Autumn Leaves in Johannesburg

Jerry Chiemeke

It’s 10am in Lagos — probably 11am someplace else — and I can’t be bothered to leave my bed. Power has just been restored, but I’m too lazy to change the channel. MTV Base is usually guilty of playing the same music every other hour, but this time it’s a South African countdown, so the melody is significantly different. There isn’t much by way of Amapiano either, and while I can’t be bothered to get this food tray off the bed, I’m curious enough to allow the songs make an impression on me.

Hearing Sjava sing his heart out on KO’s “Flight School” reminds me of you. It ushers in memories of whipped cream, of overzealous air-conditioners, of bathrobes in four-star hotels, of you sleeping off to cartoons, of our toes colliding in small bath tubs. I’m reminded of us picking Zulu names for future kids, your attempts to write Igbo, my “Siwabona”s in the morning. You called me ”Mandla”, and I felt that “Adaugo” fit you nicely.

I still recall how it all began: Nigeria had just defeated South Africa in the quarter-finals of the African Nations Cup, and in replying Cassper Nyovest’s post-match Twitter rant I typed some gibberish. It was a mockery of South Africans and their tendency to converse in their local language, but in hindsight, the joke is on us: culture is always something to be proud of.

You replied “we are one Africa” in kumbaya-speak, and before long, your Direct Message came in. You were impressed that my knowledge of Mzansi went way beyond Brenda Fasie and Mandela, but you educated me on how H. Rider-Haggard’s novel King Solomon’s Mines was incredibly racist. It took me five days to save your number, and you expressed shock when I said I had “never been on a proper dinner date”.

I remember that evening. We almost lost our way at Ozumba Mbadiwe, but our table overlooked the seaside, so all was forgiven. I didn’t know you’d love the blue jacket so much, and Chelsea was playing Lille, but I saw nothing else but you. We traded stories that would give HBO a run for their money, and I still have mental images of the light in your eyes as we both walked to your car.

I remember the Saturday evening I sent YouTube links to Mandoza, Proverb & Slikour: it felt like 2003 on Channel O all over again. You loved Burna Boy and Tekno, I enjoyed listening to Sho Madjozi and Babes Wodumo, we both didn’t care much for AKA.

I learned ‘Sotho for you, and you started checking egusi techniques from YouTube. I always struggled with Xhosa; you would laugh whenever I tried to make the click sound. I enjoyed How To Ruin Christmas when it dropped. We never got to have that virtual Netflix movie date.

I meant every letter when I called you “Isithandwa”, and I melted whenever you pronounced the first three letters of my name with that accent. Your love notes still sit in my mail, I’m sorry I didn’t send the Anioma translation.

Should we have spent more time that Sunday morning? Did I have to call the cab and head home? How did the lockdown create such a gulf? Was there too much going on in our separate lives?

I haven’t visited Churrasco since then, there’s no need, the wine won’t taste the same if you are not seated opposite me. I hope it’s warm in Johannesburg, I hear it’s autumn now. I wish I’d made it to the airport that Tuesday night: will you ever fly into town again?

These moments are too slippery to hold on to, but they are all I’ve got. Call me when you can.

Jerry Chiemeke is an editor, culture critic, author and lawyer. His works have appeared in publications like The Johannesburg Review of Books, The Republic, Inlandia Journal, The Guardian and Agbowo, among others. He frequently writes columns on music and film for The Lagos Review, and on his medium page. Jerry is the winner of the 2017 Ken Saro Wiwa Prize for Criticism, and a recipient of the 2019 Connect Nigeria Award for Excellence. He currently volunteers as a mentor for the SprinNG Writers Fellowship. He is the author of the short story collection Dreaming Of Ways To Understand You, and the poetry chapbook Notes for Nnedimma.