A Tale of Two Cities

a tale of 2 cities

I was born in the USA and for as long as I can remember I’ve always felt like an alien who didn’t quite fit in. This is partly to blame, I suppose, on the fact that I was raised in a military family and was constantly pulling up roots and moving every year or so, while growing up. As an adult, I kept up this pattern. I’ve lived in or near some of the largest cities in the U.S.—Houston, Philadelphia, and the New York City area.

I feel comfortable in large cities because they afford me the anonymity that I, an alien, crave. No one looks at you “funny” and as long as you don’t hold a stare for too long, you are left alone.

I recently visited London and Paris. I had long dreamed of visiting these places as they have lived in my imagination for years from reading books. Using the subway systems of Philadelphia and New York City, primed me for the London Underground and the Parisian Metro system.

On one of my many excursions around London, I descended the steps into the underground, and encountered a smiling, red-faced uniformed attendant.

“Hello!” I said.

“Hello!” he returned.

I inquired about the best route to get to my destination.

“Take the Circle Line to Baker Street, transfer to the Jubilee Line. Get off at Southwark and it is only a short walk to the Globe.”

“Thank you!”

“Cheers!”

This was typical of my experience in the London Underground— easy to navigate with friendly attendants and patrons who were willing to answer questions.

When I arrived Paris, I approached a Parisian Metro booth and spoke to one of the attendants.

Bonjour, parlez-vous anglais?”

Un peu.”

Although I did not speak the language, I was able to communicate well enough to find my way using a few words and hand gestures. Perhaps the incongruity of being in a strange land made my existence in Paris somehow congruent. I felt at home at last.

On one of my last days in the city, I sat outside the Café de Flore on Boulevard Saint Germaine, enjoying a glass of red wine. A Frenchman, who took the table next to mine, lit up a cigar, and then glanced in my direction to ask if the cigar smoke offended me.

“Oh, no,” I said, “I understand that people who sit outside often smoke and I am not offended.”

He nodded and smiled. He puffed on his cigar a couple of times and we began chatting, he in perfect English. We talked for a long time about a wide range of events including the recent terrorist attacks. I mentioned the increased security around the metro. He shared that he had just spoken to his daughter who lives in the neighbourhood where the attacks occurred and she felt safe using the Metro System.

“Yes,” he cautioned, “but the police and soldiers cannot be everywhere. You have to be vigilant. In effect, we have to be responsible for our own security.”

While sitting outside, we watched many police vehicles drive by with sirens blaring.

“Something’s going on,” he said. “If a car were to pull up in front of us right now and gunmen alighted and started shooting, what could we do about it? Nothing!”

He was right of course. So I concluded that the French are a little fatalistic about such things.

C’est la vie?

I travelled to London and Paris by myself because I needed time to think about my life and my absurd existence. With only myself for company, I walked the cobblestone streets of Montmartre and the rain-swept pavement of Trafalgar Square in London The encounters I had helped me believe in the possibility of happiness and hope for humanity. A big smile and a hello or bonjour broke down the normal barriers humans erect, especially in urban areas.

You can be anonymous, but by using the universal language of a smile followed by a greeting, you can touch and be touched by the human heart.

 

A smile is a curve that sets everything straight.
– Phyllis Diller

 

©Benn Bell 2016 @ Ghost Dog

 

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I Hope Someone Calls Them Beloved

 

oworonsoki by Logor

There is something about Lagos, about this human chaos, about entering danfos and crawling into kekes and jumping on okadas and pushing against bodies reeking of sweat while dancing between pungent puddles that makes me wish I could read minds.

Not all lives interest me. Some people are just derivatives of other people, stock personalities coming out of the human conveyor belt, uninteresting in the way I imagine I must be. But a few stand out: fascinating humans who compel me to observe, like the three girls who piled into the bus at Obalende and sat behind me on Saturday.

They wore clothing that strained against their youth. One sat and two lapped themselves. One pleaded with another in Yoruba, telling her she was sorry.

“Let us go to Alhaji’s place,” she said.

The friend replied, “You can go, I’m not going.”

She pleaded again, “I am sorry.”

They repeated this sequence as more people hauled their bodies into the bus. I took a bite of Gala and a swig of Lucozade Boost.

“I said I’m sorry,” she began again.

The third friend was silent throughout this exchange.

The reluctant friend finally gave in, “Okay, we can go.”

