AN OAK TREE DIES SLOWLY
Ani Kayode Somtochukwu
When we were boys, we wanted to grow into men. Rock solid men. The kind we saw on posters and Vietnamese war movies. We wanted to be Rambo and save the world, to fight for the defenceless and give ourselves in sacrifice for great things. Peace. Freedom. And all the other things our mothers told us were fragile, or would never exist or could never really be fought for in a country like Nigeria. We dreamt too of love. We wanted to meet a girl that made us happy and dreamt with us and had babies for us and made us dinner and pecked us on the cheek before we left for work. The sort of things we saw our parents do. It seemed as good a dream as any. One of us asked his mother how long a marriage was supposed to last and she said: Forever, darling. You remain committed for life.
It was scary and exciting, the things grown-ups said. We wanted to be grown. To experience this life that had them out of their beds each morning, happy and sad; drained and renewed.
Soon we left our mothers with tears in our eyes. To far away schools. There we realised that dreams were fickle things. We realised what we were. We were taught what we were. We learnt what we were. In chapels. In classes. Standing under the burning sun. They taught us how to fit into our bodies. And in doing that taught us that we never could, not in a way that could ever be accepted. They taught us to regard ourselves as abominations, unAfrican, a revolt against Ani herself. We renounced it. Whatever ‘it’ was. And we told ourselves it was just a phase. That the day would come when we would look at boys and not feel that flutter, that skip of the heart, that awareness that this was who we were, who we always would be.
At fifteen and sixteen we found ourselves on message boards where we could be whatever we wanted to be.
A cool, handsome, clean dude looking for fun.
Lover of Christ looking to make new friends.
We stayed up into the night chatting with strange men there. Letting them tell us how handsome we were. They sent us naked pictures of themselves. Never had we seen bodies so powerful. We touched ourselves looking at those pictures and yet we told them no. That we were not like that. That we just wanted nice people to be friends with. They agreed to be friends and begged us to visit them. Just once. They just wanted to see our beautiful faces. And so we went to visit. We ate their food and drank their beer and though we promised ourselves we wouldn’t, we let them love us, let them show us what love could be like. How much it could hurt and how much it could be the most beautiful gift God ever gave man.
We moved with the Republic. Expanded, began to watch the news and shake our heads at Obasanjo, and marched on the streets for environmental protection and women’s emancipation and free education. We lined up in snaking queues to stamp our fingerprints on ballot papers. Our parents laughed at us.
Things will never change, they said. This country is a deadly snake that sheds its skin but not its venom. To be a good Nigerian you need to adapt, not fight.
But how could we ever adapt our bodies into something else? How could we ever change ourselves enough? We tried instead to find people to love us, in the hope that we might, from them, learn to love ourselves. We tried to find them. We spoke to people on the internet, and slept in their beds and listened to their breathing as they slept, wondering if they were the one, wondering if there was anyone for us.
We were always afraid. We were always wary. There was nothing hate could not achieve. One of us was caught in a man’s bed and set ablaze. Another was beaten on his way from the market. His ribs were broken, hip bones were cracked, his lungs were punctured. His father refused to pay the hospital bill.
We graduated with 2.1s and First Class degrees. We became engineers and biochemists and sociologists. But happiness was a never-ending tunnel with the light at the end so faint that we couldn’t be sure it was light at all. We tried to build new dreams, the way the new Republic was built: slowly, carefully, with painstaking fragility. The burning effervescence of those dreams choked us and drenched us and baptised us. And we held it with the fervency with which we held our childhood dreams. We dreamt of stamped passports we could not afford. We dreamt of places where the land was not so hostile, where fear did not hover over every breath and where we did not have to constantly check the windows and draw the blinds in the fear that our lives were like candles alit in the cold, windy darkness. We dreamt of Canada and Australia and Germany and Sweden and America. We said to ourselves: we will leave and never come back. We will escape and life will be better.
Some of us sought asylum but were not believed.
We met God again, in our search for a promise. Or we began to resent our pastors or we began to see religion as a huge flesh eating animal in search of weak people to consume. Some of us decided to dig up our old dreams. We told our mothers to find us brides. The rest of us tarried on living this life that stripped us of Nigerianness, recording each strike with our bodies. Some days we stood in front of our mirrors looking at the ugly contours of our bodies, like a land in ruins. We watched ourselves cry, unsure if we recognised the men we were looking at, unsure when we became strangers to our own selves.
We consoled ourselves with hope. Freedom was near. We could see it right on the bridge of our noses. We paid and paid and waited for the spoils. We mourned our lost in secret WhatsApp groups.
Did you hear that Eminike died?
Did you hear that he was burnt in Onitsha?
I knew him once. He has the strangest way of laughing.
He fucked like a robot.
He loved like there was no tomorrow.
We traded stories. Did you hear, most of them began. Did you hear?
And then we fell in love. With men thin, fat, ugly, handsome, bearded, bald. We gave ourselves wholly, hoping at least that we were capable of loving and being loved. We ate Coldstone with our lovers. We played chess and let them read us books. We borrowed antimalarial pills from them and met their sisters. They introduced us to Passenger and The Lumineers and Sleeping At Last saying: Isn’t this the absolute most beautiful thing you’ve heard?
And we lulled ourselves to sleep with those soul-shattering melodies smiling in our dreams and wondering if this wasn’t happiness. We were intoxicated with the promise of it, of growing old with someone who understood us, who called us at work and sent us loving text mesages twice a week and promised us happiness in the midst of all this rubble. He was an investment banker; or he sold car parts in Alaba. He was in the Air Force or he was an aide to a Member of the State House of Assembly. He was always smiling and whispered beautiful things in our ears. We let them hold us in the darkness and let them promise us the future.
We will always be together, they said. I will love you till the end of time.
It made us dream of the colour white, not as an absence but as a gentle stroke that overshadowed everything else with its screaming solidity. We loved that we were loved. We loved that we were capable of being loved. We loved them back with everything we had. Every night we begged them to stay, till rumours swelled and found their way home. Our mothers called. They cried.
Why can’t you just put me out of my shame, they asked. Why can’t you be like other sons and settle down with a woman?
After the call, we folded and cried and cried till our voices cracked and our eyes reddened. But we thought: At least I have someone that loves me, the real me.
But even that was not to be. And perhaps we should have known. Perhaps we knew. Our worlds crashed when they told us. They told us in a cozy eatery or in bed after sex or on the phone.
Marriage is only a necessity we have to bow to, to keep alive, they said. It doesn’t have to be the end. You know I don’t love her. You know you’re the only one I love.
We felt the bones in our bodies melt and float in our blood. We saw splinters of our heart tinkling down in tiny dying pieces. We tore the invitation cards and watched it float in our tears. There was no way we could honour an invitation like that. On the day of the wedding, we sat alone in our apartments and mourned them like the rifts in our hearts that they were.