The 2019 Met Gala Celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion

The annual  2019 Met Gala Celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art held on May 06, 2019 in New York City. I’ve been too busy with work stuff to write a post about it then but I sure did take some copious notes of my own.

I have heard the word ‘camp’ used before and I sorta kinda knew what it meant but this was an opportunity to find out more. I mean, all of my favourite magazines had something fascinating to say about it. Vogue, Harpers Bazaar. etc etc etc.

Are you surprised that those are my favourite magazines? I guess you expected me to say National Geographic or The Economist or The Harvard Business Review. I have had my flirtations with those too.

I have evolved. I now read Esquire along with Vogue. And I still read car magazines. I followed Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear religiously for many years. Another day another post maybe.

The Met Gala was a delight.

Having read all Susan Sontag et al had to say about camp here is my take on it. Camp is visual reward, glamour and theatricality. It is extravagant, vulgar and yet unpretentious and innocent. Most of all it is playful or failed seriousness as Susan puts it in her excellent exposition Notes On Camp.

Camp is lively, audacious, dynamic, impertinent and challenging. It is the glorification of character – of a person being one very intense thing. Over the top exaggeration. A daring and witty hedonism. Camp has been associated with queer culture and drag, swish, burlesque, dandyism and pantomime.

And with all that in mind here are who I think are the hits and misses at the show.

The Hits

Judging by the definitions I read Joan Crawford nailed the look with her Cinderella meets Scarlett O’Hara ball gown and excess of feathers and diamonds even though none of the super models who also wore feathers and lots of bling looked camp. Donatella has been doing extra for so long it must be impossible for her to look camp.

 

Lupita Nyong’o, Ru Paul and Hamish Bowles nailed it perfectly. Lupita took the associations to pantomime and channeled an African Marlene Dietrich. And did you notice the appropriation of Erik culture? Loved it.

 

Ciara, Janelle Monáe, Katy Perry, and Cara Delevingne managed to look quirky if not quite camp.

 

French Montana in Dapper Dan Gucci looked like just about any run of the mill Arab. Is that to suggest that they are camp? Oh dear. And I was disappointed in the Hilfiger’s consumes. Someone told me a few days ago that Benedict Cumberbatch has swag. I see what they mean. However, like Anne Wintour he looked too elegant to be camp. Certainly dandy though.

 

 

The Misses –

The long trains were boring and cliche. Besides Riri slayed the train with her Chinese inspired Met Gala outfit in 2015. You can’t top that.

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The Kardashian-Jenner clan. Was it that they made no effort to actually find out the theme for the night or is it that they are just camp every day and we have so gotten used to that image their 2019 Met Gala looks did not stand out? Their outfits while stunning and intricate just did not stand out. There was something missing.

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Naomi, Gisele, Gywnyth, Donatella, Nicki Minaj, Jlo, didn’t seem like they even tried. Isn’t that what they wear everyday? Where was the theatre, the performance, the fantasy?

I’m still not over the fact that  they did not invite Cher. I mean, she (and Elton John) literally defined celebrity camp in he 70’s and 80s. Now that’s how to do camp.

According to Susan and some contemporary writers camp is naive or uncontrived bad taste. Camp also re-appropriate culture in an ironic way, bringing back things that were once thought tasteless or in bad taste.  Barrie Kosky, an Australian theatre and opera director, said he uses camp to satirise the pretensions, manners and cultural vacuity of Australia’s middle class.

But the Met Gala 2019 award for camp goes to Hamish Bowles and Billy Porter.

More than anybody else they brought to life Susan’s Notes on Camp.

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Camp isn’t just extra and playful. Camp is performance. It is the glorification of character according to Sontag and a person being one very intense thing. I now feel able to identify camp. Which is somewhat of a relief. To be able to give a name to all that excess of bad taste one encounters daily especially in Nigeria and Africa.

Chantal Biya the first lady of Cameroon exhibits an abundance of naive over the top  bad taste. So do many other matrons and matriarchs of Africa but we will leave them for another day.

 

Fela was definitely camp. (I’ll be writing a critique of Fela in October during Felabration.)

So is Charly Boy,

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And Bobrisky

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Camp is also about breaking gender stereotypes and role playing. According to Susan “What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.” And of course camp has been most closely associated with drag queens but it has roots going way back to Oscar Wilde and dandyism.

My favourite gender bender looks were Harry Stiles in Gucci and Danai Gurira.

 

But the biggest lesson from the Met Gala Night was my own flirtations with camp and queerness. Melanie Trump pulled the campiest move of the century when she wore THAT coat but I can relate. (The entire Trump family could be the poster children for camp.)

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I really don’t care. Do you? 

It’s all a performance and theatre. Be your most intense self. I most certainly intend to do just that.

