Bariga – A Tale of Transition

The year was 2006. Two boys from Sagamu had gained admission to study Chemical Engineering at the University of Lagos (UNILAG). It was the session UNILAG started post-UTME exams, the one after the UNILAG riots in 2005 that left the Students’ Union sacked and the school hostels closed down. We had nowhere to stay when school resumed, and were almost stranded until the last minute when my friend’s mum got a contact with whom we could stay temporarily. The mother to one of her wards in the school hostel (where she worked) lived in Bariga, and accepted to have us live with them in the meantime. That’s how we packed our bags and headed to a place neither of us nor our parents knew or had been to.

I can’t even remember how we found directions to the place. The woman lived in a “room and parlour” arrangement with her son and younger daughter. Her older daughter was the one with my friend’s mum in the school hostel. My friend, Michael Adesanya, and I, used to sleep in the sitting room (“parlour”) while she slept in the bedroom with her children. Of course, toilet and bathroom facilities were shared with other neighbours and we had a “yard” where all the neighbours would sit out in the evenings to talk and get some fresh air. The clothes line was also somewhere in that “yard”. Essentially, it was a “face-me-I-face-you” setting.

For me, the change was as dramatic as it could be. One moment, I was living with my nuclear family in a three-bedroom apartment in Sagamu, where I had a room to myself, took strolls in the evening, and generally enjoyed the slow-paced township life. The next moment, I was sharing a two-room apartment with my best friend and three other near-strangers in a crowded community within the heart of busy Lagos where some were struggling to eke out a living and others were chasing fortunes. But the fact of those changes did not cross my mind at the time – I was just doing everything I needed to do to get an education. I was indeed grateful to even find a place to stay.

Those were tough times for us. It was almost like living on the edge, being careful not to get too comfortable even though we were not ill-treated. Our host was always out from dawn to dusk, so we mostly made our own meals since we had access to foodstuff in the house. That made things a bit easy for us. But there were the periodic brushes with one neighbor or the other. On one occasion, I got really upset with our host’s son and beat him – the boy was really stubborn. I have other memories of taking long walks home from Ilaje bus-stop to save money, of cooking curry ‘fried’ rice to keep our bellies alive and of learning new ways to spread clothes to conserve space on the ever-busy clothes line.

There was a cantankerous old man in the house who would talk and talk without end – he was always berating one of the younger people in our ‘yard’, especially playful children. Sometimes, he would make sense while I silently nodded in affirmation. At other times, he would be off point, like when he said everything around us was alive, including the ground on which we stepped and the line on which our clothes hung. So he said no one should step on the ground anyhow in order not to hurt the ground. That particular day, I was convinced he had become senile. It was the first time I met an older man that troublesome; I usually associated that manner of behavior with elderly women.

Our eventual departure from the house was another piece of drama. It started with us getting signals from our host that we had over-stayed our welcome. Of course, this was not spoken; it was only demonstrated by actions that indicated her discomfort with our continued presence. Not that I blame her; the plan was to stay with her for a short period. But our stay was beginning to know no end. So one Sunday evening, without notifying anyone, we quietly moved our things and went to stay with Michael Onwugbufor at Community Road, Akoka, who stayed with his mum in a three-bedroom apartment. We had spent a total of seven eventful weeks in Bariga.

Michael O. was a fellow student and close friend to us, and he was the last child living alone with his warm and welcoming mother. We first met during the National JETS competition at Sokoto in 2004, and then re-united when we were admitted into UNILAG over a year later. We spent a few weeks at Michael O.’s before the hostels opened and we finally moved into school. And those few weeks were a sharp contrast to our previous experience. We had more space, felt freer, made new friends, shared laughter, played games, ate Sunday afternoon salt-less rice, and played songs from old and scratching CDs. One time, we even took a canoe ride from the end of Community Road to UNILAG waterfront.

The memories of those seven weeks in Bariga is clearly imprinted on my mind – the crowded environment, the makeshift life we endured, the survival instincts we developed, the social skills we cultivated, and the emotional intelligence to determine when it was time to move on, all stay with each of us till today, and have become an integral part of our pursuits in life. More than that, the memories of the two or three weeks that followed are fondly held as a reminder that God’s loving kindness never departs, and that those who sow in tears do reap in joy. Today, we continue to adapt to a changing life within a changing world in the hope of exceeding our own highest expectations and making a dent in the universe.

O. J. Taiwo

Note: A big thanks to Joy Ijere for reviewing and editing this piece, and for her useful insights and suggestions.

To you, my dear reader, your comments and feedback on this piece would be very much welcome. Thank you!

To Daniella

Beautiful and fiery, you swept me off my feet with your charms, and you knew it. You did not hesitate to let me know how much you meant to me. You had a place in my heart and you knew it. But your attitude left a lot to be desired. At some point I was scared that if I continued with you, you would lead me to my death. Your incessant quarrels and endless nagging were giving me a headache, and you knew it. You thought you could get me to do what you wanted by forcing me to seek peace. But you failed to take note that there were several ways to seek peace, one of which was to leave you. You counted on the fact that such an option was non-existent. But how wrong you were! Even now, I am not a man to bend his utmost convictions for anyone. Those convictions were not acquired overnight. They were acquired through severe trials and testing that proved that they were my only options for living a fulfilled life. Not even a passionate lover could separate me from such fiery convictions, especially not by employing such methods as you did!

