“My sister, no vex. Abeg make you help me hold dis.” Eyes, bloodshot from excessive alcohol and untreated malaria glared at me, daring me to refuse the ‘request.’
I collected the thin raffia twine – exactly the kind used in dragging a goat to its death – and held it across my chest.
“God go bless you, my sister. Na dis Road Safety people. Dem no go gree make pesin rest.”
My mind screamed, “which Road Safety people? How much does a seat belt cost?” I took a deep breath and got ready to verbalize my strong thoughts. My eyes caught the heavily tattooed and multi-pierced face of Tupac Shakur, staring fiercely at me from across the windscreen, daring me to oppose his number one Naija fan and face the wrath of the gangsters. I held the words in my mouth and tried to remember some wise sayings to justify my silence; silence is golden, silence is the best answer for a fool, in a multitude of words sin lacketh not, and many more. No, I am not a coward, I am not afraid, I am wise.
The passenger beside me coughed violently. Stretching his body across mine, he spat phlegm out through the window. I waited for apologies or at least an “excuse me,” but none came. He must have done it intentionally. We had stood together for almost 30 minutes waiting for a bus. When the bus finally arrived, I had rushed ahead and opened the front door. That singular act entitled me to the luxury of the window seat. He tried to argue with me:
“Madam, the man should stay by the window.” He said. I pretended as if I did not hear him and looked the other way, holding the rickety door, waiting patiently for him to enter.
“If una no want enter car, make una comot naw, naw!” Passenger dey, dey beg to enter car, una dey struggle for who must to sit for window. Bus na your papa house? Make una no waste my time o!” The conductor shouted angrily, facing me and ignoring the guy at fault.
He had grudgingly gotten the message that I was not ready to budge, and entered the bus. His seat was elevated above mine on his right, and the drivers’ on his left. The heat from whatever lifted the iron underneath him warmed his buttocks intensely; only a plank and a torn out sponge served as cushion. The bulky gear set sat in-between his legs. One leg pressed against mine and the other shared the accelerator and break space with the driver’s two legs. Intermittently, the driver hit him with the back of his right hand, a signal that he was disturbing his driving by relaxing too much and should sit up.
“Oya, everybody hold your correct money. I no get change o!” The conductor barked. I ignored the order and tried to focus my attention on the newspaper spread in front of me. I smelled his breath, then felt it uncomfortably close to my neck as he stared at the page I was reading. This neighbour of mine!
Now, they know me at home, from a very young age when I started reading newspaper cartoons. I do not like to share whatever I am reading with anybody. Wait for me to finish and I will give you to read. Do not come to sit or lie down beside me to read along, and plead with me not to turn to the next page when I am ready to. My first instinct was to close the newspaper and give to him. But I was reading a very interesting piece of news. I decided to relax and let him be.
“Fine babe wey dey read paper. Wetin you want know again, ehn? You don fine finish, now. Abi you want come add book on top of say you fine?” He said, smiling and trying to look into my eyes.
Can’t someone have a moment of peace on this bus?
“Sister, you dey read paper? You don trowey your seat belt?” The driver bellowed at me. He lost focus of his driving as he bent double, stretched his hands and fished around the floor of the passenger side, frantically searching for the goat twine.
“Here, I have it.”I said. The ‘seat belt’ had slid down to my thighs.
“Abeg, hold am well well! I no get money to give Road Safety o”
I handed the newspaper to my neighbour. At least that will keep him quiet until either of us alights. He took the newspaper, and folding it, threw it on the dusty dashboard.
“So wetin be your name?” He asked.
The conversation was interrupted – thankfully – as we approached a police check point and the driver’s countenance and voice became animated. “My brother!” He brought out both hands to shake the police officer on duty.
“Who be your brother?” the police man retorted. “I resemble people from your area? You see your tribal marks for my face?”
“Oga mi, that one no matter. As long as say na inside this Naija country we dey together, shuffering and shmiling as our Baba Fela talk, na my brother you be.” The driver’s teeth, surprisingly sparkling white for the colour of his eyes were irregularly shaped. They seemed a lot more than 36 in number and there were particles of yellowish food stuck in between his pre-molars. A large cut of vegetable was stuck on his upper canine. A good sign, if you ask me, that he ate healthy. Clearly, he did not subsist on the saccharin sweetened snacks and drinks peddled along his route.
“Abeg shake body.” The policeman looked away as he spoke. His voice was lowered and flippant, as if he was saying something unimportant. Only the gun, pointed at the driver’s chest, showed he was not joking.
“Shake body again for this morning?” The driver said laughing. He put off the engine. We were in for a long negotiation. “My brother, I don see una as I pass here before.” Both hands were spread on his steering wheel in supplication. “I no go lie for you.”