 

 

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Journal Entry 16 April 2011: Dissociation

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Persephone and Cerberus by artofMilica.deviantart.com on @DeviantArt

Hi. I’m Persephone, Elizabeth’s favourite archetype. She relates to my experience of kidnap by Hades into the Underworld with her own kidnap to Nigeria, which she describes as Hell on earth. She is of course referring to the poor and oppressed Africa, not the fat cat elite Africa that is its own sort of Elysium. 

Elizabeth has had an opportunity to witness some of the poorest living conditions in the world, rampant superstition and the bitter, desperate competition that abject poverty breeds. Sensitive soul that she is the experience has had a traumatic impact on her. The transformation of Kore the Maiden into Persephone the Queen of the Underworld is a metaphor for the journey from naive maiden to powerful woman. 

Stories were how Elizabeth survived years of physical and emotional abuse and later on life in a medieval jungle community. She also identifies my mother Demeter’s grief with her mothers grief. Sadly a reunion never happened for Elizabeth and her mother. When Elizabeth finally returned to Moscow after 35 years she really did feel like she had come up from Hades for a breathe of spring air. My story helped her understand her experience. 

 

Elizabeth started getting increasingly gothic after her mothers death. She explored gothic art and imagery, earth religions and witchcraft. At one point she was a rock star, then she was a priestess, a happy go lucky maiden, a ballsy career woman. When she was in her early 30’s Elizabeth, who has always been a voracious reader, started to explore theoretical feminism. The philosopher in Elizabeth enjoys learning through stories, folk lore and the spiritual.

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Elizabeth has more fun with a pantheon of imperfect gods and goddesses than one authoritarian god. When she read feminist writers relating feminism through the lens of Greek, African and Inca mythology she did the same and concluded that I was also Ezenwanyi in Igbo mythology, and Africa was Hades. Many of her fathers people believe that Elizabeth is the queen and the goddess Ezenwanyi and on the now rare occasions when she returns to her fathers little village in the Igbo heartland they treat her like one. 

Local lore doesn’t say where Ezenwanyi comes from but she is a fair complexioned, beautiful woman with the attitude of a diva. Amiable and generous when happy, she can be vindictive and vicious when unhappy. She was described as a mermaid, half fish and half human and she dwelt in the deepest parts of the rivers where the current was strongest. In the mid 20th century in remote little Igbo villages and towns people still left offerings of sweets, cake, fanta and candy for Ezenwanyi along the forrest paths to the river. 

 

I have been summoned to give testimony of Elizabeth. She wants to be like me when she grows up, to be a woman of substance, of power and of authority accepting her fate as queen of Hades. Hades isn’t a very nice place. It reminds me of the ghettoes and favelas of big Gotham like cities around the world. The dark under belly of the cities, hidden from view like the dark side of the moon. 

She thinks because I am a goddess and a queen that my life must have the virtue of Elizabeth I of England, Catherine the Great of Russia. Or even Elizabeth II. Queens that took their role way too seriously if  you ask me. Hades is hot. You do not want to exert yourself. And seriously, what disaster could possibly happen in Hades anyway. The disaster has happened.

She’s not going to like reading this (Elizabeth hates it when her characters take on a life of their own) but I’m not like those queens. I’m different. I’ve changed. I’m not Kore anymore. And I’ve gotten over my separation from my mother. I’ve accepted my marriage to Hades and spending the rest of life here. She should too. 

Elizabeth is not like that though. She’s a stubborn little fighter. Nothing is impossible to her, a notion that has caused her more than her fair share of frustration. For Elizabeth its only impossible if its not being paid any attention. She is beginning to grudgingly accept that she is only human and not Super Woman. Not even I am Super Woman. And I am a goddess. 

 

Even as she writes this her nature rises to the challenge ready to say “ I AM Super Woman!” We both chuckle. Elizabeth was a fire cracker when she was younger. We’re both pleasantly surprised she made it this far. She lived like a rock star and really believed she was going to crash and burn before 40. Now she is actually planning to stick around till 70. She’s still a little bit of rock and roll but she is also a little bit of country now. 

I want Elizabeth to accept me for who I am; an indulged, spoilt, party loving diva  who likes to go out among her subjects, The Dead, and spread love where she can. Some of our subjects cannot receive comfort and their cries for solace echo in our ears and in the dark chambers of our heart. The music, the parties, the laughter mute their cries but they are always there, in the background, the White Noise of Hades. Like a ray of sunshine I grace them with my warmth and beauty till I can go back to Olympus, to replenish and renew my self again at my mothers bosom.

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Persephone & Hades by CharllieArts @DeviantArt

I would like to say to Elizabeth now that I have the chance – go ahead and be yourself, be confident and do not be afraid. You can be whoever you want to be and you can be yourself. You don’t need me anymore but you honour me by summoning me  to testify for you here and for introducing me to this assembly. 

