Start with ABCs

On the bus this morning, a man came in pushing two little boys ahead of him. He ferried them into the back row sitting them next to him. The man was wearing a light blue dress shirt with a tie. The shirt was too big for him. It was loose around his arms tapering into his buttoned wrists. The boys were in matching school uniforms and one of them was clutching a sheaf of papers stapled together.

At the top of the page, the heading said: Spelling Bee Sample Words. And below that, in tables, words were listed alphabetically alongside their origins (Latin, Greek, etc.) and the definition of the word.

The bus took a long time to fill up. The man got antsy. He kept looking at his watch then outside at passing cars. When the bus started to move, the boys huddled together to study the pages.

The man paid the bus conductor and turned to the boys. He snatched the paper out of their hands. He ran his finger down the page and said to one of the boys, “Abysmal.”

The boy mouthed the word a few times before spelling it boldly, A-B-E-S-I-M-A-L. The man stared at him for a long time, saying nothing. The boy did not make eye contact. The man sighed. He looked at the list and picked out another word for the boy.

“How about Bedlam?”

Before the boy could reply, the man’s phone rang. The man wrested the phone out of his pocket. He shielded it to read the screen and put it to his ear.

“Good morning, Ma.” he said.

He listened for a while.

“Mummy, these students really disappointed me. I was waiting until eight.”

He listened some more.

“Blessing never showed. I am here with Akande and …”

He put the phone to his shoulder and poked the abysmal speller.

“What is your name?”

“Oladele,” the boy replied.

The man returned to the phone. “I am here with Akande and Oladele.”

He looked from one boy to the other.

“I don’t know, Ma,” he said, “I really don’t see how we will manage without Blessing.”

He shook his head slowly, said goodbye, and hung up.

The man looked out of the window. The road was clear going in the opposite direction. He returned the phone to his pocket and picked up the sheets of paper.

The man turned a couple of pages and said, “Akande, Catastrophe.”

The boy said, “C–A–T–“. He trailed off.

After a long pause, Akande continued.


“No!” The man snapped, “How many times have I told you. Don’t double the letters.”

Oladele snickered. The man swatted him with a backhand. “Stop laughing and support your friend. Don’t you remember how Blessing used to do it?”

The man flipped two more pages. He addressed Oladele. “You, Disaster.”

The boy opened his mouth wide and gave the teacher a blank look.


Apostle Marvis

Muhammad Ali died on June 3, 2016 after years of living with Parkinson’s disease.

During his boxing career, he fought Joe Frazier three times. In 1971, 1974, and 1975.
Their first match was labelled Fight of the Century and the last one was the famous Thrilla in Manila. The second fight was simply called Ali-Frazier II. They were about as close to being arch-nemeses as you could come without being in a comic book.

If you know Muhammad Ali, you probably also know his daughter Leila Ali, and you might know that thirty years after his first fight with Joe Frazier, in 2001, Leila Ali fought Joe Frazier’s daughter in a match that was called Ali/Frazier IV. This was the first pay-per-view fight headlined by women and the media hyped it based on the rivalry between their fathers.

Joe Frazier also had a son, Marvis.
Marvis was set to be a boxing champion like his father. He was a good fighter that tried out for the US Olympics team before he was twenty. He had built up a professional record of 16 wins and 1 loss when he was pitted against Mike Tyson.

The fact that you know Mike Tyson but not Marvis Frazier means I don’t have to lie to you about how this went.

It was July 26, 1986, Marvis Frazier is 25 years old and his life is planned out ahead of him. He will fight increasingly skilled journeymen as he establishes himself until he is ready to compete for the heavyweight title. Then he will step into his destiny and take the same title his father held for almost five years.

It has rained earlier in the day and the evening weather is settling into the after-rain cool. In the pre-fight setup, Marvis is looking at Mike and thinking, Look at this shrimp. Mike Tyson is short for a heavyweight. Marvis is taller with longer arms. He is saying to himself, “My heart pumps the blood of a champion. My father faced Ali three times and beat him twice. Ah been boxing my whole life.”

Marvis Frazier is not paying attention to the fact that Mike Tyson has beaten 24 fighters in the last year to get to him that day. If he had spent some time in reflection, he would have done the math and wondered how it was possible that Mike Tyson had professionally knocked out two opponents per month for twelve months.
Marvis Frazier does not yet know the Mike Tyson that we will know. Mike Tyson who will buy three tigers and wonder idly how he never killed anyone in a fight. He doesn’t know Mike Tyson is in the middle of a five year abstinence streak to make himself a better boxer. Mike Tyson has come to the ring with sexual frustration, testosterone fuelled anger, and a lifetime of pain and abandonment.

