Here I go again on my own / Goin’ down the only road I’ve ever known– Whitesnake (“Bloody Luxury”, Saints and Sinners, 1982)
There is a piece of paper somewhere that says that today, officially, I turn thirty. If you know me well enough, you know it means I’ve spent three decades on earth saying fuck that to loads of things. And it makes sense, you know? I’m a middle child, which basically means it was my job to reject the systemic grooming my older siblings received and become an exemplar of quiet rebellion to all who came after me. Thirty only means I’ve become quite good at it.
Earlier this year, I attempted to document this lifetime of quiet rebellions via an essay titled “Some Equines Have Lines: A Manual for Becoming”. Thirty feels like a good time to share this with the world. Thirty means finally settling into my skin, finally making home of the middle. Thirty means the year of the middle finger and looking fear in the eye. Thirty means saying, Fuck that, read my essay.
So, fuck that. Read my essay. And happy birthday to me.
Some Equines Have Lines: A Manual for Becoming
By Suyi Davies Okungbowa
There are four groups of disciplines allowable for college study in every Nigerian home: STEM, Law, Medicine and A Disgrace to the Family. Choose as expected. Not that one, or that, or that. You know what you must do. You know what you must become.
2. Menus and Selections
It is taboo to wear buba ati ṣokoto with boots. Everyone knows atiku and Doc Martens don’t mix. Worse even, when you wear a fila to match. The lines are clear: there is traditional wear, and there is English wear, okay? You either wear a suit and dress shoes, or jeans and sneakers. One or the other, not both, see? In the same vein, you will fold your agbada up to the shoulder the right way, in neat pleats. Not tossed over your shoulder disrespectfully like a barbarian. You will wear your ivie only during ceremonies–only transferred from locked-up box to your neck and wrists, and back. You cannot wear them anyhow, like 2 Chainz, no; you cannot wear them like prizes. This is your self being worn on your body. You are not a peacock. You are a temple for your forefathers’ spirits.
So no; you will not taint the last vestiges of your people’s history by pairing them with those foreign aberrations called boots. You will wear the right footwear for traditional clothing, as have been worn since the time of the British: open-toed sandals or dress shoes without socks. (Socks! Are you okay?) Also: mixing ankara and adirẹ with jeans? Seriously, what is wrong with you?
3. Recommended Languages
You will learn your first new tongue outside of colonial English at eight years old. It is not your father’s Edo, a language best suited for two things: soulful ballads and rapidfire assault. It is not your mother’s Esan, spoken out of the side of the mouth, as if always sneering, always sly. The former you will only ever interact with in snatches in Benin City’s streets, when people greet you Ọbowiẹ in the morning, or when they lunge at you for whatever reason, flinging Mwẹn a gb’uwẹ your way. The latter, your mother and her siblings will argue with in the living room, you exiled to the bedroom so that you only hear them like a TV turned low. When they finally direct the language at you, you will only learn the commands and insults. S’amẹ mwẹn mhon. Bring me water to drink. Wa z’agha? Do you want to be scattered? You will wonder what that even means. How do you scatter someone? How do you respond to something you can’t even understand?
One day, a Béninois man from Cotonou will show up at your house, and your mother will announce him as your new French teacher. See, mother loves to travel, even if she doesn’t show it. She wants to go to Paris one day, so she’s preparing in advance. This man, whom you and your siblings refer to as Tonton–a colloquial term of endearment for uncle or teacher or mentor of sorts–will teach you sweet songs in the language, introduce you to French VCR tapes with characters named François. You have always had problems with trilled Rs, so the guttural R of French will feel like home, like pressure lifted. You do not have to pretend to understand here, you do not have to perform patience. Tonton will be patient enough for you, allowing you to make mistakes, will never ask if you want to be scattered.