Who is Alhaji? Why is the need to visit him this strong a few minutes past 6pm? It bothers me that there is a whole swathe of human experience and emotions I do not have access to. It bothers me that this bothers me.

As we sped along Third Mainland Bridge, the girl who had been pleading so she could visit Alhaji received a call and spoke to a guy who, from what I could gather, was expecting her.

“I’m at home now,” she told him.

She spoke in heavily accented English with some hesitation, which shows the speaker has the basic vocabulary for fluent communication in English, but is actively translating from Yoruba in her mind.

At Oworonsoki, the trio started a Yoruba Christian song, the kind that choristers in long robes chant enthusiastically to the rhythm of gangan. There was so much cheer in the girls’ voices, and they giggled intermittently as we moved on to Oshodi. There, I alighted from the bus and took the overhead bridge. I looked down and saw the three girls walk towards Ilupeju.

I hope one day to have the courage to ask these people for their stories. I want their stories told with care and empathy, in a way that will make me see them, as they are, not just as the world labels them. I hope, somewhere at the end of their journey, there is someone waiting for them who calls them Imzadi* in a way that is not predatory.

____________

*In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Will Riker, Deanna Troi’s love interest, calls her Imzadi, which translates roughly, in the Betazed language as Beloved. It is what she called him the first time they met.

Alhaji: a Muslim (man) who has been to Mecca on pilgrimage; often the title connotes that the bearer is wealthy.

 

©Ife Nihinlola 2015 @ IfeOluwa’s Rambles
Ife is an avid observer of life in metropolitan Lagos, which he translates into rich ruminations on his blog. Read the unabridged version here.

Photo credit: Owonronsoki by Logor Olumuyiwa

 

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Timi Yeseibo and livelytwist.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

Along Came Fences

fences

We lived in a compound of three flats and a boys’ quarter in Ago Okota, Lagos. Ours was a fenced compound, sort of in the middle of nowhere, last on the street and separated from other buildings by an expansive gulf of undeveloped plots of land overgrown with weeds.

A single mother and her three kids lived in the boys’ quarter. Her first son was my age-mate and friend. When I think back to those formative years, I remember the resolute cooperation of two nine-year-old boys who decided to make a bench from abandoned formwork lying about an uncompleted building close by.

For days, we slaved to make a three-legged bench that a parent bought for N10. My friend and I always watched with pride as our siblings and parents sat on the bench in the evenings. We made another, which I marketed to a relative, selling it for N5. I walked for half a kilometre with the bench on my head to deliver it. While making those benches, a rusted nail pierced through my left foot. My mom took me to a nearby clinic to have me treated. The bill was N200.

When we moved to Kaduna, only two houses on our street were fenced—ours and another one down the lane. Our gate was the opaque border bounded by four high walls decorated at the top with broken bottles.

Despite my love for accessing that side of solitude that engages with written words, the part of me forever enslaved to fantasy fed fat on cartoons and I hungered to bring the adventures scripted in them to life. So, during my teenage years, the call of the streets drew me past our gate, to a circus of street hockey, boris, hunting traps, bangers, suwe , and games of catcher with many other children. As dusk fell, I would reluctantly retreat from the big compound that was our street to the confines of the opaque gate.

In the space of two decades, every house on my street has grown a fence. The ‘big compound’ has shrunk away from the backyards, front yards, and trees, which were common property supporting the imaginative expressions of every kid. The evening bustle of legs and screams have vanished. Moreover, kids have now been tamed by big and small screens that keep nagging them, demanding every bit of their attention.

My village is different. Even today, there are no fences. Solitude is alien and greetings and communal assistance are prized. People do not distance themselves from the identity and stories of others who live around the corner.

Fenced houses and gated communities are the norm in cities. We insulate ourselves to feel secure. However, I maintain the premise of one of my favourite lecturers who is a past president of the Nigerian Institute of Architects: the best form of security is communal and that happens when there is a sense that anyone could be watching a thief from a nearby window.

 

© Samuel Okopi 2016
samuelokopi.com

 

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The Center of My Universe

hosiery

I looked up to find her staring at my leg. Her smile revealed crowfeet, which made her thick dark eyebrows seem relaxed, although in fact, they did not move. I glanced at my leg and smiled in return.

Earlier that afternoon, the zip on my boot snagged my tights. When I stood, my dress rushed down to my knees and swallowed the tear, which was determined to run anyhow. After searching for clear nail varnish around the office, I finally found red nail polish with which to halt the run.

