In search of magic in Iseyin

Put one aching foot in front of the other. Then run your thumb over your forehead and snap off the small pool of sweat. Take short, shallow breaths and occasionally stop to take a long, deep one. You’ll see these activities come with a kind of thrill that surpasses whatever view will be presented from the top. I know this. And so on this cold Sunday morning, in the company of two friends, I went climbing the Iyake Mountains at Ado-Iwaye, a small town in Southwestern part of Nigeria. I have always enjoyed climbing, even when the muscles in my thighs are begging for a break. I consider it a form of rediscovery, a way to see how much I can convince my body to do something even when it does not feel up to it.

About two weeks earlier, I sat quietly on a bus, unsure of what lay ahead. The first thing I noticed when I arrived at Ebedi Writers Residency in Iseyin was the tree with beautiful, yellow leaves and flowers blooming beside the gate. I entered the room assigned to me and put my bag on the bed. It would remain there until the end of the residency. I didn’t put my clothes in the wardrobe either; I lived from my bag. Easing myself—body and mind—into new places and spaces sometimes takes me a while. I was only here for four weeks.

The town of Iseyin is about ninety minutes’ drive from Ibadan, the historical city surrounded by seven hills. Mr. Koffi, the administrator at the residency mentioned there was a Suspended Lake in Ado-Iwaye, a neighbouring town. We, the two other writers in residence and I, decided we would go there. Cresting the mountains to see a lake wasn’t such a bad idea, especially since there are only two of them in the world.

On our way to the mountain that morning, Mr. Koffi pointed to a house. “That’s the home of Professor Peller.”

“Who is Professor Peller?” I asked

“Was. He’s dead. Really, you’ve never heard of him? He was one of the most renowned magicians in Africa. He was only thirteen when he started performing illusion tricks.” As he spoke about him, I knew I was going to return to the house. A quick search on the Internet, I saw a photograph of Professor Peller. He was wearing a suit and a hat, his hands were placed above the body of a woman levitating in front of him.

About a week later, following some arrangements by Mr. Koffi, I met a man. I don’t remember his name now, but before I met this man who preferred to be addressed as “doctor,” I imagined someone much older considering the nature of his job: a traditional healer. He would take me to Professor Peller’s house. It was not open to the public. Going with a relative was an entrée, and this man was family. I had spoken to him on the phone earlier and he told me to come meet him at his office. Inside, I saw a man lying on a bed, right leg wound with bandages. For the woman at the other end of the room, it was her hand.

In his office—a small room with a table, a chair and a mattress on the floor—he began to tell me how powerful a magician Professor Peller was. He attended Peller’s performances many years ago, but the most profound trick in his memory now was when he witnessed him cut his wife into bits and then restored the pieces. He remembered watching in astonishment, and cheering along with the audience, as the woman walked back into the hall. “We were all sad to hear he was killed in his home in Lagos,” he said, looking into the distance. “You know, he used to give to the poor. Everyone loved him. He was such a good man.”

He also told me that in his work as a healer, it was God who directed him on what case to accept. “Even if it’s only a broken finger, if God tells me to not take it, I won’t. But if he wants me to let in someone with crushed bones, I will. There is nothing God cannot do. I follow his will.” Unfortunately, he told me, he was just on his way out of town, but his brother Omotayo was available to take me to Professor Peller’s house.

It was quiet when we got there. Omotayo told me no one had lived in the house since Professor Peller died for fear of encountering his ghost. Somewhere at the corner of the compound were several tombs painted white. On the walls were engravings I’d only seen on TV: a woman floating in the air, held up by a sword, a human body being cut into bits, a man standing in flames. At the back of the house was a swimming pool, or what was left of it, as filth and spirogyra now dominated the insides.

The entrance of the house was a carving in shape of the mouth of a lion in the middle of a roar. There was no furniture, save for the wooden home bar at one end of the room. On the wall was a fading painting of a snake. Looking out the window from atop the stairs offered a clearer view of the numerous carvings and sculptures in the compound. Perhaps it was when I imagined my body becoming smaller and harder until it turned into a stone that I became afraid. Or when I remembered I was alone in a quiet house with a stranger, a man. My curiosity had brought me here, to a dead magician’s house no one had resided for two decades out of terror. What did I think I’d find? “We should go now,” I said to him.

