surviving memories


Whenever I hear the name Mimi, her face becomes the first thing that comes to my mind. When I think about her, it takes me back to my first journey to Ilorin; back to our very first encounter and our last.


Whenever I hear the name Mimi, her face becomes the first thing that comes to my mind. When I think about her, it takes me back to my first journey to Ilorin; back to our very first encounter and our last. I’d swat the tear sliding down my cheeks, smile and whisper my prayer, hoping that it goes to where she is and becomes a light.

My first journey to Ilorin was in a book I barely remembered its name. The author’s name was not in my memory either. The only thing I recalled about the book was the quote on the first page. It was later, after eight years, now in 2020, as I sat on a chair at the dining table trying to write this story I learned the name of the book. It’s titled Every Man is a race by Mia Couto. My uncle who lent me the book in 2012 made me recall the title. So, my first journey to Ilorin was in Every Man is a Race by Mia Couto.

From the moment I opened the book and got past Rose Caramela at the top of the first page, I merged into the story. I first scribbled the quote at the back of my jotter and dived in.

Our passions are kindled when the fuse of our heart is lit. Our most lasting love is rain between the cloud’s flight and the prison of a puddle. We are, after all, hunters who spear ourselves. And the well-aimed throw carries with it the trace of the thrower.

 My attention was uncut as we galloped through the unpaved road linking Minna to Kwara, the car swerving in and out of potholes, even as we drove past hawkers running after travelling cars and buses, shouting, “Buy bread. Buy plantain chips. Buy pure water.”

We were travelling in my father’s car. Baba trusted his driver to take us there in one piece. But, there was a stranger in the car. A stranger my uncle invited and claimed she was his friend’s sister. Adama, as my uncle introduced her, had an unusual face. She was pretty in an odd way. We only exchanged pleasantries before I focused back on the book.

In Ilorin, I first noticed the urbanization; tall tired-looking buildings, bungalows, duplexes, everything merged into rowdiness. The city was not breathing enough. It choked with people and buildings and other things I later came to know were what made it lively.

It was my first time leaving for the University. Adama was already in her third year in Al-Hikmah University and my uncle thought it was a good idea to connect us. I dropped the book and watched the city. Faces sped by. Everywhere was like a market bustling with crowd. We passed Apalara, Adeta, Kuntun, and Mandate down to Adewole where Al-Hikmah University waited. But our journey didn’t end there. We were told that the final destination was in Igbaja town – an hour drive from Ilorin if you were fast enough. There was another campus in Igbaja for foundation students. Adama stayed in the main campus in Ilorin. We were too exhausted for the ride to Igbaja. My uncle suggested I spend the night with Adama in her room in the hostel while he and the driver went to lodge a room.

Uche Njie

          “Would you like to watch a movie? I have many movies in my system.”

          I nodded. I was a little weary of her, but it looked like she was trying to please me all ways she could.

          “What would you love to eat? I have noodles, bread and I could get something outside.”

          I smiled. “Noodle is fine.”  

It surprised me that I was able to read her lips. It was always hard to read people’s lips when I meet them the first time except in rare cases. Rare cases meant people who moved their lips well. She didn’t know that I could not hear at first. Later on, when she knew of my hearing problem, she wrote most of what she wanted to say. I enjoyed my stay with her before we left for Igbaja.

Igbaja was a town ahead of another town called Ikeye-Ipo where the boys’ hostel was located. In few months’ time, Ikeya-Ipo would engulf in smoke as tyres burn and burn, as the boys’ chants rose, sticks raised in the air, descending with anger. Its street would see more madness than it had ever seen, from boys in the male hostel in their protest to get more facilities in their hostel because despite paying a hefty amount of money as school fees, they’d not been given enough.

The campus was the first thing to see after the signboard ‘Welcome to Igbaja’. The brown gate was open and two security men sat on a bench beside it. We showed them our papers before we drove in. The orientation had already begun. It was holding in a classroom.

“You should go in,” my Uncle said.

“But you know I won’t hear a thing.”

“You should still go in. You might understand a thing or two.”

I grumbled my way to the class, hating that I had to attend it. I hated crowd and attention. When I walked in, I went straight to find a seat but a young man pointed to one of the lecturers standing by the whiteboard. She had been talking to me but I didn’t hear anything she said. Some of the students snickered. The lecturer asked me to stand in front of the class. She said something I later came to know was why I came late, but at that moment, I only kept my silence because I had no idea what she was talking about. For the lack of reply, she began a lengthy explanation that I couldn’t pick a single word from, but her body language showed she was scolding and using me as an example for coming late. Tears formed in my eyes. I was battling not to cry when she asked me to seat down but I wasn’t aware of that either. It was the same young man who made a signal for me to seat down. He was quick to understand the kind of person I was.

After the orientation, we drove to the hostel. They offloaded my luggage in front of my designated room. The room was with three bunks and it had an inner room with two other bunks on which three girls were sitting. I chose the bunk by the window in the main room. Someone was already on the upper bed. I never liked the down beds but there wasn’t much an option. It was the only unoccupied bunk by the window.

The girl sitting on the opposite bunk looked older than I was. My uncle approached her and asked for her name. He introduced me to her before he said we should stick together. I didn’t hear her reply to him but she was the one who helped with my things into the room. I asked for her name again because I didn’t hear it the time she told my uncle. She mouthed her name but I still couldn’t understand. So, I told her to write it down. She took out a piece of paper and a pen from her bag and scribbled it.

