01 May, 2013

ABOUT THE STORY The international conference is one of the most representative spaces of intercultural exchange in the 21st century: a small spatial and temporal cocoon where both ideas and clichés are circulated, and idealism and cynicism are both prominently on view. Can the world become a better place through such meetings, or are they themselves a symptom of the inertia they seek to beat down? In the Ugandan writer Doreen Baingana’s expertly observed story of a pan-African conference in the Nigerian capital Lagos, a conference becomes a site not just of professional and social rituals but of sexual tension.

The unnamed female narrator works in the development world and is a veteran of such occasions. She loves the luxury and the release from quotidian routines that they represent, and we learn late in the story that she has also packed some fancy underwear for the trip. When she meets an attractive Nigerian man at the proceedings, there develops between them a kind of private dance, with other people around them drawn in as shields or foils. Baingana seems critical of and yet sympathetic to her protagonist’s dilemmas in just the right proportions, recording her thoughts over the span of the conference in confident and unrushed prose. As the last night of the trip approaches, the protagonist knows—and we know—that something must give.

HIS FACE IS ALL ANGLES. Cheekbones she can slide down. Eyebrows arrogant bushy lines.  Eyes slanting, heavy-lidded. After all these peaks and corners, the reward: lips defiantly full. Lips even darker than his face, covering buckteeth that peep just a little. Flashes of white as he talks.

She is in the sweltering garden of a conference centre in yet another African city. Artfully spread out are immense life-like plants, bursting glossy green from pots shaped like cooking pots. A red-headed lizard scampers away, indignant. Two insistent shiny-blue flies land heavily on the table like toy helicopters. She is at one of the many NGO welfare workshops that bring Africans from all corners to dissect how similar are their lurching governments, how effectively they wield the machete of corruption, how widespread their epidemics of new politicians, churches, diseases and aid. Here she is again, in a strangely familiar foreign city.

This one, Lagos, is so much larger, sprawling high-rises and flyovers, with so much more grey, black and brown asphalt, buildings and dust, that she can do nothing but stare as she sits, sweltering, stuck and in monster traffic jams that eat up half the morning. As she crosses the longest bridge she has ever been on, she sees small wooden rough-skinned canoes and mud huts on stilts, a floating slum, on her left, and on her right, a skyline of skyscrapers. Eras skipped in a blink. This city is too hot, too humid, the voices too loud, gestures too emphatic, the bling too flamboyant, food too spicy, and the laughter so riotous it throws their bodies back and forth, possessing them.

To avoid a visitor’s clichés, she tells herself, she zeros in on one person, just one, at the opening cocktail in the Protea Hotel lounge; its orange and brown décor exactly like the one in Kampala and Capetown. She remembers him from Durban, but that was the large annual association meeting; they didn’t talk. He is from here, she knows. Too what? she wonders. He is her height, so looks directly into her eyes as he greets her, eyes heavy-lidded, assessing. Her eyes slide away. Does he hold her hand, pressing her palm, just a little too long? He isn’t just greeting; he is saying, Notice me—I’ve noticed you. Words, of course, are always more mundane.

We’ve met before, haven’t we? Chuma is my name.

Of course. Durban, last June. But I love Lagos—I’ll always come back.

How’ve you been? Pushing on?

The usual. We’ve got great speakers this time, don’t we?

His voice is the opposite of his dark face: high, mumbling, punctuated by a trilling laugh, soft, even feminine. He is too agreeable, too polite. I’ll get you a chair. Do you want some water? Try the Zain mobile line—good deals on international calls.

She is confused by messages of strength and weakness—is it weakness or charm? But she is just as busy being her nicest. She must charm. Everyone. She can’t help it. Laughing with open-mouthed vigour at the slightest hint of a joke. Working hard at being witty: Oh yes, of course I believe Nollywood; it’s African absurdity at its best. Copying the movie accents: I came back to Nigeria just for the pepper soup-oh! She can hear how shrill her voice is. Stop, stop, she tells herself, as she nods eagerly, and yet she doesn’t want more water. Is her lipstick still on? Are her teeth too prominent? Is her dreaded front tooth smeared with lipstick? Why is he looking at her mouth? Is that a good or bad thing? A whiff of sweat, hers, can he smell it? Is he just being polite, insisting on blah small talk, or what?

