NOT TOO MUCH PEPPER
by Tosin Otitoju
My team has a reputation for being capable and effective. We get the job done - no excuses. We are Funmi (that’s me), Bala, IK, Deeza, Ekpenyong, and Robert.
The youngest is Robert, who we like to call “Robot.” He’s spending his IT (Industrial Training) semester with us. In only two months, he has already solved so many of our computer problems. I’m sure he’ll be offered a job with us when his traineeship is over.
Bala is a former lecturer. It was he who suggested that we hire a university student to do all the high-tech things we don’t understand. Unlike some nepotistic people, he picked Robot although they’re from entirely different parts of the country. I applaud Bala for creating a win-win situation as usual: Robot gets income, experience, and a guaranteed job offer come October, while Bala gains free time (higher productivity means more free time) to daydream about getting Deeza’s attention, if you know what I mean.
Deeza is our boss. Though only thirty-something, she knows how to handle her job. She balances the need of the directors to see results (results = owo, ego, kudi) with our need to have fun at work and not be too stressed. She makes sure we get good bonuses at year-end and is even negotiating for us to hold company shares.
Ekpenyong is one of those self-effacing workers: you can imagine someone who is always at work on time, ever-willing to fill in for others, and always has wisdom to spare when one of us has a problem. We call him Father Ekpenyong for his listening ear and his good advice. His wife is a fantastic cook, so we always look forward to getting invited to parties at his home. Without him, there would be a big gap in our team, emotionally speaking.
What can I say about I.K.? IK talks fast, walks fast, and only occasionally stops to joke around. Sometimes when we don’t know how to get something done, he just blurts out a simple comment that does the trick. For example, we stopped working with small accounts because IK says big accounts are “the way things are done.” I admire his genius in marketing. I know he’s eager to start his own company, so I doubt he’ll stay long with us.
There! I just introduced my work team. My role at work is communication guru since I actually enjoy writing and working with languages.
We’re planning for the “Unity in Diversity” bid, so Deeza needs my one-page concept this afternoon, and Father Ekpenyong is looking over my first draft. He is reading aloud, “…think of Nigeria as another team, but a team with countless people, a greater diversity of strength profiles, and of course, several languages.”
“This is a good start, in terms of framing the context,” he concludes. “Now you need to think of the mood.”
Bala called out, “is that for United We Stand?”
“Enhe,” said Father Ekpenyong.
“Let me see.” He came round to Father Ekpenyong’s desk. “Mood, you say. It’s true. It’s good though.”
“She’ll still come up with some characters to teach the lesson,” said Father Ekpenyong.
“Just don’t use broom.”
“Funny,” I countered. There was a popular tale about a wise man that showed his squabbling sons that sticks are easily broken, but not when united as a broom. It would be too traditional for our target demographic.
“It all boils down to broom…if you like, call it vacuum cleaner,” Father Ekpenyong quipped. He argued that if the fable wasn’t so effective – simple, relevant, and punchy, as he defined effectiveness – it would not have been preserved a thousand years. “That writer created a phenomenon,” Father Ekpenyong said.
“You’re saying they used brooms a thousand years ago? Maybe the first fable was about cleaning leaves. You can tear one leaf, but many leaves?” Bala was joking again.
“They used fingers in those days, Bala. The man broke his sons’ fingers to teach them about the united hand.”
Bala winced. “Ah, that’s wicked,” he said.
The phone rang for Father Ekpenyong and I decided to get back to writing. “Give me my paper,” I said, my left hand reaching for the sheet.
“But you know what? You can only eat tuwo with all your fingers.”
After I reminded Bala that oyinbos eat swallow with one finger, he offered, “but can one finger scoop the soup with the swallow?”
Father Ekpenyong had just ended his phonecall, and turned to us. “Young man, you’re making me hungry,” he said.
“And I have to hurry. Bala, you’re wasting my time.”
Bala took his leave, saying he had to look over a report. I took my paper back to my desk and got in my head.
Mood. I want to create something very ethnic. I want the audience in the end to smell the cotton and the indigo dye; to hear the sounds. Not moo-d which sounds like patch-coloured cattle on a wet Dutch farm, but the gbam-gbam-gbim-gbim bursting from loudspeakers that go till six in the morning. Onomatopoeia is such a thing with us.
The drum beats - the Yoruba talking drum - plus the silver microphone and large black loudspeakers. With little prompting, Yorubas erect their tarpaulin tents in the middle of the street. Say someone survives an accident, dies, gives birth, gets older, travels, returns, goes to school, gets a promotion, … not to mention marriage, and it’s party time.
