Let me tell you about a woman sitting outside a restaurant. Her name could be Funmi, or Priscilla or Tutu. You know the story. It’s a fine Friday evening of course. She’s looking into her ledger, analyzing the week. Money is moving. There’s a 337% increase in profit from the previous week. The business is growing at a 62% rate per week since she opened a new branch in Surulere. She closes the ledger and wonders. She wonders what would have been if, when she was 23, she had decided to become a fashion designer instead. At the time she already owned a sewing machine after spending 2 years at a fashion school. She made the dress for her best friend’s wedding—a beautiful, creamy white dress that left subtle hints around the cleavage. It was a dress ahead of the times and it caused enough controversy to earn her a spot on the front pages of Lagos’ most sought after lifestyle magazines. But she also loved to cook: to see the delight in the faces of strangers with every spoonful they lifted to their mouths. She liked to inhale the sauce she was making. The orderliness of arranging each ingredient, varying the times they were added. Sometimes she made the same meal in three different ways to determine which tasted best. A flood of orders came after she made the front pages of lifestyle magazines. The influx was enormous: she had to shut down the little restaurant she had started a few months back to be able to keep up with dress orders. Then one midnight, she rose from her bed and ripped apart a dress she was making. She reopened the restaurant the next day and never made a dress since then.
Is a writing life possible?
Once, I was on my own, in the small side of the Cafe Neo in Yaba, minding a cup of coffee. A young couple—lovers in their early thirties—sat behind me discussing books. Every writer worth their salt is bedeviled by an involuntary impulse to observe. Their conversation floated around my ears naturally. The woman, she couldn’t imagine, four years into their marriage, that her husband had given up his writing for an oil job.
—You write better than the last five authors I’ve read. Why haven’t you considered writing again?
—What would you have said, if when the landlord came asking for rent I’d chosen a life of uncertainty, over security for you? The baby, the baby?
—I don’t know what I would have said. What I do know, is, you should have fought.
Maybe a writing life is possible.
Let me now tell you about a man whose conviction I once envied in Ile-Ife. Let us call him Dr B, although he could have easily been Mr J. or Uncle P. He was the youngest professor of psychology in the country. After his return from a remarkable 4 year stint as a lecturer in England, he returned to build out the future of psychology in Nigeria. Then, 6 years into his return, he resigned from teaching psychology in the university to paint houses. The university dons pleaded. His wife pleaded. His students pleaded. But he was done. Nobody knew why. When we met, he was on a ladder, brush in hand, face doused in paint. I wanted to ask him for help on some work I was doing.
—No. I do not discuss psychology anymore. But if you want to paint your home—
—I only paint houses people live in. Not workspaces, not churches, only homes. Nothing else.
—Do you hate psychology that much now?
—Are you kidding me? Hate? That’s impossible. But you can only live one life at a time.
I said goodbye and offered to shake hands. He looked at my hand and shook his head.
—My hands know color. Yours do not.
Two years later, I paused my life for another life.
I had 3 dreams in April.
In my first dream I was looking out from a window in Corcovado. Astrud was sitting on the right arm of the Redeeming Jesus. The Redeeming Jesus had a cymbal in his left hand and he was singing about a girl from Ipanema. When I awoke, there was a window, but it wasn’t in Corcovado. It was a quiet, sunny window in Shomolu.
I choose now, not to tell you of the other two dreams.
I knew a boy—F. or Og. or Oguns—from secondary school. The boy could move. On the football pitch he was a master dancer. Once, in the final minutes of a match against St. Saviors, the school whose football team was an unconquerable terror back then in Egbe, W. had lobbed the ball from the center of the pitch to the left hand corner where F. was waiting. F. caught the ball with his left ankle. He pushed it forward, side-stepped the first defender and cut the second defender to the right. He was suddenly in the 18 yard box, directly opposite Iku—literally, Death—the biggest and most feared defender on the St. Savior’s team. F. threw a leg over the ball. Iku remained unmoved. Then, in what was a split second, F. dug his right toe into the ball and drew a semicircle with it. It was called a snakebite in those days. The whole stadium stood up instantly—what had happened, was that at the end of the semicircle, F. had immediately put the ball between Iku’s legs and made a 360 turn around him, leaving him one on one with St. Savior’s goalkeeper. He put the ball past the goalkeeper, into the right corner of the net. While F. did his characteristic backflips to the final whistle, Iku was still standing there examining the space between his legs. During those days I was nothing but a loud talker, preferring to analyze the match rather than to play in it. I was probably the most horrible footballer my school had ever seen—I was weak on both feet and always lost the ball too easily. But the essence, of telling you about F., is that when the time came, in the US, to choose a career in sports, F. chose, out of all the opportunities in football before him, to become a basketball player.
