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I Cover You With The Blood Of Me

A demon came into my mother when I was seven… I knew it was a demon because she had changed. She was now shouting at father when father shouted at her and yanked her hair; she was not crying and begging and hiding in my room again.

I think I liked her begging and hiding, because that was quieter; at least father would go out of the house after standing for about ten minutes outside my door, and would come back late at night or the next morning.

I liked  the hiding also because she fell asleep in my room every time, stroking my head and telling me “sorry”, like I was the one crying and in pain, till we both fell asleep. I never cried; she always did, but I loved the silence and hiding.

I used to try not to think then, whenever his shouting began; I just listened for mother’s cries and pleas and opened my door a crack, waiting for her to run in so I could lock the door and father could go out.

I was used to the pattern, and it seemed alright because, surely, mother must have been always doing something bad for father to always be handling her like that. Certainly, father’s a good man, and wouldn’t just be punishing mother for no reason. I learnt from that time that evil was evil, and good needs to punish evil, and I believed I knew the difference.

The demon came after she had been listening to all those things on TV about how a woman was this and that and bla and the other bla. She had also made a friend in a newneighbour whose perfume always brought out hands to squeeze my neck, and whose makeup gave me nightmares at night. I hated her so, and when mother would take me visiting with her, I was disgusted by the rolls of flesh on her neck, and I imagined how much father would hate her too because he was always telling mother, who had bones all over her body, that he hated the small jutting of her stomach, and that she had to do something about it because it irritated his very spirit.

  I liked that I knew father would hate this woman just by looking at her, and I knew he would be right in his “hating” because she talked too much, and made mother laugh too loud. I was not used to how she was making mother feel.

The demon came five months after the evil woman came to live near us, and it manifested itself when father sought to punish mother, surely for an evil again.

But mother did not beg or come to hide so we could sleep and know she had been cleansed for that day. No; mother talked to father in “Englishes” I didn’t even know were in her head and stomach. He was yanking her hair, and she was still talking and not begging.

That day, I locked the door and cried myself to sleep, because I felt sorry that an irremovable evil had entered her now, and would definitely not succumb to father’s purging, and would surely damage her.

I didn’t want mother to be damaged, but I felt she would be, because that’s what demons did to people. I knew our neighbour was responsible for mother’s demon, but then, father couldn’t go to another woman’s house to cleanse her of evil so that she could come and talk or laugh the demon out of mother.

The demon manifested itself two or three more times, and then the house began to grow silent…

Father did not rid mother of evils, and she too, could not manifest any demon again.

I did not like the silence; I still am not used to it after these two years.

I want the normalcy of the sounds of mother being cleansed I am used to.

Maybe I will just grow older and create the sounds that I now miss so much… Yes, that’s what I will do – I will take over from father and be a cleanser.

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Leave, Or Don’t Live

I have six siblings, and we sleep in the same small, hot room with just a window facing another house.

Mother is pregnant again, and I am wondering where they will put the baby, because there really is no more space. There isn’t even any space enough to fart without fearing someone will get cancer from inhaling the stench. But as usual, “God gives children; He will take care of them”, is what I hear till my brain boils and dries and then sizzles.

Mother looks frail and sickly, and that is not only because of the pregnancy, but also because father is a poor farmer, and the oil pollution in our community stunts the growth of his crops and also makes getting fish in the river difficult.

Our whole life stinks, and it is not only the oil and deadness of the water that causes it, but the fact that we are just too wretched.  The poverty stinks from the inside out, and when I look at our cracked mirror, the image I see is distorted and ugly like there’s a cruel artist inside me with the power to paint repulsive things to be seen on the outside. I know what that painter looks like…it’s been with me, with us, all our lives.

There is never enough of anything, the topmost of that being “food”. We are too “plural”; the food is too “singular”.

We always eat in silence, with veins coming out of our necks and heads because we are angry at the food…at everything. But my own veins are usually longer, stronger and darker because I am the angriest.

I am the eldest child. I see things more deeply, and understand night sounds more clearly than my siblings. The hardons that come with the nocturnal sounds don’t make me think of pleasure; they make me think of murder…Or suicide.

I blame my father silently for multiplying children thoughtlessly. I see the way we suffer, and it breaks my heart. The country is almost like a shattered glass; our region with its pollution, like broken pottery—why should we too be a sad combination of both? Why shouldn’t he be wise and leave God out of his stupidity!

