Itse’s planned return home to Nigeria came earlier than he anticipated. He craved the smell and sound of his home country. He craved the human chaos that marked sidewalks where shoulders brushed against shoulders on Upper Erejuwa Road in Warri. The smell of roasted corn contested with the stench from roadside sewers. The accents of market women collided in the fervour of curses and blessings. Dusk defined itself every weekend by a special disorder because daylight cringed when dust caught bulb lights. Lorries and cars clamoured, their horns blaring interminably. Children bustled with play in the village. His taste bud woke to kitchen favourites: ogbono soup, banga, pepper soup. The intrusive colours of fashion, the ankaras, George, blouses, and their admixture with Western idiosyncrasies; jeans, tee-shirts. The smell of Orogun fish and its river in tranquil lustre on hot afternoons. The divine repose of a village night. The rude welcome of a cock’s early morning cry. The muscular frenzy of men in their morning work as goats bleated. The spontaneous temper of the people.
But he had no definite plan to return. He loved his days at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His memory lit up with its social amenity. He made enough good friends, savoured the parties, the opportunity to mingle with the children of America’s upper crust. He witnessed their footloose habits with money. They had little qualms about unleashing wealth. Parents made the money. Children winked it into obedience. They were some of the children of the special order. They grew up around the swagger of politicians, hauteur of lobbyists, the top layers of the military and business brass. These were their parents and their world.
They did not appreciate the rigours of labour, the remorseless tedium lesser mortals invested in department stores, in the grind of kitchens and the fury of factories. But they knew how to make light of it. This was in the same America where most people, including Itse, scrambled feverishly for what he called the American eel, the dollar. He survived on scholarships. He had to soldier on narrowly between contentment and survival. Before his graduation, he was chained to bills forever. He understood the addiction of racking up bills and the pain of settling them. The credit system, another entrapment they warned him about, the seduction of loans. He fell for all this. He had to weed them gradually out of his life after school. But his friends did not have to bother much about these ritual burdens of society.
In the United States he saw in flesh and blood what he read in the newspapers about the lifestyles of the rich in his own country. He had no access to them in Nigeria. When he left Orogun village for the bustle and greed of a city like Warri and Lagos, he saw the cars and mansions that partitioned the rich from the poor and struggling mass of the people. But he knew what the rich did when they travelled to Europe and the United States. They flew lean but returned with the nifty cargoes of the West, luxuries in sartorial varieties, cars and jewellery and furniture and perfumes. They boasted about world-renowned designers and their own indiscriminate appetites. They had the capacity to retain excess in the big troughs of their mansions. He knew what they did with those big Owambe parties. He knew how much their shoes cost and how unwieldy their agbadas sat on their privileged bones.
These were the thieving politicians, the businessmen fattening on opportunities, not talent or ingenuity. He hoped to break into their circle in Nigeria. But how was he to attain that wild and sulphurous dream!
His father told him to read and make high grades and maybe somehow, he could be lucky to make it through high school with high grades. If he did, he could get a job as a clerk in a good company, save money and sponsor himself through four heady years in a university in Nigeria. It was no mean task. But Itse was not a boy to faze. He wanted to be rich. He hated, at that time, the leash on rustic people. They did not see a world beyond the farm ridges and game in the world. Contentment chastened them like a faith. He was one of them himself. But his thoughts bustled like his limbs. He saw himself in the high places of the world. He had to dream. He fretted in his dreams. Dreams were a buffer against the humiliation of environment. It was the illusion of conquests.
But Itse was lucky to discover the United States Information office in Warri as well as the British Council. That was after he started work in a fish company, called FilGate. It hauled fish from northern Europe and sold to cold rooms in Nigeria. It was a thriving business. Warri also was an oil town, and it attracted a lot of foreigners, Americans, British, French, Spanish, Italians.
Even though these Caucasians were in town, they lived separately from the rest of the people. They had their own clubs and restaurants and golf courses. But only the indigenous rich had access to those clubs and lived in the tony part of town with them. Even then, the racial walls were high and palpable.
Itse supervised the supplies to one of the cold rooms co-owned by Jack Horne, an American whose partner was a Nigerian, known as Mr. Ojevwe. But Jack called him Peter. He was the only one who called him by his first name. Ojevwe was a gangling man with a voice almost as low as a whisper. When he was not around, the workers called him ‘voiceless’. He was uptight and haughty to all the Warri people around him. He seemed to soar above everybody. He believed in his own stratospheric grace. He had a sports car, the Mustang, and a Mercedes 190E.
The Ford sports car was rare in the country. Jack arranged its importation. He acquired it not as a new car. The gangling fellow, however, boasted he bought it new, and lied about the dollar amount he remitted across the ocean. No one could dispute it. The car looked sleek. When it glided under the sun its sheen seemed to renew itself as though the sun polished it to retain its pride of shine.
That brand of Mercedes was a status symbol at the time. Only special people like Voiceless could conjure such a miracle onto the humble streets of Warri.
Voiceless was the closest Itse got to seeing Nigeria’s rich. But the man was not really rich. He was a miserable wannabe, a pretender. He was thankful though for the experience. It was through Voiceless that Itse met Jack. He interacted with him to reconcile the books. Jack was an unspectacular vision to Itse when he saw him except that he was white and American. But he seemed not to fit into the image he saw in the movies or read in the books. He had nothing of the dramatic presence, the brash self-confidence and the kind but superior look. After about five months, he knew this was not untypical, except that Jack did not carry those attributes like a halo over his impressively shiny, bald head. Maybe it was because he had spent a great part of his life outside America. He looked like he was in his mid-forties. He had been in the fish business all his life, and spent about a month a year in his country.