When I sat down in the train, my dress rode inches higher exposing the long gash on my tights. Three red dots, bright as blood, marked the spots where the nail polish had tried in vain to heal the tear. I was tired and my vanity had expired so I adjusted my bag to hide the split. My bag must have slipped because I woke up from my nap to find my torn tights in her line of sight.

I wanted to ask her, haven’t you ever done the same thing too? A smile can be an invitation to talk, but even with eye contact, urban solitude—that unwritten code, which prescribes polite distance in communal spaces—prevailed. Her gaze remained on my tights.

We were four seated in our corner, two sets of seats facing each other with enough distance to keep knees from brushing. Still, feet touched whenever legs were stretched, even a little, resulting in both stretcher and stretchee mumbling, “Oh sorry,” before retreating into urban solitude.

The people crammed in the aisle, shuffled grumpily at each station where more passengers entered the train than exited. A few weeks ago, the Metro ran a story about frustrated passengers who felt cheated because they had to stand their entire journey. The NS had explained that werk aan het spoor meant fewer trains with shorter carriages. I thought it was unfair that passengers suffered discomfort while the NS took the public for a ride and cashed in on full fares.

Complaint can start conversation, but even those standing dulled their inconvenience behind earphones and displayed their perseverance by texting or reading on their handheld devices as the train lurched and swayed, speeding from city to city.

The woman next to me had timed the previous passenger’s exit to perfection and so became the lucky winner of a vacant seat. She was watching a movie on her phone and her eyes didn’t wander from the screen once. Sitting directly opposite me was a girl whose head bobbed at intervals as though she was listening to music but she was sleeping. The white wires of her earphones peeked out from her black hijab. The woman adjacent her, who kept looking at my tights, wore shiny grey tights and black high heels.

This woman broke into a delicate laugh all of a sudden. Could hosiery induce such delight? A faint whimper diverted my attention. I followed the sound and peered down. A red leather collar; how could I have missed it? She had not been smiling at me. All this time, it was the puppy in the raffia tote, which the woman next to me straddled.

Sometimes the best reminders come in small packages—I am not the center of the universe, only mine.

They say before you assume anything, try this crazy method called asking. But I could not have asked her, could I?

 

Don’t acknowledge fellow passengers or sustain eye contact beyond two seconds. Please respect urban solitude. – unknown

 

©Timi Yeseibo 2016

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Measuring Time

time

Over the years, I have heard people say, I don’t do New Year resolutions, as if resolutions are an unfashionable item of clothing. Me? I have no grouse with New Year resolutions; they are not like mosquitoes singing in my ear that I need to slap away.

You know that Angus and Phil cartoon where the two dogs are having a conversation? The one where Angus asks, “What exactly is a New Year’s resolution?” and Phil replies, “It’s a ‘To Do’ list for the first week of January,”? It has me in stitches every New Year when I see it on my newsfeed on Facebook. What is it about New Year resolutions and un-stickability? Are we so spineless? Perhaps we resolve to do better without looking at why we failed the year before.

I have come to believe the saying that men fail because of broken focus. I do not think of my goals at the start of the year as resolutions. These goals, which span spirituality, character, vocation, and health, are work-in-progress, whose expiry date can spill over from a previous year because sometimes distractions pose as good intentions and obliterate my focus. Focus requires clear targets. Sustaining focus becomes easy when I strip down what I want to achieve to bullet points and then marry them to small chunks of time. Then, I can be a vigilante one day at a time

Mostly, I wake up without an alarm and not long after, I reach for time—a watch, phone, or clock. Even on days that I can do as I please and do not need to look at the clock; I still catch myself glancing out the window gauging time by the slant of the sun, degree of cloud cover, or pace of life on the streets, to make meaning of our world. In a sense, all of us are measuring time. But if we take casual cognizance of time, the days and weeks would blend into one another. It would be like defying gravity and just floating in space, fascinating at first and pointless in the end. 

A friend reminded me that in 2015, he counted the days. When he said it, I imagined him standing in front of a huge calendar, striking out the days written in black ink, with red crayon. I saw how fast he flipped the calendar from month to month, achieving little. He said that in contrast, in 2016, he would make the days count. I like his rhetoric. For me, this means before I lay my head on my pillow at night, I would have taken at least one step in the direction of my goals. Then 365 days later, I will measure time and come up full.

Whether we call our aspirations resolutions or goals, how we spend our days becomes how we spend our lives.

 

©Timi Yeseibo 2016

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