CHIDIEBUBE ONYE OKOHIA
“Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”
—Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Inversnaid”
I stepped into the wilderness when I arrived Loyola compound along Old Ife Road, Agodi, Ibadan. Wilderness — I term it—because I think it is an elongated form of the word wild. And there are many reasons to see this wilderness as more domestic than the default one I was born into, or had just left behind. Entering the Loyola gate where half of the entrance by the right is perpetually closed and stood above a trough, I looked forward into the open left, into a compound where I’d likely stay for a whole year, into an endless strip of tarred road partitioning the Monsignors quarters by the left and a football field, overlooked by trees on queue, by the right.
I watched a lot of documentaries when I was younger. And it was not just about studying animal life from the comfort of my parlour, it was more of getting myself acquainted with the varying species of animals that walk this earth; the biodiversity. Loyola presented this reality.
Sometimes I wonder if the summation that human beings are higher animals isn’t just a bogus claim, as I’ve studied the quaint intelligence of these animals. In these forest-like surroundings, I have come to admire mammals: dogs, bats, rats, goats; birds: black kites, crows, pigeons, fowls, owls; herptiles: snakes, agamas, skinks, toads; and arachnids: scorpions; etcetera. Night and day come with their animals and their species and their sounds and their mannerisms. The poetry of this place is never dead.
But joy comes in the morning, like the Bible says. Mornings are refreshing: sometimes I hear the complaining groan of a cock’s crow; sometimes I don’t. It mostly sounds like a testing of its musical range when it lets out its high-pitched cookoorookoo. But when I do wake up and step outside of the burglarproof door, my nose sniffs in the morning air, my feet glide through the untrimmed blades of grasses at ankle-length and my eyes adjust its focus to give form to the indistinct objects showcased in the beam of the half-crescent moon, faint and yellow like a cigarette’s light. Most times when I come out, possibly around 4am, to take a piss—because some other lodge mate has decided to spend a millennium at the lavatory bathing or having a shit—I see fireflies twinkling in the grass, hear crickets chirrup and notice toads hopping.
Nights distil a fear in me I never knew I had. Sometimes I fear walking at night. Sometimes I’m afraid of staying under a tree. Sometimes I just want to stay indoors all through. I’m more circumspect than a soldier moving across a mine-plaited field. All because of ophidiophobia — the fear of snakes. But what is the meaning of fear? How do you define fear? Is fear the reality of coming face-to-face with a poisonous snake? Or when you head towards a bush to urinate and a snake jumps out and plugs its fangs into your penis or balls? What is fear?
I have become somewhat of a snake researcher. YouTube saps all my data because I’m surfing and browsing about snakes and their venom and their potency and their geography. In my research, I’ve come to familiarise myself with the abilities and capabilities of cobras, black mambas, boomslangs and gaboon vipers. My particular concern is that of the black mamba, and it’s not just about the amount of bites it gives at a go, but its venom, its stealth and its speed. Happily enough, most of the serpents killed so far have been non-aggressive ones, but the fact that they’re nocturnal makes my night movement curtailed.
The last snake we murdered at the wee hours of the night must have been high on some sort of sedative. The human residents kept hurling stones and firewood and any heavy thing the hand could muster at it, but it didn’t flinch and, eventually, when a brave soul headed towards it, targeting its misfortunate head, its sputtered mix of flesh and blood designed the ground.
I think I’m an ornithologist, too. I sleep and wake with the different, disparate sounds of birds; the beautiful, the bizarre and the blessed species; and the daily routine of their survival or gambol instincts.
There are times when I rise in the morning and notice the murder of crows, their black bodies doting the landscape: atop rooftops, on tree branches, on the granite floor, on electric poles, on laundry wires. But why do people have apprehension about the quaint beauty of these birds? Why they attribute forebodings to it, that I’ll never know. What I do know is that their caw is sinisterly sweet-sounding. I remember downloading the sound of cawing crows from BirdNote—after finding it hard to differentiate between the crow and the raven—then using it as my WhatsApp alert tone. The next day when I went to work, as messages came flooding in, the crows refusing to stop cawing, the Yoruba man in my office begin to panic; shouting, Àwọn ẹyẹ burúkú wọnyi ti dé síbí. These evil birds have come here. I couldn’t stop laughing. I had to calm him down and explain that it was coming from my phone. Yorubas can be very superstitious, fearful folks.
This place is the pied crow’s domicile. Only once or twice have I seen a fully black one. But the bird I truly, truly admire is the black kite, the milvus migrans; with the sway of its body, the flutter of its wings and the confidence of its flight. A sight for sore eyes, the black kite glides and soars gracefully looking for food, or frond for its nest. I admire them not saying nothing, doing nothing, asking nothing — they go. I steady as water in glass, as I listen in meditative quietness to their daily vociferous calls.
