What Does it Mean to Survive

What Does it Mean to Survive

What Does it Mean to Survive 1920 1280 Tolu Daniel

The first rule of survival is to run writes Romeo Oriogun in his 2017 chapbook, The Origin of Butterflies. It is a line I often find myself returning to on days when my thoughts mingle with my reality, like today. When the scars on my body, the evidence of my survival, begin speaking their own truths and insisting on being heard. When these scars tell the stories of the places my body has been through, define survival, and insist that I listen because they know more than me. When they call me by my name and say ‘in each scar that has erected a flag on the countries that make up your body, is evidence that you survived an injury, a cut that could have claimed you.’ For them, to survive is to circumnavigate that which seeks to end my existence. To look death in the eye and say not today and to allow that resolve to propel the tiniest vessel in my body to quicken my stride as I run towards refuge in whatever form I choose, whether in pills or simply walking away from something as intangible as an emotional abuse from a lover or a friend.

But what does it really mean to survive? What does it mean to live a life where the measure of your existence is on how fast you are able to carry your mortal body in a run that will ensure your survival? And what does it mean to run? What does it mean to put one leg after the other and swing the body into motion, carrying all the aches and all the pain into a moment, a movement? The time is 7:30, it is the first Friday of February of 2019, and the lights of day have expired into night. I have survived yet another day but my spirit is troubled with questions.

 

***

A memory of about twelve years punches me hard on the face and in my shock, I stagger back to regain my composure.

I am sitting in the cafeteria with my girlfriend watching her eat, her mouth is occupied with her third spoon of jollof rice, I am still contemplating on whether to eat or not, my stomach feels heavy. A bottle of coke is in front of me, my fourth of the day. We are Economics undergrads of Tai Solarin University of Education. It is March 2009 and the day is hot. We have been in lectures since eight in the morning and the eggs of fatigue were cracking one after the other on our faces. I was about to take a swig from the half filled bottle of coke in front of me when the arrogant sound of gunshots rammed itself into the walls of the café and shattered the calm. I slam the bottle in my hands on the table with almost the same force of the gunshots. Although gunshots were never common place during school hours in Ijagun, Ijebu Ode, they were somewhat common generally, either from policemen or the school security guards who sometimes shot their guns into the air to scatter any gathering of students they found suspect.

So when we first heard the gunshots we didn’t think it was anything extra, in fact I complained to the girlfriend about how the guards had started their wahalas again. We stayed where we were, as we were, the girlfriend eating her jollof rice, the owner of the café still selling food to the queue in front of her as if what we just heard wasn’t bizarre. Our pretense would not last as long because Bang. Bang. Bang. Three gunshots in quick succession and a round of sporadic shooting invoked the commotion that will burst our illusion and send everything spiraling. Screams of students running about, the displacement of the plastic chairs they sat on before, the shuffling of feet as some crouched closer to the ground and the once calm atmosphere became an orchestra of panic.

The girlfriend disappeared. While the commotion began and everybody ran or crouched or screamed I remained where I was, too scared to run, too scared to scream, too scared to move. I remained where I was, immobilized by my fear. While everybody else obeyed the first rule of survival, my fears held me to ground and presented me like a lamb for slaughter. That afternoon, rival cult gangs had faced off within the school premises, shooting at each other and several people had been injured with three students dying, one from gunshot wounds and two from the ensuing stampede.

Whenever I remember this incident, I will recall the moment when my legs finally responded to the control of my mind and allowed me to leave the café in search of the girlfriend and to allow my curious mind to find some answers for what had just happened. Then, finding most areas of the school compound deserted with no one in sight, not even the notorious school guards except a couple of boys holding some Hollywood type of rifles by the school gate commanding me to walk faster and smarter, informing me they didn’t come to hurt any jewman, as non-cult members like me were known, and that I had nothing to fear.

