And Still, The Fire Grows

There’s a fire in the middle of the village at the edge of nowhere, and the villagers huddle around, their palms up, keeping the fire going. Protecting it from the wind. The wind sneaks in anyway, threatening the flames, telling it stories of the cold, of the darkness — of a world without light.

And the fire shakes and trembles, while the wind glows in triumph.

But the fire is smart, it knows something the wind doesn’t know, the shakes and trembles aren’t fear.

They’re laughter.

***

In Whitesands, my secondary school, a group of boys I was close to uploaded a shirtless picture of me on Twitter–I was fat and ashamed of my body–and they proceeded to make fun of me for everyone in our age group to see. Then, just when i thought it was over, they made a hashtag that spread on BBM as well, #TeamHateAnthony they called it.

I was hurt and ashamed. I thought they were my friends.

I was a writer by then, I knew the power that stories had to imagine and entertain, and now I was being taught the other thing stories could do: destroy and belittle.

This happened 10 years ago. I was 12.

***

The news of Wayer’s death in June hit me like a splash of cold water. Death still had its childish naïveté in my eye, it was something that happened, but not to anyone around us, that we actually knew, had laughed with, had talked with. And even now, I’m not sure how to feel. I went through our instagram dms and I felt ashamed. He had always been supportive, always told me how great my work is. At all my shows, he was there with OJ and Renike.

But everyday I’m exhausted now, from meetings to the pressure of my life, my days are a mess, and my nights are spent resting because my days are a mess. I hardly have the energy for social media apps, to reply, to be on there, to be active. And as I scrolled through my messages with Wayer, I started crying again.

God, I wish I’d replied.

Just to tell him thank you.

***

Two days after I heard the news about Wayer I was woken up by a phone call from home that froze my heart instantly and as the uber cut through the night and traffic, speeding to my childhood home, I broke down in hysterics. I googled possible solutions as I wept,I just needed something, anything, to stop this horror from happening. My life as I knew it was over, however that night went. Nothing would be the same.

It was 4am as I sat next to the hospital bed, scared of what might happen if I even closed my eyes, scared of what might happen if I rested again. A small voice spoke up in the back of my head, and I knew this was my fault. If only I had been there, if only I hadn’t left to chase some foolish dream, maybe I wouldn’t be there right now, watching my heart on the hospital bed, sleeping, unsure.

The next few days were spent holding myself together. Because now, it wasn’t just about me, no matter how broken and helpless I felt, no matter how much I wanted to bury myself in the feeling of helplessness, everyday I stood up and I got moving. There was someone I had to be strong for, to be responsible for. And nothing, even me, was important anymore.

But something in me shrivelled and broke that night, something I’ve been searching for, in therapy, in books, in friends, everywhere I can look. In my tweets, in my work, in my meetings since then, I’m searching for it, that spark.

But it’s gone forever, I know.

It was like God was teaching me this lesson now, after I’d been winning for so long, that everything I loved, cherished, held dear, could be ended in one day, one second, one phone call.

I took that lesson, and held it close to my chest. It’s been a month, a week, and 6 days, and phone calls still make me panic a bit. I still can’t sleep too well. I’m scared of what might happen if I rest again.

***

When that crisis came to a pause, that same week I was grieving, my name was called out on Twitter.

It started out as whispers days before, chatter and giggles in contempt for me. Some were publicly angry because I didn’t buy their NFTs, some were privately angry I didn’t message them back, all this time I was grieving, fighting through tears, keeping myself together.

I saw it unfold on the timeline and I was shocked, I showed this to my team in confusion, “Is this how people beef now?” I asked. “You throw subs on the TL while following and affiliating with the same person?”

I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

These were individuals that, privately, some even while publicly insulting me, asked me for advice or money, or promotion or connections, all I freely gave. I believe in everyone winning. The advancements of artists in Nigeria, and Africa, is something I champion, something that is the heart of all I do. I know what it’s like to not have money for your craft and to need it so badly for the work you’ve envisioned and I wanted so badly to avoid that for anyone else.

But maybe I was naive, too nice, too charitable.

Some of these people I invited to my home, to my space, gave them everything they needed, but I sensed, in their words, that they wanted more. More than I could give.

The artist at the center of it all — someone I knew from Covenant, who had come to me for advice, who wished me well in our messages just months prior — made a bold claim that I had stolen his work, and his friends and colleagues boosted it. I felt hurt by the tirade: he could’ve called, or texted, or emailed me if he had felt slighted and wanted to resolve it. But no, he took to social media for a public performance. The most tragic thing about the situation was that I had muted his Twitter a long time ago–normal practice for me if there’s content I don’t agree with–and so I had never even seen the artwork in question. The one they were saying I stole.

Even looking deeper at the work themselves, one could tell that they were from similar inspirations — Nigerian women in traditional attire (a topic of art for centuries) — but were very different in actual execution: specific design, direction and medium used. A sculpture has thousands of angles to pull from being 3D, that’s the nature of the medium, and I picked the one I liked, a common top-down angle, that just so happened to be the perspective of the artist’s painting, which he took as a slight. They said I was a “big artist” taking advantage of the “small artists” and I paled — to me, we were all equals, all practitioners of the craft, why would one identify themselves as “small”?

