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A Strangled Cry of Fear (eBook) | Products in | Cry of fear, Crying, Fiction
Chika Unigwe. Edited by Brigid Hains. The year I graduated from the university, I married a man, J, whom I had known for two years. My father wondered if I had thought it through, marrying a foreigner. I said I had. When J wanted to go home to Belgium not long after we got married, it did not devastate me. I did not spend days trying to convince him to change his mind, or negotiating how often we would have to return to Nigeria on holiday. I did not once doubt that I would go with him.
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I had never been to Belgium and I remember asking him when we first got together if he did not miss Bulgaria. I kept getting the two countries mixed up, not only because I was bad at geography, but because neither was on my radar of places to move to after graduation. My older siblings were in the US and in the UK. And I had never thought that if I left Nigeria it would be to any place other than these. I did not care whether it was Bulgaria or Belgium. I was certain that I would love it and make it mine too, for the simple reason that it was his.
Moreover, I did not mind veering off the beaten path. Armed with a brand-new degree from one of the top universities in Nigeria then, and an arsenal of phrases from a Teach Yourself Dutch book, I was confident that the only way to go was up. I was eager to begin writing this new chapter of my life.
Losing my voice
A new country. New friends. Besides, apart from being born with a peripatetic itch that needed scratching, I wanted to see where he was from, meet his people, start a family. And so it was only logical to move to Turnhout and begin our new life there. At first, we lived with his parents while we settled in and he looked for a job. I discovered quickly that migration goes hand in hand with a peculiar kind of loneliness that not even fresh love can dispel. I also discovered that my upper second-class BA from a Nigerian university was not impressive enough to get me a job. Nothing I knew before seemed to be of consequence.
My Shopping Bag
Not language. Not social etiquette. Four years later, with a postgraduate degree from a Belgian university, I went to an employment office to register for work. Without asking for my qualifications, the lady at the counter smiled brightly and offered me a job on the spot. In that first month of my migration, I was busy losing my voice in small imperceptible ways.
I was finding out that nothing I knew before seemed to be of consequence. I was not hungry and I told him as much. They are waiting for you.
Back home in Enugu in southeastern Nigeria, I ate whenever I was hungry. We had a gigantic dining table in the living room but we rarely used it and certainly not all nine of us at the same time. The last time I remember the entire family sitting around it together minus my dad who had escaped to Osumenyi, our ancestral home was when my mother made us all sit there for a lunch for my ninth birthday — for the benefit of the video camera recording the events of the day. I still have the video and when I watch it, it strikes me how unnatural it looked, all of us around the table, eating at the same time, trying to pretend that the camera was not fixed on us.
For sure, I had a few friends in Nigeria who used their dining table more often than we did, but I do not recollect that they made a compulsory occasion of it, every single day. It was considered impolite. Here, take a bath robe. The time staying with my in-laws was a lesson on how to navigate the social waters of my new home. Everything was regimented: breakfast at 8am, dinner at 12pm and supper at 6pm.
If one planned to miss any meal, one was expected to give notice. You could not sit in front of the TV with your dinner. No TV when there were visitors. Dinner was a ritual. Table set. Main dish.
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Polite conversation running through the meal. I found it rather tedious, all the rules to abide by, teaching my palate to appreciate an alien cuisine, trying to follow a conversation I had no chance of understanding. Everything was strange. Not even the hot chocolate tasted like the one I was used to. Coffee: Black. No milk. No sugar. More bitter than the instant coffee I drank during exams at university to keep from sleeping when I ought to be studying.
The bananas: perfect-looking, like plastic fruit but lacking the rich, sweet taste of the mottled bananas I bought in huge quantities back in Nigeria.
My parents-in-law spoke very little English and my Dutch was limited to the phrases the Teach Yourself book had assured me I needed to survive the country. It could never be enough.
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Often, caught up in the excitement of the conversation, he forgot midway that he had been translating, that I could not follow without his help, and threw himself into the dialogue.
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