Prior to the day of my departure, I had requested to leave earlier, but the patron of the small family of three that would host me advised me not to come yet – for our mutual safety. The Covid-19 lockdown was still very much in place and the virus was surging in Nigeria: Lagos as the epicentre, Oyo followed suit, and Ogun came third on the chart updated daily by the Nigerian Center For Disease Control (NCDC). I live in Ibadan, Oyo State, and was going to Abẹokuta, the capital city of Ogun State. So it didn’t make sense. The Nigerian government had banned inter-state travels, but some people still find a way to travel across the thirty-six states of the federation. During the early days of the pandemic in Nigeria, I used to be so scared of the breeze blowing outside that I stayed indoors for days. And then, after some months of an unusual, tedious life, on July 2, I decided to venture out. As soon as the government lifted the ban on inter-state travel – a ban which held no water after all – I dusted my bag and set out on my journey.
During the early days of the pandemic, many Nigerians denied its existence. Some claimed it was the government’s way of siphoning public funds; some claimed it was a disease for the elites; some who accepted the reality confidently claimed that the intake of alcohol killed it. But a few weeks into the increasing number of casualties, especially of popular politicians like a former governor of Oyo State and former senator from Ogun State, there was a change in attitude. People could now be seen donning face masks. I was wearing mine, too, as I got into the backseat of a car that usually accommodates three passengers but now restricted to two for safety measures.
We began the journey from Àpáta, an Ibadan outskirt leading to the highway to Ogun State. My varsity friend, Precious, whose family I was going to join, had told me to call him whenever I got to Camp or Osiele. I looked at the young man with whom I shared the backseat; he was in the NYSC paramilitary fatigue. He easily deduced from my countenance that I had questions fraught in my head. I wanted to hold on as I chuckled to a common joke about a woman in Ìjẹ̀bú – a town in Ogun state – that it was incessant questions that got Ìyá Ìjèbú done.
‘Please, can you notify me when we get to Osiele?’ I requested. I couldn’t hear what he said at first, and observing the tight mask was a deterrent, he removed his and spoke.
‘Don’t worry. Osiele is not a place you can miss. It’s a college of education along the expressway. You’ll know when we get there.’ I thanked him and put on my earpiece again. The breeze lashed at my face, but I loved it. I love speeding cars and shifting landscapes. Wurld – the maestro of Afrosoul electronic music in Nigeria – was crooning his 2019 album Love Is Contagious in my ears.
Precious called exactly when the young guy told me we were almost at Osiele, so I told him I was at Osiele already. He promised to catch me very soon. The driver slowed past Osiele and I saw the college of education. Sellers on both sides of the road riddled us with items they sold and safe journey prayers from their makeshift awnings. We were now in Abẹokuta, stuck in a traffic jam on Obantoko road, a popular, usually plied but damaged road which leads to different parts of Abẹokuta. The driver decided to cut corners. He drove through Shomorin, a stressful, pothole-riddled road which passes through a residential area. A heavily pregnant woman could go into premature labour from the stress of the road. The driver complained about the negligence of the Obantoko road by the state government and he was seconded by the young guy. A passenger sitting in the front seat, a young lady, hardly older than I am, had already alighted from the car to find a commercial motorcycle. I was left with the driver and the young guy who began to talk about different roads and how they linked and where they linked to – it all looked strange and I was helpless.
My friend called me to query my absence at the park, so I apprised him of the traffic I encountered and why I should be thankful to the driver who knew a shortcut. No sooner had he dropped the call than I arrived at the park. We shook hands, throwing caution to the wind. I reminded him of the reality of the situation and we laughed. He ignited the car he came in and drove to his place.
We arrived at Kenta Housing Estate, one of the housing estates in Ìdí Abà, where Precious’ family stays. My friend informed me that the estate houses the country home of Professor Wọlé Ṣoyínká, the celebrated Nigerian playwright and the recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature. I have always longed to visit his home. But even as I was in close radius, I knew I wouldn’t be able to see him or gain entry into his residence. It is a heavily guarded place and visitors visit via invitations only.
I had read about the uniqueness in the behavioural dispensations of Ẹgba people and the slanting Yoruba accent I hoped to listen to. Dusk came and we went out to meet Precious’ dad at a car wash in the estate. I listened consciously to people talking and passing by, none spoke the Ẹgba-accented Yoruba my ears ached to hear. They all spoke the common Yoruba dialect. Early disillusionment.
