Image by Thanasis Papazacharias from Pixabay

Expedition to Five Cowrie Creek

My mother collected boxes. When she died, she left dozens of them. Born in Nigeria, she died in Barbados, and in between she met and married my Bajan father. They were students in London, in the days when people in the newly independent colonies still aspired to study in England. He seduced her with calypso and sweet-talk and persuaded her to go back to his island with him. She agreed, but when she looked it up on a world map she asked him where on that tiny dot the plane would land. She claimed the whole island would fit into a corner of Lagos, the city where she grew up. I grew up hearing stories of her Nigerian life. I kept them to myself – we Bajans are proud of being civilised people who’ve left Africa behind. Africans were the ones who sold us, and were rewarded by staying primitive and poor. I didn’t stop to wonder, how come my Nigerian grandfather was a doctor? How come he could send my mother to study in London? I listened to her stories, but my teacher said we were in the Americas, nothing to do with Africa.

I loved my mother but I couldn’t be what she wanted me to be – a Nigerian daughter. Like my cousins, who curtsey to their father as they hand him his cup of tea. My mother told me this laughing, but I could see she was sorry she couldn’t teach me her culture. Once a year at school we were allowed to dress up for Africa Day, just to show we knew where we came from. My mother made me outfits out of her own wax print wrappers, long wrap-around skirts with elaborate matching head-ties. She would look at me and smile and say, ‘Ah ah! Now you are a proper Yoruba girl.’ When I told her I was Bajan, not Yoruba, she looked at me sadly. ‘When I married your father,’ she told me, ‘my people asked why I was marrying a slave. But if I hadn’t, you wouldn’t be standing in front of me now.’

As well as boxes, my mother picked things up wherever she went – little stones from mountainsides, shells from beaches where she walked at sunset, seeds that never sprouted. Treasures whose value only she knew. When I was little, she would use the boxes to tell me stories. After she died, I opened each one and went through the contents. Many were empty; some had old letters, coins, bits of discarded jewellery, beads, single earrings, broken necklaces. Without my mother to enliven them, they were unrecognisable shards. Detritus. Mementos whose meaning had faded with the dying of the light. I read the letters, put the coins in a heap to donate to a good cause and threw away the jewellery.

The last box was one I couldn’t remember having seen before. It was tiny, a black-lacquered oblong a few inches long and an inch high. On the cover were a knight on a prancing red horse, a giant’s head, a tree. The prancing horse, the colours, reminded me of when my father took me to watch the horse racing at the Garrison during the Gold Cup. But without the giant’s head. I opened the box. All it contained was a single shell, a small cowrie. It lay on the palm of my hand, its speckled back and serrated lips intact after who knows how long. The cowrie spoke to me in my mother’s voice. A long time ago, it said, it had lain on a beach at the edge of the Indian Ocean, where a man collected it, along with hundreds of its kind, and used it to trade with the ships from India and China. From there, it had found its way across the continent to West Africa and been used as money until coins replaced cowries. But it had never lost its glamour, its association with riches. I thought of the cowrie-shell anklets and bracelets my mother had brought with her from Nigeria. In the Caribbean, when my mother wore her her cowrie-shell ornaments, people would say indulgently, ‘Oh, how African’. She loved to tell the story of how in Nigeria she visited a shrine to the Yoruba goddess Oshun and found her covered in cowries. Oshun, she said, was the goddess of fertility and cowries are obviously feminine. Thinking of this, I run my finger along the slit on the underneath of the shell. Vulvaic, yes, but instead of soft and yielding it’s smooth and hard. The tiny serrations could be teeth.

My mother and I planned for many years to go to Nigeria. She wanted to introduce me to my Yoruba family, take me to their village in Oshun State, show me Lagos, where she lived before she left for England. But I was at school, and then I was studying in London like my parents, and then I started work and never had any time. Miami was only four hours away and when I had holidays it was easier to go there, or to Atlanta. Truth to tell, I was afraid of Africa, afraid of it laying claim to me, dragging me backwards across the Atlantic. The years went by and we never made the trip. Now I look at the cowrie as it lies on my palm, and out of nowhere the idea comes that I should take it back to Nigeria as a tribute to my mother. As Lagos is where my mother came from, over the next few weeks I do some research and find out that Lagos was built on a series of lagoons, one of which is called Five Cowrie Creek. I’m guessing that the people who built Lagos looked for a name that would bestow wealth on its waters. I think, that’s where I shall lay my mother’s cowrie. It takes some planning to get the time off work – finishing a report, rescheduling meetings – but bereavement is a serious business and my colleagues understand. At last I find myself on a Virgin plane from Barbados to London, and from there a British Airways plane to Lagos.

