Foreign apathy towards African notions of being and belonging might be destroying African families living in Western societies.
I found something interesting regarding cheating in the Bible—which my mother had me study from cover to cover—that curiously matches my Yoruba cultural beliefs. In Yorubaland, in Nigeria, there are Babalawos or shamans, who perform rituals to place a hex on a woman that has been married once, so that no other man can have intercourse with her. The purpose is to prevent cheating, but it appears men who fail to de-activate the “magun” on their wives, after a divorce may be putting the next man in jeopardy of being inadvertently humiliated—literally to death. Once physically meshed during intercourse, a couple ensnared by magun cannot be separated, and they die in that humiliating position. This ignominious fate is meant for cheaters.
Magun, translated into English as “don’t climb,” (which is a crude euphemism, for “don’t sleep with my wife”) is an imprecation that causes an interloper, to get permanently entangled in the meshes, with a married woman, upon whom magun has been cast. Incidentally, magun-like malisons can be placed on inanimate objects too. For instance, on land and other forms of property.
If only I had placed magun on things I loved, such as my books. My ex had claimed that I was having an affair with my books. I recall that night she was dressed in her silk transparent dark negligee, as she stood in front of me in the living room.
“Are you running away from me?” She queried, although she already knew the answer, to why I was not lying next to her in bed at 2 a.m. I slept for only about two hours that night, but she slept for ten.
Finally, I decided to have the storage facility, where I had kept my books for over five years, dump my treasured tomes. I had been paying a high price to store all my books following my divorce: textbooks from my Accounting major in Alabama, books from my professional licenses and biographies that I bought—I kept them all. My MBA in Information Systems books, I also kept. I remember it had cost me a fortune to ship the huge box of expensive books from Alabama to Maryland. My friend Jodie from China, brought me the second box. Dearest zippy Jodie had keened, “Just picture little me, hurling your 250-pound box around with me at the airport.” I have had amazing friends from all over the world, who have done amazing things for me. But I have done things for people, which they have found amazing, too.
When I started working full time, I bought books regularly to stock my shelf. I had planned to build a library for my future kids. Just like my dad had done for us. My older brother loved James Joyce, Bertrand Russell, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, James Baldwin and Norman Mailer. No wonder he has grown, to become a prolific writer and award-winning professor of philosophy.
But I loved the history books instead, and biographies of world leaders, from Napoleon to Mao Tse-tung, and the American presidents. My adventures into literature were mainly in Shakespeare and Victorian authors. But Dickens was my favourite, despite his verbosity. Every elongated, extraneous sentence was doused with elucidating humour that anchored readers to the characters he conjured up, in such a way that inspired one to relish his witty superfluity. I do not recall playing with toy guns as a kid. Perhaps, it is a reason that I have a strong aversion to guns. But I do know that the military must wield it, and so must law enforcement in safeguarding the peace of the community. And perhaps the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, helped Black men in the South to protect their families against white supremacist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, as former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice was once quick to say.
I am grateful that my father planned for me to fuel my independent thinking as a child, through my access to great books. He did not just throw shallow voluminous things on the shelf, but the arcane texts with their deckle edges, were there ready to be touched and explored. Now that I write, I hope to one day read those books my brother loved, but which I never read. I remember thinking Freud and His Friends (I am sure it wasn’t Freud and His Followers), was the most difficult book that I had ever read off that shelf. I had a habit of making sure I finished every book I started. But I never finished that one. Perhaps, one day I will.
Sometimes, my brother had me discuss the books I had read, with him. I liked Infante’s Inferno by the Cuban author, Guillermo Cabrera Infante. It was an enjoyable big dirty book for a 12-year-old to pore over.
I cultivated that habit of discussing books with my ex as well. I bought her books for gifts, with accompanying flowers, often trying to match the book cover with the colour of the petals. I remember the day she left; she took one book I had bought her: The Prince by the Florentine Statesman, Niccolo Machiavelli. The book was the basis of being Machiavellian and opportunistic, espousing the philosophy of “the end justifying the means.” Jettison ethics and morals to achieve your goal, and be as devious as a slithering snake, it shamelessly posits. As I picture her podgy fingers sliding the slender book into her Louis Vuitton handbag, I wonder why she picked that one from the shelf?
