i write what i like
I travel to places and people from times that could have existed.
I find the beautiful and the peculiar in the redundant and mundane.
I capture moments from childhood in literary portraits.
The times I died. And. Why I am still alive.
There are a few things strong enough to rip fan-yogo out of my hand; death is on the top of that list. Before I could look left again, I felt the hot metal press against my already neat 7 year old skin. The impact flung my spider-man bag off my back and onto the top of the street. The cry of a fully grown boy drowned out the roar of the engine. Half the skin on my left leg had melted away. What felt like the force of a thousand canes flogged up my spine, and rested on the back of my neck. Helplessly I watched as the fan-yogo leapt out of my hand, and slowly melted unto the asphalt. No one is safe in Lagos. Not even a sinless boy, with fan-yogo in his hand, crossing the street on his way back from school. Crossing the street in Lagos will kill you.
The second time was around the corner from where my Spider-man bag rested, on-top of street from my school. Opposite the Eziamaka’s house. My cousins, siblings and I spent the weekend at a private pool with a family friend. I didn’t know how to swim and I was too scared to take of my shirt, so I decided to balance the pool-to-ball ratio between the kids section and the adults’ pool. I remember falling. I remember the bubbles escaping my throat, found a way to float, why couldn’t I? I clung on to the water around me trying to make a ladder out of it. I felt the floor crash against my back. I closed my eyes, and breathed what should have been my last breath. And when I was awake, on the brick read floor, family huddled around me. The lifeguards who were paidto keep us safe were nowhere to be found. Only friends, and family, doing the best they could. The water escaped my mouth, I breathed in life. Swimming in Nigeria will kill you.
All these near death experiences – are very ajebutter (botty). I know.
The DSTV had begun to scramble. But this night there was no rain, no rushing winds or anything of this vein. NEPA took the light back. We brazed ourselves for the concert; but no generator (gen) on the street bantered. Not even our obnoxious neighbour’s gen who sang all day made a squeak.
Slowly, we felt the cracks in the door as the devil opened up the floodgates. Our home began to shake. The windows crashed in perfect unison, the mosquito net stood on guard. We huddled like sheep in a lightning storm. It sounded like thunder, it felt like death. My mother sprung into action, Zomy, Adaure and I were ordered to pack a light bag, stand in a line. My mother ran to the kitchen to turn off the gas connected to the stove. She unplugged all the sockets to the wall. She moved like she had been rehearsing for this all her life. She ushered us through the back door, to the gate that connected us to Aunty Ebere’s house. She said it would be safer there. We opened the connector gate ready to escape. So did she, Aunty Ebere and her 2 children with packed bags, standing in a line stared right back at us. She thought it would be safer in our home. We were too scared to laugh, too confused to cry.
The bombardment continued all night. We fell asleep in each other’s arms to a concert of bombs and faint distant cries. We waited for whatever it was that was going to come. Judgment was upon us like God did Sodom and Gomorrah. For my sins I am born in Lagos.
From what my seven year old mind could make out from the radio we had recovered from my mothers workshop, an accident had happened at the Ikeja military cantonment. Poorly stored ammunition caused a series of explosions that felt like a civil war. Without warning or prophesy the skies were lit with death. Our bungalow quacked with regret, the street opened up and swallowed innocence. The windows were broken, the houses were broken, our hearts were broken. The night was thick as death. Families attempting to cross the street drowned in a canal. They too clung on the the water in their fist and tried to make a ladder out of it. Many of the dead were children separated from their families and then crushed in the stampede of sorrows. The lifeguards who were paid to keep them safe were nowhere to be found. Only friends, and family, doing the best they could.
Anthony the fasted boy in our class, and his family lived in the barracks. He would eventually share his tales of survival and bravery. About how he ran through the explosions, collapsing buildings, exploding munitions, he dodged discharged bullets, shells and grenades and made it safely away from the destruction. I believe Anthony. He was the fastest boy in class. Eventually he ran out of time and stopped coming to school. His family made it out because of his speed and bravery, but his home was now indistinguishable from fine sand. Many families in Ikeja still have not recovered from the destruction. Mothers are still searching for their hearts. Fathers still are searching for answers.