 

Q: Is it possible to improve the quality of life in Hades?

A: They are only dead men and women in Hades (there are no children here). My husbands job is jail keeper, everyone here is in forced labour. Nobody ever leaves here except me and Hades and once in a while we give a get out of jail free card. Even though my husband and I come and go we have to come back quick quick. Just like Elizabeth can leave Africa when ever she wants and never come back but she choses to come back. She calls it the last bastion of true liberty in the world. Under-regulated markets,  pure laissez-faire capitalism, growing consumerism, endemic tax evasion, poor gun control, habitual corruption, pervasive nepotism, rabid opportunism, deadly competition  and lots of wide open spaces. (Does that not sound like Hades?) 

In Africa paupers become kings as quickly as kings become paupers. Elizabeth the social entrepreneur cannot ignore the opportunities. And after living more than 3 decades in Africa the plethora of rules and regulations in London, Moscow and New York make Elizabeth feel like she’s in a straight jacket. Besides, there are just as many risks living in the northern hemisphere as there are in the global south. At least in Hades the weather is always warm, about as close to paradise as you can get.

I spend my time and money on my appearance – my subjects like glamour, pomp and circumstance. It distracts them from their daily misery. Most nights will find me wining, dining and dancing with my playmates. And the days see me hearing petitions from my subjects. All I can offer are cool drops of solace. I cannot forgive sins. The only people that have ever received a get out of jail free card weren’t supposed to be here in the first place. I can give wealth to my subjects but I cannot give them life, health or children. There are no children in Hades. When people insist that I give them fruit of the womb I can only give  them Dead spirits, mysterious, mischievous and impish spawn.

There is no sunshine in Hades. No growth and no growing. Endless stagnation, no aspiration and eternal screams from the tormented. We have ruthless court intrigues. In Olympus if you’re banished from court you could retire to the comfort of your country estate. In Hades banishment from court means a sad, harsh, dog eat dog existence in Tantalus. The courtiers, not having the solace of death to look forward to (you know, because they’re dead already) fight viciously for a position in the royal court.  It is hard to live surrounded daily by suffering and pain. It is a trauma to the soul. It is brutal to live surrounded by the Dead, tragic desperate souls that have no hope. 

My husband is often away so I do not see him as often as I would like to. The flow of souls into Hades is unending. He is constantly opening up new territory and mining new gold fields. He takes his job seriously. He is not a womaniser like Zeus. (I do not know how Hera puts up with Father.) Hades is a bit sombre and he needs to be firm to run Hades. He has to manage countless souls – the good,  the bad and the ugly. He can’t afford to be complacent. He comes to me for light and for love. I am the only life and love in Hades. I am what gives Death Hope. God’s own queen that dwells beside the cool pool of water. 

Who else could have given me words to speak to the nations, if not Elizabeth – defender of the underdog, rescuer of the dysfunctional and the wounded, the voice of the maligned and misunderstood. The elders and me love her because she always remembers us and tells our stories. 

Harry Weds Meghan 2018

 

I have been a student of royal history ever since I read ‘The Kings Grey Mare’ as a teenager. And I used to be so obsessed with Russian royalty I once claimed to be the descendant of Alexis, the murdered Czarevitch that rumour kept alive for decades. Its within the realm of possibility.

My grandmother and grandfather werewar orphans. They have no idea who their parents were or even what part Russia they were from. They grew up in orphanages in the Volga region. That’s all we know. It’s always been a mystery to solve for me. I’m going to do a genetic history as soon as possible. I only hesitate because I don’t want confirmation that they may have been landless serfs. Or something.

My fathers Nigerian lineage is more colourful and inspiring but no mystery. We’re Igbo.  We have to know our fathers fathers fathers fathers and mothers mothers mothers mothers children and descendants so we don’t go and marry our cousin 8 times removed by mistake. We take consanguinity seriously.

My fathers lineage were spiritual custodians of Ala. Lords of the Land, Ndi Nze Na Ozo from my great grand father 6 times removed in a continuous line of succession to the present. Noble stuff. They take this shit seriously. Up until a decades  ago other people in the village were so in awe of the family reputation they were willing to let our men impregnate their wives just so some of our blood would grace their bloodline. It was all kinda weird for an American girl. The African woman is less judgmental.

Harry and Meghan’s wedding this weekend will go down in history as the biggest show of all time. Bigger than Wrigley Brothers. And just as much of a circus. So I must write about it.

I’m kinda of conflicted about it. On the one hand I am completely outraged that the British Monarchy dares to flaunt its privilege and the proceeds of centuries of  global conquest, loot and brigandry. And I am outraged that the masses are so thoroughly hypnotised by the spectacle and refuse to see their bondage. On the other hand I am equally enthralled by this spectacle and performance – of POWER.

