Saturday, 3 January 2015

Roots

I once saw a man fall out of a tree. This wasn’t any old tree, but a forty-foot high African oil palm. It happened one unassuming spring afternoon in Lagos, Nigeria, land of my birth. The man had climbed almost to the crown to harvest the crop when he just appeared to lose his grip, for he suddenly arced backwards and plummeted towards the ground. I was four years old at the time.

 
I told my mum what I’d seen, but she didn’t believe me – any more than on the evening in November 1963 when I saw a TV newsflash that President Kennedy had been shot. On relaying that information to her, I was told not to be so stupid, that couldn’t possibly have happened. Mothers! 

My parents had gone to Nigeria at the beginning of the Fifties, my father as a Methodist Missionary and my mother as a nurse. I was conceived under canvas on a trek up-country - I know, too much information – and was born in the Creek Hospital at Lagos just weeks before Blackpool won the FA Cup. What a year. 

For the first five years of my life we lived in a small village near the town of Ilorin, about 200 miles inland from Lagos, with paraffin lamps, a gas refrigerator and water drawn from the well. We slept under mosquito nets, were wary of snakes and scorpions and TV and radio were not only unheard, they were unheard of. We had mango and banana trees growing in the garden as well as chickens and the occasional zebra. We were the only white people in the village and I grew up speaking a mixture of English and Yoruba. Christmases were always hot and dusty and greetings cards with pictures of snowy scenes arrived from another almost mythical world. 

I can remember a time when I couldn’t read. We visited some friends, an English doctor and his family (relations of David Frost as it happens) and I was given a book about tigers. I loved the pictures but realised there was more to the book than that and I didn’t have the key to unlock it. My first Janet and John readers arrived shortly afterwards. 

By 1958 I was the eldest of three boys and our parents had some tough decisions to make about education. Rather than send us away to be schooled they opted to return to England. We sailed out of Lagos in May 1958 and I’ve never been back to the land of my idyllic childhood. Nigeria has changed so much (not necessarily for better or worse) that I’m not sure I could relate anymore to what I’d find.  My roots remain in vivid memories. 



Today’s poem is based upon a couple of such memories, from when I was three or four years old, and I’ve tried to recapture that sense of a young mind struggling to make sense of what it observed. I had never seen a man cry until the day I thought I witnessed this; and I really did think that loss of hair was down to the actions of a capricious wind and a careless headman!
 

The Limits Of Experience
Black-skinned man
on a hot-skinned day,
who can say
if your face is wet
with tears or with sweat? 

And that old hat
upon your head,
it cannot hide the fact
the wind has blown
your hair away.

Is that why you are so sad?

 
Thanks for reading J Eku odun tuntun (happy new year). S
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