You will go on to develop a distaste for your own parents’ tongues. You will flinch anytime they are spoken, and it will take you a long time to realise that this language can also be spoken to you, and not always at you. Too late. You have become one of those anomalies: Nigerians who can’t speak their mother and father tongues. Worse, you have found solace in another colonial language, have worn another hat of suppression. You have become the worst of the worst of Nigerians: a foreigner at home, a traitor.
So, when you are moved up north for your national service year, you will make it a point to learn Hausa, the predominant language in Minna, Niger State. You will try to converse with the non-English-speaking security guard at your apartment, introducing your friends to him with wild gesticulations, saying, Abokiya na ne fa. In Port-Harcourt, you will pick up spittings of Igbo and Ikwerre. In Lagos, you will put your secondary school Yoruba to use. It will not matter that you can barely put together a sentence in any of these languages, and you will need to listen closely and read body language to approximate whatever anyone is saying. At least you’re more Nigerian for it, right?
You will purge yourself of your dearly beloved French. English is for everyone, but French is yours, the only other language with words you are actually happy to make. But attrition will finally take hold of your tongue, so that you will be reduced from winning best French student three times in a row in secondary school to only being able to recognise garçon and dimanche after they have been enunciated.
In time, you will become a colourless quilt: a patchwork of various threads that mean nothing on their own, can do nothing on their own, yet together make something unrecognizable by owner and spectator alike.
4. Functionalities Presented, Described
Your first experience of music will come from home. Father will have stacks of LPs next to the turntable telling of a history before you. From America’s Don Williams to Britain’s The Beatles to Congo Brazzaville’s Awilo Longomba to Benin City’s own Victor Uwaifo. You will wake up to the world through these melodies, and though you will not leave Benin City until you’re 24, you will belong to the world long before then. You will travel across space and time through your father’s eclectic LP stack. When you learn to play piano, George Freiderich Handel will hold your hand. You will play guitar with Ozzy Osbourne through Paramore. You will consume highlife, rock, afrobeats, classical, reggae, jazz, hip-hop. The CD stack next to your walkman will be tentaculoid in genre like your father’s LP stack: Avril Lavigne, 2Face Idibia, Abba, Linkin Park, Mozart, Breaking Benjamin, Da Grin, Within Temptation, 50 Cent, Styl Plus, Sixpence None the Richer.
Secondary school will be cruel to your taste in art. You will get mud slung your way for being a musical octopus. You have once again occupied that no-man’s land between lines, out-of-place and out-of-time, like a dinosaur returned to life.
One day in 2013, you will stumble upon a song called “Q.U.E.E.N.” by Janelle Monáe. Something in this science-futuristic, Black-history, genre-bending, before-its-time music will creep past the melodies, through your eardrums, and lodge in your soul:
“Are we a lost generation of our people?
Add us to equations but they’ll never make us equal;
Categorize me, I defy every label.”
In that moment, you will find home in this woman. Her ability to bend and twist and become undefinable with her music and her self will resonate with you. Her calm resoluteness in erasing all the lines drawn around race, culture, gender, sexual orientation and genre will resonate with you. You will discover, through this woman worlds away, that home is not the world with a boundary drawn around it. Home is a crevice, a split between worlds. To make home is to become a rift, to create a fissure, to settle into a cleft. To make home is to tear the world apart.
Years later, you will find that this song was meant to be named Q.U.E.E.R, but the world wasn’t yet ready for this concept, just like the world isn’t yet ready for the concept of you, the middle, the middle finger.
5. Functionalities Presented, Not Described
On a random weekend in the University of Benin campus, two policemen in a patrol van will run into you and stop, asking why you have a bicep tattoo and a red mohawk. You will want to tell them that they are really remnants of your final-year costume day activities, and you liked them so much that you kept them. You will want to explain that they fit well into your identity, see, that you play guitar, that you listen to Breaking Benjamin and Shinedown, that you have always wanted to look like this at some point. But this will make no sense to a Nigerian policeman who can’t even write his own name. So you settle for the lie: you’re an entertainer.
