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The Second Annual Fiction Issue

Voice Of America

While growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, my father converted to an American brand of Christianity that has its roots somewhere in rural Pennsylvania. A fallout of his new faith was that-unlike in other homes in Nigeria where allegiance was to the former...

Photo by AP While growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, my father converted to an American brand of Christianity that has its roots somewhere in rural Pennsylvania. A fallout of his new faith was that—unlike in other homes in Nigeria where allegiance was to the former colonial masters, Britain, and where people listened to the overseas broadcast of the BBC—we looked up to the United States. We watched Bonanza on television and sat around my father as he listened to the Voice of America. He made us listen to a program called The VOA News in Special English, a brand of English I suspect no one spoke, invented especially for retarded overseas listeners like us. On Sunday mornings we awoke to the voice of Jim Reeves singing “We Thank You Lord,” and as the day wore on we listened to Bobby Bare and Skeeter Davis. My father still considers the death of Jim Reeves a painful global tragedy—a man he never knew, from a country he never visited, a man who looked to me from his album sleeve like someone who ate only butter and milk for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Because the VOA was such a permanent fixture in our lives while growing up, I knew that I was going to write a story that featured it in some way. What shape the story would take, I had no idea, but then of course that is where the fun begins… We were sitting in front of Ambo’s provision store drinking the local gin, ogogoro, and Coke and listening to a program called Music Time in Africa on the Voice of America. We were mostly young men who were spending our long summer holidays in the village. Some of us whose parents were too poor to pay our school fees spent the period of the long vacation doing odd jobs in the village to enable us to save money to pay our school fees. Someone remarked on how clear the broadcast was, compared to our local radio broadcasts, which were filled with static. The presenter announced that there was a special request from an American girl whose name was Laura Williams for an African song and that she was also interested in pen pals from every part of Africa, especially Nigeria. Onwordi, who had been pensive all this while, rushed to Ambo the shopkeeper, collected a pen, and began to take down her address. This immediately led to a scramble among us to get the address, too. We all took it down and folded the piece of paper and put it in our pockets and promised we were going to write as soon as we got home that night. A debate soon ensued among us concerning the girl who wanted pen pals from Africa. “Before our letter gets to her, she would have received thousands from the big boys who live in the city of Lagos and would throw our letters into the trash can,” Dennis said. “Yes, you may be right,” remarked Sunday, “and besides, even if she writes you, both of you may not have anything in common to share. But the boys who live in the city go to nightclubs and know the lyrics of the latest songs by Michael Jackson and Dynasty. They are the ones who see the latest movies, not the dead Chinese kung-fu and Sonny Chiba films that Fantasia Cinema screens for us in the village once every month.” “But you can never tell with these Americans, she could be interested in being friends with a real village boy because she lives in the big city herself and is probably tired of city boys.” Lucky, who said this, was the oldest among us and had spent three years repeating form four. “I once met an American lady in Onitsha where I went to buy goods for my shop,” Ambo the shopkeeper said. He hardly spoke to us, only listening and smiling and looking at the figures in his Daily Reckoner notebook. We all turned to Ambo in surprise. We knew that he traveled to the famous Onitsha market, which was the biggest market in West Africa, to buy goods every week; we could hardly believe that he had met an American lady. Again, Onitsha market was said to be so big that half of those who came there to buy and sell were not humans but spirits. It was said that a simple way of seeing the spirits when in the market was to bend down and look through your legs at the feet of people walking through. If you looked well and closely enough, you would notice that some of them had feet whose soles did not touch the ground when they walked. These were the spirits. If they got a good bargain from a trader he would discover that the money in his money box miraculously grew every day, but any trader who cheated them would find his money disappearing from his money box without any rational explanation. “She was wearing an ordinary Ankara skirt and blouse made from local fabrics and had come to buy a leather purse and hat from the Hausa traders. She even exchanged a few words in Hausa with the traders. The way she said ina kwu ana nkwu was so sweet and melodious it was like listening to a canary singing.” “She was probably a volunteer school-teacher in one of the girl’s secondary schools around Onitsha and has lived here for so long she does not count as an American. We are talking of a real American girl living on American soil.” Jekwu, who said this, was Ambo’s adversary as a result of a dispute over an old debt and was permanently on the opposite side of any argument with Ambo. “Well, what I was trying to say was that she may be interested in a village boy. Like the one I saw in Onitsha who was wearing a local dress and spoke Hausa, I am sure she will be interested in a village boy,” Ambo said and buried his head in his Daily Reckoner. Someone ordered another round of ogogoro and Coke and we all began to drink and became silent as we thought our own thoughts. The moon dipped and everywhere suddenly became dark. One by one we rose and left for our homes. We were sitting in Ambo’s shop one evening when Onwordi swaggered in holding a white envelope with a small American stamp that had an eagle painted on it on its side. He waved it in our faces and was smiling. He