By Jennifer Emelife
It is mid-August and I’m at the airport, travelling to volunteer for the Writivism Festival. My secondary luggage is a box of books by Nigerian author Chuma Nwokolo. There is a queue at the check in point and as I struggle to place the box on their desk, the search officers give me a suspicious look. I open the box, watching as one of them touch each pack of books wrapped separately in pink polyethene bags. My brother had told me earlier that the way the books were packed made them look like large wraps of cocaine. As one officer’s eyes go from the books to my face, I no longer find humour in my brother’s words. I am thinking: what if some of these weren’t books after all…
‘Madam, what kind of book?’ I hear the check in man say. ‘A collection of short stories,’ I reply, opening my bag to bring out a copy. ‘That’s a picture of the writer. I’m travelling with the books for a literary festival in Uganda.’
He pushes the box forward, waving me away, the way market women shoo off broke customers.
My younger brother stands outside the queue, fiddling with his phone and looking around, possibly thinking about the big shoot that would bring him to the international airport, far from my one bedroom apartment which doubles as his film studio.
‘How far, are you done?’ he asks when he sees me walking towards him.
‘Yes. Don’t mind those guys.’
‘Bye then. Safe trip.’
And he turns to the exit. My brother gives no hugs.
We are cruising above the clouds. I pretend to enjoy the movie on the screen in front of me. I stare miserably at my earphone after trying without success to find the right spot to plug it in. An air hostess, with a doll-like face and red lips, walks up and down the aisle and many times I resolve to call her attention and many times I sigh and remain quiet. Until sleep comes.
I open my eyes after what I think is 24 hours and look through the window, but the clouds are still awake. I remember the struggle that had sent me to sleep and now I yawn, stealing glances at my seatmate who appears to have finished watching the movie on his screen.
‘Excuse me. Where can I plug this?’
He turns to me, collects the earphones and plugs them into an opening right on my armrest! My thank you comes out tired and stupid. He smiles and starts reading a book and I ignore my screen, and start a conversation with him, on books and feminism. We talk and laugh and exchange high-fives. His name is Jide. He is young and handsome, he is also married with a daughter…
‘I’m really a boring person. What will you like to do?’ Jide asks.
My connecting flight to Uganda is due in an hour, but he is going to London and he has many more hours to spend at the airport in Addis Ababa.
‘We walk and look around, maybe?’
White faces and white mannequins. Café and coffee. Arabians checking out jalabiyas in a boutique. A bookshop. Africans who speak strange languages. A white old man smiling at us. Jide is fiddling with his phone, looking for free wifi. Time up, says the red beep from the flight information display system.
‘Take a picture of me,’ I say to Jide.
‘Let me have your phone number,’ Jide says. Then hug and goodbye.
I am given a blanket and a terrible seatmate. Trying to settle into my seat, he says, ‘Give me your number. I call you. I like you’, wriggling a Nokia torchlight phone under my nose. I frown at him and cover my head with the blanket. I miss Jide.
As we land in Entebbe, one hostess reminds us to leave the blankets behind. I shrug and stuff mine into my carry-on and zip!
At the exit, the hostess smiles and thank passengers but goes quiet when it is my turn. Don’t look at me that way, it’s just a blanket and I paid for this flight, my eyes tell her.
The receptionist in my hotel in Kampala is a 22-year-old student of Makarere University, tall dude who’s got a steady smile plastered on his face.
‘Good morning Jennifer. Breakfast is ready. Want it in your room?’ he asks on my first morning.
Seeking to enjoy the warmness of Kampala’s sun, I decline and thank him. At the balcony where I sit eating, I ask him how he combines school and work. He shrugs: he goes for lectures in the day and works at night, not a big deal. I remember it’s my first morning in Kampala and asks for a photograph. My receptionist is eager. Click click. I think of posting the pictures on my Facebook with the caption, Breakfast #firstmorninginUganda. But I ask instead,
‘Where can I get a good sim card?’
It is midday. My receptionist and I are walking to Arcacia Mall. He asks why I walk so fast. I want to tell him, that’s how we walk in Lagos, because, no time, but I lie and say I do not want him to be late for school.
We are at the mall and it reminds of Silverbird Galleria in Lagos — with more white faces than one you’d find in a Lagos mall — and maybe even bigger. The guy at the MTN office looks at my passport and says we share the same birth month. He will be 23 in a few days. I tell him and my receptionist that they are like oyibo people, young and schooling and doing odd jobs. The average Nigerian youth only wants to be a graduate, a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer. Or wife.
I have my MTN sim now, five more minutes and I can call The Crush in Nigeria. Butterflies in my tummy. My receptionist-turn-chaperon charters a boda boda (what we call okada in Nigeria). He insists on accompanying me to the museum, venue for the Writivism festival, so I don’t get lost. I go awwww and as the bike man drives us through bumps and hilly roads, I think about how small the Ugandan currency is, compared to Naira: an MTN sim for 3000 Ugandan shillings, a bottle of water for 1000 and a bike fare of 1000 (I’d later buy one African novel for 30,000 shillings. 30,000 is someone’s salary in Nigeria!). Ideas: get married to a Ugandan, live in Uganda, have a business running in Nigeria, and spend the money in Uganda. I’m a millionaire, baby!
