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The Sting of Death

I attended a funeral service for a young man today. He was 32 – not much older than me. The service was intense; palpable sorrow and grief filled the air.

As the choir did dreamy renditions of hymns, and people came up to read Bible verses, all carefully arranged to lighten the blow of the moment, the pain of his loss only heightened in the room. There was a lady in the choir, not more than 8 yards in front of me, whose tears overwhelmed the napkin she constantly held to her eyes, as she willed herself to stand with the rest of the group. She stuttered through the hymns with quivering lips. It hurt to look at her, but I couldn’t look away.

Sometime – around halfway through the service – a man came up to read from 1 Thessalonians 4. When he got to the part where we are admonished to not despair in the face of death like people who have no hope, his choking increased, but he braved it to the end. The portion he read from reads thus:

13 But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.
14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.
15 For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.
16 For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:
17 Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
18 Wherefore comfort one another with these words.”

Grief is impervious to knowledge. The death of a loved one, especially one so young, asks many questions of us and puts the very core of our faith to the test. And we rarely have answers that work. Having hope doesn’t prevent the pain of loss. It will sting hard. But we’re expected to respond with measured grief. Sitting there and reading along with the man on the podium, the voice in my head read a bit faster – as I am accustomed to, but when he choked, my fluency escaped me. I, too, choked. An eager tear threatened, unsuccessfully, to escape my now misty eyes. I blinked rapidly and managed to restrain the floodgates.

When I was little, while in primary school, my mother’s brother, uncle Sam died. It is my earliest memory of death coming so close to home. I was, perhaps, too young then to grasp the scale of grief his loss inflicted on everyone, but I remember, as clear as day, how my mother mourned for him. She was inconsolable for an unending spell of time until the passing of time made things easier. Sometimes, I can recall uncle Benji’s face, with his full beards and sideburns that brushed against my tender neck each time he carried me up in a hug. It is like a distant memory from another lifetime. I don’t recall much else about him, but I will never forget my mother’s grief at his passing.

My most recent brush with grief was in the summer of 2017, when my friend and former colleague, Mubarak, died. The world was colourless for many days after, as everyone (in Nigerian Tech who knew him) reeled in shock. He was 24. Death isn’t something you should have to grapple with at 24, but Mubarak didn’t get the memo. None of us did.

I think a lot about death lately. It is a consequence of growing up, I imagine. You start to notice that death isn’t just an idea or a theoretical concept that means the end for some person you read or heard about. Every once in a while, it strikes closer to home and claims a friend, a relative or someone not far removed from you, and it jars your sensibilities. Each time, I relapse into an existential mode and question the meaning of everything that light touches. A consequence of growing up is the stark realization that everyone you know is hurtling towards an inevitable end, and you can only hope that their voyage takes as long as humanly possible.

While I sat in that church today, my mind traveled to the end of my life. I thought of all the people who would grieve when I’m gone, and I couldn’t think of a way to prevent them from grieving. For a moment, I wished that I’d been born alone, and with no one to be broken by grief at my passing when it finally happens. Then I realized that people only grieve because they have loved, and to exit without inflicting grief is to have lived without receiving affection. Existential thoughts are rarely rational, the mind is merely grasping at straws while failing at layering meaning onto events.

I shall carry the feeling of this moment and churn it over in my head for many days yet. He was my friend’s brother. I’d heard about him while he was alive but I never met him. I felt a tiny bit guilty for showing up late in his story – after it ended. Not more than 10 yards from my seat, his wife and daughter, and the rest of his family sat engulfed in grief. When I consider how the aching in their hearts is a hundred billion times more intense than what anyone else in the room is feeling, the tightness in my chest constricts a bit more and I have to sigh deeply to maintain airflow to my lungs.

Oh death, where is your sting?

Neverwhere 4.0: Brighter Lights

I haven’t bothered with New Year resolutions in recent years. In my experience, the satiety associated with ticking items off on a diary at the end of the year didn’t always translate to a substantial forward push on the dial of progress. Every January since has met me unshackled by resolutions and bearing a measured hope.

I started off 2018 riding high on incipient despair. Every part of me was sick of the daily commute from Yaba to Lekki for a job I’d began to grow weary of right before the New Year holidays. I was desperate for a change – not the kind you write down in a diary and wait to tick off, but the kind that mattered. It filled my every waking moment and seeped into my sleep often. I considered resigning as soon as I hit the 1-year mark a month later in February. Because a 1 year period (minimum) at a job tended to look better on a resumé. It was my intention to refrain from holding a regular 9-5, as I had plans to dust up my freelance suit and get in the game again.

“The best-laid plans of mice and men come to ruin without money.”

That’s not how that saying goes, but you catch my drift. Not having enough runway money saved was getting in the way of my resigning. I barely had enough to pay the bills and move around conservatively. I could barely save, never mind build a runway trove. It was frustrating as hell. I was stuck, and this was January, the winter of the financial year.

Yibambe! Yibambe!!

On Tuesday, February 13, 2018, I got tickets to an advance screening of Black Panther. It was the night that the tides started to change for good. My phone rang and it was the CEO of one of the top tech companies on the continent on the other end. He wanted to meet that night, but I couldn’t forego the chance to see Black Panther before everyone else, so I asked that we meet the next day, and he agreed.
My friend Fu’ad was at the meeting the next day. He’d got the call too. The following weeks would see us (Fu’ad and I) have meetings at restaurants. We frequented Mr. Biggs on Masha on so many nights after work to discuss ideas and work on decks for a project we were working on to demo before the company looking to hire us. We were both on the cusp of higher tides, and we were doing all the work to be ready. We eventually went on to work at different companies in the end, but there are ideas we talked through on those nights that we will have to work on someday yet.

People are watching you.

2018 let me know people have been paying attention to my work. In mid-April, I was fortunate to get recommended for the gig I work now, right at the same time I was in talks with the other company. It was pretty surreal, but 2 weeks and five interviews or so later, I signed a contract to join. Then followed a slew of fortunate events in quick succession and, two weeks after my first day, I was on a plane to NYC. Everything had changed and I wasn’t nearly ready psychologically, I think.

Through the looking glass

One requires a new set of nerves to deal with joy if all you’ve always known is mostly pain. On my first night in New York in June, as I sat up in bed trying to take it all in, it dawned on me that I still wasn’t quite in tune with everything that was going on yet. There was a flurry of obligatory congratulatory messages from friends and family piling up on my phone, and all I felt was some kind of detachment from it all. It was like I’d gone through the looking glass and become an onlooker in a simulation in which the main character was also me. I was in dream-state consciousness. It took me about 6 weeks to get well adjusted to everything.
enduring success
I think pain makes for good stories or art. I’m not some masochist or anything, but it always seemed to me that people who put out great work always seemed to be dealing with some kind of pain; like they take all that hurt and use it as a canvass to create something truly special. I hesitated on writing this review because, as I said to my friend Femi when we talked about it, I’m not sure I have enough pain to graft everything on. It is a kind of twisted way to think about things, but if you know, you know. But I know pain.

In the middle of a monthly Zoom sync with my team in August, I got a call that my dad had been rushed to the hospital. His BP had spiked and he had a stroke. I sat there thinking, “well, shit.” Something broke in me that day. He is in recovery and will require many weeks of physiotherapy yet to regain the proper use of his affected limbs.

I almost lost out on love again this year. In fact, I did temporarily. After months of waiting for a response from the LOML, right when it seemed like we might actually happen, she got on a plane and bid farewell to Nigeria in October. I went with her to the airport that night to see her off. It was one hell of a day, as I knew that this surely meant the end of the road for us. It was a crushing feeling. While we sat there in potent silence waiting for her flight, I joined a scheduled call at the office and reality poked deeper, still. The head of my team who also doubled as my new mentor (we’d just had our first session two days before) had left the company that day. My mood tanked. About 40 minutes after the call, it was time to check in. I hugged the LOML goodbye and willed myself away from the airport in one piece. I reckon If I was a man prone to substances, I might have OD’ed that night.

Miracles aren’t required to make sense

Nearly a month later, she came back. I finally got my response and with it came joy like I’d not known in a long while. After what seemed like an eternity of waiting – and not for a want of trying – I finally lucked out on love, and it was well worth the wait, I tell ya.

As I try to mentally navigate this year, I realize, for the first time, there are way more happy stories than there are painful ones. And I decided that they deserve telling too. In late 2016, I tweeted about wanting to move to a bigger apartment with enough room for a mini recording studio and a library filled with books. Well, it took about 18 months, but I finally moved into a bigger apartment in this year. I haven’t installed a studio yet, but there’s room now for it. An ad I wrote last year for Wikipedia won an excellence award last month, so, I guess, technically, I’m an award-winning writer now, right? I facilitated a masterclass and spoke at Social Media Week Lagos in February. I also successfully hired someone who’s proven to be a right fit to continue writing forLoop Weekly from forLoop Africa. Win.

