Furo Wariboko awoke this morning to find that dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep. He was lying nude in bed, and when he raised his head a fraction he could see his alabaster belly, and his pale legs beyond, covered with fuzz that glinted bronze in the cold daylight pouring in through the open window. He sat up with a sudden motion that swilled the panic in his stomach and spilled his hands into his lap. He stared at his hands, the pink life lines in his palms, the shellfish-coloured cuticles, the network of blue veins that ran from knuckle to wrist, more veins than he had ever noticed before. His hands were not black but white . . . same as his legs, his belly, all of him. He clenched his fists, squeezed his eyes shut, and sank on to the bed. Outside, a bird chirruped short piercing cries, like mocking laughter.
When he opened his eyes again the air was silent, the bird was flown. Turning on his side, his gaze roved the familiar corners of his bedroom and rested on his going-out shoes, their brown leather polished to a dull lustre, placed at attention beside the door. His blue T.M. Lewin shirt and his favourite black cotton trousers (which he had stayed awake till after midnight, when power returned, to iron) were hanging from the chair at his desk. His plastic folder, packed tight with documents, was on the desk. He stared at the folder till his eyeballs itched with dryness, and then he rolled to the bed’s edge and blinked at the screen of his BlackBerry lying on the floor. He grimaced with relief: the alarm hadn’t gone off: he had sixteen minutes until it rang at eight. On account of Lagos traffic he planned to leave the house at half past eight. A bath, get dressed, eat breakfast, and then he would be off.
Furo heaved on to his back and fixed his gaze on the white ceiling squares festooned with fragments of old cobwebs. He tried to corral his thoughts into the path of logic, but his efforts were brushed aside by his panicked heartbeats. Through the window and far away he heard the unruffled buzz of traffic, the whale honks of trailers, the urgent beeping of a reversing Coaster bus, the same school bus that arrived every weekday around this time. The accustomed sounds of Monday morning. It appeared a normal day for everyone else, and that thought brought Furo no succour, it only confirmed what he already knew, that he was alone in this lingering dream. But what he knew did not explain the how, the why, or the why today. I shouldn’t have stayed up late, he said to himself, no wonder I had such nightmares – I, who never dream! He tried to remember what he had dreamed of, but all he recalled was climbing into bed with the same dread he had slept with since he received the email notifying him of his job interview.
He was startled back to alertness by his phone alarm. He reached forwards to turn it off, then pushed his legs off the bed, and sat at the edge with his feet pressed into the rug. The pallor of his feet was stark against the rug’s crimson. He was white, full oyibo, no doubt about it – and, with his knees swinging, the flesh of his thighs jiggling, his mind following these bone-and-flesh motions for bewildered seconds before moving its attention to other details of his physiology, he began to comprehend the extent of his transformation. He stilled his knees and, calming himself with a deep suck of air, raised his hand to his cramped neck. As he massaged, his mouth hung open and gastric gasses washed over his tongue in quiet hiccups.
Then, without telltale footsteps, three knocks sounded on the bedroom door. Furo caught his breath and glared, thinking, I locked it, didn’t I? I hope I locked it! ‘Furo,’ his mother called, tapping again. ‘Are you awake?’ The handle turned. The door was locked.
‘I’m awake!’ Furo cried out. The relief in his voice made it sound strange to his ears, but otherwise it was his, unchanged. ‘Good morning, Mummy.’
‘Morning, dear,’ his mother said, and rattled the handle. ‘Come and open the door.’
‘I’m not dressed, I’m getting ready,’ Furo said in a rush, and bit his lip at the quaver in his voice. But his mother it seemed had noticed nothing abnormal. ‘I’m off to work,’ she said. ‘Remember, today is Monday, traffic will be bad. You should leave soon.’
‘Your father’s awake. I asked him to drop you off.’ ‘OK, Mummy.’
‘I’ve told Tekena to fix you breakfast, but you know how your sister is, she won’t get out of bed unless she’s dragged. Remind her before you enter the bathroom.’
‘Let her sleep. I can take care of myself.’
In the ensuing silence, the back of Furo’s neck ached, the hairs on his arms prickled, and he moved his hands to his groin, cupped it from view. When his mother spoke again, her tone sounded like it came from a troubled place.
‘Don’t worry too much, ehn. Just do your best at the interview. If that job is yours, I’m sure you’ll get it. Everything will be OK.’
