Say You’re One of Them
That night, our home began to feel like an oven. We couldn’t sleep, even though we took off all our clothes.
Once we locked up, a massive heat swallowed the rooms, and the walls became warm. Yewa, who always slept between me and the wall, cried, and Fofo asked me to switch places with her. We sweat until our bed felt like one of us had wet it. Though we could hear the wind coming in from the ocean, sweeping through the banana and plantain trees, we couldn’t feel it. It was like standing by a stream but dying of thirst. It was stuffy, and the three of us tossed and turned. We got up and tried to sleep on the cement floor, but it felt like sandpaper, the sand and dust sticking to our wet bodies. It was useless. And when our fatigue finally plunged us into sleep, the mosquitoes, which must have survived from the previous nights, descended, and we woke up one another as we swatted them. Fofo Kpee kept cursing and blaming potential thieves for forcing us to close the rafter spaces.
Several times he went out for fresh air. When we asked him whether we could go with him, he said no and said we should get used to a bit of discomfort so that if Gabon had little discomforts, our benefactors wouldn’t blame him for not preparing us.
“My children, just manage,” Fofo Kpee said the second night, after dabbing our bodies with a wet towel. “Sometimes, de vessel to Gabon hot pass dis place … just manage.”
The lantern by the corner pulsed with a weak flame. It revealed our wet bodies, and there was a pinch of smoke in the air that worried our eyes.
“Hotter than this? But the ships our parents showed us were beautiful and airy,” I said.
“Very beautiful,” Yewa said.
“You dey argue too much. Attention, mì preparez mide dayi na la plus mauvaise situation. Me I no enjoy dis o, so no tink I dey do dis for fun. You must be ready. Remember, even de Israelites, chosen people, suffer for desert, and de lazy ones dey suffer snakebites. So stop interrogating me for my house. When I dey your age I no query my parents like dis o.… Just dey remember: as you dey move your mout like scissors, no tell anybody our plans o. No gossip gossip, notting.”
“We don’t gossip,” I said.
In one movement, Fofo yanked off our bedsheet and gave it to me. He took our center table and placed it on our bed, creating some space. He spread the sheet on the ground and asked us to lie down, said that it was better that way. We didn’t feel the sand, so in that sense it was better, and it was cooler than the bed. But still we couldn’t sleep, because of the hard floor.
“OK, good children … now make we talk happy tings,” he said, and sat on the edge of his bed. “Since we can’t sleep make we do someting else. We must be happy no matter what. So, wetin you go buy for me for Gabon? No matter how rich you be for dat place, no forget me o.”
“I’ll buy you Nido and Uncle Ben’s rice and Nanfang, Fofo Kpee,” said Yewa in a weak, sleepy voice. “I’ll give you money, and you’ll be able to marry many wives.”
We laughed at her.
“Oh yeah … really?” Fofo said.
“Yes,” she said.
“How many wife you want gimme?”
“Fofo, two wives, like Pastor Adeyemi.… They must work for NGO!”
“Only two?” he said.
“OK, five? You’ll get more children.”
“Children? You go help me educate dem?”
“Mama of Gabon will train them,” I chimed in.
Fofo laughed and sat squarely in his bed, relishing the conversation.
“Kai, I tank God you two dey already dey tink like rich Gabon people.”
Though we were all laughing that night, it was a struggle. Our laughter was weak, like a toy whose battery was running down. The light was dim, but the heat in the room made it feel as if that flame were the source of our hell.
Fofo Kpee opened the door to go out for fresh air, and a breath of it washed over us before he closed the door and locked it from outside. I picked up his towel and started dabbing Yewa and myself, but suddenly Fofo came back in as if a demon were pursuing him. He was a restless man: he couldn’t be inside; he couldn’t be outside. He took the towel from me and started to dab himself, as if the cool air had made him even hotter.
“School time,” Fofo Kpee announced suddenly, like a headmaster, and went to adjust the lantern wick, making it burn brighter. He was unclad except for the piece of wrappa tied around his waist. Against the light, his sweaty torso glistened. He was no longer the smallish man we knew. He had gained weight, and his stomach muscles were weakening, allowing his belly to bulge like that of a newly pregnant woman. I doubted he would still be able to climb coconut trees. “We must learn someting, mes enfants…. Sit up!” he said, opening a neatly folded piece of paper.
“What are we learning?” my sister asked.
“You see, if person want go America, for example, he go need tips for de owhèntiton …”
“Ah, Fofo, do you want to teach us about Gabon?” I said hurriedly.
