One random day. Year 1989:
A four-year-old boy rides his bicycle a tad beyond the usual boundaries of his father’s compound. Further down the street, he is confronted by the two most notorious children in the neighbourhood.
‘’Stop there!’’ But he doesn’t, because he is scared.
‘’Stop!’’ The boys scream again. But he doesn’t, so he is chased.
The bike crashes into a deep gully on the road and topples over. The boy is yanked up by his Power Rangers T-Shirt and beaten for his disobedience. His bike is seized.
The boy is laughed at when he reports the altercation to his much older brothers. It is funny that he gives in to the fear of being beaten so easily. It is embarrassing to the family name that he cried in the hands of those boys. And no, they wouldn’t fight on his behalf to get his bike back. They see this as a teaching moment. Big boys fight back. Big boys fear nothing, not even death. Big boys don’t cry. Never ever.
You’re four now, not a baby anymore.
One random day. Year 1999:
The fourteen-year-old boy has developed a huge crush for Lola, the fair, beautiful Americanah in his class. At 10 am, he has officially memorized twelve love songs. At 11 am, he has rubbed the deodorant he stole from one of his brothers all over a foolscap sheet of paper on which he has written words he is sure Lola cannot spell. At 1 pm, he has mustered up the courage to bare his soul to the girl whose presence in his dreams has dispelled old but recurrent, harrowing, bike-related nightmares. By 4 pm, he is privy to rumours that Lola is in love with Wale, the one called the ruffian; Wale who knew nothing in Math nor English, but drew everyone’s attention with his blinding speed at the Inter-house competitions, Wale who could make anyone laugh whether or not anything was funny.
The boy never gives Lola the letter with the impressive words. It remains in his bag until his brothers find it, and tease him halfway back to hellish dreams. From the ruins, another teaching moment emerges: The girls only love the bad boys. Never tell any girl you love her, it makes you weak. Stupid. Boring. Who does that?
You’re fourteen now. Be a man!
One random day. Year 2009:
The twenty-four-year-old boy finds himself in the upper-middle-class rung of society, off doing what his brothers cannot understand. He uses words like stock price, shares, and savings accounts in almost every sentence. He is either dressed in a suit or talking about buying a new suit. He has brought their mother out of the old neighbourhood to live with him in the sunny side of the city. He would have invited his brothers over as well, but they tell him his new job has cost him the last scrap of his manhood. How could he call himself a man when his boss was a woman, if he had the real men repairing his car, washing it? Besides, what does it profit him to acquire the whole world and lose it to a random thief in the night, a thief who can smell all the fear beneath his pricey cologne, much like those boys who had the courage to take his bike from him all those years back?
One random day. Year 2019:
The thirty-four-year-old man accompanies his aged mother to the doctor’s office, where he meets this writer. He helps to translate her complaints from Yoruba to English so I can understand. Her prescription is scribbled within minutes: one drug for pain, another to help her sleep, and finally, vitamin C.
The man thanks me, all smiles, but he doesn’t go. Instead, he encourages his mother to stay in the waiting room, while he takes her place on the patient’s chair. I am disgusted by his conduct: ‘’This is not standard procedure’’, I say.
‘’First, you register. Then you get your vitals checked. Then you exercise patience like you’ve never exercised before because A LOT of people came before you. This is a Nigerian government hospital.’’
The man is curt in saying he doesn’t have time for any of that. He is no longer smiling either. ‘’Just one question’’, he says. One question and he’d be on his way.
‘’Doctor, how do I kill myself without it paining me?’’
He stresses that he must die, and it must not pain him, because he had tried his whole life to grasp the concept of being a man, and he had failed at it. He resolves that his brothers had been gifted that priceless attribute by divine powers, and somehow he was cursed, forgotten, or both. While he has never found violent tendencies within himself, he regrets he is not courageous enough to embrace a painful suicide, the kind that would serve as a perpetual stamp upon his manliness, something he thinks will impress his brothers. He guarantees that he has been on every anti-hypertensive known to man; he has long admired the unrelenting efforts of his previous doctors, while at the same time, savouring the look on their perplexed faces because it is proof that his problems have nothing to do with science. He refrains from getting married even after he has long settled firmly into Nigeria’s upper class because there was no point in dating if all women wanted was the one thing he couldn’t give them—the quality of being masculine, something all the money in the world could never buy. And he has learned to doubt the existence of love in the world, despite what his mother feels for him, saddled as she was with the burden of showing him what he called ‘’the faintest semblance of the word.’’ He does not stop talking until his words fail him, giving way for tears he has no intention of crying.
Nothing could ever prepare me enough to answer that man’s question, especially since I had spent most of my day thinking of sunshine and rainbows, especially since it wasn’t a hypothetical case scenario from a textbook, but a living person with his eyes firmly fixated on mine. Nothing else in this world will affirm my beliefs in the magic of a single conversation, such that two men went back and forth about what it meant to be a man, about the hidden strengths in showing weakness and sharing burdens, about how our greatest misfortunes in life could potentially be the tenets upon which we build a wealth of character, until I could see his desires slowly shift from a ‘’painless exit’’ to a ‘’peaceful existence.’’
To whom it may concern, to be a man is to be human in the first place.