This should suffice, because you know the unwritten rule that a Nigerian with a mohawk can only either be an entertainer or a criminal. But these policemen have stale alcohol breath, their eyes bloodshot from smoking weed. They will disembark, asking for some sort of proof of your entertainership. Showing them the guitar picks in your wallet will be insufficient. Their tongues will instead water at the sight of your one-thousand-naira notes. They will swiftly become rabid, commanding–at gunpoint–that you unlock your phone. They will wonder why a young university student like you can afford this smartphone at all in 2011, why you have emails showing dollar payments, why you have American and European phone numbers in your contacts.
The conclusion: you are a criminal, a fraudster, a yahoo boy, a 419, a Nigerian Prince.
Explaining how freelance writing and payments work will be futile. Their only interest will be getting you in the back of the van and taking you to the station, to force you to walk in one of the only two paths they understand, to convert you into something you are not. You will resist with a spidery venom, hooking all your appendages to the van’s tailgate, screaming like you are birthing something. One of them will cock the hammer of his rifle and aim it at you, and you will dare him to shoot, shoot. This is your self being worn on your body. This is your hair and you will take it to the grave.
6. Int/Ext Framework
Egbe wẹnren ugboloko ru uwẹre. A skinny body has bones inside it.
Your family should know. They are the ones who come from ancestors who make this proclamation. But the body shaming will start first at home, before spilling outside, like water from a dam, so that those who couldn’t even meet your eyes before will be given license to pick up where they have left off, and call you the dreaded word: kpako.
It will start with clothes. Mother will find it difficult to buy you anything that fits, because a primary school boy your age shouldn’t be this difficult to dress: outgrowing clothes and not fitting into them at the same time. She will settle for buying two sizes larger for everything except shoes, so that you will be a scarecrow everywhere you go, shirts and trousers flapping in the wind and exposing your thin body. People will wonder why you are so thin, and Mother will laugh it off as genetics, then will go home and force-feed you boiled eggs three times daily. You will come to hate the smell of boiled eggs.
You will be too thin for girls in secondary school. You do not look like a Strong African Man™. A Strong African Man™ has stretch marks from lifting weights and the calves of a Zulu warrior. A Strong African Man™ has belly fat that shows he is well fed and probably rich. Rotund cheeks are a dead giveaway of ajebutter, a child of affluence. You, whom the wind can take with it anytime it pleases, are ajekpako: probably poor, surely weak, definitely undesirable.
A Strong African Man™ does not sing the mashups from Pitch Perfect. He does not frown at catcalling; he must whistle after buttocks to make up for what he is missing in his manhood. Only female buttocks, though, because a Strong African Man™ can never be queer. He must continue to prove his heterosexuality each day, and must show his dominance, must show that he isn’t weak or compassionate about female lives and interests. There is no such thing as a feminist. You are either a Strong African Man™ or a waste of space.
In university, you will take your half-year internship as a time to gain weight, to become a Strong African Man™. Gyms and fitness aren’t too much of a thing yet, so you will eat heavy meals three times daily, gorging on soups with meat, fish, snails, periwinkles. You will stuff even more boiled eggs down your throat, barely chewing, barely tasting. Your cheeks will respond, but your body will not. You will return to final year still a kpako. You will curse yourself, stare longingly at American rappers, thinking: what will it cost?
You will ask that question for a long time, until your distance from home begins to stretch, until the band tethering you is pulled to breaking point. When it snaps, you will suddenly become unmoored, unsure, uncomfortable: you have only known this weight because you have only always dragged the world with you.
wẹnrẹn ugboloko ru uwẹre. A skinny body has bones inside it.
7. Compatible Input
You will start out by disliking okra soup. Its insistence on viscous cohesion will cause you to wonder who ever thought this was a good idea, eating something that is still connected to the plate while already in your mouth. This questioning of food will shift to other dishes: the confusion that is agidi, if it is supposed to taste like death or someone made a mistake and everyone just rolled with it; the whole idea of peanut butter and boiled eggs on the same bread slice, as if God and the Devil could mix; onions in general, and if they were poison that actually didn’t work, because how could anything short of malicious taste so awful?
