“Blackass” (Excerpt) by A. Igoni Barrett

A story of Twitter and racial metamorphosis

AN INTRODUCTION BY CHINELO OKPARANTA

Despite its Lagosian setting, when reading the opening pages of Igoni Barrett’s witty, socially insightful novel, Blackass, I am reminded of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis: a young man wakes up to the realization that he is no longer who he once was, but has become a different kind of “being.” In Barrett’s version, the young man goes to bed a black man and wakes up white. The family set-up is the same: the young man, his sister, his mother and father. A job on the line.

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But as I read on, Kafka falls to the wayside, and I observe, instead, a beautiful colloquy between the novel, whether consciously or not on Barrett’s part, and Wole Soyinka’s poem, “Telephone Conversation.” The poem, which I had only recently happened upon thanks to a friend, is about an African man, who, while searching for an apartment (presumably somewhere in England), is drilled by the prospective landlady as to the color of his skin.

“How dark?” she asks. “Are you light or very dark?” To which the young man responds, “You mean — like plain or milk chocolate?” Eventually he settles on describing himself as “West African sepia.” “That’s dark, isn’t it?” she asks, and there is a change in her tone; the young man at this point knows he doesn’t stand a chance.

This young man could very well have been Barrett’s Furo — an African man who, no matter how hard he tried, could not secure a job. What was getting in his way? Presumably, the color of his skin.

Furo manages to “rise” by serendipitously becoming mostly white. As is to be expected, people begin treating him in a more elevated way than before. This treatment comes especially from his fellow black Nigerians: Lagosians on the street dash him money more freely than before. After three years of job search, he lands a job on the very day that he turns white.

Of course, there are inconveniences that come to the white Furo, but those seem insignificant compared to those that come with being black:

“He had always thought that white people had it easier… he wasn’t so sure anymore. Everything conspired to make him stand out. The whiteness that separated him from everyone he knew. His nose smarting from the sun. His hands covered with reddened spots, as if mosquito bites were something serious. People pointing at him, staring all the time, shouting ‘oyibo’ at every corner. And yet his whiteness had landed him a job.”

His “blackness” had clearly not landed him a job, and so the questions: in a country where the majority is “black,” why does whiteness still hold such privilege? Does Furo ever return to being fully black or does he manage to bleach his way to full whiteness, if for no other reason than for the social cache that whiteness holds?

The novel goes on to touch on other aspects of contemporary society: the psychology of social media, for instance, and the intricacies of human sexuality.

The writing here is expert, the social commentary cleverly incisive. Readers will find this work equal parts disconcerting and humorous.

Chinelo Okparanta
Author of Under the Udala Trees

 

“Blackass” (Excerpt) by A. Igoni Barrett

Who did Furo see but a white person striding towards him as he passed through the glass doors of The Palms. A longhaired woman with a large mole on her chin, she wore a lavender summer dress and green oversized Crocs. In both hands she grasped the big yellow bags that boasted of lowest prices. Faced with this test, this face-to-face with a white person, Furo realized he was unprepared for the encounter. He was worried how they would see him. Could they tell by sight that there was something wrong with him? If they could, then why, how, what was it they saw that black people couldn’t? Thinking these thoughts, Furo halted in front of the glass doors, his attention fixed on the woman. She drew close, her gaze flicked over his face, and then she was past, her Crocs clopping and ShopRite bags rustling.

The woman’s lack of reaction to his presence proved nothing, Furo told himself, but he feared that before long he would find out the truth, because in the crowded passage ahead of him were several oyibo people, some Indian- and Lebanese-looking, some Chinese, walking alone or in small groups, laughing, chatting, gesturing at the bright lights in storefront windows: all of them as indifferent to their difference as he wasn’t to his. Then he thought he had stood too long in the same spot, that people must be staring at him and wondering, and he looked around but caught no eyes, they seemed to ignore him in the midst of plenty. Buoyed by this glimmer of a chance at a normal life — one where he wouldn’t always be the cobra in this charmless show of reality, the center of attention — he started forwards into the chill of the mall.

Furo’s fear came to nothing, as none of the oyibo who looked at him gave the impression that he was something he shouldn’t be. The few glances he attracted came from his own people, and even they seemed more interested in his dusty shoes, his wrinkled trousers, his sweat-grimed shirt, his cheap plastic folder, all the signs showing he wasn’t kosher in the money department. That was a look he was used to from before, and so it didn’t worry him. Better the scorn he knew than the admiration he didn’t. But above all, better the people who ignored him than the ones who didn’t. Moving through the crowd, he began to feel more at ease with the approach of non-blacks. There was no uncertainty about their reaction to sighting him. They would see him and maintain stride, see him and keep on talking, see him and show no surprise, every single time.

