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African Writing Archives

Current A.W.



Chuma Nwokolo


Chuma Nwokolo

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

Singer and Song is short fiction from the series, Tales by Conversation



 Singer & Song

Goodness. Is that the time? I hope I haven’t missed lunch…

Lunch indeed. We’re touching down in Addis Ababa in thirty minutes!

You should have woken me up for lunch!

As if we didn’t try; all three airhostesses, even that man across the aisle…

What man, Lauda? Why was my lunch any business of his?

It wasn’t your lunch he was bothered about… you were snoring, so—

—that’s okay. I wasn’t hungry anyway,

You were really tired weren’t you? Must be the motorbike taxi you caught to beat the traffic — plus all that running with your box to catch the plane—

—That was nothing compared to the race I ran on the day Hari Chendo died. My God. I’ve never run like that in all my life. Never.

Chendo? Hari Chendo? Was that the politician who—

It can’t be anyone you know. This was on the Independence Day of 1992. If the aroma of roast plantain had not seduced me that day, I’d never have known him myself. You see this wallet?


There’s a big story behind this wallet. My God. That day Hari died. That was some day.

We’re all going to die one day or the other. He had a good life, did he?

It wasn’t his life that was unforgettable. It was his death. He died at war you see, one of those silly, endless, ethnic wars—

—And what was his ethnic group?

I’ve forgotten. It was just one of our hundreds of ethnic nations. But look, their leader’s eloquence was something else. My God! Barack Obama’s a stutterer compared to that Comrade. I still remember the colour of his speech that afternoon. He had the power to draw blood with his tongue. It’s a very rare gift of the devil he had, that Comrade… Comrade…

Tombiri! You’ve not forgotten his name as well!

What I’ve forgotten is his real name. His praise-name was Moon-that-is-Brighter-than-the Sun. Ah! He had the sort of voice that could do anything – undo female buttons, open miserly purses – but, that afternoon in ‘92, Comrade Moon was in the business of boiling the blood of his hearers. It was a hot and hungry October afternoon, the sort of day that was made in heaven for eating bole and iced beer. I was walking past Kokoriko Square—

Kokoriko! Ah, I know Kokoriko Square! Years after my Lagos posting, I used to fall into a trance on hot afternoons, dreaming of Magarita’s bole. It was on the football pitch side of the square, wasn’t it?

It was on that patch where kids play ball. I don’t know why people call it a ‘football pitch’. It’s barely wide enough to bury a small snake lengthwise. It was Magarita’s bole that took me there as well. I’d chosen a plantain on her brazier and I watched it cook. I sat on one of her benches and watched her work. She was chopping another customer’s roast plantain into steaming chunks. She dashed palm oil – I can see it now! — oil as red as honest blood pulsing from the wound of the bottle snout—

—and the veg?

—of course the veg! She spread a green confetti of vegetables over the plantain. Then she dipped three fingers deep into her gourd of groundnuts. The measure her fingers could hold, she spread over the veg.—

—that used to be twenty naira worth—

—You remember very well, Lauda! I’m telling you about the bole! She opened the earthenware pot beside her grill and scooped a teaspoon of her special, peppery spice…


You remember very well! She scooped it onto the bowl, and, just like that, it was ready. You know how it is with a just-ripe, coal-barbecued plantain? It’s carapace-hard on the outside: black-brown verging on burnt, with that aroma that reminds you of those lazy evenings in the village hearth, evenings whose legs were broken but which were far from dead...

...I know; evenings in which no work could thrive, in which the talk and the food and the brotherhood was just the thing!

Precisely! Yet, break it open and what have you? That deliciously succulent yellowness tinged with pink, which sponges palm oil the way a practised wife soaks up her angry husband’s abuses, only later to make him lick up every last word of it. Or what do you make of a man who returns to a wife he earlier called a bitch and a prostitute?

How did we get here from talking about roast plantain?

Like I said, the bole was ready.

All well and good, but you were going to tell me about the death of Hari Chendo…

The bole was for him. He was ahead of me on Magarita's long queue and while my food was still cooking, his own was ready. He was a big man. His head was anvil flat. His frown was that of a man in the middle of a difficult trek through life. She served him and he put the plate by his sewing machine as he washed his hands. He had large hands that were clumsy at rest. His head was anvil flat—

—you’ve said that already. He was an itinerant tailor?

