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  Muhammad Jalal A. Hashim
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  Mohamed Bushara
  Wale Okediran
  Niran Ok
  Remi Raji
  Ahmed Maiwada

  Laura King

  Chuma Nwokolo


Helon Habila    

The Immigrant

Helon Habila is a Caine Prize winner. His Waiting for an Angel also won a Commonwealth Writers' Prize.



There was something sad, almost tragic about her beauty, and from the moment she opened the door and looked at him in a kind, patient way, Yakubu felt drawn to her. It was as if she had reached out and pulled him into a circle in which only he and she existed.

‘Are you Mrs Osasa?’ he asked. She gave a whoop of joy when she opened the bulky brown envelope he brought her and saw the flight ticket inside. Still standing, she read the short letter accompanying the ticket.

‘I arrived yesterday and I am going back next week. Your husband wants me to travel back with you,’ Yakubu said.

He hadn’t expected someone like his neighbour, Osasa, who was almost fifty, to be married to someone so young. She couldn’t be up to thirty. When she asked him to stay for lunch he said yes, even though he had planned to have lunch with his friends. At lunch he found out more about her: she was a nurse, she had no children, and she lived with her sister-in-law because they had sold their house two years ago when Osasa was leaving for America after winning the diversity visa lottery. She said this innocently, ‘He needed to go with some money because we weren’t sure what America was going to be like.’

They were seated at a square dining table, Naomi to his left, and opposite him was her sister-in-law sitting close to her five-year-old daughter, Abigail, as if to protect her from the stranger. The sister-in-law had returned from work a few minutes after his arrival, with her daughter in tow, and appeared disconcerted to find a strange man in the living room. She passed him without a word and from where he sat he heard her voice in the kitchen querying Naomi: ‘Who is he?’

She had a long scrawny neck, which he tried hard not to stare at as the eba progressed visibly down it. She didn’t say much, but her eyes were fixed on the big brown envelope resting on the center-table. And when she wasn’t looking at the envelope she was covertly assessing Yakubu. He thought, what a cheerless woman.

‘What’s America like?’ Abigail asked and her mother promptly rebuked her for speaking while eating.

‘It is a big country, with lots of opportunities,’ he said.

‘And how is my brother; he must be rich by now?’ the sister in-law asked. Yakubu answered truthfully and briefly, addressing himself to Naomi, ‘He has a good job, and two cars - one for himself, the other waiting for you.’

He told her of the nice apartment, which she’d soon call home, and the friendly neighbours who all looked forward to her coming, but he didn’t say her husband was dying.


They left on a cool Sunday afternoon. On the plane, seated next to Naomi, Yakubu suddenly grew talkative. He wanted to ask her about her plans, her expectations, but she was so sleepy because she had spent most of last night with friends, saying goodbye, too excited to sleep. For two years she had waited for this trip, and now that it was happening it seemed almost untrue. She slept all the way, waking up only to eat and go to the bathroom. He watched movies, and in between he flipped through the pages of the in-flight magazine. He looked at her sleeping soundly beside him and he had to remind himself she was a married woman just to stop himself from reaching out and stroking her braided hair. He remembered his first year in America, four years ago. He had gone to do his MBA at the MIT in Boston. It snowed so hard that year that he spent weeks in his room, seated before the radiator, miserable and scared to death by the white deluge outside his window. He felt as if the world was going to end. From then on he had developed a visceral hatred for winter, and once he had broken up with a girlfriend who loved snow so much that she wrote sonnets about it. Although he had stayed on in Boston after his graduation, he never took a permanent job because he wanted to be free to seek warmer climates as soon as the first snow fell. He’d look out the window, see the vast whiteness and feel a sudden panic, and the next day he’d be gone.

His yearly migrations had come to take on a peripatetic quality, he went from city to city, taking on adjunct positions, trying to make sense of this enormous land, seeking something in the distance. Recently he had noticed a desperate, almost aimless side to his travels, and so this spring when he found himself teaching at a university in Minnesota, he began toying with the idea of staying on through the winter, and if he survived that, he might apply for a permanent post.

In the taxi from the airport he sighed as he saw the leaves on the maple trees by the roadside beginning to lose their green colour. Soon it would be autumn. The leaves would grow pink, then red, then brown before finally falling to the ground.


Naomi woke up at 5 AM and slipped out of bed quietly, careful not to wake her snoring husband. She was able to wake up every day at exactly this time without an alarm clock. She went to the bathroom and had a quick shower and began to dress for work. This was her third month in America and already she was learning to understand how merciless this country was in its insistence on self-sufficiency. Already she had a driver’s license, and she held two jobs – one at the nearby MacDonald’s and the other as a nurse in a private clinic. As she dressed in the half-darkness she could feel Osasa’s eyes following her. She ignored his eyes as she moved about in the gloom. An anger that had refused to leave her since her arrival smouldered in her chest. No one had told her. The day she arrived she thought she was seeing a stranger when she met him at the door, struggling to stand up straight, his eyes sunken, and his body skeletal. She had turned to Yakubu who was holding her bag as if to ask him if there wasn’t a mistake, and he had turned away, unable to meet her eyes. That first night as they sat facing each other, she discovered just how bad things really were. Osasa was suffering from some sort of liver problem. He had no health insurance, the doctors thought the illness was terminal, and he didn’t have a dime in the bank. She didn’t ask him what happened to the money from the house they sold, or why the room was so bare of furniture. All she asked was: ‘How do I get a job?’