I was taking a walk one evening when I met a man. He was sitting under a small shed, hands clutching on to the wood as though he was about to rise and needed some support to help push up his large body mass. He dropped his hands when he saw me approaching.

“What do you want?”

“Nothing,” I said. I’m just walking. Good evening.”

“There’s nothing there to see.”

“Okay,” I said, but I kept walking. Behind the shed was an open space. At one corner, there were old pots and cement blocks piled on each other.

I would later look back at this moment. What did he mean there was nothing there? How did he know what I considered something? Don’t the eyes become accustomed to the everydayness of things, so much that their significances become forgotten? At what point does the eye tire in beholding a beauty?

When I returned to my room, I turned on my computer to write. Where were the words now that I had all the time? After about two hours of writing scattered, incoherent sentences, I started watching Sherlock.

On our way up the Iyake mountain that morning, I saw a huge piece of precariously placed rock with religious markings. There were cactuses bearing the etching of names of climbers who came long before us. The lake sat quietly at the top, unperturbed by people coming to disrupt its stillness. The second hanging lake is in Colorado, attracting a great number of visitors at different times of the year. In terms of aesthetics, what I saw here paled in comparison to the online images of the other one. As we descended, a group of people carrying small kegs and bottles asked us for the direction of the lake. They said they wanted to get some water to use for ablution.

“Why this water?” I asked.

The man looked at me and my friends for a moment, as though wondering how come we did not already know the answer. “Because the water is good and merciful.”

Merciful? I started to ask what he meant by that but I stopped myself. At the base of the mountain, the people there told us Christians also use the water for religious purposes. “When they pray on it and bathe with it, something miraculous happens.”

We returned to the residency, and the leaves on the tree appeared to have multiplied. As I proceeded to take pictures with my phone, as I had done several times before, it occurred to me that, perhaps being able to see the bright, yellow colours of these leaves, perhaps waking up every day and recording—or attempting to—what it’s like for me to be in the world, perhaps being able to read and connect with the words of writers I may never meet, a reminder that I’m not alone, are miracles in themselves.

 

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We always think we have time

I sit beside him on the long sofa as he talks about a particular day in his life that I have now made my own memory.

“It was the one-year remembrance of my mother,” he says. “Everyone was present. It was a grand party. In the middle of it all, I carried you,” he looks into the distance, the smile on his face isn’t the type I’m familiar with. This one is lighter, there’s a certain ease to it. “I carried you everywhere. You were just about three.” Then he looks at me. “You’re 25 now. Ah, how time flies. How time flies.”

I imagine myself in his arms, surrounded by a crowd with blurry faces. He holds me as he goes about attending to people, he holds me still when he sits at a table laughing with his friends as they fondly talk about moments shared with his late mother. The images warm my heart and now we’re both smiling at the memory.

“I’m sorry I didn’t remember your birthday yesterday,” he continues. “Bisi was always the one reminding me of everyone’s birthday. Even my own, I sometimes don’t remember.”

“It’s fine,” I say, thinking of all the relatives whose birthdays I need to find out.

Bisi. The name has come up every time I have been with him since she passed. The previous day, the morning of my birthday, I sat across from him in his room. It was exactly a month since the funeral. I wanted to remind him it was my birthday, instead, I asked him about his life.

“Bisi once asked me similar questions,” he said, his eyes far away, as though there are things he’d rather not remember. “We talked about it. It was only less than a year ago.”

It struck me that she also was curious about these things. What did she seek to understand? Was she working on something? Did she finish it? Or did she put it off till later, thinking she had time? As these questions careened through my mind, he spoke on, gently. I watched his face, his hands. The fore and middle fingers of his right hand have an interesting relationship. Sometimes, joined together, they point to the space in front of him, as though signaling to the disappointments of his life and telling me to look. Look, look, don’t do that! I usually don’t have anything to say when I’m with him. I just want to watch, listen to him talk about his life and ask questions. There has always been this nagging feeling that we’re running out of time. Each moment feels like the last.

