I love French. The way words like etude and attitude cause your mouth to form into a pout. That is, when pronounced right. It was that time of the great harmattan of 2007 that covered the whole of Lagos with so much dust that people did not bother cleaning their cars. The time when things like ‘Please wash me’ and ‘Chiboy was here’ were traced by rich kids and street urchins alike over the dusty windshields of parked cars. This was when my father decided we were to leave the country.
“Kids, we will be moving away from here. To another country,” he said.
His tone and face said more than the words we heard. My mother sat beside him with her chin cradled in her palm, her elbow lodged on her lap. Something was different. She was not offering the supportive nod or ‘hmm’s that she usually would when my father called meetings of this sort.
My brother Chikwendu got happy too fast. You could almost hear his balloon dreams of travelling the world spill out along with his words. He was a child. He acted like it.
“Where are we going daddy?”
I was two years older than Chikwendu. I was more practical. I was not a child.
“How is your French? Because you will need it.”
I remember having a brief moment of weakness. I got happy. I think I danced around a bit. I think I shook my derriere in the face of each member of my family. I think so, I forget. I do remember Chikwendu clapping with careless abandon and my father smiling at him, I remember mentally preparing myself for the cold of Europe. My mother did not join in our merriment, she was in fact sad.
“Mummy, why are you not dancing? We are travelling. Didn’t you hear daddy?”
It was Chikwendu. He was such a child. He did not – could not – realise that something was amiss. I stepped in quickly.
“Chikwe, leave mummy alone. Let’s go to the room.”
We both left the parlour and went into the adjoining room. Ours was a small house; we could have easily heard their argument afterwards, save for the creaking of the ceiling fan in the room as it made its rounds and the noise of yet another fight from the tenement house just beside ours. Someone had stolen someone’s kerosene. I walked over to the door after a few minutes. I realised my father had not said where we were moving to.
“You cannot just decide to uproot this family, Obi. You cannot. And of all places Benin Republic!” my mother said in Igbo. Her pitch suggested she was annoyed, her tone said far worse.
I turned to look at Chikwendu, to see if he had heard what my mother had said. He was hard at work at his Legos. They had been mine. I pressed my ear to the door.
“Njide, things are not working out here. We both know it. You want us to move to your father’s house,” my father said, “and I will not do that. I will not be made to feel less like a man because the economy is in the gutter.”
“The economy this, the economy that. You are just a lazy man and now you have jumped on the first opportunity to work even if it is in another country and you barely speak the language.”
I released my ear from the door to scratch it. Chikwendu called me over to play with him. I obliged. I had just witnessed the beginnings of my parents’ separation.
Before we moved to Porto Novo, my knowledge and practice of the French language had been limited to repeating words and conjugations after our Togolese French teacher who insisted that if our mouths were not contorted and funny looking, we were not pronouncing right.
Chikwendu stayed with my mother in Lagos, they both moved into my mother’s parents’ home. My father and I moved into a little one room apartment on Boulevard Tokpota. It did not feel different from Lagos except that I was disappointed that the capital of a country would have so many places that looked like villages. There was a shrine at every corner. The one on my street belonged to the demon-god Zangbeto. A terrifying lion with an arrowhead penis visible beneath his mane. The neighbours fought with as much gusto as in Lagos but with far less showmanship. In Lagos they fought because they knew the crowds would come and when they did, – and they did- the antics came out. Jumping around and beating of chests and throwing only a few blows. There was usually no crowd here. At least not in proximity to the madness, the word impoli thrown about informed you there was a row in progress and everyone went about their business and those who watched, watched from a safe distance. This was where I was, this would become my home.
It was while I was getting familiar with my new environment that I met Houssou. Houssou was her surname, her name had been difficult to pronounce at the time and it is now difficult to remember. It was during a free period at Lycee Behanzin that we met for the first time. I was just about to pay for my snack.
“C’ést combien le pain et haricots.” My French was getting better and I was proud of myself as I asked the middle-aged woman for the price of the beans-sandwich I had just collected from her. She told me it was ‘soixante quize francs’ and showed her teeth for the first time since I had gotten there. She had no front teeth. I already had in my hand a sachet of ice cream, ‘lait’ they called it, frozen to perfection and my taste buds were already anticipating biting into the baguette and tasting the miracle that was specially cooked Benin porridge beans.
She had been standing there for a while; I presumed she had been waiting her turn. I was reaching into the pockets of my khaki shorts when Houssou offered to pay. I declined, saying in what I thought was impeccable French “Non, laisse. Je vais payer avec moi meme.” She laughed at my muddled sentence. I would later learn that I had actually said “No, leave it. I will pay for it with myself.” She ignored me, and as I stood there looking at her dark skin and huge breasts, handed a 100 francs coin to the woman. She took back her yellowing coin, kpon, what a 25 francs coin was called in Guun.
“Hello. How are you?” she said. I had expected the usual “Salut, comment ca va?” My eyes told her what had passed through my mind. She was depriving me of the learning experience if she was going to speak English. I was not having that. I wanted my “comment ca va.”
“Je vais tres bien. Et toi?” I responded, pronouncing each word as impeccably as I possibly could. She was not going to deprive me. Alas, she planned to. She could tell from my white socks and Famad shoes that I was not from around there, everyone else wore palm slippers. They had all heard about the Nigerian transfer student.
“I am fine thank you.”
She was resilient and we would continue this same French-English game till it was time for the next period.
I will see you closing, come see me in class ‘Bay-un’,” she said, as she turned to walk away, her beaded braids rattling as they followed the leading of her head. If this our French-English game was a win-lose one, I would have won. She had slipped back to her lingua franca to tell me the name of her class – B1.
