I took the bicycle from a child. He was heading into our garage to put away the ancient, used bike I had bought almost nine years ago. It was a heavy, man’s bike with a rod across the front. The child looked worried when I took it from him at the door. “It’s my uncle’s own,” he said. “I’ll not take it far,” I said. “I used to ride this years ago.”
I soon discovered that the hand brakes didn’t work and when you sat on the seat, it fell back pointing upwards toward the sky so that I had to balance on the tip of it to sit at all. But as I glided down the gravelly pot-holed university road between empty golden fields, heading for the photocopy shops near the hostels, I lifted my face to the distant mountains scaled with silver roofs, gazed out at the trees scattered occasional in long pastures stretching to the sky. “I’ve missed this,” I thought, “I have forgotten myself—that girl I once was.” Those long solitary walks under the open sky I’d take as a teenager—dreaming myself into a different world—down the road to the small waterfall that gushed over rock into the culvert and down to the river when the rains were heavy. I'd weave bouquets of golden flowers when the rains were at their end. And then in January days, when the veils of harmattan lifted—I'd gather dried arrangements to place in the vases brought home from ceramics class—dried red seed pods, half opened, feathery weeds, and hard prickly golden grass.
I was young and I loved the solitude—the rush of wind in the grass—the boulder strewn mountains. I lived half my life in another world—the world of princes and princesses and fairies and nymphs—I’d imagine the ghosts of great writers peering out at me from mirrors—guiding my pen with whispered words. Every once in a while I’d act out my story for myself, saying my lines with feeling, as if for a camera—as if my life were on film.
Sometimes I’d take a chair out to the driveway at night when NEPA left. There were not many generators on campus in those days and we did not use ours often, only candles and kerosene lamps, and it would be dark and silent with the steady thrum of the cicadas and barking of dogs around me. I’d lie back in the chair, our huge dog snuffling about, imagine myself lying in a boat of glass on a mirrored sea, stars above me, stars below me.
Those were the days when I was quiet and shy, and a bit of a dork. When my classmates were playing sports or going to parties, I was at home reading novels. I’d read far into the night with a candle balanced on my bed and wake at 2am with wax dripped all over my blanket. Those were the days when I knew Nigeria from the long trips I took with my family on the long hot roads between the flat green of Port Harcourt and the misty hills of Jos, from occasional trips to the market or to visits to churches where my dad would speak, from friends I had at our fenced in international school. I knew nothing of politics, other than the fact that here it was military and that we were all tense when there was a coup, and little of colonialism, though I devoured historical novels about World War II. I wandered through life dreaming of love and fame and all the beautiful things that I would do and be someday—in America or Europe or that imaginary world which I alone knew.
Those were the days before I fell in love with cities and crowds and subways and taxis and acabas. Before I learned to use makeup (though that knowledge is still shaky), before my ears were pierced, before I discovered the dramatic appeal of henna-ed hands. When the musicians I knew were my brother’s friends—my popular brother was the one who went on the radio every week with his rock and roll show and was the cool young guitarist in a band full of my classmates. I admired his life, and I’d imagine myself in his world, but I was too shy for it. I wanted to act in school plays, as I had as a young child, but I froze with terror at my first audition and didn’t go back for three years—it was not until my final year that I launched with gusto into my minor role as a frosty upper class mother-in-law. Those days I spoke no more Hausa than “ina kwana?” and Nigeria was slightly out of focus, veiled behind the mists of harmattan.
I loved deeply then, but I did not know what I loved. I loved my dreams. I loved my imagination. I loved those characters I read of in novels, or saw in films, or created in my head. But with real encounters, my imaginary characters slipped away. Everytime I returned to this country, the focus became clearer. I left the international school behind and made friends at the university, with authors and writers and poets. As the language began to come, I heard those things that had all seemed like a dreamy blur before. It was like tuning a radio, with the static giving way to the warmth of words. I discovered novels in Hausa. Films in Hausa. Writers, actors, musicians who live their lives in Hausa. A whole great world, that I had never known was there. Life began to burst characters, real ones, real people I could talk to—when I too could speak Hausa. I became less dreamy and more alive—I began to lose my imagined stories, because the ones around me were so much more urgent and interesting. I laughed and loved and sped around town on acabas—even acted a little bit. When I was young, my love was so dreamy, so imaginary, and now it was real and full and dancing with life. Real words spoken, not just imagined, a real face there smiling and laughing at me, not just wished for. I no longer liked being alone. I could no longer sit at home happy with a book. My loved solitude came now when I rode on motorcycles at night with my face lifted to the wind.
And yet, with all these things I gained, I forgot that part of myself that needs to walk alone through golden grass and just be silent. I forgot that part of myself that desperately needs to feel starlight on my skin. And of course, here, these things are harder after the armed robbers come, harder when we lock the door firmly at first dusk. Harder when you are now faced with the seductive siren’s song of the internet, and its crowded pages of friends and pseudo-friends, where you are never alone but never satisfied. The internet calls endlessly until you are frozen into repetitive meaningless checking of email and facebook and blog stats, until you come close to destroying yourself, dashing yourself against the pages of those who no longer love you, unable to read, unable to create, unable to think. Frozen by basilisk eyes but yet drawn ever forward by the promising song and beautiful faces in a tag parade of endless photos.
Biking today to photocopy my research consent forms, with the silent university spread out around me, the fields stretching out in every direction, solitary and quiet with palms and baby baobabs rising from the furrows, I thought I must return to this more—come out on this borrowed bike. I am no longer that shy, awkward girl, though sometimes she rises up in me. I no longer wish to be her, but I do miss her belief in her dreams. I must re-awaken my love of solitary beauty. I have forgotten a part of myself that I shouldn’t have. I have lost part of myself that I need to find again. I have recently come close to breaking myself. I have grown louder and more outspoken, fiery but brittle—I need this silence to remember that my strength is that I can bend, like a palm in the wind. I will not break. I can be alone, I can be still. I can listen. I can be strong. I can find joy in the hills and in the grass, and the calls of the children to me as I wheel the bike back over the culvert and towards the garage. “Aunty, Aunty, I tried to follow you but I couldn’t see you again. Where did you go, Aunty? Where did you go?”