Excerpt from Walking on Cowrie Shells by Nana Nkweti, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Walking on Cowrie Shells

by Nana Nkweti

Walking on Cowrie Shells by Nana  Nkweti X
Walking on Cowrie Shells by Nana  Nkweti
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    Jun 2021, 176 pages

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Lisa Butts
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Print Excerpt

The Baby Shower

I walk into a room of double-chinned smiles and belly laughs. Every woman—there are only women—looks ample, replete. A susurrus of sighs and coos emanates from their midst. I move closer to investigate. The source? Perpetual, the mother-to-be, happily ensconced in a ribbon-decked place of honor, a ravaged gift box balanced on the rotunda of her tummy. Strewn at her feet, gutted boxes, once fatty with BabyBjörns, day rompers, night rompers, and Diaper Genies.

"Pepe, I done reach," announces my cousin Belinda. I note the collective eye roll from the women gathered. Belinda's tardiness is legend, even in a social set where four-o'clock weddings often start at seven.

"Chey, Belinda, you di talksay you done reach? You for come and baby done already born, oh!" jokes one older aunty, adjusting the auburn Jheri curl wig capsized on her head.

There is a chorus of laughter. Perpetual, already cultivating an air of maternal stoicism, grants Belinda a beatific smile. Belinda bends to hug her friend, then places our present on the pile of unopened gifts under the watchful eye of Helena, who is dutifully gathering up shredded wrapping and tissue paper in frenzied colors like fuchsia! and magenta!

My stomach is growling, yet I fight the urge to nibble my storebought scones. Instead, I place them gingerly on a table so heavily laden with food its spindly wooden legs are wobbling, knock-kneed. There is foufou, ndole, groundnut stew, jollof rice, plantains, koki corn, koki beans, achu, gari, and at least three kinds of chicken: stewed, roasted, and a tough bush fowl fried to the consistency of a fist.

My salad days are over.

For three weeks my simple move from New York to Washington, DC, has been complicated by wiring issues in my new apartment. I am staying with Belinda, captive to her many comings and goings. As a doyenne of the metro-area Cameroonian community, my cousin's social calendar is lousy with cry-dies, born-houses, knock-doors, and their pale American cousins: the funeral, baby shower, and engagement party. With so much on our plate, as it were, I feel weighed down. I need room, a space to write, research in peace, and sometimes, only sometimes, cry out at the ache that was my ex's parting gift to me a year ago. Steven had wanted me in that ribboned hot seat, but I'd balked—chosen a fellowship in Johannesburg over nappies and onesies.

On a nearby couch a platoon of women swap maternity war stories: one lifts her blush pink silk blouse to reveal a jagged C-section battle scar, another speaks of a third miscarriage followed by the triumphant delivery of six children. Tumbling out are tales of bowel movements on the labor bed, ectopic pregnancies, and attacks of preeclampsia. Calabar chalk quells prenatal nausea, but can also enlever un bébé, did you know? They are veterans. With stretch-mark badges of honor to prove it. I listen to them, rub my empty belly, and find I am nibbling on a scone in spite of myself. Damn.

"I done reach," says a new voice. A particularly pulpy woman strides into the room. There are no eye rolls this time. I watch her flit about, arresting, then resuscitating chatter in her wake. She is all smiles, all dimpled cheeks and dimpled arms jutting from a tight tank top bedazzled with one word: Diva. She is everywhere. She is in front of me now, or rather in front of the food table, where I hover like some wraith. I do feel somewhat uncarnate, hollowed by hunger.

"Chop done ready?" She rubs her stomach, eyeing the table, then me, its unofficial guardian. "Ma belly dey bite. You no hear as it dey grumble?"

"Well, they haven't officially opened the table." I rub my own stomach in pang-filled sympathy. "But you can have one of these."

Excerpt from "The Baby Shower," from Walking on Cowrie Shells (Graywolf Press). Copyright © 2021 by Nana Nkweti.

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