Whenever I see a semicolon while reading a book, I remember Hadiza. I remember her eyes and her mind, her wrist and her voice, and I remember I would never consider reading a book had I not met her.
It was 14 months ago, at Ace Research Laboratory in Ibadan where I was to start my NYSC. She was a corper too. The Lab was located in Eleyele and Eleyele looked liked it was picked out of Lagos Island; the smell of wealth and luxuries crawled into your senses the moment you were there. With the beautiful, well-structured edifices, well-tarred roads, picturesque sceneries and waves of tranquility embracing the skin, it almost felt like home.
I lived in Lagos all my life and when NYSC redeployment was approved to Oyo instead of Lagos. I spent two days replaying everything I had heard about Ibadan. I imagined a calabash containing 50 naira notes, boiled eggs and dead toads in the middle of a road I walked; I imagined working in an office where my oga couldn’t speak English correctly; I imagined having a landlord who would insist on shaking my hands with his hand smeared with palm oil and mold of amala. But right there, in front of the gray painted laboratory guarded by a young man in blue uniform, who said to me, “Welcome to Ace Research Laboratory” without any Ibadan accent hanging in his ‘c’ and ‘s’, I knew then that living in the Brown Roof City may not be as bad as I imagined.
The first thing that beguiled me when I saw her was the light twinkling in her almond-shaped eyes while she was perched at a corner reading a book (which I later found out was The Book Of The Night Women). The light was always there whether she was with a book or not. I’d later realize her eyes were her second best assets.
Apart from gowns, maxi skirts and Abayas, she loved to wear long-sleeved t-shirts with words printed across them. The week we started talking, she had on one of her black t-shirts over a stretch skirt, it had on it a sketch of a girl holding a book in a hand and coffee cup in the other, at the back of the top said “Want to Be My Friend? Buy Me Books.” That was what I did, I got her two books from a bookstore at Jericho. It was my first time entering a bookstore and it felt like every shelf was calling me, every character screaming my name and I felt the urge to answer them, to listen to what everyone of them had to say which I think was weird since I did not read books. I randomly picked up a fiction and nonfiction. She smiled while she read the note I placed in the books, (“Hadiza, if authors saw the light in your eyes while you read, they would write forever”), she then left her seat at the corner of the office to the chair in front of me. When she smiled at me, it felt like the light from her eyes were entering mine, illumining the dark places within me, without decreasing the light in her own eyes.
“I didn’t know the top would get me free books.” She went on to tell me how excited she felt. She sniffed the books as though opium was hidden in it pages, “I should wear it more often.”
She asked if I read, I shook my head and she said “you should, you really should. I think Africa, Nigeria would be much better if half of its population read.” The light in her eyes made everything she said more intense, she always spoke slowly, not a dragging voice but with a deliberate slowness that made each word reverberate. She got involved in just little conversations with others in the office. She admitted she didn’t like that most of the conversations were about shallow things. “I hate unintelligible conversations. I’d rather read good conversations in my book than talk about things that I won’t remember talking after two weeks.”
Hadiza lived in Abuja with her family and she spoke Hausa, Yoruba, Idoma and English all fluently.
“My dad is Fulani, my mom was Yoruba, my step-mother is Idoma.” She loved to explain her multilingual prowess to anyone who was curious , with a smirk that explained she was proud of it, being able to be easily recognised as a Fulani with her coconut brown skin, pointed nose and long chin and still be able to say, “efe gba mi abi, hundred naira ni won gbe Dugbe,” whenever a taxi driver increased the fare because she looked like an aboki.
“Why do you think Africa would be better if we read more?” I asked her, hoping it would be a start of a good conversation. There was something about the way she spoke that made you want to speak something that isn’t unintelligible. We were at the Film House reception waiting to see a movie; she was scanning through a leaflet showing the list of movies to be aired that week while she sipped the Pepsi we bought at twice its normal price.
“You know,” she looked up, screwing the Pepsi cap on its bottle, “for example, it was easy for the Whites to infiltrate Africa because they knew they had a way of dividing us completely. We had different cultures, different tribes, different gods and we didn’t like that we were different; and it was easy for them to convince a tribe to sell to them another tribe.”
“Hmmm. You know even if they hadn’t used our differences to get to us, they would have found another way to start slavery, the British uncles meant business, they weren’t planning on leaving in empty ships. They were ready to export us no matter what it required.”
“We made it easier for them.” She pressed, gently.
“Maybe.” I always found it hard to accept that we made it easy for the Whites to rob our ancestors of their identity, imprison their minds and use their bodies to help their economy bloom. “What’s that got to do with reading though?”
“Everything.” She gestured with her hands spread wide open like she was in a class enlightening young children. “A typical Nigerian man would rather give a job to someone of the same tribe as his than give it to someone who isn’t, and while it might seem like a good thing, it’s bad. We are always with the mindset that we are different.” She stretched her hands on the plastic table, the flare sleeve of her Abaya covering most of her hands. “We will never be united if we continue to live as if we are different instead of uniting the parts of us that are the same. Our Country, Our Continent won’t be better if we keep living as though we are different. Reading helps us realize how similar we are, how similar our feelings and desires and wants and goals are and the similitude in our feelings if we acknowledge it is stronger than our tribal, cultural or religious differences.
“The current situation in the Nigeria reflects the personality of Nigerians collectively. If shallow-minded citizens continue to populate the nation while the open-minded continue to hide themselves in their rooms. Where does that leave us as a nation? Reading helps us think, helps us create our own opinions, question things, think correctly and reason with open mindedness.”
On a Sunday, Hadiza came over to my apartment, something was wrong. Over the phone, she said she needed to talk to somebody. When she came over, we sat under the mango tree in the compound I lived, the floor was littered with mangoes and mango leaves—brown, green and yellow leaves. She ignored the bench and sat on the leaves; I joined her, resting our backs against the tree.
She picked up some leaves. The three colours. “It’s so beautiful,” she held the leaves over my face, “isn’t it beautiful that these three leaves came from the same tree?” I would later find the three leaves in my backpack after she had left.
“I’ve been feeling a little depressed since Friday.” It was the first time someone used with me the word depressed to describe how they felt and that made me more worried, worried that someone like her could feel that way. “Sometimes I feel insecure” she continued “and I’m trying not to. I feel like I’m not enough, like I need to be something else or be somewhere else to be who I want to become.”
I asked her why she felt that way.
“You know, I want to become an author and I want to be a well-read author without needing to settle in a place that isn’t Nigeria. And yesterday I was thinking about famous, well-read Nigerian writers—Soyinka, Adichie, Emecheta, Achebe, Okri, Sefi Atta and many more.” She clapped her right fist into the left palm as she mentioned each name. “They left Nigeria before they became really well known, I don’t know if they would be as well read as they are had they not left Nigeria.” She shut her eyes tight, sighed, and opened her eyes. “It scares me that Nigeria may not be enough to make me the person I want to be.”
Shutting her eyes hadn’t really helped, the salty water rolled down her cheeks and I held her in my arms.
“I dropped by the bookstore on Friday. I picked a book written by a Nigerian author in Nigeria but I dropped it for the one written by a Nigerian-British because I unconsciously thought it would be better than the first.” Her voice was weak and thin. “Femi, I didn’t know I had this thought woven in my subconscious, that something Nigeria-made isn’t good enough unless it is polished abroad, it occurred to me yesterday and it made me scared, then angry….and depressed.”
I released her from my arms and held her hands. She had a semicolon tattoo on her wrist. It looked so small that I had almost mistaken it for a birthmark the first time I had seen it. I moved my thumb round the punctuation mark. I had asked her what it meant and she stated that it’s a mental health thing, choosing to continue a story or a sentence when it could have just ended with a full stop. I must have looked confused to her because she continued to explain. “Someone named Amy Bleuel started it to support people with suicidal tendencies. It’s like deliberately choosing to continue my life, my story instead of ending it… For me, it’s a symbol of hope.”
“Hadiza, think of it like this; whatever you want to write after this semicolon,” I gestured to her wrist, “write it without thinking about how it had gone with others that aren’t you. This is your own story; you should write it independent of what the stories of the people you look up to are.” My voice was low and she was looking at me like she wanted me to say more, like whatever I said mattered to her. “Unfold your own myth.” I added.
“Unfold-your- own- myth.” She repeated, dissolving the words in her mouth.
“I read it in a book, by Rumi. You should print it on one of your t-shirts.”
She smiled; it started as a smirk, then the sides of her lips stretching out so it almost looked like she had dimples.
Whenever I see a semicolon, I remember Hadiza, I wonder what story she’s writing behind the semicolon, I wonder if she’s going to happen in Nigeria. I wonder if she will ever find Nigeria enough for her, for her light. Then I move past the semicolon, and read whatever comes after it.
About the Writer:
Azeeza Adeowu is a writer, blogger and book reviewer based in Ibadan, Nigeria. She studied Biochemistry at Nasarawa State University, Keffi. Her fictions often explore underrepresented people and events in the literature world. You can find her on her blog where she reviews books, rants, and writes her opinions on thezyzah.wordpress.com