Paul, in a letter to the most truant of churches under his tutelage, the Corinthians, wrote:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
Salter also warned:
There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.
Perhaps, a writing life is possible.
I too, recognize, this voice of an invisible teacher admonishing me in my truancy. What did I see, in weighing my life, under the lens of a future in writing? Certainly, nothing certain. Twice, I have walked away from this writing life, in search of another life, thickening the glass of disconsolation with every passing day. But writing is always imminent—every word I write now is for this glass above our heads.
1. I quoted Paul, from 2nd Corinthians 13vs12, The King James Version of The Bible.
2. I’m grateful to F. for allowing me write about him, and for reading parts of this.
3. Dr B.’s course of study has been changed, for anonymity.
A man died in September. I knew this man in multiple ways: a lovable uncle, a father of six, brilliant, fiery, orator, funny, fearless, flawed.
Life is a progressive filter. I know this because one morning, around 6am, I saw an elderly woman come out of a small gate. She was tall. She had straight shoulders, cropped hair, and was probably in her 80s. Her hair was a full white halo. She turned out of this gate slowly, every step calculated. I knew, immediately, that she must have lived a very careful life—perfect grades in Law school for instance, the right choice of a husband, well-trained children with impeccable table etiquettes, clean rooms, a sweet-smelling garden. In almost the same instant, another woman—elderly too—similar in height and posture walked out of the gate. She looked exactly like the first woman and would have easily passed for a twin, except that her hair was not fully white and she had less creases on her face. Her eyes were sharp and she carried herself as though every step was a weight. A mother and her daughter: two generations of careful decisions. What has been before, is now, and shall be forever without end.
I have faint memories of when I was a child, sitting in the back pews of a large orthodox church in Kemta, listening to the choir under fluorescent lights. It was a convention of sorts and Pastor O. always took me along.
Pastor O.: forsaken by his wife because he’d chosen not to bribe to win the court case that threw him out of his land.
Pastor O.: forsaken by his two children because, well, they’d discovered a modern way to be Christians and Pastor O. would have none of it.
Pastor O.: forsaken by me, because all my life I have been packing my bags and leaving.
One day, in year 2, 5 years after I’d last heard from Pastor O., my phone rang. It was him calling. I was in class, so I made a mental note to return the call after.
I forgot to return the call.
2 weeks later another call. This time it was my mom. A simple, quick statement that cut like a knife:
“Pastor O. died yesterday.”
That night was long. I kept on dialing and dialing his number, but nobody picked the call.
My mom discovered an incredible photograph of Pastor O., somewhere in an old album while she was cleaning the house. He was holding a microphone in his left hand and pointing with his right. His tie was loose and almost falling off. I was in the right corner of the photograph: a little boy with unusually red lips and disinterested eyes.
Pastor O., I know now the Jesus after whom you modeled yourself:
“How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?”1
Oh, what stray member of your flock I am. Phone numbers may cease to work, you know. And even you may decide to go—to die. But my heart is an indelible roll of film; your photograph will always continue.
She was a long letter kind of woman, averse to social media and any form of instant communication. She preferred long, premeditated talk: to write her heart out in an email, or to send a letter with ink blotches between the paragraphs—all her life was measured in dispatches.
We grew up together almost as siblings because her father was as good as mine. We owned him, together. I called her ‘sister’ in primary school. Later I would know the weight of the word.
