It was 1968 and we were living in a flat on the spacious campus of the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. Whenever my husband, Jonathan, was away on UN business with the Land Rover, which was much of the time, my young children, Evan and Kirik, and I walked everywhere on the university campus. We walked to the school, to the staff club where we swam, to friends’ houses.
Eventually, we bought a car, a small secondhand Morris Minor convertible. When it was delivered by the former owner a small crowd materialized. Our cook-steward Daniel, Kirik and Evan and their friends, and I, gathered around it quietly excited. Was it really ours? The car was light brown with hardly a scratch, though it was some years old. Evan and Kirik ran their hands over the smooth fenders, the tan seats, and the fuzzy floor mats. I found only one little tear in the canvas top. We unhooked the top, pulling at the unfamiliar levers. Tugging together, we folded back the stiff canvas and there it was, a spiffy small open car, just the right size for the four of us.
“Shall we go for a ride?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Daniel.
“Sure,” said Kirik.
“Let’s go!” said Evan.
Kirik and Evan got in the back, not climbing over the front seats, instead sedately pushing them forward in the correct manner. Daniel got in front, and I took the driver’s seat, on the unfamiliar right side. I went through the stick shift on the floor— we waved goodbye to our friends, and off we went down the road, the wind blowing in our faces; two small rosy-faced
children sitting upright in the back, serious Daniel, stiff with attention in the front, and me, concentrating hard to keep on the “wrong” side of the road.
I didn’t dare venture into the city on the first run, so we headed over to the university farm, turning down a narrow dirt road, past fields and pastures, past the plantation of rubber
trees and date palms, past experimental plots of vegetables, across streams on small wooden bridges. We grew hot and dusty in the bright sun of the dry season.
“Shall we put up the top for shade?” I called out.
“No,” said Daniel.
“No,” called Kirik.
“NO,” shouted Evan.
And on we sped.
Just then, we saw a herd of cattle ahead coming straight down the road toward us. What to do? The lane was too narrow to turn around in, ditches and farm fences on either side hemming us in. We couldn’t pass the cattle. They filled the whole track. We stopped and waited anxiously. Soon they were close. We could hear their lowing, their thumping feet, the sound of their bodies brushing against each other. Then they surrounded us, their big white heads swinging from side to side, large wet noses, big mouths dripping with saliva, huge horns curving this way and that, dust everywhere. They jammed up against the car on all sides, stretching their necks to look inside, rolled their eyes in our direction. We felt their warm breath, smelled their grassy, sweaty cow smell. Evan and Kirik sat quite still in the
back. I laughed, I hoped reassuringly, but probably nervously.
Daniel frowned. The cattle driver, a tall thin Fulani man with a wide hat and a long staff, came along. He greeted Daniel in Hausa and spoke encouragingly to the cattle. We began to get
used to the seemingly endless stream. How many were there? Fifty? A hundred? Were they as surprised to see us as we were to see them? They didn’t say. We didn’t say much either.
Finally the drove thinned. The last stragglers went by, lowing quietly, leaving us covered in dust and in delight at our success with our first outing.
After that, we drove into the city with confidence. If we had survived a cattle march, we felt we could do anything. We had wheels! We could travel!
It was about that time that our household changed. I could see that Daniel was fretting about something. Could it be his salary? We were now paying him well above the going wage, and we felt quite grand about that. It probably amounted to the equivalent of fifteen cents an hour, but still it was higher than the amount the other cook-stewards we knew were paid. In fact, this annoyed some of our English neighbors who lived on a much lower salary than the UN scale. No. Daniel said, the salary was fine, but he wanted me to hire a helper, known from the old colonial days as a Small Boy.
“But, Daniel,” I said, “what would he do? Most of the time there’s just me and the children here, and it’s a small flat.”
No matter, he wanted one. I said I’d talk to my husband about it when he came back next. When I did, Jonathan and I agreed it was unnecessary.
“We aren’t going to hire a Small Boy, Daniel,” I said firmly. So he did. Out of his own salary. Apparently, it was undignified not to have a Small Boy; it was unsuitable for our status, and
beneath our collective dignity. It was inappropriate.
Thus, one morning Daniel appeared with a suitable Small Boy. Musa was neither small nor a boy. He was a tall, awkward, gangly young man with knobby knees, big strong feet, and a broad smile showing his carefully filed and pointed front teeth. He spoke little English. This was his first job as an apprentice to a cook-steward. He was a village boy, new to the city, new to flats with kitchens, bathrooms, stoves, and running water. He was shy. I was, too: filed teeth were new to me. When was it done? Had it hurt? I didn’t know his tribe. I was curious about
him, and he was curious about us, I’m sure, but we treated one another very formally. I never learned about his teeth, being too bashful, or, I preferred to think, too culturally sensitive, to inquire. How did he think of us? I never knew what stories he told about the funny white madam with her yellow-haired children.
From then on, all five of us drove in style to the great central market where we shopped regularly. Daniel and I would sit in the front seats. In the back would be Kirik, Evan, and Musa with his knees nearly up to his chin. The top would be down, the wind cooling us as we would speed into the city. My job was to operate the car. Daniel’s was to manage the other drivers on the road. When he disapproved of another driver—cutting us off, or going too slowly, or failing to signal a turn—he would stand up in our open car, grip the windshield with one hand, his long robe flying in the breeze, and shake a finger at the offending driver. “FOOLISH MON!” he would shout, or if really exasperated, “YOUR HEAD IS NOT CORRECT!” Musa would nod solemnly, Kirik and Evan would grin their approval, and I would drive straight on, as usual trying to keep to the left.
