I wrote this in 2018 and edited it in 2019. Just found it in my Google drive while clearing out my student gmail account. Feels like a blast from a long-gone past.
I just turned 20.
Today has been beautiful. I didn’t wake up feeling older. But I sure woke up feeling like teenagehood only happened in my mind. For a month now, I have run a written countdown to my 20th birthday through a series of published blog posts and unpublished journals that I hope to compile into a chapbook called “30 days young.” The title is tentative. I might end up settling for “Ode to a teen,” the name of my blog.
“Does it already seem like I am obsessed with coming-of-age? What do your Netflix suggestions say about you?”
On this day, I applied for a dream internship in Kigali, Rwanda, with a job description covering content creation and all that marketing stuff I naturally lean towards. In what could pass as a professional, as-seen-on-LinkedIn lingua, I described myself as someone innately curious about human behaviour- why people do the things they do, and how to influence what people do. I pitched my blog as evidence of my strong creative writing ability. For the first time, I described my blog as something other than a rant canvas.
Writing a birthday countdown by adding up my little daily happenings and describing them in a way that’s more self-talk than reader-centric narration perfectly symbolizes the freestyle composition that was my latter teenagehood. I lived all over the place, did things without thinking too much about them, and nearly suffocated at the slightest bouts of repetition or normalcy. My early teenagehood was dormant, ordered and rigid, just like the high school building which backdropped most of it.
“I turned 20 in college…third year. I wasn’t running when the age caught up with me. I was chilling.”
I celebrated with my friend, Fionah. We went to Botanical Gardens, a natural reserve in Pamplemousses, Mauritius. After three years in Mauritius, I was finally glad to check the famous reserve off my Explore-Mauritius bucket list. It helped that my school had moved student residences from a scatterplot of hotels and guest houses to a permanent campus in Pamplemousses, 2.9 kilometres away from the Botanical Gardens.
Fionah and I took pictures all through the walk to the gardens. Getting there, we trailed the path taken by tourists, admiring the palm trees which seemed to stand in attention for us…for me, maybe? We admired the large lilies floating in shy pride and glowing in light green. We danced with some kids who saw me trying to do the shoki and the gwara gwara for a WhatsApp video. The kids knew (and loved) the moves; they wanted to learn how to get the moves right. I obliged them.
“If anyone told me that at 20, I would be teaching anyone to dance, I would have made a timed bet, against myself. Glad no one told me.”
Fionah and I took decent pictures of the exploration with our phones. As soon as we got back to our school campus, we found a student photographer standing by the entrance of our residence. Fionah asked for a proper, celebratory photo, and he immediately took out his iPhone 8, pointed and clicked. That is where and how the cover image above came to be.
Reminiscing on the day spent in Botanical Gardens, I can’t help but mention that I am not the biggest nature lover out there, but I am all for spaces big and shielded enough for everyone to fit in and be comfortable, a bit like the setting of “Birdbox’s” ending. I also like trees with shades, the ones with leaves curling up into each other. Also, I will always love loose pants…flowery or not. Probably not flowery. Preferably plain, solid loose, wide-leg…the kind of stuff I should be wearing on my next birthday.
Before the day ended, I watched “Boyhood” finally. The movie got me gushing. I cried so much. The life I saw on screen bore such a striking resemblance to the trajectory of my own life. Watching “Boyhood” made today worth it. It captured the essence of my deeper celebration. Having postponed watching the movie so many times before, it only made sense that I watched it on my twentieth birthday. The soundtracks took me in, especially “Hero” by Family of the Year.
“Let me go. I don’t wanna be your hero. I don’t wanna be a big man. Just wanna fight with everyone else…”
I am thinking of 28th July 2028. I wonder what the word “hero” would mean to me then. I doubt if I would still care much about birthdays…or my birthday. Sometimes, I wonder what it would have been like to grow up different. What other Chisom I could have possibly been. Right now, I am happy. A bit too happy. I am not exactly sure why, but I chose to revel in it.
If you have to choose between house-hunting in Lagos and getting hit repeatedly on the forehead with a wiry sugarcane, choose the latter. For real.
It’s been 4 years since I began perambulating the harsh, peopled streets of Lagos, and for all of the first 3 patchy years, I lived off of the mercies of willing hosts – extended family, extended family who would later prove that blood doesn’t flow through-thick-and-thin, colleagues, colleagues who I don’t talk to anymore because their affection wiggled through healthy boundaries and poked at wanton intimacy, colleagues’ siblings, colleagues siblings who happened to be Nollywood celebrities, colleagues’ siblings who happened to be Nollywood celebrities who wanted their home speck, clean, dry and unblemished, colleagues’ siblings who happened to be Nollywood celebrities who showed me what life could look like to a fulfilled thirty-somethinger, a brilliant actress at ease in/with her creative career, flourishing against deep-seated Nigeriany spinster-directed biases and judginess. In the 4th year of my Lagosing – the year some of you christened the end of the last decade – I began hopping around temproary short-stay homes, Airbnb being my go-to source.
This year – my fifth year – propped up on the will and support of a friend who has also made the decision to go all the way in seeking out rest and abode in no-holds-barred Lagos, I have decided to finally give long-stay accomodation a shot in Lagos. I have decided to house-hunt fully, for a full year’s worth of a place I could call home or not, cry in in peace, spend days locked up in, and sit on the floor with my leg hung over the mattress I can afford – without a bed platform, of course. This year, I have opted to find a house in Lagos, a bare house that would only take the life I breathe into it – a place I would have to furnish; I decided to ‘settle’ this year, to bear the ‘Lagosian’ tag boldly and visibly, even if deep within me, I know that my struggles with this city will end in graceless departure.
In this period of restless house-hunting, I have been fed with sore platters – houses and agents and landlords and landladies and websites that have all indirectly connived in sucking the willing-to-give-Lagos-one-last-try out of me. Yesterday, I walked into a house in Borno Way, Yaba, led by an agent donning a track suit against the backdrop of harmattan dust and nasal allergic reactions. The building had a metal fence – sign of the good ol’ times, and semi-detached one storey houses, one of which I was being invited in, to peruse and possibly pay to live life out of. It was a total disappointment – that house, with a kitchen that should have been a toilet, room spaces that looked like relics of the world war, and an atmospheric pungency that reeked of reckless abandon. It would cost 500,000 naira to get that place for a year, and this amount was yet to include the hideous extra costs of getting a house in Lagos. It would have probably totalled a million naira to get the dumpsite I had just seen, and a corresponding sneeze-inducing amount to convert that place into something liveable. I told the agent I didn’t like it at his second probing. He led me out, asking why I didn’t just say so the first time.
