It happens like this: a woman swallows a city whole and becomes dust. You wake up one morning and realise she swallowed you too. You are a prisoner until you open your eyes. Until your pen touches paper. Until you break open your skin. Until warmth returns to your body. Until, until.
This is how I remember it.
It was June or July of 2004. My parents gathered three of us early in the morning—my elder brother Amir, my younger sister Salma and me—in the room lousy with dusty musings of our old selves. Like the hoarded cosmetics my mother never used. Like my father’s films. Like the blanket my siblings and I all shared at night and the squeaky ceiling fan we thought would one day fall and kill us in our sleep yet was never replaced. A violent destiny we’d all simply come to terms with.
We sat pressed together in that room. The one we’d all shared in our oddly spacious two bedroom flat in Abuja. We were going to Kano, not minding that school was still ongoing or that Kano was a holiday spot where we could stay with Auntie M who had been sick. Typhoid. We’d heard our mother whisper again and again on various calls to relatives and family friends. They didn’t have to tell us.
I was born in Kano. Dropped right into the cradle of the many women in our neighbourhood. Most of them I haven’t seen or heard from since that last visit. Then, a child could not be backed or breastfed by one woman only. In the way of Islam, a breastfeeding woman could nurse an absent woman’s baby and these babies below the age of two, by the milk of these women, are assigned siblings for life. So, they are forbidden for each other and cannot marry. But many women avoided this, afraid of limiting their children through this ancient path. They would decide then that women with baby girls would nurse other baby girls and versa with boys so that they made only sisters and sisters, and brothers and brothers. I don’t have any sister or brother though. My mother stopped making siblings out of other children for us after my elder brother who has a brother who is not our brother. I often find myself being jealous when my mother mentions this. When she calls this other boy “Da na,” “my son.” She too, has many siblings including Yakub, her cousin who, if not by this delicate ritual, would be her mahram. It is why she can hug him and walk around the house unveiled in his presence and be free. Something she isn’t allowed in the midst of other male cousins.
Our apartment was located in Gadan Kaya, straight after the Welcome to Kano gate, you couldn’t miss it. It was a two story sky-blue-coloured building structured just beside the wide road where moving cars and okadas didn’t stop for anyone. It would be long, drawn-out minutes of standing before you were able to cross to the other side of the road without risking your life. In front of the short fence that housed these blue fascinating apartments, each stewing lives and stories I have long stopped wondering about, was Dage Dage Supermarket. The place of our dreams. A tight store Malam Balarabe restocked every week with foreign soft drinks and biscuits sold in colourful plastic containers. We’d never dream of eating these biscuits except with Auntie M. She always made sure we had chosen the ones we wanted before leaving. I remember waking up from afternoon naps only to find assorted cookies and tropical juices packed in cans beside me and hating myself for falling asleep. The trips with her were more important to me than the things she’d bought us. Although those gifts were important to younger me. To go to the store hand in hand, wait for her to ask me in that cool voice, pure with the only kind of love I would learn as an adult did not suffocate me, the kind of love I would never reject.
“This one? Or that one?” she would ask, pointing at flashy packets and I would nod, that one. Filled to the brim with this early kindness. The rarity of her love attacks me some days when I wake up early and wonder where I would find this peace again. Where a being like my grandaunt would exist. I always end up staying in bed longer than I am supposed to, mainly because the sadness sits still on top of my head. The way it did on days where I would miss an outing with Auntie M. Those days that always ended in slow motion and mild hatred towards my brother who never fell asleep on the couch and missed the opportunity of escorting our Auntie to the store.
Right next to the supermarket there was a photo studio ran by a cheerful Yoruba woman named Funke, who would occasionally walk into our apartment to photograph my mother. She took candid photos of all of us too. My favourite was the one where my brother and I are holding each other, me biting my lip and him smiling widely to showcase inconsistent teeth, one arm drooping down the other’s shoulder. And my mother, with her hair unveiled, eyes lined in kohl and staring sharply back into the lenses; striking a lazy yet eloquent pose on the edge of our grey couch in the living room, the one we would take back eventually when we move to Lokoja and then finally, Abuja. In most of her photos, Auntie M is standing behind her, knees slightly folded so that they are the same height, their faces touching, proving all of the comments about their resemblance alive. These moments—our old lives—that we no longer talk or think about are tucked between the wrappers and veils my mother has hoarded over the years in a photo album inside her vintage-looking maroon suitcase somewhere in her room.