Barbados rush hour traffic is bad, though it’s nothing compared to LA, or even London. But nothing has prepared me for Lagos traffic, which is so loud and dense it takes my breath away. The drive from the airport into the centre, to Victoria Island, seems to take hours. I’m used to heat, but in Barbados there’s always a breeze, a gentle swaying of palm trees creating a cooling current of air. This is a heat I’ve never experienced before, as though the air itself were heavy, lying in a clammy layer along your skin. I sit in the back of the taxi sweating in spite of the air conditioning, watching cars and lorries competing for space on the six-lane highway. Whenever we come to a junction and the traffic slows to a crawl or stops dead for several minutes, children as young as nine or ten dart out between the cars, knocking at the windows, asking for money. A figure dressed all in white stalks along the roadside clanging a hand-bell, calling on drivers and passengers to donate to his church. Young men weave through the cars festooned with all sorts of things for sale. Sachets of pure water, razor blades, tea-towels, plastic lamps, spray guns, cell phones, biscuit packets, magazines, men’s underwear, sunglasses, calculators, children’s toys unspool past my window one frame at a time. As we move on I glimpse lying at the side of the road a living human body with grotesque outgrowths, flaps of skin and elephantine excrescences of tissue covering neck and back. In the distance, a collapsed multi-storey building stands lop-sided, exposing its ruined interior. Before I can figure out what has befallen it we pass under a flyover, and my eye’s caught by the shadowy shapes of vendors squatting next to piles of indeterminate wares. Against this backdrop, one figure stands out in peculiar detail. A child, dressed in tattered scraps of clothing, stands poised like a dancer next to a pyramid of single cigarettes, one hand balancing a big circular tray of oranges on her head. In the deep shade of the bridge the oranges glow an almost neon green. The ragged child is so slight it seems her slender neck will snap under their weight.

At last we cross the bridge to Victoria Island and arrive at the hotel. It’s a high-rise set in a garden and from the outside it could be one of a nondescript American chain. Once inside, I find the lobby is elaborately lined in wood and marble with enormous African masks reaching from floor to ceiling. There are paintings of horsemen in robes and turbans and of statuesque black women carrying water pots. At the centre of the lobby a small fountain splashes softly, so that all other noise is muted and people seem to speak in hushed tones. By now I’m exhausted, and grateful to reach my room and shut out the noise and restless movement of that outside world I watched from the back of the taxi. I spend a day recovering, too disoriented to venture far from the hotel. Peering out at the street from the lobby or through my fifteenth floor bedroom window I can see no pavements, and pedestrians seem to take their chance with the cars hurtling past. In the hotel there’s a gym and a pool and a gift-shop with expensive jewellery and courteous staff who smile and greet me every time we pass in the corridor. I begin to feel as if I could stay here forever without venturing further than the carefully tended garden.

But I’m here to see my mother’s family and when I get in touch, I learn that some of my cousins live in Lagos and one of them works close by. Kole comes to meet me on my third day wearing a business suit with a white shirt and tie and highly polished shoes. His skin shines and he exudes cleanliness and well-being. My linen dress is crumpled from the suitcase and hangs on me limply and I realise I’m under-dressed. In the lobby, women move languidly in rustling gowns and towering headdresses, or click by efficiently in heels. I sink into the plush upholstery of a massive armchair and try to disappear. We order coffee and start getting to know each other. After a while, Kole asks if I’ve seen anything of Lagos. When I explain I want to find Five Cowrie Creek he says it’s close by. In fact, he says, the best way to see it is to visit him at his office on Victoria Island. He works, he explains, as a real estate agent, selling office space for the developer of a new state-of-the-art building that has recently come on the market. It’s the most advanced building in Lagos in terms of design, and it overlooks Five Cowrie Creek.