Her father was an exact man. Even in death it was impossible for anyone to amplify him—one word was enough to contain him. Kind. To add anything else would have being to introduce a decimal point.
I said: Do not leave me.
She said: Do you remember Caph? For I am become like a bottle in the smoke…
We drifted apart after we lost her father. Refusing to reply mails or see me. I carried her inside myself, continuously. She was a fine burden to bear. I waited for her. I was the sole guardian of her hiatus. Or so I thought.
One day, while I was returning from a walk down Obio Imo, I came upon two teenage boys beating up a little girl. Behind them, an even smaller boy was standing with his head bowed. Arms behind his back. After I’d sent the rascals off, I walked up to the boy and lifted him up, shaking him in the air angrily.
“What is wrong with you? Get a grip of yourself! How can you let them do that to your sister?”
But I felt like I was talking to myself.
His tears fell on my face. He opened his mouth, searching for words.
“But I am not strong enough.”
I put him down and patted his head. And then I realized the answer.
“You do not have to be strong enough—just stand with her. All you have to do is stand.”
I went unannounced to T.’s house in Port Harcourt. When she saw me, she stood at the door and simply said:
“Silly you! You should have come last week! I baked the whole house full and there was no one to share it with.”
Write me, soul sister—we are our bottle and this is our smoke.
1: Matthew 18:12 (The Bible, King James Version)
For "Baba Eto" and Daddy JJ.: Beautiful men in different regards. Journey soft, journey well.
Thanks to T. for letting me write about Daddy JJ and for reading drafts of this.
There is a small and quiet market at Onipanu. The market is just a few blocks long, with opposite stalls about six feet from each other. Early, on a Saturday for instance, the air above it is soft, with clouds hanging so low you can almost feel them touching your hair. If on this Saturday morning too, the sun is out, then the shadows from roofs of stalls on both sides would be long enough to meet at the center of the market, casting a complete shadow—and ultimately, shade—on the people in it. To find this market, you’d have to ignore a slightly larger and boisterous market not too far from it, where the air is hot and the clouds are distant and the sun is inescapable; where everything is closely packed and noise from loudspeakers make it impossible for you to hear your own thoughts. Then you’d walk further down, and turn left—or right depending on what side of the larger, noisy market you were coming from.
I stumbled on this quiet market by chance—or more correctly, by grit. I was visiting a friend and she had requested that I bring her apples. I didn’t find apples at the usual spots in Surulere or Ojuelegba, so I had settled on buying them at Onipanu. When I got to Onipanu, I still couldn’t find apples. So I began to walk around in search of them. It was in this frantic search that I turned into a corner and found myself in a small food market. It was unusually clean and quiet, with clear pathways for customers. I was instantly pleased to be there. Nothing in the market was out of the ordinary: the usual tomatoes, pepper, vegetables, chickens cooing in cages, friendly chatter from a small outdoor restaurant. But the quietness of the place heightened my recognition of its banality. I stood in the center of the market for a while, enjoying its ordinariness. There was a woman standing at a stall. Her hair was closely cropped. Her cheeks drooped slightly. She called out and said:
“Uncle. There’s tomatoes now. No more scarcity. Buy, let your girlfriend fry eggs for you.”
I smiled and waved at her, and then I continued searching for apples.
The speed of a cinema film is usually about 25 frames per second. This means that for every second you spend seeing a film in a cinema, about 25 images are actually flickering past your eyes. I’ve always thought of the eye as the ultimate camera (Jesus, in one brilliant statement, described the eye as “the light of the body”). If we were to ignore the truths and complexities of biology and physics, and we were to assume—very modestly too—that the human eye in viewing real life, takes in the same 25 frames per second as in a cinema, then in one day, you see more than 2 million frames, which is more than 2 million images. Therefore, when you hold a photograph in your hand, you are holding one of these 2 million images that was specially selected by the photographer on the day it was taken. Berger, in writing about frames, said: “God knows how many frames per second flicker past in our daily perception. But it is as if, at the brief moments I’m talking about, suddenly and disconcertingly we see between two frames. We come upon a part of the visible which wasn’t destined for us.”
