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I Remember Syl

By Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo

Author Notes: Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo is a Pharmacist. He was trained at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. Apart from short stories, Mr Umelo writes radio plays. In 2003, his radio play, ‘Knight in Shining Armour’, was joint third place winner of the BBC’s yearly playwright’s competition, ‘African Performance.’ Mr Umelo also writes for young people. Some of his novels for young people are presently under consideration for publication by a major publishing company in the U.K. Mr Umelo kicked off his writing career in 1998 by sending weekly contributions (about 300 words) to ‘Last Word’, a BBC’s three minutes commentary read at the end of the weekends ‘Focus on Africa’ news bulletin.Mr Umelo who considers his wife his greatest asset as a writer (she is his in-house critic and editor) has two lovely children.

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Banjul, The Gambia.

October 24, 200-.

3:07 p.m.


How is the international airport in Malta? I hope it hasn’t been relocated from that open space, surrounded with wicked-looking barbed wire? I can, even now, visualize all those domes and minarets. The beauty of that sprawling little city from the air …quite unlike the confusion one sees of our Lagos from the air.

How did I know about Malta, you are thinking. I never did tell you I was in Europe, that I was in Malta, did I? No, I didn’t hide it from you. The truth is that the discussion never came up among the millions of discussions we had under the sometimes cloudy, but mostly clear starry sky of Farafenni nights; or as, holding hands, we strolled side by side in the cool evenings, enjoying the landscape of Farafenni and licking the sweet, smooth, fluffy whiteness off seeds of baobab fruits, or enjoying the deep sour, but irresistible tang as we bit into the fleshy bodies of Saloum plums, yellow but mostly green; or as we ate Ngburu Nyembe3 during school recesses when we sheltered from the fierce sun in the staff room, or hid under huge, and full-foliaged mango trees, as we took a break from the noisy students we taught.

Yes, I was in Europe.

** **

After graduating in Economics from the University of Calabar, like millions of graduates, I made my way to that hubbub of a city, Lagos, in search of a nice paying job. I expected to go with my job, a car, and a well-furnished apartment in one of Lagos’s exclusive neighbourhoods. After all, was I not a graduate? And was my country, our country, Nigeria, not endowed with so much oil wealth?

Five years, Joe. Five years of wandering up and down Lagos like a fugitive …like a derelict; years of hunger, of near starvation, living in run-down tenement buildings, under bridges; five whole years of shame and I was ready to do anything, anything. Psychologically I was defeated. Mentally I was drained. Physically I was subdued.

My neck, like a vulture’s, stuck out of blanched and faded t-shirts. My trousers had gaping holes by my crotch, and like a female, I had to be conscious of how I sat. You should have seen my singlets, torn everywhere, like a lunatic’s. My toes and heels peeked out of my socks, and the soles of my only shoes were so ‘chopped’ that as I sauntered along, I felt the stones on my bare feet, sharp and uncompromisingly hot or cold, depending on the frame of mind of Lagos’s moody weather.

Every office I went to, the sign, NO VACANCIES, winked wickedly at me! And as I turned my back and walked dejectedly away, I thought I heard the sign, NO VACANCIES, double over in rib-racking raucous laughter.

I was going mad.

But I was frugal. I was always a frugal person. All the money classmates who had poured into advanced fee frauds (419) and other illegal deals dashed me, and the few naira4 I earned doing odd jobs, I had saved, never expending a dime on an ordinary bottle of Coke or iced water.

Then I put out the words: I wanted out. Out of Nigeria, and fast. I was simply fed up with the system. With everything! Some understanding guys got me a visa for Poland.

"You’ll enter Poland, and our pals in Germany will come rescue you and take you across the border to Germany," the guys who issued me the Polish visa assured. Apart from the huge visa fee, nearly US $2,500.00, I also paid them about US $500.00 for the extra favor of getting their pals to smuggle me into Germany.

"I’ll make it in Europe," I told myself. "Big bucks."

No direct flight to Warsaw, and I had to obtain a transit visa for Moscow, this time all by myself. Somehow, those understanding guys could not help me with a transit visa. They were suddenly too busy. My journey was delayed for a month, but finally, I had my transit visa. And I also met these two guys, Abel and Lawson. We were on a similar mission …going to Europe where the grass was greener. Abel and Lawson were as alike as two peas from the same pod. Now that I think of it, I think they were related. Tall, lanky, fair skinned fellows. They bleached their skins to look light, what with the offensive odors of dead skin they oozed. Half of the time we were together, I was either struggling to avoid spitting, or had my breath suspended at intervals!