He arrived at the food court to find it brimming with voices. After-work hours on weekdays were busy periods for The Palms, as commuters killed time there — eating dinner, watching movies, browsing the shops — in a bid to wait out the worst of the traffic. Looking around for somewhere to sit, he saw that most of the tables were occupied by whispering couples or chattering groups of office colleagues, but near the center of the dining area stood a table with three empty chairs, the fourth taken by a man reading a book. Weaving a path through the jumble of conversations, Furo approached the silent table, and the man raised his head. His dreadlocked hair was neck-length, and his beard stubble was sprinkled with grey, as was the hair on his chest, which showed through the v-neck of his t-shirt. Despite the greying, he was about Furo’s age.

“Hello,” Furo said. “Can I share this table with you?”

“Please,” the man replied, and waited until Furo sat before returning to his book.

After placing his folder on the table, Furo raised both hands to massage his neck, at the same time throwing a look of resentment at all the happy people seated about him. He envied them. Unlike him, they all had homes to return to. He knew that the food court and all the shops in the mall would be closed by ten, and the mall would be emptied of people and locked up after the cinema upstairs finished its last showing around midnight. And then where would he go? He couldn’t risk illness, not when he had no money, and spending another night in an abandoned building full of mosquitoes seemed to beg for malaria. But what choice did he have today, tomorrow, the day after, until he began work at Haba! in a couple of weeks? In an effort to get away from these insoluble worries, Furo returned his gaze to the table, and narrowed his eyes at the book across from him. Fela: This Bitch of a Life — the words on the front cover. The man’s short-nailed hands gripped the book cover, pinning it open. Head cocked to one side, eyelids lowered, face expressionless, his lips moved silently as he read.

This bitch of a life indeed, Furo thought. There he was, living his life, and then this shit happened to him. He had always thought that white people had it easier, in this country anyway, where it seemed that everyone treated them as special, but after everything that he had gone through since yesterday, he wasn’t so sure any more. Everything conspired to make him stand out. This whiteness that separated him from everyone he knew. His nose smarting from the sun. His hands covered with reddened spots, as if mosquito bites were something serious. People pointing at him, staring all the time, shouting “oyibo” at every corner.

And yet his whiteness had landed him a job.

Furo blew out his cheeks in a sigh. Dropping his hands to grasp the table, he pulled in his chair. The metal legs screaked on the floor tiles. At this sound his tablemate looked up, and Furo, seizing the chance, said to him, “Sorry to bother you, but can you please tell me the time?” The man nodded yes, put down the book, reached into his trouser pocket, and pulled out a phone. He said, “It’s almost five thirty,” to which Furo responded, “Thanks.” As the man returned the phone to his pocket, Furo said, “Funny how time drags.”

“When you’re bored,” the man said. He smiled and added: “And when you’re waiting.”

Furo forced a laugh. “Also when you’re in trouble.”

“That too,” the man agreed. He waited a beat. “Do you mind saying what the trouble is?”

“Ah… no,” Furo said. “It’s not something I can talk about. But thanks for asking.”

The man leaned forwards in his chair and crossed his hands over his book. “But we can talk if you want. To pass the time.” He tapped the book. “That’s one good thing about books. You can always pick up from where you left off.”

“I have to confess I’m not a big fan of books myself,” Furo said. He thought a moment, and then chuckled. “I shouldn’t say that in public. I just got a job selling books.”

“What sort of books?”

With a glance at the man’s shock of hair, Furo said: “Probably not your type. Business books, that’s what the company sells.”

“What’s the company’s name?” As Furo hesitated, the man said, “I ask because I used to work for a publishing house. I might know your company.”

Furo nodded. “Haba!”

“Excuse me?” The man’s puzzled expression deepened as Furo raised his hand, but when he drew a line in the air with his forefinger and jabbed a hole under it, saying at the same time, “Haba with an exclamation mark, that’s the company’s name,” the man’s face brightened with comprehension. Furo finished drily: “I can see I’ll have trouble telling that name to people.”

The man snorted in laughter. “Yah, they’ll be surprised hearing haba from your mouth. Which is a good thing for a bookseller, I suppose. It will leave an impression.” After a pause, he said, “I haven’t heard of that company.”

They relapsed into silence. The air in the food court was thick with aromas from the quick service restaurants, and Furo felt his stomach stirring in response. He’d eaten a large meal barely two hours ago, and his belly was still tight with undigested starch, yet the smell of food, the sound and sight of others eating, tensed him with craving. He was grateful for the distraction when his companion said, “I haven’t introduced myself,” and held out his hand. “I’m Igoni.”

Furo’s brow puckered as they shook hands, and he repeated: “Igoni?”

Igoni nodded yes.

“Tobra?” Furo said.