In the past, people would wander into boxing matches like they were going to church. They would plan their nights like this: I will leave home when the fight is supposed to start so I can skip the boring formalities and praise worship at the beginning. By the time I get there, the sermon should have started, it should be close to the seventh round, both boxers will be tired and I can watch a knockout.

Mike Tyson changed that. People were still making their way to their seats carrying popcorn and drinks by the time most Mike Tyson fights ended. He had fourteen first round knockouts, with many fights ending in the first minute. People were getting calls at home, “Don’t bother coming.”

In contrast, Marvis’ last five fights have lasted the full ten rounds. He is stretching in his corner, bobbing and weaving. He’s drinking water and putting a guard in his mouth like it’s going to be a long night. Mike is pacing at the opposite corner of the ring, impatient for his biweekly meal.

The bell dings and the referee starts the fight. Marvis hops to the centre of the ring and Iron Mike stomps toward him huffing. Marvis Frazier leans forward and extends one long arm low into Mike Tyson.
That first punch is the only clear one Marvis lands. Tyson responds with a left jab to his head and a right uppercut to his body and then two more punches that don’t connect. Marvis feels the wind from the two missed punches, is confused by the aggression, and backpedals into the corner.
He bounces in the corner as Tyson keeps him there with a series of left jabs. He could duck out to Tyson’s right, but he can see Mike Tyson keeping his right hand cocked, waiting for Marvis to move in that direction so he can introduce him to it.

In this corner, Marvis is slowly coming to the realisation that this whole thing isn’t about him.
Marvis Frazier is number 25 in the 50 wins that Tyson will accumulate in his professional career. Looking at details of Mike Tyson’s career, you see that he will knock out someone else two weeks after this fight, and he will go four more years before his first defeat. And today, the worst day of Marvis’ life is just another Saturday. Marvis sees himself through the eyes of history as a footnote in another person’s story and he attempts to change his fate.

He covers his face, ducks, and forces his way through Tyson’s left jabs. In doing this, his head is bent forward when Mike Tyson’s right hand comes loose and hits him once, twice. The first punch straightens him up on the ropes. The second punch cracks against his ribs and pushes him to the centre of the ring. Even though it seems like a lifetime of abuse to Marvis, it is only ten seconds into the fight. The announcer is still explaining the rules to the audience: It’s a ten round fight, there are three minutes in each round, the judges do the scoring, three knockdown rule is in effect, etc, etc.

Tyson keeps up the pressure with short jabs. Marvis Frazier is flailing. He throws two punches. Tyson chases him across the ring swinging metal fists. Marvis retreats to the corner.
Tyson jabs him in the face, and Marvis Frazier’s back bounces off the turnbuckle. He has no room to run. Mike Tyson hits him in the chin with an uppercut that wobbles his knees but Marvis doesn’t fall. The second uppercut comes immediately after and snaps his neck. Marvis Frazier’s hands dangle uncontrolled. He falls and on the way down, Mike Tyson hits him three more times before Marvis ends up sitting on the floor leaning against the ropes, his head hanging loose like a drunk.
This sitting position is deceptive and the referee starts to count before he notices that Marvis Frazier cannot hear him.

Officially listed as thirty seconds, this is the quickest knockout of Tyson’s career. Actually, Tyson knocks Marvis down in about 18 seconds and his father, Joe Frazier, petitions the boxing authority to have the knockout time changed to 30 seconds to save his son the embarrassment of getting knocked out so quickly.
Marvis Frazier spent a year away from boxing after that fight.

I don’t know what he did in that time. I’m guessing he slept a lot. He would get up at noon, but he’s been awake since five lying in bed watching the fan spin, playing the same sad song over and over in his head. His family members would go quiet once they heard the door of his room open. He would come downstairs wearing only a bath robe, rummage through the fridge. Pick at some peanuts, drink some juice from the carton, put some cereal in a bowl and take it back to his room. All in awkward silence.

His mother would knock on his door, whispering, “We made your favourite, yam and egg sauce.” No response. His father would come into his room at nights and try to encourage him. “You gotta get your head together and get back in there.” “Look at me, did I give up when Ali beat me? Nah! I went back to the gym the next day.”
Marvis would say, “I hear you, Pops, I hear you” but the next morning will find him stuck in bed, following dust motes swirling in the air, wishing for the end of the world. Sometimes his mind would flash back to the fight, he’d take it apart like a puzzle to find what he could have done differently. He would fail.

