Nanu and I agreed to meet for an intellectual conversation, much like the ones we’d seen in the French movies we’d been recommending to each other over the past year. We had developed a vigorous aversion to the Hollywood nonsense of our childhoods and thus were suitably inspired for this night of critical sparring. It was the last night of my holiday in Lagos and so we decided the city itself would be our subject, juxtaposed against Abuja, where I now lived. He was from Abuja but lived in Lagos, which is how we became friends to begin with, whereas I was from Lagos but had moved to Abuja a while back. We were to approach the entire exercise with no irony, even if it made us feel like a pair of pretentious pricks. This, of course, guaranteed me victory; there was nothing I knew better than pretending.

To prepare, I spent the hours before our meeting skimming from what were supposed to be philosophically consequential texts by an assortment of Eastern European existentialists. Nanu prepared by smoking a blunt. At least I assumed he did. I had no real idea how he got ready and, I’ll be honest, I didn’t care if he sourced his existential dread through marijuana or other means. The dynamic of our friendship had evolved such that, by that point, our mutual love was expressed not by how much interest we showed in the particulars of each other’s lives, but by how much effort we put into impressing one another.

To that end I wore an outfit I had brought from Abuja for the specific purpose. A white buba and sokoto, starched stiff, ironed to the hilt. Gucci slippers, a gold chain and several gold and silver rings. Then I took one look in the mirror and threw it all off. Five minutes later I was in a variation of an outfit Nanu had seen on me almost every day for the year during which I had explained repeatedly that no, I simply liked how I looked, dressed in a black t-shirt and black jeans and black sneakers, and clothes were absolutely not a reflection of my inner life. I had similar explanations for my withdrawal from almost every social interaction, and my new, sudden quickness to tears whenever I heard the music of Joni Mitchell. I was fine! Nobody had to worry! I declined invitations to hang out, attempts to make me ‘feel better’ were summarily dismissed. I said all this so regularly and so firmly that I think I even managed to convince myself nothing was wrong, and, when the eventual breakdown happened, I was left neither feeling the bleak nothing my friends assumed to be the case, nor the predictable urge to shed uncontrollable tears, but instead a motley crue of emotions; my crushing and incapacitating self-loathing intermingled with an almost energising and all-consuming rage at the fact that my state of mind had been so obvious, so visible to everyone but me. God, I’d never felt so seen. But contrary to what people tell you, it’s pretty fucking terrible to be seen. What’s more awful than being reminded how mundane your suffering is, robbed of the solace that lies in that childish tendency to believe you’re the first person to feel a feeling ever, to think of your pain and suffering as unique in all time and history? Insult to injury for me. I’d always prided myself on being able to hide my suffering.

Anyway, I got in my car in the hotel carpark and drove out onto a street filled with detritus that had been washed out of the gutter. Empty sachets of gin and pure water were strewn across the road as I drove down to the expressway and made the journey across town to meet Nanu. Twenty minutes later, I pulled up in a dark corner of the lounge’s car park, a couple of spots from the lone floodlamp. I looked around at the security guards by the gate and figured my car would be safe, even in the dark. Then I remembered something from my last few months at the hospital in Lagos the previous year. I’d been on rotation in the emergency ward, the absolute worst, when a woman rushed in with flesh injuries. Many gashes on her left arm, so deep in one case you could see straight to her bone. One of the wounds caused a large flap of skin to hang in a way that made it look like you could open her up, like you could pick at it and it and her skin would keep peeling until you’d unwrapped her entire body. The story, as she told it, was that she’d been in traffic somewhere in Surulere. It had been her last night in the city, and she’d been hanging out with her friends. She was driving back to her hotel the night before going back home to Ibadan, and had just gotten to one of those traffic lights around the stadium when she heard the banging on her window. It took her a few seconds to figure out what was going on and even fewer seconds after for the guy, the hoodlum, to smash her window and demand her phone several times, a stab to her arm punctuating each word of his sentence. ‘Your!’ Stab. ‘Phone!’ Stab. ‘Now!’

