They Are Not Brown Roofs, They Are Rusted
David Ishaya Osu
running splash of rust
and gold-flung and scattered
among seven hills like broken
china in the sun
I first visited Ibadan in a poem, in the J.P. Clark poem quoted above. I hadn’t quite grasped the significance or spirit of the poem at the time; the only vibration that meant a lot to me in the poem was Ibadan—the title of the poem. It was from this point I started to nurse an interest in the city of Ibadan. I was not yet eighteen then. With no reason other than the sound of its name, I fell in love with Ibadan—I fell in love with an unknown place.
Once upon a time, I said to myself, I will marry a Yoruba woman. Oh, the fantasy of a teen. I had a whole lot of other fantasies, but this funny one played an essential role in shaping my vision of Ibadan. Especially as Ibadan is Yoruba.
Imagine a city as beautiful or arresting as the picture you’ve already conceived of a lover—your lover. You’d want to do anything possible for that lover, anything for that city.
I’ve grown fond of places and even people without first meeting them. I’ve grown fond of fruits even without tasting them. My mind just wants to dwell in a labyrinth of feelings, whether there are explicit understandings or not. Whether the day of consummation will end or not.
So everybody who asked about my favourite city got Ibadan as a reply. But I almost never told anyone about marrying a Yoruba. Not Doyin, not Hannah Dada, all secondary school mates; not even my neighbour, Funke.
The Ibadan fantasy went on as I read a few facts about the city: its population; the Cocoa House, a 26-storey building and Nigeria’s first skyscraper. Ibadan: its British history; the famous University College where many influential Nigerian writers of the 20th century graduated. Ibadan: the Ogunpa river and its many stories.
All these fascinated me. I couldn’t wait to have my body right in the city of my dream. I couldn’t wait to have my own experience of Ibadan, to situate myself in its history. I started to plan a trip.
I refused to trust milestones, so I kept asking the lady beside me: how long is Ibadan from here? She’d say with a smile, is this your first time?
I’d stare out of my window; I’d also want to stare from another passenger’s windows if I could. I couldn’t hide the fact that I was a first-timer. I just wanted to instantly feel Ibadan.
It was until my third or fourth visit to Ibadan that I eventually allowed myself to reflect on the city of my dream. Upon my first time, I had promised that I would never talk about the city or make an opinion about it, for I was disappointed by what I saw.
Ibadan is brown, you’d be compelled to say that about the city. But this is my view: they’re not brown roofs, they’re rusted roofs.
There is a pride or an argument that the old structures and the “brown” roofs of Ibadan are an exact reflection of its ancient civilization. No doubt, they reflect old times. No doubt, they’re an upshot of the old. But this is where I problematise the romantisation of rusted roofs and dilapidated buildings; this is where I problematise the romantisation of slums, particularly in African states.
Do not cities evolve? Do not people and their dwellings grow? Do not living and working conditions get better? So, why has not Ibadan? Why has not Ibadan aged to newness?
J.P. Clark wrote the poem in 1965, and many years after, Ibadan is still a “running splash of rust” (fifty-three years after), and of gold flung away. Whoever throws gold away? Whoever despises the creative energy and wealth of a people? Sadly, this is what the city reflects. Ibadan reflects neglect and misuse of its “gold”.
The cry or call for the evolution of places of living and work isn’t a mere fantasy that villages or urban areas must be modern. No. It’s a demand for functionality, for satisfaction; to meet the needs and priorities of people today. This isn’t asking a city to grow skyscrapers or heaven-on-earth museums; this is rather designing and enabling amenities that offer a people a sense of joy that meets basic human aspirations.
Will this disappointment stop me from getting food or other kinds of gratification? Will a running splash of rust permanently blind me?
While waiting for our bus to the city of Abuja, we sighted a suya spot along New Ife Road, right there in Ibadan. On noticing that the suya guy was fluently speaking Hausa to a passer-by, I switched my tongue to Hausa—not necessarily as a form of solidarity but to lure him to cut plenty suya for us. After the first taste, we went back to buy more.
The savour was the kind that made us nod our heads continually. “That Ibadan suya is the best so far,” Abike said. It is now a permanent memory.
There’s another permanent memory that reminds me of a passage from the bible in Matthew chapter twenty-five, particularly verses thirty-five and thirty-six:
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison and you visited me.”
Here: the bike man gave me his phone number and offered to house me for the night. I said: if the worst comes to the worst, I’ll just go to his house. He’d ridden me from one cashpoint to the other, so he wasn’t ignorant of my frustration—it was all over my face. The question was: what would I do? Where would I sleep?
I was stranded in my dream city: there’s really no need to think of an inn or a guesthouse now since I couldn’t get cash from anywhere.
Thankfully, the worst didn’t come. Rasaq (a Facebook friend whom I remembered was living in Ibadan at the time) came to my rescue and hosted me till the next morning. That next morning, I tried a cashpoint and got money and took off to Minna. It was my first time meeting Rasaq, a fellow poet and student of University of Ibadan at that time. This was 2012.
Charity from two total strangers, charity from my dream city; that night I slept under a rusted roof. I didn’t only sleep, I got a chance to discuss poetry with another poetry lover.
One interesting thing is that whether it’s a slum or a glossy giant city, the human family will share food and fun and make home anywhere possible.
David Ishaya Osu is the Poetry Editor of Panorama.
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