Then, just when i thought it was over, these trolls proceeded to question my artistic integrity, calling me a thief for paintings I’d made a year, and two ago, even when the people referenced were either paid, explicitly credited or knew me personally and we’d spoken prior or since. But no one bothered to ask questions or do a search. They saw someone big enough to attack and they went for it.

I watched them mention people I knew, calling me a thief amongst other things, I watched them try and bring down the goodwill and reputation I’d spent almost 10 years building. My heart cracked because it felt like everything was gone.

It was like God was teaching me this lesson now, after I’d been winning for so long, that everything I loved, cherished, held dear, could be ended in one day, one second, one phone call.

One tweet.

Days after, some people came and apologised in private and in public. I responded in kind and spoke to anyone who wanted to dialogue. It’s not that I don’t want to keep a grudge, I’m just too tired to even try. I pay rent, bills, have people to support, who have mouths to feed. My day to day is spent getting stronger as a man and an artist. Hate is something I can’t afford energy for.

Some of the artists even still came to my messages, asking or thanking me for things in private, like they weren’t insulting me in public a day before. A young woman in particular tried to use a mutual friend to get money from me to pump her NFT sales, and when that didn’t work, proceeded to join the internet trolls against me. I watched it all with apathy, shook my head, and realised they didn’t hate me, they hated the situation they were in, and I could only wish them good luck on their journey. I have nothing to do with that.

But still, it stung, that pain of feeling familiar with people, and realizing that they had their own agenda all this time.

It felt like I was 12 years old again back at Whitesands.

***

When things started popping for me two years ago, my father told me, “You can’t go out like you used to before,” he said. “No more new friends, your life has changed.”

I took it for granted at the time.

I should’ve listened to him.

Slowly, people started to recognise me in public. A knowing nod there, or a wink, and then some people asked me to sign things, wanted pictures with me, wanted to talk to me and know what I thought. I was astonished, maybe because I never expected this would be life now.

Or maybe, far more truthfully, I didn’t feel worthy enough. Didn’t feel ready.

My life had started to change, and change is death to who you were before. But I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.

I’ve watched old friends turn to spite me, watched new people try to take advantage of me. Everyone tells me it comes with the territory, that I should get used to it. There’s more coming, they say.

They reach out sometimes, the people who bullied or insulted me, whether it’s Whitesands or Covenant. They tell me how proud they are of me, that they never expected all this. They ask me for money, tips, advice, connections, to help tutor little siblings. I shrug and give what I can. I would hold a grudge but I’m too tired for it.

You see, there’s a fire in the middle of the village at the edge of nowhere, and the villagers huddle around, their palms up, keeping the fire going. Protecting it from the wind. The wind sneaks in anyway, threatening the flames, telling it stories of the cold, of the darkness — of a world without light.

And the fire shakes and trembles, while the wind glows in triumph.

But the fire is smart, it knows something the wind doesn’t know, the shakes and trembles aren’t fear.

They’re laughter.

The fire has cut through darkness unimaginable. The fire is change itself, turning wood into ash, bringing dark into light. Every night the winds try to break it, try to blow it out, but it never works, even when the light is snuffed out and there’s nothing but embers, the flames catch again. But still, time and time again the wind tries.

And still, the fire grows.

I told a friend of mine a year ago that I dreamed of a prophet. This would be the person that would take the arts and everything with it to a whole new direction, one that would leave the world in awe. In my head, that was who I was doing work for, like John the Baptist before Jesus, I was simply laying a path.

It took me a while to realize that it was myself I’d been waiting for all this time. It was myself I’d been praying for, all those nights ago, crying in my room, a child, alone, wondering how to make it out. The fire only a vision in a mind.

That same fire, now a reality in my hand.

I spoke with a PR woman earlier this year, and she asked me where I saw myself in the next few years — standard questions for anyone who wants to work with you. And I grew shy, because the truth was that I want to be a star, I want to be one of the greats. The truth was that the changes that have come don’t make me uncomfortable at all. They scare me, not because they’re overwhelming, but because this is what I wanted more than anything and I am now being confronted with the reality of who and what I am.

And what I am not.

Because I am not the fire, I’m simply one of the villagers, protecting it from the wind.

Change may be little death, but I’ve already died many times before, and many times again will I die.

And the fire? The fire is everything good in us, every hope, every joy, every warm memory, especially of those we’ve lost.

And at night, when the winds come, we move closer to the fire and we tell ourselves a silly lie, that we’re protecting it, whereas, it’s the other way around. The fire isn’t here because of us, we’re here because of the fire. And it keeps us going, keeps us warm, to bear another day.

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Anthony Azekwoh

Anthony Azekwoh is a Nigerian-based author and artist. He has written five books so far, and is now working on the sequel to his fourth book Ṣàngó, Oya.