I was born healthy and long. My father said I was heavy like a bag of bullets. “Your hair was full and bushy,” he once told me. There is a picture of me, three months old, without a scar, without any mark, dent, blemish, shame. A perfect me. But after that picture, all other pictures have it.
My mother told me about the story of my scar: I was sick and I needed oxygen, so I was rushed to the University College Hospital (UCH) in Ibadan. I was seven months old. She said the doctor was a young resident—jovial, kind, and comforting. The doctor tried setting up a drip, but my veins were hard to find. Eventually, they passed the drip through a scalp vein. The nurses didn’t come to check on me while I stayed overnight.
In the morning, a large scar appeared on my head. Other doctors were gathered around me. They would come to my hospital bed, look at my head, and whisper among themselves, asking, who burnt his head? My mother says it was a serious issue, and the doctor was probably in serious trouble. Twenty-five years later, the doctor would probably be in his fifties and I wonder if he’ll remember the seven-month-old child that left his charge with a scar. I’m tempted to find him. I wonder if he’s forgiven himself for what happened, or if he has any guilt in him. I want to find him and look into his eyes and tell him I forgive him.
My mother says that after that day, nurses were very careful not to touch me. They didn’t want to get blamed. My parents didn’t press charges. They took me home hoping the scar wouldn’t have any effect on me.
I don’t know when I became conscious of the scar. It must have been after I looked at the heads of other boys or when other boys looked at my head and noticed it was not like theirs. It was like their grandfather’s. Smooth. Clean. Without hair. They must have wondered, who is this old man in a child’s body? A reincarnation? An oddity?
So they teased me and called me “old man.” They teased me so much that I quoted scripture and told them I’d rain a curse on them, just as Elisha did to the forty children who teased him for his bald head. They teased me more, and I told them that two bears would eat their intestines out and God would punish them—that their children would have this same scar. The teasing never stopped.
When I was nine or ten, my mother brought some wigs to the house. One was an afro wig. I put it on and ran to a mirror to see how I looked. I often imagined how I would look if I had permanent hair at the front part of my head. Would I be more handsome? Maybe people would be happy to look at me, talk with me. Sometimes I wished I could take pieces of hair shorn at the barber, get super glue, and cover the scar on my head.
In my new secondary school in Nigeria, a military school, I came across Captain Ikpekhia, a dark man with a hard face and a harder heart. I was sixteen, walking toward the field when he called me. I had been unable to have a haircut because this was boarding school and one had to wait for barbers to be brought in.
Ikpekhia was standing with Olakojo, a Regiment Sergeant Major who had the habit of carrying a horsewhip with him. Two strokes of that horsewhip on the head were enough to draw blood. When a soldier called you, you ran to them. Ikpekhia looked at my head and asked me why I had not cut my hair.
“You are very ugly,” he told me.
I smiled, but I was shocked and hurt. I had always known I was ugly; I’d never just heard it said to my face. I had seen how people looked at me and quickly averted their face. Maybe I terrified them. Why was I wounded when this man called me what I was?
This scar that my mother said was a sign of God’s love always made me so angry. I wondered how God could love a child and create him imperfectly. My mother reiterated that it was God’s reminder that he saved me from the jaws of death.
Did God have to leave such a mark for me to always remember to be humble before him? What kind of God gave a child a scar as a mark of kindness? It baffled me. My mother never understood what was happening to my self-esteem. She expected me to accept this abnormality with a grateful heart.
But every day I shrank, because to be different meant to be noticed.
I was lucky I wasn’t a girl. Life would have probably been more unbearable. I would have hated my image more than I did as a boy. As a boy, I was taunted to depression. As a girl, I could have been taunted to death.
I asked my mother about miracles after I watched Pastor Chris Oyakhilome perform healings. I asked her if it is possible for God to heal me. My head wasn’t always like this. Was it possible for God to make hair grow?
She told me if God can create rivers in the desert, it’s not impossible for him to make hair grow again on my head. So I believed, I hoped, I checked the mirror. Did Jesus not say if you have faith, you can tell this mountain be thou moved into the sea and it would be moved? I had faith. I believed. But the scar remained as it was: black, big, conspicuous.
Some years later, I meet a girl. She says if we marry it’s likely the scar will be replicated in the kids. She says that sometimes scars become part of the genes. I tell her I wasn’t born this way. She says we’ll do a plastic surgery. I smile that smile that says fuck you. I eventually leave her.
I am learning to find peace with the things that bring me anxiety. I am starting to accept the things I can’t change. Learning to smile at the things that cause me pain. I’ve learned to look into myself, to know myself.
My brother says I don’t smile often. I look more handsome when I smile, he says. Handsome is a foreign word. Handsome is what I see in others, not in myself.
I meet another girl, Ezinma. She says I am a fine boy, and I understand why ladies blush when sweet words are said to them. Maybe there is beauty, even in darkness. I keep searching for the beauty inside all the darkness within me. I look at the mirror. I smile. I watch how my face forms when I laugh.
A friend of mine, Tade, has started a business selling T-shirts, and she’s looking for models. She asks me if I’d model for her. I cast a look at her that sums up my thoughts. Models are beautiful people. I don’t even have the carriage of a model. She dissects me: You have high cheekbones, a nice smile. She reminds me of my sister, who insists that my dimples and gap tooth make me very attractive. Tade begs me to model her T-shirts for her.
Peace and healing can be crushed with one word. Even when I think I am at peace, when I think I have healed, I find myself still thinking of my scar. My body is a museum—people come and go and stare, but they never feel what I feel. They might empathize, and say sorry, but that’s what we say to a country that’s been to war. What do you say to a body that’s a continuous battleground?
A young boy approaches me on campus. He has a scar too. What do you use for your head? he asks me.
Nothing, I say.
His scar isn’t as bad as mine. But it’s enough to cause discomfort and questions.
You don’t rub anything on it? he says.
So how do you cope?
I don’t give a fuck. Whoever wants to stare—let them stare.
He’s encouraged. I think he walks away with some pride.
When you have a scar, you sometimes compare yourself with others. You look for a blemish that is as bad as yours on their body.
One day, you’re leaving the Ikeja City Mall, heading back to Yaba. A guy on the bus has his earphone plugged. When he smiles, his teeth are very unpleasant to look at. For a while, you don’t bother looking at him. Then you catch yourself doing to others what you’d not want others to do to you. You find yourself judging and making conclusions about someone you’ve never spoken with. You berate yourself. And then you look at him and strike up a conversation with him.
How easy it is to judge the flaws of others when you think your flaws are mild. You learn how to look at the scars and defects of others differently. It is easy to be vain. It is easy to be forgetful. And when you’ve carried a scar for too long, it is easy to forget how it feels to carry a scar.