The military and the politicians said there was a mistake which led to an accident, which led to the death of thousands of people. Similar to the mistake made when the petrol tanker ignited in the middle of the streets. Similar to the mistakes made when the plane was cleared to fly and it crashed landed on the runways of our broken hearts. Similar to the mistake made when schools are cleared for use, and they collapse into the laughter of bustling children. We make a lot of mistakes In Lagos. We do not make the mistake of naming our tragedies. No black Mondays, or dark Tuesdays, or 9/11s. We just call them by their real names. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. We have lost count of all the bodies and all the days. We stopped commemorating the anniversaries of disasters in Lagos. Every day in Lagos is someone’s disaster.
Every day someone loses their life to a senseless avoidable tragedy; to the mistake of their neighbour, or the negligence of a worker, or the incompetence of public officials. We have become so accustomed to senseless tragedy and avoidable loss of life in Lagos. We have made our beds in our graves not knowing when, or where or how death will come but fully confident it will. If not to us, then to someone we love. Death can meet you anywhere at anytime. But in Lagos, it comes more often, and it stays longer.
In Lagos we our discouraged from complaining and encouraged to fix the problems we find. “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” “We are the leaders of tomorrow” we say. “Run for office, change the system.” But what do you do, when even the air on your street conspires against you. My father exhaled when he turned fifty sixth. Men his age don’t make it that far. Should we not love our lives with the same veracity as we love our city and our country? And when we must, which should we choose?
A country has the responsibility to protect and secure the lives of her citizens. And it is only through this basic security that the nation derives legitimacy, its monopoly on violence and the moral authority to govern. If a country cannot by default, protect the lives of its citizens what do the citizens owe the country? You can breathe clean air in Kigali, you can drive safely in Kumasi. Why should we not to want to live in a place that promises you good air, clean water, and a commute that does not end in senseless tragedy. There is no shame in self-preservation. Some of Our country folk now believe risking death crossing an ocean is more secure than risking life in Lagos. This is not the easy way out. There is no shame in self-preservation.
To those who are development advocates and encourage people to return home, and encourage Nigerians to stay home, can you guarantee they will not be blown up by the tanker in front of their bumper. We know that development takes time and effort, but what about crossing the street, or going swimming, or sleeping? Not even money can buy you safety or security. A friend of the family once showed off his N200m bullet proof Mercedes, in the same breath he lamented the loss of his child due to sickle cell complications. For the wealthiest, all that needs happen is a decline in health to feel exposed to the elements of Lagos. The materially poor are constantly exposed to this.
To all those who complain about brain drain, and the need for citizenship retention for development, some of us just want to drink fan-yogo in peace. Not everyone is a civil rights leader. Civilians should not be asked to die for their country. When a flight filled with professionals and families takes off and crashes, is this not to a kind of brain drain, is this not the worst kind of brain drain?
I understand those who will feel strongly against this piece. Indeed I too am a patriot and I am not advocating against your advocacy. I am simply mourning the dead, and ask you give them their due regard. I am treasuring the childish desire to cross the street with fan-yogo in hand, enjoying a day at the pool, and the deep desire to go to bed without fear that my country will kill me in my sleep.
with lyrics from the Beatles
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free
Blackbird fly, blackbird fly
You were only waiting for this moment to be arise
You were only waiting for this to be free
She summer sang song like she was bitten by a Beatle
Her favorite melody was everything and anything playing on the stereo -set
To the rhythm of an acoustic sunset
Red -Means never stop
Green means where did you go?
You look too much like father
To never come back home
Carrying your sister on your shoulder
Should never mean coffin
Walking her home should never mean casket
Laying her to rest
Should not mean forever
I wonder what melody she sung
When she realised her black bird
Broke it’s wings and forgot to fly
Burning bodies like tears
Crying from the sky
You were only waiting for this moment to be free
There is a hole in my home
Open like a secret
Filled with medley of tears
We are laying mortar
Trying to fit all this tragedy back into our bones
the men in my family broke to
Wounds in mothers wombs
We all carry wailing in our throats
Our bodies all made of grief
Like this is what it means to loose a child
I saw an eyesaw
open eyes praying upon a closed casket
So God who will open his heart
Too broken to cry
Now more damaged than the last time
Time stopped to mourn us too
You were only waiting for the moment to arise
Do not tell me
Everything will be okay
Or that God has a plan
Or that there is a reason for this tragedy
Do not tell me time heals all wounds
Or everyone lost someone that day
Everyone I know
who found someone
Is now too lost forever
Do not tell me you do not see the hole in the wall the shape of a daughter
Do not bury these dead metaphors beside dead bodies
We will not dig another grave in the living room
Just Hold me in your palms
Like tears and never let go
You were only waiting for the moment to be free
the last stage of grief
Which parts to let go
And which to let in
Burying the hatchet
And the body
Learning to cry.
