The places we love contain elements of ourselves. Sometimes, these places, be they cities or rural areas, are expression of our dream. Dream, in this sense, is the hopeful us. What we hope to become. What we hope to remain as human beings. Not too long ago, a well-traveled friend told me she was planning to go live in a German city, Berlin preferably. She is a Nigerian, an emerging artist born in Kaduna city to well off parents. It was clear to me that she had daydreamed of living in Berlin, socializing with other artists in the city, having coffee at a café, taking evening walks, visiting museums, cemeteries, monuments, libraries, and ultimately getting to exhibit her artistic creations in galleries.
The cities we desire to live have ways of stepping inside us and reaching for identical systems we share with them. They reach out to us. We come to them, or hear about them, and then wish to stay because they have stirred in us a recognition of ourselves in their own features. Berlin contain similar cultural dreams that my friend hoped to achieve. In other words, she was seeking a city that was different in imagination and culture from her place of birth. A city like Kaduna barely inspires her, and so it is impossible for her to be homesick. The imagination that built Berlin is absent here. That imagination is foreign or exotic, or both. Something that perpetually contains wonder. Something that is ordinary as a clean street full of old town houses, a beach, a downtown, or a historical railway line.
Kaduna is a city that is still in the process of becoming itself. Founded in 1900 by British colonizers, its sluggish imagination is explainable within the wholesale trauma that ossified Nigeria. It is not an international city like Lagos and Abuja. It used to be in the past, especially when it was the political capital city of Northern Nigeria, prior to the creation of Abuja as the federal capital territory, and before the religious riots that has now become its most known feature. The city is quiet, timid, and unpretentious. There is little in it that physically inspires. Probably one has to see the city through the lens of its citizens in order to comprehend the bland openness. The question to throw in should then be this: do these citizens care to imagine their city?
Imagination. If they care, there seem to be a frightening simplicity to it. For the Kaduna citizen, the imagination is commonplace in food to eat, a place to sleep, a house to congregate in worship to God, parlors to drink, and, recently, nights to party. The commonness of these desires does not invalidate the desires. What it reveals is the indifference to aesthetics.
In Kaduna one lives where the ordinary borders gifts: the dirt roads, the mosques on every street in the north of the city, the churches sharing fences with residences in the south, the makeshift teahouses and food vendors at corner of every neighborhood, the spoken Hausa, the social ceremonies. The collective ordinariness of these gifts only become extraordinary in individual experience, the person being gifted. It hardly inspires the passersby. No one is heard romanticizing these features. My friend who desired to one day reside in Berlin is one of the passersby. Kaduna is a place to be born, not to live, because the city is a place, its physical distinction is obscured by trauma that stemmed from absence of taste.
This place has nothing for anyone who is not interested in its citizens. Its peoples are, as it is often said, tourist attractions. There are no old buildings dating back centuries. There are no monasteries dating back thousands of years. There are no old walled towns here. Its railway stations are not architecturally grand. There no arched viaducts. It is not Cairo, Osogbo, Ile Ife, or Venice.
Then why do I love Kaduna more than any other place? I have visited and have fallen in with Jerusalem, Osogbo, Rome, New York, Berlin, Virginia, Brussels, New Hampshire, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Montreal, Vancouver, Paris, London, Sokoto, The Hague, and none of them possessed enough appeal to rattle my homesickness for Kaduna. The city is not my birthplace. I came to it as a teenager. Which meant I had contained sentiment for other places before discovering this one. Kaduna is the city of my firsts: first heartbreak, first sex, first self-discovery, first books, first writing, first lies, first horror, first riot, first suicide attempt, first rejection. Maybe what I share with this city is not love.