Igoni’s eyes widened with surprise. “Ibim. You speak Kalabari?”

“Not really. I can understand a few words. My father’s from Abonnema, Briggs compound. I’m Furo Wariboko.”

“Imagine that,” Igoni said. His eyes sparkled at Furo. When he smiled, his parted lips revealed a flash of thumb-sucker’s teeth. “You must have one hell of a story.”

Furo wanted to ask what Igoni meant, but he thought better of the impulse. He had a sneaking feeling he’d already revealed too much. And so he remained silent as Igoni closed his book, then took up his laptop bag, stuffed the book into it and, rising from his chair, said, “I’m going to the cafe round the corner for a smoke. Can I buy you coffee or something?” Surprised by Igoni’s offer, Furo responded, “I’d like that.” He stood up quickly, picked up his folder, and followed Igoni into the stream of shoppers in the mall’s passageway.

As the first Nigerian mall of indubitably international standard, the unveiling of The Palms was a milestone event not only for the Lagos rich, but also for yuppie teenagers, music video directors, and politicians eager to showcase the investment paradise that was newly democratic Nigeria. At the time of the ribbon-cutting in 2006, Furo was at university in faraway Ekpoma, and so he had to make do with his sister’s recounting of the mall’s abundant pleasures over the telephone. Two warehouse-sized supermarkets, one fancy bookstore, many fast food restaurants, bric-a-brac shops, branded boutiques and jewelry outlets, a sports bar, a bowling-alley-cum-nightclub, a multiplex cinema, and scores of ATMs: any means by which to part the dazzled from their money, The Palms provided. And yet in all these years since he returned to Lagos, despite countless visits to the mall to watch the latest from Hollywood and spend his weekends with girlfriends he wanted to impress, Furo had never entered the mall’s sole cafe.

Approaching the glass facade of the cafe, Furo saw that a majority of the tables were occupied by oyibos. That was the reason he’d never set foot in the place: he assumed that any hangout that drew so many expats was too exclusive for someone unemployed. Which Igoni, going by appearances, was not. They had reached the entrance, and a private guard in visored cap and paramilitary uniform jumped up from his folding chair and eased the door open, then stamped his boot in greeting. Heads turned to watch them enter, and then turned back to pick up their conversations. The interior was lighted by shaded lamps pouring down soft yellow beams, and the floor tiles shone, the metal tables gleamed. From the walls hung flatscreen TVs showing news channels with the sound turned down. One half of the cafe was announced as non-smoking by wedge-shaped signs on the tables, and the other section was overhung by a haze, this fed by trails of smoke from all the hands clutching glowing cigarettes, smoldering cigarillos, sputtering cigars, and, here and there, hookah pipes. Igoni headed for the smoking section, Furo followed, and they settled into a red loveseat backed against the far wall.

The prices were as Furo imagined. Too high for him, now especially, when every naira he spent felt like spurting blood. He read the menu with mounting indignation until a waitress arrived for their orders. “Cappuccino, please,” Igoni said, and when Furo felt his hairs bristle at her attention, he chose, “Chocolate milkshake,” then closed the menu, set it down on the table, and stole a glance at his host. The embarrassment he felt at the price tag of his order, the cost of six full meals in a roadside buka, was nowhere apparent in Igoni’s face. In that instant Furo felt the bump of an idea falling into place, and the tingle that announced it a good one.

The waitress collected the menus and left before Furo spoke. “If you don’t mind my asking,” he said to Igoni, “what do you do for a living?”

“I don’t mind,” Igoni said. “I’m a writer.”

“Of books?”

Igoni nodded yes, and reaching into his pocket, he drew out a Benson & Hedges packet. Furo waited till the cigarette was lit. “What kind of books do you write?”

“Not business books,” Igoni said with a quick sly grin, and then leaned back in the loveseat, crossed his legs, and blew out smoke. “Fiction, short stories, that sort of thing.”

“I see,” Furo muttered in distraction, as his attention was diverted by a passing angel, the sudden dip in the hum of conversation. The café door had opened to let in a woman alone. Long seconds ticked while she stood in front of the entrance, her head turning with imperial slowness as she searched through faces. Then she struck for the smoking section. She wore yellow high heels, carried a bright yellow handbag, and the balloon-skirt of her black gown, which bounced at each stride she took, showed off her long legs. To Furo it seemed every eye in the cafe was fixed on her, but she relished the attention, her eyes twinkled with awareness of it, and on her lips played a smile that grew bolder the closer she came. After she slipped into the loveseat beside Furo’s table, the chatter in the cafe picked up again.

