Seth Fogelman, Unsplash
To Be A Native Linguist
“…You don’t have many friends, and you cannot depend on the few you have.
You could not return to your parents’ house because nothing grates you more
than appearing as a failure before them….
by R.B. Ejue
Move to your village to live with your grandmother because that is your only option. You were fired from work eight months ago, and your girlfriend broke up with you two weeks back, because she couldn’t cope with your self-pitying, sniveling persona anymore. Her desertion had hit you hard although you’d denied it at the time, but the moment you found yourself in the bathroom with the razor held close to your wrist, seconds away from opening your veins and spilling your life, you knew you couldn’t ignore the ferocity of your pain anymore, you needed help.
You don’t have many friends, and you cannot depend on the few you have. You could not return to your parents’ house because nothing grates you more than appearing as a failure before them. Your father has always told you that he bought his first car at twenty-two, married your mother at twenty-seven, and built his own house at thirty-six. You’re twenty-six now, with no job, car, or lover, and your landlord just kicked you out for lagging behind on your payment.
Ask your taxi to pull up beside the maize seller at the junction before your village. Get out of the car and step into the dusty, brown road, inhaling the aroma of the corn roasting on the grill. Haggle with the seller until you arrive at what you believe is a fair price, imagining how she’d think you’re being shrewd, when you know that you are too broke to pay more for the corn.
Offer the taxi driver some corn when you get back into the car, and feel grateful when he refuses. You need all the roasted corn you can get in order to be able to face your grandmother, whom you haven’t seen in five years. She is old, strange, smelly, yells at you a lot, and then there is the language barrier. She speaks your native dialect most of the time, a language you don’t know because your parents never taught you, since they concentrated on improving your command of English, the language of your former colonizers, the diction of the world.
You got the idea of staying with your grandmother from your father. Whenever your performance in school was down or you were naughty, he’d threaten to send you to the village to live with your grandmother and start a career in palm wine tapping. So you’ve always seen your grandmother’s house as the home of failure, the place to go when you’re down and out.
Your grandmother is sitting outside the house when the taxi drives into the compound, a trail of dust behind it. She stands up, her hands in the air, letting out a stream of cheerful-sounding words you cannot comprehend as she walks towards the car. Her manner tells you that she is happy at your safe arrival, she might be thanking God for journey mercies as well. You know you’re supposed to hug her, but you catch a whiff of her fishy smell and you step back, smiling and saying good afternoon in English.
She starts greeting you in your language, releasing throngs of words you cannot understand so that you become irritated. All this is unnecessary. You know she can speak English and so you don’t understand why she insists on speaking your language all the time. You ignore her and walk away, hoping that your conduct puts her off, but she is unfazed, tipping the taxi driver and carrying your two traveling bags into the house, the smile on her face ever present.
Lie on your bed that night and think about your life. You don’t know how soon you’ll be returning to the city, or if you’ll ever get another job, lover, or life. Wonder if you’ll survive in the village. Your grandmother has fed you and provided you with water to bathe, speaking your native dialect to you all the while. What sort of person is she? How does she manage to stay so dogged? Your relationship with her is nonexistent. She’s just a woman you’re aware of, that old crone related to you by blood, who guards your ancestral plot and visits you in the city from time to time, annoying you with her illiterate, judgmental presence. She’s chatting with her friends on the veranda, and you go to sleep hearing their coarse voices riving through the nighttime air.
You’ve thrown away your cell phone, and so you don’t communicate with your parents. This is fine by you, as it saves you from dealing with the perceived causticness of their words.
Shut yourself in your room for weeks, limiting the amount of time you spend with your grandmother. Whenever she calls your name, Nsor, groan and contort your face so that she has no doubt that she is stressing you. But this morning you see a snake crawling outside your window, a black, slippery creature that makes you want to throw up, just watching its slimy skin change consistency in the sun. You’re both frightened and disgusted, and your first impulse is to scream for your grandmother, who arrives and kills it. You go outside to meet her and she laughs and pushes you towards the dead creature, that way exorcising all shame from the encounter. And because of this you volunteer to accompany her to the farm.
At the farm the sun is a blacksmith, pummeling your demeanor into a flat sheet of bitterness and revulsion. There’s no shade you can hide under, and your grandmother hoes the ground with the sort of relentlessness that informs you she’s never felt the need for shade in the farm before. You came along to hoe as well, to weed the grass growing over the yam and cassava mounds, and you were able to treat just two heaps before blisters broke out on your palms. Decide not to complain to your grandmother who has weeded eight heaps already, instead develop a deep hatred for your lazy self. Soon you are unable to stand the sight of her toiling, and so you flee the farm.
Your feet are covered in dust, and every step you take raises up more dust that settles on your trouser legs. This is all your village has to offer. Dirt roads, small farms, and power cuts. It is inconceivable for you to settle down here, and this is one of the reasons you view your move in such an unfavorable light. You are the mouse who has returned to the burrow to die.
Take a while to realize that you are lost. You thought that the two rights, one left, and another right turn would lead you out of the farm, but instead you stand between rows and rows of cornstalks that you can’t remember passing on your way in. You try to retrace your steps, but after thirty minutes of walking you haven’t found your grandmother or the mounds you two were working on.
A bird flies overhead, it is the only sign of motion in the still world you occupy. What is wrong with you? You can’t even find your way out of a farm. Are you such a loser or are you so stupid?
Sit on the ground ready to weep, but then turn to a bush on your left when you hear sounds like the humming of a tune. The owner of the hum soon appears before you. He says, “Erilebo,” and you don’t understand him. You try to introduce yourself and ask for the way out, but he doesn’t understand you, and your exchange is so exhausting that you offer no resistance when he turns and walks away after five minutes.
