This email is long overdue. Forgive me.
I will start with the truth: the way things ended with Zainab stole my appetite and I didn’t realise until I came here. In Lagos I was in hustle mode trying to get my student visa sorted out, find a decent flight, and just generally escape. But when I got here I found myself in hustle mode still. This time it was because I was trying to hide the fact that I have no business in a doctoral program. I suppose I slowly sort of morphed into this gaunt fidgety gollum like version of myself. But there was no Ring feeding my madness, just my own tightly wound angst, and the shame I feel for not existing in a state of ceaseless ecstacy at this gift of an opportunity.
All that to say that I was suffering a bit so I disappeared, I’m sorry.
My dissertation supervisor insisted that I meet with a counselor, which is helpful. Also helpful is the fact that my appetite had returned with a small vengeance. Anyway, my supervisor, her name is Yaema, she’s killing me. She’s brilliant and tough! She came to Canada over two decades ago as a refugee from Sierra Leone. At first she landed in Winnipeg, but during her first year there she woke up most nights to nurse her nosebleeds. It was too dry there, no salt in the air because the prairie city is landlocked. So she moved to Nova Scotia to be close to the Atlantic ocean. Anyway, she often tells me that she knows the workload is heavy, but it’s no heavier than navigating this ‘imperialist, capitalist, ableist, heteronormative, patriarchal, white-supremacist machine’ as a black femme; she’s always quoting Bell Hooks to me. I like her, but I’m tired and cold!
Here’s my current top three:
1) I bought a daylight lamp; a luxury to keep my serotonin levels from falling to the ground.
2) The cold here sinks inside my body, so I shiver all the time.
3) I’ve run out of Yaji and Cameroonian black pepper. It appears, that I’m doomed to blandness and misery.
How is married life? Please tell me everything.
Honestly I’d started to worry.
All is well as it can be in Lagos. Honeymoon in Marrakech was a dream, but we’ve come back to face the beast that is this city o!
The fuckery of this place is in full force these days— never ending traffic, never ending lines at the petrol station—you just dodged the worst fuel scarcity I’ve ever witnessed. Same with diesel, we haven’t had one full hour of power, so as usual, we have to find petrol to be driving up and down to find diesel for the generator.
Two weeks away was not enough, I don tire for this place!
Married life would be better if Farouq’s mother wasn’t staying with us. She’s been a bit ‘sick’, I think she’s just lonely since Baba passed. Perhaps loneliness is its own kind of sickness. She’s not feeling well, but she has energy to be trampling all over my garden. Between her, the sun, and one kind of devil blight, my Ixora seedlings are suffering.
1) I’m sorry that you need the lamp, but I’m happy that you have it. Look after yourself love.
2) Are there no African grocery stores in Halifax? (I just looked up Halifax on a map, and it’s seems remote as hell, so no surprise if there are no African grocery stores. Sorry. But hey, It’s the same ocean between us, isn’t that a little poetic?)
3) It may be too soon to talk about, but I ran into Zainab at church and she mentioned that she and Wale had set a date for the traditional wedding. They’re having a white wedding at a resort somewhere, I was too busy picking my jaw off the dirty ground to hear where she said. I just thought you should know so that you’re not surprised if photos show up on your feed. Have you been in touch?
There is one African grocery store in the North End run by a woman named Helen. She’s gorgeous, her complexion is deep dark, except for the vitiligo that makes milky shapes on her skin. The shapes resemble outlined borders, I imagine her as a gentle walking map. She sells some things that smell like home, but she doesn’t sell Yaji.
I know that it’s only because I’m away, and the weather here is miserable, and I feel lonely—yes I would agree that it may be a kind of sickness of its own—but I miss Lagos. I know! I’m romanticizing it, I know! But there’s something about this place that feels a little more sterile than other Oyimbo places I’ve lived before. Would I trade being here for sitting at home arguing with my father, being closeted, and having high blood pressure because nothing works? No, I would not, but I’ve been looking up how to get permanent residency here, so it’s easier to travel back and forth without worrying about that hellish visa hustle.
My father is fine by the way; retirement hasn’t dampened his eccentricity in the slightest. Please visit him when you can. He still loves to remind me how I’ve failed him as an only child. How I’m overeducated, yet without a ‘true profession’; I should have been a Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer, Pharmacist, or even an Accountant. Just something that he can brag about to his friends in a concise statement: “My daughter, Tokunbo, is a Doctor!”
