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
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