This year, Guernica celebrates its 10th anniversary as a free, online magazine of art & politics! As we prepare to launch into our second decade, we hope you'll consider making an end-of-year donation. Reader, you make this work possible.

Skip to Content

Share

Simpatico

By
February 1, 2010

I went to see Violet. I wanted to find out if she knew where Rose was. Violet’s hair salon, Simpatico, was not far from the bus stop at Tafawa Balewa Square. It was on the way to Ikoyi, on a small road where artisans and craftsmen exhibited their works like miniature wooden villages, canoes, painted drums, and rag dolls. Today, most of their woodcarvings were under plastic wraps and only a few paintings were hanging. I walked past their row of shacks and past a block of apartments.

Simpatico was half of a duplex. The other half was a boutique called Afrique-Chique, and the owner was a designer who used adire to make clothes. Her fabrics were without symbols and patterns. I wondered if she actually knew what she was doing. She had not been trained to dye cloth the traditional way. Some of her fabrics looked as if the rain had fallen on her dye and created patterns by accident, but I liked her clothes: skirt suits, pantsuits, and blouses. The shop window was dusty and an old man was wiping it clean. The small car park that bordered the street was already full. I walked between a silver Peugeot and a black Mercedes belonging to customers of Simpatico.

Violet was the woman her mother had forced her to become. Now, she flashed her eyes, shimmied around, and threw her head back to laugh as if she believed that whoever you were, whatever you owned, and however much you knew, you wanted to have sex with her.

For a mother to hate her daughter was strange. I remembered how Rose told me about their mother, Sisi, who pushed Violet out of her way, even if Violet wasn’t standing near her. Sisi would cross a room to push Violet and say, “Get out. You’re always looking.”

Always looking. That was Sisi’s way of insulting Violet.

“But she was,” Rose said. “When she was small, with her big eyes like this. She walks into a place and she’s studying everything around. Little devil.”

Violet’s big eyes were a sign of her materialism, Rose said, but as she told me more and more, I saw what had really happened in their family. Violet was beautiful. Violet looked exactly like Sisi. Violet was slimmer than Sisi and Violet was beginning to get attention from men who visited Sisi. Violet liked money, yes, but who didn’t? Violet was shy, I was sure. She was barely thirteen when her mother instructed her, “Smile for your uncle,” “Dance for your uncle.”

Violet was the woman her mother had forced her to become. Now, she flashed her eyes, shimmied around, and threw her head back to laugh as if she believed that whoever you were, whatever you owned, and however much you knew, you wanted to have sex with her.

I’d heard her say, “I’ll take her husband away from her if she’s not careful,” or “Don’t mind him. Put him in a room with me and he’ll be jumping out of his trousers.” She talked about ugly people with such contempt that I was sure she was joking: “Why is her neck long like that, like a giraffe?” “Did you see his mouth? Or does he want to suck out all the air in the room or something?” She was thoroughly nasty and it was hard to like her, yet I could not dislike her. She hugged me and called me “darling.” She asked me to beg Rose to forgive her whenever they fell out. She looked at me with her big eyes and I saw empty shells. I only remembered how Sisi had raised her.

While she was in Italy, she was with a ring of Nigerian prostitutes. She claimed she was attending night school and doing cleaning work on the side, and that was how she met one Italian doctor, Fidele. He came from a rich family and the whole family was waiting for their mother to die so they could inherit. Fidele was the family disgrace, the only professional of the lot because he had rebelled and pursued a medical career. His family thought that was so middle-class of him, so nine-to-five-ish. Fidele was thrice divorced and they knew about his bad habits with his African cleaning woman. All he ever did was complain about his family, Rose said, even though he was in his fifties and had lost most of his hair and wore a gray wig. Violet finally told him off and started talking about her own family in Nigeria. “Forgive me,” Fidele said. “For the first time I’m seeing you as…why, eh, eh,…a real person.”

Violet ended up having a daughter, Ibimina, by him. Fidele’s mother disowned him when she found out. No way would an African monkey inherit from her estate, she swore on her sickbed, and Fidele continued to complain about his family politics, so Violet packed her load and came back home with Ibimina. For that alone I praised her. She had pride, although Fidele financed her move and paid for her hair salon. Violet’s Italian visa had expired for five years and she knew there was no going back to Italy. Fidele came to visit her in Lagos anyway, only once, and Violet booked him into a French hotel on Victoria Island, to show him that Africans were sophisticated. She had forgotten her people. They saw an old oyinbo man with one of their women and drew fast conclusions. A group of taxi drivers stoned them, shouting, “Ashawo.” Prostitute. Violet ran into the lobby of the hotel. Fidele’s wig fell off. When they reached their hotel room, Rose was waiting there, with Ibimina.

