One could begin with the dust, the heat and the purple bougainvillea. One might even begin with the smell of rotting mangoes tossed by the side of the road where flies hummed and green-bellied lizards bobbed their orange heads while loitering in the sun. But Tayo did not notice these—instead he walked in silence, oblivious to his surroundings. With a smile on his face, he thought of the night before, when he had dared to run a hand beneath the folds of Modupe’s wrapper. Without him even asking, Modupe had loosened the cloth around her waist. Of course, they’d kissed many times before, usually in the Lebanese cinema when all was dark, but that was nothing compared to last night. And while Tayo was lost in his thoughts, his father, who walked alongside, noticed the smile and read it as excitement for the forthcoming trip.
They had set off early that morning to visit relatives, as was the tradition when someone was about to embark on a long journey. They would begin with Uncle Bola in the hope of finding him sober. By midday, he would almost certainly be drinking ogogoro and this was not a day to meet Uncle Bola under the influence.
“An old man should be contemplating his mortality rather than dreaming of women,” Tayo’s father said, alluding to his brother’s raunchy tales, which Tayo knew his father secretly enjoyed.
Uncle B liked to joke that he was still young enough to make babies and thank the Lord God Almighty. And he did make babies—dozens of them. As for thanking God—well, that was simply a manner of speaking. Uncle Bola believed only in beautiful women—not in Allah, Christ nor Ogun. In turn, women loved him, in spite of what he lacked by way of height, teeth and schooling. Tayo had long since concluded that Uncle Bola held the secret to a woman’s heart, which was why he looked forward to this visit. But on this particular morning, Uncle Bola did not seem himself. Upon seeing them, he became quite weepy, so weepy in fact that he forgot about his atheism and offered prayers to Allah, Ogun and Jesus on behalf of his favorite nephew. With tears still in his eyes, Uncle Bola gave Tayo his best buba and sokoto to wear as a going-away present and then insisted they stay longer to take amala and stew with him.
“Here is some money for the ladies when you arrive,” Uncle Bola whispered, stuffing newly-minted pound notes into Tayo’s shirt pocket before waving a final goodbye.
Tayo had hoped to stay even longer, enjoying the company of his uncle, but there were many more relatives to visit and several more lunches to eat. Everyone insisted on feeding them and then, just when Tayo thought it was all over, they returned home to find more relatives gathered to wish him well. Several of his father’s friends were sprawled across the courtyard drinking beer and palm wine while the children chased each other in the dirt path by the side of the house. The women sat in one corner, roasting corn on an open fire, with sleeping babies on their backs.
“Tayo! Tayo!” the older children chanted as he made his way through the throng, stopping to pick up the youngest. Tayo expected his father to usher people away, but after the day’s copious consumption of palm wine, he’d forgotten time, preferring instead to continue boasting about his eldest son.
“Na special scholarship dey don make for de boy?” somebody asked. “Oh yes,” Tayo’s father beamed.
In fact, the scholarship was not created just for Tayo, but because he was the first Nigerian to win it (such things having been reserved, in the past, for whites), Tayo’s father decided that he might as well claim it solely for his son. Tayo closed his eyes while his father boasted, and thought ahead to the day after next, imagining how he would move swiftly through the crowds at Lagos port, to the ship and then over the seas to England.
“To Balliol College, Oxford!” Tayo whispered, thinking how grand it sounded.Tayo listened closely, hoping not to forget any valuable advice, but by the time he went to bed he couldn’t remember half of what he’d been told.
At dawn the following day, the entire Ajayi family said prayers before gathering around Father’s silver Morris Minor, washed and polished by his brothers, Remi and Tunde, so that it glistened like a fresh river fish. Everybody was dressed in their Sunday best, ready for the photographs, and only when the cameraman ran out of film did five of them clamber into the car. Father sounded the horn and all the doors slammed shut. The key turned and turned again, but the motor wouldn’t start, so everyone stumbled out again to push. Even Father helped, with one foot pumping the pedals and the other pushing back against the ground. They rolled it down the path, out of the compound and onto the road, until the engine jerked into action. Then, hurriedly, they all piled back in.
