In this version of it, you are rolling around a grass field in Owerri. You are laughing so loud and the sound of it is emerging honestly from your throat. He is taking pictures of you with his phone and with his other hand against his belly; he is wrestling laughter and trying to steady himself. He can’t afford to laugh too hard. If he does, the pictures would be blurry, remembering would be blurry.
“Make a video, make a video,” you manage through riots of laughter.
“No. Whenever you see these pictures, I want you to remember today in whichever way your imagination sees fit. A video will give you one way of recollecting and I don’t want that.”
You stick your tongue out at him and boo. “Your own is always different,” you say, getting up and dusting your leather skirt.
This is what you choose to remember in your first session.
When Doyin first gave you the flier, you scoffed.
Relive your past for 2000 naira only.
You read out in a mocking sing-song voice. Ever since the MMM thing, you hardly trust her judgement.
“You really should visit. People have been talking about how mad the experience is.”
“Which people?” you ask sarcastically.
“People ah.” She says eyeing you a little. “Visiting would show you how not great that whole situationship was.” She adds and you see her ploy for what it is. You hiss and dump the flier on her bed.
The day he had called and said he didn’t want to be “friends” with you anymore, Doyin was taking a shower and you were lounging on the couch watching New Girl. He had stopped answering your calls and replying to your messages after Owerri and you couldn’t understand why, so you called him incessantly.
“Why? Did I do something wrong?” You asked.
“You don’t remember?” He asked, the anger in his voice travelling clearly across the static of the shitty network.
“Remember what?” You ask defensively, pleadingly. “Tell me, what did I do? Let’s talk about it.”
“You honestly do not remember what happened in Owerri? You want to tell me that you don’t remember what you said? You are such a fucking liar. Now I am sure that we really can’t be friends.” He said and hung up.
You remember telling him that you sometimes claimed to not remember things when you did not want a confrontation and the knowledge that he thinks you are lying right now makes your stomach hurt.
When Doyin hears you clapping your palms together and laughing in that unbelieving manner, she runs out of the bathroom, water dripping down her body. Her yellow towel barely holds her breasts together and somehow, that makes you laugh till you pee your shorts. She watches you warily, wondering if this was an emergency or not. When you grip your phone and toss it at the mirror across the room still laughing, she opens her mouth in shock.
“Ahn ahn what happened? Why are you doing like this?”
You don’t tell her because you do not want an “I told you so.” You do not tell her because you do not want the sympathy that comes after the “I told you so.”
Doyin regarded him with such pornographic disdain whenever he was in your apartment. It was so vulgar and when she could get away with it, she said nasty things about him and rolled her eyes. “Poet my foot!” she would often murmur if you used it in relation to him when talking to other people.
“That’s what they used to get you, ẹ pẹlẹ́ o!” she said the day she saw you reading the framed handwritten poem he gave you for your birthday.
Doyin’s father had been an unsuccessful writer who took out his frustrations with his career on his family. He would often talk about how he was much better than most of the writers and poets who were enjoying what he termed “undeserved acclaim.” For weeks on end, he neglected his family and locked himself in the only bedroom in their self-contained apartment to “write.” He came out only when he was hungry or needed to use the bathroom.
In this short window of time when he did come out, Doyin would sneak into the room to retrieve necessities and see what he had been working on, and she mostly found the disappointment of a blank page, rolls of used up tissue that smelled like mould and an ever-decreasing bottle of Jergens body lotion. When her mum died, he used writing about his grief as an excuse for why he couldn’t plan a befitting funeral. So Doyin, at 17 years old, had to do it.
The poet was definitely not her favourite person from the time she got to know that he was a poet. What angered her more was his insistence on making a living solely from his poetry. He had told her that he didn’t mind starving for his art and she hissed so long and hard that you were convinced that she was a python. After he left that day, she told you about her parent’s love story as a cautionary tale. Instead, the beginning of it sounded so romantic to you that you curled up on her bed and cuddled with her fluffy throw pillow as she spoke.
They had met an open mic in Ghana, at the only artist residency her father ever had the luxury of attending. Her mother had been a locally famous singer/songwriter in Lagos and at the time they met in Accra, she was touring with her band. Some months after their first meeting, her mom got pregnant. They got married and her mom knew that some things had to change. She dropped her guitar and picked up as many jobs as she could as an events planner. She eventually started a cleaning company but her house sat unkempt until she returned because her writer husband refused to clean.