The waitress arrived bearing a tray, and after setting down Furo and Igoni’s drinks, she crossed over to the newcomer. Furo glanced around at the first sound of the woman’s voice, but it was her prettiness that kept him looking. He noticed the waitress closing her notebook, his cue to look away before he was caught staring, but he waited till the last moment, the tensing of the woman’s temple as she realized she was being watched, to swing his eyes away from her face to the TV above her head, which showed a crowd of Arabs chanting and waving placards written in English. His neck soon tired of straining upwards to no purpose, and abandoning this ruse, he turned forwards in his seat and reached for his drink.

The first sip of the chocolate milkshake heightened Furo’s hunger. The second cloyed his tongue with sweetness. The third gave him gooseflesh. Each time he sucked on the straw he took care to hold the liquid in his cheeks, to swill it round his mouth, and only when his cheeks were stretched tight and his gullet throbbed from the effort of remaining closed, did he gulp down the drink. It left its sweetness in his mouth and spread its coolness through his skin, and this, added to the coziness of the cafe, lulled him into a state approaching contentment. Until he glanced to the side, caught the stare of the woman, and felt a flush melting away the pleasure from his face. He dipped his head and sucked furiously on the straw.

Igoni finished his cigarette in silence and picked up his cappuccino. As he drank, Furo watched him openly. Igoni seemed friendly enough, he also appeared to have some money, and he was Kalabari, almost family without the drawbacks. Furo decided it was now time to ask the favour of Igoni that he’d intended since he realized that fate was finally dealing him a good hand. And so he said Igoni’s name, and when Igoni looked at him, he spoke in a halting voice:

“I know it’s a bit odd, but I want to ask you a favor.”

“Go ahead,” Igoni said.

“I need a place to stay in Lagos. Only for a short time, about two weeks. I’m hoping, if it’s possible, if it’s not too much trouble, that I can stay with you.”

“Oh,” Igoni said in a surprised tone. “That’s a big one.”

Furo jumped into the opening. “I know,” he said, “but I don’t have anyone else to ask.”

Igoni leaned forwards, rested his elbows on his knees, and cracked his knuckles. He stared at the ground between his feet until he raised his head. “I’ll be honest,” he said, his eyes seeking out Furo’s, and then swinging away as he continued in a voice shaded with regret. “Any other time I would be happy to have you over, but I’m in the middle of some writing, so I really can’t, not now.”

Furo’s voice was hoarse as he said, “I understand.” Igoni was about to speak again when his phone rang. After mumbling a few words, he hung up the call, and then reached for his wallet. “I have to rush off,” he said as he flipped it open. “The person I was waiting for has arrived.” He pulled out four crisp five hundreds and placed the notes by his saucer. “That will cover the bill.” Rising to his feet, he slung his laptop bag over his shoulder. “It was nice meeting you, Furo. Bye now.”

Furo watched Igoni until he disappeared into the milling throng outside the cafe’s glass front. Returning his gaze to the table, he noted that Igoni hadn’t finished his drink. He picked up the cup, and after swirling around the leftover cappuccino, he drank it down. As he clacked the cup on the saucer, the money caught his eye. Maybe he should have asked Igoni for money instead, he thought, and then heaved a coffee-scented sigh.

Furo Wariboko persisted in my thoughts after I left him at the mall, and so I did what everyone does these days: I Googled him. The search results pointed me to either Facebook or Twitter, and since I was no longer on Facebook (I deleted my account after I started receiving homophobic messages over my personal essay on wanting to be a girl), I followed the Twitter links. Now is the time to admit this: from the first moment I saw Furo I suspected I’d found a story, but it was when I heard him speak that I finally knew. A white man with a strong Nigerian accent, stranded in Lagos without a place to stay, without any friends to turn to, and with a job as a bookseller for a company so small I hadn’t heard of it? Even if I hadn’t met the hero myself, hadn’t gleaned the details directly from the source, and even if I had plucked the whole fiction out of the air, there was no way in hell the writer in me was going to miss the rat smell of the story. What I didn’t know though was the scale of the story. For that discovery I have Twitter to thank. It was there that I found out about the Furo who had gone missing in Lagos one day before I met my Furo. And it was from the tweeted photos of that lost Furo that I realized my own Furo used to be black.

