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Chuma Nwokolo



Chuma Nwokolo

Nwokolo, author and advocate, is writer of Diaries of a Dead African and publisher of .


 Orange Crush

I still remember the taste of the Maitama orange, oddly enough. Nine years have passed since I ate it on a bus stop bench on 17th August, 1999. I also remember the lonely night that led me there. And the fruit seller that hawked barefoot, her slippers slung like strange ornaments around her neck. I had bought a single fruit, and we barely talked as she peeled and quartered it — the way I always ate my oranges. Her fingers were lithe and quick, going like clever mechanical things, and her carving of my fruit on that Maitama street was performance art. It must have been a good day for her, for she waved away my money as she walked away.

The stop was lonely once again. I ate the first quarter as she went her way, balancing the tray of fruit upon her head. A passing cyclist warned that there’d be no more buses along that night, and I ate the rest as I walked the fifteen minutes home, where I found a torch with which I retraced my steps, with a pounding heart.

(I am, by the way, a connoisseur of oranges, having savoured them from Kumaganum to Kaltungo. In Dadiya is an orchard of thin-skinned oranges that juiced quite well. The Numan crop in ’84 was a memorable one – and the road into Shendam has fragrant groves on either side. In season, it is a sin to drive through without a tasting break... but every connoisseur dreams of the perfect fruit that will put every prior memory of excellent fruits in the shade… I retraced my steps with a pounding heart. )

 I found three pips on the journey back, and there at the bus stop I found all eight pips from the first quarter. Two were neatly cut in half by the hawker’s blade. Nine precious seeds then, from which I would later raise ten seedlings… and yet a decade was a long time to wait to taste, again, the most sublime orange of my life. The following evening I found a bike on which I haunted Maitama, pausing at the bus stop every now and then, from where I rode slow whorls around the neighbourhood. Yet, of the previous night’s tray of oranges I found no trace; of that barefoot hawker, or the receding sight of her back, straightened into a graceful arabesque for balancing trays, I found no glimpse.

Ten precious, vegetative seedlings; guaranteed to replicate the Maitama orange. I raised them from pot to larger pot, nursing them like the pets and children I did not have. Too soon it was time to let them out into the world. When they were three years old, I replanted them in the garden plot in my village. This was my permanent home address, immune to my ministry's itinerant postings. I bedded the plants in heavy loam, fifty yards from the raw foundations of my retirement bungalow, and built a shield of wire mesh around them. I found a herd boy to water them during that drought of ’95, while I worked in the grain silos at my new post in Abak.

There is a balance of sugar and citric acid, of romance and bite, to the taste of the citrus sinensis.The potential permutations between sweet and sour stretch out like a horizon. Somewhere within the range of a hawker’s barefoot trek from Maitama was a tree – or orchard – that had got it right.. a mysterious voluptuousness to the aftertaste, a lemony twang... I have eaten one, two hundred thousand oranges before and since that night in August 1999 without finding another. And so I waited.

My seedlings grew, sprouting that spray of waxy, violently green leaves that was so irresistible to goats. Perhaps it was a new mutation — rather like the one that created the navel orange back in that Brazilian monastery in 1820. I did not know. What I knew was the orangey heaven experienced in my tongue on that Maitama night, the memory of which still filled my mouth, again and again, with springs of anticipation. I pruned my plants. I waited.

The next year a canny goat broke through, ripping through wire mesh with his horns for a feast of tender shoots. It was a tragedy that fell just short of catastrophe: for when I visited home that Christmas, two ravaged plants were still alive. I built a wooden fence around them then, and watered them, composting and fertilising them as I savoured cuts from the curried goat. I waited.

My seedlings grew into saplings. The one was healthy, but the other never quite shook off the gnawing trauma of the goat’s attack. I raked up and built watering basins around their trunks, fashioning, with my indulgent herd-boy-caretaker, a slow hose for the dry months, but the sickly sapling succumbed to a rash of mealy bugs and died.

Years passed. My one surviving sapling became the orange tree. As it grew, the walls of my retirement bungalow rose as well, as my time at the agric ministry dribbled to an end. As I roofed my bungalow, my tree grew a modest canopy, and I set a chair in her shade. Here, reincarnated, was the Maitama bus stop bench. Here, I would reenact a feast replicated from the flawless genetic memory of the orange seed. It was not long to wait, now.

For me, the taste of oranges was wired into my sense of ease. Pineapples did not cut it. Mangoes were an affront to my tongue… No other fruit came close to that flooding ecstasy of orange’s juice, nothing else approximated that crushing yieldedness of an orange’s tumid flesh. And here was the perfect tree.  Beside this lifetime achievement my imminent pension paled... I was soon to retire. Soon to spend the rest of my life as I spend my vacations: in her shade, paying out the fraying tether of life. In those nether years, I will eat her fruit, but she is yet the juvenile. So I sat in my chair in her shade and ate, adulterously, oranges from other trees, and waited.

Years passed. She grew a profusion of leaves. Soon, the aroma of blossoms spread, beckoning pollen from afar. Shed petals eddied in drifts around the legs of my chair, along the ripples from the surface roots of the Iroko at the end of the garden. The first tiny bumps of fruit appeared, dying that first year, without growing beyond an inch or so across. I waited, and waited.

Yet, the waiting ends today. I have been three years away from my home village on a final splurge of distant postings. My orange tree is an impressive presence now. I return home with my long-service award to find her greenery speckled gold with ripened fruit. Dusk has fallen as I hold the first fruit on the chair of my long patience. It is heavy for its size, clearly gravid with juice. I cut. Four quarters bare themselves to my sight. Her yellow orangeness glistens. Her flesh is soft, but firm. There is a hint of a delicate fragrance, even before the tastebuds engage... (I am, as you know, a connoisseur). I have grayed somewhat, but the heart of the animal is ever red; although I have been pensioned off, the tooth, the claws of desire drip a fiery red. I close my eyes and ravish the pulp, the juice of the encore of my long-lost Maitama orange, a decade deferred.

I swallow in awe.

Yet, I am the implacable connoisseur of sweet citrus. I can tell the age of the roots from the tang of her juice, her provenance from her savour. My tastebuds are a church onto themselves. They do not kowtow to the maudlin sentiment of home-grown juice. They judge unerringly.

I open my eyes slowly. It is sweet – like hundreds and hundreds of oranges in my past – but it is not the Maitama orange. I eat all four quarters delicately, with the same mechanicalness with which I have eaten two, three hundred thousand oranges throughout my life. It will be better as the season waxes, I know this; as the fruit matures on the boughs. Besides, next season’s fruit will be richer, more flavoursome… yet, even as I condole myself, I now know the truth. For the tongue of this animal was cannier than his heart, and it was clear that I had known my fruits far better than I knew myself. I had laboured nine years to grow an orange tree, only to realise that I had fallen for the hawker, not her wares.

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