God came through for me big this year. I now work a job I love, I live in a house I love, and I have the LOML who loves me enough to want to be with me. As goals and New Year resolutions go, these unwritten, unspoken dreams came true.

Oh, what’s reality lately?

This is the last day of the year. As I look back, I can see all the things I couldn’t accomplish or follow through on. I paid for and started courses I didn’t finish. I also started projects that are still in their early stages it’s difficult to make anything of them yet. As 2019 looms across the horizon, I am doing that thing I haven’t done in a while: writing down the things I’d like to tick off at the end of the year.

For starters, I’m going to learn and be proficient in one programming language in 2019. I work too often with devs to not know how to code. I’ll also be taking project management training, as it is increasingly apparent that I need it for my job. I’m getting a lot of invites to teach content lately, so I see a lot of that happening in 2019, where I will facilitate sessions on writing and content. I might write a book, an ad or a movie. Mazel tov.

I have the good fortune of being part of a rockstars team at work. In the 6 months of collaborating with them, I’ve been able to stretch myself and learn new things and a better way to do work. I’m excited about all the things we will do in 2019.

This year I am thankful for the joys of friendship and support systems that make for an easier navigation of life in this crazy city. I am grateful for my family and the constant love that they give. I am grateful for new friends made across new borders. I am thankful for peace in the storm, and for light in the darkness. And for joy.

Thank you, God.

PS: I wrote this over 3 days of looping Seasons by Hillsong. You might like it.

Catch up on Neverwhere 3.0 here (and follow the loop to the first one if you’re that psyched about my story)

Guardian of The Fellowship

The last couple of weeks have been incredible. On June 4, 2018, I joined Andela as Content Marketing Coordinator. After a 14-month long break/detour from Tech (I worked in Digital Advertising for all of 2017 and until May), my path brings me back here.

It only took 3 years.

The Beginning: Applying to the Fellowship

I first heard about Andela in early 2015, I think – back when I still nursed the idea that I could learn to be a software developer. It was among the few prominent Startups that put the then budding Nigeria Tech ecosystem on the map. I was transitioning from a rather nascent but uninspiring career in Engineering at the time, and I wanted to pivot to tech. I saw a link to apply to join the Andela fellowship at the time. I took the tests – Plum and Javascript at the time, and passed the first but failed the latter. Success at the Plum test (80th percentile) couldn’t really excuse away my inability to write or decipher code, and that’s how I didn’t get into Cohort VIII at the time.

Right after that, my path would take me to Hotels.ng, where I went on to work with Mark and the excellent team of remarkable youngsters he’d pooled together. It’s no secret that I made my bones in this industry working at HNG, where I was until November of 2016. Most of us there at the time did. (If you’ve stumbled on my Neverwhere series, I mostly write about my work-life imbalance in Lagos. You’ll catch some HNG timeline in there.)

In February of 2017, I took a job in digital advertising. Felt like a break from tech, sort of, even though it’s theoretically in the tech space. I soon discovered that tech companies South of Third Mainland Bridge didn’t possess any of that Silicon Valley type gusto that pervaded their Yaba and Mainland counterparts. They pretty much ran like regular businesses – not particularly interested in community or collaboration. Everyone focused on doing their job and making sure the cheques cleared. It was a good hiatus for me as well. I learned to navigate a new industry and got the opportunity to work on several interesting projects with varying degrees of success. (In the meantime, I’d co-hosted a podcast and radio show with my friends between April 2016 and Jan 2017. On the side.)

But I could not truly leave tech.

2017 was when I started to write forLoopWeekly. And it became the platform that would rein me back into tech full time. It was literally the little letter that could indeed.

Andela is only the second top company that tried to get me to join them this Spring. They beat the first company to it because, among other reasons, they moved quickly and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Don Corleone would be proud. (I recently saw The Godfather trilogy again across two Emirates flights to and from NYC, so it’s still getting casually dropped in conversations and such, I’m afraid.)

I’ve been here just over a month now, and, typical of life in tech, time does this weird thing were its linear attributes fade into the night. It already feels like I’ve been here for much longer, seeing as I quickly jumped into the fray the moment I walked in through the door.

Why Andela?

On my third day in, I got a Slack message from my manager, Christine Magee, requesting that I send her a couple of sentences about myself – background, what I’m passionate about and why I joined the company. A bio of sorts to introduce me to the organization, basically. That’s when I sort of did a proper reflection on why I chose Andela, obvious perks aside. You know, I’m not sure I thought as hard about it when I was asked the same question during one of the interviews as I did this time.