One can suffer in love, but should not feel stranded in it for too long. I often feel stranded in the city, because, what I taste for are not here. My desires are neither overblown nor unique. I desire a city with good transport system, security, well-stocked library and bookstores, safe parks, museums, tree-lined long boulevards anchored with cafes and antique shops, nice sidewalks, and physical evidence that other of its citizens cherish imagination. They are the same needs of my friend who wanted Berlin as her residence. The difference here, at least, is that I want the needs to be realize under the sky of Kaduna instead of a foreign land. Probably one does not have to share love with a city to desire living in it. Perhaps what one actually needs to be involved with a city is the fear of losing the familiar.
What is the familiar?
In Kaduna, life performs itself mundanely, sluggishly. It is drowsy. One sees people walk around droopily. The fatigue is perpetual in the street. The clock ticks in one’s awareness. No one is in a hurry, because, at least, humanity is not disappearing anytime soon. Humanity is as abundant as the sunlight, and it flows from one house to the next until secrets are no longer secrets. Dawn breaks slowly, waits for the mid-morning sunlight, and then disappears in the sound of metal door of shops opening for sales. Center of the city gradually jerks to life. Both the shopkeeper and buyer conduct business with half-sleep eyes. A slowness underlies price haggling, receipt signing, the farewell handshake. The buyer steps into the sunlight again, this time the sun is much more abundant and biting. Perspiration gathers in his armpits. He saunters through the midday traffic. On the other side of the road, he enters a nearly full bus and his perspiration increases from the stuffy vehicle. At home, he douses his thirst jug after jug until he feels full with water. He hears a bang in the street. He peeps from the window, a bike crash, a small crowd gathers around the bloody rider.
Minutes later, quietness reigns in the street. He peeps the window once again. The unbearable heat in the house has turned him a watcher of the city. It is possible that he releases a significant amount of his substance onto the view. In turn, the familiar, ordinary view renews him. Nothing is parasitic. The city, the man, and view exchange meaning through this route. The sun pours on roofs. Beneath sunlight one hears the noise of machines in workshops. The welding heat penetrates the workers, sun sears the zinc roof of the workshop, the workers smell of soldering iron.
During the work hours, the people lose their beauty. Hardly does one find the space to observe the beautiful. Suffering is central to the closing down of spaces, and it is in spaces one finds beauty. Whatever is termed beautiful assumed its form in defined space. For something to exist, it must have shape, and shape is visible when there is spatial presence. What suffering often does is that it make the sufferer unaware that his existence is located in a space that is only a fraction of a boundless space. Just like the sun, there is abundance of suffering here. It is often said that it is a battle for the hungry man to worry about an imagination that does not readily offers food to him and his family.
When the sun goes down the city emerges from the obscurity installed by business hours. The buses load bodies from central market to the suburbs. A long traffic jam curls from north to the south, a delivering across the Kaduna River. Passengers at the window seats stare out with resigned face. When the camera pans over the city and settles focus on the streets, one sees men seated in front of houses and street shops listening to the radio, talking over the radio. Around them, either on the mat or at the foot of chairs, there are cups of teas, charcoaled kettle. The tea is gingerly. Spicy tongues.
There are other old men seated in front of mosques, in turbans and kaftans, carrying prayer beads, counseling a new groom. They speak to each other as they count their beads. Behind the mosque, there is a compound where children learn the Koran. Their infantile voices rise and fall in unison. The voices rise above the mosque; meet in air like a thousand collection of rains, cascade down to both the men in front of the mosques and the ones having tea across the road. This rising of voice is elementary. It is beginning of identity for the Muslims in the city. The men outside became men because they earned the same tutorship.
What is life in a city of mosques, churches, and suspicion? Nothing but a rigid cooperation of superstitions. To give fruition to superstition open spaces are closed. The body is clothed. Houses are built and put behind fences and iron gates. In Kaduna one does not see much of the human flesh in full display. The cooperation of superstitions ensures that the human body hides itself. People clothe themselves all the time, all year round. There is searing hot season. But the body is unseen. It lives in its perspiration. There are no beaches to expose the body to, the rivers are not recreational, there are no parks with green grass to lay on one’s back and nap or read or just spectate. The city’s temperament is one that insists living in closed spaces.