“I actually felt sorry for Vio that night,” Rose said. “She was breastfeeding, Ibimina had a temperature. Vio was crying like no man’s gaga.”

The next morning it was Alitalia immediately. Fidele fled.

Rose said she was sure Violet had had a baby by Fidele because of her vanity. “She thought her baby would be beautiful, but unfortunately God backfired her plans and delivered her a rat.”

Ibimina was cute, as far as I was concerned. Her nose was long and pointed. Her chin was tiny like her father’s and her teeth stuck out because she sucked her thumb. Really, she was like a cuddly rat and I could not resist her. But there was no way, looking at her sweet six-year-old face, that anyone could think she was going to be beautiful.

It was as though Violet decided to pretend anyway. She bought the child the prettiest dresses. Whenever Ibimina ran through the hair salon, she praised her, “Bella! Bellissima!” The hairdressers, too, praised Ibimina. “Bella! Bellissima!” I thought Bellissima was her middle name, Bella for short. I didn’t know the hairdressers just loved to imitate Violet. Whenever she was on her phone speaking Italian, if she said, “Va bene,” they repeated, “Va bene.” Violet was their queen, and walking into Simpatico, I felt as if I was walking into a mental asylum—or perhaps that was because of my mood.

Violet was standing behind a hairdresser talking to a customer. The hairdresser was sewing fake hair into the customer’s cornrows. She manipulated the wefts, using a needle and thread. The fake hair covered the customer’s head, so I didn’t know what she looked like. Violet hugged me as usual and asked me to wait while she finished her conversation with her customer. I watched the hairdresser’s hand movements in the mirror as they continued talking.

“For me, it’s Ferre,” Violet was saying. “Ferre is the king. No one can touch Ferre.”

“Ferre?” the customer said. “He’s for old women.”

“No, no,” Violet said. “That’s Chanel.”

“Chanel, for grandmothers. Me, I like Chanel for bags only, or Fendi or Gucci.”

“Louis Vuitton does nice ones.”

“Ugh, Vuitton, so naff.”

“Shoes then,” Violet said.

The customer’s voice sounded more English than Nigerian, as if her nose was blocked with mucus. “Shoes?” she said. “It depends. I’m into Manolos for dressing up because they’re unique; Nigerians haven’t yet discovered them. I know everyone’s into Ferragamos these days, but I can’t stand them. I’m telling you, they’re just too common, and if I see another Nigerian girl on Bond Street, trying to squeeze her fat feet into a pair of Ferragamos”

“Oh, mamma mia, don’t kill me,” Violet shrieked and patted her chest.

“It’s true, and they’re made especially for narrow feet, you know. For European aristocrats, not for any bush Nigerian.”

“Oh, mamma mia, you’re so wicked.”

“It’s true. Shod like a princess. That’s their motto.”

“What about jeans?”

“Hm”

The customer with the fake hair was actually thinking hard.

“Armani?” Violet asked.

“Calvins,” the customer said.

“Calvins? Serious?”

“Oh, definitely Calvins. Armani jeans are so untrendy. I like mine cheap and cheerful. American, you know, 501s especially, because my arse is flat. They’re not exactly cut for your average African arse.”

“Oh, mamma mia!

Violet excused herself and we went to her back room. I sat in the customer’s chair facing her. She took a lump of pounded yam out of her top drawer. It was wrapped in cellophane. The efo stew was on a blue plastic plate on her desk.

“Sorry,” she said. “That girl talks too much. I’m so hungry, I have to eat right now. My ‘Ghana High’ is getting cold.”

She unwrapped the pounded yam. “Ghana High” was her meal from a group of women who had a cooking co-op by the Ghana High Commission nearby. Violet ate with her fingers, tearing off the pounded yam and dipping it into the efo stew. She talked as she ate.

“So how are you, darling?”

“I’m fine.”

“You came to do your hair?”

“I’m looking for Rose.”

She screwed up her nose. “Rose? Isn’t she living with you?”

“She hasn’t been home. She is with her boyfriend, and I don’t know his address.”

Violet chewed on a piece of fried meat. She was squinting. “She has a new boyfriend?”

I nodded, noting that her face was bare of makeup as usual, because Violet thought a woman’s beauty should be natural.

“He’s messing up as usual?” she asked.

“No.”

“That’s good. For once.” She lifted a piece of meat that looked like fried tripe and studied it. “I don’t know where Rose is, but if you see her first, tell her to be very careful. She comes to my house to beg for money, eats my food, and says I’m trying to poison her. Why would I try to poison her? I have no time for that.”

She spoke as if killing her sister was an option, if she wasn’t busy, and threw the tripe into her mouth.

“Talk to her,” she said, chewing. “I don’t think that girl’s head is correct. She herself knows she never pays back loans, and I’m too tied down with my business for her usual nonsense. You see the girl I was with outside? Her sister is getting married. It’s a big wedding. They’re flying the dress and cake in from London. I’m doing the hair. She drives the big Mercedes outside, as you’re seeing her. Their father is” He was in the government. “Half the country’s money is in his bank account, and I hear the bride is six months pregnant”

So, no one sewed or baked in our country, I wanted to say. I thought of what Rose had said after I’d turned down her proposal to smuggle drugs: “I’m not ashamed. Being poor is what I’m ashamed of. Being poor is what you should be ashamed of. See Violet? Everyone knows what Violet was doing in Rome. Now she’s back home with her hair salon. No one can tell Violet she was not studying Italian. Our heads of state steal, our bank directors steal. Who asks where their money comes from?”

I’d seen her argue with neighbors because she didn’t like the way they looked at her. She sometimes borrowed my clothes without asking. She never paid back loans. The men she brought home; the problems they gave her.

Rose was actually living alone when I started working at the bank. I heard she was looking for a roommate because hers had walked out after a fight, so I told her I needed a place to stay.

“Come,” she said. “So long as you’re not like that witch from Calabar.” When I moved in, I saw why her former roommate, the witch, had walked out. Rose ate and left plates on the floor. She asked to try food from my pot and cooked only once a month: pepper soup. She threw in double the peppers people normally used. Her eyes and nose would stream as she ate. She would slap her forehead like a drug addict and beg me to join her. “You have to! Ooh, it’s sweet, my sister! The sweetest I’ve ever made. This one will cure your cold, cough, burn out your germs, jealousy, temper.”

She was an awful cook and had a sensitive stomach. After she’d finished her pepper soups, she would run to the toilet for the rest of the week and swallow all sorts of pills to settle her insides. I’d seen her argue with neighbors because she didn’t like the way they looked at her. She sometimes borrowed my clothes without asking. She never paid back loans. The men she brought home; the problems they gave her. She cursed their great-grandfathers when she broke up with them and she could drink beer like a soldier, but she paid her rent on time and didn’t go around telling my life history to strangers.

Violet choked and patted her chest. “What’s wrong with you today? Why are you so quiet? You look haggard. Have you lost or what?”

“No,” I said.

“You’ve definitely lost.”

She meant lost weight. Violet usually said this to me and to Rose she would ask, “Have you put on?” to annoy her.

“You should stay and do your hair,” she said. “Maybe I can layer it for you.”

“No thank you,” I said.

“Why? I can do it well-well. This your ponytail is too thin. Do you have alopecia or something?”

“No.”

“Alopecia areata,” she said, studying my hairline. Violet was offended by ill health, in particular ill health that could lead to ugliness. She made no secret of the fact that she approved of me because of my looks. “Tolani may not be pretty, as such,” she’d once told Rose. “But she definitely has something.”

“I don’t have it,” I said, meaning alopecia.

“You don’t want to add an attachment?”

“No.”

“What about a fall? We have falls for sale.”

“It’s all right.”

I was smiling so she would not be offended. Violet was being kind, in her own way, and she didn’t like to be turned down. Her hair was cut into what she called a classic bob. She patted it down. In her salon, the hairdressers specialized in fake hair. The long ponytails they called “Sade,” after the singer, and their braids were called “Bob Marley.”

She finished off her efo stew by using a lump of pounded yam to clean her plate. She flexed her jaws and spat out bones. The way she ate, she could easily have been raised in a hamlet, yet if she held a champagne flute, anyone would believe Violet came out of her mother’s womb sipping Moët. It was one of the things Rose held against her: she was not genuine.

