As strangers, we are bound to a collective fate. The world is a storehouse for all the names and gestures we share. Occasionally it stretches beyond its bounds. My future replaced your past; my present is backdated until yours arrives. Time is shuffled.
Before Babatunde left this world, adolescent schoolboys, in the manner of disciples, often trailed him. We found him exemplary, and he rebuked our excesses. We hoped to be like him—to pray as long as he did, to go for days without food or water. And even, in some instances, to predict the future. He’d once said to a senior student, who used scissors to cut the sleeves of his shirt, you have cut short your life . A few months later, the senior student didn’t recover from malaria. What we know about Babatunde’s death: In the final weeks of the term, he declared his intention, just like Christ, to go for forty days without food or water. It is unclear how long the fast lasted—perhaps a few weeks—before he became dehydrated. There was a rumor that his skin emitted blood in place of sweat. Initially refusing to be taken to the hospital, in his final hour, he was forced into a car, where he died. Another rumor were his final words: I received an assignment from God!
What I know about the dead, I imagine.
At twenty-four, older than many of his peers by almost a decade, Babatunde attempted to fulfill an improbable mission. Perceiving his time was short, he passed to his younger schoolmates the ways a life could bear its own meaning. He dressed as if to play the part. His shirts were always tucked in, his sleeves rarely folded. The aspirations of his life were expressed with such severity—and one might say, foolhardiness—that they quickly petered out.
When he is seen in a photograph, when you see his lips in a slight pout, and his hands enclosed within flowing dress, where they remain out of view, there is an inclination, almost a necessity, to conceive him as spent. Slender; his nose and forehead glinting like a bone licked clean; his face hairless as if burnished: In the photograph, he is retreating into a kind of shadow. Whether he is shadowed by looming death, or by the weight of his aspirations, are questions that could remain unresolved.
Regardless, I highlight the nature of Babatunde’s aspirations. When I speak of his ambition to pass to his younger schoolmates the ways a life could bear its own meaning, and the severity of life’s meanings, I am taking particular note of his Christian life. He often led his impressionable followers to pray into frenzy; to quake their heads and chant songs stripped of all but a few phrases. Sometimes, he told them they had to pray unclothed, especially at midnight, when the tensions between heaven and hell were more pronounced. One could say that his fanaticism led to his death, yet that is scarcely promising. I perceive his fanaticism as aspirational. Once he took stock of his life, once he began to seek the aggregate of his travails as a boy raised in poverty and as a young man yet in secondary school when those his age were university graduates, he submitted himself to the supernatural. It was as though he realized that the struggles of his life were best enacted in the boundless universe of the spirit.
The boarding school became a backdrop for the tragic drama of his life. In the term before his death, he was appointed vice president of the interdenominational school fellowship, a congregation numbering almost a thousand. Although he was second only to the president, his reputation as prophet, demon-chaser, and miracle-worker endowed him with the gravity of an authority specific to his presence, first among equals. The photograph depicts a man who accepts, and is constrained by, delegated authority, but is convinced of an inner worthiness more essential than those of his superiors. His eyes suggest a man who has outgrown the need for designations.
I now understand that Babatunde’s estimation of himself might have been, ultimately, fatalistic. His aspirations culminated in disaster. Yet in taking a retrospective view of his life I make a distinction between those whose aspirations cohere in specific goals, and those whose aspirations are beyond specification. His aspirations took the form of the latter. When he made the decision to go without food or water for forty days, he must have thought his body ready for such an exacting endeavor. There was no way to tell until he tried, no yardstick to gauge his readiness.
All those to whom I entrust the meaning of my life, its promise, its secret ambitions and unnamable longings: They are contraband. I smuggle them into my heart, my hands folded in prayer: “Stay with me.”
Certain men, when they are pictured distinguished, as head teachers for example, appear held in question. They owe their depiction—if they were photographed, say, in the 1920s—to colonial interpretation. But with their steady and stern aura, they solicit reinterpretation. Their solicitation, if the photograph is the only record we have of them, is aspirational, but equally impossible to grant. It is as if they ask for all traces of the image to be erased. It is as if they ask to be given other names.
There is, below every name, the underbelly of a life. If it were possible, I would ask for people and things to go nameless until the dusk of their lives: humans at the outset of their last breath, plants crumpled by errant feet just before they fail to rise again, a beast in the final wince and gasp. That way, names can achieve their real intent: to summarize and give character to a life.
I see a vast number of people whose names I will never know, but whose lives are befittingly characterized by their poise and pose. The man who stands with an arm resting on a wall—I can estimate with what commitment he works. His hands touch the membrane of the wall as a herdsman touches the skin of a favorite sheep. The concrete is caressed. The mud is fingered. There is, even, desire in the reach of his hands. He loves all houses as he loves his own skin. To know his birth name—Ibrahim, Joe, Mustapha, Aliyu, Ikemefuna, or Garrick—becomes less interesting than to comprehend what meaning his hands convey.
