On Pain as a Nigerian Desire | Ọbáfẹ́mi Thanni

I

If they ask where these words are from, tell them to search for its roots in the same places you will seek my countrypeople. Find us at the crossover hours into each new year, or moment, or day, pleading with it to be kind, pleading with the earth to cease its hunger for the flesh of our brethren, pleading with the bullet do not stray, pleading with our lungs do not inhale the death that looms the air. At the heart of my country, you will find a pain that dehumanizes. Beyond the borders where we are reduced to dust, you will find us making meaning of our names at the edge of degradation.

II

To be Nigerian is to know pain intimately, and what do we do in the face of a friend but smile?

III

Because that is how we are hardened into the near-numbness that survives this place, I will tell you a story. Once, a woman was walking the streets where you will find us. When she walked into the shade cast by a bridge, she felt joy in her relief from the glare of the sun. Then, tragedy fell. No, she did not die. Not yet. She was spared by death, but shaken with anguish at the sight of bodies pressed against the earth in a sudden burial, shaken at the sun’s full glare returning into the gap in the sky as cars dove into the hard pool of the earth. She watched other cars screech to a stop at the edge of death, watched people holding on with burning, desperate hands, to the cracks of asphalt, to iron, to God, to anything that promised not to give way—like ripened fruits resisting the call of the season, the call to fall.

At the sight of pain, the woman wept. And her consolation came from on-lookers, from survivors thanking God for his selective mercy, from the voice of my countrypeople chanting the moral in every unbearable story: Gratitude. The moral here is not to be grateful for pain or in spite of it. The moral here, they tell the woman, is gratitude by comparison. Be grateful, because we can tell you right now, the story of a weightier, more abrupt tragedy, that had befallen another in a different lifetime, or just moments ago, or yesterday, or last month or last year.

This is how you last: When the bridges fall, think of the ones that remained standing but tankers of oil that should not have been there, blazed life out of the bodies around it. When a democratic leader quenches the thirst of bullets with the blood of your country’s future, tell the tale of a military despot. When sorrow sours your throat at the sight of a man bleeding as he crawls away from the angel of death anointing him with bullet wounds; remember the even slower death of a boy who was tortured until his chest sighed with surrender, and his mouth fell shut after the life he begged for left him; remember the quick demise of a woman who was pregnant with twins—remember how three birds were killed with one bullet. When a man spits on the fidelity of his wife, tell her of a greater, more shameless infidelity. When your dress tears by the seam, remember the man who was stripped naked in the market. If you are the man stripped naked in the market, think of a nakedness of greater consequence, of greater shame, think of the woman who was stripped before you.

If you will only look, there is always a loss greater than yours.

IV

To be Nigerian is to mine joy from the smallest openings.

V

Of pleasure, Rumi draws the comparison to wine often, and I wonder if pain plays a role in fermenting and colouring our wines. If it opens our eyes from squints to gazes. If it draws our sight to the beautiful because we expect it to be absent.

I believe, as Rumi says, that not all ecstasies are the same. Yet, when I think of how much delight I find in the nooks and crannies of living here, I know this relish is a not-too-distant kin of pain—an oasis, fertile and glistening because of the burning desert sands surrounding it.

In my oasis, I feel my face soften at the sight of brilliant sentences. I daydream after enjoying a poem. I eat ice-cream slowly and often. I wave the cork of wine bottles around my nose before sipping the wine that moves me, slowly, feeling it flavour my breath. I write letters and read them with a tender attentiveness. I care for the ones whose names form music in my mouth the best I can. I listen. I delight in conversations. I let the humour of memes or stickers or jokes or moments or TV series, sink to my belly and tickle my nostrils before shaking my shoulders and ringing into laughter. I love—like Ernest Ògúnyẹmí does—the way Hausa fruit sellers peel oranges. The way their skilled hands and glinting razors spiral the skin of oranges into exquisite nakedness. How this nakedness is worthy of its own specie. I think of kisses as a slow dissolving into the beloved. I stare at the sky on mornings when both the sun and moon are visible, like the two unblinking eyes of Ọlọrun. I tell myself the moon can’t take her eye off me as I have my evening baths. I water my roses and greet them with my nose before the harmattan takes their bloom. I sit still. I kneel into my oasis till I am wet with replenishment. I make a home in my skin. I—like Safia Elhillo—make another country and another country, for every one I’ve lost. I love. I learn to increase my capacity to love. I laugh at the idea of liking, then I love. I whisper sweet things just to watch it melt into the one listening. I remain open to beauty. I find beauty in the gossips shared by market women, in the way they all call me—as my mother does—my husband; In the way the skins of women selling shea butter glow like testaments; In the woman who sells salt, in her eyes lined with laali, in the wealth of her Yoruba, in the slenderness of the necklace resting below her smooth face; In the kindness of Hausa tradesmen.

