The people in your city are inflated by a need to slash and burn, and you are already a dress unraveling at the seams. The wind will take you like a jester starring in a staged farce, toss you hither, thither, smash you against stolid-faced walls and wrinkled roofs, fly you into people’s houses and bowls, and you will finally irritate someone. “Get me a pair of scissors,” they will say, “a blade, anything. And a bottle of kerosene, too. This rag needs to rest.”
On Monday morning, hours before your father awoke with his crackling radio in his hand, you crept into the kitchen, into its dark-blue, sooty embrace, your sister’s iPhone in your hand. WhatsApp was active. You started to text Dapo. You stopped, cleared everything you typed, and pressed the mouthpiece to your jaw instead. “Meet me behind that mosque at the T-junction in ten minutes. Bring it along, bring everything. Dump the torch.” The Send tone tinkled; you waited for the voicenote line to become two, then become blue. Your heart drummed. He was typing. He was taking too long. Your father would rise and enter the kitchen to pick his chewing stick, and he would notice that you knew how to operate your dead sister’s iPhone, that you were not wearing your nightwear.
That was Dapo’s reply. That was what had taken him hours to type back.
You thumped his shoulder, lightly, behind the mosque where the muezzin still slept, and told him.
He laughed, and the cold darkness made it feel like it was a spirit laughing. “You know how slowly I type. I didn’t finish secondary school.” He handed you a bag. “All your savings are there. The forged papers, too.”
You thought he was being foolish. Your nose caught something.
“What?” You sniffed his lips.
“Trophy. The Action Bitters brand.”
“This early, Dapo? The sun has not even risen yet.” You groped through the bag, hating yourself. “Mind your business, ode.” He smiled.
You touched something, something too well-bound to be doctored documents and too thick to be money. You had told him not to bring a flashlight, so you looked up and asked, “What is this? I’m touching it.”
“Sizwe Bansi is Dead,” he said, then pointed his jaw up the closed sky. “Woza Albert!” You cupped his mouth. “Shut up, you idiot.” You were smiling. “Why?”
“Girl, I know you love reading. Since the day you left it in my room, I knew it would one day come back to you sa ni. So I kept it.”
“At least, the ferry ride won’t be boring,” you said, quietly, slowly, because something was already building up in your chest, climbing up your throat, breaking your voice. “Thank you, Dapo.”
“Shut up with your thank you o. I’ve never been a fan of plays anyway. Movies are more my thing. So I needed to get rid of it, send it back to its owner.” He clasped your shoulder.
“Thanks for reminding me of one of the reasons I broke up with you,” you said, letting his hand stay.
He laughed. You were pleased, despite the loudness. You hadn’t set out to hurt him. You didn’t want to, and that was why you ended the other side of your relationship with him.
“How did you even know I would be awake to see your text?” he asked. “You know I don’t joke with my sleep. Bricklaying job no be beans.”
“It’s you, Dapo.” You stuffed the bag he brought into your backpack and zipped it up. “You know these people will literally burn me alive when the story gets out later in the morning.” You patted your breasts, the breasts that had tingled the previous afternoon, tingled and ached, from being pulled and gripped, the nipples sucked until you yelped and let the world hear. You wanted to tell him that, after you locked the back door of your father’s house behind you minutes ago, you had bent toward the earth and scooped some of it in your bag, for that was the ritual of daughters that would never return home. But you said, “You would be awake,” and hugged him. A full, finishing hug. Then you let him be.
Ajiroba Park hit you like a midnight bazaar. You had no problems with the secret merchants. It only shocked you that people in Ekiti were now behaving like the traders of Lagos. You slipped past a pregnant woman selling boiled groundnuts, a scarf wrapped around your head down to lower jaw, and ducked into one of the fayawo taxis, hoping the driver would not be one of those that would recognize you from the previous day. Your father’s words, drawled out in his midlife-cracked baritone when news of guns smuggled in with bags of illegal rice filled the local papers, came to you:
“All these fayawo criminals move with the night and use their greed to destroy everyone’s future. Sometimes, they even carry girls to where they will die.”