Furo’s story didn’t emerge abracadabra-quick. It took me some time to weave the fragments I gathered from Twitter into any sort of narrative. (The thing with Twitter is: to get what you want from it, you first have to give it what it wants. As with most social networking platforms, the currency on Twitter is the users who sign up and the content they generate. Every currency holds value for someone somewhere, whether that value is based on gold or the stock market or, in the case of Twitter, popularity; that blanket word, which, for the pinpoint purpose of metaphor, I will now proceed to formularize as P = U x C x T. Extrapolating this to Twitter, popularity equals “500 million users” multiplied by “content generated by users” multiplied by “time spent on Twitter by users.” Yes, time–the terminus of all rigmaroles.) And so I, @_igoni, spent bundles of time on Twitter. Hours spent lurking on the timelines of virtual strangers. Hours spent snooping through megabytes of diarrheic data. But my investment paid off, I got what I wanted, I found @pweetychic_tk, whom I realized was Furo’s sister as I read this tweet of hers:

Pls help RT. This is my missing bro Furo Wariboko in the pic. He left home Monday morn & no news of him since. pic.twitter.com/0J9xt5WaW

I followed her on Twitter, of course, and going through her timeline hour after hour and day by day, reading her tweets for hidden meanings in her abbreviations and punctuation choices, and searching for mood flaggers like what news stories she retweeted and favorited, and monitoring her movements from the geotagging of her shared photos and videos, I began to get some insight into a part of Furo’s story that cannot be told better than by the family he left behind.

@pweetychic_tk: Wednesday, 20 June

09:08 | Hello Twitter! #myfirstTweet

09:10 | Pls help RT. This is my missing bro Furo Wariboko in the pic. He left home Monday morn & no news of him since. pic.twitter.com/0J9xt5WaW

09:26 | RT ‘@RubyOsa: My cousin @pweetychic_tk has just joined Twitter. #Follow her. Her big bro got lost in Eko 2 days ago!’ Thanks Ruby.

10:14 | @RubyOsa Furo is also on Twitter. His handle is @efyouaruoh

10:31 | Thanks! RT “@lazyeyedben: Hello @pweetychic_tk. I dig your pic. I’m now #ffing.”

11:01 | I’m fed up with this ASUU strike. 2 whole months without school!

14:37 | I’m hungry.

14:59 | Without @efyouaruoh the house is lonely. Mum & Dad are looking for him. I’m getting afraid. Maybe something has really happened.

16:35 | I’m starting a hashtag for my missing bro. See the attached picture for details. #Furo needs us! (RT if you have a heart.) twitpic.com/bz7htc

17:52 | RT “@RICHnaijakids: Lord in heaven, you’ve been good to me. Finally found the Air Retro 7s Bordeaux http://tmblr.co/ZX-9nta1U9bm”

17:55 | @RICHnaijakids Enjoy your riches oh. But we KNOW your fathers. #corruptleaders

18:58 | Today is K’s birthday. I should call him. I should be the bigger person. But I won’t.

19:41 | Mum & Dad just got back from the police. They’ve still not heard anything about Furo.

19:59 | I ask Mummy a simple YES or NO question & she gives me a 20-minute speech!

20:02 | How can the police at Akowonjo Station tell Dad to pay them to go and find Furo???

20:05 | I’m just tired of everything.

22:47 | Going to bed. Goodnight everyone.

From early on I distrusted the persona of @pweetychic_tk. I didn’t know why at first, as she seemed sincere enough in her tweets about herself, and so I put my skepticism down to my own suspicious nature. (Just to press home that point about my suspicious nature, here’s my first tweet upon opening my account: To make money off selling us to ourselves for free, that’s the business model of social media. Given the tone of this tweet, I’ll understand if netizens find it hard to believe when in future I declare that actually I don’t disapprove of social media. But I don’t and can’t and won’t. For one thing, I’m too much aware that my disapproval wouldn’t matter a Facebook poke to the billions who have adopted Facebook and Twitter as if they were new-age versions of Christianity and Islam. And then again, as @_igoni, how can I, in honesty, oppose the very medium responsible for my existence? My efforts would be better served in renouncing Jehovah from the pulpit of a Kingdom Hall. Jesus wept and the hashtag exists, that’s gospel, so I’ll move on to the real crux: my distrust of digital personas.) I was wrong to think that my skepticism was unfounded, as the more I learnt about Furo’s story, the more certain I became that his sister’s persona had to be either contrived or schizophrenic. For here was a young lady whose full-blood brother had just gone missing, and there she was on Twitter collecting followers and trading jokes? If her digital persona was not misleading, then her real one had to be full of shit.

@pweetychic_tk: Thursday, 21 June

03:36 | I think I’m starting to understand this Twitter thing oh…

09:11 | Morning Twitterfam! See the sunny weather we’re enjoying in Eko!

09:30 | Phone app lets women rate men like restaurants http://hfpv.to/629Nv via @HuffPoVidz

09:31 | If that app had come out b4 it might have saved me from my rubbish ex! (See last tweet.)

09:37 | Did anyone watch yesterday’s episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

10:16 | Not a single retweet or mention since morning! #bored

10:20 | The biggest #COCK I’ve ever seen belongs to the aboki who has a kiosk near my hostel!

10:21 | FOOL => RT “@RUDEbwoyDeji: This #Unilag okpeke @pweetychic_tk has just fessed up that she likes aboki cock ha ha ha!”

