Funny Travel Solver Winner: Mama Ibeji

by Patricia Dreyfus

Twins: Double Trouble or Twice Blessed

The heart shaped continent, the site of Eden where human life began, Africa, the center of the Earth. As I step from the plane in Lagos, Nigeria, I hear the music of Africa, high and tinkling, beating and throbbing like my pulse. I smell Africa, pungent, lush, earthy, a scent of fecundity and life.

The heat engulfs me like a steam bath. Colors swirl as men in embroidered caftans, green, gold, turquoise stride past me. The grandmothers, announcing their status, wear head wraps tied high. Every grandchild awarding another twist, the piling on of honor. Young women glide by with liquid movement, at ease with the packages carried on their heads and babies tied to their backs.

There are no signs to follow, no red or green lines to customs, no cubicles with agents for tourists or citizens, no airline personnel to assist me. Everyone is talking and moving in the same direction.

I slip into the river of people and am carried in the stream. I cannot change direction and I am careful not to stumble. The heat in the corridor and the sweat of my fellow travelers are suffocating. I am wearing a long sleeved t-shirt and long pants because I am terrified of the malaria carrying mosquitoes that are the only other life form swarming in this chamber. We spill into a large room. Rifle-toting soldiers surround the perimeter. They use their guns to motion which way to go and to keep us moving. I try to stay as far away from them as possible and I keep moving.

Finally, up ahead, I see a man in a tomato red caftan and cap both embroidered in heavy gold thread. He is on an island, a high dais in the center of the flow. The people eddy around him. Those who can reach it thrust their passports up onto the shelf in front of him like people reaching for a life raft.

He is tall, perhaps six foot three, his skin a light café au lait color. The color of his almond shaped eyes matches his skin. He has deep scarification marks that cut from the apple of his cheeks to his temples. The scars look like he was scratched on both sides of his face by a three toed leopard. His full lips barely hide his disdain for the flotsam and jetsam that is surging before him. He exudes power and he knows it.

This visit to Nigeria has been a dream of mine for years. Our family has hosted many foreign students from Asia, Europe, South America and Africa, but Segun from Nigeria became our favorite. He either adopted us or we him, none of us can remember.  I have come to meet his family.
To visit this country is not easy. When I applied for a visa, I had to swear I was not a member of any subversive group and whether or not I had ever been in the military. I needed a letter of invitation from Segun. I also needed certification that I had enough money to sustain myself while in Nigeria and proof of a return ticket home.

On the plane from London, I sat next to a young American who works in Lagos. We talked of the difficulties of living in Nigeria. Corruption is rampant and even though illegal, “dash”—bribes—are openly solicited. He mentioned that he had twin girls, both redheads. He said that his wife is treated with great respect in Nigeria because she is the mother of twins and that the girls are a talisman. Everyone wants to touch them for luck.

I also have twins, and I know about the Yoruba tribe’s belief that if you have twins you are blessed. The blessing includes riches, which are yet to come to me, and great power. The mother (Mama) of twins (Ibeji) can curse or bless, whichever she chooses. I have always favored this philosophy and tell the story tongue-in-cheek whenever I want to impress or intimidate someone.  After our conversation, I blithely wrote on my landing card, in the space for Occupation: “ Mama Ibeji.”

Now, drowning in this sea of people, I am beginning to panic. It’s true, I have twins, but in Nigeria, with an uncertain political system and this formidable man as the representative of the regime, I fear my cleverness has put me on shaky ground.

Like the wreckage I have so quickly become, I am washed up on the beach in front of the Passport Control tower. It is too late to change my blunder. With a whimper that I pray he doesn’t hear, I slide my passport toward the man in charge.

A quick assessment by those cappuccino eyes and he opens my passport. The look he gives me is dismissive, and he pushes the passport back. I am weak from the humidity and heat and the tide of humanity heaving behind me. I want out of here. I push the passport toward him again. A quick flick of his finger, a glance, and this time he just abandons it in the mass of booklets in front of him. Then I notice the currency stuck discretely in the other passport folders. I have compounded my error.

I tentatively reach for my papers. As the tips of my fingers touch the book, he slides it to him and opens it again. This time he is looking intently at my Landing Card.  I am not breathing. I retrieve my quivering hand and stand frozen like a small rodent looking up at the hawk.

Mr. Control’s eyes narrow. He is staring at the line that says, “Occupation.”   He raises his right eyebrow, straightens up to his full height, adjusts his cap, picks up his stamp and endorses my passport page with a great thud. He slowly folds it and looking into my eyes, hands
it to me. “Welcome to Nigeria, Mrs. Dreyfus,” he smiles, “And how are your twins?”

Patricia Dreyfus is too old to be eulogized as so young and so gifted. Born in North Dakota, she grew up in Compton, California. Her mother was a Viking with their strength and organization, and her father had the discipline of his German father and the Irish fey of his mother. She inherited all of it in varying degrees. She has traveled the world, speaks very poor Spanish and is married to her first and favorite husband, Gary. She belongs to The Writing Well, The Greater Los Angeles Writers Society and PEN. She has been published in the LA Times, Travelers’ Tales and She Writes, Anthology. She is also an award winning poet.

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