IBA—For Those Who Went Before
..... Outside myself at moments like this, heading home, I hesitate a moment to check if it is truly a living me. Perhaps I am just a disembodied self usurping my body, strapped into a business-class seat in the plane, being borne to my designated burial ground—the cactus patch on the grounds of my home in Abeokuta, a mere hour’s escape by road from the raucous heart of Lagos. Perhaps I am not really within the cabin of the plane at all but lying in a coffin with the luggage, disguised as an innocent box to fool the superstitious, while my ghost persists in occupying a seat whose contours have grown familiar through five years of a restless exile that began in 1994. For my mind chooses this moment to travel twelve years backward when, drained of all emotion, I accom- panied the body of my friend Femi Johnson from Wiesbaden in Germany, bringing him home in defiance of the unfathomable conspiracy to leave him in that foreign land like a stray without ties of family and friends. And the pangs that assail me briefly stem from the renewed consciousness of the absence of this friend, whose thunder-roll laughter and infectious joy of life would have overwhelmed those welcoming voices that I know await me at my destination. Despite the eternal moment of farewell by his open coffin in the funeral parlor in Wiesbaden, it was difficult then, and remained continuously so, to reconcile that self with the absence of a vitality that we had all taken so long for granted, his big but compact frame in a box, immaculately dressed as though simply from habit—be it in a double-breasted suit with a carnation freshly cut by his chauffeur from the frontage garden, then laid ritualistically beside his breakfast set, or else in his casual outfit, its components no less carefully matched for all its seeming casualness, or his hunting attire, which appeared selected for a genteel English countryside ramble instead of a “rumble in the jungle.” Difficult to accept the closed eyes that would bulge at some inspired business idea, at the prospect of a gastronomic spread, at the sight of a passing generously endowed female, or simply when charged with a newly thought-up mischief—but always lighting up the space around him. Still, I could not rest until I had brought him home, exhuming him from the graveyard in Wiesbaden, and the clinicality of my motions at the time made me wonder if I had left my soul in that alien graveyard in his stead.
It must be, of course, the coincidence of the airline that triggers such a somber recollection, in the main—that final homecoming for Femi was also on a Lufthansa flight. And it was a coming home for me also, since my moment-to-moment existence from the time of his death until his reburial was in some ethereal zone, peopled by eyes of the restless dead from distances of silent rebuke. I came back down to earth only when he was himself within the earth of his choice, earth that he had made his own: Ibadan. And it is this that now reinforces the unthinkable and irrational, that this same Femi—“OBJ” to numerous friends, business partners, and acquaintances—is not in Ibadan at this moment awaiting my return, his sweaty face, black as the cooking pots, supervising the kitchen in a frenzy of anticipation, with an array of wines lined up to celebrate a long-anticipated reunion! Femi should be alive for this moment. If any single being deserved and could contain in himself the entirety of the emotions that belong to this return, it is none other than OBJ, and he is gone.
It is a long-craved homecoming, my personalized seal on the end of the nightmare that was signaled by the death of a tyrant, Sani Abacha, yet here I am, trying to find reasons for my lack of feeling, trying to ensure that it is not just a mask, a perverse exercise in control, this absence of the quickening of the pulse. It is that other homeward journey of twelve years past that stubbornly sticks to the mind, that of a friend forever still in a casket in the belly of the plane, I seated among the living but stone cold to the world, conscious of this fact but only in a detached way and wondering why I was still so devoid of the sensation of loss. It could be, I acknowledge, the aftermath of the battle to bring home his remains—plainly, it had left me drained of all feeling. This return has not, so it must be that I have carried that home so obsessively in my head these past five years that I am unable to experience the journey as one toward the recovery of a zone of deprivation. The absence of Femi, who persists in looming large, a territory of dulled bereavement, is only a part of it. The adrenaline had been secreted over time, stored up, and then—pfft—evaporated in an instant, there being no further use for it.