It occurs to me that all struggle to be named, to portray an identity in spite of , can be typified in the way a body is pictured. Let the incline of an elbow remind us of a gangly man exhausted by years of itinerancy. Let a greying mustache remind us of commensurate experience, a master embodying his mastery. And let bare feet, a furrowed forehead, and a doorway, indicate a man mildly irritated by having to pause mid-activity to pose for a photograph.
Revisit the moment of watching a night-soil man do his work. From outhouse to outhouse, he moves in search of human waste, collected in a large bin ferried in a wheelbarrow. He is preceded by a stench so powerful, it can cause a retch one kilometer away. His work, even his estimation of his self-importance, thrives on the consolation of darkness. He hopes to remain unseen. Even if seen, he expects the cap on his head and the rag he has tied over his lower face to obscure his identity. There is no lowliness, in his mind, lowlier than the lowliness of gathering feces. His work shames him. But it is shame suggested in part by those whose feces he gathers. It is the shame we could feel if we were to do his work. We need him; we know his indispensability. We know, without doubt, the plausibility of his shame. The indispensability of work contrasts the plausibility of shame, sides of one coin. I choose to reflect on the dignity that belongs to recurring work.
Once in a small Nigerian city, a man’s description of himself took me by surprise. I had been staring distractedly at a bar across the road where, given the sweltering afternoon, lone men sat with mugfuls of beer, each nursing an inner serenity. A shabbily dressed man came up to me. He wondered about my intentions. I looked like a stranger, he said. Where had I come from, what kind of work did I do? I managed to redirect his attention. What kind of work did he do?
An agbero , he replied.
The Yoruba word, with which he described himself, in its literal connotation, suggests one who carries a load. This load, he carries for others. In most southern Nigerian cities, the agbero is indeed seen in places of transit, helping to load and offload baggage, bullying drivers and passengers, their lives frenetic and hyperactive. Their stereotype—chain-smoking hooligans, embarrassingly indecorous, relentless hustlers—is perhaps justified but contains, like any cliche, a gem of truth. The man who came to me described himself the way the ambidextrous present their credentials: I am skilled in whatever work my hands find. If I required him to sever the head of a politician, he could do it. If I needed some weed, he could bring it. Even if I needed the sheerly unimagined, here he was, my man.
Were I accused, I would admit to romanticizing the agbero . I romanticize to understand the nature of my ambitions. In my observations, those whose work bothers on the indecorous and raucous in Nigeria seem to quintessentially express the freedom to which I aspire. To work unhampered by genre. There are parameters, but those are as fluid as the sea, one that never overflows its banks.
The agbero , always in need of work, is remarkably patient. He goes about his day, with a certain insistence, hustling prospective passengers to enter a particular car, or haggling with drivers for a larger cut from the fare, or flirting with hawkers. He makes demands unabashed, with the confidence of one who perceives it is possible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.
One learns patience not by waiting, but by acting. A photograph, whether it is looked at or not a century after it was taken, has already fulfilled its purpose. This is how I wait. The waiting I equate with patience, as if my work has already come full circle: a present, active moment.
Lovers know this, but often need to be reminded: No desire is misplaced. As a river knows itself a tributary, so desire travels, surrendering, undulating.
The woman turns away. She designates the terms with which she is to be approached, the limits of engagement. Her glance is sidelong, uncooperative. Again and again her body, unrelenting in its refusal, like unmapped landscape, is an evocation of distance. The men I know, the man I am, long versed in refusing a woman her recalcitrance . . . Well, now, she insists.
If I report from the frontline of desire, it is to narrate how shamed I am by a woman who wouldn’t turn to, or remain with, me.
Why does she turn away? A photograph is an approximation. Hers is flesh imprinted on paper, a presence abridged into a split-instant. If there is no meaning but an approximate one, why do I shiver from ignorance, the deficit of context? For a Kanuri woman, perhaps, a sidelong glance is the customary way of approaching a camera, to deflect the omen that might be cast by onlookers through open eyes. Or if at the moment of being photographed, she was asked to turn away, the photographer’s attempt to present her in profile. Or suppose the photograph is meant to depict the side of her face with marks, permanent scars of belonging. I do not know, I am unable to know, I mistrust what I perceive.
Perhaps in the solemnity of her pose, her arms gathered in self-embrace, she reiterates what is lost. I now see why the word on the tip of my tongue when I first looked at this photographs was desire . . .
Desire is sanctioned by loss.