Oh, my veins get as fat as poles many times.

Mother delivers triplets one midnight, and they look very hungry even as they suckle her shrivelled breast. I see as father looks like he wants to die.

We are 10 in the small, airless house now.

When we wake up the next day, father is nowhere to be found. There is no food to cook for the night; so starving and silent, we wait for him to come back.

But father never comes back.

I do not tell mother I am going away when I leave two days later; I just go.  I don’t even think.

If life is good to me, I might come back for all of them. But…where and how will life be good—I wonder, as I walk towards the bank laced with boats ready to take me over the oil-coloured water—when I am carrying the artist I have known my entire life inside me?

But I don’t look back. The artist and I enter the boat. I only hope to drop it somewhere inside the coloured water before I get to…wherever.

If the “it” is gone before I get to “where”, I might be able to become a whole and beautiful “him”. I might be able to get a life.

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Owl From The Dark (3)

I didn’t know where I would go to, a boy of sixteen, just done with secondary school, but I knew that I had to go.

I also knew—from the words of my darling woman on the radio talking about the Big Men that took our money and resided in the city—that the city was a viable option, if not the only one. I would go to the place where the rich people lived. I would go and understand how the brain of the rich people worked, at least. I would go and save my life from being sucked in and under by the thing that had gripped the rest of my family and would not let go. It seemed stupid to run away from a place one was almost becoming comfortable in, not knowing life anywhere else. Yet comfort was a luxury, one that cannot coexist with poverty.

I wanted to fly, and I surely couldn’t do that, remaining on the tree I had slept in all night long while other owls, like the nocturnal beings they were created to be, had ventured out.

There was a difference I needed, something I had to do, a place I had to get to, and I could only do all this and more if I ventured out into the world in the day, forgetting—choosing to forget—the fact that I was not used to this enterprise I was venturing into; choosing to neglect the voices of ancestors and families past, telling me, reminding me, that we were never meant to come out into the light, that it was the tradition to let ourselves be sucked into the darkness—that of starvation and degradation, of poverty and nothingness, until we died, achieving nothing, being nothing, our lives gone into the blackness of the night, because it was a tradition for our lives to be alive only in darkness.

But I was tired of the tradition of darkness and how long it had to last based on someone else’s timing; based on my environment’s comfort with stagnancy.

I wanted to be an owl of all hours. I wanted to be free to do and be with no rules for activity or rest, but mine. I wanted to be able to take charge of the light, and also own the darkness. I wanted my being me to work for me in all the ways I wanted me to be me. I chose to go. I had to go.

So, after one year—a year of much change and learning and growth—I have come back. But none of them has thought to ask me the most important question in the past hour they have been making such a fuss. None of them has thought to ask me why. It isn’t crossing their minds that there is a reason behind every action, every thought, and every life. They are not thinking to ask, and so I will not tell them.

But I know it in my heart that going out had been my best bet.

I had found someone to attach myself to in the city, learning to make clothes. And for one year, I have been seeing, firsthand, that not everyone in the city is a Big Man. Many of them are people me and like my family whom life gave the coarse side of the rope; but they, as opposed to us, had taken that rope and fine-tuned it into something better, something more profitable. I have seen in the past year what I knew as I left the village: it seems easier to settle for the norm, the rubbish, the darkness that life has put you into; but it takes purpose, a reason, a need for something to come out of that place and venture into the light that nature seemed to have been keeping from you, and go ahead to take that something you have left your sleeping-tree to achieve.

So I feel like a bird now as I watch them jaw-jaw: the owl, the unusual kind, most definitely. I have seen the light, and it is beautiful and foretells of more pleasant things to come.

They think I am tired and have come back to perch on a tree and wait for darkness to crawl in, but I am a different being now—a man on a mission, a mission that requires light so I can see enough to attain that something they have been wishing for all their lives. But I am not wishing—I am taking—and that is the reason why I left my home in the first place.

 They are still talking and jeering. The sun is starting to go down, and now I know it is time to declare my reason for coming back.

“I have come to take Boma with me to the city,” I say, raising my voice above their noise.

They all stop talking at once. You can hear a leaf flutter to the ground. And then, as suddenly as the silence had descended, it lifts again, with a flutter of questions from every angle. Pastor is silent, though. He meets my eye, and I nod. He, only, understands.

I ignore their questions and look on as the darkness – the darkness I had escaped from –  gradually descends.