He really thought he was still mourning your sister. He did not know he was setting the stones of your fleeing.
A man folded down on a wooden tray with wheels rolled up to your side of the window. He said, “Aunty, abeg.” You crushed a few nairas into his palm and said, “Amen.” You needed every prayer. You held your backpack like a flight ticket. Chief Mrs didn’t need to know where you had gone. She had her time with you. She would never walk in the open here anymore, anyway. Still, even if you would tell no other soul, you could have told Shaki about it. But you and she would never be friends again. She had texted you the night it happened, someone unused to texting, and a prescient shiver had run through you before you tapped your chat open. Then she had sent you a fifteen-minute-some-seconds voicenote to seal it. Used words that fell too heavily on you, words that broke too many things. She had said in that voicenote that she would come to your house that morning. She would never find you.
You brought out your sister’s iPhone, switched it off, and slipped it back into your jeans. The taxi filled up, with strangers–you convinced yourself. The driver yelled something in the Ekiti dialect to another driver, then lowered his hip into his seat. A toothpick protruded from his mouth. He drove as if he were making love. You wanted to hold the sky so it wouldn’t dissolve; you wanted to swap souls with him, so the car would fly. It glided past Fulani men walking in a row with sacks on their shoulders; slender women with baskets of finished
</span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">adire clothes on their heads; hasty mothers bathing their whining children for school. You were thinking of nothing. The blankness of your mind stunned you into a languor you didn’t want but for which you were grateful. When you opened your eyes, the waft of wet sand was already in your nostrils. Soon, all the billboards vanished into mere air, and you began to see more palm trees. The taxi trundled more gently, cracking shells in its path. You had reached the beach.
The driver parked and leaped out to offload the boot. He smacked the door shut and, as you unclasped your seat belt, you said a prayer:
“Spirit of my mother, go with me.”
You stepped out. His passengers would spend days, even weeks, at the wharf, waiting for their cargos to steal in, in the dead of night. But not you. You were smuggling yourself out of your country. The breeze from the ocean was light, the morning mist thin. And the sun made the waters look like dancing ghosts. Go with me.
You arrived in Gabon wide-eyed, open-jawed, like a child. Libreville perplexed you, in the way Lagos had never and would never. In Lagos, there were hardly any hills; the ones that were, were choked with dirt and feces. Here, the hills spread themselves like a clan of women in their rightful place. They overlooked a brilliant port from where a wind drifted, clean, cool, rural. A dense rainforest cloud. That was it: Libreville was a city that may have convinced the Third World countries of its ambition, against the blurred lines of supremacist-communism, but it still managed to retain its village purities. It didn’t need choking throngs and airless constructions to make a fancy economical statement. You wished it upon the country you came from: the unbroken dignity of a heritage. Then, with a lance of guilt, you realized you were just desperate for validation, for a fresh start in a country that you hoped would never remind you of the one you left.
You waited for your guy, Dapo’s connect. Dapo had described him as “a hothead, but just a loud mouth and no backbone”. When he showed up, looking a little frazzled, his sunglasses too black and his lips too black and too pursed, as though this was a bother that had interrupted more important bothers, your heart sank a little. Then you looked at his sharp black jacket, oozing an opulent cool, and you squared your shoulders. It could be a test, or a lesson, to harden you. You wanted to tell him you were already a hard daughter. You had left your widowed father alone in Nigeria, without even a note left for him.
He did not shake your hand. He took you around the city. A welcome tour. He took you to Re´serve de la Lope´, where tiny-eyed birds blinked and brown monkeys tried to hurl bananas at you. He told you how it used to be called “Lope´ Wildlife Reserve”, how its park was now dryer than it used to be—historical facts that you didn’t need to know. You wanted to make your own history.