In an interview 24 years later, when asked if he had any regrets, Marvis says this:
“Life is too short to be unhappy. You just got to keep living and loving people. God always has a plan for us and a purpose for us.”

Season 3 trailer: Father is well

My church sends out these email messages when someone has a baby. Always the same format: The name of the couple, had a baby boy/girl, and the weight of the baby. The email always ends the same way: “Baby, Mother, and Father are doing well, you can call them at this number to extend your congratulations.”

I read the messages every time, but I never call the people. Because I am waiting. I am waiting for the day the end of the message will only say, “Baby and mother are doing well.”

Then, I will call. “Pastor, what happened?”
And he will say, “Ah! Let me tell you. Brother Tony was in the hospital o, he was supposed to watch the birth. But as soon as he saw the head of the baby crowning, his eyes rolled into the back of his head and he collapsed. He hit his head on the edge of the delivery table then passed out. Ten stitches and he is still unconscious. Please extend your prayers to him.”

Rate me well

So, Mo picks me up from work on a mall run. We are five minutes away from The Palms when we get stuck in traffic. A blind man and his companion step off the sidewalk onto the road. They make their way down the line of cars. At each window, the female companion stops. The blind man leans into the window with his palms open and runs through his list of prayers and blessings.

With a signal that is imperceptible to the rest of us, the blind man lets the girl know when it is time to move on to the next car. Or maybe the girl decides herself. She stares into the distance as he speaks and when she gets tired of listening to him, she walks to the next car dragging him along.

I see them do this a few times ahead of us watching their interaction, then I turn to Mo and tell her something that happened the previous day.

I am in the same area in Victoria Island. Two blind men pass each other on the street. The girls leading them are friends so they stop to talk. The first blind man keeps his hand on his girl’s shoulder and waits as she chats with her friend. The second man does not wait. After an initial pause, he sighs and walks off leaving his guide behind. He strides away confidently, not feeling his way slowly tapping his cane every step. He is just an ordinary man in Lagos wearing a kaftan with dusty feet who happens to be holding a cane.

He walks right into the intersection. A motorbike swerves to avoid hitting him. A keke sideswipes him and pulls up in front. Cars pile up behind it. Everyone is honking. What is this blind man doing, they are saying, where is his PA. The keke driver sticks his head out and yells at him. The blind man has made it halfway across the road. Maybe he knows the place. Maybe he thinks it sounds like Adeola Odeku and he can smell the pizza dough wafting over from Domino’s. The road is divided by a raised barrier about one foot high. The blind man has to step over it or find the gap to walk through. The man is feeling the stick along the highway barrier looking for an opening. He is stuck. 

His helper finally hears the commotion, she darts into the road and takes his hand, leads him away from all the people calling her stupid girl. The entire time I don’t see them speak. I am saying this to Mo now. I am telling her, I don’t think they talk much. I say, The girl was very chatty with her friend and when the blind men are together at the foot of the bridge, they stand with their hands stretched out and talk to each other. But the men don’t talk to the girls. I say, How about that? 

Mo is thinking about it. She’s also struggling with it, thinking to herself, this is a weird conversation to be having. 

Mo says, Maybe they don’t talk because they don’t know each other.

I say, How can they not know each other, they walk together every day.

Mo says, That doesn’t mean anything, maybe they are assigned to each other. 

I scoff at her, Assigned how, like a temp agency? Are you serious?

Mo is bites her lower lip, she nods, Yes, I’m sure they have something like that.

I say, So you think the blind man wakes up in the morning, dresses, and goes to some office. There they check the database, because obviously, all these helper children would have registered earlier. The office has a man wearing glasses and a short sleeved suit behind a wooden desk with a rusty standing fan in the corner. The man pulls out today’s availability report from a file, runs his finger down the page humming to himself, Hmmm….. Aisha is free today. And then she gets assigned to him?

Mo fixes me with a frozen stare.

I say, This is what you believe, right? That there’s a whole infrastructure around it. Something where at the end of the day, the blind man can bring out his braille phone, give her one star and leave a comment: “Aisha talked throughout the day. She made me walk into traffic, I’m lucky to be alive. I will not ride with her again.”

Mo blinks. She says, You know sometimes you take these things too far.