I visited Nigeria in late October as a guest of the 2016 Lagos International Poetry Festival. I’d just moved from Chicago to New York a week earlier than intended, so I could apply for a visa in person. At the consulate office, I paused on a question about my “complexion.” Do I put black or brown? I asked an official. Yeah your hair is black and your eyes are brown, you are a BLACK WOMAN! I smiled and said: Yes, but do I follow the eye/hair color rule and put “brown,” or should I use the identity rule and write “Black?” He said nothing. A few days later, I returned to pick up my passport. Security confiscated my apple while a man who said he was the boss of the place asked for my number. He didn’t understand why, if unmarried, I said no. He was dressed in white, collar to hem. On my way out, apple returned, I received news a beloved friend had passed. I left for Lagos heart-bruised and warm-skinned due to unseasonable sun, and my flesh’s unfamiliarity with New York mosquitoes.
I didn’t know how American I was until standing with other poets in the lobby of our host hotel. You seem tired, I told a colleague. He has malaria. It was as if someone had splashed a tiny bucket of melting ice onto my chest. Malaria! I exclaimed and did a silent inventory of my gleeful adventures: Outdoor readings, patio dinners, night strolls in Freedom Park, pineapple Fayrouz at the secret garden bar next to Yaba Psychiatric Hospital, midnight balcony stares down at the pool and my formerly non-flossy self. Yes, someone said. We get it a few times a year. It’s like a cold. I said, No. When Americans get malaria, we cut off all our hair. “We,” I’d said. Later, writers from Nigeria and Ghana joked about who in the car was worth kidnapping, and suggested terror incidents followed the throwing of Qurans into the sea. And why is the president prioritizing beef and thoroughfare for cattle in 2016? Those steps will be crooked unless the Danes build them!
At Lekki Market, a South African poet insisted on photographing two children. They were crying, and the boy had turned his back. She said, We’re like the whites when they visit us but I have to get a picture of these kids. We? I thought. She cooed and knelt, making several images of their glowers.
When looking in Lagos, I was full up from beauty. I saw new blues: the color of early morning light on UV-protected windows, on white plastic chairs, on gleaming tile. I experience coastal cities as frenetic. One gets the sense everyone might decide it’s better to walk into the water someday but not today. Today everyone must get to their jobs. I enjoyed being unremarkable, even more so with a camera over my face and the assumption that it was my job to look. With the exception of women asking whether I intended to leave my hair as it was, (unbraided, unstraightened but also slightly disheveled in my grief and restlessness) no one addressed me. To remain private in public is the best thing about major cities. Lagos was easily the most coordinated I’ve visited, especially at rush hour. Vehicles and hand signals had their own dominions, an otherworldly confidence in their respective abilities to transcend congestion.
Most of my seeing was aimed past currency, which was exchanged with startling frequency, drawing hard aesthetic lines, encouraging a bell to ring out dawn to dawn: Seek me, seek me, seekmeseekmeseekme.
In one photograph, not included here, my friend thrust our fare into my sightline as I pressed the shutter. The blurred bills sharpen the photo. The space between us, between her and the driver, between our keke and the shopkeeper a few feet away attained the dimensionality of a cut gem. I tried to obscure it but on one of my last days there, in one of my last images, money appeared.
Additional photographs can be viewed in the current issue.