‘Thank you, Mummy,’ Furo said. ‘Have a good day.’
At the sound of the front door closing, Furo raised both hands to stroke the sweat from his bristled scalp, and after dropping his hands to the bed to dry them, he tried to focus his mind on the problems that swelled before him. His father and his sister were obstacles he had to elude. Another hurdle was money. He had no money, not a kobo on him. He’d planned to ask his mother for the bus fare to the interview, but even if he’d dared to speak about it through the closed door, his father’s offer of a ride had quashed any chances of that succeeding. (It was impossible to accept, absurd to even think it, but there it was before his eyes, this skin colour that others were born into but he, Furo, had awoken to.) There was his sister, and he could try borrowing from her, but how to collect the money without facing her? No, too risky – he would have to walk. There was no time to eat, to bathe, to take chances. He had to leave now. There was no more denying what he was experiencing at this moment: he, Furo, son of a mother who knew his voice, was now a white man. Furo rose from the bed, pattered across the cold floor tiles to the bedroom door and grabbed his towel from the hook. With the towel he scrubbed his armpits, wiped the sweat from his torso and back, rubbed down his legs, and then he straightened up and turned, turned, kept turning, his eyes scanning the room. A sachet of pure water lay on his desk. Beside it, the hand mirror. His gaze moved to the bed with its rumpled sheet, and the louvred window above it, the dust-clogged mosquito netting that sieved the morning light, the old rainwater blotches on the window ledge: everything familiar, as it should be. His eyelashes were stiff with sleep crust, and his breath stank of last night’s meal: noodles and fried egg garnished with raw onions. He ran his tongue along his crud-caked teeth. A large, reddish-brown cockroach emerged at that instant from under the bed and, waving its antennae furiously, skittered across the floor and into the darkened wardrobe. Furo stopped turning, strode to the desk, grabbed the hand mirror, and with a quick glance at his face, he flung it after the cockroach. Picking up the water sachet, he tore open the edge, and after rubbing his teeth and tongue with a finger, he squirted water into his mouth, gargled, and swallowed. He squeezed the last drops of water on to the towel, mopped his face with it and cleaned the crust from his eyes, then put on his clothes.
Getting from his bedroom to the front door was easy. There was no one about – his father and his sister were still in their bedrooms – and he reached the front door in a soft- stepping dash. Getting to the gate was easier. He sprinted across the yard, shoe heels smacking the concrete. He breathed a sigh as the gate swung closed behind him, and then reached into his trouser pocket for his BlackBerry to check the time, but his pocket was empty, he had left the phone behind. He hesitated a moment, and then, with a brusque shake of his head, he stuck his plastic folder under his arm and set off at a trot for his job interview.
The first person Furo met was the stocky Adamawa man who had the monopoly on garbage collection in the quarter of Egbeda where Furo lived. He was pushing his garbage cart down Furo’s street, and he drummed the cart’s side with a hooked metal rod to announce his presence to the gated houses. But on catching sight of Furo, the rod slipped from his grasp and dangled on a string from the cart’s handle, and then he averted his gaze to the shambles in the cart’s bed, but kept on advancing, his steps growing slower, the cart trundling before him with its bold stench. Furo usually delivered the house garbage to him, and they had bantered several times over the haphazard costing of his seller’s market service, so Furo, out of habit, greeted him as they drew abreast, and at once regretted the appearance of his voice. The man’s silence only sharpened the bite of Furo’s blunder. They pulled past each other, and Furo reached the bend in the road before casting back a nervous, salt-pillar look. The cart was abandoned in the middle of the street, and the man stood several paces in front of it, one hand shading his eyes and the other slapping at blowflies, and stared at Furo with festering intensity.
On the next street Furo approached the Isoko woman who ran a buka in front of a tenement building for navy personnel and their families. She was frying hunks of pork in a cauldron of seething oil that straddled a coal fire. Her naked toddler – a girl, her round tight belly accentuated by strings of coloured plastic beads looped around her waist – sat on the ground a short distance from the fire. The child played with fistfuls of charred wood chippings and coconut shell; she babbled to herself – or her imaginary friend – through popping bubbles of spit. As Furo drew near, she looked up with fat-cheeked wonder and caught her breath. He was expecting it, but when the howl came it startled him nonetheless. Hearing the rush of the mother’s footsteps, he glanced around to see her picking up the child, and after turning back, he heard her say with a laugh, ‘No fear, no cry again, my pikin. No be ojuju, nah oyibo man.’