While I was in the market at Onipanu, I thought of Berger’s “between two frames”. Is this where the spectacular situates itself?
Later, my friend told me about a Murakami book she had read. In the book, there was a story about a couple visiting a zoo. She told me how she had continued to expect something spectacular to happen—a plot, a crux of the matter, some action, something outrageous or devastating. But the story had ended simply the same way it started: ordinarily.
As humans, we are always searching between the frames of our lives for the spectacular, for the one frame that is worth remembering. I imagine that this must be one of the reasons for every photograph we take—to record the frames of our lives we think are special. But what is the fate of the banal? If we spend most of the hours of our lives doing ordinary things, why do we hardly consider making memories of them?
This is not a call to undermine the spectacular; I am writing simply to tell you how valid it is to immortalize your ordinary.
I am hardly the type of person to keep to a routine, preferring instead to do things by concentrating intensely over a short period of time. But recently I began to explore alternate forms of living. So, from the past one month I've followed a routine: every 6am, I would get up from whatever I was doing to take a walk—usually down Ogunlana Drive—to think, try to clear my head or sometimes, to pray. Days after I began this exercise, I started to get used to the cold mornings, stray cats around trashcans, what times the security guards at the offices on the road woke up from their illegal sleep. I could even predict when the street lights would go off. Every day one particular week, a woman on my street was always about driving out of her house to work at the exact instant I was always getting back in. Her house help was always standing at the same position just outside the gate with her head bowed and her arms behind her back. She would watch the woman wind up her glasses and then she would wave twice—never more than twice—before going back in.
Berger wrote that “What we see habitually confirms us.”
Of course there were occasional irregularities, like a woman suddenly peeking out of a building, waving a large incredibly clean Nigerian flag at me; or a shirtless DJ right there in the middle of the road playing Kiss Daniel’s Good Time. I was more interested in the consistent things. For example, there were always people exercising on the road—runners, joggers and walkers. I began to include studying them in my routine till I actually began to know when one should jog past me. I also began to note that some didn’t come every day. There was a particularly rather overweight woman—a walker—whose consistence amused me. On mornings when I felt too tired or lazy to go walking, I would remember her and I’d strut out into the streets. There was another man too, who was always present every day. He was as tall as me, and also as slim. I had always wondered why he would come jogging daily. He didn’t appear like he needed it. So today, when he jogged past me, I jogged after him. He sensed my presence and turned, still jogging on the spot. He wiped the sweat from his face and removed his earplugs. Then he said, “Do you want something?”
“Yes,” I said, trying to catch my breath. “I want to ask you why you keep doing this. You already are fit. Why do you do this every day?”
He frowned and said, “Consistency is how a muscle keeps in shape.” And then he continued jogging.
I wasn’t very athletic growing up. The most I exerted myself at was table tennis, and I didn’t even excel at it. But now, writing is my only muscle—I am always writing to keep in shape.
Imagine a soft morning on Ntiedo Udosen, for instance. Cesaria Evora’s voice on repeat. Sodade. Longing.
He awakens—the disenchanted writer, eyes fluttering, gathering the morning. He knows that he must write, that he must win in his struggle against Silence, but he does not know where to begin.
5:45am. A low-hanging cumulus. A man at a gate, peering into the street, thirsting for sunlight. The writer sees him, sees his longing, and marvels at the mutuality of it, the unspoken sharing of an indescribable burden.
The man grips the gate, his fists thick around the bars, eyes darker than the clouds, intent on the street. The writer recognizes this grip, this pull—his own futile tugging at his muse. He wants to embrace the man, but instead he pauses and says:
“Soul brother, what you long for is on the other side”.
A slow evening on an Akpan Andem market day, for instance. The chronicler, his camera at the ready. He sees her early enough—tall, slightly attractive, hair woven back in thick braids, a large apron around her neck. She moves, barefooted, neck slanted as if in choreograph. He moves, finger on the shutter, swallowing light.
