‘Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe; it gives back life to those who no longer exists’ – Guy de Maupassant
Nsukka, September 2017.
I am sitting on an iron chair with a detachable plastic pad and wobbly legs. It is the same one M, my roommate, cornered during one of those first-Saturday hostel cleanups, and D, my other roommate, threatened to throw away because it chewed up what little space we had in our already-cramped room. I am sitting here, alone, and breathing into the silence of Room 411 Eni-Njoku Hall. This is my last afternoon in Nsukka, or, if properly put, my last afternoon in Nsukka as an undergraduate. The hostel is quiet. On normal afternoons, before most students vacated, the corridors would be lined with boys washing their clothes and taking turns to use the bathroom; the air would fill with boys catcalling girls who passed their windows or the rants of the boys who lived on the ground-floor, demanding to know which landlord poured wastewater down the balcony; the quadrangle would be jammed with excitement about another football match.
These last few weeks have passed in a flurry blush – the grueling final exams, my project supervisor turning his supervisory role into a hazing ritual, following up latest gossip about who failed what course or who will not be graduating, walking back to the hostel with friends and ending with the awkward conversation about how this may be the last time we will ever see … one another, or someone else.
Notebooks, textbooks, novels, clothes, shoes, hangers, sets of cutlery, plates and utensils are strewn on the peeling linoleum floor and bed and table and any other available space in the room. The top shelf of my cupboard is stashed with printed A4 papers containing all the literary works we read during The Writers Community meetings we had at the gazebo opposite Hilda Iwuanyanwu Children’s Library. As I flip through these papers, my eyes pick out the pencil marks I made on them to show lines that I fucking love; conversations that appeared forced and mechanistic; titles I felt were overused and becoming generic; clichés; overwriting. In this same stash of dog-earing sheets are the stories I shared as well. My stories are also appended with comments and critiques by the community members on how to improve the story. Next to these comments and critiques are the names of the people who made them: E: Tighten this paragraph, B: Does this add anything to the narrative?, M: You can still make this line stronger. The bottom shelf is filled with all the pens and pencils I borrowed from friends, roommates and neighbors that I never returned. A repository of four years of memories lie before me and I had to figure out what will go into my duffel bag and what will go into the Indomie carton that serves as a makeshift dustbin outside the door.
The art of packing is mastered by those who are accustomed to leaving a place much too often.
Nsukka is the first place I will leave and I worry about what to take with me and what to leave behind. My family has never moved from our two-bedroom flat in Aba and my secondary school hostel was gutted by fire a few months before my graduation.
But Nsukka is different. In this place, I have come to acquire things, each item representing a piece of memory and a tiny bit of myself. Storing memories in things is something I learned from my father. He would hold his Who-Send-You tumbler and tell you that it was a gift from the Standard Five class he taught in 1987. Even the littlest thing, like the smudge on the old arithmetic textbook he used to teach me HCF in Primary 3, evokes a story of what had happened, of someone who died, of someone who was born.
Deep breaths. This should be easy.
COS 101: An algorithm is a set of step-by-step rules used to solve a problem.
Step One: Start.
Step Two: Select an item.
Step Three: Analyse item.
Step Four A: Display √ if item represents a memory I want to keep.
Step Four B: Display × if item represents a memory I want to forget.
Step Five A: Put √ in the duffel bag.
Step Five B: Put × in the Indomie carton.
Step Six: Repeat Step One to Step Five until all items are sorted.
Step Seven: Stop.
It is impracticable, I know, choosing memories, sifting through the vast expanse of items that represent past times, and deciding the ones to cling to or discard. For instance, how do I choose between the pink plastic plate my friend I used to bring me jollof rice garnished with fried beef and plantain, and the music box I bought at the beginning of this semester? What will I forgo: the extrinsic value of a friendship that began with a plate of food and lasted four years, or the transactional value of the couple hundred nairas I spent buying the music box? I choose the music box. Not because I am vain but because the memory of my time with I is something I want to leave in Nsukka.
Memory – how we remember, how we forget, is as wondrous as it is mystical. Year after year, neuroscientists and psychologists continue to publish studies to explain this complex process of how humans encode and decode memory. Growing up, I was the child who remembered things for my mother. She called me ‘My Handbag’, her unpaid personal assistant. My mother would take me to her room and show me where she hid money, usually in the shoe-bag, at the bottom of her box of lappahs, between the pages of the Church Women’s minutes book, or at the edge of the bed. Months later, when my mother would take me to her room, I would remind her where she stashed the money. So you see, even with the squeezed pink plastic in the trash, I know I will always remember I.
People adopt different styles of packing when leaving a place. There are the light-packers who just throw in a change of clothes, grab their smartphones and are good to go. These ones are eager to leave, discard accumulated memories, and make new memories in a new place. There are the heavy-packers who just jumble the whole lot into their traveling bag. These ones are either too clingy to want all the memories or are oblivious of the fact that memories are even stored in their belongings. The light-packers and heavy-packers do not waste so much time burrowing through piles of items. Then, there are the selective-packers, who comb through every item, mulling over what to keep or leave behind.