Yesterday, on the phone, he reminded me that he didn’t pay thousands in the almighty U.S dollar for an undergrad degree only for me to become an ‘activist’. Again, he brought up the year I spent in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, reminded me that my ‘pan african mentality’ is deeply flawed.
So to send him into a fit of annoyance, I said “Better me than a white saviour going to help the ‘poor Haitians’.”
I knew that would unleash a torrential lecture.
“Oh this girl you’ve come again with your wahala!”
“Everything is not about racism!”
“Leave Oyimbo people to feel like saviours if they want to be saviours, jare!”
“Are you going to try and claim that there was some kind of ‘oppression’ involved in that?”
“So you’re saying that mother nature is racist as well?”
Yes, I am!
I told him that mother nature is probably racist, but I’m sure she doesn’t mean to be. She’s just stuck like the rest of us, and has to do her thing within these oppressive man-made regimes that we all exist in. The shitty infrastructure that made the earthquake in Haiti so devastating didn’t pop out of satan’s nyash, it’s directly connected to the country’s history of slavery, and genocide, and just general fuckery.
Forgive my rambling.
He said, “Anyway, no man will want to marry you with all those degrees.”
Of course I didn’t tell him that it’s probably for the best that no man takes an interest in me.
About Zainab, I can lie that I’m happy for her, but I’ve never had to lie to you, so no need to start now.
It sounds like you’re living a Nollywood cliche with Mama Farouq living with you. Does she also criticize your cooking, and pressure you to give her grandbabies?
Yesterday I drove to the mainland to see your father, As usual the go-slow on Third Mainland Bridge made me want to tear my hair out. On top of that your neighborhood was flooded! It rained for three straight days, Mama Farouq laughed at me for dragging my large pots of Christ Thorns inside after the first day of rain. I tried to explain to her about succulents, but she thinks I’m pretentious. Wetin concern person?
Anyway, the roads were flooded and of course I drove the Jeep right inside one massive pothole! Lucky for me I was near your place, so the gateman and some boys helped me push it out. I was drenched from my Brazilian weave to my fresh pedicure. Toki, I nearly started rolling on road from frustration. All this to say that your father is well, and he wouldn’t stop bragging about you, so it’s funny to me that you’re always disagreeing. I think he’s just old-manning you because he knows he gets a reaction.
It’s looking like Mama Farouq might be staying here longer than expected. You think it’s all jokes but my life starting to resemble a Nollywood movie true true. This woman wants us to hire a housegirl. I don’t want a housegirl! Jesu Christi! She has a housegirl in the duplex that she left to come and stress me; that Togolese girl that found her way to Lagos because her hometown got flooded. I think I told you about her before. Her people lost everything, and she couldn’t find work so she came here. I mean I’m happy for the girl, happy she has work in a relatively ‘stable’ country, but damn housegirl work isn’t easy o!
I’m sha not hiring a housegirl.
I was thinking about the Togolese housegirl. Her name is Sandrine. Back in the day when Farouq and I were first seeing each other, I used to help out with the cooking and practice my French with her. She had just started working for them then, and she told me how she found her way to Lagos:
She’s from Sanguera, just outside Lomé. One heavy rainfall flooded the whole town. She said that her family lost their home. It was just too damaged for them to stay. And her father’s snack kiosk was swept away with everything else in the area. So she came to Lagos with an uncle to find work (I know! I wish my mind didn’t go there, but na so we dey see am!).
Speaking of white saviours, or saviours of all sorts, who am I to feel sorry for anybody? Who are you to go and make a career of ‘saving’ trafficked people? But if it wasn’t some type of way, I think I would ask Sandrine how I can help her.
Yes, I’m trying to be the saviour of all the housegirls. (It’s funny because people won’t believe that mumsie was a housegirl that finessed one Oyimbo sugar daddy and got herself a shop on the island. I’m not ashamed. I come from a lineage of women that have had to use everything they have to get where they need to be.)
I miss our your face.
Did I ever tell you about the therapist I saw when I lived in New York?
