Omenana, a tri-monthly speculative fiction e-magazine, is open to submissions from writers from Africa and the African Diaspora. Stories and art must be speculative fiction (Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror or Magical Realism) and must involve characters, settings or themes directly related to the African continent. Stories and art should challenge normative ideas about gender, sexuality, ethnicity and religious belief. All stories and art must be in English (translations welcome), must be original works (no fan fiction, sorry) and previously unpublished.
We are very much interested in works that explore alternative futures for Africa and people of African descent – with a preference for positive iterations (though dystopias are welcome too). We would also like to see explorations of the past as well as new interpretations of myths, folklore and magic. We do not accept graphic violent or sexual content.
Above all, we are looking for original ideas, excellent writing and a strong emotional core.
We are also open to essays and reviews that deal with our interest in African speculative fiction. We DO NOT accept poetry, drama or film scripts.
All work must be submitted by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org as a single attachment in one of the following file formats: .doc, .docx, .rtf, .odt.
Include a cover letter in the body of your e-mail providing your contact details (name – not the pseudonym you write under – address, email and phone number), a brief publication history, a bio of no more than 100 words and a profile photo.
Our current submission window will open December 15, 2016 and will close January 15, 2017. Work submitted before or after this period will not be considered.
All text submissions must be 12-pt font, doubled-spaced.
Short fiction should be no more than 5,000 words.
You can send in two flash fiction pieces but they should not exceed 1,000 words each.
We encourage submissions of creative non-fiction and essays of no more than 3,000 words.
Reviews should be between 800 and 1,500 words.
Graphic fiction and visual art should be sent in as a .jpg file.
Please don’t send revised drafts of works that you have previously submitted or that are already published (both online and offline), unless we specifically ask for them.
Accepted work will be paid at a rate of N3000 per published work.
Lagos Comic Con 2016 was my very first comics convention and I found myself hedging my expectations as I manoeuvred my car into a rather tight space that a friendly security guard had indicated between two others cars opposite the venue.
Lagos Comic convention started in 2012 to serve as market place of ideas and networking for people in the design, movie, gaming and comic book sectors in Nigeria. The event is organised by Ayodele Elegba and Austine Osas of Spoof Animation. Two years before, misinformation on social media had sent me on a wild goose chase in Yaba as I sought for a venue that turned out to be in Ikeja – on the other side of the city – and much closer to my apartment. By the time I found out I was in the wrong part of town, I was too flustered to make the switch and drove home instead. Last year, my work made it impossible for me to attend. So this year, I started planning my attendance months beforehand and used Google Maps to make sure I narrowed the venue to a ‘T’ – and even got to the site early.
Though I have had no physical experience of the ambiance of a comics convention, years of active nerdiness and the wonders of today’s internet meant I wasn’t lacking in references. As such, what struck me as I crossed the dual lane road and entered the venue proper was the dearth of some of the things I’d come to expect from a typical convention. This was the biggest comic book event in Nigeria so, ‘Where are the cosplayers?’ I wondered as I paused before the banners announcing the convention at the entrance.
Inside, it was immediately clear I had little business pondering about ambiance. While the outside exuded a calmness uncharacteristic of Lagos, inside it was nerdvile 2.0. It had all the trappings you’d expect from this type of event, albeit on a smaller scale than what you’d find in the global west and east. Yeah, there weren’t many people dressed as their favourite anime or fantasy character happily prancing about, but there was a lady dressed as Supergirl standing by a stage at the end of the hall watching a comedian telling jokes in Pidgin English and a neon sword wielder of two. And I am sure I saw Iron man walking towards the exit. Perhaps as the years bring more comic conventions and the cosplay culture catches on, we will begin to loosen up. J
But then, there is more to conventions than cosplay, right?
The large hall was packed. There were hundreds of people milling around the several dozen exhibitor stands. These stands advertised comic book start ups, virtual reality headsets, graphic designers, e-publishers, and one had a table loaded with cosplay costumes, so yes—there is a potential of this catching on.
The atmosphere was celebratory with an underlying sense of organised chaos, but I could also see that there was room for more people, more organisation and definitely more cosplays.
I got a taste of the artistic potential in the room when I moved over to an artist whose depiction of The Joker captured my interest. Daniel Inniel’s response to my query about what he was looking forward to at the convention was terse: ‘I am here to look for sponsorship!’ he said and he hoped his art would attract the right sort of investor.
As taken as I was by Daniel, it was the business savvy of 10-year-old Victoria Ochuba, a junior secondary student of Holy Child College in Lagos, that blew my mind. The youngest exhibitor at the convention, Victoria informed me that she had started taking drawing seriously when she was just five years old, and saw it as a tool for self-expression. Where Daniel was looking for someone to sponsor his work, Victoria had her eyes fixed on becoming an internationally recognised artist and holding exhibitions across the globe. She informed me that she had sold her first painting, a drawing of Mickey Mouse, for 500 Naira to her friend and that the most expensive painting she’d ever sold was a nature painting for 4000 Naira. After I bought a painting of two puppies from her, the budding entrepreneur told me that she saw art school in her future.
Not far from Victoria’s stand, amidst the sea of superhero comic start ups, a particular stand drew my eyes. Nigeria is noted for religiosity. To not identify as a Christian or a Muslim in this country is to be seen as an ‘other’ — a dark other, that needs to be delivered from all evil. In this environment, it is no wonder comics of the type that deal with people flying on their own power, shooting bolts out of their eyes and doing many other impossible things, are finding it very difficult to find a foothold.
Finding a foothold is not something that Mr Jaiye Ojo’s Bright and Morning Star is struggling with. Focusing on retelling popular bible stories in comic version – with the added intrigue that these stories are set in a space travelling future — is a brilliant way of navigating the cultural hang-ups in a country where comics are often viewed with suspicion by the religiously inclined. What we have is a marriage of Christianity and science fiction, something that is not unusual, but where the usual time machine-centred bible story takes kids back to bible times, Bright and Morning Star’s world is in the future.
Bright and Morning Star, has been in business for eight years (and very successfully, according to Mr Ojo), is a ready example of the possibilities inherent in the Nigerian comic book, animation and gaming sector.
‘The business side is very, very good. We conceive and produce the comics here, but we have an international market already,’ Jaiye Ojo said.
Some of the biggest names in Nigerian comics were also on ground. Youneek Studios, who publishes E.X.O., a comic that is also online as an animated series, was a hit as fans clustered around their stand. I wondered if the pricey nature of the well-drawn comics wouldn’t be a deal breaker for some, though I couldn’t find out if this was so because other stands drew my eyes and the vendor was very keen on responding to questions.
Peda Studio publishes Newborn, a comic that is centred on African legends, empires and heroes. Their idea is to educate while they entertain.
Kenneth Unamba is a writer who wrote several stories for New Nigerians, a comic I just discovered and have absolutely fallen in love with. They publish one edition of the comic each year, but are looking to increase it to two by next year. I was impressed by the art in the New Nigerians, and Kenneth, who was at the convention with his family, assured me the artists are all home-based.
Off the convention floor, I met Somto Ajuluchukwu, who works at Vortex Comics, with whom Omenana may partner with in the future as we move to bring more exposure to the Nigerian comic book scene. Vortex was crowned Studio of the year and Somto had this to say about the honour: ‘We experienced love and appreciation for one year of hard work and changing the dynamic. The studio of the year award was a testament. Thank you.’
I left the convention venue only 2 hours after I arrived. A short time, I know, but I had experienced enough sights and sounds to last me until the next convention in a year.
My background is East African (Egyptian, Ethiopian) and West African, Indigenous and Spanish Caribbean (Jamaican, Cuban, Trinidadian.)
What art, comics or characters inspired you to be an artist and illustrator when you were growing up and why?
As a child, I made art without really thinking about it. I was interested in any and every medium. Anything lying around the house was interesting to me: Tin foil, nail polish, oil, coffee grounds or tea staining…anything – in addition to more conventional approaches. I worked in community theatre, I loved instruments. And so, I think my inspiration was mostly myself, isolation and whatever I could get my hands on.
Are you involved in a lot of other projects outside your regular job? Can you tell us which ones you’re currently most excited about?
I’m always involved in as many projects as I can. I act, I design, I write freelance, I paint and illustrate – I’ve even taught art in after-school programs. I don’t think I could have a job outside of ‘creating’. I have had jobs outside of being an artist, and I found them all quite emotionally arduous. Not that art and industry can’t be painful and frustrating, but doing something you don’t love with the same amount of tedious day-to-day is so much worse. I think it makes it harder to focus.
What strategies do you use to carve out time for sketching?
Whatever medium you study, just do it. I’ve worked full-time desk jobs and was sketching, planning, writing, emailing/reaching out while there. Life is short. You have to make time for what you love and strive to do it more and more, no matter where or what is happening around you. I’ve been in truly awful environments – emotionally and physically – and it will take a toll on you and, of course, your work, but you have to keep coming back to it. Keep trying to find the work.
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What TV shows would you sneak out to watch right now?
I love and will always love The Twilight Zone.
Who are the most exciting artists on the Nigerian scene right now?
What was the most discouraging time in your career and how did you overcome it?
As an artist, every day has the opportunity to be discouraging. Artists don’t receive the same amount of support as other professions, which is tragic because art is a part of all of our lives. It saves lives, cultures, communities, and individuals, it preserves history and ideas, and it starts movements. Art is, to me, as vital as law or medicine. Every day as a human and as an artist, there is the potential to find beauty and truth, and to make that your focus. As an artist, that is your mission: to provoke everyone to see more and more.
Looking back, is there anything in your career that you would do differently? Any major decisions you regret?
I would change nothing. Everything has led me to now.
What is it you would most want to be remembered for when you’re gone?
What a great question! When I pass away, I want to be remembered for my ideas, my art and my love/compassion. I want people to have been moved, changed forever, provoked, warmed, and made to feel not alone.
When Dad talked about the Screamers, I thought maybe he could’ve been a writer. We were different like that. I was never too good at metaphor myself.
I’d brought homework with me so I could get some done in the back seat of the cruiser while Dad answered the call. He was working Homicide at the time and I could tell what kind of case it would be by how he came back into the car. If the case was going to be a quick clearance, Dad was all purpose, and it showed in his stride. If the case was going to be slow-going, so was he.
“Bad case, Dad?” I asked from the back of the cruiser one night.
He’d been in the driver’s seat for a while, long enough that the body had been carted off to the morgue and the crowd had dispersed. He had pinched the bridge of his nose and had even undone his cufflinks and loosened his tie. He looked at me in the mirror and smirked. “It’s all right,” he said. “Just need a couple base hits is all.” He talked like that sometimes, like he was America-born. He took their metaphors, their imagery. I figure he thought I liked it.
This was usually around the time Dad would pull out another notebook and, with a pencil, scribble something down. A line or two, sometimes an entire paragraph. He’d tuck it back into his breast pocket, and then he’d transform himself into the Super Detective he’d always been, his lapse in confidence all but forgotten.
With Dad taking me on occasional runs, it was only a matter of time before we ran into our first Screamer. There had been blood everywhere.
Body parts littered the alley floor like a bomb had gone off. In the flashing light from the cruisers, the fingers and pant legs shone blue and purple in their sanguine coat. Chunks of scalp hung from the fire escape, strands of silver clinging to the rails like spider webbing.