I try to be tender. Despite. Despite. 

VI

‘Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. […] It is the opium of the people.’
Early Writings by Karl Marx

On the 21st of October, the morning after I cried myself to sleep, to the shredding sound of virtual gunfire; my mother urged me to eat, to speak. In silence, I nursed guilt against my body. Against its hunger for nourishment, its thirst for my habit of pressing my lips to the steam of black tea, its drawing of breath—when elsewhere, bodies like mine had breathed their last and the ones who soiled the flag with their blood were washing their hands clean with denial. I stared at my body—the holes missing in it, the blood it did not shed—and called this survival betrayal.

To ease my silence, my mother assured me the perpetrators would surely pay for their actions, would be judged, in heaven. And my first words are a question: How differently would we act, would we demand accountability, would we strive, if we did not have the succour of an afterlife? And my mother nods, I know, I know, and we fall silent.

In what is perhaps his most referenced thought, I am taken by the role Karl Marx assigns religion in accepting and opiating pain. With regards to pain, opioids form an apt metaphor as they are a central class of drugs prescribed to treat pain. This metaphor is furthered by the realities of opioid tolerance, dependence, and addiction. With tolerance, the body over time gets used to the effects of the opioid and needs a higher dose to get the same effect. With dependence, the body changes its workings due to prolonged opioid usage and will experience certain withdrawal symptoms if the opioid is discontinued. Tolerance and dependence are however normal results of prolonged drug usage. Addiction, however, is a disease where it seems the body nor mind can function in the absence of the opioid, even when this continued usage proves problematic.

Here, God is called on to balm the ache of our society’s dysfunction, and as Marx declared, this divine dependence births a dysfunction of its own.

When after days of darkness the bulb glows suddenly with electricity—like an idea—we thank God. We thank God when another is the victim of an avoidable misfortune. When we are the victims. When we compare our misfortunes to those of others. When corruption masks as connection in our favour. When another suffers to our favour. When another is disabled by the country’s intolerance. When another dies. When we are shown mercy, at the rising cost to others. When our desperate prayers are answered. When a miracle flows into our hands, even if it is wine regressing into water—because what is a rain of manna to the fullness of a feast; because when it rains in other lands they call it a season, but those who have known the desert’s thirst christen each drop a miracle; because miracles come in the size of voids; because the man who has everything will soon forget God’s name.

For this pain, fast for three days and take seven pills of Faithnyl. You might react by speaking in tongues you have never heard. That is the pain leaving you. God hears you. It is well.

And so it follows: that the deeper the pain, the greater the dependence on the means of avoidance, of numbing, of distracting the senses. And when the pain is Nigerian, just how much God can be enough? How much of a holy thing is abuse?

The opioid seduces us into further dependence when it masks pain as virtue—much like the warrior who is called to war not to kill his enemies but to die for his country. In our dependence, our morality is shaped. To further this dependence, our body of vices and virtues develop in interesting ways to crave our dependence, to prevent our withdrawal.

It is considered a Nigerian virtue to be patient, to be respectful, to be obedient. Yet these virtues are woven by the ubiquitous hands of pain. Pain follows patience in the desperation for miracles, in the wait at the civil service, in the wait at customs, in the wait for the government to remember its duty, in the wait in traffic, in the wait for admission, for promotion, for healthcare, for electricity, for the weight on your shoulders to be lifted by a divine hand. Pain follows respect and obedience as you bow to undeserving elders, as you do not protest, as you inject yourself with motivational speeches, as you aspire, as you obey, as you bow to abusive parents, as you endure battering as discipline, torture as training, as you show gratitude for your entitlements and rights, that are so graciously given to you in bits.

And if you falter, the reality of a different pain hits you, like a cruel reminder; and you return to your virtues—your preferred pain.

The pain grows, so you take another dose of Faithnyl and you believe—if you just believe enough, if your dose is just high enough…one day.

VII

‘Adùn ní ńgbehìn ewúro. | The aftertaste of the bitterleaf is sweet.’
—Yoruba proverb
excerpt and translation from Yoruba Proverbs by Oyekan Owomoyela

In my mother’s language, all meanings ride on proverbs.

When one speaks against the way pain is desired here, one does not dismiss entirely its utility, its purpose as a means to growth, to learning, to benefit. The consideration is one of degree, and the Nigerian threshold for pain runs in excess. Consider the difficulties or pains that are rewarding. Consider the utility of the bitterleaf and the sweet reward of an aftertaste.

