Saturday morning. I am living a simple life – lying around in the living room, watching television. My siblings are somewhere in the house, perhaps playing in our bedroom, perhaps prattling on about the very important things that pre-teen suburban Lagos kids find to occupy their brains with. Dad is enjoying the morning papers outside the flat, trousers rolled up. Mum is buzzing about the house, cleaning this, wiping that surface, frying a few eggs. And complaining. About how spoiled-rotten her children are. When she was a girl she sold bread at Lawanson bus-stop. Every morning at five A.M she would be sent off to the bakery to get her supply of freshly baked bread. She would then hawk them for a few hours before it would be time to set the tray on her mother’s kitchen floor and hightail it to school. She didn’t take the bus. She walked so that she could save her pennies.
Nice. But like my brother would ask her many years after the beginning of this weekly ritual of story-telling, “mummy, have you ever given us bread to sell and we said ‘no’?” And my take on the issue was simple – that was ‘your’ life, mum, and you clearly didn’t like it, so why is it a bench-mark? I didn’t use such sophisticated words as ‘bench-mark’ in my musings though, but I was pretty frustrated. I couldn’t have been expected to live the same life my mother lived. Fortune had flashed my parents a half-smile and our lot as children was better than my dad’s and mum’s combined childhood realities. We lived in (what I grew up to realize was a tiny) two-bedroom flat in one of the newer neighborhoods of Lagos. We went to school with the school bus. We had cable. We each ate meat with our rice. Ah-ah! Wetin again remain?
You couldn’t convince me that the years my mother went on about were anything to look up to. So I enjoyed my languid Saturday mornings with very little guilt. If anything, I had even bigger dreams. The only problem turned out to be that they were solidly entrenched in that American sit com – Living Single.
Kahdijah, Sinclair, Regina and Maxine. Twenty-somethings, some of whom lived together at one point in time or the other, with other male and female friends coming and going. They were professionals, aspiring-professionals, and one or two of them tended towards being under-achievers. But they were adults. They were single. They lived together. And they had a blast of a life. They were who I wanted to be!
To be more specific, Maxine the sharp-mouthed attorney was the future me. Chugging alcohol from the bottle. Swaying into my friends’ flat, dressed fashionably and full of wisdom with every word that rolled off my tongue. Sparring verbally with my friends’ attractive male neighbor and winning arguments even when I lost them. I sighed every time I watched Living Single. I sighed with longing. I sighed with regret. What was I doing here, in this teenage body, living in boring Lagos and enduring my parents, school? I had been misplaced in the wrong century, the wrong country, the wrong culture. I was not happy.
So this day I am watching re-run after re-run of various American sitcoms and Living Single comes up. I’m settled in my spot, flat-backed on the floor facing the TV and blocking off access from the living room to our parents’ bedroom. Mum is somewhere behind me, complaining, threatening to punish someone for something. This is normal. Sometimes the threats come true, sometimes they don’t. There is never a way to tell which will be when, so on that note you live on the edge and hope her annoyance will not roll like a pair of dice and land right in front of you. Therefore I maintain my space and jejelly watch Kahdijah and Maxine as they taunt me with the life that is supposed to be mine.
“Ah, but this is just how I want to be when I grow up”. The words come out of my mouth before I can think to stop them. Then Kahdijah says something funny and I laugh.
“What did you say?”
Silence. Then Maxine says something funny and I laugh.
“Nke-iru-ka, I said – what did you saaay?”
Oh no. She is speaking to me? And she has carefully enunciated my name in its fullness? I get up and turn around to face my mum who has stopped everything she is doing and saying. She is now focused on me, her expression blank. Now let me tell you a short story about that blank expression. It goes like this: when my mother stared at you blankly, it was a bad omen. Badddd!
“Nothing mummy – just that I want to be like these ladies when I grow up”.
“That is not ‘nothing’, but explain how you want to be like them, I’m listening”.
She takes a seat. Blank expression and a comfortable sitting position from where she could further pierce you with a blank stare? Worse than Badddd. And you would think that I would grow some common sense at this point. However, whenever my father is within ear-shot, my smarts usually came out to play so I decide to let it rip. Saturday morning, daddy is home, everything will be fine.
“Em… they live together and they are not married. I don’t want to marry”.
“Okay, you don’t want to marry. But you used to say you want to live with your daddy forever, now you’re saying what?”
“ But you’ve said I can’t live with daddy forever noow. So when I’m twenty one, I will move out and stay with my three best friends”.
“Who are your three best friends?”
“Am I talking to myself?”
“I have some friends but I don’t know which one will be ‘best’ when we are twenty-one”
“You have friends? Since when?”
