It is September, again. I close the window of my dorm room to shut out the deafening siren of yet another ambulance rushing a poor soul to the emergency room. Dampens my spirit, that noise. The sound of impending calamity. Of death, beckoning. Everyday. Many times, every day. I try not to think about it. Not to imagine the state of that patient. A survival skill I would do well to master, for this line of work I hope to walk on. To show empathy but conceal emotion. To care just enough to give my best, but not enough to hang my head low when my best is not good enough. A most sensitive balance. A master of poise.
The orange and yellow crowns of silver birches warm my weary eyes. It has been difficult trying to get some sleep this past week. My elbows resting on the windowpane, I stare out for a while, enchanted by the beauty that rhythmic seasonality births, before turning to face the hideousness that rhythmic seasonality purges. A deep sigh involuntarily escapes me. Taking a seat on my bed – a pen in hand and checklist on my lap – I proceed to fish out of brown envelopes and clear plastic folders the paperwork needed for this bureaucratic nightmare. Moving each sought-out document from my right side over to my left, I tick them off.
Filled Application Form – check!
Valid Health Insurance Coverage– check!
Confirmation of School Enrollment – check!
Proof of Accommodation – check!
My phone rings. I welcome the interruption and reach for the handset. A look at the caller ID makes my stomach feel hollow and raw. The phone suddenly feels like very hot amala for my hand and my bed like the exhaust of an okada! I drop the phone and jump up from the bed in one go. “I reject dis kain tin for my life! I reject it in Jesus’ name!” I shout, snapping my fingers over my head and body in warding-off motion. I wring my hands and dance about worriedly wishing the phone would stop ringing. ‘Ayo, even if you refuse to pick the call, he will still call back. If not today, then tomorrow, if not tomorrow, then next tomorrow,’ I reason with myself. So, I pick up the handset and answer the call.
“Dzień dobry Pani Ayo!” he greets.
“Dzień dobry Panu!” I salute back.
“Masz coś dla mnie?” he asks.
I have nothing for him. In fact, I haven’t had anything for him since Sola, and that was ten months ago.
“Nie. Niestety nie mam żadnej informacji,” my confession follows.
“Wie pani co? …” The officer goes ahead to explain how much he is putting himself out for me, how privileged I am to have received that last permit on a silver platter.
I have been stalling, I know. He knows it too. I can’t keep doing this. God!
Acutely aware of what is at stake, I make the promise that in the coming week, I will have something.
He obliges and gives me until next Thursday.
A week is what I have promised him. One week to find someone, something, anything. More importantly, a week is what I have given myself. One week to weasel my way out of this. If not for good, then at least for this year. Just this year. God, please now?
I search for Damola on my message log. Below the last message received four days ago, I type:
“Are you guys still hanging out on Saturday? I’m actually free. I’ll bring jollof.” and I press ‘send’.
The breeze carries with it a nauseating smell of fresh, raw eggs. There is an old lady seated on the bench of the bus-stop shelter and this makes my math easy. It must be the smell of a natural concoction for hair and skin treatment popular with the grandmas here. So, I have noticed. I wonder how well it works. I cannot see her hair as she is wearing a beret. Her face, though obviously not radiantly youthful, is not terribly saggy or wrinkled. So, maybe it does work. But the smell… Chai! The things we women do for beauty, even at this old age… na waa oo! Trying not to gag, I walk past her to the other side of the bus-stop shelter. The old lady takes interest in this African girl and I can feel her eyes trailing me. I ought to be used to this by now. You know, being an African in a predominantly white country, with most of her people still unexposed to persons of different races, your skin color qualifies you for a job as a walking spectacle. But still, it makes me uncomfortable. I stare back. She does not seem to notice that I am looking right into her face, searching it for shame. Staring back, I imagine, should create some awkwardness. You understand? I am trying to bring her to the realization that being stared at is uncomfortable. She remains oblivious to the attention I reciprocate. Resigned, I turn my gaze in the direction of oncoming traffic. No bus in sight yet. I pull out my phone to check the time. It is 11:04am. Five more minutes.
