04 May 2011

Blackbird by Jude Dibia (Book Excerpt)

Black men dressed in spotless white kaftans balanced glasses of champagne and canapés on trays, while weaving their way round the separate groups of people chatting by the poolside or close to the stage, where a live band had just started up. Nduesoh was more absorbed by the brilliantly flashing white teeth of the waiters — teeth as white as their kaftans — than the prospect of making her way to join one of the groups of women and men.

Edward had led her to where the wives of an Australian delegate and a Lebanese-American property developer were standing, and then excused himself when he spotted the senior delegate from the South African embassy. The American woman, Bridget Jaafar, who seemed constantly fascinated by everything African and who could not keep her mouth shut for more than a minute, riled Nduesoh. This was not their first meeting, having being introduced at the country club months before.

“Aren’t these just dee-vine?” Bridget chirped in a thick Boston accent, referring to her own coral earrings and matching necklace. “Ahmad got them for me from Badagry.”

“Oh, they are beautiful,” the Australian woman said. She lifted the necklace to stare at the polished red stones.

“It’s marvellous what these Africans can do,” Bridget continued. “Ahmad and I visited the...”

“Excuse me, please,” Nduesoh said and, with a smile, walked away.

She was not prepared to listen to a recounting of a visit to some Oba’s palace. Nor was she ready to hear about some shanty town full of hungry looking children dying of malaria or whatever disease was making the rounds, or of scoundrels threatening to dispossess terrified whites of their belongings. And yet, this was what these women felt at ease discussing. After years of being subjected to wining and dining with their sort, Nduesoh found nothing amusing about white people who came to ‘Africa’ and insisted on being taken away from anything that vaguely reminded them of their urban comforts, wanting instead to be taken to what they believe was a truer reflection of Africa, the rural slums. Then they come back with pocket full of pictures of malnourished natives and plenty anecdotes. The first time, Nduesoh had smiled ruefully at these stories, amazed at how undisturbed her own people were about the way they were being depicted as backward and uncivilised. The second time, she stopped smiling entirely when she noticed the way some of the other women looked at her almost with pity, almost as if they sensed that she too had come from such a place. Nduesoh had experienced Bridget before, and knew she was the type that would nudge you, with her witty tales, to concede that your people and ways were oh so primitive, but cute in a native kind of way! Nduesoh was not prepared to be one of those locals who put up with the degrading comments made about Nigerians and Nigeria. They got on by pretending to be totally dislocated from the people and situations being discussed, helping to paint a darker, more cynical picture than the average white man was willing to paint on his own, unassisted. These stories often ended up being recounted in one form or another, around pubs in London or coffee bars in New York or even on CNN and the BBC. She knew them well, the so-called enlightened Nigerians who indulged the fancy of white foreigners.

She stood in a quiet corner, soaking up the ambience of the venue. It was not the first time she’d been to the Deputy High Commissioner’s home, but it had indeed been a long time since any party had been hosted in its grounds. Around the pool, immaculate white tents had been erected to accommodate beautifully-arranged dining tables with gleaming cutlery and polished glasses.

As she quietly took in the scene, thankful that she’d been left on her own, Nduesoh heard a female voice begin to sing a strangely haunting song:

“Wandering shoes/you have no place to sleep
Footpaths of lost dreams/your tired sole weeps
Vagrant soul/like a blackbird/soaring through life searching
For that place called home/a place called hope...”

Nduesoh swivelled round to search out the source of those words, the singer whose voice was like nothing she had heard before, deep, earthy, rich and yet sublime and almost dreamlike. A fusion of Ella Fitzgerald and Anita Baker—old mixed with the new. On stage, was a stunning black beauty, in her late twenties, in a long dress made out of a cheap looking orange and brown batik material of the type Nduesoh would have worn before she became Mrs. Wood.

“Little blackbird
Left all alone
On a dry broken twig
Soar high into the night sky
Vagrant soul...”

The singer’s only accompaniment was the equally soothing sound of a trumpet being played by a slightly overweight, bald-headed man in dark sunglasses, picking out parts of the tune and echoing them behind her.

“There you are!” Edward was by her side and holding her waist. “I was wondering where you’d wandered off to.”

“I was just enjoying the music,” Nduesoh confessed.

“Yes, beautiful,” he agreed. He turned to look at the singer and his eyes lingered there just a fraction of a second too long before glancing back to Nduesoh and saying, “I think we should be joining our table now before Her Ladyship gets too agitated.”

Edward took her by the elbow and led her to their table, and to Nduesoh’s dismay, Bridget was seated at the same one. She was engaged in an animated conversation with the other people sitting around the table, who included her husband, Ahmad, Wale Johnson and his American wife, Monica, and Chief Badmus Arebi and his wife Ireti. The Arebi family was Lagos royalty and owned prime land on Lagos Island and Mainland.

Nduesoh felt the chills of a long, dreadful night ahead of her as Edward pulled out a seat for her.

“Darling,” Bridget addressed her, “I keep forgetting you are married to Edward. Isn’t this just a delightful table? So cosmopolitan... so United Nations. Before you came, we were just talking about the awful situation in Eldorado.”

“It is interesting that you have a growing population of—let’s just say the wrong kind of people—living at such close proximity to people like us,” Ahmad Jaafar said to the table at large.