 

***

My dad once told me about the usefulness of running. He would say, ‘if you see people fighting beside you, keep walking. If anybody is trying to get you to fight with them, don’t respond, just keep moving. Don’t look left or right, focus on what is ahead, pay no heed to anything else insofar as it doesn’t disturb you. Silence hasn’t killed anyone I know yet and it won’t kill you, boy.’ It was an idea I adopted for many years till circumstances strayed me from the path in my final year at the university. I had just spent an exhausting day at the school bank queuing for my turn to pay my tuition.

In Ijagun, the host community for my school which was located on the left side of the Benin-Ore expressway on the outskirts of Ijebu-ode Township, nothing comes easy. Not when you want to pay your tuition, or when you want to receive your bursary, not during lectures and certainly not when you want to write your exams or you want to do the most random thing which could be to commit the sin of walking from one end of the little community to the other. You had to speak the language called “struggle” and if you couldn’t, the community would swallow you whole like you were food. This was why, despite not knowing the precise translation of the name of the community, most students adopted the name we gave the place which loosely translated in common Yoruba to mean ‘The Act of War.’ So we saw ourselves not just as students but also as warriors every time we went to school and when school was done, we’d return home like soldiers with wearied bodies, fatigued from a day’s worth of toil.

When it got to my turn at the bank, the official told me and the rest of the students who queued up behind me that we would have to come back the next day. The daze and anger of having stood in the queue for almost five hours almost made me curse at the official whose smug disposition made the bad news he had just delivered seem even more toxic to the ears. So I carried the disappointment and the fatigue and swung it across my back like a school bag and headed for home. On my way, I met up with one of my friends, Ope, for beer as we normally did on the more difficult days. After a couple of bottles, I decided to go to his hostel in Ijele, which was very close to the school premises so I could relax a bit before resuming my trip home. The hostel where I stayed was still far away in Maweje. In the area that bordered the school compound where the hostels were, on a small earth footpath, the relaxing smell of marijuana welcomed us with open arms.

Ope, who was a little averse to the smell of weed, was the first to complain. “Awon omo oshiyi tunti n fagbo ni biyi.” I laughed my agreement because I suspected that if our voices rose and the so called “bad boys” were the ones doing the weed, it would be a bad idea for them to catch us. Paranoia was the one thing that all the rival cult groups in our school shared. Sighting us would mean only one thing to them. It would mean we were spying on them for the school authorities or a rival cult group and it wouldn’t matter that you were a jewman, they would treat you the same way they would treat an Eye or Buka or Aye member, as the rival cults knew themselves, with a bullet in your head or a beating.

So I walked behind Ope, whose long strides hid any fear he might have had, with my heart beating slightly faster than usual. Ope walked on as though he had no care in the world and I probably wouldn’t have worried but I had my tuition fee inside my pockets and it was a lot of money to just loose to some random boys. On instinct, I called Ope and told him I wanted to go back to school because something with the semblance of a spider sense warned me not to proceed. But Ope, in his rugged gait, told me not worry, that his hostel was just a few more walks down the street and we should keep moving. He was right but it didn’t calm my feel of unease and I didn’t protest as the smell of weed became even stronger. “Na who dey waka for there?” a tiny voice called out. The owner of the voice could not possibly have been more than seventeen or eighteen years old. Ope, who had just turned twenty three the month before, answered in a voice so severe that it caught me off balance. “Who dey ask?”

The boys, about seven of them, walked out of their hiding place which was an uncompleted building just by the path we had walked through and surrounded us in a triangle that looked both intentional and accidental. Each of them held a half smoked joint in their hands with smoke rising in between their fingers and hugging their upper torso. I noticed pistols on two of the boys, one a semi automatic and the other, an old type revolver. By the looks on their faces, they were perhaps even younger than seventeen and although I couldn’t identify the particular gang they belonged to, the fact that I was in their presence made me uncomfortable. “We were just passing by.” I said raising both my hands looking to find an exit and blinking at Ope to do the same but he wouldn’t answer me. The boy who had spoken earlier, who seemed to be the leader of the gang, unhooked his semi automatic pistol from where he kept and waved it at Ope. In the moment, I saw something in Ope’s eyes that wasn’t the fear the boy had intended with his show of power. The look resembled hate. “On your knees” the boy commanded, his tiny voice coming out forcefully in a manner that might have elicited some laughter from me had the situation been different.