Food is politics, but you will not know this, being a child. You will also fail to understand that choices aren’t really there for the taking, being at a stage where you can still classify as property. So when you start to exhibit a knack for oddball or downright unacceptable food combos, like kpekere and Lucozade Boost or pancakes and ogi, eyebrows will be raised, and whispers of, Not this again, will commence.
Pepper Soup will become the biggest battlefield for this war. Despite questioning the whole idea behind it–like, who decided that a soup of only water, meat/fish, and the hottest peppers in the world should classify as food?–you will not only grow to like it, you will also disengage it from all the other food it is permitted to be consumed with.
Beer, for instance, which you don’t drink quite often. Or yams, which the Delta natives next door to your Benin City home eat it with. Not only will you choose the most basic and most foreign of Nigerian foods as your favourite pair–rice–you will completely substitute it for tomato stew, the one thing every Nigerian is supposed to love that is not jollof rice.
One Christmas with parents, siblings and extended family in Benin City, you will refuse the celebratory rice-and-stew combo and opt for something else. A small inquest will develop then, everyone asking if you’ve met a woman, if your taste buds have been polluted by a foreigner. When you reveal your preference for pepper soup over tomato stew, silence will take hold of the living room, the whirring ceiling fan and the dust from it the only things in motion. In their eyes, you will see questioning: not of you, but of themselves, doubting the veracity of the hospital staff who pronounced you as theirs on the day you were born. They will not speak it, but they will wonder if you have ever been a part of this family, if you will ever be.
You will hold their gazes and answer it with your eyes: No. No, you will never be, and that is just fine.
8. Compatible Output (Ref: See, 1)
You will take being A Disgrace to the Family one step further and refuse to write about sensible things, like poverty or political turmoil. You will not be a journalist doing important work, or a self-help enthusiast goading readers into the right path. Instead, you will look to space, to climate, to myths and cosmologies, to legends and history, to monsters, to futures, pasts and presents real and unreal. You will choose to tell stories of lands and peoples and creatures that don’t exist.
Everyone knows Nigerians don’t do that.
Your loves are irrelevant. Nothing is more important than currency signs replacing your pupils. So, of course you will end up in STEM. But those boundaries will not hold you, as usual. Soon, you will meander, and find your way back to the cracks between things, and you will find succor in published shorts, a book, grad school. You will be unleashed into a world where you are not just free to seek self-love without judgement, but might even be successful while at it.
The only thing home will care about is that you are now Not A Disgrace to the Family. No one will ask what sacrifices birthed that fifth category.
Weeks to your wedding, your mother will sit you down one midnight, the silent thrum of the generator piercing the silence of her Benin City home.
“There is no such thing as as non-traditional African,” she will say. “The only things we have left are our traditions and rites, our rules and systems. Pollute that, and who are you even?”
You will not tell her that this person she speaks of no longer exists, that there’s no is; this person is transcendent, in a continuous state of being, always being. This person believes that the three wedding ceremonies she is advocating for–one to honour a colonial religion, one to honour indigenous traditions, and one to honour national law–defeats this very purpose being African, or Nigerian, or anything else. That if the chosen indigenous traditional ceremony cannot meet all three goals, does it really qualify as tradition, or is it just like the other two, a handwavium concept wielded as a means to hegemony and control? You will not tell her you have long since purged yourself of the first, and have never reconciled with the second, so that the third is the only reason you’re even planning a ceremony at all.
Instead, you will listen and nod. Down inside, you are at peace. You know the minute she leaves this room, you will move across those boundaries and settle into home in the spaces beyond them. You will break her, and break the world, by becoming. You will do it, despite the consequences, because your life depends on it; because some people are like zebras, and some are like stallions, and some equines have lines, and some equines don’t.