The day before that visit to the house in Borno Way, Yaba, I had been to Ojodu, a close neighbour to Berger, a very condensed part of Lagos, full of BRTs and pedestrians. In Ojodu, another agent showed my friend and I a sparkling new house, blue-painted and freshly terraced. We had an up-close check of one of its apartments – 2 bedrooms ensuite, whose tiles weren’t a shoddy attempt at hardwood mimicry. The bathrooms were speck, and white, and unused, the living room was a cute-little-big void, inviting and embracing with patterned beige tiles. Our poor asses planned to start off the space-ownership with beanbags and mats, until we could afford couches. Our plans were soon threatened. We had to meet the house-owners.
There is a prominent style of building in Nigeria whereby landowners build two detached houses in the same compound, one a duplex for themselves, and the other, a block of flats to rent. The house I visited in Ojodu was built in this manner. It is the first house in a tiny street that seems to take pride in having more ancient rusty roofed bungalows than high-rise modern houses. The view from this house is an interesting case study in blurred economic inequality. I promised myself that if we moved in, I would buy curtains and try not to open them frequently, to lock my mind away from the poverties I am not yet very equipped to tackle. If we move in…
On the day my friend and I saw that fresh tear rubber house which would cost us a bit more than a precious body organ to pay for, we walked into the adjoining duplex – the house owner’s ultra-modern, richly furnished paradise – to meet the couple who would decide whether they were willing to have us pay to live in their house or not. This encounter was my first direct experience with the ‘curse’ of the ‘single identity’ for the house-hunting Nigerian femxle. We were informed, by this couple, that they have a strong preference for married folks, because they tend to ‘take responsibility.’ We weren’t spared details of previous rejections, with an overbearing emphasis on the rejection of a church that wanted to rent one of their flats for foreigns missionaries. It did feel like a job interview, that experience we weren’t prepared for, two young ladies searching for their first house in Lagos, being schooled by the owners of the one house they found live-in-able at an unbelievable price of nearly 4,000 dollars, amidst the pile of literal shit-holes splattered over their digital house feeds and agent sightings.
Soon, it will be 48 hours since that ‘house interview’, and the last thing my friend and I have heard regarding the house-owners’ delay in following up according to our agreed one-day decision timeline was that ‘the madam is afraid that we will snatch her husband from her.’ The agent seems to smell a rejection approaching; He now calls every other minute, asking me to pick his video calls, so that he can show me a different house, in Magodo, in Unity Estate, in Omole, in Bamako….the list goes on. All these options have been no-nos. At this rate, I’m afraid I might never fully become a Lagosian.
I was just walking along the quieter axis of Herbert Macaulay way, barely 20 minutes ago, donning my faded extra-large green shirt with an elephant lined across its bust, canvas for circles and curves and halos resembling the settings icon in my phone and your mum’s. This walk began slowly, until I grew aware of the loud quiet, the increasing signs of masculinity in front of mini office complexes and gated houses, yet more quiet. I increased my pace, tracking my back with swift intermittent turns. The whole time, while I struggled with my fe-fragile sense of safety, my tear glands wrestled against my eyeballs, threatening and eventually smacking the harmattan out of my dry sockets. Still I walked – alone, haphazard cornrows sheltered by a long scarf, feet in my black slip-on – past the red pedestrian bridge regally taking up space before So Fresh, letting my tears murmur the things my heart found wanting.
I didn’t ask anything of 2020 before I shut my eyes to sleep in the wee hours of 1.1.2020, unintentionally inviting fireworks to my sleep, giving them room to infect my dreams. When I crept through the final days of 2019, I found myself seeking 2020 for the sole reason that its beginning marked the end of 2019. I would soon learn that even this which I sought was a façade, a mundane excuse for humanity’s blindness to the sun’s rotation, our internalised forgetfulness, an elimination of lengths of accuracies – new year over new day, new year over Wednesday, new year over today, new over another, revolution over rotation. I woke up to a 2020 that came busting out of its seams with baggage, my baggage, from 2019, from 1998. An aunt decided to wish me a happy new year by calling me “harding” – a neologism for mean, as I interpreted, – accusing me of ‘using’ her, and questioning why I never said ‘hi’ in the months June to December 2019.
I live in a pod, a disturbing place totally not worth its bidding. I write this in front of a wall art that says “tell a story…about African culture.” My room smells like perfumed faeces, and I can’t even tell anyone about it, because no one understands why I would let my rent run out in a well-furnished apartment, why I would let myself sink right back to an identity that is becoming more than familiar – homeless.
I am in Yaba. Angry. Sad. Looking forward to the ending of things. Oblivious of the word – beginning. Because my mind can only conjure endings, life far from an exception.
If I were to assign a symbol to this year, it would be an exclamation mark – three exclamation marks actually, in red, blue and yellow colours. The year’s been a whirl, a bell that’s been ringing non-stop, a wind that has made debris rise higher and kites soar farther.
I can’t remember how my 2019 started, but I have a clear flashback of my cousin’s wedding in Nkume, Imo State – my aunt’s village – in the first week of January. I wore an off shoulder peplum ankara dress with blue and black diagonal patterns running through its post-knee length. My afro was held in a bun, crusty and tangled like the haphazard new year resolutions living off my whatsapp chats with friends from school. I remember wanting to quit school – take a gap year, actually – and explore a creative career path through a year-long internship. The goal was to prolong my graduation till I was ready to face life head-on.
I didn’t take the gap year, and this wasn’t because a sage whispered that there is no such thing as a “ready to face life head-on” moment. Rather it was because I didn’t get an internship and I had reached a point where I just wanted to get university over and done with. In the spirit of “finishing-it-up”, I returned to school in mid-January for my final year (read final 6 months) of university. From the moment I landed in hot, humid Mauritius where I had spent three years of my undergrad, the intensity of 2019 began to hit me. It started as dissertation-related stress.
For my dissertation module, I had two deliverables – a poster worth 15 percent of my final grade, and a 10-000 word dissertation worth 85 percent. Returning to school in January, I panicked a bit, knowing that there were high chances I had missed 15 percent of my total grade for not submitting the poster. I reached out to supervisors and teachers appealing to them to consider the conditions of the preceding trimester during which I, like a good number of students, had been on an internship with demanding workload and near-total time preoccupation. Unfortunately, my appeal wasn’t within the window of permissible conditions for an extension, so I lost 15 percent out of the most important assignment of college. I resolved to fight for the remaining 85 percent. The first punch I threw was a proclamation.
Besides a crop of amazing friends, the major highlight of my university experience was my school’s Christian fellowship. A vibrant Christian community, led by students, most of whom were close friends of mine, it was easily my favourite part of university. I loved all mid-week and Sunday activities and looked forward to them like my eight year old self looked forward to kilishi from my mum’s trips to Northern Nigeria. This sense of home in my school’s fellowship gives context to my choice (read obedience to the leading) to make an open proclamation during our first fellowship. I declared that losing a portion of my grades would not affect my academic performance in my final year. Months later, as God would ordain it, the lost percentage didn’t affect my overall university result. It messed with my final dissertation grade, but that was just about it, like a stirred sea returning to its satiny calm after the ripples die off.
