“Errors are very talkative,” says Oliver Goldsmith. This post is the first of a series of writings in which I begin with a speck of fact and see how far I can wander before fact becomes fiction.

In the northern parts of Benin City, there used to be tenement housing for low-ranked soldiers. Nothing fancy.  It really was just a bureaucratic mistake tossed up on a little mound called Ikopba hill. In fact, the word housing is a misnomer. Picture an endless row of buildings shaped like matchboxes. Each building had nine storage rooms with doors that opened out to the street.  Three rooms to a family. There had to have been a couple hundred households. Rumor has it that it used to be an armory during the Biafran War. Talk about turning spears into plowshares.

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There wasn’t really much that was memorable about the place except that we lived side by side with a colony of cockroaches.  I never thought I would ever use the word vainglorious to describe an insect. But these insects were bloated with pride that they could fly and did very little to hide it.

Cockroach colonies are not rare things. But it is quite a distinguished experience to live in one of those places where cockroaches run a thriving commonwealth.  How did these colonies form? First, you wanted to believe that they invaded the house from the outside. Initially that line of thinking made sense since the house was surrounded by a field of refuse. But there were times when you got the sense that the house itself oozed these creatures out of its pores–broken ceilings, gaping floors, cracked walls, etc. But then you realized there was no use asking where they came from. They were just always there, corroding the house from the inside. Even when they were laying low, you could still feel them, like a ghostly presence. A rustle in the sack of beans. A dainty scurry among the stack of pots. My favorite is the startling fall from the ceiling and the thud. One day, I felt something beady in my shoe.  I pulled out my foot. And what did I find? A string of roach eggs.

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The sound of flapping cockroach wings! It still haunts me. As a little girl, I had always told myself that the day I met a ghost, I’ll make sure to will myself to die of fright before the ghost did to me whatever I imagined ghosts did to people. The only thing that came close to a ghostly encounter was the rattling noise that accompanied the flapping wings of a cockroach. No one had to tell me that the chill it sent through my spine was not mine but an age-old revulsion that preceded me by millenniums.

Photo Credit: Ehijie Edoro