She’d been so seized with shock at the sight of her own blood that she remained unaware of the pain until the car behind her honked loudly. The blood stained everything, she said, from the door handle to the steering wheel, and the shock was quickly replaced by anger at how much money the car wash was going to charge her. It wasn’t until she looked up, saw the traffic light was green, and sped off that she realised she’d been scared at all. And it wasn’t until just then, telling us the story in the ward, that she realised she forgot to hand her phone over to the robber. I was curious about the mention of the traffic light. Would she really have stayed there, waiting for the light to turn green otherwise? What the patient herself found most unbelievable about the entire ordeal was that it had all occurred under a street light. ‘Right under!’ She repeated this part, over and over, like it was the most ridiculous thing in the world, and in that moment I was struck by her ability to be shocked by the sort of ‘madness’—as she called it—that residents of the city like myself would be hard pressed to imagine a time without. In the parking lot, I drove my car over to the lamp, parked, and looked around for Nanu.

Nanu was already halfway through a bottle of Orijin when I walked into the lounge, which was less a lounge than it was really a large compound bordered to one side by a part of the Lagos Lagoon that was still mostly clean, so that the location wasn’t plagued by flies like similar establishments in the area. We were in the aftermath of rain, and all around the moonlight made silver lakes of the shallow puddles that remained. I joined him at a table under a wobbly black parasol which swayed in the wind, doing little to protect from the drizzle. Nanu smiled, got up and shook my hand, then nudged me into a plastic chair, white and faded from years of use. A waiter in a black apron took my order and went to the bar at the far end of the lounge to get the beer I asked for. By the bar was a skinny singer dressed in leopard print shorts and a tank top, leading a band of instrumentalists who looked bored out of their minds. Nanu poured himself another glass of Orijin, holding the neck of the bottle to the tip of the glass, letting the gold liquid flow gently, then righting the cup as the lager’s thick foam rose, tiny bubbles popping from the suds. The air was cool and damp. But then hot winds blew as well. Nothing was a certainty in Lagos, not even a cool breeze after rainfall. It was a contradiction that might have meant something under examination but in the moment, I was too struck by how meaningless it felt. It was a meaninglessness that felt oppressive on its own. There was nothing to be drawn from it. No poetry, no insight into the workings of humanity. But maybe that was its insight. Maybe in that way it represented something about the city—everywhere there was pain that served no purpose.

Nanu said he was tired so he would be a bit slow. His shift at the office had been draining. I told him to take his time. He lit a cigarette and looked at me with a smile.

‘What?’ I asked, and he waved the cigarette around. It smelled lighter than regular tobacco, and there was a faint tinge of mint to the smoke that almost made it sweet.

‘No lecture about cancer this time?’ he asked, and in response, I took a stick from his pack, lighting it with the end of his own cigarette. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘We’re doing that now?’

I smiled. ‘I quit the gym too,’ I said.

‘I take it you’ve completely purged it from your mind then,’ he said. ‘Like, you don’t even miss it at all.’ When I asked what he meant, he said, Medicine.

I thought about this for a moment. It wasn’t enough to say that I didn’t miss performing surgeries by the light of my phone, neither would it suffice to say that I physically could not miss the odd tightness in my chest that was so constant I was only ever reminded of its presence in those rare moments when I felt sudden and quick relief from it. But then I found the best way to put it.

‘You know those stories,’ I said, ‘the ones about those surgeons who leave scissors and gauze and gloves inside the bodies of patients because they are so tired and overworked that they just forget?’ Nanu nodded, and I said, ‘Well, how am I supposed to miss a period in my life when I would hear such stories, and feel bad for the doctors, because I could see how that could easily have been me after any given 72-hour shift?’

‘You make it sound like empathy is bad,’ he said.

I said, ‘For me it is. Empathy robs you of your right to look down on other people and what would life be like without that right? There are few greater liberties than the freedom to judge the mistakes of others.’

Anyway, we were to waste no further time. It was time for the debate. I went first, ready to rip Lagos to shreds and prove to Nanu why he didn’t appreciate Abuja. As I aspired to an ideal of objectivity, or at least the appearance of it, I figured I would say some good things about Lagos first. Being that I spent the first 25 years of my life there, this was surprisingly difficult, but I managed.