In June, I graduated college with a first-class Bachelors (Hons) degree in Social Sciences. I clearly remember my reaction when I received my grade in my email. It was the morning after everyone else had seen their grades, and circulated their opinions on overall performance. I had been in a very sour mood the day the grades got out, so I procrastinated. I didn’t want to be further pissed. I had no excuse the morning after, so I checked, my heart beating faster than the fan on my wall turned. I saw a ‘first-class’ right at the end of the email header, and I screamed out loud into my palms. I sat still for a long while, shocked, awed, amazed, humbled by grace. It was a miracle. I knew it. I called my friend, Linda, my rock and pillar throughout university. She screamed with me and we blabbed and talked and blabbed and screamed for a while. Unable to contain the overflow of emotions within my tiny dorm room, I ran out, past squads of students loitering around campus, past the many shrubs separating student residences, in the direction of an adjacent residence where my friend, Fionah, resided. I needed someone who knew ‘the sowing’ to hold the weight of this harvest of joy with me. It was too huge for me to bear alone. I would later find out that I was the only student who made a First-Class degree in my major, which automatically meant I was the best Social Sciences graduating student. An actual miracle, fresh and filling, like tear rubber, like a broiler chicken.
I didn’t do too bad in secondary school. I had actually gotten quite used to being a high-achieving student. What made university different was that my attitude to academics was different from what it had been in secondary school. Whereas academics in secondary school was a bit smooth (mentally), university was very bumpy. I struggled to ‘love’ my major. I felt like an alien in class on many occasions. I ran to internships and part-time work to fill the gap in my heart (and mind) from feeling like an outcast in the only course that was closest to my interests and skills in the university I attended. In the years before my final year, I had tried to change my major twice, and stopped mid-way. I had considered dropping out. At some point, I even resolved to do a second Bachelors degree. In addition, my conception of achievement in university was very far-flung from academic success. Having had a good number of internships which shaped me and fuelled my interest in practical work, I had become less interested in the construction of grades as a marker of ability. Yet, I knew that in the world we live in, existing structures continue to win the bid for our checks, even if evidence proves they shouldn’t. Thus, as much as my final grade placed me on a high pedestal (historically familiar to me but contextually novel), it didn’t sweep away the heaviness of the years I spent trying to learn to love my major.
The months before June – days between June and January – were blurry and mostly dark and draggy for me in university. My dissertation writing weighed me down. I was mostly overwhelmed, confused, indecisive. There were days I cried myself to sleep in the little blue corner of my college dorm room. There were days I wrote down words for my dissertation which I couldn’t see myself in, and misinterpreted that as failure. There were days I leaned on my friends, living on the light they shone my way as I had been blinded by thoughts of not finishing my coursework, not submitting my dissertation, not graduating university. It didn’t help that I was also job-hunting and the rejections were piling up by the day. Then, life seemed impossible. It seemed like two decades of life hadn’t equipped me to handle the transition I was embarking on, through and from university. But my friends held me closest in this time, going all out and ‘out’ to ensure that I could breathe on the days when the air seemed to suffocate.
Returning to Nigeria immediately after graduation, I moved houses more often than I detangled my afro. Commencing ‘adulting’ in busy old Lagos, I was unprepared and lost in my earliest post-college days. This was mostly because my plans for immediate post-grad life were domiciled in Mauritius not Nigeria, and a last-minute legal factor had necessitated my early, unplanned return home. Yet, in late June, I was in Lagos – which isn’t home – and I was not leaving to my hometown, Aba, till I had crafted a fair-looking path for my young career. From Alagbado to Ikeja to Lekki, I shuffled houses, exchanged keys, and switched up neighbours, trying to find my footing in Lagos. It didn’t take too long before I finally started considering the prospect of identifying, finally, as a Lagosian.
In the month I spent alone, detoxing, perambulating, job-hunting, and mostly crying in Lagos, I met eclectic people, got featured on a gospel hit, found home in a studio in Ikeja, shared homes with interesting people – a remote-working software designer waiting on his visa to the US, a young mother/entrepreneur who had been programmed to fear Lagos way more than I ever could, a caretaker studying to be a prophet, a CEO of a thriving fin-tech firm. I did some freelance work, caught up on DSTV series I had totally forgotten, starved – more out of laziness than anything else – and eventually, battled entry-level career decision-making: what job to take, what job to not take (not like I had ‘options’).
Sometime in April, I had been announced as a co-delegate, to represent Mauritius at the Future News Worldwide Conference. The announcement was made on Facebook by British Council Mauritius. It was a very overwhelming experience for me, considering the plethora of congratulations and ‘I’m proud of yous’ that flocked my timeline, especially from family members I hadn’t spoken to in a while, ex-classmates I didn’t have much in common with anymore, and lots of Facebook friends who had really nice knowing things to say. The haze and whooshiness of the announcement period faded in about a week, and my digital life was restored to normal. By July, when the time for the conference came, my real life was disrupted – for good.
I flew to London from Lagos, after weeks of a tiring yellow card renewal process in the hands of Nigeria’s national health authority. London was mostly warm in the days I spent there, thankfully. I barely had time to sight-see, but I sure did the needful – visited the Buckingham palace, walked along the London Bridge, took a picture by London eye, cruised along the Thames River, shopped in Oxford street, even waited for Beyonce – to no avail – outside the cinema premiering Lion King. The Future News Worldwide Conference was ultra-insightful, rich and empowering. The last time I found myself in a community of like-minded people, eager to do more, committed to being more, and kind enough to help others along the way, I had just started getting comfortable in my university in 2016. But at the conference, within such a short time – 4 days – spent with 100 young delegates (storytellers, journalists, filmmakers) from all over the world, it only took seconds for us to get along with each other and appreciate all we had in common. I met people who I could see myself in, made new friends like R, a British-Sudanese Medical student and writer who inspires me in all that she does, all that she is, and all that she says, C, a Maltese writer and content creator who strikes me as the exact person I would be if I was born and bred in her context, two Is, Angolan and Canadian young journalists who are totally unashamed to speak truth to power, one, a fellow child of Chimamanda, the other, a fellow Nollywood connoisseur. I met S, award-winning Nigerian journalist who absolutely inspires me, who I’ve admired from afar, and who has been such a blessing to me since the conference. I left London full, saturated, blessed. Even when the whiff of hot, dirty Lagos air stung my nose to announce that I was back to Nigeria, I couldn’t shake off the beauty of the days I spent in London. I tried to capture some of it here.