This, in itself, betrays essential human lust for some of us who exist in this world with strong temperament for exposing our bodies. Probably one comes to assume that there is correlation between clothed body and the city’s bland aesthetics. Nothing is as beautiful as the human body. There is no excess exposure of this gift.
In Kaduna Fridays are special days. On this day, there is psychology of cleanness (whiteness) that come to the men of this city. This healthy psychology is a laying of claim to purity. The men dress in meticulously ironed kaftans. Their sandals are black. There is uniformity. It is beautiful when one stands on a high place and sees the million men hastening to the mosques to entrench purity, a thanksgiving of essence. The muezzins summon. The men are in white kaftan, prayer mats tugging at their sides, and they take long strides to the steps of the imposing house. Time, in this case, progresses only in stoppage. It moves, but only within the paused minute, and within this minute, a huge amount of city spills into air. This is the moment when the north extends hand to the south.
The north of the city is Islam. The south is Christian. On Sundays, Christian families, in colorful outfits, also hold hands into their churches. Then the city is prayerful. Five times of prayer a day in thousands of Mosques, daily prayer meetings in cathedrals, and visitations to the homes of medicine men. When the Muslims are in mosque and the Christians in Church, the streets are quiet, buildings look bigger, sky clearer, blue, rolling, and peaceful. One sees wind in tree branches. Everything gained a stunning clarity. The aesthetics of heaven suddenly offers the city what it desperately lacks. When you drive through the city at the times of prayers one notices profound bareness. One sees slim young men smoking at corners with fatigued eyes. One sees the physicality of the city. There is a brutalist architecture to government buildings. Houses in upscale neighborhoods are big and stare at the passerby monstrously. One sees the huge amount of money that had gone into their design and building. Here, as in all of Nigeria, one encounters some of the most expensive but unimaginative houses in the world.
Yet, Fridays and Sundays share a certain irreligious similarity. Young people cool off by strolling the neighborhoods seeking for excitement. They are bored, as often throughout the week. Weekends in the city is robustly participatory. Young population gain prominence at this time. Old people lounge in front of houses. Some of them attend tribal ceremonies. Some of them hang out at teahouses and bars. Some of them stay indoors, waiting and waiting for the night to pass. Since there are no theaters, cinema, beaches, hills, mountains, parks for open amusement, young people heavily throng nightclubs and bars in the Christian south.
The other night one takes a walk through Barnawa and Sabo GRA. Fancy cars packed around the hotspots. ATM blinks lights, hums, and vomits Naira bills. Young men appear from corners holding their misses on the waist. This is where the world meets the city. A pair shoe designed in Germany walks the dusty street of the city. A phone made in USA in the hands of the girls waiting to cross to this side of the road. The song recorded in South London blares from the speaker. There is abundance of flesh, too. Young women have unclothed city. In them, Kaduna flaunts its curves. Both the Christian and Muslim Gods close shut their eyes to escape lust. Somewhere in these curves, somewhere in the movement of human bodies, one discovers aesthetics that has not been absent all week.
The weekend, thus, is the time the city opens up. The stiff direction of existence that span Monday to Friday is relaxed. However, this momentary flexibility does not save the population. People move about unaware on how to release tension. There are no sports attracting people to stadiums. There are no theaters to watch plays. People do not enjoy healthy amusements that are available in other cities, say, Abuja or Lagos. What the weekend does here is merely to loosen the human face for a short moment. Humans of the city meet themselves in a less tense time. This is where the tourist meets the city’s humans. Stories are shared. Music is made; the hide drums, trumpets, talking drum, the many melodic voices distributing ancient art forms.
One does not see people going on walks. People do not visit libraries, bookstores, and museums. People do not go to see plays and concerts. People move around with indifference. They have grown without seeing these things, and now people seem stunned by their own presence in the world. People of the city appear incapable of being made aware of the sense of wonder that a city should possess. When you are at the center of the city, you see countless shops, small offices in storied buildings. You go to the other side of the city, where the national library, central bank, state radio, and national archives are, you encounter people move past each other without recourse to the intellectual buildings that lined the way. Fruits stands sell to passersby.I am Sisyphus. My boulder is Kaduna. I push it uphill, trying to dispel it from my arena of aesthetics, yet it rolls back to my feet.