In Gadan Kaya, laid out on wet red sand, there was a mosque, a church, a small market, stalls selling fruits and freshly watered vegetables, people hawking trays of foods piled with groundnuts, bananas, pure water and fankasu or gurasa. It was a community of people who looked out for one another, my first whiff of communal love.
There, I felt weightless. So unaware, so irresponsible for the darkness that would soon follow me around. The thoughts or feelings of anxiety never existed or were buried there. And had I known that my life would become a series of breathless days, I would’ve relished in the place of my birth. Would’ve lingered in the vicinity of my grand-aunt, my mother, occasionally my father who was always travelling–trying to make ends meet between old and new jobs–and all the women who had bathed me between their thighs as a baby. I would have tried harder to keep my memories when things began to scatter.
That morning our departure for Kano was so abrupt. I cannot remember much, I was seven, but I knew my mother was upset. So upset she had only started packing our suitcase that very morning when usually, she’d start a week prior. Rushing everything and avoiding the three pairs of confused eyes following her, her lineless face had creased like crumpled beige paper between soft palms. I remember my father’s face too, the familiar stretched buttery brown canvas fitted with the same thick, black afro and moustache, shrouded in grey distant clouds.
We all knew we were going to Kano. I learned very early on that many things would be left unsaid. It was up to me to catch up or be left behind. But for the first time ever, nobody was thrilled for this mysterious vacation.
My parents said a quick prayer for the journey, leaked out words from trembling mouths that barely made sense. My uncle, Hassan, mother’s immediate younger brother, followed us on this journey too. He took the front seat next to my father while my mother sat in middle of us in the backseat like she always did so that if any of us would fall asleep on the way, she’d place our heads on her chest, my sister on her lap, her arms the only protection we’ve ever needed. The protection I had yearned for when the glass wall between us finally became visible. It separated us because we both couldn’t throw the first stone. And so we simply walked backwards, forgetting how it had once felt to hold each other. The protection I would have died for at age eight, in the other room of our flat in Abuja, the one nobody slept in, when stifling hands of an older boy had found their way in, collecting and collecting, telling me that this was just a game, and collecting things from me the way Aunty M had collected Kano back.
On the evening we returned to Abuja from that last visit, my mother took down the enlarged framed photos of Auntie M and her from the parlour. I wonder how I’d missed her phases of grief.
This journey is unlike the others. The vast skies aimlessly suspending clouds are there, the shooting trees, the small villages and local restaurants, they are all there. The air is clear and I can smell the leafy paths so well. We pass by big trucks, those ones with the “IN GOD WE TRUST” slogan transporting cattle or perishable foods, whose engines jut out black smoke that chokes us all. Nobody says a word. Nobody complains. Nobody presents their arm out of their window to feel the breeze blow back at them, in that mellow daring way only fermenting air knows how to. Nobody is here, and I begin to absorb the mass of my family’s blues in my chest and fists. My father drives quietly. He is not smoking a cigarette. Uncle Hassan’s hands are between his legs. My mother is looking forward, I cannot see her eyes. Nobody falls asleep. We are awake, but nobody is here.
If I had known that June or July of 2004 would be the day that younger me would reset herself, I would have rinsed myself in the smell of my grandaunt’s house, in her clothes and pillows. If I had known that I would not return even after sixteen years, that I had no plans to, that that day might be the last I see of our old blue quarters, of Dage Dage Supermarket, of wide uncrossable expressways and night markets, I would have paid more attention. I would have tried to prevent people I have known and shared soil with from breaking into ghosts.
Auntie M was my grandaunt. My mother’s namesake, her salty prayer palms, the only person who carried just enough light to her eyes, and as I write this, even with Morrison’s “we do language” repeating in my head, I realise that all vocabulary in all three languages I speak combined, fail to describe these women’s affection, care and love for each other.
