An experience today at a water pump
By Nzube Nlebedim
They say being in a foreign land makes you bedfellows with strangers.
Well, I’ve seen quite a number of things to verify that claim, but none would get into my skin as much as my linguistic wars with the people of this village where I live. I mean, asides getting used to never seeing tomato stews but goat meat pepper soup with plain rice to eat here, a whole army of variables clash with my mind for attention, and I attend to many.
Coming to really dwell on it, these folks don’t eat tomato stew at all with their plain rice. They binge on watery goat soups! I would confess that in my earlier weeks of living here, I found that eating practice quite odd, until I tried it and realized it actually tasted good. Although this was largely dependent on where you ate such meals. In some places, you literally feel the warm goat soup dripping down your throat, leaving the plain rice behind in your mouth! But in some other places, you’d wish your food bowl never emptied. But in all, judging from where I came before I arrived here, it sure is an odd practice.
But I’m a linguist, and not so much a food critic nor eater. This means that I’m very interested in the dynamics of the Anang language to my English, Igbo, little Yoruba or pidgin which I speak. It’s a dynamic a perceptive foreigner has to observe if they don’t wish evil to befall them. There’s been many cases when I’d respond to statements whose meanings I never knew. You have to be polite, smile and pretend you understand. If you’re lucky, it wasn’t so important a thing to reiterate, and in some other cases, they’d repeat it, laughing at your obvious confusion. It’s painful to know you’re being mocked sometimes because you can’t understand a language, but, hey, you just have to keep smiling and move on.
This morning, as early as my body could allow, I got up to fetch water. I didn’t have the ten naira charge for a gallon, but then I was pleased when my memory recollected for me some change the old man at the pumps owed me. The truth is that I wasn’t even sure I was owed money, but, my mind had said I was owed money, so I wore work clothes and moved out.
I took my gallon and galloped to the pumps. It’s a stone’s throw from my house. The day was cool. Rain had fallen the previous day and a good part of the night. I got to the pumps and quickly stuck my gallon under the pipe. I detected stray water washed down the tiles and counted myself lucky there was water. If there had been none, I’d have needed to travel down far the road to get some. A torturous journey indeed, and worse for me since fetching water is the chore I hate the most after washing clothes.
The mama stood with a younger man, her fallen breasts bare in the morning brightness. (My time here had inured me to the practice of public nudity!) Usually, I’d have closed my eyes, but I went straight down to her and told her in English that ‘baba’ owed me money.
‘You go pay money before you fretch,’ she said, and the young man joined.
‘But baba is owing me money,’ I replied, startled at her behaviour. She had never been so cold to me.
She said something in their cryptic language to the younger man, and went inside the inner house. I waited with the young man who introduced himself as a labourer.
‘I have no money. I came with nothing,’ I said, showing him some big notes I had planned to use to go to the market with. He seemed sympathetic.
‘Baba is not around,’ he said.
‘OK. Where did she go?’
‘She go bring me something make I work,’ he responded. A nice young man he was.
After waiting a while longer, I went inside to where she had gone. I met her bent over doing some work. I ignored her and spoke to her daughter who I assumed knew me as a loyal customer who paid his debts without a fight. I greeted them in English and told them I needed to get water.
And then mama responded in their language. What she said elicited some laughter from a woman who sat with her. I knew it wasn’t anything polite she had uttered. How did I know? Well, I didn’t know. So, I decided to play it cool.
‘I no hear wetin she talk,’ I said to the daughter, my temper rising.
‘You will hear today,’ she responded, laughing a most irritating laughter. I felt like giving her a hard knock on the head, but then I knew that would be a very foolish endeavour to pursue as the three women could pummel me to my early death.
‘Baba is owing me twenty naira,’ I mentioned to the girl, relaxing.
‘Ask baba,’ she said.
And then I saw him, sitting on a wooden stool, naked to the ground, as he washed old, wrinkled skin. Thin white lather covered him. Good gracious! I thought baba was not in. Oh well! I had not seen him when I entered and as I spoke to the woman, and so I withdrew in shock. I had seen mama naked, but not baba. He was always covered with a wrapper whenever he was at the pump waiting to collect money.
‘Tell him he owes me twenty naira,’ I said to the daughter who translated to baba who obviously mentioned that it was a lie.
‘He say he don’t owe you any money,’ she said in broken English. I brought myself back in full view. Damn his nakedness!
‘Baba, you no remember me?’ I asked, watching his reaction.
He stopped his leisure wash and seemed to reflect for a moment on what I had said. I prayed silently he’d acquiesce to my demands and let me fetch the water and leave. He nodded and spoke to the daughter.
‘What did he say?’ I asked.
‘He say na true. Say him owe you.’
Relief bathed me clean. I decided to take my luck further. I told her I needed the ten naira change since I was only going to fetch a gallon.
‘How much you say him owe you?’ She asked.
‘Twenty naira,’ I responded with more confidence.
‘Fetch ten naira own, dey go,’ she said.
I shouldn’t have, but I understood her rationale behind that brief but well-calculated financial decision. Since baba was almost senile, she reasoned I could be lying. The ten naira was simply surety!
‘Alright,’ I said, succumbing to her wit.
As I closed the pumps, I reflected on this dynamic. It was an unhealthy one, really. One, they might not have been saying anything disrespectful to me in their tongue. Two, whatever they said might just have not been my business to know! Truthfully, I wouldn’t have felt so bad had they said what evil they said in English. It’d have sounded better, more civil.
As I walked home, my full gallon of water set on my head, I knew that I’d face the same language fiasco in the market today. I knew that a woman would curse me lightly in Anang because I asked for ‘jara’ ugu or crayfish or onions.
I wasn’t assuring myself I’d learn their language. I couldn’t, really.
I’d only bring myself to accepting the reality of my stay as a foreigner here. I wasn’t ever attacked, anyway. I’d simply accept the fact that my inability to understand their language was only a price for staying with them; a simple case of a well-calculated social surety!