I know a familiar tinge of sadness intimated with the rituals of leaving. I can declaim the sudden disarrangement in time—usually a dark, windy dawn, a cold hurried bath, the picking up of bits from a strange bed, an open, endless road.
What dissolves in leaving? I regard every leaving to be forever performative. What do I enact when I separate myself?
In Bauchi, a house reminded me of an alternate future I’ve always imagined for myself: A fine wife, two beautiful daughters with long hair, a quiet house with low hanging lights. The owner of the house was a doctor who had left Nigeria to study in Russia in the 60s. He fell in love with a Russian woman and married her. The beginnings of the marriage was tumultuous, littered with government and family opposition. She chose to leave with him to Nigeria, situating herself between the ascertained and the unknown. When we visited the house, I stood before their wedding photograph: a young white woman in a wedding dress. A chubby black man in a suit. I stood before the photograph continuously until I recognized in the image a familiar tinge of sadness.
I never forget a face. I say this because I like to convince myself that I can make up for forgetting the name of our guide in Ilorin. Usman. He was a slim, quiet man with tired eyes. His wedding ring stood out, instantly, as his most prized possession. He rubbed it anxiously when he spoke. His english wasn’t the best so we talked in pidgin. He spoke, always softly, as though intimidated by us and our cameras and our hippie dresses. His first response to every question was a disconsolate smile. He would sit in quiet corners in restaurants, away from us, as though he didn’t belong.
Why do I contemplate this continuous tinge of sadness?
Paul writes: Do not neglect to show kindness to strangers; for, in this way, some, without knowing it, have had angels as their guests.1 I know Paul’s admonition in the reverse: all my life, I have survived through the kindness of strangers. Once, in Onitsha, I’d arrived too late in the night to get a bus to Awka. A bus driver on sensing that I was a stranger took me to his home. He warned me never to stay out late in Onitsha. It was an incredibly dangerous place, he said. The next morning he invited me into his chapel, with a heavy rosary dangling around his neck and prayed that I journey safe. This is how I feel now on the road: all the countless people that invite me into their homes, all the countless people that show me around—my safety is guaranteed in the kindness of strangers.
On the last night in Ilorin, Usman left almost as quietly as he had come in. I stood at the hotel door, shaking his hand for long, looking into his eyes. I wanted to tell him, I am not an angel, soul brother, and we may never meet again, but you have been invaluable—you too are an important fabric in this cloth of history.
He smiled as though he heard me and rubbed his ring. But he left me with nothing except his face.
- The Holy Bible—Hebrews 13:2; Weymouth New Testament.
- All Images from the series Flux by Kenechukwu Nwatu