I didn’t have more than US $150.00 on me, having spent my Basic Traveling Allowance (BTA) for the transit visa, which I hadn’t bargained for. Abel and Lawson had all the money, US dollars in tiny one-dollar bills. They had bundles of them, nearing one thousand apiece. But they couldn’t read. In fact, identifying their names was a problem, and they had to tell their passports apart by flipping quickly to the picture page! And as for writing, forget it. What were they going to Europe to do without any education, I wondered.

But it wasn’t my business, was it? If I, a graduate went through all those pains looking for a job and couldn’t get any, imagine the plight of an illiterate. And mind you, illiterates or not, they had the same aspirations as you and I: a good life comprising of a nice house, a car, wife, lots of kids, plenty to eat and drink, good businesses and lots of nice things for younger folks and parents and relatives back in the village. So it was a symbiotic association Abel, Lawson and I had: I’ll read the road signs and point out the way when we got to Europe. In return, they will be free with their dollars. Perfect arrangement, wouldn’t you say?

** **

You know what, Joe, my wife is preparing dinner. It will be benachin. I can smell the meat and onions frying …uuummmm ….aahhh, and I can smell garlic too …my kids are happy, they love benachin. I can hear them singing their nursery rhymes.

…Ahhhh, family life is so interesting. Though, I tell you, it is not all sugar. One has to work at it. Did I tell you my wife’s name? Haddy. Haddy Mbye! My Haddy is a Wolof. Nangadef Joe …how are you, Joe? I now speak more of Wolof, and have forgotten nearly all the Mandinkas we used to twist our tongues around while at Farafenni. Unlike most Wolofs, she is fair skinned, a touch of Narr (Arab) blood, she explained to me while we were courting. She is of average height and has these slight bandy legs that make her so sexy especially when she has on tight jeans, which she favours. Round, clear brown eyes, and her voice, tingling, always arousing my tendon, hardening it…

You know, I followed Haddy to the Mosque, to wed her, amidst the judgmental glares of our friends. From the beginning, my former Church elders at the ‘Life Given Bread Church’ saw my Haddy as nothing but a ‘Jezebel’, and the accursed ‘Serpent’ himself.

"She has given him ‘something’ to eat," they cried, their eyes blazing.

And they took it upon themselves, declaring a seven days dry fasting to ‘exorcise’ and ‘cast’ her out of my system using scriptural injunctions.

But like superglue, my love for her held!

So my dear, what I’m trying to tell you in essence now is that five times a day, I go down facing east; five times a day, I go down facing Mecca.

I’m now a Muslim!

Shaving off my soft, wooly hair, the Imams at my Mosque re-baptized and gave me a new name: ‘Tapha’, short for ‘Mustapha’.

My family’s outright rejection didn’t anger, worry, or frighten me. Love… Oh love… It can face all things! Though sometimes… sometimes… Ahhh, sometimes…

Joe, tell me, Islam and Christianity, aren’t they both about one God? Aren’t they both about one Sovereign Being? Why do we keep battering ourselves for nothing? You are disappointed, like the rest of them, aren’t you? Despite the distance between us, I can see the disgust in your face. Look, just take me as I am. PLEASE, don’t stop liking me. Don’t despise me simply because I worship God in a different way now.

** **

Eventually, Abel, Lawson and I were airborne, on our way to Europe and to wealth. We departed around noon one fine day and touched down at the Sheremetyevo international airport in Moscow the next day.

The first thing that struck me about Europe was the freezing cold! And to imagine that the sun was shining, almost ablaze in the clear sky, though there was this hazy halo surrounding it! In a hurry to flee Nigeria, we had forgotten to take along thick clothing. Our ears froze in no time. Brittle and easily breakable, it ached like hell. As we spoke to each other, we saw our breaths condensing in front of our very noses.

We had transit visas and had no problems entering the city. We rode an electric train, the first time I had ridden in one. The thing malfunctioned, and kept jerking and jerking, embarrassing me. (You know, I never believed anything European could malfunction!) Soon, we were in a hotel room. It wasn’t particularly what we expected a European hotel room to look like. But then, between the three of us, we didn’t pay much for it, only about US $150.00, cheap by Moscow standards we were told by the hotel receptionist, a flabby old lady.

Then we went out to take a peek around town. We saw the Kremlin. Abel and Lawson commented on how it was simply an ancient building of old stones towering to the sky. And having heard so much about the KGB, they were adamant we kept a safe distance. I tried to explain that tourists were always crawling all over the place snapping pictures, and pointed to a group of middle-aged Chinese men and women with cameras hanging from their necks, but they wouldn’t budge.