It was my first winter there and I’d initially thought that I was just feeling down on account of Seasonal Affective Disorder, because my blood had not thickened enough to accommodate the biting northeastern cold. Anyway, I alternated between one kind of overwhelming lethargy, and frightening manic thoughts about flinging myself, like a rag doll, off an incredibly high point. Also, it was around the anniversary of my mumsie’s death, so I went to the campus counselling center.
The therapist was younger than I’d expected.. The fact that she was black put me more at ease than I think I would’ve been with anyone else, but something happened during our third or fourth session that made me think I might have offended her.
She’d asked about my mumsie, specifically about a difficult memory I held onto and played over obsessively. So I told her about when I was eleven or twelve or thirteen and we had that houseboy named Kunle, who used to touch me (I used to turn to stone to keep from screaming). One Wednesday after school, I believe that Kunle thought nobody was home, because nobody was supposed to be home, I went to the kitchen for Ribena or something and he was there cooking plantains and corned beef stew. He started with his usual “you this girl, you’re getting so big…” that often led to him groping all the parts of my body that were growing. He had his hand under the checkered blouse of my school uniform when my mumsie walked in. I can imagine what she saw—my stone body, face frozen in a mask of shame and fear, eyes glazed over seeking elsewhere, Kunle’s hands on me, the awful hum of his mummering—She shrieked and flung the pan of plantains and boiling oil on him. Then she snatched me up and carried me to the bathroom.
Of course my father paid for Kunle’s burn treatments and medicine, paid for him to stay away. But yeah, that’s how my munsie got a rep for being a wicked employer.
At some point while I was telling the therapist this story, she flinched. I paused, but she didn’t say anything so I continued. I forgot to ask about the flinch before the end of the session, I only saw her like three times after that, and I just kept forgetting to ask. I ran into her a long time later, maybe a year and a half later. I was on a very awkward date at a tiny Mexican bar (another story altogether) and I’d been drinking to make time speed up, when I saw her. I got up abruptly and went towards her, and I think my exact words were:
“At the risk of seeming neurotic, I need to know why you winced that day.”
And without skipping a beat, as if I hadn’t just drunkenly accosted her out of nowhere no less than a whole year since the conversation to which I referred, she smiled gently and said, “you said ‘houseboy’, and I’m from the South. In my history,” she said, placing a leather gloved hand to her chest, “that’s a slave term.”
The next day, in the bitter haze of a tequila hangover, I emailed her an apology for the night prior, but mostly for casually using a word that was so loaded for her. She apologized for letting the way it affected her show during our session. Isn’t it funny in that it’s not funny at all, the way that it’s the same ocean, perhaps the same colonisers that brought that language.
Anyway, I was just remembering because you mentioned hiring Sandrine. I think that you should hire her. I also think that you should be careful about exposing your heart the way that you do. Remember that Lagos is wild, in fact the whole world is wild, and you may not be able to help this girl the way that you intend to.
I feel lonely here, though I’ve made some friends at a queer reading group; we’re going through a reading list of black femme writers, and it seems that some of the non black members are having trouble ‘relating to the narratives’. My head hurts from rolling my eyes so hard.
Thank you for visiting him o! Sorry that you had to basically had to swim there!
I miss you too, very much. My love to Farouq. How is Mama Farouq? How is Nollywood living?
P.S: I’ve been occasionally kissing a woman named Hallelujah, but that’s gist for another time.
Alright, point taken! No more houseboy/housegirl, just house help!
You never told me about that therapist, I somehow thought the story would end with you dating her! But please I want the story on this Hallelujah person!
I remember the Kunle story though, God punish him. If na money we dey collect for all the small girls wey dem dey molest for this world eh, our money no go ever finish. Even still, my love, I’m sorry. And I am happy that aunty Folake poured hot oil on him, may she rest in peace.
Nollywood life updates:
- Have been steadily gaining weight so that my waist beads gradually moved from my hips up past my navel? Yes.
- Am I possibly pregnant, and in deep denial? Yes.
- Has Mama Farouq noticed? Without a doubt.
- Have ‘we’ decided to move to Farouq’s parent’s house because there’s more space for all of us—and by all of us do I mean me, Farouq, Mama Farouq, Sandrine, and the driver we’ve hired just to drive Mama Farouq around? Yes and Yes.
- Will I continue to smile and nod in public like the good Fulani girl that Mama Farouq wishes I would be? Absolutely.
