My friend, Rafael

Olumide Iyanda

Buzz by Olumide Iyanda

Email: Twitter: @mightyng

Olumide-IyandaI met him on my trip to Los Angeles, United States of America (U.S.A.) in February 2007 for the Pan African Film Festival (PAFF). Filmmaker, Kunle Afolayan, and I had checked into the beautiful Hacienda Hotel, located at El Segundo, one mile from the Los Angeles Airport (LAX) in the afternoon of St. Valentine’s Day. Since we were both in the city on a shoe- string budget, we decided to share a room, so we could save some money. I was covering the festival; Kunle was showcasing his film, Irapada.

Among the first places I toured at Hacienda was the Double H Dance Club. That was where I met Rafael, the Mexican barman and one of the many persons who run the place on shifts. As I made to ease myself into one of the stools, Rafael emerged from behind the row of glasses hung across the bar. He had a warm smile and spoke as if he was singing. “Welcome Amigo,” he said with a voice as welcoming as that of a midwife ushering a new-born into the world. “This is your first time here since I have been working at this bar,” he said. Asked how he knew it was my first time, he said he hardly forgot a face after the first encounter. But before I could place an order, he politely asked for an ID with my age on it. I flashed my national identity card.

“So, you are Nigerian. No wonder you speak English like the British. You people were colonised by Great Britain,” he went on in a version of English I laboured to grasp. There I was, with a parched throat, and someone was telling me my heavily accented Nigerian English sounded like the real deal. Shortly, he put a glass in front of me and went on to serve some other customer. “Amigo, I hear your country play good football and have many, many kings,” he said after he was done serving all the other customers.

Yes, we had kings in Nigeria, I told him, but a certain Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was president at the time. “Chief?” he asked. “See, I say you have chiefs and kings all over Nigeria.” In less than five minutes, Rafael had told me all he knew about Nigeria, and the bar, and how he had mourned the shutting of a bar somewhere in LA, which he was forced to close when someone was shot during a fight. The bar was filling up and some people in funny hats were coming for lessons in swing dancing with a touch of country.

Predictably, I was at the bar the next day. So was Rafael. It was early afternoon and a group of bikers from Canada were in town. One of them with a king size beard and tattoo all over his frame was doing glass after glass of beer. He had a cute camera in his hand and a helmet that glittered even in the barely lit room. “Amigo,” Rafael called out from the other side of the bar immediately he saw me. He didn’t ask me for an ID or what brand of beer I wanted. It was easy to see how he had his customers calling for an encore. But there was hardly any time for a chat. I wanted to catch a film at the Magic Johnson Theatre, Crenshawa venue of PAFF, so I downed just a glass of beer and rushed to meet Kunle and a mutual friend, Deji Karounwi, who had offered to drop us off.

Kunle would soon meet the Mexican in LA who thought Nigeria was filled with chiefs and kings. Rafael was not extraordinary in any way. I guess what must have endeared him to me was his simplicity and warmth. He was ready to listen to your story, even if it was dead boring; perhaps another reason the pub is never in want of patrons.

Rafael, I later learnt, was in his 60s. He had three kids – a girl and two boys. His daughter was married and his two sons were as similar as night and day. While one is athletic, well-chiselled and played basketball and football, the other is almost too obsessed with the sport, but, according to Rafael, very brilliant. He said he wouldn’t trade his kids for anything and thanked God for making him a good father.

As it turned out, Rafael had told everybody that came to the bar about me. When I returned sometime later, a number of customers were waiting to see the journalist from Nigeria. Interestingly, none of them asked me about 419 or religious violence. They knew Nigeria more for football and the many kings. I guess I have Rafael to thank for that.

But my parley with Rafael was soon to end. When I told him I was leaving the next day, he was crestfallen. His face, however, lit up when I asked if I could take his picture. “You mean my picture go to Africa?” he asked with glee. “Yes, your picture goes to Africa,” I assured him. He also took some shots of me lounging on several seats in the bar and with a figure of John Wayne.

I have met many people on my journeys to different parts of the world, but Rafael stood out in a way I will never forget. He is calm and all-knowing. Like Rafael, the people who have made the most impression on me during my travels have taught me a lesson, and it is this: countries are great not because of great politicians or policymakers but because of ordinary people who touch you in extraordinary ways.