The Face of the Little Girl

Tolu Daniel

Nigeria

On my way to work on Friday, 5th October, 2016, I used the rough path leading to the main road from my house on Quarry Road. I contended with a number of things, the dryness for one, as the wind encouraged dust to rise with every movement and cleave to passersby like me. Another thing was the heat, unaccompanied by its usual end of the year twin, the harmattan haze. The air was like the bottom of a steam pressing iron: morning, afternoon and night, the skin distressed from it. I thought how much less oppressive it would be if there were more trees in this town. You know, those big oak types found now only in the villages, with big fat trunks sitting solid beside brown earth roads. Yet the town was a village once, and we did have trees here. The government uprooted them to lay the shiny black asphalt and it went downhill from there. The timbre trade did the rest. This is not the first time I’ve noticed this in the over four years I have lived here. I have ignored it, but I do not like this modern Abeokuta.

At Agbeloba roundabout, the red bricked Agbeloba building—remnant of the Operation Feed The Nation programme of the first Obasanjo administration—towered opposite me, intimidating in its colour and height. I hailed a taxi going to Idi Aba at the informal rank, settled for the window seat behind the driver because it sometimes afforded me the chance to meet new people and have random conversations with them. The taxi was green and striped with yellow lines which ran as though in competition all around it. It was a hunchbacked Nissan and the tattered upholstery presented the car as old. Stickers welcoming passengers to the new millennium were stuck on the windscreen. The driver, a wiry old man with bolt-like veins all over his face, yelled as soon as I settled into the seat.

— Hold your change o!            

I matched his yell with mine, “E dey! No worry.”

He said nothing more and started the car. I wound the window down and the wind cooled my face, as shaving foam applied by a barber’s brush, as we picked up speed and I entered the journey fully.

I wondered how it was that I couldn’t appreciate this town, why I couldn’t behave like most of its inhabitants or most of the people I grew up with. Nothing happens here and the people seemed to love it that way. Uncompleted high rise buildings stand on k-legs in between Oke Ilewo and the old Ibara roundabout. The nearly completed ones at Isale Igbein announce themselves soon after. People walk about, blending with the scenery, lazy like the blue of the sky. I picked out not a single significant detail from any person I passed.

The old roads weren’t so bad before the Chinese came to erect the bridge and destroyed it with their heavy-duty Sino trucks. For the price of a bridge, we pay with potholes on both ends of it. The old Ibara Roundabout was a statued monument, comprising four men at its centre lifting up the Ogun State map. The intersection linked roads to places like Ita Eko, Omida, Onikoko, Onikolobo, Quarry Road and Panseke—places whose names had meanings, which were resident in the stories of the people living there.

Rocks surround us, humongous monoliths like frozen trolls, as the taxi drove past Omida and skirted towards Isale Igbein. Omida was known for its big market, demolished two years ago to make way for the construction of a bigger mall-like building. Traders and buyers loitered and bickered over prices below the emerging mass of concrete while construction workers, some in yellow and blue hats, slaved a few feet above them. The taxi sped through the road unencumbered by potholes as in the old days. We soon passed St. Anne’s Catholic Church which shares a fence with the Ibara Baptist Church just as the Omida quarter of Abeokuta stretched its hand and passed the baton to Isale Igbein.

At Isale Igbein, I pondered the origin of the name Isale Igbein. It translates to “the bottom of Igbein”. Yet, in all my years in Abeokuta, I have never become aware of a place called Igbein. There are a number of places like this whose names point to the existence of someplace else that no longer exists or has been long forgotten. I wonder if the ghosts of these places hang around and haunt the dwelling places that supplanted them. Names are everything here. Some names are clearly jokes or short forms of slogans. Other times, names take cues from the scenery. Other times yet, they honour the first settlers of a particular location, hence such names as Olomore with “Olo” meaning owner of and “More” being the supposed name of the neighbourhood. Isale Igbein hosts the official residence of the governor. We drove on, State House towered by the side of the road like an out of place Titan.

If one was on an airplane, perhaps Isale Igbein would look like a plate of amala accompanied with ewedu soup and assorted meat. The rocks would be the black mounds of amala and the road would be the ewedu soup. The new buildings would decorate the dish of geography as assorted pieces of beef the culinary. In between Omida and Isale Igbein, the taxi made a few stops to pick up extra passengers. In Abeokuta, as many towns in sub-Saharan Africa, a journey by taxi is a shared experience. No one could claim ownership of a taxi ride except on insistence and a prior agreement had been reached.

