Johns Hopkins Magazine
Johns Hopkins Magazine Current Issue Past Issues Search Get In Touch


Blissful Sloth
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, A&S '04 (MA)

The mango tree has been cut down. It is June of 2005 and I am in our backyard looking at where it stood 20 years ago. Most of our neighbors on Marguerite Cartwright Avenue had mango trees in their yards, as did most people in the sleepy campus of Nsukka University where I grew up. But our tree was different. The fruits were unusually small, the size of a toddler's fist, and very sweet, as if the sugar had become concentrated in such little space. In the rainy season they hung down and gleamed like earrings made of yellow precious stone; children walking past would often come in to ask if they could pluck a few and the bats that lived in our roof often swooped down at dusk and left the mangoes with jagged holes. In the dry season, the leaves turned a sullen green and birds made their nests on the forked upper branches.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, A&S '04 (MA), author of Purple Hibiscus, is an Alfred Hodder fellow at Princeton. The tree was in our yard, but a part of it stretched across the Whistling Pine hedge and into our neighbor Professor Eboh's yard. Sometimes a mango would fall on the zinc roof of his garage. The sharp cracking sound would make me look up from a daydream. Or from a book. What made the mango tree most important, though, was that it was a token of the work-free life that was my childhood. It was close to the short flight of stairs that led to the backyard where I sat on most evenings in the mid-'80s and watched my world.

Our houseboy Fide plucked the mangoes. Sometimes he used a stick and nudged them down, one after the other, but I much preferred it when he climbed up and shook the branches. The fruits would rain down. "Watch out!" he would say to my brother who ran around picking them up. I didn't help to sort out the bat-bitten fruit nor did I help to wash the good ones nor was I particularly keen on eating them; I simply sat on the stairs and watched. It was the same way I watched when Fide did our laundry in metal basins in the backyard. My brother helped with the rinsing while I sat and watched the red and blue reflections that the morning sun made on the foamy water.

Fide liked to tell stories. "You know magic?" he would ask, as though magic was something we all practiced. "A man in my village turned into a snake once." He would shift on the low wooden stool, his legs on either side of the wash basin, before launching into another story about people who turned into bats at night, about vultures that talked, about magic. Later, as he pegged our clothes on the line tied from that mango to the guava tree, I would watch the black ants marching across the line and wonder if perhaps people could turn into ants as well.

We had chicken on Sundays. My mother came back from the market with fat white hens in the boot of her Peugeot and Fide took them out, often squawking, and tied them to a mango tree. My brother placed an old milk tin full of water beside them and fed them garri and bits of bread until just before Fide killed them for the Sunday stew. I watched the hens eat the bread, watched the way they raised their heads up after they drank some water, and watched, after Fide cut their throats, the beauty and frenzy of their death dance.

I was not often expected to sit on the stairs and do nothing. My mother believed, in the best tradition of our Igbo culture, in honest work and a sense of responsibility for her children. So she expected that we would help Fide out, that we would dust the living room furniture and clean our rooms and sweep the yard during the harmattan when the wind blew the leaves down. I would, however, develop a bad belly ache or a throbbing headache or terribly itchy eyes on such days and would then be allowed to sit in the shade outside and rest. Perhaps my ailments were in my mind. But they happened so often that my being allowed to sit and rest became the norm.

It is 2005 and I am an adult staring at a place where a tree once stood. I don't know exactly when it was cut down; it was sometime after I left Nigeria in 1997 to attend college in the United States. My parents say that an electric wire fell on it and dried it up. I like to think, though, with a little conceited nostalgia, that the tree had simply done its work: it had witnessed my childhood. A time not so much of innocence as of possibility. A time when my mind ran magnificently free, when I absorbed and hoarded imagery that allowed my imagination to soar.

Return to The Seven Deadly Sins ... Lust | Gluttony | Envy | Pride | Sloth | Avarice | Anger
Return to September 2005 Table of Contents

  The Johns Hopkins Magazine | 901 S. Bond St. | Suite 540 | Baltimore, MD 21231
Phone 443-287-9900 | Fax 443-287-9898 | E-mail