The back of her neck itches. She turns. A huge black Buddha is staring at her. No, at him. Squat, in large loose tent-like robes, all black, and sandals. He must be Nigerian too. His large bald head swims above, bulging eyes intense. Who is this? She smiles stiffly. His expression doesn’t change. Chuma waves at him then glides away from her to him. She feels the warm air shift.

There is little difference between foreign country workshops and aquariums: they keep swimming around or neatly bumping into the same people. Hotel lobby, hotel bar, traffic jam, conference centre, shopping as a gang, a museum perhaps, dinner, another bar, back to the hotel they all share. It’s claustrophobic; it’s safe. Strangers with funny accents become her best friends for a week. She exposes her ignorance about their countries: That coup last year was bad, eh?Oh sorry, was it two years ago? At the end of each day, she escapes to her hotel room, to silence or CNN, with relief. On the plane to every conference she prays to no one in particular that it is nicely funded so the hotel rooms are a delight: spacious and spotless, filled with fluffy white towels and lots of tiny toiletries to carry away as gifts for her maid.

This one isn’t. They convene at the Protea but are put up across town at the Ambassador, and they all laugh at the name. Brown water rushes out of the taps for half a minute before clear water makes its escape; the rusty showerhead leaks; the bathmat is threadbare, off-white. But the bed is wide; the sheets look and smell clean, there is the lovely foreign smell of the ocean outside. And she is alone without the clutter of home. She falls back on the bed, spreads out her arms and bare legs, and studies the white ceiling.

Another conference and workshop perk is the food. She falls off the bandwagon of her permanent diet on every trip—a great escape from the everyday posho and potatoes and beans. It would be a crime to deny herself the spread of a hotel buffet breakfast. She samples both the melon and pineapple juices, the paw paw, pineapple, melon, cantaloupe slices and passion fruit cups with tiny eyes black and crunchy, the yoghurt with muesli, sausages, baked beans, mushrooms, bacon, eggs, a different way each day, a muffin if she can, tons of coffee and yet more juice to wash all this down. A few hours later, lunch starts with a clear, light and hot pepper soup, the opposite of her home’s thick gooey orange stews with everything thrown in, accompanied by heavy starches. This startling newness to her tongue is why she travels. She says out loud as she eats—I’m gorging—head ducked down over her heaped plate, to preempt her colleagues’ incredulous glances. She loves the word. Gorging. It’s like a form of pleasurable torture. She notices, at breakfast, that the black Buddha gorges too, handling his knife and fork swiftly and delicately in his stubby fingers.

After ostensibly working hard all day, after being Power-pointed and flip-charted and small-grouped into a coffee-buzzing headache, they must unwind by eating and drinking away the evening. And see the city. All together, of course. On one those evenings, one of the group, now a gang, asks for someplace more local. Hotels around the world are all the same, aren’t they? the workshop leader says, with a laugh, as her ten bronze bracelets make a slow jingly trail down her arm. Dayo Ibunke Johnson has come all the way from New York, Ivy League degrees in tow. She is one of those Africans who grew up on one continent, studied in another, married from yet another and now lives on two of them, switching accents like she does her high heels, her voice and makeup loud. She switches from warm bosomy hugs to cold handshakes in an instant. She can do her job with her eyes closed and brain on automatic, so familiar is she with the topic: Health Education and the Media in Africa. Friends or foes? she adds with a laugh at every introduction.

The gang is taken to a beach bar by the lagoon. Plastic chairs are quickly arranged around two tables by the flat blue water that stretches out to the skyline on the other side. The water’s edge is choked with flotsam: black plastic bags, clumps of soaked newspapers, banana skins, bright rude colour and mush clinging to the dirty brown sand. The gang chooses not to sit too close to it; the beach is not why one comes to this beach. She cringes her feet in brand new beaded leather sandals bought especially for this trip, so common back home, but unique and admired here, and wonders why this place is popular. It is crowded and noisy as everyone tries to get heard above the blare of a football game showing on a huge flat TV screen, also outdoors.

