23rd September, 2015.
The spot hurts, and not without good reason. Twice in the space of ten minutes, that corner of my head has made forcible contact with a sharp-edged portion of the bus. Not that the bus is comfortable by any standards, but there is something about this part of the bus that makes it seem like a reservoir for pain. My head was already previously aching from a long day at the slave site I call an office, so the double bump is just perfect. No, I didn’t cause the hurt myself by nodding carelessly to loud music. On the two different occasions, passengers had thought it wise to make unsolicited body contact while boarding the bus, and apparently, an apology is too much to ask for in this big city. Life is too short for that, and besides, you should understand that the one thing on every passenger’s mind is getting home, so courtesy and good manners face suspension like a country’s constitution under a military junta. I am learning. There is still a lot to catch up on around here, but I’ll be fine….
Or will I? It’s been nearly four months since I got here, but I still can’t get the hang of how things work in this place. A typical day, depending on what part of the city you reside, stretches from 5am to 10pm. That is roughly seventeen hours, five of which would usually go to traffic jams, on a good day. The rest would go to hours at your slave site of an office, unsatisfied bosses who have no idea of what the words “employee relations” mean, silent battles in your head in a bid to avoid snapping, short break periods which are not guaranteed, bills from out of nowhere, and noise pollution from commercial and residential neighbours. I still mix up the bus routes because now and then I get confused by the speed at how conductors recite them like mantras, the fares fluctuate now and then, and sometimes in searching for a vehicle to a particular destination, I still walk down the wrong lane altogether.
Mama sends me a photo via Whatsapp. It’s my 20-month-old sister, all dressed up in a school uniform; she started kindergarten school yesterday. She looks so beautiful, wide-eyed with the milk teeth and all, and I wish I could reach her and tell her that growing up is a crap, but all I can do is smile, smile until tears come to my eyes. I miss her, I miss her innocence, and by extension, mine too. I miss my mattress back home, my reading table, my life down there in the South-South.
Remuneration as a professional was not particularly fantastic, but there was that peace, that love, that solace called friendship, that feeling of royalty. The pond was pretty small and dry, no doubt, but I was a big fish therein. More importantly, there was always rice at home. When that client refused to pay up, when that job interview didn’t go as planned, when that crush refused to pick up the phone, when the greedy boss chose to pay February wages in mid-March, there would always be rice, a plate of which was laid out without the need to ration.
My days here in this place have seen my face get harder, and my skin go darker. I still feel like an immigrant, like a sheep in the big city. Besides what I get from work, the city comes with its own special dose of pressure, which weighs heavily on me, like the ‘h’ factor attributed to those in these parts does to the ears. Much is made about this place being the New York of Africa, and about it being the essence of the Nigerian dream, but I like to think that whenever and wherever your creativity is impeded and your imagination suffers, it’s nothing short of a nightmare. I can’t write anymore, I can’t think anymore, heck, there is hardly any room in my mental space to dream anymore; this city has choked it all up.
Work and life have alienated me from my friends back home. The job hunt flung me into bouts of depression which caused me to minimize contact, the job itself and accompanying fatigue won’t let me communicate, and slowly (but gradually), they have got used to life without me. Their patience for unreplied pings and calls must have run out, and now even when they gather at the spots we used to hang out, they no longer put a call across, or take an extra shot of liquor in my honour. I seem dead to them, thanks to the murder of my communication skills which were not perfect in the first place.
The ones here are physically and emotionally inaccessible. Sure, there is the matter of traffic as well as the Island-Mainland dichotomy, but I like to believe that we make out time for the things (or people) we care about. Funny how the people who back in the day would ask me over the phone to come check on them in this city, now seem to have no time for the man. Even Meg, who lives only a fifty-naira tricycle ride away, is always too busy on weekends. I should have known that the city takes away affections and severs bonds too.
Even love and associated ‘extensive physical interactions’ come with a price tag. Sure, it has never been free lunch, but getting an audience was a lot easier back home. Down here, you learn quickly that pick-up lines are not legal tender, and like Wizkid put it, they won’t dance if you don’t show the wallet. It’s either you have it or you don’t; there is no regard for the ones “who are trying”. I still remember the undergraduate who wanted two thousand naira worth of airtime before she would honour a weekend invitation, and the story of a neighbour who had to pay fifteen thousand naira once his natural ATM card went into a visitor’s machine, is still fresh in memory.
I tried so hard to identify with this place. I effected a ‘change of location’ update in all relevant media outlets, picked up slangs like “Badoo sne” and hummed to the likes of Wizkid’s “Ojuelegba”,followed Gidi Traffic on Twitter, even adopted a Western name…..but I know the city hates me. I see it in the way they look at me when I pronounce ‘owa’ in an accent they find strange, I see it in the way the woman at the Lands Registry stares scornfully when she speaks in the local language and I tell her that I can’t understand her, I see it when the girl who sits next to me at the office keeps speaking in that “I know you haven’t seen this in your place” tone, I see it when that woman with tribal marks serves me with crappy food and still gets to be loudly rude while at it. The skies frown, the winds sneer, even the roads scoff as I walk on them. I know, I am not welcome here.
There are days I feel like finding my way to the middle of Obalende and scream, “mad city, I don’t like you either”, but I think I’ll save my voice for saner climes…..and people. I have been in a number of major cities; Ancient City, Coal Country, Afang Country, even the most southerly part of the nation, and they all treated me warmly…..but not here. Too many people troop in daily anyways, the population density is such that the city deserves its immigration laws, so what difference will one immigrant make, warrant all the attention? Well I’m not known to be a dramatic guest; I’ll wait for the next pay cheque, then get my bags and head out south (or east, or anywhere else that’s not west) with my headphones on. The sights and sounds were fun while they lasted. For me, it’s not just about making a living, it’s about having a life. Yea, the city won….of course it did, but that’s because when it comes to monstrosity, there is no contest.