By Ngozi John
Home was the sweet aroma of roasted corn wafting through the air. Home was unmeant curses in Yoruba, flying out of brown-toothed mouths. Home was the voices of pap sellers and muezzins’ prayer calls piercing the early morning silence. Home was the voices of pepper hawkers, orange sellers; the sound of cutting metals, welding machines; the running of sewing machines; the cries of hungry toddlers or sometimes the lone clang of a cobbler’s rod against his wood case on idle afternoons. Home was Ibadan.
You would sit on the balcony and watch the world move past your house. Madmen searching through waste dumps; cars coming out too quickly from sharp bends; young men holding girls around their waists, below their waists; children running around naked; motorcyclists speeding past, too fast, passengers clinging to their seats to avoid being thrown off; sometimes, a whole family of four, the children lodged between the parents.
But that was before you turned 16. You were in SS2. It was a school day. You felt the moisture between your legs, the liquid running down your thighs. You rubbed your thighs against each other to stop it from going all the way down but it wouldn’t stop. So, you went behind the school laboratory and raised your skirt. That was when you saw it. Blood. Caked in the places where your thighs rubbed together. You told your teacher you were ill and needed to go home.
At home, as you washed yourself in the bathroom, watching how the blood ran down your legs and mixed with the water, your mother opened the door and asked why you were home early. She saw the blood before you could answer. Then she left without saying anything. She came back into your room with pieces of rag. You knew she had cut them out from her old wrapper. She told you that you were a woman now, and between asking you if you felt any pain around your abdomen and showing you how to put the rag between your legs, she gave you warnings about boys and their sweet mouths which could get one pregnant.
At first, you told her about the boys. Tobi who wrote you a poem and stood under the staircase waiting for when you wanted to run an errand to give it to you. Chijoke who wrote you a love letter in terrible grammar and used the word ‘doxology.’ You laughed over it with her as she stirred the pot of soup. But later, you stopped telling her. That was after she saw Corper Steve with his arm around you. She looked at you the same way she did when you stayed in the parlor when a visitor was around, then she said something about you sleeping with your teachers now.
Some days, when you stood over her to pluck strands of gray hair from her thinning hair and a boy would pass, she would raise the mirror in her hand to look at your face, pretending to look at herself. You tried to show keen interest in a particular gray strand. You hoped that she did not notice your forced attempt to appear indifferent. Then there were the days you came home late from extramural classes and saw her waiting for you at the entrance of your street. One time, she made you spread your legs and poked you with her finger, all the while asking if you felt any pain. You wanted to tell her that the pain you felt was more than the one between your legs; that she made you feel dirty.
Three months later, as Mrs. Orelusi told her about the fight in your school, you walked past them disheveled. You did not tell her that as the fight broke out and Brown started to shoot, you ran into the bushes. You did not tell her about the boys in the bushes. The smoking. The drinking. The foul smell on their breath. The rough push against the tree. The ground. The bodies pressing into you. The ruffling of dead leaves under your skin. The pain between your legs. The blood.
Then the nightmares started. The hands around your neck. The things crawling up your legs. That was when you felt the need to move. To run. To breathe. To die. To live. To leave Ibadan. To Akure where your body was close to the sky. To Lagos where the voices in your head were lost in the honks of impatient cars. To Benin where the melody weaved into your soul. You ran until you felt whole.
Then one year, you started to miss home. That was the year you wrote ‘Ibadan and Yellow Corn.’ You wrote about the red dust in Apete, the busyness of Mokola bridge, the cries of ‘k’ónílé gbélé, k’álejò bó’ta’ at midnight. You wrote about yourself. The bushes. The boys. The blood. You had healed. You were sure. So one morning, you packed a bag. You were going home.
You wanted a window seat, but they were all taken. As you sat in the bus, waiting for it to load, you realized how tightly you were lodged between the fat woman and the bald man; how their skin rubbed against your own; how the window wouldn’t open all the way. So you got out and asked to bring down your bag. The driver asked if you had changed your mind. You knew he would not understand, yet still, you told him. You told him that your body could not stay in places where it did not fit. And how you used your body was important. That it was more important than going to Ibadan. Going home. That these days, home was your body. Home was your scars. Home was the places where your body could breathe.