My name is Maryam Betso, but you can call me Mimi.

We became friends. I thought Mimi and I would graduate the University together but I was wrong. The same Mimi for whom I split my huge bed-sheet and used each for our beds, whom we shared most of our provisions, bathe together and talked about a family friend of mine whom she had crush on and wanted to date. We did almost everything together except for attending lectures since we were studying different courses. You could find us lying in bed, typing on our phones without realising we were chatting together, gossiping about boys. But Mimi and I became strangers in less time it took to become good friends. She met more friends she didn’t have to write to and began spending less time in our room. I had to go to their room to find her. I came to know that her two new friends were sisters; Khadija and Amina. I seethed whenever I saw them together. I was jealous of the friendship she found in those two girls who were as normal as she was, and I became the third wheel in their friendship. I began to withdraw, hating that she couldn’t be a friend only to me. In the coming years, she became a bridge I was never able to cross.

I submerged into my studies and spent more time in the classroom to avoid everything. I returned to the hostel only when darkness took over. On the way back to the hostel, I’d silently pray to meet her in the room but she was never there. Khadija and Amina were nice girls but I never liked them because they took Mimi away. The coming days made me lonely. My studies kept me occupied most of the time until we finally left Igbaja, our closeness kept dwindling.

When that uninvited guest comes, it brings pain that burrows into you. Then it eats you. It eats deeper and deeper until you feel you’re losing a part of yourself, until you feel you’re breaking and the sound comes in form of a loud choking sob that leaves your body weakened in bed—eyes red and drowsy. You try to say something but you cannot, and even when you manage to move your lips, there is only one thing coming out repeatedly.

“Innalillahi wa inna ilaihi raji’un: From God we came and to Him we shall return.”

You keep going, no longer fighting back the tears. You leave it to pour out like raindrops. Those words you utter will make you cry harder and louder and you’re breaking more.

That was what became of me when the news hit me and everything stopped for a moment. The silence was broken by my loud sob. It was the second time death happened to someone close to me and I could not suppress myself. The pain was raw. It shook my body and choked me until I couldn’t breathe, until my vision became blurred with tears. My mother rushed in to ask me what was wrong.

Mimi was dead. She passed away in Ilorin. They said she fainted after her final paper and was rushed to the hospital but only her cold lifeless body made it there. She was laid on a bed in a private hospital located somewhere in Taiwo Road. When I came out of my shock, the memories of her played in my mind. I could see the moments we spent together sitting on her bed in the hostel, talking about our families, about boys, lovers and things of little importance. Or, the times she typed on her phone because I didn’t hear a particular thing she said, she would show me and then, let out a loud laughter; or when she braided my hair and I’d take a hand mirror, tilt it in her direction and watch her braid, that way I could read her lips when she spoke and admire her smile. I loved her smile. Or, when I bought a sign-language textbook and began to sign to everyone in the hostel.

She stood before me and sternly said, “You don’t need that book. You’re not deaf. You just don’t hear well, and that doesn’t make you deaf.”

My heart squeezed. The last time I saw her was on my twentieth birthday when we were in 300 level. We had been transferred back to the main campus in Ilorin in 200 level. We were no longer friends at the time but I took my cakes to her room in Deremi hostel which was three rooms away from my room. Our rooms and hostels were usually changed every year. Our first year in the main campus, I stayed in Oladimeji hostel while Mimi and her two friends shared a room in Commasie hostel.

There was no one to celebrate my birthday with. I had acquaintances but I couldn’t celebrate with any of them, so I took my cake to Mimi’s room. I was shocked to see how Mimi transformed. She looked sick and bloated. She was swollen all over her face and body. She couldn’t bear the pain of talking for long. It took me a while to recognize her. She could not even get up from bed. Something heavy settled in my heart. I wondered what she was doing in school. Why was she not in the hospital? She shouldn’t be in the hostel. I feared she would not survive it.

There were five of us: Amina, Khadija, Izzatu, Mimi, who was just in bed and me. We cut the cake and took pictures. Mimi refused to take pictures because of how she looked. We ate the cake and shared the rest among the other girls in the hostel. After this, I was disturbed about Mimi’s condition, so I asked Khadija what was wrong with her.

“It’s kidney infection.” Khadija said.

“Well, why is she still in school? Shouldn’t she be at home and in the hospital now?”

“No one is home. Her father travelled abroad with her stepmother. You know her mother passed away long time ago.”

Mimi once told me that her family was hardly in Nigeria. They only came here once a while. She was there with them at first, but her stepmother didn’t like her. It was why her father brought her back to Nigeria and got her admission into Al-Hikmah University, one of the private Universities in Nigeria. She had phoned him about her illness but he didn’t come. Now, he could only come for her body and I wondered when.

It all gripped me into a trance. Everything was rushing back to me and it weighed me down. This was how easily we disappeared from the world and fade from existence. Our memories could survive in other’s memory, but that too would begin to fizzle out as time continued its race. The Earth would swallow what remained of our bodies when our bones crush and our fleshes sift to dust. And maybe, just maybe, our families and friends would remember us when they see our pictures that had been tainted by time and old age.

And they’d say, “She was my old friend, a good old friend of mine.”

Or, they’d say, “She was my daughter, the quietest among my children.”

Or they’d say again, “She was a sister. I can’t remember much about her but she was lovely.”

And then, little tears would form in their eyes as they try to look into the past, to see us and remember how we had lived. But they’d fail to remember much because our stories no longer survive in their memories.

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