Everything That Surrounds You

Everything that surrounds you is enough to write about. The loneliness that wears over your desk and work chair after a long day of familiarity. The squirm or whine of your bed for housing your tired body after it has wobbled around here and there all day. The witness your bathroom bears to masturbations, the haram things you’ve done. The floor of your kitchen counting how many glasses and plates you’ve broken, how much food you’ve wasted, when there are thousands of hungry people outside. Everything is enough to write about. But this essay is not about writing to bear witness to your surroundings because, really, everything that surrounds you is not enough to write about — you have to piece in people, or memories, and structures that might never have existed. For instance, you have to lie that you’re writing this essay because it’s a usual practice for you to write when, in reality, the last time you were creative about your writing was many months ago. And you’ve not been reading enough. So you’re writing this to rekindle the rotten creative side of you.

But still, nevertheless, you have to make the writing bear witness. It’s what it does, writing, it bears witness to the writer’s imagination, however unreal. So you start the essay like this:

The time is 1:42 a.m. as you’re typing this, but that was not the time when you decided to write. That was around 1:30 a.m., but you spent minutes thinking about where to start. You know what you want to write about — your surroundings. You want to write about how absent a man can be in the presence of an environment. You’re the man, and you’re very absent in your environment, so well that your next-door neighbour does not know your name. Last week, when she wanted to ask for a favour, she called out to you, “Uncle” — a Nigerian passing way of respectfully calling onto people you don’t know. You knew she was calling unto you, so you opened your door and helped her remove the sim card from her phone because her pin was slippery.

You moved here in October, last year, and this is your first Ramadan in a new place. You’ve spent the whole day pondering on how you, a Muslim, would have a pure Ramadan in a house where the landlord rears dogs. Islam prohibits Muslims to keep dogs in the house, and while you’ve avoided them since you moved here, the thought still sleeps in the back of your mind, that the house is impure for you as a Muslim. But you’re here anyway, and you are more here because you always remember what made you leave your previous house where you suffered for electricity and clean water to drink. They say, a rented house never entirely satisfies you until you build yours. You agree because, despite this house giving you the comfort you want, it dissociates you from the outside world. You are always walking through the neighbourhood with speakers in your ears because you just can’t find who to relate with. You tried sparking a friendship with someone you met at the mosque, but they don’t share your values. They believe we can’t exist as we want, yet they drink. You don’t drink and you believe everyone should exist as they want as long as they do not defy their personal belief. Religion is not restrictive, it rather protects you.

Last month your mother visited you, and she asked how you’re living. She understands the kind of person you are. Even though you didn’t go out often when you were living with her in Iwo, you were not oblivious to your surroundings. You knew the name of every child in the neighbourhood, and you knew when to visit the river or not. You knew every detail of your big house. You knew why the roof of your room was painted white while the body was painted blue. You mastered the art of knowing as if you were born to know. And you were not. You used to be a dullard. But you observed a lot. And stared. You still do, but with limited visions. The chirps of birds used to mean something to you. You used to create stories out of the littlest things. Now you find it hard to splatter your thoughts on paper, so hard that when you watched a movie where an artist sits before their canvas every time and paints with many colour palettes, you sat with your thoughts and asked, What is wrong with me?

You have sometimes forced yourself to observe and create meaning out of your surroundings. That evening, while strolling through the area, you started taking pictures and writing down in your notes app what your brain caught despite music blasting through your ears. You took a picture of the wire slashing through the evening sun. You took a picture of a fallen kiosk. You took a picture of a man jumping through the gutter. In your note, you wrote:

  1. The man holds the hand of his little daughter in his right hand and holds her lunch bag in his left. They appear to be returning from her school. He carries a black leather bag on his back, and his trousers’ gaitor – crease – remains thin as though he never wore it. The daughter holds a candy. I miss this feeling, the pure joy a child shares with her father. I miss it because I never had it because I never met my father.
  2. The old woman pours the pepper into the grinding machine. The machine whines and it seems bigger than the old woman and she controls its stick as though it would come off. It doesn’t, and when she finishes grinding, as she tries to pour out the water, it flicks into her eyes. She can’t see. 

What is this elsewhere that one is longing to be in? — Teju Cole.

Ataoja is an abandonment of luxuries. It’s luxurious — beautiful cars, fine mansions and men with bellies pushing out before their presence — but it’s abandoned from the heart of Osogbo. It’s distant from where life is in the city. Affluence is not enough to keep a place alive, but I chose to live here because it’s silent and safe and presents me the sort of life I crave. Since I arrived in Osogbo in 2022, I have made sure to make sense of every environment I live in. When I stayed with my brother at the deep end of Ofatedo, it was close to a small spring and there was a tickle I got every time I jumped over it. The spring opened an essay about my longing for the wide river opposite our house in my hometown and how memories get buried in cities as we try to escape our roots. It’s a wonder how the passing of an object births a larger world for a story. But I hated the environment because my neighbour liked gossiping about me to my brother. So. Before my brother relocated to Ibadan, I told him I wanted to move out.

The loneliness of living alone is like a ritual you perform to avoid the loneliness itself. Everything you do torches the loneliness, reminding you how lonely you are. The water you drink. The food you cook. The mattress you sleep in. You constantly ask yourself if you really want to live alone, and it is in this querying that you get accustomed to the loneliness. It’s there, the loneliness, lurking, but you’d get used to it through your involvement with other things. Until you spill palm oil in the kitchen and no one is around to scold you. That is when you realise how much the voices around you helped build the dialogues in your stories. This is how I lived my life when I moved to my place at Ofatedo, and I was living until the compound started closing in on me. So I moved.

Ataoja was no better. It shifted the loneliness to a side in my body and filled it with silent noises. Why did you move? What is here for you to feel? Where are the stories around you? And for months, I searched for a story to make out of this place. The luxury is there, the electricity is there, the water is there, but what do these things narrate to you? In Ataoja, I am like a wandering dead, searching for safe landing. Me, stories to revive me. I started scribbling stories around objects to make sense of the environment, but what story does an uncompleted mosque tell you without the bleakness of the country, where worshippers complain about funding for completion? Or what story does an old woman, surrounded by affluence, yet struggles to fetch money for herself, tell you? What story do they tell when they do not incite memories? They are enough to write about, but they are not enough to write about.

But I keep searching for a landing, however oblivious. And I will also make what and where I am enough until it is no longer enough. Maybe the journey never ends. Maybe there is no safe landing and everywhere I move to will always have something that isolates me from the environment. So I keep searching.

A Reading Life

“Who is to say the writer’s intention is necessarily any more important than the meaning we find or create?”


We were habits built and snapped, promises made and snuffed.