On Loneliness at 3 A.M. in Lagos

Illustration for article titled On Loneliness at 3 A.M. in Lagos
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It was 3 a.m. in Onikan, a suburb of Lagos. The street below her window was uncharacteristically quiet. In the distance, she could hear the faint thump of a bass-line and the strained, faint chorus of afrobeat. She listened for the shrieks of laughter and enjoyment coming from the building down the road. In the daytime, it looked like a mild-mannered gathering hall, something used for the occasional town meeting or wedding reception, but tonight, it was a full-on dance hall. She imagined it was filled with people, brown bodies fighting for space on the dance floor, their limbs twisted in motion, and their faces upturned and glowing with sweat or unfiltered joy. For a moment, she wondered if she should get dressed and join them. It had been too long since her body twisted into a candy ribbon of dance. Too long since she could press herself against someone hard and wet with sweat. Too long since there was a voice other than her own ricocheting around her head, bouncing between her ears like a bullet or an afrobeat.


Insomnia had held her by the throat for the third week in a row and staring out into the cool night air was now a ritual. She had taken one sleeping pill hours before and she felt nothing more than the broken promise of a blink. The bed felt like it was filled with sacks of coins and the lumpy mattress was digging into the sensitive parts of her back. After four hours, staring at the flat, white ceiling, she decided to take another sleeping pill. She knew she couldn’t take a third, that would be dangerous, but she wished she had a shot of whiskey to help the drugs a bit. The whiskey, she knew, would calm the anxiety growing rivers in her body. But she knew that this was not the night for risk. She still wasn’t sure if she wanted to entertain those thoughts again— thoughts of no longer being here anymore. Of finding a way to sleep that didn’t threaten her with morning. Or maybe afraid, that she would welcome them with open arms. She often wondered if insomnia— the inability to sleep— was actually saving her from the disappointment of waking.

All she knew was that she needed to rest her eyes for a few hours before the sun made it impossible, shoving its sunlight through the window at 6 a.m.

She lifted herself out of the bed to the window, again, the party seemed to be winding down and she watched the drinkers and their caretakers tumble into their cars or take cautious walks home.

In a few hours, the streets will be filled with noise, laughter and chaos. There will be a bustling: the market women setting up their wares, the mallam who have traveled from the Muslim North to work, the men and women hoping to avoid traffic to the mainland or other parts of the island. Her favorite were the school children in neat, oversized uniforms, even in the early mornings they would chatter and bounce. In a few hours, this will become a sound filled city again. Right now, this small stretch of street and building was a quiet village. Too quiet. The silence entered her, igniting the loneliness that she had tried to keep at bay. She shook the feeling settling into her and focused on the sleeping city.

The Third Mainland Bridge stood deserted across the way, every once in a while a car would pass. By morning, the expressway would be packed with vehicles, bumpers kissing each other in slow or no moving traffic. The yellow buses always leaned precariously into spaces too small to walk through. In a few hours the bridge would be honking and shouting and frustrated travelers battling each other and the heat.

At this angle of morning, the breeze from the ocean carried a reminder that across the Atlantic is her family. She looks at her clock and does the slow backward count calculating the time differences. On the East Coast of America, it was a quarter after 7. She looked at her phone no longer charging after the electricity went out. She hadn’t realized that that was causing the abrasive silent and shocking darkness of the city. Most cities of this size would be shining a majestic skyline but not in Lagos. She looked up hoping to see a star or two. She can’t tell if it’s a cloud or pollution that keeps them hidden.


“This city needs stars,” she says out loud. She can’t remember the last time she spoke and her words felt heavy with the weight of her loneliness.

She considers calling her parents. Her father, at least, would be happy to hear from her. Her mother would have too many questions. None of which she would have answers to give. With each phone call, she heard the lines of worry surrounding each innocuous statement; flashing like hazard lights.


“So how is work?”

“Are you eating?”

“Are you sleeping?”


She didn’t have the heart to tell them how difficult this place was. How much of a struggle it was to stay alive when all this body wanted to do was shut down.


Her father will ask, “It is after 3 a.m. where you are, why are you not sleeping? Has it returned?”


She doesn’t want to worry them. Or lie. So there will be no phone call.

She takes one more look outside, counting lights in the distance until the swirl in her belly subsides. She needs to sleep. She needs a hug from someone who loves her. Someone who misses her. But there is nobody. Nobody who understands what it’s like to be a tourist in your own body, an uninvited guest to your brain. The loneliness is back and pressing heavy and hollow against her chest. She wishes that the house party was still going on. Longing for the thump thump thump of music matching heartbeat. The tears cannot fall now. A sudden breeze rushes through the window and surrounds her. This is a hug, she tells herself.


This is enough for her to leave the window and find her bed. She crawls in; there is a counting. She starts from 300 and goes backward subtracting 15 until she is bored and drowsy. She knows that sleep will be short and restless. She knows that the brain will only quiet; not stop. She knows that the loneliness will settle into her bones. Her eyes fall into a tired squint, she remembers the song that held her earlier that day, and whispers loud: “If there’s a reason, I’m still alive when so many have died…”

Loneliness is 3 a.m., in a body that isn’t a home.

It is finding a way to navigate the oppressive stillness of a brain as distant as a dark city.


Hope is believing that it won’t last always.

And the willingness to wait for it to end.