Death is not strange to you. You have lived on these streets where people died almost daily. Every day, due to one mysterious cause or the other. You would watch people cluster around a person’s house, long faces and grim expressions with their hands on their heads and you just knew that one more person had died but it really didn’t matter to you. It did not stop you from playing police and thief with your friends. You still cooked amala and efo with sand and leaves. It did not deter your parents from bringing their tired, mangled bodies home at 7:00 and shouting at you to go and do your homework while asking if your lesson teacher came today and complaining about the amount of naira that goes into educating you. Now, that made you sad. It always made you sad because your lesson teacher only comes three times in a week and he would knock your head twice every time you got your sums wrong. Then, he would give you a classwork and leave you alone to discuss football with Toheeb. You did not like him and you did not like having to attend his lessons either but then, you remembered that Daddy would beat you if you did not attend lesson, instead, you started zoning out during his lessons.
Each day, mummy woke you up at 5 and you had to be ready for the school bus at 6:30 because the driver had to pick kids along the way from Iyana Ipaja to Ikeja before he drops you all in time for the morning assembly. You did not like waking up early but Bili said you were lucky. Bili was your auntie’s child from the village and she attended a sub-standard school near the house. They brought her to Lagos so you would have a playmate and you knew the school was sub-standard because it looked like an ‘ojule meji’ that someone rented out. It looked nothing like your own school with its vast expanse of land and laboratories and playing ground with swings. You have siblings but they were older and far away in command Boarding School and your parents often told you that you would get beaten up by soldiers if you go to see them. So, even on visiting days, they went alone with packs of cabin biscuits and tea and hangers and only came back home to tell you that your brother had asked after you or that your sister cried because she missed you. You always never knew how to react to that information or what you were expected to do with it. So, you would just stand there awkwardly and ask your parents if they had grown bigger and they would laugh and tell you that you would see them when they came for the holidays but that was a lie. You were never at home when they came for the holidays. Your parents would have shipped you off to some pastor’s house for the holidays and you only came back when your siblings were in school.
These few glitches in your life were nothing to be compared with your own happiness. You and Bili would play after school on days you did not have to go your lesson and you would make dolls out of your sweaters and pretend to breast feed them. Bili loved cars but once when you asked your parents for toy cars on Bili’s behalf because Bili wouldn’t ask herself, your parents had called the two of you after dinner and given you a rundown of the amount of money they spent trying to feed Bili. It made you sad but you were not supposed to be sad. That night, you offered Bili your bed to sleep on because she was sad too but she declined because mummy would get angry if she did not sleep on the mat. Mummy said Bili drooled when she slept and she doesn’t deserve to sleep on the bed because it would make the bed smell. You would have agreed but for the fact that you also wet your bed every day and it smelled when you didn’t spread the foam outside but you did not want to talk so that mummy wouldn’t demote you from the bed to the floor. That was how you and Bili stuck to making dolls and pretending to be mummy when playing and you loved it. Sometimes, when there was light, you would switch on the pumping machine and once the tank started overflowing, you and Bili would dance naked under it and you loved it, especially when the neighborhood bum, Toheeb, wasn’t peeping over the fence to see you naked. On days when he peeped, you and Bili would hurriedly put on your clothes and switch off the pumping machine. It always made him stop peeping when you did that.
You never skipped out on your daily routine but on this day, something was different. You came home and there were a lot of adults at home. They had the familiar grim expression on their faces. You did not want to think of bad things even though you knew Bili had been sick when you left for school. She had been sick throughout the week and mummy had given her some agbo to drink every day and had even invited the Mummy Nurse from the next street to look at her. You remember Mummy Nurse had said she had Malaria and had given her injections and told your daddy to buy some drugs for her but you also remember daddy saying the injections and Agbo were enough after she left. Slowly, your tiny brain tried to put the puzzle together. Everyone had been wishing you ‘pele’ and ‘ma sokun o’ from the door but it was only when you got to the sitting room and saw Bili on the floor in your mother’s arms that you panicked. Your mother was in tears and she was saying ‘Mo sofun okunrin yi o, o ti pa Bili’. For the first time, you raised your two hands and placed them on your head like you had seen the elders do at funerals and tears were streaming down your face until someone from the crowd gently removed your hands from where you placed them and when you looked at the person quizzically, the person told you only adults were allowed to do that. Never had you wanted to become an adult so fast; so you could actually mourn your friend whichever way you wish.
