The JRB presents an excerpt from Love in Colour, the debut collection of short stories by Bolu Babalola
Love in Colour
Read the excerpt:
Our princess grew up on Noble Street. A road on a slight incline in the heart of Lagos, hidden within a dense metropolis-within-a-metropolis known as Yaba. In the seventies, it is a heaving, cosmopolitan hub that’s beginning to shirk the shackles of colonialism. The old red-slate roofs and roman columns that murmur a staid ‘properness’ sit beside new concrete concoctions; modern, rambunctious and geometrically staggering. They hollered the rise of a new Nigeria. These concrete buildings are patriotic, loyal to their blood. They are re-setting the tone and realigning the country back to its roots, because, if there is anything Nigerians like to do, it is to shout. Eko oni baje. In the swaggering Lagosian way, that, of course, is all that matters—that ‘Lagos will never spoil’. This mantra is concentrated in Yaba, for here we are in the nucleus of the nucleus, the heart of the heart. And in the heart of the heart, love is rich and in abundance.
This love is overwhelmingly present in an apartment at the top of a block of flats on Noble Street where our princess dwells. This is her tower, her castle. Our princess’s name, translated from Yoruba, unfurls into an iteration of ‘God Loves Me’; and, indeed, she is cherished with a pure affection. She lives with seven family members: a doting, slightly overbearing father, whose firmness is undercut with a sure and tender fondness; a sweet, soft mother, who extends her care to lost children in the neighbourhood; and four siblings, two sisters and two brothers. She is the fourth born and love is poured into her. Love gives our princess space to be herself. Her tongue is fast and sharp and holds a gravitas far beyond her years. It exposes injustice and shames her elders. Throughout her life, she will stand up for what’s right and leave indelible marks of good on the world. For it is not that she is a princess who happens to live on Noble Street; she is the person whom it is named for. Somehow, twenty or thirty years before her birth, God placed into the hearts of the town-planners, who set about to construct that street, a knowledge that this particular street should be noble. Their self-proclaimed and ignorant colonialist superiority might have induced them to think that they were naming the road after some English commander or civil servant, but they were wrong. The street was named after our princess. It was named after her heart, one that is both strong with integrity and soft with kindness. Noble Street was named in honour of her tender fierceness.
At ten years old, our Noble princess is sent away to secondary in a boarding school in Abeokuta, a two-hour drive from Lagos. From afar it seems this is a draconian punishment, a banishment—and from her tears and kicks, it would seem so. However, the truth is much more banal, and somewhat disappointing for the purposes of this dramatic tale. She was sent away because that is what those who pertained to love their children did in those days. Love was seen as something that should be slightly fearsome, love was Old Testament, forty years in the desert. Love was seen as force that should merely push not pull. So off she went, a little gangly-legged girl, technically a year too young for her new adventure, because she had skipped a grade. Yes, she is smart too.
A poet would describe Abeokuta as a hilly, rustic town of powdery red earth and trees so thickly and richly green it is as if they would have provided a plush rug for the gods. A tourism officer might call Abeokuta a ‘shabby idyll’, and refer to the goats meandering through traffic as ‘pastoral appeal seamlessly blending into the urban’. To a city girl like our princess, it is a dingy, glorified village where people stare too much. What is green when you could have the grey of concrete? Soil when you could have pavement? Blue skies when you could have smog? Lagos is a complicated handshake and a jig, it is a warm, teasing insult meant to denote familiarity. Abeokuta is a yawn and a stretch, a bulge of the belly after eating pounded yam. Languid, it is an embrace that can make you feel overheated, suffocated. This feeling is compounded by the fact that the town is underneath rocks, huge rocks, so much so that the town is called Under The Rock (the Yoruba people are naturally literary). The huge mountainous boulders both surround the town and serve as its higgledy-piggledy foundations. Our princess swears to shine through the shadows of the rocks, to not become slow and lazy from the heat.
Herbert McCauley Street is a stone’s throw from Noble Street. It is on this street that our prince lives in the seventies. The street is named after the great Nigerian nationalist statesman, who, in response to the British colonial government’s statement that they had the ‘true interests of the natives at heart’, once retorted, ‘as the dimensions of “the true interests of the natives at heart” are algebraically equal to the length, breadth and depth of the white man’s pocket’. When our prince got older, he decided he would only wear traditional Yoruba attire when travelling for work internationally. ‘Let them know who I am,’ he would say. He was the son of a man who changed his surname from a white man’s ‘Cole’, which had been assigned to his ancestors, to his father’s first name, Babalola, which means ‘Father is honour’. In a freshly free Nigeria, his new surname also lives freshly free, heralding a reclamation of rightful ownership, a repossession of the ancestral. Father is honour, motherland is honour.