My new friend, Malik, sat beside me and gave me a look. I knew that look. It was the kind your best friend gives you when they see you talking to a girl. It was a teasing look. I shoved him and we both laughed as the Math teacher walked in. We all stood to greet and sat back down. I opened my book and stared at my subject list– Chemistry had become Chimique, Physics had morphed into Physique and Math, well Math remained Math. The test scripts from last week were in. I did not know how, but I was failing Math.
I went to B1 a few minutes after the closing bell. I used those minutes after the bell to find out from Malik where and what B1 was.
“Eh? She is in ‘B-un’? You collected a big girl o!” He said. His eyes got wider in a split second and he was practically squealing. But he was right. She was older than me. Quite visibly. There was a wifely, almost motherly, look about her face. She carried an air of sophistication, maturity. Her breasts and backside filled her khaki school uniform in ways nothing else could. She was definitely not in my age bracket. Though there were no girls in my class to compare her to but I was certain she was not. The lack of girls my age for comparison was because ours was a boys-only school for the first four years and mixed for the remaining three. I was in my third year.
“So, how do I get there?” I asked him in French. We played the French-English game too.
He described it as best he could and sent me on my way. He went home smiling his sheepish smile. He smiled his smile knowing I would have stories to tell the next day and that he would be privy to sensitive information.
The air in B1 was heavy with smoke. I walked in and awkwardly turned to my right, hoping that her face would be the first I see. It was not. I locked eyes with the one holding the doobie. Bato, they called him. Malik had informed me that it was an unwritten rule that no boys from the junior school were allowed into the senior classes. He had assured me that I was definitely exempted as I was not from here. As I watched Bato get up from his seat, his menacing gaze still on me as he drew closer, I started to consider the possibility that Malik only prodded me to go so he would have stories to tell his other friends the next day. Over sachets of zobo and avocado sandwiches. No regard for my wellbeing whatsoever.
“Qu’est-ce-que tu veux ici?” he said. He wanted to know what I was doing there. He stood close to me, he was an easy foot and a half over me.
I stood straight and made to speak but the words, they failed me. I let out sound after sound but none of them made sense. I sounded like a censored song about butts.
“Qu’est-ce-qu’il fait?” He said this while turning to face his class who were by this time laughing at my inability to construct a sentence. He was smiling too.
“Je vais te botter maintenant, bon Dieu.” His face was suddenly deadpan. He was no longer smiling. He was closer now and more terrifying. He had just sworn by the good Lord that he would give me a serious beating if I did not speak.
Her hand on my shoulder felt like cold water drunk on a hot Lagos day. I turned to find Houssou standing there almost a foot above me. She whispered something to Bato. He stepped back and looked at me. The smile returned. He said something to them in Guun. The whole class chorused, francophone-like, “Nigerian!!!”
I walked out of the class with her trailing behind and I did not speak till we were at the gate.
“What was that?” I said it in English. My mind was still too rattled from fear. The little French-English translator in my head was indisposed.
She apologised for Bato’s behaviour. She had had to go to the restroom. She had waited for a few minutes after the bell.
After that, we walked in silence. It was a deafening silence. She, for lack of what else to ask, asked of my family and I told her about my father. I did not tell her about my mother and the divorce. I told her he worked at the factory. I did not tell her he hated it there. I did not tell her these because she had not asked.
We stood there at the bend leading to my street for a while.
“Tu fais tres bien avec le francais, Je veux parler l’anglais comme ca”
It was 1 o’clock when she said this. I knew that because the speakers of the mosque across had just crackled to life. She wanted to speak English like I spoke French; well. I agreed to tutor her. She was excited and for a brief moment I was in her arms and my face was squished between her breasts. We said goodbye and I walked to my house, thinking. I thought of how the hug had caused a ruckus in my khaki shorts and I bent forward awkwardly to hide the protrusion. I thought of seeing her gap-toothed smile again. I thought of how Malik would react to it when I told him the next day. He had this phrase he said every time he was amazed; which condition happened frequently. This phrase was to francophone West Africa what “Ye!” or “Yepa!” were to Lagos. He said these too.
The days came and went and Houssou and I saw more of each other. Our breaks were spent in B1 with open English workbooks on the wooden desks and lait – lots of it. Bato and I slowly became acquaintances- to call him a friend would be unreasonable deceit. At the end of each day I would meet Houssou in front of her class and I was always there, promptly. One day we skipped school and spent the day – and night as my father was stuck at work – at my house where I got some lessons of my own in return. My first-timer groans, her involuntary moans and the loud creaking of the bed told the neighbours more than was necessary.
I always told Malik everything that transpired the day after it happened and he would listen with his eyes fixed on me and blind to all else. His eyes would grow wider with each detail I explained and he would be silent until I was done.
True to my expectations, he exclaimed the same way when I told him about Houssou and her demands, how she asked me to move a certain way and touch certain places, how she screamed ‘Dieu’, ‘Oluwa’ and ‘Mawu’ at various points during our covert lesson, calling on God in French, Yoruba and Guun respectively, how her stifled moans told me I was doing the right thing.
“Bon Dieu!” he’d say, with his scrawny scar-covered hands interlaced at the fingers over his oblong head. Good God!
Edwin Madu (@DwinTheStoic) is a Nigerian writer born in Lagos. His work has appeared or is forthcoming on naijastories.com, africanwriter.com and Brittle Paper. He blogs at http://www.mytheoryoflife.wordpress.com. He was one of the selected participants at the 2015 Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop..