When I got the sms informing me of my flight to Dakar, I received it with mixed feelings. For one, I would be dropping off my license the next week and so will not fly until it was renewed. Less flights meant less sector hours which translated into less pay; but a Dakar flight meant at least six sector hours where initially there was none. Second, the flight took me away from home for two nights; so that was less two night’s worth of fuel to be bought. Third, there was the fact that the flight was a night flight – both ways – and not being much of a day sleeper, that meant two nights without sleep resulting in a ‘passing out’ when I eventually returned home. While we stayed at a 5Star hotel, it usually felt like a prison to me. Dakar is a city in a Francophone country and the common languages are French and Wollof, neither of which I spoke. So apart from ordering my meal, taking a dip in the pool and watching select TV channels, there were not too many fun options for me. All considered, I prepared for the trip. Not like I had a choice in the matter.
I reported for duty and learnt I was working down. There were two pursers or On Board Managers on the flight, and seeing as I was called out for it, I automatically had to work down as Crew. This suited me fine – I hated the paperwork that went with the position anyway.
The flight itself was uneventful, and Dakar was looking like it was going to be ‘same ol, same ol’. That was until I was informed that based on points earned on the hotel’s loyalty program, I had won myself a treat. It was a choice between A full body massage at the health parlour or Facials, manicure and pedicure.
Even as I said “Massage”, I could see the murky water shimmering as the sun fell on it. The ebb and flow was nothing short of mesmerising, and for a long time I was not sure if that was me swaying with the movement of the water, or if it was the makeshift bridge. The wooden gang plank leading from the debris strewn fine sands of the water’s edge to the building resting on stilts that did not look strong enough to hold up the house, let alone take the weight of all three of us: Mama, myself and the man whose house we were visiting.
Although the accident had happened seven months previously and quite frankly, the pain had all but gone, I never let anybody in the house forget that I got hit by a falling desk and lived to talk about it.
It was the start of a new school term and we were unstacking the desks and benches we had piled up at the end of the last term. I did not understand then why we piled them up, and I still do not understand now.
I was walking away from the pile, having just rescued my bench, when I heard the shouts and crash. Curious, I started to turn, and that probably saved me. A student had over balanced and would have fallen over, but he quickly threw out his arms to correct his balance. In doing so, he knocked over a bench which crashed into a desk. Both desk and bench came tumbling down, the bench bounced off another desk and fell a few feet from me. That crash and the shout from the classmate who had knocked them over had me turning. The desk continued in my direction, and narrowly missed my spine. One edge hit me closer to my right hip. I do not recall passing out, but I remember other students lifting the bench I had been carrying off me, while others helped me stand. Everything else happened in slow motion, and I distinctly remember wondering how my back was connected to my ear as everybody seemed to be speaking in muted voices.
My mother cried and rejoiced in equal part when I got home and told her. For days I walked with a limp, and did no chores at all. So even when the pain went, I resolved to milk the situation for everything it was worth. I would limp around the house barely doing any chores, but receive full healing when I got to school and run around with other kids.
When Mama mentioned having to stop school if the pain did not stop soon, I got better weekdays, and waited till Friday evenings and Saturday mornings to regress. For months I stuck to this pattern or a variation, slightly modifying it before it got played out. So when an uncle suggested to Mama that she took me to “One of those Ijaw people” to have them massage my waist, I thought to myself, “How bad can it be?”
That is how I came to be crossing over murky waters to my first waterside house. It was a four-sided affair made from planks knocked together, with a threadbare curtain hanging across the entrance and held in place by a hemp string tied to nails; thick, clear nylon bags on either side of the house served as windows. When they were rolled up, they provided cross ventilation. In single file we walked across; me with my exaggerated limp and a smile on my face, Mama bringing up the rear carrying the plate of food she had just bought. I looked at the man walking in front of me and sent a silent prayer of thanksgiving heavenward.
One look at me and he had asked my mother if I had eaten. When she said “Yes, im bin eat tea and bread,” he had smiled, revealing well formed teeth partially stained by what, I did not know. His face was weathered but jolly, and still smiling he had suggested she got me “Beta food, becos dat tea no go work o.” We were just returning from buying my lunch. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, I wolfed down the starch and banga lunch, barely taking in my environment but being vaguely aware of mirrors, sequins and generally items that caught the sunlight and threw beams and rays everywhere I looked.
Ten minutes later, still feeling that warm fuzziness that comes from eating good food, I was asked to lie on my stomach.
I was drifting off to sleep when my eyes flew open, and I thought they were going to pop out of my head! I arched backward, my hands thrown out wide, flailing; pain shot up my spine from the small of my back and exploded somewhere in my head in a thousand colourful showers. Before the shout/scream/yell finished forming in my head, the pain was gone.
I was just catching my breath when I was hit by an even higher intensity of pain. I was flailing, kicking, wracked by pain and a wave of nausea. At least now I had the presence of mind to piece together what was happening.
Mama was sitting wringing her hands, tears in her eyes, willing but unable to help me. Sitting astride me was the same man who had been so jovial. The same person who had suggested a proper lunch for me – a lunch I had all but forgotten because through the pain was the realisation that I was hungry again. He had placed both thumbs on a spot on my back and then channelled his entire weight (is that even possible?) to those finger tips.
Let me just say that though Mama had paid for three sessions, I never returned there again. What is more, I never felt the pain again until recently, and only if I lift heavy items.
These flashed through my mind as I chose the massage over the facials and things. That evening I waited till after dinner before presenting myself for the massage. As I walked through the glass doors, my heart raced, my mouth dried up and I contemplated going back. The masseuse’s smiles did nothing to allay my apprehension, and the mirrors everywhere even in the changing room only brought back dreaded memories.
Lying on the padded table, my face in the groove made to hold it, I braced myself for the pain.
The coolness of the oils, the lightness of the touch, the gentleness of the fingers as they slowly kneaded away my tension, and the easy rhythm of her voice, the cadence of the sounds her words made – words the meaning of which I did not understand; all these things were as different from my expectations as a cool night was from a blazing hot day.
Back in my room, my head barely touched the pillow before I slept off.
I heard my alarm going off from a very far place.
My license has been gone a week now, and I am counting off the days on my fingers before it is returned, because I am hoping that as soon as I get it back it will be off to Dakar for me. Yea, now that I have tasted a proper massage, I have a new addiction and a renewed interest in things Dakar.
After all, the past should be a reference point, not a yardstick for measuring now or tomorrow.