The girls he introduced you to as “your senior colleagues” were as assorted as Africa: a bowl of kenkey side by side with eba and egusi and shitto with a dash of malango, and a side of kachumbari. There were two Nigerians already, an Ijeoma who told you immediately that she was a staunch Catholic, as though that stopped her from fake-moaning into customers’ ears, and an Utuenikang (“Call me ‘Eni’, mbok, or just leave my name alone”). You arrived and the Nigerian head count became three: the highest in the harem. What was it with Nigerians and being everywhere? Was the country that unlivable? Your Gabon Connect introduced you to the rest: Alinafe, the Malawian, who was so pretty her first words to you—“Thank God, a
beautiful Nigerian at last”—made you grow taller; Genoveva, the Malabo girl who flipped her long animal hair and said, “I was actually in the Nzalang Femenino but it was dramatic as fuck, I had to leave”; then Korleki, a plump, Ghanaian girl with sharp, world-weary eyes. Your Gabon man wanted you to settle in “rapidement”, because “les consommateur” were ready. He seemed to be a looser, lousier version of himself, slapping palms and laughing at nothing. He had fashioned himself to be the receiver of paeans in the harem. But when he turned his back, the girls insulted him. Called him a lazy cheat, an Omega male. Korleki said there were better ways, inward ways, to use your bodies, the six of you, than slaving here for a man with a flat ass and greedy eyes. You didn’t understand what Korleki meant, and you couldn’t ask her. Her glowing eyes made you believe she would call you stupid. You couldn’t ask the other girls either, because they didn’t seem interested at all in what she was saying. So you stayed there and waited for your prep time to elapse so you could start entertaining les consommateur.
Gabon Man reminded you too much of the home you had run from. He was always on the phone, shouting about how they needed to go back to the one-party system of the country’s early 1960s. He was an Nzebi, born in the swarming south of the Ogooue´ river, and he had the kick of population behind his ideals. He needed the Fang tribe to go. You didn’t understand most of the things he said, even though you had been reading the Language and Dialects pages of your borrowed immigration’s guide pamphlet for months now. His Bantu consonants were too affricated; they vibrated into nothingness. Pontifications and vociferations often started out as thin tribal banters until they swelled into deep- and dark-current regional wars. Why? What differences were there? The men who raped your sister were Yoruba like you, not Igbo, not Hausa. Your uncle who molested her as a thirteen-year-old was your father’s younger brother, Baba Adio, and your family kept mum about it. It was the first well-enacted script of shame you knew of your family. You did not know your mother could act so well. She told the women at Asalatu meetings that Ganiya, your sister, fell ill with the smallpox and so couldn’t come out for prayers. She kept her face ambivalent: not too straight and not too shedding of emotion. Yet you couldn’t hate her. You tried to, wanted to, needed to. But you failed to. So, when your sister died of the abortion she secretly went for, and your mother slumped in the bathroom barely a week after, you felt a small relief. You could now be for yourself. You felt nothing for your father, not hatred, not even contempt. When your sister started returning home late from her apprentice post at the tailor’s shop, he had said nothing. Only your mother had shouted all the “Aozobillahi!” in the Holy Koran. When Ganiya brought home an iPhone and started giggling at midnight, the only thing your father said was: “They will use you. Those yahoo boys you are following, they will use you.” Your mother cried that she should return the phone at once. But you all knew, even as the words fell, that they were dead weights. When you finally had the courage to break up with Dapo so you could continue sleeping with the married women in your neighborhood without guilt, nobody noticed. They hadn’t noticed when you sneaked out of the house to go squat and hop on Dapo’s stretched, naked thighs, so how exactly could they have noticed that you now stuck your tongue into women’s bodies? It was the perfect secret. But the afternoon before you finally executed your old plan to run, you had moaned too loudly in Chief Mrs’ room and someone by the window had heard you and seen the two of you and raised an alarm and word had travelled, and you had
chosen not to witness that particular shame. And now, you were in Gabon, to live the life you were used to, the life you had lived and lived and lived. If you shut your eyes, you would still live it. But this was not exactly how. This routine was boring. The cycle seemed to be repeating itself. The people in whose hands you placed your life always focused on other things rather than that life of yours.
You sat up and fondled your belly in front of the mirror. He was still yelling. Your belly was flat. You imagined your pill failing when you started work, and a baby growing in there. You shook your head at the almanac on the wall above Ijeoma’s bed, the Gabonese Roman Catholics grinning in their habits and rosaries, grinning faithfully. Both countries were similar, born in 1960, struggling, wearing clothes ill-fitting, still a child, shouldn’t have been born. Perhaps they were too similar.