The city is divided along religious line. The Christian south and Muslim north mutually hold suspicion of each other. Both political and economic powers have been in the hands of the Muslim north. These powers have roots in history as far back as the nineteenth century. Riots have entrenched superstition. This particular has a distinct ugliness. Aesthetics cannot thrive in the presence of such hate.
Then there is the beautiful Kaduna River that marks as the physical divider of the city, each religion living on either side of the water. Kaduna River flows from the west and pours through the heart of the city. It is slim, curvy, and shy. Sometimes, I find myself standing on the bridge that crosses the river and see flights of birds from down the bush, rising in sky, move back and forth across the water and then disappear into the city. From this point, the city is visible to the horizon. Corrugated roofs sprawl to the bush. High grounds protrude in distance. My point on the bridge reveals that there is an original plan to this city that not been executed. And I wonder if a city can be a half completed story. I often do not keep in mind at this time that I am standing in a city of people. Instead, the city transitions in my mind to a place of birds. Migratory black birds fly across, sitting on the river, railway viaduct, trees and farms along the water.
There are small farms along the river, lands planted with potatoes, corn, cabbage, and sugarcane. It is beneficial to watch the river late afternoon. The view assumes the form of art. Black big birds fly across. By this time, intensity of sunlight has reduced. Dusk is approaching and the river appears ready to sleep. It is the end of Chaos. The birds eat chaos, too. Fishers paddle to the bank, as if they are fleeing from the birds and not from the settling darkness. The men are shirtless as they clean fishing nets. They are oblivious to the noisy traffic on the bridge. These scenes, happening beneath the big, steel-grey sky, is total aesthetics, a natural beatification of a dirty place. Scenes like this keep me coming back to this city. It is possible to experience absolute power of nature in such momentary spaces. It is why I remain here. In spite, the undesirability of Kaduna, it has offered these scenes and me countless opportunity to pour sentiments into each other. When I leave the city, my homesickness is a burden about the fear of losing my intimacy with the scenes. It is impossible to live in a city without aesthetics.
The city is brown and brittle at the edges all season. It is a leaf felled by breeze. The leaf tosses around the pathway, in the sands. When it rains, the leaf is half-buried in sand. One sees schoolchildren gather to make kites of leaf, leaf plane, and leaf wreath. There is abundance of leaves the schoolchildren forfeit their paper world. Now, they seek a leafy existence. They run in the air with their creations. In the rain or in sunshine. They are in pursuit of aesthetics.
The school closes. They walk home in groups, each wrestling with wind and leafy kites. Wreathed around the heads, they are nobles on the way to death. The children come to the corner that disperses everyone, near the bus stop, and a nearby car explodes. The bomb blast kills twenty men standing by; it kills three children, one of them still grasping the tail of his leafy kite in death. In his obituary, the writer mentioned that he died holding his leafy kite between the thumb and forefinger. A bomb is powerful, but never enough to disrupt the miracle of the boy grasping his kite in death. The rest of the children are zombified. Their tongues are tied, their eyes wonder, their bodies shiver; they are led home. Their parents stare in shame. They are the ones who took the children to God’s houses and now that God has snatched them in their moment of absolute aesthetics. The parents, thus, do not have courage to look the children in the face. On the radio that night Boko Haram claim responsibility. The schools are shut for weeks. The scene is a history. The bomb blast is déjà vu. The surviving children sees other children in another school in Chibok. They kidnap the schoolchildren and take them away.
