‘Nigerian Seasonal Produce’ is a monthly column which will be published on the last Saturday of every month. In this column, a writer explores a specific seasonal fruit, vegetable or leafy green assigned by the editors of Kitchen Butterfly and based on the Nigerian Seasonal Produce Calendar.
Our author this month is Keside Anosike – writer extraordinary who teases me endlessly about my addiction to Udara. Thank you, darling.
The Halcyon Noise of Memory: People, Places and Udara
I read somewhere that memory was a creative machine. This means that our memory of things could be slightly different from the way they occurred; that it could work its way into twists; that it could manifest itself, years later, in staggering newness and divergence, or if not so, a forgetfulness that in itself, would soon become a memory.
My father, the man that he is, often made passing references to Udara throughout my childhood. Once, in his numerous affirmations that real life was an absence of the superficial, he had said: ‘You can never judge what someone is going through by looking at them’. ‘O di ka Udara, e ga eche na o ga otogbo onwe ya’, you will open it and the thing will slap you’. And the other time, on things happening for a reason: ‘Udara da n’uzo, ntutu aguwala ya’. ‘Udara that falls by the roadside wants to be picked up’. And the other other time when I was still navigating the trick of actions and consequences: ‘He who wants to swallow an Udara seed must first consider the size of his anus’.
If you asked about Obazu, the community in Mbieri, which was in the North of Owerri, often you get the response that it is the only place things could happen. It was OBZ London, a thing of pride, my grandparents often said. During Christmas, that crisp, hard, exhilarating Harmattan, silence is a thing of shame here, and if you were anywhere that was not OBZ London, it was easy to feel trapped. But if you visited, at other times, it was a place waiting for something to happen. I couldn’t help thinking that there was no sense of time passing if you lived, truly lived, in this village.
You would find the men watching people go by for hour after hour. The women sitting on stools, or stoops, feeding their children akpu– molding it absentmindedly into miniature balls. The music in the local bar where the youths go everyday for beer and palm wine, their hats pushed down over their noses is always five years out of date – no one bothers to change the selections. Quite often the sounds of PSquare, over and over again, as smoke and dust settle over the neighborhood. There is no sense of time. The sirens blare from cars of local politicians, of which their drivers might be on simple errands to find petrol. In the morning, the streets would be empty, raked by the wind of last night. Except on market days, like Afor, where the village would be alive, flies drowning over the fruit stalls, over fat and juicy Udara nwannu, children screaming into the collective air of greetings and bargains. But it was also in this place so laced with languid contentment, this place with people who often lived out days in the same bubu or white tee shirt with the face of the dead plastered on the front; people who by January would be resuming their lives without the consciousness of time, that I began to fall in love with Udara.
I remember, as a boy of maybe 7 or 8, making chewing gum from the cherry red skin, my teeth busying in until it formed completely, thick and sturdy, then chewing on it for hours, after which I would absentmindedly stick it to the bottom of the wooden dinner table. Chewing gum was one of the unlisted crimes in my house. Although no one was explicitly forbidden to chew it, it was also not accessible. But what else was there to this likeness, I find myself asking myself, in a place where I cannot find one to taste, and maybe get my memory to be useful to me. I know that my siblings and I shared the seeds; that there were four (or five) of them, and somehow it felt right that each of us should have one. That we all laughed at one another- at the way our faces contoured itself whenever the sour, slimy juice made its way to the side of our brain. What else was there to this likeness? Could it be that there is now a nagging absurdity that exists as a demonstration of the passive victory of my adulthood: owning something that was once forbidden to me as a child and which was now readily available. Did I love Udara JUST because of chewing gum?
In a family that is never circumspect with one another, silence will always be foreign. On our road trips to the village during Christmas, we discussed everyday things, calming things, normal things, and Udara; leaving behind in cities, hours and exhaust fumes. My father knew how to select the sweet ones, those ones that were often dirty, with black mold from the dried up sap spread out sparingly on their bodies. Once he said that the secret to selecting them was to pretend as though you did in fact know them, and even when the seller had taken up the vigor of an insurance broker (which was bound to happen: ‘oga buy buy buy’), and of a radical politician (‘how can I lie to you, my brother?’), quiet them with the insurmountable pride of not only knowing, but the possible threat of the knowledge being questioned. And they would proceed to select them.
I remember these road trips fondly, as though all the years that have wedged my unfathomable longings and fleeting sense of defeats – of great emptiness, were composed of something simple and light, something translucent and reachable. I remember us approaching Asaba, often 5 hours into the journey; how we would stop to buy Udara. I remember the smell of age filtering into the air-conditioned car, something dry and potent, a low-grade discomfort that marked these women’s proximity, often before the engine had been killed dead.
