During housejob and NYSC days, I lived with an amazing set of neighbors. They were truly divinely-sent. There was IbiBaby whose room became my second room, whose delicacies warmed my belly countless times, whose hard work and diligence made it a honor to be referred to as her twin at work and who would sit calmly while I made cornrows for her wigs. There was OO who was taking care of our electricity units in the most effective way ever, who took my clothes off the line when rain was about to start even though we were barely talking at the time, who would set up his laptop/TV for us to watch movies and provide food/snacks even though he knew I would probably doze off and whose mother loves dearly and who took care of my sister and my friend when I was not around on different occasions. What about the senior colleagues downstairs? The fine, fair-skinned male would provide his generator for the nights and days the power supply was being epileptic, liaise with the landlord on matters concerning our welfare, give us lifts in his car to and from work and be there for my puppy when I had to leave her for some days. And the female beauty who went about her business peaceably, was good at her job as a medical doctor and would never default on housemate contributions.
I could step out at any point and be sure that the individual I would be encountering would be happy to see me just as I was happy to see him/her. We were meant to have an in-house party at some point but by the time we had what resembled it, OO had moved out. The kitchen moments I had with these guys were epic. We would cook and gist. Talk about plans and drop heartfelt prayers and best wishes for one another. Thinking back, I had my room to myself but I was surrounded by a community that would have defended me in whatever form and on whatever issue. If any of you is reading this, thank you. I valued you then and with this Down I am about to go into, I learnt how much more you all meant.
“You would be in a two-man room. You don’t have a roommate yet… you may not have any till the end of the semester. COVID-19…”
I was happy. I had the space to myself. I did not have to go through the whole getting to know someone and adjusting to their lifestyle… stressful something. If the person came later on, that would be okay. By then, I would have adjusted to the new environment. There were two beds in the room and a central table, a fridge and a microwave. I had a bathroom and toilet, shared with the room to my left with two occupants. This was an all-female dormitory, so, no fear of sharing THAT with a man. Praise Be. Seeing as I still had to go through medical clearance, course registrations and other shenanigans of a newbie, I was ‘free’ for a bit even though I was resuming two weeks late. By the time I was done with these things, I had the task of catching up. But before then, my days were spent exploring the campus, getting to know my department and just finding my way around.
You see, I was content with the idea of not being bothered, especially because even before I traveled, I was aware of the independent, every-man-to-himself kind of life that obtains abroad. But awareness is not equal to experience. And when experience kicks in, you might end up questioning the level and intensity of your awareness. You begin to ask yourself if your awareness had the true element of understanding in it and if you braced yourself enough for the thing you said you knew of.
I am a friendly person. This is not exactly a self-assessment thing but a conclusion from what others have said about me. I have been told that I make friends easily, people feel comfortable talking with me and sharing their time and lives with me. I have been the bridge in several relationships and it’s like I am always surrounded by people. So, maybe I do not know loneliness. In the same vein, I spend a good time reading, writing and investing in interactions from friends and strangers on all possible platforms. I can stay indoors for hours and be fine. But I guess until circumstances and environments change, you may not realize the loophole in that.
The only evidence that I was indeed sharing the bathroom with two other girls came from the hair and body products that were definitely not mine, the water droplets and steam from a recent shower, the strands of hair clinging to the bathtub drain and the occasional sound of the toilet flushing. Of course, I was not looking forward to meeting naked girls in the bathroom. Reminds me of some camps I attended as a child where the only ‘bathroom’ was an open space with four walls and an entrance. Each lady picks a wall location to have her bath while avoiding eye contact as much as possible. There were those ladies that did not give a hoot though. They not only maintained eye contact, they spilled their life stories and cracked jokes at those of us who were novices in the communal bathing lifestyle. Never again, please.
That being said, I imagined that one day, I would meet these ladies. I mean, I was not sure what they even looked like. I might have met them in the Greenhouse or on my walks to and from it or even at the department. Who knew? I needed to be sure I was not sharing this sacred space with… I don’t know, sirens!!! Were they Black? Short? Fun? Age mates?
One day, I took the bold step and knocled on their door. I knew they were in because some minutes before, I heard them moving aroujd in the room. At my knocking, they went still. I went back to my room, telling myself maybe they were dressing up and did not want to have me beholding their nakedness. Fair enough. Minutes later, I heard their door opening and I expected them to knock on my door but I waited in vain. Another hour or two passed and I heard their door again. I stepped out.
She was surprised. African American, petite and cute lady. I could see the wheels turning in her head through her eyes, wondering if she should bolt for the safety of her room or face this ‘ambush’ I had brought her way. I helped her out by introducing myself, apologizing for the earlier disturbance and explaining my perspective.
“I wonder… are all these rooms occupied? I rarely see anyone out here… isn’t it strange?”
“Oh… it isn’t. Not all rooms have occupants right now but there are people in most. People don’t really want to talk or interact, not even with the whole COVID mess.”
She was initially edgy but as we talked, she relaxed.
“I’m sorry about my roommate. She does not know to clean her hair strands from the bath tub and I know it often blocks the drain. I have talked to her many times… but, she just does not listen. You know, she is almost always out, drinking, partying…”
I was like, hold up, hold up. You were barely willing to meet with me some minutes ago and now, you are all ‘gistlover’ on matters that I was not even comfortable talking about. Oh wow. The talk rounded off with each of us promising to keep in touch. We did not.
This was something I eventually adjusted to. Most of these people are not naturally inclined to talk to strangers nor make friends of strangers. Their first and basic instinct is to mind their business and avoid others at all costs. You could go days taking the same route with them and no nothing about them. Absolutely nothing. You could be burning down the building and if not for the smoke, smell and sounds from the fire alarm, no one would be bothered.
That reminds me. That day, I was watching a movie on my laptop, Chekwaa. Headphones. Engrossed. Enjoying myself. Then I started hearing this weird sound. For a while, I thought it was coming from the movie but it made no sense with what I was looking at on the screen. This sound was getting louder and my ears were near bleeding, so, I stepped out and that’s when I saw all these people trooping out through what I would discover were the emergency doors. I think I grabbed my phones, slippers and joined these ladies who I had barely seen in the months I had been in the dorm. It was surreal and funny.
We gathered at the front of the dorm, waiting. These ladies were in all sorts of disarray. Some had only their night dresses on, many of us were in afros, some were halfway into making or washing their hair, one girl stepped out without footwear and it was cold! Small groups were formed with all of us wondering if it was a drill or actual fire. This was my first encounter with the other roommate fond of leaving her DNA in hair strands lying around the bathroom.
“Sorry I missed you the other day. I was in a hurry and did not come back till late at night. Xyz said you wanted to say hi to us. You know, she is rarely around as she goes to her boyfriend’s place a lot…”
At this point, I was just baffled. Why are y’all so interested in gossip about the other person? Is that the only way you think you can make friends or form conversation? Is this all the fodder you have?
I had learnt that I was probably the oldest resident in the dorm. So, maybe age was the difference ‘cos I was not digging this method of theirs.
Minutes later, we were allowed back into the dorm. Apparently, someone’s hair straightener had caught fire and triggered the alarm.
I made no more efforts to make friends in the dorm. Thankfully, I had Precious, my friend from Nigeria who I only met because of this MPH journey at USM, Chidinma (sister to the male senior colleague neighbor back at Abeokuta) who welcomed me with much warmth and fed me a great deal with Nigerian delicacies in those first months and Ogechi who I spoke with maybe five times in total but who was genuine in all her interactions and would laugh with all she had.