Tenant in the City By Clarius Ugwuoha
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Tenant in the City
By Clarius Ugwuoha
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Click here if you'd like to exchange critiques
- The houses have deserted their occupants
The road runs faster than the traveller!
If you sit in the shade of a Neame tree one tired afternoon towards evening, my story is at once the salubrious breeze and the bumblebee that alerts you in all directions. It begins from the day before my departure from Lagos. For several months, I have flirted with the idea. Now I have made up my mind: leave Lagos. Leave the city, Lagos, which is where I have been for almost two decades and which has almost become another home? Yes. The tortoise does not cast off his shell when the weather is hot, he simply changes environment!
I can make nothing of the world around me, this feeling that I am tucked in the wrong corner of it. There are better ways of correcting a mistake but not certainly with another, probably worse and gnawing greedily in the fabric of the society.
The recent increase in fuel price is one too many and has shifted the equilibrium of the city to the far left. My landlady, Madam Onita Imran, whom we call Iya ibeji, taking cue, has also increased her rent twofold. I can easier afford to die than to cope. I have to trek to work in Apapa, between it and my apartment, two hot and sweaty miles of jumping out of the path of molue buses. And once out of this enervating exercise is the leather factory where, in the words of workers, you are milked dry and given a quaff of water in return. It gets me down.
Across from the factory, towards Yaba Road, is the humid whiff of the city. If you face up north, to your left is the mainland and to your right the island. Where the other is the exact opposite, the mainland is a bad piece of poetry, which I encounter everyday with all concentration, read and digest it piecemeal, fretting out odds and ends of meanings. Afterwards, I will think back and disgorge -- every bit of it.
Sometimes, in the dusty, chaotic atmosphere I have the feeling that time and space have shrunk into one instantaneous moment of lies, bribes, sweaty touts and louts weeding acres of human cassava fields; the truly disorienting noise is one thing.
Back at home, is the children, underfed with sickly, watery eyes, running nose and protruding abdomen. I sweep the room with my eyes. The upholstery chairs are laddered up. As if that is not bad enough, the curtains of watered silk are all in rags, monuments of the good old days that mock the present times.
The room? The painting has peeled off and there is this semblance between the walls and the warts of a toad. Algae have colonized a portion of the roof where rainwater shed right through to the floor. And this room is also luxury, now far beyond the income of the occupant.
Only one thing can kill the dream of a man, and that is, suddenly getting too old for one's challenges. So many ideas crowd my mind now .
Every tendon in me is stretched to the breaking point. It is a very tough decision.
I can make nothing of this situation. One of my closest friends, Nwajeihu (not real name) has taken to a shady business, struck it rich and now embarrasses the neighbourhood with his retinue and hangers-on. In a world of zero values, where sense and reason wear into mere appendages of filthy lucre, there is little anybody can do in the face of this. He goes and comes, whips from place to place. His target is a foreigner. I do not know how these victims come to fall prey of his fraud. I can only think that they live in a much more honest world than this.
I am tempted by his successes. The money seems to flow like water. The first quarrel with my wife hurts even now. You see that guy, she tells me, and you are our honest man in a dishonest world. The only handicapped is the sighted in a country of the blind.
I chew her words like bad meat and the tears sting my eyes. I am a stranger in the city. There are so many things I cannot do, and very few I can do. Sit in a rusty, dishonest office to the chorus of ogi, leki and moi-moi sellers below, dead to the pain and agony of choice victims?
No. I am a stranger to the ways of the city. I will sit down later and argue within me that there are more honest people around me than I am willing to admit, that everything is in its proper place, and there is something terribly wrong with my judgment and sense of discerning. That way, I share self-blame and the city makes more sense.
I begin to grow away from my surrounding, like a baby weaned from the mother's breast. Every teething step tells of pain and new mystical understandings. My eyes burn hot and at night the embers will blink in the ceilings. There is no comfort in sight. I will leave the city. It flashes through my mind and cramps it with nostalgia that weary harmattan evening... I remember and I am sorry, how my village has shivered and shaken apart. I am wholly absorbed in that world, the prelude to leaving for the city: If ordinary days are the noise of a market place, this is the full-throated rumbling of an angry sky. I remember it with jolt and recoil.