(But I don’t feel driven to participate or make the masses change or ‘see’ the error of their ways. Besides, how do I know they are in error?)

Ever wondered why the British monarchy has endured and grown richer and more powerful while other monarchies struggle? Elizabeth has you all fooled that she a little old lady? The British monarchy endures because they are incorporated. What does that mean? They’re a business. And Elizabeth’s role has been to ensure the monarchy survives and her family stays in power. Well how would you react if mobs chopped off your cousins heads in TWO different revolutions in two or was it four different countries? Staying in power is the only objective. All the men in her family even have military training.

I sometimes wonder the kind of conversation Elizabeth and Phillip might have over breakfast. Are they allowed to have breakfast together? And why has the Royal Family been so quick to accept Meghan into their warm loving fold?

‘Great for the family. He’s finally settling down and this marriage will put to rest those ridiculous rumours that we killed Diana because we are racists.”

“You almost can’t tell that she’s a darkie anyway. I watched her in Suits. Pass me the crumpets girl.”

“Yes dear.”

You know how Harry fell in love with Meghan? On their first date Meghan gushed “Imagine how much good one can do in the world as a prince or princess.”  And Harry was hooked. She understands its a role, she’s an actress. Less strategic women might only see an opportunity to showcase their amazing taste, style and connections. But this girl Meghan was raised by a down to earth black woman! She was raised well! She already reminds me of Michel Obama.

The privilege of being royalty shouldn’t be just about a privileged lifestyle it should be a privilege to serve people, do good and uplift humanity. I totally feel her. Thats why she is marring Harry and Harry is marrying her. Thats why they are in love.

Kate on the other hand is so middle class it hurts. Her marriage elevated her family’s social class in a very real way. And now she is royalty she is behaving like a brood mare. Fulfilling her role which is to produce and nurture heirs and secure the line of succession. That she displays sensible middle class values and even shops in Waitrose once in a while is pure theatre.

Kate does not perform Princess to change or impact the world or provide extraordinary leadership. Her husband is the next king after all. Different strokes. Harry and Meghan are going to be a power couple. They’re going to impact the world and they’re going to make the British monarchy more popular than ever.

They will use the Family Firm just as much as the Family Firm uses them.

People keep saying Meghan will break and want to break out. These two have more than just chemistry or delusions of romantic love holding them together. They’ll last. Meghan is lucky not because she is marrying into royalty, she is lucky because she can perform and impact globally. And she’s in love with a really cute guy that loves her.

Whats not to to be happy about? Elizabeth is pleased and consolidates her power with the public once again. And manages to make some more money for herself and her subjects. Other royal houses especially Nigerian royal houses should learn from her. Not the House of Saud who are still chopping off heads so they might keep their own.

 

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Brrinnng brrinnng! Answer Your Phone Please

Once upon a time not so long ago there lived a small little king in a small little kingdom in the hot tropical jungle somewhere near the equator. Even though the king and his kingdom were very small the king had a very big ego. Ever heard of the Napoleon Complex?  The king never answered his mobile phone unless someone richer than him was calling and really rich people didn’t call him very often which meant he almost never answered his phone.

“The only people that call me are people who want something from me” he explained if anyone asked him why he didn’t answer his mobile phone “I’ll call them back when I’m ready.”

The little king had a poor court jester who had been with him and served him loyally for many many years. The court jester had many many children and the king through the years had helped the jester to pay school fees and things like that. When the jesters children grew up they worked hard and became rich men and took care of their father while the little kings children still expected the king to take care of them.

One day the little king was hungry and called the jester on his mobile phone.

“I hear that all your children are doing well now and taking care of you. You know I helped you raise your children. You are not a loyal servant, you are eating your children’s money all by yourself and not sharing it with me.”

And the jester who was a good man with a conscience felt very bad indeed even though his children didn’t give him that much money because they were still young men and building houses and families and empires of their own and didn’t have a lot of discretionary income yet. So the jester took the little savings he had and bought a smelly he-goat and some overnight palm wine just like he knew the king liked it and took it to the little king.

He got to the little kings gate and called the little king on his mobile phone but guess what? The little king didn’t answer his phone! The jester called and called and called and even sent a text massage but the king didn’t answer his mobile phone. So the jester took the smelly he-goat and the overnight palm wine and went away.

Some days later the little king called the jester.

“I just read your text message. Where is the smelly he goat and the overnight palm wine that you bought for me? Bring it over immediately” he roared at the jester over his mobile phone.

“My king! That was many days ago. I was ashamed to return home with my offerings for you least my wife and children see it and laugh that you have rejected me so I went to the fat king who is your friend so he would call you but he seized it and had a barbecue and feasted all night.”