I remember the day I made up my mind to leave. Even I could not believe I had eventually come to the point where I was giving up what I had sacrificed so much for. I guess that is how God works. One does not know what he can do until he is pushed to the point where he is left with no options. God proved to me that He could make me give up what I had valued more than Him by creating a higher need that strongly competed with my relationship with you – the need for peace. And so our once beautiful, passionate and undying love for each other would be sacrificed on the altar of peace. It was clear that there was no way I could find peace with you. But I would not have believed even if the most genuine prophet had made that statement two years ago. I hesitated briefly at the door as I packed my things together to leave. But my hesitation gave way as I considered my doctor’s health report. His advice had been simple: avoid heated discussions, worry or any other factors that could stress your body any further.

You did not think I would see it through – our separation. And so you were shocked when I visited you at your office with my lawyer to sign the divorce papers. You were further shocked when I agreed to let you have the most of the property we worked for together. You did not think that day would come when our blossoming relationship would wither beyond the point of revival. Even a plant when cut off, blossoms at the scent of water. But this plant had been uprooted, passing the point of revival. And so it was that you gave it all up – it was never up to you to keep it anyway. I had always been the one to insist on our staying together. But you enjoyed it all. I gave so much to keep us together. But not only did you not appreciate it all, you ignored it all and went on like a mad sow to rip apart everything our relationship ever stood for. And now, we are left with nothing but the ashes of our love.

I have moved on and found peace since our separation. The absence of children in a marriage that lasted about a year made this easier for me. I cannot imagine having to bring up my children in this kind of messy situation. No, that is not the life I planned for them to live. And I thank God they were not here to share in the pain that characterized our fateful separation.  I would certainly tell them the story when the time comes, so they can avoid the pitfalls I could not avoid. The scars of that damage remain deep inside my heart, though I appear to be doing well, having escaped the worst that could have happened. Rebuilding my personal finances has not been as easy, but I was never one who cared for much wealth anyway. I have learnt to be content whatever my state.

I still think about you though, but not with the hope of us coming back together. Instead I think about you with a firm resolve that I should never find reason to join business with you or with anyone of your kind. For I am becoming more and more convinced that you were sent to pull me down, to destroy me and see to my end on this earth. But God did not permit that. And only that same God can now help me to really forgive you, for all I have done is to put away thoughts of you from my mind and move on. Maybe someday I will really find a place in my heart to truly forgive all that you did to me.

Daniella! Such a beautiful name; such a scary memory! My worst days yet have been spent with you, and I would rather live alone all my days than spend another minute with you. I remember the early days of our acquaintance, when I was drunk with the wine of your love and swept away by the aura of your presence. Your carriage and conduct did more to me than years of training and education could withstand. Nobody warned about such charms as yours. You were simply too much for me, and I could only be grateful I had the pleasure of possessing such a treasure as you. Your eager submission and cooperation in those days had a conquering effect on me that most arguments and intellectual discourses have not been able to match since. And I should hope never to be conquered in such a manner again!

Your transformation into the woman I came to detest seemed to be sudden. What went wrong? Where did I get it wrong? What did I fail to do? Or were you just a time bomb waiting to explode? It is only because of the mercies of the Almighty that I was not consumed in that explosion. You suddenly became dissatisfied with the life we lived and began to pick quarrels at every opportunity, even creating opportunity when there was none. You seemed determined to push me, to force me to make our life better. But I thought our life was good. I thought you knew that. But I was wrong. Were you letting off steam you had gathered over a long period of time? Or did you make new friends who taught you new things – things that scattered our marriage? I would often wonder if life alone would not be better. I guess it is, after all. You took it too far when you began to refuse my advances in bed. It was bad enough that I was eating out to escape the judgment of starvation you passed on me; but to refuse me in bed? The marriage might as well have broken down!

I bore it all, hoping we could make some compromises and rebuild, but you were set on making demands I could not meet, and had therefore set the course for the eventual breakdown of the marriage it cost us so much to build. Daniella, even now I remember with sweet sadness our last moments together. Sweet, because I knew I was soon to be free to live in peace again, but sad because the break-up represented a failure in my own life and decision-making as well. But a living failure is better than a dead hero-to-be. The living still has the chance of making a success of the rest of his life, but the dead is gone and unable to finish his heroic act of saving a marriage that was bound for destruction. And I am alive to tell the painful story of our short-lived marriage; that is a plus for me.  As I put my pen to rest, I pray that God will heal all that is broken in me and give me grace to forgive you. I also pray for strength to live the new life that I have found after being separated from destruction, the destruction that threatened to cut me short before mid-life. And on a last note, I pray that God will rescue every other man from you, and then rescue you from the hands of the Evil One, who so threatens to make a mess of your transient life.

