It was my intention from the very beginning, from that point, that minute, that second, from that infinitesimal space of time in which I realized that I had to, simply had to write about Mr. Alani, to present him to my reader as clearly as possible, to paint a portrait as vivid and as bright and as rich as the larger-than-life boli-seller himself.
But where to begin? That became the question. Do I start with a description of the man? His physical attributes? Or with a few sentences to praise the heavenly sweetness of his roasted plantains? The crispness of his groundnuts? The neatness of his surroundings? The fastidiousness of his preparation? Or do I commence with a short bit of narrative detailing how my obsessive-compulsive love of hot boli and roasted groundnuts led me to make an acquaintance of Mr. Alani and to experience firsthand the power of his stunningly offensive and yet gregarious personality?
I decided to pursue the latter course and as an introductory paragraph to my short piece on my relationship with the infamous boli-seller, I described to the reader the circumstances that led me to become a favourite customer of Mr. Alani-Baba Boli.
I began with a simple statement of fact, the fact being that I had always been, from as far as I could remember, in a committed relationship with boli. From the blessed day, at three years old, when my grandmother cut a small piece of hot roasted plantain and blew on it, to cool it a little, and crushed it between her thumbs, to soften it a little, so I could chew it, and put it in my mouth, I had become hopelessly addicted to the plantain snack; this addiction leading me through primary school and secondary school and university to part with quite a lot of energy and money and also time, invested in walking about town, looking for that roadside woman who sold the best boli and its delightful accompaniment, roasted groundnuts.
I informed my reader how this search for the ultimate in boli had taken me all over Lagos, tasting all sorts of plantain, from the atrociously horrible to the exquisitely divine.
But I always knew. I did. I knew what I had not found. The ultimate boli. It.
After that little prologue, revealing the exact nature and genesis of my boli addiction, I then decided to bring to the readers’ knowledge the manner in which I discovered the aforementioned boli-seller, Mr. Alani. I expressed very clearly, the nature of my hunger that hot Friday afternoon, after declaring a total fast on myself since Wednesday night, in a bid to be promoted at work, where I had occupied the same position in my department for the past five years. At about 1pm, I was languishing under a load of assignments, my head throbbing with a powerful hunger-induced migraine when I decided what the heck! Goodbye fasting! I was getting myself some boli!
I stated to the reader how I had walked straight down Business Avenue, turned right into Ayenibiowo Street and made my way down that muddy road, past the banks, and the public primary school and past the old abandoned uncompleted building, to the row of women selling roasted corn cobs with small purple ube pears and roasted plantains with groundnuts. I walked to the end of the row, to the woman I normally bought from, who everyone called Mama G because she resembled Patience Ozokwor. I looked over her plantains and my spirit sank. For where there normally would be turgid bright yellow plantains, well-browned with good roasting, looking all scrumptious and ready to be devoured, Mama G’s offerings on that Friday afternoon were black, soggy things, the result of soft overripe plantains being exposed to the tarring heat of a charcoal fire.
I recounted to the reader how Mama G had apologized profusely, knowing my very particular taste in boli. It happened sometimes. When the plantains she bought were already too ripe or had ripened too quickly, before she could roast them. Mama G apologized but, seeing my very obvious disappointment, she consoled me by saying that at least I could be sure the plantain would be sweet. And this was how Mr. Alani came into my life.
I remarked that it was at that point, at the point when Mama G said that, that I heard someone laugh derisively and hiss loudly. I looked up from the charred plantains and I realized that there was a newcomer among the boli-sellers. An old man, sitting over his own charcoal grate, tending spectacularly beautiful yellow plantains. His spot was a little distance away from Mama G’s and I had not noticed him earlier because I was used to her spot being the last stop on the boli-sellers row.
When Mama G made her consolatory comment, the old man laughed long and hard and hissed heartily. He then made a comment in Yoruba, which I translated thus, for the benefit of those poor souls among my readers who have no knowledge of that deep language. He said, “Look at this woman! The teacher told you that your child is a complete dunce and you’re wondering why he didn’t get any marks for his beautiful handwriting!”
When the old man said this, I was struck by the ingenuity of the expression and the sheer humour. I chuckled. He saw me and beckoned to me, to come over and buy from him. I did. Mama G was offended, and not a little. Not a little at all. But as I stated in my piece, when it comes to boli, I am a stickler for high quality, and I will go wherever I can find it.
The reader will bear me witness that I disclosed how quickly I discovered that the old man’s high quality came at a higher price. And I refer not only to money. But the money issue came first. He was selling one plantain for 120 naira as opposed to Mama G’s 60 to 100 naira range. I began to haggle but apparently the old man didn’t believe in it and when I commented on his exorbitant pricing, he hissed again, fixed his piercing eyes on me and retorted, in Yoruba, “Look, leave my front, I have no time for rubbish! You either want to buy or you don’t. And if you’re not buying, I have no time for evil-heads like you!”
When I arrived at this spot in my narrative, I proceeded to remark, to my dear readers, how very disgusted I was by the old man’s manner, and to describe the very many caustic terms that I used, to express to the grumpy old man that I was only in front of him for the boli and I did not appreciate his insults. His reply began before my own little speech was over. Again I translated from his Yoruba for my readers. He said, “Look at this one. He’s wearing a shirt, he’s wearing a tie. And yet he’s standing here in front of me, an old man, complaining about 120 naira boli. Useless individual! Poverty-stricken individual! But I can hardly blame you. The case of your life began before you were born. Your mother is to blame. I told her. I told her again and again when she was going to marry your father. I told her to marry me and forget him because we all knew your father was a scatterbrain. But she didn’t listen. And look at you today. Your head is not correct. Maybe if your mother had married me that time, someone like you would have been born with more sense. But, look, I have no time for nonsense. If you’re not buying, I have no time for evil-heads like you.”
I was, to say it like it was, totally dumbstruck at this rejoinder. It would be the first of many I would hear from the old man, the man I would come to know as Mr. Alani-Baba Boli. The old man smiled at my utter inability to speak. And he said, “Ok, look I’ll sell one to you for 100 naira. But only because of your mother. Because I know she was really in love with me in those days.” He wrapped one of his roasted plantains in a sheet of old newspaper and he handed it over to me. I looked at the boli. It was bright yellow and looked delightful, marvelously browned at the sides and turgid, yet soft. The scents from the hot plantain promised ripeness and sweetness and satisfaction. I was angry at the old man, but I have never been able to resist good boli. I took a bite. And my eyes popped. And there were fireworks in my head. For I had found It. The ultimate boli. The taste, the texture, the charcoal flavour, everything perfectly balanced.
Any of my readers will tell you, that this place in my story, this discovery of the Holy Grail in roasted plantains, marked the beginning of my relationship with Mr. Alani. The father of boli himself.