I feel like, for interviews, you’re in a promotional frame of mind, that almost anything you say will (and should) be taken with a pinch of salt. But this time I was in already. I’d signed a contract and had started immersing myself into the maze that will form the fabric of my work life for the foreseeable future. I must have given a good answer – an apt one, even – during the interview. But I now had to come up with one that I truly resonated with on a visceral level. One that I truly believed, whether it sounded promotional or not.

After a couple of hours, I sent this in:

Yep, it still reads like a soundbite.
Yep, it still reads like a soundbite.

But it is true. Andela actually has skin in the game when it comes to advancing human potential on this continent. With 800+ devs currently under its banner and with all the programs and initiatives it powers to mint and empower several thousands more, Andela shows that its mission statement is something that holds much deeper purpose than just being cool enough to slap onto T-shirts and car bumper stickers.

Plus, the culture is great and the perks are not too shabby 🙂

A conversation I’ve had with a few of my friends in this industry is how there are far too few companies in the African Tech ecosystem with enough bandwidth to sustain and grow talent beyond the first 3 quarters – or one year, at most. It usually starts to feel redundant after a year, as employees who are more driven begin to get antsy and uncomfortable with being on a treadmill. And this is not to slate the ecosystem or anything – it’s a really young and small ecosystem, and there just aren’t many huge companies dotting the landscape. Yet. What usually happens – as Justin tweeted in March, is that many switch companies as a way to get that needed high that a promotion – and a pay raise – brings. But after a while, about two quarters in, the extra padding on your pay starts to count for nothing. Because you’ve hit the roof again, and the redundancy has set in. Then you keep playing until another company makes you a slightly higher bid, and the cycle continues. Until you grow weary of the treadmill and exit the ecosystem altogether.

This ecosystem needs more Andelas. We need to build several considerably large tech companies to form the fortresses and institutions that’ll shape the future of talent and work on this continent. So that when people ramp up on their skill sets, there’ll be befitting work for them to do here. And we also need more small startups as well. To solve problems and help give many the start that they couldn’t possibly get elsewhere.

Andela is robust and dynamic enough that I know I won’t be bored for a long, long while yet. All the stints I’ve had in the past have all prepared me for this, somewhat. But the learning curve on the path ahead is steep enough (with many sub-summits, if that makes sense) that I shan’t be hitting the ceiling soon. And that’s a good thing.

In the 3 years since I applied to and failed to get into the fellowship, I’ve stuck around the ecosystem and honed my more natural talent for content. And I’m back here now, not as a fellow, but as a content guy, a storyteller, if you will. I join other amazing staffers – Guardians of the Fellowship – who, while not writing lines of code or building products, contribute immensely to Andela’s mission to advance human potential by powering today’s teams and equipping tomorrow’s leaders.

Here’s to all the good work we’ll do across the many, many quarters to come.

Neverwhere 3.0: Riding The Bus 

I’ve taken about 1050 bus rides since February.

That’s an average of 25 bus rides every week for 40 weeks. At a daily cumulative average time of 3 hours spent on these rides, I’ve accrued about 840 hours in transit across 1000 bus rides. (The occasional Uber ride and cab rides are unaccounted for here).

It’s an incredible amount of time to spend on the move. That’s 35 days – or a month and a week – mostly spent looking out the window of a moving car in Lagos, staring intensely at nothing in particular.

I started a new gig in Lekki this year (more of that in another post I hope I have the good sense to finish) and joined the horde of people shuttling between the Island and Mainland for work. Nearly every activity that takes me out of my house every day happens on the Island, and it’s quite ridiculous how I’ve managed to convince myself that remaining in Yaba is still a better option for me, financially. Seeing as all I come to do at home nowadays is sleep at night, I’ve started to think that my rent is a rather steep price to pay for a bed to lie on at the end of the day.

Moving around in Lagos is a nerve-wracking ordeal. You’ll find soon enough that you’re constantly racing against time. Lagos traffic is a time-bending force of nature all by itself. You could ply the same route and achieve astonishingly different ETAs each time. A route that takes 25 minutes today could balloon to a 97-minute trip on the return leg.

You know how there’s always a “study” coming out that tries to chronicle all the cool, fixer upper things you could be doing while you’re in traffic? Well, they didn’t factor in Lagos in those studies, apparently. You can’t be taking an online course while trying not to die, Sam. Plus, the network signal on Third Mainland Bridge keeps gesticulating that you couldn’t possibly be thinking of such things.

