/ 2 July 2020

Elnathan John: Finding the balance of things in strange, new places

Graphic Elnathan Twitter
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

You are here in this room, 45 square metres, warm, thankful that your concerns are only the concerns of half the world and that somehow, in this pandemic you are able to escape into a world full of worry. You can blend in, not having to expose the wounds that you have because everyone around is bleeding. If someone had told you it would take a pandemic to feel normal again, you would have called them a dreamer.

You know a couple of people stranded in Berlin and other cities, trapped by restrictions that either do not allow them to leave the cities they visited or return to the cities they came from. Every day they scour the news for word that they can finally escape this overextended trip, get back to their lives — or to what used to be their lives. 

You have always worked from home so there is nothing to run to or hope for, no normalcy to reminisce about. Only your mind, from which there is no escape. When you first moved to Berlin from Abuja, you traded the sound of generators for the almost imperceptible hum of room heaters. Open sewers for paved streets, heavily spiced meals for bland food. 

Traded love for the promise of love, warm weather year-round for grey winters and a spring that cannot decide if it wants to be chilly or warm. Family and loved ones for the cold distance of a larger, richer, wilder city. And always you weighed it on a scale. What you had gained versus what you had lost. 

You did not wish for much, just for the things you had given up to be at least matched by the things you wanted to give up and what you gained in their place.

This is what you have always wanted — that after every storm, you are able, somehow, to find balance. 

Often you dream of your time in Abuja, your favourite Nigerian city. The city which built and broke you. You think of your favourite place there, where you often found escape — the hills around the dam that is the source of the city’s drinking water a few kilometres from the capital.

It was on the outskirts of Abuja that the perfect metaphor for how you felt presented itself to you. It was there, dancing delicately on the edges of that almost-still body of water called Usuma Dam: empty plastic bottles and cans of soft drinks, polythene bags, disposable cups and plates, a condom wrapper torn in a way that suggested urgency, a lone leg of worn-out slippers.

The word that first presented itself to you was flotsam. But then you thought, flotsam refers to debris and wreckage from a ship so, technically, the detritus from people picnicking at the dam isn’t flotsam. But you liked the word, so you used it anyway. Flotsam, you said out loud.

That is how the city made you feel then — floating aimlessly in a place with no soul, no flow, no character to its movement, nothing organic about its development. Flotsam, because you felt like you had fallen off the grid and couldn’t say what you had been doing there for six years since you moved from your home city, Kaduna, to go to law school and then work as a lawyer. Flotsam, because much of the wealth Abuja boasts of felt like the debris from a country wrecked by open theft and corruption — the luxury cars, the gaudy mansions.

You had always wanted to climb the hills around the dam but they always looked too steep — not something any of the shoes you had could execute. You had always skirted about the hills enough to contemplate the magnificence of the view and experience the thin freshness that you imagined the air up there must have. Skirting, another metaphor for how you lived, never really going the whole way.

Skirting. Like when a lovely journalist you barely knew asked you to be spontaneous and come with her on a long road trip and you said you’d think about it. You packed a bag but thought: “What if I have an accident? There are always accidents on Nigerian roads. What if there are people killing people on the roads? These things happen …” 

Skirting. Enough thought about being spontaneous to contemplate what nice things could happen, enough to pack a bag and feel the rush of blood to your head, but not enough to leave the house.

The dam was always lovely on weekdays because there was no noise or activity, no lovers looking for a quiet place to fondle, nothing to upset the balance of things. Only glossy colourful lizards you thought might be five-lined skinks with bright blue tails and olive-to-brown striped bodies. 

As you hoped to see a snake or monkey, you walked trying not to upset the balance of things. You always walked gently, so as not to scare all the life creeping and crawling because you realised you were in their space. 

Sometimes a city does this to you — makes you forget whose space you are in. Or maybe it is Nigeria, where personal space means little, where a passenger can start screaming in the name of Jesus in a crowded bus, or your neighbour, who is fasting, can play Qur’anic recitations loud enough to give you a headache.

