These Wilds Beyond Our Fences

A Father's Letter to his Daughter

Photo by Hu Chen on Unsplash

Bayo Akomolafe says his most sacred work is being present for his daughter Alethea, his son, Kayah Jayden, and his wife Ijeoma.  Born in Nigeria then transplanted to Zaire, a country known for cronyism, corruption and ethnic violence,  Bayo lost both his home and father at an early age.  To address his experience of trauma and civil unrest, he became a clinical psychologist and an advocate for peace and social justice.  Today he lives in Chennai, India, and serves as the Executive Director of The Emergence Network.

The following is an excerpt from These Wilds Beyond our Fences: Letters to my Daughter on Humanity’s Search for Home (North Atlantic Books). Here Bayo describes the world he was born into and the world he is leaving to his children. This book is a celebration of family life, conveyed with an astonishing tenderness and grace.  

I don’t become your father the first time I hear you rip the air with your song or when I later carry you close to my chest, shaky and afraid that I might do something silly and drop you. I tend to think it is the moment we bring you to your grandmother’s home, the house your maternal grandfather—a Nigerian like me—bought for his Indian wife. I steal away from the festivity of laughter often punctuated by shhh! Lower-your-voice-she-still-is-sleeping persuasions—and find a private spot. There, where no one else can hear, I say a short prayer to you. I make a promise to give you a home, to work for your future, to love you with my darkness, to be the ground upon which you stand, to create a whole new world.  I promise to be your father.

I met a wild man once.  He lives at the edges, where the wild things press their faces again the borders and make furry noises.  He is a bank of many sorrows. Many griefs.  He knows how to wheedle a hush — one of those creatures that crawl across the earth’s meandering planes, and hide in the shadows of her belly folds—and speaks in incantations. He speaks in incantations and says a hush is not a trifling matter, that a hush has a message to share.  To sit with a hush is to meet oneself as if for the first time. It is to come home.  And this, coming home, is why I write you.

Bayo, with his wife Ifeoma, daughter Alethea, and son Kaya Jayden.

They say that when you’re about to die your life flashes before you, you see those you love, those moments you cherish, in spontaneous psychic edits of final warning. Perhaps that is only true in specific situations where one is distant from loved ones.  I need no private cinematic bursts of my life and my loved ones.  I can see them already and they are about to be murdered by the gun of  a Zairian child soldier who stands at the doorway watching us.

I don’t know how long I’ve shut my eyes or how long this silence took me, but I can hear a conversation in Lingala. My ears seem to clear open, much in the same way stuffy ears are unclogged after one alights from a plane. Uncle Bernard is here and he seems to be translating the soldier’s comments to my mum and dad. Uncle Bernard tells them that the soldier boy pities us. He saw my mother pray and since he is Christian, too, he will not take our lives, but that he doesn’t know what his boss will do to him and that they will all be going soon—when they have taken all they want from our home.

So long as I live I will never forget the wave of relief that washes over my mother’s splintered face as she collapses to the ground saying, “Thank you. Thank you. Ah, thank you!”  I cannot see my father’s face, just his back, but he is speaking to the soldier in French now. I turned to Tito. And Wendy. We are all here. Still in one piece. There is no greater feeling than coming to the edge and knowing that is not the absolute and after all.

But the danger is not yet past.

I wake up from a dreamless sleep and survey my surroundings. A glistening white streams through the window on my right. It is a princely morning in Kinshasa, the morning after mutinied soldiers ransacked our home and almost killed us.

“They’ve taken everything,” Tito is telling me.

We go through the bullet riddled corridor, watching our steps as we try to walk past broken glass and toppled ceramic vases. There are droplets of blood on the floor and blood splatter on the wall opposite the entrance to the living room.  In the living room, nothing is recognizable anymore. The wall aquarium wasn’t broken; it was totally pulled out. Where blue water and playful fish should be, there is a large rectangular hole through which one can see the foyer that goes into the kitchen.  Dad’s super loud music system is gone. Some of his CDs are on the floor, shattered. Bob Marley’s smiling visage and dreadlocks are still recognizable from a tiny disc fragment.  There’s the 1993 Peter Justesen catalog on the shelf, largely untouched. The TV is still there too, broken on the floor, a few inches from its former resting place. Its electric cord, taut, is still plugged into the wall. The settees are gone. The curtains. Even the water closet toilets. I’m left wondering how they were able to uproot so much in one night. And how they were able to bear these things away.