“Jaka ładna dziewczyna!” the old lady exclaims. I turn in her direction again, surprised by the compliment. She has said, ‘such a pretty girl’, as if to no one in particular. Given that we are the only two people at the bus stop, I smile back and say, thank you. She asks about the braids on my head; how much I paid to get them done, or if I have a friend who does them for me. Before I can respond, she adds that her granddaughter might be interested in getting her hair braided. “Ile tam masz tych warkoczykow?” she asks. I laugh at this question. Not meaning to be rude, but, it has never occurred to me to count how many braids there are on my head. So I just say, very many! Her granddaughter, she continues to acquaint me, has great affection for African culture, ever since she got together with her new boyfriend. He is black, from Africa. The young couple play conga drums together, dressed in traditional African attire, the grandmother shares. Be like sey dis her granddaughter bobo could be Nigerian. Maybe even Igbo, because it sounds like they are doing these performances for money. When it comes to ways of making money home and away, na dem sabi pass! The old lady continues to tell me that her poor granddaughter is paying some hairdresser for each braid on her head, resulting in fortunes spent. ‘Anyway,’ she says, ‘such is youth and falling in love’. I want to tell her that Tope and I do each other’s hair. I know her granddaughter would not have the patience to sit for several hours, so with the two of us she would be done in no time. I am already making the calculation in my head: How much attachment would we need? Who to buy it from? How much would be reasonable to give Tope, since I also have to pay myself an additional finder’s fee? You know now… And all things considered, not to ask for an amount that will look unreasonable in comparison to what the girl is already paying her current hairdresser. Before I can make the offer though, a bus pulls in and the old lady gets up. I wish to ask for her granddaughter’s phone-number, but I am not quick enough. She wishes me well and hops on, leaving me with a smile, and a feeling of loss.
The 188 bus came after what only felt like a moment. I got in and rode to Rozbrat, for what I needed was a long, peaceful stroll in my favorite park: the Łazienki Park. The lawns are covered in fallen yet bright and bountiful reds and amber. The peacocks show off their patterns of blue and green, modelling themselves as the tourists snap picture after picture. I stroll down to the Chopin monument in this celestial atmosphere – a tranquil haven amidst the buzz of Warsaw’s city life. Sitting on the concrete steps to watch the ducks, I think about the phone call, about Sola, and about Dozie. Do not judge me. I judge myself enough already. Though not so much for Dozie. He was rotten, that one. Everybody suspected it. Who in this foreign-student economy can afford to wear Dolce and Gabbana, Gucci, spray expensive-smelling cologne, and be snapping pictures with iPad? Abegi! Let us be real now! With ordinary struggling parents back in Nigeria? Where do you get that kind of money? In this Poland? This same Poland where we are all managing? Aah! Aaaah! Aaaaaaah!
Anyway, Sola’s own was different. Death by association, is what I will call it. I used the fact that he and Dozie were close friends. You cannot be playing in shit and you will not stink! No be true? Or am I trying to justify my lack of evidence? Even he who partakes of stolen yam, must together with the thief answer to the owner of the farm. But honestly, I was under pressure. I could not afford to have my residence permit revoked. What would I tell my parents if I showed up at their doorstep a deportee? A drop-out from medical school? I could almost hear my mother’s words.
‘If all you had to do was to give up a few names to stay in medical school, Ayotoluwafunmi! Just names, abi? Names of those who have no sense… foolish youngsters who do not know what took them to oversea’… people who have chosen to play football with their destiny… then why are you back in Surulere? Ee? Kilode? Ayo! I am asking you! Did you come to fry akara for roadside? Sebi you want to do petty trading! Scholarship, Ayo! Scho-lar-ship!’
In one word: Disgrace. These words would echo, as did those of the officer on the other side of the line, burrowing through my conscience. Like leaches; sucking away at every ounce of human decency and every bit of shame, leaving only the self – its seeking and its loathing.
A little more than a year ago, on a Wednesday afternoon, the letter came. You know? That envelope with just a red rubber stamp on it. No traditional postal stamps. You know now… That red rubber stamp you see at first glance that tells you, even before you read the wording, that the letter must be from a government office. And if there is one government office you have regular dealings with, then you know whom it is from. With an aching in my bones, I carefully slit open the envelope. I was being summoned to appear at the border guard offices. On a small, fill-in, memo-format card were the details: My full names, Date, Time, Address, and a rubber stamp of the officer before whom I was to appear. The letter did not say why I was being summoned. Too afraid to talk to other foreign students about this, I kept this news to myself. I could not ask around what this meant. Firstly, I think I was afraid that other people’s thoughts on this may confirm what I feared – I could go to them and not return. Imagine returning to Nigeria from Europe, with nothing but the clothes on my back! God forbid! Secondly, asking meant I had to share the news. But I could not share such news with anyone in my circles, most especially Damola. News like this – news of immigration troubles – spread about as fast and as vastly as dust in harmattan, dimming the radiance of the dignified. Chai! You know the way harmattan used to do people? Your lips go jus’ crack finish! Your skin, ash! Na jus’ sack cloth wey go remain to complete suffering attire! And Damola sef… She is a whirl wind! She would have me up in the air for all to see, before throwing me down to gather up my disgraced self. So, I carried myself jeje, on the date given, without a word, and went down to the Border-Guard Offices.
