A fifteen-year-old African genius poet altar boy who loves blondes is not a criminal, not a racist, not a sell-out.
But a sweet, cool, pitiful African boy.
God must be testing my love for blondes. Because at this time when I constantly see visions of them, even at Mass, Eileen comes to Kontagora. Isaiah is telling Mama and me about her.
‘She didn’t come from Ikeja or Obudu Ranch,’ he says, as if Mama and I don’t know her name sounds foreign. ‘She came from the UK. From Father McMahon’s country. In fact, she’s Father McMahon’s oldest niece.’
That’s the kind of guy Isaiah is, with his shiny bald skull and eternally red eyes: a donor of useless details. He’s Father McMahon’s cook. He’s always begging Father McMahon for some English crisps, toothpaste, cream. He’s always asking Father McMahon about snow: ‘Is it sweet like ice cream? Do dogs lick it?’
He’s chilling out, legs crossed, in the plastic chair we offer guests. A cup of water stands untouched on the table before him, a fly noising around it, undecided, because the cup doesn’t contain Fanta. A faint smell of perspiration separates Mama and me. We’re sitting on our sofa pretending not to feel its valleys and gorges or see the ant zigzagging about the arm. At the doormat a fleet of ants are fooling with a dead cockroach. Pulling and kicking. Cursing, calling for backup. If Mama sees the ants, or worse the cockroach, she’ll smack me on the back for not properly sweeping the living room.
It’s Sunday. We’ve just returned from Mass, our necks still fizzing from the stings of the yellow sun. Mama hates Sundays. She earns no naira and must padlock her photo studio. ’Cause everyone in our town, even the imams on our streets, expects her to keep the sabbath day holy.
There are churches and mosques in our neighbourhood, and in most neighbourhoods of our town. Some used to be shops, their grilles and shelves still intact; others were warehouses, still dark, still stuffy. We hear the members of Soul of Christ chanting a cappella. They chorus in bass and soprano, crying like almajirai, calling to Archangels Michael and Uriel to open the Gates of Heaven, to send down fire, to shower the Face of God on Africa. They never clap or dance or play musical instruments. Because these lead to Hellfire. Because Christ and His Twelve never clapped or strummed guitars, because God never dances. I wonder whether Christ and His Twelve sang a cappella with such hungry, helpless voices, whether Christ’s voice was bass, whether Judas’s was falsetto.
We hear the drumrolls and the makossa singing of Apostolic Faith, the lead singer as she spits ‘Devil shame on you’, like a mother spitting on her wayward son, her cold saliva reclaiming all the love and blood she wasted. We feel the gusto of the back-ups, the stabbing of feedback.
Isaiah fans himself with the Sunday bulletin. ‘See, she’s very white,’ he says, checking and rechecking, for our benefit, the rusty watch Father McMahon gave him. ‘White like chalk. So white, unlike Father McMahon, who our evil sun has turned to a red man.’
He smooths the collar of his English polo shirt with the London Eye printed on the front. He uncrosses his legs, leans forward.
‘And she’s got long hair. It’s like white gold. Seriously.’ His big eyes sparkle as though he could steal her hair and get rich. ‘They call it blonde hair. Or is it platinum? Anyways, she’s a good girl. Like all whites, she brought gifts from the UK. Gave my little girl a toy rabbit. Can you believe it? She also gave me this foreign shirt. A good lady, I tell you. Like all whites.’
His gaze darts from me to his Nokia and back to me. Piercing. Eyes redder than ever. ‘Why’re you looking at me like that, boy?’ he cries. ‘I’m not her, you see.’
Mama chuckles, flashing her teeth stained with palm oil. ‘You don’t have to worry, Bro Isaiah,’ she says, slapping me on the shoulder. ‘Andrew mè will marry a girl as black as me. Isn’t that right, Andy?’ She winks.
I force a smile. But I can see in the weak glint of her eyes that her laughter is forced, that she doesn’t believe I’ll ever marry a girl like her.
My eyes rove: Polished wooden cabinet. TV on top. The three of us mirrored, sitting, diminished. Beside it the desk calendar of Father Achi’s priestly ordination – his palms pressed together, like a flame, in holiness, golden chalices hovering around him. Next: the crack on the blue wall, the crucifix of pale Jesus hanging, bright-red blood trickling from His hands and feet and sides.
Many times I feel Mama isn’t my real mother because there’s nothing visibly transferred. Her coal-black skin vs my chocolate. Her charcoal eyes vs my brown eyes. Her dimples vs my high cheekbones. She loves looking in mirrors and taking photos; I turn away from mirrors and hide at the rear in group photographs. She hums songs and I tune her out of my head; I check out blondes in movies and she orders me to eject any movie with even a blonde boy in it. Maybe I’m like Papa. I really want to know who the hell he is.
his dusty feet
his booming voice
his grip on my shoulder
But Mama always refuses to say even a syllable about him.
Anyhow, I don’t give a damn about who she thinks I’ll marry.
The x of the equation is that there’s a blonde here in Kontagora, a platinum blonde if I’ll believe Isaiah. A Marilyn Monroe who has never had mosquitoes sing in her ears and suck her blood, leaving red swellings as they fly away. A Princess Diana who has never woken up at midnight with hunger. A Taylor Swift who has never experienced a blackout.
‘And the girl is so tall,’ Isaiah says. ‘Like, so tall. She’s far taller than Andy boy here even though they’re age-mates. She’s even as tall as her uncle. She’s like an athlete. Like a model.’
Mama is popping gum noisily like the hos that prowl outside her studio. ‘That’s the result of all those greens whites eat,’ she says, nodding. She taps me on the shoulder. ‘Don’t worry, Andrew mè. You’ll grow as tall as her someday. Even taller.’
I shift slightly in my seat, moving deeper into a valley. I wish she hadn’t said that, about the greens whites eat. What greens is she even talking about? Such a comment makes me think of someone else, of Mama 2. Mama 2 wouldn’t say such a thing.
‘And Father McMahon is throwing her a massive feast this evening. With B-B-Q chicken, Sprite, and so forth. And he wants you to cover it,’ Isaiah says to Mama. She brightens instantly. Although Father McMahon owns a fleet of cameras, like all whites, he still invites her to photograph his events. He doesn’t haggle with her like we Blacks do. In fact, she adds like three thousand naira in the receipts she writes for her services, and Father McMahon still pays. ‘Things aren’t this cheap in his country,’ she’ll say in Ososo with a laugh. ‘Besides, whites are so rich that they can wipe their anuses with money.’ She gives me a stern look whenever I don’t laugh with her, and I join her with a false chuckle.
Whenever I spot her writing her receipts, I quickly look away. She holds the pen by its stem with utter concentration, her veins jutting out, as though she’s performing surgery. Her handwriting, tbh, is like the prints of a hen digging for food, i.e. barely legible. Mama 2, on the other hand, writes as clearly and sweetly as Hillary Clinton. Still, those times I’m forced to confront Mama’s writing, there’s something amidst the clumsiness that stops my breath, that pierces my chest.
As Isaiah stands to leave, he slaps his shiny skull and calls himself a monkey.
‘I always keep forgetting important things,’ he says, turning to me. ‘Father McMahon is inviting all you starving altar boys to Eileen’s party.’
Mama raises her brows at him for calling me starving, but says nothing.
‘There will be chicken feet and Cabin biscuits and Super D for you boys. Come in your best, Andy. Preferably in your Sunday wear.’
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Excerpt from THE FIVE SORROWFUL MYSTERIES OF ANDY AFRICA published by Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © 2023 by Stephen Buoro. All rights reserved.