Once Bitten, Twice A Story
The oyinbos are every Nigerian child’s god. Well, maybe not all Nigerian children, but then, it is “unNigerian” to see an oyinbo and not stand and stare and point. That is how much damage we…I have been born into.
Oh, we stare too long and get madly excited at the sight of a plane too—the one that looks more like a bird in the sky. We run around and sing for it—or the people in it; the oyinbos we believed are in it, we don’t know which, but the bird in the sky really always gets us worked up.
As a child in Lagos, in the ghetto part of Lagos, anything other than the filth, and makeshift substitutes for the expensive, fascinates us to the point where we fell into clogged and smelly gutters just from looking; dreaming hasn’t even thought to enter the equation yet.
Our bodies have grown resistant to the contaminated water sold in sachets; the mosquitoes feasting on our bodies nightly, because we practically live on water, water that rarely goes down and whose origin is untraceable, the unbalanced, insufficient meals; and, the heart-breaking things our parents murmur after they listen to their battered radios at night.
We always sit around them too and listen… It’s night after all, and the oojuju stories and dramas we usher into our plays during the day, rise up in flesh and shadows to haunt our minds at night; so we join the adults to huddle together at night, listening.
Ours is a community not government made, but circumstances-made. We stay together in moments of joy, usually from the addition of another baby to the poverty stricken condition of a home of seven kids already, all with parents in one shabby room and in moments of mourning which constitutes the death of a child mostly, the cause usually being cholera and diarrhoea; cases of a crawling baby with negligent watchers falling into the water and drowning after a heavy rainfall.
Our little community of batcher houses is built with planks leading from the houses’ entrances, to a platform raised above the water; to which the planks are nailed. The batchers are built close to each other, and in something of a circular fashion.
The middle ground where the planks meet on the wide, firm platform is fondly called the “T” junction, and most times serves as jetty for us the children, and a meeting ground for the adults.
We all listen to the radio at night, it is somewhat like an unwritten constitution of our unfounded communit, we even tagged it “radio time”. Our mothers serve the night meals thirty minutes before it begins, so that we have eaten by then, and the fear of ojuju has come on all the children, and fathers’ have turned the radio up, causing every human and ghost to go silent and listen.
The way the radio solely talks on in the still night, the lone voice being harmonized by nocturnal creatures, and the occasional sounds of disgust and anger and amusement from our parents, is something beautiful to reckon with.
“Radio time” is wonderful, but it is how it leaves our parents that causes us the psychological disturbances we don’t even understand, but get nightmares from when we go to bed with the mosquitoes and horrible smell.
They told us in our overcrowded class that Nigeria gained independence in 1960, the month and date are unimportant, but then, what I think… What I believe the teacher means, is that one woman who had been giving orders from somewhere far away just came for tourist attraction, with flowers in hand, to shake us and tell us “we are on our own now”. Words are cheap; smiles can be cheaper, and so we never should have taken her words to heart, and never should have rejoiced at their prospects either.
They say we clamoured for the Independence…that our nationalism fathers, who were the true leaders, wanted Nigeria to be able to rule itself and have its opportunity to do as it would And so they fought with pens and swords and the white lady came to shake our hands.
But then, years have passed, and there are talks of the mistake Nigeria made by seeking to be autonomous, and it is as if we the children understand the entire delapetic state of things, because when we chance upon those white people reddening under our hot, black sun, and hear those planes flying over our heads, we get this frenzied excitement and…and…curiosity, as if, via the spiritual eyes they say we young ones have, we can discern that we want to be controlled all over again, so that the thieves at least will not be our own black-skinned brothers we trust; so that all our energy can be channelled again at what we will again regard as the “cruelty of outsiders”. It’s as if we know, in my opinion that an outsider killing you is better, and less pathetic, and more “fightable” than when it is your in-house person that should know better.
So we watch these whites and the planes, with a feeling of nostalgia, almost, like we know about the perfect and sweet life we believe they must have just by being white, and in a plane….we get excited and don’t see the glances we receive from their red faces, faces that wear pity unashamedly, and let you see that you were pitied.
But we never care….I never do, anyway. Mama says you have nothing to close your eyes for when you are naked before a world you need to and can beg for help.
Our parents don’t think about British imperialism, or how much it clouds both our individual and national lives.
We…I don’t really blame them for not thinking any of our issues has something to do with the white folks that had come, gone and now came again to see how good or bad a job they had done in leaving us alone to our devices.
We don’t blame them because we know that many of them did not have a chance to learn… Like, learn completely in a complete system, absolute with a widely read and thinking teacher; classmates that talk and learn; an environment that lets them think and question. We realize they didn’t really learn, because it shows in their behaviour. It’s in the way they blackmail us into doing their bidding; in the way our mother’s keep being very petty; and most of all, it’s evident in the way our fathers crowd the radios grey hairs, casting silhouettes of wonderment and fear on all our souls.
Our fathers fear what they don’t know the tomorrow that’s bleak, and the painful thoughts that cannot be shed in tears. We fear not what they fear, but; who they have become with all this the silent, brooding, rigid beings poverty and frustration has made them.
The next day, I wait at the T junction for the other kids, so that we can go to school…or better put so I can lead them to school.
I am a kid like the other kids, but then, the adults have decided amongst themselves, at a time and date we definitely will never know, that my own “kidness” is ten times more mature than all of theirs put together. I don’t know if it is because I always come first in class even though the stomach I take to school is always just as half-empty as theirs, and the number of my books are just as incomplete as theirs or because I do pretty much too much for my 11 years.
They catch me reading all the time; not my books, of course. I borrow books a lot and spend half the time I should be using to jump off our jetty with the others, pouring over them.
They like the way I talk too. They say I bring out the words from somewhere in my body, the way the white people, they chance upon once in a while, do. They say the words I know are too much and too big for the black, poor head I have. They say the kind of head I have should be for the white people of course who all must be rich.
I never argue with them or correct all their misconceptions about why I am the way I am or how, contrarily, the whites can be, or how we actually could be living our lives, even though we had almost nothing.
I am still a child anyway no matter how much sense or “adultness” they say I have. A child is always a child, and should learn to shut up at certain times this is another unspoken or written constitution.
So I stand on our jetty and wait for children like me who I am being made to shepherd, like they are nothing but sheep under my authority, like I am their president.
I wait on the jetty and look down at the water, until I hear a sound above me. I know what it is even before I look up. Sure to it, when I look up, there it is a metallic bird in the air carrying people I imagine are white-skinned and rich… I have listened to it too much, that I now think it too.
What more, I imagine them looking down at our community floating on water, and laughing long and hard at the farce we call a country.
I imagine, until I begin to laugh with them too.
I laugh and wait…