Return to your position on the ground, and this time uncork your heart with no further ado. You feel stupid for so many reasons: graduating with a second-class degree, getting a low paying job, losing the job, your girlfriend, your apartment, dignity and respect in your parents’ eyes. Your grandmother arrives when you begin to heave, carrying a wicker basket on her head, containing your hoes, cutlasses, and metal files. She glances at you and says, “Roasted yam tonight is a nice idea.” You stand up and follow her. It appears she hasn’t noticed your damp eyelids or wet cheeks.
That night you learn your first native word, olamu. It is used to denote gratefulness, especially after a good meal. When you bow and repeat the word to her you can see her eyes tear up, and when you retreat to your room you can swear the soft sounds echoing through the house attest to her emotional state. You drift to sleep feeling loved because your grandmother is weeping for you.
The next morning you tell her that you would like to learn how to tap palm wine. She’s talking with your father on her cell phone, and you take a moment to consider how difficult it would be for you to hear the man’s voice again. How difficult it would be to talk to him. When she ends the call she tells you that it’s too late to go today. Later in the evening a slim, dark man, with numerous veins comes to the house. He would take you tapping next morning.
It is still dark when he arrives the following day. You hear cocks crowing while you change clothes and go out to meet him. As you walk through the bush the sky flashes into lighter shades of blue until it is daybreak, and he tells you that there are two ways of tapping palm wine. The feminine way, where you cut down the tree and tap from the bottom, and the masculine way, where you climb to the top and tap from the crown. He wants to know which method interests you. It’s a no-brainer.
The first weeks are spent just watching him and learning how to wear the raffia platted waistband, how to make the right sort of cut on the palm tree, how to mix the palm wine with water to the right consistency, how to store it in gourds, and how to climb the palm trees using only your feet and waistband like you’re in The Matrix.
Then one day he says, “Chu,” and asks you to tap a tree. It’s an old tree and so he doesn’t mind the risk of you mauling or castrating it.
You are halfway up the tree, standing diagonally, the strain on your lower back causing you to pause and consider going down when you hear your instructor yelling at you to lean way back on the strap to ease the tension on your spine. You obey, and soon you’re heading back towards the cloudy sky. You reach the top, and you’re able to make the right sort of wound on the tree, attach the calabash to collect the liquid, and return back down. Once you press your feet to the ground, and thank your smiling instructor, you realize that you have been conversing, more or less, in your native tongue.
A lot of months have gone by. These days you’re always around your grandmother. You sweep the compound with her, go to the farm with her, prepare breakfast and dinner with her, while she tells you stories about everything. From historical epics about your ancestry to small intimate tales like the fact that your father cried the day you were born. You enjoy listening to these stories although most times she begins to cough while narrating them, and you have to ignore the little shade of worry that crops up in your mind.
You follow her to the market. The rainy season is here now and so the ground is very muddy. You have to fold up the hem of your trousers, and try to walk on your toes so that the shoe soles don’t pick up too much mud. You go to the fish sellers, and stand back while your grandmother picks up the fish, weighs it in her hands, sets it back down, tries another one, and haggles over the price with the sellers. When she settles on a price for two, she says, “Monami chu,” and you come forward to put it into your basket. That’s when the sellers begin making exclamations like “Your grandson?” “He’s a grown man,” “Monami” “Come closer let me look at you.”
At first you are shy, but then your temperament eases, and you end up trading pleasantries with the women and giving them a run-through of your life, skipping the unpleasant parts. Soon your grandmother is dragging you away, telling them to go and get their own grandchildren. That’s when you have a flash of inspiration, returning to one of the sellers and taking an extra fish from her stack, calling her aunty and thanking her for her generosity. The other sellers laugh and say, “Sneaky like his grandmother.” You leave the market smiling. Your verbal exchange throughout has been in dialect.
Your first calabash of palm wine was an epic failure. It was too sour, the kind that wasps and other wine-friendly insects keep away from. But now you are on your fourth calabash, and while you, your instructor and your grandmother share cups of booze, your instructor adds a bit of theatre to the way he smacks his lips, and says you might yet have a career in palm wine tapping. Your grandmother rebukes him and says you would become a president someday, not a palm wine tapper, and you all laugh.
It’s not long after this that your grandmother’s cough intensifies. She starts complaining about her head also. The headache persists for two days, after which she develops a fever to accompany it. She takes herbs to fight the illness, but after a week you decide that they are not working. Your grandmother – already a slim, light woman – has lost the little fat she had on her shoulders, under her arms, and in her thighs.
Stare at her looking so frail on her bed and be reminded of her mortality for the first time. She is no longer that stock-character whose existence is just a formality. She is a woman you have come to rely on, who has reawakened your belief in the inherent possibilities of life. Fear that she might die.
You ask if you should call your father and alert him of her condition, but she says no. She’s been ill a number of times, and she didn’t need to call your father. This is your grandmother, stoic as ever, saying the things you want to hear, as you’re not ready to abandon your new life to return to the city. But that night you stay awake at her bedside, and every time she groans or writhes, you feel the pain like a pincer around your thumb, and you realize it’s your turn to be brave. You take her cell phone and scroll down to your father’s number. You haven’t spoken to him in a long time, and you are nervous how to begin.
But you have an idea. Men of old communicated with foreign powers by means of translators. This is your solution, a personal means of communicating with your father that is indirect enough to blunt the trauma of his words and protect you from the spite and judgment you anticipate.
You dial his number and wait. When he picks up you say, “Opa owe.”
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