Faces on Things

Omayeli Arenyeka

“The easiest thing to do in Nigeria is to put a face on a thing,” I say to my friend as she retracts her gaze and her hand from the top of my fridge and moves towards the couch, cradling a bowl of soup. 

She had been staring at a magnet that featured a rendering of an older man crossing his hands and donning the most glorious smirk, as if he knew even in death, he would still have a bird’s eye view of my comings and goings. It was the second thing she’d placed her eyes and fingers on, the first being a polaroid of my father and me, my chin on his shoulder, his face as jubilant as ever, from a time I barely remember.

“Is this your father?” She’d asked, and I had said yes. She lingered on the photo for a breath, and then her eyes darted to the magnet before she posed another question. “Wait, is that your father too?”

“Yes,” I replied. 

“Oh.” She paused. “I thought there was a resemblance, but I figured it was a celebrity or someone else ‘cause I was wondering why you would have a magnet of your father’s face on your fridge.”

The easiest thing to do in Nigeria is to put a face on a thing.

*

In his book In The End, It Was All About Love, Musa Okwonga writes about his visit to his homeland in Uganda: 

“After your meal, you walk through the garden to settle your stomach, and – just behind your great-uncle’s home, no more than twenty metres from where he rests his head each night – you find the grave of his most beloved sister, next to that of her youngest daughter and her grand-daughter. My God, you think, how much he still misses them, how much you miss them; and then you reflect that, here up North, there is quite literally a piece of your past around every corner.”

I start the tour of my apartment. The furniture and miscellaneous items that took me years to put together excite me less. I let her peek around while I grab a ladder from my bedroom and use it to fetch a cup and a plate from one of the top cabinets in my kitchen. I set them down carefully and put water in the kettle to boil. 

I am an amateur collector. The faces that crowd my apartment are few and known to me. Zero degrees of separation. Wrapped and delivered by my mother. At times, begrudgingly placed in my teeming drawers. 

I show her my valuables anyway. The first one she saw already: a magnetic sticker on my fridge with an illustration of my dad’s face to give as a souvenir to well-wishers on the first anniversary of his death. My only contribution to face on a thing so far. Second, a plate, from the only set I cannot put in the dishwasher, with my face on it. The picture is from my dad’s 60th, the last time I celebrated his birthday with him. Then, for the grand finale, a mug which, through what law of thermodynamics I do not know, slowly reveals a picture of my mum and dad in a tender embrace when you fill it with hot water. Like a heat-activated stage curtain. 

These are part of my collection, but I do not show: a silk black pillowcase, with my whole family posing on a staircase, in a box tucked away under my bed; an apron, with a piece from my dad’s button-down sewed on, hanging by the door near my kitchen, dusty with flour, never washed.

*

My mother brought the first batch of things during my family’s first visit to my first apartment in March 2020. I was in the middle of the aforementioned painstaking decorating process. I had been entranced by the Pinterest connoisseurs and their minimal, chic, matching sets. I had in my head a set of colours I juxtaposed to every potential purchase and in my shopping cart: royal blue plates with matching mugs, sleek slim glasses, and an apron too pretty to stain. When my mum opened her box full of faces on things, I grimaced. Where was all this going to go? 

Not too long after, as flights were being cancelled because of the new deadly virus, that became my reaction to my family’s presence as well. It was the four of us, in my small Brooklyn apartment, with nowhere to go. My dad slept on a blue air mattress on the floor because he thought my bed was too soft, my mum in my bed with me, and my brother on the couch. I was grateful for the time, but I felt squashed. Eyes of the animate and the inanimate surrounded me.

My family eventually made their way to Abuja safely. And the stuff made its way to a bag at the back of my closet. It stayed there until about a year later after I came back from my father’s funeral. I dug into my luggage, found the things I had stowed away, and held onto them tight. I cradled the pillowcase with my family’s faces as I cried myself to sleep. 

The days following stretched by with the same rhythm. Those days and nights shortly after his passing, grief would find me relentlessly, with memory its companion. In my kitchen making custard and dodo, on the sidewalk reviewing my step count for the day, on a call with a relative who would call me “Yelibabes”, it would find me and render me useless, like a kettle without a whistle, its contents quietly but vigorously erupting. Grief would find me, and I would find the faces on things, which were now all scattered within grabbing distance in my apartment.

These days though, years later, it feels as though grief has passed the baton to memory, saying, “Take it from here, but I shall visit often.” It is a strange shift because while the initial grief is incessant, memory is oftentimes elusive. Grief occasionally calls to me first, but mostly I stumble on a face on a thing and remember. My friend tells me that in Yoruba the name for souvenir, “ohun iranti”, translates to “things one uses to remember. My heart grows warm, thinking of the African tradition of cultivating objects to aid memory. 

During a visit to Accra, I do not see faces on objects, but I take deep breaths as we pass funeral banners swaying on the street, the presence of the deceased still prevailing, years after their death.

Miles and months away in Brooklyn, I come across an article titled ‘Fresh to Death: African Americans and RIP T-Shirts’ where the author, Kami Fletcher, uses the term “walking memorial” to describe the ritual of making RIP t-shirts that are worn during death ceremonies and afterwards, anytime, anywhere.

I am not sure if remembrance is the primary motivation now, for the abundance of faces on things but I am grateful for it as the years pass by, as my memory starts to fail me.

When I’m in Abuja, in most homes I visit, starting from my parents’ home, I pass the various faces as I go about my day: a couple in a manufactured embrace on a jotter, a 50-year-old celebrant on a tall candle holder, a beloved mother, wife, and sister on a bag of rice. On one of those Abuja mornings, my cousin and I cut off a bunch of plantain from its head to wrap and put in the fridge. I grab a set of newspapers from a drawer and place them flat on the counter. Three by three, I centre them on the page, roll them up, and set them aside. On my fifth newspaper page, I stop. There, in black and white, is a full-length picture of my late aunty, who had died two years back, less than a year after my dad. I call over to my mum to take a look, and she smiles, surprised. I fold the newspaper and set it aside – an unexpected addition to the trove. Months later, when my mom visits my new place in Brooklyn, a place my father has never stepped foot in, she ventures to make a cup of tea, and ends up crying, surprised by her own creation, his face on a mug.

The easiest thing to do in Nigeria is to put a face on a thing.

*

In her essay ‘The Responsibility of Remembrance’ Mofiyinfoluwa O writes: “It is memory that calls longing forth. It is memory that keeps our dead.” I look around my apartment and tend to disagree. It is not only my grief that calls out to me now. It is not only my memory. My many faces on things come and find me, at times unexpectedly, like a friend’s smile on the other side of a peephole. 

Omayeli Arenyeka is a Nigerian writer and technologist currently living in New York. Her work is concerned with interrogating and documenting the seemingly mundane and commonplace aspects of herself and the world around her. Her work has appeared in the Creative Independent, The Republic, and elsewhere.

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