And the little king was very angry. And still very hungry.

And the moral of the story is – every body may be calling you because they want something from you but one person maybe calling you to give you something you asked the gods for so stop being an arrogant little prick and answer the damn phone.

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Sleep by Salvadore Dali 1937

The Only Time I Ever Played With Barbie. Once. Ever.

 
I was like 8 or something. I was not included in Barbie play previously because I did not have a Barbie. My struggling immigrant parents did not appreciate the importance of owning a Barbie for a child trying to belong in white middle America. My best friend at the time, Jill lent me one of hers.
 
So we’re playing Barbie and they make ME the housekeeper or maid or something. Now, I’m not sure if this was because I was coloured or if it was some sort of Barbie hierarchy I didn’t know about. Anyway. I’m pissed off to be the maid, see? Everybody else got to be something and I became the maid? Fuck no. I ain’t no maid. I even argued there are no maids in utopia. But they insisted.
 
So what did I do? I told those little bitches that they’re all too delicate and vulnerable to come out of their rooms, put them on a strict schedule so they can’t call me in-between and shut them up in the back room of the Barbie house. Then I toke over the rest of the Barbie house and played in it all by myself.
 
There were four other players all about the same age. At least one of them was a boy who had a Ken doll and liked to play with Barbies. I bullied them like an over bearing governess or nanny or something and made everyone do what I said anyway. That was the first and the last time they invited me to play Barbie.
 
I wish I could say I was devastated or something but quite honestly I found the whole experience unpleasant. And disturbing. I also felt that they’re insistence had more to do with the fact I didn’t own a Barbie (and must be economically ‘disadvantaged’) than my colour.
 
On account of incidents like this I hung out a lot with boys. And ended up doing mad things like seeing how fast I could go down the steep hill behind the mall parking lot on my bicycle. I was a sucker for a dare. All they needed to say was ‘girls can’t do that’ to make me go prove that, yes, girls can, even if I personally had not and didn’t really know.
 
The relief and exhilaration when I made it to the bottom of that hill. Going down my only stubborn thought was that I WASN’T going to crash and burn. I was going to prove that girls could do this. Alas. So young and already the weight of representing ‘girls’ upon my tender shoulders. Then someone would suggest something stupid like we go find the steepest hill in town.
 
So I mostly just hung out by myself. And read a lot of books. 
And Barbie became a symbol of a whole lot more than just unrealistic beauty standards.
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SUNRISE HOTEL

 

There is a hotel in the Village on the way to the stream; at least it calls itself a hotel. It’s a small concrete bungalow with a tin roof and a concrete courtyard.  A dented oil drum sits at the corner of the building to catch rain water. Dingy curtains cover the open windows and doors. Outside a big signboard says ‘Sunrise Hotel’ above badly painted pictures of green beer bottles and a goat head. At night red and blue light bulbs glow surreally in the surrounding darkness like Christmas lights.

Chidimma passes the hotel on her way to the stream every day. It looks modern and inviting in a village of mud huts and colonial buildings.  She wants to go in and maybe stay in one of their rooms. The hotel rooms she sees in Drum magazine have nice beds with head boards, closets and bedside lamps, not like the iron bed she sleeps on in a stuffy room with clothes hanging on pegs in the wall lit only by a dim kerosene lamp.

She asks her half-sister Eunice if they can stay there. ‘Only prostitutes stay there’ Eunice answers disdainfully. Chidimma read about prostitutes in the Bible, they are bad women that make men do bad things and go to hell.  She doesn’t understand what they do but she understands that they are paid to do it and they do it with lots of different men and that was really really bad. She’s been told that good women only do it with one man, they marry him and they never get paid for it.

Chidimma doesn’t want to get married. Married women always look unhappy. They talk different when their husband is around and they behave different too.  They look wary, like children trying to behave well in front of adults. And when they don’t behave well they get beaten or punished just like children too. Chidimma can’t wait to grow up, she doesn’t want to be a child and she doesn’t want to be a wife.  She doesn’t want to be a good woman.

Good women get up before sunrise to fetch water or strain cassava meal at the stream, sweep the compound, feed the men and children, weed the yam farms or go to the market to buy and sell with babies strapped to their backs or hanging on to their breasts. At sunset they come back to feed the men and children again and put everyone to bed. Sometimes there is a wedding or a burial feast to attend and break the tedium.

Chidimma feels a familiar wave of darkness threaten her as she imagines a life time of drudgery.  The darkness comes more frequently now.  She day dreams of life as a prostitute in Sunrise Hotel instead, of wearing nice clothes, of men who will love her, of sleeping in a proper bed, of having electricity every night, of watching television and having a drum full of water in front of the house.