One day the road was even more crowded than usual with vans, bicycles, taxis, cars, and “mammy wagons”— trucks ingeniously made into transport buses for market women. Horns were blaring tunefully with messages transposed from the tonal Yoruba language. The sides of the road—no sidewalks—were overflowing with pedestrians: sweating laborers pushing barrows, skinny-legged school children in stiff ironed blue uniforms, old women with head loads of fresh produce on bright enamel trays, beggars on crutches or legless on wheeled dollies, young men in crisp white shirts and dark trousers, an endless wave. We got stuck behind a slow-moving sound truck, huge speakers mounted on its roof, blaring scratchy high-life music and an advertisement promising great results from beer—“GUINNESS GIVES
YOU POW-WAH, HAPPINESS AND SATISFACTION!” I was beginning to feel hot and cranky when I noticed a ripple in the crowd walking beside us. As the sound truck came within earshot of the stream of people, some began to move to the music. A handsome young
woman with a tall, elegant, fluted headscarf and a bright patterned long dress began to dance a bit. An older lady swayed with her head load of fruits and vegetables only slightly
atremble, and a little boy carrying a box of matches on his head wiggled without losing balance or matches. My crankiness faded. I began to hum.
Dugbe was one of the largest open-air markets in all of Africa. It must have been the size of several city blocks. I don’t think I ever saw all of it. It would have taken days to explore its
intricate network of lanes and alleys, its rows of stalls, small shops, and tin-roofed stands. There was a huge area of hardware with bicycle and car parts, and clanging sheds where men and boys, their hands and shorts greasy, repaired vehicles of all sorts.
One of my favorite places was the jewelry section—tiny shops, not more than a glass-topped case, a mirror, a stool—where one could buy minute gold-washed earrings for girl babies, or grand beaten gold disks for wealthy ladies. Here women would spend hours trying on necklaces, bracelets, earrings, energetically bargaining the prices down before going home at last with new assets. Then there was the dark and mysterious part of the market where amulets, monkeys’ skulls, bundles of bones and fur, and cloth-wrapped packets of medicine were sold . The sellers and the buyers all uncharacteristically quiet. Though most people were at least nominally Christian or Muslim, traditional religions were still practiced. Small carved votive figures and charms were sold for all needs: impotence, barrenness, to bringback an errant husband, to defeat an enemy, to protect health, to cure illness…
The five of us always went to the fruit and vegetable section of Dugbe, parking the car and walking its lanes brilliant with pyramids of oranges, lemons, bananas, papayas, mangos, baskets of onions, cassava, plantains, sweet and hot peppers, greens of all sorts. Sellers calling out their wares, buyers crowding in. One day I saw a woman who lost her balance and spilled a great head load of tomatoes that rolled every which way in the crowded path. A chorus went up, “Oh, sorry, sorry...” “Sorry—” “Sorry—” as passersby stopped to pick up the fallen produce, dark hands on glowing red. Not “I’m sorry, I apologize,” but “I’m sorry that happened to you.”
Our routine never varied. Daniel would lead the way, followed by Musa carrying the empty market basket, then me, and then the children. Daniel would stop to investigate the quality at his favorite stalls. He would point to each thing he was interested in, not handling anything. The seller would hold the item up—orange, potato, banana—extolling its size, its freshness, its
rock-bottom price. “One and six. Last price.” Daniel would protest, outraged—“One and six??” Shake of the head, short laugh, “One shilling, top.” When the price was agreed upon, the
seller would put the produce in Musa’s basket, I would give what I was told to give, and we would all move on, a somewhat raggedy parade, until the basket was full and Daniel was satisfied.
At home in the kitchen, Daniel would supervise Musa’s washing of the vegetables, soaking them in water mixed with bleach, and then he would start dinner. The two of them would talk in Hausa, a low murmur, quiet laughter. I, with a sense of gratitude to Daniel and Musa, would give Evan and Kirik a leisurely bath to cool them off, and then read to them. While outside our flat, the wonderful Morris Minor was awaiting our next adventure.
Aylette Jenness was born in NYC in 1934. Her mother, Shelby Shackelford was a painter of some note and her father a
physicist. Jenness attended Pratt Institute and later the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to study sculpture. After
teaching art at the elementary school level and working in day care she returned to school and received a masters degree in
education from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
In the 1960s Aylette lived in the Arctic and Nigeria with her husband, Jonathan Jenness, an anthropologist, and their two young children, Kirik and Evan. She photographed their time there, and from their experiences wrote several books. From Alaska came two books for young people, Gussuk Boy, Dwellers of the Tundra, and In Two Worlds (with Alice Rivers), and from came Nigeria, Along the Niger River, also for young people, and now this memoir, Sometime a Clear Light.
Aylette’s photographs of Nigeria, which capture a lost way of life, are now archived at the National Museum of African Art in the Smithsonian Institution, which says: “Jenness communicates two themes that have guided her photography: her unique female
perspective and a drive to educate others about diversity. With these ideas in mind, Jenness has produced a photographic legacy of intimate depictions of peoples from such varied places as Alaska and Africa.”
She later worked at the Boston Children’s Museum for 25 years as a cultural developer of exhibitions, public programs, curricula, festivals, and workshops for teachers. Several books resulted, including The Kid’s Bridge, and Families: A Celebration of
Diversity, Commitment, and Love. She also worked with Lisa Kroeber in Guatemala to produce A Life of Their Own: An Indian Family in Latin America. All of Jenness’s books are available on
Amazon. Sometime a Clear Light is available at a discounted price on www.aylettejenness.com
Now living on Cape Cod with her cat Purrsia, Aylette is navigating a new world as she is losing her vision to macular degeneration. She embraces the light streaming in through her
windows reflecting off the waters of the bay and feels grateful for each new morning that she is given.