A grandmother and her granddaughter boarded as the taxi climbed the hills of Oke-Yeke. A shove here, a prod there and we were on the road again. The back seat is now cramped—the woman and the girl, the man who got on earlier whose nose has been in his mobile phone, and me. The driver still searched for an extra passenger for the seat beside him as the journey continued, slowing down at each prospect. The little girl had a curious face on which stood a pointed nose, a small tiny mouth and bushy brows. She wore her hair in tiny cornrows that must have taken some effort to weave. She stared at my beard for a little over ten seconds and, as if deciding I wasn’t worth her time, faced her grandmother and said:

—This man’s beard reminds me of Dad.

The Grandmother looked at her and then at me, a frown settling in her age-ridden eyes. I expected a reprimand. But instead she said, He does, doesn’t he? in English that was so precise I looked at her twice to be sure she was the author of the words. She looked at me and smiled, her cheeks collapsed into each other. Then she told me a story about how her first son and wife were murdered in their sleep by Boko Haram in Damaturu, Yobé State.

I pretended to be in shock as I listened, to empathize in silence perhaps. But the feeling didn’t stay as a whole, it broke into pieces of lingering thoughts. It took me on a journey to my time in Damaturu, back in 2011, where I and my friends had been posted for the National Youth Service Corps, far from home and in communities where, as part of the scheme, we had to learn to immerse ourselves with the norms and culture of the locals. I remember that feeling of fear whenever news of attacks on neighbouring villages by Boko Haram or the tales of aggression by pastoralist Fulani herdsmen was served to us at our residence in the middle of town. Also, my mind brought a moment in conversation with a local sugar seller whom I had considered my friend. I was explaining how I did not necessarily believe in religion. But he had misunderstood my agnosticism for blasphemy and I had to take my leave soon after. In the pause of a moment, I had seen how things could quickly degenerate into threats and then mayhem and maybe murder.

I reflected on her story and wondered which crime this woman’s son and his wife had committed to deserve death. Whatever words I could say to comfort her became lost in the moment. Maybe she didn’t need comforting. We continued the ride in silence, the other man in the cab got down. The triangle of grandmother, granddaughter and I, wrapped in our private thoughts.

I know this town, but at that moment, I felt like a stranger with the way my eyes lusted after the scenery. I thought about the conversation I could have had with the grandmother but hadn’t. I looked at the little girl; she nodded as though she could read my mind, as if she was telling me that my reaction earlier had been OK. I looked at the grandmother, in her grey Iro and Buba, matched with a violet hijab.  She signalled for the taxi to stop. She did not look back as she bid me farewell in a Yoruba tainted by her local Egba dialect. She got down with her granddaughter. There was just me in the backseat now. I felt like stopping the taxi and going after them and declaring all my unspoken thoughts to the grandmother but I did not.

From Oke Yeke to Isabo, I became aware again of a similarity in the theme of the architecture of the buildings which lined the streets on both sides. There were many stone-cast one story buildings, each with its unique but colonial architecture. I wished I had enough time to get off there and perhaps take some photographs. I walk around with my camera so that I can leverage on moments like this, but getting to work was the priority that morning. The old buildings, despite their years and the obviousness of the newer buildings amidst them, stood proud and majestic in a manner of a peacock in a harem of other majestic creatures. It reminded me of how older people attempt to stay relevant even when life has changed their stories.

Idi Aba remained the same, she is where work is. She was the familiar friend you told about your love interests. She would look at you in that sad way, her eyes drooping sleepy to the ground with hundreds of bottled feelings and pent up emotions. She probably liked you, but you never allowed her to talk. You were comfortable only in expressing your misery to her.

In my office, I saw myself as kind of a big deal and carried myself so. I’d walk with a swag too if I thought it could change anything. My superiors hardly troubled me over anything; even my lateness was hardly ever remarked on. Most of my colleagues related with me with the cordiality of one they would never understand. Some of them thought I thought too highly of myself. The ones who didn’t doted upon me for fresh perspectives to the way we did things. I knew all this through the garrulousness of my personal assistant, Banji, who liked feeding me information in exchange for my good graces. I always pretended to be uninterested.

Five hours later, I was on my way back home.

This time, the sun is in its glory, my black, cotton, long-sleeved top quickly became itchy as the afternoon heat seeped in like a slow poison. I was seeing the town through the shades of my sunglasses now, dark and sepia. School children had been let out and were competing for the attention of taxis with me.

