You feel dark and drab because you have not learnt how to nurse pain with half smiles that do not seep into the heart. Because you have not learnt to nurse it with phrases like, “I am fine.” Because you have not yet come to terms with that fleeting nature love possesses; that ability to come and go so swiftly.
After Charles left, you saw your life in flashes. In flashes that made heaviness grow and sit on your chest; that made you laugh then giggle then cry; that made you thin; that made you stare at your shadow, at nights when the moonlight slithered through the lattice of your window, because that was the only real part of you remaining.
You met Charles during one of the students’ protests in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka one early January when the atmosphere was a mixture of dryness, cold, and dust. You sauntered with other students, carrying colored cardboards, through the female hostels, the economics department, the students’ union building, till you stopped at the Vice Chancellors’ office which was bordered with sorts of trees that sheltered lush grasses. Fighting for a common cause has a way of weaving a connection between strangers, so you were not surprised when Charles – a young man with skin like chestnut, wearing a golden necklace – said to you, “Total rubbish,” his face scowled. “How do they expect students to study with no light and no water? Well, this is Nigeria.”
He smiled slightly as he said “this is Nigeria,” as if by saying those words you were to recognize that you both share a common knowledge of a status quo both of you were meant to accept; a knowledge that bound you two; a knowledge meant to pacify. After the introductions and you said your name was Gboliwe, he had wondered if you were South African. “It is Igbo. It means Rejoice,” you replied. “But if that stresses your tongue, you could use Ujunwa, or simply Uju,” you smiled.
Quite puzzled, he expressed how odd not bearing an English name was especially, as he put it, “in this twenty-first century.”
“Bearing only native names speaks quite a lot concerning my culture and to a large extent, my African heritage,” you said.
“I am Igbo but I bear Charles instead of Chukwuma or Chikelu. Bearing an English name does not rob you of your culture and African heritage in any way. Being Igbo or African is in the words of your mouth, the values you uphold, and those actions that reflect your ancestry. For me, two names showing a blend of your colonial and cultural roots is not a bad thing,” he quipped.
In the days after the protest, you saw each other often. In those days, you could tell there was a blossoming attraction between you and him; an attraction so palpable that you could feel it in the glistening light of his eyes; in the shudders that tingled through you when his arms grazed yours; and in the enveloping air when you were together. And on the night when this attraction peaked, it was even more palpable in the fervent, rapturous kiss you shared on the staircase of the university’s bookshop.
Then, gradually, you started twisting yourself into shapes he did not blatantly speak of, but you knew he desired. So you made braids often because he loved how the uniformed strands cascaded down the shoulders of ladies that made them. And because he idolized Fela –always echoing how he was a crusader, preacher, and messenger sent from heaven – you developed a taste for Fela’s Afro music. After you had breakfast together one Saturday when the sun seeped into the room giving your skins an orange hue, you listened to Fela’s alto saxophone slur the notes of melodious intros to the song, “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense.” Charles talked about how one more verse to the song would have, maybe, helped Nigerians to be less rigid with culture and tradition. He argued that if, as Fela said, the government is the teacher of the people, and culture and tradition are the teachers of the government. Then who teaches culture and tradition? It should be a cycle that terminates with the people teaching culture and tradition, because culture was made for and by man and not man for culture.
It was this liberality, this ability to see the world in its full extensions, that endeared Charles more to you; that made you not mind twisting yourself into shapes that would conform to his pleasure, because, somehow, you felt that all you could ever become rested in him. However, this liberality was the reason you were surprised that he left.
You cried when he told you his parting words; words that did not make sense to you. You cried because it was normal for you to do so. How could a person so liberal pass on stereotypical judgments on another? How could he, after demanding for the truth always, retreat when it was laid bare? How could he be so paradoxical?
“The issue is not your health. It is fear, Uju. I am scared; so scared of losing you,” Charles said.
For him, fear was the perfect excuse and he spoke about it like a remote feeling only he was entitled to feel, and to act on. But he never knew that for many years your mother had clutched her chest anytime you say, “Ma, my waist hurts badly.” Your mother was one of the many charismatic women whose love for God was seen in their scarves zealously wrapped around their head that no strand of hair could escape. If only Charles knew that in trying moments when you would fall ill, that her songs of praise and thanksgiving were only ways of indirectly channeling her supplications to God on your behalf because she heard the pastor say, “if prayers do not work, try praise.” If he only knew that on the day your lower lips became papery, taking the color of ivory, and the doctor ordered for a blood transfusion, she had woken up in the middle of the night to weep because she felt that your end had come. But Charles knew nothing.
He knew nothing of the penchants you sacrificed; of basketball which you play no more because the doctor warned, “do not stress yourself too much.” Of unripe plantain porridge which you never eat often anymore because it contains too much iron, and in the words of the doctor, “iron is not good for you.” Of heights you fear you may never attain; of the fear of becoming nothing.
Glaring at him, you said, “How can you speak of life and death with such subtle certainty? Are you God?,” your red eyes were laden with tears.
“Uju, I have seen people writhe in pain. I have seen them wilt. I have seen them die. I have a perfect genotype, so this is not about future children if we eventually end up together. It is about you, Uju,” he said. “I will never be able to see you as the same person again. No matter how I pretend, I will always see you as fragile. When you tire from lectures or exams, I can’t help thinking if it would trigger a crisis. And if a crisis ever develops, can I bear…,” he trailed off and left, leaving a deafening silence that hung in the room like mist suspended on a mountain top in December.
You wondered why he couldn’t give you a fighting chance. How blind was he to see that in the battle between you and a sickling crisis that you always won for this twenty-five years of your life? Maybe he was right, you thought. Maybe you were only selfish; too needful for love and care; too desperate for his approval because with him you saw a form of yourself you liked and agreed with. Now with him gone, you felt a huge chunk of yourself chipped off, and this made bile spread through you. You could feel this bile stop at your throat, making your heart beat faster; making your blood boil.
But in the coming days, you will be grateful for this bile because you will understand and redefine what anger means; because you will replace the object of your anger. The bile will be your spur. And on evenings when the sun tiptoes to hide itself behind the Nsukka mountains, you will go to the basketball court to watch girls like you play so you could write about them and their coaches and about yourself. You will write of the bad blood that came between you and your sport. You will title the post: “Love from a Sickling Perspective.” You will write about a coach who always gets angry at a particular player at the slightest mistake, and you can’t tell if he was mad at her or mad over her. And this you will title: “Mad At Her or Mad Over Her: The Conundrum of a Coach.”
In these coming days, you will recognize that life oscillates, because it’s in its nature to oscillate; to dangle between highs and lows. You will learn to see life in all its kaleidoscopic beauty; in those changing colors that will make you smile, that will brighten your days, and that will add a pink to your cheeks.
So you will free your hurting scalp from the twists of braids, and wear you black weaves with all sleekness and straightness and style. And because you have missed how girly a snug shirt made you feel, you will wear that blouse; the one Charles said is too fitting and reveals part of you that only he should see.