The phone rings, I don't recognise the number. Maybe it's an incredible job opportunity, perhaps Larry King has retired. But no, it's long lost family. My dad's cousin to be precise. Apparently it's amazing to know that my father has a manchild lurking in some corner of the earth. So after all, little ADC's loins were not solely for weeing by the huge iroko tree in the village square at night when nobody was watching. The ultimate act of rebellion in a pre-independence Nigerian village. Pee on the iroko tree, and the gods will make certain body parts fall off. You can see the attraction for a young rebel.
Little ADC's loins brought forth a child, many in fact, of which African Shirts is one. She was incredulous. She didn't tell me any of the weeing story, but she might as well have. I'd have blushed, and chuckled, and smiled, without uttering a word. Maybe the occasional "really!" Long lost family know how to make a grown man feel like sucking his thumb, and assuming the foetal position. You feel yea high.
A few years ago, on holiday in Washington DC, I had one such encounter. Nigerian wedding party setting, you know the type: abuse of dollars, abuse of gold, abuse of rims, abuse to make P Diddy skulk in inferiority. Who's the handsome (allow me artistic licence) young man with the funny accent? ADC's son. You don't mean it! So this woman asked me, sorry, told me, to dance with her. She'd known my dad since when men had lots of inches of hair and lots of inches on their shoe soles, the collars were large, and the trousers were tight. Except for the excess left-over material they added to the feet. Flares, they called it.
She was also emotional at seeing me, staring at me funny. Too many thoughts were in my head. "Dad, I hope you dumped her in the politest way possible," I thought. I wasn't ready for the sins of my father to be visited upon me with a handbag to the head. She had given no indication of any liaison with my dad whatsoever, but my doubly inflated ego (one ego for me, the other for Dad) was working overtime. As I boogie to whatever was playing, the deejay decides to go all highlife on us. My dad likes highlife, and I vicariously put on a few moves. Deadly moves, you're talking blood on the dancefloor moves. Suddenly she stops dancing. This is after she's been staring at me curiously throughout the dancing. "I can't believe it," she quips. "You even dance like your father."
Apples falling. Tree standing. Distance between them. None. So Daddy Was a Good Dancer. Song title of the year. Someone record it.
As a brief aside. I have an uncle in Nigeria who tells this one story every single time. "Nkem, you don big now o! I fit remember that time wey you piss for my hotel bed for London." When I have children, I will not be taking them to visit that particular uncle lest he embarrass me to death. No siree, I ain't having that.*
The thing that always makes me want to curl up and hide under a shrub is the frightful, "Ina nu kwa Igbo?" Do you understand Igbo? Strictly speaking, the answer is no. But because I know five Igbo phrases, I say "obele, obele." Small, small. I know "je waru" - go and bath, "je chi eze" - go and brush your teeth, "ina nu nte" - your ears don't hear (or something like that). Basically, issues of bedtime discipline. Quite how this is useful in adult conversation, I don't know. I'll brush my teeth when I damn well please. In fact, I won't brush 'em. Cane me if you dare. Yes that's three phrases, and in case you're wondering what the other two are, well, each "obele" counts as one individual phrase. Sue me.
However, the fact that you even say "obele, obele" is cue enough to start rattling away in Olumo Rock solid Igbo. Once they've started, that's the end. How do I tell them I haven't got a clue what they're on about? I listen in, trying to pick out words. It's like playing linguistic Su Doku on zen master level.
So my dad's cousin has insisted on speaking to me in Igbo. I should be visiting her soon. It will be an interesting conversation, as I have all my (English) responses worked out. No, Yes, I don't know. And for variation in Igbo, Mba, Ee (can't spell it), Amarom. Six responses in two different languages which mean just three things, for just one conversation. Chomsky, eat your heart out.
*caveat. I was a baby when this hotel bed thing happened...