2. Road trips, small margins and a return to the city of red earth

Hawker, Lagos

Plan A was to catch a flight from Lagos into Benin and then a bus for the final leg of the trip to the small university town of Ekpoma, where the wedding was to hold, but the events of the last few weeks ensured that the one thing my mother insisted on was that the journey out of Lagos would be by road. I thus had to brace myself to navigate the tortuous 3oo km+ trip from Lagos into Benin with minimum fuss.

Early the next morning, I rushed a bath, skipped breakfast and then found out that the 1.5 star diggs I was staying at actually had a cab service. The pleasant surprise was that he was a cabbie I had used a lot in the past, and that he had managed to recognise me despite the passage of time and the extra kilograms. Somewhere on the road as we drove towards the Yaba section of town, the slim margins between life and death were enacted right before our eyes as only his braking sharply and swerving enabled us avoid sweeping a motorbike and its three occupants into the yawning chasm of a gutter. A few choice strings of abuse later – both given and received by the driver of my cab – we were back on our way, grateful that all we had had was a minor intermission, not the full blooded inquisition that a more serious crash would have occasioned.

Our first pit stop was at Jibowu where we found out that there were no more scheduled trip at the Edo Line offices. We then had to make the final run in to the Edegbe Motor park at Yaba. We found several buses, all in different stages of being filled up. I had to settle for a seat at the back of one, and in addition to the transport fare fork out nearly an arm and a leg for my one box. The park was a bee hive of activity, a menagerie of hawkers milling around offering items as varied as pre-paid mobile phone recharge cards and supposedly genuine 24k gold. Like a human scrolling billboard they jostled for position in the mind and the eyes of us trapped passengers, hoping to make a killing by dint of repetition. One hawker, peddling ‘ice-cold la casera’ ended up in a verbal spat with a passenger over her pricing – apparently the bottle she was trying to fob off for 170 naira costs a mere 140 just around the corner. There were also all sorts of books being sold – a book of poems, nursery rhymes and one that particularly piqued my interest – a collection of 150 text messages supposedly crafted to make any woman giddy with focused flirtation. Unfortunately my wallet was lost in my jacket, stuck between my bag and the flabs of the buxom woman who was seated, impassive, next to me.

The final piece of the pre-travel routine was the obligatory preacher, the incongruity of his three piece suit, extra large bible and booming voice perhaps offset by the very practical face towel with which he dabbed his shiny forehead, which leaked sweat like a rafia basket filled with water. After a quick word of exhortation, he proceeded to bind and cast ‘every demons’ of bloodshed on the high way, and declared we would arrive safely at our destination – a small ritual that prompted the pressing of a few naira into his hands by other more impressed passengers as he launched into his support the ministry spiel.

The trip to Benin was steady, not spectacular. As it turned out, the driver of the bus was a gracefully greyed man who looked to be at least within touching distance of 60, and it showed in how he piloted the bus. He was content to ignore the rants and raves of the excitable passengers keen to get off to a flying start and maintain a steady pace. Aside of a few snarls in the flow of traffic at certain points – one was occasioned by the FRSC attending a recent crash where a lorry filled with Coca Cola bottles had somehow crashed into the road divder and overturned, turning the road into a collage of dark brown liquid, glass shards and red coke covers – we made steady time. The one thing that particularly irked me – and forgetting my phone charger in the ‘Deen meant I had to be frugal with what power I had left – was how many loud telephone conversations went on for the first hour of the trip, at full pelt. There was a young woman (apparently a student) playing the age old game of Dad v. Mum to draw out an extra 100,000 naira from her parents to fund whatever lifestyle she had in Benin, a man seemingly at the centre of a family feud sending instructions to an accomplice to break open a box he had left somewhere and retrieve certain items, and another calmly informing what sounded like an ex girlfriend that he was in town briefly and would like to meet up.

Somewhere around Ore, the bus stopped for a break – the driver going to have lunch in one of the places around, whilst the rest of us made do with what we could. Whilst sauntering along the road, I found suya being made, and at the urging of the Mallam (I really didn’t need any persuasion) I took a taster. 1,000 naira lighter, with a bottle of malt in my lap I was back in the bus, waiting for the journey to resume.

