Yellow reminds me of my first time in Lagos. That day I made a note in my book: Lagos, our Lagos / yellow buses, yellow pulses / ready madness / Lagos, our Lagos / this is Lagos.
“What’s your favourite colour?” I often ask.
I grew up wondering why people called it a blue film. I would ask: what is blue inside the film? Is it the background, or are the people blue? I didn’t know anything about a blue film until I watched my first blue film. Blue became a strong patch on my mind.
“There is a colour inside of the fucking, but it is not blue,” said Maggie Nelson in her book, Bluets.
Most of my favourite photographs are monochromes. I remember photographs of Francesca Woodman. I fell in love with Francesca when I was twenty-two; ironically, it was at that same age she died. The closer I got to her work, the stronger I felt her presence, the sharper the things I felt—life and death.
The socks are odd, yet you wear them, I mused. This was the period I battled with questions about meanings of life, of love, the essence of things:
• A jealous god is a greedy blur
• I believe I cannot touch the sky
I would close my eyes, enter a room and be naked. I want to do things without knowing. I point fingers to the dark void, to a standing mirror. I would say things as I imagine them:
• A snake in a bowl
• A glass in need
• A second touch, though
• There is nothing to ruin or to forgive
“When would you like to die?” I once asked my friends.
My mother, she wants to sleep and not wake up. Something easy, something without pain, like licking chocolate candies till they finish and leave you wanting more. Circles or squares, winds or parallels, call them city codes.
Another form of love is to never die for love.
In her book, Plainwater, Anne Carson said, “Shapes of life can change as we look at them,” and I concur. In one of her poems, Emily Skaja said, “anyone can be the sky.”
I was at an event where the speaker spoke about the nonexistence of the two-gender system in some cultures. Most people in the audience left their mouths agape for a while hearing these facts. I heard someone behind me categorically say: “I’d like to live in a society where I am me, human with no label or fear; I can just be myself.”
Personally, one aspect of being oneself is the freedom to be careless. I mean, why would a stranger tap me on the shoulder to kindly inform me that I wore my shirt inside out? We burst into laughter.
“But you know what?” he smiled, “it’s fine. There’s really nothing wrong, it suits you.” Still smiling, we shook hands and went our separate ways.
I had a change of mind on my first night in Lagos. I realised that there was no need for stereotypes. Not necessarily because the stories weren’t untrue, but because I needed to see for myself. I needed a first-hand experience, because there are a million other stories or sides to a person or place, because human existence is a complicated diagram, because there are different kinds of salads. I can have a taste of that. Things are possible.
“Lagos is a decadent city,” my parents warned me. It’s not an easy life in Lagos, everyone thinks. This was how Lagos was oversimplified and offered to me to consume. So, when I landed, I made sure my hands stayed with any rails I could get.
With stereotypes pounding in my head as I breathed in Lagos air, what do then I say about the city when it was a total stranger who stood by me and showed me the way? I asked of what routes to take from Berger where the bus stopped, to Oshodi and then Mushin. A journalists’ workshop was what brought me into town.
A total stranger: he didn’t only draw a map in my mind, to make sure my arrival was safe, he got on each bus that got me closest to my destination. I thanked him very much; his kind gesture both impressed and frightened me. Where did he get the heart to follow me, an unfamiliar face, and to particularly make sure I arrived at my destination? Was it from Lagos he got such a kind and loving heart?
I have gone back to Lagos several times since then. I have moved around the city all by myself. I have wandered around. I have located places; places have located me too. And though I’ve spent many nights in hotels, I’ve spent fond times in the bosom of my Lagos friends (most of them artists).
“David, when are you in Lagos? Come around, let’s have a good time,” they’d say. Their doors are always open.
Embrace: every part of the body feels it, it flows down the spine. Like ripe mangoes, love is tangible. The moment you’re in love (or the moment you feel love, and are loved) you forget things, even when the things are right there.
Decisions: I’ve decided to surrender myself to love, and I’ve decided to give and receive love for the rest of my life. A little gesture of kindness melts me. Like a fresh sea wave crashing at your feet. It strikes me how ripples travel endlessly—they move from one end to another.