A Christmas to Remember

When I was thirteen, an event took place that forever altered my understanding of the purpose of Christmas. It was on the morning of Christmas day. We had prepared to go to church, all dressed fine and ready to show off to everyone how gorgeous we were looking. We had just finished a sumptuous meal of fried rice and chicken, our favourite for such special days. And my mom just knew how to make such meals memorable. All was going as expected. My younger sister made a little fuss about her eye-glasses, which was coming apart. With what looked like a flip of his hand, my dad fixed the glasses and averted what could have been a major cause of trouble that beautiful morning. Then he called on my mum to hurry up and not spend the whole day dressing up. She replied that she could not come out looking rough – typical of my mother. My sister and I were just in a hurry to get it all going…

A piercing scream from our neighbour’s flat temporarily suspended our thriving Christmas mood. It was undoubtedly an appeal for succour. I hesitated briefly and found myself standing alone in the living room. Every other person had run in the direction of the screaming voice. I briefly wondered to whom the highly-pitched voice belongs; it was clearly that of a woman. I had never heard anyone with such a voice in that compound of ours: trouble can make people do what is otherwise impossible. I was also temporarily annoyed at the sudden break in the flow of the day’s event. While I was selfishly gloating over nothing in our flat, my dad was busy trying to resuscitate our neighbour in the other flat, while my mum and sister anxiously looked on. After about a minute of hesitation, I dragged my feet to go on and join them to see what had happened – these women sometimes made an issue out of nothing. I had figured that whatever happened, my dad would have taken charge, plus the scream had died down after they must have gotten there.

I quietly eased my way into the troubled flat. It belonged to a young couple who had been married for less than two years and were yet to have a child, although the woman already had a protruding belly. I met everyone looking desperate, including the wife of our Catholic neighbour upstairs and the whole family of the Pentecostals who lived adjacent to them. The man of the house lay on the ground, stretched out with his hands by his sides and looking unconscious. I could not imagined what had happened to him. The women were trying to calm his young wife down and take her into the room, especially because of her pregnancy, while the men kept trying different first aid measures they knew. The children simply looked on in confusion. In my foolishness, I blurted out what I felt needed to be done at the moment, “Take him to the hospital now!” But those men knew better and were only waiting for the woman to be taken in before announcing their verdict – the man had given up the ghost. When she was later told about her young husband’s death, she let out another scream of infinitely higher pitch, so high it almost destroyed my eardrum…

That day, I knew the voice of sorrow. It was unique in an indescribable way. Perhaps more disturbing was the look I saw on the face of that troubled woman as she attempted to let out the pain and sorrow of her loss in a single scream. It was heart-breaking. Add the look on her face to the sound of her voice and you get a special effect one cannot communicate, but can only comprehend. I later gathered the rest of the story from my family. The man had complained of sharp painful stabs in his chest the previous night, and resolved to make a quick visit to the hospital on Christmas morning. But that visit was never to be, as he suddenly fell clutching his chest while dressing up to go out that tragic Christmas morning. Moods were suddenly altered, and plans were modified, as my parents had to see to the transportation of the man’s body to the hospital, where he was confirmed dead – a fact we already knew. And the women had to stay with the bereaved woman, whose daylight had been transformed into the darkness of death.

Amidst the overwhelming reality of tragedy on a Christmas day, I was deeply immersed in my own thoughts. What could this woman, and her unborn baby, could have done to deserve this? Did this kind of thing happen to a lot of families? Or did the rest of the world simply go on rejoicing while one woman suffered deeply in a season of celebration? Could God not put a hold on occurrence of evil while we celebrate and then let it continue well after celebration was over? What did Christmas mean to God anyway – the birth of Jesus? Was the birth of Jesus not supposed to mean the redemption of the world? Why then were people perishing? Out of selfish concern for a disrupted day, I mulled endlessly over several thoughts until I fell asleep on the couch in the living room, where I was alone and the TV was prattling away in what seemed like a strange language, given my present predicament. My sister had long succumbed to the power of the Somnolent Spirit, and my parents were out on account of the day’s occurrence.

When I awoke, I had literally slept over the thoughts in my mind before I drifted off to sleep. Like a flash of lightning, understanding dawned on me as I awoke – evil would never cease as long as the earth remains, neither would good. Everyone who is kept from evil must remain thankful to God. While we cannot keep evil from being in the earth, we can submit to God who is able to keep us from the Evil One and his deeds. And we must extend our hands of love to those who are not as privileged as we are, especially in our seasons of celebration. I had no dreams, no visions, no revelations. This four-fold understanding just opened up in my mind as I woke up that quiet afternoon. I never hope to see such a day again as long as I have breath. But the realisation that hit me that day left me completely transformed. Every Christmas, and on several other days, I still remember those two screams; each one revisiting me in succession amidst all the sobbing and weeping which accompanied them that day. And with the memory of the tragedy comes the memory of the truths I realised. It was indeed, a Christmas to remember.

December 31, 2011