called for drinks and we all rushed to him trying to snatch the envelope from his hands. “She has replied,” he said, looking very proud, like a man who had unexpectedly caught a big fish with a hook in the small village river. The truth was that we had all forgotten about the announcement on the radio program and I had actually washed the shorts in whose back pocket I had put the paper where I jotted down the address. Onwordi began to read from the letter to us. The girl’s name was Laura Williams. She had recently moved with her parents to a farm in Iowa from a much larger city. She had one more year before finishing high school. She was going to take a class on “Africa: Its People and Culture” in the fall and was curious to know more about African culture. She wanted to know whether Onwordi lived in the city or in a village. She also wanted to know if he lived close to lots of wild animals like giraffes, lions, and chimpanzees. And what kinds of food did he generally eat, were they spicy? And how were they prepared? She also wanted to know if he came from a large family. She ended the letter with the phrase “Yours, Laura.” “Oh my God,” Lucky said, “this is a love letter. The American lady is searching for an African husband.” “Why do you say that?” Onwordi said, clearly very excited about such a prospect. Though he had read the letter over a hundred times and was hoping for such a stroke of good fortune, he had not seen any hint of such in the letter. “See the way she ended the letter, she was practically telling you that she was yours from now on.” “I think that is the American way of ending letters,” Dennis said. He was the most well read amongst us, having read the entire oeuvres of James Hadley Chase and Nick Carter. He used big words and would occasionally refer to some girl in the village as a doll and some other as a deadbeat floozy. “But that is not even the main issue; she can become your girlfriend in due course if you know how to play your game very well. You could tell her that you have a giraffe farm and that you ride on the back of a tiger to your farm,” he continued. “But she is soon going to ask for your photograph and you know we have no giraffes here and the last we heard of a lion was when one was said to have been sighted by a hunter well over ten years ago,” Jekwu said. “You should ask her to send you a ten-dollar bill, tell her you want to see what it looks like, and when she sends it we can change it in the black market at Onitsha for one thousand naira and use the money for ogogoro.” Jekwu took a drink and wiped his eyes, which were misting over from the drink. “If you ask her for money, you are going to scare her away. White women are interested in love and romance. Write her a love letter professing your love for her and asking for her hand in marriage, tell her that you would love to come and join her in America, and see what she has to say to that,” Dennis said. “Promise her you’ll send her some records by Rex Jim Lawson if she can send you Kool and the Gang’s ‘Do Me Right Baby,’” Lucky added. “A guy in my school once had a female pen pal from India. She would ask him to place her letters under his pillow when he slept. At night she would appear in his dreams and make love to him. He said he always woke up in the mornings exhausted and worn out after the marathon lovemaking sessions in the dreams. We do not know how it happened, but he later found out the girl had died years back.” We were all shocked into silence by Dennis’s story. Ambo turned up the volume of the radio and we began to listen to the news in Special English. The war in Palestine was progressing apace, blacks in South Africa were still rioting in Soweto, and children were dying of hunger in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Onwordi said nothing. He smiled at our comments, holding the letter close to his chest like he was somehow hugging a lover. He thanked us for our suggestions and was the first to leave Ambo’s shop that night. Two weeks later, Onwordi walked into the shop again, smiling and holding an envelope with an American-flag stamp close to his chest once more. We circled him and began to ask him questions. She had written once again. She thanked him for his mail. She was glad to know he lived in a village. She was interested in knowing what life was like in a typical African village. What kind of house did he live in, how did he get his drinking water? What kind of school did he attend and how did he learn to write in English? She said she would love to see his photograph, though she did not have any of hers that she could share with him at the present time. Postal regulations would not permit her to send money by mail but she could take a picture of a ten dollar bill and send it to him if all he really wanted was to see what it looked like. She also said she was interested in knowing about African talking drums. Did they really talk? She said she looked forward to hearing from him again. We were silent as we listened to him and then we all began to speak at once. “I was right about her being interested in you; otherwise why would she request your picture without sending you hers?” “This shows that women all over the world are coy. She was only being cunning. She really wants to know what you look like before she gets involved with you.” “You should go and borrow a suit from the schoolteacher and go to Sim Paul’s Photo Studio in the morning when he is not yet drunk and let him take a nice shot of you so you can send it to her.” “How about you borrow the schoolteacher’s suit and Ambo’s shirt and Dennis’s black school tie and Lucky’s silk flower-patterned shirt and Sim Paul’s shoes and tell the schoolteacher’s wife to lend you her stretching comb to straighten your hair if you can’t afford Wellastrate cream; then you’ll be like the most handsome suitor in the folktale.” “Who is the most handsome suitor?” Onwordi asked. “I have never heard that folktale.” Jekwu cleared his throat and took a sip from his ogogoro and Coke and began his story. “Once in the land of Idu there lived a girl who was the prettiest girl in the entire kingdom. Her beauty shone like the sun and her teeth glittered like pearls whenever she smiled. All the young men in the kingdom asked for her hand in marriage but