Pounded yam for Okey Ndibe
Let me tell you why I will pound yam for the American based Nigerian novelist and columnist, Okey Ndibe, even though I’ve not pounded yam since General Muhammadu Buhari was a head-of-state.
A few weeks ago, I limped into New York city from Lagos, the Dollar to Naira rate had injured me terribly. I was in New York for meetings too important to cancel as well as attend Teju Cole’s reading from his new book, Known And Strange Things.
I’d called Okey earlier to let him know I was in visiting US and also to congratulate him on his new book, Never Look An American In The Eyes. Coincidentally, Okey was also in New York and we all happily agreed to attend Teju’s reading, then hang out afterwards.
Before I continue my story, let me tell you something. As soon as I left Nigeria, the naira kept falling like a drunk and our government was dolling out financial policies to stop the bleeding like a firefighter using a cup of water to put out a petrol station fire incident. The Nigerian forex system and budget had gone south, except for the pilgrims who were lucky to have bought dollars at a rate three times less than the rest of us non-pilgrims, talk about pilgrims’ progress. I applaud the move by government because importing prayers that will feed a nation and move things from awry to alright mustn’t be played with.
Anyway, our beloved Naira was getting pummeled by the dollar, which meant without spending a kobo from your savings, you would still bleed like Julius Caesar after Brutus stabbed him. Even my banks betrayed me right after I traveled. Suddenly my Orange Bank (not real name) became bipolar, my card would work in one store and in another store have the attendant announcing to the whole world “Your card was declined sir, do you have another card!”. To save face, I would scramble and bring out my Lemon Green Bank card, same story. Now I don’t even want to talk about my Half Elephant Bank, which had taken the position a grandmother would take when taken to a disco dance – find a corner and snore away. I don’t remember when Mr. Half Elephant worked for me outside Nigeria, but that’s a story for another day.
After Teju’s reading, greetings, back slapping and congratulations, someone announced we were all going out for dinner and drinks. My heart sank. I knew in America it is not who announced “let’s all go for dinner and drinks” that paid. Americans always go Dutch- it’s everyman for himself. I could have done the honorable thing and dismissed myself nicely, but the evening was electric and this called for celebration, money in the pocket or not.
Honestly, I had no other plans that night except to go and lie down in my budget hotel room and think of our 2015 general elections, the hopes, the promises, the fanfare, Buhari’s smiling in campaign pictures where he wore a suit and posed with a young lad, his Igbo attire that made him look like Natty from The New Masquerade, the packed arenas that screamed themselves hoarse yelling “Sai Buhari!”, the hope (I have said that before right?).
To have no option but to go and be thinking of how the Nigerian state was receding fast into recession was unthinkable, hence I chose to go with my people and celebrate the Nigerian things worth celebrating these days.
At the posh oyinbo restaurant that was chosen, we formed groups immediately we got there. We had some non-Nigerians who would rave about burgers as if a piece of bread with mashed meat, slices of tomatoes and onions was pounded yam and egusi. I was helmed between Okey and Siddhartha Mitter, a New York based writer/journalist and a good friend of ours who had moderated Teju’s reading earlier. As soon as we sat, Okey who has been described in his new book as “a gregarious person with a penchant for telling stories” was giving me one helluva gist. Teju was working the room, greeting other friends of his.
Some moments after settling down, they brought the menu and I honestly could have still excused myself and save the future embarrassment, but I also knew somehow, somehow I will survive the night, after all I was still a Nigerian – we are survivors. Although nothing was interesting on the menu, I found rice and salmon. Okey went for the same – anywhere Nigerians see rice in any Western restaurant we heave a sigh of relief. But this rice came burnt like Izobo (roadside sacrifice for the gods), but the salmon was okay. Okey grabbed a bottle of tabasco and emptied it on his plate as if by some miracle it would turn the salmon to a hot plate of Lagos fish peppersoup. I followed suit. Okey had given me the story of how he successfully cooked egusi with salmon in the past, so we both knew this was a waste of salmon.
Judgement time came, the bill arrived and the person that suggested we all go out was somewhere far away. Teju was on another table which had a separate bill. I was staring at the leather pouch with which the “embarrassment paper” came as if it was some dangerous animal. Siddhartha eventually opened it not to pay but to calculate each person’s share.
Even if you had a seed of groundnut you were expected to cough out the cost of that seed. I was sweating under my collar and had made up my mind to try my Orange Bank card once again, I was going to take a big gamble. Just as I was pulling out my wallet, a voice similar to when God called Moses in the burning bush came from my right flank declaring – “That is for me and Victor”. A Nigerian. A true son of his father that knows how to be a Nigerian, Okey Ndibe, dropped enough green backs on the collection plate. Somebody shout HALLELUYAAAH!
In Okey’s new book there is a chapter called “Nigerian, Going Dutch”. He’d had a similar experience when he first arrived America many years ago. He was dragged to a lunch he thought was going to be free, only to find out nor be who say make we go chop dey pay for America (It’s not the person who invites you out that picks the bill). Since that unsavory experience, he’d vowed to always “go Nigerian”, which means if a Nigerian invites you to dinner or lunch, he or she will definitely pay. And that was exactly what Teju Cole did in our next place where we went for some more merriment; he picked the bill before any of us brought out our wallets and calculators – that’s the Nigerian way.