For about two weeks leading to my birthday, it was difficult brushing off the feeling of anxiety. What am I doing with my life? Am I going to ruin it? What’s even worth celebrating about this birthday? There is the day of birth, after it is a continuous transition to the day of death. I don’t know how much living I am doing or how much I should be doing. What I do know is that whatever will occupy the space between these two days is majorly dependent on me. My mind wanders, as it often does, to the day of the funeral. All of us clad in white stood around the casket. “We’re not mourning,” said my sister, “we’re celebrating Bisi’s life.” True, true, we nodded. Sis. Bisi lived a phenomenal life and we were here to celebrate that. But this acknowledgment neither stopped shoulders from shaking nor dried the tears running down faces.

Those words have since stayed with me. We’re celebrating Bisi’s life. Deaths and births as a celebration of life. I was holding my sister T’s hand as we all walked out of the cemetery. “Again, Happy birthday,” I said. She smiled. Someone announced at the back that it was her birthday. “Oh, yes. Happy birthday, T,” chorused everyone. “Happy birthday. May your days be long. Happy birthday.” Birthdays and funerals, life and death, bleeding into each other.

It’s another year to live, I thought to myself while lying in bed in the dark a few minutes into March 26. Maybe tomorrow, I will wake up burdened with anxieties for the future, but today, this day I turn 25, I will let go of worries and celebrate my life. Because life is for the living.

Beholding my own image

Something is happening inside of me. Some changes in the way I think, the way I see myself, the way I see others and the way I view the world. There’s been so much going on that I often run to my diary to make sense of it. I don’t want to imagine a world where I am not writing. And I’m not talking about publishing books – of course, that’s a dream I hope will come true someday – I’m talking about just putting down words for myself, pausing to make sense of the world around me.

As much as I want to tell great stories and get published, I don’t know if I will be able to carry on. I don’t know if the rejection emails will finally convince me that I can’t do this writing thing. Perhaps my anxieties for the future or my laziness will make me follow a totally different path devoid of constant nagging to write. I don’t know this for sure. But one thing I don’t ever want to let go of is the ability to have a conversation with myself, to attempt to capture in words the feelings that threaten to rip me apart.

I know. There’s so much to see in the world, so much to be excited about and maybe there isn’t a need to get fixated on just one thing. Why do that when you only need to take a few more steps down the road and other things will call unto you?

Sometimes I write to understand something, and at the end of it, I’m still as confused and clueless as I was in the beginning. But the great part is that I have written it down, I can return to it in the future, perhaps it will have a new meaning to me then. But how much can my mind hold in the present if I don’t make any attempt to record things? Writing for myself helps me understand the world and myself better, it’s like holding a mirror to behold my own image.

 

Pieces

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May 2016

The woman had something to tell everyone. Her green ankara wrapper was almost falling off her waist, revealing her black underwear. One end of her scarf that was hurriedly tucked behind her ear had removed and was now floating on her shoulder, beads of perspiration covered her face. But she did not care about all that. She had something to tell everyone in the market, and that was all that mattered. “Ejowo, e ran mi l’owo,” she said. She would appreciate whatever amount we could give. Cancer was slowly eating her sister away.

I beg you. God bless you. You will not die young.

There was an urgency in her pleas, in her prayers. I saw a few notes squeezed in her palms, mostly twenty naira. As I watched her, I suddenly came to the realization of how much humans fear death. How we resist and fight it with all our might, despite being aware of our mortality all our lives. Seeing her in that moment made me think of my aunt’s husband. Cancer, too, was taking him in pieces. I imagined him lying on the hospital bed, his wife holding his hand, watching his chest rise and fall.

September 2016

The man whose shoulder my aunt is leaning on in this photograph is dead. They were both standing, faces glowing, and lips stretched in bright smiles. Her skin was a smooth yellow. They were young and in love, brimming with life. As I stood now, watching her walk to the small area enclosed with white clothes, ribbons and flowers, her body was more rounded, skin glowing yellow still, a few wrinkles dotting the edges of her lips, marking her years. Their years.