I told him I thought Lagos could be beautiful at times, not just in the vague way you might get anywhere, like looking at a sunset on the beach or staring at birds flying in the sky or wet roads after night rain. And not just things like the Lekki-Ikoyi Bridge, either, things obviously designed to be beautiful (or at least not ugly). But just the whole… vibe, even though it required a conscious involvement. You couldn’t passively appreciate Lagos, that was my stance. You needed to actively look past the ugly that typically followed the beautiful. Like that new ‘I Love Lagos’ sign, I said. The one I’d driven past at the jetty port, on Third Mainland Bridge, on my way there that night. It was my first time seeing it and it looked new. It was probably plain as day in the daylight but as I drove past it, it was a wonder of geometry and light, the way the colours seemed to glide over the surrounding water. Metres away from it were heaps and heaps of trash, literal scraps of plastic and paper and dilapidated wood. But that too was supposed to be part of the beauty of Lagos in general, according to my argument. Suffering beside comfort.

Nanu said it wasn’t suffering. It was life. The kind of life only to be found in the most populous Black city in the world. I told him I suspected that such a concentration of black people anywhere could only be a bad thing, and he declared that this was evidence of my inherent self-hatred and internalisation of the ideals of whiteness. This was the result, he said, of a childhood spent with my nose buried in novels written almost exclusively by Caucasian authors. I didn’t debate this. He took a sip of his drink.

‘It’s not easy, sure,’ he said, ‘but there’s nowhere like Lagos.’ He declared Lagos was incomparable: the ‘energy,’ the hustle, the bustle, the madness, the combination of sweat and Oud that characterised Friday nights out. It was all sentimental nonsense to my ears. It was clear to me that growing up in Abuja had stripped him of appreciation for that city’s virtues. Moving to Lagos for medical school, he had retained that wide-eyed fascination with the city’s excesses that people from outside tend to have. If you ask me, I told him, it was a coping mechanism.

‘Haven’t we heard this all before?’ I asked him. Only in Lagos could you see poverty and wealth side by side; only in Lagos could you go from zero to hero in a day. Hadn’t the same trite sentiments been expressed all through history about London and New York and just about every other urban metropolis whose residents tried to mask their hatred for its dysfunction by pretending there was poetry to be found in it?

‘There’s poetry to be found in everything,’ Nanu said. I rolled my eyes and he reminded me that there was to be no irony. That was the agreement.

‘Sure,’ I said. But, I told him, I struggled to see the beauty in kids hawking drinks in traffic to people in Range Rovers. Nor did I grow up finding anything particularly poetic in the old woman with six kids on my street living in a shanty beside the mansion owned by the young man rumoured to have landed a windfall by executing a credit card scam against a middle-aged cat lady in the American midwest.

‘None of that is unique to Lagos,’ he said. ‘There’s suffering everywhere.’

‘Well my suffering is only in Lagos,’ I said. ‘I hate it. I hate Lagos.’

I said it with the intention of sounding jokey and blasé, but I failed, as such attempts often did in his presence. Around him my tendency was to experience myself as an abstraction, if that’s the word. My true feelings were always sure to be drawn out. Many were the times I had made a statement with the intention to sound exaggerated and deliberately absurd, only to hear my own words leave my mouth with an earnestness which I would immediately realise was not a miscalibration of tone but an expression of the true state of affairs. That I had revealed feelings I had not only not been ready to share, but in many cases had been completely unaware I was feeling in the first place. My friendship with him was like an involuntary therapy session, or like being force-fed truth serum. Maybe both. Better yet neither. Ours was a friendship that stripped all metaphor of its potency.

We fell into a silence filled with terrible jazz music from the band. The singer seemed to be approaching the night with the intention of establishing just how many 80s American pop classics could be butchered in one 30-minute interval. People ate grilled catfish and cheap beer and Isi Ewu. It was part of the appeal of places like this. It was like an upscale approximation of the local ‘joints’ on the other side of town where I had grown up. Nanu and I had come here a few times during medical school and we came to the conclusion it was designed for people to enjoy that peculiar brand of ingenuity unique to entertainment borne of lack, while still having plenty. It’s for rich people who want to feel poor, he said once, before correcting himself and saying it was for people who used to be poor but are now rich but feel bad about it.