From then onwards, things went downhill. Oh, you did not know the meaning of downhill. You just lived. You stopped playing after school because there was no one to play with. You would sit on the bench in front of your house and watch the adults go about their daily lives. You would watch the children run around in huge circles but it did not seem like fun. You also stopped bathing under the overflowing tank. In fact, you did not want the tank to overflow because that would be wasting of water. You still went to church with your parents and they still shouted at you whenever you were sluggish or not smart which was something they always did even when Bili was alive. So, nothing changed, except that Bili wasn’t there and you lived but you wanted to grow up.
Your childhood seemed like a long phase you were eager to get out off. So, when you got your menarche, you were happy to see it. It was around the time your breasts started growing too. They looked like small oranges in your uniform and you loved it but you would later start to hate them by the time they grew to the size of small watermelons because they started choking you. Mummy began to buy you some bras from the okirika market. She said they were better and you did not complain even though you would like to have some new ones like the type they displayed in the boutiques you saw on the way to school. What you hated most about this stage of your life was not being able to move around freely at home while wearing tights and singlets because your parents said you were now a grown woman and your brother was back at home. You had to walk around your house, fully clothed at all times and when you started tying wrappers, mummy seized your wrappers because it made you look sloppy. Begrudgingly, you would wear your skirt and top and if you ever complained, daddy would slap you and tell you to behave.
When you actually became an adult, you did not wish to be a part of your past. You studied history in school and your parents sponsored you to pursue your masters in North Hampton. So, you spent a lot of time away from your parents. When you were in university in Nigeria, you only went home during the holidays and your parents would call once in two days to ask if you were fine and if you needed money. Sometimes, your mother would call you cruel for not calling her and sometimes, you wouldn’t pick their calls because you did not want to talk to them. You would later call them back after five missed calls to tell them you are sorry and you were charging your phone. Sometimes, you would pretend not to see their calls and when they called the following day, you would blame the network and tell them you did not see their calls or in some cases, the credit alert. You just wanted to stay away and not many people understood that. Some of your friends understood and some didn’t but you were not one to care about that. That was their cup of tea but when you got back home during the holidays, you always felt choked. You loved your parents; you just did not want to spend too much time around them. You spent a lot of time indoors and that was abominable. They could not understand a child that locked the door to her room all day long and never switched on the lights. So, they always tried to bring you out. If your father wasn’t calling you out to enjoy some fresh air with him on the balcony, your mother was inviting you to her shop to come help her out and on every occasion, you felt exhausted.
When you started therapy in university, your parents did not know. You did not want to tell them because whenever your mother heard that someone committed suicide, she would curse the person for being an ‘oloriburuku’. So, you just preferred not to tell them you were a depressed soul with no will to live but you survived and when, you looked back on those days, you realized just how much you were dying with every breath you took and your family members did not know. Occasionally, your brother or sister would call you and you would speak for a few seconds before hanging up. You were not close to them. The one time your father found out you hadn’t talked to your brother in two months, he flared up and chastised you for not reaching out to him and at that moment, you just thought about how it wasn’t your fault you did not grow up with them and how they did not grow like you. You had no common grounds with them. Their mentalities differed from yours in all aspects and you were not ready to forge that relationship out of a rock.
The day you graduated from university, you visited Bili. You sat at her grave with an half empty bottle of wine and drank. You told her you had graduated from university and wished she was there but a part of you also wondered if Bili would have gone to university if she was alive. Your parents would probably have sent her to some college and you hated them at that moment. The hatred you felt for them was like bile, stuck in the pit of your stomach and you wanted to throw up. You left Bili’s grave when the mosquitoes started to bite. Those blood sucking cretins never respect people’s privacies in Nigeria. Besides, you knew you had to leave because mummy would be worried. The streets were not safe. Kidnapping was on the rise and the police were just a bunch of men in black uniforms who stood on the roads, waiting for the next vehicle to collect #50 from and they would shoot whoever refused to give them some chicken change. They were entitled motherfuckers and you did not wish to get trapped in their nets. When you got home, your parents started questioning you as to why you would disappear from the midst of everybody on such a celebratory day and you had told them you went out with your friends. That night, your mother cooked Jollof Rice and brought out some leftover salad from the fridge.