Depending on your mood, looking out the window in the morning isn’t half bad. Granted, it eerily feels like being in a moving cell and peering directly out into other people in other moving cells and farther onto gen pop. Except, on Third Mainland Bridge, gen pop is mostly filled with scantily clad men, 20 feet below, squatting and taking a shit in the black river, along with their comrades, perched on wooden rafts docked 35 yards away from their homes. The whole act seems very pedestrian, nothing to make a big deal out of, much like a bunch of guys in a dorm shower brushing their teeth and discussing the games from the evening before. It’s only a big deal to the glaring eyes from above, eyes which the men promptly ignore or pretend aren’t there.

The sights are better at night, obviously. Peering into lit office spaces and apartments as they trudge past my point of view creates diverse, fleeting scenarios in my head. I think of the company culture of the folks in that lit office on the 8th floor of the Civic Towers,  and wonder if the guys still at their desks are staying the night. Maybe they stayed back to complete their torrent downloads before heading home. Maybe they’re waiting out the traffic.

Riding the bus is a deeply immersive experience. Violently so. You can only pretend to ignore everyone else for so long until something dramatic occurs – and it usually does. Something as innocuous as checking your notifications and responding to messages can devolve into the guy sitting next to and behind you telepathically joining the conversation you’re having on a private chat. Under the gaze of passengers turning the pages with me with their eyes fixed on my phone screen, I’ve read copious amounts of Alain de Botton, Noah Harari, and Teju Cole in transit this year.

You can only ride in these steel cages for so long until they start to take a toll on your body. Before this year, I only grossed 100+ minutes in a moving vehicle in one day only when I was traveling between States. And that happens maybe 3 times a year, at the most. I was always weary after each trip and wary of the next one. Because my body always took a hit. Now I gross about 180 minutes nearly every day. Sometimes more. Let’s just say my body isn’t too psyched.

Another year has passed in which I didn’t improve on my Yoruba. Even though nearly every conversation that happens in buses is in Yoruba, I’ve managed to blend in well into things without really learning the language. But my understanding (response-ability, more like) has broadened significantly since. I get it now when people tell me it’s about the easiest language to learn (I don’t agree, I don’t know). But Yoruba is a gesture-heavy language, speakers gesticulate so much while making a point that it’s basically loose sign language with the audio turned on. I’ve gotten better at reading the signs and matching patterns to get by without really knowing the language.

Riding the Lagos bus is more than a means of getting around for me now. It’s a cultural experience all on its own. Every bus on the road across the city, with the attendant anyhowness that marks its pulsating voyage, is a metaphor for the charges, firing and traveling in indiscriminate bursts across the city’s meshy neural network.

There’s the occasional Uber – my personal favorite for when I’m out later than 9 pm. Apart from creating the occasional comfort and being driven around in complete silence that I seldom crave, it has proven to be an efficient means of getting home without the risk of getting mugged. I had the misfortune of breaking my MO once and took a bus on a humid Wednesday night in July from Lekki at past 10 pm. It was the most dramatic ordeal I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of on the road. Long story short, we were robbed by men dressed in police combat gear, relieved of our phones and bags (I dunno how, but I miraculously walked away with my backpack containing my Mac that night). I’ve strictly adhered to my MO since. No buses at night.

Jetpacks. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my obsession with jetpacks this year. You spend so much time commuting, a few wonky ideas start to flood your mind. There hasn’t been a day I was on the road this year I didn’t crave jetpacks. I genuinely think they’ll help cut down commute times significantly across the city. Or we could have civilian Iron Man suits. Someone should build a business around those. Or, maybe there should be a legislation that mandates companies to offer some form of remote options to their employees (Techpoint wrote an article about this totally based off of my tweet, by the way).

One gets to leave the city behind sometimes. Sometimes for work, or when one takes a break from work. I don’t understand people who stay back here when they take a vacation from work, though. The city will always be here, the smell and the madness won’t go away. You’re meant to be here only if you absolutely have to be. One is besotted with thoughts of leaving every now and again when you can no longer muster up sufficient patience and tolerance for the bus life, when your bones ache more than normal.  When you need to rest your mind. But one promptly returns – unwillingly, but without as much a fight as is needed – to the yellow mobile cells. It is the identity of Lagos. It is also, in a weird way, my identity. I am riding the bus and finding myself.

 

 

Read Neverwhere 2.0

Read Neverwhere 1.0