NONFICTION

The Photograph

by Tolu Daniel

The Photograph

by Tolu Daniel

The Photograph

 

There is a photograph of a place lodged somewhere in my head, refusing to yield to time, refusing to become memory, refusing to disappear. It stays fresh as photographs often are, glossy at the surface and colourful from afar. It is of a place I once called home. In the photograph, my father is standing with his face turned to the left on a portrait that sits on the wall while my mother smiles bespectacled by him. This is the picture of our sitting room in Ijeja, the room where the gun of an armed robber jammed when he tried to blow my father’s brains. This is the room that follows me everywhere like an annoying toddler. I don’t know why the photographer chose this angle of our house to shoot but I know why I can’t get over it. This was the angle of the sitting room visible to me that night the robbers came.

Whenever this photograph emerges from my consciousness, it is often triggered by a sense of danger, a possible loss. A week before the day that brought my third decade on earth into being, I decided to visit Ijeja. I imagined that perhaps, it was time for closure. I wanted to be done with the anxiety that the memory of the photograph always brought with it. That afternoon, I arrived in Ijeja as a stranger. The houses lining the streets remained as they were when I was a child. New ones peeped through from behind the old. When the car arrived at the gates of my destination, I was assaulted by nostalgia similar to the kind arising from my memory of the photograph. The gate was open, so I walked inside the compound. Nothing had changed. Even the large passion fruit tree that witnessed my childhood was still there. The wind blew its leaves from side to side as if it was celebrating my return. I walked towards the door of the apartment that used to be my family’s, the door was different, even the railings had been substituted. I​​ knocked on the door and received only the sound of my knuckles cracking the plywood platform on the door in reply. There was no one but I felt a strange calm just standing there.

 

     ***

​​ 

This is where I was born, the home I knew till my parent’s salary swelled enough to move us elsewhere. Whenever my mind takes me back to my childhood, this I remember. The house with the wall-less gate, the big compound, and the four apartment units where we converged Friday nights to listen to the sonorous and chilling voice of Kola Olawuyi croaking from the radio telling scary stories. This is the house where I played daddy and mummy with Funmilola before she died of a disease with no name. This is the​​ house of another boy who answered to my name but whose skin color earned him Tolu Pupa while I, a six-year-old, became black for the first time. Tolu Dudu will be my name for several years because it was easier to differentiate us by the shade of our skin. This is the house I first learned how to be jealous of a person because fair was better than black. This is where I learned to hate myself, learned to hate my body because dudu doesn’t show well in photographs.

This is where scary Mount Zion movies coloured our Saturday nights and sent us to church the next morning with our heads bowed and our hands tucked in between our legs. This is where I played table-soccer and suwe and ten-ten. This is where I lost my first tooth and earned myself an abominable nickname. This is where the melody of Ebenezer Obey’s music moaned from the stereo of my father’s Volkswagen beetle. This is where I mistook Kerosene for water and drank my fill before I was discovered. And for several years, after we moved from house to house​​ till we finally settled in a place built from the toil of my parents, this is where my memory remains.

 

      ***

I was born a dark, clingy and loud baby, my mother says. Growing up, I will also learn my birth was the sum of my father’s pessimism and my mother’s insistence on having yet another child. So when I arrived, I did so moody and angry I had been yanked from the restfulness of the unknown and thrust into a world that was not ready for me. My mother says the sound of running water always chases the​​ tantrums from my lips. She also claims that I was born near running water, somewhere in Ijeja. I don’t believe this, because I only know of one river there, the Sokori, a tributary of the Ogun whose streams snaked through our entire neighborhood. I have never liked this river, not when I attempted to fish its narrows and it held back its goodness from me, or the time I almost drowned in it teaching myself to swim.

When my parents talk about me, they often bring up how rebellious I was as a child. From the​​ many examples of disobedience I have heard them cite over the years, only one instance has ever really stuck in my head. During the Abacha military administration when riots were rife and soldiers in their camouflage slacks paraded our streets with guns and fierce faces, Abeokuta was silence sustained too long. My parents and their friends walked around Ijeja with their voices low, their words measured. I had just been enrolled at this nursery school in Oke-sokori, about a fifteen-minute walk from where we​​ lived. I was maybe four or five years old. I remember being so excited about finally going to school that my sleep that night was disturbed several times. Around six in the morning, when I realised that everyone had risen and were getting dressed, I did the same.

By half past six, I was in my school uniform and ready to go. So I waited for my mother who still wasn’t ready because she was attending my siblings. I got impatient. I set out on my​​ own, passing through the military checkpoints and waving a blade​​ of green grass I plucked in front of my house to them as I walked by, the way my parents had whenever we walked past an entourage of these soldiers. It took a whole hour before anyone at home thought to seek me out at school. My mother had run herself crazy with agitation thinking something bad had happened to me. Whenever anyone goes to my mother to report some rebellious act I might have committed, this is the story she tells them, that his rebellion, his need to be individualistic has always been with him.

      ***

 

There is a picture of my name day in some photo album my mother keeps inside her room. The first time I looked at this photograph, I had known fourteen harmattan and the signs of puberty were beginning to burst forth like a new season on my body. We were no longer living in Ijeja, we had moved to Ita Eko, a semi-middle-class neighbourhood about five minutes from the old place. That day, I was drawn to the album by the argument my parents were having in the living room. I was preparing for the​​ Senior Certificate examination which I was planning to travel to Ijebu Ode to write. The argument was about the circumstances of my birth. My father was saying to the irritation of my mother how he had only planned to have two kids. This is a story he tells every time I or my younger sister ask him for money. I would confront him about it years later.

The photograph was sepia, almost indistinguishable from the one taken on my younger sister’s name day. I am only able to identify myself from the melanin glow​​ wrapped in swaddling white. My mother is seated, while my father stands beside her, sporting an Abacha-style sun shades. His head filled with hair he doesn’t have anymore and a thick moustache​​ fencing his upper lip. I can’t find love or fear or anything in either of their faces. It was as though they had been coerced into taking the picture. I wonder if my father’s sour face means he’s nursed his irritability towards me since my conception, or if he ever forgave my mother for having me, the third child.

In​​ the photograph I find a youthfulness about my parents I have no memory of. And it makes me wonder if perhaps like the translation of the name they gave me that day, “to god be the glory” they had given god all the glory and the joy in their marriage without leaving a remainder for themselves.

      ***

In conversation with Paul Beatty in 2018 about his book,​​ The Sellout, I asked what closure meant to him. I was curious what he thought of the concept, having written a novel about a man whose existence was contoured by events he didn’t have any control over. Since the week before my birthday and the trip to my childhood home, despite walking the house where memory held me hostage, I have obsessed over my lack of satisfaction. “I don’t know what closure is, death perhaps?” Paul Beatty replied. Ever since I was a child I have been confused by the concept of death. The finality of it and why we are supposed to be afraid of that end. For me, endings have always been fascinating, I have always thought like those in​​ the Abrahamic religions that death could be a pathway to so much more.​​ 

I may never get rid of the memory. Even if I sought out the photograph, wherever it is kept, and destroyed it, my mind will always keep a copy. Perhaps I should learn how to be grateful instead of everything else.

 

About the Author

Tolu Daniel is a writer and editor. His essays and short stories have appeared on Catapult, Arts and Africa, Scarlet Leaf Review, Panorama Journal, Expound Magazine, Bakwa Magazine, The Wagon Magazine, and a few other places. You can find him on twitter via @iamToluDaniel

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#thesideshow| creative non fiction| February 2020