According to the regulations, an international student at the time of renewal of their residence permit must present a bank statement with at least twelve-thousand polish zloty. This is the stated minimum for a student’s living expenses for the period of twelve months. As a student from the developing world, a student on a partial scholarship that covers only my tuition, mine and my parents’ resourcefulness is sufficient to meet my needs month by month. However, this lump sum is no easy feat. In fact, it is impossible! Since such is the reality for a lot of us Africans on scholarship, what we used to do is gather our money together, take turns to deposit in our accounts and print out statements, then return to each one every kobo borrowed. It works, some of the time. Let us just say, it is dependent on pockets that are not always dependable. We are still struggling students from Africa with struggling parents in Africa.
Since I did not meet this requirement at the time, the official on the other end of the line was offering help. It was fair politics. A compromise. You understand? I would get a residence permit every year without hustle, on condition that I provided, periodically, information that would lead to the detainment and subsequent deportation of Africans engaged in unlawful activities in Warsaw. I was Nigerian, he said, I had to know at least one of my countrymen that were, for example, selling drugs. You know? People that were up to no good. Should be easy, he said. “Bułka z masłem!”
It is Saturday morning. My phone is buzzing. A text message from Damola.
“Omo, we go hit the club after. Sebi you are coming. Darek will be there. Dress to kill!”
I text back:
“No casualties o! I’ll be there, definitely.”
Darek is friends with Damola and Uche. The three of them study Business Administration at a private university. He is one of those cool Polish guys that you can be around and not feel that being African makes you inferior. Plus he speaks good English, so I won’t have to tire myself speaking Popo all the time. I have the biggest crush on him. For him, I could eat potatoes until my mouth will forget the taste of yam! Well, that is if my parents will allow me to get married to someone who is not Yoruba!
It is eight degrees outside. I hurry from the taxi to the entrance of the club before my legs have had a chance to run back home to my blankets! There are two bouncers waiting at the door as I approach. I go down the steps and hand one of them a twenty-zloty note. He takes it and stamps the back of my hand. The other pulls open the door and ushers me in.
The air in the club is thick. It is a small place. How we fail to suffocate in such places as this I do not know. Must be the high spirits of revelry. Drunken, we lose all our senses. I take off my trench coat and lay it on the counter. A guy grabs it and slaps a token on the counter. I take it. Turning my back to the cloakroom I slip the token into my crossbody purse and look around for familiar faces. A waving arm catches my eye. It is Damola’s. She waves me over. I brush past sweaty bodies, pushing and excusing my way to the group of Nigerian girls dancing kukere, as Uche, who here goes by the name “DJ Afrobomba”, has the crowd swirling in his mix of Nigerian Urban Hits.
There are a lot of Polish girls in here. More of them than us. I spot a few with their African boyfriends. Likely here for the love of the continent, and basically anything culturally exotic. Others are simply curious. Huddled up in little groups, they seem to be doing more gossiping than dancing; looking around and turning back to each other to whisper and giggle. Some, wiggling and jerking their behinds with great effort, must be hoping these Naija bobos will notice them. Speaking of bobos, there are not many Polish guys here. Maybe two… three… that I can see. I do not see Darek. With all the effort I put into looking hot, I feel disappointed. But I must remain focused. Tonight is more about getting help from Gertrude than it is about catching the attention of a crush.
Amidst the taking of shots of vodka and the dancing of Azonto, I whisper into Gertrude’s ear, “I need your help.”
“What?” she shouts back in a bid to be heard above the music.
I lean in again and repeat, “I need your help. I’m applying for karta and my bank statement…”
“I can’t hear!” she interrupts. “Later, okay?”
She gives me a look – the kind of look that says, ‘What kind of moron tries to have a serious conversation in a place like this?’
The music is loud, I admit, and were it not for my desperation, I would have waited to meet her in a decent place and hour. But again, if anything Damola has told me about Gertrude is true, I may have just been dismissed.