Here, one was standing, the other lying; one moving, the other still. She placed her hands on the gold edge of the white coffin. I watched her looking down at her husband’s body; those strong arms that had held her for four decades, the shoulder she had leaned on. What was she going to do now? What did she do as life leaked out of him? What did she do when the machines surrounding him could no longer do what they needed to do? What did she do as his fingers dug into the bed, his lungs fighting to get one more breath? What did she do when he became still? If she were to pray, what would she have prayed for—to commit his soul into God’s hands or to ask that he help him stay another day? It is one thing to know that death will come one day, but nothing adequately prepares people for that moment it arrives.

One of the saddest things that can happen to someone is to die and be forgotten—forgotten as though they never existed. At the wake-keep, family and friends testified to his life and deeds, how he deposited himself in their memories.

He got me a job

He helped with my financial needs

He always asked after me

In the tribute, my aunt wrote: “I thank God for the privilege he gave me to share in your pain.” Their son-in-law talked about the day he and his wife were watching a movie with him, and despite being in pain, he had laughed hard. So hard, he said. And he and his wife had joined him to laugh. He stopped speaking as his words almost brought the urge to weep. They could not take the agony away, but I imagined their love stood between him and the pain, widening the gap. The pain was not his alone, just as his laughter was not his alone.

When I saw that woman in the market, the other thought that came to my mind was: how fortunate it is to have someone in one’s life who would do anything to help them stay alive. I was reminded that with family, we have people to fight for us to keep occupying a space on earth. The twenty naira notes might not amount to much in furthering her treatments. But her sister had her, she had her, and she was not going to fold her arms and do nothing. She was going to keep begging until she had raised the money needed. Perhaps her sister will survive, perhaps her body will surrender to the cold, crooked arms of death.

Family related by blood, and family chosen, came from far and near. Not only to bid the dead farewell and ensure he had a befitting end, but also to comfort the living. People talked and laughed with my aunt. Although there was little anyone could do to assuage her feelings, they wanted to share in her burden. It was as though in carrying her bag and serving her food, my life became more useful. As I prepared to leave a few days later, she called her driver to drop me off at the park. There was a sudden urge to say something, anything. What do you say to someone who just lost her lifelong partner? The car jerked to life. It was time to go. I turned around and realized she was still standing where we said our goodbyes, watching me. “Take care of yourself, ma,” I said. She smiled and replied, “I will.”

As the car drove out of the compound, I remembered how, the day after I arrived, everything around me felt faraway: the clinking of plates and cutlery, the voices, the entire house suffused with aroma of bean cake. I walked around the compound, thinking of how his feet had walked those places. Memories started coming back to me. In one, I was in the living room with my cousin, his last child, watching Drag Me to Hell. He came into the living room and, in wonder, asked why, of all movie genres, it was horror we decided to watch in the middle of the night. He smiled and returned to his room. There were other memories, but there was none in which he was not smiling. His smile, that smile that made you believe he truly cared about you, had burnt in my memory.

Hands that Bind

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1.
The girls in my dorm sang Shakira’s Whenever Wherever, as someone drummed on a wooden surface. I stood in the middle of the room twisting my waist, when from the window, we heard, “Will you keep kwayet!” We paused but did not keep quiet. We whispered, “Will you keep kwayet,” to each other, mimicking the voice of the matron on night patrol, and stifling laughs. After she walked away, we resumed business. It was still my turn to dance. In that moment, I overcame my self-consciousness and danced with all eyes on me. I rarely dance in public because I still feel self-conscious. But when I do, I remember that night in secondary school and I feel light and free.

2.

In this photograph, we rest our heads against each other’s, you in a blue swimsuit; me in black, at Tarkwa Bay Beach, where the waves roll and froth like white foam. We roomed in the same dorm in junior secondary school; bunk beds joined so we lay side by side, the ceiling nearer us from our top bunks. While others slept, we traded stories, gossip, and laughter. You are in my earliest memories of holding hands. Sometimes, while others went to the dining hall for dinner, we took long walks, hands laced together at fingers and talked the way teenagers do: in earnest and in jest. You are the reason holding hands has become a lifelong habit. I peer at the picture once more. Even in the water, my right hand is on your elbow.

3.