He recognizes the longing in her paces. The coordination, the timing—even with the absence of music, the exactness of her measurements. He stands, camera in hand, wanting to ask if the entire world is a grand choreography. She turns, neck slanted. A smile appears and disappears. In her eyes he sees his answer: There can be no parallaxes here. Happiness is a scarce resource. It must be measured out in bits.
He studies the image he has made of her—every pixel, every hue, every morsel of light. He understands now that she must be barefooted, that she must tread softly because we subsist here, custodians of a damaged Earth.
That is also when he sees it: her sodade, her longing. He sees it everywhere—in the softness of her feet, in the slight twist in her waist. It is in her audacity to be happy. It is why she dances to a song so inaudible only the audacious could hear it. And it is why he stands now, the wind of the market behind him, her photograph in his hands. A clean slate. A Somewhere to begin.
Entrances have led me here,
You the dream
And I the dreamer;
Together we stand—mountain as we were
Eyes soft as moonlight
And they said:
Hunter, hunt again.
And these markets have I known,
Barters of dance
Music of evening ponds;
Yet must I once again lock horns
This ram—this procession
And they said:
Hunter, hunt again
I have chased to Calabar the selfsame illusion that took Okigbo to Yola. Okigbo's expedition ended in futility. I imagine I may share the same fate. Still, I have dared.
First, an event from long ago:
My uncle and I, standing beside a gentle stream in Ifetedo, the yellowness of cocoa leaves pouring above and around us, the quiet of the midday sun filtering through the trees. We are laughing as he tells me childhood stories of my father. He offers me a cocoa seed. I lick it. It is my first time.
On my first night in Ukana Offot, I sat, alone with my host in her large living room. The night was closing in on us. Cold and darkness poured in through the windows. The only light in the room was a dying candle. Rays from it lit parts of her beautiful elderly face. Age had formed quiet creases around her eyes. Her hair had rich tinges of orange from the candle’s reflection. We sat there in silence, watching each other. I soaked in her presence. I imagine she soaked in mine. The silence continued. It was a comfortable silence. Then, a gust of wind from the windows. Rain. And words began to fall from her lips.
“Let me tell you of your father. When he was here. He helped me a lot. He saved me…”
I sat there in the darkness long after she got up and left. I had never thought of my father as anything other than what he was—my father, who did what fathers are supposed to do. It felt anomalous seeing him now, in the darkness through the eyes of this woman, whose face had creases from age, whose hair shone under a dying candlelight. Strange, the things people we know can become on the lips of strangers.
Yesterday I bought a notebook. I flipped it over to the reverse side and began writing. T. called at that instant and said:
“Do you still have those memory jogglings when you stumble on buildings baked in red brick?”
“Yes,” I said.
Then she said:
“Footnotes. Pay attention to footnotes.”
I am sure that it happened. I cannot say where or when, or what happened even, now that I think of it. But I am sure that it happened. An incident involving a building made of red brick. This memory has chosen to continue to elude me, hiding further and further within the crevices of the register in my mind. Sometimes, memory requires a leakage. I tore the page I was writing on. Then I wrote on the reverse side of the book:
Yesterday, my brother sent me a photograph. It was a photograph of my mother. She was standing beside a pawpaw tree, its leaves withering slowly above her head. I had planted the pawpaw tree behind the house, but had never been around to watch it grow. My mother was standing there, holding a ripe pawpaw in her hands, smiling. She had her characteristic squint around her brown eyes. (I inherited both from her—the squint and the brown eyes). Her hair was thick and brown, and she had combed it backwards. But just above the left part of her hair was a white patch. She was growing old.
I deleted the photograph.
With white hair comes a perceived notion of wisdom, also of death’s imminence. I have not seen my mother in a long time. My mother is growing old. Perhaps, she is also growing wiser. Strange, what people can become when you are not looking.
The city begins slowly into the night if it is from Itam but its deception is quick, and in a sudden moment it may be the Ibom Plaza. You’ve learnt to ignore the falsehood that is the streetlights, watching out instead for definitive houses, and listening for the harmony of power generating sets. The city, fierce in its own right has learnt to fight back, alternating the houses on the streets so that you are forced to reconstruct the maps in your head every time you step down from a keke. You have learnt to win this war by setting foot on the ground, reducing Immapancy’s territory with every stride. The first day in a hostile rain—the city’s unwelcome embrace—a girl shivering beside you had said:
“But they say Akwa Ibom ayaya?”