I remember how my father would search for something striking about these women; women who formed neat rows with their wooden stools and stainless trays, first by giving them the small kindness of a smile, of being acknowledged, and then progressing into a realm that was often so unpredictable of him, so uncharacterized, it bewildered us. If these women were Igbo (most likely), then where were they from, he’d ask. If chances Imo, then what kindred? Were they born there or were they married into? He’d tease them, noticing the things people often neglected, and thereby making these women aware, perhaps for the first time in the market day, that they were more than their meticulously arranged Udara that, due to the sun, was taking on the color of palm oil.
On Sundays in the village, you might find, walking the steps into the church sanctuary in Obazu Mbieri, Holy Trinity, an elderly woman who paused on each landing to get her breath before climbing to the next; who smiled ‘God bless you’ to whomever was behind her, and continued making little assessing noises as she made her way further up. She had once been pretty, and she now lived with a husband who yelled at her- as she yelled at him- each evening because one of them had forgotten the prescription to their drugs. That elderly woman who might, now inside the church, (a witness to my siblings and I’s unabashed chattering, to the insufficient white handkerchief on top of my sister’s head tucked behind her ears so that the back is left exposed like the rear of an overloaded lorry) roll her eyes or contort her lips so that it seemed as though she kept something fluffy underneath her tongue, and yet, will be embarrassingly susceptible to even the slightest attention from any of us when she visited my grandparents house, pulling out a chair from underneath the dining table that held old flasks, canned malt, chipped mugs and a tray holding kola, garden eggs and Udara nwannu.
My memory is a burden of some sort. I could be going about my daily business, walking sensually, aggressively, awkwardly, impatiently. I could be controlling the gaze of people on the bus, in private cars, women gossiping at the bus stop and hugging tight their bags of vegetables. The memory of anything is a personality- the memory of having had, of a fruit, of the smell of dust in Mbieri, the memory of doing (seed by seed, acidic interior by acidic interior, gnashing the sweetness into my molars); of market women laughing, of their butter-yellow teeth, of places, and of feeling the presence of another’s absence.
I am standing still, whenever and wherever it is the memory comes, suddenly feeling so alone in a city of so many, of blacks and whites and Asians, silent, sometimes surrendering to a grunt, otherwise feeling a bowel movement coming on with unarguable urgency. This is when I know that memory is a burden of some sort: when I am waiting for the spasms to pass; when I am seeing everything within my line of vision coming to me too quickly to effectively identify what was real from what wasn’t, and with that a dizzying effect, as though time had been compressed, hours into minutes and minutes hurriedly into seconds; turning my life into a laconic imagining.
I always loved December (the month in which Udara comes into season) for the break from school, and for the new clothes – one to be worn on the 25th, the other on the 1st of the following month. I loved it for the crisp air that propelled the plastering of Vaseline on lips, on ankles, in the spaces between fingers; I loved it for the drive to the East – the cities that left us hurriedly, unharmed, through the glass of our moving car; for the old fruit trees in the backyard of my grandparent’s house that was never interrupted with the premise of change – that had ignored the memo of death, and remained, holiday after holiday, with tenuous branches that my father’s muscled grip provoked into surrendering its particulars into the little patches of neglected grass around where they landed on those mornings alive with dew and grey. Afterwards, he’d pick them up and start making his way to the main house, often singing or whistling, and as he got closer, I could tell from his voice that he was smiling.
Inside the car, my sisters are asleep next to me at the back seat, their heads fallen to their shoulder margin, their lips parted slightly, through which soft snores become an inanimate witness to the scene. We are descending the Niger Bridge, and Onitsha is assaulting us with noise, with the image and wet smell of trash heaped by the roadside, of honking cyclists and eventually, visible within a 2 mile radius, the men in uniform perched on the Owerri- Onistsha expressway, holding long guns with one hand while the other is suspended in the air, alert to flag down approaching vehicles at random.
My father is telling of the days when it was safe to travel by road at night. He always told (his) stories so delicately that it inspired within me a lovely sensation of that particular time being so cloudless, so drawn out with agility and a fluttering of hope, so infinitely precious to him, that I ached even now for his loss of it. I keep quiet through the rest of the journey, savoring scene after scene, and then, this scene: my father’s hairy knuckles griping the wheel, while his face is stretching right, towards my brother who is holding out an Udara, squeezing it until the top pops, slightly, and then with more force, breaks itself open into a neat half. The reason I am quiet is because I am committing that particular scene to memory, so I can think about it many years from now, when I am inspired by a profound sense of homesickness; many years from now when I will need it the most, and when it will come to me, instantly, startling, like a holy revelation.
My name is Keside Anosike. I’m not sure that I have perfected this act of selling myself but on my most ordinary days, I’m a drinker of fine red wine, a feminist, and I also like to tell stories. I’m deeply interested in depicting, through stories, how similar we are as humans; In The Radr