Upon discovering that I’m a vegetarian, my relatives respond in various ways. My uncle and brother, being practical African men with no time to waste on trivialities, immediately deal with the question at hand.
“Okay, what will you eat? Rice? Plantain?” A quick nod from me and the matter is closed.
But my grandmother is another story. She’s stumped. She hasn’t seen me in years, and the only appropriate way to make up for lost time seems to be to feed me as much as possible in the little time we have. But what do you feed a girl who doesn’t eat meat, or chicken, or fish? That rules out all manner of soups and without soup all hope is lost.
She’s already unhappy with me after discovering that I no longer go to church and have lost my rosary. I don’t want to shock her too much, so I don’t start going on about Zen, the human condition, the simplicity of a peaceful and compassionate life and my honest belief that God couldn’t be bothered with Hail Marys and Our Fathers. I sit there, feeling inexplicably guilt-ridden, wishing for a moment I was just a docile little girl who believes what her folks tell her to believe and eats what everyone else is eating. I experience a flash of frustration, followed by gratitude to my parents for raising me in an environment that allowed me to think for myself.
She asks the dreaded question – why on earth am I vegetarian? Rather than get into a long conversation about ethics, environmentalism, the global food crisis and the evils of modern agriculture, I take the easy way out and tell her I just don’t like the stuff. She’s baffled. She doesn’t seem to believe me when I tell her I enjoy food without meat. She gives me this look that suggests she’s going to humour me, even though she thinks I’m an idiotic, backwards apostate who has no real job, no direction and doesn’t even know how to say the rosary.
Then she asks, in a voice teetering on the edge of hope, “Do you eat eggs?”
Success! She leans back, satisfied, and my aunt goes off to the kitchen to boil me some. The fact that I have just eaten is irrelevant, as is the fact that I had egg stew for breakfast and scrambled eggs for lunch. I don’t want to be difficult, so boiled eggs it is. Three of them, to be exact, on a plate with a fork, as if everyone is convinced that this is what constitutes a lacto-ovo vegetarian meal. I’m practicing surrender. I say thank you and eat my boiled eggs without a word.
When my father comes to pick me up a few hours later, my grandmother decides that it would be unseemly for me to leave empty-handed. I’ll give you three guesses what her gift to me is. You got it – eggs. A little plastic bag filled with them, wrapped up so they don’t break, and I put them gingerly into my handbag and express my gratitude.
I have no idea what I’m going to do with them. I leave for Accra the next day and there’s no way I’m getting on a bus and travelling down our terrible roads with eggs in my bag. But I also understand that this is a gift from a grandmother who hardly ever gets to see me, and who is probably a little disappointed by how I’ve turned out. I’m practicing optimism, too, so I decide to look on the bright side: at least I won’t have to worry about breakfast.
I don’t like small talk.
I’m not really interested in where you work or how old you are or how long you’ve lived in such-and-such place. I want to know what you dream about, what your most profound experience has been, what you think is your worst flaw, what could drive you to take a human life. But I’m not allowed to ask that, because it’s not polite. I’m supposed to “chat”.
Chatting is a conversation between personas, not genuine people. I want you to tell me the one thing in life you are deeply uncertain about and how much that uncertainty terrifies you, and I’ll tell you my greatest fear. Otherwise, I don’t really want to talk. I don’t want to come to your party and pretend I care where you bought your shoes. I don’t want to struggle to divide my attention between five strangers while also trying to show off how nice and smart and good I am. The social gymnastics are exhausting. I’d rather sit in a corner and read, because a fictional story is far more honest than the meaningless truths we’re so eager to share.
I could die next year, next month or next week. I don’t want to waste my time posturing. We spend our whole lives being polite, smiling and nodding and learning nothing. When will it be appropriate for us to push beyond the surface, to challenge each other, to grow? When will it be okay to admit that we’re not neat little cardboard figures in neat little boxes, but complicated, crooked things with sharp edges, a riot of garish, flickering lights and nuanced shadows?
So let’s just stop. Let’s be brave. Let’s open up. I’m dying to climb out of the box and breathe the fresh air of Outside. Take my hand, let’s get out of this place. Let’s go and sit on a bench somewhere we can hear the birds. And when we’re ready, when we’ve sloughed off our ego-skins and let the sun finally touch us, I’ll turn to you and say, “So. Talk to me.”