Precisely, a dua-dua. I watched him mend a labourer’s dungarees as he waited for his food to cook. It was one of those hand crank Singer sewing machines that were in vogue eighty years ago. It was smooth with use, anonymous in colour. It worked like a song.

I haven’t seen those machines in years! They must belong in museums now!

Well, Hari was a real curator to his own machine! He threaded that needle with barely a glance, with an ease that was almost arrogance. You know how you can sign your signature with hardly a glance at the cheque?

I know,

That’s how it was with Hari. Remember those days of the manual typewriters… a master typist doesn’t just crank out letters quickly – if you listen closely you will pick out the rhythm of the… the… qwerty music, as the typebars hit the platen—

I remember!

Well, Hari's sewing machine made a magic music of its own. Let me tell you, Lauda, every eye in that place was on man and machine. The handle on the wheel was broken but he cranked it with a hooked thumb and a flourish – which was not merely a flourish, because at its acrobatic height, it nudged a jumpy spool of thread back in place. And what a rhythm he built! What a sight they made, that singer and his song! My God! I can still hear his music in my head! It was as if that needle and shuttle were singing a duet with the racketing wheel — and only incidentally stitching the dungarees—

—hang on, she wants to know if we want a final drink?

Oh. A small beer please, I was so far away.

One for me too and God bless you. About this Hari… we’re landing in fifteen minutes…

About Hari — the perfection of his skill made his craft look easy — the panache, the showmanship. You just gaped as the tattered dungarees came together. I sat there looking for his clumsiness but it was gone. You know how it is, I am sure, when you replace a flat tyre and a crippled car just rolls away. That Singer machine was Hari’s fourth tyre. Together, they were rolling like a dream…

You were going to tell me how he died.

Exactly. His bole was steaming, still too hot for a human mouth, but he must have been hungry. He broke off a tiny piece; — you know that hooked bit that comes off the end of a plantain. You would cut it into the dustbin if you were cooking at home, but Magarita won’t waste it, oh no. He broke it off and steeped it in oil. He jabbed it on the peanuts. I still remember the three milky-brown nuts that stuck to the yellow softness as he tossed it into his mouth and chewed… This is strange, Lauda. This is exactly the spray of saliva that filled my mouth as I watched him eat in ‘92. This is very strange, I tell you. I have eaten the most expensive meals in the most exotic restaurants, but after all the years, it is the drinking of the saliva that flowed for Hari’s bole that I remember so well.

A man’s memory is a strange animal… but listen, Tombiri—

— he chewed that first morsel very quickly, like anyone who puts scalding food in his mouth. But, as he took a sip, I saw that his frown was gone. He was cracking his knuckles contentedly as he started on the rest of his meal.

Tell me how he actually died.

I’m only undressing the maize before serving you. It was at that point that Comrade Moon began to speak to the crowd. I forget exactly what his subject was. But you know those rabble-rousing speeches: it was one unbearable exploitation or the other…

Unbearable exploitations that suddenly became necessary sacrifices when the rabble-rouser becomes president…


So who was exploiting whom?

…Do I remember?… Isn’t it strange how headline news becomes foolishness after a few years? What I remember was that people started to pick up sticks and iron rods as Comrade Moon continued to speak. What I remember was how my own blood began to boil!

His eloquence affected you as well?

Not the way he planned. I was watching the plantain, you see. You know how it is with roast plantain. There’s a window of about eight minutes when the eating of it is pure heaven. Right after it leaves the grill it’s too hot to eat—

—see! That’s the seat belt light going on. We’re going to land soon, is this story going to—

—I’m about to land myself – right after it leaves the fire it’s too hot to eat, but, as you watch it carefully, as you break it up into pieces small enough for one mouthful, as you fetch your beer, and shoot the breeze, the bole arrives at the perfect temperature for mastication. Then you strike. Leave it too long and it cools. As it cools, it stops radiating that aroma that can turn your feet from urgent business to the brazier of a strange woman.

The what?

The grill of a strange woman. We’re talking about bole here, okay? Leave it too long and it’s no more soft. It loses that …yieldedness that floods your mouth with saliva. It becomes hard. Hard enough to whack a lad with, who dallies so long on his father’s errand that by the time he gets home the bole is inedible. As Hari Chendo listened to Comrade Moon, he was grunting and frowning as his bole grew cold.


Yes! As Magarita listened to Comrade Moon, all her plantains burned on one side while still raw on the other!