I must have fallen asleep – the sameness of greenery broken only by the odd bump as a bridge is traversed must have lulled me – because the next time I am aware of my surroundings, the bus is packed by the road side offloading a young woman and her box next to a board welcoming all and sundry to Igbinedion University Okada. She seems young, probably in her very early twenties and was dressed very simply. I had briefly wondered why she had an iPad complete with a magic cover sticking out from her hand bag, but I suppose given the astronomical fees charged there, an iPad was small beans. Given the history I have had in the past with the school – F spent five wasted years there before she upped sticks and went elsewhere, and Cousin B narrowly escaped being stuck on the treadmill there – the one brief thought that passes through my mind as the bus is loaded up again and we begin to move is to hope that she hasn’t fallen prey  to the Ponzi scheme that is that University’s medical school.

In due course we arrived in Benin – Oluku junction with its truck lined roadsides, the precious Palm Royal Hotel and UNIBEN Main Gate  in quick order were the prelude to the bedlam that was the Uselu -Lagos road with its half crazed okada riders, buses, trucks and overly exuberant teenagers with cars. The normally impassable roads at this time of the day – around about 2pm – have been made worse by closures for road works; sections of the road are in varying stages of being expanded to six lanes. I suppose the short term pain is a small price to pay if it ends up resolving the larger issue of congestion and drainage. In a nod to the increasingly real threat of abduction, the expatriate site engineer managing the section between Uselu market and the fork in the road where it snakes towards Ring Road or New Benin Market is guarded by three armed soldiers in a white Isuzu truck. Just how inflated the costs will be as a result of needing to provide a security detail, and no doubt appeasing restive youth, remains to be seen.

It is campaign season in Edo State. Posters of Comrade Adams Oshiomole and his deputy litter the billboards of the city. As is the norm, quite a few of them feature various interest groups – I seem to remember a few by the Bini Youth, the association of tipper drivers and others – keen to align themselves with the powers and ingratiate themselves. The clarion call seems to be that a vote for the Comrade is a vote for progress and continuity. To be fair the roads seem to be in much better shape than I remember them from a few years ago. We had to navigate a few back streets to avoid the long tail backs, and that brought to the fore just how much road repair work had been completed in the last few years. The schools too have also been given significant face lifts – new buildings, fresh licks of paints and Coca Cola branded signs indicating the names of the school. There is also the expected billboard with the Comrade’s face on it, proclaiming him the saviour of the school system. I am not the only one who notices – one of the passengers mentions in passing just how relieved he is to see improvements in the city as a whole and wonders why there is even a sliver of doubt that the powers that be would allow a swift return to power for the incumbent. Someone else responds dismissively, insisting that he is an upstart and that he will be trounced at the polls. There is some to-and fro which quickly gets heated, until the first proposer of a second term refuses to reply anymore. If there is one thing this has impressed all over in my mind, it is that politics remains a deeply emotive subject, fractured along ethnic lines and completely disconnected from performance or suitability in this my little corner of red earth.

There will be time in the next few days to return to this city and reacquaint myself with it after my season of insulation, but now all I get is a flying pit stop on the flight to the place called home.

1. Eastwards

As I stand, satchel slung across my shoulder waiting for the call to board the KLM flight from Schipol to Lagos, I think back wistfully to a similar scene just over three years ago, when I stood within the Departures Lounge at the Murtala Mohammed Airport making the transit in the opposite direction. Then, as with now, it was a wedding – that of Sister #1 – that had lured me across the miles, outside the safety of what had been a year of near total insulation, back to Nigeria. In truth, the time and the distance have been mere blips on the timeline of life, but so total has the lostness been that it almost feels like I need to be reacquainted with everything all over again.

The six-hour thirty minute flight from Schipol to Lagos passed eventually – aided by flitting in and out of sleep, watching (very) old episodes of The Big Bang Theory and How I met Your Mother and failing woefully (in my admittedly half-hearted attempts) to catch the eye of one of the air hostesses; an almost otherworldly beauty with small lithe hands and an almost permanently plastered smile. Although the flight was reasonably full, I somehow had the luxury of having an aisle seat with three empty seats either side of me. Surprisingly, given my preference for being left alone on these jaunts, I found myself feeling the aloneness a little bit too keenly at times, like being marooned on my very own atoll. The captain’s voice over the tannoy announcing descent into Lagos for the final thirty minutes of the flight jarred me out of any lingering bouts of sleepiness or self-pity, and ensured I was quite alert by the time I lugged my satchel and ambled on through the walkway through to passport control.