“British this, that, the other! Im tink sey we no know citizenship for oyinbo land no mean sey, you get million pound for bank account. We are Nigerians; not Neanderthals! That we be Naija no mean sey we be mumu! Using British passport, abi accent, to intimidate us. Nonsense! Dat Gertrude na only mouth wey she get. She likes to form ‘big girl’, but I really doubt she get level. She’ll say things like, ‘My parents are buying me a car for my birthday. And it’s no ordinary car o’. So we are there waiting to hear what kind of car it is now…, the girl go jus’ shift begin change subject. ‘Last year my parents suggested we go to Croatia for holiday, but I didn’t want to go. I’ve been there before, so it would have been boring!’” Damola mimics her – eyes rolling, her lips puckered, and her hand on her chest as if she were the embodiment of good fortune. “O! Lie! Lie! Ask am for small money, daz when you go know sey notin dey for hand!”
I am lying in bed. A shallowness of feeling. A restless repose. Drifting in and out of wakeful sleep, I perceive the air is fetid. My phone buzzes. It is under the pillow on which my head rests. I should see who is reaching out, but the phone seems too far for me to reach. Many days have gone by like this. Weeks even. Maybe. I do not know. I drift away.
I am awake again after what seems like a moment, but the darkness outside my window tells me it has probably been much longer than that. I turn on my side. On the floor are empty bottles of vodka, and a dried-up puddle of vomit. I should clean it up. There are many things I should clean. Nothing is clean. There is a half-eaten apple and the mug of untouched black tea on my desk next to my laptop computer. Both are stale, several days old. With much strength, I bring out the phone from underneath my pillow. Many missed calls. Many SMS messages, most of them from Damola.
The last three read:
‘Omo, how far? You never show for church last Sunday. I hope everything is okay?’
‘I tried calling you, SO MANY TIMES! Call me back jo! By the way, have you seen Wale? His phone is not going through. Chidi said something like he went to Germany. Some of the other guys say maybe he was having problems renewing his karta, so he crossed the border … Something like that. Anyway sha, did you manage to sort out your own?’
‘Ayo! Wetin hapun? Why are you not picking your calls?! I just left your hostel now. I knocked on your door, but you did not answer. Where are you?!’
I push the phone back under the pillow, roll over and face the wall. My plan had been to talk to Gertrude, the British-Nigerian student, to lend me some money to boost my bank statement. Croatia-trip real or not, she was not on scholarship like the rest of us. That says something. I was sure she would have a good enough amount to help me make the twelve thousand. If I needed to wait for a time and place where fun was not a distraction… I mean, if it took following her around all week until I found the right opportunity to bring up the subject again, I would do it. I was tired of this Judas business. However, all that took a turn when I heard Wale calling after me as I headed out to the taxi that night at the club.
He needed a ride and said we could share the fare. Since I could use some savings, I agreed. It was not unusual for us students to carpool from the club. In fact, it was always safer to move in numbers at night. It was when the taxi got to my hostel, that things became unusual. He stepped out with me, saying he wanted to make sure I got into the hostel safely. The alcohol must have drowned some of my sense, because the taxi drove away, and I did not think to ask him how he planned to get to his apartment. I had not reached the door, when I felt myself get hoisted, my head and torso hanging down Wale’s back, my legs kicking in the air, the contents of my gut rushing up, threatening to jet out through my nostrils. He brought me down as I felt his nails underneath my skirt scratch, then tear, and the concrete graze my back as he pinned me to the wall in a corner of the building. Did I make a sound? If I did, I did not hear myself.
I have nothing to say now that I can say. So I do not reply to Damola’s messages and I do not call her back. My stomach aches – a piercing, gripping ache. I will just lie here. Just a little while longer, until I can feel myself again. I pull the comforter over my head and I drift away.
At Łazienki Park. I stop, as I always do, to watch the peacocks, their artwork of wings spread over the edges of the pools. There is a couple seated on the lawn. The girl, in a sleeveless dress, has her back to the sun, taking in the last of the summer’s warmth. Young and free to enjoy the little pleasures of nature in the liberty of a country she calls home. Startled by a buzz in my pocket, my bag accidentally drops. I bend down to pick it, but there is sudden weakness in my knees. I let myself fall to the ground kneeling, my bombom resting on my heels, and I bring out the phone from the bag. My heart sinks.
It is September, again.
Brenda Siara is a Kenyan writer and author. Her debut nonfiction book, Exodus: On Course for a Cause was published in 2013 by Tate Publishing, OK. Her works of fiction have appeared in the Kalahari Review, Green Black Tales and AfricanWriter, and her debut short story, Stupid Death, has been produced in audio by Finger Piano Productions for the podcast Nipe Story. To know more about her and her writing, follow @Siara on Twitter and @brendasiara.author on Facebook.