Until all our tears grow wings and fly
with lyrics from the Beatles
54, 55, 56, 58. “If ever unsure start again from 1.” Most homes have yards with lawns greener than the other side’s; here we become pop stars, sport stars, Olympians. I spent most of my childhood in the yard. The yard of my red bricked childhood home, in Lagos, the city that God forgot, was my mother’s factory.
Following rigorous rituals in French, mathematics, and English, her longest working tailor Oga Taju would welcome me and my brother to the factory. His superpower -the ability to turn nouns into prepositions –must never be taken for small or simple thinking. His Yoruba accent would turn Chukky to Oeeshukky, just as fast as he spun cotton strands into warm bedding my mother sold.
Oga Taju is one of the seventeen tailors working in this factory. I say factory, but it could easily have passed for a garage. The walls of the largest room were as old as they were grey. Six holes in the wall and an open door allowed for what could loosely be described as ventilation.
In the pinning room by the left, fiber was placed on the base cloth and stitched together into Disney inspired duvet covers. On the pathway on the right of the pinning room we folded duvets and counted them in their bags “54, 55, 56.” This is their final stop until they were ready for the shelves
in the parts of Lagos that were not broken.
From the age of 7, I learned to count bags full of bedsheets and pillows. After graduating primary school, I was promoted to making and counting the Gift Sets – her most valuable product- with her workers. She would walk into the factory with tomato paste perfume following her like shadow; “this Is how I pay for your education.” Was that 56 or 57, if ever unsure, start again from 1.
As I dive through stockpile of aqua blue, navy blue, baby blue, sky blue, marine blue, searching for the right type of blue, sweat would rinse through my pores like oceans forcing itself into river. As a tailor’s son, I developed both a predilection and disdain for colours. I knew if I want to become the blue power ranger, all I need do is dress in pieces of abundant abandoned cloth lying around the
factory. Mummy’s factory was where I built my first Megazord and Secret Laboratory. When new
material arrives the factory, the drill is simple. Turn off the television, head to the yard, and count.
I wondered if the only reason she had children was to have us count bedsheets. Certainly this child labour is reparation for her hours in child labour. We had to pay her back in some way. With child labour; simple, redundant, repetitive tasks. Making us count bedsheets is how Mummy shows her love. She teaches us to value hard work. She oversees her children, a factory of workers, with her nose in the air hoping the tomato on the cooker doesn’t set all she has built ablaze
Labour, is the love behind her sacrifice. I wept when we moved from my childhood home 10 years ago. I am now 24 years old, a bachelor of political science, years into my labours of life. Our new home still has a factory in the backyard. On my last trip to Lagos, an unexpected shipment arrived to the factory. Once we heard the roar of the truck come through the gates, nostalgia melted into muscle memory. We put off the television, put on our sleeveless shirts, and slippers. 54, 55, 56, 58, or was that 57? If ever unsure, I would have to start again from 1.
Court of Kuba
Scene 5.5 A Queen’s SIGHT
Queen Fatima Braids her daughters hair
holding a mirror
this is perfect mother! thank you !
i wont ask what, or who, the fresh braids are for ?
why do they have to be for someone ?
i see, so it is a who.
why are you moving so much, don’t get too excited.
i am not done just yet.
why does everything you do have to be so perfect. it is
like you woke up one morning, perfectly formed.
perfectly formed, haha, you wont imagine how clumsy i
was as a child, i broke everything i touched. no one
let me hold anything
now you hold an entire kingdom in your hand.
my hands have grown strong my love!
wrist exercises !?
braiding your hair is exercise enough !
silence as the queen braids her daughters hair
yes my child.
the other day, in court.
what about it.
with that child, why did you let her stay, the boshong
chief says you are ruling like a mother, and not a
queen. I think she is correct. You can not behave like
that especially when there is trouble with the chiefs.
