RHYTHM: By TJ Benson

Every weekend in the early 70s, there was a man who packed up a tent and his film camera from his home and set out for the forest, leaving the world behind. He kept a full beard and wore an afro, which was normal in Kaduna city at the time, in fact everything was normal about this man, except the length of his shorts and the holes in his singlet he wore when it fell upon him to disappear into the forest. This man worked at some respectable civil servant job during the week, so his adventures into the wild made him a popular source of gossip in the Ugwan Rimi neighborhood. “But he wasn’t crazy,” my maternal grandmother, who lived next to him at the time, insisted. There was some humor and incredulity in her voice when she told me this story. “He wasn’t crazy, even with his bushy face.” Then she looked at me, her face filled with fondness. “He was like you.”

​My grandmother cannot recall his day job, but she soon found out he was a freelance wildlife photographer on the weekends, selling his work to international journals. She found him rather distracted, never interacting with the other neighbors, and he didn’t mention which journals when she asked. His face was always looking away when someone managed to rope him into a conversation, as if for the weekend, as always towards the general direction of the forest that is now Ugwan Dosa, where true real life waited for him. My grandmother had found me hidden in one of her many rooms, away from visiting relatives of relatives, working at my collection of short stories at the time. “You are just like him” she said and it was with pride. I suppose she felt a connection to this “being in” the work, being something of a workaholic herself. 

She almost didn’t begin her training and decades long career in nursing, because she had been persuaded by some Scottish Reverend sisters who admired her services in the parish she grew up in, to follow them on their return home to become a nun. She was always asking her children and in-laws if they had something doing. She would repeat the popular anecdote, no food for lazy man o. But I had the privilege of knowing her, learning the way she made a full life. For one reason or the other she had to move into different communities and cultures, over and over. The being in the work, the rigor of it, was how she was able to anchor herself into her new life every single time.

I first came across the no food for lazy man anecdote in the comprehension passages I found in English textbooks as a child. When I went to my father’s village, this saying, which seemed concrete in the post military regime consciousness at the time, faded into abstraction. I had never seen people work as hard as I saw in the village, yet I couldn’t make any connection between their labor and the concept of reward as posited in the anecdote. My paternal extended family is very large and It seemed to me that the relatives scattered across the region would congregate in one person’s farm at the start of planting season, not for cash payment or even sustenance, but for something else, perhaps the land itself. The more attention I paid, the more delight I saw them take in the land, how much they relished the strain of work, the excitement to see how far they could take it. 

Season after season, I watched seen comical exchanges where the host relative would beg the visiting help to take home some produce home, and the latter would respond with something like. “Because you think we don’t have food in *insert hometown name*? Don’t insult me!” There were times when for larger labor involving processing of the harvested crop like cassava into garri for example, there would be hired help through the farming cycle to the end. But what seemed to be of priority, what determined which farmstead would get more competing men and women eager to work, was the companionship, the gossiping (and this gossiping is where I learnt my father’s language), and the music, ah the music! I never knew long stories could be told in song, in never ending verses, each bridge, each refrain, rising out of your stomach, out your mouth, propelling you to swing your hoe up high and throw your body into the sweet smelling, rich-black soil, propelling you to swing your cutlass into the grass with the rhythm.

I came to see this rhythm everywhere, it was in all of the songs, and in the language itself, it bound up the people in the village. You would find it inn people flinging sacks of guinea seed out of trucks in the market square, whether they were singing or not, you would find it in the beat of groundnuts struck on tables to yield fresh browning seed. Even I had gotten into some of this work with the promise of some financial reward, but in no time, I fell into the rhythm. It makes so much sense to me now, all the work I saw being accomplished would have been impossible, if the end was kept in sight. The acres and acres of land my older relatives had to till, the endless bags of cassava we had to peel, (and there is a specific word for the way you peel cassava with knife that is untranslatable to English, it has a sonic adjacence to the way the knife breaks the skin, and moves under and around the slick tuber), the bags and bags of dry groundnut we had to shell; all that would have been impossible if we worked in anticipation of the end of the work, which is in our society today, perceived to be its own reward. What was valuable to us, what imbued us with seemingly unlimited strength, was being in the work itself. 

Now food, that reward that was declared elusive to the lazy man, came via a different anecdote. My father’s people have a saying in Tiv that translates to, “two oranges means hunger, five oranges means witchcraft.” It was hard to tell who was poor because food was everywhere. I came to learn rural people considered those who lived in the city, or who could return and leave easily, wealthy. Food rationing was not applicable, there was barely any separation of lunch from dinner or breakfast. This set the metric for picking fruits or crops from stranger’s farms. You must be hungry if you have to take this little from someone’s farm. If you take this much, then it is witchcraft, meaning wickedness, greed or robbery. Otherwise, food was shared before sold or stored, whether you knew a person or not. 