My favourite American author (apart from the spy writer, Robert Ludlum and the heroine-worshiping, Sidney Sheldon), was F. Scott Fitzgerald. I recall after she read his short story, Head and Shoulders, she kept chuckling, “What if this turned out to be you and me?” It was a cackle. The Head and Shoulders story of role reversal, in which a lightweight gained ostensible intellectual accomplishment and fame as a writer, at the expense of a prodigy who sacrificed his intellectual efflorescence for love, did turn out to be us. But not for long.
She had been an obstreperous, hard-partying and impecunious school teacher, when I met her. She walked out as a Harvard Law School graduate and Wall Street lawyer. I had been an upwardly mobile banker with an MBA and not a penny in debt. But she left me indigent and regretful; as I heard her declare, in an overweening shrill voice that I should get accustomed to living in a homeless shelter. She said this in what felt to me then like the court of injustice, where she held on to a pubescent looking, non-black boy with long hair in a romantic fashion, as if he was her paramour. I did not sign the divorce papers until many months later, as my pastor still insisted that a miraculous reconciliation was on the way, and divorce was not God’s will. Accordingly, we prayed ceaselessly for God’s will, aggressively reminding the omniscient Deity of what his will was.
The pastor had recommended a three-day “dry fast”—neither food nor water, for the entire three days. This was in addition to the over 60 days of other types of fasts. There was a fruit fast, in which I ate only fruits, after going all day without food or water, from midnight to 7 p.m. If you really wish to be thin—then don’t eat, or wolf down far less. I was emaciated, after the motley of strange fasts. My pastor’s wife, who had come to tell her about the sanctity of marriage and to remind her of the Jesus, she too, once adored, cried, “I can’t believe she left you for a Chinese boy? And he is not even yet a man.” Had he not been a boy I might have wondered if this was my Dred Scott, and a modern-day oppressor’s disdain for what is cherished by a Black man. Appearing scared and smug at the same time, the boy looked like he wanted to preen himself for stealing a prize he considered valuable—an older Harvard Law School gradruate. It did not matter that he was destroying a home. He lacked the ability to think so deeply about it, since like my pastor’s wife said, “he wasn’t even yet a man.”
Really? Well, he shattered that cliché, “once you go Black, you can’t go back.” But we were a black couple. I guess if you are Black or supposed to be Black, perhaps the rule does not apply to you, and you are supposed to venture out, giving others a taste of chocolate. Ah yes, when a Black man is with a non-Black inamorata that is when the rule applies. That is when we can discover, whether it fits a universal rule—an axiom—or whether it is just drivel. However, as a couple we had broken all the rules in the book. We appeared to be a promising Black team who invested in each other for a future home that appeared bright to most observers.
Now I am glad that chapter of my life is over. I did not dwell on what he did for her that I did not do: whether he ironed her clothes like I did or washed her dishes and cleaned her bathroom like I had done for years. He certainly had not invested financially and emotionally in her education like I had. This was no time to be comparing “manhood” size. I had to move on. “She downgraded. Now get you a white woman. Pound it bro,” said my college alumnus as he fist bumps with me in salutation. Even my pro-Black militant, African-American female friend, Lady S, felt the same way.
“Next time, you show up in that courtroom with a blonde. God don’t like ugly. As a matter of fact, show you ain’t no sellout like some people are and that you’re still down with the motherland, by having a blonde on each arm.” Thus, Lady S beseeches me to use my court date to show my affinity with Africa, by invoking images of polygamy.
“Where am I going to get two blonde women from?”
“I don’t know. Get one of your classmates. You know you brothers are in season…everyone wants a piece of you. Or get you a hooker or somethin’. Just get two blondes!”