The boda boda stops at the museum. My receptionist announces he must run to school now. I say thank you, even though my Nigerian mind thinks words are not enough…
After several months of planning and exchanging emails, I’m here at the museum, not sure what to expect — the festival is in two days. In my confusion, my team bump into me at the entrance and we scream and hug, already friends online. Inside, I make new friends: Dzekashu and Parfeit, Cameroonian writers. The director of the festival, Ateenyi, is wearing a face cap and typing steadily on a keyboard. I say hi and he smiles, offering a handshake. I look around what would become my office in the following days and it dawns on me that all of us, staff and volunteers, are young. I think of the guest list, over 50 writers and academics from across the world, to be hosted for a week in a festival planned and organised by about 12 people mostly in their twenties. My head starts reeling. I suddenly want to return to Nigeria where such business is normally handled by elders.
It is night and I’m lying in bed, shivering. I switch off the fan and lay under my duvet and started chatting on Whatsapp with my brother.
How far? Is it cold there?
Which cold? Heat has finished me. And no fuel in generator -_-
These people have not taken light here since I came o
Torn between replying messages and hiding my fingers from cold, I notice how neatly my shoes lay beside the wardrobe. The woman who cleaned my room took the pains of bringing them out from under the bed where I had dumped them. I sigh and make a Facebook post about ‘good African women who do their jobs well.’
Now I’m trying to fall asleep. But there’s a noise from the window, sharp, like a woman having a baby. Or making one. I try to ignore, but these moans…murmurings… Who chose my window for lovemaking? Suspects: My receptionist and the cleaner woman. And suddenly, I’m thinking of The Crush…
It is the second day of the festival and we are setting the stage for I Bow for my Boobs, an erotica ridiculing the rape of a country’s resources by its leaders. As I walk around the hall putting things in order, I hear some friends talking about girls with big tits and booties. I remind them of the festival’s sexual harassment code, but they laugh and say they only have consensual sex. I leave them arguing about consent and sex…
The Ugandan performer, Harriet Anena is ready to bow for her boobs in a skimpy dress that exposes her thighs, almost up to the skin just beneath her bum. I can see the black tights she has under and someone whispers that even so, she isn’t showing enough skin. She wriggles her waist, rubs her breasts with her chest thrust out; her face furious like a woman daring an abuser to go on and have his fill. My Ugandan friend shines his eyes, his lips stretched in the widest grin I’ve ever seen. When the performer hauls herself to the ground, throwing her legs open, the hall falls with her in silent oohing and ahas.
My friend is tapping his thighs, his head bent and eyes widely open. ‘Hey!’ I call. But my friend is lost in the thighs of a woman.
‘Ugandans don’t wear rolex, we eat it’. It’s Rolex festival at the museum and I mull over those words on a poster as my friends gush and gush about this edible rolex. My mouth begins to water. Interestingly, my first rolex comes from my Cameroonian friends. I receive the wrap with a grin and then set it down to a plate, wanting to capture this ceremonious moment. My first thought when I take a bite; rolex is omelette sandwiched between pancakes. I’d later learn that the dough I called pancake is chapatti.
‘Matooke, Jennifer. Ask for matooke’ a co-volunteer says to me at lunch the following day. So it is that I returned to my desk with a plate of rice, a piece of chapatti, matooke, beans and groundnut paste! Looking at the way it sits yellow on my plate, my Nigerian mind imagines matooke to be okpa. I eat some of it and push it aside, feeling violated- matooke is mashed cooked bananas. The groundnut sauce, however, takes my taste bud far back to my home in Northern Nigeria, Sokoto, where as a child, I’d crack open pieces of boiled groundnut, pour them in a polythene bag and beat them to a pulp. Then bite the bottom of the bag and suck. Ah, this groundnut sauce is a meal in Uganda! Ah, it becomes my favourite and jollof rice is not missed. But I weep for dodo. Beloved fried plantains are nowhere to be found in Kampala.
On one of the festival’s school visits, a girl says she wants to be like me. She asks for my phone number and promises to call. I fall in love with the schoolgirls and their hair; black full strands, untamed and glorious, sitting on their heads like crowns. I can’t stop staring. In Nigeria, schoolgirls are forced to cut such hair or braid them. Wearing loosened natural hair is being bush. Neatness means hiding them in twists and extensions. The girls say they love my weave, I tell them I want their hair. They giggle.
The festival is almost coming to an end and I feel like a Nigerian bride on her wedding day: exhausted from the preparations, glad it is coming to an end and sad that I’d miss my Ugandan friends. (And groundnut sauce and chapatti!).
‘See, Jennifer, you’re famous in Kampala,’ Wabwire says, showing me his phone. I look into it: I’d been featured on Kampala Express, a Ugandan online journal covering the festival. I smile and shake my head. It doesn’t matter that I leave the following day, I’m famous and like all famous people, I’ll always be remembered in this part of the world.