I turned 21 on July 28, a week and a few days after I returned from London. My sister had come to stay with me for a while in Lagos. She cooked me beans or something like that. That was my birthday cake, and my hungry self loved it – a lot. I watched Big Brother Nigeria, took a few calls, replied so many hearty wishes and swallowed up the existential introspection my spirit needed but couldn’t bear the weight of. The days that followed were very monotonous. My sister returned home. I took my ukulele more seriously, and started playing every day. I learned to play choruses of my favourite gospel songs (which I’ve forgotten now) – Hillsong’s Oceans, Bless the Lord oh my Soul and more. During this time, I started clearing the path to what was to become my first job post-grad, the second in the grand scheme of my life, for which I had to travel to Cotonou, Benin Republic for training.
Mid- August, I left Lagos for Benin Republic. I was training for a Marketing role in a Software-for-Customer Experience firm headquartered in Cotonou. I spent exactly a month in Benin Republic. It was a truly defining experience. I met kind, talented Beninise to whom I spoke a lot of bad-French. I shied away away from new food, appreciated 24/7 electricity just 3 hours away from Nigeria’s borders, and felt inspired to take French even more seriously. The visit to Cotonou felt late; it seemed like I should have been there before, years earlier, because it was so close by road, because all the French I had wanted to practise as a kid was within it. In any case, I left with a good number of blogentries – and colleagues turned friend whose work-ethic inspire me. It was fun relieving the experience through Zikoko’s jollof road– a major inspiration for travel and content.
Mid -September, I retuned to lagos, to unchartered yet familiar territory, Yaba, where I would start living and working in. In my early days – and till date – Yaba felt kindly familiar; it also felt like an itch in my skin. As God would have it, barely a month into my stay, I got a text that changed everything. K, my Motswana friend from school, soul sister, first roomie at university (and life in general because my sister’s too blood to count) was coming to Lagos for a fellowship in Yaba. I was super stoked.
In early October, I walked into a dim-lit room in Sabo, Yaba, and went straight into a hug from K. In the time we should have spent catching up, we found ourselves ‘housekeeping’ because our context called for it – there was no electricity at hers, and the tap wouldn’t run. She moved in with me that night. As God had planned it, her workplace happened to be a stone’s throw from where I lived. Indeed, it felt surreal – being reunited with my roommate from my first college days, during my first ‘job’ days. I called it serendipity, but gave no name to my nagging unease that Nigeria might just fall my hand.
In the days and months that followed, K and I navigated Lagos, me with dexterity, K like a rookie. But she was a fast learner. About a month later, she went from being scared and pale as we traversed the Sabo market junction, to walking right between cars stuck in traffic opposite Sweet Sensation. She fell in love with some Shawarma she had at an unnamed joint in Abule-Oja, and went from hating on Golden morn to having it for breakfast every other day. But she underrated the magic of plantain, refused to spell moi-moi correctly, and stayed as far away as possible from gbese songs. As a host, I was quite unresourceful, almost terrible, because I’m as much a stranger to Yaba, and generally a bit alienated from most Nigerianisms, but thankfully, a good number of amazing Nigerians (unlike the wretched cat-calling, “sister, you’re my colour” men) spread warmth and kindness to K.
On the 11th of November, I flew to Accra for a conference that was as intensely consuming as it was fulfilling – the decennial gathering of the African Leadership Network. I admired the Kotoka airport, tried hard not to compare it to MMIA. The cedi humbled me, but the A.C-less Uber experience got me very worried. In Accra, I reunited with classmates from school, who I felt so at home with, almost like there hadn’t been an ‘exposure to the real-world’ gap between our interactions. I didn’t have the time to explore the city or Ghana in general, but I did try to get out of the glossy cocoon of hotels and shiny event halls I was trapped in. Living in East Legon and journeying from there to ‘Accra’ daily was worthwhile for my searching eyes. The Sunday before I left, marking one week spent in Accra, I took a tro-tro, ate banku (which I found a bit too slapping for swallow, lets leave corn for chips, shall we?), and went for a gospel concert where I experienced – for the first time ever, and like I have always imagined – the shallow, sweet, momentary popularity that comes with being spotted by floor cameras and projected on screen.
I sank low after Accra, facing compounded challenges in my job and my life, got into a long-staying sour mood, had unrestful weekends, went mute for a while, cried out on Whatsapp. I had begun to unpack my life from an omniscient lens, and the missing parts seemed to be the parts I loved the most. Everything around me seemed blank and colourless. I evaluated the path I was on, and after break-downs (in all senses of the word), I made some life decisions that would affect my preoccupation/life in 2020.
This December, I am trying to trace the lines back to my peace and happiness. I am trying to be gentle, to go easy, to watch movies, read, write some essays. I want to be more intentional in my practice of gratitude. I want to stop letting my lows erase the memories of my highs. I am also house-hunting (frantically) because I currently have no where to live in Lagos from December 31. Reach out if you can be of help. I got a reasonable budget that should fit.
Henceforth, I will be dishing out some love and gratitude.
To my family, I love you for understanding my silence, my difference…for loving me through my stubbornness, for taking me as I am, and hopefully, accepting me as I have become. To mum, dad, Aunty Chido, Chidinma, Chukwuemeka, Chioma, Aunty Ije, Aunty Ify, Aunty Nji, Nma Onyi, Aunty Ngo
To my friends from school, I love you for being, for making me dare to see life through rainbowed lenses, for the trips off campus when I was sinking into my own college bed, for the heartfelt laughter at the table on the far right of the cafeteria with a lined view of the car entrance. To Elizabeth, Fionah, Noah, Linda, Kaone, Insene, Nicole, Rethabile, Peter (Mz), Dennis (Tak), Thomas, Juliet, Jessica, Salami, Adanna
To my classmates and teachers, thanks for being kind till the finish, for being ever ready to help, for being really good people.
To Pascale, Gaetan, Aurelia – thanks for literally being my family, for teaching me how to care, how to love, how to support, and how to live.
To the founding class at ALU, thanks for being present, either for me, for yourselves, or for your inner circles, thanks for being a part of the most impactful phase of my life so far.
To my past and present managers, Vani, Danai, Tolga, Carroll, Salem, Ade
To my colleagues, Nana, Salewa, Sylvester, Harold, Gideon, Ejiro, Ismail, Anthony
To everyone I lived with this year, Wada, Derin, Bash, Taiwo, Tolu, Austin
To my guardian angels who looked out for me when I shut my eyes and counted my breath – Toyin, Bunmi, Linda, Jess.
To Bunmi, because after you na you.
To Ingrid, because you are an entire army and I would still go to war for you.
To Shola, because sis, you bless me immensely!