First night in Abẹokuta, I slept sound. Normally I don’t spend all night sleeping in a new bed in a new house, but that night was different. I woke up with my feet cold. The chilly breeze blew through the window where my bed was situated.
It took days before we had a major outing. Before that, I had only been going in and out of the estate to buy stuff with Precious in his mom’s car. Sometimes it was to the Federal Medical Centre popularly called FMC. We – my friend, his mom and I – had driven inside the premises when Precious apprised me of the fact that Covid-19 patients had an isolation unit there. I cringed. He laughed. I wondered if he wasn’t just scared because he had never denied the existence of the virus. It was even funnier when she said she just wanted to say hi to her friend. Say hi, REALLY? Well, we got to the place where her friend was; she sold made food to people. Her restaurant was adjacent to the said isolation unit. I quickly put on my mask. They exited the car to meet her, donning their face masks. I stayed in the car, staring at the isolation unit, extremely scared to breathe the air around there. I took some shots of the isolation unit with my phone. I had always believed there is a special thing to the minimal cases recorded in Nigeria. This is a country where medical doctors go on strike for days before the government invites them to the discussion table; I mean to say we lack all the things it requires to flatten the curve of the spread of a pandemic. Well, this place I so dreaded would later become a place I would stand to take pictures with a beautiful girl without alarm.
Anyway, my first major outing was to Olúmọ Rock. The historical and tourist site served as protection for Ẹ̀gbá people during an internecine war in the 19th century. Hence, it became a monument. Back in Ibadan in my younger years, I had seen the image of the rock featured as a background image of the NTA Ibadan television. I used to be so peeved that a monument from another city could dominate the tv channel based in Ibadan, a city with an explorable history and interesting hills and monuments. Worse still, the head of Olókun, the heritage of the Ifẹ people is the icon of the channel. Well, it is a national broadcasting television.
I was dressed in my kampala attire, a type of cloth dyed in some African-inspired patterns, and fastened my belt to my black trouser. It was only a beaded neck chain that was absent, I would have been the perfect image of some Africanist writer speaking in an award ceremony or a writing workshop. In the car were my friend behind the wheels, his mother, his girlfriend and I. His mother knew well that the girl was more than just a friend like young guys would tell their parents about their lovers. His dad, too, knew after he saw the girlfriend in the house and would often joke about it. Likewise, his mother didn’t belong to the set of African parents who try to dispel that reality, that it’s normal for their children to crave romantic love starting from teenage years. Although in this case, we weren’t teens anymore.
I was full of doubts that the place would be open for visitors due to the lockdown. And when we arrived there, we met closed gates while an old man came to meet us in the car and informed us the government had closed it for the moment. Another disillusionment.
I got down from the car and told Precious to take pictures of me at the entrance. He shared the pictures with me and I took to my WhatsApp status: A VISIT TO OLÚMỌ ROCK. What do they say about making lemonades out of the lemons life toss at you?
We decided to go to Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library. During the opening of this library whose name delimits its magnificence to someone who hasn’t paid a visit, I was in my apartment in Ibadan (my parents’ actually) as it was being televised live on the ‘afore-shaded’ NTA. I had thought it was just a library until I got to visit it on that day. The Hausas would say gaani ya fiji(I hope I got that right) – that is, narrating is the poor brother of witnessing (owing to Ṣoyínká’s words).
OOPL, as the domiciled people call it by its abbreviation, is owned by the former President of Nigeria, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. Said to house millions of books, its academic interest is not really obvious (my unpopular opinion though). The number of people who described it for me only talked of the recreational fervour that revolves around the library established on some vast area of land. I got there. It was silent, empty and peaceful. On a normal day, without the Covid-19 pandemic, it was a fun-filled, frenzied place thronged by young fine ladies swimming. This is what I was told. Oh, I saw the cinema, too. I won’t forget the exotic hotel – Green Legacy I think is the name, can’t really recall. Well, I took pictures, took to my WhatsApp status and posted.
