Mr. Peter's Birds

The breeze coming through the slightly open car window chills the right side of my body as I drift in and out of sleep. I'd jerk awake, imagining a drop of rain had fallen on me, only to see that it was not raining. While awake, I look out at a star I’d noticed since Kano—it stands slightly off from the others, and I've started to think of it as my star because it is the only one I can tell apart. In the dark, my mind fixates on random things until I know the car's rattles well—the one in the boot and the one from the side door, then the clatter whenever the driver goes over a bump.

It is one of those days that drag so long I cannot remember how long I have been awake. I had thought I would spend the rest of the year in Europe, but a project has me, on unplanned days, waking at 5am in Lagos, and then having meetings in Abuja until evening before leaving for Kano/Katsina. My body is tired.


People who wake early and try to co-opt me into their wakefulness terrify me. But it is not about the time of day. I can wake at 5am and be cheerful if I've had nine hours of sleep. Or I can wake at noon and be grumpy if I've had seven hours. Yes, I sleep for eight to nine hours everyday. I have to make up for the years of my brain trying to kill me through sleeplessness and other ills.

Every morning for the last two, IK wakes me with a knock on my hotel room door. We both work until the early hours of morning yet, at 7am, his voice is a fully awake, energy-filled call asking for a phone charger or something random.


We are going to see F, a man about whom Ad has said, “He is a small man trying to be big. You can even hear it in his voice.”

Earlier, I had thought Ad conceited when, in response to asking if I needed permission to take a photo against a beautiful wall in Babbar Majalisa, he said to me, "We are the permission here."

While I got out and co-opted IK into my shenanigans, Ad hid behind the tinted windows of his car, only coming out when a policeman approached me. The man, seeing him, retreated, and I wondered about the difference between a big man and a small man trying to be big.

When Ad talks about his city or his father—which is a lot—he is serious but has a smile on his face. While we wait in the car, he shows me photos of him in a white turban and shades, riding a heavily decorated horse during a Durbar. You can barely make out his face behind the turban but his smile is there and wide. I want to ask him what it is like to be so incredibly his own person and still be so tied to his home that he already looks forward to the day he'll inherit his father's title. Instead, I listen to him talk about what he's been doing since he's been back in Nigeria and the days when he played Polo.

When F finally arrives after we've waited about thirty minutes, he picks calls between introductions. As he gets out of his car and stands, a few inches taller than Ad, who is considerably tall himself, I understand what Ad had meant by “He is a small man trying to be big.” I can even hear it in his voice.


I spend most of my time at Ake Festival sleeping off a fever/flu. One morning, from my sleep I can hear birds chirping, and it is so clear it feels like they’re flying above my head, cartoon-style. In my sleep, I go back to another morning standing at a friend’s sink and rinsing out my coffee filter. That morning, I heard birds and looked out the window to see three sitting in a cage.

“Why are we obsessed with containing things ... even people?” I asked.

“They’re Mr. Peter’s birds,” he replied quickly, as if to say, Rayo, carry your wahala and be going.