The following is a story from Tola Rotimi Abraham's debut novel Black Sunday. Abraham is from Lagos, Nigeria and she lives in Iowa City, currently pursuing a graduate degree in journalism. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she has taught writing at the University of Iowa. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Catapult, The Des Moines Register, The Nigerian Literary Magazine, and other places.
How to Be a Stupid Girl in Lagos
There were many easy ways to be a stupid girl in Lagos. We were not stupid girls. We were bright with borrowed wisdom. We never paid full fare to drivers of yellow city cabs before we arrived at the final stop. We did not wear any kind of visible jewelry walking around busy streets like Balogun. When we went to Tejuosho market and a stranger shouted, “Hey. Fine girl. Stop, see your money for ground,” we never stopped to look.
When many of the ECOMOG soldiers were returning from peacekeeping in Liberia, flush with UN dollars, we were still protected prepubescent girls, yet we knew to avoid the one we called Uncle Timo, the one who gave all the little girls Mills & Boon paperbacks wrapped in old newspapers.
My twin sister and I were almost stupid girls once, and this is how it begins, with Ariyike and me lost on our way home from school. I am holding on to her out of habit; she is pulling away, walking up to and talking to every stranger we meet, asking over and over, “Uncle, please, where can we get a bus to Fadeyi?”
We are walking home from secondary school. Today is the first time we have been allowed to come home by ourselves. Our younger brothers, Andrew and Peter, attend Holy Child Academy, the primary school that shares a fence with the military cemetery where all the agbalumo trees grow. They don’t need to be picked up. The church bus drops them off every day at half past four.
I am thinking of school and today’s government studies class and gerrymandering, how I like the way that word sounds, well calculated and important, like meandering, only with purpose. Everything is better with purpose.
I am also thinking of Father, who likes to say our government studies teacher is verbose:
“Mr. Agbo fancies himself a university lecturer, he is always going off tangent, completely missing the point.”
And of Mother, who likes to say: “We pay a lot of money for you girls to go to that school.” Or: “You girls should lis- ten to Mr. Agbo. He is a brilliant man.”
We have walked for almost twenty minutes, and now we make our first stop, to buy roast plantains and groundnuts from the woman who is selling them under a 7 Up canopy. She is amused when we ask if she has any cold drinks for sale.
“Can you see any fridge here?” she asks. “Will I keep the drinks in my brassiere?” We are waiting for our plaintains when Ariyike stops a stranger on a motorcycle. He is a tall man wearing combat shorts and a black T-shirt that says GOT MILK? in bold white print. They take a few steps together, her listening, him pointing. When she is done, she comes back under the canopy. I clench my right fist and put it under her chin.
“Here, take this microphone. Announce to all the world that we are two girls who don’t know the way home,” I say.
The woman selling plantains laughs. She says Ariyike is being stupid, walking up to strange men. She tells us that just last week three girls got kidnapped in Mushin. They were found dismembered in a roadside heap.
Ariyike looks at me like she is about to say something but changes her mind.
“So, what did that motorcycle man say?” I ask.
“He says we should come with him, he’d take us home,” she says.
“Really?” I ask.
“No. He said keep walking straight down, the buses are waiting under the pedestrian bridge,” she says.
Our plantains are soon ready. The woman gives us extra groundnuts.
“Pray for me o,” she says. “I want fine ibeji twins like you two.”
Ariyike assures her that we will pray every day. She is the friendly one. The friendlier one. My sister talks to strangers because she likes people, she likes to hear their stories, she likes to make people feel comfortable, welcome. I do not think that I am mean, I just let her be the nice and welcoming one. We work better that way.
I learned when I was a little girl that people always lie. I am not sure everyone means to lie. It is just that they have in their hearts ideas of who they should be, and they are trying to convince themselves that they are who they insist on being. It is tiring. I learn a lot more about people, about who they are and what they care about, by observing in quiet.
There are many buses and hundreds of people waiting at the bus stop. There are many young men hanging at the sides of the buses shouting their destinations—“Maryland,” “CMS,” “Obalende.” There is no bus going to Fadeyi. We stand next to a row of older women with woven baskets and trays in front of them selling all types of things, fruits, vegetables, tiny toys.
I watch a young woman haggle with almost every seller. Finally, she buys smoked fish, okra, tomatoes, habaneros, and red bell peppers. She will go home to her tiny, sufficient apartment with one soot-stained kerosene stove in a corner and make food just enough for herself and eat less than half of it and fall asleep on her bed and be glad to be alone and unbothered.
The first bus going to Fadeyi is a danfo, a 1988 Volkswagen bus. Its wooden, cushionless seats are filled with people before we get a chance to go in. We are part of the small crowd of people who fail to make it in. We murmur one to another, we hope more buses come quickly. Two curly-haired girls come to stand next to the group. They hold out cracked plastic bowls and begin singing in Yoruba.
“Brother, God bless you.
Sister, God bless you.
Give me money and I pray for you.
May God prevent its occurrence.”
The woman who bought her dinner now drops five naira in one bowl, then five naira in the other. I plan to give them money, but they do not come close to us, and no one else gives them money, so they move away, singing to other adults.
There is a group of kids from the public school talking in a corner. The beggar children attempt to avoid them as they go past. One of the kids tugs at the wrapper of the older girl as she walks past him. She does not notice. After walking a couple of steps, her wrapper unravels. It’s then I see that she isn’t wearing any underwear. She drops her bowl and wraps the cloth back around herself in a quick second. She walks on without looking back. I make Ariyike turn around to look but it is too late for her to see anything. The public school kids laugh and laugh. Stupid children laughing out loud with their torn rubber sandals and dirty shirts and books in black shopping bags and yellowing teeth and rusty fake gold earrings and matted braids. Stupid children.