- Will I continue to be passive aggressive and punish Farouq behind closed doors, like the wicked Lagos girl that I actually am, because this is not the life we agreed to build together? Absolutely.
- Are most of my plants being drowned by this early, and seemingly never ending rainy season? Yes.
A few nights ago I found Mama Farouq on the back verandah, she was just sitting in the dark like a scary witch. When I sat beside her, she didn’t move or look at me, she just started telling me about growing up in Jos. She said that the weather was better there, dry and cool, unlike this maddening heavy Lagos heat. But what was she to do, she followed a fine Yoruba man to Lagos, and he went and died before her. She shook her head and said, “that was not the arrangement.”
She let me hold her as she cried. I’m still astonished that she opened up to me like that Toki, astonished!
So my sister, rest assured, that if Farouq dies before me, I am coming to live with you. Me and this potential baby—that might just be gas from all the Ube and roasted corn that I’ve been eating.
SABIRAH ARE YOU PREGNANT!!??!
I’M CALLING YOU NOW! Sorry for shouting, but I’m calling you now!!!
Toki my dear,
True true I don carry belle!
So here we are, almost completely moved into the same house that I used to sneak into to spend nights with Farouq. Mama Farouq seems happier, and I have to confess, I feel happier as well! Just generally less worried. Maybe it’s because there’s more space for everyone, maybe because my being pregnant has proven to be enough of a reason for my mumsie to decide to come to Lagos for more than two weeks. She’s promised to come and be with me for one month, and she wants us to go to London just before my third trimester so I can give birth there, and have a cold blooded british citizen baby. The woman has wahala, but honestly all the wahala from all the mothers seems worth it just now. I’m very happy AND very terrified. I fully expect that you’ll be there, so if your UK visa has expired, now is the time to renew it.
Can we please keep up with our weekly phone calls? I like writing to express long things, but the last few weeks of phone check ins have been good too. Also I want baby to get familiar with your voice.
So I’ve been spending time with that woman named Hallelujah, she’s a post-doc in the biology department at my uni. We met towards the end of last semester we see eachother at most, twice a month. I saw her last weekend and I’m embarrassed to call her again. We shared an edible right before dinner, I had a very small piece, like a piece as small as my pinky nail, but it must have been strong because I got fucked up pretty quickly; one moment we’re eating some kind of Beninese peanut stew and fufu, the next thing you know I’m hyperventilating and weeping and trying, incoherently, to explain some nonsense about being in a glass box and watching everything, but touching nothing, and being afraid to disappear. I feel like a fool, I’m here crying about being homesick while I’m trying to find belonging elsewhere, when I know how easy my life has been in comparison to so many. People are literally swimming across oceans, risking their lives to have half of the opportunities that I’ve been given, and all I do is cry and worry that I’m not good enough because some assholes look at my sideways when I’m the only black person in a room. I mean have you seen in the news about the slave trade in Libya?Is this real?! I’m reading different things and some people are saying it’s ‘fake news’, but there are all these pictures. If it’s real I know that it isn’t necessarily new in the world. Intellectually I understand that slavery exists. I’m researching migration and human trafficking, but there’s something about seeing those pictures—those men look like my cousins, like the men I love, they look like me. I think it’s because the people in the pictures are bound up like cattle. This is fucking me up so much. Some of the reports are saying that Libya is in such collapse that they’re selling black migrants out in the open and nobody cares.
Sabirah I don’t understand. I know that my knowing about it doesn’t improve the situation, but my heart is broken and I am pouring out.
My dear Toki,
I’ve been reading about that too. Knowing that it’s not new doesn’t make it better, you’re right. And maybe it’s the fact that it’s not hidden, I don’t know, but It’s heartbreaking. It is only right to mourn my dear.
This is the punishment that our people face when they seek life away from a home that won’t hold them. Na wa o! Everyday I thank God for the blessing of money to make life here bearable, I swear. Otherwise you think I too won’t be finding all kinds of ways, with or without papers, to get across the ocean, away from the water and sky that I know, even if it’s to sell my body in Italy?
But my sister, please don’t scatter your head about this matter. If na to cry, jor cry. If na to go church dey light candle, abeg carry yourself go church go dey light candle. But don’t hold it alone. Call me.