On the radio the following morning, Boko Haram claim responsibility. The children are leaves blown by dry wind. They are tossing in sand, dry grass, and in air. Then the dry season comes. The children are still children. The city remains the city, only that it is now a little browner. Military vans patrol the streets early and late night. Schoolchildren peep at them from behind curtains. At this side of the city, across the railway lines, a terror cell has been found. Hundreds of explosives. Guns buried in graves. Twenty five young men arrested. One of them is a familiar face to the children. A million whirlwinds whizzes round the city. Harmattan stomps the streets. There is arrogance and anger. During this time the city is peopled by brown faces. Older men are seated in bars, drinking chaos. Let them eat chaos. At the other end of the city dry season has built barns of farm produce. The farms on the outskirts of the city are half-harvested. The men are afraid of harvesting. Boko Haram lurk in the bush.
Then the rains come. The city is one large mud with trees swaying gracefully in the wind. Its houses are sand castles that the schoolchildren build. Sometimes, the rains so heavily the houses are washed away. The history of this city is rainy. Since the Brits founded in 1900, it has rolled over the decades in rains. The railways came. The textile company arrived. Cinemas and theaters opened for the new workers who just arrived the city. Every night they entertained after leaving the factories. Then dry season. Then dry wind. Then dry rain. In 1979. Iran transitioned. The rippled effect was carried across the desert, on the heels of whirlwinds, and arrived this city. The small open spaces closed. It rained and rained.
It is 2002. One recent evening it rains and washes sleep from my eyes. I leave my bed and walk the dark room. There is no electricity when it rains in the city. I open the door and step into the dark street. I find my way to the house of the man. It is dark, but I know the road. I place my hands on the wall and trace the road. The man opens the door.
He asks. What keep bringing you back to this city?
I love staying here during Ramadan. I am homesick for the muezzin’s calls to prayer.
He says. 2002. This is your tenth Ramadan on earth. Right?
Somebody is shouting Allah Akbar in the street. Another person joins the first voice. More people join the shouting. Allah Akbar. It is a Muslim army seeking Christians of the city to slaughter. Someone has just insulted the Prophet. The Muslims of northern Nigeria do not want the 2002 Miss World Pageant in Nigeria. Someone in Lagos rebukes this sentiment, mentioning the prophet.
Outside. One group of Muslim young men intercept a car. They drag a woman and a boy out. One of the men deals a blow to the head of the woman. She falls. Her body sinking into mud. Another man drags the bag. There are more people now in the street. Old men and women. Some of them urge the young men on.
Why do you keep returning to this city?
Sir, I do not know how to leave this place. I go away each time. But the boy keeps calling back here.
What do you mean? It is safer in America. Why did you leave America? Why come back to this city?
Sir, I am back to look for the boy.
Outside. The young Muslim men douse petrol on the woman and the boy. They are about to eat chaos. Allah Akbar.
A woman comes out of a house across the street. She runs to the men. Kai. Kai. Kai. This is my daughter and her nephew. What are you doing? Muslimi ne. Oh, Allah. You infidels. She collects the woman from the mud, grab the boy’s hand and hasten back to her house. She turns back and scream at the men. Infidels. I have seen your faces. I have seen the faces of the men who want to murder my relatives.
Kai. One of the men shouts. You have no child. You have no child. That woman is a Christian.
She is my daughter. All my children are Muslims.
The next morning, the Muslim woman smuggles the Christian mother and her son to safety.
The love we share with a city is sometimes an offspring of shame. We remain because leaving it installs guilt. Some of us do not have the character to go away and forget. We linger within its streets, houses, churches, mosques, farms, and shame, because lingering is our eternal punishment. We go away, promising never to return, and then we once again find ourselves running back here.
