Subscribe to Granta today

Jumping Monkey Hill

|

Page 1 of 4

The cabins all had thatch roofs. Names like BABOON LODGE and PORCUPINE PLACE were hand-painted beside the wooden doors that led out to cobblestone paths and the windows were left open so that guests woke up to the rustling of the jacaranda leaves and the steady calming crash of the sea's waves. The wicker trays held a selection of fine teas. At mid-morning, discreet black maids made the beds, cleaned the elegant standing bathtubs, vacuumed the carpet and left wild flowers in hand-crafted vases. Ujunwa found it odd that the African Writers' Workshop was held here, at Jumping Monkey Hill. The name itself was incongruous, and the resort had the complacence of the well fed about it, the kind of place where she imagined affluent foreign tourists would dart around taking pictures of lizards and then return home still unaware that there were more black people than red-capped lizards in South Africa. Later, she would learn that Edward Campbell chose the resort; he had spent weekends there when he was a lecturer at the University of Cape Town years ago.

But she didn't know this the afternoon Edward picked her up at the airport, an old man in a summer hat who smiled to show two front teeth the colour of mildew. He kissed her on both cheeks. He asked if she had had any trouble with her pre-paid ticket in Lagos, if she minded waiting for the Ugandan whose flight would come soon, if she was hungry. He told her that his wife, Hillary, had already picked up most of the other workshop participants and that their friends, Jason and Sarah, who had come with them from London as paid staff, were arranging a welcome lunch back at the resort. They sat down. He balanced the sign with the Ugandan's name on his shoulder and told her how humid Cape Town was at this time of the year, how pleased he was about the workshop arrangements. He lengthened his words. His accent was what the British called posh, the kind some rich Nigerians tried to mimic and ended up sounding unintentionally funny.

Ujunwa wondered if he had selected her for the workshop. Probably not; it was the British Council that had made the call for entries and then selected the best. Edward had moved a little and sat closer to her on the airport bench. He was asking what she did back home in Nigeria. Ujunwa faked a wide yawn and hoped he would stop talking. He repeated his question and asked whether she had taken leave from her job to attend the workshop. He was watching her intently. He could be anything from sixty-five to ninety. She could not tell his age from his face; it was pleasant but unformed, as though God, having created him, had slapped him flat against a wall and smeared his features all over his face. She smiled vaguely and said that she had just lost her job before she left—a job in banking—and so there had been no need to take leave. She yawned again. He seemed keen to know more and she did not want to say more and so when she looked up and saw the Ugandan walking towards them, she was very relieved.

The Ugandan looked sleepy. He was square-faced and dark-skinned with uncombed hair that had tightened into kinky balls. He bowed as he shook Edward's hand with both of his and then turned and mumbled a hello to Ujunwa. He sat in the front seat of the Renault. The drive to the resort was long, on roads haphazardly chiselled into steep hills, and Ujunwa worried that Edward was too old to drive so fast. She held her breath until they arrived at the cluster of thatch roofs and manicured paths. A smiling blonde woman showed her to her cabin, Zebra Lair. She sat on the bed and smelled the cool lavender scent from the linen and then got up to unpack, looking out of the window from time to time to search the canopy of trees for lurking monkeys. There were none, unfortunately, Edward told the participants during lunch under pink umbrellas on the terrace, their tables pushed close to the railings so that they could look down at the turquoise sea. He pointed at each person and did the introductions. The white South African woman was from Durban, while the black man came from Johannesburg. The Tanzanian man came from Dar es Salaam, the Ugandan man from Kampala, the Zimbabwean woman from Harare, the Kenyan man from Nairobi, and the Senegalese woman, the youngest at twenty-three, had flown in from Paris, where she was at university.

Edward introduced Ujunwa last—'Ujunwa Ogundu is our Nigerian participant and she lives in Lagos.' Ujunwa looked around the table and wondered with whom she would get along. The Senegalese woman looked most promising, with the irreverent sparkle in her eyes and the Francophone accent and the streaks of silver in her fat dreadlocks. The Zimbabwean woman had longer, thinner dreadlocks and the cowries in them clinked as she moved her head from side to side. She seemed hyper, over-active, and Ujunwa thought she might like her, but only the way she liked alcohol—in small amounts. The Kenyan and Tanzanian men looked ordinary, almost indistinguishable, tall with wide foreheads, wearing tattered beards and short-sleeved shirts. She thought she would like them in the uninvested way that one likes non-threatening people. She wasn't sure about the South Africans—the white woman had a too-earnest face, humourless and free of make-up, and the black man looked patiently pious, like a Jehovah's Witness who went from door to door and smiled when each was shut in his face. As for the Ugandan, she had disliked him from the airport, and even more now with his toady answers to Edward's questions, the way he leaned forward to speak only to Edward and ignored the other participants. They, in turn, said little to him. He was the winner of the last Lipton African Writers' Prize with a prize of fifteen thousand pounds. They didn't include him in the polite talk about their flights.