We exited the place through the exit gate. I saw a school signpost: my surname is the name of the school. I smiled. I used to believe Agunbiades were only from Ilesha in Ọsun state. But later I met some Agunbiades from Oyo, Ogun and Ondo. I told my dad; he said it was a result of the creation of new states out of old ones like Osun state out of Oyo state in 1991.
We headed towards Ìwé Ìròyìn, the popular suya spot in Abẹokuta. It was in the afternoon. If it was in the night, we would wait hours before getting the chance to buy some, I was told. As the suya sizzled, I beckoned Precious to take pictures of me. As usual, I picked the best and posted on my WhatsApp status: AT IWE IROYIN. IF YOU KNOW, YOU KNOW.
Few seconds later, two messages came in. Wale, an indigene of the city, wrote: GUY, YOU HAVE BEEN TO EVERYWHERE O. MANAGE OUR ABẸOKUTA LIKE THAT SHA. IT IS DRY. Khadija, a friend from Oyo town, wrote: KEEP ENJOYING O. I laughed, and felt fulfilled.
I settled down at home, at the dining table where I unwrapped my suya, opened my Coke and switched on my mini laptop – what would later be looted by burglars. On Windows Music, I opened The Weeknd’s After Hours. Precious and his girlfriend played like lovebirds. Feeling lonely, I requested she call her friend who lived close to pay her a visit so I could find someone to talk to, too. She did, her friend came. We chatted, joked about campus life.
It was one of those occasional days we used to go to markets to buy cooking stuff. I realized there is parking management in the state. Its officers charge you for parking on the road; it isn’t fine, just charges. Fifty naira ticket for one hour, I think (I can’t exactly recall the price on that ticket.) It was in Itoku market, I saw those green and yellow striped commercial cabs sped past the magnificent Adire Mall. From General Post Sapon to Lafenwa to Itoku, these officers were always poised to guide you through parking and paying instantly. As much as I believe it’s a nice initiative, I hoped the revenue generated from it went into the right hands. Another one, a state-run traffic force, named TRACE could be seen at some roads. Some of its officers were kitted up as race bikers. I was told they chase traffic offenders with their bikes. These were not even speed bikes. Well, I laughed. They block roads on weekends too as the government imposed lockdown on weekends. Some days later, a man was reported in the news to have committed suicide in TRACE office after being fined some outrageous fee for his traffic offence. There were no protests, no uprising. Just silence. Maybe, you know, his suicide was offence number 2.
On a ‘jobless’ day, we decided to ramble through the estate: Precious, his girlfriend and I. We just kept walking, kept talking. On the way, Precious decided that we should trek to Ṣoyínká’s country home. Yes, after some minutes, we got there. We stood in front of one colourful school when Precious pointed to the entrance of Prof Ṣoyínká’s country home. I wanted to move further. He laughed. He warned me that it’s a guarded place. I read the bizarre signposts that said ‘Trespassing vehicles will be shot and eaten’ and smiled. We turned back and headed home. On the 13th day of July, the celebrated Professor had his birthday. On the entrance gate of the estate, a happy birthday banner with the Professor’s picture printed on it hung. I took the picture, took to my WhatsApp status, posted: TODAY IS KONGI’S BIRTHDAY! SNAPPED THIS ON THE GATE OF THE ESTATE.
My days in Abẹokuta had been really interesting ones until one day. We had all gone to FMC to meet Precious’ mom’s friend. And on returning, Precious observed the window net had fallen off.
‘The carpenter that did this job must have run from his boss. He knows nothing,’ Precious said as he thought it was the mediocre job done by the carpenter.
The window net fell whenever there was a strong breeze. It wasn’t unusual. Few minutes later, he went out. I walked into the room Precious and I shared to see another window net on his bed. I thought it was the breeze, too. I just took off my clothes and waited for Precious to return so we could fix it together. When he returned and I called him into the room, we picked it up to fix. He beckoned me to wait a little bit as he inspected the burglar-proof. It had been forcefully damaged. Someone or some persons had broken in! What! My mind raced to where my laptop was, I couldn’t find it.
‘Precious, my laptop is gone!’
