Windows in the Sky
I started writing this three weeks ago…
“So many stars outside! I haven't seen this many in ages!” B wrote in a chat weeks ago.
“It’s not Lagos nah,” I wrote back to him.
One night, on a boat in Lamu Island, the engine coughed and died out, and we sat for about 30 minutes bobbing on the water. Water is deceptively calm and dark at night, so to avoid thinking about how long I could survive in it, I leaned against the side and tilted my head back to stare at the sky. The stars are one of the things I loved about my time in Law School in Kano years ago. Before then, I had forgotten that it was possible to look up and see thousands of tiny lights in a pitch black sky—like lit windows in the sky telling me God is home.
I love that about Akure too. It is quiet and calm, and a multitude of stars can be seen at night. I have not gone out the gate since I got here last week.
My father left home at 16, was the first of his father’s children to get an education. This, I knew. For most of my life, he worked in the same place and so, when I got restless at jobs, I thought myself fickle; supposed he and my mother judged my choices. I have done the same thing all through my career, but the longest full-time job I ever held lasted 2 years. In my early 20s, it felt weird to go home and tell my parents I had moved on to something else, and sometimes I would not even tell them about it. I would think about my father, 16 and making his way through the world—struggling. This, I assumed.
Last month in Kigali, during a random conversation with T, I realized my mother must have started her career quite early, a thought that spiraled into surprise at how little I knew about my parents beyond their lives during my lifetime. When I went to theirs’ after I returned to Lagos, I unclenched my jaw and broke through the fortress-like walls of silence.
My grandma had a carving of twins, was called Iya Ibeji by many, yet had no surviving set of twins. Out of 11 children, 3 survived. My father was the first of those three. This is one of the first things he tells me.
“I bought my first car in January 1977, before I went to the university. I had worked for years before then. Had worked in Ado, Ife, Lagos, Oyo… In Lagos, I spent four months at one job because, the Dean of the Faculty was an irrational man,” he says, reminding me of the job I quit with a flourish in 2012.
“N2,720. That’s how much it cost.”
“Was it a used car?”
“Brand new!” He laughs, and Ma adds, “No one sold old cars then. Ibo lo o ti ri?”
“Ma a gbo,” he says. “When you had used your car for like four years back then, once it started giving you issues, you just took it to the mechanic’s and forgot it there. That’s why there was always junk in the mechanics’ shops in the 90s.”
“I still have the receipts,” he tells me. “I was a typist and a stenographer. I was very good. I was earning more than graduates. The ones in government service were earning N3,600 per annum. I was earning N4,000.” As he talks, I remember how it had seemed like punishment when he forced us to learn typing and shorthand as kids, then the Mavis Beacon tests when we got a computer. He was always better than we were at it.
We left Katsina at 4:30am; the sun met us awake and eating road hurriedly like we were being chased out of town. I, in the back seat, was mentally willing Nuhu to not drive so fast. D, in the front seat, was giddy with excitement that he would surprise his girlfriend in Lagos. What had started as a work day-trip for me had turned into four; three-day for him into two weeks.
When I was young, if electricity went off at night, we would unfurl raffia mats outside. The stars would outshine the metallic blue lantern we kept close in case anyone needed to go inside (I often threw ants into the flame). My parents would be to one side, and we kids on the other, playing games or loosening one another’s plaits. And then nights began to be announced by the growl of generators, so, the stars, deafened by the noise and choking from the smoke, became shrouded one by one till only a few brave ones remained to be seen in the Lagos sky.
Two weeks ago, the girls at the salon went on about my hair texture, asking how I get my curls. I scrolled through my photos to show them one of Ma from the 70s. In it, her hair is full, and despite the photo quality, you can see the curls. It is interesting how unaware we often are of the things we take from others. Their blood, their hair, their anxiety, their clumsy feet stumbling through life. When I was younger, my mother was afraid I would ruin my life. This, I assumed.
I know a few stories about my grandfather, her father. Whenever his kids sent letters from school, he would correct errors and send it back to them. He kept them away from Koranic school because others were not allowed to beat his kids. No one ever saw him without shoes except when one of my cousins fainted. When my sisters were young he gave them teacups—one brown and one green—and formed a habit with them around it. That last bit I put in a story years ago, along with his house.
“Oh, I decided in ’78 that whichever admission came first was what I would go with,” my mother says about how she chose to go to Nursing School over Uni. “Nobody explained why University was better.”
“What did you spend your salary on in those days?”
“Clothes!” she laughs.
When she returned to Ibadan after Nursing School, she lived in the same house with her sister.
“That’s how I met your father. At home. My aunt was living in the same building, but she was separated from her husband. Her husband worked in the Railway Corporation in Lagos, and sent your father to his ex-wife with a message.”
“I went from Lagos to Ibadan often. 1 litre of petrol was maybe 20 kobo, so I could afford to drive around,” my father adds.
“When he came, my aunt told me she had a visitor—that was your father. She told me to help her buy drinks, then I gave him my photo albums.”
“Why?” I ask. “Who gives a stranger their photos to look at?”
“That was the normal thing then. When you have a visitor, you give them your album to look at.” He showed up at her office a few weeks later. “I was at work and they said someone was looking for me.”
I turn to him, “You worked in Lagos; why did you go to Ibadan so often?”
“I had a car. I could go anywhere! And my aunt, you know Sik’s mom, lived in Ibadan.”
They would get married a year later but continue to live in different states, travelling weekends, first alone, then my mother with babies. Until, circa ‘88, one sister chose to return to Lagos with my father after he had visited for the weekend, and then the next followed the year after. In 1990, my mother, afraid I would take after my sisters once I turned 2, got a transfer to Lagos and moved.
Akure was supposed to be a 2-week trip before it was cut short by the work trip to Katsina. O, with whom I’d stayed there, is the friend I have known longest—since we were kids in Sunbeam wearing yellow and mindlessly choreographing church songs.
We shared a room in a ‘penthouse’ for our first apartment. I was 22 at the time, and the apartment, in a semi-nice building, sat on the cross of Onipan and Ilupeju. It was as terrifying as it was airy, but we did not care. We were wide-eyed pretend-adults struggling to have money left at the end of the month. So, when the rats would not stop climbing five flights of stairs to eat our snacks, we started hanging them from nails stuck on the wall. They still got to them.
Back then, I had been eager to get out of my father’s house. Throughout the years I lived there, there were always cousins and pseudo-cousins around. I could not understand why they would not stay in their own houses, after all, we were not allowed to go stay with others.
Back in Lagos and transcribing our conversation, I listened again to my father describe the farm settlement on which he grew—imagine a rectangular building made from mud, with open space in the middle, and rooms lining the sides of the rectangle, belonging to his father, his father’s wives, uncles and wives and cousins etc. The children each took their father’s first names as surname when schools came to their village, so I often cannot tell who is an actual cousin and who is a pseudo-cousin.
I realised that that setting was the reason my father, solitary as I have always known him to be even in the midst of people, constantly had people living with us. He does not exist outside of community, and had not had the cousins around out of a sense of obligation. He is something I have spent this year trying to be: a solitary creature that retains its solitude in the midst of communality. Undisturbed by the continued presence of others as I often am. My mother, who grew up in a more ‘modern’ space and had financial independence before marriage, had somehow fit into all of this. Picked this stranger out of all the ones she ever gave her photo album.
In the end, I return to filling holes with assumptions because I cannot fully know or be fully known by any. This is a sketch of where I come from. Not as neatly thought-through as I always assumed it to be. Not as far from who I am as silence made it seem.