A young man revisits a night he has spent 22 years trying to forget.
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Editor’s note: this piece contains descriptions of sexual assault.
The only image that captures the intensity with which I purged my life clean of my time in secondary school is ‘scorched earth’. I had gone to a unity school in Kaduna and, after graduating, I kept no friends, joined none of their alumni networks, changed my phone numbers, and abandoned my Facebook account, the only bridge that connected me to that phase of my life. After years of processing the trauma of my boarding school, in university, I reinvented myself. I freed myself from the curse of being trapped in the orbit of cruel but charismatic people.
Then, last year, the Coronavirus pandemic happened and my insular universe—built around solitary adventures to galleries, plays, and concerts—shrank into the four corners of my bedroom. One night, I reluctantly returned to Facebook, nostalgic for a social media network that wouldn’t bombard me with infection counters and death rates. The first ‘xxxx sent a friend request’ was a pleasant surprise. A secondary school bunkmate had discovered my page thanks to Facebook’s relentless matchmaking. But then that one request became three, and then 24, as more people from my old life demanded access to my new one. I accepted these requests, my memories of that time called into question by occasional remarks about how much I’d changed, along with others about how I’d—at least, ideologically—stayed the same.
As I sifted through stilted conversations and awkward second first impressions, I realized the only person from my secondary school that I wanted to speak to was the one I could not find.
After years of processing the trauma of my boarding school, in university, I reinvented myself. I freed myself from the curse of being trapped in the orbit of cruel but charismatic people.
Iyibo was beautiful. Even now, I remember it, that first week in boarding school in September 1997, his was the kind of beauty that sears itself into your memory. He was the nephew of a famous footballer, and they shared the same surname. But his beauty was the reason why—even though we were not in the same class—I followed him around our school like a colt. He was beautiful in a way that defies categorization. His eyes slanted to the corners of his perfectly oval face; his upper lip was a perfect cupid bow, jutting slightly forward, like awning over his smaller lower lip. It made him look reticent. But Iyibo was anything but shy.
We’re both eleven, and it will take years before I grow out of my brutally awkward teenage phase, and into my own late-blooming beauty. We’re assigned the same hostel room and our bunks sit next to each other, so we become fast friends. When my mattress is stolen by seniors, Iyibo offers to share his bunk with me. He has the assistant head boy as his guardian, so seniors pretend not to notice his lush mattress and his rich, downy duvet. I remember our tangle of legs, warm under the duvet, Iyibo’s whispering keeping me awake as he tells me stories of the countries he’s visited: Italy full of aging granite buildings, France full of vineyards and farms, England like a cold maze. His adventures remind me of the ones I heard as a child, told to me in primary school by the white children of expatriate engineers. So, I give Iyibo what they all wanted, an adoring listener. Our lives don’t intersect outside of our hostel, but I am content to be Iyibo’s friend, to move at his side through the stratified social classes of the isolated universe that is my boarding school.
People didn’t love Iyibo, I realize that now, they were fascinated with him. It was strange for someone so young to understand so implicitly the power they had over other people. Iyibo always looked people in the eye, willing them to look back and see that behind his giant pupils, there was no guile, only awakened desire.
[Iyibo’s] beauty was the reason why—even though we were not in the same class—I followed him around our school like a colt.
It would be unfair to suggest that Iyibo was the only queer person in my set. On the contrary, he was only one of many, many queer people, some of whom I have reconnected with as adults, and reminisced about how they didn’t have the language to describe what they were and how they moved through the world.
Our JS1 hostel is separated from the rest of the hostel complex, a bungalow-style building with a dirt field in its centre surrounded on each side by a block of interconnected rooms. A prolonged runway for the savvy. Aching to be free of childhood innocence, many of my peers start to explore their sexualities. Bill, for instance, only wears singlets and boxer briefs. He shields his modesty with a threadbare towel he fashions into a sarong, short enough that its ends split into a scandalous slit exposing a hairy thigh. He has a seemingly endless supply of white thigh-length socks and is always shod in four-inch platform sandals. In his singlet, towel fashioned into a miniskirt socks and platformed sandals, Bill struts the corridor between our bunk beds, holding off on wearing trousers till the moment seniors arrive to chase us out for breakfast. In a more accepting world, Bill, and the others like him would be non-binary, or non-conforming, but in our hostel in 1998, his refusal to conform makes him a target for seniors looking for outlets for their adolescent anger. Still, Bill marks down every eye that lingers at him. He always has an audience.
