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Daniel by Aylette Jenness

I can’t remember how Daniel was sent to us, though he shines so brightly in my memory that I can’t imagine Nigeria without his presence. At that time, the late 1960s, I was living with my husband and two small children on the campus of the University of Ibadan.

One day I heard a knock at the apartment door. I opened it to see a serious-looking man quietly standing there. He was dressed in white, was about my height, and looked to be about my age. He had a slightly worried expression, and then a smile smoothed his face.

“Good afternoon, madam,” he said, and held out a packet of papers.

Folded and worn, precisely written in longhand, these were ‘testimonials’ from departed British civil servants and their wives. He was a ‘cook-steward,’ a man who did all the household work. He was a Hausa, from the far north, but somehow he’d fetched up in Ibadan. And he was looking for work.

Introduced to my children, Kirik and Evan, he smiled, shook hands with them. They responded politely.

Daniel knew more about being a steward than I did about having one, and he explained it all to me. He would do the laundry, by hand, the marketing, the cooking and the cleaning. He was to have two sets of uniforms—white drill shorts and shirts. He would get the cloth and have a tailor make them. I was to pay for this. He told me the customary hours of work and the salary he expected. I could see that I would be free just to write, to take care of Kirik and Evan, to explore my surroundings. Heaven. I hired him on the spot.

Our apartment had its own ‘servant’s quarters’ in a block behind our building. Daniel’s room was the same size as the one car garage we were allocated. I supposed this was a colonial notion of employer and servant relationship; it seemed odd to an American, and even odder to the Nigerians who were rapidly becoming the university teachers, and whose ‘help’ were often relatives from the villages, brought to Ibadan to further their experience. But there it was, a space for Daniel behind our flat. I learned later that with meals and housing provided, he could save toward an eventual, permanent home in his northern city of Zaria. How had Daniel learned all the workings of a white person’s household? In his culture, women did all the domestic work. He didn’t seem to find it humiliating to do ‘women’s work’—this was totally different from his traditional life style.

When Daniel first came to work, he asked me what "madam would like for dinner". I didn’t know what he could cook. Nor did I know how to teach him what I knew how to cook. Nor did I even want to teach him. I wanted to learn what he knew; I wanted to learn more about Nigerian meals.

So I said, “Daniel, why don’t you just cook a dinner you know how to do, and I’m sure it will be fine.”

Kirik and Evan and I sat down expectantly that first evening. I thought Daniel might make a dinner too spicy for the children—Nigerian dishes were often hot—but we’d give it a try.

I had set the table, and Daniel brought on the serving dishes. First, white baked fish. Then boiled white potatoes with white cream sauce. And lastly, boiled cauliflower. A very white meal. We thanked him and ate it all up.

Gradually we worked together, Daniel and I, to figure out what kind of meals this African man could cook in this white person’s kitchen for these strange Americans, who weren’t crazy about white meals. He was Muslim and so didn’t eat pork, but he offered to cook ‘pig meat’ as long as he wasn’t expected to eat it. Though we had a modern kitchen, we liked grilled meat. So he put a charcoal brazier out on the back landing, and if he was amused by our wanting meat cooked over an open fire, as his people had done by necessity for generations, he never said so.

The four of us, Daniel and Kirik and Evan and I, fell into an easy rhythm. There wasn’t, in fact, a whole lot of work to be done in the flat. And sometimes Daniel would play with the children. One afternoon I came upon the three of them sitting on the floor sculpting dinosaurs out of pink play dough I’d made from flour, water and food coloring, all of them working seriously and with great concentration. Splendid dinosaurs.

Once I overheard Daniel and Kirik talking as they looked at the pictures in a book.

Daniel: “This one be jagogi, that what we call him. How you call him?”

Kirik: “Well, we call him pterodactyl.”

And I longed to see jagogi—perhaps a lizard bigger than any I’d ever seen.

Daniel and I would often hang around nattering while we did chores. He had many stories to tell. Before Nigerian independence, he’d worked for a British district officer. I learned that this man had given him the name ‘Daniel,’ though his real name was Umaru. By then, we were used to saying ‘Daniel’—it was how we thought of him—though it would perhaps have been more respectful to use Umaru. This gentleman lived alone. Every night he’d come home for dinner from his club, late and drunk. He never talked to Daniel at all. Daniel would serve the white dinner.