The End

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Owl From The Dark (2)

My senior brothers and sisters were being sucked into the vagueness along with Papa.

The oldest one, my twenty-one-year old brother at the time, was usually nowhere to be found, and his name was always mentioned in things that had to do with the theft of people’s yams and goats. Sometimes I wondered why he didn’t put his criminal mind to better use. If he wanted to steal for a living, at least he should be doing it with a bit of prestige and worth—what exactly would the thievery of goats and yams add to his miserable life?

The twin sisters, who came after the food-thieving brother, now talked about nothing but marriage. It was clear that they had both lain to rest the passion and hope they had had of studying Medicine. It had always been their waking desire and sleeping dreams—I know it. I recall those times when we were younger and they played “Nurse” in all those childish dramas we put up that had no defined script or directing, just like the life we lived. But we didn’t know that then. We were only children, innocent and naive, and were permitted to dream dreams bigger than our head; somehow, we managed to carry them without our necks squashing and our bodies crashing down…Until we didn’t anymore.

Timi, the boy after the twins, got a bit of sense to start learning the art of shoe making, and before long, he had carried Tari—the boy before me—along with him. So the two of them seemed to be doing something with their lives; something very useful, at least. But they lived in this same place we all lived in, where dreams are born to die, and so the spirit of the place caught up with them. Soon, they also reeked of alcohol and started to abandon their dreams.

So things were falling apart. Everyone was trying to hold the pieces of their lives together the best way their weary bodies and souls allowed them to.

With Papa hardly around, and Mama caught up with her bouts of crying and sickness and fatigue, and my older siblings being short of giving up on life altogether, my junior sister and I were mainly forgotten and left to our own devices, or to those of our personal angels—if they too hadn’t turned their backs on us, that is. My sister was five years younger than me, and so I took responsibility for her life.

Episode 4

Seeing the way things were going and how we were all being sucked in by the filth and rot and poverty in the place our ancestors had come to settle, I slept at night not knowing what was in this life for me. But I knew I wanted more. I wanted to be better, to be different; different from the rest. I wanted to be better than what I had seen unfolding before my very eyes daily. So I began to read harder and to listen to the woman on the radio with keener ears. Above all, I thought deeper, asking myself questions I didn’t have answers to yet.

I knew I couldn’t sit and wait for chance to find me in this home where everything was falling apart and no one expected anything good anymore, but one particular day made the knowledge come like an awakening. It was one night after I had listened to my woman crush on the radio, and my hand had travelled down and my body had jerked and spilled, and I had gotten up to go wash my hand in our unsophisticated toilet. Somehow, I had come back to the sleeping mat angry, very angry. And I knew why—I was tired, very tired!

And then, there was also that thing I had caught Mama’s pastor doing to my eleven-year-old sister when she had gone to him to ask for money for food. She was hungry and there was no one at home—no one was ever home again because there was no home to call home. I had been taking extra classes at school because my final examinations were just days away.

When I got to the house, she wasn’t there; she wasn’t at neighbours’ houses either, so I went looking for her. My legs somehow led me to my mother’s pastor’s church; why, I might never know.

I had never liked mama’s Pastor. There was always something about his eyes and speech that annoyed my spirit. So I didn’t go to her church even though she always tried to turn my not going into a cold war with emotional blackmail as her major weapon.

He talked too much too—that was another thing I realized about him. I hated people who believed they had all the answers for things based on just what they knew. Pastor James was fond of condemning people to hell on the pulpit in the name of preaching, probably because he felt he was the only “holy” one.

But my mother adored him as if he were the love of her life, the kind of love she sought from her husband, most definitely. She adored him too much; she was blind to the invisible thing I didn’t know how to define but felt within me against him. But her loving and trusting him so much, so that she cried her problems out to him weekly, did nothing to change the ‘shiftiness’ in his eyes and awkwardness in his mannerisms that I never missed.

So when I walked into the sight of him at his small church, lifting the skirt of my perplexed-looking sister, trying to put his hand in, somewhere, my heart didn’t stop for too long. A roar escaped my mouth after the first shock, and he froze and jerked up from the chair he was seated on with my sister on his lap. I wondered, as I saw fear and shame intertwine and dart around in his eyes, how stupid and hungry and shameless he was to not have found a more concealed place to demonstrate his madness. But then, he must have believed that nobody would visit the church since it was a weekday; or he had simply been possessed by one of the demons he constantly yelled at and cast out from members of his church.