I shut my face as I think back -- from the dusty recesses of Lagos mainland to the moody atmosphere of the creeks. Images of Nanka, my village, eastwards as you approach the plains of Bukuma, flash through my mind in ebbs and tides.
It comes blurry and dimmer, of a year, so blurred and narrow that my idea of it now is a narrow path, to its sides a rash of bungalows and thatch huts. There is a lofty hill that shelves rapidly towards the stream. From here, Nanka fans out in a narrow path that leads round.
The ideal elder is as gnarled as age and one of indifference, having known much insensitivity, cowed into silence by the levers of power. He talks to his son who cradles a rifle in the creeks and does not heed.
The boy is as slim as if he has been on perpetual fast from birth, you can clearly see that the innocence has fallen off. The girl holds her head high, her wrapper tied high up the shoulder to underline her innocence. May be I am mistaken; she too may also have been dispossessed of that innocence.
I can savour the earthy freshness of the mud hut daubed with uri. I have the notion of mother tall and resplendent in her native adire dress as she sings her evening chores. There is the aura around her of warmth and love and this perpetual tang of birth. I remember that she straps Nnenne, my sibling, taut to her sweaty back with not, as it seemed, an iota of premonition of what is to come.
The warriors of Akoko, a riverside village in our neighbourhood, have always put fingers in the eyes of our clan. There is an adjoining land rich in oil, which they claim is theirs. But grandfather, whom we call Kaka the old one, has always maintained that it is ours, that the Akoko are only greedy warmongers.
I do not understand what it is to be surprised with an attack so thorough and far-reaching as that of the Akoko one afternoon towards evening.
I am out in the field, ambling among the trees, hills and rocks, nature's nakedness that clothes our village. The sun has set by now and it is getting darker with the approaching dusk. I notice some noise and if I have been curious might have saved some lives. But I am entirely swallowed in my world. Undercurrents of violence shimmer.
When I come to I am sorry and confused, forgetting that father did tell me to be on the lookout, that there is tension in the air. My youth and agility are the saving of me. The Akoko run forth like a stream of water down a hill and suddenly descend on our hut raining cudgels, pebbles and what-not upon the thatch, the yam barn, and the mango tree.
Mother has taken off, Nnenne strapped to her back.
I take off. But I can hear, behind me, the clattering and the squawking as our door, struck clean of the hut, falls to a corner, scattering the chickens into the surrounding bush, the sound of leaping feet and cursing and swearing, the shots of bullets which follow on our trail like an approaching rain.
This is the last I remember of that dreadful event which has been overtaken like a giant thorn bush by even more dreadful events.
If there is something in life that makes it less burdensome, it is that aspect that is its resilience.
It is very hard for me to grasp the fact that I can, even in two decades, reorder my mind and think back on Nanka, my village, with something like warmth.. And this is the village, one among others in the Niger Delta of Nigeria, where militias spring up, where underfed youths fast on Indian hemp, puffing defiantly at the society that emasculates and leaves little room for individual attainment, where the fertile soil is washed ashore and the ponds and rivers are polluted, where -- worst of all these -- ignorance reigns.
Yes, I can make a difference.
But I am haunted by the fact that I d o not leave Lagos to the waiting embrace of mother, father or Nnenne whose memories have calcified like a dreadful monument. I can shed as many tears as I can to water those hard and unbearable memories but grief cannot conjure up mother, father or Nnenne where they are in eternal repose.
I am only consoled that it is inevitable, that living kills everyone in the long run independent of our shortcomings and mistakes. It is simply an irrevocable pact with destiny. The goat may cry, yes, the goat may cry, but the knife must find its throat when the owner wills!
Nanka, NIGERIA -
plantain plant may wear rags,
But that does not mean that it is mad
I shake my head in nostalgia. A lot of discomfort is visited upon Lagos and the environs by the fuel price hike. The chorus of children who hawk unguents, a feature of Lagos streets in the harmattan, dies gradually out. The greatest victims -- of course, the greatest victims -- are always the children, who like to hang around street corners treated to the tantalizing smell of delicacies, to a world taken for granted, a childhood world interpolated with illusions and an airy eye view of life.