It is not like you didn’t get the gist of what she was saying. You did. But your parents; your family was so unlike hers. Your parents were accountants who met at an ICAN tutorial centre and courted each other for four years before they got married. Your two elder brothers were accountants. Your parents didn’t stop you and your siblings from pursuing art but they didn’t encourage it either. When you became a full-time photographer after uni, they said nothing discouraging but their attitude towards your work made you feel unserious, like you were not truly living the life of a person with a university degree. When you won the photography competition, you mum congratulated you but some days later, she asked when you were getting “something steady.” Your parents were both civil servants till they retired and the family bookshelves contained mostly accounting, finance and Christian books save for your few Judith McNaught and Nora Robert romance novels.
So for you, listening to this sounded like a fairytale that fate dealt a tough hand. Like the story of Oedipus before the prophecy started to unravel. The poet was already making money from his poetry. He had a spoken word YouTube channel of about 30k subscribers. He had a much-anticipated collection coming out soon. You guys were going to be fine. Besides, you weren’t even dating, you were “friends.” You were “going with the flow.”
One Sunday as you are stalking his Instagram page, you mistakenly like a post from 32 weeks ago. You cover your head with your pillow to hide from the pathetic stench of what you are doing on this hot Sunday afternoon. You remember one of the days you were at the rooftop of his building, kissing. The “tu-dum” of his Instagram push notifications beeped and he brought out his phone and hissed. “This one will not stop stalking me.” He turned the phone screen towards you. Fadeke, a girl he “used to know” had liked a picture of him from 64 weeks ago. He never told you how things ended between them, you realise for the first time.
You stew in your shame because you have become her— needy and annoying and obviously stalking his page. You hate that you can now empathise with her. You remember how you had worn your face as if you ate unsweetened yoghurt and said, “Why do people behave like this? Nawa o!” That was in February.
You realise that you don’t remember the colour of the shirt he wore that day and your heart slaps against your chest. You frantically search your gallery to see if you had taken any pictures of him that day but you hadn’t. You remember that it was short-sleeved, that it was button-down. You even remember that he was wearing a white singlet underneath, but you do not, could not remember, the colour of the shirt and your heart slaps against your chest even more aggressively. I can’t forget. I can’t forget. Not so soon. I can’t forget.
You ask Doyin for the flier.
The first time you go there, the crowd is unlike anything you know. You are not surprised. This is Lagos and people like nonsense, after all. The Nostalgia Cafe is located somewhere in the CCHub Building on Herbert Macaulay Way. Ever since it opened, business owners around CCHub complained about the chaos the new startup was causing. Vehicle owners who frequented that route lamented about how remembering the past was causing so much traffic. They pleaded with the government to sanction it so police officers from Sabo police station were dispatched there to maintain order. Instead, they collected bribes from people who wanted to jump the queue and threatened whoever protested with a show of their loaded guns.
On Twitter when people complained about this, the handler of the Lagos state government account tweeted, “Is it because they are still allowing you people to do business?” and deleted it promptly but some people took screenshots of the tweet. Eze had tweeted, “We pay our taxes at the Nostalgia Cafe so why should we not be allowed to do business?” A fellow tech startup founder whose business was close to the Nostalgia Cafe tweeted saying, “If we are being honest that business is constituting a nuisance along Herbert Macaulay Way. Last week someone fainted and a commercial bus almost hit another person all in the name of ‘remembering’.” One of the founders of the Nostalgia Cafe quoted the tweet saying, “Baba is it because we did not allow you to buy shares in our startup that you are saying this one? Talk, let us know where it is really paining you.”
Some churches secured discount offers for their members while other churches, jealous churches rebuked their need to remember, calling it heathen activity. They claimed it was not of God to revisit the past. The churches with the discount offer claimed that it was looking into the future that was a sin and not remembering the past. Doyin had gotten two fliers from her church and given you one. Since the fame of the Nostalgia Cafe soared, her church used the leverage of having discount offers to entice newcomers.
In true Lagos fashion, people flocked there before 6 am to remember. A session of two hours cost 5,000 but with a church discount, an hour and thirty minutes was 2,000 naira. The cafe could take thirty people in their remembering room at a time and initially, the founders thought they weren’t going to be getting up to 10 people a day. In their first week, they got over 400 people and had to start looking to scale their business.