He stepped back, one foot after the other, scared witless, as I advanced towards him. But, I really had no time for him and his stupid self at the time; I just took the hand of my sulking, silent sister and led her to the door.

He seemed like he wanted to say something to me before we went. I saw his lips move, but I had stared hard at him with eyes that must have spoken volumes, and his mouth clamped shut. I wondered, on the way to the house, what his words would have been—A plea? An excuse? A bargain? A spiritual threat, perhaps? But, his words didn’t matter, just as he himself didn’t. I just wished Mama would see it and know it.

On the day my exams finished, I packed a small bag and left the dilapidated place that had been my home for all the days of my life hitherto. I left and never looked back, except to turn into Pastor James’ parsonage to threaten the living lights out of him. He must have seen seriousness in my eyes and felt guilt in his heart such that he nodded his head, rather quickly, to my truce: he would keep his bug-ridden hands off my sister, and I would not tell the whole village that he fingered little girls for a hobby.

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Owl From The Dark (1)

They are all sneering and jeering—they do not understand. These people that call themselves my family know absolutely nothing about the me they create conferences for, and table for talk. All of them are blabbing now, and I am just sitting and watching them, thinking thoughts initiated by the happenings of yesterday.

It was last year I packed my small kaya and moved out of the house I had been living in with my parents and seven siblings—the house that had been the entirety of my existence. It was like I was choking in that place, crowded daily by family looking just as hopeless as I felt, and going to bed just as hungry as I was. I was living with my family, but it had felt like being incarcerated with inmates, all of us guilty of some horrendous crime or other.

Now, these people are saying it is not right to leave one’s home no matter what, but where do I begin explaining it to them? I do not know how to let them see that it was not the lack of space, or hunger, that drove me away, but something deeper than that; something that surpassed the needs of my body; something that had looked into my soul and seen that my spirit would soon die if I had to keep living my life like I did, no other way but like that.

The thing is Papa, who is shouting his lungs out now, has no clue. Mama who has cried till her throat is now grating with dryness, does not understand. For Pastor James, he knows better than to look me in the eye with this his talk of God knows how to care for those who ask of Him, if they can just be patient. He is murmuring his plenty words because Mama invited him to the meeting, but I am glad he knows that he is an idiot, and deserves to be burnt the way the Sodom and Gomorrah he often scares people with had been. He knows, and because I am the only one present here that knows with him, he can’t talk past his throat as I deride him with my stares. For the uncles and aunties that were invited, I care less for their speeches; neither do I give a moment’s thought to the amebo family friends and neighbours that are honouring an uninvited invitation to come and hear stories—my story, that is.

I long to tell them, to make them feel what I had felt, what had been running through my mind that day last year, when I was only sixteen, and had finally made the decision that I would leave. Oh, I want to shout back at them and tell them, all of them, to shut their mouths and cover their faces in shame for us even having a cause to be holding this kind of meeting in the first place. I mean…Why are we here? Why ever should we be here, talking of these things?

There is so much to say, but I won’t say so much as even a little. But my thoughts go back to yesterday, and I indulge my mind’s flight back to it, leaving these people in my present to continue with their theories and criticisms about something they know nothing about.

Papa was never at home when we woke up to Mama’s swipes with a wrapper, indicating our day had started. And we seldom were awake when he came back at night from wherever it was that he worked, bringing nothing home, nothing but a worn-out face, stress-induced irritation, and mounting complaints about how he could die soon from having so much to do and so little to eat. When he complained like that, my sisters and brothers, the five of them older than me, would turn their faces away, indicating that they had shut the ears of their minds from his words, and were nursing the anger in their hearts at not having enough to eat themselves.

 But I was different. When Papa complained, I would re-evaluate our situation, think deeply, and try to decide if I should pity Papa or not. Most times, hearing things from our battered radio that we had to hit before it worked, I would almost cry for Papa.

Times were hard and money was harder to come by. We lived in the village, and food, satisfying food, was always a luxury because the land yielded close to nothing, and the river and creeks were dead too.

