Lokoja, Kogi

The longer you wait for someone, the more important he must be. In the gubernatorial hall, my colleagues and I wait an hour for the cabinet to arrive. Another hour for the governor, who is actually governor, prince, and millionaire in one person, a power trinity. Your Excellency, Messiah of Kogi State, I crave your indulgence to intimate, the court emcee begins, and I know there is no escape. I am marooned for the duration. Protocol demands a strict order of introduction, starting with the least important, growing longer and longer until only the governor himself remains. At the reception, a cabinet minister pumps my hand. We are so grateful that you white professors have come, he smiles into the reddening mask of my face. The ghost of empire is everywhere, even in the bread. White, fine-crumbed, sweet as wedding cake, the square slices float to our table on a silver platter with tea at every breakfast. Until the governor bids his aide fetch us for a function, we are captives, a harem of child brides starved for love. Flanked by armed MOPOL guards, we are paraded in public, then returned to the confines of the palace. Once, I slip outside to watch a sunset. Right before my eyes, the sky ripens like warm fruit. Then, something starts eating it—a silent horde of flying foxes winging toward their nocturnal feeding, an exquisite plague. Late at night I lie in my private chamber and watch African satellite TV: South African CNN, a soap opera with HIV-positive lovers in a bantustan, followed by a cop show in Afrikaans. On the Nigerian channel, the breaking news is an heiress’s birthday party in Lagos, music courtesy of King Sunny Adé and his African Beats. Usually I fall asleep watching; it drowns out the sounds from the adjacent room, where Mr. Innocent Chukwu sits like a chieftain fingering his beaded cane until a servant girl taps on his door. And when I wake hours later, the television’s white noise sounds like a waterfall, like hundreds of bullfrogs croaking one, one, one, in hoarse unison, over and over.

Lokoja, Kogi

In the gubernatorial auditorium, the official state dancers dance for us, a command performance. In front row seats we sit with napkins of savories and sweets, bottles of Coke balanced on our laps. Dancers appear in tribal costumes, stamping and thrusting toward us, below the vigilant gaze of the governor and the president whose portraits hang on the wall. The drums surrender to weeping strings, calling a single figure onto the stage. She is wearing a red Hydra mask, yellow bodice and bustle, she floats like a new lover, sure and unsure, beckoning and fleeing, an orchid with only hours to live. When young women dance, the world turns voyeur, remembering what was, what could have been so long, long ago. Only near the end do her ankles reveal their poison: beneath the costume is a man. My eyes ask to be blind. I am ashamed of being seduced. I want to forget the evening. Let there be no mistake: I have been brought not for instruction but for show. I am here to stand out, a white thumbs-up for the governor’s reelection. But like a Shakespearean Capulet, I bite it. After the performance, I ask about the accompanying lyrics. All were political jingles praising the governor. My ears ask to be deaf. Backstage, the dancers ask, Can we study in America? I want to tell all of them Yes, yes, you will be loved. Their questions, their smiles seem so naïve. Are they real? Addresses scrawled on scraps of paper are handed to me. One dancer gives me the address of an uncle in Philadelphia written on pharmaceutical stationery: Viagra. The governor invites us to his private chamber. His stewards bubble the glasses of my female colleagues with champagne. He flirts with them as the goblets clink and fizz. I wonder about motives. Perhaps everything is deliberate. Perhaps everyone has a reason. I wonder what mine is.

Idah, Kogi

The center of town is a man, the leader of an entire tribe. Like a queen bee in the core of a hive, the Atta Igala is being courted by our host, the governor. On display, we are sacs of pollen, the living, glaring proof of his Western connections. With the Atta’s endorsement, he could carry the entire tribe. Ride On! the buttons and banners say, showing the governor and the Atta stepping arm in arm into the future. In the Atta’s own stadium, we sit for hours, never moving from our reserved row of white plastic chairs on the viewing platform. Pressed within the tiers of local dignitaries, there is no room to move, nowhere to move as we listen to speeches in Igala, watch the field of subjects become a wave-slammed sea. Never have I seen so many people so tightly squeezed. Troupes of masqueraders cut their way through the limbs of humanity. Smoke curls out of a masked head. Coins are hurled at another, bribes against bad fortune. A third figure resembles a giant cloth tube limp on a stretcher. But as drums beckon, the tube comes to life, climbing and whipping down into the throng before settling again on the stretcher, an airless balloon. I try to dissect the illusion in my mind; no room for a man, not even a boy, inside. What could have possessed these costumes other than ancestral spirits? The dignitary sitting beside me calls it old superstition. But I see the crowd cleave in fear of Smoking Head as he stamps toward them. And, while my female colleague is pointing her camera, ladies in the row behind us shout, No! No! Do not photograph this one! You will be barren! My colleague puts down her camera. Today, His Excellency The Governor, the Messiah of Kogi State, received another title: from this day forward, he will also be called Living Legend. I close my eyes. I don’t know how many more claustrophobic hours pass. But finally my female colleague breaks down. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I just can’t take it anymore, she says through convulsive sobs. To the governor and the Atta, the excuse is acceptable: a woman is weak. I thank her for her weakness while a Nigerian Boy Scout blazes our trail, away.

Anyigba, Kogi

I’ve seen the name for this village spelled different ways, though when local Igala pronounce it, it sounds like none. The colonial alphabet tries to hold captive the local sounds, but it can’t. Something remains uncaptured, undefined in the mouth. The university halls hide inside fields of oil palm, cassava, maize, and yam vines tendrilling up bamboo stakes. The guesthouse in which I am lodging is more luxurious than all of the houses I’ve seen except the vice chancellor’s. We never run out of water for long; when it’s gone, a tanker truck is summoned to fill the roof cistern. When the generator sputters on its last sip of petrol, a servant fetches more in a glass jar. The faculty club nearby houses a swimming pool, but the puddle of water above the plugged drain blooms emerald with algae. I sit in a plastic chair sipping a tepid bottle of Coke, watching two lean puppies frolic on the dance floor. A week later, I saw one of them again, upside-down on the shoulder of a young man walking down the road, its eyes masked tightly by a hand. I don’t believe he wanted to eat the dog. He probably bought it as a watchdog and didn’t want it wandering back. The roads are lined with mango trees, which I identify not by corpulent globes dripping from branches but by the fuzzy elliptical discs strewn on the sand. Wrong season. During my afternoon walks, I look for animals, a scurry across the road, a rustle within a thicket, until a teacher tells me their fate: We’ve eaten them all. An empty belly cannot see beauty. All I’ve spotted are white-headed crows picking refuse, pink-headed lizards twitching for mates, and a dark bird which, while winging away, reveals an arc of brilliant turquoise. Secrets reveal themselves in startling ways, like answers to questions I haven’t asked.

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