To my BoxOffice fam – TJ, David, Lektunes
To Ken. Lmaoo. Keng!
To ALU Christian Fellowship, because if I had the means, I would fly to every Iron Circle, every You Worship and every Sunday Fellowship.
To Whispers of Love – crew and leadership – for shaping me into a servant-leader
To Kate and Amarachi – through times and seasons.
To Belyse, Pelumi (boy), Joss, Pia – for friendship, deep and fluid.
To Pelumi – for the love and power of yoga.
To Dozie, because of whom I am not sleeping under the bridge right now.
To Ikenna, for coming through for me, totally.
To Thembeka, because everything she does uplifts me.
To Elsa and Sharon, for being my sisters in Accra.
To Ashraf, for showing up out of nowhere!
To Solomon, for getting me to write and putting my work out there.
To everyone on my Whatsapp list cause y’all the real deal!
To my Facebook friends, for the intellectual distractions with interspersing hilarity.
To ALU, for everything.
To God, for unconditionally being the CHI to my SOM.
If I am yet to extend my love and gratitude to you, please send me a text and I absolutely will. Thank you!
My friend, Ken, says “Jan 2020 is so going to be fab. You have no idea.” I believe him. Do you?
Sometime, mid-October, I went on a fruitless journey to Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Ikeja, Lagos. I had gone to pick a friend – soul sister – who had just arrived Nigeria from her home country – with the light blue, black and white flag- Botswana. Having totally miscalculated my journey’s time, a soar depiction of how well I am acclimatizing to Lagos, I got to the airport 2 hours late. When I got there, my friend was no where to be found. Although she had pre-informed me that a driver would be sent for her, I was still stressed that I didn’t get to meet her by the arrivals terminal. I scolded myself for not beating the traffic with better timing. I hellishly wanted to be there for her, to be a speck of familiarity in the midst of all the distinct, specifically Nigerian newness that would have engulfed her at arrival.
Later, I would come to find out that the driver who was sent to pick her walked up to her bearing a card with her name on it, and asked, with an undertone reeking of impatience and misplaced irritation, “Are you …?” When she said yes, he picked her suitcases and promptly disengaged with her right then, putting up the transactional front that would define the rest of their journey. She would find herself hesitant to ask to use his phone to call me.
Botswana’s population is 2 million. Nigeria’s is nearly 200 million.
I met my friend the morning after her arrival. I had hunted her down to the places she had mentioned she would be staying and working from. I went to both home and office, trying to ensure that I wouldn’t miss her by any chance, since she had no means of contact. Propelled by my past experience of travelling to a new place for a long-stay, the seething fear of fading into nothingness without any stroke or dot of familiarity – or at least receptive novelty – I simply wanted to be present for my friend in her first few hours within the borders of my country; this country that does not exactly give any hoots about stray-strange people.
I found my friend in her room, in a wonky serviced apartment close to Sabo market. I found her exactly twelve hours after I had tried (and failed) to keep my arms open for her at the airport, nearly six hours after I had had the most disturbing sleep of my new adult-life. We both screamed for joy, hugged briefly and ran our usual scold-joke-shade marathon. I slumped onto her college size bed and took in that moment for what it was worth in the broad sense of my life. We were roommates in our first year at university in Mauritius, and we had bonded so deeply, having gone through the toughest and lit-est of our college years together. Leaving Mauritius after graduation, in full awareness of the financial limitations of entry level salary life, I had no expectations of seeing her again in the nearest-future. Yet, there she was, in a room painted orange and lemon green, with a view of a grimy garage off of a congested Yaba road choking from the wheels of kekes, danfos and SUVs. Staring at her open window, cursed by the lack of netting, I could imagine mosquitoes dancing in the invisible light, waiting for the ungodly hour to have their freshly imported crimson meal. Indeed, I was both elated and overly-concerned that my friend was in my country.
Nigeria, we hail thee. Our own dear native land: Starting lines of Nigeria’s former national anthem.
There is something about the way Nigeria receives novelty. The reception is a jagged mix of amusement, intrigue, indifference and rudeness. I took my friend to Freedom park two days after her arrival. It was a rainy Saturday and there was no event slotted for that evening, but I felt compelled to go, because I hadn’t been there in all my Lagos perambulation, and because she had found it online as a frequently occurring what-to-do-in-Lagos bullet point. After our exploration of the poorly maintained yet mildly refreshing art and feel of Freedom park – whose dim lights went out just as soon as we stepped out of its gate – I suggested that we take a walk along the literal broad streets of Broadstreet, so that we could take in more of this history-enriched part of Lagos, far-flung from the noise and grime of our Yaba. Barely two intersections into our walk, we were trailed and chased by men in maroon caftans. They looked like they were drunk from an event. We had to run to a building on the street parallel to Bank of Industry. From there, we hailed a Taxify whilst standing extra close to the security guard by the gate of our rescue point. I haven’t – since that incident – stopped hearing flying echoes of my apologies to my friend, tendered in the lines, “I am so sorry you had to go through that.”
A person from Botswana is Motswana. Two or more are Batswana.
My housemates call my friend Botswana. I don’t know if this is because they aren’t willing to adapt to the unfamiliarity of her name, or because they prefer to latch onto the novelty of her country. Just like them, I knew next to nothing about Botswana before I met my friend at university. Unlike them, the school years I spent with my friend – and other Batswana – shaped my knowledge of Botswana such that I now cringe when someone uses “Botswanan” as an adjective. It has been amusing – and a bit scratchy – hearing Nigerians choose to call my friend Botswanan even after she makes it clear that she is Motswana. I am beginning to factor in the Nigerian goliathic pride and arrogance as a major reason for the well-intended indifference to a bonafide national qualifier.
If You See the Mame, Her Royal Majesty: Starting lines to the chorus of “Majesty” by Peruzzi
The Taxify driver that picked my friend and I on the day we were chased down by rabid men on Broadstreet ended up becoming our tour guide for my friend’s first weekend in Lagos. Having informed us about his interest in travels and tours, we instantly agreed on a low-cost sight-seeing spree around Lagos Island. We set out on a bright and yellow Sunday afternoon to a couple of eye candy places including Nike Arts Gallery with the decked walls of art, HardRock cafe with a crystal white Rihanna stage costume, Shiro with price-induced food for thought, Oniru Private beach with a very unconvincing entry fee, and Banana Island with the addictive serenity of abundance. My friend got to take pictures by the third mainland bridge, and I had no sure response when she asked me why the guy she saw in the lone canoe on the lagoon was naked.
I feel like a mother. I feel responsible for my friend, whose calm context did not prepare her for the razz of Lagos. There are days I have reached out for her hands as we trudged among sweaty bodies in Sabo, trotted past hooting cars, wiggled through uncivil okadas, and crossed roads with our hearts beating, faster than our pace.
