I had been living in Ilorin for five months when a friend picked me up one afternoon and drove me to Omoda, one of the shantier parts of town. Leaving the car, we made our way to a decrepit concrete building with fading blue paint. We dodged reams of trash, large pools of dirty water, even a few piles of what I suspected were human feces. Inside,I knelt in front of an imam while cradling the thigh of a slaughtered animal as he murmured prayers on my behalf. On his instructions, I carried a bowl filled with blood and innards on my head, left the mosque and threw the contents into a tepid lake. I did the same thing twice more over the next three days.
Throughout the process, I surprised myself with my silence—my contentment, even. When asked to swallow water that has been used to rinse the ink out of a few Qurans, I nodded. When asked to shower in a strange courtyard, lifting a keg over my head and rinsing my armpits with that same Quranic water, I obeyed. When told to give away my clothes, clothes I frequently wear, I handed them over; when told to refrain from eating meat, I agreed. And when my mother explained, later, that the process was a way of clearing my future path from the evil eye and ensuring the great destiny that awaited me, I simply nodded and said “okay.”
Somehow the experience left no taste of curiosity or discomfort in me. I took it all in stride, regarding it as a last-ditch effort before I left my country, my family—my home—behind, for a new job. I had spent much of the past five months sitting through countless sessions of psychotherapy with a bald psychiatrist,swallowing interminable pills to con my hormones into convincing everyone else and myself that my bipolar disorder would no longer have the power to toss me into another hot black hole. I wasn’t surprised that after all the medicine, my mother would seek out something higher, something just as firm in its convictions—but less dictated by the achievements of man—to coat me in one last layer of safety.
Something indistinguishably “home,” a safeguard against the wide unknown I was soon to jump into.
Growing up, I had seen Ilorin only as a place to escape, a goal I achieved at sixteen when I moved away to university in Yola. The habit stuck: I would leave Yola to crisscross the rest of Nigeria and leave Nigeria to crisscross Europe, only to leave yet again for a job in East Africa. I knew I would never be the nice hijab-wearing girl who settled down with a nice man and a nice job, and so I spent years sprinting. Into adventures, into the taste of men and women, into decisions that caused those around me to shape their mouths into o’s and say, “that girl is so strange.” Running for running’s sake.
By December 2017, my mind was poised to cave in on itself. I had been fired three times that year. I cut off my hair and poured my savings into an apartment, splitting a bathroom with girls I barely knew. I had begun to wander the streets of Lagos aimlessly, sobbing into the heat. Hiding in bathrooms to heave and sweat and try to claw out of my own skin. I had not called or answered my parents’ calls in over a month. I found food and plugged myself with it until I would stand and throw it all up. I held my breath under the tub till my eyes turned red. I stopped getting out of bed in the morning.
Then I dialed mother, and when she told me to come home, I obeyed. When I arrived, she stroked my limp body. “You are going to stay here,” she said, “and not do anything, not think about work, or ambitions; just stay around the people that love you.”
I nodded, too tired to do anything else. And Ilorin came forth with its blessings.
The first month was sleepy, long and black stretches of dreamlessness fueled by risperidone. I did nothing but stay in bed, eat, and scribble fictions about sick girls. After the first month ended, I began to sleep less; as the darkness seeped out of me, new blank spaces opened up. I began to let Ilorin make an imprint on me, began to see it for the first time.
Ilorin is a town seemingly marked by rust, with traces of its distinctive red dirt lining the buildings, the air, and people’s skin. I wonder if the heavily oxidized soil is a reminder, a permanent stain of dried blood from all the wars that have been fought here in the past century, the past five centuries. A town of northern and western confluences, run by one political family and then another.
Early in the nineteenth century, the town had been one of the set-pieces for Usman Dan Fodio’s jihad, which aimed to convert millions to Islam through violent revolution. In 1817, the year of his death, Ilorin played host to a rebellion against the great Yoruba Oyo empire. It was headed by Afonja, Field Marshall of the Yoruba army. He was aided by the Fulani nomad Alimi, who was accompanied by an army of Fulani warriors and slaves. The rebellion’s success marked the beginning of Ilorin as a confluence of Yoruba and Fulani, though the merger would eventually go to cause more bloodshed after Afonja was assassinated and Alimi’s heir, Abd As-Salam, took over the throne, pledging allegiance to the Sokoto caliphate (the one founded by Usman Dan Fodio) and becoming Emir, a title still given to the traditional ruler of Ilorin.