It’s the oil…

Oil was destroying everything: Land, water, the air, people…it was all being sullied and swallowed up by oil. And, we were swallowed up by tales of Big Men in the city, who we knew about only through our nearest-to-death radio. The woman who usually read the seven PM news, with the sweet voice that would resound in my head all night so I wouldn’t be able to sleep till day break, made us know that people were protesting against these Big Men that stole the country’s money and sent it abroad along with their children who schooled there. She would also tell of the boys from the creeks that blew up all things blow-up-able, so as to pass on a message to these big men in the city, and to the world at large. It was a message laden with the hunger, the deprivation, the abuse, and the anger the region felt for being used and forgotten like a toothpick. But beyond that, I knew, even as I would ruminate upon the woman’s voice at night and sometimes find my hand straying to my privates, that the message also carried with it the perplexities in my heart.

With every voice that spoke out against the greed, wickedness and corruption of our leaders, was my voice, unheard, as it may seem, telling the world that I never got to see my father happy and contented because his farm yielded nothing, his nets caught only oil films on the water, and the menial jobs he did could hardly get us through the weekly feeding.

With every pipeline blown up was the angry outburst I sent to the world, telling it of the bitter things that rose to my throat as I watched my mother’s perpetually tired frame, evidence of her aging before her time, because there was so much to worry about and so little to use in fuelling the body and mind that performed the task.

With the kidnapping of foreign oil expatriates by the creek boys, I whispered to whoever was on the other side, the way I felt when I looked at my siblings and me, wondering and asking what the future held for us. None of my seniors had furthered their education beyond the free Community Secondary School they attended, and which I was now attending, and which my sister after me would attend. I often wondered what the point was in schooling at all since we would all stop at the same spot, not able to go further, simply because we had nothing, nothing at all but oil destroying Papa and Mama and all of us—destroying everything.

So I pitied Papa at times. What could a man do when it was as if all of creation was fighting against his full destiny and that of his generations unborn?

But then, at other times, I didn’t think to pity Papa. I didn’t because I knew—we all knew—that it wasn’t only his menial jobs that kept him out late at night. No one said anything, but we knew from the strong smell of alcohol that reeked in the house when we woke up in the morning. And then there was that thing of Mama crying when she thought we were asleep, asking God to kill the other her that would not leave her poor husband alone. Her husband was poor, alright, but his mistress was definitely poorer than him, because he seemed to get some from her every other day.

There were a lot of things this degraded place, this place that I call home, did to people. My father was so spent and frustrated by this place that only alcohol and rounds with a whore could save him from strolling into the river to never come out again. For me, I didn’t know, yet, what it would take for me not to run mad with the bleakness I saw before my eyes and experienced as my life as I awoke to each stretched out, depraved day.

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Green, White, Plain

One of us fell into the gutter on our way back home. He heard the familiar sound above and looked up to watch the bird, and imagined the rich that must be in it until he fell clear into a gutter with stagnant water.

He looks so filthy and all now. There is a smutch of green on his white uniform, making  Ehim look like a flag, a flag of beauty smeared with a small but wide patch of something that should be good(since spirogyra is a useful part of the plant system) but has turned out bad.

I lead us to our community like that, with the joy of going to find our mothers and food.

But our mothers are all seated on the platform, with a few of our fathers, on plastic chairs; all looking somehow.

I go to my mother and ask her what is wrong. I look around the platform again. “Where is Iya Risi?”

When my mother starts to wail, and other women follow, I know what has happened. I just know, and I leave the jetty and our community and run away…I just run, air filling my lungs till I can’t breathe well, and I start to feel like I will fly like the planes we trail with our eyes. I know it can’t change anything, but I keep running.

Mr. Tunde brings me back home around “radio time”. Only my mother really notices and doesn’t even have the strength to scold me well.

The children have joined them too on the platform, looking morose and old and hopeless. I hear Iya Risi’s wailing voice inside, and other consoling voices.

No radio is on.

Mr. Tunde sits with me on one side of the platform, our legs dangling over the smelly water.

“Her baby just started to crawl,” I suddenly say.

“Hope you aren’t one of those who would blame it on the parents?” He asks.

I look at him. “I am sure most of us do but never say it out for anyone to hear. We act as one in this place.”

“The poverty and degradation binds you.”

“Yes.”

“How many have fallen into the water like that?”

“About 5, I think.”

“Then why don’t you people do something about the water?”

I look at him.

“Maybe for this, you all should stop playing the victim card to the environment and government and whatever, and just try to do something worthwhile to change something.”

“Can anything change?” I wave my hand across the water and the platform.

“It’s where you are. You might not be able to fix Nigeria and its problems, but you can change where you are so you can, at least, struggle to survive better there.”