The city is a strange ally, teaching you its rhythms in generous chunks of sounds and appearances. It has taken time, but you have built an inner library of the soundscape, pulling out auditory impressions and familiar tones while walking the streets. The language does not play well with you, but your library manages to add layer after layer. You try at nights to grasp the words. You fail. A visit to Alheri and she had said:
“I have been here for months and I can only speak a word: Mesere”
The city is deceptive, spitting futile pleasures in plain sight. You are wary of its meals—strange stories lurk around its kitchens. Angela had touched your arm and said:
“You should not be so thin. This is Akwa Ibom—Food is Always Ready”
The city reduces when you traverse its borders, but it does not forgive. Strange things may happen, like having to walk up to junctions to open a webpage on your phone. A 45-minute bike ride from Ikot-Ekpene to Mpkatak. Shekinah standing there, with a smile that divided the evening rain. She had hugged you and said:
“This is me. I am learning how not to be Hausa”
The city takes and takes but in unexpected moments it may give fine gifts, like two great neighbors—Miss B and Miss D, whose eastern stories amuse you. The city may also give you the gift of the Akpan Andem market alongside its great supply of electricity. But you remain watchful, waiting for the city’s next trick and finding none. Weeks after you first inhaled the graphology of the place, Chinazom had said:
“It will still be beautiful. Don’t you smell it?”
The city pushes you in your bed, forcing you to turn wide-eyed in the darkness. The gift of the Akpan Andem market—the electricity—is broken. Lines of code pile up in your head but cannot be written. The city pushes you, so you stand outside in the evening cold. You find Felix, the makeshift caretaker, and ask if there’s any hope with the electricity. He laughs and says:
“Dem go do am. E fit take time, but dem go do am”
You return to your bed, wide-eyed in the darkness. The city pushes you but you push back. And the words begin to pour until the final full stop.
He has learnt the name of the place, impressing it upon his tongue so much that when he mentions it the cabman begins speaking Ibibio. He nods and tries to make sense of the syllables—the nasal sounds standing side by side, the tongue brushing the cheeks.
He has found that on evenings the wind in Nung Udoe does not sit still. When he slips into the street he worries about Identity; twice in one day different women had asked him:
“Are you from Yoruba?”
He has thought for long on this question, on the brutality of this summary of his existence.
He has memorized name after name, entering street after street. Beneath his feet Immapancy burns hot as red coal. He makes out Ikot Obio Odongo, a bend into the depths of Ibesikpo. He notices house after house with plaques in memorial of the dead. Graves lie everywhere—in front of, behind and inside the houses. He thinks of a few photographs of the graves but decides against it. This brief thought of an intrusion into the privacy of the dead fills him with guilt.
In a bush in Ikot Obio Odongo he has found a sculpture the size of a human. The figure is seated inside a small building, staff in one hand and a gong in the other. On the walls are paintings striking in resemblance to Egyptian art. He begins clicking photographs, hoping to study later the reason for this resemblance. A sudden man from the edge of the thicket stands akimbo and says:
“You no dey fear? You wan die?”
He packs his camera and leaves, realizing that this is a place of worship. Or fear.
He has walked hours in Ibesikpo thinking of Mortality. A random man walks up to him and shakes his hand. He fears and thinks of Death’s freedom of random selection.
He has found that in Ibesikpo piles of wood become coffins and do not need sunlight to find their way. The business is brisk and precise—someone may die tonight.
He has learnt the name of the place, impressing it upon his tongue so much that when he mentions it the cabman begins speaking Ibibio. He nods and points his face into the evening wind, glad to be mistaken for once as one of the locals. He wonders briefly how long this stolen identity will last.
She said to me: I have watched your words arrange themselves on the page. Why have you refused to write beyond the margin? Was it not you that first told me the words of Andre Gide in “Poetique”?