I have an issue with uncivilised Nigerian men, the ones who randomly call you “beibe,” the ones that are like flies by the gates and fences of houses, who hiss and cat-call girls, the ones who call you ‘fine girl’ and expect you to take it as a compliment, the ones that stop you everywhere, and gesture – unashamedly – with stretched arms and moving thumbs, beckoning that you come to them. I am pissed at a man that I met at an eatery who, after a very disturbing morning when he trailed me into the bathroom and I had to leave with disgust and piss and bile running out of my skin, decided to beckon on my friend, nearly a week after his actions sucked the life out of me, asking her to come to him. I have a problem with the men who frustrate girls on the streets of Yaba, of Lagos, of Nigeria. I do not want to make an album off of the refrain, “I am sorry you had to go through that.” I am pissed at foolish men roaming the streets of Lagos.
On our way from a co-working space off Herbert Macaualay way, my friend and I were stuck in traffic, in a keke. I was sitting on the left side, taking side glances at the buildings on the other end of the road partition. My friend was on the right, barely an inch away from another deadlocked keke whose passengers were men. They started cat-calling her, and with no room to breathe, no movement on the road, no where to run to, I could see, in the dim-red glow of the keke’s inner light, that my friend was losing the colour on her skin. Two men in the adjoining keke were calling her and talking about how she looked good for them. I wished I could swap positions, to be the one on the receiving end of the skunky effrontery of those men. I could have tried to throw some pidgin slurs at them, or play it safe because I wouldn’t have been safe either, and try to use a soft ‘please leave me alone’. What I did, instead, was accost the men from my indirect side of the keke, not stiffly, because we were too close and stuck, but with a mix of anger and plea, I said, “stop disturbing her, can’t you see she doesn’t like what you are saying?” Their reply put a sharp, disturbing underline to their antics. One of them said, and the other echoed, “If you no wan disturbance, why you no take uber? You dey keke and you get mouth. Abeg, inside this keke, you no fit yan anything.”
The first time I knew it was a crime to be femxle and non-wealthy in Lagos was the day a motorcyclist told me that I ought to pay more for a journey as “the fine girl wey I be.” The spaces girls – young, working, singly living – find themselves inhabiting in Lagos are trash-lined with filthy men who feel entitled to a girl’s being. Indeed, nowhere – with the presence of the male species – is safe for a womxn, but it is even more gruelling to be femxle in spaces where you are denied the right to objection, accost, call-out, rebuke and complaint because you cannot afford to ‘seclude’ yourself, to ‘uberize’ yourself, ‘shut the doors,’ ‘stay indoors,’ ‘hide yourself’ ‘live with the taste of death in your mouth’ ‘die alive’ ‘die by male-prompted self-hostage.’
This was intended to be a sweet retrace of the joys of having my day-one friend here with me in Yaba, but that would have been a joke on the heaviness of most of our experiences. For every nice selfie we take – to share with our squad of school friends distanced from us by miles, visas and expensive tickets – there are triple disgusting encounters with Nigerian men. For every laughter we share from the memories of our school years, every lamentation about power-cuts and Spectranet’s unreliability, every worry about generator costs, there is a suppressed anger at the spaces we have to inhabit in Lagos; patriarchal, misogynist traps that are set for us, for no wrong of ours other than our femininity.
I am angry at men. Nigerian men. Men. Men. Men. The ones that feel that the tiniest tinge of decency should be celebrated. The ones that are obsessed with relationships. The ones that see no issue with the plague they – and their counterparts – are to the girl-child. I should not have to worry about gender-based safety, in addition to my bills, and my job, and my career, and my health, and my life. My friend should not have to surrender her heartbeat to the not-so-soothing lines of apology that I have had to keep rendering on behalf of Nigerian men.
I am glad my Motswana friend is here with me. But I would be lying if I said that I sleep well at night knowing that there are bozos around us at every corner.
It’s been all of three weeks since I left Cotonou for the scatterplot that is Lagos, Nigeria and for each week, a Lagosian has told me to find a boyfriend. A male Lagosian. Three in total. All connected to me through personal or professional strings of attachment and acquaintance. Good people. With good intentions. Societally shaped and steered in the direction of perceived incompleteness without an ‘other’ to latch onto. This ‘other’ – both stress reliever and pain killer – a vessel to absorb and magically transform their aggressions with life and city.
The first was random. Unexpected. Caught me off guard, but not too completely for me to lose a stimulating rejoinder. It was short and snappy, echoless, un-tailored, un-sugarcoated, unabashed. Whether it was meant to trip me up or not, I couldn’t tell. All I sensed was that it placed a cushion by my side for me to hold onto, in any case.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
That is how it came, in the voice – and by the choice – of a colleague of mine who, more often than not, drips in my-kind-of-cheesy-self-directed-dry-humour. He asked me, in the middle of a whoosy brandstorm for which I had sent out sticky notes to staff to get their opinions and thoughts on our company’s identity, if I had a boyfriend. That warm afternoon two weeks ago, behind the washed-out walls of shy old buildings along Herbert Macaualy way, Yaba, I sat right opposite him and let my furrowed eyes herald my response to a question that soon became an anthem, sung by the men I have found in the winding corridors of Lagos.
“I don’t,” I replied. “Why do you ask?” I added.
“Well, because you are stressed. You see the answers you are looking for, for this brand, you will only find them when you are relaxed. Get a boyfriend. You need to relax, chill, you get? Get a boyfriend and all of this your brainstorming and stress will just come easy.” He said this with a babyish seriousness, his candidness betrayed by a coat of humour that seems to seep out of him without his bidding. I took his words seriously. I probed. “So, first, you think that by doing my job in a way that bares my creative process and shows my decision-making pattern, I am stressed. Second, you think I should get a boyfriend to be able to do my job? Doesn’t that sound parasitic to you?”
His reply – which I strain, with fail, to catch echoes of in retrospect – was a reiteration of the need for relaxation, which he, quite linearly equated with romantic relationships. To think I had almost bought into his earliest ‘advice,’ – that which came before the boyfriend one – bearing streaks of humour and wishful thinking, for me to go to a beach and stare at the waters in order to surrender my spirit, brain and mind to nature’s muse.
Without doubt, I was engaged at work. Stress wasn’t the word, but it was close enough. I had spent hours and days whistling, repeating, rehearsing and revisiting scattered taglines that could potentially speak to the brand we were considering for our company, which is both nascent-in-Nigeria and novel-to-us-Nigerian staff. But my colleague’s assumption and advice for me to find a boyfriend to fulfil my task, or free up my mind to do so, got me confused and irritated. It drew a line from my heavy occupation with work to the supposition that my state-of-being was ‘stressed’, and this stress, a product of my my non-coupling. For once, I spared two seconds to the thought of unhealthy relationships in Lagos and Nigeria.