When it closed at 7 pm in the evening, most people refused to leave and begged to be allowed to remember. 9-5ers were rumoured to keep a space on the queue at the beginning of the day and steal time off work or come during their lunch break to remember. Older people were initially doubtful but after a session, most of them went to give testimonies in their churches. On social media, you read that a man with Alzheimer’s had remembered, thanks to the technology and now, foreign investors were taking interest in the Nostalgia Cafe.
A former child soldier in the Biafran war— now an old man with a face dark and folded in on itself like a raisin was brought there to remember by his daughter and as he came out of the building he could not stop crying, “Nnem o, nnem o, obodo ajoka, achorom nnem o,” his face in a distressing trance. A week later, Aljazeera did a piece on his life and on the Nostalgia Cafe with the English translation “My mother, My mother, the world is wicked, I want my mother, ” as the title.
You hold on to your flier because it carries the 2000 naira discount code and if you are going to be indulging in this mess, you hope to do it as cheaply as possible. As you are about to join the queue, you see a mutual friend of the poet and you. The last time you spent with him was in Owerri. If you are being honest, Eze was more his friend than yours. You only became friends with him on that trip and because you were “friends” with the poet.
“Chidera, hi!” he calls out to you. “How are you? I haven’t seen you in so long. Well, since Owerri anyway,” He says in such jumbled excitement and so you know that he knows. His smile is overbright and his hug when he reaches you, too sympathetic for him to not be aware that you and the poet were no longer friends. You wonder if he would be cruel enough to bring him up.
“Hi, Eze! Why are you here?” you ask nervously.
“Oh, I work here!” he says with a slight smirk on his face as if this is information that sane people already know. “I wrote some of the code for the application. Or “Cafe” I should say,” he adds, finishing with air-quotes. “I can take you through if you want.” He says pulling out his pass.
“I wouldn’t want to chance anybody. That won’t be nice.” You say even though you decline because you are not quite ready. He cocks his head and stares at you. “Are you sure?” You nod so convincingly, your vision begins to blur. You are not sure you want to remember yet. You are not quite sure if you want to remember in the way that Doyin wants you to remember. What if you find that you had been a fool all along? What if remembering proves too painful to bear?
You walk towards Sabo market and take a bike to your apartment. When you are safe in it, you lay on Doyin’s bed and cry for the first time since you last heard his voice.
He blocks you. Everywhere. Even your burner accounts are blocked. You find this out the next time you try to see what he has been up to. This. This feels like the biggest betrayal. The hurt calcifies into needles that prick you behind the eyes and cause them to water and a pendulum of sadness swells and bobs up and down in your throat. You squeeze your eyes shut till a dull headache quakes at your temples.
No more crying oh, no more fighting oh, no more tears oh, I got my freedom, power and more… you remember Doyin singing yesterday in her croaking voice when she found you crying on her bed to cheer you up. “Crying would solve nothing. Genevieve Nnaji would not approve.” She said, rubbing your back gently. You swipe at the stray tear that made it through and block him back. Everywhere.
Owerri carried a zeitgeist of its own. The poet was commissioned to write a poem about the Oguta river and you wanted to capture a collection of landscape pictures of the East for your website. After the images you did of Ojukwu Bunker went viral, the gallery and believers in your work had been nudging you to do another Eastern Nigeria series. You had heard about Oguta River from your mother and she had nothing good to say about the two-toned river. Whenever this was the case about something, the temptation to find out for yourself was ever great.
It seemed like blessed timing- the idea that you and the poet could jet off in the name of art and holiday with each other. You offer your family house to save money but you didn’t tell your mother because you knew she would disapprove.
Your eldest brother, Chima told you everything you needed to know, where to find the keys and begged you to be careful. You excitedly called the poet and told him and he suggested making it a group trip. You remember your mother and the fact that she didn’t know but you tuck the fear that came with that in an obscure part of your mind. You say a hesitant “Sure” to persuade yourself that you are okay with it.
For the journey, there were eight of you. You the landscape photographer, the poet, Jumoke the video vixen, Eze the coder, Sukanmi the layabout with a rich dad, Felicia the wannabe with no rich dad and no job, Ayo and Ope the couple whose names were always mentioned together like this. You had invited Doyin and her girlfriend but she reminds you that her job as an auditor did not allow for such useless luxuries even though she sometimes travelled from state to state for work.
On the morning you were set to leave, she hugged you like you were leaving the apartment for good and told you not to trust the poet and also to tell your mother what was going on. You reminded her not to leave the lights on and to call Njideka every night because it was a constant quarrelling point for them. Then you kissed her on the cheek and got into the bus that the poet had rented to take all of you. That was at the beginning of July.
