Half the Sky is Grey with Shame


We are back in the city 
where I learned to read in English 

and prayed in the Arabic I was made 
to believe God understands better. 

If I want to make Aljanah, 
I need to learn the difference 

between ‘ka’ and “kha’ 
and to learn to sing 

pages of qasida from heart, even if 
I don’t know what they mean. 


The cloud was baked into fragments. The mango tree outside the mosque had grown wild, its branches cast shades over the rusty train track. The cars’ skeletons in front of our old house were in a nearly perfect line, as I believe we would all be on the day of resurrection. When we left, the air was filled with smoke and some of the cars were still shedding their upholsteries to the fire. The curfew had been relaxed, we were headed out of Kaduna before the sun mounts the blue altar, of a sky that witnessed too much death, but interceded with rain when it got tired of the blood. 

Departures are irreversible, even when you return, some parts of you would not come with you into the city. The walls are scarred with murals of palm and machetes, there is grief in the air. 


I was barely eight years when it happened,
I don’t remember praying Fajr.

The house we lived in
was filled with echoes. 

That morning, I doubted there was 
anyone else left in the house 

or they were, but too scared to breathe – 
to remain unnoticed for the flying swords 

or the Angel of death, that roamed 
the streets of Kaduna with pride. 

We tiptoed down the staircase, 
with bags of clothes and pictures. 

There was a car waiting down the road 
to take us to an underground car park. 

Many of such had resurrected in all corners of Kaduna, 
to help evacuate us from the city.

I believed leaving was because we had other places to go, 
because we had far more things to lose. 


Everyone has a gate they want closed only at night. I want mine opened but I desired no one to walk through it. 

God’s house must not be left unattended, so Baba did not travel with us. 

For someone who had a room that always reeks of incense, he doesn’t get sick of the burning sky.

Baba led salaat in a city that has half its sky grey with shame.

& the wind clustered – with the whispers of everyone lost to the eclipse. 


I rehearsed loneliness 
until it became a cloud

over a new city 
waiting to be plundered.

Except, I own the boxes
or I will, through inheritance. 

The frames on the walls – are 
a batch of untold histories, 

everyone I know in the pictures
looks younger, 		happier – 	or dead.

I have since learned 
to spell magic with my eyes closed

in a bid to reimagine this city of wanderers. 


I was born a year before the last eclipse, it took seven years before the next one in 1999. I am never tired of hearing the stories of how we survived the first, you almost got us all killed with your wailings. Mama would always say with a smile, “I had to place a pillow over your head anytime you starts to cry, but I’m careful to not press too hard so you don’t suffocate.” There are several versions of how we survived, but in my Baba’s version, I was a siren in a ghost town, seeking to sing the wounded to sleep. 

I lost my Grandfather to the last crisis, he was thrown inside the well in their backyard. His library was set on fire and the fence of the house where he dreamed to nurse the new army of preachers and teachers was demolished to fill up the well, while he was inside of it. There are several versions of how many days he survived inside the well, he was heard saying the adhan. Even though he couldn’t see the sun, he knew the prayer time by heart. He doesn’t need an alarm to know when it was time for his forehead to be planted in the wet soil.


He was buried in the makabarta in Tudun Wada, 
in the middle of a horizon of brown grasses, 

labeled with dust of memories. Each with their date of departure. 
It’s a taboo to read the names on the graves, but in all my visits

I remember the warnings after reading at least fifteen names or more. 
I’m taken aback anytime I saw a grave plate with an age that is about mine or younger.

We visit his grave every year before the start of Ramadan,
because we sing better with empty stomachs, because we are a vase of refracting pebbles.



Once, before I was old enough to visit the graveyard, Baba comes home with tea leaves, plucked from the cemetery. We believed a part of our grandfather nestles in our bodies anytime we sip from the tea. His grave was the biggest I have seen, maybe the widest in the whole of Tudun Wada. He was buried with a son, a student and two strangers whose names no one knew, not even my Baba. 


The city swallowed my ancestors 
and every rosary Baba owned.

The air is a blunt thorn in our lungs 
to curb the stench of the dead, and 

to stop their ghosts 
from roaming the streets at night. 

It was the same for everyone 
entering the city for the first time. 

We sought refuge beyond the barrack gates, 
like most people from the neighborhood. 

We rode for hours 
until we were seven hundred miles away,
to the embrace of waiting families, 
families I knew from the pictures on the walls. 


For three years, we lost somethings we adored more than Baba’s prayer rug or his ash colored Fiat, my sister died of typhoid. What survived a giant fire did not survive the spirits inside the water. There is something that weakens the tendons that held our bones, and worst, it kills. Only a stranger would suffer from it, one of the myths I believed. 

I was home, but I am a stranger. Whatever lives in the water my Baba drank as a child, I’m not immune to it, as any of my siblings.


Holy Mariam, Mother of God, pray for us in heaven.


On the balcony of an old but newly painted hospital, 
on a tarred street where we learned to ride bicycle, 

Mama and Baba’s sister were seated outside. 
Maryam was without a cloth, or so I remembered it. 

The electricity was out, it was crowded with patients, 
and that was because their services are cheap, 

I hear people say it was rare for people to die in the hospital. 
I have been there myself since we arrived Ilorin, 

the spirits in the water are finding it hard 
to recognize my Baba’s gene in mine or in my siblings.

We got sick before every full moon. 
but I was a bit consistent with fever of all sorts. 