“Same fucking chop,” the district officer would say. He’d eat it, and go to bed.

Telling the story, Daniel laughed, amused rather than offended, shaking his head, repeating, “’Same fucking chop’.”

The floors in our flat were of wooden blocks, slightly irregular, not quite tight, a warm reddish brown. Maybe mahogany. Daniel believed in polishing them regularly. I’d never been long on polishing floors myself, but I wasn’t against it. We listened to music on an old tape deck, and Daniel always chose Ray Charles for floor polishing. He used sweet-smelling butcher’s wax, which he scooped out of a big round can and smoothed on the floors with a clean rag. He would do this in the morning after the children had gone to school. When the wax was dry, a thin whitish film over all the floors, he would get down on his knees and polish each block with a half coconut husk, the fibers making a stiff brush, and resulting in a beautiful shine.

One day as he was working on the floor, he told me a story about another previous employer. This ‘madam’ would instruct him to polish the floors, and before leaving for her luncheon date, she’d make a secret mark with her fingers on a floor somewhere in the house—so she could come back and check to make sure he’d actually polished all the floors. I gathered they were already so shiny that she couldn’t tell otherwise. Daniel of course knew about her mark and was always careful to polish it away.

He told this with an amused smile. “Oh,yes,” he said, “she was a very clean madam.”

I wondered how I would be described after we left Nigeria. Certainly not as a Very Clean Madam.

That winter Kirik and Evan somehow acquired a baby chicken. It was in fact too young to have been separated from its mother and sisters and brothers. It was often loose in the flat, not in its small box. When the children were at school, and I was working at my typewriter, it would come and sit on my bare feet—for warmth or comfort, I don’t know which—a tiny pale golden piece of fluff, peeping softly.

One day the children were playing in the living room with their English friends, Stephen and Graham. Graham, at four the youngest of the gang, was sometimes teasingly called Gray Ham, though I had said very often that this hurt his feelings. I was at my typewriter that afternoon, and Daniel was in the kitchen. I heard a great outcry, and then silence. Daniel and I rushed to the living room to find the children gathered around the tiny chick, which had flopped over on its side and was twitching silently.

“Graham stepped on it,” Stephen said accusingly.

“It wasn’t my fault.” Graham was close to tears.

Evan was red-faced and crying already. Kirik and Stephen were frozen in shock.

“I will fix him,” said Daniel. “Take him to doctor. Right away.” And he scooped the chick into a basket, hurried outside and took off on his bicycle, the basket balanced carefully on the handlebars.

Recriminations flowed along with the tears. I tried to comfort the children, and to lay the blame where it belonged—on me, for not keeping the chick in its box. We waited and waited. It grew dark. The boys’ mother came to fetch them, but they wouldn’t leave. She went home. We waited. I fixed supper, but they weren’t much interested in eating. We waited.

At last we heard the bike crunching along the road, and then Daniel swept in with the basket in his arms. Kirik and Evan, Stephen and Graham gathered around, breathlessly. Daniel whisked off the lid with a grand gesture, and put the basket on the floor. There, standing quite upright inside it, was a very large and very black, half-grown chick. The children looked astonished.

“I take him to doctor,” Daniel said firmly. “Doctor give him injection. Make him big and strong and black.”

The children looked dubiously at the chick, at each other, at me and then at Daniel. Could this possibly be the same chick, fully recovered? Daniel said it was, so it must be true. After all, wasn’t Daniel the final authority, being big and strong and black himself?

The children hugged Daniel in a big crunch, laughing and a little shrill, not wanting or daring to ask too many questions. Then each one of them patted the chick, with just a couple of fingers, very gently. Kirik got a dish of water, and Evan put down some corn meal in a saucer. Graham was immobile. We all sat on the floor in a circle and watched while the little chicken ate and drank, chirped and scratched and ate some more.

After Graham and Stephen had gone home, and Kirik and Evan were in bed, I went out to the kitchen. Daniel was ironing.

“Daniel, what happened? Where did you go?”

“Chicken be dead, quick quick… market all finish,” he said, slipping the iron back and forth on his second uniform. “No small chicken. One woman with this. Two shillings.”

And he smiled.
Aylette Jenness with grown up Evan and Kirik

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.

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.


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