By Steve Ogah
“Come and see the American wonder.” That was the one-liner the band of energetic kids sang. It was the song of an old city magician who had once come to fret coins out of villagers with old card tricks and die games. But the New Yorker thought the song would be useful for what he had to say at the drinking hut, so he had made the excited kids remember the song. This was a raggedy bunch of kwashiorkor-colonized kids, mostly naked from the top up. They clapped, danced and repeated the line as though it were the sweetest song in the world. Ahead of them, and not far away, was the New Yorker. He too was clapping with all the might in his palms as though he held two cymbals in his large hands, his New Yorker T-shirt sticky with soft sweats of the early morning, moving his thin frame as though the wind would cast him far away from land.
The on-lookers had no idea what the American wonder was, but most were eager to know what the astonishing thing was about America. So, the New Yorker led this gyrating group of kids through rutted village paths, headed for the village square and a drinking shack, where he would exhibit the bare American wonder. Some in the crowd thought he was the one and only American wonder the village had. They felt no urgent need to join the swelling throng of admirers of the circus.
Yet, they were those who felt the man wanted to lay bare some exciting features of America. Two sets of people flowed into the mix: those who assumed the wonder was a man and those who believed the wonder was a thing that had not been sighted in the village of Nkang before. Everyone who heard the shrieking kids was willing to tail them. Anything American was like a commercial hit in the village at any time of the day.
This area of the village was known as the wine groove and some villagers thought the village’s best speaker of high sounding words had perhaps consumed too much fresh wine at the root of a friend’s tree. He wasn’t a known tapster of wine and could only have intoxicated himself through the generosity of other benign villagers. This was the thread of thought held by most villagers, except Pa Okeke. The hut owner had seen the New Yorker before he monkeyed up a palm tree and the New Yorker had told him he wasn’t going to taste any other wine except his at the shack. “Your wine sets my tongue dancing like no other,” he had confessed to the amused old man.
“My palm wine must have a conga drum then,” Pa Okeke returned, forcing the New Yorker to wave him off with a laugh seated in his stomach, as he scanned the groove for the tree to bore a wine hole in.
Up above, at the neck of a tall palm tree, he hung as though a thing woven out of spider webs. He too couldn’t nail what this latest act of the New Yorker was about. If it were magic the man wanted to perform at his shack, he would fail with honors. He wasn’t turbaned like most Indian magicians. He wasn’t dressed in the long tail coats of television magicians, and didn’t bear any resemblance to the famed professor Pellar of Lagos. He hadn’t been to India to learn from the gods of magic. His abracadabra would yield no awesome tricks tonight. That was the tapster’s conclusion. Having drained the tree of its latest intoxicating content, he descended the lanky black and well-juiced palm tree. He would take a shorter route to his shack and lay out his drinking horns for the New Yorker and his crowd of enthusiasts. The day held the fat promise of drama and laughter at the village’s favorite haunt. It would be the night of American wonder by the African New Yorker.
The New Yorker had trimmed his caravan of kids as he went on his way to Pa Okeke’s drinking place. It was too early in the day for kids to wander away from their mothers. He had finished exploiting them and they weren’t allowed to sit in the shack, in any case. He had said to some, “You, off you must go to your expectant mother,” he sprayed them with intense looks of reprimand. “Some of you have not fetched water from the stream yet.” He shooed the kids on their backsides as if they were chickens who had failed to return to their coops on time.
With the kids out of the way, the New Yorker crowded his mind with the wonders he was going to unleash on the swelling crowd at Pa Okeke’s place. The kids had done a terrific job of advertising his presence to the whole village. Though, he was a well-known village lay-about, the New Yorker had needed the kids for a reason.
He needed a fix of wine and the more the crowd at the shack, the greater his chances of free wine. The children had been his talking drum. And they had indeed talked well to guarantee him endless jugs of palm wine from the whole village. The more the wine, the sweeter the tale, the New Yorker believed that; and the greater the intensity of listenership. His captivated audience would be the one to make his tongue set sail on its voyage of storytelling.
The New Yorker sat down at Pa Okeke’s hut. It was on this day and at this time, thinly populated. Well, he had the company of fat green flies buzzing around wine-stained benches and tables and used cups and drinking horns. This wasn’t the sort of company he had dreamt up and desired. He was disappointed.
