Illustration by Marianne Chevalier
A taught me resilience. He was the firstborn of the family and hauled all the burdens that came with it like a beast of burden. Though he was tough like a rock, life still managed to tear through him like a vicious hurricane and broke more than bones. He drank more than often for pain. It’s not the way of a man to cry; how many times I’d hear him sob through the night — only firstborns can explain what they carry. He’d rise every morning with a smile. His courage was a thing to behold. Even in his despair, he managed to be a good man.
B taught me how to wash my clothes: “One piece at a time. Turn the clothes inside out before spreading them on the line to dry.” I’d trace the collar of the cloth, lathering it with pride, knowing that learning how to do things right and by myself would help me on this earth.
I learned commerce from C. “Money can fly away like a scared pigeon,” he would say, like he said that day he went bankrupt and stared into the darkness for light. At age 10, I made my first piggy bank to prevent my winged nairas from flying away. To this day I fear that my money could fly away. But anything that can fly away may also fly back, I console myself.
D is my older sister. The strongest of us all. She has the strength of a horse. When I was little, I used to wrestle her. We also played doctor and patient. And your guess is as good as mine: I was the patient, and during the wrestling fights, she would always defeat me. Maybe it is the strange strength and brilliance women sometimes muster that makes some men insecure. When we were kids, any time I got bullied at school or in the neighborhood, all I had to do was take a mental picture of my bully’s face and tell my sister, and she would be right behind me to kick some ass. Cool, isn’t it? Your sister is the capeless vigilante in your childhood story!
I was 2 and still learning everything when E came into the picture. Of course I was caught off guard, like every supposed last child, seeing a new tiny child take that position and all the affection that goes with it. But then we started throwing stones into the lake together. Watching the ripple originate like a dot and expand. We climbed mango trees, shaking the branches and gathering the fallen, ripe mangoes into a polythene bag.
So, when F appeared, I was ready. I’d learned enough from E about how to treat younger family members. I remember going on all fours, trying to show him how to crawl: You drag your left knee as you move your right hand. I’m not sure he understood me, because I was 5 and stuttered a bit. But I guess he got the clue where all babies get their clues. Months later, he was crawling everywhere, tugging at everything like a little champ.
Some people don’t enter your life through your family tree. Some step into your life through a simple tweet or a late-night walk, or through the giant metal doors of college like K did, far up north in Nigeria. Where the sun can make your blood boil. Under the shade, we’d talk about poetry: Louise Glück, Leonard Cohen, Hanif Abdurraqib and many other writers who interested us at that moment. I wouldn’t say K’s a bad cook. But his bean porridge never gets done. I don’t know how my kidneys survived his nasty cooking. But I’m glad they did. Both of them.
Q and S are brothers I met in my campus fellowship. The kind of brothers that would wake at 1 a.m. to pray at the top of their voices. Speaking in tongues. The room vibrates like an active volcano. I loathed these people at first. Then I loved them like a second soul. Sometimes I would join them in prayer, other times I’d let them do their thing while I dozed off with my headphones on — piano works blaring at maximum volume.
L is down-to-earth funny and always makes fun of my sparse beard. “What do you call these? Beard?” I resented his jokes, but I laughed anyway. You can’t resist his jokes. He can make rocks crack up like a drunkard would with his evening jokes. Even the insects come out in a silent procession to listen to him.
M is a budding writer who has never published a piece. She’s a great cook. Of course her cooking is better than K’s. Maybe that was how my kidneys survived: Any semi-poison called “food” I took in K’s house, M’s delicacies would neutralize. After I met M, I stuck to reading and discussing poetry with K. K’s food? No, thank you!
N has the voice of an angel. She said Jesus gave it to her. If there are nightingales in Nigeria, they will fly to church to hear her sing on Sunday. O and P are two wonderful ladies I met in Jigawa state. Both are good at playing volleyball. I’m very good at wasting passes and services. But I didn’t care. They knew I couldn’t play but always asked me to play anyway. What did they expect from a verified amateur volleyball player like me? We continued to play until we all got exhausted and went home laughing about the day.
Sometimes the family you make outside your family tree is the great deal. The ninth wonder of this unfriendly world.
T, U, V: sitting on a mat during a picnic after a three-week camping trip in Jigawa, an orientation exercise. U showed me a picture-video he made using an app he downloaded that afternoon. Some memorable times together, a song playing in the background. See how we banded together like blood family! Lined up for food. We always went to the same large hall to receive one or two boring lectures. I hated those lectures so much that I slept through all of them. I had forgotten all about that. But the picture-video brought the memories back: That moment I missed my lunch and T shared his with me. U shared water with me the night of the power outage; “50-50,” he said as he poured some water into my empty bucket. V made sure we woke up on time. It’s 5 a.m. Wake up, buddies!
The beautiful thing about the good people who didn’t come out of your mother — the miraculous brothers and sisters, the family you make outside your family tree — is that they don’t need a social permit or biological access to be able to wrap their hands around your neck playfully and walk with you down the aisle of your impromptu life. They are living evidence that family is more than matching DNA or blood. They don’t knock. They just say hello, we’re going to be part of your life. Period.
“Who would have imagined that I would have to go / a million miles away from the place where I was born / to find people who would love me?” Tony Hoagland wrote in his poem “Bible Study.” And I have traveled, and I will still travel more. I’m far from home, yet I’m surrounded by family. Some of them, I don’t even understand their language. But we love and trust each other. It’s early September and the leaves are changing from green to brown. Soon they will fall, drifting like lost souls. But not me. I have got some wonderful people to hold me down from drifting like a lost soul among other lost souls.
How beautiful it is to be loved. To experience the miracle of the ninth wonder of the planet. To read to an audience of trees, birds and people — good people you once didn’t know existed. People who traveled a million miles across the globe, from pole to pole, over the high barbwire fence of tribalism, racism, sexism and religion, to find, to bond with and to love you and be loved by you in return. A family of strange people bonded by something thicker than blood.
Joseph Hope is an essayist, fiction writer and poet from Nigeria. His work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Augur, Riddlebird and other venues. Find him on X @ItzJoe9.