“Ena” by Caleb Olorunmaiye
Seyi looked up from her laptop screen and rubbed her smarting eyes. She turned to Martin sprawled on the sofa, his laptop on his chest as he picked away at his keyboard, like her dog Rocky when he picked at food he was uninterested in. A tweet to post about memory formed in her mind, but Seyi waved it off.
“You shouldn’t sit like that,” she said.
“I said, you shouldn’t sit like that.”
“Can’t hear you.”
She sighed, stood up from her seat and stretched. She felt a creak in her back and raised her hands, fists balled, to punch the air. It made her think of pumping her fists to DJ Khalid’s All I do is Win at parties.
“You’re tired. You should go home,” she said.
“I’m choosing colors for this thing and nothing is making sense, guy.”
“That is why you should go home.”
Seyi and Martin worked at this coworking space with two other people. They had attained the new Nigerian Dream: got hired by companies in Europe and America, earned in foreign currency at home, away from the loneliness of life abroad, the food, the homesickness, the cold, the subtle racism, the overt racism, the maybe racism. “Yankee is only good for vacation. This here will work just fine.” Patrick had said when they set up for the first time.
“So, do you think memories are created on top of each other, like layers over layers, or created as blocks side-by-side?” She should have tweeted it. But now that she had let it out, she didn’t feel the need to anymore. The office space was wide and expansive. When Patrick first described it to Seyi he had said ‘half a football field’. She had replied that she did not know the size of a football field. And was it American football or the other football? There is only one football was Patrick’s reply. The guys had told the interior decorator, it’s a working space, but we want it vibrant and lively. Graffiti took up the entire breadth of one wall; a potpourri of gadgets, depictions of life in Lagos, and icons all too relatable to the Millennial and Gen Z. A few artworks took up portions of the walls, and while they had argued for and against having a TV mounted, the yays eventually had it; and with it came a PS3 console. They all had special, ergonomically-crafted work desks and chairs. For Seyi, the one non-negotiable feature the office had to have was a soft lush rug covering the entire space.
Click. Clack. Click. Clack. “I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it.”
Seyi walked to the window, hands in her back pockets. The street was the same, cars lined down to where her eyes couldn’t reach. When it rained, from up above figures darted in and out of the downpour, some armed with an umbrella. The streets glistened from the headlights of cars giving their drivers better visibility. Whenever it rained for hours, the drainages would flood into people’s homes. Countlessly, she had watched the downpour, just as she had done by other windows she owned or didn’t: her living room, kitchen, hostel, rooms of old lovers. She would listen, imagine the droplets on her skin. During these moments, she felt bad for the roof, the ground, and the top of cars, umbrellas that could never feel the thrill of the rain against their skin, just numb pit-pats as the water rolled away, unfulfilled. What is rain if not to be felt?
“What?” Martin was looking at her.
“I was talking to myself,” she said.
The rain made her think of her mum and sister. When she was a child, mum would make her a cup of hot chocolate and fuss about her covering up and keeping warm, expressly forbidding her from playing in the rain. Her sister on the other hand leaned fully into their mother’s fussiness, milking it for every ounce of extra affection she could get. “Maami, my legs are cold.” Mother would fetch a colorful pair of socks. The longer, the better. Seyi made a mental note to call them both when she got home. She would call Seun first, to catch up on gossip and prepare for any lie she had to corroborate when she spoke to their mum. But at the moment, she had to work. She went back to her table and focused on her laptop screen.
She got distracted with a Medium article about languages and how tech could help preserve them. Several languages around the world were dying especially in Africa and South America, and her mind got launched into a time capsule back into her childhood. It wasn’t a language of a people or an ethnic group she was thinking about. It was a language that had defined her childhood.
Her sister picked up on the second ring.
“Do you remember Eno?”
“No. Who is that?” Seun asked.
“It’s not a who. It’s what.”
Her sister laughed. No, she didn’t remember what Eno was. Sounded like a fruit. Was it a fruit? Two years of post-graduate studies in Germany and she was already forgetting important things like food.
“It’s a language. Shade and her sisters used to speak it when they came home for holidays, she said it was their other cousin who taught them, or was it their housemaid…”
“Oh!” She remembered. But it wasn’t Eno, it was Ena. “You aren’t pronouncing it right. It’s Ena,”
“Oh okay, Ena, but you remember it yeah?”
“Yes, I do…”
“Do you still speak it?”
“Not sure, not in years. Mogo fege logo sogo kongo.”
Seyi laughed a long cheerful laughter that was like a bucketful of water drawn from a well, spilling on all sides as it got pulled out. Seun joined in.
“What made you even think of it?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Wasn’t even really thinking about it. I called for something else but as the line rang, it crossed my mind.”
“You and Shade used to use this thing to catch trips and feel yourselves ehn.”
“You were the one forming too cool to learn it now.”
“Let’s be honest, you guys were razz.”
The sisters laughed again.
“I spoke Ena for a while in school,” Seyi said afterwards.