Two nights later, in a dark room, bent beneath the radiance of two candles, I scribble in black ink inside the margin of my journal:
“Art begins with resistance”
She said to me: Do you remember the Bambara Chief? I have been thinking of his words. Everything, every work, every sound. Everything is rhythm.
I remember clearly. A thin twig between his teeth. His analysis of the djembe, the sounds floating along with wind on the edges of the cornstalks behind him. He had claimed that there were only three sounds in the world:
I said to her: What has sound got to do with it?
She said to me: You trust too much in words. Words are never fully clothed. Sound is the end of all context.
A gentle Lagos evening at a quiet corner below the Ikeja City Mall. She made doodles on a tissue paper and then she said to me: Do you know why they invented icons? Because an image hardly needs translation. Words must be clothed in nuances of culture if they must be accurate in transition between languages. A translator knows that he must penetrate the senses of both worlds if he must communicate precision.
I said to her: What has this got to do with me?
She said to me: All art is translation. Every artist is a translator. Writer, how have you survived this long without knowing this?
She said to me: The last time you came here was 4 years ago. I packed all your books and sold them. I have replaced them with North African and Japanese writing. Words must make space for new words. Surely you remember Mia Couto when he says A person never stops being born ?
I said to her: Indeed. This is why memory deserves a piercing, a surgery.
She said to me: I do not like that line, but I think that it will suffice.
She ran. I was standing beside the water in Marina, listening to the afternoon. The wind tore the sunglasses from her hair. She ran. She screamed and said to me: I have found it. Why they call it poetry. Mastery is to leave the words naked. Here is where we leave our words bare.
I said to her: What happened to clothing words in nuances?
She said to me: Nakedness is the ultimate negotiation.
I said to her: I do not like that line, but I think that it will suffice.
*Photograph by Vincent "Pelourinho"
The atmosphere is bald. Numerous intonations find their way through the pores of the city. When the cab moves from Abiola Way through Oke Lantoro, the road bends into music and becomes a tremolo. Here at Ijaiye, birds take shape behind the cracks of the November sky. Houses grow from the mountains just before the road turns to Kuto. Through windows from the mountains, yellow lights stare at me. At Kuto, just before the Cultural Centre, I see an elevated platform with neatly grown grass. On it are the words:
“Omo Ogun, Ise ya”
When I get home, I tell my host of my fascination with places. He laughs and begins to name locations in Abeokuta. Sapon. Oke Sokori. Obantoko. Ago Ika. Itoku. Panseke. Onikolobo. I struggle to record them in my journal. Later at night when I write, the places become faces, some with tribal marks across their cheeks, some laughing and backslapping themselves. The others are quiet, and prefer to be left alone.
The next morning, I take a stroll down Madojutimi Junction. I bend through streets and find my way to Idi Aba. Here in Idi Aba is where I find a striking building, plastered against the edge of the tarmac. On the wall of the building is a sign containing the words:
“Premier Music Center “
I move closer to the building and peep in through the closed windows. The rooms are empty and dark. It becomes obvious that no notes have been played here in years. I imagine a man in a flowing cream-coloured agbada here in the 1980s caressing the center of a gangan in tandem with a base guitar at the center of a room. A lizard drops from the roof onto my shoulder. I shake it off. When I leave this building, I walk down the road till I connect with the street where the St. John Anglican Church lies in wait. When I see the church, I know immediately that it was probably an imposing figure once. But now cheap paint—a mask hastily worn on the temple—has failed to restore any glory the church once had.
The road ends at a junction. Here there is no tar. A little wind rises and spreads the harmattan dust in my face. I taste sand in my mouth. The junction is named Iyana Mortuary. I think immediately of cemeteries, and how graveyards are corridors where Time exhausts Time. But here at Iyana Mortuary where all leads to death, a new overhead bridge is springing to life. Under the construction site the governor is smiling out of a half-torn poster. Beneath his face are the words:
“Mission to rebuild”
I think of these words briefly with my mouth full of the November dust.
I have also found, in Abeokuta, songbirds do not fly straight.