Kole now makes a call on his cell phone, telling his driver to bring the car to the hotel entrance. The driver leaps out and opens the back door of the silver Mercedes Benz for Kole to insert himself behind the passenger seat. ‘Owner’s Corner,’ he says jovially in response to my puzzled expression, as a liveried hotel attendant rushes to open the other back door for me. Stepping into the back of the car, sinking into its soft leather seat, is like entering a cocoon. On the short journey I hardly notice the swirl of cars beyond the tinted windows, or hear the cacophony of horns and engines above the soft hum of the air conditioner and the gently playing classical music emanating from the built-in speakers. Before I can take stock of where we are, the driver has turned the car smoothly onto a ramp leading to an underground car park and we glide to a halt beside a set of elevator doors.  We get out and I follow Kole into the elevator, mirrored on all sides so that we stand amidst multiple reflections of ourselves as we rise to the tenth floor. Kole seems to have grown in size and his reflection is enormous. I have a brief impression of glass and marble as we cross the corridor into his office. Inside, it’s fiercely cold and our feet sink into the carpet. With the formal courtesy of a princeling in his father’s kingdom, Kole invites me to sit on a large leather couch in front of an imposing wooden desk. He can see I’m impressed and beams at me with pride and satisfaction. He sits at the desk, and, leaning back in his ergonomic swivel chair, starts to talk as though delivering a speech. ‘This office,’ he informs me, ‘is in a superb location in the north-eastern corner of Victoria Island, literally minutes away from the former commercial centre of Lagos Island…one of the very few prime offices with waterway access, via its private jetty on the Five Cowrie Creek.’

It isn’t that I don’t understand what he’s saying, it’s the way he’s saying it that has me confused. As if something’s been switched off in his brain and on in his throat. I must be looking blank because he hastens to continue. ‘This means that employees can avoid the road traffic and the endless traffic jams by commuting by boat. We can be in meetings or at home in a fraction of the time,’ he announces proudly. ‘Who says Lagos traffic cannot be conquered?’ But that isn’t all, he assures me, oh no. ‘The building contains a world-class restaurant venue, with indoor and outdoor dining spaces so tenants and visitors can enjoy their lunch break or engage in after-work networking on the restaurant’s pristinely landscaped deck with gratifying views of the Five Cowrie Creek.’

At the sound of the magic name I feel hopeful and excited at the prospect that I shall at last get to see the famous Creek for myself. Seeing my expression, Kole smilingly invites me to accompany him back into the elevator, which now carries us to the ground floor and the restaurant with its landscaped deck. As we enter I see a wall of glass, and beyond it a vista of grey water lined with tall buildings. Five Cowrie Creek. I’d have liked to sit outside on the landscaped deck but Kole murmurs softly that it’s the hottest time of day and we’re better off inside in the air conditioning. As I sip a soft drink, in the same robotic voice he points out the benefits of such a building in a place like Lagos, with its security challenges, boasting, he says, ‘cutting-edge security systems, an on-site security team, access control to office floors, turnstile access control in each tower security lobby, bulletproof ground floor glazing, automated security bollards and a Network Video Recording system monitoring key areas of the building.’

As his voice murmurs on I finger the cowrie in my pocket and think of Oshun, of my mother at the shrine and the cowrie-covered goddess. I think of cowries bringing wealth all the way across the continent, and how this cowrie has travelled even further, all the way to the Caribbean and back. I shiver in the frigid air and stare at the grey, barely moving water. Outside, meanwhile, Kole is assuring me, the building’s intelligent building management system is optimising energy and resource consumption and ensuring a fully coordinated environment at all times through the energy efficient external cladding designed to limit direct solar gain by using high-performance glazing aimed at controlling glare.

Beyond the plate glass window, a single boat glides by, silent, a solitary figure standing erect at the stern. Then all is still and grey again, as if the sun had drowned in the waters of the creek.

In the two weeks I spend in Lagos I never come any closer to Five Cowrie Creek. It’s as if I’m in a dream with no control over what I’m doing. I come to see the city as a snarling beast, its tail lashing the water’s edge, its mouth breathing fire over the countryside, threatening to consume it entirely. Afraid of getting lost among its twenty million inhabitants I stay in the old city centre, letting my cousins Funmi and Julia take me to fancy restaurants and exclusive clubs, to visit their friends in palatial houses inside walled compounds where servants bring us drinks on silver trays, and shopping in a mall with several storeys of brand name outlets. One evening, they take me to a fashion show where a leading designer is showing her latest collection. The outfits, all wax print, are nothing like the simple wrapper and blouse my mother used to wear. They’re so complex and daring I wonder how ordinary women can wear them, but Funmi and Julia assure me they can be adapted. So I go with them to the designer’s studio next day and choose a purple wax print gown scattered all over with huge yellow flowers. It’s cut into an elaborate pattern of criss-cross straps at the back and has immense puffed sleeves drawn tightly in at the elbow. I walk out looking like the women in the hotel lobby, mincing in the floor-length skin-tight skirt with its frilled slit up one side. When we go to a restaurant and the waiter addresses me in Yoruba I glow with pride. A proper Yoruba girl, at last.

