[Not] Settling in Enugu
I moved from Aba to Enugu in the later part of 2008. More accurately, my family moved to Enugu. For one, I was not with them when they moved. My mother had taken me to Abuja to my new school- a boarding school, but she was too sick to travel all the way back to Aba and so when they reached Enugu, Uncle Sunday stopped and took my mother to a hospital. My father had a house in Enugu at the time. He already half-lived in Enugu because he was working in Enugu and so he was already spending maybe 4-5 nights out of 7 in Enugu. Before 2008, I had been to Enugu, the coal city, maybe 2-3 times. I only remember that once we went to the zoo and even though the memory is there on paper ‘You went to the zoo in Enugu when you were younger’ there is no sensory evidence to be found anywhere in me. Enugu city was unboisterous, unclamorous, clean, tidy, the home of old glory while Aba was boisterous, clamorous, dirty, rowdy, the home of hustle.
Enugu before 2008 was the place where things had finished happening while Aba was the place where it was happening. The only names coming out of Enugu were names that had now found new soil in America, Amsterdam, the UK, Lagos, the government and History textbooks while Aba was new money, anyhow money, new soil for people like my parents coming from villages in the thick of Nsukka. As long as I was concerned, African Chyna was from Aba and his song ‘Mr. President’ was written from Aba.
Aba was Eedris Abdulkareem’s ‘Jagga Jagga’, bad roads, pedestrian pathways made into landfills, black singed bodies on the road on Sunday mornings when you were going to church, the dreadful Ariara market, endless stories of kidnappings, hearing or imagining bullets falling on your roof. On Sundays in Aba Sports Club there were queues for riding on the club’s jangilova and there was also my clique in Catechism classes, as well as my mother’s August meetings with garden egg and ose-oji. There were also my parent’s night parties in our house with Tu Face’s ‘African Queen’ waking me up and my Uncle Bonny who told us Tortoise stories when we went to his house every evening after school as we waited for our parents to come back from work. Sleep-overs in friends’ houses (like Amarachi’s where we had Idols competitions all the time) and parent’s friends’s houses (like Aunty Ijeoma’s house where I got the nickname ‘Sleeping Beauty’) were common. It was crazy but more than that, you had a community of friends for tears, laughter and party.
In spite of the strength of community back there, when we moved out in 2008, I did not care. Aba people travelled; sometimes they came back, sometimes they did not. Our closest family neighbours had just moved to America. I was not going to be one of the first people I knew who left Aba. All I knew was that I was tired of the rats and cockroaches in the house. I was tired of my old school: reading the drills every morning after assembly, the compulsory cursive handwriting classes and the fact that I had finally become one of those students that got flogged by teachers for not doing homework. I think very importantly, I was tired of feeling ugly and having self-bruising thighs and a C cup of baby fat on my chest that struggled with not just my uniform but also older men’s eyes. Moving to anywhere else looked like redemption and actually boarding school excited me because everyone knew: boarding school drilled every baby [body and mind] into shape.
Sometime last summer in Lagos, I was with new friends talking about Enugu. It was a short, funny conversation about Enugu: how there is rarely ever traffic, how the taxi drivers have the audacity to ask for N2000 for a three-minute drive, etc. One of them even remarked that he heard that you could go out on a Friday night and have such a premium time for just N200.
But it wasn’t until I was in the taxi going back home and Brymo was singing ‘I go go Lagos, I go get money, I go change my life’ that I realised how much I was dissatisfied with life in Enugu. It is one thing to dislike something and it is another to have the choice or an illusion of choice at least.
This was a dissatisfaction that took the form and weight of a stillborn promise. For all I knew, back then in 2008, my move to Enugu was everything of a fresh start. Thing is, I needed a ‘start’ to begin with and that ‘start’ never came. I never made friends and I never found that community to start with. That zoo from my paper memory years ago became an estate, the estate my family moved to and when we moved, most houses were still blocks of cement and sand. I remember thinking that our house was the most habitable building at the time and we just had to wait a bit for the communities to sprout.
