There are several people I promised that I was going to write this. Myself included. Talking about trauma is sometimes like self-medicated therapy. But Naija people don’t talk about past trauma. It stays hidden and buried. We prefer to swallow our trauma and pretend it never happened. And when the hidden trauma erupts like a volcano from within us, destroying everything in its path, we blame everything else. The Devil. Village people. Enemies. So I draw back this veil of silence. I can remember arriving at OAU Ife campus gates to begin my undergraduate degree in law. Travelled from Ilorin via Osogbo in several dilapidated, barely held together vehicles. Listening to fuji music on the makeshift radio, the driver hurling invective curses out of the window, the bus conductor hanging precariously from the open door. Me, watching as savanna changed to forest and the dusty air changed to the humid, muggy embrace of Osun. I can remember 5+x years after that, leaving Ife campus for the last time, watching Road One fade from my sight but not from my consciousness. The long fingers of all my experiences clinging to my back, deep scars on my heart, but still full of pride and joy and confidence, a tear in my eye. My throat choked with emotions. For not only surviving, but for learning these lessons:
- Always put your bra on first: No matter how or when the pestilence flew, we always put our bras on first. On the night of July 10, bullets whizzing, glass shattering, running feet and fear, so thick we could almost taste it, those who had been there for longer than us said, ‘put your bra on first. And the thickest pair of jeans you have.’ Strap yourself in. War is coming. So, under the cover of darkness, lights off, crouched as low as possible, unknown screams renting the air. We put on the only amour we had. As women in Nigeria, there is always something more deadly around the corner. In a world that sends all it can to take your humanity, we come armed only with confidence. And our bras. We strap ourselves in. Much later, months later, when we heard the screams of ‘FIRE! FIRE!! FIRE!!!’ and the stench of acrid smoke wafted into our nostrils. We put our bras on first. Fire outbreak, armed assassination, Ife-Modakeke, aluta… We put our bras on first.
- Life has no duplicate: Death comes easily. When you see it often, you are tempted to discount its power. Tempted, but never able. Death leaves scars. Empty spaces and places never to be filled again. Names never again to be spoken. A blood-sodden mattress that sat in front of the University health centre for months. Brain matter dropping as they carried his chopped up body from Awo Hall. Matric numbers missing from the sequence. Death comes easily, but its scars never leave you. Life has no duplicate, there is nothing to replace the missing places in the heart. Nothing to wipe away the images in the mind. November 4, a bullet shot to the head. Ended a life. Closed a school. And all our rage and tears and gnashing of teeth and revenge, brought none of them back. Not one. Life has no duplicate.
- Make sure you have the right sized coffin: Sometimes death takes it all. Sometimes there is something left to be buried. So we go to the wake. Awake. Aggrieved. We keep the wake. Keep watch. When they opened Afrika’s casket, the blackened body was unrecognisable as the dynamic and diminutive young man who defied everything in his wake. Cotton wool stuffed in every orifice. They closed his casket quickly. Then there was the funeral service of a tall and elegant young man struck down well before his time. Legs sticking out of a too small coffin. Even in death he could not be contained. Wicked death had drawn loud wails from us, heavy tears from strong men and women. But the casket was too small. In the end, for him, death was too small.
- Sometimes death is marked by candlelight: Sometimes death passes by unnoticed. During long strikes, piled upon school closures, we did not know we had lost those we knew. Beauty and brains lost on deathtraps that our government tells us are roads. Pathways to hell. But sometimes death is marked by candlelight. The sceptre of death sits heavy with us. Wrapped in our grief, we are lighted by the flickering glow of a thousand candles, we raise our mournful voices from the clearing in the intersection of Angola Hall, Moz Hall and Awo Annex. We cry out our hope of another fellowship in heaven. Passing by Fajuyi Hall, we demand consolation for our great loss. At the junction of Sports Hall and the Student Union Building, watching the ghosts of Forks and Fingers, we ask about rapture and the Last Days. In the shadow of the Law Faculty, we give in to our anguish, our remembrance, our extreme pain. Water run away we eye. Ah eh! Ah eh eh!!
- Finally: The day of salvation is always nearer than when we first believed. And that which you must do, we must do quickly. Because death comes swiftly and silently and, tear gas is deadly and, gunshots do not always sound like gun shots, but they will all still haunt your nightmares. Life is hard but death is harder. So, always put your bra on first. Because this is how we survive. Thrive. We are alive. Despite this. Despite life. Despite death.