###

Charlie doesn’t propose. He just starts calling Chidimma his wife every time he sees her. Soon everyone is calling her his wife too and she almost starts to believe them. He is a handsome and popular student at the only high school in the village. It is for boys only so Chidimma can’t attend and her father can’t afford to send her to a girl’s boarding school. The way Charlie looks at her and smiles makes her squirm but he doesn’t pinch her breasts or try to kiss her when no one is looking like some of the old men in the village.

Charlie and his brothers visit her brothers, their friends, often. Chidimma’s brothers make her sit with them while Anayo, a bus conductor, tells wild stories of the witches and magicians living in the cities he visits.

When the sun goes down they set up a portable turntable powered by a car battery and play music. They remove the speaker from the casing and suspend it over the mouth of a clay pot to make it reverberate like a woofer. A single bare bulb lights up the dingy room and their eager teenage faces. They sing along to Nico Mbarga’s ‘Sweet Mother’ .

Sweet mother 

I no go forget you 

For the suffer wey you suffer for me yeah

 

Chidimma’s mother died when she was born. She listens to the words of the song and wonders what a mother’s love feels like. She flips through her brothers record collection. He has about a dozen albums. His most prized possessions. He saves his kobos to buy records and music equipment. He’s in demand as a DJ around the Village and makes some extra money too.

Chidimma reads the names of the bands absentmindedly; Bunny Mack, Black Children, Ofege, One World, Wings, Semi-Colons, Comrades, Actions. The male bands look modern in afros, dark glasses, tight shirts, flared trousers and platform shoes on the covers. She flips to an album with a woman on the cover. ‘Nelly Uchendu’ ‘Love Nwa Nti Nti’ it says. The woman gazes into the distance wearing a traditional costume.

Anayo changes the record.

My sweetie my sugar my baby my lover 

So honey let me love you 

Let me love you forever wo yeah

Charlie comes over, sits next to Chidimma and holds her hand. Suddenly her father rushes in with a machete. He threatens to kill Charlie for defiling his daughter but everyone escapes through the window. A few days later her father’s half-sister Ahuekwe comes from Town and takes Chidimma away with her. She says Chidimma needs a woman to raise her now.  She promises to send Chidimma to high school and  to look after her like her own daughter.

Chidimma is excited. She’s never been to Town before but she’s heard it has tarred roads, electricity. and houses bigger than Sunrise Hotel. She packs her Sunday best in a plastic bag and waves good bye.

Chidimma is faintly disappointed to find Ahuekwe doesn’t live in a big house but rents a garage and two small rooms with a lean-to kitchen, a bucket toilet and a shower stall out back of a modest old building but its better than the Village. Ahukwe lives with her teenage son and daughter and runs a beer parlour in the garage. The garage is lit with red and blue light bulbs just like Sunrise Hotel. At night men bring beautifully groomed women wearing short dresses and high heels. Chidimma serves them beer and pepper soup.

———

It is late in morning and the rooms are stifling in the tropical heat. The beer parlour isn’t open yet. Ahuekwe has gone to the morning market to buy ingredients for her famous Chicken Peri Peri and Goat Meat Pepper Soup.

Chidimma sits outside and watches people go by on the busy street. The same people pass every morning. One is a young woman the street children call ‘Fela’. She is dark and skinny with a buzz cut. She wears chic clothes with flip flops and a mad expression on her face. They say she used to dance for Fela in Lagos. Chidimma saw a picture of Fela and his dancers in Drum magazine once.

Friday, Ahuekwe’s seventeen year old son comes home from school unexpectedly and calls Chidimma into the bedroom. He smiles, she smiles back. He’s a day student at a local high school.  She doesn’t expect him to pull her to him in a bear hug or to start grinding his erection against her.  She stiffens and tries to pull away but he holds her tighter. He only lets go when he hears Ahuekwe’s voice outside. Ahuekwe doesn’t ask why Friday is home from school or why Chidimma is trembling and shaken.

Every day after that Friday comes back from school when his mother is at the market. Chidimma tries to avoid him but he stalks her patiently. When she tells Ahuekwe she is accused of lying and punished. Anna, Friday’s sister returns from boarding school  and Chidimma tells her too but Anna just laughs. ‘Don’t you want to be a woman?’

The beer parlour is always busier when Anna is home.  She is beautiful with velvety chocolate coloured skin. She sits and drinks with the men that come alone.  Anna invites Chidimma to sit with them once in a while. Chidmma crosses her legs, smokes a cigarette like Anna and tries to look grown up.

Sometimes Anna leaves with one of the men and she doesn’t come home till the next morning. Ahuekwe doesn’t say anything till it’s time for Anna to go back to school and she asks her mother for money. Ahuekwe is livid. ‘Have you been sleeping with that man for free? Go and collect money from him. Foolish girl.’