When we were in primary school at St. Catherine’s, there was another set of identical twins. They were short, bowlegged boys who got into fights with everyone. We hated that because they were also Yoruba twins, we had the same traditional names. Ariyike and I therefore became “Girl Taiwo” and “Girl Kehinde.” The most annoying people were the ones who called me “Girl Kenny.” Kenny is a totally different name, it is not short for Kehinde no matter how hard Yoruba people try. These public school kids make me think of Boy Kehinde and Boy Taiwo. I wonder what they are like now. Still stupid, I bet.
Once we got to secondary school, we insisted on being called by our middle names, and even though Ariyike and Bibike have the exact same meaning and everywhere we go people still ask, “Who is Kehinde, who is Taiwo?” I like our new names.
Ariyike was born first, so she is Taiwo. Our grandmother, Father’s mother, says that Kehinde is the elder twin because Orisa ibeji, the god of twin births, is Kehinde. He was the one who sent his younger one to be born first to confirm by loud crying that the world was fit for him.
Father’s mother believes all these things with her whole heart. Mother says her stories are tales of demons. She says if we listen to her too closely, we invite evil beings into our destinies and we will end up poor and alone.
I think everything is a story unless you live in it. I like the idea of a god who knows what it’s like to be a twin. To have no memory of ever being alone. To be happy you are different from your twin but also to be sad about it. To know almost everything about your twin and sometimes want to stop knowing so much. To know you were born with everything you will ever need for love but to be afraid that this one person is too important. Or that this person will never be enough. To pray to a god like that, all I would ever have to say is Help me.
There are many more people at the bus stop now. We are all standing so close to one another. Ariyike and I have our backpacks turned to the front of us, protecting them like little babies. We have eaten all our plantains and groundnuts. She tells me she is going to look for drinking water to buy, but just as she is about to leave, a molue bus arrives, its rusty croaking like an old man’s cough. I call out her name but there are already seven people between us. I push through and get in the bus, hoping I can save her a seat; the bus is already filled up with many standing people, holding on to the metal poles. I find a seat in the back of the bus and shout for my sister as loud as I can. She finds me and sits on my thighs. The public school kids are sitting close to us, three on a single seat. I have no idea how they plan to sit like that for so long.
Across from me is a lady I did not see at the bus stop. I wonder how long she has been on the bus. She looks like she just got out of university, or maybe she still is in university. She is wearing jeans, and only university girls wear jeans outside the house. Her shoulder-length auburn braids with burnt ends are tucked behind her ears, kajal eyeliner spilling under her eyes, cream foundation drying in uneven patches, and she is talking to a beautiful bearded man with sad brown eyes seated next to her. He is wearing brown corduroy pants and a black-and-white checkered shirt. He has a black briefcase and a white lab coat. Their voices are raised loud enough to hear each other over the noise of cars honking through traffic, of bus tires grinding to abrupt stops on cold concrete and the voices of others conversing around them.
“Did I tell you my horse got stolen?” she asks.
“Yeah, it did. I still ride, though, whenever I visit the village.”
“I have only ridden that one time.” He laughs and shakes his head as though this is something no one else can believe.
“Remember that day my mother came to your house?” she says after a short pause. This time his reply is hesitant, quiet.
“Yeah,” he says.
“When she came to drag me away? How she was saying, I have warned you about this boy, you can’t be here, you have to leave.”
She is laughing as she says it. And it’s a laugh I know, one most women I know have. Mother has it, too. Laughter you use when nothing is funny, but you are lighthearted and resilient and eager to show it.
“Have you seen anyone else lately? Anita? Banke? Emmanuel?” she asks with leftover laughter in her mouth.
The conversation on his side is no longer loud or discernible. There is no way to be sure why he now mumbles. Maybe it’s been a long day and he is tired and wants to ride the bus in peace. Maybe he has never liked her or maybe she just reminded him of the hurts he has also covered up with laughter, and muscles, and gorgeous facial hair.
“Banke is married, she has like six kids or something,” she says.
“Really,” he exclaims. “Banke. Married! I definitely did not see that coming.”
There is more laughter, more exclaiming, more naming names, more asking what are they up to now.
“So, are you seeing anyone?” she asks, deliberate, flippant.
“No, I am just focusing on leaving this stupid country. Ties just make things difficult,” he says.
If she says anything after this, I do not hear it. The bus conductor announces the next stop and several people shuffle and respond. When the doors open, she grabs the black briefcase and lab coat that I had assumed were his, he has a doctor’s face. She gets out of the bus, shouting, Excuse me, excuse me, at all the people in her way. One of the public school kids now sits where she was sitting. There is quiet and there is noise.
She will walk to her apartment, where she lives with her older sister and her sister’s husband, and wonder if the universe was helped by her vulnerability, if she will get any closer to living in her dreams because she laid bare her desires to a man like that. She will wish for a second encounter with him. One where the best decisions of her years are on display. Like he walks into the hospital where she is a pharmacist or the church where she sings solos on Sundays. Or they meet in the parking lot of a supermarket the weekend after salaries are paid so he can witness all the imported foreign things she can now afford to buy on her own.
I hope she finds someone new.
I wish her love without this shared lament of people who remain in a failing city when others who are not stupid have left. I wish her love that makes her less ashamed, love that is ignorant of the specifics of her failed dreams and unaware of the details of her lost youth. I hope she finds a loving gaze that will not see how her face has fallen and where her arms have swollen or how her family has lost all they took great pride in.
From Black Sunday by Tola Rotimi Abraham. Used with permission of the publisher, Catapult. Copyright 2020 by Tola Rotimi Abraham.