She said she made your favorite meal because you had made her proud. Of course, that wasn’t your favorite meal but no matter how much you told her your favorite meal was yam and egg, she would never listen. So, each time she said she made your favorite meal, your mind would sigh in heaviness and your lips would utter some ‘thank you ma’. It made her happy.
The six months you had to spend at home before your school mobilized you for the National Youth Service Corps were the six most harrowing months of your life. You had to live at home and hear your parents talk every day. Nothing seemed appealing in the house. Everything lacked luster. You missed your old apartment in school. It was much neater and organized and looked like what you wanted home to be like. You had a few stickers of Beyoncé on your fridge and your room was tidy and neat. Each item had a place. You missed being all alone, lying on your bed, Beyoncé quietly playing on your phone as you replied your chats or read a new book. Sometimes, your girlfriend would come over and you would be all silly and cute. The two of you cooked coconut rice together in your kitchen. You would cook and she would tell you about the concerts she wanted to attend. She was not like you and sometimes, you wondered if you were drawn to her because she was different from you. She was chirpy and very smart. You were also smart but you did not talk much. She wanted to be a realtor and she would tell you all about the value of houses on the island. She lived in Ikoyi and you lived in Ondo state.
Your relationship with her was very private. You had gone to her house once for the weekend, her parents were not around and you were astounded as to the magnificence of the house. You both had fun. She drove her parents’ car and you went on ice cream dates and shopped at the malls. When your parents called you that weekend, you had lied to them that you were at the library and you were trying to stifle your laughter because Maryam was tickling you. She teased you about it when you dropped the call and you had hit her with a pillow playfully. You ended up having a pillow fight and had sex with her. She was so perfect for your soul. She radiated calmness and you loved her. You had always loved her. When she laughed, it was so rich and deep that it almost made you lightheaded. You always feel like you could get drunk on the deep brown richness of her eyes and you were happy when she was with you because she seemed to understand your depth. She could reach you in places no one else could, she could feel the rhythms of your heart from a mile apart. Nobody knew about your relationship because you were a Nigerian and homosexuality was a crime in Nigeria. You always introduced her as your best friend to everyone who asked and in the confines of your room, where you both could love each other without judging eyes; you held yourselves and told each other how much you loved yourselves. It was always a beautiful moment for you because you could feel it; you could feel it that she saw through you and you saw through her.
Being at home before you got mobilized for service was tiring. Your siblings would try to engage you in silly talks but you would lock your door and read a book. The only thing you were happy to see was Maryam’s pictures. She had travelled to London to visit her cousin and she would send you pictures every day. She sent you pictures of her at the park or eating a hamburger and she would tell you about the cranky old man who had two ducks for a pet that she met. Few things made you happy but her existence was at the top of the list. You liked to see her happy. You often told her that you missed her and she would send you puppy eyed stickers and heart emojis. You longed for her to come back because you had so many places you wanted to go with her. meanwhile, your brain was always thinking of ways to love her better. She loved Burna boy, so you decided to surprise her by purchasing tickets for his concert. When she got back to Nigeria, you told your parents you were going to your friend’s place in Lagos before service. Your mother kept trying to convince you to use your time to learn hairdressing from Iya Tee in front of the house but she couldn’t see the longing behind your watery eyes and how would you tell her, that you wanted to see your love? You met Maryam’s mom this time and she was very receptive. She was an elegant woman and Maryam looked very much like her. Tall, dark and pretty. You and Maryam had the time of your lives. You went to beaches, spas and museums. When you told her you bought tickets for Burna Boy’s concert, she screamed and planted tiny kisses all over your face and you blushed. You later attended the concert and the postings for service came in the second day. So, you both returned to school to sort out your credentials. She was posted to Lagos and you were posted to Ibadan. You were happy you did not have to be around your parents and you could go see Maryam on some weekends. Your parents were happy too because NYSC did not post you to ‘Ilu awon Boko Haram’. So, you left home. This time, you left nothing personal in your parents’ house.
Throughout your service year, you lived in a rented apartment in Apata and commuted daily via Micras to the secretariat where you worked. You only went home a few times and you would stay for two days after which you would return to Ibadan. You also visited your girlfriend in Lagos a few times and when she came to Ibadan; you would take her out to have a fun time. Sometimes, your mother would call to remind you to bring your boyfriend home and that you were not getting any younger as a woman and you would brush it aside because you could not bring yourself to tell your Yoruba parents that you liked girls. It was abominable and you knew your father would disown you and your mother would be heartbroken because she had been of your wedding since she gave birth to you. You wished you could be open about your relationship but you knew you could get killed for it. You are a Nigerian and Nigerians were homophobic. You would be seen as a taboo. At other times, you would sit alone on your bed and cry because you did not like your life. In university, you had wished for death but now, you want to live but with less sadness.