She was glamorous. She really was. She could be cooking in that outrageously large kitchen of our apartment and she would still look like art personified. I don’t know how she came about living with us in the apartment but it made me happy and between those blue walls, I had eavesdropped on conversations she’d had with my mother. One day, they were sat on the floor of her bedroom and she was talking, her voice small but her words echoing everywhere, and I caught these words between my eyes: Your freedom is more important than your comfort.
It echoed everywhere and everywhere. She’d said it to my mother, but she’d actually said it to me. There was a time when she’d occupied a big space in a big house in Gedigedi Street with a woman I would come to know as her co-wife. We would visit her there, her tall frame wearing either a Senegalese boubou or a wrapper and blouse. Hair black and cared for with natural masks and oils, always styled by the side of her face, spread slantingly across her forehead to hide it. It is what she had always disliked about her face. Her forehead. I have the same one too, and now, at twenty-one, I wear our features with pride I hope would radiate towards her every morning.
At age eight, the secrets that dropped started making sense.
Auntie M had no children. She couldn’t, I assume. Or she didn’t want any. I still cannot bring myself to ask my mother. All the children she housed for the young women who would bring them to her for days and weeks, sometimes months, did not belong to her. Even though they called her Mama and their real mothers Aunty. Even though they cried with mucus running down their open mouths when their real mothers came to collect them.
I used to look at them with pity. These children who were not related to this woman who torched us alive every morning with her fingers. Who used those same fingers to feed us, read us the tales of Gizo and Koki, held us in her body where nobody and nothing could touch us that wasn’t clarified as soft breaths of a lover where everything smells like sandalwood and reassurance and old books and perfectly starched boubou on moisturised skin.
My siblings and I were the luckiest children amongst the children who lived in her house. And I sensed that she’d loved us the most–she would even say it, but something in me reverberated with doubt—that had she birthed children, she would’ve loved them the most.
We are in a strange town, parked by the road. The rush of cars swooping by ring through my ears long after they have passed leaving an anxious itch in my stomach. My father walks into a nearby kiosk made neatly of wood scraps and emerges with soft drinks and Okin biscuits as I watch two children chase deflated tyres with short sticks in front of the shop. I remember drinking my Fanta halfway and my mother asking me to finish it.
“I am saving the rest for Auntie M,“ is what I say.
An attempt of awakening a ghost from a bitter beyond is what I have done. A cruel kind of tranquility tore into space the moment those words vacated my mouth. They stayed there, suspended and unclaimed; I could almost taste them. I was the first to mention her name throughout that day and they were scared or something. This is the first and last time I resurrect her openly.
“Auntie M- is in Mecca,” my mother replies.
The first lie. But it isn’t entirely false. If Auntie M won’t be in the house by the time we arrive, then who the fuck were we on our way to Kano to see?
It is in the other room of our flat in Abuja that I killed eight-year-old me. I decided I hate the word “body” when it happens. I am a self; and a “body” feels too isolating, like a temporary luggage filled with unwanted things collected over the years only to be donated or thrown away. Eight-year-old me would be the first to go. The others would join her later at ten, sixteen, eighteen and finally, twenty.
Yakub, my mother’s cousin and brother who is half Algerian and handsome and whose enticing carefreeness I often find myself emulating these days is responsible. We are in this room. This room that nobody occupies except visitors and we are gisting. Jumping from topic to topic when I ask him–because he still lives in Auntie M’s apartment–when she would be returning from Mecca. He stares at me, then at my brother. His eyes widen and he curses under his breath as he casually calls out to my mother: “These children don’t know Auntie M is dead till now?”
I am eight and I am crying. Choking on my sobs in the veranda on that hot afternoon. There is a small window that opens to the kitchen store and between the pane, my father’s smoked up cigs. He had a habit of sitting by the veranda, crossed-legged and smoking with my uncles around evening time when the day had started to wear off., talking politics and books and the economy. I used to believe I would never be able to engage in complicated topics like they did. That I would never “have the range.” Now, I am a communist who scoffs at images of monarchs and senators across the tv. I believe in a world where housing and food are not luxuries but basic human necessities made accessible to the people. I believe in abolition of the police, of the state, of heteronormative capitalist patriarchy.
