It is here on the outskirts of Nigeria’s capital city that the perfect metaphor for how you feel presents itself to you. It is dancing delicately on the edges of this almost-still body of water called Usuma dam: empty plastic bottles and cans of soft drinks, polythene bags, disposable cups and plates, the condom wrap torn in a way that you think suggests urgency, a lone leg of worn out slippers…
You say it to yourself: flotsam. But then you think, flotsam is debris and wreckage from a ship so technically the detritus from people picnicking at the dam isn’t flotsam. You like the word, so you use it anyway. Flotsam, you say out loud. That is how you feel these days, how the city makes you feel. Floating, aimlessly in a place with no soul, no flow, no character to its movement. Flotsam, because you feel like you have fallen off the grid and can’t say what you have been doing here for six years. Flotsam, because much of the wealth this city boasts of, feels like the debris from a country wrecked by open theft and corruption- the cars, the vulgar mansions, the money.
You have always wanted to climb the hills around the dam but they always looked too steep from the ground, not something that any of the shoes you had could execute. You have always skirted about the hills, enough to contemplate its magnificence but not enough to experience its beauty, the view, the thin freshness that you imagine the air up there must have. This is perhaps another metaphor for how you have lived, for too long. Skirting, never really going the whole way.
Skirting. Like when a lovely journalist you barely knew asked you to be spontaneous and come with her on a road trip and you said you’d think about it. You packed a bag but thought, what if I have an accident, there are always accidents on Nigerian roads, what if there are people killing people on the roads, these things happen. Skirting. Enough thought about being spontaneous to contemplate what nice things could happen, enough to pack a bag and feel the rush of blood to your head, but not enough to leave the house.
The dam is lovely on a weekday because there is no noise or activity, no lovers looking for a quiet place to fondle, nothing to upset the balance of things. Only glossy colorful wild lizards that you think might be five-lined skinks with bright blue tails and olive to brown striped bodies everywhere. You hope for a snake or a monkey. You walk gently trying not to scare all the things creeping and crawling because you realize you are in their space. Sometimes the city does this to you- makes you forget whose space you are in. Or maybe it is Nigeria, where personal space means nothing, where a person can start screaming in the name of Jesus in a crowded bus, or your neighbor who is fasting can play Quranic recitations loud enough to give you a headache. You walk trying not to upset the balance of things.
You stare at an empty bottle of wine, Don Morris, between two large rocks up on the side of one of the large hills. You imagine two people, or three, sharing a bottle, passing it around, laughing, maybe smoking- you look around for cigarette butts. Maybe the rain has washed it away. You are careful not to leave any stories behind in the form of a bottle or disposable cup. You think these bits of trash upset the balance of things.
Finally you decide, after torturing yourself with thoughts of all the things that could happen- you sliding down a slippery part of the rock and scraping all the skin off your body, you tripping and plunging down to the rocks below or just losing breath and collapsing after the reaching the top- finally you decide that you are tired of skirting; tired of being afraid to die, tired of feeling like flotsam, tired of being afraid to upset the balance of things in your life.
You start climbing. Slowly at first, crouching, walking sideways, gauging the steepness and then increasingly, more confidently, taking bigger strides, straightening. Halfway up and panting, you realize that most of the steepness was imagined.
At the peak, you find it all undisturbed. No debris. Even more five-lined skinks. And air, the quality of which you cannot remember breathing. Before this city hardened you, you might have cried. This is beautiful you say to yourself but suddenly ‘beautiful’ seems like such a bland word to describe this. You stop trying to describe. And just take it all in.
You have not just discovered the meaning of life and yes, your problems will still be there when you go back down. But in this moment you feel many things shatter inside you- walls and fears. Fear of uncertainty. Fear of death - for now. In your head you go, if ever I want to kill myself, I know just where to come. You mean it in a nice, this-place-is-a-good-place-to-die way.
And as you climb down you think, smiling, of all the things you need to do which will upset the balance of things, but which will stop you from just floating, aimlessly: write more about your dead brother, trust someone, love without fear.