“Mówe … you must learn certain tings in case l’immagration or navy people worry your ship, you know. Our government is corrupt. We no want make dem spoil tings for us.” Then he lowered his voice to an eerie whisper and pointed a frightening finger at us, saying, “Dese bad people can steal children like you for high sea!”
“They can?” we whispered.
“Yes, but, mes enfants, no fear. You go defeat dem … you get luck say Big Guy na your friend. Dat’s why I give am de keys. He na good immigration man. He know his people.”
At the mention of Big Guy we began to relax again. My sister nodded and smiled to herself.
“Is he coming with us, then?” I asked.
“Yeah, Big Guy will teach us all their tricks,” my sister said confidently.
We no longer thought about the heat. Fofo was silent for a while, with the towel draped around his neck. “So ready?”
“Yes,” we said, sitting up and watching his mouth attentively.
“Well, repeat after me,” he said, his eyes squinting in the low light as he stammered to read: “’Mama is younger than Papa because Papa married late.’ ”
“Mama is younger than Papa because Papa married late,” we said.
“D’accord … one by one … Mary?”
“Mama is younger than Papa because Papa married late,” she said.
“Bon … Pascal?”
“Mama is younger than Papa because he married late,” I said.
“No change anyting, stupid boy!”
“Mama is younger than Papa because Papa married late,” I said.
“Not good enough. You suppose dey smile as you dey talk dese tings … just like Mary dey do.” He went to Yewa and wiped off the sweat from her forehead and fanned her a bit with the towel before going back to the lantern. “Good gal, good gal,” he praised her.
“Just do like me,” Yewa said, and tapped my shoulder. I repeated the lines and smiled, to the satisfaction of both of them. Fofo fidgeted with the wick of the lantern, trying to boost the failing flame. I went into the inner room and brought out our jerrican of kerosene.
“Ah, merci beaucoup, my son,” he said. “Who go show us how to forget poverty?” He was referring to those days, before our Nanfang, when we used to ration our kerosene from a Lucozade bottle and rushed through our homework before the flame died on us. Now, he poured the fuel into the lantern tank until the flame began to twinkle, sputtered, and grew to a good size. As he poured the kerosene, Yewa and I held our hands under the lantern, catching a few drops, their momentary coolness a balm against the heat.
“OK, make we continue school,” Fofo Kpee said. “ ‘We live at Rue de Franceville, nombre douze, Port-Gentil, Gabon.’ ”
“We live at Rue de Franceville, nombre douze, Port-Gentil, Gabon,” we said, then repeated one after the other.
“ ‘Our parents run a small NGO, Grace Earth.’ ”
“Our parents run a small NGO, Grace Earth,” we said.
“What’s de name of de NGO, mes enfants?”
“Grace Earth,” we said.
“ ‘We’re four children in our family.… We were all born in Port-Gentil.… Some of our fofos live in Benin and Nigeria.… We went to see them.… We had a good visit with them. We go every year.’ ”
We repeated these lines again and again until we began to doze off in spite of the heat. Fofo was satisfied and declared the lesson done. It was like the medicine we needed to sleep.
In school the next morning, we were drowsy and dull and our noses ran as if we had catarrh. Even on the soccer field, I was so slow and jittery that Monsieur Abraham, our games master, benched me as a creative midfielder, and my friends threatened to stop calling me Jay Jay Okocha. After the game, Monsieur Abraham, who was a tall, cheerful, athletic fellow, questioned me seriously about the cause of my lack of stamina. He wanted to know whether Fofo Kpee was treating me well at home and whether I was getting enough sleep and eating well. I refused to tell him, but he didn’t give up. He kept an eye on me, maintaining that I was very important to his team, and in time he said he noticed the same thing was happening to my sister. He smiled at us often, and my sister came to like his beautiful teeth. Every afternoon, he brought us together and gave us some glucose to boost our energy. We wondered what we had done to get such special attention.
At night, Fofo Kpee chewed lots of kola nuts to induce insomnia so he could oversee our progress. He kept questioning us about Gabon, and we mastered the answers. Sometimes he would fall asleep, but the next morning he looked drowsy and grumpy. His lips were stained red, with kola residua the corners.
