I once lived on a street that had 3 funeral homes. Its occupants included the young and old. There were seasoned artists and con-artists, retirees and young undergraduates, the Spanish corner store that sold cold sandwiches and sticky candy, then me, living life.
Haverford Avenue mirrored several neighborhood streets in West Philadelphia. Powelton, Budd, Chestnut, Walnut, Ludlow, all had a similar demographic mix. Before I left for life in “The Big Bad City”, I recall a friend telling me to get ready to dodge bullets in Philly. “It’s the hood out there”, she echoed. Still, never for once did I feel my life was in danger. Not even when I shuttled from N. 39th to my row apartment way past midnight after keeping Winnie who had just had eye surgery, company. Here in Nigeria, things are different.
In Lagos, Nigeria, I am not assaulted by the sounds of ambulances that go off at all hours of the day shuttling the sick and dying to the nearest hospital. Yet, it feels like I have been locked in an ER. Death stares you in the face each day. I cross over to the next lane when I see it rolling on the wheels of the Danfo ahead of me. I laugh at its ludicrousness when the Okada man narrowly maneuvers his way around a Keke Napep, which almost collides with the overloaded trailer driven by a man who has more booze than snooze running through his veins.
For the nine months that I commuted from Apapa to The Island three days a week, I reconsidered how fragile life in Nigeria is each day. The near misses on motorbikes heading to the ferry’s dock, the driver revving up his engines to mount up cement road dividers already weakened by years of usage, and gaping holes on dusty roads that could transform to a quagmire after the first few rain drops were inconsequential when compared to rows of tankers and containers that threatened to destroy every being and thing lined in its way.
When I see a crowd gathered around a corner, I avoid the group and avert my gaze. For a certainty, that must be a corpse lying on a thin film of tarp cloth across the road leading to Obalende Bus Stop. I force my mind not to think about how he died and how long he lay there as his body temperature dropped to nothingness.
Before leaving Lagos 8 years ago, I was sure I had emptied out the tank of tears my eyes could carry and so when I returned, I thought there was nothing left to cry about. During these two years, I have cried for Ebeano, a supermarket that burned down when the sun was still up and the fire trucks could not hook up to a water source quick enough to put out the inferno. My insides went liquid when I saw several shanty homes where babies I had played with and grandmothers whom I saluted once lived. They too were reduced to rubble, not by accident this time.
I walked around in a daze all day when I happened upon the funeral of a young man with an expecting wife and toddler. An afternoon jog led to a fall, his bulky frame and the concrete connected and within days, the doctor will pronounce him un-living. Too much liquid in the brain. I didn’t know him personally, but hundreds did. They showed up to cry ensemble, while I continued my day with a heavy heart.
And on those days when I decide to cover the sadness mingled with the deeply etched anxiety of navigating such chaos, I sit in the mornings and delicately apply makeup. So, it was when I started work on carving my eyebrows, and lining its edges carefully with an L.A. Pro Concealer that I got the call.
Without an ambulance rushing down the streets or the strangeness of having so many funeral homes as neighbors, the caller said she was dead. A one-day sickness, a life taken away. I cried more when I thought of her close knit family, the new husband, that promise of the best life ever being realized, but now on hold.
Years ago,burying family came with its pain. With friends and strangers, I am forced to acknowledge the fragility of life and living in Nigeria. But, you may ask, isn’t it the same everywhere? I agree, so I propose, let’s move! This time for Destination Paradise. Will you be coming along?