On Cologne and Naïveté

His name was Lanre and he came from Africa.

There was no way you couldn’t know that.  His continent, I mean.  He wore his skin like a badge and exposed it with the defiance of the oppressed. He was my friend.

On most days we would stroll through the city of Cologne, arm in arm in the manner of a Benetton ad. People would stare at us—a pair of black and brown buoys bobbing in a sea of German skin. He loved their attention.  I just loved their discomfort.

He was full of questions.  I had nothing but answers. Our capacity for naïveté was marvelous. We would argue for hours, in the manner of children who take their fancies very seriously. 

Lanre was born in Nigeria, fifty years after the birth of Chinua Achebe.  He showed me pictures of his hometown: This is me in school, my by a pool, me under a tree, me with my girl . . . The photos were casual, banal, terribly suburban.  I couldn’t find Africa in them, apart from the melanin-suffused skins and dust-smeared turbans.  They could have been taken anywhere, actually.

(This had amused us at first—the commonality of the surfaces concealing the chasm between our lives.   Same varnish for different woods, eh Filipina?  Lanre would say.  He was very good with metaphors.  I thought it was an African thing back then, that lyrical directness with words.)

I didn’t bring any pictures, so I was forced to describe.  Where memory failed, I fell back on stereotype.  It didn’t matter what I said anyway—paradise is paradise no matter how monotonous it gets.

The island of Mactan, some thirty minutes away from the city of my birth, is a string of white sand beaches disfigured by seaside developments.  One good thing about growing up on a virtual island resort is that it cures you of the romance of sun, surf and sand.  The images are too inextricably entwined with memories of flaccid foreigners basking like beached whales.  But tourism is good, Lanre would say.  He was such an optimist.

I haven’t seen Lanre in over a decade, but we still write each other on occasion.  He’s no longer such an optimist and he doesn’t ask as many questions.

Which is just as well, since I no longer have any answers.


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