Despite its history of violence, the town is popular choice for retirees, whose second or third homes have filled up streets in the neighborhoods of GRA, Tanke and Fate. In Ilorin, everything moves at a leisurely pace. The weather is well-mannered. Rain is never heavy, the midday sun almost always offset by a breeze. Rent is cheap and so is everything else. The languorous weekdays are offset by weekends fueled by live bands covering the highlife classics of Ebenezer Obey and Salawa Abeni. Kind neighbors are never far. The city has no flashy monuments or an economy designed to attract tourists, but the residents move around with no sense of a hurry. Traffic is an uncommon phenomenon.
After a few weeks, I began to venture outside my family home. I chartered a keke marwa to learn the town. One long trip took me from the Yoruba into the Fulani side, passing through Geri Alimi, the roundabout that marks the division between the Yoruba and Fulani sides of town. Past the roundabout, my oval face fit in well with the women who bear the distinct patrician features common to northerners. Along the market roads stood hawkers with their wide-brimmed straw hats and fura balls mixed with yogurt or nono.
Gambari, my father’s neighborhood, is not far from the roundabout. His house, Ile Bube, is descended from immigrants from Katsina, with relatives spread across the north, all the way to Sokoto. There is a photo of him, as a younger man, upstairs: slim, shiny, black. That proud nose, held with the confidence I have come to inherit. I am told I have also inherited his restlessness, the need to always flee and be forcibly dragged back home. I let my aunts feed me sodas. They complained about my short hair: “Like a boy,” they said.
Mother comes from Alanamu, where my grandmother lost a husband and three children before setting out, opening grocery stores along the way. I remember being babysat by her as a child, being fed the fluffiest amala and ewedu—triggering a lifetime obsession with the meal—and washing it down with soda and with the distinct white-wrappered pink-and-blue striped bubblegum. These days, Grandma mostly lies flat on her back, moving only to eat, pray, and bathe. Shortly after my arrival, I dragged a mattress into her room and bothered her for stories. She evaded my questions, giving me instead a recipe for efo-riro, using raw shea butter instead of groundnut oil as a base.
Our family house sits off Fate Road, a twenty-minute walk to a mall with a Shoprite supermarket and a cinema. The home, a two-story building painted cream, is the fruit of over a decade of my parents’ labors. Progress had slow for years, but a successful contract bid had recently provided father—a lawyer with the civil service—with enough money to complete it. My mother decorated the house with tiles, leather, marble, glass and wood brought back from her trips to Europe and China. My parents spend most of the year in their home in Abuja’s Apo Resettlement, but I secretly wonder whether they do not feel that this is their true home. When my father is in Ilorin, he tends to sit large, ebony and pristine on the mat placed on the wide verandah. Chicken and chicks stroll the yard.Goats wander lazily around the unpaved roads outside the house. We used to have rabbits, but at some point before my return they had been turned into stew.
As the days went by, I began to spend more time with my grandma, who I learned had lost three children in childbirth to sickle cell. Returning home in the afternoon, I would spend hours cooking, a combination of dishes recreated from memory, recipes gleaned from grandma and my aunts, and things I would look up on the internet. The anxiety I had always taken as a fundamental part of me was waning. My days stopped being a parade of mental reminders of my utter uselessness.
I saw the doctor twice a week for psychotherapy and we covered mundane things, ending—always—at my relationship status. I was always vocal about my disinterest in Ilorin boys. He asked why. “I can’t marry a man from Ilorin,” I replied. “He will lock me up.”
The doctor laughed. “You are still trying to run.”
Maybe. As much as I took to Ilorin, the city and its offerings of peace never feet enough. For the most part, I was better, but I was also hiding. As the days passed and I adjusted to the pace of life and my medication, the reminders that my future was waiting began to nag me slowly.
After three months, I returned to Lagos—a 300-km journey southwest of Ilorin, five hours in a Toyota Sienna. I was surprised by the changes in my response. Where Lagos once carried the capacity to raise my heartbeat, I was met instead with the hot prick of frustration, the desire to be out as quickly as I could be. I loathed the houses clustered together; the cost of public transportation; the air that stills, a hot white rod grazing skin; the dust; the noise of a million frustrations. I hid inside air-conditioned Ubers, behind closed doors. When work and friends drew me out, I was grateful to see old faces, but marveled at how disharmonious the routine of Lagos now seemed. How a night out in a Mexican bar, drinking cold sugary cocktails and listening to music thrum from bad speakers, had lost whatever electricity it once held for me.
