City Chronicles: The journey from dreams to despair

A man sits on a two-seater sofa in a dimly lit room, gazing out the window at a Nigerian slum. It's nearly 5 am. A blurry newspaper lies in front of him, and a transistor radio rests by the window.

It is almost 5 am. Wale had just returned from one of his many night jobs, he stood at the centre of the grotesque room, staring at an old newspaper that hung above the dusty transistor radio. He had cultivated the habit of staring at the newspaper headline. Perhaps because it reminded him of home, the serenity, the love, the peace, or because it was all that was left of the meagre luggage he brought with him when he decided to migrate to the city.

He remembered the day he left Ikare, a village hidden in the hinterland of Ondo State. He remembered bidding Omowunmi, his betrothed bride, goodbye; he remembered the smiles on the faces of Bamidele and Fafunke, his younger siblings whom he promised to someday return to take them to the city. He wondered if Gbenga, his best friend, had finally found the courage to profess his love to his secret crush Ewatomi. He remembered the tranquil nightfall under the mango tree eating pounded yam and ewedu soup garnished with bush meat and peppered snails. He remembered the twilight strolls with Omowunmi afore the amiable gaze of the disappearing sun. He missed the farmyard, the yam barns, the cornfield, the serenity, the peace of mind; he missed them all.

Those who live in the village have no idea how lucky they are,” he blurted out.

After a long nostalgic gaze at the newspaper, he plunged into the warm embrace of his cosy two-seater sofa, his most-priced furniture, the evidence of his hard work. He had bought the sofa eight months after arriving in Lagos for nearly half the price of his overpriced rent. The sofa was the only furniture he could afford; it sat opposite a vintage transistor radio that was comfortably set on a shabby shelf not far from the tiny window.

He took another glance at the newspaper headline and this time he began to think back to his first few days in Lagos, his arrival at Uncle James’ household, the welcoming embrace, the warm smiles, the shimmering sensation of triumph that was entwined with a mild feeling of anxiety and fear of the unknown. He had left all behind to pursue his nebulous dream. Life in the village was satisfying, but he wanted more, he was a dreamer, determined to succeed and the city was his gateway to success. He had woken up early the following day; he needed to discuss his plans with Uncle James. He was a handyman, skilled in performing various menial tasks. He had planned to raise money by multitasking various jobs until he was able to start his own business.

He remembered the blunt words of Uncle James, who said:

The city is not for the faint-hearted; it is not for the weak. The city is fun but not friendly. Every day is a subtle feud between dreams and despair, a battle of strength, will and courage, a cruel unforgiving struggle for survival. You must be strong Wale, believe in your dreams and work hard!”

Wale chuckled as he thought to himself “Uncle James can be poetic but he was indeed right, the city is fun…”.

He enjoyed his sojourn with Uncle James, who received him with open arms. Sometimes when he had nothing, Uncle James would give him money. Uncle James’ wife – Mrs Barakat – was a comely woman. She ensured that Wale always had enough to eat.

“Just when you think things are going your way, fate throws a pebble down your path.” Wale thought to himself. He sunk back to his couch, his face staring at the two-winged ceiling fan. His mind continued to meander down the slippery slope of memory lane. 

He remembered how everything changed after Uncle James relocated to Maiduguri. Uncle James, a senior officer at the Nigerian Customs Service, had just been transferred. In less than a week, he had evacuated the government quarters to settle down in his new station far away in the North.

Following Uncle James’ departure, Wale began to squat with friends and acquaintances, spending many nights with other handymen who lived below bridges and in tattered shops. He sometimes spent the night at the motor park where his illustriousness had earned him a respectable reputation among drivers, conductors and others. Wale was a regular customer of Mama Titi, a local food vendor whose shop borders the motor park. At nightfall, Wale and his friends would gather at Mama Titi’s shop to chatter, eat, drink and have the little fun their meagre income could afford before heading to whatever dump they called home.

Each night at Mama Titi’s shop, Wale observed the young boys and girls who habitually came to eat from leftovers, wash dishes, sweep and clean the shop in exchange for whatever little food they could get. He often looked at them with pity. Sometimes, when faith smiled on his pocket, he bought food for some of the children. His generosity earned him the fondness of the children; he often conversed with them, listening to their stories, which were no doubt sad and depressing. Many of the children were brought to the city by friends, families and loved ones with enticing promises of a better life that often included education, jobs and enticing opportunities. However, they end up rejected, ignored and abused by those who should have been their benefactors.

A grim of pity sneaked through his sober face as his mind continued to unravel the recent past.

Wale again remembered his dear friend Sanmi, a brash, outspoken and convincing young man who was in his early 20s. Wale remembered meeting Sanmi at the Motto Park where Sanmi worked as a stationed conductor for several vehicles. Sanmi was loved by everyone, especially the drivers who enjoyed how he persuaded passengers into boarding their rickety vehicles even against the passenger’s interest.

Sanmi once told Wale how he fled the house of his father’s close friend – Uncle Bolaji – who brought him to Lagos with promises of education. He recounted how his uncle gave him and many other kids who lived with them a bicycle cart, which he would use to sell yoghurt from dawn to dusk. At nightfall, they would remit all the money made to Uncle Bolaji who also beat to pulp any child that failed to meet the daily target. He narrated how he was starved and nearly beaten to death the day he lost his cart due to a flood caused by heavy rainfall. That was when he decided to escape with some of Uncle Bolaji’s money. “That was my retirement gratuity” as Sanmi would fondly say.

Wale began to slowly drift asleep; he remembered the unfortunate death of Sanmi in the catastrophic roadside fire outbreak that claimed the lives of several motorists, conductors and passengers. He remembered the many tales of woe told by the children, by Sanmi, his fellow handymen and other friends at Mama Titi’s shop, a drop of tear crawled down his cheek.

Uncle James was right, the city is unforgiving” he retorted

To survive in the city, you must be as cunning as the feral fox, you must have the valour of a youthful lion and yet you must appear as harmless as a domesticated wild cat”. 

The city is a place of exploitation and modern slavery,” he concluded. 

In the village, he had dreams, but all he had in the city were nightmares.

He knew he had to be awake soon to get ready for his day job, so he stood up, took a final glance at the newspaper article, which read “Here in the City, Everyone Can Make It: Yes, Even You!”.

He plunged back into his warm couch and fell asleep.


Credits:
Story by OLA OGUN
Image generated by Meta AI


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