There were kids around dressed in perfect expressions of this. Deliberately faded shirts and distressed jeans. Hair that in the precision of its roughness belied just how much it cost to maintain. ‘Vintage’ jewellery that was likely bought off American retailers on the internet. Nanu and I looked around and locked eyes as certain people passed, sharing smiles in place of the heavy laughs we would have indulged in just two years earlier. But there was something hollow in our silent mockery. We both knew, I thought, that we couldn’t pretend anymore. We had different financial struggles now. We had become the sort of twenty-somethings whose planned trips across Europe fell apart not because we couldn’t afford them, but because we were unable to make the time. There we were, eating terrible food at that lounge, pretending we were still in touch with our old selves. We had reached a point in our lives when poverty had become, for us, too, purely an aesthetic matter. We had become those pricks.

For one, my job in Abuja meant that I got paid more than I ever did in Lagos. Nanu had also gotten a job in some kind of medical consultancy think-tank, getting paid an armed robber’s salary, a matter which gave him great grief. It was great to have money and to know you wouldn’t lose patients because there was no oxygen in the hospital, he said. But still.

‘Still,’ he said. ‘It feels kind of obscene. I go to work, do my job, and go to sleep at night. I don’t have to do any work to detach mentally or emotionally from patients. I don’t even see patients. I’m so happy about it. But it feels wrong to be happy about it. Being outside that whole system now, I feel kind of useless because I know how bad it is. I know how desperately the medical system needs people who care. But being in it also made me feel useless because no matter how much we cared, no matter how much we tried, it was never enough. But it feels wrong to enjoy life this much.’

I told him I knew what he meant. That was why I loved Abuja. I felt so ordinary there.

‘That’s cos you are ordinary by Abuja standards!’ he said, laughing.

‘Exactly!’ I said. On any given night I could be out and see this son of that governor or that daughter-in-law of a descendant of a slave trader buying out the bar. It was painful sometimes, yes, seeing all these reminders of the sort of wealth I knew I could never reasonably amass, but they were also a welcome reprieve from thoughts of people for whom my own meagre wealth represented a similarly unattainable ideal. Even though I was broke in Lagos, there was so much poverty around that I could never forget the fact that whatever little I had was more than most people would ever see in their entire lifetimes. But why did I spend so much time feeling bad about rolling up my windows, my air-conditioner on full blast to block out the sweaty hawkers and beggars in Lagos traffic, when over in the capital there were kids half my age whose idea of small talk was bragging about how many billions their daddies were making from the new roads they’d just been contracted to build? I’d seen them, partied with them, slept with a couple of them, done several kinds of drugs with them. Even with my new job and my 200% salary increase, it brought me unique comfort to know I was and would always be nothing compared to them.

The wind blew, warm and heavy. But I found I didn’t mind it. I was watching my friend, who I knew was aware I was watching him. He was looking everywhere else, swaying his shoulders gently to the music, and I was enjoying his enjoyment. I took a sip of my beer, feeling the breeze rush past my ears. The air was filled with the smell of everything; grilled fish, suya over the flames, roasting corn. I could see everything on the bridge over the lagoon; the red tail lights winking in the dark, the people jogging beside the cars, the regular chaos at the toll gate with buses fighting to cut in line. Now and then, while with someone like Nanu, someone I loved, I could see all of it for what it was. I could, somehow, neither love it nor hate it, but view it as proof of life. Life was happening all around, and that meant something, however small.

Beside us the lagoon water lapped at the fence in sudden, swift movements, as if earth itself had been knocked off-balance, caught unaware by some force of the night. The jazz singer reached for notes even further out of her range. The surface of the water went up in sudden bright yellow flames. The fire licked at the night air, struggling for balance on the water’s edge. A crowd gathered just as quickly as the people by the fence drew back; someone said there had been oil on the surface and this was the quickest way to get rid of it. Someone else made a comment about aquatic life being endangered and another person said anything that could survive in that dirty water to begin with was something we probably all wanted gone anyway.

