In Nigeria, a burial ceremony is a celebration of life. Not the life of the dead but of those they leave behind.
Someone died on my street on Monday. He was 92. A well known, respected and influential Islamic cleric whose ‘mansion’, with its tired and dilapidated walls, stands at the entrance of the street. On the day he died, I woke up to the sound of my makeshift alarm — the bells of a distant church that rang every day for sixty seconds at dawn — and heard a distant cry immediately the sound of the bell died out.
I thought nothing of it until I stepped out for work. There, on the fading walls of the house, was a gigantic poster of the man, plastic chairs were arranged underneath a hurriedly erected tent and Muslim faithfuls were gathered in prayer.
I inquired from the gate-man, whom I had come to rely on as the Minister of Information of Fadeyi tidbits, about what was going on. He told me someone died and gave me a lowdown of who he was and his influence in the community.
The days flew by and each new one came with more tents springing up in the area. There were cows too, by Wednesday I had counted 7 of them. On Thursday, on my way from work — my office is just a 400 Naira Uber ride from my house — and in less than 15 minutes as we turned the corner into my street, I saw that these tents had extended into multiples with gigantic speakers manning each one and blaring the usual assortments of the Shaku Shaku style music I have grown tired of. The driver managed to maneuver the car to my house and as I got down, Minister of Information, not Lai Mohammed — his own stories carried a ring of truth in them — was awaiting me.
Not Lai: ‘Welcome Ma’
Me: ‘What is happening here?’
Not Lai: ‘It’s the man that died, they are preparing for his burial.’
Me: ‘Wasn’t he a Muslim? Didn’t they bury him already?’
Not Lai: ‘Ehnnn o, this one is the faaji they want to do.’
Not Lai: ‘Yes now. Big man. Plenty properties, 9 wives, plenty cars, and plenty money. His children are big people. This one you’re seeing is small ooo. Tomorrow your Oga’s cars won’t be able to drop you again.’
Me: ‘My Oga’s cars?’
Not Lai: ‘Yes now, the ones that drop you. Your Oga at the top is a rich man.’
He’s standing there grinning sheepishly. I want to say something, anything to wipe the look off his face. Between his listing of Mr Dead’s wives as part of his properties, and this new and amusing info he just dropped, I did not know where to start from.
Me: ‘Move out of my way, I am tired.’
Just as he said, Friday came and world people showed me their true color. I had already been warned about not coming with ‘Oga’s’ cars and so I called my bike man, Mojid, instead. Mojid came and told me he won’t be able to get to my street but would drop me somewhere I could walk from. He said the entire road was blocked. Everywhere.
He was right.
They were everywhere. Men with potbellies and gold chains. Men without bellies but gold tooth and dark Rei bon shades. Women with jingling necklaces and gyrating waists, twisting tirelessly to Fuji music. Women who sat back and watched while laughing and taking swigs from green, green bottles.
Ah the green bottles. Before now, I could have sworn we had only four green bottled beer in Nigeria. Yesterday, widened my horizons.
Our land is indeed green, as is our beer.
Then, the Asoebi. Everywhere was blue. How did a man die on Monday and by Friday, a whole community of well-wishers showed up in the same Asoebi? Who are these rare breed of Nigerian tailors who managed to deliver these people’s clothes just in time for their party? Four days is all it took them. Who were these tailors? Can I meet them? The whole thing remains a conundrum.
I should say that perhaps I should have expected this given that this part of Lagos I lived came with its healthy dose of drama. I have seen things. There’s the church whose 5am bell ringing has become a religiously imposed community alarm clock. There’s the record player seller, who played an assortment of Fuji music from dawn to dusk, to the chagrin of neighbors, and at night entertained the ‘homeless’ with Chinese type fight films with Yoruba voice-overs, until the day an angry neighbor and father of a new born child, took it upon himself and broke the dreadful speakers. The rest of us rejoiced in our flats even as we watched them chase our hero with a broken bottle. I found small satisfaction upon learning that this hero was an Alumnus of Obafemi Awolowo University. I lay bets that he was an Awo boy. Aluta Continua.
You would ask me why I am living in a place like this? And I will attempt to explain that it is not that bad. There are quiet days. The light is good and the people are friendly even if they stare and you can see them building their stories about you and your ‘work’. The rent is also cheap, ridiculously cheap. And there is something about living in a place that offers you the illusion that maybe you’re not doing so bad — look at all these people looking up to you, calling you Aunty, asking you for money, asking to wash your clothes, to clean your apartment, to cook for you. In reality, you’re a girl with no ‘Oga’ who still cries to sleep sometimes and wakes up to the enormity of her goals resting on her neck, her chest, making it difficult to breathe. To them, your Oga sends different cars to drop you off everyday.
While standing at the balcony, and watching the celebrations, I saw the pointlessness of life. You work hard and accumulate all — riches, properties, influence, power — and in the blink of an eye, everything is gone. You’re gone. Rigor Motis has barely set in before a WhatsApp group is formed and party arrangements are made. Your body is placed in the ground, the street is blocked on your account and your grandchildren gyrate to 1 corner into the night.
But, you’re gone.