If you took a walk in the evening, you fell into the danger of being invited for a meal you probably didn’t have space in your stomach for. People will shout at you from their homestead, “we are eating o” and if you were from the city like me and couldn’t take a hint, they’ll add, “come and eat.” It was an abomination to turn such an invitation down. They would ask “do you think we cooked poison?” or “don’t you know our great-great grandfather went hunting with your grand uncle and ate from the same calabash” or “are you saying we are evil? Child of Benson did someone tell you not to eat from our family? Tell us!”

I had a terrible appetite for most of my childhood, until I moved to my father’s village as a teenager. At first, I was surprised by the gargantuan portions my relatives consumed, and even more surprised by their toned bodies. Then I insisted on following them to the farm. I was given a simple task to do, perhaps folding sacks or something, but I wanted to do more, I wanted to bring yam out of the ground. After growing up in Abuja, the capital city, it was fascinating to see how the food I ate was grown. I almost fell down the first time ii swung the hoe. It was almost half my height. Then I kept bruising the yam before I could dig them out. Someone recommended I took a rest under a shade or returned home. I said no. This work was more than my body, but I didn’t want to stop listening to the stories on the farm; I wanted to learn if a there was a thief daring enough to break into the barn at the edge of our town which had been secured with magical padlocks. I wanted to know how the village mad woman, who tied lumps of fabric on her belly and sang sweetly to it in the evenings, went mad. I kept trying till it was time to go home.

At home, I was shocked by the hunger in my belly that had grown taller than me. I wasn’t even aware of it, my small biceps and thighs were throbbing, then I caught a whiff of stew from someone’s kitchen and my dry tongue slaked with saliva. I nearly matched the general ravenous appetite in the family that evening, to everyone’s amusement. I slept deeper into the earth than I ever had that night. 

I have no romantic ideas about work that latches on survival. Some of the most horrific years of my life were spent measuring my worth by the work I was able to do. I had accompanied my relatives to the farm at age 11 because no one was going to stay home and watch me, not because I was going to be of any value as a laborer. Child laborers are not digging wells or mining precious stone for the rhythm I have used such flowery sentiment to describe in earlier passages. Labor that isn’t visible or immediately measurable by industrial standards a few centuries old, gets dismissed and disrespected. Some bodies will not meet the industrial revolution era standards of what a working body should look like that rules most of the globe today. Many bodies aren’t able to work in a way that the society believes is deserving of reward and worthiness. I am so privileged to use my body and make work that is part necessary for my material survival, but more importantly, work that helps me make meaning of myself.

​One day, this will be impossible because no human can work forever. There will be a moment in some far or near future, when we bring our minds and bodies to a task and find we are not enough in some permanent way that has nothing to do with our past accomplishments or experience. What we will have left will be the memory of work, how wonderful or terrible we were. I am so proud of my twenties, because I am no longer the boundlessly proliferate writer I was then. In my twenties I was so proud of the reader I was as a teenager because I consumed my high school library and started reading everything else, I could find, from newspaper adverts to chemical compounds on product packages. Now in my thirties, I readily kill my darlings and shed off ideas that try to repeat themselves from my earlier work. If the form of a story doesn’t move me in some fundamental way, I won’t write it, no matter how juicy the plot is. I am more eager to stop reading a novel, no matter how celebrated, if the first fifty pages are going nowhere. I have survived three dangerous car accidents, a few other near-death experiences and watched my mind deteriorate at different points ever since. I, simply no longer have free time. 

​Time is what enables work, and it will run out. Jaromir Hladik, the playwright who was condemned to die in Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Secret Miracle,” was working on a play at the time of his arrest. This is a specific fear that haunted me in my 20s and drove me to produce so much, dying in the middle of work-in-progress. 

As the day Jaromir is sentenced to die draws near, he grows desperate. The night before, he prays to God for a chance to continue work on the play. That night he dreams of a voice that says “the time of your labor has been granted” and wakes up. He is still taken to the firing squad. The sergeant gives the order, as fated from the time of his arrest. But time stops. The bullets don’t leave the rifles. No one is aware of this, except Jaromir. He is paralyzed physically like everything else, but his mind spends an entire day in quandary, before realizing his prayer has been answered. Now he has time to work. He revises the entire script from memory, scrutinizing it for plotholes and choreographing the cast of characters. He has a whole year to work on this, and when he is satisfied, time resumes, the guns blast.

No one would ever read Jaromir’s play. No one would ever watch it on stage or know how long it took him to workshop it. He completed it in his mind and it was enough for him. It had to be.