Life is a tone as to strike a piano
It brings with it two semi tones
One tone lits a forte, razz and sliver spoon
The channels to it is a succulent hand
Striking the keys in some adiago
The other is a solemn pianissimo, opaque, gloomy
Punched with raisins of a dry seed
This is the truth
Behind Diargo Diop’s Mysteries.
When Uncle Ben told me I would be going to Lagos, I laughed merrily. I laughed not because I was used to laughing that much, no! I did usually frown my face in the scorching sun and say, “I’ll soon stop your stings.” So, when he came to my family compound and told papa about it, I listened to hear what papa would say. “Let him take you to the city with him, Benji,” Papa had said. After all, it would be a good thing for me to see another part of the world, a place beyond Ekot-Ansi community, a city of gold, a home of Eldorado.
So I did not waited to hear uncle’s reason for taking me to Lagos so swiftly. I ran to my friends and boasted about my departure to a city of gold. Every eyes met me with jealousy. I knew they longed to see beyond Ekot-Ansi but I guess they were just too unlucky, and infact were paying for their sins of not having a brother-in-law outside Ekot. I began to tell them that my story has changed, for the better and for the best.
“What will you bring for us when you return?” Etuk who was the oldest in our age grade asked me. I looked at him, at all of them in sympathy. They were eager to know, they paused abruptly, some dropped the sticks they held, others rubbed the remaining sand on their clothes and hair and ran to me. I felt for them,their pains, their unhappiness, I felt it but shrugged, such is life. When Bassey was leaving to Ekot-Insa, wasn’t this how we felt? it’s turn by turn and it was my turn, although mine was glamorous than that of Bassey. Good things always come my way after all. But, for the meantime, I had to answer the questions politely.
Ah Yes! I remember how our teacher Mr Short Buttocks said people in the city usually talk. I will practice starting from here henceforth.
“Yeah, men. I gonna wanna come withie gudi stuff, Niggazzz,” I spoke with an accent I felt was ‘Lagosious’. I saw how they envied me in their minds. It pained them to their marrows and they were willing to show it.
“Why are you now forming for us? You think we’re jealous?” Etuk spoke with fury. I looked at him and smiled. He didn’t know who he was speaking with. He was supposed to sit while I spoke. Anyway, I wasn’t interested in wounded dogs that could only bark.
I wanted to excuse myself but they blocked me. I knew something had gotten into them. The demon of Akata was trying to use them to block my progress, trying to use them to frustrate me, no, Abasi forbid it. I knew their plans already, they wanted to frustrate me to fight back, just like Ekpo did and ended up staying in the village. If one had something to tell friends, one had to tell it to them quickly and leave, if not, you would get frustrated and at the end. But, I was smarter than they were, always and will ever be. It was either I calmed them or I ran. I chose the latter. I gathered them to one side and while trying to placate them, I ran with all my strength and might. I was usually the slowest and they all knew it, but this time, Abasi be forever praised, I ran ten times faster than all of them. I ran with bullets of abuses following me. But I did not have time for village urchins like them, yes, they were now village urchins, for all I cared, my destiny was in my legs and I must run!
I snuffed Lagos with a new breath. I was told that Lagos was a state in which God had painted the good part of life from oyinbo people. I saw the street lights, they looked as though the moon was envious of them, their lights shone at every corner. I knew I would have tales to share. Somehow my eyes met with the inscription Eko oni baje o! All this ngbati people! I must to be watchful lest they did took advantage of me. I saw houses almost kissing the sky, barracks with beautiful colours and gardens. I saw how water could just begin to gush out from a spot and splash itself proudly on flowers, people and everything in its path. I met with the traffic and well, I thought it was a normal thing, as I hadn’t seen it before, definitely not in Ekot-Ansi where we were seldomly greeted by horns of lorries and trucks. My last welcome was an oozing smell from Ojota but I thought that was just the place where all the waste in Lagos were disposed and even the neatness of the road justified my claims.
I knew we were now at Mushin, I heard uncle Ben mention that to someone over the phone. His face was becoming more tense and I knew there was a problem. He had just bought bananas and plantain chips while on our way. He stopped a little, looked at me and smiled, I gave a smile that turned into a smirk.
I saw a dirt-filled slum filled with crowds of rushing people who had different goals, some to me looked human while others looked a bit eerie, don’t ask me how I knew but just know that I have a strange way of detecting spirits.
The noise became to me like a movie, the damaged roads looked to me like a stain on my memory, the women who poured water on the road for reasons only God knew, the hot chase by passengers and the proud looks of bus conductors, the touts at the end of the junction smoking and clenching their teeth in the solo of their beers, the angry looking mobs chasing after a bus for transport permits, the look of the angry traffic warden doing his job with a dead passion and the police officer who laughed at the dirty one hundred naria notes thrown at him and the woman who caused men to bump into each other, they all caused my mind to stray, to wonder if uncle Ben was bent on kidnapping me and using me for money rituals as I often heard Papa argue with his friends every morning with a schnapps bottle at Scentina.