In the second session, you choose to remember the beginning again. And Owerri. You remember the day you met him. You were speakers on the same panel at an Art Festival in Ibadan and you remember the way you couldn’t stop smiling away from each other’s eyes. You thought he looked like Lakeith Stanfield but without the obstructive beard. His face was clean-shaven and boyish. You remember the way he leaned into you and said, “I think we are going to be very good friends” after you shut down a sexist comment from someone in the audience who said photography was not a good job for women. He had worn a pair of black shorts and a black graphic T-shirt with some lines from Christopher Okigbo’s Mother Idoto.
Before you, mother Idoto,
naked I stand,
before your watery presence,
leaning on an oilbean;
lost in your legend…
You remember staring at his legs, at how glossy the hairs on them looked. You had tried to picture him rubbing them down with coconut oil or vaseline. Then you picture yourself doing it and an urge pooled at the base of your tummy.
The remembering moves to Owerri. You remember the day at the grass field that was filled with laughter and you remember the sex. You remember dancing with him in the living room and how it made him self-conscious and ever so beautiful. You remembered the day at Oguta and the brilliant pictures you took and you remember him openly joking on the boat that the green and blue unmixing waters were like his parents and that he does not blame his mother for leaving. You remember the forced laughter that came from the others after the “joke.” You remember sitting outside the house with Eze and saying how nice it was to be in the East at this time of the year when the noise of Christmas did not disrupt the singing of birds and insects as they made themselves known to the night sky.
At your first session, they asked you to fill out a form.
- Who do you want to remember? You wrote “him” and then slashed it and wrote his name.
- What do you want to remember about the person? You scribbled “the love” with an accompanying question mark.
- What time period do you want to remember? You initially wrote “July.” Then you remembered that July was Owerri and Owerri was good but Owerri was also terrible so you slash it out and write January till July.
Then, you put down your signature releasing them from any liability, should remembering trigger any unexpected emotions and behaviours.
You were not quite ready yet to see if you sabotaged the best thing in your life and if it happened that you did, you might as well relive the good parts as a buffer. A female attendant takes out a small round object encased in plastic and asks you to come with her. She motions for you to unbutton your shirt and when you do, she sticks the object on your chest and it feels like nothing. She takes you into the remembering room and it is like any other regular coffee and pastry shop. She asks you if you want anything to drink and you shake your head no. She pats you on the shoulder and leaves. There are other people sitting in the Cafe. Some have a pensive look on their faces, others are smiling, some are jotting in a frenzy, some people are crying silently, there is an overwhelm of emotion when you look at their faces but when you focus on you, they blur and your memory heightens.
Then it begins.
It is not that you had not tried to remember the hard parts of Owerri on your own. You remember yelling that evening when Felicia broke one of your mother’s plates while she was making dinner. You remember screaming that you regretted the trip and you remember seeing the poet pause his smoking to stare at you, pleading with his eyes that you take it back and that enraged you even more so you said you regretted letting them stay here. You were scared of your mother finding out and you were PMSing and the stress of being a houseguest for two weeks was wearing you thin.
He tried to get you aside, to talk but you took a shower that ran too long, forgetting that the light situation was terrible and that the water situation depended on the light situation. Nobody else could take a bath that night and for the first time on the trip, you didn’t sleep in the same bed with him. Your period began the next morning with an unrelenting pain in your pelvis and he fetched water for your bath from the well outside because there had been no light the night before and no way to pump water. You felt apologetic and ashamed when you saw him wrestling with two big iron buckets but you did not apologise for the night before. You honestly disliked Felicia and you hated the fact that she used to sleep with poet long before he met you and the insecurity of having them in the same house- in your family house, the insecurity of her still being his friend was doing your head in.
After breakfast, your phone rang. Your mum knew. Your cousin Odinaka had called her to say that you were now a big girl o. That he saw you coming out of the gate of your family house and your mother had to pretend like she had been aware of your trip to the village and that you were staying in the family house. You remember Odinaka because he had been the one sneaking small bags of uncooked rice and raw meat across the fence the day of your grandfather’s burial. He had also been the one picking money at your cousin Adaeze’s wedding and when it was time to count it, his bag of money seemed half as full as what he had packed off the stage.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked silently.
“Because I knew you would have said no” you replied.
“How many of you are there?”
“Four.” You lied. “All girls.”
