Tuk-Tuk Trail to Suya and Stars
You venture into the dark, and it looms over and crowds your every space, thick, even pushes into your earlobes like cotton wool, this hazy yellow darkness choked with harmattan dust. You are boxed in by solid air and you must breathe it in. You enter a tuk-tuk, the most rickety vehicle ever made, as if banged together from the spare parts of small cars circa 1960, Austins, say, and old saucepans panel-beaten into shape, all loosely held by rusted nails and chains and placed on top of what was once a three-wheeled motorbike, now an ungainly carriage with a snub metal nose. You sit on plastic, which is easy to wipe of dust, but clings like a kid to your sweaty thighs. All the tuk-tuks are painted orange to compete with the river of dirty sand called the road—haze, heat, rush, animal-like hoots and horns. Orange to shock your eyes into seeing.
Still, it provides the miracle every vehicle does: to move, all you have to do is sit, or rather grip desperately, as there are no side walls or doors. The breeze is a blessing; it strokes your cheek and whispers in your ear that you can breathe, it’s okay, but not too deeply. No, your lungs cannot suck air out of dust as fish do out of water. This dust that covers everything in a fine gray layer, gauze-like, sticky.
You realize as you climb into the tuk-tuk that with cars you settle quickly, assured that the solid metal case will protect you from the rush of the busy street, the intense heat and light, the potholes underneath, the direct hit of any accident. For a while, driven from A to B, you have the pleasure of giving up responsibility and you sink gratefully into the cushioned bowl of the back seat. Not in a tuk-tuk. You sit, yes, but unsupported, holding tight to the rusty rail, sweaty fingers slipping as you are shaken from side to side like jelly, shaken inside out. You are in a blender, a coffee grinder, an angry machine that jostles and jangles you. It sets your stomach churning and everything in it is squeezed and kneaded and turns to shit, straining to escape with every hard bump, your ass clenched tight. Oops, you piss in your pants as the tuk-tuk driver swerves to avoid potholes the size and shape of dried ponds. His dark ball of a head bobs in front of you as he does the same desperate bouncing you do: the tuk-tuk dance.
It’s not all dance. It’s real danger, as each swerve to avoid falling into a pothole leads to a motorbike coming straight at you. It’s as if the whole point of being on the road is to almost crash into the next car, okada, bicycle, just missing by a thread’s breadth to show off your skill, saying, We’re here, full-limbed, we ain’t dead yet, okay, here we go again! Respect is only for huge lumbering lorries, ancient blind dinosaurs that will not, cannot swerve out of your way, so you slow down and slide to the side: a momentary bow of acknowledgement.
Everything else rushes at you, even the dusty, smoking yellow night, a living thing, a sister to the street, which is not a straight line but a maze. Is it really lit by candle light? Yes, and lamps, lanterns; words that sound so Middle Ages but are very much here and now, gleaming, grinning like a mouth with missing teeth. What gapes through the yellow-black gaps? What flashes past your dust-teared eyes? Endless shacks made from wooden planks and strips of corrugated iron slapped together, as ugly as a rubbish dump, that form a long crooked line that hugs the crooked road. The kiosks are filled with the cheapest that Nigeria and China have to offer: shiny nylon shirts, brightly colored packets of Sunlight soap, curry powder, St. Louis cubed sugar (all the way from France?), brand new bicycle wheels wrapped tightly around with white, black, and blue polythene strips and hung up on a pole in a pattern of open-mouthed Os, TVs and electric fans, dirty jars of chewing gum, and shelf upon shelf of brightly colored packages and boxes, with sacks of grain below. To you it’s all jumbled up, but obviously there’s some kind of order because it is repeated at every single kiosk, each guarded in front by a fire and frying pan where starchy snacks bubble and pop.