The second was online. It came from a friend I met in a studio I got to call home through the affordances of Zuckerberg’s facebook. He and I were having a whatsapp call about life -mine mostly- and Lagos, in the wake of my return from Cotonou to settle in Yaba. We were unpacking my experiences as a young working adult in Lagos, oversensitive to Nigeria’s age-old problems, detached from the most prevalent ideal of a good life in Lagos city: one well-weekended and gbe-bodied, unwavering in my ties to friends from college whose digital presence lit up my physical world, when he fluidly asked if I was in relationship. I said no.
Like a climber with a handy knapsack at all times, my friend rolled out a carpet of reasons why I needed to find a man, so as to navigate my life transition better. I remember wondering, at first, after he had made his case, if I was engaging with the sort of transition I was going through, from all the wrong angles. I wondered if the unsettling spatial and occupational make-up of my transition from college to the ‘real world’ had made me a case to be solved, a patient in need of attention, one to be saved by the angelic forces of romance, as delineated by a row of Lagos boys – men – who I was sharing my eclectic path to adulthood with.
I told my friend something in the lines of what I told my colleague. The response was different, and not as clear-cut as the succeeding quote, but the message was the same. I queried, “Why do I have to walk around life feeling incomplete and handicapped without a romantic partner? Why do you equate the bumpiness of my transition from school to career to the lack of a man?” Again, I do not recall the lines and points with which my friend engaged with my push-back. I do remember not being able to convince or steer him in the direction my heart was nearly gushing out with.
After that call, I thought of Joy Isi Bewaji, a social commentator popular on Facebook, who has dedicated thousands of well-crafted words to the table-shaking of toxic Nigerianisms predominant in relationships and marriages. I thought to myself, in a brief moment of speculation after the call, that this obsession with relationships as a go-to for the Nigerian looking to mask their personal questions, emotions and uncertainties along the path of adulthood, might be the reason why people – Nigerians – get into relationships they have no place or purpose in.
The third came in my third week in Yaba. It was built up to, clearly. The instigator was my housemate, a happy-go lucky Nigerian in a very intense search for a wife. He had gone out to ‘socialize’, only to come back to meet my door closed shut as it was when he left in the morning, with me inside, unfazed about whatever could be going on with and in the world outside of my bedroom. I got out of bed to check-in and say hi, a subtle tradition of ours – me, him and our third housemate. I did my round, asking about his day. Then the dice was rolled to my side, and as always instigated by my over-descriptive self, it became less about my day and more about my life.
“So, do you have a boyfriend?” he asked, out of somewhere.
“No, why?” I asked. Without pause, like a dam, I continued, “Why do you all feel so incomplete in yourselves? Everyone’s out here telling me to get a boyfriend. Like it is a task I need to complete in order to stay alive.”
“Have you ever been in a relationship?” he asked.
“Yes.” I answered.
He proceeded to table before me, reasons why the relationships from my past do not count because I was young-er. All the while, I still couldn’t pick out one reason why he believed I needed a boyfriend. The premises he lay claim to – my own realities as a nomadic Nigerian with more friends outside of my home country than within, a low tolerance for interaction which soaks up my energy negatively, and a laid-back introspection which makes me less yearning of a weekend of socialization in a new part of a city which swallows foreignness and spits it out like cud – were far flung from his conclusion that I needed a man. Yet, he restated his stance.
“We need to find you a boyfriend.”
He was adamant, in the sort of way someone with few houses in a game of ayo cheers themself up to win the last house that comes with a bonus. I knew from the start, that this conversation premised on socializing would end up in the boy zone. I didn’t hide my irritation this time around, and I was very convinced that he was simply projecting his own relational insecurities on me. So, I told him what I had told the other two, this time around, adding the specific details of my personal to-dos, sparing him a brief overview of what ‘fun’ and ‘relaxation’ means to me – both of which are well set in my room, with a book or a friend’s inbox as prop.
When my housemate stressed the need for me to socialize, I wanted to ask him why socialization to him was a linear progression to the end goal of getting boyfriended. I had no issue with his case for socialization, but the underlying basis for it being a search for an ‘other’ to fill me up made me disinterested in his case. He decided to play a new card, calling a pity-party and making it seem like I was a plain victim of gendered inhibitions. He said, “well, I guess it is difficult for you girls. You can’t walk up to a guy in a mall and tell him, hey I like you. So I understand.” It was at this point that I blanked out. Completely. Mildly annoyed at my direct encounter with myopia stretching beyond conception of relationships, fun, and gender, and infesting ideals of individuality, life, and living, I caught myself mid-retort and stopped engaging. I let him roll around in his relationship biases until he landed on a new topical angle – professional networking.
Within three weeks, three Lagosians – all male – told me that I needed a boyfriend. The first was a retort, sharp, mid-conversation, unforeseen. The second lingered, like a bell ring. The third was a call to action, persistent, adamant. All three put me in a box – a case to be solved, a girl to be redeemed and saved and relaxed by a man.
That was the store name – splattered in bright green – that caught my attention as my kekeno rambled past the wide streets of Wologuede in the direction of Joncquet. I turned back for a split second to catch the unusual yet unsurprising spelling of a familiar word, the name of a thick, patterned hand-woven fabric popular among the Yorubas, and worn in full gear at very important occasions. In Nigeria, we say Asoke, pronounced with an invisible h after the s, to stay consistent with that thick energy we can’t seem to live without. The Beninise seem to have chosen to spell it all out – this fabric name – tch-et-al, with a defiant accent aigu that seems to be finishing its final opposing statement in a debate against the English language.
In a sense, the shared root of this word – asoke/atcho’oké – explains the undeniable ties binding Nigeria and Benin, two neighbours at either end of a linguistic barricade built like a railing with many penetrable passages for cultural and political similarities. In fact, I am no longer surprised to hear some of my colleagues speak Yoruba. Most of them have a parent who is Nigerian. One calls Abeokuta in Ogun state his home-home, that home out of all others where he would likely choose as a final place of rest if life gets too dread-some and he just wants to back-off and retreat. He is probably the only one who could dole out such longevity of stay as an answer to the question of Nigeria, her existence, proximity to Benin, and conception of by the Beninise. Most others have no interest in Nigeria whatsoever, or better put, their interest in Nigeria stretches as far as their intended distance from it. The Beninise I have met – quite a few, to be imprecise – do not want to be in Nigeria, out of pity and fear – pity for a nation with “so much defiled potential” and fear of a place whose people are supposedly out to pounce and grab. The Nigerian energy – whatever that isn’t – is a bit too much for the Beninise I have met. I wonder if I have dissipated this energy in this time I have spent in Benin, but then, I do not know how that could have been, considering my nutritional deficiency. I am pretty convinced that I would need daily doses of edikaikong, ekpang nkokwu and afang to live up to my utmost Nigerianness. Whatever and all ever that means.