Our young prince would grow to be one of the most honourable men among men. His first name, translated, is a version of ‘God loves me’ and, just like our princess, he is kept and protected by God’s love. He lives with eight family members: a quiet, gentle, peace-loving father; a powerful, firm, formidable mother, who also extends her care to lost children in the neighbourhood; and five siblings—four brothers and a sister. He is the fourth born (two of his brothers are twins) and love staggers through to him, eked out through the gaps between troublemaking, bullying brothers, who soak up attention and emotion. Yet, our boy does not starve—God loves him, after all. So, where our prince’s brothers lack, he fulfils; in their brutality, he finds in himself gentleness, in their attacks, he cultivates a firm protectiveness. It is an earthy, organic love, thick as honey straight from the comb. You may risk being stung, but it is all the sweeter once accessed.
Our prince loves to play. He is rough-and-tumble and skinny and scrawny and quick with the quips. One day after school, when he is ten years old, our prince is outside in the neighbourhood kicking a football around with his friends, all elbows and knees and crumpled shirts. He kicks the ball and it lands squarely on the head of a girl who is walking along the street. It thuds against her long, thick black plaits. She is holding hands with someone older with a similar face to her—her older sister. The girl drops her sister’s hand, rubs her head and gives our prince the most eviscerating look he has ever seen in his young life. The girl looks his age, maybe a little younger, but she has an imposing air, one of authority and regality. Before he can release a stuttered ‘sorry’, she throws the ball at him and shouts, ‘Watch where you are going. Ah, ah. Are you blind? With that your big eyes!’ She picks up her elder’s hand and storms off, as if she is the one in charge. The prince is impressed, despite himself. He kicks the ball to his friend.
At eleven years old, our scruffy prince is sent away to secondary in a boarding school in Abeokuta. It is a place with an abundance of space, far from the pressures his brothers create, and where his muscles can flex. It is a place he can be himself and grow unimpeded. He reckons it will be an adventure.
Noble Street and Herbert McCauley Street are situated in a subsection of Yaba known as Alagomeji—two clocks—named after the two clock towers that punctuate the area. It is a place marked by time and, for love, the time has to be right. If you ask our princess what she thought when she first properly met the prince, she will probably shrug and release a somewhat coy smile, and say she doesn’t know and why are you asking her that? She’s busy. If you ask the prince, he will laugh and say ‘She’s bluffing. Of course she noticed me. Afro like mine? Cool dude like me?’ If our princess is near him when he says this—which will most likely be the case, because most things he says, he says for her amusement—she will laugh hard, scoff and retort: ‘What afro? You were already losing your hair, my friend.’
For the first two years in secondary school, he was the playful and benevolently mischievous boy who she rolled her eyes at often. In her third year in school, his desk was next to hers. By the fourth year, they were best friends. They talked for hours and hours about everything, anything, and there was laughing, so much laughing. Their sentences would run into and roll around each other, their spirits compounded into their words, each conversation pulling them closer and closer together. This was to remain years later, with their conversational layers and loops running so deep into the night that their eldest child would stomp downstairs to the living room and command them to ‘Keep! It! Down! You are laughing too loud!’ Not knowing that it was a blessing to be kept up by her parent’s giggling rather than fighting, not knowing that she was witnessing a unique trick of the combination of love and time; the ability to keep one young. You will mature and your relationship will develop, but love has the habit of keeping a part of you evergreen, retaining within you an adolescent flirtatious giddiness. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty years after meeting, she will still blush when he compliments her or when he playfully chucks her chin. He will still seek to impress her, make it his mission to put a smile on her face, and he will still feel staggered that he is the one she chose.
About the book
Love stories inspired by tales of the past …
Join debut author Bolu Babalola as she recreates the most beautiful love stories from history and mythology and retells them with new incredible detail and vivacity. Focusing on the magical folktales of West Africa, Babalola also reimagines iconic Greek myths, ancient legends from South Asia, and stories from countries that no longer exist in our world. Babalola is inspired by tales that truly show the variety and colours of love around the globe.
A high-born Nigerian goddess feels beaten down and unappreciated by her gregarious lover and longs to be truly seen.
A young businesswoman attempts to make a great leap in her company, and an even greater one in her love life.
A powerful Ghanaian spokeswoman is forced to decide whether to uphold her family’s politics, or to be true to her heart.
Whether captured in the passion of love at first sight, or realising that self-love takes precedent over the latter, the characters in these vibrant stories try to navigate this most complex human emotion and understand why it holds them hostage.
Babalola takes a step in decolonising tropes of love by creating new stories that are inspired by the wildly beautiful tales that already exist in so many communities and cultures. Moving exhilaratingly across perspectives, continents and genres, from the historic to the vividly current, Love in Colour is a celebration of romance in all of its forms.
Get lost in these mystical worlds and see that love, like humanity, comes in technicolour.