Nduesoh noticed from the corner of her eyes that Wale Johnson was bobbing his head up and down in agreement. The only couple who remained non committal were the Arebis.

“I wouldn’t so much call these people the wrong kind,” Edward said, carefully choosing his words. “We can’t escape the fact that Sambo—this is where you're talking about, isn't it?—is bursting at the seams with the influx of people coming in every day. The government has to address the issue of urbanisation—but it doesn’t seem to know how.”

“The problem is quite easy to resolve really,” Ahmad interjected. “Just move the damn people to an area more suited to their kind and everyone will be happy.”

“I agree with you on that, darling,” Bridget said, placing a cigarette between her lips and turning her head so that Ahmad could light it for her.

“So do I.” Wale jumped into the conversation. “Call it elitist or whatever, but people should know their place in society.”

“And what would you propose we do, Mr. Johnson?” Chief Arebi asked. “Get rid of them just like rodents?”

The table went quiet. Everyone was looking at Wale, whose eyes seemed to grow bigger under his spectacles.

“No one is suggesting such a thing.” Ahmad came to Wale’s rescue. “My firm has come up with an elaborate plan to develop the slums of Sambo and we can assist the government in the resettlement of the... people who live in those parts.”

“It’s only fair that we feel safe in our neighbourhood,” Bridget added. “I’m sure you’ve all heard about the murder of Katherine Cole last month.”

“Oh, that was just dreadful,” Monica sighed, “I was playing bridge with Kath at the club only a couple of weeks before. They say she was raped as well. It was in the autopsy reports.”

“A very unfortunate incident,” Chief Arebi said. “But a lot of us believe that there was something not quite right about her death. Katherine was a very... em... generous woman and...”

Nduesoh noticed how Ireti stiffened as soon as the Chief mentioned Katherine’s generosity. Yes, everyone was well aware of Katherine’s generosity, except maybe her husband. The Chief’s sudden defensiveness and Ireti’s reaction made Nduesoh wonder whether the good Chief himself had been a beneficiary of her generosity. It was clear to her that men had no issues with infidelity. How different, she believed, it was for women. It was not possible for women to treat unfaithfulness with the same detachment as men. Men just objectified the female form to a point where it all boiled down to legs, breasts, buttocks and vagina. There were no emotions. It was just physical. Not so for her. Emotions would always play a role in her life—love, hate, revenge, spite...

“Nonsense,” Bridget said, cutting the Chief short. “The house was burgled. It was the work of common thieves.

What do they call them again, darling?”

“Area boys,” Ahmad volunteered.

“Yes, that's it,” Bridget said, smugly. “Area boys.”

The table went quiet again. All but the Jaafars seemed to be aware that it was disrespectful to silence a Chief when he was speaking and, even more so, to openly disagree with him. Nduesoh stole a quick glance at Wale and noticed relief on his face. She guessed he was glad he had not caused the unease at the table this time.

Just then, there was a clinking of spoon against glass and everyone’s attention was drawn to Lilia Macarthur, the Deputy High Commissioner’s wife, who was standing on the stage with the singer and band.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Lilia sang gaily into the microphone. “I would like to thank you all for coming here this evening to help us celebrate Paul’s birthday.”

There was an approving murmur from the crowd and someone at the back shouted, “Hear, hear!”

“Dinner will be served in just a moment,” Lilia continued. “But before that, let's all join together in wishing Paul a happy birthday.”

Even ‘Happy Birthday to You’ sounded good as the female singer began to sing it, but her voice was soon drowned out by everyone else’s voice as they joined in.

Then a line of waiters appeared from nowhere, placing the first course on the tables. Everything seemed well planned and meticulously executed. Bridget laughed aloud in delight as a fresh bottle of champagne was placed on their table.

“Lilia does know how to throw a party,” she shrieked.

Nduesoh was not listening. Her eyes discreetly followed Edward’s until they finally rested on what had captured his attention—the beautiful black female singer as she walked off the stage.

Blackbird was written by Jude Dibia and is an excerpt from his third novel of the same name.
(Jalaa Writers' Collective, April 2011)

Copyright © Jude Dibia 2011.

Jude Dibia is the author of three novels; Walking with Shadows (2005), Unbridled (2007), and Blackbird (2011). Dibia’s novels have been described as daring and controversial by readers and critics in and out of Africa. Walking with Shadows is said to be the first Nigerian novel that has a gay man as its central character and that treats his experience with great insight, inviting a positive response to his situation. Unbridled, too, stirred some controversy on its publication; a story that tackled the emancipation of its female protagonist who had suffered from incest and abuse from men. Unbridled was awarded the 2007 Ken Saro-Wiwa Prize for Prose (sponsored by NDDC/ANA) and was a finalist in the 2008 Nigeria Prize for Literature (sponsored by NLNG).

Dibia’s short stories have been featured in the Caine Prize Anthology, One World: A global anthology of short stories and various literary journals. Dibia was a recipient of a Commonwealth Highly Commended Award for his short story Somewhere in 2010.


Binyerem Ukonu said...

"I do not want to talk about Jude Dibia's assurance and strength for slave driving beautiful words into perfect use. What is outstanding about this author and his book - Blackbird - is that he knows where the rich and the poor meet."

Jude Dibia said...

Many thanks for this, Binyerem! I'm glad you bought the book and read the story.


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