She conversed with her best friend, Grace. For the two years they were inseparable, they would return every term with something new to share with each other. In JSS 3 second term, it was Ena, a Yoruba code language. Seyi was better at it than Grace, but she wasn’t as good at it as her sister and cousins. She could decode it only when their sentences were short and simple. When she spoke, Ena and Grace seemed lost, she would write down her message on a piece of paper and pass it to her. The two girls thought of themselves as the coolest women with the secret of the world in their palms. Their classmates were amused, then confused and then passive aggressive, which made them determined to keep on with their Yoruba code speaking. Grace wasn’t Yoruba, but born and bred in Lagos island. She had picked up the language from friends, neighbors, and her mother’s customers. While they were at it, Seyi understood how Seun and her cousins truly felt when they spoke in Ena when home on holidays. More so because the range of secrets and stories was wider for them than it was for Seyi and Grace. There were stories passed down from the adults, family gossip about relatives and friends, neighborhood gossip, gossip from within Seun’s circle, and her friends. It was passed and encoded in Ena, encrypted from the hearing of the tattle bearers and radios without batteries.
Seyi didn’t call her mother after her call with Seun. All the laughter and cascade of feel-good emotions mixed with the nostalgia she’d experienced all day so she wanted to preserve it. Phone calls with her mother could be unpredictable and exhausting. It was either a barrage of questions from her on things she didn’t wish to talk about, or gossip about a family or community member that she had no intentions on keeping up with. Other times she mocked her, in that her annoying tone, on her aloneness, and her choice of career, and reminded her that it was her ‘unwillingness to bend to the things society demanded from a woman like her’ that made her life like this. And these exchanges sometimes turned into small fights. She loved her mother to bits, but she didn’t have the stomach for her tantrums right now. She lay face up on her bed thinking of her childhood, and the silly games they played, the fights they had with cousins, neighbors, classmates, and the adults. The sides they took, and cliques they thought would last forever. Their little worries in their little heads seemed like a lifetime ago.
She wondered if Ena was still spoken by kids. She doubted it. Languages around the world were dying, how likely was a Yoruba code language to survive another generation. Or maybe, she could create an app, just for the fun of it? For all the money and recognition she could make in her line of work, nothing could be comparable to creating a product that would keep an aspect of a culture going into the next generation and be a vehicle of memory back to childhood for the previous one. On the other side doubt crept it. An app that would teach users the basic rules for Yoruba code-switching, sounded great but would there be interest in it? Kids only wanted to tweet and Tiktok. But she could be wrong. One time, she thought nobody played Suwe anymore until she drove in an old neighborhood. The wet sand bore rectangular markings with foot prints stomped over the box, a testament of the old game of claiming boxes (homes) within the larger rectangle; a game of balance and agility. The kids are alright. It would be nice if she could bring Ena into the conversation again. Or maybe not, already she was up to her neck with deadlines. She didn’t need a vanity project that would take her time but didn’t pay her bills. When she was a young developer and needed to have a portfolio to show recruiters, such a project would have come in handy. But not now. That night, it rained.
Seyi reminisced on a moment back in school when Ena came in handy for her and her friend and gossip partner, Grace. You see, on St. Valentine’s Day 1998 at Holy Child Memorial Catholic School (Day and Boarding) the boys and girls—high on teenage fantasies and hormones they assumed to be butterflies in the belly—dispatched cards and gifts wrapped in newspapers and magazine covers. Biscuits, hand towels with their lover’s names embroidered on it, love letters, jewelry, perfumes, anything they could afford to prove to their inamorata that they were indeed their one and only. Items that would confirm that on that special day, they meant the world to them.
Cupids—errand boys who didn’t have the luck to have a special someone or generally didn’t find an appeal to the whole affair of impressing boys or girls—flew kites from the night before. Now, ‘kite’ was an expression that meant sending secret messages from one point to the other. So, kites were flown from seniors to their school daughters or sons, from school sons and daughters to their school fathers or mothers, or from one senior to another who were enamored with each other but were kept apart by school duties.
I’m in drama class can’t see you now. Saw you in the Chemistry lab when I passed looking so serious. Don’t burn our school lab down oh. Miss you, love you. CCA.
Those were the kind of messages flown on the regular. On Valentine’s Day, the packages were bigger and shinier. Good kites knew not to speak to their recipients. Kola, for example, knew everyone and was known by everyone. He was only in JS2 but had already garnered quite a reputation for himself. He knew everyone’s class and what subject they were having at each particular hour but preferred to work during break period. He’d run along the hall, package in arm, slide into a classroom like he had rollerblades on his shoes. He would head straight to his recipient and drop the package right on their desk. Like lightning, he was out the next second. No names, no explanations, nothing. He’d serve you and disappear. Other clients were waiting.
