>> Sunday, May 3, 2015
By Ajay Pradhan | June 30, 2014
Kwame stood in his porch, sifting a pile of mail in front of the mailbox. He hadn’t bothered to check the over-stuffed mailbox in over a week. Why bother? Mailbox was always full of junk and unwanted mail—grocery flyers, vendor ads, dream-home lottery campaigns trying to sell dreams, invitation to become a Jehova’s witness, charity call letters, phone and utility bills and, of course, credit card collection notices. He’d rather ignore them; even better, toss them all in the rubbish bin.
Kwame pulled his house robe tighter around him. A rainy day in London turned the air nippy, even in June. The sun had taken a vacation this weekend, leaving the grey sky at the mercy of heavy, threatening clouds. Despite the raw weather, Kwame was in no hurry to get back into the house. He savored these moments of solitude. These were the moments when he could listen to himself, listened to his own heartbeats, and escaped from the world’s cacophony.
A lanky man in his middle age, Kwame lived in his two-storey red brick duplex in the town of Whitton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames. He preferred to live in this mostly middle and upper-middle class southwest borough of London for its large open spaces and expansive parklands and the uncluttered, clean-looking leafy residential neighborhoods with no crime that was rampant in central London. The world famous Kew Garden was in this borough.
A progressive at heart and a keen observer of politics and public policy at all levels of government, until not long ago the only thing conservative about Kwame was his clothes. Even his clothes were now less conservative. It was only in recent years that he started wearing faded jeans. As a young boy in the outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria where he was born and raised, he grew up being told jeans were for the hippies of America. Now in them, he felt liberated from his own social past that was defined by conservatism. Study hard and become a lawyer or join the army or the government. Wear proper clothes. No jeans and definitely no faded jeans; others would think we're poor and can't afford nice terry cotton clothes. No movies and no music; they corrupt young men like you. No going out with girls. Oh, do not marry girls from another tribe—no, Kwame, no; do not marry a girl that is too attractive and who wears short blouses and shorter skirts; marry a homely girl that we will find for you, and raise kids with her. Attractive girls attract other men and the good family name will be ruined. Some conservative family influence had worked on him, others hadn’t. He became a lawyer and married someone his family selected for him.
In Whitton, his was a routine life, which reflected the color of the sky this weekend. His career had flourished. He had become an associate and was on path to becoming a partner, a coveted position, in the law firm where he began his legal career in London fourteen years ago. He built a career practicing anti-trust laws, helping small and mid-sized technology companies going after large multi-national conglomerates. Sometimes he felt that multi-national conglomerates were out to suck blood out of the poor and the voiceless by stifling competition in the marketplace. He believed that those big, greedy companies had to be reined in. He earned a good living, but his philanthropic heart made him donate quite a bit of it to charities in Nigeria. This was one of the sources of frequent conflict in the family. And a reason for missed credit card payments. He was good at what he did at work, but not so much with money at home.
He had voted for Liberal Democrats in all the municipal elections since he settled down in Whitton and was disheartened when they lost to the Conservatives in the last two elections of 2010 and 2014. He often wondered if he should not himself run for a public office. A black lawyer turned politician in a white upper-middle class suburbia of London? Good luck. He relished the thought but dismissed it every time it crossed his mind. Not because he believed it was far-fetched or impossible, but because he had become accustomed to the predictability of his grey life. Politics brought uncertainty in life—something he didn’t have the courage for. Instead of admitting to himself it was the lack of courage, he told himself it was the lack of appetite for it. Regardless, he had resigned to a life of routine and predictability. He feared unpredictability, sacrificed happiness for it and settled for routine.
But this day was not going to be routine for Kwame Odhiambo, a naturalized British citizen, born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria.
“Good morning, Mr. Odhiambo.” Kwame’s trance was broken by Mrs. Robinson, who was waving at him from the sidewalk at the end of his driveway, one hand holding an umbrella. Despite his repeated exhortation to the contrary, the elderly next door neighbor with proper English accent, always addressed him by his surname. He waved back at her, his hand full of flyers and envelopes, “Good morning.”