I’m telling you! As Hari Chendo listened to Comrade Moon he retrieved that frown that the hardship of life had given him. That frown that the weight of a sewing machine on his flattened head, fifty-two weeks a year, had etched on his face. His hands became fists that trembled. — You now understand my anger don’t you? They were not fingers that trembled before a bowl of bole. They were fists trembling in anger.

And yet you can’t remember exactly what the Comrade said?

What I remember is how Hari Chendo died. Comrade Moon whipped that lunch crowd into a riot. Suddenly sirens were screaming and before you could say ‘bole’, Kokoriko Square was boiling with bullets and cries and teargas. Lauda! The race that I ran that day? That was the original race for life. Today’s running was a gentle jog in comparison!

God saved your life!

You can say that again! Comrade Moon and his rebels — see how easy it is to acquire labels? — they retreated towards the new plaza, then they commandeered a truck and escaped from the police. See this scar here? Right under my neck-line.

I see it. You don’t say…

Oh yes. I stopped a stray bullet, but I ran three miles to the nearest clinic, bleeding and cursing Comrade Moon. Don’t look as me like that, it wasn’t heroism at all, I just didn’t want to die.

But you almost died!


So what about Hari? Haven’t you forgotten something, Tombiri? You were going to tell me how he died! You’ve told me of his bole and his flattened head. You’ve told me of his politics and his sewing machine. Tell me about—

I never saw Hari again.

So how come his death was so unforgettable?

Good question! I told you about the bole

—just tell me about his death for goodness sake! —

—and I told you about the Singer machine—

—that’s it! We’re descending, keep your silly story!

No, listen: you don’t know how it feels when you’re teargased and stumbling with a bullet inside you. With blood and sweat and urine on your clothes, you’re not afraid, Lauda, you’re petrified. Your mind is telling you that you’re running out of blood and time. So I’m running through the crossfire in Kokoriko Square, across the so-called football pitch, only, this time it seemed as wide as a golf course!
That was where I stumbled across Hari Chendo’s corpse.

Hold on! I thought you said you never saw him again! He got away in a commandeered truck, remember?

Perhaps I should say his soul. I stumbled across his sewing machine.

…I see.

No, you don’t see. It was lying broken in the debris of the riot, as terminal as a letter of resignation. Its guts were ripped out. The Singer’s entrails — smashed reels and coloured veins of tangled threads – all lay in the midst of the ashes from Magarita’s barbecue! The shuttle had terminally skipped her crypt. It lay smashed, that magic messenger that had sealed billions of stitches in her time. As for the machine that had fed little Chendos from infancy, it was shattered. The dua-dua’s tool was broken. The dua-dua was gone. Do you see it now?

I see it. I see it.

You see this wallet as well?


It belonged to him. I found it in the wreckage of his life. It saved mine. Here’s where I got the deposit that paid those mercenary doctors to take the bullet out of me. Here’s where I saw his children’s pictures. Look,

Lovely little—

—But there’s no address, else I’d have sought him out! Here’s the name, here are the faces of the man who chose blood over palm oil! I didn’t think it possible, Lauda, for someone who knew the taste of life, the taste of rich palm oil warmed by an indulgent sun, seasoned by a rustle of salt, lubricating a mouthful of roast plantain — I didn’t think it possible for such a one to prefer blood — with broken pieces of teeth and the bitter seasoning of that distinct saltiness of the sweat of a dying man. Yet, that was exactly what Hari Chendo did. He turned from his sewing machine to the machine gun. He listened to the martial music of Comrade Moon’s tongue and right away he was marching.

It’s a dramatic tale, to be sure, but we haven’t heard the end of it. I’ve seen a lizard lose its tail, Tombiri. The tail wriggles and wriggles and dies. Then the lizard walks away and grows another tail. That broken machine was Hari Chendo’s tail. This very minute, our dua-dua may be stitching somebody’s loin cloth somewhere in the land.

And I have seen a snake lose its tail, Lauda. The head-end and the tail-end wriggle and wriggle and then both are still. The Singer was decapitated from the man that made it sing. The years of magic had put the soul of the dua-dua into his machine.

Don’t be so dramatic. There are many sewing machines in Africa.

Maybe; but there are more machine guns these days. The tongue that has tasted blood can no longer savour oil. No, my brother, the dua-dua is dead. Long live the guerrilla.

bole Yoruba for roasted plantain.
dua-dua Igbo for an itinerant tailor who plied his trade, usually bearing a manual sewing machine on his head.

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