I am a selective-packer.
I start with the A4 papers, carefully arranging them according to genres – fiction pieces first, then poems, then nonfiction, then the unclassifiable ones, folding them in four corner crisps, and putting them away in the bag’s side-pocket. The clothes go in next. I fold and pile them according to the timeframe of when I bought them. Freshman and sophomore clothes, especially the jeans and floral shirts, are faded now, almost unwearable. But I still pack them inside the duffel bag, partly because my mother called this morning to remind me not to leave any of my cloths at school.
‘Zaram, make sure you bring all your clothes back o! The world is evil oh! People now use other people’s clothes to do juju.’
‘But Mummy, they’re old.’
‘Em, yes. I will help you burn them when you get home.’
Next, books. I choose my collection of novels over the ten-in-one lecture notebooks and economics textbooks. I put the notebooks and textbooks away under the reading table. A lucky economics undergraduate may be allocated to the room, next session, and make use of them or the new roommates may throw them out or someone will use them as ass-wipes. I tear off the back pages of the notebooks that contain notes V and I exchanged during lectures: Chai, you pikin well-well, Life of my love, I thought you won’t answer the question, Shey you’ve seen the website where Dr T got this slides from?, Everything in this class is flying over my head, This boy too like to dey answer off-point, Will go and eat in the hostel or buy junk at Aunty Cha-Cha’s place?. I fold them into crisp squares and put them in bag’s side pocket, along with the A4 papers.
The duffel bag is filling up and I am not even halfway through. I unfold the Ghana-Must-Go bag in my cupboard and continue packing. I used to keep the custard pails I have been storing since freshman year in this Ghana-Must-Go bag until my roommates convinced me to sell the pails off.
Is there a capacity for human memory? Can our memories ever be full, like the SD card on an electronic device? And if it does, can we add another storage device?
It will take another torturous two hours for me to finish packing.
I slump on the mattress and start tracing the brown whorls on the ceiling with my eyes. ‘Will you forget the memories tied to the items you’ve discarded? Will they come back to haunt you?’ These questions continue to clang in my chest.
In reality, selective-packing does not exist in the memory process as we are absolutely not in control of our memories, or, at least, not in the robotic way my algorithm suggests. I once wrote a story that features a memory shop where people go to manipulate their mind into remembering and forgetting. In the story, memories take the form of fabrics so the shop attendants can tweak and cut and stitch them the way tailors do. If a shop like this exists somewhere in Nsukka, I will not resist the temptation of going there.
Someone knocks on the door.
‘Guy, una get bucket?’ It’s the boy from the next room.
‘We no get,’ I answer, even though there are more than five buckets in the room.
When the boy leaves, I try to convince myself that I refused to lend him the bucket because my roommates had told me, before going home, not to give out their buckets, and not because the boy always acted like soaked bread every time we wanted to tap light from their room.
It’s 4:00pm now.
I throw on a brown three-quarter short, the one I stole from my brother in my sophomore year, and for which I have still not come up with what to tell him when he sees me wearing it at home, and the black-and-yellow Cardigan E gave me before they left. I am going on a goodbye tour. I have lost count of how many goodbye tours I have gone on these past few days – with V, U, C, M, and E. The one with V, J, U, I, K, M, E. The one with F, V, C. The one with just E. On these tours, we went to places we have made four years of memories in.
But this particular goodbye tour is different.
First stop, Akanu Ibiam Stadium. It is this place, on a clear-skied night, that I and C kissed and explored our bodies for the first time. And then we did it again a week later, because who would not want to replicate a thing that reckless. Second stop, the Faculty of Arts Quadrangle where someone first called me beautiful. Third stop, the economics department’s basement where I and I first kissed. Yes, that kiss. It was salivary and awkward and I held my breath the whole time. But I got better when we kissed again while holding hands, on the bushy path between Christ Church Chapel and University Primary School. Then we stopped kissing and grew apart because some things just do not work out. Fourth stop, Nnamdi Azikiwe Library where I first met J and decided that I hated them during our very first economics lecture. J and I have talked and laughed over this a week ago where J confessed also hating my floral shirts and, by extension, me. Fourth stop, Christ Church where I first saw A and wondered how one person could embolden so much confidence. I continue to Student Affairs, VC Office, PAA, Staff Quarters, until I run out of breath.
Back in my room, I am humming along to Adele’s ‘A Million Years Ago’ when F calls to remind me of the class get-together at Chitis. I call V, but V is not coming because V is not really feeling up to it.
‘Guy, see us here,’ someone calls out as soon as walk in through the restaurant’s door.
My classmates are sitting at the table beside the VIP section. I join them. We are all talking too eagerly, smiling too toothily, and laughing too loudly at the slightest joke or when someone remembers something funny that happened in class. Stories and memories float through the air – the time S interrupted Mr M’s story to remind him that he had told us that story already; when Ms C set the legendary calamity test; the new toilet policy in the department; Hilltop boys leaving their lodges to come and sleep in the hostels during the secret cult raids in our second year; the fake accent mass communication students used to ask questions in our GS 101 class …
The talk lingers, filling us up and wearing us out at the same time.
