They told me how, in my absence, a bullet by armed robbers had fallen into their room, close to the bed, splintering the glass window. How, as one of my friends descended to the hotel lobby, once the elevator opened, he saw a man with a gun, while others lay on their stomachs, sniveling in dread. And how, in the shootout that followed outside the hotel, a police Inspector from the nearby police station was taken home a corpse.
The young men who came to rob the hotel in Calabar, I was further told, were likely cultists from the nearby university. Their guns, held like toys, became objects of gleeful play…
Each Nigerian has been told stories of accidental death. I could argue we have all, as a result, lived these deaths—a stray bullet, the ill-fated swerve of a car… My uncle died while shaving. He held a mirror to the light of a gloomy sky. Thunder struck. He fell, stiffened.
There are not too many ways to die by chance. Supposing there were, chance deaths are fundamentally similar. In dying of that kind, people welcome their deaths unknowing. The right word is not “unprepared.” To live is to bear death on one’s sleeve. Hence we are, always, prepared.
I collect now a list of people who have died by the operation of chance. A policeman was shot close to our hotel in Calabar. A guard at a bank robbed by marauding cultists was killed at his post…
I leave you with sufficient time to recall the somber details of unplanned, violent death…
Since we die by accident, I am convinced more than ever of the need to make time. Making time, for example, in dreams. My dreams are landscapes mapped and toured, futures regained. On certain occasions I am older there, aware of a past in my waking life I am yet to live.
Once on this trip I had a sense of what it might feel, living beyond time. In Enugu, two sisters spoke of a witch in Esit-Eket who was buried suspended between heaven and earth, as ultimate punishment for her evil. Her spirit, it was believed, had been banished neither to heaven nor hell, not purgatory even. Wandering forever, a placeless and rootless being. I do not aspire to her alleged evil. But in my life I must learn to make time, moving between what’s above and what’s below—the history I know, the history I don’t know, and the tedium of imagining a different future.
I conceive this as a means to deal with the futures stolen by governments and robbers, past and present.
Photograph by Zaynab O. Odunsi.