The week of her arrival Osasa showed a momentary recovery and threw a surprise welcome party. She came back from a job search and found the living room full of people, with Osasa in the centre, all beaming at her, and soon everyone was welcoming her and offering her a drink. Strange faces. She recognized the landlord, Mr Malum, and his family. He was a short, hirsute man in his sixties and had lived in America for over ten years now. He spoke with an American accent, though when excited the underlying Nigerian accent threatened to pop up. He ended every sentence with, ‘You know.’ He had five children, three from his first marriage and two from his second marriage. He had come to America on a visitor’s visa and stayed on. His wife and three children joined him later. His wife couldn’t adjust to the new life. She kept traveling back to Nigeria to visit, and on one such visit she simply didn’t return. After the divorce he married a white American woman, Vanessa, who came with the two-story house she had inherited from her late husband, it was an old, colonial style structure, the ground floor, let out to Osasa and Yakubu, had two flats with a common living room and kitchen.

‘Feel free in this house, you know,’ he said to Naomi pumping her hand. ‘You are now family, you know. Welcome to America. This is real America. You will get used to things, you know. It takes a while.’

Vanessa, a tall, fat, red head, looked rather comical in her Nigerian buba and wrapper, which she had apparently put on for the party. Yakubu sat in a corner with a drink in his hand, his eyes on Naomi as she was taken round the room and introduced to the people by Osasa. He felt something close to hatred for the gloating, ever smiling Osasa. How could he fail to see how tired she looked, and that her smile was strained and fixed as she kept whispering ‘Thank you’ to the smiling faces. He had seen that same gloating smile on Osasa’s face the week he moved in as Osasa’s neighbour almost eight months ago. He had heard a knock on his door, and when he opened up he found Osasa standing there with a buxom blonde. He had one arm behind her, the hand casually cupping her buttock; his shirt was open at the chest, his chest hairs screaming his virility, his beer gut hanging out of his unbuttoned shirt like a polished calabash.

‘My name is Osasa. I am your neighbour, a fellow Nigerian. I came to welcome you. This is Melanie, my darling. Say hello Melanie.’

‘Hello,’ Melanie said.

In the following days Yakubu became used to his neighbour’s hedonistic lifestyle: Osasa slept all day, then in the evening he’d hire a limousine to take him to the casino, where he’d gamble all night, to return home in the wee hours with one of his girlfriends. He’d sometimes sit with a girlfriend in the living room, flaunting her at whoever happened to pass by. They all had similar sounding names: Melanie, Melissa, Melinda, and the same hard unblinking eyes, the same big blonde hair, the same oversized breasts trapped by the undersized bras. Yakubu was amazed by the man’s appetite for dissipation, and at such an age. It was as if this new country was a huge cake and he wouldn’t rest till he had eaten it all up. Yakubu wondered where the money for the limousines and the casinos came from. And then suddenly Osasa fell ill, and for the first time Yakubu found out that there was a Mrs Osasa back in Nigeria, and Osasa wanted him to please return with her since he was visiting home.


Four months after the party, on the 15th of December, the first snow of the year fell, and without opening his window Yakubu knew what the landscape looked like: the trees bent under their load, the roads blocked by inches of the white powdery, dry, wet stuff. He made his way to the kitchen to get a cup of tea, and from the hallway he saw Naomi through the open door. She was alone, in her nurse’s uniform, her jacket hanging over a chair – she was on her way to work and must have stopped to have a quick cup of tea. Her hands were wrapped round the cup and she was staring at the snow hanging from the leafless branches of the birch outside the window. He felt his heart beat quicken as he watched her from the door. And he had tried his best to keep out of her way, to hide the confused emotions that always gripped him when she was near. He was happy at the way she had quickly settled down to the demand of things, how she had learned to be self-sufficient in the way America demanded of every new comer. But whenever they met, in the kitchen, or in the living room where she sometimes sat alone to watch tv, he’d notice a look of perplexity, confusion, and sometimes hurt on her face as she looked at him. He could tell she wanted to talk, to confide in him. By now she must have discovered the history of her husband’s two years in America. A few weeks ago she had knocked on his door and asked him if he knew a girl called Melodie. Immediately he knew it was one of Osasa’s blonde girlfriends. ‘Why?’

‘Well, she came, and she knocked, and when I opened the door she looked surprised, then she said she had the wrong flat…and I thought perhaps it was you she came to see.’

They were standing in front of his door. Her head was lowered, and she was in her nurse’s uniform, her shoes white and crisp. ‘You were out then.’

‘I can’t recall the name,’ he said. He could see the questions written in the lines on her face, in the way her eyes looked into his face, begging him to say more, and yet again begging him not to say anything. She looked tired, sleep-starved. He changed the subject. ‘I see you’ve started another job.’

‘Yes. Osasa talked to a friend of his who runs a nursing agency.’

They stood there, she with her head slightly bowed, and he leaning against his doorframe, a book in his hand. He wanted with all his heart to take her hand, lead her into his room, and close the door and never open it again. At last she sighed and said, ‘I have to go to work now.’

‘Yes,’ he said.

Then he stepped into the kitchen and said softly, ‘The snow is here at last.’

She lowered her head quickly and wiped her eyes before turning to him with a smile. He saw tear tracks clearly defined below each eye. He sat down beside her and took her hand. ‘Is something wrong, is your husband okay…?’ he asked. And did his heart leap with hope for just a moment?

‘He is fine…well…as usual. I was just looking at the snow and I felt sad. I don’t know why, but I just feel tired, as if the snow is falling on me, weighing me down.’

‘I feel that way too whenever it snows,’ he said. ‘I can’t stand it.’

They sat like that for a moment, looking at the snow through the window, and then she stood up and took her cup to the sink to rinse it. He stood up and followed her. As he approached she turned and looked at him questioningly, but he said nothing. He took her in his arms and kissed her, and after a brief hesitation her lips moved in response to his. Then she put her hands on his chest and pushed him away gently. He moved back and watched her pick her jacket off the chair and walk out.

It was a goodbye kiss. He had decided to leave for a warmer place early in the morning.

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