And so it went: stares followed him everywhere. Pedestrians stopped and stared, or stared as they walked. Motorists slowed their cars and stared, and on occasion honked their horns to draw his face so they could stare into it. School-bound children hushed their mates and poked their fingers in his direction, wrapper-clad women paused in their front-yard duties and gazed after him, and stick-chewing men leaned over balcony railings to peer down at him. As he passed by the corner store where his mother got her emergency groceries, a hubbub of voices burst out, and when he looked over he saw the attend- ants, Peace, Tope and Eze, crowded in the doorway, gawping at him. A radio jingle – Mortein! Kills insects dead! – blared from the barbershop where he got a shave every weekend and his hair cut every month, and when he hurried past the front, Osaze, the Bini barber, who was bent over a smouldering pile of hair, froze in that position, only his head moving through thickening smoke as he followed Furo with his eyes.
No one had called out his name. He’d passed houses he wasn’t a stranger to, and he’d been stared at by several people he knew, people whom he had lived beside for many years, joked with, been rude to, borrowed money from – and yet no one had recognised him.
Lagos, they say, is a city of twenty million people. Certainly no less than fifteen million. The economic capital of Nigeria and its most cosmopolitan city, Lagos hosts the highest numbers of foreigners in the country. Construction workers from China mainly; restaurateurs, hoteliers and import dealers from India and the Middle East; tailors, drivers, domestics and technicians from West and Central Africa; expat employees of Western multinationals and global bureaucracies; sojourning journalists and religious crusaders; few exchange scholars; fewer tourists. In some parts of the city it is not unusual to see a white person walking the streets on a sunny day. Ikoyi, Victoria Island, and Lekki Peninsula. That’s where oyibos – light-skinned people – live, work, play, and are buried. In private cemeteries. In Apapa, Oshodi, Ikeja, and other business districts of Lagos, the sight of a white man passing through in a chauffeured car is by no means a rarity. But if in traffic his car were bumped by another motorist and he came down to demand insurance details, it is likely that a Lagos-sized crowd would gather to stare, drawn by this curious display of courage. As for the outlying –economically as well as geographically – areas of Lagos, places such as Agege, Egbeda, Ikorodu: a good number of the inhabitants of these neighbourhoods have never held a conversation with an oyibo, never considered white people as anything more or less than historical opportunists or gullible victims, never seen red hair, green eyes, or pink nipples except on screen and on paper. And so an oyibo strolling down their street is an incidence of some thrill. Not quite the excitement decibels of seeing a celebrity, but close.
One anxious step after another and Furo finally reached the stretch of roadside marked out by collective memory – the script on the metal signpost had since rusted away – as Egbeda Bus Stop. It was mid-June, the flood-bearing rains had arrived, and the road drainage, which was clogged with market litter, was undergoing expansion by the municipal authorities. Half of the sidewalk was dug up, the excavated soil heaped on the other half, and these hillocks of red mud had been colonised for commerce, turned into a stage for stalls, kiosks, display cases, impromptu drama. In this roadside market stood food sellers with huge pots of steaming food, fish sellers with open basins of live catfish and dead crayfish, hawkers with wooden trays of factory-line snacks, iceboxes of mineral sodas, and armloads of pirated music CDs, Nollywood VCDs, telenovela DVDs. Then there was the noise, the raw sound of money, of haggling and wheedling and haranguing, the rise and rise of voices against the roar of traffic. The bus stop was crowded with heads and limbs in a swirl of motion, and jostling for space on the motorway were all types of vehicles, from rusted pushcarts to candy-coloured mopeds to sauropod-sized freight trucks, all of them vying with pedestrians for right of way.
Lone white face in a sea of black, Furo learned fast. To walk with his shoulders up and his steps steady. To keep his gaze lowered and his face blank. To ignore the fixed stares, the pointed whispers, the blatant curiosity. And he learnt how it felt to be seen as a freak: exposed to wonder, invisible to comprehension.
A. Igoni Barrett, excerpt from Blackass. Copyright © 2015 by A. Igoni Barrett. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.
A. Igoni Barrett is the author of Love Is Power, or Something Like That. He is the recipient of a Chinua Achebe Center Fellowship, a Norman Mailer Center Fellowship, and a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Residency. He lives in Nigeria.