We have no food, no water, and no clothes. Embassy files, Dad’s off-white Peugeot 505 with the musical horn he installed to make us laugh anytime he came home, shoes, clothes, suits, slippers…all gone.  I remember our dogs, Sasha and Maiden, with a crushing feeling of vertigo: I had not considered them during our ordeal. I wonder if they are anywhere to be found. A man in a red cap comes through the black gate, and my father goes out to meet him, and then comes back after a while to find Mummy.   “It’s time to go,” he says.  He is still in his pajamas—the only item he can claim as a property.  My mother nods her okay and takes us all into the room to change into some clothes that had escaped the soldiers’ gaze.

In a moment, we are out under the foreboding sun, gathered in the compound by our black gate.  Mummy, Tito, Wendy, Uncle Bernard, Sumbu, and some men—including the man with the red cap, who is now telling my father that we are lucky,  because the French ambassador was killed in his home.

I turn around to look at the house that had held us all this time. The first home we had moved into when, three years ago, back in Nigeria, my father received an official letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, informing him that he had been posted to China. We were excited. China was Bruce Lee and cool martial arts. But our excitement was short-lived because he came back with a new letter: the Ministry has changed its mind and posted him to some country in central Africa I hadn’t heard of—Zaire. 

Dad is barefoot. Mum has Dunlop slippers on, as do Tito and I.  Mum whispers to us that we have to find a way to the embassy, where she promises we will be safe. Our bodies are shifting restlessly. The sky is crackling with the energy of apocalyptic endings. If we weren’t in it, what we just experienced the night before could make a great adventure movie. We are scared, but we cannot stay here. Outside the black gates,  beyond this poor facsimile of a barrier, on the streets littered with corpses, thick columns of black smoke and yelling, are men with guns who would take our lives given the chance. How do we make our way through the lot? What lies beyond this fence?

A path breathes open, snaking into the congress of bowing tall grass. We are quiet, the whole world is quiet. It is just the sound of our labored breathing and, sometimes, the sound of my father’s Yoruba and my mother’s Yoruba.  After what feels like hours, we come to a clearing and scattered homes in small shacks.  A flimsy plank of wood has been laid across a gutter for easy passage. Dad helps Mummy walk across, and then he guides me halfway but I lose my balance as I step off the plank, falling to the ground and scratching my right foot on a stone. I can see the white of my flesh under my black skin, peeled back like a potato under a knife. My dad rubs his hand in my hair, saying sorry, and urging me to keep moving.

We get to the clearing I recognize. We’ve made it, we must look quite a sight to some car owners—a few of them stare at us as they drive past. There are many cars on the road, and those brave enough to drive have one foot pressed down hard on the throttle. Down the road, across a few sidewalks, there’s an avenue of trees, the white-tiled green-roofed building sits in wait, seemingly undisturbed by the commotion of the last hours. A buff security man swings the door open upon seeing my father, and we step into the clean premises—out of breath, our feet sore from running. The Nigerian flag flutters in the wind, welcoming us to our new home. For now.

“Maybe being in exile is part of what it means to come home, and being at home is a preparation for exile.”

Road in the Congo, now Zaire, with a natural tunnel. By Ch. Naeem Ahmad bajwa - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63535593

Justice is awkward. Awk-ward. Not forward.  “Forwords” speak of gold-plated futures in wait. “Awkwards” take note of something else.  A Middle English word for clumsy, backward, or perverse was awk.  The word itself invokes the idea of things lacking a certain grace about them, being of many minds as opposed to walking resolutely in one direction. In spite of the many negative connotations attached to the idea of being awkward, awkwardness is a profusion of grace, and not the absence of it. When we don’t know what to say or what to do or where to go, it is often because many paths are open to us, many possibilities are known, and many agencies are making themselves heard. The tip of the tongue is a diving board into finer waters.

This is how things move. Awkly.

To make a new world, to move it, to wipe the slate clean, to start again, to retell the stories of the injustices and exclusions and untimely death and soiled seas—what a heady and ravishing proposal!

The awkward thus softly beckons us into a playground so animate and dense with cross- cutting trajectories and unbelievably intricate activity that drawing a straight from here to there is impossible.

We never begin at the beginning. We always begin at the place already massaged by footfalls aplenty, by sighs embedded in loamy layers of earth,  nightly negotiations and strange rituals and spilled blood and muffled sounds and startling textures and painful interpellations, and the budding promise of continuity.

Bayo Akomolafe. PhD, has been a Visiting Professor at Middlebury College, Vermont, where he taught trans-raciality and post-activism. He has also lectured at Sonoma State University in California, Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, and Schumacher College in Totnes, England, and is widely recognized for his poetic, counterintuitive, and indigenous take on global crisis, civic action and social change.

He also hosts the online writing course, We Will Dance with the Mountains: Writing as a Tool for Emergence. 

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