10:23 | @RUDEbwoyDeji Silence is the best answer for a FOOL.

12:36 | WOOHOO! 104 new followers! #COCK tweets rule!

12:47 | Some people are sending me angry DMs oh. #COCK

12:50 | Confession time! #COCK

12:51 | For all you tweeps who RTed my #COCK tweet, I meant CHICKEN! The aboki keeps a big fat chicken as a pet. #gotcha #LWKMD

13:47 | Hmm. Follows have stopped since #COCK became CHICKEN. #justsaying

13:50 | O se! ? RT “@lazyeyedben: #ff @pweetychic_tk, one of the realest chics on Twitter.”

15:27 | LOL RT “@drbigox: NEPA promo = Pay your bills regularly and win a generator.”

16:01 | I miss @efyouaruoh. Where are you? Mum & Dad went to the newspapers today. This is not funny any more oh. #Furo

16:06 | I’m sad :‘( @efyouaruoh won’t reply to his mentions
& FB messages. Or is he lost 4 real?

21:54 | See me see wahala! This ugly FOOL @RudebwoyDeji is still looking 4 my trouble!

22:19 | Some people on Twitter are stupid sha. They think they can just say anything. But that’s easy to fix. @RudebwoyDeji, you’re BLOCKED.

22:43 | Too much animosity on Twirrer tonight mehn . . .get a life you haters. #goodbye

While searching for Furo’s story, I, too, underwent a transformation. I was more relieved than surprised by this happenstance. The seeds had always been there, embedded in the parched earth of my subconscious. I had heard their muted rattling in the remembered moments of my sleeping life; I had seen their shadowy branches overhanging the narrow road that wound into my future. As is usual with Damascus journeys, I only understood the portents after my conversion. (One such portent–or, rather, evidence of my subliminal preoccupation — can be recognized in this quote from an interview I granted a magazine a few months earlier: No human being has ever directly seen their own face. It’s impossible within nature — the most you can do is glimpse your nose and, for those with full lips, the curve of your upper lip. And so we only see ourselves through external sources, whether as images in mirrors, pixels on the screen, or words on the page, words of love from a mother, words of hate from an ex-lover.) Long before Furo’s story became my own, I was already trying to say what I see now, that we are all constructed narratives.

@pweetychic_tk: Friday, 22 June

09:45 | This thing is getting real. It’s now 4 whole days since my big bro #Furo got lost. See his missing ad in today’s (cont) http://tl.gd/ktdfkbt

09:53 | I’m still disgusted at how the Christian Taliban twisted my #COCK tweet yesterday. It was just a joke — GET IT? #hypocrites

09:54 | 4 all the #hypocrites who attacked me, I now have 1856 followers! Eat your hearts out!

10:32 | WHAT have I done to this one AGAIN??? => @Nu9jaYoots

10:41 | @Nu9jaYoots Who dash you #YOOT Leader? You can’t even bloody spell! #mschew

10:52 | By their tweets we shall know them, Twitter #YOOT Leaders. With achieve-nothings like YOU no wonder PDP has a 68 y/o grandpa as Youth Leader!

10:55 | Why am I even wasting my time? For my new followers, abeg see my next hashtag.

10:57 | #Furo #Furo #Furo #Furo #Furo #Furo #Furo #Furo #Furo #Furo #Furo #Furo

10:59 | RT “@lazyeyedben: @pweetychic_tk Who is Furo?”
YOU don’t know? And to think you were my Twitter crush! You’re dumped! *stomps away*

11:06 | ? RT “@lazyeyedben: @pweetychic_tk *singing* Please don’t go, don’t gooo…”

11:42 | I love Twirrer.

11:42 | Facebook is sooo yesterday.

11:43 | RT “@Lurv_Facts: Women are biologically attracted to a-holes because their traits resemble those needed for survival in the wild.”

11:44 | Retweets are NOT endorsements!

11:49 | I just lost 3 followers. WTF. Why can’t I get to 2000???

14:49 | For those who haven’t seen this yet, here’s my big brother’s missing advert in today’s newspaper: twitpic.com/yjs75Np #Furo

17:30 | God I LOVE this picture! twitpic.com/bzR76on via @JimmyChooLtd

17:31 | I’ll gladly endure the pain of wearing a tight pair of shoes… if it looks good LOL.

20:03 | I’m not pregnant. That’s a relief.

20:40 | _|_ (-.-) _|_ to @emem_1987 & @anpasticru

20:42 | Twitter is beginning to piss me off sha!

20:44 | Some RATS don’t know when to choke on their evil thoughts @emem_1987 @anpasticru

20:45 | I came here to look for my missing bro. Every other thing is dirt off my shoulder.

20:49 | This! RT “@lazyeyedben: I’m digging your style @pweetychic_tk. Don’t mind the olofofos.”