“Bros, I beg, we were just passing through.” I said to him again as my knees hit the soft earth and for a second it seemed like he was considering what I was saying. It took Ope a few seconds but he also adhered. The boy and Ope seemed to be in some sort of stare down contest with neither seeming willing to budge but I had a feeling that the boy’s resolve to keeping us humbled on our knees was dissipating with the passing seconds and I was right. “Ok, show your brothers some love and you can pass through in peace.” he said and I heaved a huge sigh and looked at Ope who still looked as though he might lunge at the nearest of the boys to him, damn the consequences. I rummaged through my pockets, thinking about what the boy meant about us being his brothers. Did he think we were like him also, I wondered. It took me a while but I found a tattered two hundred naira note, careful not to allow my hands stray to the pocket that housed my tuition. As I handed the money over, the boys cheered as if they were celebrating a goal scored in a game of soccer.

The cheer was suddenly halted at the sound of one of their guns which sent every of one of us cowering to the ground as though we had been shot. It was one shot but it came off like several, the noise was deafening. I fell head forward to the ground like a tree felled by a chainsaw. Two of the boys cried out in agony, both their voices blending like they were singing a painful duet. I feared the worst for them and looked for Ope because my line of vision was blurred by my panic in the moment. He was lying face down by the side of the road. In the moment I became overcame by fear.

Years later, whenever I and Ope speak about this event, he would complain about how I didn’t allow him to deal with the boys that day, how my cowardice almost cost us our lives if the careless gunshot had accidentally gone in our direction, but I will remember that day forever as the day I almost lost the money meant for my final tuition and my life. This is what I believed then, and even now, that sometimes avoiding trouble is also a form of running.

 

***

We are all Jesus. How many times have you died and risen? How many deaths have you conquered?

Sometimes, even in my agnostic state, I find myself subscribing to the Judeo-Christian idea of death. Of transience, of existing in a state of the intangible, leaving the body and floating around and communing with fellow beings of intangibility just as existence here is defined by the physical body. It makes me wonder about the possibility of even death being a gateway to something better. It makes me think that perhaps death is a way of surviving also. To escape the stress and the pain inflicted by life on your mortal body to a dimension of ease.

A friend shortly before her death once told me, “I am going home to rest”. Although it’s been many years since her death, I still think of those words because they were the last I heard her say. I often wonder if she knew she was going home to die that afternoon and if she had said those words so I could query her a little bit. But I would only remember the permanence of the rending and the assurance it carried after I was informed of her passing.

Even after then, it took me a while before I could mourn her death because I could see the relief that hid under the tears her mother shed; I could see relief under the grief of her father. She was an only child. But when the illness came for her, it wiped the color off her person and became a second child her parents had to look after as they carried her from one hospital to the other. Six months after the illness had ravaged her body, she returned to school. She told me that the worst was behind her. But every day during and after class, I could see that she was suffering. She wouldn’t be able to sit still for an extended period; her eyeballs seemed to have become permanently jaundiced.

I never asked her what name the illness answered to and she never offered to tell me. But on the day she died, she sorted me out from the multitudes to inform me she was going home. I often wonder if perhaps my memory of that day has been corrupted. It was 2006, we had just finished a lecture under the sun because there was no available lecture room and our lecturer insisted on teaching us because he wanted to complete the syllabus before our exams that were beginning the following week. The lecturer stood under the only available canopy which was the front of an occupied lecture theatre, while we stood squinting at him with our lecture notes in hand watching him from afar, trying to grab as many things as we could. I saw her sitting by the lecturer, sweating despite herself. Once the lecture was over, she sought me out and that was the last time I saw her.

Over the years whenever my mind brought her face to my remembrance, this is what I say to myself, that she has gone home, not just to rest and find comfort, but also to escape the pain.

Header photograph © Andrew Hall.

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