I entered his two rooms apartment and after buzzes of welcome from my sister, neighbours and strangers, I sunk into the chair and fell asleep. I dreamt of the Lagos I pictured from Papa’s sweet talks and the Lagos I saw from my where I lodged and the contrast was a million worlds apart.
Uncle Ben read my pains and promised to take me somewhere amusing. I lost faith entirely in what was called Lagos and waited to go back to Ekot-Ansi, where at least was more peaceful and happy. I wws tired of Lagos with its constant rushing and bustling syndrome at every time of the day!
“Did you say something?” I asked uncle Ben. I noticed he had a habit of speaking to himself most times. He looked at me again this time with great intensity. I met his eyes again only that I pushed it away, his eyes were reading my thoughts plainly, thoughts of disappointment and regrets. This was not the Uncle Ben who came to the village few years back with bulgy cheeks and smoothened face.
“I’m going to visit a friend today, and you will come with me Benji,” Uncle Ben said. He spoke so domineeringly that I felt subsumed in fear and awe. I just looked at his eyes and mumbled few unclear words.
We boardered a rapid transit bus, and my face beamed with smile, smile of getting an inch of what I never thought of Lagos.
I got to Apapa and my face brightened a little, I mean, this is what, I have been looking for, fine houses, cars, escort vehicles, sirens blaring, helicopter, traffic light etc. Uncle Ben caught my smile and shook with an unimaginable laughter. He shook his head at me.
I got to Lekki and soon I started looking around, the sight was magnificentio. I saw the difference between hut, house and H-ouse! The difference was clear, the difference was money! The houses looked bright coloured running up into the deep sliver lined sky as if in the next minute it should be transported. I saw machines flying with sharp fans and defeaning noises with two lovers sealing their love eternally with kisses and dances. I saw the coloured street, the unique nestling of younglings with an admiration, I at once felt jealous. I once wished I could have access to this life of bliss, as quickly as possible.
I waited and looked at uncle Ben, he stood akimbo looking at me with wild admiration and surprise.
“Benji, what are you doing?” He looked at me in the eyes and I became shy. After all, I was seeing all that I imagined in my dreams and not like the god forsaken place he lived, I dared not to say that, anyway.
We entered Into a big gate at Chief Bode Avenue and I became afraid. The view was like a trance. I never imagined my coming into an house like this.
“So, will you say that you didn’t hear me, ehn?” My Uncle’s voice rang as a soloist motioning on the next stage of a negro spiritual.
A lady with spaghetti looking hair, a loose singlet and a pair of bright pink shorts came out to meet us.
“Beniboy!” she sang like a bell, I looked at my uncle, he was smiling like a fool. He looked at me briskly and jogged into her embrace.
We got inside and he introduced me to her. She looked at me and smiled.
She talked with Uncle Ben at length, occasionally glancing at me. She got so close with Uncle Ben, both holding hands and smiling away, while I was glued to an interesting reality show on the screen.
Whatever they did never mattered to me, even when he held her hands and they both entered the room. When they came out, sh gave him some money and told him to give me for ice cream. I acted indifferent but I was puzzled.
“James, let’s go!” Uncle Ben said. I had never seen him smile so much before since my arrival at Lagos, let alone calling my second name and I thought that the woman whom he had just seen is the best angel he should have. I began to think that my sister wasn’t meant for him anyway. He took me by the hand and we went out to face the traffic.
“Did you enjoy yourself today?” he asked me, beaming.
“I never had so done in my entire life!” I answered quickly.
He stopped talking for a while and looked at me with sympathy. I began to think if it was what I said that made him change his countenance. But, I spoke the truth, not with the reality video games I played, the sights of the talking parrot, the enticing meal of jollof and fried rice, with a mountain of fried Chicken and sweet grasses on it.
“You see Lagos has two sides,” Uncle Ben spoke again like a lecturer dishing his course outline. I listened with rapt attention not wanting any word to escape my ears. “The island and the mainland. We live at the mainland, this is the island.”
I began to wish he lived in the island where their houses were almost inaccessible and noiseless. Uncle Ben looked at me with a gloomy look. He had thoughts looming around his head but he shook them off again and again contemplatively.
Soon, we were back to our slum. Where the noise grew in crescendo daily, where my welcome was the sounds of grinding machines and the taut voices of traders, where my hour of rest was jeopardized by blarring noises of prayers at five o’clock , where my good night was the locomotive prayers of ‘binders and loosers’.
This was indeed a life, a life many like Uncle Ben never liked but ended living, where many craned their necks to survive.