Pigeons do not make noise. Quiet, homely aves they are. Sometimes at Sunday Masses, when the Monsignor leads his lengthy homily, in low voice, boring exegesis and inexplicable demeanour, a pigeon, or pigeons come to enliven the ambiance thick with boredom. They flock and frolic on the metal bars that serve as the ceiling, flapping their wings in excited wantonness. Sometimes, too, at weekday Masses, they come in twos or threes, when the reception of communion is ongoing, and sit on the metal bars discussing with one another in their interesting-to-watch bird language.
I still do not know why nights are set apart for exotic birds. Owls are exotic birds, and getting to see one is like viewing a blue moon. These owls have also found themselves in this residence also. On two occasions, I’ve managed to catch the rarity of seeing one relax on a very tall pole, its inscrutable face analysing this location. I run towards it hoping to get a clean shot of it with my phone camera, but the proud bird vacate the premises with compulsive alacrity.
Many things happen at night, and to be home early is a gain. The gate of Loyola shuts at 9pm. You either “fly” the fence or thread through the trough decorated with weeds. At this time of the night, the dogs of the Monsignor—the Boerboel and the Caucasian Shepherd—are released to commence their watch. You can’t escape their radar; what sort of frightful presence greets you? Only the righteous anger of the dogs, only their ceaseless energetic barking, loud and fierce like a roar, would make any heart skip in elongated beats.
One of the stranger or more appealing sights I have seen—depending on whether my vantage point is literal or metaphorical—is the boon companionship of a dog and a goat. In this gay exploration of love, I see a bond more intimate and intricate than David and Jonathan’s or Achilles and Patroclus’ or Thomas Wolfe and Max Perkins’. Whenever they walk, the brinded dog leads the way with the goat trailing behind. Other times they walk side-by-side like lovers going for a sightseeing. But for some weeks now, I no longer see the goat. And my guess is that it may have ended in a pot of soup. This inquisitiveness made me ask around and my fears were confirmed: the goat has been used for stomach infrastructure. How sad! I was, however, notified of the echt loyalty of the dog when the goat was tied to a stake, pending when it will be slaughtered for consumption. I heard that the dog shooed away onlookers who came by to see the pitiable ruminant—staying by his friend’s side till the very end.
Most people don’t consider insects as animals. My cohabiters don’t consider insects as animals. But I do. I tell them mosquitoes are animals. I search on Google and I’m directed to Wikipedia. I click on the link to evidence my claim. Mosquitoes belong to the animal classification of the order Diptera which is under the class of Insecta which is under the phylum of Arthropoda which is under the kingdom of Animalia.
Our rooms are tenanted by mosquitoes. They come in the mask of night, with their straw-filed flange-flute to suck and for song—night-singing, nice sipping our restive fluids. But mosquitoes become your friend when bedbugs come to squat, too. At least with mosquitoes, you can shield yourself with an expanding blanket or even a long cloth or even a bedspread, but you can’t try that with those tiny, hideous, smelling-like-spoilt-raspberry bloodsuckers.
I like lizards: they respect themselves. They see you and run. Other times, they give you the involuntary nod, evincing the claim that they’re below you in the food chain. They alienate themselves. They understand the human need for space from other animals. I respect that. Like the agamas, when they come out in the hot sun to dry their bodies and display their colourful skin like that of a peacock, they do it while being mindful of human presence. The same goes with the geckoes that design walls and ceilings at night—like paintings from Claude Monet—scanning and searching for insects; they study you approaching them and they move. But you see the lizard’s neighbours, those rodents, they are encroachers. Some see you and wait for you to get really close to them before they swagger away. Such effrontery!
But many Nigerians can be brutal. They attack, maim and kill any animal that looks strange. I remember a man killing a helpless skink in the chapel. The hapless creature knowing it has trespassed was trying to get away, but a foot out of nowhere went straight to its head and crushed it. It was a foot belonging to a very old man.
Every now and again, I come in contact with big scorpions—almost as large as the half of my palm—and I have no reservations about ending their lives. These are animals you should kill because of your own safety. It’s self-defence. It’s common sense. It’s about your life or theirs. But there are animals you shouldn’t kill because they won’t hurt you. But my cohabitants don’t believe this or are seemingly not educated enough on certain levels of animal rights to have this discernment. Any crawling, slithering, jumping thing must die. Their words are always against mine and sometimes I feel like a hypocrite—I kill some animals and I don’t kill some.
Yet, there is a renewed energy, a revitalised vigour when you’ve come close to being bitten by any venomous insect, arachnid or reptile, and such experiences have revived my love for nature study. To have shared days and nights with these animals drives home the reality that humanity lives on faux understanding of contentment, freedom, and spontaneity. The raw, unsoiled desire to enjoy the pleasures each day presents is ever fleeting in the mechanical, patterned world we have come to barricade ourselves in; we advance into new heights of technology and recede from nature’s unceasing spring. I can’t help but lap up every newness the faunae throw into my knowing, and the more I spectate this home of many things bright and beautiful, I’m reminded each time of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same”: to be alive, to survive, to live. And I know I don’t want to leave this blossomy contrast of wild and mild, flight and sprint, and air and land.