The first case of COVID-19 was reported in Nigeria on 27th February 2020. Before then, it was a mysterious white man’s disease we only heard on the radio, watched (its manifestations) on TV, read in newspapers. It was born in China, we heard, and there were stories after stories about it: bats, uncooked or half-cooked animals, monkeys, 21st-century plague, another “Noahesque” cleansing, you name it. We followed the news as the virus travelled round the world. Same white man’s world, we thought. The Americas and Europe? Same white man’s world. That was God’s punishment for these white people. That disease would never reach Africa (Nigeria, we really meant) because Africa was as anointed as the Biblical Israel (and somehow, the black skin was resistant to certain mysterious white man’s diseases). So many of us thought.
Until 27th February happened to us. The reality of a man arriving Nigeria, unchecked at the airport. The reality of this man coming into contact with hundreds—possibly thousands—of people as he navigates Lagos. The official announcement—”An Italian citizen in Lagos has tested positive for the virus”—and the minute silence that snaked through the entire country, catching us on our tracks, catching us unawares. We weren’t safe anymore. The reality didn’t stare at us as we often say realities do; it gnawed at our hearts; shook the very ground we stood, threatening to pluck off our feet like you pluck petals from a sunflower bush.
At first, we could congregate as long as we weren’t more than fifty. Then, twenty. Then, our various centres of socialisation were slamming their doors on our faces: schools, mosques, churches, malls, markets, parks, name it. And as if “hey, y’all ain’t seen nothing yet”, our doors were slammed shut with us inside, and we became prisoners in our own houses.
What does a confined person do while a virus runs stark naked outside, hellbent on stripping the world to nothingness? Does the person learn a new language they might never use? Learn some vocation when they don’t understand where the world is headed? Bond with family (most of whom are trapped in their houses kilometres and miles away)? Or does the person perform mundane tasks such as studying the nutritional information on their Milo sachets, or crazier still, scattering and rearranging their bedroom?
Perhaps, but there’s more to this. Since the only way to catch up is via the internet, this is the time for the person to read and share stories. Personal stories. Fiction. Movies. Gossip and trivia. Anything that could be talked about, laughed over, cried over, anything but silence and loneliness. The ultimate battle is coming out of the pandemic safe and sound, right? Here’s where storytelling comes in.
The world has never found the need to depend on stories this strongly. Stories to keep us updated. Stories to remind us who we are, or at least, who we were before COVID-19 erupted. Stories to channel feelings we can’t easily talk about, because we’re not used to discussing feelings on phone, over the internet, because feelings aren’t recipes and gossip and Rotten Tomatoes ratings. Stories to reduce boredom, to give us somebody to talk to, to think of, to care about, to wake up to, to sleep on. Stories to be saved for posterity, to remind us in the future of what we’d survived, how strong and resilient we are, made to survive fire and ice and sandstorms and volcanic eruptions.
Throughout history, stories have been the only honest yet deepest way to communicate. Essays, statistical analyses, reviews might present clear facts, but will a story not connect you to the fact, by showing you how colourful, how bland, how wild, how utterly beautiful or bizarre that fact is? A newspaper article may cover the experiences of a man diagnosed with COVID-19, but will a story not take steps further, describing how the man felt, how his wife cried her eyes out, how his children huddled in their rooms and listened to the rain plummeting against their roofs?
This is what the fifteen stories in this collection offer you—the luxury of feeling, and hey, feeling encapsulates all other senses be it sight or taste or smell. You hear the anger in the characters’ voices as they fret over having to wear nose masks. You feel the smoothness of their palms doused in sanitisers. You even smell the alcohol: it tickles your nose and you guard yourself against sneezing (lest someone puts the NCDC online, haha!). You see Anuoluwapo’s wrinkled forehead as she complains about Ms. Rosa’s fluctuating network in the first story. In “The Missing Ingredient”, you can’t help but feel for Mr and Mrs James as they’re being taken away after contracting the virus. Sophy in “Sophy’s Tears” can’t have her baby in a standard health facility due to the lockdown, and you don’t want to draw in a breath until you reach the end, until you find out what happens to her and her child.
In “Isolation”, we don’t only understand but are deeply moved by the importance of family bonding during the lockdown. The military diction employed in “Miles, The Serviceman” offers diversity to the stories. Just like we hope the army is able to conquer the virus, we want scientists to develop a cure for the virus and bring it to the dust. In “Dreams Come True”, Temi courageously faces her demons and conquers them. Ramlah’s beautiful and deeply moving story is about rediscovering beauty during the rampage of COVID-19.
Although we’ve followed COVID-19 news since it gained global attention, many of us have never seen or felt it through other people’s lenses, especially children, teenagers, and young adults. This is why these stories are important. They are told with a certain crispness to them, sharp, precise, crunchy. They are narrated in simple, everyday language. Together, they dare to be honest, passionate, aware. These stories will present life to you just the way their writers mirror it; no sugar-coating, no circumnavigations, no ambiguity. In a world crumpled by COVID-19, these stories offer hope and the promise of a better tomorrow.
Ola W. Halim
Ola W. Halim is an award-winning teacher, short story writer, and prose editor at ARTmosterffic.