The first time I remember someone asking if I was from another country was at the 2016 Ake Arts and Books festival in the ancient city of Abeokuta. I was not sure how to respond, so I smiled softly and shook my head. This was the beginning of an era but I had no idea the avalanche that was coming my way.
In the weeks that followed I was first Ghanaian for my skin, South African for my hair, Kenyan for my name and many more nationalities for my voice, body and joy. I had a speech ready for every time someone asked, and even coined a game after it.
“Are you Nigerian?”
“Where do you think I am from?”
And I’ll go over their guesses and the reasons behind them. I always ended the conversation confirming that I was indeed Nigerian and asking if a name stamp on my forehead was the best way to prove my Nigerianess. As exhilarating as this process was, I began to resent myself slightly for the excitement that came with being labelled the ‘Other’. It was fueled by a dissatisfaction between my ability to dance freely in this multinational fantasy and the reality of being just Nigerian.
I then came up with the Tiv Chi who allowed me to live in and out of my multinationalism with only giddy feelings. The Universe was kind and I found myself on my way to Makerere University soon after to present a paper that stirred up an inferno of feminist conversations.
Familiarity first hit me on my way to the guesthouse that was to be home for my short stay. In the taxi, Nigerian music screamed out the radio. For whatever preconceived thoughts I had of Uganda, there was no place for a thriving music culture. It was as though the country was out to prove me wrong and cure me of my expectations. Whether it was on a drive, at a club, or even while touring the market, Nigerian music was always present with warmth.
The thing with being in a new place and meeting new people is that you never know if you are truly experiencing them. On this journey, I refused to overthink this and was gifted three humans who took a random meeting and turned it into a whirlwind of adventure.
Y was the young man with a spiky afro, who had a generous attitude to life. His forehead was in constant motion even in conversation. T was the Nigerian friend in the trio who again fit nicely as a slice of home. H, The only female in the group, a constant reminder of the sun. It was her genuine excitement when talking and the way her eyes lit up as she spoke that made her an instant ally.
While racing against time, trying to compress a million lifetimes into a space of the last 72 hours, we decided to traverse the city at night. Again, in my misconception, I was almost entirely sure that Kampala would be a dead city that slept at night. This one city shattered my expectations.
A simple desire to dance in Kampala ended up as a journey to various clubs. We went through cute artsy places with art on the wall and flowerpot ceiling to dingy, smokey and intense spots. We experienced electronic music that was not enough to jolt our African pulses and finally found home at a club that had a stimulating African playlist.
As 6 am clocked and the sun refused to wake, we dragged ourselves slowly away from our seats and ended the adventure. There is something about the careless abandon of a new city that made this night special and when my feet finds another soon, we’ll be partying again: I and all the spirits from home and abroad.
After this night, It was a given that I was an official bonus musketeer and to celebrate this, I was initiated into the magic that is Ethiopian cuisine. 72 hours had trickled down to zero and I had to leave but a spirit always finds its way home.
At this airport sat a young woman in a cross-legged pose, trying hard to stay awake, in dire need of a stimulant and on the edge of exhaustion. It was in this state that a book dropped beside me. I did not care to seek the face of the one who had dropped it mostly because conversations would have drained whatever energy still held a space within me. But the title refused to leave the corner of my eye and read, How to change the world: Tales of Marx and Marxism. The fatigue must have betrayed me as filters went on complete shutdown. “Is Marxism still relevant?”
It was the small stops in his voice as he answered that made me turn to look at his face, “Well, it’s a dumb title but yea . . . I mean . . . Marxism is still relevant.”
His hair, twisted in mid length dreads caught my attention first and his mischief-lit eyes next. We tossed each other a brief, knowing smile before we jumped into a chain of conversations colored with theories, realities and too many coincidences. The first coincidence was that he attended another conference at the same university I had just presented my paper. Next was that he almost walked into my panel session and was called away at the last minute, but, somehow, guessed in our conversation that I had presented that particular paper. It was also that he missed his flight the night before and this meeting only happened because of the makeup flight. These were all huge coincidences in this game that we were unknowingly playing.
In the middle of the conversation, he stopped and said, “Will you go on a coffee date with me?
I did not mention how coffee did nothing to keep me alert nor did I tell him about my relationship with the man that introduced me to coffee. All I knew was that I would go anywhere he had asked simply because somehow I believed that beautiful encounters were not exclusive to just the big screen.
We had sweetened coffee and more conversations cushioned with easy laughter and beautiful pictures. He was an intriguing activist who lived for the death of the system, and as he spoke to me about his revolutionary dreams I could not help but think of our paths. He was a man trying to kill the system and I was a woman attempting to understand it. In between our conversations, I locked him in the echoes of time through shutter clicks. It was while making images of him that we decided to create a time capsule that would be a reminder of this surreal encounter. I chose to write him a letter in his travelling notebook and while the page was being filled, he stole a picture of me on his phone, which he shared later. When his book was safely back in his hands, he searched frantically for something to gift me. “Do you want a book?
I had not answered this question when, in his frustration, he opened his box and tossed items to find the perfect gift. It was in this box that he found a black tee with three simple words. As he handed over the shirt, all that he was and stood for found life in the writing that read, ‘African and Communist.’
Maybe it was a metaphor, that shirt; perhaps it was a baring of himself to me or a great addition to the great meeting planned by the Universe. “Have you watched Before we go?”
I had never heard of the movie and he continued, “It is this great movie about two people that meet each other at a train station and spend the night figuring out each other’s lives but they have to leave in the morning. This feels like it.”
He smiled. I asked, “This is a movie, isn’t it? Meeting like this? Are we a movie? Without waiting for a response, I continued, “This is the kind of thing people would find hard to believe you know.
He spoke, “I know but it happened. I had one of the most beautiful encounters of my life.”
We did not know in that moment if we existed in each other’s futures but we were conscious of the beautiful gift the Universe had given us. The gift of new beginnings; for in three hours, strangers became something close to friends. Maybe we will meet in another city at another time and bask in the richness of memories that defied time or perhaps our story would become the blueprint for another original movie and it won’t be named Before we go. ✚
Ukpi is a scholar and writer who enjoys being Tiv first and five other tribes through the prisms of blood, skin, name, hair and language. Her work has been published on Kalahari review and in the pages of the 2015 ‘Love in Africa’ anthology.