My Failure Started in the Kitchen

An excerpt from 'Limbe to Lagos.'



The following is an excerpt from Limbe to Lagos: Nonfiction From Cameroon and Nigeria, published by The Mantle. 



Limbe to LagosMy father’s perfume is strong and fiery. Long after he leaves the house, his perfume lingers, as if he left it to watch what we do when he’s not around. There’s no day he has not worn a perfume. All his clothes are laden with it, his skin too.


When my father was in the house, his presence was stifling. My brother and I would stay in our room. Whenever he had an occasion, we would wait for him to leave the house. I craved his absence, not in the form of death nor a permanent absence, but the sort of absence that allowed me do as I pleased.


Sometimes when he was dressing to go out, I’d be in his room. I’d watch how he’d knot his tie, his shoelace; how he’d take perfume and spray it on his wrists, the nape of his neck, and at the back of his ears. Carefully. While my dad dressed up, I’d polish his shoes and listen to a lecture about Dr. Cole’s son, who was very brilliant and had a very high CGPA. He’d tell me how Dr. Cole’s son was studying computer engineering and how the boy polished shoes to earn some money. My father somehow saw honor in that, in the struggle to become a man, doing the lowliest of things for something higher.


I kept quiet most times. I listened. I observed how my father’s ironed shirt would go into his trousers, how his trousers were always straight, and his shoes, which I’d just polished, shone. I took pride in making them shine, so that when he looked at them he’d be stunned, and look at me and say, “Soc, so you are the one that did this. God bless you.” Praises weren’t something my father usually gave.


My goal as a young boy was to make my father proud. To seek his acceptance in everything I did. To make him talk about me the way he talked of Dr. Cole’s son, or any other son he talked about. I always fell short. He talked of other people’s children. It was either they were good or they were smart or they were intelligent. He saw something to praise in them. For us, he said he didn’t want to praise us too much, so I sought to do all I could to make him praise me, to make him proud of me. And I failed.




My failure started in the kitchen when my father was washing plates. Whenever I was around my father, he always spoke. He would give one advice or the other; one anecdote or the other; corrected one thing or the other; shouted at me for doing one thing or the other. It was on a Saturday. I must have been in primary seven when he asked me if I had decided what I wanted to do with my life.


I wanted to be a pilot. When my father started reeling out branches of medicine, it was too late to tell him that.


“Now listen, medicine is diverse. So many branches exist. For example, a cardiologist deals with the heart. Everything about the heart, ask a cardiologist and he would tell you. In South Africa, I met a cardiologist who did a heart transplant. He took the heart of a pig and transplanted it to that of a human being.” His voice was full of purpose and a sort of excitement that failed to transfer to me. Halfway, he turned to me and said, “I am taking my time to tell you all these things and you’re not even writing anything down? What’s wrong with this boy! Hopeless!” I walked out of the kitchen, found a pen and paper.


I loved machines. I loved learning how things worked. But my father never knew that. Many fathers, I’d later realize, don’t take time to know anything about their children. When he was done with the dishes and in the sitting room he asked, “so which one do you want to do?”


If I ever lied about stealing chocolate or milk or sugar, I never lied about what I wanted to be. So my father, satisfied that he’d given his son the best advice many fathers never gave to their children, happy that he had set his son on a path of an early decision to success, asked for my choice. I held the paper upon which I had written the list of branches of medicine in one hand and the pen in another hand, and I waited for long, pretending I hadn’t heard what my father had said. He looked at me, and I stared at my feet and attempted to move my lips. He pressed again for my response to his question, and I said, “I want to be a pilot.”


My father would later say that day it was as if someone had used a knife to slash his heart or someone had poured cold water on him. Then he looked at me and said, “Is it because of your friend James? You have no mind of your own. You don’t understand that James’s father is a taxi driver and that when he is riding on the road, his son would be flying on the air. A pilot is just like a driver. That’s what you want to be, ferrying people up and down from one place to another. It’s a pity I have a son like you. I took my time to speak to you like my own son, man to man. You are a disappointment.” My father never forgave me for that decision. As I walked to my room, I’d wonder what I did wrong. Did I choose wrongly?




My father’s words damaged me. He always seemed to have venom at the tip of his tongue, and to quell this venom from poisoning me, I’d write him letters in my room. I’d promise to make him proud, to take the first position in class. But I never wanted to be a doctor.


My father held my head, “You see this scar on your head — a doctor caused it. I’ve observed you; you’re careful in doing things. I looked at you and thought this boy would make a good doctor. He would take his time to treat his patients. Some doctors would forget scissors in the stomach of their patients. But you want to join your friend and fly planes.”


Then my father traveled to South Africa for his Masters and PhD. That night was surreal. For the first time my father would not be around to monitor anything my brother or I were doing. There would be no need to fear his presence. There would be no perfume to smell that would give a hint of my father’s existence.