And so, with the help of good friends and family, I moved on. But as I ponder my next move for a new story, I just wonder: “Having taught her so much, did I infect her with my love of China?” Nevertheless, I will build new tomes.
I kept my science and Mathematics textbooks, plus all my philosophy and literature scripts from my Ivy League university. They were all in that storage space in New York, my old city, which I loved because it never sleeps –almost like me. Well, I do sleep for about three hours every day—a deep sleep and then I am refreshed. I recall one of my extra cute friends, Wen, from China, once told me: “You must make up your mind, who you wish to emulate—whether it’s Einstein, who slept for at least nine hours a day. He was a peaceful man and a genius, who gave us insightful theories on relativity; or do you wish to be like Napoleon, who slept no more than four hours a day, drank sour wine, was grumpy and unleashed great wars and hardship on the world?”
I quipped that I did not drink wine.
“Mind you they were both popular with women,” I further observed.
“Ni zai shuohuang!” Wen protested.
Wen, my study partner, who always asked me to walk her home, when we were done studying at night, often showed off her long and attractive legs in her tight miniskirts. She had been told by my roommate, David, that I hardly slept, but drank strong coffee. David was a happy-go-lucky chap, from Harbin, a very cold city, located at the China-Russia border. One day, David tried my coffee. It was not a good idea: he developed a severe headache and was unable to sleep for two days. And then he fell ill. After he recovered, David queried me.
“You drink at least ten cups of that strong coffee a day. I drank just half a cup and it made me sick. Why aren’t you falling sick?” David was funny.
Traits that appeared to make me a rock-star among my Chinese friends—discipline and limited sleep—apparently made me despised by my ex, who craved personal attention.
And so, I continued with my habits, when I returned to school for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at Columbia University. I believe continuous structured learning keeps adult minds sharp, as they are empowered to generate new ideas to benefit society including our yet to develop motherland—Africa. At Columbia, I met students, who were just like me. Students who liked to stay up all night solving problems and learning new things. They drank as much coffee as I did. In fact, Columbia reeked of coffee. I felt at home there. But it was not good for my marriage.
All the books we had bought and kept for our future kids were gone—just like that. The complete collection of Harry Potter series, too. We had been among the throng of teeming masses, huddled together in the chill of New England’s winter, waiting to buy each of J.K. Rowling’s books, about the adventures of the sorcerer. She used to joke that she would dump her property law textbook in her child’s lap before she was four. She was quite funny. I tend to be drawn to folks with a good sense of humour. But there was nothing funny about the day she walked out, leaving the divorce papers behind for me to sign.
I had paid over US $5,000 to save the books, by retaining the holdings in a warehouse in Manhattan for several years. I even tried to arrange for someone to help ship the tomes to Nigeria, so that a school could use them. Perhaps an indigent student in a remote village might be inspired by some of them. But my pocket size hadn’t matched the size of my heart. I tried to donate them to a church. But coordinating between Washington, DC and New York City, was not working. I suppose books are not the sort of donations churches jump at. So, they are gone. A divorce destroys many things.
Divorce was rarely heard of among the traditional Yorubas. There was too much at stake for the family, and thus, they had magun as a safeguard—at least the man was able to protect his “investment in his wife.” Some syncretic Yoruba men remain traditional—even those masquerading as Christians—and use magun to prevent trespassing. But I wonder, if a woman can also cast a similar spell on her husband? I would have dismissed this oddity, except that there are extant YouTube videos exposing the humiliated faces and compromised positions of cheating couples, interlocked (stuck together) by magun circulating on Facebook. Their ordeal reminds me of the verses in the book of wisdom:
“Can a man walk on hot coals
without his feet being scorched?
So is he who sleeps with another man’s wife;
no one who touches her will go unpunished.”
Marriage was once considered a life bond, and even divorce could not release a previously married couple for remarriage to a new partner, unless one spouse died (without foul play). I wonder, if marrying couples still say those words, “Till death do us part?” Because it is meaningless—unless, there is magun involved.
* Olurotimi Osha is Doctor of Law candidate at the George Washington University Law School, in Washington, DC,