Your eyes rove on. Bare bulbs reveal a family of half-naked babies and toddlers crawling and playing among the wares. No sissy eight-o’clock-it’s-bedtime-let’s-take-you-home, no; it’s finally cool enough to be outside. Parents are splayed on plastic chairs nearby, their patterned akara prints showing boldly through the dusk after winning the day’s competition against the sun. Some men are manly enough to wear lace, long shirts and trousers of it, while the women boast headscarves shaped like huge birds’ open wings, and they all, all have cheeks lovingly scrawled by deep tiger claws, three on each side. A grandma sits wide-legged, her long skirt pulled above the knee as she leans over a red basin, peeling or washing, you can’t tell which. Skinny yellow legs, chicken-like. Your shock is as fleeting as your tuk-tuk ride, and on you go, onwards, since you can’t join the family.
There is a point to your night-time tuk-tuk journey: suya. You stop by an open street stand, called there by a bare bulb swinging and shining like goodness over a huge enamel plate, as wide as a wheel, piled high with meat, as every plate should be. A cow’s healthy thigh becomes a hunk of raw flesh, cut into thin slabs that are caressed and squeezed and pampered with ginger, curry powder, salt, who knows what other spices, and chili pepper, of course—this is Nigeria after all—coated with palm oil and groundnut paste, pierced with a skewer and, crying red tears, thrown over the fire to roast. What you get is thick, meaty, fire-red butterfly wings spotted with yellow chili seeds: suya.
The cook is a tall, heavy, dark man whose sweating forehead—as if more drama were needed—is speckled pink and gray. Either hot oil splashed up and seared off his skin, or he was born that way, and this somehow makes your meat spicier. His long-fingered hands are deft from years of slicing and spicing and roasting; his fingers, faster than your eyes, perform a light dance you watch greedily, because this meat is for you, as are the added ginger powder and chopped raw tomato and onion on the side. Who cares what your mouth will smell like tonight, tomorrow? You also refuse to think of the garnish of germs that have been squirming and feasting, shitting and multiplying all over your meat just before it is once again sizzled hot over the smoking charcoal. Your share is diced up and wrapped in newspaper, and of course it doesn’t matter to you which chief or senator’s face or subsidy scandal will soon be soggy with grease.
Back in the tuk-tuk, your load (their word for baggage, pronounced “loot”) held tight in one hand, the other grasping the tuk-tuk railing, you race, jiggle, bounce, shake, rattle your way back, now in search of beer, a Star, the coldest, crispiest, liquid opposite of suya—its perfect partner.
You go somewhere with fuji and juju music and not too much light, The Club, whose design and décor and is “abandoned building,” and whose toilet is the rubbish-strewn back yard. An irritated rat scurries away as your piss just misses an empty Sprite, but the gray-brown sand between your feet generously accepts it.
All this is preamble. You sit, eat, and suddenly your mama’s Don’t talk with food in your mouth, you! makes sense. Chew, sip, love, and be silent. Give in, as Pépé kisses your lips and stings your tongue and bites you in the belly; makes you groan with his intensity. Sick love, the kind that’s so bad for you, you can’t give it up. Once you’ve had suya, like sex, you can’t not have it again. When you become dictator, you will decree that all food must burn tongues and curdle stomachs, must shoot a hole through the head like Pépé’s cool green cousin, Wasabi. Food must announce its way down your throat, through your curled tunnel of intestines, circling and gurgling, and finally, kiss again your sweet asshole. So this is what nerve endings are for.
Spicy hot is sweet: a tongue and mind twister, a dark Iseyin street.
Doreen Baingana is the Ugandan author of Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe, which won an AWP Short Fiction Award and a Commonwealth Prize. She has also won the Washington Independent Writers Fiction Prize and was twice a finalist for the Caine Prize for African Writing. Her stories and essays have appeared in Glimmer Train, African American Review, Callaloo, The Guardian (UK), Chimurenga, and Kwani. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland and most recently won an Emerging Writer’s Fellowship from the Writer’s Center in Maryland. She has taught creative writing in the United States, Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda, and is the chairperson of FEMRITE, the Uganda Women Writers Association. (9/2012)