Even iya ibeji's corner, a very busy eatery where we flock on good days, for local brews and delicacies and where the children have to be prised off the steaming dishes of iyan, amala and ewedu and what else, no longer is crowded. It too has emaciated like a sickly creature. I am stung out of my reverie by the jolt of the bus.
This morning, I take part in a protest over the fuel price hike. At Yaba Square are bonfires and, in the bonfires, the knotted wrath of a dispossessed folk. The ever-thickening crowd that whips from place to place, tears in its trail, finally berths here in Yaba Square. I think this recast lacks theatricality.
From my own socio-economic matrix, I know that more destruction, even in protest of an injustice -- and knowing all too well that this destruction only strikes at the wrong chord -- is counterproductive.
But here, at last, is that version of the protest that every despot must dread. A scruffy figure sidles his way to the dais. His sheer virulence of speech whips the crowd into and out of frenzy. He still reverberates in my full consciousness even as I am on my way out of Lagos in a danfo bus. He is the common man in the street whose oily sweat oils the wheels of state and whose silence is louder than the thundering of the great skies. His echo lives within me. I marvel at that force in words that can whip men into tears or laughter.
I am neatly sliced from the danfo bus that with each jolt rains on us with a pall of dust. It is truly harmattan, and the air is so dry you can hear it crackle. The leaves of the trees are thickly powdered with dust, heavy cakes of which ride mercilessly in the noonday haze. I am reddened all over.
Yes, she is there, my wife, cradling the children to spare them this rain. Ironically, a worse-than-dust rains within them. But she is unable to shield them from this. I blink. How time flies.
The answer to every situation is always there, but you have to search for it. I am leaving Lagos!
Dusk and it is Nanka.
Once is Lagos, now a new world of bitter rediscovery. I feel completely dispossessed -- like a fish out of water.
The first day in my father's deserted homestead of termites and rats is uneventful. The holes in the walls pierce my heart. After dusk is another, and after another, the next -- the ritualistic height of the igwaji, the new yam festival in Nanka.
I can still feel the spastic rattling of the danfo bus, days after I have digested its survival feast. I console myself with blissful thoughts of the igwaji festival that is to come. It will be a blaze of colour. I will wash my tears and confusion in its exuberance.
I am in Nanka not in Lagos. There is a fresh and lucid mentality about everything, so that if I am blindfolded and sent to the same old environment among a different people, I will at once wise up. This is something inexplicable. Whenever Nanka calls to my mind, I have the idea of a bright yellow colour and a goat.
Akoko, in the neighbourhood, for no obvious reason, comes across as a lucid red tree, upon it a thorn.
Lagos is reddish brown.
In Nanka, I am among my people, at last. But quite unsavory is that Nanka has been as stagnant as I who criticize it. It baffles me: Nanka -- rich in oil -- two decades later is without change. There's only the primary health care centre, the only presence of the outside world, submerged in thick spans of bushes. The trees in the forest behind are lush and bend so that their arms embrace the roof of the building. You will have to see them yourself.
The sight of the village is at first unprepossessing. But beyond the huts and bungalows is the natural ambience of the riversides, the stretch of the marshy terrain, pierced through like an arrow by swampy footpaths; the acrid tang of the lime and neame trees, their twigs rustling lazily in the light breeze. All these captivate me. It is like the discovery of a new and strange world pregnant with possibilities.
In the morning, the sun rises from the other end of the sky. At dusk, darkness descends with a heavy thud. This is because of the lofty trees and the dense tangled growth. The trees cast shades far and wide even when the sun is in the centre of the sky, so that when it is down in the horizon, the darkness is thicker than the back of the earthen pot. The homesteads are marked out by the pale rubicund glow of the fibre lamps. There are measured cadences even in the blowing of the breeze. If you put your ears to the chest of the encroaching hills, you will hear the village tick. I look at it and smell, the tangy, orange smell.
There is a wet ferment of drums, flutes and folksongs. The dancers swarm like of bees and wake the earth in clods.
The eldest man in Nanka is the Nwadiali or traditional chief priest and his ritualistic duty it is to usher in the new yam. He arrives, behind him a youth, with the youth a large roast of tuber yam.