But Bill’s flame barely registers next to Iyibo. Iyibo flirts with everyone, girls in our class who only hold a mild fascination with boys, senior girls who he coaxes into being his house mothers, and male seniors, who sit in our bunk corner and eat through cartons of the single-serve Kellogg’s multi-variety boxed cereal he offers willingly. In 1998, a month before General Sani Abacha is assassinated, single-serve cereal boxes might as well be gold. Iyibo always has cartons of the stuff in a giant metal box under his bed, and a driver who brings them regularly in a brown Peugeot 504.
Iyibo himself rarely eats anything, not even his cereal; instead, he gorges on gossip as ravenous seniors trade war stories. They discuss the girls they convince to sit in the back of the class during prep and how their fingers still smell faintly of feminine musk hours after their prep trysts. Most nights while they talk, I curl on my bare metal bunk, the metal spring biting into my skin as I wait for them to leave so I can crawl into bed with Iyibo. Some nights, the group slowly thins out until one person is left, lingering. Iyibo follows that person, drifting out of our room and disappearing till the next day.
In a more accepting world, Bill, and the others like him would be non-binary, or non-conforming, but in our hostel in 1998, his refusal to conform makes him a target for seniors looking for outlets for their adolescent anger.
I can’t say I didn’t know what sex was back then. I’d grown up with sisters who were on the cusp of adolescence when I was born and who let me sit in while they dished on teenage crushes and, much later, sex. They were in their 20s by the time I left for boarding school, so the stories that seemed so fascinating to Iyibo were pedestrian to me. I knew women were more explicit, more vulgar, they paid more attention. I also knew sex was disappointing, for both parties. I tell Iyibo this one night in our dorm room. I try to supplement what he’s been told with what I have heard, to paint a more wholesome picture. Iyibo laughs and humours me, listening for as long as I can stay up because he finds it hard to sleep. I try to ask him where he often goes with those seniors, what they get up to so late, but he demurs and lets the silence linger between us.
A few weeks later, when Iyibo asks me to skip prep with him, I don’t think to argue. I am short-sighted (though at the time undiagnosed), so reading in the evening, in the poor light of our classrooms, is torture. But, during prep, house captains raid the hostel rooms to chase out stragglers, flogging anyone they catch. Even Iyibo knows to avoid them, his privilege only stretching so far.
So, that evening, we head to the box room and climb into the roof through the ceiling boards. Then, we wait for the marauding seniors to leave. We stay deathly quiet as the terrified yelps of our classmates being found and flogged filters to us through the asbestos. Time turns to taffy inside the roof. We keep our sides pressed together as we listen to make sure no one suspects us. Iyibo’s arm feels warm against mine, too warm. We’ve shared his bed for four months, but I’ve never been alone like this with him before. Truly alone. I am grateful the ceiling is pitch dark, that he can’t see my face flush with relief when he suggests we crawl out and soak some cereal.
I knew women were more explicit, more vulgar, they paid more attention. I also knew sex was disappointing, for both parties.
The hostel echoes with our footfalls as we cross the empty field that separates the box room from the rest of the hostel. We panic when we try the door to our room and find it locked from inside. We can’t go to prep now, we don’t have our books and, climbing the roof earlier, we had gone barefoot, afraid shoes would make us clumsy.
There’s only one place to go. Rogue seniors have barricaded a corner of our hostel with metal bunks and cordoned it off with stolen blankets. The corner is a no-man’s land, where any SS3 senior can escape prep for a quick nap or game of cards. We skulk there, worried that seniors might still be lurking. Iyibo assures me that we are safe, and I believe him. I’ve seen him talk his way out of many a mess. We crawl under the bunk, me first because he insists. Being sandwiched between him and a wall in two feet of space makes me claustrophobic. He threads his fingers between mine and squeezes. This feels important somehow, so I squeeze back, my heart racing with the thrill of doing something so reckless and getting away with it.
