Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Border

It was 7pm when they finally arrived at the border. Several cars had already made their home in the wide, open, sandy space.

Adanna descended from the minibus she’d boarded from the city with her little suitcase, while fiercely clutching her handbag. A random guy tugged at her suitcase, offering to carry it for her.

“Leave it,” she said firmly. Several people had gathered in little groups, and were either chatting or eating. 

“You have to be careful,” Seyi, her friend had warned. “This is Africa.”

Adanna was convinced crossing the border wouldn’t be much of a hassle for her. “Relax. If I can live and thrive in the madness and chaos that is Lagos, I survive anywhere,” she’d joked.

“Hmm, don’t be too sure, oh,” replied Seyi. “You know how they hate us Nigerians. It doesn’t matter if you are Mother Theresa, the minute you show that green passport or tell them you’re from here, their friendliness quickly transforms into hostility.”

It was cold and her dress danced to the whims of the wind. Luckily she’d packed her cardigan, which she yanked from her handbag and wore.

She approached a group of women chatting animatedly and asked, in broken Portuguese, where the immigration office was. They pointed to a block of rectangular buildings that reminded her of her classrooms in secondary school.

“Good evening,” she said to the two men seated at the entrance of an office that had ‘Immigration’ painted at the top of the door post.

“We’re closed,” one of the men replied brusquely. “Come back tomorrow.”

“Ok. Thanks,” she mumbled.

Somewhere. Photo: Shayera

She walked back to the parking space where travellers had accepted their lot and made themselves comfortable in the buses and cars that littered the border. She searched her bag for her phone and tried calling the hotel to inform them she wouldn’t be checking in that night, but there’s no signal.

“Not good,” she said, then looked around for a store to buy some snacks and a drink.

The store was small and poorly lit by the flickering flame of a lone candle. She scoured the scanty supplies for familiar biscuits, but when she found none, she took a chance on a pack of chocolate-filled biscuits.

After the 12 hour plus journey, her body was craving a massive sugar boost, and she was going to honor its request extravagantly.

She opened the freezer packed with chunks of melting ice, in search of a dangerously cold can of soda, and chose the coldest Sprite.

She paid for her items and was putting her change in her bag when she stepped on a white foot. “Oops! I’m so sorry,” she apologized instinctively in English, before she caught herself and reverted to Portuguese.

“It’s alright,” replied a tall, dark haired man that looked anything between 30 and 40 years old. “Thank goodness you’re wearing flats. You saved my toes from agonizing pain,” he said in perfect English, smiling.

“Yes, for your sake, I’m glad I’m not,” she laughed then exited the store, starting towards a vacant bench.

“Hey.” Adanna ignored the greeting, unsure the voice was calling out to her.

“Hey. Hi. Excuse me,” the voice caught up with her.

“Hi.” It was the dark-haired stranger from the store.

“Hi, sorry to bother you. I’m Dante,” he said, stretching out his hand to shake her.

“It’s ok. I’m Adanna,” she said, shaking him. It feels very soft, like the hands of someone accustomed to an easy lifestyle.

“Adanna? You’re Igbo?” Dante said not so much as a question than as a statement.

“Yes, I am,” she said, watching him closely for a negative reaction and waiting to give him a stinging reply if he so much as mentioned corruption or online scams. She was tired and in no mood to hear a sanctimonious foreigner talk about corruption, while managing to be perfectly oblivious to the albatross that was foreign aid.

“Kedu?”

“O di nma. I’m fine,” Adanna replied with a chuckle. “Where did you learn that?”

“I dated a Nigerian a few years ago. Her name was Chinwe. I learned a few Igbo words from her before we broke up.”

“Oh really? Nice.”

Dante looked at her with inquiring eyes.

“No, no, I meant nice that you learned some Igbo from her. So, you’re Italian?”

“I know what you meant,” Dante said, smiling. “I’m half-Norwegian, half Italian.”

“Ah, I see. So the height’s from Norway and your dark hair is made in Italy.”

“Hmm, I wouldn’t say that because both my parents are tall, so I could have easily inherited my height from my mom, who’s Italian. My mom likes to tease my dad about me not inheriting any of his physical features.”

By now both of them were sharing a wooden bench. Adanna opened her can of soda and greedily took a long gulp before letting out a satisfied ‘ah’.

“You must have been very thirsty.”

“Thirsty is an understatement. I was parched,” she replied, taking another gulp. “So what happened to Chinwe?”

“She went back to Nigeria after her PhD. I was devastated when she delivered the news because I was about proposing to her.” Dante paused and looked into the distance, like he was watching a flash back of the moment she’d told him she was leaving. “I had secretly visited various jewellery shops in Oslo weeks before she dropped the bombshell.”