Benin might look poorer than Nigeria in terms of lavishness and display of opulence, but the truth is that what they lack in materialism they have made up for in basic infrastructure such as good roads, constant electricity and street lights, as well as relative security. The streets are swept everyday between 10 p.m and midnight by men in blue overalls, wielding long brooms and almost always in the midde of long-distance light-hearted conversations with stationed kekeno drivers. In well-lit streets and roads, these men in blue overalls can afford to sweep while making way for the few vehicles and array of motorcycles that interrupt their flow every now and then.
Every day in the three weeks that I have stayed here, I have left my office in Joncquet closer to midnight than not, mostly alone – a lanky lady in messy cornrows almost always donning primary-coloured t-shirts and blue jeans – and I have felt a considerable degree of safety, just enough to make me stay up late the next day, but never enough to fight the tension that sits at the pit of my stomach when my self-consciousness prevails and the fragility the world has forced upon my femininity takes control of my nervous system.
I stay late in my office because of the Wi-Fi. I am too broke – from spending on expensive fried rice and chicken at Mimi’s restaurant in Scoa Gbetuo- to buy sufficient internet subscription to power my laptop in my apartment. More so, I have a passive aggressive relationship with this apartment of mine in Wologuede, whose blue and beige tiles make me wish carpet and rugs were still in vogue. There is a near-white table cloth on the dining table, shielded by a transparent plastic overlay designed with all sorts of fruits. I often wonder if a picture of this table could remind my dad of his childhood.
I have been fed (and not) in Cotonou. I have been offered snacks by colleagues who understand that hospitality should be fluid, not strained. I triedtheir version of Nigeria’s buns (deep-fried round dough) and I liked it. It wasn’t as sugary as Nigeria’s. It actually seemed to have salt in it. I also tried their madeleines which I found filling and handy. I tried and loved konkada – peanut balls coated in sugar – the sweetest guilty pleasure one can find in this side of the world, which was always hard to find when my ultra-sensitive teeth craved a y-o-l-o indulgence. I ate atassi – their rice and beans combo, and adopted the name, aloko which they call plantains, Nigeria’s dodo. I must admit that I have seen the freshest looking plantains in Cotonou.
Of all the snacks I tried, I didn’t spare time to indulge their long wiry sticks of kuli kuli, called the same in Nigeria. Their kuli kuli are sold in large transparent containers, at roadside stalls and kiosks, right next to sachets of milk and long bread rolls. I found their kuli kuli’s length daunting and unjustifiable. Perhaps, I am a bit too acquainted to round kuli kuli. Or maybe, I am too unadventurous. Whichever way, I did try their coco, called bouillie in French (which they seem to have millions of varieties of) a popular homemade drink that is as filling as it is concentrated. I tried the brown looking coco, which looked and tasted like Nigeria’s akamu (pap) dyed brown. I wish it wasn’t a stand-alone drink – cold, nearly congealed and stored in bottles. It would have been better placed next to the akara, fried yam and fried plantain I had for lunch (not breakfast) in my second week here.
I ate pounded yam in Cotonou and bowed in reverence. The soup was not as hot and spicy and finger-licking as I have been born and bred into in Nigeria, but the pounded yam – in holy white chewy tasty soft elastic glory – came close enough to making up for it. The soup I had was quite the collabo – lots of an unidentifiable vegetable with streaks of egusi in palm sauce (which we call banga or akwu in Nigeria). I noticed that people ate their palm sauce as it came, without leaves or vegetables as embellishments. I found that a bit too bare, almost arid. Yet, when my soup finished, I reached for a similarly bare bowl of plain peanut sauce – sans legumes (without vegetables) – which my colleague was delightfully relishing. I did enjoy it. But I didn’t ask for more.
There is a tamarin matrimony going on in Cotonou, which I am totally here for. Tamarin juices are prominent in restaurant menus. Tamarin sweets have their special containers in stores: they are not forced to share a home like their counterparts -super mint and good ol’ tom-tom. I have become conscious of my fledgeling addiction to these tamarind sweets. I am even tempted to buy a large pack for my return to Nigeria.
I became one with the sky in Cotonou. I caught feelings for the sunset, years after our first proper introduction by a friend at college who drew breath from the sun’s retreating yellow at dusk and the succeeding multi-hues heralding the moon. Something about the abundance of space between high sky and low rooftops drew me to Benin’s sky. I would look out the window at the grey-blue sky on a busy afternoon and I would be reminded that life and earth were bigger than my present, and that there was so much more. So much more. The sunset echoed those lines. Watching bulb lights continue the work of the sun, drooling at the colour synchrony in the sky, I have never looked forward to the night – for firmamental reasons – like I have done in Cotonou.
The streets of Joncquet and Ganhi are lined with assorted shoes and polysized suitcases for sale. The shoes seem to be affordable, in comparison to Nigeria, but the suitcases are quite exorbitant in their thorough polish and sturdiness. A friend bought two fine-looking, high quality sneakers – with the Nike swoosh on them – for 3,500 francs each, after a good bargain. That’s about 2,400-naira, a near-no in the Nigerian shoe market. I priced their suitcases once, a nice firm carry-on, brown like I love, and just the right size for a professional aura. It was being sold for about 30,000 francs or so. I sent my regards, acknowledged my brokenness and bounced.
There is so much yellow splattered across Cotonou. Kekenos wear yellow vests. MTN signs live up to their brand tagline. Oranges are sold at every bend. There is also an abundance of Western union agents. What schools and churches are – fundamental to every corner and crevice – in Nigeria, Western union agents are in Benin.
I speculate that for every denim worn in any demographically comparable part of the world, there are just as many ankaras worn in Benin. I love seeing Ankara wrappers as their skirts, bubas as both formal and informal wear, caftans as their regulars. A total natural embrace of their own. I choose to call it dignity in oneself. I find this exemplified in the number of white-collar workers who use motorcycles contentedly while looking forward to the time when their grit and work will add up to a four-wheeler. I am yet to hear a French translation of “hustle and buy car oh, make them no confuse you for kekeno” at my workplace.
This coming week is my last here, for now. I am pretty sure I will be back in Benin Republic someday, perhaps sooner than I can even imagine, considering that it is only 3 hours away from busy, trafficky Lagos by road. I have felt loved here. I have rested here. I have honed my motorcycle hopping skills. I have practiced French here. The time has now come for me to re-settle into busy old unruly Lagos, the home of hustle and noise and grime and food and more hustle. I might need a car, or what do you think? Too Nigerian of me?