Before that day, some people had come to tend to the plants in the compound. Precious recalled we saw one of them at the estate’s entrance gate. We informed his mom. She told us to go get him right away. We hopped into the car and sped off. In a few minutes, he was in the compound saying he knew nothing about it and cursing whoever had broken in. We called the other guy who came together with him. He got to the compound very early. He suggested we try to trace it. I called my friend who sells laptops in Computer Village, Lagos. He told me to forget it and said tracing it won’t amount to anything. Well, we would give it a try. The other guy said he knew someone who could do that for us at Tarmac, a popular market where phones and other gadgets are sold. Without much ado, Precious and I drove to Tarmac with the other guy. We met the person he trusted could do the job. He sold phones, too.
‘Don’t let me deceive you. The Police can’t trace it. You’ll only waste your money. But I think I trust the DSS. They are more sophisticated. I’ll take you there. Wait for me, I’ll be right back.’ After about thirty minutes waiting for him, he finally joined us in the car and we drove towards the DSS office. When we got to the entrance, one of the DSS officials exited a pickup truck parked in front of the DSS to query our presence. As he moved towards us with his gun, I was a bit petrified. We informed him why we were there. He opened the gate for us to see some of their men saddled with the responsibility of attending to cases like ours.
They spoke to us like I never expected. They spoke with sincerity and kindness. ‘Let me be sincere with you. We work with top government officials only. We have done many things like this one before successfully. If the laptop had been stolen with a phone, it would have been easier for us to trace. But as the case is that only the laptop was looted, it would be difficult for us to trace. And we don’t want a situation where you would spend more than the worth of what is lost,’ one of them said. Another disillusionment. The Tarmac guy browsed the pictures of the laptop on Google, Dell Inspiron, and sent the best one to the WhatsApp group of sellers as a warning that it’s a stolen product and if anyone came to sell or repair it, he should be contacted.
Throughout the day, I was numbed. I had two of my manuscripts on the laptop. A poetry chapbook and an incomplete novel. Precious’ mom urged me to be cheerful as I had always been before the incident. I tried to be. My friend and I went to the nearby police station to write a report about it with photographs of the damaged burglar-proof attached. That was done to fulfill all righteousness. The laptop could be used for anything criminal with my data on it like my Google account.
I became cheerful after some days though. With days of sleeping, sadness dissipates. Eid-Adha, the celebration by Muslim faithful for which rams are slaughtered, was approaching, but I didn’t take cognizance. I was not even conscious of the fact that I was a Muslim. I was not praying. Not because I was in a Christian home, my friend’s dad even urged me to pray my five daily prayers frequently, but simply because my faith was getting frail. I had been suffering from low-grade depression before I left Ibadan for Abẹokuta where I happened to be happier. I had people to play and joke with. Everyone showed me love as best as they could. Even those who hardly knew me in the estate. I fell in love with the place and its people. The environment was what I loved most – serene and orderly. Back home, the din could give you a migraine. I had been working ardently to finish the poetry chapbook so I could enter it for a poetry competition before the unfortunate incident happened. The click-click sound of keyboards makes me work faster. Well, it was what it was. Nome, one of my writer-friends, inspired me to finish it with my phone. I eventually finished it using my Android phone and submitted two days before the deadline.
Since I would be leaving soon, I met with my female friend in the estate (you remember her?). We talked briefly as I joked.
‘I stay in Ibadan so I’m still very much around, you know? Don’t miss me. We’ll meet again.’ That was the second time we would be meeting, but we had always been talking on the phone. Precious’s girlfriend, her friend and I shared hugs. It was a lovely moment for me. The following day, I was ready with my bag. I had spent 28 or 29 days. Funny how it happened that I spent almost a month when I had only planned for a week. Well, it gets difficult to leave where you feel loved.
I still had one message to send. I opened my WhatsApp and typed: The pain of longing, the sting of absence. I will be leaving for Ibadan today – how that hurts. You and some others have made my stay a memorabilia. I strongly hope we see once again as we tend to conform to life’s intricacies. There are no words to describe this – the pain of longing surges at the hour of separation; the heart grows fonder in absence.
^Thank you for reading. You can also listen to Agúnbíadé’s playlist here
Kẹ́hìndé Agúnbíadé is a young Nigerian poet and essayist. His work has featured in Vagabond City Lit, The Pangolin Review, Kalahari Review, The News Digest, African Writer, Little Rose Magazine, Rising Phoenix Review, MusicInAfrica among others. He is in his sophomore year studying Literature-in-English at the Department of English, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ifẹ.
Cover photo credit: go2net