“The Americans have decided to build a wall through their border with Mexico.” That was what the New Yorker revealed to his crowd of enchanted listeners. He was seated on a deep green hard bamboo bench, flanked in by drunken men on either side in Pa Okeke’s palm wine-perfumed drinking hut. The long wooden table in front of the gathering was dotted with plastic jugs of dirty frothy white-shy palm wine, and colorful plastic cups and rust-color calabashes circled with giddy giant green flies. Several of the insects were drunk and dead while others had just begun their round of alcoholic somersaults. In a little while, the men in the haunt would be like the insects, each one a mess of retched up gut contents and drunken odour. They would perhaps go home washed down in their own mess since the sky had darkened with impending rain.
The tale spinner had spoken and there was a collective gasp of bewilderment from the house which was by now crowded with onlookers and drunken bunch of villagers. Some kids who had strayed away from their parents had traced the New Yorker to his cherished hut. They stuck their bulging eyes and eager faces in the tiny spaces created between men at the windows, desperate to see some real American wonders. But all they heard was: “Wall! A wall? A big wall?”
Those were the words that flew around the gathering. The kids were as confused as those who had palm wine floating in their senses. Those villagers who had cell phones with them had begun to call out to absent regulars of Pa Okeke’s place. The gist in town was about the presence of the village’s best story weaver in Pa Okeke’s house. They believed his newest tale was yet another fabrication from his deep well of stories. This can’t be possibly true, many held. Those who had left the village in past journeys to townships had never seen walls between borders of two towns or between Nigeria and her neighbor, Cameroun. The only embankment many knew of was in the Bible, the walls of Jericho that they had heard about in Sunday schools and catechism classes.
“The Americans can’t do such a senseless thing!” That was the assertion that rose like the sudden burst of water from a pressurized pipe, from somewhere in the crowd. It was from a man with a bloated stomach and face, who also wore the several litres of wine he had being drinking in his eyes. The words had come off his lips with some difficulty as they seemed to have mixed with the wine in his mouth.
“What is it with these Americans? America, the wonderful!” That was his deep-rooted summary. He shook his misshapen ageing head from side to side, laced his fat lips with a derisive laughter and swallowed a slug of sour wine. “America, America,” he laughed, after the horn of palm wine had freed itself from the claws of his salivary mouth. He spewed a jet of wine between his legs. “Useless things,” he had chewed on a dead fly. He stamped on the already dead thing with all the might in his spindly legs.
There were some ripples of laughter shooting through Pa Okeke’s hut of revelers. The wine was working its way slowly through veins. This moved the old man to action as he dug into his hidden drums of wine for the best fermented drink for the house. He went behind and re-emerged in the gathering with a dull black aged gallon of palm wine. It was crusted with overflowing dirty white wine. Its embankment of security was made of fat green toilet flies that had found a permanent home in the drinking hut. They made sure no wine was wasted and knew which cup of wine intoxicated the most. They were the dutiful keepers of the shack and were rarely killed by the regulars. The people saw them as a congenital part of drinking in village huts.
“‘Americans are funny’, I once told us that.” The New Yorker reminded his audience and everyone nodded. Voices rose here and there. There were murmurs that the New Yorker couldn’t discern. Those who had been there when he made his revelation agreed that he was on point while those that hadn’t been there wanted to be told about the comic nature of all Americans, because they held the view that the Chinese were perhaps more comical than the Americans. The overwhelming view was that Jackie Chan was the most humorous and famous Chinese in the world. While Bruce Lee was another popular Chinese, he was seen as too consumed in his fights to want to grant the viewer some moments of humor. Many had seen clips of the makings of some of Jackie’s movies, where he would fail several times at different acts, to his own amusements.
“Americans can afford the liberty to be funny,” That was Pa Okeke. His voice was aged with wine and his breath perfumed with sugar. “They have the life that we don’t have.” He had something for the gathering of drunken men and puzzled kids.
Pa Okeke deposited the gallon on a dying and Chesnutt-coloured bench in the middle of the room. “This is on me,” he declared with that authority of one who truly owned the house. He rubbed his flabby chest down. Many shifted on their seats with itchy throats, anticipating the flow of fresh palm wine that was to come from the owner of the hut. This was going to be a night like no other for many. And Pa Okeke was dead certain many of his customers would crawl on their bellies to their various homes when night time fell. Those who wouldn’t be able to claw their paths home would sleep on their vomits, then wake to curse themselves and his wine. He knew they would still return when the clouds of drunkenness cleared from their eyes, because the villagers had once tagged his hut the “home of happiness.” He had believed the tag and had scrawled that in misshapen letters above the door of the hut.