After they ate the creamy chicken prettied with herbs, after they drank the sparkling water in glossy bottles, Edward stood up to give the welcome address. He squinted as he spoke and the thin hair scattered over his scalp fluttered in the breeze that smelled of the sea. He started by telling them what they already knew—that the workshop would be for two weeks, that it was his idea but of course funded graciously by the Chamberlain Arts Foundation, just as the Lipton African Writers' Prize had been his idea and funded also by the good people at the Chamberlain Foundation, that they were all expected to produce one story for possible publication in the Oratory, that laptops would be provided in the cabins, that they would write during the first week and review each participant's work during the second week, and that the Ugandan would be workshop leader. Then he talked about himself, how African literature had been his cause for forty years, a life-long passion that started at Oxford. He glanced often at the Ugandan. The Ugandan nodded eagerly at each glance. Finally, he introduced his wife, Hillary, although they had all met her. He told them she was an animal rights activist, an old Africa hand who had spent her teenage years in Botswana. He looked proud when she stood up, as if her tall and lean gracefulness made up for what he lacked in appearance. Her hair was a muted red, cut so that wisps framed her face. She patted it as she said, 'Edward, really, an introduction.' Ujunwa imagined, though, that Hillary had wanted that introduction, that perhaps she had even reminded Edward of it, saying, 'Now, dear, remember to introduce me properly at lunch.' Her tone would be delicate. The same tone she used the next day at breakfast when she sat next to Ujunwa and said that surely, with that exquisite bone structure, Ujunwa had to come from royal stock in Nigeria. The first thing that came to Ujunwa's mind was to ask if Hillary ever needed royal blood to explain the good looks of friends back in London. She did not ask that, though, and instead said—because she could not resist—that she was indeed a princess and came from an ancient lineage and that one of her forebears had captured a Portuguese trader in the seventeenth century and kept him, pampered and oiled, in a royal cage. She stopped to sip her cranberry juice and smile into her glass. Hillary said, brightly, that she could always spot royal blood and she hoped Ujunwa would support her anti-poaching campaign and it was just horrible, horrible, how many endangered apes people were killing and they didn't even eat them, never mind all that talk about bush meat, they just used the private parts for charms. After breakfast, Ujunwa called her mother and told her about the resort and about Hillary and was pleased when her mother chuckled. She hung up and sat in front of her laptop and thought about how long it had been since her mother really laughed. She sat there for a long time, moving the mouse from side to side, trying to decide whether to name her character something common like Chioma or something exotic like Ibari.

Chioma lives with her mother in Lagos. She has a degree in Economics from Nsukka, has recently finished her National Youth Service and every Thursday she buys the Guardian and scours the employment section and sends out her CV in brown manila envelopes. She hears nothing for weeks. Finally, she gets a phone call inviting her to an interview. After the first few questions, the man says he will hire her and then walks across and stands behind her and reaches over her shoulders to squeeze her breasts. She hisses, 'Stupid man! You cannot respect yourself!' and leaves. Weeks of silence follow. She helps out at her mother's boutique. She sends out more envelopes. At the next interview, the woman tells her she wants somebody foreign-educated, speaking in the fakest, silliest accent Chioma has ever heard and Chioma almost laughs as she leaves. More weeks of silence. Chioma has not seen her father in months but she decides to go to his new office in Ikoyi to ask if he can help her find a job. Their meeting is tense. 'Why have you not come since, eh?' he asks, pretending to be angry, because she knows it is easier for him to be angry, it is easier to be angry with people after you have hurt them. He makes some calls. He gives her a thin roll of 200-naira notes. He does not ask about her mother. She notices that the Yellow Woman's photo is on his desk. Her mother had described her well—'She is very fair, she looks mixed, and the thing is that she is not even pretty, she has a face like an over-ripe yellow pawpaw.'

Page 1 of 4 | Next Page