One seeks these explanations somewhat desultorily, since I already acknowledge that this is not quite the homecoming I had anticipated, not quite the way my return had been planned, not this legitimate arrival, swooping toward Lagos on a normal flight as if Lagos were Frankfurt, New York, or Dakar. Surely it is not the same white-haired monster, that same “wanted” man with a price on his head, hunted the world over, who is headed home, steadily lubricated by the aircraft’s generous bar. I continue to interrogate the featureless flatness of my mind—compared to it, the pastel evenness of the Sahara Desert, over which we appear to be eternally suspended, seems a craggy, wild, untamable, and exotic piece of landscape.
I acknowledge that I am not much given to sentiment, but after all, I am not normally averse to being welcomed home! Indeed, I often wonder if, for others similarly embattled, homecoming does not gradually become a central motif of their active existence. For instance, I find I dislike airport farewells—the exceptions have usually been preceded by some kind of tug-of-war to which I eventually yielded, often through emotional blackmail. By contrast, I am somewhat more accommodating with the motions of being welcomed back, though, even here, I am just as likely to be found sneaking in through the back door. Generally, my inclination is simply—to have returned. To find myself back in the place I never should have left. Or where returning is no different from never having left, a routine recovery of a space of normal being, temporarily fractured, restoration of which has no significance whatsoever and requires no special recognition. In any case, each homecoming differs wildly from the last, and this goes back to my very earliest awareness of such an event, the end of a physical separation, when I first returned home from studying overseas—on New Year’s Day 1960, the year of Nigeria’s independence. Then, feeling already long in the tooth at twenty-five, I had contrived to sneak home, to the discomfiture of parents, family, and relations. Normally, such a return should have been an occasion for celebration, varying from modest and restricted to festive and all-embracing, the latter gathering in distant clans and even total strangers with that ringing invocation that must have been adopted by the first-line beneficiaries of European education—Our Argonaut has returned from over the seas after a long, perilous voyage in his quest for the Golden Fleece!—or any of its hundred variations.
It is perhaps the sedateness of this return that continues to sit awkwardly on me, an abrupt usurpation of the other furtive homecoming that nearly was! Not that I regret the change, oh no, not for a moment! T’agba ba nde, a a ye ogun ja—thus goes the Yoruba wisdom—“As one approaches an elder’s status, one ceases to indulge in battles.” Some hope! When that piece of wisdom was first voiced, a certain entity called Nigeria had not yet been thought of. In any case, I appear to have failed in my ambition to “grow old gracefully”—no more strife, no more susceptibilities to beauty’s provocation, and so on—a process I had once confidently set to begin at the magic figure of forty-nine, seven times seven, the magic number of my companion deity, Ogun. But at least I accept that there comes a moment when age dictates the avoidance of certain forms of engagement. That makes sense and is also just. There comes a point in one’s life when one should no longer be obliged to sneak into one’s homeland through mangrove creeks and smugglers’ haunts, and in ludicrous disguises!
I worry therefore about the absence of feeling, the absence of even a grateful nod to Providence, and seek some reassurance that my senses are not fully dead, that the emotional province of the mind is still functioning. I obtain a measure of relief, however—indeed, I begin to worry now that the senses may be roaming out of control—when, even within the recycled air of the plane’s interior, overflying nothing but Sahara dunes and dust, I could swear, suddenly, that I already smell the humid air of Lagos, the fetid dung heaps, the raucous marketplaces and overcrowded streets. I am certain that I can hear, dominating even the steady purr of the jet engines, the noisy street vendors with their dubious bargains, see the sly conspiratorial grins of some as they offer contraband of the most dangerous kind—and this had become routine even before I fled into exile in November 1994—banned publications that they slide out from under the pile of other journals, like pornography in other places. Psst! They sidle up to motorists at traffic junctions and delays, with the mainstream journals on conspicuous display. Then, indifferent to the risk that the prospective customer might turn out to be a secret service agent or one of Abacha’s ubiquitous informers, they flash the sensational cover of Tempo, The News, The Concord, Tell, or some other hit-and-run samizdat: sani abacha bares his fangs! whom the gods will destroy! abacha’s agents on rampage: mother killed, eleven-year-old held hostage in police cell! scandal rocks aso rock! who killed bagauda kaltho? Then the cat-and-mouse games, the mandatory raids—some days, weeks, even months in police cells for these stubborn vendors, some of them no older than ten or eleven. And no sooner are they released than they are back on the streets. Even the police grew weary of the charade. Such sights filled one’s bloodstream with a political rush; the truth was, however, that I would rather be miles distant from the obligations they imposed, “taking my gun for a walk” in the bush, far from the stressful streets.