“I begged her to stay, but she was adamant about going back to Nigeria. I think part of the reason - actually a huge chunk of it - was parental pressures. Her parents never wanted an oyigbo atheist for an in-law, and threatened to disown her if she married a non-Igbo or a non-Catholic,” he concluded with a vague smile.

Dante’s answer immediately caused Adanna to regret the question.

“Are you OK?” Dante asked, looking concerned.

“Me? Yes, I am,” lied Adanna.

Of course she wasn’t. Dante’s confession had reminded her of her 4 year relationship with Lumumba, whom she’d met during her Master’s program in Scotland. She’d been drinking in the grad bar with her classmate Natalie, when he’d passed by to say hello to his flatmate.

“Hey Nat.”

“Hey” Nat replied, pecking him on the cheek. “Lumumba, Adanna. Adanna, Lumumba.”

“Adanna – what does it mean?”

“It means father’s daughter in Igbo.”

“Oh, so you’re Nigerian?” he said almost disappointingly. 

“Yes, I am.” Adanna replied, not noticing the change in tone of his voice. “And you’re Congolese?”

“Nah, I’m from Angola. My mom named me after Patrice Lumumba who, according to my mom, was the greatest Pan Africanist,” he said rolling his eyes.

“You don’t sound thrilled about it.”

“I’m indifferent. Not about the name or him, but about the way Africans talk about Pan-Africanism, and yet do nothing to advance the idea. Traveling from one African country to another is a nightmare. We fight each other and rarely offer help. Every time there’s an emergency in Africa, we run to the UN, US and our former colonial masters. What the hell is the AU for? So no, Pan-Africanism doesn’t thrill me.”

They would have several arguments and discussions about Africa, its artificially imposed borders and foreign interference. And it was during one of such arguments he’d stopped mid-sentence and asked her out. It was incredibly incongruous - an unusual segue - that Adanna didn’t take him seriously at first until he asked the third time. But that was Lumumba’s style. He never believed there was a right time or place to say how or what he thought.

And that was exactly how he handled their break-up.

Adanna had booked a table for them in a plush restaurant to celebrate his recently acquired doctorate degree, and secretly hoped he’d pop the question that night, since ten months earlier they’d gotten matching tattoos on their ring fingers that read ‘LA’.

“It’s our little secret, and soon enough…” he paused, as if in pain.

“Soon enough what?” Adanna prodded.

He said nothing, but kissed her deeply.

 Lumumba arrived at the restaurant 10 minutes late, looking irritated. It was unlike him to arrive a minute late to an event or appointment. Adanna often joked about his obsession with punctuality, calling him a defective African.  

“Sorry, I’m late. You won’t believe I’ve been talking to my mom in my car for 20 minutes,” he said annoyed.

An eager waiter appeared to take their order, and minutes later swept by with their entree.

“Adanna,” Lumumba paused for a few seconds, causing her stomach to tighten, “we can’t do this,” he said finally.

“Do what?” she eyed him suspiciously.
                                                                                     
“Look, my parents have never been happy with our relationship. They, especially my mom, have always been suspicious of Nigerians, even though I’ve tried convincing them you’re not typical.”

“Not typical? What does that even mean?” Adanna demanded, eyes enflamed voice rising. “And since you knew they were against us from the get-go, why didn’t you say anything to me? Was it easier to lead me on, keep me in the dark, when you knew it was never going to work out? And to think I remained in the UK after school because of you.

By now, hot tears were streaming down her face.

“You’re creating a scene, Adanna,” Lumumbu whispered coldly with clenched teeth. He found displayed emotions abhorrent, saying they were a sign of incontinence.

“I’m sorry, but I had no choice,” he said coolly.

“Bastard,” Adanna muttered and ran out of the restaurant.

Three weeks later, she resigned from her job at Goldman Sachs and returned to Lagos with a broken heart and a sore, angry finger.

“I found true love at 35 and lost it at 39 – all because of I was the wrong nationality and religion. Or in my case, no religion.”

“Welcome to the club,” Adanna said drily, and immediately bit her the tongue.

“You too? You’re atheist? ” Dante asked.

“No. I was referring to the nationality part. However, I don’t want to talk about it,” added Adanna quickly to deter further questions. “Still too fresh.”

“How fresh?”

“6 weeks. You?”

“One week. We visited here a lot when we were together. There’s a calmness to this place that I’ve not been able to find anywhere else.”

“It’s my first time here.”

“Where will you be getting off?” She told him, putting the rest of the biscuit in her bag. “Oh really? Same here. And where will you be lodging?”

“Atlantis hotel.”

“What a coincidence, or should I call it serendipity? If you like I could show you around.”

“Thank you,” Adanna replied, neither accepting nor rejecting his offer. Then she rose from the bench, “I should go to sleep. It was nice chatting with you.”

“Same here,” he said, rising as well. “Good night, Adanna.”

“Good night, Dante.” She shook his hand, then slowly walked back to the minibus.