She says, “Don’t you hate how people always say ‘Africa’ when they’re referring to a specific country? For instance, they’ll say ‘I will be travelling to Africa’ when really what they mean is that they will be spending three weeks being tourists in the safaris of South Africa or spending a month in the deserts of Sudan with a missionary group. How hard is it to just name the country? I don’t say ‘I’ll be in North America for a year?’ That is stupid! I would say ‘I will be in Canada spending time with my favourite aunt who just had a baby’, like a normal person who thinks in specifics and not in unforgivable generalities.”
But two years later as she crosses the airport terminal she bumps into a kindhearted person who helps her pick up her bags. She apologises in her Hausa accent as she tries to rub out the splotch of coffee she spilled onto his shirt with her handkerchief. He asks her where she is from, and when she says, ‘Africa’ she cringes inwardly, realising that she has become that person.
“Aren’t we all that person?” her best friend, Lara, says to her when she skypes and vents about it. “I guess maybe we all become each other,” Lara concludes with the wisdom of her twenty-five year old self.
Lara’s summary of her existence, the reducing of her into being relevant only in conjunction with other people reels her. The idea niggles in the back of her mind, never far from her conscious thoughts and never allowing her to forget her own insignificance as she settles into her new life. She soon learns she is a born multi-tasker. She can pump fuel- or gas as she now calls it- at a filling station while smiling at cute boys who smile at her; cooking dinner by unconventionally pouring in all the ingredients at once because she genuinely detests the ‘art of cooking’- “aunty, it’s boring”, she tells her mother’s friend who questions her womanhood; while she leafs through articles promising to teach her ten tips to acquire a summer body, all the while pretending not to notice the growing sense of foreboding that comes with holding this knowledge inside her. It stays with her like a lump in her breast or a tumor in a part of her brain that can’t be reached, like a phantom itch in the part of her soul that she lost at the altar of community.
“I’m not sure I can live like this. There are some people who are born to be like everyone else but I am not one of them. I refused to wear jeans for two years because I couldn’t find the nice, normal type instead of those skinny ones everyone else is wearing these days,” she tells Lara over the phone. Lara, her constant voice of reason, assumes that this is like every other day so she tells her as she does on every other day that, she is being overly dramatic and overly optimistic about her place in the world.
“No,” she replies, insisting on how serious she is about this. She explains how the day before, during one of her usual evening walks, she had suddenly felt distraught and weighed down by her own self, she had to drag her body to a severed tree stump which she sat on and had begun to cry.
“An elderly man came and asked me what was wrong, and when I looked up into his face and saw the sag lines and the laugh lines and the bags underneath his blueish, green eyes and his shrunken body, I had the overwhelming urge to run from him before he could steal any more of me. How strange is that?”
“Very strange,” Lara concedes.
For a long while after speaking to Lara she ponders and searches for a way of dealing with her unshakable turmoil and eventually stumbles onto one. She discovers that if she stops censoring what comes out of her mouth and stops looking for ways to water down what she considers the truth then she can manage to go to the supermarket without having to stop in the middle of the aisles, clutching her chest and wheezing because a part of her is convinced that she is morphing into the cashier with the scanner and the cashier into the mother with a stroller and the mother into the young woman in an exercise outfit picking up fruit. Now when she’s asked how she is, she no longer responds with a cursory, ‘I’m fine’. Instead she says, “Honestly, I…” and fills in her genuine emotional state.
Her brother, whom she has always been close to, no longer understands this new version of her. She is blunt and often abrupt and he is worried that people are looking for ways to avoid her. His wife had told him in bed the other night that she has always loved his sister, but this girl they now have living with them had to leave. He tries talking sense into her, but she only listens politely and tells him, “I will not be diminished,” with an inflexibility that scares him.
Since- as her mother puts it- she cannot be reasoned with, a month later she finds herself looking for a seat in the crowded airport departure lounge. It doesn’t feel like defeat, or like she is being sent home in shame. The cold press of the metal seat against her back feels like triumph. The metal is her trophy for redeeming herself and that is enough to make her smile and hum along to the music playing from someone’s phone in the distance.
“So you’re from Africa?” she hears from somewhere behind her.
She tilts her head slightly in their direction to listen to the exchange.
“No,” she hears a man firmly say in a tone that mirrors the one in her head. “I’m from Nigeria.”
Zainab Omaki (@) is a Nigerian journalist who lives and works in Abuja, Nigeria. Her story-telling focuses on unusual, unexpected stories – stories of love that defy tradition, stories of personal growth that refuse conformity, stories of everyday life that reflect what it means to be in Nigerian, and by extension African, in today’s world. She is inspired by unique styles and voices in literature that urge people to find their own identities. Her short stories have appeared in the Kalahari Review and Brittle Paper.
This story was published in collaboration with Bahati Books, an e-book publishing company that aims to bring to global readers captivating and well-written African Literature by African authors.
Related country: Nigeria