You’re in a helpless situation, and someone comes to your rescue. You search for words to express your gratitude, yet the love shown to you as you directly felt it cannot be quantified nor expressed in mere words. You cannot find the language you want to use to say, “thank you,” so you simply surrender and say the thanks. You’re forever grateful, and the heart knows. Someone else is in a helpless situation, and you come to their rescue; and they’re forever grateful; and the heart knows.
It was Elizabeth Gilbert who said: “In the end, though, maybe we must all give up trying to pay back the people in this world who sustain our lives. In the end, maybe it’s wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for a long as we have voices.”
I remember a milk mug a woman gifted to me for coming third position in class that term. I was seven or eight and in primary three. Even though I don’t remember the woman’s name today, I still have that mug and still have sweet feelings inside the mug. Years have passed, I am now twenty-eight, but I’ve yet to forget that special day—I’ve yet to forget a gift.
About four weeks after the passing of my dad’s friend (Uncle Sam we used to call him), my dad drew his last breath. For this reason I thought to myself: Do friends love each other to the point they’d want to die together?
Death inspires me. And I know why, or maybe not exactly.
I am restless as I write this, and I am tempted to write a list of only God knows what.
Questions that pop in my mind when I’m on the train:
• If there is a God, what part of the sky does this God live in?
• What is the truth? And who makes it the truth?
• What if every source of water available to human beings dries up?
• What happens if, in the next fifty years, everybody decides to not bear a child?
I think of terraced houses: the colours we care our walls must wear, and then how to love a neighbour as myself.
One Monday morning, just before boarding a cab to Wuse in Abuja, a friend phoned. “Where are you?” he asked. I told him I was on the road and invited him to meet me at Salamander Café. We ate and drank. We talked about poems, and about people—art people. We didn’t talk about birds. There was no need to blame ourselves for aspiring to blue skies, so we talked about things immediate to us:
• He had just got a new pair of glasses
• I was under pressure, preparing for England.
Sometimes I think I have a mind of milk. Though I’m not sure what that means. Why I always forget the key or pen I was searching for was right in my hand. Or how I remember friends worrying I hadn’t had sex at twenty-five.
I have no regrets choosing to commit my life to poetry. I would rather I no longer exist than I no longer read and write poetry. What is a mind devoted to poetry? What is a mind focused on making art?
One question folks often ask about my first sex: “how was it?” I sometimes don’t find the words to say what’s on my mind, other times I find the words to say what’s not on my mind. Almost all times, it ends with a laugh or some instant philosophy.
Art comes not only from beauty or joy of life. I ‘become’ when I read poems. It comes also from death; hence the decision to devote my time to life and death.
Not minding the shallowness or depth of perception, I entered the following thought in my journal last September:
If war and death are both prolific, why should I then slow down my art? Should I not be prolific in writing and publishing? Death has its active agency, so do I—both of us members of the universe. As long as I am alive, with breath and time, I shall use up all my creative energy to make art, to write and publish poetry, and to love every day of my life, as possible as I can. It’s my will.
Having survived car crashes, having watched my father’s body go back to dust, having seen and heard stories, I revere death.
There is a passage from Lidia Yuknavitch’s novel, The Small Backs of Children, that continues to strike me: “Who are we in moments of crisis or despair? Do we become deeper, truer selves, or lift up and away from a self, untethered from regular meanings like moths suddenly drawn toward heat or light? Are we better people when someone might be dying, and if so, why? Are we weaker, or stronger? Are we beautiful, or abject? Serious, or cartoon? Do we secretly long for death to remind us we are alive?”
My memories of childhood are quite blurry. It’s either recalling my favourite shirts got mixed up, or recalling the one time I cried in public because dad refused to buy me a shirt I really wanted (it was Christmas). Or recalling names of classmates got mixed up with names of characters in books I have read. I hardly remember the big events of growing up in one long stretch. But remembering my accident is a different thing; it’s one story that is both easy and painful.