‘So you love it there, then,’ Nanu said. It was close to midnight and we were walking to the car park. ‘You don’t even miss Lagos?’ He smiled as he said this but I could see that he wasn’t trying to trip me up. It was a genuine question.

‘I miss you all the time, if that’s what you’re asking,’ I said. He told me I didn’t have a choice in that matter. But about Abuja, I said, I wasn’t sure that I loved it, but it had surprised me. He knew I had only really gone there because I needed to get away from Lagos. I hadn’t expected to feel anything there. People always said Abuja had no soul because it was too peaceful, and, on some level, I believed it. I hadn’t expected the kind of freedom that was waiting on the other side of accepting my own selfishness. I hadn’t expected anything really, except maybe a sugar mummy, because the city was rumoured to be filled with them and surely there was one of them who had a thing for fat boys? But I had instead found financial security and the joys of indiscriminate sex. I had found friendship with people for whom certain drugs were a casual enough indulgence.

We hugged as we got to my car, and he called it a tie, even though I had used up most of the speaking time. We hugged again and said goodbye, but then we sat by my car and continued talking for a few minutes. He told me he was secretly working on something. Not secretly, but in his free time. And he wasn’t actively working on it, he was just going over it in his mind. A theory, he said, about modern Nigerian society. At least ‘us young ones’, he said. We were undergoing a new form of colonialism. I thought he was referring to the mortgaging of infrastructure all over the continent, which conventional wisdom presented as a nefarious plot by the Chinese government. Which, I have to say, I didn’t really care about. But Nanu explained he had something else in mind. We were in the process of a unique form of neocolonialism, he said. A particularly insidious strain as the war was being waged with no violence but with ideological subterfuge.

‘Everywhere you go in Lagos,’ he said, ‘people are arguing about being “progressive” or “moderate”. About being republicans and democrats. Republicans! In Lagos! The other day someone in my office told me I was “regressive” and history would “leave me behind” because I didn’t know the meaning of gerrymandering. I’m a fucking surgeon—well, ex-surgeon, whatever—and I’m supposed to feel bad because I don’t know something that has literally zero to do with my life. Bro! What the fuck does gerrymandering mean to this Sub-Saharan African?’

I groaned, but there was no stopping him once he got started like this. We were drowning in the culture wars of a continent across the ocean, he continued. Even the expression ‘culture wars’ made him sick, he told me. In fact, he craved unique ways to express how profoundly stupid he found it. Like our mothers would. This, I could get behind. The insults of a Nigerian mother were, in my view, one of life’s great literary offerings, containing a poetry surpassed only by Russian novels.

He continued talking, and I zoned out a little. It was exhausting when he started talking about politics. But in a way, I think it was envy on my part. He paid such close attention to things, a scrutiny I found aspirational, and I thought about how it must feel to find life worthy of such attention. What would it be like, I wondered, to live life this way, believing strongly in things? Believing strongly enough in yourself to allow yourself to believe in things?

‘This is worse than when they forced English on our ancestors,’ he continued. ‘This time, we’re doing it ourselves. We are willingly adopting their maxims, the parameters of their allegedly moral structures, all for what? Is it impossible for us to develop our own framework of thinking?’ he asked. ‘I’m telling you,’ he said. ‘We are being recolonised. A colonisation of the intellect. People need to open their eyes. In fact, we have already been recolonised.’

‘About time,’ I said. ‘They never should have left.’

His jaw dropped, he laughed, and he hugged me again.

As he walked over to his own car, in the light of the flood lamp, I suddenly realised what he was wearing. It was a black t-shirt with black jeans and black shoes.