Kanyin had had a crush on Jennifer for the longest time. Jennifer joined Holy Child Memorial Catholic School (Day and Boarding) a year after her. That made Jennifer Kanyin’s junior but they were too close in age for Kanyin to be Jennifer’s school mother. She toyed with the idea of approaching her with a proposition to be her school sister instead but that wasn’t very common, plus what she felt for her wasn’t very sisterly. That Valentine’s Day, she was going to write her a letter and include a wristwatch, a necklace, and a card.
To The One I Love, her card declared.
Kola wasn’t available to deliver her kite to Jennifer. She had procrastinated for far too long, and now the one person that could deliver was fully booked. Kola who got paid in the twenties and fifties, as well as in favors especially from seniors, had told her point-blank he couldn’t kite all day. He had 15 deliveries, and the moment he was done, he was going to study.
“It’s not even test week,” Kanyin protested.
“And so? I’m a student. Students read.”And that was the end of that conversation.
In his place, Kanyin found Onochie, a nerdish looking boy, unassuming and polite.
“You’ll deliver this to Jennifer in JS3 C at break time today.” She cornered the boy after assembly.
“Just give it to her and leave. Don’t talk to her or answer any questions she asks you. At evening prep, I’ll give you fifty naira.”
He wondered why a senior had to pay him for running an errand. That was all juniors did for seniors, run errands and serve punishments. But here he was getting paid. He could get used to this.
Hours later, a hysterical Jennifer sobbed uncontrollably at her desk. When a disinterested Literature teacher walked in for her period and asked why the girl was heaving, “She’s sick. Her chest is paining her,” her committee of friends chorused. “Then take her out of my class to the sickbay.”
Word soon got around.
Jennifer had received a Valentine’s Day package. And if you saw her crying in her class or being walked by two of her classmates to the sickbay, that was the cause of it.
Grace brought the gossip to Seyi during prep.
“Egeyanga kanga fungun Jegenigifaga nigi legetaga igifege pegelugu egebungun egegbagaaga ogowogo agatigi ogorungun,” Grace said.
“Ogo maga logokigi ogo. Sege ogo tigi nigi agafegesogonagan nigisigiyigi? Wongan tigi ege kugu rigi egewaga wogo.”
“Jojowogo maga pagamigilegeringi. Egekungun logong’ sungun lagatigi igigbaga tigi ogo tigi gbaga egebungun naga,” Grace replied with a peal of mischievous laughter in between.
“Kigilogodege togo’ng sugun egekungun? Kogo nigifege bogobogo naga nigi?” Seyi was genuinely concerned.
“Ogobigirigi nigi. Agatigi legetaga agatigi egebungun ogobigiringin logo figi rangangasege, igidigi tigi ogo figi’ng sungun egekungun nigiyenge.”
“Someone gave Jennifer a love letter, a bracelet and a necklace” Seyi said.
“She is lucky. She has a lover already? No one even looks at us.”
“Please do not make me laugh. She has been crying since she received the gifts,” Grace replied with a peal of mischievous laughter in between.
“Why is she crying? Does she not like the guy?” Seyi was genuinely concerned.
“It was a girl. A girl sent her the letter and the gifts that is why she’s crying.”
Seyi’s eyes widened and Grace dragged her out of the group to continue the gossip in English.
Back in present time, Seyi wondered where Kanyin was, and what she did with her life. She hoped she was happy at the very least. The world was a mad place, but everyone deserved to be happy.
Two weeks later, Seyi had finished writing the program for the Yoruba code-switching application. It worked pretty much like a language translating app, like Google Translate for instance. The user inputs their Yoruba sentences and the application spewed out an Ena translation using one of the four various types of Ena, the addition of null tags to syllabic units. The null syllable existing either as an F or G plus a vowel sound.
The app was a hit. At least that’s how she chose to see it. The 30 and 40 something-year-olds felt like a portal was opened for them to reach out and touch a part of their childhood.
People who had heard about the tongue that people spoke in to confuse a stranger but never quite experienced it, jumped on it. She saw screenshots from instant messaging apps, where people started entire conversations using Ena, to the delight or confusion of their texting partner. There were screen recordings of voice notes, viral Tik Tok videos, brands jumped on the bandwagon and did trivia with Ena. It was hilarious. It was beautiful and she loved it. It felt good that she could reach back in time and share a memory, an experience that millions of kids like her and before her had lived through and bring it again into their present lives.
She thought of the friendships that would be rekindled over it. The bond between mothers and daughters. Fathers who would fess up on childhood naughtiness they engaged in with Ena holding the thread of their stories. It was great that they could reach into their past and find happy stories. Or at least stories that could make them laugh.
Seun texted her. “So how much have you made from this now?”
“Uncountable thousand million billions,” she replied.
“Spending!!! Foolish girl (heart emoji).”
“I heart you too sis.”
Caleb Olorunmaiye lives and works in Lagos as a Digital Marketer. He holds a Political Science degree from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. He has a published e-book of short stories titled Love and Other Cures for the Common Cold to his name. He co-owns a semi-professional football club in Lagos, The Cubs Football Club.
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