So I sought out and read aloud a few more signboards, and we changed course. This time to the Patrice Lumumba University. When we got there, Abel and Lawson swore we were in a secondary school premises. I was speechless myself. Patrice Lumumba was a disappointment. It didn’t compare to a third rate university back home! Then we saw these Russians lads. They were haggard looking fellows with clean-shaven heads. Their jean trousers were slashed at the knees and laps. Their blue eyes flashed. Excitedly, they approached us, each running his tongue tentatively over his lower lip:

"Do you guys have any for sale?" they chorused, jostling each other for a better view.

"Any what? What are they talking about?" Abel and Lawson whispered. I shivered.

"Heroin, Coke, crack."

"We are not here for that," I said. .

"We will give you good price. We know you guys have it, you always do."

We rushed back to the safety of our hotel room, panting like dying Labrador dogs. The cold, Christ! It must have been below zero! Later we did something we should have done a long time before: Huddled together to keep warm, we took a closer look at our Polish visas and to our dismay, discovered huge dissimilarities. Even to Abel and Lawson, the differences were clearly obvious. We bowed our heads and thought our private thoughts. Several painful minutes dragged by.

"We would have to cross into Poland by road," I advised. "Warsaw by air would be too tight."

It was nearly a two-day train ride to the Russian border with Poland.

And then disaster struck!

"Your visas say Warsaw," said the Russian immigration officer at their end of the border. "Yes, we know," I replied, with heart pounding. "We are tourists. We want to see the Polish countryside."

"You must go back. You can’t go this way."

"But they can, why not?"

Five Polish youths, no more than eighteen years each rushed miraculously to our rescue. They loved Black Americans, we looked like Black Americans. Were we Black Americans? Nigerians? They had never heard of Nigeria. Anyway, it didn’t matter. They took the matter upon themselves to the chagrin of the Russian immigration officers.

"We go to our immigration office over there," the fine lads told us, pointing. "There, you get stamp, no problem. These fools are ignorant. America good country, we like America."

The Russians abused the Polish youths with an onslaught of profanity, calling them traitors. The youths didn’t mind, damn good folks. The youths explained everything to their immigration officers at their end of the border. The officers were sympathetic. They were so sorry. Immigration procedures were stringent. Had the visas read land, they would have given us immediate access. If we still wanted to come in by land, no problems, but could we go back to Moscow and get new visas. The Polish Embassy in Moscow would issue them without delay. Our Polish friends were very sorry to see their ‘American’ friends turned back. We swapped addresses.

"When we reach Warsaw, we will look you guys up," I assured them, disappointment written all over my face.

"Very, very good, thank you," they chorused. Abel and Lawson, who for the most part had been quiet, smiled. I had no time for such luxury. The reason was simple: I had no money for the return journey.

"What happened to all your money?" Lawson exploded at the ticketing office when I spread out the contents of my wallet on the cashier’s counter, looking for money I knew was not there. He and Abel had bought me the one-way ticket out of Moscow. "We can’t continue to carry you on our backs," he warned further.

"I know," I said.

"Look, Mister, our money is fast going," Abel pointed out.

"I know," I replied.

"We will have to go our separate ways," Lawson threatened.

I played my trump card:

"Who will read out the road signs to you guys?"

"We will manage," they said.

But they bought me the return train ticket.

Two days later, at Sheremetyevo, we boarded the plane headed for Warsaw. We feared the worst and shook like leaves rattled by angry wind as the plane wrestled with mountains of cumulous cloud.

Once in Warsaw, we saw war!

One peek at our visas and we were sequestered, all three of us. Our light green passports further compounded our dilemma. Three black folks among a multitude of Europeans, Asians, Americans and other ‘sweet-smelling’ nationalities. An obese immigration officer soon confiscated our passports, disappearing with them into an inner office with a glass door. You should have seen the disdain on her red, bloated face. She wore it like a prized mask. ‘Sweet-smelling’ white, red and yellow faces glared at us. What cheek! We simply glared back! They whispered in foreign tongues. My imagination rioted with interpretations:


Always drugs!


"Your visas are not in order," the immigration officer came out to announce, having concluded a series of ‘hush-hush’ talk with a superior and listening long on a red telephone. Craning my neck, I had watched her every move through the glass door.

"What is not in order about it?" I wanted to know, feigning anger.

"Forged! We just spoke to Lagos."

ANNULOWANO was soon stamped on the visas, annulling them, and by association our passports. We were shown the way back to the plane. Our feet had not even touched the Polish soil. Our repatriation back to Africa had begun.


Part iii.



3 A snack of beans and bread.

4 Nigerian currency.



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