One night in our first year in the university, we dressed up and headed to a room full of teenage bodies pumping hormones and loud music coaxing hands into the air. I was dancing with a guy when another guy stood behind me. In seconds, I was sandwiched between two sweaty, gyrating bodies. My eyes searched for her across the room. There. Also sandwiched between two guys. Our eyes met. We slipped away from the crowd. Side by side, we sat outside, silence wedged between us. Cool breeze brushed against our skin as trees swooshed around us, and above us, the big moon watched.

4.

I used to tell my friends, “If you’re going to sleep on my bed, your legs have to be clean,” and they could not understand why dirty feet irritated me so much. One night, in my room off campus, three of us sprawled out on my small bed and talked about the future, how our hard work would translate to wealth and travel. We promised to make time to hang out no matter how busy our lives became. Someone was supposed to sleep on the other bed across the room, but when I woke up, it remained neatly laid. Perhaps our tangled limbs heralded the future we had planned hours before, the connections we would always share. For once, I didn’t mind seeing dirty feet on my bed. Maybe I even smiled.

5.

Back then, physics and chemistry tried to make school frustrating for her. I didn’t know what it felt like to pour effort into something and not get the desired result. When she cried, I held her, wishing I could share my good grades with her. After secondary school, we proceeded to different universities. When we met again, she asked me about school.
“I haven’t been doing very well,” I replied.
She looked at me for an infinitely revolving second, “What happened?”
I shrugged, “I don’t know.”
She held my hand, “Kemi, you have to do well.”
I didn’t know what to say, but I knew she understood this kind of struggle and heard my unvoiced frustration.

6.

For weeks after we broke up, I didn’t tell my friends. All I wanted was to heal from this thing I mistook for love. Then I told them.

What? Is he out of his mind?
How could he have done that?
Kemi, you have to let go, that guy never even deserved you in the first place.

Two years later, she still says, “He’s such an asshole.” I want to reply, “Babe, relax. I’m long over it,” but I smile instead.

7.

On one of our evening walks in senior secondary school, I asked you about your biggest fear. “Old age,” you said, “wrinkles, shaky knees, and dementia, that’s scary.” I imagined myself, grey and waddling to my favourite chair in the living room, but I was not afraid. My biggest fear is getting old and looking back at empty years of tedious inaction, never having achieved what I was created to do, and wondering if memories of Shakira’s Whenever Wherever, are phantasms sent to tease me.

First published on Livelytwist

Reading Sylvia Plath

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Reading Plath was quite difficult in the beginning, but there was something about her soul that I found myself clinging on to. Her words feel like a voyage of discovery and insight. To call her poems just “confessional” would be to underestimate her work. Plath loves to push to the extreme–humour, irony, pain. Her fluidity of language, use of metaphors and intensity are three very notable elements in her work.

She often employs descriptive words and metaphors to create the world she wants to take her readers. The imageries are astounding. Her sarcasm, humour, wit, gut, can be seen all through the pages. Some lines of her poems now live in my head:

“Always in the middle of a kiss

Came the profane stimulus to cough

Always from the pulpit during service

Leaned the devil prompting you to laugh

I observed some transitions in her works:

  • There were some villanelles in earlier poems but I did not see any in her later work
  • Her allusion to natural elements like the universe, sun, moon, was more apparent in her earlier works compared to the poems she wrote between 1956 and 1963.
  • Her later works mirrored more candour and intensity
  • Use of rhymes in her later works compared to earlier ones was also evident

She has become one of my favourite poets. On some days, I run to her words. Her poems amplify our sameness and differences. This collection of 274 poems communicate her pain, loss, joys. The part I enjoyed reading most is the section: “Juvenilia.”

Also, she has an indirect and direct way of alluding to things, incidents, encounters and experiences. In Stillborn, she metaphorically describes her dissatisfaction with her poems:

These poems do not live: it’s a sad diagnosis.

They grew their toes and fingers well enough,

Their little foreheads bulged with concentration.

If they missed out on walking about like people

It wasn’t for any lack of mother-love.

I find it unsettling that many people view her poems through the lens of her mental illness and suicide. She writes with both cheerfulness and gloom about a range of topics: love, marriage, literature, depression, suicide, nature, feminism. Her words are raw. It’s as though she speaks from a place of isolation, like a voice crying in the wilderness. I also observed the use of two particular words in several poems: “great” and “clock.” Plath was one of a kind and this is a collection I know I will keep returning to.