Nobody knew whether the whole thing should go on the board in the office as a homicide or if this had been some sort of terror job, but the absence of evidence left it in the no-man’s land of accidental death.
Dad had come back into the cruiser with that going-into-overtime shuffle and stared ahead for a long while and when I reached out from the back seat to touch his shoulder, he didn’t move.
He hadn’t once reached for the tiny notebook in his pocket.
Soon, the office board was entirely covered in the red ink of open cases. One by one, detectives would come in, shake their heads, and slump into their seats marveling at the bad luck of a perfect crime committed with as comprehensive a lack of physical evidence as ever.
Afterwards, they’d retreat to a nearby Irish pub called McLarney’s and compare notes. We all gathered in the back. Nigerians, mostly, with some Ghanaians and a few Senegalese detectives. I sometimes sat with Dad with my ginger ale and his pint of Guinness and watching him scribble in that notebook while the other detectives reminisced about old cases.
“He is practically a boy, nah. No hair on his chin even. And he comes in smiling like a, a, a Cheshire cat. He says he solved the case. It took him three weeks! Eh-heh, clap for yourself.”
Someone else waves their hand dismissively. “If they are raised here, they think they deserve a prize for every mystery they solve.”
“These children. Give them a gun and a badge, and suddenly, they are talking to you as if you’re their age-mate.”
Then a more conciliatory voice: “It is not easy o. Any proper police knows all you need is a jury of these, these just-blacks, to ruin a perfectly good case.”
“Where is the lie?”
On and on they went, about the woes of training this new generation of immigrant police, about how often the just-blacks refused to cooperate and accept their policing, about how this land had inured them to common sense so that each generation of ancestry that could be traced to a plot in Georgia or North Carolina or Missouri was another stone in the mountain of their stupidity. But beneath it all was wonderment at why African-Americans made it so difficult for the Africans who had been brought in to police them.
“But these new things, these bombings in the projects with no witnesses–”
“That’s not news, now.”
“That’s not news o.”
“No nothing. Except a pile of mismatched limbs. I’m telling you, eh, it makes me want to scream.”
Dad looked up at that, but only I had noticed. A moment later, he was scribbling again. I wouldn’t find out till later that what had happened in that moment was a bit of serendipity, a two-step in what Dad liked to call the cosmic choreography of his existence.
Someone’s phone chirruped, and the detectives were off again. Dad was a little slow getting up, but when I tried to follow, he said, “go home.” The way he said it was enough to keep any protest I had in my gut where it belonged.
The victim was identified by his teeth, and when the hits came back for a kid whose dad was a banker, the rest of the city seemed to want in on the investigation.
I didn’t ride along with Dad as much anymore. Some college buddies and I would trawl the abandoned neighborhoods of foreclosed houses, and stare at them from hilltops with a case of Coors between us. Sometimes we would toss our empties and try to hit a few windows.
By then, more squatters had filled the vacant homes and occasionally I’d watch some of my dad’s old partners make their rounds, rousting the kids who always shouted that they were protesting, though they never said what; that they had rights, though they never mentioned which. With their iPhones and their hoodies and their braided hair, they’d shout and cry until the whole block was quiet again.
I saw Dad roust a few, but he was never rough with them like his partners were. His heart didn’t seem in it and when I’d watch him get back into his car from the hill, I’d wait to see if he pulled out his notebook to scribble out some lines. But, nothing. Just the protestors in the back seat as his cruiser sped off and I finished another Coors. Like he’d just tucked the neighborhood in and couldn’t be bothered to see if we were all asleep or just pretending.
All the base hits in the world couldn’t turn up a clearance in the case of the erupted banker’s kid. The city threw the entire force at it, but the most closure the kid’s divorced parents could hope for was that it had been an accidental death. A freebase session gone wrong.
The case forced a few retirements and I hung back, against Dad’s wishes, to watch some of those guys who’d given him company at the bar pack up their desks before their pension could join them. A couple of them went into private security, but I never heard from most of the departed. Even when the protests started up again and tents lined the streets and sidewalks of those foreclosed neighborhoods and vagrancies went up by double digits, the department slimmed.
So maybe it was a sense of duty that made me take the cadet’s exam. Or maybe it was my inability to see something so full get gutted and made irrelevant. Maybe it was the reverence in the voices of those detectives as they’d swap stories at the bar and talk about their profession like it was a religious calling, like you could actually see God, or something like Him, in the titanic folly that made up a single evening’s work. Maybe it was because I’d just wanted Dad to tell me what he was writing all that time in that damn book of his.
She had silver hair and silver eyes to match. And I was coming for early relief when they brought her into the box. By the time I’d arrived, she’d already dropped names on perps involved in fourteen open cases. I watched from the other side of the one-way glass of the interrogation room as she closed a dozen more cases for us.
When Dele started in on the details, she filled it all in, describing each scene as though she’d been there herself. Some of the Number Twos on those investigations went scurrying back to their files to match the little physical evidence they had to her statements and everyone came back green. The board went from blood-red to night-black in a single shift. Dele went on with her for hours, but when he finally asked about cause of death, she told him they were suicides. Each and every one of them. Including the banker’s kid.
The whole place went still; detectives crowded around the partition holding their breath.
I’ll never forget what she did next. She closed her eyes, almost like she was praying, and she opened her mouth. And the entire world went white.
When I woke up, the whole floor was in pieces, chunks of wall were missing, desks split in half, glass all over the floor like hail. My ears wouldn’t stop ringing and when I put my hand to my face, it came back bloody. Someone had the sense to call it in as a terrorist attack. My body felt like I’d been laid on some train tracks right before the 4.30 uptown came through, but I managed to sit up enough to see what remained of the interrogation room.
Blood had sprayed over the entire place, with no body part large enough to use for identification. Intestines hung in ropes from the overhead lamp and the metal table between Dele and the girl had crumpled in on itself like tin foil. In the uppermost corners of the chamber, silver hair splayed like webbing.
I saw Dad at the funerals and then the memorials afterwards, and though he never reeked of Guinness or looked at me with the blurry-eyed semi-lucidity of the day drinker, I knew he was on the slide. It showed in his shuffle.
Routine, after that, meant showing up to support the grieving families of the slain officers, holding our own wake at McLarney’s, singing a few songs from back home and knocking back shots in honor of our fallen comrades. We clung to that because there was nothing else to cling to, no explanation, no motive. At least, until the first silent protests started.
Lining the protest tents in the wasteland of foreclosed homes, they stood like columns of soldiers: just-blacks, men and women with their hair uniformly silver, duck tape over their mouths. We’d gotten so used to hearing them chant about police brutality and hoist their ensloganed placards and shout and rage against anything they could blame, but we’d never seen them silent before.
The first time I saw them, I’d been on the hillside with Detective Kolade and we’d had a case of Coors between us. When he saw the columns form, saggy-jean kids spilling out of the empty houses, an electric current passed through him. Before I knew what he was doing, he’d gone back to the cruiser for his nightstick and had marched down the hillside. I waited for the inevitable confrontation, for that one kid to break ranks and charge him or to say something stupid, but there was only silence, then the accusatory thunk of nightstick cracking jaw. I don’t know why I did nothing as he beat that poor kid, but I think a part of me saw my father in that moment, saw him grasping at answers to a thing, a type of killing that he could not explain, among a group of people who, though we looked so much alike, were as inscrutable as night. Kolade had no notebook, but he had a nightstick and who was I to stop him?
We locked up a few more silver-haired just-blacks after that first run-in, mostly from downtown protests gone awry, but when we brought them to the box, they lost all usefulness. Almost anything they took credit for was proven false a few minutes later. None of them had left behind an ensanguined crime scene. None of them even had natural silver hair. After a few hours of interrogation, they were quick to confess to that lie. They had dyed their hair in solidarity with whoever had committed these crimes.
But soon after the silent protests started up and home vacancies spread even further, the first envelope came in. Witnesses would later report a high-risk analyst at a securities firm had been sorting through his mail when he came across an envelope marked with his name and nothing else, no postmark, not even a stamp. He’d turned it over, then opened it, and in the next moment, his two halves had traveled in opposite directions the length of the trading floor. Witness reports vary on just what happened the moment he opened that envelope, whether the cry was one of anguish or rage, whether it was even he who had screamed or someone else who, knowing something was wrong, had emitted the cry. But everyone there agreed that there had been one. That it had been pained and laced with injustice and that it had been like nothing they’d ever heard before.
Dad took a few more of those cases, but he was never Number One anymore. Most nights, when my shift ended, Mom would call and tell me that Dad still hadn’t come home and I’d crawl his familiar haunts until I eventually found him wearing a groove into a barstool, head and shoulders hunched over his notebook, a pint of Guinness at his elbow.
I’d wait till he finished scribbling before I’d sidle into the stool next to him and tell him how much Mom worried. But it always took me a few moments to work up the courage.
Dad looked more like a stage-four cancer patient than a veteran cop. His balding head had pits in it. His cheeks had hollowed out, and the joints of his fingers were knotted with arthritis. Scribble, scribble, drink. Scribble, scribble, drink.
“My son,” Folasade the proprietress said, smiling with all the sadness in the world. She knew why I was here, but she’d still ask, “What are you drinking tonight?”
And I’d say, “I’m fine, Sade, but thanks.” And she’d walk away and leave me and Dad alone.
“We’re like priests,” Dad said one time when I’d come to pick him up, “and this, all this, is our battlefield. And you have the angels on one side and the demons on the other side, and us taking care of what’s in the middle. What is encased in all the glass and steel? That supernova that is getting dimmer and dimmer and dimmer until one soldier from either side accidentally kicks dirt over it and, pfft, the fire is out forever.”
This was senility, and I recognized in myself the fury at my own powerlessness. People said that would happen. Dad was crumbling in front of me and every misspoken metaphor was another brick coming lose, another rusted beam creaking against the weight it supported, another moment before inevitable gravity caused the whole thing to collapse on itself.
The cancer we all knew was coming finally had Dad bedridden.
He refused treatment and contented himself with having his loved ones near for his final months.
In the room Mom and I set up for him, the lights were left dim, like he preferred. We’d filled it with his effects from the old house in his village back home: his writing desk, the standing lamp that looked like an upright tree branch, the hollowed-out calabash bowls I used as a helmet when I was a child.
In the beginning, when I took up my post at his bedside, I filled the air between us with news of his contemporaries, his “war buddies.” Nneka was sitting pretty at a university security gig. Chidi retired to a place in Fort Worth where his whiskey and his porch could keep him company. Babatunde finally patched things up with his wife and was seeing his kids again. Israel couldn’t cure the policing itch, so a routine traffic stop gone wrong cured it for him. Since the departmental reshuffle and the creation of a new unit specifically for Scream-related crimes, most of the veterans had been put out to pasture. It didn’t take long for me to run out of news.
Dad seemed content enough with silence anyway.
“Strange,” he said, one night.
I must’ve been sleeping. Or halfway there.
“When I was a child, my Mama was the woman in the village to whom others came to resolve disputes.” Smiling, “her reputation was unimpeachable. On one occasion, she was told something that someone else had said about her behind her back. She went to the offender’s home to confront her, and the woman was nowhere to be found. Her husband was, however, and, by the end, the poor man had begged your grandmother to understand that this was simply his poor wife’s nature. She loved Sunday School, your grandmother, because that is how she learned to read. Your grandmother could only read words as they were written in the Bible. If they were arranged in any other order or formed any sentence not written in Scripture, she lost her ability to read. When I told her I was coming to America to become a detective, she looked up from her Bible and the look on her face…”
The cancer had broken down his American-ness, rendered him unrecognizable. He no longer spoke in colloquialisms, no longer talked or sighed or laughed like an American. And I wished I’d seen this part of him sooner.
“Was as if…” His voice carried off, and we settled into our familiar silence. That was when I got the notion to ask about his notebook. Before I could get a word in, though, Dad said, “…as if…” and this time his voice was little more than a whisper. I felt as though I should have done something, adjusted his blankets, turned down the lighting, raised the heat a little, but I didn’t want to interrupt whatever communion he was carrying on in that moment.
The muscles in his face shifted. Light flared briefly in his eyes. His wrinkles smoothed and everything sort of loosened. I knew what had happened and part of me was happy that I’d been with him for it. But the smirk on his face angered me. It was like he’d finally figured out the perfect metaphor, seen in his mind’s eye the perfect image to describe what he felt and decided in that final moment, as with that damned notebook, to keep it to himself.
I transferred out of Homicide soon after we buried him.
In the Scream unit, they’d discovered, after some very expensive failures, a way of corralling the weaponized envelopes. They weren’t hard to notice. Their targets were obvious, and despite the infighting amongst the growing number of protestors, the message the envelopes were meant to send was quite clear. It was only a matter of time before law enforcement adapted.
The envelope disposal rooms were steel-reinforced and soundproofed and the suits they made us wear began as bulky encasements of plastic armor and were soon slimmed down so that we could fit our entire bodies in the upright chamber where the bravest of us took the things apart with our own hands.
They trained you for half a year before they let you open your first envelope. Meditation techniques. A slew of controlled exercises in disassociation. By the end, you could watch yourself from several angles at once with clinical distance. Tedium became a shield against the explosion sealed in the envelope, ennui a rampart.
That’s what the Screams were. Entire souls encased in folded paper. Lived existences laced with every weaving of emotions so that when the encasement was opened, the entirety of someone else’s anguish and joy and hope and fear and hatred assaulted the victim, resonated with the swirling emotions within them so that the matched frequency overrode the physical confines of flesh and bone and sinew and the human body came apart.
To battle such a thing, you had to give it nothing to resonate with. You had to still the tuning fork in your own body. And once you did that, a Scream could tear a metal desk in two, topple an entire skyscraper, level an apartment block, but it would leave you untouched.
Dad had been two years buried when I finally found the notebook.
It’d been nestled near the bottom of a cardboard box whose soggy bottom gave out when I tried to lift it. Mom’s basement had flooded in the spring thaw and I’d come along to help her out.
The little thing had plopped into a small puddle, but when I took it out, none of the ink had smudged.
…like how a sunrise would taste if such a thing could be tasted. The scribble trailed off after that and I flipped back to the beginning of the paragraph to find what looked like a description of Mom when she’d been younger. I skipped a few pages and found another line: the smokestacks like minarets and the church spires like watchtowers all arrayed like some steel mill blue-collar kingdom where workers lived with the dignity of kings and the hope of paupers and where cops policed less like people and more like forces of nature, stalking the edges of paradise and eliminating anything that would disrupt the rhythm of peacefully-lived life.
I sat on an upturned milk crate and turned to another page.
…less like the aftermath of a massacre and more like the alley had been built in reverse, like the architect used the very act of destruction to construct it, stacking broken bricks on top of each other and carving large pocks into the concrete to catch blood or whatever might leak there, metal staircases twisted like balloon animals on each side of the passageway expanded by the blast, the walls half-coated in blood-paint, the whole thing unfinished.
As I read, I found fewer and fewer complete sentences. Instead, the metaphors grew more wrought, extended over entire pages, mapped out like a cartographer’s first draft, and Dad turned, in my mind, from some unknowable specter into that frontiersman I always imagined he was, an explorer skirting the edges of known experience, peering into the blackness, the unknown, and shining a light for someone else to follow.
The Screams grew new texture. Like marijuana laced with PCP or a cocktail with an extra kiss of vodka layering the top. Some Screams managed to break through the defenses we’d erected in ourselves.
I remember the beads of sweat on Obiwu’s forehead more than anything else. His fingers were deft, his movement smooth, and his eyelids didn’t flutter like they used to. His poise was erect and he moved like he did during every other disposal, but the beads of sweat beneath his visor told me that his concentration had been bent and would soon be broken. The next instant, the disposal chamber had acquired a new coat of paint. The clean-bots went to work preparing the sturdy contraption for its next victim. For those of us with enough training, we could look at Obiwu’s death with the clinical distance of a scientist marking a failed experiment. We were already recalibrating our ingredients. For those ready to crack, those whose hands had already begun to shake, whose distance between soul and body was too easily bridged, the chamber became less a place of work and more a coffin, a sarcophagi they would never be comfortable stepping into.
I started carrying Dad’s notebook into the chamber with me. Slipped it into a little fold by my left hip, about where my holster used to go.
After my shift, I carried it home and in the empty pages Dad didn’t have the time or energy to fill, I’d describe my own crime scenes. I’d climb into the interior of each Scream. I’d traverse each river, crawl along every thread of every emotion braided together, and I would write down what they sounded like. One sounded like a chorus of angels that, for the duration of the blast, fancied themselves demons. Another sounded, at its apex, like a massive log the size of the earth was being chopped inside my head and when the wave passed, it sounded like how a sunset might sound if such a thing could be heard, a red and blue and purple and golden thing that slid along the underbellies of clouds before the entire world was engulfed in darkness.
I would return to some of Dad’s earlier metaphors to buttress my own. And in those moments, I felt like I was right alongside him on the edge of the darkness, his sidekick, his Number Two, the both of us metabolizing the psychological trauma of the just-blacks into a shining light for others to follow.
I was sent in to handle the third envelope we’d collected that day and in the chamber, my hands on the envelope, ready to open it, my heart quickened. Not with fear or worry, but with excitement. What would I write in that notebook when I finished? How many generations of racialized violence would this Scream sound like? How many forced prison sterilizations would fuel this Scream’s tenor? What specific brand of injustice, colored by equal measures loss and never-having-had, would tint the timbre of what awaited me in this envelope?
A sweatdrop plopped against the inside of my plastic visor.
My fingers froze, and I could hear fear stampeding towards me in the distance. I thought of Obiwu, remembered the look of frozen calm on his face just before the envelope in his hands had detonated. But this, this was different. This was possibility sealed tightly between my fingers.
The part of me governed by my training told me to put down the envelope, step out of the chamber and hand this one off to another officer. But I couldn’t. What tapestry of experiences and feelings could I walk into by opening this one? What if this one held that perfect combination of rage and joy, that perfect amalgam of loss and gain?
I heard voices through the muffle of the chamber’s walls, then an alarm sound as personnel began to evacuate. And I don’t know why they did it, or why they thought I would do what I would do.
Because I was the only one in that room who had in his mind’s eye the image of my father smirking at the ceiling of his study. Like he’d finally answered a lifelong riddle, like he had solved the mystery of the just-blacks, had understood them, and could at last quiet the rumbling in his own heart.
Six a.m. on Valentine’s Day, and Shanumi stands at her office window to watch Lagos jump and sizzle like an electric spark. Familiar sounds of the city awakening filter through the double jalousie–engine grunts, horn blares, unnecessary yelling–and commingle with those of her business rousing: the roar of the generator, iron sponges scouring steel pots, Enitan yelling in the kitchen down the hall. In the room, the air conditioner inhales dawn’s humidity and spits chilled smoke, crinkling the edges of papers, squeezing the tips of her fingers, building goosebumps on her neck.
She begins running through different scenarios of who’s going to step into her restaurant at seven-thirty tonight. The tension in her chest heightens; she hugs her arms trying to lose herself in the maze of Lagos lights. More goosebumps rise on her skin, independent of the AC, reacting instead to her disquiet. She shakes her head, tries to focus once again on the lights. No change. Soon, her legs grow weary from standing in heels, and her pantsuit jacket no longer keeps out the cold. It takes mental strength to pull at the blind cord, slowly, until the shutters close and her distractions are prised away.
She sighs and sits down at her desk. On the half of the table not packed with small potted plants, she opens up her MacBook and begins to work on the day’s special menu.
She’s stuck on item number three when Gboyega, still in his biker suit, bursts into the room all adrenaline and sweat.
“Are you seeing this, Boss?” he says between breaths. His round cheeks dimple as he grins. He shoves an iPad under her chin.
“Good morning to you too,” she says and waves away the tablet. “What’s that?”
“We’re on top! We’re on top!” He bounces from foot to foot, shoving the iPad at her again. She closes her Mac and peers at the tablet’s screen. There’s a spreadsheet with numbers and charts and stuff.
“The top ten food blogs in Nigeria all recommended us as number one place to book Valentine’s Day dinner,” he says, pointing to a table. “And on Instagram, see here? Our menus have been trending since January. Look at our list for the night. Fully booked since Friday. With top society people and shit.” He steps back, spreads his hands. “Everybody is coming here for Valentine’s Day dinner.”
Shanumi gives a wan nod and regards her business development executive with a sting of envy. If only I could be so cheery. Gboyega notices her hesitation. He frowns.
“Why aren’t you over the moon? Even the governor’s family is dining here tonight!”
“That’s exactly the problem,” she says. She rises and walks over to the window again. She grips the cord, but does not pull it. “Everybody is coming here.”
“So, you’re worried that, what, we’ll mess it up?” Gboyega asks, and chortles. “I don’t even see how we can do that.”
“Oh, I can think of many ways,” Shanumi says, rolling the cord in her palm. “Anything from not washing the plates properly to choosing a menu they won’t like, or too many people and therefore poor service. Then there’s allergies, food poisoning–”
“Ha, see what you’re saying!” Gboyega says with a frown. “It’s like you want it to get messed up.”
Shanumi breathes. “Well, I…”
“You nothing,” Gboyega says, and comes over to pull her hand from the cord. He might be only twenty-nine, but sometimes Shanumi feels like she’s the younger of both of them, though she’s forty-five. “You’ve not been sleeping well. See your eyes. You think this makeup will hide it, eh?”
“I’ve been at Shanny’s three years, and not one day have I seen you mess shit up,” he ushers her back into her chair and flips open the Mac. “So you get in that chair, do what you do every day, and I’ll be out there believing in you like I’ve always done.” He flashes his grin and retrieves his iPad. “I didn’t quit McKinsey and London life to come work for you for nothing.”
He shuts the door softly on his way out. In the corridor beyond, there’s the muffled sound of boisterous hailing and high fives.
Shanumi lets his words sift into her brain. She lifts the Mac lid and picks up at menu item number four. Goat meat suya sauceon white rice with banana bread, she types, suddenly inspired. Five: groundnut ginger soup on sweet potatoes. And six. And ten. And desserts. And shakes.
Maybe I’m being paranoid for nothing, she thinks. Of course no one will ask what my secret is.
By 11 a.m., Shanumi swings open the kitchen’s double-hinged doors and is greeted by the clacking of pots, cutlery and workspaces. Enitan, the burly chef hired out of Ghana High, has her back to the entrance, screaming obscenities as her boys scuttle, scrape, carry, and wipe. The heat in the kitchen is stifling and sweat runs down the chef’s thick arms in streaks. Shanumi knows well to leave the jacket behind when coming down here.
“Rounds!” Enitan announces. She gives her boss an open-toothed smile when she notices Shanumi standing over her shoulder, then proceeds to the kitchen island. The boys stop what they’re doing and fall in line, a row of white shirts and black trousers behind her, their boots ringing against the floor. Shanumi joins in, her arm over Enitan’s shoulder.
“Everything, perfect,” Enitan is saying. “From the smell, sef, you go know. Smell am.” She drags a huge intake of hot air and giggles it out. Shanumi laughs.
The procession arrives in the middle of the kitchen. On the island, the ten dishes from the morning’s menu are lined up in two rows, desserts and shakes included. The staff step back, as usual, to allow their boss do her thing.
Shanumi stands in front of the island and blinks, eyes on the meals. Her gaze flits from dish to dish as she studies them. She scrutinizes, watches, waits.
“There’s too much paprika in the goat meat,” she announces finally. “Make it half a teaspoon.” She points to another dish. “For that gizzard dodo, use onions instead of garlic. Or maybe mix it seventy-thirty, more onions. Just garlic doesn’t feel right.” She picks up a mango tart and studies it. “It’s like you used only two tablespoons of honey for this filling. Add another one. Or half. It’ll be perfect.”
She replaces it and claps her hands together, smiling. “We’re doing it, my people,” she says. “We’re going to show the state governor what we’re made of, and once he endorses this place, we’ll be number one in the country.” She smiles and clasps Enitan on the shoulder. “All hail Nigeria’s best chef.”
Enitan snickers. “I hear you. Like say no be you show me everything.”
Shanumi crinkles her nose and whispers to the boys, “She’s humble like that,” but they’re already shuffling back to their scraping and washing.
“But seriously, how you dey do am?” Enitan asks once the boys have dispersed.
Shanumi knows exactly what she’s getting at, and starts to back away, heading out. “Do what?”
“How you take dey know?” Enitan persists, following her. “You no even need taste am or smell am or anything. You just know.”
Shanumi laughs, one that doesn’t come from her chest. “I’ll be in my office.”
Enitan gives up the chase and wags a thick finger at Shanumi. “You go show me one day, seriously. I go find out.”
“Show you what?” Shanumi flashes a too-wide grin at her chef, and backs out the kitchen door.
Once outside, the grin vanishes.
Across the street from Shanny’s, on the corner of Ligali and Ajose in Victoria Island, a small, stocky man in black trousers, boots, a white shirt and a disposable stretch cap waits for the lights. Once the red pops up, he crosses and walks to a black 2013 Pathfinder with tinted windows that has pulled over by the roadside. He gets in and shuts the door.
“Take.” He hands an envelope to the light-skinned woman with long, delicate fingers sitting in the driver’s seat.
“Everything?” she asks.
“Everything,” he replies.
She nods. “You’ll receive your credit alert soon.”
The man gets out and the Pathfinder pulls away.
Back at her office, Itunu reclines in her swivel chair, studying the PVC pattern of the ceiling above. Behind her slim lenses, she traces the plastic grooves with her eyes. Her fingers drum a steady rhythm on the table’s polished surface as her mind ticks and tocks.
Finally, she stops drumming, sits up and picks up the two menus on her table. In one hand is Shanny’s signature menu for Valentine’s Day dinner. In the other hand is the menu for her own restaurant, Itunu Grande — slightly larger with twelve items. She studies both for the umpteenth time.
There are no similarities. Every dish on the Shanny’s menu is different, fresh, nothing at all like Itunu’s intercontinental and local mashups. No matter how she twists her dishes, re-names them, updates the photos in the menu, the whole of Lagos still chooses to scurry over to Shanny’s. She has tried to copy the items, but they’re so new and experimental and only Shanny’s proprietor knows whatever the hell she puts in them. There are combos like jollof rice with guavas and avocados, yam bolognese using shredded chicken, and tilapia over beef. Even before she tries, Itunu already knows she can’t recreate those combos.
“But I have everything she has,” she says to herself, and flings the two menus across the table. She rises and starts to pace.
She has finally gotten someone on the inside and yet look what he brings her, petty info she can’t use. Giving me useless menus.
Okay, well, not completely useless. She has to give him credit. In his time, she’s learnt some things about the quiet woman who waltzed into Victoria Island two years ago and stole all her customers. Widow, one child– a son. Creates all the recipes, has the chef execute them to the last grain, inspects all dishes herself. So far, no secret ingredient of note. Just a really good knack for perfectly mixing odd combos.
Itunu paces and her mind circles back to the only thing her spy revealed that still strikes her as off.
“What kind of cook doesn’t bother to taste her own recipes?” she asks the empty room. The quiet drone of the split unit is her response.
Maybe she already knows what it would taste like. But, no. The chef cooks, she just writes recipes, so that’s impossible. Unless…
Unless she puts something in the food.
Itunu laughs at herself, places a hand over her mouth. Don’t be silly, this isn’t Harry Potter.
Then she stops, a light bulb pinging in her head.
But what if she ISputting something in her food? What if that’s why she won’t taste it herself?
“My God,” she says to the empty room, realization smacking her. That’s what the governor is eating tonight!
Itunu returns to her desk, and settles into her swivel chair, a plan assembling in her head. If she exposes Shanny’s, brings to light her dark deeds, she will be the hero. Then the governor will eat at her place instead. And Itunu Grande will reclaim top spot in Victoria Island.
The office feels colder when Shanumi returns, locks the door and collapses at her desk. She snatches the remote and turns off the air conditioner. The room’s temperature rises immediately, but the ice in her chest does not melt.
It has never melted. Not since that weekend in 2009 when Teju had swerved to avoid the Sienna going 180km/hr against traffic on the Ikoyi Bridge and their SUV had smacked the parapet. Had theirs been a smaller car, they would have stayed on the road, but it was a dwarf parapet — easy to tip over.
Shanumi shivers, remembering the splash when their SUV hit the water — the impact like a brick wall reverberating in her skull — and the shock wave of cold that came with it. She remembered thinking at the time that she should’ve taken her swimming lessons more seriously. She remembered thinking that her son, Benny, wouldn’t get those gummy bears he had asked for when they had dropped him off at Mrs Alli’s. She remembered everything going dark.
She woke up. Teju didn’t.
She didn’t even notice anything was wrong until she realized she couldn’t smell hospital’s disinfectant. Especially when they put it right in front of her nose.
Anosmia, the ENT called it.
The bank gave her an indefinite leave because her constant crying frightened her coworkers. A termination letter followed a month later. She shut down the cake ordering service she ran because she could no longer taste the flavours. For three whole months she buried herself in cooking. Teju had loved funny dishes, mixing the oddest things, so she would cook his favourite combos and set the dinner table for three. Then she would sit and stare at the food for hours. Benny would eye the dishes, eye her, then ask for bread instead. She would throw everything out at the day’s end, and repeat it the next day. Finally, Benny exploded to Mrs Alli in frustration. The neighbour came by to see for herself, and forced her to see a psychologist.
Dr. Wunmi Ajayi was this thin, dark lady with a bulbous forehead, kind eyes and the patience of Job.
“Shanumi,” she’d say. “It’s not the end. It’s a new beginning.”
Shanumi wipes her cheeks with the back of her hand, surprised they’re wet. She absentmindedly leans forward, plucks a leaf off one of the potted plants on her table. It’s the Vernonia, the bitter-leaf. She squeezes it.
The leaf pulses a smoky cloud of the deepest seafoam green, interspersed with thin tendrils of piercing black. She watches it throb, throb, throb. The smoke melds with air, never rising. She lays down the leaf and plucks another, a long blade off a citronella lemongrass. She folds the grass in her palm and watches it shine with a wild, gamy green, carrying lemony wisps of smoke for tentacles.
She first noticed it during those early days of cooking. One day, her ginger nuts pulsed with a cloud of tangy burnt amber, her garlic with a piquant opal, and her plantains with a savoury orange. She had run out of the house, screaming, only to be blinded by a kaleidoscope of pulsing smoke the minute she stepped out the front door. She had slammed the door shut and run into the wardrobe, where she took refuge between the summer green of freshly laundered clothes and the musky, leather-boot-brown of Teju’s old suits. Benny had found her there when he returned from school.
Shanumi had tried to tell Dr. Wumi about it, but the woman just hadn’t understood.
“You should be ecstatic!” The doctor had said, clapping and her clipboard with one hand. “You can smell again.”
“No, I…it’s not really smelling.”
“Oh. What’s it like?”
Dr. Wunmi had looked at her, made some notes in her clipboard, and asked nothing more about it during that session.
Another time: “So, smell this,” Dr Wumi said, holding out her pen, studying Shanumi over her glasses.
“No…it’s not like that,” Shanumi said. “It’s…it has to be strong.”
“So you choose the smells you can see?”
“No, I don’t–you think I choose them?”
The doctor shrugged. “Don’t you think you were in the wardrobe that day to remember what your husband smelled like?”
Shanumi stopped going after that. The ENT had said she’d hit her head in that accident, hard enough to damage most receptors in the mucous lining of her nose. He had said it was the end of smelling for her. The end.
But it wasn’t. It was a new beginning. She had lost one precious thing, yes, but she’d gained something much better. She could tell how much salt was needed in a meal just by looking at it. And that was something no one else in the Lagos restaurant business had.
The restaurant is full at 7:30 p.m., but no one will order until the governor arrives. He comes in at exactly eight, a balding dark-skinned man in glasses, but tall and strong in gait, evidence of the acclaimed lawyer that he once was. His wife is just as dark-skinned, but rounder, and wearing the same thin glasses. They come in with their two teenage sons. The whole family is dressed in white attires of different designs, fashioned from local atiku fabric. There’s a splash of red wherever they can—a cap for the governor, jewellery for his wife, pocket squares for the sons—to celebrate the day of love.
Shanumi, now changed into an ankle-length red velvet gown, floats over as they step in.
“Welcome, your Excellency,” she says with a slight bend of the knee. “We have your table.”
She leads them to the large centrepiece table in the middle of the room. Shanny’s is a simple restaurant with large windows; a tad cramped but meticulously arranged. The tables for two are along the windows, for four in an arc around the centrepiece, and the singles are at the bar island. Red lights have been strung from the ceiling. Every seat is booked or occupied, with the overspill outside being held off by the governor’s goons– most of whom are cameramen and media gatecrashers trying to pick up something for the blogs in the morning.
Shanumi blinks between camera flashes as the governor waves to his people and shakes a few hands before settling in. Three of Enitan’s boys line up by the table with the pre-ordered starters: plantain cupcakes capped with sardines, eggs and basil. Shanumi squints at each cake as it is served, checking that the pulse is right. She asks for one to be returned, the one with the thin tendrils of darkish-gray smoke that comes with slightly-burnt food.
As expected, the orders pour in now, and the night is on its way to becoming a blur. Shanumi checks with the DJ in the far corner, fusses over the whiteness of tablecloths, inspects the cutlery wrappings. There’s a smattering of high society people in the room, but she doesn’t recognise them enough to stop by and greet. Terrible. Maybe Gboyega will know them.
Gboyega is in the corner opposite the DJ, laughing his head off with a couple of spindly ladies. He waves an apology when he spots Shanumi.
“See?” he says, leaning to whisper in her ear. He’s dressed in a sharp tuxedo that he ruins by not wearing a bow tie. “Nothing to be afraid of. It’s already happening.” He motions with his chin to the crowd outside. “That’s success right there.”
She’s looking at the window so it takes her a while to notice the woman who’s stepped up to her. The woman is slim and light-skinned with long fingers and long hair. She is dressed in a red blouse on white trousers and heels. There’s a hint of recognition behind her contact lenses when she spots Shanumi, and Shanumi thinks she recognises the woman too, but the memory is evasive.
“Mrs Teleola,” the woman says. Her teeth are bleached white. “Your place is so lovely.” She wriggles the manicured fingers of one hand in accompaniment. In her other hand is a mango tart, which is weird because that’s not a starter.
Shanumi smiles. “Thank you. I try.” She points to the tart. “You’re at dessert already?”
“I start anywhere,” the woman says, “because your menus are so unique, so distinct. Your own recipes?”
Shanumi nods, noticing the tart has no bite marks. “Signature menus.”
“Fantastic. Just fantastic. You must have well-guarded secrets.”
Shanumi frowns. Immediately, she knows where she’s seen this woman before.
“You’re Itunu Grande at Sanusi Street,” she says.
The woman shrugs. Alarms begin to sound in Shanumi’s head.
“I’m surprised you’re eating here on Val’s. I’d expect your place to be full tonight.”
Itunu steps closer, gritting her teeth in a whisper, “Be gloating, you hear? You think because you’ve taken my customers, you’ve ruined me?”
“Taken your cus–excuse me?”
“I’ve caught you,” she says, stepping closer, so her nose is almost touching Shanumi’s. “I’ve found out your secret. I know you put something in these meals.” She waves the tart in front of Shanumi’s face. “You can’t catch me too, see? I’m not eating one bite of it. You can hypnotise everyone into loving your food, but not me, you hear?”
Shanumi’s stomach clenches.
“This is your last chance,” Itunu says in a whisper. “Confess now. Say it yourself in front of everyone, and I won’t have to disgrace you.”
“Are you alright?”
“Fine!” Itunu spits, and spins on a heel. “Your Excellency!”
The governor’s head snaps up. So does that of everyone in the restaurant. Even those outside. All eyes zoom in on the two ladies.
Itunu points a long finger at Shanumi. “Whatever it is you’re eating, I have it on good authority that this woman has put something in it.” She swings her eyes around to take in the entire room. “All of you. She’s hypnotized you.”
Murmurs arise in the room, all eyes on Itunu. Even the DJ has turned the music to zero.
“Have you ever asked yourselves?” Itunu continues, “Why you love this food so much? You can’t cook it at home. It’s not made anywhere else in the world. Yet every single day you step in here and order a dish–any dish!—and it becomes the best thing you’ve ever tasted in your entire life. You think that’s normal? You think there’s nothing supernatural about it?”
She holds the tart up in the air. “I’m sure you think I’m crazy or something, but here’s proof. Ask her to eat her own poison, see if it’s true.” She stretches the tart in front of Shanumi’s mouth. “Eat it. Show us we’re wrong.”
The air in the room is paused, static. Waiting.
“Eat it,” Itunu repeats.
Shanumi’s legs quake, unable to hold her weight. Her eyes shift to every customer in the room, stopping at the governor’s. His calm, crestfallen gaze says the same thing as everyone’s.
Shanumi picks the tart from Itunu’s outstretched hand and takes a huge bite.
The mixture of chilled mango puree, vanilla and honey, pulsing a funky triple-dye of sweet magenta, royal blue and lemon, clings to her tongue. She massages it around her mouth, pushing it up against her hard palate, sucking the tang into her cheeks and…
Many eyes have moved to convey their annoyance on Itunu, and so they don’t notice it, but the Governor’s eyes are right on Shanumi, sharp, acute, taking in the lack of a slight frown to acknowledge the sucrose, or pursed lips to the citric acid. They linger, watching her tabula rasa face, until the tart goes down.
“What…no, no,” Itunu says. “You have to finish it, finish it…”
She grabs Shanumi’s wrist and shoves the rest of the tart towards her mouth. In seconds, the governor’s goons are on her, dragging her out of the restaurant. She kicks, sends her heels flying, screaming curses.
“No! She’s deceiving us!” Her hair is disheveled, her eyes feral. “She didn’t swallow it. Check her mouth! Check her mouth!”
She’s still screaming incomprehensibles when they dump her outside.
The murmurs rise and are about to take over the night, but then the DJ turns the music up again and, slowly, conversations resume, the episode shrugged off as another random altercation, a staple of everyday Lagos life. Gboyega walks over and retrieves the remainder of the tart from Shanumi’s hand.
“Crazy woman, eh?” he says, and goes to dump it in the kitchen.
The governor’s eyes have not left Shanumi, and his fork has not returned to his baked yams under ata dindin, even though his family is oblivious to his change in countenance. She cowers under his glare and waddles away, her dress catching at her legs in her haste, to attend to the army of sweat attacking her forehead and armpits.
When she returns, the governor and his family are no longer in the restaurant.
Valentine’s night ends before 11pm, and Shanumi is back at her window, watching the fading embers of a weary city shutting down. The usual Val’s Day traffic has built up, and brake lights line up in rows like strings of Christmas blinkers. Gboyega is sprawled in the visitor’s chair with his feet on her desk, fumbling with his iPad.
“Ah, too bad that endorsement’s out the window now, yeah? Them bloggers all ranting about the lack of it, postulating theories on why the gov left. Wish he’d given an explanation, though,” he looks up. “What’s your guess? State matters? Running stomach?”
When Shanumi does not reply, he snorts. “Doesn’t matter, anyway. We’re still number one in Victoria Island.”
There’s quiet. She tries to lose herself in the lights.
“We’ll probably be top for a long time, too. Once Itunu Grande’s customers realise their proprietor is wacko.” He laughs.
Shanumi dares to chuckle along, her eyes fixed on the lights, grateful.
The motorcycle broke down about halfway between the Surulere and Lagos Island exits, near the end of what was left of Third Mainland Bridge. Akin clambered off the sputtering and clanking machine.
“Oloshi!” He cursed.
The sound echoed, bouncing off a thousand dusty surfaces and returned, cursing back at him in his own voice. Akin stared ahead in frustration. The bridge was slightly warped and crumpled, as though a malevolent giant had started to squeeze it at both ends and then changed his mind before doing any real damage. The dull heat haze limited his visibility to a few dozen meters but he could see protruding slabs of broken concrete, the husks of long burned out vehicles, crumbling skeletons and rubble spread around, a study in devastation finished in fine harmattan dust and ambitious weeds. Thirsty cracks ran all along asphalt, splitting and reuniting at multiple points, maliciously spiderwebbing it without rendering it completely impassable.
Beyond the empty lagoon and the dust and the haze, the remains of Lagos Island waited. He slung his beaten leather bag over his shoulder, adjusted his fraying belt and started walking. He kept to the raised left side of the bridge, beside the barrier rail. There was no sound except for the crunch of his boots on road and rubble, some birds chirping, the groaning of distant concrete and metal, and the slopping of low, thick mud against the piers below. Akin felt like he was an explorer on the surface of some ancient alien moon.
He had not crossed Third Mainland Bridge since before the event and he had been dreading the day he would need to cross it again. There was a time he used to traverse the bridge every day. It had been the most convenient way to get from his two-bedroom apartment in Oworonshoki, at the southern edge of the city, to his office in the small, ocean-reclaimed landmass that was Eko Atlantic. The area was supposed to be Lagos’s commercial future back when the world still made sense. When the sky wasn’t barren. Back then he had aspirations to eventually save enough money to buy a nice plot of land on the Island, or even, if he were really lucky, move abroad to start a new life.
Even then, he had been afraid to cross the bridge. Incompetent drivers, impatient and inconsiderate drivers, drivers falling asleep at the wheel, those were the things he had feared then. Now, there were no more drivers. No more people. Now that things had fallen apart, he only feared that the bridge would not hold. That some loose, sun-baked segment of the structure would give way and he would fall to his death.
As he walked, he kept an eye out for any fallen motorcycles, something he could pick up and continue his journey with. Perhaps some okada man had been unfortunate enough to be on the bridge when the event occurred, but not unfortunate enough to crash into anything. He strode past a black Range Rover SUV with deflated tires and a broken windscreen. In the front seat sat the desiccated remains of a man, neck twisted at an impossible angle. In the back, was the dried out husk of a woman cradling the skeletal remains of a baby, rotten fabric clinging to their bones. Akin fought the urge to retch as bile rose to his throat. He couldn’t afford to lose the fluids.
He thought he’d already wept all the tears he could spare, thought he had gotten used to it all, but the sight threatened to break him all over again. In that instant, there was nothing he wanted more in the world than not to be alone anymore; to hold hands with another human being and find comfort through shared suffering. He was weary of being the only guest at the city’s wake; the burden of grieving was too great to bear.
Steeling himself, he turned away from the sight and walked faster, focusing on the asphalt and concrete ahead of him. There was no time to mourn the long-dead. The end of the world had come and gone. The only thing that mattered now was finding clean water.
It had been years since rain had fallen in Lagos. Two years almost to the day. The day when, just few minutes past 5 p.m., West Africa Time, on a humid Monday evening, the sullen sky had exploded into a brilliant, alien green. The unnatural light had lingered for a few seconds, and then crashed down to the ground, like a waterfall of light.
With lightfall, came death. People died where they stood without even a chance to scream. Cars crashed into each other on the expressway. Buildings groaned. Planes fell from the sky. Electronic devices stopped working. And the water rose. Columns of water climbed from the oceans, the rivers and the lakes, towering miles into the air and spinning with a terrifying symmetry, like impossibly large fingers reaching for something beyond the stratosphere. And then, a few minutes later, it was all over. The event had occurred suddenly and without warning, leaving nothing but death, confusion and thirst in its wake.
Akin maintained a steady pace, his back bent to an almost-slouch. He had a colt series .70 pistol he had lifted from the broken corpse of a police officer near Herbert Macaulay Road tucked between his jeans and his belt. The wooden handle of a machete jutted out of his bag over his shoulder – he had needed it in the mad and desperate days following the event when the few survivors had fought each other for what little water was left. He didn’t need to fight anyone for anything anymore—it had been more than three months since he set eyes on another living human being—but parts of the city had become home to surviving monkeys, snakes and even a few wild dogs made rabid by thirst and dust, so he always kept his weapons with him.
Presently, he came upon an overturned black and yellow danfo lying on its side like an exhausted giant mechanical bee. It had veered off the main bridge and crashed into the barrier rail, cutting off his path, its belly facing the lagoon. Beside it, two of the bridge’s spans had separated by a clean seam almost a meter along. Akin stared at the gap for a few seconds and decided not to try for a jump across the gap even though he felt like he could make it. Instead, he stepped back, grabbed the top of the mangled bus and hauled himself onto it, the tail of his oversized polo shirt flapping behind him. He stepped over the metal carcass, watching carefully for glass and jagged metal. Lowering himself down on the other side, his foot came down on something hard and brittle. It broke. Akin looked down to see he had stepped on the femur of a skeleton that lay crushed under the bus. He cringed. It was an ill omen. He surveyed the area, and turning left, found himself face to face with a dusty, black Yamaha motorcycle which, like the bus, lay on its side. There was caked blood on the seat. The key was still in the ignition.
“Baba God!” He exclaimed as he rushed to it and raised it up onto its two unsteady rubber feet. The fuel gauge indicated the tank was about half full. “Please, please, just work.”
He turned the key and the engine whimpered. He turned it again and it sputtered. He turned it three more times and it choked each time. Then, on the fourth turn, it roared to life, coughing like a proud but fatally wounded animal determined not to die quietly.
Overwhelmed, he broke into familiar song, “Baba! Baba! Ba-Ba! Ese o baba! Ese o baba! Baba a dupe baba!”
He stopped singing when the dust started to scratch against the back of his throat, reminding him that it had been almost sixteen hours since he had drank any water.
Akin licked his chapped lips and climbed onto the rumbling Yamaha. He revved the engine twice and eased it back, away from the wrecked danfo and the skeleton of the person who had owned it before him.
He let the Yamaha crunch along the debris and carnage of the long drive down, all the way past the abutment on the Lagos Island end of the bridge, and then slowed to a stop as the stark emptiness beyond the heat haze and dust was eroded by the vista of the crumbling skyscrapers of the Marina, standing like broken glass and concrete teeth at the mouth of the city. He left the bike running and stationary while he surveyed his surroundings. Sharp streaks of harsh sunlight glinted off the glass-skinned buildings closest to caked mud banks of the lagoon. A crumbling billboard in the distance insisted ‘Eko o ni baje o,’ oblivious to the fact that it already had. The broken city echoed the rough growling of the bike beneath him. A solitary pied crow scudded across his vision, a linear black and white blur that quickly faded into the space between the outline of two skyscrapers. Akin shook his head. Nature was adjusting to life after the event. After mankind.
All the vain monuments the people of Lagos had built to their own existence, nature would reclaim; slowly, patiently.
He eased back down onto the bike, thinking of the thirst and the desperate plan that had finally brought him to the Island. Accelerating gently, he drove down the relatively flat and smooth rest of the bridge, navigating his way between wrecked vehicles. He downshifted when he hit the steep grade running up the west side of Ring Road and bore down on the throttle as he headed for Victoria Island, grateful for the air against his skin.
When he reached his destination, he slowed to a crawl. The metal security gate in front of The Palms shopping mall had been rudely torn away from the concrete pillars it was set into. Akin squeezed the Yamaha through the small pathway meant for pedestrians and rolled past the parking lot, all the way up to the main mall entrance. The sun was baking his skin. He clambered off the bike and stepped through the left pane of the broken glass doors, as always. Dozens of near-death experiences had given him enough material to build up easy superstitions: always enter buildings through the left and never disturb the bones of the dead, if you could help it.
He headed toward the storage area of Shoprite, where they usually kept a stock of items including bottled water that he was desperately hoping no other survivors had gotten to after the event. He’d been foraging for and subsisting on old supermarket stock like it on the mainland for months until he couldn’t find any more, forcing his migration to the Island.
Akin walked easily, gentle footfalls padded by dust. He had almost reached the last display aisle before the storage area entrance when he heard the sound. It came from behind him – a harsh crepitation that tore through the fabric of silence.
It sounded like a very sick man coughing through deteriorating lungs. Akin’s breath scraped against his throat, gritty and dry. Blood pulsed against the side of his head. He whipped out the colt from its wedge between his jeans and belt and turned sharply on his heel, calling out, “Who dey there?”
The only response that came was the hollow echo of his voice.
“I say who dey there?! Come out now before I shoot!”
There was a sound like the shuffling of feet, then another harsh, scraping cough. This time, Akin followed it to what had once been a hot food counter on his right. The source of the sound was hiding behind it.
“If you don’t come out now I will-”
“Don’t shoot, please! I’m coming.”
The young man who emerged from behind the glass and metal counter was frightfully thin. His hair was a cluster of ratty knots and his eyes were sunken, rheumy orbs. He must have been underground somewhere when the event occurred, just like Akin. Most of the survivors had been. He was wearing a shirt that hung on him like excess skin on bones, a pair of filthy shorts and tattered Adidas trainers, brown under the dust. He held his hands up as he took unsteady steps toward Akin.
“Who are you?” Akin asked, his voice shaking with shock. He had gotten used to not seeing anyone alive and the sight of this man was jarring.
“My name is Chuka,” the man said, then coughed again. He turned around very slowly like a rotisserie under Akin’s burning glare and when he was face to face with Akin again, he slowly lowered his hands to his sides and patted down his pockets before putting them up again. “I don’t have any weapons. Please, don’t kill me.”
“Where have you been hiding since the event?” Akin asked, letting a little curiosity temper his caution now that it seemed the man was mostly harmless and only about half a step beyond death’s reach.
“Ajah. I came down to the Island yesterday night when my food finished.”
“Did you drive?”
“You walked all the way from Ajah?” Akin asked, surprised.
“Na so we see am, my brother. When food finish, wetin man go do?”
Akin cautiously nodded his understanding; he’d also been compelled to move from the mainland to the Island when he’d exhausted his water supply. Well, that and his plan to finally leave Lagos.
“Are you alone?” Akin asked.
“What have you been drinking? Do you have clean water?” Akin didn’t want to ask the man any questions about his cough, about his health, about what he had been through until he was reasonably sure he could trust him. Water was far more important than empathy in these latter days.
“Coke,” Chuka said, “There was a broken down supply trailer near my house but it is finished now.”
Akin scanned Chuka’s face, saw the tension in his neck and the hopeful look in his eye, and decided he was either lying or leaving something out. Akin decided to show him some small measure of kindness to put him at ease before pressing further. “You can put your hands down,” he said.
Chuka’s rail-thin hands slumped heavily to his sides and a smile started to cut its way across his face. “Thank you. Please I haven’t seen anyone for weeks. Can you tell me-”
“You didn’t answer my last question.” Akin barked at him. “Do you have clean water? And don’t you dare lie to me.”
Chuka’s face was suddenly tense. He closed his eyes and swayed unsteadily. Another cough erupted from him and he wiped the back of his hand across his forehead as he pleaded, “Please, I take God beg you, please don’t take it from me. It’s all I have.”
“Take what?” Akin took one step closer to Chuka, keeping the sleek colt barrel pointed at the frail man’s heart. “Tell me. Now!”
Chuka stood there silently, staring at the ground in abstraction. Akin tightened his grip on the colt. He didn’t want to shoot the man but he was prepared to, if it came to it. In the half-light of the supermarket, dust motes floated about like strange, lifeless fireflies. Then Chuka said, without looking up, “The water generator.”
“Show me,” Akin demanded.
Chuka’s face was a grim mask. He turned, gesturing for Akin to follow, and stepped back behind the food counter to show him what looked like a small power-generator. The kind most people in Lagos had referred to as ‘I-beta-pass-my-neighbour’. There were two small plastic jars and what looked like a green gas cylinder attached to it via a serpentine system of transparent tubes. A patina of dirt had settled on everything, reducing the transparency but it looked like there was clean water in one of the plastic jars and dirty yellow water in the other. The bizarre contraption reminded Akin of the time his sister had been on dialysis, tubes snaking their way in and out of her like creeper vines. “Is that it?”
“Yes.” Chuka knelt down by the generator unit and touched it with a rake-thin hand. “I took it from my supervisor’s office. It can turn urine into drinking water, and even generate small power too.”
Akin’s face hardened. “Do I look like a fool? Don’t lie to me. We are probably the only two people remaining in this Lagos and I’m the one with the gun so don’t fucking lie to me.”
“I’m not lying,” Chuka mewed desperately, his voice winding up to a whine as he reached for the generator unit and pushed three buttons in succession. “Watch.”
Akin stepped back, preparing himself for a trick. Years of living in Lagos and surviving the strange days after the event had taught him to actively distrust anything that sounded too good to be true.
At Chuka’s touch, the generator started with a low mechanical grumble building up to a low hum. The transparent tubes began to shake, vibrating with fluid flow. The sound was surprisingly muted. As Akin watched, the yellow liquid in the jar on the left began to deplete and the level of clear liquid in the other began to rise. Slowly, but definitely.
“That’s pee,” Chuka said, pointing at the jar with the yellow liquid as the generator buzzed away. “The other one is water.”
Akin, his face scrunched up asked, “How?”
“I was doing my MBA in Lagos Business School when my supervisor’s daughter invented this thing. It uses an electrolytic cell to separate the hydrogen in the piss. The hydrogen is then filtered and dried here,” Chuka paused to point at a small plastic cylinder that connected the tube to the gas cylinder. “The hydrogen reacts with air, powers the generator and produces the clean water as waste.”
“Drink it.” Akin said without lowering his gun.
Chuka looked up at him, disappointment sketched across his face in ugly lines, “My brother, na wa o. It’s just the two of us here. I won’t lie to you. Why don’t you believe-”
“Drink it!” Akin commanded, refusing to let the small bubble of hope welling inside of him to become a spring.
Chuka coughed again and made a show of turning off the generator. He disconnected and opened the water jar as he spoke without looking at Akin, “I swear to God almighty, I’m not lying. My project was to find a way to help them commercialize the product and sell to one oyibo company-” He coughed again; a harsh and grating cough that lasted a few seconds before quieting down, “now, it’s the only reason I’m still alive. With this, once I get a little clean water or anything to drink, really, it can last for weeks. It’s not perfect, I get a little running stomach every now and then, but it won’t kill me like the thirst will.” Then he put the jar to his lips and took a long drink of the fluid which looked much clearer without being seen through the film of dust on the jar. When he was done, Chuka put down the jar and licked his lips, turning to stare at Akin, a small, wet smile dancing around the corners of his mouth. “Do you believe me now?”
They stared at each other for almost a full minute, a small piece of time made unnaturally heavy by the intensity of each man’s considerations.
Akin took two steps forward, slowly lowered his gun and dropped to his knees one at a time. He tucked the colt back between his belt and his jeans. He opened his arms wide like gates of a city and embraced Chuka. Chuka leaned into the hug. Akin smiled, his embarrassment at his sudden explosion of vulnerability and humanity diluted by the realisation that this was the first time he had touched another living person in months.
“Thank you for not shooting me,” Chuka said, over Akin’s heaving shoulder.
“Thank God for this miracle,” Akin said, closing his eyes. For the first time in a long time, he felt something more than the mad drive to survive. He felt hopeful; hopeful about the future, about his insane plan to take one of the many abandoned trucks by the Marina, stock it with as much food and water as he could find and leave Lagos for some other place he was sure had not eaten itself after the event, some place with more underground infrastructure –Europe, perhaps, if enough of the Strait of Gibraltar had been lost during the event. Chuka could help him. The water-purifier-generator thing he had could help him. They could help each other. They could survive and together, maybe make some sense of what the world had become.
Eyes still closed, he felt a strange but insistent pressure on his stomach. Then the pressure stopped and mutated into a throbbing. Akin’s eyes shot open and he reached down, his fingers finding Chuka’s bony forearm. He pushed away from Chuka violently, his knees dragging against something sharp on the floor. He looked down and saw blood spreading through his shirt from his midsection like a wild, red flower. A throbbing pain pulsed through him. He rotated his eyes back up just in time to see Chuka’s right hand stabbing down toward his chest. The hand was wrapped around a small red-tipped kitchen knife; the kind his mother used to use to cut onions and garlic to make her delicious oily red stew when he was a child.
Acting more on desperate instinct than calculated thought, Akin threw his weight to his left so that the knife only sliced his right shoulder and Chuka collapsed on top of him, carried by his own momentum. Before the man could recover, Akin jammed his gun into Chuka’s belly and fired three shots in quick succession. Each bullet sounded impossibly loud, a solid wall of sound that he could feel in his teeth. He crawled out from under Chuka’s lanky body, his ears ringing, breath heavy, and left hand pressed to his gut, desperate to keep the precious fluids from flowing out.
“Jesus!” He shouted, banging the butt of the colt against the dusty floor. “No. No. No. Why? What the fuck is wrong with you!?” He screamed up at the high ceiling before turning his head to see Chuka immobile on the floor in a spreading pool of blood.
There was quiet for a minute or two, or maybe five. Akin wasn’t sure. Adrenaline and anger blurred time into a nebulous cloud.
His thoughts drifted and in his mind he saw his sister’s warm, hopeful smile, he felt his mother’s tight, comforting hug, he heard his father’s wild, reassuring laugh, and then the tears started to fall from his eyes. He yearned for them so much it hurt – much more than the persistent, throbbing pain from his belly. Beyond the yearning, the disappointment hurt too. He’d finally found another person, a fellow survivor, someone with whom he thought he could share his humanity for a moment and it had almost cost him his life. Exhausted and thirsty, he envied the millions of restful dead scattered about the city.
Slowly, the sadness condensed into the grim determination and steel resolve that had kept him going after the event. He couldn’t afford to cry or bleed. The end of the world had come and gone. The only thing that mattered now was staying alive.
He rose to his feet, pain gnawing at him as he studied the wound in his belly. It was a small slit, barely half an inch wide and it wasn’t bleeding nearly as much as he’d first thought. The knife couldn’t have gone in very deep or he’d be in agony. He murmured his thanks to God through tight lips. He would have to cauterize the wound if he didn’t want it to become septic. The thought of the pain that was to come made him grit his teeth. Akin ripped the left sleeve off his polo shirt where the knife had cut his shoulder and folded it over itself until it was a small, thick pad. He slapped it on to the wound in his belly and slid his fraying belt from its place in his jeans. He wrapped the belt around his belly and buckled it, tightly securing the pad in place. The pressure made him wince.
Picking up his gun, he walked toward the generator that Chuka had been willing to kill him over and regarded it, thinking of a good way to carry it with him.
“I’m sorry,” Chuka whispered from the floor. He sounded like he was speaking through bubbles. Akin turned to face him sharply, training his colt on the dying man in case he tried something stupid again.
There was laboured breathing for a while and then more words. “Everyone tries… tries… to take it from me. Everyone.”
“I wouldn’t have,” Akin said angrily, “We could have survived together.”
Chuka coughed a cough that sounded like a wet, diseased laugh and tried to roll over but he was too weak. He only managed to bend his elbow and point a shaky finger to his neck. A swollen, rope-shaped scar that Akin hadn’t noticed before ran around it, “That’s… that’s… what the last person who tried to take it from me said just before… she… she tried to strangle me.”
Chuka was seized by another coughing fit that made his eyes bulge. When the coughs stopped more words burbled out of him, less coherent, “You… you even have… gun… I just… I couldn’t… I had to take… my chance… trust… I’m… I’m sorry.”
There was no response.
Akin knelt down pointing his gun Chuka’s face. The man’s narrowed and bloodshot eyes stared down the barrel unblinkingly. It took a few seconds for Akin to realize he was dead.
When Akin finally exited the shopping mall building, the sun was still baking the earth beneath the pale turquoise of a cloudless sky, brutal and unrelenting like a long-unworshipped god’s glare. One by one, he loaded the pair of four-by-three cartons of bottled water he’d taken from the now-empty storage area into a shopping trolley, arranging them carefully on top of Chuka’s water-purifier generator. He secured the shopping trolley to the motorcycle with a length of sinewy green rope, looping it several times along its entire length through the Yamaha’s metal short sub-frame and seat supports. A dirty green wheelbarrow he hadn’t noticed when he arrived earlier lay on its side a few meters away, visible despite the swirling dust and the heat. Akin wondered briefly if it had been Chuka’s. He looked away, to the dusty horizon, struck acutely by the realisation he had to get out of the heat quickly. He had water now; perhaps he’d try to find somewhere he could stay near the Marina, a base from which to continue to forage, rest and prepare for his migration.
He climbed onto the bike and throttled the engine, keeping it in low gear. The rest of Lagos waited for him, all blue, empty sky and dust, baking in the heat of the sun. The pain in his side and the heat from above made every breath of hot air he took feel like he was inhaling pure fire.
Suffering but smiling thinly, he thanked God that he’d found the water-purifier-generator, that he’d survived Chuka’s treachery, that he had some bottled water, that he was still alive. And as long as he was still alive, there was still hope; hope for finding more water, for finding a good truck, for leaving this arid, godforsaken wasteland. He silently prayed that he would not meet anyone else in Lagos as he slowly rolled the bike back to the mall gate, rounded the right hand corner of the exit and entered the corpse of Ozumba Mbadiwe Road, the loaded shopping trolley rattling uncomfortably behind him.
If you’re addicted to the Chimurenga Chronic, the quarterly publication from the revolutionary Chimurenga team, you’ve probably already heard of the magnificence that dropped a few weeks ago. This latest issue of the Chronic draws on African speculative fiction, mysticism and mystery to fuel its pages. Utilizing graphics and illustrations as the dominant style of expression, this issue is the issue that will resonate with lovers of out-of-this-world awesomeness. It is the third part of a spectacular publication lineup for the SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul 2016, an art and culture exhibition hosted by the Seoul Museum of Art in South Korea.
Chimurenga does not deal in subtlety and this piece of art echoes that. It shows that the view of African speculative fiction as a recent rip-off of Western efforts is nonsense. This issue is a boulder thrown at the windows of those who dispute the existence of formally documented and original representations of African speculative and science fiction pre-Ben Okri, Nigerian author of the seminal African speculative fiction novel, The Famished Road.
The Chronic stirs, re-visits and stretches history by locating an intersection between black speculative sounds, musings, and writings. Thought-provoking illustrations show that the documentation of stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, are not restricted to dangling modifiers on Amos Tutuola’s manuscripts. It can be the call-and-response to a moonlight tale. It can be the lilting voice of a troubadour as she sings the oriki of strong men, past civilizations, and the lives of the ancestors. It can be the haunting tale of the Sharpeville Massacre blown from Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi’s saxophone.
This issue, titled The Corpse Exhibition and Older Graphical Stories, begins by leading us through the non-graphical streets of Kinshasa. There, we meet the speculative comic illustrator Papa Mfumu’eto whose life and work is chronicled in Nancy Hunt’s story “The Emperor of Kinshasa”. Mfumu’eto’s comics were produced from 1990 to the early 2000s and we are immersed in his world of magic and gore with characters strongly reminiscent of beings from EC comics’ Tales from the Crypt. At its height, his work prompted sharp societal commentary.
We drift off the streets into the air where we find the “T.W.A.D Squad” (a superhero group, reminiscent of Stan Lee’s Avengers). These muscled heroes, illustrated by graphic artist Mo Hassan, are representations of influencers of African discourse. Call them The White Saviors of African Development (T.W.A.D). The squad schools us by holding a disjointed (and somewhat funny) discussion about globalization, foreign dependence and Africa in general.
Nikhil Singh’s depiction of Kojo Laing’s 1992 ecological sci-fi novel, Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars imagines advances in technology that seem alien to present Africa. Many novels written in the past year do not even begin to grasp Laing’s fusion of animals, plants and humans in the craziest war ever. Meanwhile Phumle April’s “Avions de Nuit” borrows creatures from Cameroonian and South African folklore to talk about slavery and the loss of power when you’re away from your homeland. The story evokes the documented memories of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade. Here’s an introductory text from the magazine:
“…Avions de Nuit are tiny vessels fuelled by the blood of their cargo, that make nightly flights across the Atlantic (or to neighboring oil economies like Chad, Gabon or Equatorial Guinea—nuff people in Nigeria) carrying passages[sic]into slavery. According to news reports, they could be as small as an empty tin of sardines or even a box of matches—yet despite their size any one of these planes can carry as many as twenty vampires and fly out to great distances, with a common goal—to suck dry human beings.
The shell-body that remains would be asked: “who sold you?”
This issue’s dominant use of illustrations pays homage to artists from Africa and beyond. The choice of visuals is excellent; their slap-dash, flash-fiction feel lends urgency to the issues subtly or explicitly raised in each of the stories. In this age of low attention spans and lazy readers, feeding interesting, in-your-face data to audiences helps keep them engaged. Like all great art, the Chronic’s illustrations are not one-dimensional pieces. They are open to interpretation and resonate for their ability to stimulate what if’s, so what’s and this is crap reactions.
The Chronic’s cross-section of works examining the power of language, economics, folklore, music, and several other fields, appeals to most people’s sensibilities, or lack of any. Powerful themes like alienation and the fleeting nature of life are also mashed into this mix.
Beyond the clichés of ghosts, ghouls, zombies, spaceships and the post-apocalypse, this is an affirmation that African speculative fiction does not lean towards the predictable. With the spotlight now on African speculative writers like Tade Thompson, Wole Talabi, Nnedi Okoroafor and Dayo Ntwari, these nonsense mentalities are being dispelled and Africa is gaining a much deserved stand on the world’s SFF stage. The Chronic’s graphic adaptation of these blasts from the past show how important it is to immortalize and remember our own history. A lion preserved in amber cannot be mistaken for a donkey.
There was something about late afternoon Kampala which rankled Luyima. Perhaps it was the malevolent burning grin of the sun, so bright at such a late hour, that connived with the stinging, gritty wind to make his eyes tear up and rivers of sweat pour down the sides of his face? Or maybe it was the couple trolloping in front of him at a pace which even a chameleon would find vexing?
Luyima glared at the couple’s joined hands. What was it with Kampala folk and this bad habit of meandering all over the pavements, turning the city streets into a leisure park? Didn’t these nincompoops have day jobs or soap operas to hurry to? He looked at the other side of the road where the towering Cairo Bank building shielded the people walking beneath it from the sun’s malice, and considered crossing the road.
The protruding lip of the sole of his left shoe lodged in something, and he stumbled a little, wincing when he looked down and saw that he’d stepped into a yawning crack which stretched across many browned concrete pavers. His mother was probably clutching her back and cursing him in her mabaati-roofed house in Masaka.
Next to him, his friend Philly-Bongole – shortened by the man himself to PB – tried to make himself heard over the blaring horns of one hundred impatient taxis and Toyota cars. Luyima shuffled behind the strolling couple as docilely as he could, nodding in the places where he thought he heard the inflection of a question in PB’s yelling voice.
A beat-up green Prado coughed up poisonous black fumes from its cylindrical anus, the rumbling of its old engine bemoaning its extended sentence on the pockmarked face of Uganda’s road surface. Luyima waved a hand before his nose. The noise and the smells were tied in second place for the things which annoyed him about Kampala at four in the afternoon.
He felt himself shoved out of the way by PB’s hard hands and heard the farting sounds of a Bajaj motorcycle a split second before it zipped past him, only to find itself stuck at the back of the clusterfuck of the many other Bajaj motorcycles which had zipped past Luyima in a bid to get to nowhere. He clenched his hands in a tight fist at his side.
Yes. Bodabodas which didn’t follow basic traffic rules were the most annoying thing about the city he called home. He kissed his teeth and turned to PB.
“Man, I wish I could get the power to just slap one bodaboda guy as he rides past me one day,” he said.
PB laughed and carried on with his one-sided conversation. Up ahead, a zigzagging queue formed at the side of a yellow Pioneer bus. The bus’s conductor was embroiled in a heated argument with a fat woman wearing a blue headdress and a blue tee-shirt with Kizza Besigye’s face emblazoned across her heaving breasts. A taxi conductor poked his head out of the minibus’s window and yelled, “Gwe Pioneer! Omukazi omwagaza ki? You! What do you want with the woman?”
“Tofaayo, wenamaliriza wano nja kuja ndabirire nyoko,” the Pioneer bus conductor retorted in a deadpan voice, his gaze trained on the receipt book in his hand. Don’t worry, when I finish here, I’ll come take care of your mother. The crowd roared with laughter, and the disgraced taxi conductor tucked his head back into the minibus.
A tree hanging out of the fenced lawn which masqueraded as the City Square Gardens provided Luyima with temporary respite from the sun as the queue inched forward. A white-tufted parachute seed floated before his pointed nose, unaffected by the blustery wind, and annoying the hell out of him. He grabbed it and felt a deep satisfaction when he looked at it in his palm, no longer so white and tufty, flattened by the sweat from his skin.
“Yo, man,” PB said, his breath hot against Luyima’s neck and smelling like Gorilloz maize snacks, “you’ve found a jajja. Make a wish. You know they say those things grant wishes.”
Luyima shook his head. “That’s childish shit.”
He made a wish anyway – an absent-minded request to the universe for superpowers which would allow him to slap a bodaboda guy into the future. He blew the jajja into the cloudless blue sky and returned his attention to PB’s Gorilloz-scented conversation.
The change started slowly. It was a muted vibration which started in Luyima’s feet, tickling his clunky ankles and shooting up his legs like Sheraton fireworks. He shifted from one foot to the other and tried to latch onto the irrational words spilling from PB’s mouth. God, it felt like the hum of the earth’s essence was trying to sweep him away.
Heat spread up his thighs under his trousers and curled around his groin like fingers of lava. He felt a stretch at the corners of his eyes. What the hell was happening? He rubbed at his eyes and frowned. PB looked… different. How come he’d never noticed that the pores on his friend’s face were so clogged with fat and dirt, crawling with… Good Lord! What were those wriggling green and blue things? Germs? Germs? Since when could he see germs?
A dirty white taxi with blue boxes dancing around its midriff zoomed past. Luyima glanced away from PB. The traffic jam had cleared; impatient drivers hooted at the slower cars and drove around and past them with squealing tires and angry middle fingers. While he’d been preoccupied with PB’s facial pores, the queue leading into the Pioneer bus had moved so much that only three people were left, and he could see the shape of the conductor’s pulsating heart outlined against his orange shirt. Wait, what? Heart?
Luyima forced his attention back to his blathering friend. Had PB’s speech always been so slow? So protracted and deliberate, like God had pressed the slow-down button on him? And, Jesus, how had he survived the past six years with the constant stream of senseless drivel his friend spewed?
Now, PB was whining about weed and his belief that it caused lung cancer. Luyima snorted. What did PB know about cannabis and THC, and studies which showed that the tobacco cigarettes he kept in his shirt pocket were more carcinogenic than the blunts he shunned?
Wait. What? Luyima closed his eyes and shook his head. What the hell was going on? He didn’t know about cannabis! And what was THC in full? Tetrahydrocannabinol? What the fuck? It was tetrahydrocannabinol. He touched his hands to his throbbing temples. His skin felt stretched under his fingers, his skull distended.
“Shit, man,” PB said. His voice was slurred; so slurred and slow Luyima could see the waves leaving his mouth and making the air around them vibrate and bump into other atoms. Luyima cocked his head to the side. He could discern an emotion in his friend’s voice. Shock. A primitive emotion. With the right amount of knowledge, shock could become extinct, because with the knowledge of everything, nothing would be surprising.
“Your head, man,” PB said, eyes widening, mouth freezing in a grimace. “What the hell is happening to your head?”
Ah. A new emotion had made an appearance in his friend’s voice. Horror, this time. He studied his reflection in PB’s wide shining eyes. Ah. His skull was expanding to accommodate the increasing size of his brain. He chuckled. Why was PB horrified? All this information filtering into his mind had to be stored somewhere.
PB stumbled back, got his foot caught in a crack in the ground, and fell onto his rear on the hard concrete. Luyima tilted his head to the other side. A young human male, twenty-five-years-old, weighing seventy-two kilograms hit the ground. Earth’s gravity was at 9.80665m/s2. He hit the concrete with a force of 706.0788 newton. The reaction from the concrete wouldn’t be enough to shatter his pubic or vertebral bones whose compressive strength was 170MPa. He would survive the fall with only superficial injury.
Luyima registered the screaming a split second after it started. It came from all around him, assaulting his sensitive ears with its varying timbres. Three languages, all disgustingly inadequate, shrieked their horror at his transformation. He could hear PB shouting his name… His name… Another inefficiency he would have to rectify. Why humans chose to limit their nominal system to twenty-six measly characters was a mystery. Numbers were more practical. There were infinite combinations which could be made without running the annoying risk of repetition.
A farting Bajaj motorcycle zipped past, forcing the gathering crowd to part like a school of fish faced with a marine predator’s hunger. Luyima broke into a run after it. It wasn’t moving very fast – maybe 30kph. Catching up to it wouldn’t be taxing on his body.
Behind him, the screams escalated. He heard snatches of their words. Run! Speed up, you stupid bodaboda! Ekintu kigenda kutta! The thing is going to kill you!
The Bajaj’s rider looked over his shoulder. Luyima saw the terror in his eyes. The motorcycle sped up. Its maximum speed was 137kph. His body would have to undergo some transformations to travel faster. A more streamlined shape, perhaps? The changes he contemplated were manifested in his body as his legs pumped faster to compensate for the Bajaj’s increase in speed. He could feel his head taking on the shape of a bullet, his neck expanding to accommodate his descending brain… Yes.
The vehicles he whizzed past were a sludgy blur in his peripheral vision. He had to catch up to this Bajaj.
The rider looked behind, looked at Luyima, and screamed.
The Bajaj had good acceleration, Luyima mused, kicking up his own speed with no difficulty.
The rider weaved on the road. Luyima cocked his bullet-shaped head as he ran. It didn’t look like this man had ridden the Bajaj at such high speeds before.
If Luyima wanted to, he could brush the backseat of the Bajaj. He was close enough that he could hear prayers spilling from the rider’s lips.
Ah, now Luyima remembered why he needed to catch up to the Bajaj rider. He needed to slap him into the future. The most inevitable future for any human being was one of nonexistence, after their death occurred. In order for him to slap the bodaboda rider into the future, he would simply have to move his hand at a velocity so high it would cause the impact and heat generated to be great enough to make the human being disintegrate and cease to exist. So simple.
Panicked bug eyes with small arteries undergoing aneurysm and popping to spill red into white darted to the side to stare at Luyima. Their owner revved his motorcycle’s engine harder, huffing with an effort that sounded painful and gaining only one paltry kilometre per hour.
Luyima lifted his right hand. A primitive human feeling bubbled up in his veins. Satisfaction. It would suffuse his entire body after this. His hand was a blur so fast even he didn’t see it. There was a very infinitesimal pop as it connected with the back of the bodaboda rider’s head, and then the Bajaj tipped over and fell to the black tarmac, without a rider, its two wheels spinning uselessly, its engine still farting.
How disappointing. Nothing visible remained of the ill-starred bodaboda man. Not even a speck of dust! Luyima tutted and stood next to the farting Bajaj. He’d been careful to make the impact gentle and gained nothing. Around him, an entire city screamed in horror. Cars crashed into people and other cars. People ran around, bumping into each other, bumping into buildings. Pandemonium reigned.
He didn’t care about this city – couldn’t be bothered to care about this city. He tutted again and started running. Maybe, if he ran fast enough, he could run into a future where the primitive creatures surrounding him had evolved enough to be less offensive to his heightened senses. Satisfaction, he concluded, was such an elusive human emotion.
It’s been a long year here at Omenana and we’re just one month away from the end of 2016 (celebrate that as you will). Despite the ups and downs, we’ve been able to put together an edition to be proud of.
First of all, we’ve got four exquisite stories, each grappling with relationships and what happens when we’re faced with loss. In Wole Talabi’s “The Last Lagosian”, a young man struggles with his grief at the end of the world and the reality that even the apocalypse hasn’t ended the Lagos hustle. In Suyi Davies’ “Of Tarts and New Beginnings”, a woman finds that her husband’s death had unexpected side effects. In “Screamers” by Tochi Onyebuchi a father and son struggle to understand each other as they contend with what happens when a people collectively lose their autonomy. While in Inncoent Immaculate Acan’s “Wishful Thinking”, one man loses his humanity – and doesn’t really seem to mind. Acan is this year’s winner of the Writivism Short Story prize, and we’re so proud to have one of her stories.
This is the first edition where we’ll be feature a review and we hope to keep presenting more in coming editions. We want to say a huge thank you to Onu-Okpara Chiamaka who helped us sort through our slush pile and then stepped in at the last minute to write our first review. She looked at the latest edition of The Chronic, the magazine put out by the South African journal Chimurenga. This issue of The Chronic is dedicated to graphic novel representations of works of African Speculative Fiction. It’s trippy, but this freelance editor has a love for anything weird and we think she did an excellent job with her reveiw. Chiamaka has been published in The Kalahari Review, and has an amazing story in this month’s edition of Apex Magazine, which I strongly recommend you check out.
Our art this edition is courtesy of Isa Benn, a first generation Afro-Caribbean artist based in Toronto, Canada. Her work is haunting and powerful, juxtaposing animation and photography to create visceral and visually stunning pieces that are the perfect counterpoints to our themes of connection in this edition.
In addition, our publisher and co-founder, Mazi Nwonwu, went to Lagos ComicCon this year. He had a blast and he’s sharing the experience with the rest of us poor souls. What? Jealous? Me? I’m not jealous at all…
Finally, you might have noticed that we’ve got a shiny, brand new website. We wanted something more dynamic that we could update with news about African Speculative fiction as it comes in. We’ll be putting up interesting titbits as we come across them and stay tuned to our reports from the upcoming Ake Festival in Abeokuta from November 18th to 20th.
Thank you for sticking with us and the crazy experiment that has been Omenana. It’s been a year of highs and lows, but it’s all been made easier by your support.