Two weeks pass in this strange dreamlike state, and then it’s time to leave. I carefully pack the fabulous outfit and take my comfortable trousers off the hanger to wear for the flight. In the pocket, I find my mother’s cowrie, which I’d quite forgotten. Too late now to find Five Cowrie Creek again. I’ve been advised to leave for the airport several hours ahead of the flight to allow for the go-slow, so I get dressed and have my bag carried downstairs in good time. The hotel limousine collects me at the main entrance, and as we join the traffic I can see it’s even worse than when I arrived. On my last night Kole, Funmi and Julia took me out for a farewell dinner, and I sit in the taxi texting them my thanks, hardly paying attention to what’s going on outside. I’m so full of impressions I need to process that it’s easier to focus on the screen of my cell phone than take in the monstrous struggle for space, the screeching of trucks, the belching of fumes, the hawkers’ cries. The tinted windows are firmly rolled up, the air conditioning’s cold, and I relax into the soft luxurious seat and close my eyes. As we inch along I feel myself being lulled asleep and allow my head to fall back against the headrest.

I don’t know what wakes me but I come to and sit up suddenly. The car is standing still in an endless line of cars. Though I’m cut off from the worst of the noise by the gentle whirring of the internal ventilation system, the sound of so many idling engines comes to me as a muffled roar. The stalled traffic looks to me like a huge animal poised to spring. I turn my head and with a shock I see, right next to my window, the ragged child I’d seen a week earlier under the bridge. She’s standing, as if in a time-lapse photograph, stock-still in the traffic, with her circular tray of green oranges perfectly balanced on her head. Her face is a few inches from the window and she’s peering in, her eyes looking straight into mine. I have the impression that she can see right through the tinted glass, that it’s no hindrance to her gaze. We look at each other for a moment, and then she smiles, a smile of recognition, almost of affection. As if she saw in me a need, or a hunger, to which she had the answer. Reaching up with one hand she plucks an orange from the tray on her head and shows it to me. It’s been peeled whole, down to the white pith, the top sliced with a knife to allow someone to suck its sweet insides. I press the button so the window rolls down halfway and ask, ‘How much?’ before remembering I have no local money, just the taxi fare in US dollars. ‘Sorry-o,’ I mumble in confusion, ‘I no get money.’ Julia, who never carries Naira but has an array of credit cards and a few dollar bills for emergencies, says this all the time to begging children. The girl holds out the orange as if she hasn’t understood, pushing it through the open bit of the car window. Automatically I lift my hand and take it, feeling its soft waxy skin, smelling the sweetness of its sliced flesh. I see the driver’s head turn in annoyance, and hastily reach into my pocket, pulling out my mother’s cowrie. ‘Here,’ I say, handing it to her. She takes it without taking her eyes from mine, as the driver operates the window control from where he sits at the front, abruptly separating us. At that moment the great snake of traffic comes to life and the car surges forward. I turn to wave through the rear window at the little figure, standing with her oranges in the moving stream of cars. One second, and she’s lost to view, swallowed up in a miasma of exhaust and rising dust, the poisonous exhalation of the great snake. I hold the orange like something too precious to put down, all the way to the airport. I don’t dare annoy the driver by sucking it inside the limousine but when at last I find myself inside the terminal, I suck it dry.

Jane Bryce was born and brought up in Tanzania, and lived in Italy, the UK and Nigeria, before moving to Barbados to teach at the University of the West Indies. There, she was editor of Poui: Cave Hill Journal of Creative Writing (1999-2016) and taught African literature and cinema and creative writing. Her cultural and literary criticism has appeared in a range of academic journals and essay collections; her short stories have appeared in Poui, Scroll in Space (Canada), Wasafiri (UK), Chimurenga (Cape Town), New Gong (Nigeria), Short Story (United States). Recently a story published in The Caribbean Writer was awarded a prize by that journal. She published an edited anthology, Caribbean Dispatches: Beyond the Tourist Dream (Macmillan UK: 2006), and the collection Chameleon and other stories (Peepal Tree Press, 2007). She lives and writes in Barbados, where she has just completed Zamani – a Haunted Memoir of Tanzania.  

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