The children followed the car down the dirt road, running and waving, not caring about the dust being blown into their faces, but jogging along until they could no longer keep up. Sister Bisi ran the fastest, thumping decisively on the car boot before they sped away, out of Ibadan and onto the main road that would take them to Uncle Kayode’s place in Lagos. Mama and Baba sat in the front of the car, and Tayo and his two aunts in the back. Father forbade talking in the car, claiming it distracted him, and for once Tayo was happy with this edict, knowing that otherwise his aunts would lecture him on how to behave in England. It didn’t matter that his aunts had never travelled outside Nigeria; it was their right and duty to instruct. Tayo closed his eyes and thought again about his sweetheart and their final goodbye. He remembered the poem he had composed for the occasion and the lines that didn’t quite rhyme. In the end, there had been no need for sonnets—she had promised to wait for his return.
By the time they arrived at Uncle Kayode’s, the car was caked in dust and its weary passengers were covered in sweat and grime, but all would soon be forgotten. Uncle Kayode had a luxurious home. He was a big man in Lagos, recently returned from abroad as a senior army officer. Maids cooked for him, and large fans hung from the ceilings, whirling at high speed to keep the house cool. Tayo had never seen anything like it before.
“When you arrive in England, my son,” Uncle Kayode was saying, “you must make sure to contact the British Council and don’t forget to write to cousin Tunde and cousin Jumoke.”
Tayo listened closely, hoping not to forget any valuable advice, but by the time he went to bed he couldn’t remember half of what he’d been told. Annoyed with himself, he tossed and turned on his mattress. For weeks he’d been looking forward to traveling away from home—to having his freedom—but now he thought only of what he would miss and how frightening it would be to travel alone. He took Modupe’s photograph from his bag and kissed it. Reassured by her smile and remembering the events of Friday night, he rolled over and fell asleep.
The next day, Tayo stood at the port, holding his bag tightly. He dared not ask his uncle another question, but he still wasn’t clear about what to do when he disembarked. What if the arrival halls in England were just as chaotic as the confusion he was seeing now, with everyone shouting and gesticulating and no-one bothering to queue? Exasperated by the late-afternoon heat, men took off their cloth caps and flicked away beads of perspiration. Then, as the folds of their agbadas kept slipping off their shoulders, they hitched them back, raising their arms like swimmers. Meanwhile, women herded children and straightened little dresses, trousers, and shirts, while tightening their own wrappers and head ties, unravelling from heat and bustle. Tayo, like everyone else, had been standing in this crowd for hours. He smiled, but not as broadly as the day before. His parents, uncle, aunties, and several Lagos-based relatives were with him, as well as Headmaster Faircliff and some teachers from school: Mrs. Burton (Latin), Mr. Clark (Maths), and Mr. Blackburn (British Empire History), but none of his brothers or sisters had come and he missed them already, especially Bisi.
Tayo shook his head wistfully, staring at the liner, the Aureol, which towered high above them like a vast white giant with hundreds of porthole eyes. You will be missed, he told himself, recalling the rumor started by friends that a particular Lagos girls’ school—the one whose pupils occasionally visited his old school—was in mourning over his departure. He glanced around for these girls, but all he saw were family, easy to recognize in the matching aso ebi worn specially for his send-off. The men’s agbadas were the same aubergine purple as the women’s short-sleeve bubas and ankle- length wrappers. Tayo’s mother had chosen the material, fine Dutch waxed cotton, embroidered in gold thread at the neck and sleeves. Tayo had wanted to wear his agbada like the rest of the family, but Father insisted on western attire, claiming it more appropriate for an Oxford-bound man. So instead of loose, flowing robes, Tayo wore grey flannel trousers, white shirt, school tie, and a bottle green blazer that stuck to his skin like boiled okra. His agbada was neatly packed away in the trunk with extra clothes, the Koran, the Bible, half a dozen records, and several large tins of cooked meat with dried okra, egusi seed and elubo.
Excerpt of In Dependence by Sarah Ladipo Manyika courtesy of Cassava Republic Press. First US edition 2019. First published in Nigeria in 2009 by Cassava Republic Press. Copyright © Sarah Ladipo Manyika 2008.