Everywhere in Lagos
The city unfolds in metal locomotives, road, banters, then frisking, and sometimes laughter. The times I have seen laughter: some old men are calling out to themselves; a lady shows a young man (her age? older?) her phone and when he sees it he laughs, hugs her, says congrats, God has done it; a lady is on the phone with 'Beatrice' and she is telling Beatrice, Don’t give up, don’t let the devil have his way, I would come to your house on Sunday, wait for me in your house on Sunday, then she laughs. There is always a phone conversation happening beside me: a woman is asking her child in Yoruba, Have you eaten? A man is lying to an acquaintance, I’m already seeing you. Phone conversations will keep us from falling into eternal solitariness. I know this because I think that even in an afterlife we will hold omnipresent conversations. By phone.
This is a country of opinion. Commercial motorcyclists, known here as okada, have been banned on major Lagos roads and it is an unpopular decision, as many have expressed, as there are those who believe Governor Babatunde Fashola has turned his back on the Okada Industrial Complex that voted him in. I fear that one day our skin would be tattooed with a spilling population, a people presenting themselves as burnt-offerings of survival. But resistance is in our heads, not from our mouths. Or sometimes when there is resistance it is repeated only twice, by an angry voice protesting how much she has to pay to Oshodi. And the voice drops.
I am living in a house without electricity. Our neighbours have power supply because they have paid their bills. We have not paid our electricity bill. I sometimes go to a house not too far away, a wooden house behind a white-washed 80s-styled house to iron my shirts or to work overnight. I live with an uncle. He has been away; two weeks, at least.
I fail: every time I feel I have done nothing, I sleep too much, I miss deadlines, I break promises, I would not live up to my boss’s expectations, I am not concerned enough about family. Every time I want to outdo myself, keep a little love for myself and give the rest away. This “sentiment is banal,” says Keguro Macharia, which I know, “but it carries a certain force.”
I am a beta version of who I am. I know this because sometimes I am awake and I feel on the verge of crying for what I am yet to do. I am not history because when tomorrow comes I would be in today; and I am not the past because I live in a day, a time, a now. I negate convictions, then realise that nothing changes, even context.
Every time Lagos is a mix of unfeeling fleetingness and yet timeless wonder. It is when I read Joan Didion’s description of somewhere similar, that I feel I have been corroborated: “New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.”
This is why I write, for a shining yet perishable dream, to transcend myself, to reface Lagos with my presence. Desperation has overtaken me. I am (now) hungry for perspective, hoping that I do not live until an afterlife. The word for this immediacy of hope is ‘hoperoots’, defined by Naomi Klein with a sample sentence – “It’s time to stop waiting for hope to be handed down, and start pushing it up, from the hoperoots.”
I can feel a pang of longing. I live in Lagos.
The inevitable direction of my life.
One of my very best girlfriends called me and after we'd exchanged a string of sentences, she asked me, Are you happy, Emmanuel? I responded without thinking, Yes. She asked me if I was happy, and I responded. Yes.
I thought I was happy. I thought I knew the value of happiness. Or not (yet).
Hours earlier I was with Ekiko, alias Sogolo, alias Günter. He’s an old friend, now in his early 30s, studied in Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. Studied philosophy in Ife but was by all means a literature student. Wrote his undergraduate thesis on Dostoyevsky – and his lecturers, before they approved the topic, two months before the submission deadline, wondered how literature intersected with academic philosophy.
It was an evening of beer and malt and waffles and cookies. A bar somewhere close to Domino, Sabo-Yaba, Lagos. Behind us was a Baptist church, the dominant feature of Raymond Street. House number 7 on Raymond is our friend Adebiyi’s office. Adebiyi is a Research Analyst, Ekiko is an Art Dealer, I am a Senior Project Manager — the description on our cards. At Ife, we had been nothing else but students who were in a system that handicapped us – we were studying Mechanical Engineering, or Law or Philosophy, but our souls were entrapped in the pursuit of language, literature, everything we weren’t being taught. Adebiyi said, once, which he has repeated time and again, which seemed to have been Mark Twain’s words, “I have learnt not to let my schooling interfere with my education.”
I told Ekiko he was wrong to be regretful about how he played out his life as a student. He was used to missing logic classes for two weeks and all the while he was writing a logical equation that disproved the existence of God through biblical injunctions. I told him he was wrong to be regretful because he had been trying to transcend a conventional educational system, one that had no regard for outliers, prodigies. I told him that, and for a brief second I had a pang of regret, I had been a conformist, never having the guts to fail Law courses, although careless and self-righteous, in a quest for greater truth.
I felt a sting of regret. It lasted a brief second. Or longer.
There was a man in the bar sitting behind me who felt practical reality was distinguishable from theoretical reality. He was a lawyer, graduated from Ife in '97, when, as he said, there was no GSM. Chinedu, the lawyer, had been half-listening to our conversation. Ekiko and I were in his thinking, theoretical realists, with our high-sounding ideas that do not work in real life, because in Nigeria ‘intellectuals’ are not respected. They are even abused, even denigrated. I wanted to tell him that I am not an intellectual, but I wasn’t sure, or I was sure, or I hadn’t read Edward Said enough to know.
Ekiko and I ended the evening talking about living, and dying, the shortness of life, essence, writing, art criticism, and a small group of us that were friends in Ife. I hugged him twice at Ikeja, where the Computer Village, and the frenzy of the almost hovering moving people, like existence itself, considered us, daring us to move. I hugged him twice, because I was happy seeing him again. I was happy.
Things passed; tomorrow like the day before I would find a bus to Yaba, then to Sabo, then would walk ten minutes to Alagomeji, somewhere on Herbert Macaulay Way. Life would go on. Then perhaps I’d stop in the middle of something I’d have the thought of being 25 and the world at my feet. Or I’d think of my friends who were 27 or 30 and how age was an illusion, how life formed a spiral circumference, or not.
That night after my friend’s call, I listened to Yasiin Bey and the Brooklyn Philharmonic, live in concert, on my computer – Coming Together by Frederic Rzewski. The words had an interesting history – Sam Melville, a prisoner, had written a letter to his brother only days before he died during the Attica prison riots. The libretto for Coming Together was from this letter. I had almost completely memorised the lines, so I muttered softly while it played out loud. A candle was burning out beside me, slowly, silent as open fire.
“I think the combination of age and the greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. Its six months now and I can tell you truthfully few periods in my life have passed so quickly. I am in excellent physical and emotional health. There are doubtless subtle surprises ahead but I feel secure and ready.
"As lovers will contrast their emotions in times of crisis, so am I dealing with my environment. In the indifferent brutality, incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men, I can act with clarity and meaning. I am deliberate — sometimes even calculating — seldom employ histrionics except as a test of the reactions of others. I read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.”
That said all – an evening of friendship, happiness, and the inevitable direction of my life.