I disagree with my father on many things and sometimes I feel the threatened cave in his voice as he calls me the daughter of Che. Sometimes I wonder if it is really my mouth talking. Me, that chubby, shy girl who could only imagine dreams on the bodies of others but never herself. I also never thought I’d make it to secondary school or survive 300 level but as I kept hoping these intangible hurdles I had long self-constructed, I’d shocked myself. Maybe God too. I always think okay, that’s it, after marking another milestone and I imagine God contemplating: Hm, maybe we should try another year.
And another and another and 22 years later, I still think I wouldn’t make it to 25. We will see sha.
My cousins, siblings and I used to take up these cigarettes and pretend to smoke them until my mother found us and said something powerful enough to stop father’s evening political talks and cigarette breaks. Now, he smokes in secrecy but every now and then we catch the broken clouds of burning tobacco somewhere in the house. We hold our breaths.
My world is falling apart and yet, people are still standing outside. Mother is still cooking lunch and scolding Yakub for revealing what he had revealed. I want to ask her when she’d thought a convenient time was for her to allow my own grief. Or if she had thought I was unworthy of grief for a woman I had only briefly known. If I was worthy at all, of anything. But I don’t, instead, I stiffen my cries and spill them back in. This is how I’ve learnt to grief in this household, I repress until it is time to fall apart again.
My eyes are watery and I cannot see, but I know that the world is not the world. The sun sits opposite me and soon, she would fall. Girls and women are still walking into the flat downstairs with their salon bags containing assorted pomades and a variety of hairbrushes to get their hair done by Mama Mutiyat. The men by the shop adjacent to our flat–where I would steal tuwon madara from with a girl I liked years later–were still dragging their tasbih, wasting their breaths in pointless conversations and selling to customers. Me and this girl whose rebellion I’d allowed to smear my good girl name, would be behind the dining curtain, our mouths cemented in milk and giggling. I would stare at her and take in the smell of her full head of hair and forget why I’d ever even been sad to begin with. But they can’t see me. Can’t they see me? Can’t they see a being shattering before them that is my girl self? I want to scream. I want to see how Auntie M looks now that she is dead. I realise that I don’t even know what it means for a person to die. Only that I would never be able to see them again. Like my grandparents. All of them. They died before I could meet any of them so they never mattered. I didn’t want Auntie M to not matter.
When I returned to the room, Yakub asked where I had been. I studied my brother’s face. Was he sad? Had he known? When did his own world end? How did he keep living in it?
Silence draped over the room. I had been standing by the door for too long when Yakub asked me over a book he was reading. “Kuka kike yi?”
Are you crying?
We reached Kano at about three o’clock in the afternoon. I remember because we walked into the apartment to men praying asr in congregation. The car had broken down twice on the road that Uncle Hassan and a few good Samaritans had to push the vehicle before he would run back in on account of the engine restarting.
Even during the rainy season, Kano was a hot city. There was rarely electricity or running water and mosquitoes were abundant at night. The heat of this city that never seemed to hibernate and the anxiety of the car breaking down again patched our necks and armpits in rancid moisture.
Upon reaching the gate, women and children were quietly mourning. I recognised some of the children as the children who grew up under Auntie M. They looked sad, probably because she had travelled to Mecca. I don’t talk to them.
The sea of acquaintances, family, friends and strangers don’t startle me. It is Kano anyway. People are always gathered. I am too young to understand. Too young to realise the vanishing furniture in the house. The welling eyes looking into mine, the jerking women, the supplications, the piles of starchy boubou being taken away in suitcases, the heaviness of the air, the way my mother suddenly wailed and collapsed into Hajiya Gaji upon reaching the house.
Kano tumbin giya–you’d hear people chant from bus drivers to shop keepers to school children and even office men, most times unprovoked and sometimes as a way of closing a conversation. I miss this noise sometimes, I think, or I just yearn to remember what I had lost amidst my many losses.