Some mornings, we didn’t need to shower to go to school because he was constantly dabbing us with a wet towel. One time we couldn’t even go to school, because rashes broke out all over us like a fine spray of goose bumps, and Fofo Kpee got us efun, the local calamine chalk, soaked it in water, and poured it all over our bodies. We moved around the house like little masqueraders. During the day, Fofo encouraged us to play outside the house, saying it would make the infection heal faster. Yet at night, when we needed air the most, he would sigh, lock us in, and tell us that men who would succeed in life knew how to take pain.
“ ‘Papa has three younger brothers,’ ” he read to us one night. “ ‘Vincent, Marcus, and Pierre, and two sisters, Cecile and Michelle.…’ Repeat after me.”
“Papa has three younger brothers, Marcus, and Pierre, and two sisters, Cecile and Michelle,” I said.
“Papa has three younger brothers, Marcus, and Pierre, and two sisters, Cecile and Michelle,” Yewa said.
“Hey, what do your parents do?” he said suddenly, pointing at my sister.
“Our parents run a small NGO,” she said.
“Bon. De name of the NGO?”
“Grace Earth!” she answered.
“Good gal … Repeat after me, you two.… ‘Our father’s father, Matthew, died two years ago.’ ”
“Our father’s father, Matthew, died two years ago,” we said.
“ ‘When he died, Tantine Cecile cried for two days.… Our grandmama, Martha, refused to talk to anyone.’ ”
“When he died, Tantine Cecile cried for two days,” we said. “Our grandmama, Martha, refused to talk to anyone.”
“ ‘Grandmama Martha died earlier this year and was buried beside Grandpapa Matthew.’ ”
“Grandmama Martha died earlier this year and was buried beside Grandpapa Matthew.”
“Where do you live in Gabon, Pascal?”
“Rue du Franceville, nombre douze, Port-Gentil, Gabon,” I said.
“ ‘Fofos live in Libreville, Makokou, and Bitam’… repeat.”
“Fofos live in Libreville, Makokou, and Bitam,” we said.
“ ‘Tantine Cecile is married to Fofo David and has two children, Yves and Jules.’ ”
“Tantine Cecile is married to Fofo David and has two children, Yves and Jules.”
“OK, break time,” he said.
“No break,” Yewa protested.
“I say I done tire,” he said, sitting down and throwing the piece of paper on the table. “According to our elders, even de piper dey stop for break.” We grabbed the paper and looked at it, as if we had stumbled on our exam questions shortly before the test. It wasn’t his handwriting. I attempted to read what I had seen to my sister, but she wanted to see the letters that formed each word. We pushed and pulled until we almost tore the paper. Fofo, seeing how close our faces were to the hot dome of the lantern, reached out and took it away from us.
“Come, go inside and bring de pot of beans here,” he said to me.
“But we were going to eat it with ogi,” I said, “in the morning, for breakfast.”
“The vulture eats between his meals”—my sister started singing a nursery rhyme—“and that’s the reason why. His head is bald, his neck is long …”
“Na you be vulture, no be me,” Fofo Kpee said, and laughed.
“OK, when he bring de Gabon núdùdú, you no go eat. I hope beans no be Gabon food! Pascal, just bring de ting out.”
I went to the inner room and brought out the beans, holding the pot with old papers to avoid the soot. The food was cold, and the palm oil had solidified on top like a layer of brown icing. Fofo said it was too risky to go outside and make a fire then. I scooped the servings, which were as firm as cake slices, onto three plates. We filtered the garri and divided it into three bowls. Fofo Kpee added salt to his garri. I added sugar, Nido powdered milk, and Ovaltine to mine, and Yewa added salt and sugar and Nido and Ovaltine to hers. Fofo teased that we had already become children of the spoiled generation, drinking garri with milk and sugar. He ate fast so that his garri wouldn’t soak up all the water and congeal. But Yewa and I drank our garri slowly, intentionally. Whenever the garri soaked up all the water, we poured in more and added the flavorings.
“Look at dese Gabon vultures!” Fofo Kpee taunted, and made faces at us. We laughed and ate and made merry, as we would for many nights after this.
When we resumed the rehearsal that night, we were too full to sit properly. Yewa tried lying on the cement floor to lessen the heat, but it was too hard for her bloated stomach. We climbed onto the bed. I lay on my side, Yewa on her back. My mind was in Gabon. I saw myself in my godparents’ mansion. I thought about having my own room and being driven to school daily. I thought about wearing shoes to school and about coming home to Mama’s great food. The more I thought about these things, the more I laughed, and the more funny faces Fofo Kpee made. I was no longer tired that night, and for a while it seemed as if I could live without fresh air and suffer anything without becoming frustrated.