Its slippery whiskers, spine, and fins curl around the wide, red pot. An entire catfish, hefty and brown, all of its curves in a perfect C.
A terrible surprise. And I hate myself for thinking that. You sissy, you closed-minded jerk.
I squeeze the lid handle. I’m stuck, wincing at a stew whose main ingredient’s eyes are glaring, moustache waving, down inside the broth. I don’t know whether to cover the pot, so I won’t have to see it anymore, or to keep the lid off and look.
We asked Esther to cook us Nigerian dishes half the days of the week because we wanted to learn about local food. We’d tried a bit already. Sometimes, for lunch, the office assistant would bring in stacks of Tupperware filled with steaming food—musky stews, or steaming cassava cooked since early morning by a “mama” whose propane stove smoked dirtily in the ditch at the side of the road.
“Wow,” the assistant would say, as I closed my eyes and opened my mouth. In the food would go, the flavours in shocking mixes like dreams where people from different areas of your life interact seamlessly as part of the same world.
I’d chomp hard into a bay leaf hidden in the grit of bitter greens; taste smoked fish and chunks of spicy beef slicked with orangey-red palm oil; mop up the juice in the corner with a dob of fermented dough pinched between my fingers. I’d eat until I got to the bottom of the container, just to show him I wasn’t afraid, my belly dense like a cannonball.
“Wow,” he’d say. “Do you really like it?”
But that was just a “sometimes” lunch. The idea of regular Nigerian-style home cooking was even more appealing, interesting, provocative. What would we be eating if we were actually from here? If Esther were our family rather than our housekeeper? We didn’t want to be those shitty expats who move to some far-away country only to spend the whole time at a restaurant serving shitty expat fare. Those shitty expats who come into a place, tell people what to do based on expat cultural beliefs, and then peace out, leaving locals to clean up the mess. We wanted to be in it, learn from it, taste it.
But when I asked Esther if she’d like to cook for us a few nights a week, her eyes popped wide.
I explained: the local food experience. And besides, her one-year-old, Happiness—wrapped on her back with colourful fabric that you might think was African but actually came from the Netherlands, via China, to be sold in the local market—had been sick recently, and she’d mentioned their family could use a bit more cash.
“Okayyyyy!” She laughed in a nervous way, agreeing.
Saint she is, Esther started us in easy: a greens-filled soup, spicy tomato-paste rice and string beans, chunks of goat or beef or sometimes chicken.
Now, in the kitchen, here was the catfish. Staring, threatening, defiant. How do you like Nigerian food now, it seemed to say.
I’d eaten the fish before, but it had been disguised. In the park where the bombs went off, that’s where we’d often go for catfish and beer.
One of my first weekends in Abuja, a co-worker drove us up to the fish park, its central tiled building glowing blue-white with floodlights in the night. Patio furniture jumbled around it in the biggest, widest dark. We sat in the shadows.
“They’ve started putting in better lighting since the bombs,” my co-worker told me. Oh good.
That first time in the park, I braced through every microsecond, planning what I would do if another bomb were to explode: maybe take cover in the toilet shed or run out to the main street… unless, of course, the explosion were to happen closer, and by the time you would have realized it, you would have been missing a limb or half your face, or been reduced to droplets of former person.
By the time I would have realized it. By the time I would have been missing a limb, or been reduced to droplets of former person. Fun.
There were many nights in the fish park after that. It’s where we’d go to relax after work, to celebrate special dinners, to linger with Sunday night beers after playing sports on the unkempt elementary school field. That was how things were done, so that was how we’d do it.
Sitting on cracked white plastic chairs, we’d order “fish and chips.” It would take a really long time for the food to arrive. I’d see the young men down in the charcoal pit diligently turning cricket-paddle-sized river fish wrapped in aluminum, but the cooking was slow.
We’d drink extra large bottles of beer that tasted like chemicals. We’d feel rats scurrying underfoot. We’d talk louder during the nearby call to prayer as bats circled the minarets. I kept spraying myself with insect repellent because I had stopped taking anti-malarials—they made me feel unsteady. We’d chat and laugh and I’d wonder, “Is anybody having a good time? Is anybody else thinking about the bombs? Would they sound like a pop or a bang?”
Then much, much later, a young man would set down a platter and someone would unfoil the giant roasted catfish, the whole thing, soggy French fries stuffed under its belly and all along its sides with onions and ass-burningly spicy peppers. Everyone would dig at it, bare handed, in the darkness, ripping hunks of flesh off the skeleton. I would dive in to show how cool I was, how open to trying everything. I hated the spongy, slimy fish but loved the burning peppers and chips, so perfect against the beer and the deep night and the bug spray.
One of these fish park nights was a going-away dinner for an office assistant. Our boss cleared his throat and launched into a speech, grandly wishing the assistant well. The person next to him toasted. Around the table, it was coming to me, a chain of inside jokes, anecdotes.
The assistant leaving was the first creative person I met in Nigeria, a young poet; I’d cared about him fiercely right away. We traded poems, writing. And he insisted on coming with me when I wanted to report on a political demonstration, he wanted to help and protect me. We left the scene when anti-terror police showed up with bomb-sniffing dogs, telling the crowd there’d been an explosives threat. He and I got into a car with a local BBC stringer who drove us back to our office. I didn’t know him, but I got in the car. It all felt like a weird dream.
The farewell speeches came round the table at me. The catfish was picked clean. I thought about that story of the bomb threat. How could I turn any of it into a light-hearted toast?
Find the humour in the fear, find the balance, I thought. Everyone who’s “from here” is doing it, just do like them. I gulped a breath and my voice caught with crying. I don’t know if they could see.
In the kitchen now, though, it’s just the fish and me. I can throw it out, but then I’ll have to carry it down the block to the dumpster. If I don’t, Esther will find it in the bin when she cleans up tomorrow, and I don’t want to offend her. If I do, the barefoot security boys at our gate will notice me throwing something out, mention it to Esther as a joke, and she’ll figure it out anyway. I suppose I could break it up really small, to flush down the toilet.
No. I will not be that person. I will not be afraid.
I ladle the juice and the vegetables into a shallow bowl, press the spoon edge against catfish back to break off a piece of meat. The skin doesn’t give, though—it is strong. Eyes are staring, whiskers fluttering like one of those goofy five-fingered goodbye waves. I reach for the serrated bread knife and hack into the fish’s face. I want to cut it off like the head of a snake. Hack, hack, hack. But it’s a helmet of heavy bone. Now there are shards of meat and skin all around its neck. I keep feeling the resistance of knife hitting skull even after I stop trying. A sense memory I can’t shake.
I want to give up, but close my eyes, gather my will and change tactics; slicing a hunk of side meat still attached to the floppy, slippy skin, and covering the pot.
Perching on the edge of the couch, I balance the bowl on my lap.
The stew is lukewarm because Esther cooked it earlier this afternoon when she came in to clean the apartment—not at our request, but because this is all part of the deal of living here. I like to clean my own house. I like to cook my own food. But this is how it’s done here, so this is how we do it. And besides, Esther needs the money for her family.
A cool mouthful of catfish slides off the spoon, into my mouth, and I crunch down through what must be seventy trillion tiny fish bones. My friend told me the thing to do is just to eat them, really chew them up. They’re good for you, she said. This is how we do it.
But I can’t help it. I use my tongue to separate the flesh. On the lip of the bowl, I spit out the bones.