“It’s not safe. You people need to leave that house today.” She said with an air of finality.
“And go where mummy?”
“Achom ima. I don’t really want to know. All I know is that it is not safe for you girls to be there. Lodge in a hotel. I can call De Chima for you people to stay in his house till tomorrow.” You cringed at the thought of staying at your uncle’s house and inhaling the scent of old age, of otaba, of ginseng and garlic.
“We are not leaving.” You said defiantly
“What do you mean by we are not leaving?” her voice was getting higher.
“We are not leaving. Nothing has happened since we got here.”
“And so what? My friend you-” she said and the phone line cut off. About ten minutes later, she called back but you didn’t pick. She called and called and by 6 in the evening your phone had registered 40 missed calls from her and 10 unread text messages.
You remember seeing your mum’s text saying she had sent De Chima and his sons to check up on you the day after. This was after you eventually left the bathroom. You remember the disappointment etched on your parents face as they drove you to the bus park the next morning. Your mother’s fear had brought her to Owerri to look for you by herself.
It was seven in the evening or so. There was no light. Felicia was making dinner in the kitchen. Again. Ayo and Ope and Eze and the poet were playing Whot. Sukanmi was dozing on the three-sitter. You were smoking weed in silence on the couch. Suddenly you hear banging at the gate. Rapturous banging. Everyone sat straight up and stared at each other in fear and curiosity. Felicia’s head peeked out of the kitchen and she gripped the cooking spoon tightly, “Who is it?” she asked. What if they have come to rob us? What if they have come to kidnap us? What if they have come to use us for ritual? The questions lay heavy in everyone’s eyes. You make for the stairs and everyone scurries after you. You run, swinging the rechargeable lamp and Sukanmi bumps into you, still sleepy. You decide that the safest place to hide is your father’s room but the key to the door is downstairs in the kitchen cabinet so you tell everyone to stand still and you run back down to the kitchen letting the adrenaline and the sway of the high you are slowly experiencing lead you. The stew Felicia was making is bubbling on the cooker but you are too high and too distracted by searching for the keys to turn it off. You retrieve all the house keys and run back upstairs. The banging stops as you get to the top landing and you sigh in relief. You throw all the keys on the floor like dice and begin searching each paper tape tag for the one that carries the word MASTER on it.
As you are searching, the banging continues again in full earnest, like the person banging had stopped to go get reinforcement. Electricity comes back on and the sharp reinstating of light makes your teeth chatter and you glance at the undeniable fear on the faces of the others. You open the door and everyone bundles into the room and picks different places to hide. You hear someone wrestling with the chain on the gate and ask “Onye no ebe a? Who dey here?” but you do not recognise the voice. You hear another person by the mango tree that sits close to the window of your dad’s room and you motion for everyone to enter the bathroom…
WE HAVE BEEN SENT BY THE LAGOS STATE GOVERNMENT TO SHUT DOWN THIS PLACE DOWN. EVERYBODY GET UP!
Your head feels packed with too many happenings, too much light, too much information. It feels like a too realistic bout of sleep paralysis. You are still in the bathroom hiding with the others but you are in the Nostalgia Cafe and DSS Agents are shouting for all of you to get up and leave and you can see Eze asking one of them something and you can feel tangible fear in the poet’s breath as it heats the back of your neck and you can see Eze falling to the ground and hear the banging on the gate of the village house and it is like moments before orgasm when you know that something is coming but you have to remain patient to experience it. One of the DSS agents is flipping chairs over and another is pulling out wires and grabbing laptops. An old man is crawling on the ground because his glasses have fallen off and he is trying to find it and you are running down the steps of CCHub with the Cafe’s remembering device still stuck to your chest and then you remember whispering so loud that everyone hiding in the bathroom could hear, you remember rambling, you remember saying to the poet, this is all your fault, this is all your fucking fault. Doyin was so right, you are a waste of time and we are in this mess because of you, this is all your fucking fault. You are a waste of space and that is why your mum left. That is why your mum fucking left.
You remember the merciless pounding on the gate and the silence with which he took your abominations and the sound of the guns as they blast in the Cafe behind you takes on a sordid melody. And so the banging, the gunshot, the chaos around you moves with the beating of your heart, with the beating of your collective hearts as you run down the stairs and into the street.
Ifeoma Nnewuihe is a Christian and a writer. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria.
Twitter and medium- thouartifeoma
This entry appeared in The Memory Issue