I apologize again for the long absence from this blog. I was not going to allow myself to post again until I handed in a chapter of my dissertation. However, this morning when I opened up the Weekly Trust and saw nearly two paragraphs missing from my column, leaving an abrupt transition that made no sense, I decided I needed to get the corrected version out there. It seems that a photo was accidentally pasted over the missing portion during layout, as the online version has the missing pieces. At any rate, here is my column as submitted this week. If you read the hard copy and are looking for the missing paragraph, I have put the missing portion in bold print. I have made my own little editorial decision here in deciding to leave out the conclusion, which I think, on second thought, was a little too much. If you want to read it, just read the article on the Weekly Trust site:
About three weeks ago, I was invited to the set of an Andy Amenechi film in Benin City. Friday, 7 July, I ride through Riyom in Plateau State on the way to Abuja. I make it in time for an Abuja Literary Society poetry slam at the Transcorp Hilton. Poets from Lagos, Jos, Abuja perform pieces on politics, love, Nigeria. The atmosphere is exuberant. Jeremiah Gyang plays his guitar and sings, “Take me higher. You’re the reason why I sing this song. My heart is on fire. It’s the reason why I sing this song.” Everyone sings along.
The next day, Saturday, I fly to Benin City. The same day, gunmen invade Riyom, killing over eighty people, including women and children who had run into a pastor’s house for refuge. My internet is down. I do not hear about it until the next day when I get a text from Jos. By that time, there is another attack. Over twenty more people are killed at a mass funeral, including two politicians.
Benin City, in the sealed off world of a Nollywood film set, feels like a different country. Crew members from Lagos, Cross River, Imo, Edo, Plateau set up each scene, joking, sometimes yelling. Boko Haram is discussed in a theoretical way. The story we act out is set in the 1960s, in the years following independence, before Biafra, when everything is new and the years ahead full of promise.
Although my internet eventually comes back, it is too slow to do too much. I begin to spend less time online, living in the blank space of the project, waiting for the director’s instruction. The story unfolds in multiple takes, out of chronological order, a puzzle that will be pieced together later by an editor. In downtime, off set, I study the script. When that grows tiresome, I read novels, Mukoma wa Ngugi’s cross-continental crime thriller Nairobi Heat; Eghosa Imasuen’s Fine Boys, a bildungsroman of a young man’s university days in Benin; Biyi Bandele’s World War II historical novel Burma Boy; then academic books and papers that send me to sleep.
Saturday, 14 July, during the Edo state gubernatorial elections, we work through the day inside a walled compound. Early Sunday morning, I wake to shouting, sirens, and continuous machine gunfire. My stomach clenches. The election has turned violent, I think. But when I throw on a gown and go outside to ask people what is happening, they greet me with grins. “It’s celebration,” they tell me. “Oshiomole has won by a landslide.” I return to my room and turn on the TV. Onscreen, people dance in the streets. The mood is festive. Everyone I speak to is happy. They tell me Governor Oshiomole has built roads and schools, has fought corruption. Throughout the next few days, I hear the crack of gunfire, see fountains of fireworks through the trees. In the streets of the city, Oshiomole’s likeness peers down from billboards, speeds past on the sides of cars. I am glad that democracy seems to be working in Edo State, but I grimace every time I hear the guns. “If this were Jos or Kano,” I say, “that sound would mean people were dying.”
I call Jos frequently. Friends sit through the curfew getting their news online too. I read that over 5,500 people are affected when the residents of five [the link says twenty-five] Plateau villages are temporarily moved during a security exercise. I feel so far away. I cannot write.
Friday, 20 July, the first day of Ramadan, I board a bus for Lagos. At a construction diversion on the road, we sit in a go-slow for hours. Beside us, the mobile police, in body armour, wave their guns in the air. I shrink away from the window. I feel a scream rising in my throat when the mobile police race off and our driver follows, speeding behind them. I imagine armed robbers roaming the kilometers of trapped cars, us caught in the middle. I remember people in Kano killed by stray bullets at checkpoints.
My fears are unfounded. Following the mobile police advances us hours ahead in the hold-up, and we make it to Lagos by nightfall. The next few days, I relax in Victoria Island, in 24-hour air-conditioning, with a view of the water. Boats and jet-skis speed past. At a fish park overlooking the lagoon, I speak Hausa with the young man making suya. At a party in Lekki, I chat with an expatriate couple. I mention to the husband that I had grown up in Jos. “Oh, that must be a nice peaceful place to live,” he says. I laugh. “Not so much,” I say, thinking he is joking. He stares at me, confused. A little later, I speak to his wife, again mentioning Jos. “Is that on the Mainland?” she asks.
That night we stop by a mall in Victoria Island, decorated by a huge poster of a blonde model. Fashionable young girls with perfect make-up and young men in tight Prada shirts walk past me. As I wander into a Woolworths full of imported clothing, Fela chants over the loudspeaker: “Suffer suffer for world, Enjoy for heaven.” We eat ice-cream at the KFC. I can’t get Fela’s voice out of my head.
It is that night that I start getting sick. I think it is all the air conditioning. I jump whenever I hear a door slam or a car backfire.
Tuesday, sniffling and coughing into rolls of tissue paper, I go to MMI airport. On the TV in the waiting area, a pale Michael Jackson writhes to “Thriller,” with a host of masked creatures dancing behind him. Beyond death, he wails his haunting “Earth Song”: “What have we done to the world? Look what we’ve done./ What about all the peace that you pledged your only son?/ What about flowering fields? Is there a time?/ What about all the dreams that you said was yours and mine?/ Did you ever stop to notice all the children, dead from war?/ Did you ever stop to notice this crying earth, this weeping shore?” With his keening moan echoing in my ears, I board an Arik flight to Jos and Kano.
As we fly over the Plateau, emergency rule now lifted, I peer down through the gauzy clouds. It is green and peaceful, little patches of farms and rocky mountain tops. I wonder if there are militants hiding there in the hills—whether we might be able to see them from up here in the sky. After we land, we walk across the tarmac past a military lineup and rows of black jeeps. I turn around and look at the license plate. It says “Senator.” An airport employee tells me that Senate President David Mark and a delegation of the National Assembly has just departed after attending the funerals for Senator Gyang Dantong and majority leader of the Plateau State assembly Gyang Fulani both killed in the attacks over two weeks before. Exiting the airport, we drive through misty green hills. It is cold outside, but inside the car, with the windows rolled up, it is cozy. Farmers carry home buckets of produce on their heads. The clouds are dark overhead. The 5 o’clock news on the radio recaps the politicians’ funerals and the recent floods in Jos. “Do not throw your rubbish in the drainage ditches,” the woman appeals. “Water no get enemy. But when it has nowhere to go….” When I read the figures later, it says the floods have killed over forty people, dozens more are missing. There is fear of a cholera break out. A disaster born of rubbish.
I sleep, I cough, I wake, exercise, drink tea. Outside rain drips on leaves that have grown up to the windows. Vines wrap around roses, stifling the flowers as they climb towards the sky.