As Queen, am i not the mother of this country ?
Well as Queen, you can order your subjects be enslaved,
or be killed, but as a mother you will not do the same
to your child. At least i hope not !
well, don’t get too comfortable now !
And also those men from Mali, you invite them to stay
in our country, after what they have done to Kwete.
What if they turn out to be spies, what if they try to
attack him ?
Okay. Sit up. Listen.
You must understand this, the farmer does not bring
Aminata here out of anger, but out of fear. Between a dying forest, and the Balouba migration he fears his
hard work will be stolen by a girl who has returned him
When people are afraid, they are leagues away from
But we must all understand. People do not choose where
or how they are born. It is wise for those who have to
share with those who have received the wicked parts of
life. We did nothing to be born in a safe country.
But in the same vein, when we share our resources, the
new ones must earn their keep.
Moreover, strangers sometimes come with the things we
need. We are not only helping them. If not us, then our
children may require their assistance sometime in the
And the men from Mali ?
Fatoumata returns her head to be braided
What better prison to have them but in the presence of
the villages watchful eyes. Not all prisons are built
of steel and stone. Some of them are built with silence
and secrets. Others are built in festivity and
laughter. Because a man walks with his head up in the
street, it does not mean they are free !
what if they see something they should not ?
one can not control what others see.
only what we show them.
you will be a queen one day my daughter, and you too
must learn to see.
what should i look for ?
start with the tip of your nose.
Maa, seeing your nose is very difficult you know.
yet it is simpler than seeing the truth.
we, must only see what is infornt of us Fatoumata.
Despite how hard it might be.
you will be a queen one day, and this will be the
hardest thing for you to do.
in the far future !!!
In this moment the Queen realizes how to bargain
with the emissaries from Mali.
When you pick my suitor, just make sure he is a decent
the queen is lost in thought
yes my child.
what if i do not grow to have affection for him ?
for who ?
for my husband.
you will be a Queen.
and it is true, i may pick my child’s husband, but you
will pick your child’s father.
mother, what are you saying ?
dont worry about this, you can survive anything. i
raised you to be strong.
this is why i am scared maa. You raised me to be
yes my child.
is it my mother who is braiding my hair, or my queen
Queen hands fatoumata the mirror
what difference does it make, look, you are perfect.
An Ekphrastic poem after visual artist Kerry James Marshal
Master. At least. This you owe me. For I serve you well. Before I leave. Do me this justice. Paint me. With Hog Bristle. Baptiste me. In Oil. Pour me on canvas. Uncompromised. Unapologetic. Holy. Basquiat passion. Crayon crooked. Crown of thorn. Last supper. Popping bottles, breaking bread. With righteous homies. Make this your great commission. Make your servant divine. I too deserve. To be. Painted. Majestic. Christ Like. Knife grind me open like Picasso cubes. Paint me by number. What colors do you know? To Paint my portrait. There are a million shades of black. I am all of them. Uncompromised. A million shades of black. I am none of them. Unapologetic. Sky below feet. Clouds of moonlight. Pregnant to sweat. Sorrow and granite to paint skin. Paint me. As lost boy. As town boy. Black boys. Don’t get lost in the dark. We become it. Codify my smile. Calibrate my survival. Paint the rising and setting of spirit. I have been with you all this while. Watched you flower in renaissance. Staring. At how you make broken things breathe. I am past redemption. Too ugly to live with time. Still. I ask you. Paint me. Leave nothing to imagination. When oil is dry. Masters will flock to see me hang. On the line. Gallery 2. They feel safe here. Watching a boy hanging. Out of breath. Strange. Fruit of labor. Pay price of my entry. Dada and surrealism. Contemporary abstraction. Batter boutique politics. Do me this justice. Burn this painting. Collage the ashes. This will be my portrait. This accurate reflection. Make me stay. Forever. In this frame.