Making the drive back to the hotel, I stopped at a traffic light. It was directly beside a street lamp, and I was reminded again of the woman from the hospital. I looked around, saw no human with a knife or any kind of weapon. To my left on the pavement, however, was a mound of waste. Clothes, maybe. In the shadow of the light from the lamp, it looked like a head enlarged to several times its size, like a head with several head-shaped outlines drawn around it, some kind of vortex through which I found myself hurtling, landing somewhere weeks and weeks earlier, back in Abuja, around the same time I’d decided I would spend the two weeks of my break from work in Lagos. It was about eleven months into my time in the city and I was at a club with some co-workers. We took a break outside and I watched them smoke. We found ourselves on an abandoned balcony that overlooked a section of a lake bordered by small trees and bushes. I saw some children, maybe five of them. They were climbing out of the lake, laughing, dressed in torn clothes, with no shoes, the picture of the sort of thing I saw used in certain media quarters as examples of the unquenchable happiness and contentment of Africans. I didn’t think much of it. They could easily have been rich children who wore those clothes to swim because they found novelty in it. Of course believing this would require ignoring the obvious fact of how bony they were. Suffering was written on their bodies. But then skinny children weren’t such a rarity that poverty was the only explanation. Couldn’t they be rich and skinny? Or at least not-poor and skinny. I was unwilling to have this debate with myself. I was also too high to think straight. My eyes stayed on the children anyway. They were the kinds you’d never really see on Abuja roads. And they did seem happy, playing with a rubber doll which had one empty eye socket and a head somehow inflated, maybe by water. Maybe the current of the lake flowed through the ears and the nose of the doll, working the remaining eye from behind, spinning it round and round, or maybe it really was the weed because, in my mind’s eye I could see the doll’s head enlarged too, and I got a clear view of its own eye such that it too was like a vortex into which I fell, and from that lake in Abuja I found myself back in the hospital, almost a year before that, the day I finally quit.

It had been one of those rare days when my lunch break and Nanu’s synced. We met up at a barbecue place around our quarters in the teaching hospital. We ate half of our food and both lost our appetites. I pointed out that our mothers would be appalled and Nanu said he might take the rest of the food for her. Then he caught himself and said, ‘Sorry, she’s not eating solid food yet. I’m not sure why I said that.’

‘Who isn’t eating solid food?’ I asked.

‘A patient,’ he said. ‘A baby.’ She’d been born with an enlarged head, he went on to explain. It was Hydrocephalus. Then he asked if I had money to spare, he was trying to get some stuff for her as her parents had fled when they found out about her condition. I said I didn’t, I’d just used the last of my cash to fix my car’s air-conditioning. Then I asked why we couldn’t just aspirate such babies.

‘Just put a needle into the head and drain out the fluid.’

I was joking, but Nanu didn’t smile. He said he just wanted money for her upkeep; it didn’t need to be much. It would only be necessary for about a week anyway. I was confused, and then I saw him wipe a tear.

‘Hey,’ I said, ‘are you okay?’

‘I’m fine,’ he said. ‘It’s just, she has no hope, you know? No hope at all.’

‘So she’s definitely going to die,’ I said, and Nanu nodded and wiped another tear. I felt something sink within me, and then I laughed, softly, instinctively, trying to sound light, make him feel better. ‘Guy,’ I said, ‘take it easy.’ I wiped another tear off his face. ‘We see stuff like this all the time, don’t we?’

It was hearing the words leave my mouth that did it. They didn’t sound jokey or blasé. They were my true feelings. I had seen too much to care. I felt a wave of horror rush through me as I wondered why I wasn’t as horrified by the situation as Nanu was, wondered if I had become so messed up by my work, the whole system, that I had effectively become numb. And then came a second wave, horror overtaken by disgust for wondering how I could even have the space to think or care about my own ‘numbness’ when a child was to die.

And then I heard honking from the cars behind me, the noise like a touchstone, pulling me back out of that vortex and sending me back to Abuja before I was sent back through the other vortex, slamming me back into my body, in my seat, in my car, seeing as, drawn too by the noise of the honking, the head-shaped mound of clothes turned to look and turned out to be an actual head, on an actual child, sat beside a tray of groundnuts on which was placed a textbook which she read in the light from the lamp. And then this sent me back again, back to awareness of that tightness in my chest again, this time not from relief but from some kind of congealed anger at something, for what I was seeing, what I shouldn’t be seeing. And just like that, it was gone. I felt lightness, I felt freedom, I felt certain I had the answer because I knew the answer. The cars continued honking, and, middle finger in the rear view mirror, I drove off, thinking, this was it, this was the answer—not roads, not sugar mummies, not cocaine, this was what Abuja had over Lagos—it knew how to keep its suffering hidden.