March 1, 2020.
I feel that by writing I am doing what is far necessary than anything else – Virginia Woolf
‘Who am I?’ is a question I have answered with a dozen blank pages. It echoes papa’s grunt. Even an acceptance mail to attend the Ebedi International Writers’ Residency in Iseyin, Oyo State, does not dissolve the grim on his face. Mama’s silence holds a thousand questions. At prayer, they ask God to grant me the pleasure of going out in the morning and coming back in the evening. Yet, the only solace I have is to go back to the blank page where Woolf still echoes, Shall I ever finish these notes?—let alone make a book out of them?
I will travel some 600 kilometres and spend the next six weeks at this residency —the only active writers’ resort in Nigeria.
Saturday, 8: a.m.
Cities collect people, stray and lost and deliberate arrivants – Dionne Brand
On Kaduna-Abuja express road, cars drive past us as though we are not moving at 100km/h. The Greek Philosopher, Parmenides would have said this is the point he was trying to make. Movement or change does not happen. Our bus is extended to either end of the road. What we see as cars driving past is a fancy from our senses.
3:p.m meets us in Lokoja – a confluence of travellers going south or north of Nigeria. Food, music, hawkers bristle under the unflinching glare of the sun. I make do with fried yam, plantain, and a bottle of sprite. When we move again, the road plays pranks with her yawning potholes, through Okene and Edo. Ondo State holds us in an endless bumping dance. Dizziness wraps me. A convoy wearing tinted glasses drives by. We pull over to let it bump away. I hear it is a government official or whatever. Osun is a roll of new township roads with posters of the governor’s laughing face.
…like a broken wing – Alexandra Fuller
The Muezzin’s call to prayer taps me awake. A curt sigh leaves me. My eyes open but my body remains sprawled across the bed. Every joint is screaming from being called upon to move. It is blank inside my sleep but sleep is the only thing I want to do. And keep doing. I loiter on the threshold of wakefulness until the Muezzin sounds off. I like the music the call to prayer makes but not this one. There is no drag of mild broken tenor rising softly and spreading a twinkle of echoes. This voice comes about as a haphazardly dressed old man, uninterested in what I think he looks like.
A splash of rust and gold-flung and scattered – JP Clark
The bus drops me under the bridge at Iwo road, Ibadan. Even at night, the city is a bustle of voices, horns, headlights, footsteps, and music under the watch of an advert board towering above like a watchman guarding the city. The display of images on its electronic surface mimics Descartes’ praxis: I display, therefore I am.
“I am going to Iseyin,” I say to a Bikeman. He lets out a subdued chuckle. “Pay
N300 make I for carry you to Ojoo where you go enter bus to Iseyin,” he says. But two ladies approach. He turns away.
It’s the last bus at Ojoo.
I sit by the door on the second row, my backpack and tote bag on my laps. The road is flanked by bushes that look like sad spectators in the gleam of the headlights. Our speed is orchestrated – fast, slow, jerky – by potholes and bumps. On the front seat, a passenger sways on his neck – left to right, right to left. And jerks up each time the bus swerves or dances as though to mourn the endless stretch of darkness ahead of us.
Memory snores in a painting
“Hello, Peter.” Mr Ola, one of the resident writers, has been keeping awake to receive me. He is bare, except the faded light-green towel on his waist. “Welcome.” My body winces from carrying my weight. The passage opens into the sitting room. I pause at a framed painting of the residency on the wall, and then, a photo of boys playing football. One of the boys is about to shoot. Then, I am a boy again. We could have been teammates, tossing the ball around and away from our opponents on the brown coloured streets of Kaduna, amidst the constant stop for vehicles and motorcycles to drive past. In this moment, I am anticipating the ball to glide past the keeper, and we would claim our trophy – a mouthful of bragging rights against other streets.
The tag on the door of my room reads, Mabel Segun. I bow before her absence and collapse on the bed.
There are in our existence spots of time…Wordsworth
I am drunk from staring at my wooden desk and chair more than I have written anything today. Voices jingle in my head. One says, leave. Another says, write. You are in a residency. A bird chirps. I part the curtains. I do not see it but a hill that looms over the fence of the compound. I feel so tiny and infant before this view. But this is nature offering me a spots of time moment – dotes of footpaths and farm areas like sketches of brown on a green painting to fill my blank. Natural scenes, writes Alain de Botton in “The New Art of Travel”, have the power to suggest certain values. And here like Wordsworth, the scene evokes a sense of ‘stoicism’, ‘permanence’ and ‘humility’. The desk is friendlier with these attitudes.
Even among writers, it is not enough to say you write or you are a writer.
“What do you do?” Mr. Ola asks.
I am confronted by an impatient pause. As though the word ‘writer’ is a boring sound he has heard over and over.