I look at him again. “After all, we are all just struggling to survive…” I say it like it is my own revelation.

“You function as one here—that’s a great power available that you all haven’t harnessed. If this community was Nigeria, it would have sorted out its problems by now.”

“But the whites are part of our problems.”

“I never taught you that.”

I am confused.

My head and stomach ache…

I wonder if it is from hunger or the fact that everything about Mr. Tunde is always so contradictory.

But I can’t ask him to go over school lessons here.

“Talk to your mother tomorrow when she has finished crying; tell her to tell everybody that it is time for solutions.”

My head continues to ache, and now, I know it’s from thinking too many things at once.

“But, sir…what is the thing you want us to do when we see whites and planes?”

He looks hard at me and my soul… “Tell them ‘bye-bye’, and really face your own business!”

Someone puts on the radio…

The news is over; a woman is singing the national anthem.

I look at the white stars and green trees—I can’t really see—and imagine Lilian Williams and Benedict Odiase talking in a plane…

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Green, White, Plain

He looks like he was smuggled in from a zoo where he was the baboons’ interpreter, given an excellent brain (maybe for the fun of an experiment), and then driven into our school to show just how one shouldn’t judge a man’s knowledge by his appearance.

His name is Tunde -Tunde Jenrola.

He really looks like the baboon’s interpreter with his high afro and bent shoulders, and perpetual faded, inappropriate clothes, and the rubber fishing boat of a thing he calls a shoe.

He is so constant in the way he looks that even the shadow of his absence is familiar to everyone—whatever that means.

I wish he had taught me all my life and not just in this last Primary school year..

When I close my eyes and picture God, I think of him as the one standing next to Him, writing down the list of noisemakers on the earth.

The relationship between us is quite intriguing; almost gay, in fact—if you look at it from a certain perspective. But from my perspective, I am just the student who is quite interested in things, and he is just the shabby teacher who is very interested in students who are interested in things.

So we are friends in a kind of way.

Today, as he comes into the class just after we all chatter ourselves in from assembly, I see, again, that part of his constantly present presence is his frailness, the one that joins with his dead clothes to make you believe that his brain too must be begging for help, must be seeking to escape from a certain mental awkwardness. But we…I know him. I know how rich and beautifully dressed his mind is, and it irks me some that those who don’t will think he has nothing to offer.

I watch him move across the class and sit his stooping form in a chair. The class is silent by now, of course. He never canes us, but then maybe we are all so scared of him appearing in our dreams to scare us, that we behave like we have sense around him.

I watch him arrange his table systematically and carefully, the way he always does. I am not quick enough in the business like my mother, and so he catches my eye before I can move them to my board.

He holds my eyes and “speaks” to them. My heart skips a bit, and I stand and move to him.

I stand before his ironically beautiful face and say,”I am sorry, sir, but I couldn’t do the assignment.”

He nods slowly. “Did you think about it?”

His voice is like music—another irony—and I wish he would just start teaching us social studies or whatever so I can melt into its rhythm while he feeds our minds.

I can feel various pairs of eyes on my back now.

“Yes, sir… But how can I possibly know what Nigeria’s problem is?”

It sounds like I am mocking him with his questions, but I really am just being honest. I hear a snigger and a chuckle, and then the silence lifts until there is a din of whispering voices that turn into background noise…steady, undistracting, mature background noise.

Mr Tunde is looking into my soul, I am sure. The noise behind us is like a wall; it shields us and our discussion in—I feel good already. My tongue feels freed.

“What is my problem?”

My heart begins to race again. “I don’t understand, sir”

“You do. Why do I appear the way I am?”

I am silent.

“Does the way I appear have anything to do with what I know…what I can offer?”

“No. On the contrary, you are the most intelligent person I have ever met. Your mind is so rich and…”

“Ah ha! That means you believe there is a problem with me and the way I appear.”

I am silent again.

“Now, see me as Nigeria. What is my problem?”

My tongue gets on its marks…

“You don’t have constant light and water and good health care…” My head swims. “Food is not enough and there is so much money you hear about but don’t see. And there is so much you want to do but can’t because your environment is flooded and dirty and limiting and…” I look at his eyes. “There is too much you see but can’t change.”

His eyes stay on mine for a while, and then he smiles. I see his rotten tooth. “You just described Nigeria as me…and you. Mostly, you, though.