20:49 | THANKS @lazyeyedben! You’re such a cool dude!

21:04 | Co-sign => RT “@Rihanna: The one person you can’t run from is YOU!!!”

21:05 | I ♥ @Rihanna! #justsaying

21:15 | Mum & Dad have returned. Mum is crying again. My life is so not fun right now.

21:41 | OMG!!! Mummy wants to go to the mortuary 2moro to look for Furo!!!

22:17 | 2moro is officially the worst day of my life. #goodnight

My handle is @_igoni and I was born into the Twitter stream in January 2009. Apart from tweeting links to my online publications as well as other articles I’d enjoyed reading, I didn’t have much to do in my short existence. Until, that is, I found @pweetychic_tk and, through her, @efyouaruoh. Furo’s Twitter page displayed as its profile photo an image of sunglasses-wearing Neo from The Matrix, and the profile name was “FW,” while the bio read, “Lagos-based job hunter,” and so, if not for his sister’s tweets, @efyouaruoh would have remained a cipher for ever vanished into the dead-end alleys of the Web, just another one of hundreds of millions of unverified Twitter handles with a meager following and a preference for the pseudonymous; and, to boot, a digital persona whose final breath was drawn at 00:13 on 18 June. “Nepa bring light abeg,” he tweeted, and then nothing ever again. Silence, on Twitter, is as good as death, and if life hadn’t intervened to bring us together on the day after his final tweet, I might never have found myself scrolling through the timelines of the dead, searching for the POVs of the real person in the ghosts of their digital personas.

@pweetychic_tk: Saturday, 23 June

11:15 | This is NOT a good morning. Dad is driving us to the #mortuary in Ikeja. We’re going to search for #Furo there!

12:21 | I just knew the place would be UGLY twitpic.com/bzT67oM #mortuary

12:27 | It STINKS inside!!!! twitpic.com/c4KnnIP #mortuary

12:33 | RT “@Nneka_Or: omg can this be Lagos?? RT @pweetychic_tk: It STINKS inside!!!! twitpic.com/c4KnnIP #mortuary”

12:33 | RT “@PrinceofmoJo: RT @infoeNGine: Lagos govt shuts down smelly #mortuary http://dlvr.it/2NLieR @pweetychic_tk”

13:03 | THOSE ARE DEAD PEOPLE!!! twitpic.com/bzs24bP #mortuary

13:05 | RT “@asiwajuayo: WTF! Naija should suffer a natural disaster! RT @pweetychic_tk: THOSE ARE DEAD PEOPLE!!! twitpic.com/bzs24bP #mortuary”

13:05 | RT “enugu2coventry: This is unspeakably shameful. RT @pweetychic_tk: THOSE ARE DEAD PEOPLE!!! twitpic.com/bzs24bP #mortuary”

13:06 | RT “@PrinceofmoJo: RT @punchonthenet: Rear Admiral’s missing daughter found in Lagos #mortuary http://dlvr.it/2NLtuM @pweetychic_tk”

13:33 | When I die I want to be cremated! On the same day! twitpic.com/ZvY80pQ #mortuary

13:48 | O_o RT “@gambianfaust: @pweetychic_tk My granny died & I wanted 2 keep a part of her with me. So after her cremation, I snorted the ashes.”

13:48 | RT “@MarkyMona: @pweetychic_tk Thx 4 raising awareness abt this prob. See the #mortuary they kept my father in! pic.twitter.com/rU1ogDtS”

14:07 | I just threw up a little in my mouth. Even dead people don’t deserve this. #mortuary

14:22 | RT “@PrinceofmoJo: RT @HMNews: Nigeria | Floods: #Mortuary Attendants Stack Corpses on Rooftops http://dlvr.it/2NLdG @pweetychic_tk”

14:26 | @PrinceofmoJo Stop tweeting those links at me you PERVERT!!!

14:27 | Apologies 2 my followers 4 the error, but please don’t RT or click on @PrinceofmoJo #mortuary links. They’re porn.

14:44 | RT “@asiwajuayo: Yay! @pweetychic_tk is the reason! RT @TrendsLagos: “mortuary” is now trending in #Lagos: http://trendsmap.com/ng/lagos”

15:12 | Thanks ALL!!! My phone battery’s about to die, I have to go now. #mortuary

23:17 | OMG!!!!!! @DONJAZZY retweeted me!!!