Then, this fellow, the last resident, strolls in, in black knee-length shorts and a black and grey striped polo. Our welcome notes meet his almost inaudible thank you. He stops in the middle of the room as though something had struck him and he was trying to understand what it was. Then, his eyes light up to the sky beyond the white ceiling from where God must have acknowledged the praise in them. Carrying his bag to his room, he says, I am Tega.
Nri bu uyo
A taste of western Nigeria is something other than egusi, ‘draw’, bitter leaf soup, or tuwo. The ewedu comes with two white wraps of fufu. In the middle of the soup bowl is a coiled up fish bordered by a ring of green in a red paste. One of its eyes casts a blank stare at me. I eat slowly. Each mould, each scoop, a ceremony down my throat.
“How you find it?” Our cook, Madam Cecelia asks. Her eyes are two balls of expectations on an unassuming face. Every day, she serves us her arrival with: good morning, how was your night, how is your work. Then she hums about, cleaning and scrubbing the rooms, washing the plates with trails of hymnal piety. Her petite body does not say she is in her early forties or so, or lives with her four boys and a Muslim husband.
In my mind, I wonder if there is a universal taste she refers to or just my own peculiar taste. But she collects the nod I give and smears it on her face and a crow’s feet appear on either side of her eyes.
Meaning is obviously close to music – Leonard Michaels
Baba, the guard arrives for his night duty.
I wish I could collect the Yoruba flowing from his lips and make it mine. Ekuilere o, Elembe.
To learn a new language is to peel off a layer of self. I grew up speaking Hausa and Igbo. Both were less conscious efforts. Igbo is a medium of reverence for my parents; Hausa is a handy exchange between me, my siblings, and friends. English is a house I think and write in. The Yoruba words I have are strange lands in which I am naked and everybody can see me, and I do not want them to see. Yet, to be proficient is to be comfortable in this nakedness.
But Baba’s mouth stays open. no. hear. english. They come off as sounds whose meanings he is not sure of. Then, snapping his middle finger and thumb, once, twice, he grabs an imaginary steering wheel to say, I left northern Nigeria as a driver when the civil war broke out.
Ya dade, sosai.
Hausa. kadan. kadan.
Na gane, baba. Ba matsala, I say. The words hang between us. He tilts his head to one side. It stays a while before he affirms with a nod.
You, the great homesickness we could never shake off – Rainer Maria Rilke
A lead singer, eyes closed, stamps the floor in turns with her legs. In the armpits of her white blouse, a wet map with jagged edges has formed. Behind her, the altar stands two steps up with a pillar on either side. Further, the wall carries an inscription: The Redeemed Christian Church of God.
On the wings, the left has two women keep company among empty seats. One, in white hat and flowing black gown of flowery designs moves in small circles to accompany the jingle of the tambourine in her hand. The other holds the song to her chest with folded arms. On the other wing, the pianist tunes away, the congas are almost the height of the fellow rocking them. And the drummer beside him nods along to the works of the drum sticks in his hands.
It must be a lot of work to be God. At this moment, He is bombarded with worship from all over Nigeria and the world. And every day, a stretch of outpouring from all corners of Need beseeches him. How does God discern noise from sense? How is He able to listen to every voice at the same time? Are there, in God’s mind, compartments attending to every individual and public praise or request? How does it sound in God’s ears? Is He always thinking about humanity and all His creation? What does He get from being prayed to? Are the various thoughts and feelings of humanity expressions of God’s thoughts and feelings too? Does He ever have a quiet time for Himself? Does He even think of Himself? Can humanity ever stay quiet?
“Let us pray,” the pastor’s voice crawls out from the pulpit.
Do not drink water only, but take a little wine to help your digestion – Holy Bible.
Guinness for Tega. Orijin for me – a first. In the dark corner by a busy roadside of tables, bottles and pepper soup amidst a beehive of men sputtering their grins among one, two ladies. Between Tega and I, a bowl of bush meat gleams. It’s antelope, the attendant says. Slurp the soup. Cut the meat. Drink from the bottle. Music jams from inside the buka. In my head, I see the dancers. Women in slow-snaky swaying of waists and chattering of hips, flavoured with fast – jerky-twerks which hold you ransom. My head is moving faster than my heartbeat. Orijin is not bitter or so I think. I wash down the last chunk of meat with a last gulp. It swims in my head. Each movement makes every part of me want to fly. Tega’s bottle is empty. He flings his hands to the sky and begins to sway.
Death is a virtual joke.
A virus is on a stroll. The new mantra is: curfew. Stay at home. Wash your hands. Wear a nose mask. Maintain social distance. An article by Lewis Libby and Logan A. Rank in the National Review traces the virus from China’s ‘wet blood’ wildlife market. Europe is a funeral of empty streets. Italy weeps the loudest. In a Sky News documentary, one doctor’s only advice is: Be Ready. Underneath his tone is a scream: be ready to die.
