Song of Survival

Credit: Harold Greer

I was one of those lucky ones: those ones who never studied or did much revision but still got good grades in exams. My dad, God bless him, seemed the complete opposite and so on this particular Sunday afternoon, he was away at university trying to lift us up by studying an engineering degree. I remember how he used to take his time drawing those architectural lines with such perfect strokes that they became art to me. Every line had to be the perfect length, drawn with a perfectly sharpened 2B pencil and no mistakes were to be made: a perfectionist.

I wasn’t dwelling in perfection on that day. With careful yet jagged writing, I scribbled down answers to my homework on a colourless exercise book as I waited patiently in routine for my mum to finish browning the sliced plantains as she sang her praises to God. It’s strange how I never noticed the way in which her voice dipped and rose at the wrong places and at the wrong times until now. Or perhaps it’s normal how as a child, the big ‘adult’ things fly over your head while the subtle ones miss you by a second look, a second thought or even just a second.

Raised as a Christian, I was scared of Hell and I was scared of that trumpet blowing just after I had hastily enjoyed a stolen spoonful of Milo from the kitchen. So when it happened, I was scared for real. The ground and only the ground shook: a loyal uncomplaining servant, it grumbled from its core and spread a fleeting chaos upon its masters. I couldn’t remember whether I had sinned lately so to reserve my place on God’s right hand, I placed my shiny white textbook on my head and asked for forgiveness of my sins. All was well for me and I smiled in excitement even amidst the combined sirens of fear as my street echoed the deep howls of Remi and the dog next door.

Oh such quiet confidence when I realised my folly and proudly told my mum as importantly as any nine year old could manage that it was simply a little earthquake! But then, the ground shook again and this time, its grumble introduced a deep chaos that settled deep on its surface. Windows and rooftops broke, people ran seemingly in no direction and Remi howled even louder as if crying to us to follow their lead.

Black emptiness fills my mind before suddenly I appear downstairs in my neighbour’s mini-supermarket. In retrospect, I realise now the panic that must have replaced the joy in my mother’s singing heart but as a child, this flew over me. I watched soft rubber slippers flip into the air like pancakes before falling back down to the ground like dead bodies as people ran faster than their feet. I was still excited. My brother scratched his nose with his fat fingers then snugly went back to sleep resting his head on my mother’s strong back as she re-tied her wrapper. I could hear Remi two floors up still howling but this time, for herself: she had no way out.

Word soon travelled to us like it always does in such chaos and my assumptions were confirmed. It wasn’t an earthquake. Afterall, nobody remembers natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes cursing us Nigerians like it usually does in foreign countries likeAmerica. The alternative was worse. Maybe because it wasn’t natural or because I suddenly understood what it was to fear death but when my neighbour suggested we outrun the bomb explosion like everybody else, I readily agreed as my mum did.

I began running. Fast. In my childhood and in my fear, I forgot everything else. I forgot Remi, my dad, or the half-browned plantains my mum had left floating in the oil. My skinny legs held my future in that moment. Where would they take me?

My mother stopped so I guess the joy in her heart must have returned. A chain reaction began and my neighbour and her children all stopped and I completed the reaction. I thought it was a wrong decision but I didn’t voice it. I was just a child afterall. Determinedly, we trooped back into my neighbours compound and the songs in my mother’s heart found voice.

God heard us among the howls of the dogs, the screams of the people and the deep grumbles of the land and the bombs surrendered two area codes away from us. The sun set and from the safety of God’s net we saw an extraordinarily bright orange sky. Who knew such man-made disaster could cause something so beautiful? Later that night, before I went to bed, I ate some white, oil-soaked plantain.

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