I was knocked down by a car along Abuja-Keffi expressway in Mararaba, Nasarawa state. I was five years old. I suffered a compound fracture on my left leg, and I was bedridden for six months.
A new friend asked me: “Are you a Muslim?” Because he heard me say some things about Islam. I’ve also been confused with being a Catholic because I recited the prayers.
With other folks, it’s my ethnicity. When they hear me sing Fela Kuti or Aṣa, or just say any Yoruba phrase I am familiar with, they suppose I’m Yoruba.
A Lagosian argued with me when I told him I’m neither Muslim nor Hausa even though I hail from Nasarawa state. He was trying to genuinely affix an identity to my face, my hair, my accents, my dress.
And this is one thing about multiculturalism.
Nobody is one thing.
I heard people say autumn is a beautiful season in the UK; I saw it in pictures as well. And that was true. Being my first time in England, I stopped and took many pictures. Seeing the way leaves of many colours dropped to the ground, I said to myself: even dying leaves have colours—they are beautiful.
That same night I read about Rimbaud, I wrote in my notebook: May it happen that somebody sends to me a one-way ticket to Paris, the way Paul Verlaine sent a one-way ticket to Arthur Rimbaud. Poetry is funny.
The most beautiful part of your body is where it’s headed
I could head south or east, or just anywhere of my choice. But I have yet to receive a one-way ticket to Paris from anyone. In the end, nobody owes me tickets to places of my dream. Nobody owes me.
There is a question always asked of travellers or just anyone: where would you love to visit? Or what’s your dream city or place? Apparently, the answers we give fill buckets and run over. If it were a few months before this piece my answer would have been a yell of Florence, Italy. (I still love Florence and still desire and plan to visit, but it won’t be my answer now—I have changed my mind).
Think of mercury, think of the human mind.
It still amazes me how our parents coped with the fluctuating career declarations we made those days as kids. My mother, I remember she twice advised me to be a teacher or focus on the arts. And I remember I said no.
Just like every kid I wanted to be everything. I wanted to be a medical doctor. I wanted to be a pastor. I wanted to be a singer. I just wanted to be everything. I don’t remember wanting to be a writer, though—writing hadn’t registered in my consciousness as a career path then. I also wanted to be a pilot; I wanted to fly.
Two things I kept in mind if my dream—moving—to Kent was not going to work:
• Kill myself, or
• Disappear into total silence faraway from everyone forever.
That was how resolute I was in chasing this thing about creative writing. And that is how resolute I am in chasing poetry—the arts in general. I can travel any miles to experience poetry.
If I die, I die.
—Esther 4:16 (MSG)
The image of my father’s body in his casket is still fresh in me, and I do not think it will ever fade.
Words of my mum when I arrived home for dad’s funeral: “Exactly. Just like your father; you look just like your father.”
She hugged me and burst into tears as she gently stroked my hair. I was wearing my seven-month-old big Afro. “This is what your father likes, afro,” moaned.
February 23, 2016, has now become the date I officially use as the day I decided to write fulltime. It was the day my friend, Saddiq M. Dzukogi and I were almost killed in an accident caused by a road safety officer in Minna.
Seeing my left arm dangling threw my mind out of my body. Somebody holding me by the side, Saddiq being attended to by someone else, I was in shock, I was screaming.
The x-ray confirmed it was a comminuted fracture. It could have been obituary: David is dead; Saddiq is dead.
A fragile life: today you are here, tomorrow you are there; this minute you are happy, the next moment you are sad; in one swift sail you are where you wanted to be, and just in another swift sail you are stuck in a jam. One moment someone is breathing fine, the next moment that same person is no more.
I remember a scene from a beautiful Thursday afternoon in July in Abuja, Nigeria. I was in a moving bus; and though everything was fleeting, this sight I will not forget: a gliding bird ran into a black jeep, it fell right there on the road and was crushed to death. I thought I was the only one who noticed it but the sharp moan from other passengers in the bus consoled me; I turned and met the eyes of a man, we smiled at each other and shook our heads the way mourners do. I leaned into the glass window and said, even free birds die.