Then she bellows the names of my other siblings. They come running out. The last born is still a toddler at this time, so he is probably in the arms of his nanny, or balanced on her back as she helps mum wash the dishes and break a few in the process.
“How many times will I tell you people this thing? I gave birth to five of you! Fiiiiive! From this my womb! What do you need other friends for?”
By this time, I am expecting my father to have heard the commotion and come running in. Yes, fortune has smiled on him but the flat is not that big, he can hear us from the balcony. He could!
“Nothing mummy. I don’t need friends.”
She sends the others away.
“So you know you don’t need friends. And you are here saying you want to live with three best friends and stay unmarried. Do you know what that is called?”
Silence. I was already versed in the art of deciphering our mother’s rhetorical questions.
“Women who live together and are not married but men just come into their house anyhow and go anyhow fiam-fiam – they are called prostitutes! Pros – whaaat?”
“Good. So if I ever hear you say you want to live alone and never marry and be like all these Americans in New York – in fact, you think America is heaven? You think all these things you’re seeing on television are real?”
My mum had spent some time America by this time. She had beamed with stories when she came back after one long year. She had enjoyed her time in New York and had stayed with relatives in Brooklyn. Yes, she had confessed that the place was not the neatest place in the world. But she had loved it. Her dream had at some point been to convince our father to let us all move to America. To New York, to have a better life in this place that was suddenly not heaven.
“All these things … FICTION! You have forgotten I am an NTA producer? This thing is not real! They take their lives, make the thing sweet and put it on TV for you people to believe. And you want to be like them!”
By this time, Living Single is over and done with o, my people. And I am still here, receiving heated scolding that would soon take a different turn. We touch on how I should not even be sitting close to the television in the first place.
“You want your eyes to get worse? You want your glasses to have thicker lenses?”
“Mumm, Doctor Olaleye said it is not TV that spoilt my eyes”
“Sharrap there my friend, why are you talking when I am talking?”
I look down at my toes.
“Raise your head when I’m talking to you!”
I lift my head.
“Are you looking at me over the edge of your glasses? Are you becoming ruuude?”
I adjust my frames so that they are sitting firmly on the bridge of my nose and my eye level is flush with my lenses. I’m not quite looking down, but I’m not quite looking at her. Both would be rude. We always have to find a balance.
“You have started learning American behavior! That is it! You see? But I will not let you! I will not! Do you know okro tree?”
“You will know it. I will send you to the village to stay with my mother and you will know okro tree. It is tall, but the owner can bend it, like this…” And she stretches her right hand way above her head, stands on tippy toes, balances that way for a second, and then she places her feet firmly on the ground and pulls her right hand down, her fist curled around the neck of the okro plant. She is bending it and her face is in a tight grimace. “You see? That is how I will bend any of you that want to give me hypertension in this house!” I personally think her recent vigorous demonstration might be a more fitting culprit, but I am of course not saying this aloud.
We go on to ‘discuss’ American television programming and how it simply brainwashes Nigerian children. Nigerian television programming is ‘real’. It shows us how we truly were, so that we can learn good morals and become ‘somebody in future’.
“Why can’t you identify with what we show you on NTA?” This is now personal, clearly. I am offending my mother’s professional peace by watching oyinbo shows. Of course I cannot not remind her that cable had been her idea. Without prior consideration for her place of employment, she had bought us cable, and without needing coercion, had paid a technician to install it. But let us not get into that.
“Have you ever watched Tales By Moonlight and you wanted to be like the people in it?”
Now mum. That. There. Is. The. Point. Why would I want to be like the hungry animals and sad people in Tales By Moonlight?
No, again, I do not say this to her, and that is how come I am alive to tell the tale. I just chop the bashing and nod dutifully when she ends with, “now, let me tell you – you will face your books, you will grow up and be a doctor and you will marry. You hear me? You will marry! No child of mine will live with her friends and be having men go ‘in and out’ like they do in motels, you hear me?”
“Nke-iru-kaaa, do you hear me?!”
I nod. But it doesn’t end there…
*I’m a TV writer, producer, and an aspiring filmmaker. I love words, puzzles, and music. I sometimes love people. Every week, I will tell you a little something. It may sometimes be a rant, or my opinion about absolutely anything. Then it may also be an anecdote from my personal bank of experiences, peppered with a little fiction, OF COURSE. Nobody’s life is that interesting! And because I have a wonderful little daughter called Didi who is a big part of my life, she will sometimes find her way into my monologues. But whatever it turns out to be, it will almost always be related to television because TV is what I do – it’s what I love. And now I have no idea how to end this postscript so…