The next day is a Saturday. The school down the street where I am staying in Madojutimi is quiet. There is no assembly of excited children, no bells and no song of a “Great Provider”. From my window I see four goats at the edges of the roof of the school. Their posture strikes me as odd. Is this a form of territorial definition? Why is there need for borders?
I am standing with my bag at the junction in Madojutimi, waiting for a cab to take me to Asero where I can get a bus to Ibadan. A little scene is developing down the road. A group of young men, most of them bare-chested, have pulled a rope across the road. They begin to stop vehicles and okadas to demand money for a carnival they are planning. An okada comes across later with a light-skinned young man as the passenger. The okada man refuses to give the carnival boys any money. The boys threaten and shake their fists in the air. They throw words in the face of the okada man. The okada man does not budge. Then one of the carnival boys says:
“This one at the back is an Omo Nna. He’s Igbo. He go get something to give us!”
The others agree and surround the light-skinned man. They begin to pull and tug at his shirt.
“Omo Nna fun wa lowo jo!”
The light-skinned man is helpless. He removes his wallet. The boys snatch it and help themselves to the money in it. Then they hand over a hundred naira note to him and say:
“E don do! Make e use dat wan sef enter moto”
At Asero, when the driver starts the engine towards the journey to Ibadan, within me I hear music from a carnival, and the tunes are notes bought with the sweat of an Omo Nna.
After reading Sherif El-Azma’s “The Psychogeography of Loose Associations”1, I find that I am not alone in this inexplicable and sometimes phantom obsession with cities. What is this curiosity? Is it the joy of confusion that comes with being around a thousand faces and none of them family? Is it the wonder of being lost in the legend of buildings, inhaling soundscapes and breathing in cultures? What is this thing with cities?
The question continues to burn within me, every time I wake up on a bed in a new city. I find that my senses are heightened. I notice the dialects. The mannerisms. The fetishes. The transport media. I am curious as to what angles birds fly. I want to take photos of everything. I enter everywhere—Markets. Streams. Within me are mental notes of the graphology of the city. The squints on the faces when it is night. The beauty of the women. The allure of strange food. Again, I remember Sherif El-Azma say:
“Psychogeography is a practice that rediscovers the physical city through the moods and atmospheres that act upon the individual.”
In traversing cities, I want to submit that History and Art must hold central positions for anyone truly interested in Psychogeography. How else can one fully understand the reasons behind the shifts in rhythms of a place? The history of a city shapens its art. The art of a city becomes its history. This is the thing the student of cities must understand.
When I get to a new city, I become a hummingbird, sucking nectar from experiences littered about in the ridges of the landscape.
On a warm September evening, I am returning from the Passport Office in Lagos. At Obalende, I find a woman sitting under an umbrella. The woman’s face is hidden, but her bag of alms is not. At her feet are two babies. Girls. Clothed in beautiful purple, seated on the road, laughing and touching each other’s faces. I am torn towards two thought patterns on seeing the babies.
The first is that perhaps the woman is an upholder of a certain kind of tradition, which I have very poorly (for lack of better words at the moment) chosen to refer to as the ejire tradition, a tradition amongst some of the Yorubas that places twins as divine beings, to be taken seriously and treated with special spiritual attention. Sometimes these twins demand that their mothers beg for alms. And it is on this premise that I want to lean. I want to believe that that the babies will have a normal home. I want to believe that they will grow up like normal children.
I am standing in front of the babies, watching them poke each other in the face. The woman sees me and asks:
Uncle, se e fe ta ibeji l'ore ni?
I hesitate and drop a 50 naira note in a bag beside the woman. She lifts her umbrella and says:
That is when I see her face. The left part is a scar. Burnt and charred. The eyes are sunken, absent.
The second thought pattern pulls me in as I walk away. This one says that the woman is simply a beggar with two beautiful babies. Girls clothed in beautiful purple. This one says that the future is bleak for the girls. They'll grow up on the road, its winds and horns will become their sounds.
Or is there hope?
Minutes later, in a bus from Obalende to Ajah, I am scribbling a poem in Evernote.
Is darkness not made of these?
Handmarks on walls
Of voices, hope
Is darkness not made for dreams?