Eko

Liadi loved Eko in all of its manifestations.

He loved the weight of history and connectedness that he felt in Badagry, where his teachers’ training college was located. Just enough – his mother had told him the vague outlines of how she left her village of birth so long ago – for him to feel as though he belonged there, that it was a part of his heritage. Yet not so much that he was weighed down by the lingering sense of the darkest moments of the town’s history, of its role in the slave trade. He was, all things considered, a Yewa boy from Jilete who just happened to have a mother that might have hailed from a neighbouring village another lifetime ago.

He loved the freedom and anonymity that the ever-expanding city gave, finding that norms and restrictions adopted in societies where everyone knew the other were often disregarded in a place like this. In this modern city teeming with young adults who, away from the confines and approbations of their villages, pursued their pleasures as much as they did the dreams and aspirations that brought them there. In Lagos, the nights were long, the music was fresh, the girls coy (though not always similarly inhibited) and life was mostly good for a young, – tall, dark and handsome – educated fella who wanted to have fun.

And Liadi did, he studied just enough to keep his grades up, but partied hard enough to get a different kind of education from living in the city.

He especially loved the island. Eko proper or isale Eko as its inhabitants proudly proclaimed it, with the fierce protectiveness of a people who knew their place. He loved the modernity that they embraced so thoughtlessly – with their storied buildings and electric lights, things most people in the country had only heard about – while holding on to the traditions that were uniquely theirs. He even came to tolerate the narrow-minded, almost bigoted distrust with which they viewed anyone not of their own origin. He felt like he understood their reasoning somewhat – nothing got his blood pumping like a day in Isale Eko, the energy, the possibility, the freedom was unmatched by any other place he’d ever been. Liadi spent at least one weekend in isale Eko, unfailingly, of every month of the two years of his training.

In his more introspective moments, Liadi would find his way to the neighbourhoods where power lay, the administrative capitals – either of the country of the state. He would spend hours loitering, careful never to appear aimless or disreputable while he indulged his imagination. He would dream of what it would have been like to have been born in a family where he – or his predecessors – had been educated to university level or beyond, maybe even outside the country. If he had been thus positioned to be in places like this, places that matter, amongst these people who steered the affairs of the country, this new Nigeria. Who had the power to influence all of her citizens’ lives.

Of course, he knew that not everyone working here was priviledged or had power. His uncle, Raufu was one of them, after all – with his work at the state secretariat. Upon his graduation from the same college his nephew was currently attending, Raufu had got a teaching position, a position he held until the creation of Lagos state opened up a new slew of administrative jobs. He had then been offered a job at the state ministry of education and seemed to be working his way up the ranks as ploddingly as expected.

During the most recent of his mandated monthly visits to his uncle’s, Liadi had been deliberately non-committal about the older man’s repeated offer to ‘set him up’ with a job at the ministry upon his graduation. Not wanting to seem ungrateful, he made vague noises that could be – wishfully – interpreted as acquiescence, whenever his uncle went on and on about teaching being a dead-end job (he agreed, mostly). And how it would not suit a young man of Liadi’s temperament (he agreed, wholly). He kept quiet when the older man ascertained that his future, the future of any kind really, was in a civil service job (he disagreed, vehemently). The increasing vehemence of his disagreement with the last part meant his vague noises were adopting a more chocking-sound quality that his uncle, quite impressively, somehow managed to miss every time.  

His wife didn’t, though. A small, dark skinned woman with a pinched face and an even more uptight personality, she saw a lot more than she ever let one. With an air of diligent observation peculiar to those who have spent their lives being invincible to the notice of others, she watched his interactions with his uncle without giving much away. Sometimes, he thought he saw a flicker of understanding sympathy in her eyes when they swung to him while following the conversation – she was a teacher, after all, married to a civil servant. She probably knew a lot more than him of the perils of those occupations. But that might just be wishful thinking on his part because Aunty Bisola’s expression was a study in the myriad manifestations of stoic.

Not that one could blame her for that, Liadi reasoned. It had to be hard, being her. She had been one of the students who upheld the coerced conversion into Christianity that schools in South-Western Nigeria used to gatekeep Muslim children. Bus she had accepted the religion in truth at some point in her secondary school career. While not uncommon – at least half of the children from Muslim homes left secondary schools as Christians – her case was peculiar because her father, the imam of his village, was unwilling to accept such turnabout in his daughter. It was one thing to pretend compliance when it was the only way to get an education but choosing to voluntarily convert thereafter was, apparently, inexcusable.

Bisola had held firmly to her new convictions, though, losing here entire family and home in the process. She had attended the teachers’ training college on a church scholarship, with the understanding that she would teach at one of the mission’s schools upon graduation. Then she had met Raufu. After going through young adulthood without familial support, she had somehow found the strength to defy her sponsors to marry him, at significant personal and financial cost, only to be denied acceptance her new in-laws.

Now, he loved his mother, but Liadi knew she was the most formidable opponent a person could ever have. A strange young woman who had no other support systems stood no chance against the tornado that was Abibatu Abeke.  Raufu did not count as support because, like Liadi, after being raised by Maami, he had learnt to keep his head down to keep the peace. Liadi had watched him watch helplessly as, teamed up with each other in an unusual display of sisterly accord, his sisters had done everything possible to let the new bride know how unwelcome she was. Fortuitously, Raufu had – in what was probably the singular defiant move of his life – married the young lady in a civil ceremony in Lagos before bringing her to meet his sisters, but that seemed to be the extent of his rebelliousness. He neither intervened nor reigned them in when his sisters took every opportunity to sling digs at his wife, and Liadi had wavered between feeling sorry for his helplessness and furious at his spinelessness.

Eventually though, the couple found their stride. Raufu came to see his sisters in the village alone while Bisola only came for a few days during the annual ileya celebration. They lived their lives, otherwise, in Lagos and Liadi, who saw them once a month, thought they were reasonably happy in a quiet, sedate relationship where neither family nor religion was shared or discussed.   

‘Greet your mother for us o,’ Aunty Bisola said now, as she always did whenever he mentioned he was heading to Jilete.

‘I will,’ he assured her.

He always did, too, even though Maami would just do that thing where she sniffed and huffed in the same impressive show of relentless disapproval, even after nearly half a decade.

The woman has a long memory! He thought to himself as he walked towards the bus stop to begin the first step of his journey. It would take him nearly twelve hours, at least five different buses and/ or trucks, the discomfort of sharing personal spaces with total strangers with varying personal hygiene habits, but Liadi loved going back to Jilete.

To him, it was – will always be – Home. The relaxed ambience of the village, the people who knew his history more than he did, his mother’s secluded compound which marked her unique personality more than any other physical object or words could, her insistence to cook him his ‘favourite’ meal every time, even the new spring beds and mattress she had ignored hid protests to get for his room – he was alakowe now, and alakowes do not sleep on mats! They all grounded him, the familiarity and comfort reminding him, after the promise and permissiveness of Lagos, of who he truly was.

Liadi Eyitoye Ajani, son of Lasisi of Iga Ajuwon and the indomitable Abibatu Abeke of Jilete village in Yewaland.

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