When Maryam relocated to Canada after her service, you cried so hard at the airport and she hugged you tightly and promised that she loved you. When you got back to Ibadan that night, you just curled up on your bed tightly and hugged the teddy bear she gave you on your last birthday. You fell asleep crying into her shirt and you felt so alone. You later got a job at a museum as a curator and after working for six months; you decided to pursue your masters abroad. Your father supported your decision but your mother was concerned you would never get married if you went abroad. You told them not to bother and that you will come back home. So, your parents pulled together their resources and sent you to North Hampton. Your mother cried at the airport but your father held her as they bid you farewell. That, to you, was the first step to liberation. You had told Maryam about it and she was excited. She had even called her uncle who stayed in North Hampton to give you accommodation and help you find your way.
Your days at North Hampton were very bright. On your first weekend in North Hampton, you entered a salon and cut your hair. You watched the hair fall off and you felt free as the breeze serenaded your head. You got your first tattoo much later, a butterfly on your upper arm. You had sent a picture of the tattoo to Maryam and she said it was cute. When you got your second tattoo, you wrote Bili’s name on your ankle. Maryam was there this time and she had joked with the tattoo artist through the process. All the time, you looked at the girl you had fallen in love with and how much she had grown. She was a bit taller than you and had her hair braided in two cornrows. Her nose ring was a distinct feature on her face and she had two long earrings on each ear. She was so beautiful and you smiled. Later that day, as you both consumed ice cream in your room, your head on her laps, she had kissed your head and told you how much she loved you. She went back to Canada a few days later but she always came to see you at North Hampton.
In between classes and projects, you still managed to see Maryam. You would occasionally look for a florist who resided near her and pay for a bouquet of roses to be sent to her. You felt like you were in a better space mentally. You were not dying on the inside. You still saw a therapist but it was online. When your parents called, it was often to check if you were doing fine and to remind you that you were getting too old for marriage. You were 26 when you finished your masters in North Hampton. Maryam was there the whole week of your graduation, fussing over the perfect dress to wear and who would do your makeup. Your siblings sent their best wishes from Nigeria and your parents travelled to North Hampton to see you. They were upset that you got tattoos and wore anklets but you ignored their words. They spent a whole week with you; you and Maryam took them on a tour and went shopping with them. Later, when they got back to Nigeria, they would call and ask you to greet your nice friend, Maryam and you would laugh and say okay.
You were up at sunrise, drinking wine and reading a book. You heard Maryam move around on the bed and you smiled. You started living with Maryam a year ago. You had moved to Canada with her after she got her apartment and she helped you find a job as a history teacher and consultant while she worked as a realtor with an estate management firm. You did not feel as lonely as you used to feel anymore. You did not feel like you were dying anymore. Occasionally, you still slipped into bouts of depression but you had someone other than a therapist who made you feel loved. For the first time in your life, you felt like you were home. You felt like you did not have to run anymore. You felt like you didn’t have to mourn anymore. It was like your whole life had been building up to this stage; you could finally rest and breathe and see clearly. Your mother’s call interrupted your thoughts; you saw Maryam change sides on the bed as you picked the call. She told you that your father’s brother in Lagos had died and you paid your condolences over the phone. Death was not new to you. We all have to die someday and you were not afraid to die anymore. You just did not want to die without having lived. To you, it was just the same shit, a different day and a different person. One day, it would come to you and you wouldn’t be scared to open the doors. The call ended just as Maryam roused from the bed. You gave her a quick kiss on the forehead and whipped up some pancakes for her and you knew that this was your life. This was the home you longed for, the sense of belonging you needed. You finally found your way home.
Moyomade Aladesuyi is a final year law student at Obafemi Awolowo university, Ile Ife, Osun state, Nigeria. She is also a writer and poet who has previously written for online magazines. She is an avid reader, a feminist and a lover of the arts. Some of her writings can be found on a blog she manages on wordpress (Winnie’s creations). She can be further reached on twitter (@womyn_witch) or on Instagram (@moyomade.a).