I suggest a game.
‘The rule is simple. Everybody place your phone in the centre of the table. Now, pick a phone that is not yours and we’ll take turns. When it gets to your turn, you will tell the owner of the phone what you’ve always wanted to say to them.’
The game turns out to be a confession of love, demi-hate, disgust, and giving unsolicited advice.
After the game, we eat, dance, laugh some more and then go home.
Morning. The bus is already full and the girl hawking Okpa beside the window asks me; ‘Brother, you are sure you’ll not buy another one?’ I smile to calm everything that is on fire inside me and look away. This is it. The moment. I am finally leaving. How did four years flit past this window?
When I gained admission to study economics at the University of Nigeria, my brother had gone on and on about how Nsukka is not a place for soft people, how he was not sure I could survive the heat, how I had to stop being effeminate because effeminate people cannot hustle for seats at lecture halls, cannot run from Abuja Building to School of General Studies, and cannot drag for water at the hostel tap, and how I needed to man up. Man up meant that in my first week as a freshman, I shuffled my way to class because walking briskly would reveal my less masculine gait. Man up meant that I had to talk less because being verbose would expose my tiny voice and make my hands flutter as I spoke. Man up meant that I had to endure going with my elder brother to watch football matches at viewing centres and feign an interest in the names of EPL clubs and their players. But I grew tired of manning up in this town of dust and bittersweet harmattan. I decided to exist fully and fall in love with my difference, again and again. I discovered the Writers Community, a close-knit group of progressive creatives who gather every Saturday to share their stories, their hearts and their love. In Nsukka, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s books recast their spell on me because I got to visit all the places the characters went to. My roots anchored here, so deeply, I forgot that I needed to also learn how to leave.
Nsukka, November 2017.
I am at Peace Park waiting for E. We are all coming back again for our final clearance and convocation ceremony. V, U, I, C, C, and F will be coming back today or tomorrow. J is not yet sure if J will come back. A man with deep scars on his face, tattered beards, rumpled trousers and shirt, is walking towards me. I recognise him. When he taps my shoulder I know he is going to tell me the story of how he was just released from jail and needs money to stand on his feet. I have heard him tell this same story, in this same park, for the four years I spent in Nsukka. I brush his hand off and cross the road, almost bumping into the bike carrying E.
‘Yeye child, see how you will kill yourself.’ E climbs off the bike, pays off the driver, and rushes to hug me.
‘Chai, you don fat finish.’
‘Dey whine yourself. Hope say you buy bread?’
‘Shey if I didn’t buy you will send me back to Aba?’
‘You suppose know nah.’
We do not take a bike to Hilltop, where I will be staying, because we have a lot to talk about. We tease each other about how much the other person has changed or has not changed, we talk about how home bored us out of our lives and how we have taken on side-jobs to pass time, we ask each other if we still keep up with the TV series we watched as undergraduates, and laugh about the recent beefs on our class WhatsApp group. In all of this, the ground beneath my feet feels strange, almost slipping away from my grasp. Could it be that this town I have known and grown to call my own does not recognise me anymore?
Nsukka, December 2017.
Past midnight, we are at Franco Gate. V, N, and I are laughing and trying to convince ourselves that we are not drunk, that we are just slightly tipsy. F is trying to calm G down while stifling a laugh. We are returning from our after-convocation party. It was not really much of a party; just a few drinks and overpriced pepper-soup at a hotel in town. We did not really want G to come with us because we knew he will suck the fun out of the whole thing, just like he is doing now grumbling about all the risks we have taken tonight. The cab driver who drove us to the hotel bailed on us when we wanted to come back, V and N nearly got pimped out, and the bike men who agreed to drive us back could have robbed us along the dark, lonely road. But we are enjoying this euphoria of flinging caution to the wind, something people like V, N, F and I never did while in school.
‘Will our parents be proud of us if they see us like this?’ G asks in the same sanctimonious tone G has been using all night.
‘Oga calm down jare. Is not spoil that we spoil for one night.’ My speech is already drawling.
‘Shey you know is just one bottle of Smirnoff that you drank,’ V says and gives me a playful pat on the shoulder.
‘Waiter, waiter. Just one bottle of Smirnoff,’ N says, mimicking how I placed my order at the hotel.
‘And the waiter was busy eyeing Inno, as per see this small boy ordering Smirnoff.’ F joins the conversation.
‘Shey you no go continue to dey calm G down?’ I ask F.
We are now at the intersection leading to the male hostels. The flickering streetlights, the calmness of the night, and the switched-on bulbs peeping through the windows of rooms in Eni-Njoku Hall sublimes the strangeness I have been carrying since I arrived in Nsukka. The memories are flooding back and the bits of myself I left here, two months ago, are reigniting themselves.
‘Humans, not places, make memories’ – Ama Ata Aidoo