Who should she sit next to? Where is he? He was here just a minute ago. Is she being avoided? Is she a bore? Who should she avoid? Should she grab a chair facing the dirty water, or face the road and a view of parked cars, bulky four-wheel-drives all, or pretend to watch TV? She hates football. She has long ago given up trying to still her mind’s nervous patter. On the outside, she is a journalist wearing a stylishly long necklace (that hopefully makes her stomach look smaller) and fancy “ethnic” beaded sandals. On the outside, she is standing by calmly, waiting for the guys to sort out the seating and the drinks, smiling at her neighbour’s joke. But her gaze is fixed on him. Where will he sit? Next to the black Buddha, who’s wearing in a purple outfit exactly the same as yesterday’s black one: a long shapeless shirt down to his knees over parachute-sized trousers.

Indecently huge bottles of beer are plunked in front of each of them. They sip and chat and argue and laugh, all pretty much saying the same thing: I’m smart, I’m funny, I’ve had the most fascinating things happen to me, I’m a great storyteller. I’ve got unique, insightful, and daring opinions. I’m a good listener too! In spite of them all, dusk delicately draws in, hiding the dirt and cooling the air and showing off the lights shimmering across the lagoon. The blue night advances slowly, deliberately, like a friendly ghost, accompanied by unfriendly mosquitoes. She slaps her calves, her arms, the back of her neck, too late each time, until Dayo offers her repellent cream, which smells like bitter medicine.

Across the unstable plastic table, hidden behind the giant green bottles now crowding it, she unashamedly watches him. He seems to have a lot to say now, using his hands emphatically, a cigarette held lightly in one of them. Its dot of light circles between him and Buddha like a firefly. His friend nods attentively, hardly speaks. Chuma’s mouth works to cover his buckteeth, and she finds herself straining forward to catch a glimpse of his teeth glimmering in the dark, and it’s a surprise every time. She would like to put her hand in his mouth and gently push his two front teeth back in place. She likes how they make him look boyish, vulnerable. His kisses must be a mouthful.

She turns back to Dayo on her left and laughs out loud at what she has said. She has heard two people say this week that Dayo is “one of the best in the business”, and here she is, close and casual. Yet another conference perk: gathering names that she can later scatter like confetti throughout her conversation. She sips her beer and sighs audibly as her mind track slows to a pleasurable crawl.

He turns and says across the table: What is it?

Oh, nothing. I like being away from home in rough places like this. It reminds me of home.

He laughs, that trill again. Home away from home, he says. His heavy-lidded gaze lingers.

A little later, when she returns from the bathroom, the Black Buddha is gone. She takes his seat and says, I’m surprised I don’t know your friend.

Philippe? He’s from Cameroon. We did a three-month course together in London, King’s College, last year. New Media and Development.


He’s a sharp guy.


The dark swoops down closer, the cool air a light hug, and the beer gently swamps her brain, laps around its edges. She leans back and sighs again. They don’t have to talk anymore. The night is almost done.

The closing dinner is two days later. It’s the last chance to propose co-publishing papers with those higher up the peer review rung; to exchange emails and polite lies about keeping in touch; to laugh at the week’s insider joke, the gang’s secret handshake: Don’t shoot the messenger! This was one participant’s complaint; that communications professionals were unfairly blamed when the rural populace ignored basic primary health care information in favour of dangerous traditional practices. The gang now used it all the time. What’s for dinner? Fu-fu and egusi soup again, but please, don’t shoot the messenger!

A buffet is laid out in one of Protea’s dining halls, its pink walls lined with huge new versions of old wooden masks. Raffia and beads, gaping mouths and stone eyes, carved fake fierceness. This is Africa, they announce unnecessarily.