I waited, term in term out, Easter holiday, summer, Christmas holiday, year in, year out. I waited for this life to ‘start’, waited for families to sprout and for children to gather round the benches that were fixed down the whole length of our street. I waited for gatemen to become buddies and for neighbours invitations for housewarmings and birthdays.
We went to two churches alternatively, but our parents never really had those long post-church service greetings anymore. Maybe my ‘start’ never came because somehow between family obligations, school holiday assignments and other random things, a ‘start’ could not just magically happen. Additionally, it seemed to me like if people did live in Enugu, they left for other places during the holidays, just as soon as I came back from boarding school. Maybe my ‘start’ never came because I/we also stood in its way. Once, I sat down in the choir section for mass and after the service the choir master invited me for choir meetings but I think someone in the car on our way back home said something along the lines of ‘You’ve not finished learning how to cook good soup and you want to join the choir.’ It was nothing anyway because I usually dislike Igbo parishes’ female soprano singers and the last thing I wanted was to learn to sing like them.
I felt left with only glimpses and pin hole sightings of what I thought was real society in the real Enugu through the gossip magazines people randomly gave me at the Polo Park Mall or when I went to buy shawarma at Crunchies. (Crunchies’ shawarma is, by the way, the best shawarma in all of Enugu, Port Harcourt, Abuja and Lagos. Trust me I know, because I had the strongest shawarma obsession for 7 years and my obsessions are embarrassingly strong.) There were stories of socialites and who was getting with who but most stories were sugar daddy stories.
My other glimpses were from a friend who went to boarding school with me. Her family was rooted in Enugu as much as mine was in Aba. I always wanted to go out with her, thinking she was just as unoccupied as I was and forgetting that she may have an old lesson teacher or friends from primary school to visit. She would tell me of interesting nights she spent with friends and friends that had become family. Listening to her it felt so strongly like I was still inside; like my family was still inside its shell and in due time our lives and interests will unfold out onto the streets and join the other families and circles, forming roots along the way.
I have finally caught that young adult itch, that heyday fever that will not let me sit in one place like Enugu demands of me and everyone knows that this fever only breaks with occupation and the self- gratification that comes with occupation. On the draggiest days, when I am lucky enough to have missed a headache from the ennui, I find myself in a state of agitation that feels most like the clapping and snapping Gill Scott Heron’s ‘New York is Killing Me’. When he sings of ‘New York killing me’, all I hear is ‘Enugu 👏 is 👏 killing 👏 me 👏 ’ and when he goes on to sing ‘Yeah I need to go home and take it slow’, all I’m thinking is ‘Yeah I need to find home and switch it up.’
I think I am outgrowing this place that looks better in old pictures, this place whose newer pictures give you the sense of a glory that grew, stunted and remained stagnant in a world that moves on.
The feeling is no longer one of watching from the inside and waiting to be called to take part in the party out in the gardens in the land of the rising sun. I know now that I am actually outside, not inside, and the party I have been waiting for has been over for a bit. Some days I find myself still trying to look in trying to salvage this opportunity to earn a community, but other times I’m just ready to move on, move away.
These days when I speak to my mother we talk about her new friends, most from the church: the women in the Catholic Women’s Organisation (CWO). My father’s friends come over by 9pm and they sit around in the backyard where we serve them roasted yam, plantain and chicken with palm oil made ‘just the way we used to eat it back in the days’ while they talk middle-aged Nigerian men things. For the first time, it’s beginning to seem like my parents have pitched their last tent. On the other hand, I think 8 years is long enough for me to realise that I have resisted making a home out of this place, or it has resisted me, I don’t know. Enugu appears to be perfect for some people at a certain time of one’s life. For Adichie for example, it’s when she is 60 and home for her will be here in Enugu in ‘a charming simple bungalow on a serene hilly area… with bougainvillea creeping up the windows, a splash of purple across the white house’. I used to share this dream, but resentment dragged me in too deep and now it is merely just an option at the bottom of my list of 20. If I can’t trust Enugu today in my salad days, should I trust it 40 years from now, will I?
The earth is big enough and wide enough, I think I am tired of being outside.