Rabiu Temidayo: Burkas

Alex Majoli, Lagos, 2013. Source: magnumphotos.com

Early the staccatos swelled, the jalopies trundled through the eigengrau, martins and peckers perched on wires portending the resurrecting sun. Windows jittered in the cold, and outside the red, blinking mast laddered up the azure-turning sky. Watchmen tinkered with their rusty panels and disappeared into silent folds. I woke up on the sofa in the parlor facing the green glow of the incandescent crucifix above mother’s bed. It waned like the moon in the morning. Occasionally, whirring airplanes flew low with their wheels down headed for the airport’s runways, shaking the houses in their cold silence. She’d face the ceiling on her bed, muttering a prayer, then descend into her loose sleeping robes. Feet sweeping the carpet, she’d examine the children splayed on the floor, my sisters and I, sometimes our cousins, carried a lantern and trudged through the creaking door, then through the hollow hallway.

Minarets towered above the dreariness that accentuated the dawn, muezzins called fajr prayers in their crescendoing baritones. Mosques lit up like mitochondria all around the city, powered by generators since there was never a power supply, only Alhajis bellowing from inside dome-shaped sanctuaries from near and far, addressing the houses that were sinking in their wooden silences. A lone moon like a wolf hovered above the waning glaze from distant places. Megaphones shaped like a steer’s ear hung over small minarets.

Mother’s leathery bare feet walked on the cold cement to her shop in the morning mist, and I followed while the dew settled on my skin. I remember the shadows of mechanics out the gate smoking cigarettes on deadbeat vehicles, mumbling to themselves. The abandoned sedans beside the nearest mosque. She carried a lantern that swung on her right hand as she waded through the darkness, keys dangling from her left hand. At the shop, facing the droning mosque, she would set water on the stove and tend to her chickens in coups, conversed with them affectionately as if they were human beings.

On Sunday, our shadows cast by the fire in the glass case made patterns on the wall I imagined to be therianthropes from the other world, or villains from comic books. Sometimes moonbeams came through the un-shuttered louvres, making a bear’s claw marks on the fridge, the old television look like a ghost on the shelf where it was, these double rooms where mosquitoes and psalms were ever. The memory is distant. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep when the megaphone crackled and whined, watching the lantern burn with one dreamy eye. The muezzins were relentless — bismillah, then the call to prayer, then the long exhalation. She would not leave without me. I was strung along for what I could carry — a bowl with laundry for washing, ground maize for her chickens, or her white gown for church — sashaying, and grumbling all the way.

Mother took Sundays seriously, more so even than Mondays, when she conducted her business. For Sunday was a day of religion and the African tendency for flamboyance filled the streets, the pious and the self-righteous inseparable, that borrowed hypocrisy from colonial times, sewn into the very fabric of our lives. But I’d stumble down that stairwell, tunneling through the echoes, the rodents, and footsteps of unknown neighbors, questioning everything. I’d breathe in those camphor-scented rooms and the smell of clothes that never left their wardrobes, the odor of itchy people’s parlors, kerosene, small children, and housewares, and cat poop towards the door lit by moonbeams, and a verandah swathed in puddles, doves crooning on awnings.

There, outside, housewives in burkas strode down the streets, greeting mother, usually with one torchlight to see. But, even in the light, they were veiled shadows. We crossed the planks and stepped on the road with eroded asphalt and midden. Underneath, the rubbish gut of the city flowed, stagnated, the street empty and cold. Everything, it seemed, crouched under the sound of the fajr prayer, with the elephantine mosque across the road, a bulb on its arch casting a reflection on the shop. Then, ready for church, we moved when the sky’s cerulean wallpaper began to brighten. All the colors in view, we strode past side-road Pentecostals with redundant names — placards that read “Apostolic”, “Christ”, and “Evangelical” — noisy mosh pits, hanging megaphones on their lintels. Motorcycles and buses passed, packed with churchgoers. Throngs of sequin glittered in the sun by the roadside. This was deliberate fanfare, its celebrity Jesus. As a million megaphones battled for airspace in Lagos, we’d be one of the first to arrive at one of mother’s churches, where an aisle always separates the seats that men and women sat in: the percussionist and pianist ever near the altar with the choir, a roaring congregation, oblivious children, and a preacher behind the lectern dressed like a banker.

So much decoration and noise for a day that required silence and solitude with God. But rather, it was Jalabiyyah, hijabs and white Taqiyahs, segueing into cassock, sutannahs, and colourful English wears across Lagos. It seemed to me that all of religion had become an African charade, that as traditional religions were kicked to dust, where only the gods wore masks, colonial religions came to replace them putting masks on everyone else. Every Sunday we were in the middle of a certain Fela Kuti song. And regardless of the effervescence that religious rituals bring, the political stability, and the lives these buildings have ensconced in their brightness, it was clear that these religious places are foundered on the failing hopes of the people.


Rabiu Temidayo (who publishes poetry as Visar) is a Lagos-based writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arsonita, Ghost City Review and Ric Journal, among many others. He can be found on Twitter @rabiutemidayo