The language of love has changed in so many ways. In the past it was spoken with subtlety, gentility and something close to reverence. Now, it is loud and brash and begs to be heard.
In the conservative society where I grew up in eastern Nigeria, public expressions of affection were uncommon. Hugs and kisses were very private affairs, even among the married. Judging by their dedication and commitment to each other, there was never a doubt in anybody’s mind that most couples loved one another. They just didn’t express those feelings openly. Thinking back now, there were only two couples I knew who never appeared inhibited around each other while in public. The first were the parents of my sister’s friend; the second, in-laws. I remember how, after seeing the latter at a wedding in Port Harcourt, talking and smiling and holding hands, I had regaled my sisters with the details. These in-laws became a reference point for me for a long time afterwards.
In many homes, friendships were censored and friends of the opposite sex were not encouraged to visit. Therefore, for most teenagers and young adults, even the most casual of such friendships involved a lot of ducking and dodging. They were cultivated via a number of ingenious ways such as letters smuggled through a younger sibling or coded cat calls bidding a girl to come to the backyard. This, of course, depended on the layout of your compound, and ours was this three-bedroom, 60s-style bungalow set in a large compound that was bordered by a hedge of cherries, huge fruit trees and a vegetable garden that separated our backyard from the neighbours’.
Another time you saw each other was during visits that were planned with a lot of secrecy and executed with stealth. If your beau was a big boy – Read: one of those who were allowed to drive their daddy’s Peugeot 405 or Passat [only a handful of women owned cars back then] – he’d be parked at a pre-arranged place, usually on a quiet street where the chances of two of you being seen were very slim. Before you got there, you’d make all kinds of detours, look over your shoulder a million times – heart thumping with both the pain and sweetness of anxiety and excitement – until you got to the rendezvous. You’d get in the car and sit down stiffly, praying that nobody would see you. There would be no holding of hands, no touching, no pecking. Just some bland conversations about school and your siblings and “are your parents at home?”
There were few entertainment centres in town and cinema halls, those ugly buildings whose walls were always a collage of peeling paint and posters of Indian films, were not the kind of place kids like us wanted to, or even dared to be seen at. Mobile phones, Facebook and other forms of social media – mediums that encourage the expression of thoughts and feelings – had not been invented. So, apart from neighbourhood parties, holiday lessons and church, we teenagers had few virtual or real spaces where we could mingle and socialize. We were indeed stifled, but it wasn’t by choice.
As our society evolves, we’ve dropped our former inhibitions and now choose to wear our affections on our sleeves. The chocolates, the cakes and flowers, the expensive and not-so-expensive gifts, the hugs and kisses in public places, the marriage proposal that is made on the corridor at Shoprite-City Mall when the man falls on one knee and holds out an engagement ring – these are all testimonies that the language of love has changed.
This becomes more evident every Valentine’s Day. As the proud owner of a fresh flower business in the early 2000s, I was naturally sucked into this social and cultural evolution in Nigeria, and Lagos in particular. I observed the whole heartedness with which people adopted and celebrated the rituals of Valentine’s Day. I was also a willing participant in all the dramas that played out on the turf because, in my first few years in the business, I insisted on doing the deliveries myself, an assistant in tow. So, every year, unfazed by the crazy traffic snarls that always almost marred the excitement of the day, my team and I would deliver bouquets of gorgeous, long-stemmed red roses to people and organisations. I got my supply of flowers locally, from people who bought from farms in Jos, Nigeria, from Kenya or South Africa. It was a risky business. Sometimes the flights came late, or they didn’t come at all and, if I’d already received orders from clients, I would then rush all over town looking for somebody, anybody at all, who’d sell roses to me.
In spite of everything, I loved every minute of it.
It’s been a long time now and I’m no longer in that line of business, but a few memories from those days remain with me. I remember delivering a bouquet of flowers to a female student at the University Of Lagos Medical School, courtesy of a guy who was wooing her. It was very early in the morning when we knocked on her door. She was speechless when I handed the bouquet to her, while her roommates squealed and cheered with excitement. It was a novelty at the time – this receiving of flowers from a man, a Nigerian man.
The Commissary of the American Embassy Recreation Association housed our flowers on many occasions. I still remember that when I turned up with bunches of fresh roses in different colours on that first day, the manager – a woman called Lilian – was in front of the shop to receive me, beaming with smiles. Later on, she told me I had made a lot of people happy. I enjoyed a business relationship with them for many years after that.
We sold roses to La Scala Restaurant at the Muson Centre. We supplied hundreds of single stems to advertising agencies who were organising valentine gigs for their clients. Every lady who came to the show would receive a stem of rose. One year, we had a stand at Frenchies on Akin Adesola Street, Victoria Island. Another year, we were at Big Treat on Opebi Road. Men bought flowers for their wives and girlfriends. A woman I know bought a few stems for her husband. I thought that was odd, because flowers are supposed to be a woman’s thing, but hey, everybody has their unique language for the season.
Nowadays, if February 14 falls on a week day, some schools ask their pupils and students to wear a touch of red. They also encourage them to come along with gifts for friends. Church sermons focus on love, marriage and sex. Radio and TV stations play love songs the whole day. Boutiques and shops make brisk sales in clothes, underwear, shoes, perfumes, Teddy bears and all manner of gifts. Restaurants, bars and clubs woo prospective customers with juicy offers. Singles-Only parties give hope to the lonely. Celebrities and Nollywood stars celebrate the day with the less privileged. Hotels and tour companies advertise romantic getaways for two. Last year, I hung out with two of my female friends at a bar that was bursting at the seams with people. Seated in a corner of its dim but plush interiors, we watched couples – young and old, married and unmarried – come and go. It was election period, so we talked politics, while eating chips and chicken, drinking soft drinks and taking selfies.
And in all that time, I wondered at how much we’ve made the acts associated with love more important than love itself.
Written by Vivian Ogbonna