The policeman was angry. “Who be una? Was it me you saw this morning?” Silence.
“Answer me now.”
“Na your second I see. See am there ask am.” The driver pointed at another police officer who sat on a bench by the edge of the road. He was eating roast corn and pear. A young girl of about 8 years stood peeling oranges for him, her tray of unsold oranges by her feet. The policeman was looking at us, but when the driver pointed at him, he looked away and munched even more furiously, staring at the empty road far ahead.
“Am I my second? So if I want to do business with you, I go begin talk with your conductor, how you go like am? My second na me? Na me wey you see this morning?” He pronounced his morning as morrring, in an annoying way of imitating the Whiteman. A cleaner in my office does that and it is so irritating. He cleaned the house for an expatriate staff for six months and acquired the ‘American’ accent. “Good morrring” he would announce every morning since then. Trying to act pleasant in that very distant, uncaring sort of way, most White expatriates do with local staff. I took to avoiding him in the mornings; I have never fancied the idea of starting off my day on an annoying note.
“Oga mi, abeg next time. I no get anything for my hand now.” He fished around his dashboard, pushing Neighbour’s left leg roughly as it hit the gear.”Heiiii” he squealed. “Oga driver, easy abeg.” Finding two pieces of kolanut of the yellow variety, the driver presented it to the officer and smiled broadly. “At all, at all, na im worse pass, my brother. Hold this one until I come back.”
Infuriated, the police officer hit the driver’s door with the blunt edge of his gun. “Oya, clear for road and park.” He pointed to the side of the road.
“Driver, what is this? Give them what they want and let us get out of here. I am already running late for an interview.” The man of about fifty eight years seated behind me shouted. Other passengers were getting upset with the driver. He should “settle” they said and leave the police men with their troubles.
The driver parked by the side of the road, got down and went towards the officer seated on a bench. On sighting the approaching driver, he got up, and walking towards the road, stopped a private car. He completely ignored the driver’s entreaties, and focused his attention on scrutinizing the documents presented by the car driver.
Two male passengers got down from our bus and approached the first officer. They spoke in low tones, but the officer could be heard shouting:
“I no be troublemaker. I don’t have any business with you. He knows the right thing to do, go and tell him to do it. Nonsense. He think say I be small pikin?”
The passengers went to the driver, I saw one give him a N50 note, which he went on to give to the police officer. Both men shook hands and exchanged banters. The driver returned to his seat and tried to start the engine, but it wouldn’t. He tried about 8 – 10 times but it only made cracking sounds and died.
“Make una comot, abeg. We need to push the car”
I should have known. Although Safe Journey was painted boldly in red on the front and rear sides of the bus, it was no guarantee of a safe journey for the passengers. All the passengers disembarked.
The female among us stood idly and watched as the men pushed the bus. I felt a pang of guilt. Perhaps my neighbour was right, I should have let him, as the man, sit by the window. See how he is ripping his muscles apart to save the day. I pushed the guilty thoughts aside with a reminder of the gross discomforts of his seat. The car finally started and the driver drove almost half a kilometre down before he could control his speed and stopped for us to enter.
I had barely settled in when long nailed fingers dug into my back, almost scratching my skin. I winced in pain and turned; “Madam, wey your money?” the conductor’s voice was threatening. As if only if he shouted would I be intimidated into payment.
“Easy now. Do you have to wound me to collect your money?” I quietly spoke, not wanting to draw even the slightest attention to myself.
“Wetin?” He shouted even more. Silence. “Wetin you talk just now, ehn?” Silence. “Talk am again make I hear if you no fear?” Silence. His Kponmo sized, charcoal coloured lips hung open for about 10 seconds, forming an irregularly shaped O; his head was slanted to one side and thrown back. Eyes filled with anger – caused by years of hardship and suffering – stared menacingly.
“Listen, no try me o! Bring your money now, now!”
I gave him N1,000 note, the least change on me.
“Mscheewwwwww.” He sighed furiously. Until then, I had never heard such deep, almost violent sighing in a very long while. Not since one of my childhood friends was publicly humiliated by an army officer. She had dared to refuse his request for a relationship. Relating the story later, she could only sigh out her frustrations amidst tears.
“My brother, bring your money, abeg.” The conductor was addressing my neighbour.
My hand was left hanging awkwardly and embarrassingly across my back, still holding the N1,000 note. Neighbour fished out two craggy N100 notes, and patting my arms, or rather stroking them, announced triumphantly to the bus that he was going to take care of my fare.
“Thank your God say na better pesin sit beside you today. You for see am for my hand.”Conductor hissed at me as he turned to harass the lady seated behind.