Inspired by a random conversation with Ife Ajayi
Gba gba gba gba “Shhooky, Shhooky hopen the gateooo before I call your mother on my cellular !” gba gba gba gba. The pounding on the iron gate was defining. “Ifeanyi, abeg what day is it? “ It is strange how the pounding on the door could induce amnesia in the mind of a 13 year old. “Why is this man always early , he is not meant to be here until 3 o clock.” The clock arrogantly stares back at him. The second hand rotating in naiveté oblivious to the murderous gaze of the 13 year old mortal who needed time to obey his command and slow the hell down; 2:58 pm was the time. Not 3 pm there is a difference. “He can wait outside the gate until 3pm, shebi patience is a virtue. Ignoring the man does not become sin until the clock hits 3pm.” God understands. “Hefayne, Hefanye I will call your madam on my cellular oooo.” What is with this man and his cellular? “Ifeanyi, what time does the Arsenal game start, shee Van Persie is Injured, what is for lunch?” At this point any question but the most obvious one is valid in this place. “Ahn ahn now, what time does the game start, I hope the DSTV is not scrambled and mummy didn’t take the card for the decoder away”
. …..pieeww…….. .
It sounded like the purr of a constipated cat echoed through the room. It was followed by the dropping of an elephant, brgadnm, I know this sound from somewhere, why do these sounds seem so familiar, why did the room just get hotter? His brain taking the time to make sense of this madness that had just manifested itself. This occurrence was not strange to him but for some reason it always caught him by surprise, but at this rate anything that distracted him from the impending danger of the Yoruba accented man outside the door was valid. It was safer to call him this, the Yoruba accented man. It made the eventual lie more valid in his mind. “Shhooky did you not hear me knocking outside” and he will reply “ Sa, I didn’t know it was you, all I heard was a man with a Yoruba accent” in the mind of this 13 year old this alaby could hold up in any court of law because it was his truth. “Plus the name my father gave me was Chukky, not Shhooky, I will not do my ancestors a disservice by allowing you violate sacred culture. This Shooky person does not live here, you can try the next house.”
Of course this simulation of a conversation never found a way to his lips, at 13, he was far from ready to sanction his own death. “Ifeanyi, why did you turn the television of…..the game is about to start. You did not, what do you mean you did not? Why is it off? Gba gba gba, “Shookykk Shooky, Hefayne, they have taken the lightooo howpen de door!!” This was the final ruckus from the Yoruba accented man before a beautiful silence followed. It was now 3 04 the sin had been committed. “Don’t worry Ifeanyi, we will do penance after confession and God will forgive us.” Ring ring ring. “Hello, mum?”. “Chukwuebuka… ; you know she is upset when she called you by your full name. It seems like the Yoruba accented man had utilized his cellular device. I braced myself for the worst. “Didn’t you know your lesson teacher is outside?” ,my loving mother always gave me the benefit of the doubt, with her list of rhetorical questions engrained in my hearts like the 10 commandments. Questions in this list included the following, what will you like to eat for breakfast, is there jollof rice in the fridge, do you mind going to buy fayrouz for me, do you have money for recharge card, and the list goes on.
I don’t know how to lie to my mother. But a blurb and simulation of bad network is not a lie. Is he has bee? Knocking at where, um….mum i think the bad network is….mum, here ne can you…..mum. Think bad is network, bad Is service.” “Chukky are you there?”. Haha , She called me ChuKky again, now we are back on equal playing ground. “Is he, okay, I will ask ifeanyi to open the gate.” No lie was committed, a question was questioned. “Ifeanyi abeg open the gate.”” Hefanye, so you were inside the whole time, Shhooky, where are you…..
Peeewmmm……nooo!!. NEPA just brought light.After the regular 20 minutes of DSTV loading…… I heard Ifeanyi scream “Yes, arsenal 1-0”, “Sa please can I just checked who scored” “Will you sit down ere my friend and finish your lesson.”
I desperately wanted to be cool in boarding school, so i figured i should do something impressive like…write poetry.
Problem was i did not know how to write poetry, but my cousin did, so i “borrowed” his poetry journal, took it to school, and claimed it was mine.
I was an instant hit! So much so, that my English teacher seized “my” journal. I had to keep up the act somehow, so i forced myself to write. I haven’t stopped writing since.
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