Elnathan John: TAPPING AND SASHAYING
Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels
When I travel to speak about my work, I never know for sure what I will say before I land in the new city or country. It is important for me to touch the earth in each new place, to feel its pulse; to hear the way people laugh, to discover what makes them laugh, what makes their eyes widen, what makes them perk up.
I am here with my biggest suitcase, the same one I moved to Germany from Nigeria with, over four years ago. Although I have been to Bayreuth many times, this is the longest stretch of time I will be spending here — one month. Long enough to consider buying a cheap, used bicycle with which I hope to properly explore the village. The tires might need changing but it rides smoothly and is just the right size.
Today, there is a barbecue where I will meet many of the other academics who are either junior researchers or tenured professors connected to the Cluster of Excellence.
This is not a writers festival. I expect that people will be considerably better behaved than at a gathering of underpaid artists. Jobs, with salaries and pensions are involved, not honorariums and promises of exposure. Hearts and eyes look to, or don this coveted crown spoken of in whispery tones — tenure.
I try to feel the earth beneath me, to know where and how to stand. How firmly should I tread? What face should I wear? Someone who wants to be taken seriously as a thinker? Humorist? Storyteller? Unruly satirist? Literary fiction writer? Wearing many hats means mastering shapeshifting.
Whatever the case, I intend to have a good time today. There is no reason not to. I have no constricting schedules hashed out over endless Zoom meetings with academics, who have to painfully juggle time-consuming bureaucratic processes with their research. I am not trying to get tenure.
I am a miner. I dig for stories. So I remind myself to listen and learn. To ask questions. To probe and prod, ever so slightly. In Hausa I would say, bari in buga ruwan cikin su: let me tap (to hear) the water in their stomachs. I will try to perceive what the sounds that emerge from their core mean. Will it rumble? Will there be echoes? Will the sounds be familiar, or throw me off?
I am ten minutes late. Five people already have beers in hand, standing in a circle, their bodies moving somewhat tentatively, as if trying to measure the right amount of space between themselves that would meet social distancing rules. I had tried to look up as many of them as I could find on the University website. Where I found links to their papers, I clicked, hungrily, gobbling up what I could before I came here.
Research intrigues me. Often, I browse the academic and scientific journals I have access to online to find random papers. It is like opening an advent calendar full of little gifts — I never know what I will find. I have discovered everything from things related to my interests, like “An Initiation into A Bori Cult in Ningi Town”, to unrelated things like “Reproduction Behaviour and Semen Collection in Stallions”. I read them all, even if this means that I end up with useless facts, and data I may never need. For example I now know that for semen collection in stallions, artificial vaginas are used, and also that they ejaculate after only six to eight pelvic thrusts. Needless to say, I was quite disappointed to learn about the latter. Who knows, maybe one day, I will write a story about stallions.
When I listen to academics talk about their research, it is with genuine interest, even if I have no clue what they are talking about, so, excited as I may be about the grilled meat and free drinks, I am looking forward to this too.
I say a general hello to the awkward circle, sneaking a peek beside them to scan the modest spread. There is red wine, thank god, I think. There are quick introductions, and as they speak my mind wanders back to the connections I could create with these academics. I think, how do I find ways of creating solid bridges between practitioners and academics, or at least weaken the walls that divide us. How can we researchers be gently coaxed to go easy on the jargon, to speak more plainly, without watering down the complex layers of their research and how do we encourage writers and artists to take a greater interest in the work of theorists and academics?
I wait for the last introduction and polite laughter to end before making my way to the spread, where I pour some wine into what looks like a miniature chalice.
It is time to begin tapping stomachs.
One stomach tells tales of moving to Bayreuth, from a German city five hours away, another speaks of moving from a nearby country. I hear of research about histories and politics of sexuality in Tunisia, Sudan and Ethiopia, about practices of African and Africa-based knowledge production in African Studies, about the political economy of monetary and economic sovereignty in West Africa.
Slowly, one of the hosts begins to turn the modest spread into a proper barbecue. A small grill emerges. Bags of coal. And more guests trickle in. More stomachs to tap.
I am learning more about the Junior Research Group program. Each of the fellows leads a research group and at the end of four years, only two of the doctors will receive tenure, getting permanent jobs at the university. Curiosity sluices over me: these fellows smiling at each other and speaking politely through mouthfuls of corn and sausages and meat are going to be competing for two slots. I find them all interesting and I can only imagine what this knowledge adds to long term interaction between them. In the moment, I am thankful that I do not have to compete for tenure, or be the one who chooses between which researchers, after four years of hard work, to send home.
As my miniature chalice ferries more and more wine into my stomach, the earth beneath me feels firmer. My restless imagination takes over. The fellows transform into contestants on a reality television show. The professors and coordinators are the judges, RuPaul’s Drag Race style. And the Junior Researchers are sashaying on the runway, each week participating in challenges of varying difficulty. I see judges, wise older people, deliberate: who among those who have broken their backs is worthy of staying, of winning the challenge. And who must be told to “sashay away", in spite of the quality of their research.
The quality of the conversations makes me change my mind about the office space I had previously been offered. I had the choice between a building housing some of RuPaul’s judges and that housing the contestants. I also want to work around those sashaying. Thankfully, my host informs me, that I can use both spaces. Perfect.
At the end of the evening, after a million mosquito bites, and many emptied bottles, the most small-town-Germany thing occurs. Two police officers appear. One of the neighbours has gotten irritated by sounds wafting out from our lawn. We have disrupted the balance of things in this quiet pretty village. The police are told that we are packing up anyway. It assuages them and they walk away as quietly as they came. I hope the neighbour enjoyed their little triumph, putting their tax euros to work.
We all help with cleaning up and I head home alone, on the quiet deserted streets, replaying conversations in my head. The sounds from tapped stomachs compliment each other, becoming a beautiful orchestra in my ear.
Maybe it is the wine, maybe it is the conversation, but I get the feeling that (as long as I can stay on the right side of the villagers) one month here won’t be too bad.