know. Nor is your known
voice intimately far off in a phone.
Rasheed’s as well, talking of Bessie Head
again from his MA analysis
out on the porch after he’d come and set
down rice bags in the kitchen, laughing, ‘Presents!’,
me not sure if they weren’t something else
at first. Stones on the pages, and a kind
of English not quite mine to understand.
He brings news of the killings: so-calledtribe
on so-called tribe, and all goes back to oil
and looters in high places, banks and bribes,
and dead fish floating in a petrol smell,
and no Osama there, not yet, for Shell
so-called Nigeria who’s bidding’s done,
out in the bush somewhere, just before dawn.
Thought of your sister in that house, the walls
around it with barbed wire along the tops,
your brother-in-law’s rifle, the split skull
your nephew Charles had seen with wet brain slopped
on dust. Then, ’86 after they’d stopped
the quelling of the students on the campus
a thinning mist, the faintest sting of gas.
Still there, are they, yards from the office, bullet
pock marks in the wall with felt tip O’s
around each one, the total counted, protests,
speeches, loud hailers, then Kill and Go,
Farida shot still in her shower robe
as she went back along the balcony
towards her room. Oh, my inadequacy!
Kill and Go: military police
Rasheed was editor in chief. He knew
them face to face, of course, Ken Saro Wiwa
who was done because of Alli who
had nursed this grudge, Abacha who was murdered
by the CIA_/ Call-girls, viagra,
poison, agent Coleman. . . How sheltered
I am, this teacher, due so much respect.
This is safe England where shysters like Blair
mix easy words and pictures, some, at least,
part true to tell us of a country far
away and strange with different customs, feast
days, and a wicked King whose wicked secrets
hide so deep down in the tale we haven’t
found them yet. They keep us innocent.
We drive him all the way back to Heathrow:
a line of babban rigas for Abuja,
stacked up excess bags. Before he goes
he bends to give Tristan and Laraba
‘something’. He waves. He goes into Departure
as we turn back and try to find the car,
then change, then A3 against spaceless dark.
Babban rigas: traditional flowing Hausa robes
I gave him cash, sterling, to give to Joe,
who runs the English office still, and eats
meat once a week these days and is supposed
to buy goats now that he’s been made a chief
but can’t afford to. Swivelling on his seat
he’d swivel back with any doc I wanted
from that filing system in his head.
I studied it, this Africa, it’s use
of English in its poems, in Ikebe
Super Pidgin. I wrote to dispute
the thesis put forward by Ngugi
wa Thiong’o when he seems to say
that English words plug Africans with English
thoughts, surely quite unmaterialist. . .
I did a little bit. Got Awam in,
and Jenks, and Mbulelo, kept the VC’s
buddies out, began a mag, got Pidgin
on the syllabus. Though none of this
would outlast Maigida’s return to be
true head again, and send out the Department
car to Sabo to collect his rents.
Ikebe super: literally ‘large bum’, popular tabloid magazine
Ninety-eight, we came back. There was Joe
grinning and pointing at the bucket on
the floor to catch the drips. Down south Okpewho,
Soyinka, Achebe, Biodun,
‘Molara, Femi, Kole, they’ve all gone
where they can work, The States, South Africa,
UK. Our HOD’s now bloody Emma!
Flight of the scholars. No more annual
conferences held in Ibadan now
nor Calabar where you came once when still
on NYS, and we walked with Okello
to the jetty and that clanking grew
into a blurry shadow on the mist
that for a moment was the Heart of Darkness
steamer on the Penguin book (A row
of them along the shelf behind Joe’s head),
the river and the blur of primal Congo_/
where the white man trekked to his meet id,
Achebe wrote, Joe’s townsman, whom I met
once in that room, which maybe Joe was thinking
as he smiled back, with the bucket plinking.
NYS: National Youth Service, donein an area of the country
they don’t come from _/ by all students after graduation
Achebe: Chinua Achebe, Nigerian novelist, author of Things