When I’d learned enough about Furo’s story to be sure I was committed to following it to the end, I tweeted @pweetychic_tk. In remarkable time she had become a Twitter celeb, gathering seven times as many followers in a week as I had in four years, so I wasn’t certain she would respond to a Twitter lightweight like me. (Question: How did she get so many followers so fast? Answer: Check out the first page of the Google search for ‘get Twitter followers fast’. In other words, she did the work.) With this in mind — “this” being my dread of getting rebuffed in public — I pondered on the approach most likely to succeed, at the same time studying her timeline for any clues that might help with my decision, which I indeed reached upon seeing a serendipitous tweet of hers. From meeting her brother I knew about our shared ethnicity, and so, to indicate to her that we had a connection deeper than Twitter esprit de corps, I greeted her in Kalabari before offering to buy her ice cream. Calculation always trumps sincerity on social media. Yet I must admit that when she not only replied my tweet but also accepted my offer, I was buffaloed.

*It didn’t matter to me if I liked Tekena, but for the sake of what I wanted, I needed her to like me. And so, when I met her on that overcast Sunday afternoon, the first thing I said was, “You’re pretty.” Even as I intended to win her over with flattery, I was surprised by my reflux of pleasure, the rush of gratefulness at her acknowledgement of my appearance when she responded, “You’re pretty too.” Sunlight and water to a blossoming flower, likewise our sense of well-being is both nourished by the shine of other’s eyes and the gurgle of our self-regard. Who I was as a person was more than what I looked like, but then again, how people saw me was a part of who I was.

I soon found myself liking Tekena more than her brother, whose name I didn’t mention until she and I were eating ice cream at The Palms. You see, Furo had come across as a bit of a user. I know now that he was desperate, that on the day we met he was facing a predicament and had needed whatever help he could get, but something about his request to move in with me, the ease with which he asked such a thing of a stranger, had struck the wrong chord with me. His sister could be accused of taking advantage of a private mishap to build her popularity on social media, and in person I found her as chatty as I’d expected, and maybe too trusting of strangers bearing gifts, but at no point did she strike me as manipulative. Not in person, not towards me.

Thus I liked her. She was after all a recognizable Nigerian type, not much different from me in background and social standing. We were both members of that caste of young adults who grew up in the ruins of Nigeria’s middle class. We were born into the military dictatorships of the ’80s and ’90s; we attended the cheaper private schools or the better public ones; we read the same Pacesetter novels and watched the same NTA shows; we lived in cities. Unlike the majority of Nigerians in any age bracket, we spoke English as a first (and sometimes only) language, and our inbred accents were two to three generations old. Because of our parents, who were educated and devoted and fortunate enough to hold on to their salaried positions through all those decades of martial austerity; our private dictators, who beat their children with the same whips they used on the poorer relatives they took in as house helpers; our role models, who were so convinced of “what was what” that they affirmed a preference for butter over margarine even when they could only afford Blue Band for our school lunchboxes; our protectors and providers, who were neither middle class nor working class, neither wealthy enough to jet overseas on vacation nor deprived enough to cease the Christmastime pilgrimages to our family hometowns; our lifelong teachers, who instilled in us their deep-seated humiliation over the failures of Nigeria as well as their bitter nostalgia for the administrative competence of colonial rule. That was it: in Tekena’s voice and gestures, in many things about her, I saw the same contradictions that had shaped me. Shame and arrogance. Pragmatism and sentimentality. Thoughtless violence and unthinking sacrifice. Red blusher and black skin…

The thing is, on seeing Tekena my thoughts flew to my mother. She, too, wore red blusher in my childhood memories. My sentiments about my father are less conflicted: he left when I was eight. My mother stayed to be condemned to failure in raising her son. Because the success of a man, our people say, is the father’s doing. You are your father’s son — you follow in your father’s footsteps. Manhood and its machismo are attributed to the seed, which then follows that the failure to make a man is the egg’s burden. Your papa born you well, they will sing to a man in praise, but when he disappoints so-and-so’s expectations of XY manliness, it becomes Nah your mama I blame. My say is this: when you live in a worldwide bullring, bullshit is what you’ll get. If they say I cannot be my mother’s son, then it must be that I’m her daughter.

After we sat down in the food court of The Palms to eat our ice cream, I began asking Tekena about her brother. I lapped up all the details she gave of his disappearance, which it turned out weren’t much, not enough to slake my thirst. She had awoken on that Monday morning to find he had left the house for the job interview he’d only mentioned to her when he was ironing his clothes the previous night, and since neither she nor her father had thought there was anything odd about his long absence, he wasn’t missed until her mother returned from the office and asked after him. That was when Tekena went into his bedroom and found his mobile phone. And the rest, as she said, was a disaster. From Tekena’s tweets I already knew that she and her parents had no inkling of the change that had happened to Furo, hence I made no mention of my meeting with him. As I uttered suitable noises of sympathy in response to her recounting of the grief his disappearance had wrought upon the household, I couldn’t help asking myself, what if Furo had remained behind after he found himself transformed? This was the question I wanted answered, and one I would have to find out for myself.

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