These days, as the pandemic imposes physical distancing restrictions on people in most parts of the world, you think this might be one positive thing for your home country: that perhaps, finally, your countrymen might think more about personal space, about speaking without always touching, about not instinctively reaching, uninvited, for the bodies of strangers.

You think in particular of the last time you were there at the dam, years ago. You stared at an empty bottle of wine between two large rocks up on the side of one of the hills, imagining two people, or three, sharing a bottle, passing it around, laughing, maybe smoking. You looked around for cigarette butts that might tell stories. 

You were careful not to leave behind anything because these bits of trash upset the balance of things.

That last time, you decided, after torturing yourself with thoughts of all the things that could happen — sliding down a slippery part of the rock and scraping all the skin off your body, tripping and plunging down to the rocks below or just losing breath and collapsing after reaching the top — that you were tired of skirting, tired of being afraid to die, tired of feeling like flotsam, tired of being afraid to upset the balance of things in your life. 

And so you started climbing, slowly at first, crouching, walking sideways, gauging the steepness and then increasingly, more confidently, taking bigger strides, straightening. Halfway up and panting, you realised that most of the steepness was imagined.

At the peak, you found it all undisturbed. No debris. Even more five-lined skinks. And air — the quality of which you could not remember breathing. Before Abuja hardened you, you might have cried. This is beautiful, you said to yourself even though “beautiful” seemed like such a bland word to describe this. You stopped trying to describe it. You took it all in.

You knew that you had not just discovered the meaning of life and, yes, your problems would still be there when you got back down. But in that moment you felt walls and fears shatter inside you. Fear of uncertainty. Fear of death. And as you climbed down you thought of all the things you needed to do which might upset the balance of things but would stop you from just floating aimlessly: write more about your dead brother, trust someone, love without fear.

Now in Berlin, you are back there. Floating. Skirting. You had figured out one city, learnt its mould, its tone, its cadences, swayed to its rhythm and rebelled against it, knew its contours by heart — you could trace it blind — then left it, traded it for a new one, a bigger one, a colder one, a more functional but far less friendly one, where you did not know what bumps were ahead or if your shock absorbers could take it. 

You have become a child again, learning what words mean in a new language. You are learning what a smile means on German faces, what a straight, cold face means. You are figuring out the difference between racism and the cultural rudeness of Berlin. 

You are learning what it means when people in the shops have no desire for chit-chat or pleasantries. And you wonder where you fit in all of this. 

You float. You skirt. Again.

Many days you want to scream, to leave your body and examine it, to escape into knowing. Knowing what existing in this city means. What love means in this city. What a touch means. What a smile means. What it means to say no, to say yes, to say maybe.

And now, as everyone reels from the uncertainties of this pandemic that has changed the face of cities and towns and countries, changed land and air and sea, a strange calm sluices over you. For a few moments you find yourself able to escape into this chaos, into a sea of familiar feelings and worries: people unable to recognise their cities and home towns, people unable to recognise their own lives as they lose jobs or have to work differently, as they are stuck in their homes with partners and children and parents they have to endure. 

Everywhere there are people unmoored — you see it in their eyes as they queue in grocery stores trying to make sure they have enough toilet paper and non-perishable food items. You see it in the urgency, in the unquestioning compliance with rules as they keep 1.5m away from potential carriers of the virus, as they find ways of not touching door handles and other surfaces. 

Beautiful: Surrounded by hills, Usuma Dam, which supplies water to Nigeria’s capital Abuja, is a spot where people find peace and tranquility. (Photo: Mirella Mahlstein)

For the first time in a long time you feel at home in this city and in the world, where everyone seems to be floating, looking for balance. And because you know it is all temporary, you will try, with this calm to find that balance, so that when it all goes back to normal — when people prioritise profits and greed, arrange trysts with their lovers and reconnect with their barbers and hairdressers, when they feel safe enough to angrily bump into each other on the train, when the mourning stops — you will have to find home again, you will have to find balance.

Elnathan John is a Nigerian writer, satirist and lawyer. A version of this article was published on his blog in 2017, but now it includes the unbalancing of things by the Covid-19 pandemic.