A theory propounded by Robert Bjork and Elizabeth Bjork, and espoused by Malcolm Gladwell in his book of essays David and Goliath, explores the idea of desirable difficulties. Although this idea was propounded in relation to learning, its premise can be extended to other contexts. In the educational context, desirable difficulties are proposed as the tasks that challenge students to the right degree in order to learn best. Hence, if a learning task is easy and the resulting performance is low, one can say that desirable difficulties were absent or lacking. On the other hand—as is often the pride of the Nigerian educational system—if a learning task is difficult and the resulting performance is low, one can say that the difficulties were not desirable. The balance results where a learning task is difficult and the resulting performance is high, leading to the conclusion that desirable difficulties were present and the performance was high because of such difficulties rather than in spite of them.

It is a common rhetoric among the older generation to say that our dissatisfactions are simply calls for a painless country, for a place of dreamy ease, for castles in the sky. We have been called lazy for a lack of desperation, for a refusal to develop an appetite for suffering. We recognize the place of striving. We recognize the pleasure that comes after effort. We recognize the desirability of difficulty. We recognize the utility of pressure, not of crushed diamonds. We do not want a visibility earned through suffering. We do not want a celebration that carves our scars into medals. We do not want castles in the sky; neither do we want blood.

We want to look to the sky after rain and find a rainbow colouring its breadth.

VIII

Ocean Vuong—in a conversation with Krista Tippett, titled A Life Worthy of Our Breath—traced how the violence of the American lexicon permeates other aspects of American life; from celebration, to beauty, to desire. In this way too, our relationship with pain is ubiquitous in how we articulate our realities.

Of the many ways pain and the desire for pain becomes ubiquitous in our language, its presence in love and joy is clearest to me. I find the expression it will end in tears a most acute instance of this. I am moved, both by the certainty that it—whatever joy lifts your spirits or cleanses you of pain—will end; and the pessimism of how it will end—in tears. It would be fanciful to imagine that the beauty of an emotion or experience is enough to immortalize it. Yet, this impermanence is not new. This impermanence is a mirror of life itself—our lives, briefly gorgeous, but gorgeous still; our lives, the envy of the gods because our final moment could be any. To say that it will end is to say we should not live because of the inevitability of death. To say that it will end is to say we should not adorn ourselves with joy because pain will strip us. To say it will end is to be distrustful of ease. To say it will end is to be suspicious of joy. To say it will end is to be liberated from pain, only to return in search of its familiar shackles.

If it ends, you will know pain reached for you once, but you were beyond reach, haloed with joy. However it ends, you are joyful now, relish it.

IX

‘In ancient Greece, the finest Spartan warriors were whipped once a year, from morning till night, in homage to the goddess Artemis, while the crowd urged them on, calling on them to withstand the pain with dignity, for it was preparing them for the world of war. At the end of the day, the priests would examine the wounds on the warriors’ backs and use them to predict the city’s future.’
Eleven Minutes by Paulo Coelho

‘I was disgracing her now; I was not facing labor with laced-up dignity. She wanted me to meet each rush of pain with a mute grinding of teeth, to endure pain with pride, to embrace pain, even.’
Zikora by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

There is an art to bearing pain. When it is performed elegantly, it is rewarded.

Beyond the reward, the relationship we have with pain alters our perception of what constitutes a reward, what is enough. When our starvation is relieved with a meal, have we not instead knelt to feed on crumbs? When the failures of our countries force us through ordeals to arrive at other shores, how do we see reward? When we keep mute under the weight of pain, is our mother’s pride enough? When our skin breaks against the whips inflicted by our country, are the prophecies read off our scars enough?

It is our perception of rewards that causes us to drool with pride when we watch a little girl toil through her homework under the illumination of a bank ATM at night. We watch her back hunched, under the weight of her country’s failure to provide her with the most basic of amenities, and we call her desperation determination, we point to her as an example, we deem her worthy of praise, we deem her Nigerian.

And as a reward, we ease her suffering, briefly.

X

‘Who ever desires what is not gone? No one. The Greeks were clear on this. They invented eros to express it.’
Eros the Bittersweet by Anne Carson

No Nigerian desires what is not suffered for.

The void between what the Nigerian has and what they long for is pain. The void is eros. Pain, is the Nigerian desire.

Will you be an exception?


Ọbáfẹ́mi Thanni is a genre-bending writer whose poetry was the third-place winner of the Nigerian Newsdirect Poetry Prize 2020. He is a reader at The Masters Review and is currently making attempts at beauty while applying for a citizenship in Lucille.

Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, poetry, and creative nonfiction from marginalized creators.