“You want to get us all drunk?” The New Yorker asked without really meaning every word he had spoken. “Isn’t this one much for a gift?” He shot his empty cup towards the table. He rose and reached for the fresh wine which was dotted with dead bees and tiny raffia palms and flies. He shoved the undesired baggage aside with the bottom of his cup. He dug into the liquid with the force of one who hadn’t had a life-saving drink in days. There was a smirk around his lips.
“I want us all to be happy.” Pa Okeke left the scene. But he would return with more palm wine from his seemingly endless drums at the back of the hut.
The New Yorker wanted to be inebriated. He had come to the hut to get himself some drink and reveal the newest brand of wonder to the house. Many had thought he wanted to perform some sleight of hand tricks of some old penniless magician. But this man was from another world from most of his contemporaries. He wasn’t a magician and he just revealed that to his listeners. He was a moving cinema and a radio whose power never went down and out. And not few had been impressed in great measures. While he was a known village comic, he still had some ears for workings of the wider world. “America wants to cage itself in. Not cage the rest of us out. She will build a circular wall round all of her borders with her neighbors.” That was the summation of the wonder, the meaty part of his story.
Voices rose anew in the gathering. There were those who thought that was outlandish. America was a land of the wild and the free, a place where every dream came to life. That was a popular view in the hut. Why would free people want to fence themselves in? Would America erect a wall with her maritime neighbours? That was a question that was thrown the New Yorker’s way from a man who hadn’t been drinking much. “A wall inside an ocean?” That was his question. And before the New Yorker would say a word, the man bolted up and screamed: “Impossible!” He repeated himself. He drank what was a long draught of wine. He smacked his thin lips and waited for the tale bearer to bear down the fleshy parts of his tale on the house. And talk the garrulous New Yorker did!
“The Americans will build a wall taller than the Berlin wall and longer than the walls of Jericho.” That was how the New Yorker further shocked his crowd of enchanted listeners. “Some other cities will mount individual city gates.”
There was a collective breath of wonderment from the house. Not even the quarrelsome Koreans had erected a wall between each other. Was America at war with all of her neighbours? A question jutted out from somewhere in the crowd. It was from a man who sat with his jaws in his palms, stupefied by what he was hearing. “What is it with these Americans? America the wonderful!” That was his deep-rooted conclusion. “They are crazy! Today it’s a border wall. Tomorrow, they will yank us off the visa lottery list. Has anyone offended these people? I don’t get it!”
There were more ripples of laughter shooting through Pa Okeke’s hut of drunken men. This ignited a move in the old wine tapper. He went behind and reemerged in the gathering with a dull black aged gallon of palm wine. It was crusted with overflowing dirty white wine. The neck of the galloon was laced with fat green toilet flies that had attacked from all directions.
“‘Americans are funny,’ I keep telling people everywhere I go.” The New Yorker reminded his audience and everyone nodded. Some voices concurred while others demurred. There were grumbles that the New Yorker couldn’t understand. “And crazy too like someone has just told us, but Americans are not the only crazy people.” He drank some wine. “They will know what it means to be crazy when they finish that wall. Because some people will chisel that wall until it can let their bodies through. They will claw at it night and day. Sometimes it is better to die in a prosperous land than live in a wretched place.” Some heads nodded, while others drank up.
Pa Okeke deposited the gallon on a bench in the middle of the room. “There is more to come,” he declared. There was a certain audacity to the way he stood, as though he meant to dare someone in the house to a drinking contest. Many experienced drinkers saw danger ahead. He had much of the stale wine in his drums that he wanted to get rid of.
Voices rose again in the gathering. There were those who thought that Pa Okeke wanted them to swim home in alcohol and have their wives lock them out.
Would America stop receiving visitors? That was a question that was thrown the New Yorker’s way from a man who had being processing this latest revelation from the story teller. He even asked the New Yorker the source of his latest news.
“How many of you have a radio?” The New Yorker began. There was no response to his question. People just drank wine and adjusted on their seats. He interpreted that in many ways. “These homo-sapiens called Americans are capable of the impossible,” the New Yorker fired at him. “They killed a president that they voted for. They put a man on the moon when others were sending monkeys and tomatoes to the clouds.”
Now, there was a blanket of shock that descended on the house. Many in the gathering didn’t know about that. The New Yorker nodded his head after having drunk some wine. He told them that brutal act of killing a president was akin to children killing their own father. He told them the word for that was patricide!
“Wetin be dat?” Pa Okeke asked. “your grammar don dey too much: homo…wetin, partri…wetin. Abeg small grammar. No be all of us go America like you.”