Another woman, facing the opposite direction: I imbibe her reflective poise. The incline of her index finger, around her lower lip, makes her less guarded than the first woman. It is not as though she expresses a gesture more contemplative than her contemporary. What distinguishes her, I see, is the slight distance the photographer has placed between her and the camera. Her body fits within the frame. The slight distance provokes an onlooker to imagine her entire body as a response, as a what , as remedial evidence. Whatever use to which the photograph is intended, the woman already asks, again and always, for what?
The story of an individual within a group, how the group reflects and refracts the story of an individual within it, how an individual story is not a group’s story but leads or returns to it, a story within stories, stories within a story, stories within stories, a story within stories within stories: Every permutation of narrative is decisive, its own peculiar weight. I wonder about the intellectual, and therefore moral, heft required for telling the story of each Kanuri woman.
There is one other way to meditate on their averted glances. Suppose a visage, seen in full, is a repository for a truth so personal, common language falters in an attempt to describe. Not seen in full, what especial intelligence is obscured? What hint of peculiar revelation is inaccessible? Three women pictured in a similar manner are, likely for the photographer, ethnographic proof of how female Kanuri “native types” distinguished themselves from their Dikwa neighbors, for instance. For me, simply and resolutely, I wonder about their individual destinies. Which woman was hassled by her husband to pose for the photograph so he might enter into favor with the local chief? Which, seeing her friend cradle a photograph, sought to avenge her envy by seizing what seemed a final opportunity? What was her mood that afternoon? What beauty did she think could be preserved, even for a second? What neglect? What vein of longing? What crooked finger of tenderness? What neat, favorite dress? What bracelet weathered by irreplaceable affection? However damnable the presumptions of the photographer, one must seek the flash of meaning that redeems the image from the onerous past—the pinprick of light that saves a room from utter darkness.
The gaze circumnavigates history, as though once pictured, a gaze is cast into the future. The future, in turn, casts its shadow on the past. For instance: When I show this 1955 photograph to my brother, of a Dikwa girl and woman who, although sober and stern, are decked in their best clothes, he responds by passing along recent photographs, taken in early 2017—the Dikwa women he’d met only days before, their town in northeast Nigeria newly liberated from Boko Haram. In his newer photograph, the women are pictured gleeful. My brother immediately noted the contrast in their attire. Once glamorous, now pauperized. I wonder about the conceit of history. How is it that women who were glamorous but disaffected in one photograph return ragged but liberated in another?
There is no way to tell what a photograph might recall, or foreshadow. In both photographs, whether the women are liberated or disaffected, they indicate potential destitution. For the women pictured in 2017, the destitution is of a material kind; as returnees to their once-besieged town, they are desperate for food, water, clothing, and shelter, especially for their children. But for the women depicted in 1955, judging by their appearance, the destitution is of an immaterial kind. The necessities they lack are deep-seated, a gnaw beyond the reach of the eye. It is a question of how the body might be held. Their anxiety is embodied, held in place: a pose.
I see their straightened fingers and severe gaze as indicative of anxiety. This bothers me. What might merely be an expression of acknowledgement in their poses, I extrapolate as anxiety. I suggest anxiety to further establish a claim that colonial photography perpetually assaulted what became the Nigerian body. Yet I do so hesitantly. When my eyes fall over those of the women, I notice a forewarning. How insidious it will be, they appear to declare, for you to approximate the nature and extent of our anxieties. I struggle with how to look at women. To say concurrently, “Women are not desperate to be looked at by men,” and “When I look at you, I sway with a little longing.”
A hushed contemplation succeeding survival: figures beside trees, trees towering sempiternally, a clearing in the foreground. Before the calm, so the caption suggests, there was a fight involving those photographed. It is possible to see how, in the manner the picture is framed, the canopying trees are well-suited for a camp, a hideout, especially if the enemy is expected to approach from the front. And if indeed these are people hibernating after a tragic fight, in the muted outline of their backs, and in the adagio of their demeanor, the trees become threnodial, rooted in lament.
Trees bear witness. A recollection of horror, a century after, even if compressed in a sentence, or in a short paragraph with only numbers of victims, may not miss the detail of what tree provided shelter for the displaced. Who wept with his back against a trunk; who stood enfolded in a shade wondering where he might have lost his dagger; who plucked a leaf and, lost in thought, ran her fingers toward its acuminate tip? Certain truths, henceforth, will be known as estimations, not fact.
Supposing I take the caption at face value, I have no information on the location, or the scale of the fight, how many dead or injured. Whether in the northeast or northwest of then colonial Nigeria. Whether the fight was one in opposition to a British expedition, in which, without doubt, the locals lost. Whether two communities, their languages and origin stories similar, continue an irreconcilable boundary dispute—this time stoked by a feeling of betrayal after their neighbor entered into alliance with British tax collectors.