She too announces herself with a tight silk skirt of many colours, sequins dangling playfully at the hem. Her black top’s open boat neckline shows off her prominent yet delicate collarbone, she likes to think. She adds a red Maasai necklace of a thousand tiny beads to go with her blood-coloured lipstick. Dayo has set the tone, hasn’t she?

When he sees her, he comes right over and does what he does with his hooded eyes and half-smile. What a flirt, in his shy and decent way. He knows his white shirt with faint stripes makes his dark skin glow. Tightly wound black hair creeps out of his open neckline. His spiky demon dreads and stalker’s stillness mock his shy smile. She looks down, sideways, as he studies her face. She basks under his gaze even as she wants to kick him, and herself, out of their smug Ken and Barbie roles.

You’ve had a productive week?

Yes, but I’m glad it’s over and I can now go home, she lies.

They separate during cocktails and she is not quick and brazen enough to manoeuvre a seat next to him at dinner. By his side, as always, hovering like a buzzard, is squat fat Philippe. Today his bulky sack outfit is dark blue with gold trimmings.

She eats her fill as usual, sampling all five kinds of meat. Afterwards, she moves over to a group of loud men almost fighting each other for the floor. Here he is, at her shoulder, listening in with a half-smile, one hand up twisting his dreads. She thinks of the pepper soup. How spare it is, how sharp. He doesn’t join in the fray, doesn’t have to. When her wine glass empties, he refills it, twice, and she giggles her thanks.

A number of them are being interviewed for the funder’s report and now it’s her turn. She follows the interviewer, a thin eager man, spider fingers grasping a tiny recorder, to a sofa in a quiet corner. He joins her, drapes himself casually over seat, feet up. She likes his understated gray suede shoes. She performs for him and he watches unabashedly. It’s easy because she is asked the same old questions. The purpose of this workshop was ... I found the sessions extremely useful because … We all agree that there is a real need in this sector ... And now we will collaborate across borders and specialisations ... We must continue to press our governments to ...

The interviewer, done, moves on, the two of them remain.

That was great.

She dismisses it with a wave. I ask all the same questions too.

Really, I’ve learnt a lot.

He is just being polite. Or is he so easily impressed? No, he wants her to think he’s impressed. Oh, what does it matter; she’s leaving tomorrow. Still, the flattery, the wine, the freedom of being foreign in a foreign place, and all that could possibly happen tremble in the air before her. But that stare, again, always, from across the room. She feels it like a burn on her forehead. The Buddha. Chuma waves him over. Her fizz goes flat.

The gang all agree to stretch out the last Lagos evening. How about another beach? It’s quite a walk from the parking area to the beachfront, down a dark fenced-in path of uneven rock and sand. He is behind her. She stumbles and he reaches for her arm, steadies her; his touch fleeting, electric. After paying a fee, they pass through a narrow entrance of makeshift planks, out into the open darkness, pale sand stretching all the way down to an ominous night ocean. They pass a long row of dimly lit tents and lean-to kiosks selling jollof rice and stews and drinks and random plastic things, toys and pails, batteries, chewing gum, condoms. Yellow lamplight and strange shouts fill the air, and then all of a sudden, in a space between stalls, they are faced by a large group of men and women in long white robes and headscarves that gleam in the half-light. They are kneeling in the sand, arms raised, facing the ocean, swaying and singing mournfully.

Led by Chuma, her group walks around this, staring, and continues on down the sand, away from the lamplight, and are welcomed by a loud crash: the ocean. Huge angry waves surge forward and then collapse in a frothy white flourish, slide back, sucking at the sand, only to rise up and try all over again. And again. She could watch this mad aimless race all night. She spent her childhood pointing a finger at words like The Atlantic Ocean on atlas pages, where it belonged; still, flat and evenly blue. She lives by a lake whose movement cannot be called waves if waves are what these are.

