It was a Wednesday in December of 2018, that much I remember. The exact date slips through my mind’s grasp just when I think I have it. I let the date go. After all, it was a period in my life where I was not too bothered about dates. I had just finished school, after seven years, and was preparing to leave Ibadan, this city that I had grown to call mine, to call home. It did not matter that I could not, and cannot, speak the language. All that mattered was it was the place I allowed myself to grow in, make friends, and be myself just a little bit more; it was the city that I found love in. As the airplane rose into the sky and the landscape of this city – running splash of rust // and gold-flung and scattered // among seven hills // like broken china in the sun – lay before me, my heart could not keep still. I was finally heading home, but why did it feel like I was leaving home?
The plane touched down and started taxiing to a stop; the fasten seat belts light had not gone off but the cabin was filling with sounds of buckles being unfastened. While the rest of the passengers rushed to get their bags from the overhead compartments, I sat still. My legs were unable to move, crushed by the weight I was feeling in my chest. Memories of the corkscrew I received from a close friend with the note: “and if our paths never cross again…”; memories of the shirt I had left behind with the most amazing woman I could ever love; memories of goodbyes to close friends filled with awkward long hugs and dry eyes, all flashed through my mind with searing clarity. I put on my phone, plugged in my earpiece, and listened to silence. What next? I had left shortly after my graduation from secondary school, eager to start life afresh. It was taking all of me to believe that I would find another place where I belonged other than the city I had just left behind.
I was a child. I was heading back to the house with my uniforms caked with dirt, my legs throbbing with the memory of bottles kicked on football pitches. I would sigh in relief as I saw the red gate that led into my compound, rush through the other three burglary gates, drop my bags in the kitchen, and scream into the empty sitting room: I am home. Home was a place of respite; structured learning would stop and I could now continue taking in the world at my own pace. It did not matter that in an hour my lesson teacher would arrive bringing structure and order to my well-curated chaos. For that hour, home was a place, an ideal of freedom. Then the cracks would start to appear – a bath, a plate of eba I did not want, all culminating in the visit of the lesson teacher, and then bedtime by 7 pm. For that hour, as Maya Angelou wrote, home was that youthful region where a child is the only real living inhabitant.
Home was silence. If the world around me was alight, then I needed a place where I could breathe without the smoke. I would hide away when family came over. I was not interested in their gifts, or their stories. And sometimes, when my mother scolded me for doing something I believed was me feeding my curiosity – in retrospect, most times to my detriment – I would retreat, or if I was enraged enough, would try to run away. I ran away more times than I would like to remember. My favourite clothes packed in a hurry, the current book I was reading at the time (thank you, Enid Blyton), and a voice (mother or grandmother) shouting at me to get back into the house while I tried to climb the second gate that led into the compound. I never once ventured past the huge red gate onto the street. Home was also an escape, but I like to believe I was smarter then. I would never have survived.
As time passed, I withdrew into myself and stopped trying to escape. It also helped that I had gotten admission into a boarding school that, while being far away from my house, was still in Abuja, the city I had always known as home. I don’t recall feeling homesick, not once. The idea seemed odd to me. Home was escape and I was finally free – within reason, of course. As school progressed, I needed home to be more than an escape, to be more than silence. I found myself trying so hard to find a group of people I could call my squad; I would take whatever form I could to fit in with a group. I never thought the real me was enough. Home was still escape, but now I was escaping from myself into other people and their versions of me. I would not think anything of it until later, pining over lost friendships and hurting over friends who left. What if they left me because they could tell that I was not being authentic enough to myself? Or they had gotten tired of this version of me I had curated for their pleasure; or how eager to please I seemed? Warsan Shire would write years later: you can’t make homes out of human beings, someone should have already told you that.
I would continue, still do sometimes, to navigate spaces like that as I searched for a place in the world. The search for home, a place to belong, was consuming me; I handled it the way I handled, and still handle, most of my problems – by denying it. In secondary school, I weaved in and out of organisations and sports. I tried rugby and cricket. Latin and Spanish. Reading and singing in the choir. I enjoyed the activities immensely, and remain grateful for them. But looking back, I find that how long I stayed interested or committed to those things was closely related to how I felt around the people with whom I shared those activities. It was always, still is, about the community for me. Then, it did not matter if I could be myself fully, just being able to feel I belonged while escaping myself was often enough. It was home.
When I first moved to Ibadan, I was distraught. Not because I was homesick, but because the new environment was too much to take in – into the compound, out on the street. I had never heard that many of my peers speak their native languages before, or feel confident about them. I was scared that I would be exposed here; how could I blend in, escape into people’s versions of me if I could not communicate with them in the language they preferred. Growing up in Abuja meant that all my interactions with the world had only been done in English, the Enid Blyton English. I was proud that the pronunciations of ‘ask’ and ‘gigantic’ rolled off my tongue with ease, but the mere thought of which Igbo words to use, how to shape my mouth, left my tongue heavy and numb. I could understand some words, simple phrases, but these words were typically commands to do chores, food-related or animal insults I had picked up from the only Igbo textbook I had seen then. This meant, of course, that if one was not scolding me, offering me food or exchanging simple pleasantries, then I did not understand what they said. It also meant that I would most likely reply in English, which often lead to awkward silences and nervous laughter. My first acquaintances would be two young men who had joked about me behind my back, in Igbo, calling me an ofe mmanu – a term they told me meant I was Yoruba. I would discard what they said, only pointing out that I understood a little of what they said, and I was in fact not Yoruba. The first few years would continue like this: me always on the periphery, flitting through Igbo student meetings and church fellowships, dodging classes or just going there to sleep. I was learning that maybe I didn’t deserve a home if I wasn’t going to be honest with who I was. I spent more time asleep than awake that year, I guess.