I cannot wait to repossess the bush, or maybe it is the other way around, let the bush repossess me. The bush and its furtive breath. Refuge and solace. The mere thought brings in its train the smells, and soon my seat is isolated and wreathed in nothing but the very smells of the bush! The thought of resuming my forays into those silent growths finally quickens my pulse, hesitantly, just perceptibly, sobered by the thought that Femi, whom I also taught to hunt, will no longer be a part of it. Yet there, perhaps, is where I would most painlessly recover his presence—in those swathes of isolation, that terrain of so many sensory ambiguities. Enfolded within the tropical bush, the effect is tranquilizing—until of course the moment of the approach of a quarry—not that the pulse quickens all that noticeably even then. It does not matter whether it is the Harmattan season of dry air with its parched or burnt vegetation— except in the early morning when the foliage is misted over and even the earth is deceptively damp—or the rainy season, which leaves you tangling with moist thickets, fording swollen gorges, sliding on treacherous rocks, and being sucked into mud gullies, day or night, at night with nothing but a few stars seen through branches or fireflies to test your patience and judgment as you wonder whether they are the eyes of a wildcat, a tree cyrax, or twin raindrops caught in the light of your night lamp.
All that matters is the escape into timelessness, interrupted by furtive pads of a four-footed quarry or the sudden burst of the brown bush fowl or gray-streaked guinea fowl soaring and screaming over trees. An instant only to decide whether or not the latter is worth the try—even if you downed it, how much time would it demand to plunge into the hostile fastness to retrieve your booty? In the process you become insensitive to the rank presence of a far larger quarry, the prized egbin* or igala,† or a patriarch or matriarch of the etu‡ family, the archsurvivor of the species—adimu—whose heavy meat could feed a fair-sized company of guerrillas long lost in the bush. . . . Definitely it is the bush, the bush alone—its smells, muted sounds, textures, and often impenetrable silence that finally bathe me in a glow of warm anticipation. It is that, that alone, not any other resumption of relationships or recovery of suspended voices. Is this some form of misanthropy?
Or perhaps it is the suppressed fear that my house is gone anyway, that I
* A quadruped of the deer/antelope family.
† Same as above.
‡ A large specimen of the rodent family.
am returning to a conspicuous gap in the landscape at which I had hacked and quarried, years before my departure, to give expression to my appetite for space. News of the invasion had reached me, but the dimension of destruction had been vague and guarded, as if the kind couriers had agreed to hold back the worst. In truth, regarding the building itself, I had not planned to encase so much space within walls, just a small cottage, after my retirement from university service, but with as much ground as I could afford. Still, hovel or mansion, the soldiers’ violation hung over it, as it hung over many other homes that were owned by perceived enemies of the dictator, Sani Abacha. The house had been built almost entirely from the windfall of the Nobel Prize. I had expanded it from its original design only because I wanted to create a space for periodic retreat for writers and artists—typical of the fantasies of those who are suddenly bombarded with more money than generations before them ever laid eyes on! Thus was born the notion of the Essay Foundation for the Humanities, named after my father, whose initials, S.A., had coalesced in my childhood mind as one word: Essay.*