Anna takes Chidimma with her to see him later and asks him for money but he says he doesn’t have any. They argue. Chidimma asks to use the bathroom. He gets up to show her the way. As soon as they are in the hallway he pushes her up against the wall and puts his tongue in her mouth. She struggles. Anna watches. When they leave he gives Anna some money.

——-

Next time Anna comes home from school she has a new friend called Nkeiru. Nkeiru is very glamorous. She looks like the models in Ebony magazine. Anna begins to dress and look just like her. One day Anna and Nkeiru dress Chidimma up and take her out with them. They go to another beer parlour and meet a man. They drink lots of beer and pepper soup and then they all go to a hotel together.

Its not like Sunrise Hotel. This hotel has four floors and many many rooms. The wood panelled reception area is five times bigger than Ahuekwe’s two rooms and garage. A cheap dusty cut glass chandelier hangs in the centre of the lobby, only two out of 12 bulbs work. The carpet is encrusted with dirt, thread bare in high traffic places and frayed at the edges near the wall.

The cracks in the over stuffed imitation leather armchairs to the left of the entrance make them look like giant turtles in the gloom. Plastic plants and flowers sit on coffee tables. Chidimma looks around in awe. They go into the bar. Uniformed waiters serve them ice cold beer in tall fragile glasses that aren’t chipped.

Anna tells Chidimma to go upstairs with the man. She tells Chidimma he will give her money to buy new cloths. He is middle aged and fat. He lounges in an armchair like a toad. His belly sits around his large frame like a barrel. His lips look thick and slack. His eyes are flat and cold. His face gleams with sweat and grease. He breathes with difficulty. Chidimma shudders and looks at Anna with a plea in her eyes but Anna ignores her.

She lies frozen with revulsion under him on a bed upstairs her face averted while he heaves, grunts and sweats on top of her.  She doesn’t let him kiss her. She thinks of the money he will give her but when they leave he gives the money to Anna and Nkeiru. They don’t give Chidimma any.

Nkeiru knows a lot of rich old men. She takes Anna and Chidimma with her to visit them. A lot more men come to Ahuekwe’s beer parlour too. They buy lots of pepper soup and beer and try to get the girls attention. Ahuekwe smiles broadly as she counts her money. Everybody is making money except Chidimma.

Then Chidimma gets pregnant  and Ahuekwe sends her back to the village.

—-

Chidimma’s father and brothers are mad. They beat her to make her tell them who got her pregnant but she doesn’t know and doesn’t say anything. Ahuekwe watches and listens, urging the men on. She calls Chidimma a stubborn, wilful and ungrateful child. When Chidimma, one eye swollen shut and bleeding from the nose collapses at Ahuekwe’s feet, she moves away with a scornful look on her face. “Stupid girl. I told you not to be moving about with men! Where are they now?” Chidimma tries to speak but Ahuekwe kicks her in the mouth.

Her father picks up a large log and takes a swing at Chidimma’s head. She scurries away just in time, gets up and runs out of the compound. “Don’t you ever dare to come back here again unless you are coming with the man that got you pregnant. Useless girl.” Her fathers words pursue her. She runs past a sea of faces gathered watching the drama.  Some came out of their huts to watch and listen, some stopped on their way to the market where they will tell the story later to those who missed it.

No one comes forward to intervene. No one wants their daughter to get pregnant before marriage. Its a disgrace, a sure sign of a bad upbringing and poor pedigree. So no one wants to interfere when a man disciplines his daughter when it happens. Within days Chidimma’s disgrace will be whispered all over the village as an example of what happens to bad girls that have sex before marriage.

Chidimma disappears down the footpaths that criss cross the village farmlands till she collapses near the edge of the forest that surrounds the village. Sobs rack her body for a while then she is still. She jumps when a hand touches her. A soft voice asks ‘What is it my child?’. Her eyes focus and she stares into an old woman’s kind weathered face. Chidimma recognises Alumma and collapses gratefully at her feet.

Alumma is a poor, childless spinster who lives in a small mud hut all by herself near the border of the village. Everyone calls her a witch. She is always quick to point out an injustice and she always knows whats going on in the entire village. She heard Chidimma’s story in the market.

Alumma takes Chidimma home and nurses her till she is strong enough to help her around the hut and on the farm. Four months later, just before the first harvest, Chidimma gives birth to a baby boy attended only by Alumma in their small mud hut. The rain hits the thatch roof and muffles the babies cries. Neither the spirits nor the people hear him arrive.

“The deities be praised. The vampire witches and wizards that prey on women at child birth cannot fly in the rain.” Alumma says as she cuts the umbilical cord with a knife.