I recognize the heat inside the hospital, it could make one want to get well soon enough, or to the least miss the fresh air strutting outside. I overhead Baba’s sister tell a friend whose child was at the hospital for a scheduled injection, that my sister is heavy, “she’ll need to vomit, and she’ll be alright, maybe we will be going home soon. She looks well already, can’t you see?” 

“Yes, I pray that Allah will purge her blood and bones of diseases.” She said, before fading into the waves of patients. 

For almost a week, Mama did not change her clothes or came home for anything, but a day before Maryam died, I saw her walked through the space we made into football field outside the compound and did not make eye contact. I knew she saw me and was mad I had the strength to play when my sister has not been home for a week. I followed her inside the compound, she reduced her pace to respond to the greetings and prayers from the women seated outside their doors, taking in the fresh air. 

She changed her clothes without taking her bath or brushing her teeth, she left in new clothes and with a spec of light on her face that suggests what I heard earlier was maybe the truth, Maryam will be come tomorrow.


Maryam was home – lifeless, 
after she emptied the boxes in her body. 

That was all I know of her death. 

I was nine and naïve about how loss swells
inside a body to render it breathless, 

all I knew was to aspire 
to be a goalkeeper in a soccer field 

and maybe one day return to Kaduna, 
where the spirits in the water recognizes my genes, 

where there is a God 
that understands my accent 

Although, I never heard him speak


On the veranda, women gathered on my mama’s side of the family house, crying harder and harder as if to remind God of how fluent they were in the language of grief. Women are trusted to mourn in the open, the men only say prayers and pretend there is no enough water in their body to be shed for something they lost, something they once loved. I sat and wondered why there was need no cry and mumble unprintable words as they try unsuccessfully to ask questions and demand answer from God, but they look into the eyes of the closest person consoling them and yell. Why?


I could not bear the congregation 
of crying women, 

so I stared at the ceiling, 
decorated with the seed of some red berries 

that only get sold during the rainy seasons. 
I took turns counting the seeds over and over

to distract my eyes from the crying. 
It was before I got used to mourning. 

I am to learn to say prayers for the dead 
like my uncles and my grandfather, who 

comes out of his room at intervals 
to ask the women to lower their cry, 

with an assuring tone, as if to confirm to them, 
that a God that gave command to the angel of death 

could hear whispers from quaking hearts.


For a minute or less, the crying would reduce and then after he went back to his room, the tempo would rise and continue for a long time, until a new mourner runs into the house to heighten the wailing with their fresh voices. 

I wanted so much not to cry, to shed the weight of pains trapped in my small body. The pain is not one I know to name, it is a strange voice that poured out of my mama’s mouth as she continues to listen to so many reasons why she must be thankful to the God that took her daughter. 

I didn’t witness 
how Maryam was lowered

inside the earth 
in the family house’s backyard, 

I was too young to witness 
the ritual of janazah. 


She was buried amongst her ancestors. Men and women who built the house she lived in before her death. For days, or even weeks, my heart was filled with fear. I was afraid I’ll see her sit on the grave if I walked passed it alone. I believed she wouldn’t be shy to speak to me, but I was worried she wouldn’t speak in a language I will understand. I avoided the backyard at nights and the restroom, built against the fence that bordered the mosque and the family house. Her grave was small, but I guessed would fit a three-year-old. 

A cousin told me the dead in the backyard communicate amongst themselves, and now my sister will have so much to learn from her great grandparents. 

“How would they know her and what would they be discussing” I asked him

“They will tell her stories of the times before Nigeria got her independence, before there was a single car roaming the streets of Ilorin” 

I want to hear those stories too, but I don’t want to die to hear them.


Thirteen years after we left Ilorin, 
I walked inside the family house. 

There is a giant water storage tank 
just above the well 

that was once our only reliable source of water, 
it swallowed so much space, 

it shrunk the memory I had of the house. 
There is a solar on top of the roofs  

I recognized this house, 
but there’s been layers of paints over its wall, 

like a scar smeared with mascara, 
I could see beneath the orange painting, 

no matter how long I stayed away, 
I can still see the balcony 

where I blow charcoals to embers 
on evenings when we had something to cook. 


Some of the women did not recognized me, I had grown big they would say after I reminded them of my name and whose son I was. On my way to the restroom, the heaps were levelled like the small field outside the house where we once gathered on most evening to play football. I thought I could see the past in the new face the house wore, but I was wrong. The bones of my ancestors in the backyard were deemed old enough to be sand and they’ve been erased with my sister’s. I could have asked my mama’s father why they decided to erase the sign that my sister was laid here in the house, but I didn’t, I was too mad to trust that I will ask gently, so I tucked my shock away.


If I had not witnessed the women’s wailing, or 
if that memory wasn’t a louse in my hair, 

I would argue that the backyard 
had no memory of any of our ancestors 

or my sister’s, and that memory is a mirage 
beneath a mirror of a frozen floor. 



  • Hussain Ahmed is a Nigerian poet and environmentalist. His works are featured or forthcoming in POETRY, Kenyon Review, Transition Magazine, AGNI and elsewhere. He is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Harp in a Fireplace (New Found, 2021) and Soliloquy with the Ghosts in Nile (Black Ocean, 2022). He lives in Oxford.

  • It is not immediately clear what drew Marcus Selmer (1819 – 1900), a Danish portrait photographer, to spend most of his life working in Norway. In 1852, Selmer travelled to Norway, to visit some of his uncle’s family in the city of Bergen. He never returned. Although his career was varied, Selmer is primarily remembered today for his portraits of local people in national folk costume, as shown here. These photographs depict the customs, traditions and culture of the Norwegian people, and reflect Selmer’s interest in his adopted home. From Public Domain Review.