A shocking photograph summons tender memories for a Nigerian woman
Lagos in June is steamy. But that Thursday afternoon at the Champion newspaper office, I did not notice how the air was like a hot, moist blanket. I swaggered and smiled, too full of accomplishment. I had just had a collection of watery poetry published by a vanity press in London. I was doing my first newspaper interview. I was 19 years old.
Kate, the woman who interviewed me, was squat, friendly, and full of praise for the poems (although she had not read them). After the questions, she told me I was a role model for young Nigerians. I glowed. She took me downstairs to have my picture taken in a wide room that smelled of chemicals. Matte photographs were plastered on the wall. Most of them were of prominent people, but there were also beggars under bridges and children playing football and soldiers by the roadsides.
“They put up the best on the wall,” Kate said.
Later, as we left, I turned to glance again at the wall of photographs, and that was when I saw it, the photo of Nnamdi. I might have let out a sound, I might have only shivered, but Kate noticed and asked if something was wrong.
I pointed. “I knew him,” I said.
Kate shook her head. “Oh, sorry, sorry. It was an operation at the bank just across the road,” she said.
I remember the splashes of blood on Nnamdi’s face, his head slumped against the seat of the car; the blood was a deep gray in the black-and-white photo.
At my university secondary school in Nsukka, there were two groups of students. The staff group, which I belonged to, was made up of students whose parents were university lecturers, who lived on campus and had little money and spoke good English. The other group was the Omata. They came mostly from Onitsha and the name Omata somehow conjured the chaos of that large commercial town. Their parents were rich, illiterate traders; they lived in dormitories and often missed the first week of term. We mimicked their mixed-up English tenses, laughed at their poor grades, and mocked their bluster. And, secretly, we coveted what they had: the gold watches that we saw only on the wrists of adults, the gullibility of uneducated parents, the imported sandals that cost more than our families made in a month.
Nnamdi owned such sandals; his were a sparkly brown, almost orange, and had wedge heels. He was an archetype of the unrefined Omata student, down to his swaying-to-the-side strut. Nnamdi was in Form 4, a popular senior student, while I was in Form 2. Of course I found him terribly attractive.
It was his friends who called me at first to say, “Ima, Nnamdi really likes you.” I was noncommittal, tough because I was expected to be. Finally, he came himself. I wish I remembered the first day I talked to him, or what we said. I remember that he walked me home after school, though, and that he said very little. I knew him because he was the kind of student everybody knew, and I had always thought him to be larger than life, taller than life. But there he was, shy beside me, looking down as we walked.
He took to escorting me home. He took to calling me GB, like most of my family and friends. “Bikonu, please, GB, I want you to be my wife,” he said nearly every day, in Igbo. And I would say, in English, with false coolness, “I have to think about it,” even though I wanted nothing more than to be his girlfriend. Later, Nnamdi would tease me about how I gave him a high jump to scale. I like to think now that he knew how much I liked him, from the beginning, and that we were equal participants in the ritual.
The afternoon I said yes, we were standing in front of my garage and he went over and plucked a flower—one of my mother’s carefully preserved yellow roses—and held it out to me.
“What is this for?” I asked sharply. (I had said yes, but it didn’t mean I was no longer tough.)
“A sign. I won’t leave until you take it.”
“I won’t take it until you tell me what it means.”
We went back and forth until Nnamdi said, in English, “It means love,” and I took the flower and he added, “If your mother asks who plucked it, say you don’t know.”
I left the Champion office and sat in a hot taxi and looked at Lagos inching past, the hawkers pressing sunglasses against the window, the buses spitting out thick gray smoke, the cars stuck bumper to bumper in traffic.
“See this stupid man! He wan scratch me!” my taxi driver said, gesturing to the car beside us. Then he stuck his head out and cursed in rapid Yoruba.
I sat back, silent and sweating, and thought of Kate’s words, of how we Nigerians use the word operation to refer to armed robberies and how it had taken on an ominous pallor. Buses were stopped and people killed in operations on the Benin-Lagos expressway. Houses were broken into in nighttime operations. Banks were raided in operations. One Christmas when we were traveling to our hometown, Abba, our driver made a dangerous U-turn in the middle of the expressway. “There is an operation in front!” he said, and my mother praised him for being so quick.
My taxi driver had stopped cursing and asked what I had been doing in the Champion newspaper office. “Wonderful!” he said when I told him. “Small aunty like you can write book. Well done!”
I thanked him. But my glow was gone, my poetry forgotten. I was trying to remember what I had felt when I saw the photo of the dead person on the wall and realized that it was Nnamdi.
My friends, my smug staff friends, were appalled by how much time Nnamdi and I spent together. Could he even make one decent sentence? What did we talk about? they wanted to know. Even I hardly know now. He made me laugh. We fought about things I no longer remember and sometimes, when I pretended to be angrier than I was, he would threaten to throw himself in the path of a car or to kneel, in apology, at the entrance of my class. He would say this so earnestly that I would laugh. Just as I laughed when he suggested we go to a dibia to do the igba ndu, a blood betrothal that would keep us from ever breaking up. I was not familiar with it. The people in my world did not do things like the igba ndu rite; they sniffed at the supernatural. But the simplicity of Nnamdi’s faith intrigued me. Nnamdi intrigued me.
Before I went to the Champion office that June day, I knew Nnamdi was dead. His friend Ojay had told me some months before. “Something happened to Nnamdi,” he had said. Nnamdi had been at the wrong place at the wrong time, the operation was over, the armed robbers had finished stealing from the bank, but Nnamdi had parked his car in such a way that he blocked their getaway. I didn’t cry. It seemed so distant, so unlikely, and I had not seen him in years.
It was in the taxi from the Champion office that I began to cry. I thought about the last time I had seen him. It was at a beach in Lagos. We had not seen each other since his father had transferred him to another secondary school. We were both self-consciously, unconvincingly mature. He said he was trying to get into the University of Lagos. I said I was preparing to take my final secondary school exams. He had not changed; the tall, thin body, the narrow face, and the hooked nose were all the same.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked finally.
“Yes,” I replied, although I did not.
He had a girlfriend, too, he said, many girlfriends in fact. Before we parted, he added, “You can have as many boyfriends as you want to. But when it comes to marriage, it’s me and nobody else. God made you for me. If we marry other people, thunder will strike us down.”
We were no longer young teen-agers, but he spoke with that old earnestness on his face and I laughed.
On my birthday, the last birthday before Nnamdi left my school, he gave me a scented satin rose in a gilded case. I hid it from my mother: It looked expensive and I feared she would ask me to return it. Later, when he gave me a ring with gold strips that curved across my finger, I hid that too. But I did not hide the card he brought when I was sick with malaria. It looked like an ordinary get-well card, one of the many my friends had sent. When you opened Nnamdi’s card, though, it played an upbeat take on “Für Elise.” Inside the card, Nnamdi had written in his unformed, childish hand, “To my one love GB. From your own Nnamdi.”
In memoriam: Nnamdi Ezenwa
Copyright © 2007 by Chimamanda Adichie, reprinted with the permission of the Wylie Agency, Inc. This essay previously appeared in Granta (#99). Subscriptions: $31.25/yr. (4 issues) from Box 359, Congers, NY 10920; www.granta.com.