she turned them down. She turned down the men either because they were too tall or too short or too hairy or not hairy enough. She said since she was the most beautiful girl in the kingdom she could only marry the most handsome man. Her fame soon got to the land of the spirits and the most wicked spirit of them all, Tongo, heard about her and said he was going to marry her. Not only was Tongo the most wicked, he was also the most ugly, possessing only a cracked skull for a head. He was all bones and when he walked his bones rattled. Before setting out to ask for the hand of the maiden in marriage, Tongo went round the land of the spirits to borrow body parts. From the spirit with the straightest pair of legs, he borrowed a straight pair of legs and from the one with the best skin he borrowed a smooth and glowing skin. He went round borrowing body parts until he was transformed into the most handsome man there was. As soon as he walked into Idu on the market day and the maiden set eyes on him, she began following him around until he turned, smiled at her, and asked for her hand in marriage. She took him to her parents and hurriedly packed her things, waved them goodbye, and followed the handsome suitor. On their way to his home, which was across seven rivers and seven hills, she was so busy admiring his handsomeness that she did not grow tired and was not bothered by the fact that they were leaving all the human habitations behind. It was only when they crossed into the land of the spirits and he walked into the first house and came out crooked because he had returned the straight legs to their owner that she began to sense that something was wrong. And so she continued to watch as he returned the skin, the arms, the hair, and the other borrowed body parts so that by the time they got to his house, it was only his skull that was left. She wept when she realized she had married an ugly spirit but she knew it was too late to return to the land of the living so she bided her time. When Tongo approached her for lovemaking, she told him to go and borrow all the body parts he had on when he married her. Because Tongo loved her headstrong nature, he agreed. Each time they made love he went round borrowing body parts and when they had a child, the child was a very handsome child and grew into the most handsome man.” We all laughed at the story and advised Onwordi to work at transforming himself into the most handsome man. Ambo advised him to dress in traditional African clothes as, from what he knew about white people, this was likely to appeal to her more. “So what are you going to do?” we asked Onwordi, but he only smiled and held his letter tightly as he drank. The next time Music Time in Africa was on the air, we had our pens ready to take down the names of pen pals but the few that were announced were listeners from other parts of Africa and we all felt disappointed. We waited for Onwordi to walk in with a letter but he did not for quite some time. We wondered what had happened. When he finally walked in after some days, he looked dejected and would not say a word to any of us. “Hope you have not upset her with your last mail?” Lucky said. “You know white people are very sensitive and you may have hurt her feelings without knowing it.” “This is why we told you to always let us see the letter before you send it to her, when we put our heads together and craft a letter to her, she will pack her things and move into your house, leaking roof and all. As the elders say, when you piss on one spot, it is more likely to froth.” “But exactly what did you write to her that has made her silent?” Lucky asked. Onwordi was silent but he smiled like a dumb man that had accidentally glimpsed a young woman’s pointed breast, and ordered more drinks. “Or have you started hiding her mail from us? Maybe the contents are too intimate for our eyes. Or now that you have become closer has she started kissing her letters with lipstick-painted lips and sealing the letters with kisses?” Ambo teased. But nothing we said would make Onwordi say a word. Onwordi walked into Ambo’s shop after a period of three weeks holding the envelope that we had become used to by now and looking morose. We all turned to him and began to speak at once. “What happened, has she confessed that she has a husband? Why are you looking so sad?” “Has she fallen in love with another man? I hear white women fall out of love as quickly as they fall in love.” “If you have her telephone number I can take you to the Post and Telegrams Office in Onitsha if you have the money and help you make a call to her,” Ambo suggested. Onwordi opened the envelope and brought out a photograph. We all crowded around him to take a closer look. It was a picture of the American girl, Laura Williams. It was a portrait that showed only her face. She had an open friendly face with brown hair and slightly chubby cheeks. She was smiling brightly in the photograph. Our damp fingers were already leaving a smudge on the face. “She is beautiful and looks really friendly but why did she not send you a photograph where her legs are showing? That way you do not end up marrying a cripple.” Onwordi was not smiling. “So what did she say in her letter, or have the contents become too intimate for you to share with us?” “She says that this was going to be her last letter to me. She says she’s done with her paper and she did very well and illustrated her paper with some of the things I had told her about African culture. But she says her parents are moving back to the city, that the farm had not worked out as planned. She also said she has become interested in Japanese haiku and was in search of new friends from Japan.” “Is that why you are looking sad like a dog whose juicy morsel fell on the sand? You should thank God for saving you from a relationship where each time the lady clears her throat you have to jump. Sit down and drink with us, forget your sorrows, and let the devil be ashamed,” Jekwu said. We all laughed but Onwordi did not laugh with us, he walked away in a slight daze. From that time onward we never saw him at Ambo’s shop again. Some people who went to check in on him said they found him lying on his bed with Laura Williams’s letters and picture on his chest as he stared up into the tin roof.