We Treat Places like Family – Adeosun Adams
Before I was a boy, I was a girl. This is what my parents say. The first time I was, as a girl, I died before I could have a name. This, the boy, is my second coming. I have decided to not contest this fantasy. Isn’t it beautiful to know one has existed in a different form in a past life?
My father says I died the first time because the world is a war zone and haven’t you seen how girls are (not) faring? Mother’s version isn’t much different. While a girl, I was killed by evil forces. Now, this boy has returned to defeat the forces. These vignettes deliver an image of Arnold Schwarzenegger saying, ‘The terminator will be back’. I’m not religious enough to believe, but I indulge both my parents and wonder if this is why I have many names including one that is feminine.
I grew up in a landlocked dozing city in the Southwest of Nigeria. Save for a recent trip to Cameroon in Central Africa, I have only flowed through the south-western states, crossing from Osun where I live to Oyo where I school, Lagos on an academic visit and Kwara, once, to see a movie. This leaves out 33 other states that I’ve been planning – dreaming – to see.
Osogbo, my hometown, is congregated such that commuting between my grandfather’s house and school, as a primary school student, reduced the city to a few kilometres. Only recently has it expanded, spreading its industries outwards, toward the outskirts. This system of development makes travelling the city feel like driving through a man’s body. On a road out of town, you could be thinking, I’m in the head of the city. On another, you could say, this is the right leg of the city and although you will not be right, you won’t be wrong either.
The Christmas holiday of 2016 was the first time I visited home and didn’t wish I was somewhere else. I had not succeeded in staying a week at a stretch in the three years since I left. But here I was on the evening of my seventh day in my hometown, taking a walk in Mandela Freedom Park. I had trekked miles, over a bridge, through a small market, and followed the path to the end where the big market is. There, I got on a bus. At my destination, when I handed the driver a fifty naira note and lingered, expecting a balance. He asked, ‘What?’ The fare has increased. I wonder if I have increased too.
My maternal grandpa named me Owolabi which translates, albeit loosely, to ‘we birthed money’. My father won a local government chairmanship election seven days after my birth. At birth, among other illnesses, I was jaundiced. Just like when I was a girl. I didn’t have a proper christening because names are meant for the living and I was in the war zone battling death.
I have no memory of my mother’s womb, or a midwife’s hands, or an incubator. But I have seen pictures from my first birthday which my mother said was marked with a cow. Sometimes I wonder about this cow. Was it spotted, plain white or dehorned? I don’t remember. But I remember wearing female dresses in a room in my maternal grandpa’s house after my parents separated years later. I remember dinners with over a dozen other people – cousins, nieces, nephews, siblings. I remember girls with orange seeds for breasts teaching me how to kiss them in house corners. I remember grandpa’s voice asking, Owolabi, are you okay? I remember wishing he would call me Yomi like the other people at the dinner table did. Some names are anchors tethering us to the past.
How home is a shifting, changing, mutating thing has been the subject of many great works of art. In Diana Evans’ novel, 26a, Bessi and Georgia made a home of the loft of 26 Waifer Avenue; Lenrie Peters wrote in his poem, We Have Come Home: ‘we have come home/ where through the lightning flash/ and thundering rain/ the famine the drought,/ the sudden spirit/ lingers on the road/ supporting the tortured remnants/ of the flesh/ that spirit which asks no favour/ of the world/ but to have dignity’. Home is not ambiguous, it is just complex.
My home used to be my grandfather’s famous two-storey house before it moved on, unceremoniously, to wherever my mother was. Now, it is me, earphones plugged in, a book in my hand. I have become my home.
I left my hometown for school at seventeen when I gained admission to the university. Sometimes I wish I left for somewhere far away. Say, London or Berlin. Somewhere you can point to on a map and whoever you are talking to will know, immediately, where it is. Instead, I left for Ogbomoso, five hundred naira away. If Osogbo is a dozing city, Ogbomoso is a sleeping town. The town sleeps in until the sun has made an appearance before rising and sets with the sun.
The fast lane of the town is the university where students who double as internet business moguls are king. The internet moguls live in lushly furnished apartments, use high-end devices and drive luxurious cars. Returning from a club at night, dead drunk, they over-speed on reverse all the way to their apartments. This is where I have come to school – the fast lane. I’m drawn to the fast life, I must confess. The cars. The girls. The glamour. I want them. But it’s not enough to want them.
In my freshman year of school, a final year brethren who was also a Christian evangelist approached me in the waiting area of the university’s clinic where I was waiting to complete my medical examinations. He sat beside me, so close that I became self-conscious, and introduced himself.
The man started with the Biblical story of Daniel, Shedrach, Meshach and Abednego. He said they were different. That they didn’t defile themselves with the king’s meat. That they didn’t bow to the king’s golden statue. The many times the fast life of the internet business moguls has called to me, I have moved a foot in its direction only to pull back sharply, as if stung by my own desires. I want to believe this is because of Daniel and Shedrach and Meshach and Abednego prodding my conscience, saying, ‘boy, you are different’. But I’m not sure I’m a believer.