I am at last in Nanka, the cultural hub of Nise clan. Words fail me to describe the ensuing scene. I can only marvel at the dazzling blaze of life and warmth, as the excitement fevers, buoyed through the sand and dust, the shouts and handclaps. A young man weaves his way through into the centre of the sweaty crowd, shut in by eyes, by dust and voices. He is decked in traditional war garb, omu leaves clenched in his teeth; in his hands is the age-old ipo machete which is never sharpened and which he must use to cut the sacred omu tied between two trees in a shrine in the far forests -- with only a stroke.
There are usually prayers -- that he cuts the omu with only a stroke -- since if he fails, he dies and doom and perdition take over the land. He has been in the ibari of the chief priest, cooked in a big medicine pot, now cast abroad with the destiny of the clan on his head .The crowd goes agog as he matches pace with the rhythm of the drums, songs and shouts of acclaim.
The chief priest motions for silence.
"Today, the spirits of our forefathers are here with us for the festival of the new yam ends and we must bid them farewell. The omu bearer will go into the forest to cut the sacred omu, and in so doing cast the spirits adrift to their various homes ... "
He pauses to a gong stroke.
" Omeife" He calls the young man as he sings his praises: " Strongest of all men, toast of women, eagle in the sky ... The pinch a child gives itself does no harm, let nothing harm you. Because the snake tried to harm you, he is now without legs, the bat pointed at you and today is without eyes. The snail that climbs with the tongue knows the bitterest tree ... " He continues in a maze of proverb and incantations. At the end Omeife leaves for the forests and comes back triumphant!
In the cool evening as I amble around the village, I am overwhelmed by memories. I cast back and forth, until that perfect rhythm that reorients life comes in sight. This is a village in dire need of redirection. Everything is in order. You need a skillful architect to put these raw materials into a formidable structure.
Here is the old mission school and those who are supposed to be there fast on Indian hemp in the creeks instead. They feel marginalized but, most important is that they marginalize themselves too as they mask out of the sane society, shut in a world of stretched perseverance. The values here are as confused as in the city, a village in its first stage of sophistication.
Every drama in the city is rehearsed here, perhaps with a genuine touch of originality, this infantile exuberance that kindles the air with raucous wrath directed against fellow brother -- I remember Yaba bonfires. The mission school conjures memories that look like when-we-are-there. I remember teacher Okoro as he solves the board frantically in a chimney of cigarettes.
The school premise is set back, neatly sliced from the heart of the village. The school - its delicate cocoon. The classroom blocks, now overrun with moss. The fields, usually cropped low, the lawn shinning in the noonday haze.
The idea of trees is essentially colonial. They grow sparsely, are maintained, with thick foliage that catch the sun and throw back a dense shade. Here the teachers sit out at free and break periods. The classrooms ... They seem to hold an indefinable appeal, swept and dusted with wall chats hung on the wall. The blackboard has lost its stature and terror, shrunk to just another contraption that holds knowledge momentarily and throws an entire class into a chanting session. Nor will it ever lose its peevishness and that vexatious flair for ceremony. Now and then it conspires with the teachers, mystifies an entire class and calls up the cane at will. That is its most salient shortcoming. So much for our childhood world.
I wake up alive to my surroundings, realizing with a jolt that I am still in Nanka that I am not in Lagos or something.
This is a place where life is strangely cosmetic and you have to fashion yourself after some better civilizations to conform. The Nanka girl sadly has LOST HER INNOCENCE, the same way the natural environment is daily degraded by pollutants. That natural beauty of hers is hidden in a thick cosmetic mask. The skirt rides high, that is when she wears one, and most times it is trousers. The tag "prostitute" is inappropriate by village standards. A case in point, of course, where the name sounds louder than the very act. Like "armed robbery". Everyone will agree.
What happens in the creeks is not "armed robbery". There has to be a better name, deals -- for want of appropriate terms.
The young boy there, his high voltage activism bothers me. Destruction trails his anger. It is well known that the synthesis of thought and action can make or mar, bring into form or wipe out, a synergy of miraculous proportion. This enormous youthful agility in him can be harnessed to the benefit of self and society. He has a genuine cause but there are better ways of articulating them to the understanding of civilized powers. The mentality is unbearably and overwhelmingly military, the fallout of years of military predation in the polity, looting and much insensitivity. He is a victim, as much of self as the powers that be. I look at him with pity, he is in the wrong place, he should be in the mission school.
