• Monday, May 27, 2024
businessday logo


The language of love


 About five years ago, gripped by the fever of the 50th year of Things Fall Apart, I wrote a modern short story set in the twentieth century of the grandson of Achebe’s tragic hero, Okonkwo, in his iconic first novel. In it I tried to capture love in the times of our grandfathers when it was unthinkable for you to show public affection. I set Okonkwo’s grandson, himself named after his grandfather, after his wife as she returned from the stream, wet from the droplets of water splattered all over her richly-embroidered wrap. Alone with her in the compound, he mockingly chased after her, calling her by her father’s name as she ran past him, giggling and asking him to leave her alone. Every time I read that short story, I begin to smile when that scene plays out. It is very typical of what is today referred to as African love.

It was shy and discerning, playful without being over the top. I watched my grandparents when I was growing up and everything was subtle, always there but never obvious. It was soft and self-effacing; it was caring in the noblest of ways. My grandmother often looked away when my grandfather looked at her to draw her out. Her love was in the little things she did to show affection, like her hands lingering on his washed clothes or his loincloth as she folded them to take into his room. He, on the other hand, would keep her in his presence as he told her tales of his sales or a distant cousin. He would shoo us away and urge her to sit with him while these stories were told with laughter and warmth. It was for me a special endearment, and yet she was not his only wife. I had heard intriguing tales of my grandfather’s escapades and how he conquered and married a beautiful young woman whom the royal prince in Okene had eyes for. My grandfather was ready to go to jail on account of this lady rather than pay a fine for attempting to marry the prince’s interest. It was a story straight from Arabian nights. Amazingly, she married my grandfather instead of the prince, in spite of the threats. My lovely Aunty Zainab, my mother’s elder sister, is the result of that heady love, and yet my grandmother, my mum’s mother, was my grandfather’s first love. Intriguing but beautiful to hear and to watch – how love was deployed, how it was spoken and how it was managed.

Today, after our parents’ generation where they were now able to express themselves, and our generation where, away from the watchful eyes of our parents, we managed to hold hands for a bit and smile shyly from afar, while writing letters of great words spiced with Onitsha market literature, we have now reached the language and attitude of love that scare us, that make us very afraid for our children. The language of love is no longer of letter writing, of soft words and gentle behaviour. It is no longer “Dear Paramol” and “if so doxology”, which made us scamper for our dictionaries. It is no longer shyness or a soft feeling in your stomach when a boy from a neighbouring school told you he admired you in a letter you were afraid will be read by the missionaries, who were your school administrators. It is no longer about those long nights when you listened to Millie Jackson and believed the love songs by the Beatles. It is not of perfumed handkerchiefs which you kept under your pillow or the tears you shed when a whole cassette of love songs from Hot Chocolate to the Bee Gees and beats by Teddy Pendegrass and Dolly Parton arrived by post to your residence. It is not of broken hearts on the mend or a quickened step to the post office to pick up a letter which you read and re-read again, quickly dropping it in your laundry when you heard your mother’s footsteps in the corridor. It is no longer of eyes melting hearts at school debates or excursions where you saw him or he saw you and his smile stayed in your head for weeks. It is not about that girl you saw and swore that without her you will never love again, writing two letters per week about nothing, until you ran out of ink. Not about buying that musk perfume for her and sending your friend to deliver it while waiting for a month for a missive from her to say she received it.

The language of love was beautiful then, platonic and full of gentle words, perfumed writing sheets and many letters. It was a whole generation of us gingerly smiling, practicing decency, sending gifts and waiting with baited breath for a smile or a wave with flourish or a note just saying Hi.

I watch in silence now as public kisses in parks, shamelessness and sex on reality shows have taken over. Love used to be so beautiful.