A TV host in Zimbabwe dies. Saxophone legend, Manu Dibango, dies too. Atiku’s son has the virus. The Chief of Staff to president Buhari tests positive, a governor in the north too. South Africa has commenced a three week total lock down. No more intra city or interstate movement in Nigeria.
Mr. Ola’s voice pours from his room in a loud phone call. A dry chuckle floats. Then silence. I watch photos, videos and read statuses on social media: the fear of covid-19 is the beginning of wisdom; seek ye the kingdom of social distance and your life will be safe; this is the best time to get married, you won’t have to invite anybody.
In Africa, in Nigeria, we joke about everything, even when death is in our faces. Because we have suffered too much, and dying only initiates dramatic moments from us. The truth has to hit like laughter. A ritual to usher our end: Tega and I say hi, hello on WhatsApp, and send laugh emojis.
It might be lonelier without the loneliness – Emily Dickinson
Stiffness is locked in my joints, so I pick the books on the desk and pile them on the floor beside my bed: 15 of them. I stand before this pile, and squat. A flush of air leaves my chest as I pick up a book on each squat and move to the other end of the bed, until the pile is complete again. My laps are heavy. My breath comes faster. My knees tremble without my consent. I do not stop because there is a line forming in my head of a blurry part of what I am writing.
I drag myself to the desk. As I write, a black ant crawls across and stops. I wonder if it is a descendant of the ant in Roger Deakin’s essay, Notebooks. But this could be a displaced fellow of herdsmen attacks in southern Kaduna, a Boko Haram victim looking for home away from home, or some fellow who has escaped from kidnappers. Its antennas twirl gently and stop as though realizing it is safe. Then, a bang. I rush out. The sky has been threatening. For three days now. It does not fall except to make doors and windows hiss or jam against their frames. Now, it blankets the top of the hill in a fervent kiss of gray. It has the feel of two naked adults in an amorous entanglement, unmindful of censoring eyes. On the one hand, it is a mockery of my shyness before the opposite sex. But it is also saying: do what you desire.
Returning is no different from having never left —Soyinka
Government announces the resumption of interstate movement. In my head a scuffle sizzles. Even after 4 months, the thought of leaving drags me into a blank space in the future. Now, I am confronted with questions: what next after Ebedi? Naipal writes in “Overcrowded Barracoo” …it is time to move again, through vast tracts which will never become familiar, which will sadden and the urge to escape will return. A blanket of incompleteness flutter about me. Something more needs to be done. But what is it? I fidget with the task of packing. If only the bag can just get itself ready. If only I can think about my destination and find myself there. If only. Kaduna whistles of a home faraway I do not want to return to.
Everyone heard about the tornado –
its bent thumps popping the roofs of homes — Diana Fitzgerald
But the rain has taken away the roof of a house. Thunder strikes a man. Dead. Two days ago. Sango is angry. The night howls. Bells jingle. The gods must be appeased. Down the road is a gathering of worshippers in red clothes with printed white squares. Each strand of their locked hair carries a cowry. Chants and bells continue to jostle. The mosques around do not call for prayer. But Muslims go in and attend to their God amidst the bubble.
Nearby is a country they call life – Rilke
Iseyin is a woman, tickling the blanks of my manuscript. She is an Eleha, a Muslim, Christian, non Muslim, non Christian, draped in Niqab. Her face is a conjecture inside my head. She floats on the wings of her scents and sits on my nostrils —a raw fish smell, palm oil, but also, of weed. Her houses of prayer and merry sit side by side like friends who can’t do without each other. Every day, the cockcrow ushers her to the well, the borehole. And pots prattle amidst the affair between mortars and pestles. Drugs are staples in her kiosks. Ewedu and amala, fish pepper soup, bush meat, are in constant sizzle in her buka. She is an okadaman, a bus driver, a mechanic, a blacksmith, a politician. A child. An elderly holding your eyes for a juggle of words from you. Or she offers them to you first with a bow, a bent trunk, a bent knee, and mouthfuls of ekaro, ekabo, ekuishe, ekuirele, elembe, ele. At the ATM, she is a crawling queue. She calls you sir, ma. At 7pm, 8pm, she sails away to the places where dreams are the only reality. She is a valley, fearless, because the green hills girding her are boulders of her gods.
Ifeanyichukwu Peter Eze
Ifeanyichukwu Peter Eze is a writer and editor, who writes about survival as it reveals the layers of being, the utopia of place, and the intersections between faith, identity, mental health and death. His work has appeared or forthcoming in Guernica, Adda, Temz Review, The Offing, The Dark, Akuko, and a few other places. Eze was longlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and emerged second prize winner (nonfiction) for the inaugural Akuko Writers’ Prize, 2020.
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash