Oluwaseyi Adebola is a 29-year-old UK-based medical doctor of Nigerian descent who sometimes writes under a pseudonym Seyade Shobby. He tries to hide his embarrassing writing this way. He is the founder of CreativeNaija.com, a social network for young Nigerians with creative dispositions. He has a retinue of poems and short stories to his name including 'The Mysterious Matter of Mallam Musa's Missing Murano', and '7 days', both of which can be purchased on the OkadaBooks app on Google's Play Store. He is the author of "SaudiDoc"- Saudi Arabian Dialect for health professionals. He wrote this during his stint working with the ministry of health of Saudi Arabia. He is also the author of the hilarious short story, "How to be a Maga (Scam Victim)" where he has tried to create a simple 3 layered check-list that can tell you if anyone is trying to dupe you. He constantly day dreams about discussing this solution on a TED talk someday. He likes to daydream.
The Letter My Shoe Sent Me
I step out of our house with my hands in my pockets. For some strange reason I feel surprisingly good about myself, recent circumstances notwithstanding. Maybe it is just the feel of the sun’s warmth on my skin. This thought makes me smile. In some poems, writers describe the sun and moon with such embellished language, making them out to be something more than the celestial bodies that they are. Well, who am I to discredit the life-work of another? We all have to find a way to make a living. From the corner of my eye, I can see my mum peeking at me from behind our woolen curtains with bewildered suspicion. I do not blame her, she just does not understand. A quick five-minute trot and I am already outside Medium housing estate, Ogba, waving to an oncoming public bus to pick me up. The driver pulls up beside me James Bond style, barely missing an opportunity to crush my right foot. I instinctively jump back in fright. The bare-chested bus conductor rears his square-faced head from inside the vehicle, uninterested in the shock on my face.
“Ikeja unda brige, 200 Naira! Enter with ya change, I no be CBN,” he spits in pidgin English, his muscular right arms latching onto the roof of the vehicle—a little trick most likely taught in whatever school they learn their art, to keep them from tipping over as their buses dribble recklessly through the dense Lagos traffic. I stumble into the vehicle, feebly noticing the steep tribal marks etched on either side of the bus conductor’s face. It has been said that people with such tribal marks are particularly wicked. Who comes up with such theories anyway? Are they true?
“Go on souun,” he screams at the driver who automatically steers the bus back into a sea of oncoming vehicles. One Toyota Camry misses colliding with our bus by a hair’s breadth. Its driver peeps out his window, scowling in our direction. Our driver replies by fanning out his right hand at the man in a traditional symbolic expletive.
“Waka! Ya mama yansh!” he says, insulting the man’s mother’s derriere for no particular reason. Who comes up with these insults anyway?
By now I am more comfortably seated in the third row of seats near the window on the driver’s side. I quietly take in the faces of the people around me. To my right is a slim, fair complexioned lady—I guess of the Ibo tribe—dressed very brightly in body hugging green leggings and tucked in flowery, orange shirt. A black leather bag is propped up on her left elbow, brazenly foraying into my own elbow room. A somnolent elderly man lets his head droop onto the shoulder of a brutish looking, squat chap in front of me. The latter looks with disgust at the face of the old man, mutters something under his breath, and then looks at his watch again. It is about 8:30 am. Most of the passengers look eager to get to work so they can continue the rat race that defines their lives. I graduated from the University of Ife just two months ago with a degree in Economics myself. I really have no idea what next to do with my life. Will a master’s degree help bolster up my dim second class lower grade? A postgraduate degree outside the country would have been the way to go, but unless some white man’s scholarship sends me there, it is unlikely I can afford the ridiculously high tuition fees. Daddy’s business is barely trudging on in this rather depressing economic climate and his only focus now is saving enough money to send Segun, my younger brother, to a ‘proper law school’, as he puts it. Segun is the one with the big words and curious expression. He is the only person I have ever known who looks forward to vacation days, not for the sheer thrill of not having to study but so he can gingerly place his report card in daddy’s brawny hands and watch as his face lights up with joy. To my father, I am like a cloud of smoke before the eyes of a drunken man that looks like an exciting object at first, but in a brief moment of clarity the man sees the object for what it truly is—a lackluster cloud of smoke. Full stop.
I get dragged out of my reverie when I perceive the jaundiced eyes of the conductor staring at me. His greasy right hand is almost in my mouth.
“I go beg u to give me ya money?” he quizzes in disgust.
I quickly rummage through my pocket to bring out the dirty Naira notes in it. I only have 500 naira bills with me. I squeeze one into his hand.
“Wetin I talk about change? You be mumu?” he questions my IQ insolently.
My lips part to defend myself against his foul mouth but the words refuse to come out.
“Haba now! Wetin? No be change dey your hand so?” I retort. Or think I do.
It does not take long to remember that no one hears me now. Ripples of despair descend to settle permanently in my mind. I feel like a man buried alive in a transparent coffin; screaming, banging, thrashing his legs about wildly to hopefully attract enough attention to be saved. But everyone just looks him in the face and walks away wordlessly like a zombie who do not speak his language. Nobody speaks my language these days. No one understands silence.
In a little under 90 minutes we arrive in Ikeja. As everyone disembarks from the bus, I tap the conductor’s shoulder from behind in a bid to collect the change he owes me. He shrugs off my hand without looking back and briskly walks towards a horde of pedestrians on the other side of the road.
“Ogba, Ogba,” he screams at them. “No need for full load, we dey comot now!” He lies.
An action hero in a Japanese movie once said that there is no cowardice in accepting when you have been beaten. He must have been talking about this moment. My hands go back into my pockets as I set off for my final destination, my eyes fixed on the road in front of me. It does not feel so good this time around.
Several newspaper vendors have crammed wooden benches in every conceivable space under the bridge I am currently walking under. My eyes catch a glimpse of the headlines on one of the popular dailies.
“The Nigerian Army slaughters scores of Boko Haram Operatives.” The subheading beneath the picture of a ragtag group of soldiers reads: “It was a swift and decisive victory, reports army general.”
I scoff. These media people make me laugh. I do not know who to believe. Just last night, one of the electronic media houses reported that the same extremist group was gaining more ground in the North East. Now this? Ultimately news is what the newspaper editor says it is and what the bankrollers allow the editors to hear.
These things occupy my mind so keenly that I am totally absent-minded as I arrive at the Lagos State University Teaching hospital, pay my consultation fees, and wait to be called upon by the overweight nurse with too much red lipstick who shuffles about, surprisingly quickly for her weight, in immaculate white uniform.
“Ni bo iyen ri lo ba yi?” she asks about my whereabouts rhetorically in fluent Yoruba.
She sneers in my direction when I jump up and points me towards the consultation room as she picks up my hospital folder from a plastic desk.
An ocean of curious eyes bore into me as I step into the room. A balding man with astonishingly round cheeks motions for me to sit down facing him. He is flanked by all sides by at least a dozen medical students. I eerily feel like a claustrophobic jar of honey in a room filled with bees. A tall and slim doctor appears from nowhere at my side. He is the Hausa doctor who scheduled me for today’s visit. He is most likely a junior doctor and Mr. ‘Roundface’, whose self-satisfied smug expression I desperately want to rub off with a back-hand slap, is perhaps his boss.
“Sir this is the patient I discussed with you on the phone,” the slim doctor says in a quirky, heavy, northern accent.
“Oh, I see,” comes the response. The consultant then spends the next few minutes reading the ineligible—to me at least—cursive writing of his subordinate in my file. Occasionally he would look up from the notes into my face, as if to corroborate what was written, utter a “hmm” or “aha!” and get back to what he was reading. I feel like a medallion being marketed to a meticulous pirate. Or am I dying?
“Have you requested for an MRI?” the consultant asks. The Hausa doctor who is first taken aback by the question begins to build up an excuse of how the machine is not working and mentions something about the cost of the test and how I cannot afford it. It is surprising that my well-pressed second-hand clothes have given me away so easily.
The senior doctor, half-excited, half-irritable keeps on firing questions at the poor junior doctor in rapid quips.
“Anything remarkable in his family and drug history?”
“Any other deficits?”
“Any features suggestive of depression?”
“Hope you were able to elicit a psychosocial stressor.” I figure this is the terrible thing that must have happened to me that the doctor kept on asking me about two weeks ago, to which I could only shake my head. Maybe I did not answer because he was asking the wrong question. Maybe he was asking the wrong person.
“I imagine you documented how exactly you two communicated?” The senior doctor asks all this while animatedly reading the file. His face seems to shine brighter with every word.
“Good. At least you had the common sense to get an ‘otorino…’.” The rest of the word is lost on my non-medical ears.
“Anyway, what are your differentials?” Something about the way the doctor put it makes it sound like a trick question. Hopefully they are about to discuss exactly what they think is wrong with me. Thus far, I felt like the major actor in a play I had not rehearsed for. I listen more intently. The last item I should take out of this enchanting encounter is an idea of what the hell is wrong with me.
“I think it could be hysteria,” he starts, but sensing some discomfort in his boss, the slim doctor quickly adds, “but more likely some sort of conversion disorder.”
“Exactly!” the consultant booms. I can swear a smile is playing around his lips as he says this.
“Dr. Musa, we need to tie this thing up very, very neatly. This is very reportable.” He is rubbing his chubby hands excitedly by now. One petite, bespectacled student rushes forward to look at me more intently. Something about the diagnosis has definitely piqued her interest. I guess she is the ‘effico’ of the class—the extra studious student. This makes my mind quickly drift to Segun. I suddenly feel like the Gulf of Alaska—happy and sad at the same time.
From the performance piece “Everything will be ok” by Sarah Mumtaz. 2012. Photo courtesy: Nashmia Haroon.
At the moment, Dr. Musa is writing a letter for me. He is saying something about a test, an EEG that I have to do which is not available in their centre. The senior doctor continues where he stopped and is explaining their need to do more extensive tests, and how I am going to be okay eventually, and how they would prescribe some drugs for me in the meantime.
Their words fall through the tunnels of my ears but do not register a thing. All I can think about is how much simpler things were when I was a child and how much the world has changed with the very dictates of nature twisted on its hinges. My mind is stuck on how I was always somewhat dismissive of Segun no matter how nice he was to me. Truth is I once envied his intellect. Now, I am not so sure if all that will amount to anything. All I can think about are immense opportunities and truncated aspirations, parental expectations and broken dreams, and I wonder if I should be thinking so hard at all.
The Lagos sun is at its fiercest when I get home. It is a huge relief stepping into the house as my eyes try to adjust to the change in ambient light. Faustin, our Congolese house help tries his best to catch my eyes as he bids me welcome. I try my best to hide the belligerent disgust in them as I storm into my room. For goodness sake! What has this house help gotten Segun into? The boy is just some months over fourteen and in his penultimate year in the secondary school. How long has this gone on for? I do a quick mental math to try to figure this out. Faustin has been with us for at least seven years now. But then, Segun is barely pubertal. Does he even know what an erection feels like? Wait, when did I first learn about sex myself? These thoughts jar in my head like particles in the Hadron Collider. It was exactly three weeks ago when I walked in on both of them in the sitting room in the middle of the night. My parents travelled for the burial ceremony of an old uncle so I felt that the care of the house was my responsibility. It thus felt natural that I stopped both of them from watching movies late into the night. Unfortunately, it turned out the loud television set was simply a decoy. I caught both of them frolicking in the nude on the center couch. My catholic eyes could not comprehend what I was seeing. That scene literally took the breath out of me. Then my voice.
My parents first thought I was on to an annoying prank when they noticed I had literally stopped talking. Daddy was the first to lose his temper over the matter.
“Have you finally gone mad?!” he asked, hopefully rhetorically. I had no idea I had that to look forward to.
My mum immediately whisked me into her room and bore into my eyes sympathetically. She noticed I was sobbing hysterically and saw how widely I was opening my mouth in a desperate attempt to speak. Everything else worked. I could hear everyone else perfectly and had no loss of motor function. My eyesight was perfect. It was just words that had been knocked out of my throat in one fateful jab. I had no idea how much words meant to me before that day.
Presently I am lying on my side in the room and looking in the direction of my black leather shoes, stacked under the plastic table in the corner. These shoes have served me nonstop for the last three years. How ironic that it was my favourite uncle, the one who died recently, who gave them to me as a gift on my 18th birthday. A thought occurs to me and it makes me chuckle. If these shoes were to write a letter to me, what would they say?
Strangely, I realise I am already hunched over my desk in a little over two strides. I am about to do something I have never ever done before—write a poem, or write anything fictional at all of my own volition!
The letter my shoe sent me
I start, rather unsure how these things should start at all. Well this is about a letter my shoe sent me, I might as well start this way.
was just a few words long.
Hahahahahaaaa, I laugh to myself. It has to be a short letter. How many English words do I know anyway?
Use me. Clean me. Keep me.
I pause here. Something tells me the next line has to rhyme with something else I have written, somehow.
Yet its memory lingers on.
“Ladies and gentlemen, behold my first stanza,” I say out loud, unafraid that someone might wonder if Daddy’s prophesy of my inherent madness has actually come true. I no longer have words to speak, so there is really no reason to fear. The drugs I was prescribed today lay untouched at the edge of the table. Maybe I would start them tomorrow, maybe I would not touch them at all.
With every line comes an empowering feeling that I have found my voice. It makes me feel astoundingly alive and free, liberated and unhinged, like all the problems in the world cannot stop me from being happy.
On the dot of 55 minutes from where I began, I place the last full stop in my first poem. I read it once more from start to finish, making sure I have not missed any misspells or errors.
The letter my shoe sent me
was just a few words long.
‘Use me. Clean me. Keep me.’
Yet its memory lingers on.
The letter my shoe sent me
was clear, concise and simple,
though written in faint ink
the mark it made remains indelible.
The letter my shoe sent me
is like one I myself once wrote
to my teacher, lean and mean,
a tiny scribbled note.
The letter my shoe sent me
was just three words long,
polish not punish,
so its memory lingers on…
I lay back on my bed with an accomplished smirk on my face as I recite the words in my head. Something nags on in my mind about how ‘my shoe’ in this poem is a metaphor for something else, someone else even. But this is supposed to be a good moment so I empty my mind of these uncertainties. Poets must feel about their poems the same thing I feel for food. Everything I cook tastes excellent on my palate no matter what anybody says. Maybe it is because there is something personal about what you are involved in making. No wonder a popular maxim in Nigerian Pidgin English says that “Monkey no fine but him mama like am”—No matter how ugly a monkey is, its mother loves it.
Possibly I’d send this one in for one of these popular awards, Caine or even Nobel Prize. Who cares how these things get judged, this is a really good poem. I chuckle once more.
“Nice,” I say.
It suddenly strikes me that I have just spoken… out loud.
So, I try again to rule out any fluke.
“Very nice,” I say again.
Nothing births sadness like the unspoken words in silence, nothing is more forlorn than the wretched soul that has lost its voice.
It feels good to speak and be heard, once more. I have so much to say.