We walked back to the hair salon after she washed her hands. The hairdressers were working and at the same time singing a song on the radio. “Holiday, celebration, come together in every nation” The disc jockey was saying, “She’s sexy. She’s cool. She’s Madonna.”

Violet’s salon was painted red and white. On the walls were mirrors and the fixtures were black. The place smelled of burnt hair, pomade, and chemical relaxer. On the floor were strands of straightened hair that the hairdressers had swept into piles. They were mostly teenage girls, these hairdressers. If they shampooed hair, they wet their customers’ faces. They could roll hair, but not cut. They could finger-wave, but not blow-dry. They could braid, and like Violet, they had evil thoughts about their customers.

Rose called them “open-eyed” because they also envied their customers’ clothes. Their customers were mostly young women who walked in wearing jeans, designer belts, and sunglasses. The older women wore linen skirts and colorful agbadas. They were the elite of Lagos, calling Violet every five seconds, because her hairdressers were so incompetent: “Vio, come and check my hair,” “Vio, get someone to do my feet.” Vio this, Vio that, as if Violet was their house girl.

I finally saw the face of the customer with the fake hair. She stood up and a hairdresser brushed the hair back. Violet told her the “Diana Ross” looked wonderful. The customer held up an empty Coca-Cola bottle and asked, “Um, does someone want to take this to the Coca-Cola woman outside? It’s worth it. You get to keep the um, redemption thingummy”

She was looking at me. The redemption money for an empty bottle of Coca-Cola was a few kobos. Couldn’t she find a beggar to give? Children of the elite were rather dumb. Out of common sense, why wouldn’t they care about what was happening? They saw others looking hungry, poor, frightened, and all they cared about were foreign clothes. The whole country could be in flames and they would be trying to get on the next flight out, packing their Ferragamo and Fendi into their Louis Vuitton bags, yet they couldn’t sleep peacefully at night for fear of armed robbers. Wasn’t that enough to think about?

The Diana Ross customer laughed and brushed stray hairs off her clothes. She was in her late teens and wore blue contact lenses. Her denim shorts were frayed. Her hair stuck out. Her nails were also fake and painted a light gold. She didn’t look like Diana Ross at all. She resembled a witch—again, maybe that was because of my mood.

Violet came to the door when she finished talking to her.

“Are you vexed?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

“Don’t mind the girl. She’s young. If I see Rose, what shall I tell her?”

“Tell her I’m reconsidering, please.”

“Okay, darling,” she said.

Her hairdressers were singing to Michael Jackson now: “Thriller.” Violet joined them. She didn’t know or care what I was reconsidering.

G

RansomeSefi-017.jpgSefi Atta was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and currently lives in Mississippi. Her short story collection, Lawless, which won the 2009 Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, will be published in spring 2010 as News from Home. Her novel Swallow, from which “Simpatico” is excerpted, will follow in fall 2010.

Writer’s Recommendations:

I have recently read Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau and seen Sugar, a film by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. I highly recommend them.

Readers like you make Guernica possible. Please show your support.

Tagged with:

Share on FacebookShare on TwitterAdd to BufferShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrSubmit to StumbleUpon
Submit to redditShare on App.netShare via email

You might also like

  • SuspensionSuspension The soft light of the flames made her face seem prettier than it really was. Younger. She was a fixture in his life, a neutral—at most, perhaps, a reflective surface.
  • The NorwegiansThe Norwegians The Norwegians were coming to dinner.
  • ZalzalaZalzala His mother was about to say something, but all she could murmur was zalzala. Earthquake.
  • The Deer-Vehicle Collision Survivors Support GroupThe Deer-Vehicle Collision Survivors Support Group This is the storm right before the calm, she is letting it all out now, because she knows it’s coming. She wants to go home, even if it is what she used to call hell sweet hell.

2 comments for Simpatico

  1. Comment by Patrick Nwadike on February 11, 2010 at 8:53 am

    Sefi, thanks. Your a naturalle. You told the story like you’ve been truly there.

  2. Comment by Chinelo Orji on March 15, 2010 at 4:41 am

    Sefi, you’re a real talent. You write wel about Nigeria but you’ve been in diaspora for quite long. Its amazing. I’m grateful to the internet for al info and I cant wait for Swallow!

Leave a comment




Anti-Spam Quiz:

Subscribe without commenting