I left the city, happy to return to my new scheduled normal, where mornings were filled with chickens waking me up before the call to prayer. I signed up for French language lessons from nine to midday; an on-call motorcycle ferried me to the Alliance Française at the Agric Junction. Noon to one involved a quest for food, either snacks at the Shoprite supermarket or by fiddling in the kitchen while Mariam, my grandma’s help, laughed or tutted. We would settle into an Indian flick or Africa Magic if the power supply was on. Whenever it rained, we often went two to three days without electricity.
On evenings and weekends, I took walks, finally learning the route to my house so I could explain it to the motorcyclists. I memorized the order of kiosks. On one side are the mallams—Islamic scholars—whose kids sell mangoes that they pluck from their tree. They also sell indomie, but no eggs or drinks. At the T junction, you can find everything from peppersoup and beer to milk, rice and fruits, all sold mostly to appeal to the students at nearby Kinsey College. Across the way is the makeshift salon where my hair can be matted into did style to keep my edges full and safe. Further along that road led to the neighborhood of Sango and the butcher’s place, where Muhammed would sell me shaki, liver, kidney and intestines—all the ingredients necessary for ofada, to which I had grown addicted. These I would bring home, chop, season, boil and drop into bleached palm-oil, onions, blended peppers and more seasoning.
Challenge Road is where I went to buy earphones and a new phone after my old one was snatched out of my hand by a man on the back of a passing motorcycle on Fate Road. I shouted and ran, watching his face turn as he looked at me, grew ever smaller. New phone in hand, I called Seun, my only friend for miles. An old classmate, she is big-eyed girl with a voluptuous body and a no-nonsense attitude. We had reconnected over the months, watching movies, quipping over our shared unemployment, drinking sweet wine. The last video I had recorded on the phone was a Snapchat on our way to Owu waterfalls.
Every few weeks, my parents would visit from the house in Abuja. I practiced my French with them. More than anything, they seemed relieved to have me in their sights, and to have known exactly where I was for the past few months. My mother would ask about my medication every morning, and I would spend hours with my father in the living room or on the verandah, talking Nigerian politics. I told them that I had started looking for work, but that most of my queries had only led to dashed hopes. I knew I was feeling better when sharing the news of my rejections with them did not send me into a spiral of self-loathing. Father asked if I would consider working for the government in foreign affairs. The idea of scratching out a meagre civil service salary while continuing to live with my parents felt like too much routine for me. But I said I would think about it. Mother said nothing, but to remind me to always pray and cover my hair like a good Muslim girl.
Then, in May, two job offers landed. One in Lagos, another in rural East Africa, in a town that resembles Oko, the village near Ilorin where I attended boarding school. Remembering the long journey back to school on Monday mornings, I accepted the second offer.
A few days after completing my cleansing ritual, mother and my sister accompanied me to the airport. For the first time, I was not longing to be away from mother’s fretful nature. I held my sister for too long. I cried when I watched them leave, looking till they were out of the automatic doors. I battled sickness throughout the journey, reciting Quranic verses mother said would help with my anxiety. In my bag were enough drugs to last three months and a prescription in case I ran out.
It took two days to get to my new home, with pit stops and overnights along the way. We arrived on a Sunday. As soon as I saw it, an “alhamdullilah” lazed from my throat, reaching my fingers, my toes. Nestled among mountains, Bududa is two hours by bus to the town of Mbale. Like Ilorin, it has the same kindly people, the same stalls of roasted meat and corner saloons. Shops selling traditional materials and outfit designs, the makeshift stands for snacks, makeshift salons.
As the weeks went by, I added small touches to the house I am now renting, small details to remind me of home: a boxing bag, a hammock, speakers. Other touches, less physical: a family WhatsApp group. When they ring, I pick up and respond. I stop to think about things outside my phone or the pages of a book, like how the view outside my office never ceases to amaze me and how a year that began in black has cleared up so quickly. I have my medication on hand, for the hard days, but I take the advice of Chet, a new friend, to do more than think. My weekends are an embarrassment to my former manic days. An hour on the hammock reading, “skincare Sundays,” yoga after work, experimenting with vegetarian cooking and submerging myself in more cinema. Visits to Jijna to eat a sandwich overlooking the river Nile. Beers with Peace Corps volunteers.
It didn’t manifest as a big moment, but one Sunday I finally, quietly understood what I was feeling. The hammock moved slowly, the cat nestled between my legs, a book in my free hand. I was still, on the inside and on the outside. I had stopped running. For the first time, I had made a home inside of myself.
If only it hadn’t taken so many pills and slaughtered animals.
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Fareeda Abdulkareem, My Hometown, Ilorin, Nigeria
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