A different tongue
I’ve said goodbye to quiet Christmases in the most shocking of ways. Not that the people in the kitchen are so many; there are only thirteen of us, a welcome change from yesterday when all of twenty two women cooked and fried and sweated into open pots. But what we’ve lost in number, we’ve gained in volume.
There are no less than four conversations going on, all at full blast, all in the Yoruba tongue.
Back in London when Wale taught me the rudiments, the language sounded mellifluous, with gentle consonants and lilting vowels. But here in this kitchen, in this friendly chaos, I struggle to recognize a single word.
I spot Wale as he passes by the door. He catches my eye, winks and struts away like it is just a coincidence that he happens to be here. But I know he came to check on me.
I never knew what it meant to sweat until I arrived this country, where it is summer almost all year long. Now I pop out in sweat every now and then. I wipe my face with my sodden handkerchief and catch my mother-in-law’s eyes as I do so.
She’s almost six feet tall but manages to carry herself with grace. She sits with grace too, her back straight and proper, her nose long and proud, eyes indescribably white, her skin color that of the midnight sun. It was awkward at first calling her Mama but it didn’t take too long to catch on. Here in Nigeria, it is the height of rudeness to call your parents-in-law by their names. You call them Papa and Mama.
Mama stands now, makes her way to me, squats by my side. “Are you okay?”
I nod quickly.
“Baa, you’re not. Why don’t you take some time off, go cuddle up with Tunde some?”
Gratefully, I rise to my feet as Mama does the same. She sees me to the door and waves me on. The living room, on this Christmas day, is filled with nieces and nephews and brother-in-laws, and of course Tunde. All a deep chocolate color.
Back in London, for the past year we’ve been married, I never saw the distinct difference in our colors, my rosebud English complexion and Tunde’s proper dark African looks. Now, in a house full of five pairs of brother-in-laws and sister-in-laws, parents-in-law and nieces and nephews too numerous to count, all of them black, I am fully aware of my whiteness.
I have also become undeniably aware of my taste buds. Hot chili is the mainstay of virtually every dish here and four days has heightened the soreness on my tongue and lips. But I’ve seen the pleasure home food gives Tunde. He half-closes his eyes into that dreamy state, concentrates absolutely on his food, rubs his stomach contentedly afterwards.
We disappear into our bedroom awhile. Amidst laughter and gentle words, I devour a packet of digestive biscuits. I know it’s dinner time soon but I don’t want to gamble on liking the food.
An hour later, we are packed into the large living room, some of us spilling out onto the terrace. I find myself sitting close to Mama, a plate of Pounded Yam and Egusi soup* in my hands.
It seems I catch Mama’s eyes too often for I do so now. She smiles with her eyes, points to her food, then makes a low aagh sound.
“You don’t like it much, do you?”
For a moment, I waver between courtesy and truth then I opt for the later.
“No I don’t.”
“Then don’t eat it. I’ll cook you some rice when we’re done.”
I can’t help but smile, a smile that reaches all the way down to my stomach.
*Pounded Yam and Egusi soup is a delicacy amongst the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Egusi soup is made from melon seeds, red pepper, spinach, stockfish, and beef.
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