There was Okeoma (*), who came most often and stayed the longest. He looked younger than the other guests, always wore a pair of shorts, and had bushy hair with a parting at the side that stood higher than Master’s. It looked rough and tangled, unlike Master’s, as if Okeoma did not like to comb it. Okeoma drank Fanta. He read his poetry loud on some evenings, holding a sheaf of papers, and Ugwu would look through the kitchen door to see all the guests watching him, their faces half frozen, as if they did not dare breathe. Afterwards, Master would clap and say, in his loud voice, ‘The voice of our generation!’ and the clapping would go on until Okeoma said sharply, ‘That’s enough!’
And there was Miss Adebayo, who drank brandy like Master and was nothing like Ugwu had expected a university woman to be. His aunty had told him a little about university women. She would know because she worked as a cleaner at the Faculty of Sciences during the day and as a waitress at the staff club in the evenings; sometimes, too, the lecturers paid her to come in and clean their homes. She said university women kept framed photos of their student days in Ibadan and Britain and America on their shelves. For breakfast, they had eggs that were not cooked well, so that the yolk danced around, and they wore bouncy, straight-hair wigs and maxi-dresses that grazed their ankles. She told a story once about a couple at a cocktail party in the staff club who climbed out of a nice Peugeot 404, the man in an elegant cream suit, the woman in a green dress. Everybody turned to watch them, walking hand in hand, and then the wind blew the woman’s wig off her head. She was bald. They used hot combs to straighten their hair, his aunty had said, because they wanted to look like white people, although the combs ended up burning their hair off.
One Saturday night, Okeoma dropped a glass and Ugwu came in to clean up the shards that lay on the floor. He took his time cleaning. The conversation was clearer from here and it was easier to make out what Professor Ezeka said. It was almost impossible to hear the man from the kitchen.
‘We should have a bigger pan-African response to what is happening in the American South really –‘ Professor Ezeka said.
Master cut him short. ‘You know, pan-Africanism is fundamentally a European notion.’
‘You are digressing,’ Professor Ezeka said, and shook his head in his usual superior manner.
‘Maybe it is a European notion,’ Miss Adebayo said, ‘but in the bigger picture, we are all one race.’
‘What bigger picture?’ Master asked. ‘The bigger picture of the white man! Can’t you see that we are not all alike except to white eyes?’ Master’s voice rose easily, Ugwu had noticed, and by his third glass of brandy, he would start to gesture with his glass, leaning forwards until he was seated on the very edge of his armchair. Late at night, after Master was in bed, Ugwu would sit on the same chair and imagine himself speaking swift English, talking to rapt imaginary guests, using words like decolonize and pan-African, moulding his voice after Master’s, and he would shift and shift until he too was on the edge of the chair.
‘Of course we are all alike, we all have white oppression in common,’ Miss Adebayo said dryly. ‘Pan-Africanism is simply the most sensible response.’
‘Of course, of course, but my point is that the only authentic identity for the African is the tribe,’ Master said. ‘I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.’
Professor Ezeka snorted and shook his head, thin legs crossed. ‘But you became aware that you were Igbo because of the white man. The pan-Igbo idea itself came only in the face of white domination. You must see that tribe as it is today is as colonial a product as nation and race.’ Professor Ezeka recrossed his legs.
‘The pan-Igbo idea existed long before the white man!’ Master shouted. ‘Go and ask the elders in your village about your history.’
(*) The character Okeoma is based on the life and poetry of acclaimed Igbo poet Christopher Okigbo.
[Excerpts from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun]
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