It is October in Nigeria and you think of grief as a secret, sealed letter in the hands of a youth: “Give it to the Army, they’ll know what to do with it.”
An invitation to death.
You don’t wail out here. This is ours, not yours. Like not yours but ours when ours is without you and not for you.
Your eyes are two deep holes borne on the earth. Blood washing ground, you bare the floor of your heart to a piece of sorrow and watch death smile. The centre of your life, we swear, will never hold again. And if we must burn you, we’ll light your hair and let you scream of silence to a world that doesn’t listen.
Your father is an old man not your father. Think of spectacles and gowns, of jalabiyas worn like tunics, gold on black lips, a kiss of gold laid on the stairs towards Kiblah. They say he is dead yet he lives. They say he is one, then two and one again, sometimes owning a state and sometimes owning the state’s.
You fill yourself up with hatred and say this is a poem yet it is the story of things and people. Of unfounded things gone to Paris, London and back. A hollow voice lost to rifles at the murder of Biafra. Think of catarrh and hear him. Think of dead consonants and empty rooms, echoes of hate, a wicked form of weakness.
He thinks he’s Jesus, this wiry man, a second coming; an end to the first and first. You think of indiscipline and you remember your last name is a call to peace. The last time your father slapped a policeman, there was a piss in the pants.
(Nigeria will not end me – Oke)
(Beautiful flower of the East, make me a nest across the Nile. They say Niger deceives: a marriage to Benue.)
You think of Oke and you feel that sometimes words aren’t powerful enough, that sometimes the power is in a bullet, in bullets, in tears. You watch his body again on Twitter and you think this was once an “is” like a thing laughing to a joke, crying tears to pain and saying: “I am.
What is the taste of grief on the tongue of a parent waiting for the child who had said to them, “I’ll soon be back,” but who will never get home again?
You think of all the buried dreams or rather dissipated longings and you don’t even remember if Oke was buried or cremated or left to go on and on, a bird that forgot to fly, that fell on flight. This practice of sorrow. A plummet without a rise.
Grief, a word lost in itself, the meaning of traded things unpaid for, like when you sell your hands in a dream and wake up to blood and wrists, to thirst of no quench because you didn’t know and couldn’t have made a different decision, because it wasn’t you in the dream yet it was you.
They say their names every day. You are youth too, a tyre learning to burn. When is the burn out?
They’ll say this is a poem. You’ll say this is a story.
They’ll ask why? And you’ll say you don’t know because this is how it came to you, in lost words, disjointed and lacking in things you don’t even know. (Suck your teeth.) Mtcheeew! And let out a sigh.
When it all started, heaven knows, it was all peaceful.
You are a group of boys and girls, groups of humans on the mountains leveled across valleys.
You say, we want better. They have the key and we have the voice. Can’t we all own all these together?
You say, let’s see heaven like they do and we’ll never want more.
You say, the earth is big and enough. May we smile from the place of a full purse and not have a gun to our head and cuffs to our wrists, seeking explanations for the Mercedes and phones and monies and laughter. O! Laughter, this other form of happiness.
(They hated to see you laugh but you never knew. You could have smiled though, this harder expression of happiness.)
You say power is cool. Make Kanji a light path, a stream to other streams, like if a dam gives life and there’s petrol to support it, then make it easy to get and easy to buy.
You say, finally, the sun shines on all who come out to it, please stop locking us inside dark rooms.
The government is quiet, is waiting, is thinking.
(Placards: Our Mumu Don Do. EndSARS. End Police Brutality. End Bad Governance.) They say you ask for much, like you want to steal the strands of silver and gray all over their heads. They called you lazy. Now they call you crazy.
A darkness befalls the earth. Lekki toll gate. (A voice screams in a thundering silence, “My business is mine to protect and not yours to block.)
Darkness again. And there’s a rain of bullets. Generosity of hate. You watch things fall like they are not human. There are screams for help. Torchlights held up to and in tears.
Bullets. Blood. Tears. Sorrow. A new sort of pacification. They say you are lazy. You come out to explain. They say you talk too much. What is the price of your life? They buy in silence and watch your body weep redness.
Denial. They say no one died.
(You cry like this is your first time. Head buried in hands. Your eyes burn. You wanted better for yourself, yourselves and the ones to come. You sinned against them only by wanting better.)
A man says something in front of the National TV. Everything he says is nothing, hollow like his voice. You think he is sick. Sick nowhere else but in the head. He has power and he can always test it on you. You say, “if he is powerful enough, let him turn lies to truth, to gold.” He tries.
(This is what they do, leaving their trademark: sorrow, tears and blood.)
You think of the triumph of evil over good, like the statue of Archangel Michael in your uncle’s car, his heels on the devil’s head. Think of its reverse, boy, what Michael does, the devil can do.
There are things breaking, you count your heart first. Something burns in your eyes, a thing that doesn’t stop getting wet, a certain sort of drowning that also burns like onions. Sleep is a foreigner, your body fails at its currency.
What is the other name for a dead man? A body. A corpse. A thing. Call him cadaver and receive a smile of correction, all dead things are the same and there is almost no difference.
You go to Twitter again and find the flag of your country changed with a smear of blood. A repainting of the country: green, red and white. Another soul gone. (While there is a shooting, you remember, the protesters are told to hold up little flags of Nigeria, it stands for solidarity with the country.)
But here is a land of fratricide. Here is the place where you dance to drumbeats and still smile watching the drummer get stiff hands. Here is a land where nothing works, where Satan is a wildfire, a predator on blindfold. On Facebook now, they shoot on sight. You watch people fall on Nigerian streets. You see blood. The TV channels won’t show these, you know. You seek the definition of fear, a gazelle running away from a lion, a chameleon leaving the path of a cobra. It is difficult but it is important. The mouth wants to speak but the consequences of a spoken word are huge.
Everyday you mark-off the dead on your fingers and feel your heart sweat before your skin does.
Everyday you ask for the essence of life. “Why am I here?”
You don’t know. You can’t know. You won’t know.
A mourning song in Igbo reads: udu m etiwaala, otiwaala/ezigbo udu m etiwaala, otiwaala/otiwara n’ike. My pottery has broken/my precious pottery has broken/it was broken forcefully.
A place in your heart bleeds at the thought of force, at seeing that sometimes you can’t save the things you love, the things you own. You think of force, still. Your mind says it is a way of flinging things with all your strength; banging at a door, kicking a thing. When you do it, you hope for the worst.
These people hoped to do the worst with their force. And yes, they did that. And they still smile today looking at the last time and saying, “not all things that start well end well.”
Your people say that a war is never avoided for the fear of death. There will one day be a return. An overtake of good over evil. “Fear my return” is your street code. Wipe your tears and never forget to remember that this skin of yours is the graveyard of all your comrades, all the young souls that wanted a better Nigeria. Your heart bleeds from a place and your blood smells of dreams, lost dreams, a prayer to eternity for immortality, a prayer of love.
Nwanne Agwu is a Nigerian. His work has appeared on Brittle Paper, Kalahari Review, Revolution Relaunch and elsewhere.