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Credit: Courtesy of Zainab Onuh-Yahaya

My Wall of Encouragements Might be “Unsophisticated,” But it Made My Dorm Room Feel Like Home

published Aug 4, 2020
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Twenty stories of objects and areas in people’s homes that nourish their souls more than their social feeds. Read them all here throughout August.

My grandmother’s favorite story at every family gathering is how I almost got kidnapped when I was eight. It was the summer holidays and my cousins and I were spending it at her house. For two weeks, I alternated between wailing and sweet-talking every adult in the neighborhood to “please take me home.”

“There isn’t anything in your parents’ house that I haven’t got here,” Grandmother would say.

“There is something!” I’d wail back.

I never figured out what that “something” was until years later.

When I went off to college, I never referred to my hostel room (what we call dormitories in Nigeria) as “home.” I always said I was going to “my hostel room.” The only home I knew and acknowledged was my parents’ house. The hallways in that house were as familiar to me as the air that I breathe; the leaky faucet music to my ears. I knew every curve and every dip. I knew where the stairs creaked, I knew every scent, and pattern of every wall and the colors on every rug. But what was most important was that I loved every single person within those walls, more than anything else in the world. It reminded me of a poem I read when I was 16: It said, “home is not a place, it’s a person.” Awfully romantic.

Then, when I went back home at 23, my parent’s house no longer felt like home. The cream-colored wallpapers felt too dull, the curtains too bright and the rugs too colorful. The tick of the grandfather clock in the hallway which had actually belonged to my grandfather felt too loud. My brother had gone off to college and my mother was traveling a lot and the family portrait where we were all smiling which hung just above the shelf in the living room was a mocking memory of a time when laughter bounced off the walls during dinnertime. I had made my home out of the people I loved for so long that it was just bricks and loud, empty space without them to fill it.

A year later, at the beginning of what my therapist and I jokingly refer to as my Great Depression, I had become a permanent fixture on my parents’ living room couch and had made an impressive dent in the beanbag right next to it.

By the time I moved out to a new hostel for law school, I was already sliding down the slippery but sure slope of anxiety and depression. And yet, here was my own little space—a tiny room to make a home out of. Despite everything, the thought excited me. I was going to make it beautiful.

But the thing about being depressed is how tired you are all the time. Day in, day out, I couldn’t muster any energy to decorate—all I could focus on was dragging myself up and breathing. So I sought solace in Qur’anic verses and poetry. The Qur’an would tell me I was going to be fine and the poets would say there’s nothing I feel now that hasn’t been felt before. So I clung to them. On the days when the misery swimming inside of me eased just a little bit, I’d write out my favorite verse and call them “Encouragements.” It started from a verse on plain paper clipped to my door. Then I had them everywhere. Hanging above my bed. Clipped to my wardrobe door. Tacked to the wooden plaques on my bedside table. The Encouragements became the way I made my hostel room my own.

Credit: Courtesy of Zainab Onuh-Yahaya

My friends call it “the most unsophisticated piece of design” and my cousin thinks I should get them framed. But seeing those words, written by my own hand on simple pieces of paper, makes them much more real to me. It makes healing seem closer. I sit at my desk and I see an Encouragement that says “It gets better” and I know that it does. Because I wrote that. And I’d never lie to myself.

These Encouragements mean a lot to me. They might lack the aesthetic appeal of most conventional decor, but they were born out of a desperate need to have a space that constantly reminds me that I’ll be fine.

It is no longer just a hostel room, it is my home. My steps are lighter here, my laughter softer and my voice gentler. I have not only found my safe space, I have discovered that there is no greater truth than that which you tell yourself, no greater comfort than that which you give yourself and no greater Encouragement than that which you hand to yourself.

I found my something, after all.