“My voluntary curfew makes me realise I respond the Nigerian way…”
At first I think I hear a car back firing in my street. I am an incorrigible optimist. After the second and third pop, I realise it is gunfire. It is Sunday night, 2.30 a.m. As I stare at my bed room ceiling trying to figure out if the noise is coming closer, I consider the scenarios. They are probably just after the car; and the cell phone and money of its driver. Surely they are not after the oyinbo writer who lives around here. What would I do if they come to my door? In my head I rehearse my emergency exit, involving a jump that would probably break my legs, and laugh at myself for the James Bond ways of my mind. For the very first time in Lagos, I am genuinely scared. And very lonely.
I consider calling a friend. But who would want such a midnight phone call stating the obvious? Everyone in Nigeria has their security challenges. No one excluded. Not even a minister’s mother. Every single one of my Nigerian friends has been mugged at gun point at least once. My dear friend and colleague, Tolu Ogunlesi, was recently robbed and locked in the boot of his Honda that subsequently got caught in crossfire. Now he had reasons to be scared, I tell myself as I listen to the gun shots. Not me in my big bed with soft pillows. I take my laptop and start distract tweeting instead, talking nonsense with my favourite fellow insomniacs online.
When the shooting stops – ‘Thank God’, comments a Tweep – I turn off my computer and try to go to sleep again. Of course I cannot, mostly because the useless police is roaming the streets in a patrol car keeping everyone awake with its bloody siren. I curse them as I put a pillow over my head. Where were they when my street got bullet sprayed?
The next morning I ask a neighbour if he has heard the shooting. He has not. But he has witnessed a car jacking on the adjacent main street that same evening, just before midnight. He states it matter of factly.
It is going towards Christmas and the security in Lagos is deteriorating every day. Like everyone else, I decide to limit my movements. Not come home to the Mainland after ten anymore (my landlady tells me seven, I am still considering this final stab to my social life) and stay with friends on the Island if I have business there at night. I even consider cancelling Wednesday evening salsa because it is too far and not a strict necessity to survive. If you know anything about me, you will understand how drastic a move that is.
With a close friend, I arrange a calling each other every evening ritual, so at least someone would notice if one of us went missing. As I wonder how to prepare mentally to the feeling of a gun against my head, I try to remember what I once learnt on a training course for journalists in war zones about how to behave when you get kidnapped. Months ago I stopped laughing off the idea of a destitute writer like me being abducted, when a Nigerian colleague got kidnapped in Abuja. If those morons are insane enough to target a local writer, an oyinbo one will definitely be fair game.
My voluntary curfew makes me realise I respond the Nigerian way: by adjusting. Knowing my rage against the institutionalised lawlessness, impunity and inequality that provides the breeding ground to these crimes is futile, I cut my losses and try to survive.
It is astounding how quickly I seem to have become what I never wanted to be: a scared expat behind a closed door. I am trying not to dwell on the nagging thought of what use I am as a writer in a place that is too dangerous for me to live in. They say it will all get better again after New Year.
Tolu Ogunlesi once compared Nigerians to the frogs in a bath tub with water gradually heating up. If a frog jumps into piping hot water, his reflexes make him jump right out again. But if it finds itself in water that is gradually warming up to a temperature that burns him, it stays put. His reflexes don’t warn him of the danger anymore because they have gotten used to it.
I came to Nigeria knowing fully well there were security risks, but so far I have managed them without totally sacrificing my social life. If you had asked me before if I wanted to live somewhere where I had to be indoors at seven p.m., I would have looked at you like you were mad. Of course not. Now I am getting used to the idea that I will put myself voluntarily under such a curfew – for the time being.
Frogs in water coming to a boil, it perfectly describes the way we in Nigeria live. The question is how to discover our burn wounds before it is too late.
Talk to Femke on Twitter: @femkevanzeijl