The protagonist that returns after an incredibly astonishing and enlightening stint in some outside country to find that many of his ways and means are irreconcilable with those in his homeland is a staple in African lit. Almost every writer that belongs to the venerable Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o-esque guard has had something to say about this character.
I recently bumped into one such protagonist.
Yes, in real life.
He’d been back for about two years when our paths re-crossed. We were in the same class at some point but never really had much of a relationship. Let’s just say he was a gregarious and charismatic mixer—one of those born-to-mesmerize types—and I was, well, I was one of those insufferable and shrinkable low-growing Violas.
Anyway, we have since become rather tight-ish, incredibly, because, I suppose, we have quite a bit in common. For instance, under a full moon, we both get extremely opinionated. Moreover, we both love a good, stimulating argument: if it means playing the part of the devil’s darning needle1, then, by god, so be it.
Now, if there’s one thing people that have studied in outside countries are good at, it’s presenting evidence. These people, they have reasons for nearly everything under the sun. They will fill your purse and pockets with information you didn’t even know existed. They read this book. They attended this class. They shared a flat with a bio-energy expert. They knew a bloke who knew a bloke who made hydrogen bombs and learnt Indo-European languages in his spare time. And so on. Hang out with this species long enough and you’ll develop type II knowsea2.
Imagine then, my utter and complete surprise when my newfound friend made a confession—there was, in fact, an area in which he was trying to play catch up.
I nearly choked. ‘What?—you, playing catch-up?—Impossible.’
‘Not,’ he said. And I was to learn that even intellectual intercoursers from outside countries struggle with, er, stuff.
‘I can’t figure out what the rules of the game are,’ he said.
‘What game is this?’ I asked. ‘Maybe I can help.’
‘Now, listen,’ I began, ‘you know I can’t help you with that.’
‘But you’re a woman.’
‘Never mind that,’ I said, heading for the door.
‘So you’re just going to leave me here?—aren’t you going to help? I thought we were friends.’
‘Okay. Okay,’ I said. ‘I don’t appreciate the guilt trip but I’ll hear you out.’
He said he was finding it hard tuning into what women back home wanted. On at least three mutually exclusive occasions, he’d relentlessly courted women in the best way he knew how, only to be dumped rather unceremoniously just when, by his very meticulous calculations, he was scheduled to be getting some. It had gotten to the very unfortunate point where he wasn’t even getting to the base before first base. Thankfully, he’d recently found out, in a roundabout way, what he’d been doing wrong. Apparently, he wasn’t acting ‘gentlemanly’ enough. By this, you must understand that he wasn’t opening car and restaurant doors, wasn’t pulling out chairs (and so on), never mind that he often spared no costs when it came to fine wining, finer dining, the finest chocolate and the prettiest flowers. Moreover, he once did the unthinkable by, wait for it, suggesting that his date split the cost. He never heard from her again.
‘Take a happy pill. At least you know where you’ve been dropping points,’ I said. ‘Now you can game your game. Pull out a chair. Pay the bill. Open sesame.’
‘I thought you guys wanted us to treat you like equals.’
‘We do. Most of the time.’
‘WELL, paying your half of the bill is always a good place to start.’
‘It’s also a good way to say, ‘I’m kinda broke’. Apparently.’
‘Oh, come on!’
‘The operative word was apparently. Besides, I’m just telling it like it is. You should be thanking me.’
‘You have got to be kidding me! Please tell me women here aren’t still stuck at that point in human evolution.’
‘Oh, we are evolving. Make no mistake. Just not in that general direction. Yet.’
‘So what do you guys do with your money?’
‘None of your business.’
‘But I never had to do any of that stuff back in—
‘—you’re here now,’ I cut in. ‘This is a different ballpark. Get used to it.’
He said he couldn’t possibly ever get used to it. Then he launched into a mini-essay about the so many women he’d dated during his university years abroad—the type that took serious offence when he tried to pull out a chair or open a door. I’m sure the words feminism, suffragette and equal rights were used at some point.
‘Like I said, you are here now. Here, women prefer that you pull out a chair and open a door.’
‘But it was never even an issue before. You guys just gleaned that chivalry stuff off TV.’
‘Still,’ I said.
‘But what about emancipation?’
‘What about it?’
‘That’s, like, your promised land, right?’
‘We aren’t altogether there yet. Anyway, pulling out a chair shouldn’t be a biggie; it’s just a courtesy.’
‘A courtesy that’s only afforded to members of your sex.’
‘SO, no one does us any favours: no one opens doors for us.’
‘What’s your point?’
‘My point is that you can’t pick the bits you like and leave out all the rest. Go the whole way: relinquish all those rights you exclusively reserve. Do you or do you not want this cake?’
‘Look,’ I said, trying to be reasonable, ‘we are dealing with it the best way we know how.’
‘By dealing with it, you mean not knowing what you want and then making a whole lot of noise about it?’
‘Did you just go there?’ I asked.
‘The hell I did,’ he replied.
‘This is all beside the point, really. You have two choices. a) Pull out a chair and get some or b) die a eunuch. What is it going to be?’
He crossed his arms in front of his chest.
‘That’s what I thought,’ I said.
Then I stretched out my hands over his head and blessed him: ‘by the power [in] vested in me, I now pronounce you marriage material. From this day forth, the power of compromise will bring you untold happiness and lead you down every good path, especially the ones that lead to procreation. Amen.’
I stoop up. ‘Well, then, shall we practice this opening a door business?’
1 Not a role to be taken lightly.
2 A mildly debilitating (sometimes-fatal) dis-ease characterised by an inexplicable desire to know everything. If you ever find yourself wondering what the Finnish word for hipbone is, you should go to the nearest health centre ASAP and take a knowsea blood test.