Chidimma and her son recover well and quickly. She is so grateful for a speedy and strong recovery she calls him Ekene. No one comes to visit Chidimma and her baby. No one brings her fish and yam for her confinement. Soon she is back on the farm with Alumma, her baby strapped to her back.

Each morning when she goes to the stream she passes the Sunrise Hotel. Each night asleep on  a raised platform near the cooking pit she dreams of a big house, with a large busy kitchen, a tank full of water nearby, and plastic flowers decorating the coffee table in the living room.

—-

When Ekene is 18 months old Chidimma weans him. He is a strong stocky baby and loves to run around kicking a football. He calls Alumma ‘Nne’ and she dotes on him. Chidimma leaves him with Alumma and moves into the Sunrise Hotel. It took her a whole year to save enough money to buy a nice dress and a pair of platform shoes.

Alumma doesn’t stop her and Chidimma ignores the sad resignation in the old woman’s eyes as she leaves. They don’t speak about what she is about to do. They both know it has to be this way. For Chidimma there is no other way. Her desire for a better life flares into an overwhelming burden of ambition each time she looks at her son.

At the Sunrise Hotel she quickly learns to please the clients and ignore the taunts of the self righteous and soon has enough money to move back to Town. She rents a room in one of the numerous brothels. She is popular, vivacious and kind, she builds a long list of regular customers and the other prostitutes come to her for help, advice and counselling.

She sends money to Alumma and Ekene regularly and lives frugally. When she opens her own brothel the other girls rush to rent with her. She is always fair. She takes in only the highest paid most popular girls. Business is good and she treats the girls well. They make her President of their association. Chidimma is a long way from Sunrise Hotel.

In a few years she builds a big house in the village where Alumma’s small mud hut once stood and buys Alumma a ladies motorcycle to replace the bicycle she bought for her earlier. Alumma never  actually rides the motorbike unless she goes pillion with Ekene. She says she’s too old to learn but she likes to see it parked in the hall way of her new concrete and zinc bungalow.

Chidimma threw a lavish feast for the house opening. Villagers and relatives came from all over the state to see with their own eyes the house that Chidimma built.

—–

They all came back for her lavish Igba Nkwu wedding five years later too.

Chidimma met John at the Oriental Hotel in Town. She was sitting at the outdoor bar alone. Her pampered skin glowed in the light of the setting sun. As soon as John saw her he knew he wanted to marry her. John was a trader. He owned many shops in many Towns across the country and more than 150 apprentices and employees worked for him. He sold motor spare parts he imported from Taiwan.

He walked up to her and told her he loved her. Just like that. She laughed. ‘Love? I am a prostitute. Do you want to buy me a drink?”  He started seeing her every day, he paid to be with her all day and all night and wouldn’t let her go out with any other man. He bought her expensive presents. When he asked her to marry him she laughed him off but he kept on asking till Chidimma finally said yes.

But first she tells him why she didn’t want to be a wife, she tells him about the married women in the village. And he promises her they will never live in the village. He promises they will live in Lagos far away from the village. Then she tells him about her family. Her son, Ekene, Alumma, her father, Ahuekwe and her children. He promises to make her family proud of her.

The wedding party lasted well into the night. The whole village came to witness the nuptials and eat plenty jollof rice. A high life band played Ebenezer Obey’s hits. People danced in her fathers compound under the naked light bulbs strung across the fore yard for the occasion. He was the official host. And very drunk. He pointed at Chidmma with pride;

‘That is my beloved daughter. She is a great lady. She has brought great wealth into my compound.” he boasted with a wide toothy grin.

Chidimma and John, dressed in rich lace and brocades and traditional ivory and coral jewellery sit in plush winged armchairs on a raised dais at one end of the compound. John’s prosperous friends and business partners come up and present them with gifts of money, drinks, home appliances, fabrics and even a car.

———

Chidimma’s funeral is even more lavish than her wedding.

She was 57 when she died. John was inconsolable. Their five children were inconsolable.    Their three children-in-law were inconsolable. Their seven grand children were inconsolable. Alumma had passed away the year before. Chidimma had given her a befitting burial, feeding all the village groups and erecting a tomb stone for the old woman, something she was not  entitled to as an unmarried childless woman. She would have been buried in the garden.

Chidimma was buried like the grand lady that she was. She had made many friends and belonged to many social groups. In Lagos she had become a renowned business woman with John’s support and many of her partners, associates and clients, past and present, came to pay their respects and condole John and her family. Some just came to see the woman they had heard about. The great woman that was once a prostitute. They came in their colours. There wasn’t enough parking space and there wasn’t enough sitting space but the crowds kept coming.

“She died too young” they lamented “May those that cut short her life never know peace”

In the village her legend lives on and little girls still dream of being a prostitute and escaping to the city.