“That can’t be right. Are you sure, Ma? They can’t eat like this! How did she get so fat eating this?” A plate of unsavoury-looking food sat on a fancy tray like a wart on a girl’s cheek. Halimatu’s down-turned mouth pushed out her bottom lip in confusion and disgust.
“Yes. I am sure this is what the Oyimbo eat. They like raw vegetables and boiled eggs and noodles. They like bland foods. Have you watched NBC?”
“But I made pepper soup and stew this morning.”
“Kai! Imagine if we gave her pepper soup! Her white face would burn and she would look like a tomato! Their white skin is delicate you know! Like paper, it will tear if you touch it.”
Halimatu put her doubts under the napkin she draped across the food. Her mistress took the tray and headed towards the guests’ salon. A few seconds later she was back and Halimatu’s lip had a new worry.
“You are not sitting with her?”
“No. I cannot eat pepper soup in front of her, while she eats that!”
The tray was placed carefully on the table before Olivia and after a few quiet words, Mrs Paul Odunukwe retreated at once. Olivia was alone again in the bare-walled sitting room. She looked at her plate and frowned.
The plate contained a nest of cold noodles, in the middle of which sat two boiled eggs flanked by three unpeeled carrots and a short dark cucumber.
When at last Mrs Paul Odunukwe returned with the tray, it held a plate with a tangled hair of noodles, a boiled egg, three carrots and two end pieces of cucumber.
Halimatu received the tray with one hand, whilst the other went to her mouth to hide her confusion. Whatever her colour, that girl must be hungry, she thought.
In the salon, the women were making polite conversation.
“How’s your trip so far? How do you like our country?” the host asked her guest.
“Oh, it is interesting”, Olivia said, feeling her stomach’s emptiness echoing around the bare-walled room with a homesick growl.
“Did you meet the director yet? He will help you out at The Institute and make sure you get a good lab placement.”
Olivia thought back to her afternoon of welcomings. Warm smiles and warm Cokes had been offered in every office. The introductions had lasted so long that the promised restaurant trip was replaced by a crate of bitter lemon drinks and a basket of puffpuff doughnuts. But a chicken had wandered in through an open door and stolen her carelessly positioned puffpuff.
“Well, you must be tired. I’ll let you get some sleep,” Mrs Paul Odunukwe said. “You are most welcome in Nigeria and in our house,” she added.
In her bedroom, on top of the fridge that had been brought into her room for her convenience and to house the mineral water The Institute had insisted was the only water she could drink, sat a fancy tray with a napkin draped over it. Lifting the cloth, Olivia’s gaze was met by eyes looking out from a disembodied catfish head swimming in a spicy soup. There was a soft warm ball of mashed rice surrounded by a rich sauce. There were bean cakes and fried plantain.
When she arrived for work in the morning, Halimatu headed straight to the guest bedroom. Her teeth bit her lip, to reassure it that the girl’s skin would be fine. It would not be peeled and cracked liked a boiled tomato just because she had seen a bowl of pepper soup. She is still a human, her teeth comforted her lips, even though she has skin the colour of a pig and she had eyes like a cat’s.
In the kitchen, Halimatu considered the tray. Lifting the napkin revealed the face of the catfish left high and dry in the empty bowl. The sauce smeared bowl and an oily tissue were its only companions on the tray.
“Thank you,” a voice said from the doorway, with a thin smile and a nervous step forward into the kitchen. “Na gode.”
Rachel Twort is a teacher and writer based in the UK. She spent some time in Nigeria with especially inspiring people.