Here, the most frequent entertainment is not a shot of ogogoro at iya ibeji's, or how the economic situation has reduced or affected earning powers.
We sit to endless stories of the world out there. How the cities are a safe haven and one could almost pluck a living off the trees. I stretch myself, of course, to explain that it is not so, that the greatest failings start the very day we begin to look at possibilities only when they are outside our immediate
environment. There are so many things within us that can be developed to the envy of the outsider.
I sound foolish in their eyes, the untutored wretch who left life in the smart cities for one of endless drudgery and dreams in the village.
And so parents continue to pawn their children out into slavery and prostitution under the illusion of greener pastures to -- Gabon, Cameroon, and Guinea Bissau and – sometimes, countries in Europe.
I am sad. My caution is not heeded. Another source of worry too, is my suspicion, gleaned from stories I am regaled with, that the HIV pandemic might also have crept into the village reaping the ignorance to its hearts content. An entire family is wiped out, for instance, by Nwogwugwu the deity, by witches in their alcove.
Nanka, NIGERIA -
I begin to marvel at these mystical powers when I am treated to a scene I can never forget:
I have known him as a child, a chartered libertine whose world is full of bottles and skirts. But this is the mistake he has made -- he has taken Nwogwugwu the deity to protect him in Calabar from where he has just returned, taken seriously ill, after four years sojourn. Dada, for by that he goes, has, however found succour in a Pentecostal church and neglected his manners by his disembodied host. Thus it is told.
The days eat him, till he is wafer-thin and the ribs are so free, you have the urge to count them. I marvel at how, thickset, he has suddenly vaporized into this gory aspect, liquid fierce eyes glinting far in his head. A thin cord separates him from the dead.
I see him enveloped by wisps of incense smoke, by candlelight and herbs; his bony body a cream of so many effusions. Intermittently, he throws up with so much force the intestines seem to want to disgorge. The legs are swollen -- and other signs of full blown AIDS.
But I am intrigued by the fact that it is actually Nwogwugwu who has stricken the victim. I expected him to drop dead of a sudden. But he holds up, seemingly unbowed for many more days than I have thought possible. In that dreadful house of uncanny rituals, cries and many tears, he finally gives up ...
Everyone -- despite grief -- heaves a sigh of relief that it is at least something explicable and not some abstract ailment the jealous whites use to scare Africans from healthy procreation.
I have the urge to scream.
This viscosity of thought, this rarefied height of omen and superstition, is suffocating. Not to speak is mere conspiracy with the forces of ignorance and darkness that imprison Nanka.
I risk complete ostracism. But I must speak. Quite remarkable is that this is the very first time I would see a full-blown case, and I can so effortlessly characterize it. I feel a sense of complete demystification. Here is the most dreaded affliction on earth, loathed by many who love life. But here in our very midst it sits. It is familiar as a person. It is in fact the man next door and not that distant ogre that only stalks the Western world looking gaunt and as miserable as hell itself.
I must have to speak out. Silence, especially when loud, is the most cowardly way of self-_expression!
have admired the tenacity of the raindrop
That found its target from the verge of the sky;
Lion is fierce, Eagle is swift;
The tortoise does not regard his shell as a burden,
The Iron never dreads the heat of the forge.
My heart palpitates as if a drum. I listen to its beats and watch its grief-impregnated secretions as I await the break of day.
Here is home. Survival creates new challenges. I look around the rooms. There is something in them that seems to strike at the wrong cord deep within me. The variety in changing environment palls on me and I am confronted by grave realities.
My wife, Chinyeaka, sits up late at night, a woman of faith and power. But it seems she is bowed, bowed by the thick darkness and the arrow of lamps which pierces it. At Lagos, our apartment at night is usually radiant with weak stray light from that of the big shots around; and in the day, there are places one can go to fight off boredom even when the pay is not forthcoming -- this staves off the deep hunger within the soul. The advantages of the city, as I think over these, become more apparent now, its gains more pronounced than before.