I am Sisyphus. My boulder is Kaduna. I push it uphill, trying to dispel it from my arena of aesthetics, yet it rolls back to my feet. When I spend time away from the city, I daydream its streets as my place of unquestionability. It is the only zone of the world where I do not feel unstable. The city’s lack of infrastructure is a regular source of discomfort. Yet, I love the feeling of walking on land I know quite well. Here, at least, it is possible to exist without having to explain my right to life. Here lifespan is short. Yet, you wake up to familiar voices laughing in the barbershops. The voices sound painful, exhausted, uninspiring. Yet, their familiarity stirs the hopeful me back to life. This familiarity is often not a comfort zone. Rather, it is the rocky cave serving as a tool in my trade: writing. It is the responsibility of every writer to locate himself in a corner from which to interpret the world. This city is my corner. It is the strata of my fears and shame. It is possible to orchestrate aesthetics in this dirty place.
When I spend time from the city, what I am most incapable of separating my mind from is its bright daytime that is full of sunlight. Sun is crystal between mid-morning and afternoon. Then by dusk it assumes golden color in horizon. Between morning and dusk, there are several atmospheres: listless in the morning, searing midday, and desirable late afternoon. Young people love the sporty feel of late sun. The rich kids of the city emerge from gated houses in fancy cars. Their girls squint at you from the front seat. This time of the day is filled with pastime. Boys shouting names in the football fields. Tall girls bounce basketball at the courts. Mobile vendors ride carts of wares and goods homeward. Their shoulders droopy. Their tired eyes are full of determination. Underneath the dusky pastime, smell of firewood is perceived. Mothers are preparing dinner. Smoke rises above the houses.
The smoke has the color of the sky. It is tall and contorts its shape until the approaching darkness swallows everything. Daytime is the eternal aesthetics of the city. It is the clearest place on earth. Nothing is hidden. Or: nothing can hide itself. Whatever is not seen has been purposefully ignored. One sees through people of the city. The mind is visible. A man passes the street and you see what he is thinking: I am going to pay my loan from this month’s wages. The abundant sunlight penetrates the body, makes the human glassy-transparent, and illuminates the mind.
I am very interested in this transparency. Perhaps it is actually reason why I keep coming back to live here. Lagos is a big city. So is Abuja. Lagos is very financial. Abuja is so political. Both cities lose their transparency within the shady, bureaucratic worldliness. Kaduna is just a place to live and describe things. It was not imagined in the city’s original plan. Transparency came in the deadness of the political decades since independence in 1960.
I am transparent.
Then do you return here?
Sir, I came to look for the boy that was saved in 2002.
The boy has grown. He visits Kaduna River every evening. He is charmed by the way the sun sets at the bend where the river and sky meets. He stands there and remembers stories he has heard about the city. There used to be neighborhood movie houses, play arenas, theater, cultural troupes. People of all tribes and silks resided there. The motto of the city was the liberal state. Now the motto is the center of learning. He is told that this city has not always been artless. Artistes, artisans, poets, dancers, painters used to throng the streets here. The boy stands on the bridge, he leans against the metal railing and sees the flights of black birds across the water. He was told that in the past one could stand here and see the multiple smokestacks of textiles companies. The flares of the oil refinery was visible. The city is still transparent but it was much clearer to see and feel in the past. In ’77 it co-hosted the second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. That year the city was pan-African.
Then what happened to the city?
Who knows? Well, ask the politicians. The bastards.
Sir, I am here to buy a house. This is my home. I am here to look for that boy.
This is not a place for you. You are a writer. No one will pay you here. Go to Berlin. Johannesburg. Lagos. London. Didn’t your friend express for desire to reside in Berlin?
The transparent boy stands on the river. He is looking at the empty view. Today there are no black birds in flight. No trees swaying branches. No fishers paddling canoes. The scenes is bland. The sky is steel-grey. The city notices his bisexual body, and frowns. The boy realizes that he has been seen. He begins to run. The city chases him. He sprints across the highway, past the railway station, past his old primary school, and enters the valley. He emerges on the other end of the city. He enters his small room. The bangs on the door, with the cutlasses and woods.
What do you want from me?
I will not give it to anyone.
We will not allow anyone with such a body to live here.
The call to prayers comes to his room. It is the last prayer of the day. Allah Akbar. It is God summoning the city to a conference of aesthetics.