You got up and went to find Korleki.
It was Korleki that introduced you to drug trafficking. She took you to Madam CFA, a drug baroness who was also a sex trafficker. Madam CFA ran her eyes up and down your body. Perhaps she was wondering if you could swallow and hold it down, not to talk of passing it out without it bursting in your stomach. You had read Swallow, you had watched many documentaries on STV back in Nigeria, on Dapo’s television, of girls who died on the flight to London, of callow young women with shiny eyes who got caught by Immigration officers. You started to speak in a rush, to certify yourself. You said there was no favor you could not pay back in any manner, any kind. You looked at her impassive face, a face made rugged by years of maximum calculated risks and contract betrayals, and knew then that she did not swing your way, and never would.
“Korleki, give her my number,” she finally said, turning to stab a giant calculator placed beside her. “I will speak with her and arrange something. I am busy.”
You were ready that morning. Your travel visa to Dublin was neat. You had eaten nothing. Madam CFA had insisted that you come and swallow the condoms in her harem. She wasn’t going to leave anything to chance. She’d been in this mule industry for close to a decade. You obliged. You arrived at her mansion. Girls milled about, unsteady on their stilettos, their brightly hued dresses askew and stained with fluids you would neither imagine nor name. One of them lurched into you with a small splash of vomit. You flung her backward, and she rose in a dishevelment from the past.
“Ganiya,” you said, uncertainly, like a dialogue script melting in water. She slumped in your arms again, retching, just like water. It was her. “Ganiya!”
“My name is not Ganiya here. It’s Jill.”
Jill. You internalized it. A human being deserved that much respect to be called what they wanted to be called. “You did not die?”
She shook her head, as if the question needed an answer. She was all cleaned up, her makeup banished with wipes. “Did you see a corpse? Did they not tell you I ran away bleeding from the clinic?”
Your mouth hung open. You were sitting on her bed. You thought you had been prepared for this feeling all your life, but maybe some roles weighed more than the others. Maybe there was no script for this mortification sitting on your face, head, chest, shoulder-blades, even lips. Your gown still carried her vomit. You didn’t want her to stop talking, so you would have a reason not to get up and clean up, too.
“I chose to leave. Isn’t that why you left, too? We were living in a place where they thrust judgment on us, Sister. We lived every day preparing to be called a bad name. Why? Because of our body parts? Do you remember what Maami said that night the vigilante hunter carried me home from the streets? ‘What was she doing outside so late in the first place, this girl!’ ” That, my sister, was what she said.”
“Our father did not say anything.”
“And you don’t think that was better? I can’t believe you.”
You were silent. I cannot believe I’m defending our mother.
Jill swept on, wedging your guilt back into your mind. It was barely the hour for you to feel it yet. “Baami’s silence was all the permission I needed to know that my life was in my hands. Maami still controlled it with her blames. Listening to her tell me I allowed all the things that happened to made me feel like she was responsible for me. But that night, as I lay groaning on our parlor floor and heard her, I knew who I was and things changed. Was I supposed to be outside looking for how to borrow and work for my WASCCE fees? Was it my responsibility? I just had to. It was a rehearsal. I grew up learning how my world is, and how I must live in it without too much collateral damage.” She sniffed. “Or maybe there is always collateral damage. But no more, nothing will be chosen for me. Now, I am a woman. Here, I can choose what shames me or not, what breaks me or not, and how I must react to it.”
As your sister spoke, you did not think of the life you had unwrapped from your body and left back home. Nor were you thinking of the new life Madam CFA was about to give you, or the power she already wielded on your sister, in a different way. You were not thinking of the questions you should be asking, and the ones you must never ask, but simply take actions on. Instead, you were smiling at the photo on your sister’s dresser, the one holding her and your parents on the day of her graduation at the tailoring shop, taken days before four men waylaid her on a not-so-dark street and tore her skirt. You were smiling at how the picture frame had startled you, how your sister had carefully placed it there, like a compulsory guide, a forced witness, and how her smile in the photo looked so complete.