I joined the steady stream of people ambling on towards passport control. At the end of the walkway, there was an immigration officer, kitted in the dull brown uniform, directing us with animated hand gestures into two lines.  “Nigerian passports, here; foreign passports there”he kept saying as each new wave of passengers poured out of the walkway into what was a small waiting room with barriers. Just ahead was a suite of three desks; each manned by two immigration officers. Two of those desks serviced the line for Nigerian passport holders which had quickly swelled and snaked all the way backwards.

Close to the head of our queue was a man dressed entirely in white, his flowing galabeya contrasting with the black shoes peeking out from beneath them. He was standing to one side of the queue and speaking into his phone when I attached myself to the end of the queue. Soon after he finished someone, dressed in the brown of immigration but with a lot more colourful adornments than the people at the desks in front of us, walked up to him, conferred a little and then extricated him and what must have been his bag boy from the queue.  With a curt nod to the officials at the desk he swept past them with his bag carrier in tow, heading for the priority luggage carousel.

As our line continues to inch along, I notice a little cluster around a man in front of me, where our line doubles back on itself for the final time before terminating at the desks. His face looks vaguely familiar, and there are quite a number of handshakes and poses for photographs going on. My suspicion that he is a Nollywood persona is confirmed when in reply to a young woman gushing over him and proclaiming him a star he insists – in that slightly disinterested, studiously self-deprecating style of faux humility – that he is no star, just Kanayo O. Kanayo. The woman who has offered the ‘star’ moniker is left to stutter and move on.

Three people ahead of me, two men are engaged in an animated conversation about the merits and demerits of traveling light. One – a pudgy looking gentleman with a protruding stomach – insists his preference is to always travel light, although his wife usually has other intentions, never passing up the opportunity to stuff his luggage with the last clothes she’s acquired. The other – dressed very casually in shorts and a sleeveless vest shares his secret magic bullet for navigating that particular peeve – leaving the booking of his flight till the last possible moment. Some how I get the impression these are not two people who have been previously acquainted, but are people who think there might be longer term benefit in staying in touch. Mr. PodgyBelly asks for Mr. HipWannabe‘s phone number. Replying in a tone of voice a tad bit too loud, he replies – “I haven’t been back here in a while, I’ll have to give you my United Kingdom number. That’s fine isn’t it?” They exchange phone numbers and then continue yapping on about some other subject. Behind me I hear a muffled hiss. The young woman behind me has as much time for that little bit of showoffishness as I do, precious little.

When my turn at the desk arrives, the first of the officials takes a cursory look at my passport and hands it on to the official seated next to him. He opens it too, flips through a few pages and asks me what I am doing outside Nigeria. “Studying”, I reply. My cover on these trips – useful to avoid the inevitable ‘any thing for us question’ – is to insist that I am a poor broke student. On this occasion my bushy hair and my school boyish satchel slung across my shoulder appear to satisfy him and he waves me through. The girl behind me, with whom I had shared a snicker at the behaviour of Mr HipWannabe gets a far more thorough grilling, involving a question about Kwara State, and where she is from within the state.  It takes me a further twenty minutes before I spot my checked in luggage chugging along on the carousel towards me. All told in just over forty-five minutes, I am all clear and heading out towards the gates for a cab.

The one essential skill I have never mastered is the art of haggling. That war of attrition, an often slow laborious dance of offer and counter offer towards an amicable centre from two usually widely differing starting points, often seemed to me like a pointless waste of time. Two counter offers in I give up, accepting his (at least to me) highly inflated price of four thousand to run me into the Opebi area of town. I console myself with gaining five hundred naira;  less than his initial offer. He must have sensed I felt I had been had – or I had truly been had and his concience wouldn’t give him rest – because all through the trip he ran a monolouge of how hard the country was and how he was having to eke out a living. The cornerstone of his argument? The fact that at a relatively early 8.30pm there was already a clutch of scantily dressed women close to the Allen Roundabout getting their hustle on early. That was one argument I had no answer for.