Then Iyibo rolls over and climbs on top of me. The bunk is low, so it takes some scrabbling. I lie there, too shocked to react. This is different from cuddling for warmth, and I feel uneasy. There’s enough space under the bunk to lie side by side and I start to tell him that, when I feel his lips touch mine. They are soft, and urgent and I stare at his closed eyes as he pecks clumsily at my closed mouth.
Where his mouth is unwieldy, the rest of him is practiced. Iyibo’s knees press against the inside of my thighs, forcefully parting them. He pushes down with the rest of his body, sliding until his groin is pressed against mine. I feel his penis, a tiny turgid thing, rub against me as he mimics intercourse through two layers of clothing. The kissing was perfunctory, now that my legs are parted, he focuses on the lower half of our bodies, grunting as his hips move.
The world narrows as I close my eyes. I am more horrified by the increasing prospect of getting caught by seniors than I am by Iyibo’s increasingly loud manoeuvring. I dissociate, funnel my focus to listening for footfalls, everything else feels… out of my control.
His inexperience shows with how quickly he finishes. He presses down on me after, panting as his semen soaks through his rayon trousers onto mine. We lay like this, and he strokes my cheek, my breathing belaboured by his body weight. He only rolls off when we hear chatter from the first set of students returning from prep. We wait until the doors are all opened before we slip out of the corner.
He threads his fingers between mine and squeezes. This feels important somehow, so I squeeze back, my heart racing with the thrill of doing something so reckless and getting away with it.
When we return to our dorm, Iyibo pats his bed, gesturing for me to sit. It is a little past 9 p.m., way before his usual bedtime. Our roommates know we are friends, but not like that. Unwilling to make a fuss, I do. He reaches under his bunk, brings out a carton of cereal and places it between us. He opens the carton, hands me a box, shows me how to punch through the cardboard seal with my finger. We munch loudly through the carton as the rest of the room pretends not to watch.
Iyibo has never shared his treats with any of us. They were his bargaining chips with seniors and this gesture feels like it carries more weight than it should. I also know, somehow, that refusing this offering will come with consequences. So, I reshape the event under the bunk as we eat, rewriting my shock into surprise, my paralysis into consent, my horror into inexperience, our shared meal as something other than a bribe. We dust the bed after and pull the duvet over ourselves. For the first time since he let me share his bed, I am the one who cannot sleep.
Iyibo leaves our school three weeks later, uprooted by his rich family and ferried out of the country after General Sani Abacha’s sudden death. He leaves with only the clothes on his back, the order rank soldiers who come to fetch him beat their way through a horde of parents gathered at the school gates, baying for their children. The death of a dictator leaves a chasm, and experience has taught our parents to first gather what is most precious to them, go underground and wait to see what will fill the vacuum. We spend the next few days in limbo before news breaks of the release of General Olusegun Obasanjo, the most prominent of General Abacha’s high profile political prisoners.
I never see Iyibo again, but once is enough to scar a person for life. Years later, as technology advances, I search for Iyibo, first on Myspace, then Facebook, then Twitter and Instagram. I find no trace of him when I run the occasional Google search. As my memory of him frays, I start to wonder how much of what I remember is real and how much I imagined. I know there are 600 people who might remember me and Iyibo, some of whom wait in limbo in my friend requests, but I hold back for years, paralyzed by the fear that having my memories corroborated might be worse than my suspicions that my memories are exaggerated, or worse, false.
I reshape the event under the bunk as we eat, rewriting my shock into surprise, my paralysis into consent, my horror into inexperience, our shared meal as something other than a bribe.
But I remember Iyibo the first time a former employer whom I greatly admired calls me ‘Ed, baby’ in the middle of an official debrief about project deadlines. It is a ‘harmless’ test of my boundaries that almost irreparably damages the sanctity of our growing friendship when I address it. I am overwhelmed by how much of the effort in all-male relationships is devoted to the transactional task of matching ‘energy’. I grow wary of performative gestures and virtue signalling and give only what I can afford to lose. My cynicism is rewarded when time and again, each unsolicited offering of intimacy or goodwill from men I have interacted with reveals a hidden, selfish motive.
But 22 years is a long time to lose sleep over another person’s actions, to live in a state of paralysis, waiting for the other shoe to drop, for niceness to reveal itself as pretext for something more primal. It is also enough time to return to the past, armed with the truth that I might never find the resolution I seek and that perhaps scorched earth can heal⎈
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