I begin to think differently, to wonder at the wisdom in leaving Lagos. But I am consoled that circumstances -- what else? -- took that decision for me. Aren't there times in our lives when things appear to be happening so fast, when we seem to be in the vice grip of destiny's forceps, in circumstances we have very little control over? Aren't there times when we are unable to gasp for breath due to the spasm of activities and when we seem to be in a perpetual state of flux? I am racked by it, this sedimentation of emotion, alloy of grief and pain, shock and scar.
Most pathetic is Chinyeaka, my wife, whose mien has become unpredictable, a strange amalgam of despair, hope and hilarity. She oscillates among these and would sometimes radiate with a sandy smile and a vacuous aspect. I would get upset as the tears bleed her eyes, chide her with a voice I search for and which I try to make bold. She misses the city really: Iya Olode's hair saloon and its mentality, the gossips around it, woven into the early morning chorus of street-hawkers, the babel of form and will; musical beats, billboards that pronounce louder than words.
Now, in their place, semi-cultural aesthetics, dirty angry skies, their dapple, at dawn, of cattle egrets and orange weaver birds; swamps and lush trees. And Chinyeaka, her mind burdened, her eyes overcast, has never come to appreciate these. I wonder in her pensive silence this night if those eyes will ever grow equal to the picturesque scenery that is Nanka countryside. Someday, maybe, since time has its own miracles.
She misses the city -- one can see it in her big toe, which shakes poignantly as to the tune of grief -- has actually opposed my decision to leave Lagos, but docile and submissive, a Catholic woman who has come to take her religious callings seriously in the wake of our travails, she has given in at long last.
She cannot look me in the face. Her face is averted, her look dry like a seedless season. Beside her the children are all asleep: Nnenne, the ten year old girl, whom I have named after my deceased younger sibling; Uchechi, the boy of eight, looking gaunt and far below his years, and Steven the youngest. They are all asleep. I can read their confusion, can vicariously live their nostalgia. This sudden change from one environment to another and losing one set to friends to find another.
I remember that on arrival in Nanka, they have looked lost staring at waves of strange faces which stared too at them. Steven, the youngest, has burst into tears.
"When are we going back to Lagos?"
"We are here to stay." But when that seems to distress him, I add "Everything hinges on tomorrow. Stop crying."
He obeys instinctively. I have not failed in that aspect. My voice commands so much respect that they -- Chinyeaka inclusive -- obey my breath.
So much depends on tomorrow that the tension around it creaks like the hinges of a rusty door. And I think hard, think up things I can do when the curtain of darkness lifts to usher in my cast for the new drama of life, things I can do to make Nanka our own favourite city, where everyone will like to go and stay. I am ready for all the challenges. The tortoise does not regard his shell as a burden, the iron never dreads the heat of the forge!
I will do my best to enlighten the people, about health pandemics, about the foolery in laying hectares of land to waste, these boundless potentialities that can give life to a new craft and art all Nanka's. I will teach them their rights and powers and the ignominy in theft, even of properties in our trust that belong to the state. I will teach them that ill-gotten wealth makes us poorer in the by and by and brings us to grief. Nwajeihu, my friend, who has made it fraudulently, is today, Her Majesty's guest. I can feel his pain. It is palpable as true dawn crows the early cock.
Chinyeaka, Chinyeaka, my pearl, when I look at you, your eyes heavy as with pain, I remember the Nanka woman who does not know of liberation. She, ragged, is tied to childbirth, to the barren soil that takes her strength of a morning; and her husband there, always making saves to evaporate to the city where there is everything; saving every coin to make it to the city forgetting that if these owners of the city did not take pride in their own land, no one would probably be there after all.
I promise you, Chinyeaka, I promise that you will be the shinning pearl among these women. You will remain the queen at the front of the house and not the serf at the back of the courtyard. I will teach you to live anew even in want, so that every woman in Nanka will look up to you.
We will rear our children with care and understanding, so that parents in Nanka will take a cue and no longer pawn theirs to neighboring cities and countries, will realize the pain and agony they visit on their erstwhile charges in such acts.
Nnenne and her siblings will go to the mission school, which arms them with a weapon no one can disarm them of, which every dictator dreads and thus cajole them back to the mission school that waste in the creeks.
Tenant in the city, Landlord in the village....? I know this will be the case tomorrow. My destiny in my hand, I part the curtain to see if it is yet DAWN!