23 September 2012
Sunday afternoon – I am here as a souvenir of all that I have encountered since Tuesday when we arrived Libreville. Earlier I was in the bathroom, where I looked at the mirror and saw that my hair had grown to become more than it used to be, and that, of course, my hairline is still receded. (The distinction between ‘receding’ and ‘receded’ is important: I was born with a hairline that had already receded, and although I fear that I might go bald, that I’m in my 20s and I already have a receded hairline, I recall that my father is in his fifties, closer to 60 than not, and he isn’t bald.) When I step back into the room I share with Mario, I feel I haven’t written anything of value, yet, something that can be conferred with historical importance. I don’t know, but should I be bothered with this? Whether or not I have written anything of value?
When you set off on a journey of this sort, and when you declare that you’d be writing about your experience, what sort of writing is expected?
On Friday I took a walk. Up the street in which our hotel is located. I possess a sufficient amount of freedom with my time, as other participants, which is good. I have a camera, which I didn’t use until that afternoon. Before I stepped into the street, I took photos of immediate encounters. The table in the room, bearing my laptop and some books; my phone; a can of cocoa spread; a card reader; a TV remote; a phone cable; 1000 FCFA note. Then I stepped into the bathroom, naked, and took photos of the shower and the soap. I had lived in that room for three days and hadn’t recorded the things that defined my life, the things with my fingerprints. My life, truth be told, has been imposed on a number of surfaces and materials, things I have shared my breath with. It is shocking, and yet banal. I took yet another photograph, after taking a quick bath, now wearing only a boxer short, capturing the clothes I planned to wear out on the walk. Those clothes are mine only because I call them mine. Otherwise they are just fabric waiting to be worn – they are simply as valuable as the consciousness of the wearer.
Once I stepped down into the street, I walked into the wooden shed where there was a man grilling chicken meat. I ordered a stick of chicken flesh, a stick of chicken liver, then fried plantains. I made this order primarily through gestures because the man didn’t speak a word of English, and I couldn’t communicate reasonably in French – I can’t assemble the words into a sentence (how many French words do I know? I hear, from the tutorial MP3s I listened to, that only about 1,500 words are used in everyday conversations. That’s a lot, for a person like me, for I often struggle to find the right English words.) I sat in the shed and ate heartlessly, knowing I could be somewhere else, food being stripped to its bare essentiality. In that shed there were women drinking beer, premium lagers, stout-sized bottles, engaged in a discussion with a man with a bottle of Orangina, the same fruit juice I have ordered. I wondered if they were getting drunk; I realized I envied the abandon that comes with drinking alcohol, and the fake fraternity it imposes. Or the manner in which alcohol overrates perceptibility – I envied that too, the idea I got from two men sitting alone, downing their beers; their eyes were watching the distance.
One of the women with a beer, engaged in a conversation, looked towards me. For that fleeting second when her eyes met mine, what did she think? What would she have thought? About me? Would she know, assuming she wanted to indulge in a conversation, that I don’t speak French? Where does my differentness intersect with her normalcy? Being a visitor in a place brings that feeling, I must say, a feeling aware of a possible point of intersection, but never hitting the bull’s eye. After the woman looked away, I became aware of the smell of charcoal, and of chicken wing being grilled.
I stood, nodded to the man grilling the meat, paid the woman for my Orangina, and headed off leftwards. The road led, I was sure, into the city centre, and perhaps somewhere else. It could be difficult to get into the city centre by foot. It was best, then, that I headed somewhere else. The only practical requirement was that I find my way back to the hotel, which has no signpost, and its third floor is uncompleted.
I got to a junction, and had to decide between taking the road that led into the city centre and the other that led off into somewhere else. The off-street, which I chose, had no name, only a stop traffic sign warning cars driving into the main road. I’d taken a photograph, a minute or two earlier, of an inscription that seemed like the marking made by telecommunication engineers. It read “ST 9005.” Now on the off-street, I thought I was being followed by an old man, but when I turned, I didn’t find him again. A boy was talking with another person, probably a boy his age, and when I stopped to take a photograph I knew he was conscious of my presence, though I couldn’t tell what he would do with that knowledge. I began to feel bothered about being an ordinary manifestation in the reality of the inhabitants of that off-street. I did not get second glances, I was not talked to, despite the fact that I stopped at intervals to take photographs.
Perhaps a form of kinship? Surely my features didn’t immediately identify me as someone else. There are Francophone Igbos, a generation of misplaced Nigerians that became Gabonese. I could be one of them with a camera, easily.
A kind of exchange happened when I walked ahead. There was a Caterpillar, it seemed parked. A man, wearing a hardhat and construction overalls, asked a boy for a mango. The boy was holding four or five mangoes, which he had plucked from a nearby tree. The boy had just denied his friend a mango when the construction worker asked for one. He grumbled his reluctance to let go of the mango, gesturing that it was meant for someone else. The construction worker beg-demanded, saying something that I understood as “I need just one! Haba!” I smiled at the exchange, knowing that I understood what it meant to be in the boy’s position, as I must have reluctantly parted with something of worth to a beg-demanding adult. I was, then, seeking anything that would make me remember the bits and elements of my reality which have now been kept frozen – which, I should point out, is a traveller’s curse; the inevitability of being reminded of frozen realities.
I saw an abandoned car that reminded me of my father’s car, his Volkswagen Beetle of the early 90s; a notice posted on an electric pole that seemed like one of the notices found everywhere on Lagos surfaces, the kind that the state government is now campaigning against; I saw signs put up by ‘Plombers’ and ‘Electriciens’, bearing their phone numbers, clearly similar to cheap advertising in Lagos; and I saw a bus with an identification sticker, ‘Commune D’Owendo-Taxi No 759-La Proprete est l’affaire de tous’, the sort of identification borne by NURTW vehicles across Nigeria.
A funny thought interrupted my awareness of similarities. I realized that I could be smoking while taking the walk. I could walk into the shop ahead and buy my first stick of cigarette. It amused me. I walked into the shop. I stood for close to a minute wondering if I could bring myself to ask for a cigarette. For the first time in my life, I thought of a cigarette as a practical habit, not a dirty one. Because it was a thought centred on practicality, there wasn’t the faint thought of morality. But I walked to the counter and picked a sugar-coated peanut, paid 100 FCFA for it, and walked out into the sun. Outside the shop, I took a photograph of the peanut, cupping it in my left palm.
Up to three adolescent boys walked past me with singing phones. The phones were predictably Chinese, given the loudness of the speakers. I wondered what could be the fancy of playing music out loud from a phone. Yet, I couldn’t dare be judgmental, knowing that loud music was ingrained in the consciousness of adolescents everywhere – every country I’ve visited in Africa, there’s a remarkable presence of out-loud music. The songs played are mostly upbeat and dancehall. Nigerian music is fussed over in most of the countries I’ve been to, except perhaps Sudan. There’s mostly P-Square, 2 Face, Flavour, J Martins, and once in a while, D’Banj. There’s no way one can miss the acculturating force of trans-African music; I saw a girl, in a beauty parlour, dancing to a P-Square song, doing whatever else in addition, and then stopping to answer a call.
I began to walk back after spending about an hour on that off-street. I met some men sitting together beside a house. I’d seen them earlier. I am certain they’d seen me when I walked past the first time. I wondered if we now shared a form of knowingness. It’s the sort of point I tried to make in Farad, populating its universe with several characters and unresolved subplots. When we sit in an airplane or in a bus, sharing the same space with several other people, aren’t our lives intersecting with others in a manner that is whole and yet one-off? How can we always seek resolutions when we know that there would always be loose ends in our lives, and that of the strangers we share our lives with?
As I walked back, now at the beginning of the off-street, I became angry that I made no conversation while walking for almost an hour. A woman tried to make eye contact with me and I did not indulge her; I felt it would be a purposeless endeavour. After walking past that woman I became aware of the arrival of evening, the completion of tasks. I arrived at a barbing salon, knocked and went in, but was dismissed half-heartedly by a man who gestured that the barber wasn’t in. Behind that barbing salon young men had finished work on a banner, which had ‘Mali’ as one of the words stencilled on it. I wondered if they’d gotten a job from someone based in Bamako, and when I thought that I wondered if I was being delusional or practical. In front of the wooden shed where I had eaten chicken meat and drank Orangina, the women who had been drinking beer were now out, holding bottles. I began towards the other end of the road, knowing they’d fail to recognize me.
Kate Cherry writes, in What the Poet Wishes to Say,
As for the poet,
the poet aims not at immortality
of self or reputation but of what
he or she wishes to say, the world as it was,
or seemed to be…
Sunday evening – I know I will become a souvenir of all I am encountering in Libreville. I know I will wake one morning in Lagos and remember something that was peculiarly Gabonese, or Cameroonian. There’s a subtlety in every city that can be missed. It is not, I discovered, a subtlety that is wholly attributive to the history of a place, its socio-politics. It is a subtlety that is formed by several interactive forces that cannot be defined. Sometimes formed by the image of what I could be back home, an image formed when I stand and look down from my window at a man wearing a suit, returning from church, a woman by his side.
There are things to be grateful for, like having electricity all day long, not once succumbing to the depression that besieges a Lagosian, not once hearing the sounds of contesting generators. The gift comes in a disguise, because I take it for granted, sitting hours and punching words into pages that fill up slowly.
I am still here.