I should have been happy when my father left. I was just ten. But that night, as we escorted him to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, I cried. Sometimes it takes someone leaving to realize how much you love them. Night after night I played my father’s cassettes of songs by Agatha Moses. It was strange that I thought his absence would leave me happier. It left me despondent. I’d later realize that many sons aren’t their father’s friends, especially when growing up.




We lived in Kenya, at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (NEGST), where my parents were students. The school compound was filled with students of different nationalities. Many had moved to Kenya with their children, populating the environment with the presence of an international community. During the weekends, holidays, and in the evenings on school days, the whole community was filled with playing children.


I did not realize how hard life was for my parents. How hard it was to pay school fees and buy milk. How financial obligations came with a duty to perform well in school.


Some days were amazing, like when my father and I would go to town in Nairobi and he would hold my hand. He would ask me if I was hungry and we would branch into the many restaurants in Nairobi that sold chips. Other days we would go to Adams Arcade as a family to eat. We’d been brought up so strictly and dutifully that after eating, my brother offered to carry the plates to the restaurant kitchen. Every moment was one of watching our parents’ eyes for approval or disapproval at something. On Sundays we would go to Shade Hotel along Ngong Road and eat. Moments like this were like an unfinished painting—you never knew what to make of it. Happiness was never stretched at home. It came halfway.




I excitedly told my mom about the new sport I’d discovered: pool. I had just finished classes on Saturday when my friends and I went to a recreation center that had a pool table. You inserted twenty shillings to bring the balls out. I’d played and played and was excited that I forgot playing pool wasn’t something you ever told your Nigerian Christian parents. My mother scolded me, told me never to repeat it. Ever. I thought that was the end of it until my father woke me up in the middle of the night and ordered me to leave his house.


The night was cold. It bit into my skin as I sat outside surrounded by darkness wearing only a t-shirt and shorts. When my father woke me up from my bed to go outside, he never explained what I’d done. I put my hands inside my t-shirt and buried my head between my knees.


My mother would later tell me she didn’t expect my father to do anything when she relayed to him what I’d done. She’d not forgive herself. And years later she’d remember how terrible she felt, unable to sleep as I stayed outside in the cold.


Some hours later, my father opened the door for me to go in. Many years later I would remember everything and question if love ever existed between fathers and sons. I would ask this question more often when I went to a boarding secondary school. When I would wait at the gate on the first Sunday of the month, parents driving in, others walking in, searching for their sons. I stopped waiting. Nobody ever came after my mom traveled out of the country.


I spoke more with my mom, who was out of the country, than with my dad, who was less than twenty minutes’ drive away from my school. When the seniors in the dormitory lined us up and demanded rolls of chapatti, I had nothing to give. They’d say I’d been donated to the school, or I was abandoned. I would look at cars parked on the field, long queues of happiness everywhere, boys with their parents and siblings. Pilau and bottles of juice decorated the mats laid on the grass.


My father only stepped into my school once. It was a moment of questions. Why are you dirty? Why are you not performing well?


Why. Why. Why. We never walked side by side; it was always at a distance. I guess I was not someone he could be proud of.




I am fifteen, back in Nigeria and far away from my parents. My brother and I are the only ones in the house. When two people who’ve shared a past sit together, memory becomes the subject of discussion. Like when my father had called me hopeless, something he did often, I’d write in my notebook I am hopeless, over and over again until my brother would stop me. Memory is painful when love doesn’t color it.


When my mom visits Nigeria, we also remember. We are in my grandmother’s house when she says my father isn’t happy with something I did. I look at her and I don’t know when I start crying. I tell her how everything I’ve ever done has been to please him. How I’ve always wanted him to be proud of me. She sees the pain in my eyes and holds me close to her and says it’s okay.


I wonder how many boys have known the warmth of a hug from their fathers. How many have been held by the hands like friends. How many pour out their hearts to their fathers and tell them how they feel.


At the Murtala Mohammad Airport, when my parents fly in from South Africa to finally settle down in Nigeria, my younger ones looking precious like new toys. My father is the last person I hug. His perfume still lingers, always strong and piquant. I think of how being a son, being a brother, doesn’t automatically mean being a friend.


I have just finished from the university and I have disappointed my father once again. I didn’t graduate with a first-class. My CGPA wasn’t as high as that of Dr. Cole’s son. Once again my father calls me to his study and I am faced with the question: what do you want to do with your life? Memory takes me to when I was ten, twelve, fifteen, how I am still unable to speak up when asked questions, how I still let the silence linger so long in the hope that they’d get tired and dismiss me. I am twenty-three. The study is full of books. My mom is on the other side of the table. I am in between, the focus of the conversation. I can’t say I want to be a pilot. That dream has died. After a long silence I say I want to write.



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Excerpt, Nonfiction, Memoir, Nigeria, Africa, Kenya