There are young men to unstack the rented plastic chairs and wipe everything with gray rags. There are women who stayed up half the night tending the large round pots on outdoor cooking fires. Everybody is welcome to join in but I learned that some people are actually annoyed at the “gbe-gu-ru gbe-gu-ru noise all the time.”
That’s what I.K. told me. It was also I.K. who told me that Yorubas like pepper. Youth Service year found him learning to cook rice and stew, he said, as he could no longer handle the excessive pepper at the bukas.
Soon enough, he got to taste my cooking. It was one day, we needed to go to the office - rare for a Saturday. Since my aunt had taken the car out, I phoned to ask him for a ride. He hemmed and hawed and said he hadn’t even eaten yet. I promised him lunch so he swung by to pick me up. The dining table was laid out with table cloth, serving spoons, and all that. He said that we wouldn’t have time to eat, so I packed our lunch in plastic bowls and we took off.
We ate while doing our edits. Afterwards, he thanked me for lunch, saying that there was not even too much pepper. I tell you: December 6 was a good day. Finally I.K. had noticed me not as the writer-girl-in-skirt-suit, but as a potential wife and homemaker. He offered to drop me off at home after work.
In the car, we talked about insults. There are so many words of abuse: you’re mad, you’re stupid, idiot, your head is not correct, imbecile, monkey, goat, animal, useless, good-for-nothing…
I.K. felt that insults only work on people with low confidence. “If you’re not stupid,” he said, “why would you care about being compared with a stupid animal?”
I asked him what insults people used in his language, since I only knew “onyara.”
“Onyara is a mad person, what you people call we-re,” he replied.
I added, “you know they never just say that. It would be ‘were iranu’, or ‘olosi to ri re ti daru patapata’, never simple.”
“Yoruba people can abuse!”
“It’s like poetry,” I said, interested in explaining how the insults were really verbal displays, and one could rather enjoy the artistry. “When someone says ‘won kan ri goloto goloto bi adiye Agric’ – that is metaphor that is morphologically and dynamically descriptive. It is so full of contempt that it’s funny.”
He asked, smiling, “What is ‘olodo rabata’?”
“When have you ever been called that?” I caught his eye.
“No one insults me. I’m not stupid,” he replied, full of that boyish smile and manly confidence.
We soon arrived at my gate, and he honked so that someone came to open up. I stepped out of the car. When we waved goodbye, I felt I could not wait till Monday to see him again.
What I love about I.K. is how focused he is. While Yoruba men get “honey” wherever they can, Ibo men focus on money. The stereotype is that the Ibo boy will start from apprenticeship and move up to his own business: import-export, contract supply, or ‘whatever’s clever.’ At forty, he is finally considered an eligible bachelor, with enough money to buy a wife.
I.K. is not forty. He is young and well-built. And he went to school.
But, as the stereotype goes, the rich man soon has a dozen in-laws to educate, clothe, house - it’s no joke. His very-highly educated Ibo housewife starts to give birth. She gets fatter and yellower, both considered signs of good living. Assuming his finances don’t crash, the queen of his castle is pampered with head-to-toe gaudiness – red and gold George wrappers, real jewelry, good wigs, trips abroad, …
I won’t get fatter.
When I was up north for Youth Service, the joke was that Yoruba men are great philanderers. Whether newly-wed or grey-haired, they continue to ‘appreciate’ women. Unlike the independent Ibos, the Yoruba focus on respect – of subjects for their king, of women for their men, and respect for elders. Perhaps as a result, their families consist of randy men, long-suffering women, and over-disciplined kids. Only a Yoruba woman would be the bread-winner, cook and clean, look great, and still get beaten up by her husband. She duly diverts her anger into verbal display and physical battery on her kids.
Mood. Mud. Flowing dansiki with cream stripes on a base of red-purple. Mud and dust. Large drums and bata dancers. The stiff, striped cotton twirls like so many peacocks. Women dance with their backsides leading the way. Dancers know true joy. The red-purples jump with excitement. Kpom. Kpom-kpom-kpom.
There is dust. One horse saddled in brightly-dyed leather. A man blows a long trumpet reminiscent of the desert - Agadez or Timbuctu. A thick procession. A giant umbrella covers horse and rider. Rider wrapped in cloths – a flowing robe and a ton folded around and around his head. The horn bellowing pfon-pfon-pfonnn.
A community of ladies in orange George wrappers and white, off-the-shoulder blouses. They cheer and start singing and clapping. Their blouses are embroidered and appliquéd and affixed with sequins and rhinestones. They move with swaying torsos and surprisingly complex footwork. They look queenly with the stiff headties piled atop their shiny black hair. One of them takes a white handkerchief to her forehead. Her arm is fat and reddish-yellow. I know I.K. deserves better.