I stood by the road hailing taxi after taxi with no luck. On the times when a taxi stopped for me, the kids whose legs were closer to the ground would out-hustle me and fill up the taxi before I could swaddle in. I decided to walk. I towered over the school children who were walking. They were students from various secondary schools in the area, Baptist Girls College, Abeokuta Grammar School, Lisabi Comprehensive College, all sporting their white and black, white and green, blue and navy blue variety of uniforms.

When I removed my camera from my backpack to take some shots of the rocks peeking from behind the buildings in Ijaye, the kids began staring at me. Some stared so much you’d think they might forget their eyes on me and land themselves in one of the ditches on the road. I took pictures of some of them wearing crooked and mischievous smiles, doing funny poses with their legs up, cheeks puffed and hands in the air.

While taking their pictures, I happened upon a sight as I got near Ijaye—about ten minutes into my walk. Women, about ten of them, middle-aged or slightly younger, were walking with their breasts bare in the sun. Big white shawls were wound around their bellies. The women walked in threes, each carrying a round brownish calabash on their head and murmuring what I could only assume to be incantations. I positioned my Nikon L130 Coolpix camera to my face and was about to click when I felt a slap on my backpack. I tried to refocus my camera, but the person who had slapped my backpack would not have it, my backpack was slapped again. I turned. His cheeks were adorned with huge tribal marks. He looked like their leader, he had a white cap on his head and a white shawl wound across his waist.

—If you want to live to hear the next cockcrow, keep that camera.

Nobody issues empty threats here, I conformed without breathing a protest. As if by the chance of a miracle, the next taxi I hailed stopped and took me to Quarry Road. I got home really tired and sank into my bed and slept till the next day. I spent most of Saturday sleeping too, for a strange fatigue was upon me. By Sunday, I was recovered again.

***

Sunday.

Church is in Onikolobo. I said the name of the area about three times to the Hausa okada man. His knowledge of Yoruba was still basic but he looked like he knew the place. His Jincheng motorcycle seemed new. He sped through Agbeloba to Post Office via Panseke and before long we were by the entrance of the church. Christ Miracle Church. I walked in at some minutes past ten. The pastor was about to begin preaching, the choir was singing.

The hall was dark except for the pulpit area, shards of red and blue lighting played around the black backdrop. The sound of the keyboard was low, there was a subtle aggression to the pace of the drums, and the congregation was attentive. It seemed as if the anointing was flowing. Only I was unmoved. In truth, I was distracted. There was an awkward sound accompanying the voice of the lead vocalist, but as nobody else was noticing it, I kept my face straight. You see, once upon a time, I was that guy—the lead vocalist. Rehearse, rehearse and sing. So, these days, when I enter a church, I am first conscious of the music.

The music stopped. There was a rousing ovation. Whoops and hoots. My lack of excitement worried me, I managed a few claps. The pastor marched to the stage. A young man in a tight fitting black suit followed him, carrying a Bible and notes. Our pastorDavid, who insists on going by his first name without the usual pastor tag, is a dark complexioned man in his forties. He wore a well groomed beard and an unbuttoned blue suit over a white shirt and neutral hued chinos. A brown belt and brown moccasins completed the look. He began his sermon with the recitation of John 3:16 in a loud voice. I zoned out.

I was finding it difficult to put my mind in a particular moment since my encounter with the grandmother and granddaughter from the other day, and my encounter with the half-clad women at Ijaye. I considered the number of people with similar stories and it hit me how indeed almost every household in Nigeria had narratives of a cousin or uncle or aunty or friend or friend of a friend who had been killed. Were these people not ghosts just like those suburbs and quarters now gone whose name remain only as references in other names? I zoned in and out of my thoughts while the pastor worked through his two-hour long sermon.

As I left the church, a woman with the face of the little girl from the taxi approached me.

I’m hungry, give me money.

I considered her statement in between my appraisal of her appearance. She had a black and red scarf wound around her rough hair, her rag of a gown was stuck somewhere between grey and brown. She had not greeted me, had not said anything aside the demand. But she carried herself as though she was the president of the world. Taken aback by her audacity, I reached into my wallet to give her a paltry 500 naira.

I’m sorry, I don’t have more.

She didn’t care, she didn’t say thank you, and I didn’t need her appreciation. She just left.




Tolu Daniel is a Nonfiction Editor of Panorama.