A Measure of Silence #5: This Is Mine

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After My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

  1. There is the question of how children become aware of what the world is and how to act in it. How do you even know what you look like if the only mirror in the house is a tiny one high above the kitchen sink, or if you have never heard a living soul say you’re pretty?
  1. While it is said that children accepted their circumstances as normal, both Vicky and I understood that we were different. We were equally friendless and equally scorned, and we eyed each other with the same suspicion with which we eyed the world.
  1. Her mother had not treated her well, she said, and so when she had her first baby she became very sad, and her psychiatrist told her that she was feeling grief because of everything she had not received from her own mother.
  1. A few years ago I went there not to look like my mother. The doctor said that almost everyone came in the first time and said they looked like their mother and didn’t want to… She put tiny needles into the wrinkles by my mouth. You are beautiful now, she said. You look like yourself.
  1. The rage of my girls during those years! There are moments I try to forget but I will never forget. I worry about what it is they will never forget.
  1. I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our lifetimes, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine

A Measure of Silence #4: Run

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Noah Salloway in the TV series, The Affair, sits across this woman in her office, trying to understand how he got to this point. He was a good, faithful husband with four kids, but just within a year, he had cheated on his wife of twenty years, moved in with the woman he had an affair with, and was already at the verge of sleeping with another woman.

Maybe, he wonders, the traits – ego, intensity, drive – that make some great men achieve extraordinary feats are also what lead them to cheat. But should it matter? After all, in the grand scheme of things, they would have touched lives and made remarkable impacts in their generation.

I find their dialogue quite interesting and engaging. “My father,” he says to the woman, “told my father-in-law he was also an artist but he gave up in order to care of his sick wife. But no, it’s not true, the man did nothing for his sick wife. My sister and I did everything. He never cheated, and so genuinely thinks he’s a fucking hero. He was a delinquent father and a terrible husband though. Fuck him, because if that’s what being a good man is, I don’t want any part of it.”

“It makes sense to me given the history you described that you might have developed skepticism about fidelity as a virtue,” said the woman, Noah Salloway’s psychotherapist

This also makes me wonder how often the past judges the present. Faster, faster, we run from something, only to meet it in front of us. Perhaps it takes more than sheer determination to run away from some things. Perhaps, it’s not everything we can run away from?

A Measure of Silence #3: Don’t leave home

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Image Credit: Silent Man

The past never lacks proof: old clothes, game boards, letters, and photographs. Materials that bear witness to who we once were, what we once held dear. On the bookshelf in the corner of the living room was a photograph of a boy who was now a man. He grew up to the realization that freedom, the thing he sought the most, would not be handed down to him – especially not by his father. He fought to get it, letting go of everything else. In the face of the five-year-old boy in the photograph, this old man saw someone who would become who he failed to be. Refusing to allow himself to live in the shadow of someone else, the boy, who was now a man, had said to his father “I will not live my life trying to make up for your failures” and left the house. As this old man stood in front of the photograph, remembering the words his son said to him, he swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat. “Such an innocent child, how could he have resisted so much,” he said to the photograph, tracing its frame, as his wrinkled fingers searched for solace in the image of the now grown man who has vowed never to come home.

Home.

A Measure of Silence #2: When the centre cannot hold

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All he did his entire life was play the flute and consume gourds of palm-wine bought with borrowed money. So Chinua Achebe wanted the life of his character, Unoka, in Things Fall Apart, to be. As this loafer, Okonkwo’s father, lay dying on his mud bed, he said to him “A proud heart can survive a general failure because such failure does not prick its pride. It is more difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone.” Okonkwo was ruled by one passion – to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. Being young makes us seek explanation; premature attempts to trace our way back to wholeness, the wholeness we really never had. Some people carry the past with them, not only with their hands, but even their sighs bear witness. They do not wish to accept it, but they preserve it, they furnish it, they sharpen its rotting edges and use it to shield themselves again and again. I refuse to make the same mistakes, they say to themselves. I will not be caught unawares this time. I’m protected. But Okonkwo would never understand why his son turned out effeminate right under his nose. In the end, he could not protect himself from the failure that soiled his pride.

He did not save himself from dying alone.