“But everything shouldn’t be all negative. I have good things aside my problem, right? What are they? What have we?”

“You have the greatest teaching skills on Earth; you have knowledge beyond compare…” My voice sinks. “You have too much to give with no adequate space for you than this.” I wave my hand across the classroom.

“Nope…No negative notes. What are the blessings you have?”

I rack my head a little, then I find.

“I have a great, doting mother; I have a community that helps me through my fatherlessness; I have friends that value what I have… I have a great teacher.”

He smiles. “Good. We must count our blessings to really live. We are really all just trying to survive in this country, and that’s why the place is as it is.

“Let me tell you what those people did apart from colonizing us – oh, alonside, actually—they colonized our minds with our own feelings of nostalgia, contempt and hatred for them, so that when they left us to ourselves, we couldn’t function without division and greed and corruption and what not. We are all just trying to grab as much as we can carry, because our minds are so bugged by the ills we believe we have.

“So, if they had stayed, we would still be crying—maybe another kind of tears—but much sweeter than this, I continue to believe… Maybe we would have been one in suffering and nationalism, at least.”

I want to ask him what can be done about the problem now—that’s the question, right? But he has already dismissed me and turned to the class.

“When did Nigeria gain Independence?”

“October 1st, 1960,” we chorus.

“What do you do when you see a white person or a plane now?”

“Stare at it,” some of us answer while the rest giggle.

He doesn’t ask “why”; he just smiles and looks at me.

“Are you truly free?”

The giggles stop. They look confused.

I answer “no” in my mind.

“Did the whites cause the wars Nigeria had?”

“No!” They chorus.

“But they prepared us for it,” I say when they are done, and look at Mr Tunde. I know they are all staring at me because I sound dumb, but I glory in how he looks at me, a knowing smile on his lips. “Our minds were prepared for it.”

“Is Nigeria independent?” He asks again.

“Yes,” they chorus.

His eyes are on mine

“What do you do when you see a white person or a plane?”

The giggling again…

The chorus comes…”We stare at them!”

His eyes never leave mine…

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Story Line

Once Bitten, Twice A Story

The oyinbos are every Nigerian child’s god. Well, maybe not all Nigerian children, but then, it is “unNigerian” to see an oyinbo and not stand and stare and point. That is how much damage we…I have been born into.

Oh, we stare too long and get madly excited at the sight of a plane too—the one that looks more like a bird in the sky. We run around and sing for it—or the people in it; the oyinbos we believed are in it, we don’t know which, but the bird in the sky really always gets us worked up.

As a child in Lagos, in the ghetto part of Lagos, anything other than the filth, and makeshift substitutes for the expensive, fascinates us to the point where we fell into clogged and smelly gutters just from looking; dreaming hasn’t even thought to enter the equation yet.

Our bodies have grown resistant to the contaminated water sold in sachets; the mosquitoes feasting on our bodies nightly, because we practically live on water, water that rarely goes down and whose origin is untraceable, the unbalanced, insufficient meals; and, the heart-breaking  things our parents murmur after they listen to their battered radios at night.

We always sit around them too and listen… It’s night after all, and the oojuju stories and dramas we usher into our plays during the day, rise up in flesh and shadows to haunt our minds at night; so we join the adults to  huddle together at night, listening.

Ours is a community not government made, but circumstances-made. We stay together in moments of joy, usually from the addition of another baby to the poverty stricken condition of a home of seven kids already, all with parents in one shabby room and in moments of mourning which constitutes the death of a child mostly, the cause usually being cholera and diarrhoea; cases of a crawling baby with negligent watchers falling into the water and drowning after a heavy rainfall.

Our little community of batcher houses is built with planks leading from the houses’ entrances, to a platform raised above the water; to which the planks are nailed. The batchers are built close to each other, and in something of a circular fashion.

The middle ground where the planks meet on the wide, firm platform is fondly called the “T” junction, and most times serves as jetty for us the children, and a meeting ground for the adults.

We all listen to the radio at night, it is somewhat like an unwritten constitution of our unfounded communit, we even tagged it “radio time”. Our mothers serve the night meals thirty minutes before it begins, so that we have eaten by then, and the fear of ojuju  has come on all the children, and fathers’ have turned the radio up, causing every human and ghost to go silent and listen.

The way the radio solely talks on in the still night, the lone voice being harmonized by nocturnal creatures, and the occasional sounds of disgust and anger and amusement from our parents, is something beautiful to reckon with.

