The sun had began to lose some of its unblinking menace by the time my overloaded bus laboured up the final incline and began its descent into Ekpoma. Although we had made steady progress on the Lagos to Benin leg, navigating the maze of the Uselu – Lagos road and finding my way to the Big Joe motor park across town had taken a while and it was well past four pm before I found my not particularly comfortable seat on a bus to Ekpoma.
The short hop from Benin to Ekpoma is one that I have made more times than I care to remember. From my early years – spent living with my father as he made his name as a young academic whilst Mother managed a family in a different city – to my five and some years of undergrad study, that commute – and on a good day it is only a 45 minutes journey – came to define my life. Time and time again, I managed to time my sleeps so well that as whatever vehicle I was in was labouring up the hill into town I would awake to the welcome of home just over the horizon.
Home, the little brown house on the corner of 3rd and 12th no longer exists in the sense that no one lives there on a permanent basis anymore. My mother, like all women, has had her moments of impulse buying – her closet of shoes and never worn clothes are a testament to that – but one of her more prescient actions was to pay all of 2,000 naira for a piece of land somewhere on the outskirts of town very many years ago. Thanks to that inspired purchase and an Architect friend of the family, a couple of years ago they were able to join the trickle of people moving out of the University owned quarters to their very own place. The one downside of that – besides all the memories associated with that house which I may have lost for good – was that it was impossible for me to locate it myself. I thus had to call for the parentals to pick me up from the motor park.
By this time it was inching closer to 5.30pm, and all that was on my mind was a cold glass or bottle of something, a nice bath and some sleep; unbeknownst to me I would have to navigate a further two hours before those simple quotidian pleasures were granted me. My father decided – without recourse to me of course – that it would be expedient to make a pit stop at the hall that had been organised for the wedding reception. The plan was to hang around a little to chat with the women helping to clean it up and decorate it before heading on home.
It proved to be an inspired decision as it turned out. Some local council chieftain had set himself up as judge and jury in his own small court and decided that this was the perfect time to smoke out tthe ‘culprits’ behind what he felt was a conspiracy to defraud the local council. He insisted, much to the chagrin of all of us, that we would not get access until a receipt was produced. Fortunately or unfortunately, there was only a letter of approval from earlier in the year as the receipt had being lost in the intervening period. Multiple phone calls to the officers in charge of the building and even the council chairman failed to resolve the matter as our crusader decided he held all the aces, even against the mediation of his own boss. Very nearly an hour, a fresh payment – backed up by a signed receipt – and a covert picture capturing the exchange of the money on a phone was what it eventually took before access was finally granted, at which time it was too late to get the place properly cleaned up as initially planned. So much for a chilled out time with the family; everyone’s mood was foul to say the least.
My ordeal is far from over though. It turns out that Aunt Liz has had major trouble locating the house on the edge of town. In describing the location to her and her driver, Mother has made the mistake of using the wrong landmark. There are two seminaries with similar sounding names in different parts of town. Mother has given a description with the wrong one, and they have ended up quite some distance from where they should be for pickup. I get sent to sort them out – with only my mobile for company. When I do not find them where they should be, a flurry of phone calls follows before I realize the problem is in the description. They finally stop off at a well known junction and I walk till I find them.
Now truly hungry and tired, I have to plaster on a smile on my face and make small talk as I join her car and direct them in person for the last few kilometres. She has always had her agenda – and certain things I do not want to talk about are usually on them – but I somehow manage to steer the conversation into less controversial matters. Her twin boys – firm favourites of mine from my time spent with them in the 2000’s – are always a good diversion and I end up getting a good earful of their current situation.
It is almost 7pm by the time we eventually pull in, and I leave the Aunt and my Mother to catch up as they always do, whilst I make a bee line to the kitchen. Thankfully Sister#1 had done some boiling and frying. Whilst I have been trying to bring home the Aunt, the kid brother who had made the trip from up north himself on the day had arrived a few minutes before I did, so there was enough relatively young company to engage with. All it lacked was Sister #2 who was away getting a proper coiffure in preparation for her big day and niece #1.
It was almost 9pm before we all got together – the kid brother and I having our meal standing up, Sisters #1 and #2 filling us in all the happenings we had missed, and the niece being all coy and shy around us. Not since the back end of 2007 have we all been in the same place together with feeling the pressure of a performance on our shoulder, and never more has it felt like I have missed this for far too much.