Any time my mind goes back to scenes of accidents, any time my mind goes back to hospitals, beds and the sights I witnessed, any time I remember, I feel slightly exhausted. Call it post-traumatic anxiety, right? There is, however, a huge gratitude for surviving all these, for the help rendered by friends and strangers, and for my mother who cared for me while I was helplessly bedridden.
I am far away from Nigeria now and thinking of my father from this little corner of England. It’s cold out there. And I’m thinking of the things I remember about him:
• His hair, afro
• His travels, his safari jackets
• His newspaper, reading habits
• His very neat, cursive handwriting
• The way he answered greetings with ‘hello, dear’
• The multitude of people he knew and associated with from all groups, classes and ages
• The multitude of people who came to witness his funeral
(People kept visiting our house months after dad had been buried: friends, colleagues, school mates, students he taught. One of those days, mum drew my attention to a new thought of hers. She said: “I now understand who your father was, why he did the things he did. I have no regrets for his life; there was a purpose to everything, I see it now.”)
It’s been four years since his death, and he would have been fifty-six. I’m also thinking of my mum and sister.
I remember that cold December morning a few years back: my mother’s prayers woke me. I overheard her praying for goodness and guidance and success for all her children and friends. I thought it was in my sleep or some dreamy experience, until I went close to her door. Whether I like it or not, this is one habit of my mum that I’ve missed these months—her prayers wake you from your slumber.
one we know
is in our blood.
My sister was born in 1989, the year Beasts of No Nation, one of Fela’s classics was released. Elizabeth loves books. Her bookshelf wasn’t hers alone; it was also open to me. And just as I was very close to her bookshelf, she and I had the tightest bond in the house. Perhaps that’s what books do: when we open them, they never close ever after; they open new worlds inside us, and when we find another being living the book worlds, we effortlessly become family. Ironically though, I don’t believe in the word ‘family’, or I’d rather say I am wary of the walls family erects. I hate walls.
But I believe in my sister the way she does me. I say this with a reason: whoever gives you their hair to comb has some trust in you—and you in them. My sister would give me her hair; I would give her mine as well. Mum would give her hair to neighbours or strangers to braid, like every other hair that needs to be made.
I also believe in books. I believe in poetry. I believe in art. I believe in dreadlocks and afro and braids; I believe in hair generally. But these, especially, are not my mother’s fancies; she believes in other things—and I respect that. She doesn’t believe in a male body carrying a head full of hair or any kind of hairstyle that is unchristian. So, what is Christian? That’s one question mum and I never had a common answer to. To let peace reign in the house, I would choose silence and never say a word.
Chatting with mum on WhatsApp, she asked, “when are you going to cut your hair?” She had seen a photo I shared online. We laughed and changed the subject of discussion.
I don’t remember if she always insisted my father cut his afro; what I remember is, dad kept his hair the way he wanted. Sometimes I wonder if she ever remembers that she stroked my hair when I returned for dad’s funeral. Maybe she does. Maybe the stroking wasn’t about me or my hair, but about her and her husband, or something else. Mum is wild like that.
“Speak with your sister,” mum said. We were on the phone. After greetings, sister threw a question at me with her gentle voice. I wondered where that came from. I took a deep breath and couldn’t find the right words to reply her. “When are you coming back?” she asked.
David Ishaya Osu
David Ishaya Osu is a poet, memoirist, street photographer. His work has appeared in magazines and anthologies across Nigeria, Uganda, the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, Austria, Bangladesh, India, France, South Africa, and elsewhere. He is the poetry editor of Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. David currently runs a virtual coffee shop where he showcases poems, pictures, plays, prompts, perspectives, psyches. David currently lives in Australia.
Neil Rick is a gardener and photographer in Tennessee. He grows flowers and then photographs them, overlaying the photos but doing no post-production altering. His images have won multiple prizes at American Rose Society Meetings in Tennessee and Kentucky, including Best Novice at a national ARS meeting in 2019 and "King of Photography" at a 2022 show in Bowling Green, KY.