I sense in the photograph, as can be said of all such stories, the conterminous nature of violence. Taken universally, what is termed violent, at least in legal jargon, involves the intention to act as well as the action itself. But what makes all violence arguably conterminous is their aftermath. How the survivor remembers, grieves, curses, regrets, or takes vengeance. In the photograph, I tend to see the survivors taking stock of a fight invariably leading to another. I see how, under the universal tree in which people take refuge after a fight, the foretaste of another horror is dreamed.
Consider me a reckless pessimist. Yet one afternoon, while writing this, I spent considerable time browsing a database of recent recorded deaths, owing to clashes between farmers and herdsmen in Nigeria. No recent nationwide conflict is as widespread or far-reaching: The central grouse seem to be herdsmen who take offense at farmers for inhibiting their grazing cattle, or farmers who take offense at herdsmen for destroying their crops. Deaths are reported in Benue, Kaduna, Kogi, Cross River, Rivers, Enugu, Anambra, Nassarawa, Niger, Edo, Abia, Zamfara, Oyo, Ogun. Some attacks are reprises, others are initiated after careful planning. Most are reportedly led by herdsmen. Victims are often unarmed.
What interests me in the reports of the killings, especially those facilitated by the herdsmen, is the circuit of their itinerancy. It is trite to generalize the herdsmen, as is often done, as “Fulani.” Or, to generalize those who kill for the sake of cattle as herdsmen. To understand the phenomenon, one might attempt to draw an errant map. How is it possible that herdsmen move unhampered throughout the country? What unconventional routes, across land and along riverbank, do they know by heart, passed down from ancestor to progeny?
Those routes, mapped, delineate violence. A horde of villains travels toward an unsuspecting village. The victim moves in the opposite direction, no known destination in mind.
On the day he died, a video was found on his mobile phone. His name—who he was, what he looked like—is unreported. We know him in the news as the man who made a video of boatfuls of men heading to attack an unsuspecting village in northwestern Enugu state. He outlived that initial attack, but died two weeks later in another clash, when the mobile phone was found on his body. His anonymity joins the namelessness of his cohort, villains without prominence—but who, at the moment they looked at a victim with vengeful bloodlust, as they touched a trigger or thrust a machete, could have recognized in themselves, for the first or final time, a feeling of worth, a kind of purpose.
In the six-minute video, on each boat, men are either sitting or standing. They wait to be rowed away. It is a chilly morning, getting warmer. Some men take off their sweaters, some keep on their caps. When the video begins, a man raises a rifle toward the sky and cocks it. Throughout the time we watch them, their voices are raised, deliberating or pointing out a fact, in Fulfulde, Hausa, Gurma or Zarma. Some beckon toward the sea, eager to move. Others are hunched in pensive silence. On a few occasions there is a man who says, “Amin, Amin.” Another calls out “Kai, Kai!” One holds up a cell phone, looking up a number. Once, there is a clicking sound of a camera; perhaps the sound is of a gun being readied. The voices subside as the first boat pulls away. Again a voice rises above the rest. “Amin.”
Why did he make the video? For whom? Such questions lead to an equally fruitless activity of speculating on why those who lynch others make a record of the horror. What we might want to know, if this is possible to know, is how the video records men contemplating the severity of the task ahead. On whose face does doubt appear, even for a second? How might we see a man wondering about the easiest way to kill an unsuspecting victim? Was there a young man, cheered by the pressure of his peers, who entered the boat trembling at the thought of killing a human for the first time? These questions, aggregated, make the video a sliver of consolation. Men seen before they kill: a permanent record of possible repentance.
There is a moment when one of the men becomes aware of being filmed. He turns away quickly.
If colonialism breached the progressive time of the colonized, it also confirmed the suspicion that no time is unilinear. Imagine, then, a time bordered by a vicious colonial experience on one hand, and the uncertain future of an independent nation on another. I direct the affront of this essay at those whose lives unfold within those borders.
When a beggar solicits for a gift, the request is not merely pressing and immediate, as it is recurrent. The contract between beggars and their audience is perpetual. In the same way, those who solicit identities from the past do not do so to understand how their lives might have unfolded differently. They do so with the persistence of looking for the faintest reflection of what they are, or might become.
The archive is a crooked finger thrust forward.
However you classify memory, it does not belong to the past. I do not declare this with authority, not even figuratively. I declare it as an investigation.
What I know of the dead, I imagine.
For the sake of this essay, I have cropped away their faces and left yours. I look at you. I remain with you.
One needs a theory of time that doesn’t measure life in terms of bodily age, physical presence, or fate. One needs a theory of duration that puts in consideration the limitless nature of human consciousness. When I was a boy, and thought of you often, sometimes faking tears to elicit pity from my schoolmates, I would close my eyes to remember your face.