It would take time, but I would learn to at least be honest with who I was. I ignored the collective and chased my curiosities for once, content to find myself alone in any activity. And that would open the city up to me in a way that I could not have imagined. I found friends who saw me and thought I, the way I was, was enough. Even when my flaws reared, they addressed them and stayed. It didn’t matter that some left, the ones that stayed meant the world to me. I found a community of people who showed me that it was okay to express myself through my words, in the stories I told, and for three years, my book club meetings—on the first and third Tuesdays of every month—were all I lived for. I found singing again, and I enjoyed it as I did before. It felt intimately similar to singing back in secondary school but wonderfully unique in its own way. I found jokes in last-minute rehearsals and a family in my part. My home had sprung forth from a city that I thought had nothing to offer me. And yes, there were many bad days and periods where I felt that to breathe my last would make it easier for everyone involved. But that’s the thing about home: it can be an escape, support, or silence.
It’s been over a year since I returned to Abuja, where I was that child fixated on the idea of home as a place of respite, of freedom, and still, my heart is often crushed by the weight of this feeling that I don’t belong here anymore. School is over. I had gotten comfortable; I had just found love and now, I had been thrust into the real world. The universe was conspiring against us—we thought. I left the woman that I loved, my friends, and this home I had stumbled upon; I have never felt so alone. It doesn’t help that the environment has changed vastly from what I remember, from what was. We no longer reside in a house with that many gates to pass through and scream I am home. Buildings have sprouted up where before there was nothing but bare ground. I am often still visited by the urge to run away when things get rough, but I am an adult now (unfortunately), and the difficulties of running away drag me back. So I am withdrawn, just like I was those years ago, begging myself to figure it all out so that I can make this place home. It seems like life comes in cycles, and I am in the process of redefining what home should be to me again.
Kurt Vonnegut—a long time before I was born—addressing a graduating class, said: No matter what age any of us is now, we are going to be … lonely during what remains of our lives. I have spent the past year battling with this loneliness and the way it washes over me unsuspecting. It does not help that Mr. Vonnegut points out that this is a battle that I will fight for the rest of my life. I am tired for now and the foreseeable future. The loneliness feeds me the nostalgia of the home I created for myself in a time that only my memories have access to. Memories of laughter shared with friends on the basketball court during a blackout or a Nollywood cinema viewing experience under the influence of good wine and good company. The memories taunt me, and fill me with dread: I might never find another place as good as what I have now lost. On other days, they flood my heart with hope: better days are coming.
There are days when I am certain that there is no place for me, no home at all. I have imagined the whole thing, my mind playing grade-one tricks on me, and I am better off not existing at all. In those moments, home becomes a journey, and alcohol its vehicle. I am chasing the ideal home, a place that resembles the place nestled in my memories and also one born of idealistic thinking. As the warmth of the alcohol spreads through my chest, my heart and mind travel to that place where I am content and it seems like nothing else matters. And once my heart gets there, and I am all giggles and smiles, home becomes the destination; home is where the heart is. I am learning now though, that maybe this is not the best way to find home. How many bottles will I go through searching for this fleeting definition of home? How many times must my liver cry out for mercy before I realise that this journey is not a road to be travelled so often? I am learning to hold on to the ideal in my heart without the warmth of the bottle, to bear the pain that comes with the nostalgia. I might not win every time, but I am trying. I am not drinking tonight.
The lights are off. I am beneath my navy blue blanket. My phone rings. It is one of my closest friends, this one I have named after Arnold Schwarzenegger—it is a joke that has been running since we first met about eight years ago, during my time in that city with the running splash of rust. We are laughing over something that does not make sense, talking about little things, big things, and all the things in-between. The call lifted me out from beneath my blankets and the loneliness that was threatening to crush me then. My friend has no idea. We are still laughing. At that moment, I am grateful for this piece of home that makes itself available to me when I am least expecting it. The call ends, and I am made to promise to go out more, to stop being afraid and join something, do something. It seems like my friend is echoing Mr. Vonnegut during his address: So I recommend that everybody here joins all sorts of organizations, no matter how ridiculous, simply to get more people in his or her life. It does not matter much if all the other members are morons. Quantities of relatives of any sort are what we need. Home is a promise made to a friend to do better, to be better.
I reckon that I might have to endure this for the rest of my life—the struggle to define home for me, watching as each definition evolves beyond itself, taking a life of its own in order to fit whatever phase of life that I find myself in. I reckon that maybe it will culminate in a great discovery, or maybe it will not. I reckon that maybe home is as dynamic as the mind that needs it, and that trying to define it is an endeavour that serves little to no purpose. Feeling your way to home is the surest way to prove its existence. In the end, I can only hope that I make it through this current phase alive, and with a home that I can call my own. Maya Angelou ends her essay “Home:” We may act sophisticated and worldly but I believe we feel safest when we go inside ourselves and find home, a place where we belong and maybe the only place we really do.
About the Author:
Uche Osondu is a Nigerian, tragically. He swears by two things: food and anime. He is currently working on writing and living, in equal measures. He writes from Abuja.
Feature image by Kollsd /Pixabay