“Radio time” is wonderful, but it is how it leaves our parents that causes us the psychological disturbances we don’t even understand, but get nightmares from when we go to bed with the mosquitoes and horrible smell.

They told us in our overcrowded class that Nigeria gained independence in 1960, the month and date are unimportant, but then, what I think… What I believe the teacher means, is that one woman who had been giving orders from somewhere far away just came for tourist attraction, with flowers in hand, to shake us and tell us “we are on our own now”. Words are cheap; smiles can be cheaper, and so we never should have taken her words to heart, and never should have rejoiced at their prospects either.

They say we clamoured for the Independence…that our nationalism fathers, who were the true leaders, wanted Nigeria to be able to rule itself and have its opportunity to do as it would And so they fought with pens and swords and the white lady came to shake our hands.

But then, years have passed, and there are talks of the mistake Nigeria made by seeking to be autonomous, and it is as if we the children understand the entire delapetic state of things, because when we chance upon those white people reddening under our hot, black sun, and hear those planes flying over our heads, we get this frenzied excitement and…and…curiosity, as if, via the spiritual eyes they say we young ones have, we can discern that we want to be controlled all over again, so that the thieves at least will not be our own black-skinned brothers we trust; so that all our energy can be channelled again at what we will again regard as the “cruelty of outsiders”. It’s as if we know, in my opinion that an outsider killing you is better, and less pathetic, and more “fightable” than when it is your in-house person that should know better.

So we watch these whites and the planes, with a feeling of nostalgia, almost, like we know about the perfect and sweet life we believe they must have just by being white, and  in a plane….we get excited and don’t see the glances we receive from their red faces, faces that wear pity unashamedly, and let you see that you were pitied.

But we never care….I never do, anyway. Mama says you have nothing to close your eyes for when you are naked before a world you need to and can beg for help.

Our parents don’t think about British imperialism, or how much it clouds both our individual and national lives.

We…I don’t really blame them for not thinking any of our issues has something to do with the white folks that had come, gone and now came again to see how good or bad a job they had done in leaving us alone to our devices.

We don’t blame them because we know that many of them did not have a chance to learn… Like, learn completely in a complete system, absolute with a widely read and thinking teacher; classmates that talk and learn; an environment that lets them think and question. We realize they didn’t really learn, because it shows in their behaviour. It’s in the way they blackmail us into doing their bidding; in the way our mother’s keep being very petty; and most of all, it’s evident in the way our fathers crowd the radios grey hairs, casting silhouettes of wonderment and fear on all our souls.

Our fathers fear what they don’t know the tomorrow that’s bleak, and the painful thoughts that cannot be shed in tears. We fear not what they fear, but; who they have become with all this the silent, brooding, rigid beings poverty and frustration has made them.

The next day, I wait at the T junction for the other kids, so that we can go to school…or better put so I can lead them to school.

I am a kid like the other kids, but then, the adults have decided amongst themselves, at a time and date we definitely will never know, that my own “kidness” is ten times more mature than all of theirs put together. I don’t know if it is because I always come first in class even though the stomach I take to school is always just as half-empty as theirs, and the number of my books are just as incomplete as theirs or because I do pretty much too much for my 11 years.

They catch me reading all the time; not my books, of course. I borrow books a lot and spend half the time I should be using to jump off our jetty with the others, pouring over them.

They like the way I talk too. They say I bring out the words from somewhere in my body, the way the white people, they chance upon once in a while, do. They say the words I know are too much and too big for the black, poor head I have. They say the kind of head I have should be for the white people of course who all must be rich.

I never argue with them or correct all their misconceptions about why I am the way I am or how, contrarily, the whites can be, or how we actually could be living our lives, even though we had almost nothing.

I am still a child anyway no matter how much sense or “adultness” they say I have. A child is always a child, and should learn to shut up at certain times this is another unspoken or written constitution.

So I stand on our jetty and wait for children like me who I am being made to shepherd, like they are nothing but sheep under my authority, like I am their president.

 I wait on the jetty and look down at the water, until I hear a sound above me. I know what it is even before I look up. Sure to it, when I look up, there it is a metallic bird in the air carrying people I imagine are white-skinned and rich… I have listened to it too much, that I now think it too.

What more, I imagine them looking down at our community floating on water, and laughing long and hard at the farce we call a country.

I imagine, until I begin to laugh with them too.

I laugh and wait…

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