“You haven’t seen Django, have you?” The gregarious lady owned a terrier which always liked to roam around, without leash and with no owner holding it. He replied, “No, I’m sorry I haven’t.” She said, “Last time he wandered off all the way to the Bushy Park. Ob boy, what am I to do with Django! It’s not like I have good knees anymore. Anyway, have a good day.” Bushy Park was one of London’s largest Royal Parks. He felt for the lady, but it wasn’t like Django wandered around rarely; it was an everyday routine. The dog would of course return on his own. “Oh, almost forgot why I came here for. I’ve got a letter for you that I think the postman misdelivered to my place.” She handed him a purple envelope and left.
Kwame took a cursory glance at the envelope and was about to throw it away like other pieces of junk mail. But he stopped himself; it didn’t look like a piece of junk mail. He looked at it and checked the address. The postal address was his, but the envelope wasn’t addressed to anyone in specific. There was no sender’s name or address, either. He looked at the stamp and noted that it was postmarked in Ibadan, Nigeria. His heart skipped a beat. Of over 1.3 million people in Nigeria’s third largest city after Lagos and Kano, there was only one person he knew who lived there. He looked at the handwriting on the envelope, recognized it in a heartbeat, and there was little doubt who the letter had come from.
He tore open the envelope and retrieved a matching light purple letter.
Are you coming to Nigeria? I saw in dream that you were coming to Lagos. I’m in Ibadan for now, but will be going to Lagos for two months before leaving for Prague for graduate studies at the end of August. Are you coming?- Nziri
His heart was pounding. It was a brief letter. It had been three years. A flood of memories engulfed him in a flash. Until now, there was no communication in the last three years and very little of it since she left London straight for Ibadan for a good job five years ago. Since she got married three years ago to a man she met in Ibadan, he resisted his urge to communicate with her. The self-imposed silence suffocated him at times, but he dared not do anything that would or could be seen as interference in the newly begun chapter of her life. He wished her nothing but the best. The one comfort he derived was the occasional opportunity to read her poetry in an online Oxford Nigerian journal he subscribed to and to which he himself, an Oxford alumnus and a former visiting professor, contributed occasionally. The journal became the platform for occasional allegories, expressed in the form of reader comments he sometimes left or his feeble attempts at poetry that he posted, through which he expressed his feelings. The journal was his only means of knowing that she’s okay and telling that he’s okay, too. As long as he could continue this unique communication, he decided he could keep peace with himself and his past.
He had met Nziri Akintola Moyo at Oxford seven years ago. Nziri was a young student from Lagos, Nigeria’s large seaside metropolis they both came from. She was a public policy student at Oxford; he was a full-time lawyer practicing anti-trust law in London but was also a part-time visiting lecturer in law. Every Thursday he commuted from London to Oxford to teach a three-hour class at the Law School, housed in the Marshall Building. She lived in Martha Hall, an on-campus student dormitory. She was one of his students.
Nziri had sharp facial features, aquiline nose like the Romans, piercing brown eyes, radiant light skin tone, gentle curves other women envied and men admired and even fantasized about. She spoke English as if she was born and raised in England. She grew up speaking both English, Nigeria’s official language retained from the colonial era, and Yoruba, the native tongue of the Yoruba people in Western Nigeria and Benin. When she read prose, it sounded as if she was reading poetry.
They became close, not because they were both from Nigeria, but because they shared something in common—their love for poetry. After the first week of classes, Nziri walked up to Kwame in the class and calmly said, “If you think I’m in your class because I’m interested in anti-trust law or because I’m impressed by your successful law career, you’re mistaken.”
He gave her an incredulous look, not knowing what to say or whether to say anything at all. He was dumbfounded. He felt insulted and he felt a pang of anger. How dare she say something like that, a student to a professor? But he was speechless, his throat went dry. He felt threatened.
“Now, don’t feel threatened.” She said to the startled Kwame, as if she got her fingers on his secretly throbbing pulse. “I’m here for a reason. I’m in your class, not because I have a desire to excel in your class and pursue a career in anti-trust law. I’m here because I’ve read your poetry. In the Oxford Nigerian Journal.”
He let his breath out, which he was holding without knowing. He still didn’t know what to say.
“Do you have any voice? Or have you lost it?”
“Look, I don’t… I was… I mean I’m not sure what exactly it is you are saying,” he said, finally, at least haltingly.
“Professor, what I am saying is that I want to have coffee with you. And talk about poetry. Today. Now.”
“Look, I have to catch the train back to London.” Still feeling threatened, he wanted to avoid her. He wished she'd leave him alone.
[To be continued…]