The New Yorker found that gratifying and funny. Then he explained what the words meant as the hut owner had just reemerged in the scene and leaned on the door frame, his eyes glassy with wine just as his stomach carried more weight than before. He rubbed it down and guffawed. “Now, I get you.” He rubbed his chin. “But how will you enter America if you want to go back there?”
Most people in the hut found that an interesting question. They adjusted on their seats. Some took their cups and drank some more palm wine in anticipation of the response the New Yorker would give. “You don’t belong here with us. You are the only Americana we know.”
The New Yorker was deadpan. He told his listeners that the walls of Berlin and Jericho had since fallen. And he believed the American wall would collapse should it ever be erected. Some in the house didn’t believe his prophecy. Many felt the New Yorker had been drunk all along. Someone even said that to his wine-soaked face. The New Yorker needed to convince the house that he had his memory in place. So he told them to see Joshua 6: 1-16. But no one had the virtue of holding a Bible in the house.
“You have not answered my question?” That was Pa Okeke. He wanted the New Yorker to respond to his question, since he had often boasted that he would return to America any time he desired.
“I will do like the children of Israel did.” The New Yorker shot back, fuming. “I will join with other people and sing and dance and blow horns round the wall.”
Now, Pa Okeke was convinced the story teller had lost it. There was a general wild laugh in the house. “Will you be the priest?” Pa Okeke asked. “There were priests in the Bible.” He shook his head in disbelief. He returned to his large drums of overnight palm-wine behind his hut.
A man who had been sitting with his jaws imprisoned under his palms, emptied his cup, and began drumming on it, singing:
The walls of Jericho fell down flat
When the children of God
were praising the lord
The walls of Jericho fell down flat!
He was now standing and doing a jig. Some other drunken men picked up the lyrics of the popular church song and sang along, the wooden tables serving as superb percussion instruments. A circle was quickly formed in the hut. The gyration was infectious and had a shocking fraternal spirit, but the New Yorker didn’t join in the song. He just sat swallowing up all the happenings, the scene wavy and distorted in his eyes. He blinked rapidly and washed his face with his left palm. He dug into his trouser pocket for a crescent of kola nut which he popped in his mouth.
The sky had foreshadowed rain all day. Now it began to drizzle and those customers who were outside the hut hurried in and found spaces for themselves. The kids had since left the scene when they realised no magic doves were going to fly off the palms of the New Yorker. The story of the wall around some unknown borders sounded more confusing than a simple equation at school. With more people in the hut, the New Yorker thought this was the break he needed to break out from the hut. He had gulped enough free wine for one day. He felt some wine didn’t want to go down his throat again. The veins in his eyes had bulged.
“I don’t want this rain to meet me here.” That was the New Yorker. “I left some clothes out on the hanging line.” He meant those words to no one in particular as he was already on his way out by the time he uttered the last word. “Make way, please.” He forced himself through cracks between people.
He had given the whole place a life of its own and many customers were disappointed to watch him go. Nonetheless, different words of farewell escorted him out. Pa Okeke emerged on the scene with two jugs of fermented palm wine in both hands. He said he had brought them for his favorite customer. He too was saddened to learn that the New Yorker had vacated the scene. He left the wine for the house, wondering why the New Yorker had fled his place without informing him.
As the New Yorker staggered home, the lyrics of the song at the hut returned to him. He didn’t sing it the way he had heard it. He made up his own version instead. He began by whistling and clapping his large palms, hopping from one side of the street to the other; then he sang about how the great American wall collapsed when immigrants from all corners of the world gathered round it singing and clawing at it with hammers and crowbars. Those who passed him by suspected Pa Okeke to be the man who brought out the singing talent in Akpan Okom. Many passersby laughed at the man, and went on to tell stories to others that Pa Okeke’s wine had turned the storyteller into an international music maker. Some villagers even embellished what they had seen, adding that the New Yorker had gone mad and was hopping to the market square.
Two weeks passed without the New Yorker at Pa Okeke’s hut. This was a strange thing. Many regulars believed he had gone to America, to the wall at the border. Some who believed the tale about the inchoate madness felt he had indeed made it to the market square. They feared for him because it was a well-held belief among the villagers that any mad person who entered a market would never be healed. Other people felt his absence was because he had drunk too much wine weeks earlier, and had gotten home, vomited and fallen sick.
But several regulars still frequented Pa Okeke’s hut hoping to see the New Yorker and hear about the great border wall. They hoped they wouldn’t have to wait for long before the story teller draped them with the latest tale about the great American border wall.
Steve Ogah is a fellow of the British Council/Lancaster University Crossing Borders online writing program and the Voicesnet USA Poet of the Month (Feb.2002).
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