I turned to say thank you to Neighbour; he held my left hand tightly, and, heaving his right side up, fished out a Nokia 3310 from his back pocket. The rear of the phone was horizontally held together with a brown rubber band. Vertically, green and orange rubber bands held the bulky battery and what appears like an antennae in place. The numbers were scratched off, and he alone knew how to locate his numbers and alphabets. I had never seen a more defaced phone before then.
“Wetin be your name and number?” His voice took on a new manly, am-in-charge, kind of tone. Didn’t he just pay my bride price, and now owned me body, soul and spirit?
“Gala! Psssttttttt Gala!” I beckoned on a hawker of the chemical and preservative dense beef sausage rolls I had quit eating years earlier. Hurriedly, I picked out one without characteristically scrutinizing it for moulds, softness or size of beef filling. I showed the one thousand Naira note to the hawker, he produced my change and I made sure I clenched it tightly before releasing his payment. Selecting a clean N100 note from the change, I gave it to Neighbour and said a polite “thank you.”
Kpoa! Kpoa! Gunshots rent the air.
“Na armed robbers o!” Shouted the driver as he screeched to a halt.
“Amu roba! Na thief o!” I heard the conductor scream.
There was no time to know the direction of the robbery. Neighbour pushed the door open and pushed me out as he ran towards the bungalow across the street. I ran after him, barefooted. Nobody saw or knew where the robbery was taking place.
“They just snatched a car from a woman down the road,” someone volunteered.
“At least them no kidnap am” another said, gratitude showing through her voice.
“Or even kill am self,” said a woman who lived in the compound and was bathing her baby outside when the commotion started. The baby, covered all over with soap lather was crying loudly.
The gun shots died down and people began to emerge from their safety places. Cars roughly parked and left open were being driven off. Pedestrians continued on their way. Roadside traders were first to re-emerge, afraid that someone would do away with their goods I picked up one of my shoes from the drainage. I had left the other leg inside the bus.
We re-entered the bus. The driver was laughing at how the conductor somersaulted over the tomato seller’s table.
“I no know say you like life like this o!” Most people on the bus joined in the laughter and the conversation.
“The problem is that I have missed my interview,” said the older gentleman behind.
“Instead of you to be thanking God that you are alive” a woman with a child of about 8 months tied to her back said. “If they had killed you, what would your wife and children have done?”
“That job does not belong to you, my brother,” another male passenger cautioned him. “This thing that happened is a sign that only bad thing would have happened to you if you had met up with the interview and passed. That is the way me I see life.”
“No be person wey dey alive go work.” Said the conductor as he straightened the several dirty Naira notes in his hands. “Abeg driver you get that better Eedris music? Play am for me abeg.”
Nigeria, jaga jaga. Everything scatter, scatter, Poor man dey suffer, suffer! Gbosaa, gbosaa, gun shots in a the air! What y’all say? Nigeria Jaga Jaga
The whole bus screamed gbosaa! gbosaaa! And laughed heartily.
“This one we saw today na small thing,” continued another passenger from behind. Last week, in front of me, they kidnapped one woman and her 3 day old baby. The husband was bringing her home from the hospital after delivery. They said she is the daughter of Otunba Lekan Olaniran. Even the car they used to carry the woman, na dat morning they tear the rubber comot from am. Brand new limited edition, special order from Mercedes Benz Factory.”
“Chaii!” Screamed the woman with the baby.
“This our Nigeria self,” muttered another passenger, sighing as he called on a plantain chips and “pure” water hawker.
“The husband self ran mental. He was pursuing after the kidnappers with leg, calling them to come and take the car. He had the car keys in his hands and was running after them, weeping like a baby.”
“Chaii! Which kind life be this?” Screamed the woman. The baby on her back was beginning to cry.
“My beloved brothers and sisters” The voice carried authority with it. The bus became quiet as the driver reached for the volume button.
“Have I knows always come last.” That must be the man wearing burgundy, short sleeved and double breasted jacket, over a pink, long necked cardigan. I cannot remember the colour of his pants. He had a huge black leather Bible with him and was waving it in the air and screaming “Obara Jesus! Obara Jesus!”as we all ran from the gunshots.
“Yes, my brethren. Have I knows will has come to some of us here if armed robber kill somebody here. Hellfire is real. Repent and be saved for now has the time” He was now screaming. “For no one knoweth the time of his die. Repent and be saved from hell.” He increased his voice even more.
“Oya, everybody dis na final bus stop.” The conductor interjected the preaching. It was not the initially announced place, but the walk should be no more than twenty minutes, I did not mind. Some passengers chose to pick fights with the driver and the conductor, refusing to alight from the bus, insisting on being taken to the agreed destination. The driver switched off his engine and put the key in his pocket. The conductor stepped away from the bus and began to call on passengers to board for the return journey. For me, I was very happy to have come to the end of this one bus ride.