‘This school is like Babylon. Not all those who arrive at the beginning leave in the end, ’the man said. It sounded like a punchline. The kind that make up great rap and poetry. The kind you may find in a Kanye West or Sia Furler song. But now, after 4 years, that I have lost a lecturer, a classmate and a good friend to the quicksand –death – it sounds like a curse.
In Building Climatology, we learnt that Ogbomoso is a Transition zone. Its weathers are extreme. I know how to wait out the cold and the hot. I know how to get turtlenecks and hoodies in May, short sleeves and V-necks in October, and shades in January. But when the extreme weather is on the inside, somewhere in the north of my chest, I can only leave.
When the good times double back – which they almost always do – and become bad, I carry my backpack and head for a car park. There is loyalty at a car park. There are transit buses waiting to ferry you away. They don’t care what you’re leaving behind. They understand that at times, what you’re running from is on the inside. So, they get on the road. Speed. Swerve. Fall into potholes. They go. They serve you tall mountains and green meadows and wild trees in one drawn out breath. They make you dance in your seat until you feel your weight drop such that when you alight at the other side, in a new or familiar place, you are lighter. And alive. Ibadan gives me life.
Everyone sees the brown roofs scattered in the valleys of Ibadan, the rude, fat market woman who lives for her wit and the dirt strewn along the streets. Who sees how the roads run away to varnishing points and become a labyrinth? In Ibadan, you don’t standby a roadside – or a bus stop – to flag down a cab to your doorstep. You need to break the journey into different media. Like a triathlon. Sometimes you start in a cab, switch to a bike somewhere in the journey and end up walking the final lap. Ibadan wrestles your mind out of itself and forces you to focus on her.
This city speaks to its people. It calls your name. You hear it, softly, in the breeze wheezing past at tangents to your ears and, harshly, in the car horns going off in the hands of impatient drivers. Those who have not become deaf are guided and shown the way into Ibadan’s magnificence. Walls of Ibadan curated by Adedayo Adeyemi Agarau, is an Instagram based gallery.
The photographer who is also a student of Food, nutrition and dietetics has been documenting the streets of Ibadan for about a year now. His Instagram gallery houses around a hundred street photographs. He captioned a picture of graffiti on a mud wall thus: Ibadan has a way of passing their messages. The walls hold history, they hold stories, they hold time, they hold people.
Agarau is one son of Ibadan who sees the poetry in the city of dust. He sees the kids walking the streets with dreams for eyes, the minarets rising to the sky like early morning prayers, the family houses foregrounded by a market. He sees them through the eyes of his camera and knows them by name. He is seduced by the righteousness of Ibadan so he couldn’t have seen me in a club at Agbowo on a Sunday night.
I have a relationship with Ibadan, a kind I never had with my hometown. Osogbo closes in on me like a predator. Its discordant rhythm – modern architecture weaving into the traditional – is deceitful. Its people too. I grew up hearing my name in the mouths of strangers. I almost always ended up with a stranger who could recite my family panegyric or would make me watch while they recalled the part of my childhood they belonged. These creepy people who conjured memories I couldn’t place became the reasons I found alternatives to major roads: byways.
My byways have become major roads now but I don’t need them anymore. I still run into these familiar strangers and they still creep me out. However, I have learnt to excuse myself. To reject their memories politely and move on. When, while seeking my father at a political party meeting, a woman called my name, I smiled at her and sat at a distance. She would later tell my father that I didn’t remember her; her who used to carry me as a kid.
There is a way places transcend geography such that a mere knowledge of their latitudes and longitudes almost become perverse. In my Traditional Architecture classes, we students engage the lecturer. Sometimes, academic statements are translated to indictments and roles are reversed. The students take authority and the lecturer has to listen because while his knowledge of places is from a textbook, ours is accumulated over years through communicating with a place.
This rebellion is simple: We grew up getting lost, finding shortcuts and hideouts, seeking adventure. We watched our homes transition from towns to cities as we transformed from boys to men. We saw acres of land go from bush to soil to industries. We saw the relaxation parks rise where our playgrounds used to be. We were there when the bulldozers came to pull our fathers’ houses down for roads to pass through. We know our cities. We are our cities. You can’t reduce us to didactic terms and rigid generalizations. However, the lecturer is awakened when we take shots at his hometown. On this side of the earth, we treat places like family.
Memories don’t exist in a vacuum. Isn’t this why there is such a thing as context? As people grow up and move on, their memories take the shape of the places they have been. Places are canvasses upon which moments are painted. In my head, Osogbo is childhood and innocence, Ogbomoso smells like coming of age, uncertainty and mistakes, Ibadan holds freedom, Lagos sounds like ambition, Ilorin bodes healing, Limbe wears the face of friendship.
I have never met England but history says she visited Nigeria before my mother farted me into this war zone, before I was a boy, before I was the girl that preceded the boy, before I learnt that a place could be a brother or friend or lover. History says England is pretty but hers is the obese body of privilege.
Adams Adeosun is a writer of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction. He is published online on Brittlepaper, Africanwriter, and Kalahari Review, and anthologised in Loops of Hope and A Mosaic of Torn Places. He is a participant of Goethe-Institut’s Nigeria/Cameroon literary exchange project.