Valentine's Day and the Language of Love
By Vivian U. Ogbonna
Sunday, February 14, 2016.
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 later 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
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 back
yard. This, of course, depended on the layout of your compound and ours was this
three-bedroom, 60’s-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
back yard from the neighbours’. Another time when 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. Besides, 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 2000’s, 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-stem 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.
Today, 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
get-ways 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 un-married – come
and go. It was election period so we talked politics, while eating chips and
chicken, drinking soft drinks and taking selfies.
And all the time, I wondered at how much we’ve made the acts
associated with love more important than love itself; how, in spite of all the
efforts people make to keep marriages alive, recent sociological studies still claim
that many do not survive the first ten years.