In the shift between dim yellow light and shadow, men appear as dark frames, swift movement and noise. They quickly put out plastic chairs and tables, ask for drink orders, silhouettes running back and forth along the beach. They have to shout above the ocean roar—it refuses to be mere background—and the gang shouts back. She sits gingerly, thinking of her pretty silk skirt. He sits next to her. Black Buddha hesitates, and then moves away. As she sips more red wine, he leans in close and tells her about this beach, how these men serving them are vigilantes working for a boss who simply took over the beach, which is officially public land. He pays someone in government. But the businesses and prayers will soon disappear because the beach is narrowing; the water level is rising steadily by the month. Global warming’s menace right here and now.

Report it, then.

What’s the health angle?

There’s always a health angle. They laugh.

Let’s go down close she says, pointing with her chin at the dark ferocious beast below. They move to it and just steps away, it swallows them, sound and soul. She is less than nothing. She wants to kneel before it. Right now, she would rather drown in this ocean than swim placidly in her lake. Too close, he sprints from the rushing water, she laughs. For a moment, she sees the little boy he once was, just running, happy. Cool spray leaps with surprise and tickles her face, arms, legs.

We’re getting too wet, he says and turns, heads back to the others. She follows reluctantly. He goes behind Buddha’s seat, leans over and they have a conversation, ear to mouth. It’s the loud ocean, she tells herself. She turns to the rest of the gang, which is now rowdy. The only white among them, a South African, face glimmering like a small moon in the dark, is animated by whisky and tells a long complex joke. They laugh at his accent. Chuma comes back to his seat, slouches close. She ignores him, even though she can feel the whole length of his body next to hers, all along hers. They do not touch or talk. He lights a cigarette, sucks at it hard.

For this trip, she packed a red silk teddy and matching thong that she hardly ever wears. Wishful thinking. Nothing will happen, she told herself as she packed it. What are the chances of any real connection? What chance that this unlikely connection will be with a man at once sinewy-thin and tender-shy, with something wire-taut underneath she is dying to see snap? That the man will hover, pause his hooded eyes over her lips, and then swoop? Impossible. She packed her sexy silk anyway.

He says, Philippe likes you.


She fights not to look at that squat still shape squashed in his chair all evening. She swerves her head the other way and spills wine on her skirt, jerks up. He quickly offers her a tissue that she grabs, hot fingers touching, and wipes, wipes, wipes. Then looks up. Even in the dark, she can feel the fat-eyed stare.

I think it’s time to leave, she says.

He watches her, eyes hooded. Shrugs. He’s a nice guy. Really. Just a bit shy.

She doesn’t answer, remains standing. She looks hard at him, silently shouting: Asshole, fake, pimp, flirt. Gay flirt.

He laughs that high innocent trill. It’s ok, alright?Don’t shoot the messenger! He gets up too.

The others follow, getting up, gathering bags, scarves and phones, shaking sand out of sandals, emptying glasses in a last upturned gulp, shrugging on unnecessary jackets. They slowly make their way back to the parking lot in clumps of two and three; the mood, happy-tired. She straggles behind. She is hungry all of a sudden. She wants the ocean. She wants to swipe her purse across his face. Both their faces. Chuma and the Buddha enter a taxi together. She imagines them holding hands, imagines the Buddha’s fleshy folds of dark belly, sweat lining hidden crevices. No, she prefers to picture her wide white ceiling, to enter her cool and immaculate room.

She changes into a large loose T-shirt and lies on the neatly made bed, its corners tucked in tight. Some things she can only do alone: swim, that calming rhythmic push through water. Immerse herself in work, alone at her desk. Sleep, breathing alone through the night. She eats and laughs with others, hysterics even, but it’s not the same as this, this physical thing one can do with, in, on, between, inserted into, sucking up, meshed with someone else, as though thrown into the Atlantic, huge and fierce. She gets up, takes off the old T-shirt, puts on the silk teddy, tears open the tight sheets and lies back down, pulls the pristine white sheet up to her chin. She reaches for the phone; the receptionist will have his room number. Hopefully there will be only one Philippe booked in.

Doreen Baingana Doreen Baingana is the author of Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe, which won the Commonwealth Prize for First Book, Africa Region. She has been nominated twice for the Caine Prize for African Writing. She is currently the Chairperson of FEMRITE, a Ugandan women writers’ association.