5. In Which I return to old haunts


My return to Benin was less about closure than reacquainting myself with the past all over again. As feared, there was an immediate fall out from the wedding – the next morning, Mother was at the door of the room I was sharing with the kid bro wanting to chat, and there could be no uncertainty about what her primary objective was. It was thus expedient to engineer a move away to the relatively low pressure of Aunt G’s back in Benin. I had an official reason for upping sticks and bailing – chasing up transcripts for the Welding Engineering PhD I may or may not require after all. The other unofficial reason was to catch up with Cousin E and her baby, Dara, the fifth and final member of the clan born since the last time I was out here.

 I find there is a spanking new park just outside the University’s main gate where all the buses plying the routes from town are required to offload their passengers. I don’t remember what used to be there, but right there now there is a row of shiny new shops offering everything from a cold drink to quick passports and internet access. There are Security men at the gate, armed with a baton and a metal detector. My satchel, slung casually across my neck isn’t unobtrusive enough to squeak through, and I have to submit to a check and a peek into my bag.

 I toy with the idea of jumping onto one of the buses plying the routes from the main gate to the various stops within, but I finally decide to walk to avoid the hassle of chasing change (I don’t know what the fares are anymore and I am light on small denominations). The walk to Exams and Records is short and quick, the only downside being that I end up in one puddle too many, ruining my shoes in the process. From afar I catch sight of the new bursary building, its façade and red signage furnished in the signature Zenith Bank style [it turned out that the building had indeed being paid for by Zenith Bank].

There is no one in the office I am meant to hand in my application fees to. A few metres away, a menagerie of people bedecked in sporting garb run aimlessly on the lawn. To my untrained eye, it looks too random to be anything but concerted play – Aunt G later confirms that there is some form of group exercise thing which certain departments have instituted. Just why, at the not exactly early time of 10.30am on a Wednesday, these exercises are still ongoing leaves me bemused. I eventually find someone to attend to me, and then proceed to complete the application process. Job done, I take a stroll down towards the engineering building via the main cafeteria.

The old main café was a big part of my life back in the day. Back then when I was fairly active on the campus fellowship scene, I attended twice a week there, and also read there. In my final year, I would eventually make the acquaintance of a petite, medical student E who would sometimes leave her books under my care whilst she dashed off on some jaunt or the other to her medical hostel lodgings. On this occasion I find its forecourt busy – there are cars parked around and one or two traders under the trees just in front of it, and various business centre lackeys trying to convince passers-by to stop over and use their photocopying machines. The one thing I am in desperate need of is the one they don’t have – an internet connection of any sort. The once bustling UB Technologies cafe within the building is under lock and key. I can only walk on, hoping I have merely chosen a bad day to try to surf the internet, and not that a perhaps iconic institution has gone under.

 The once familiar haunts of the Engineering building looked the same – well almost. The notice board looked a lot less bare than I remembered. Back in the day there was almost always a conference announcement or a notice to students or the other.The door leading to the dean’s office though has had an upgrade – burglary proof metal bars protect it, and a flashing blue sign above it show the way. Out front, where there used to be an eatery where we would go grab lunch in between classes, there was a new building with the sign internet café. It was unfortunately not in use – it was securely locked, and the padlocks looked like they hadn’t been disturbed in a while. There was also a new building next to it – some sort of hall with ‘ETF 2008 project’ emblazoned on it’s side.

My time on campus done, my final pit stop is at Aunt G’s. Her gateman, one that I do not recognise insists there is no one I know at home, and offers me a dirty, rain beaten bench for a seat till someone comes through. Thankfully Cousin E rescues me when I give her a phone call and find out she is actually at home after all. We catch up – her life back in Nigeria as a house officer in UBTH, juggling motherhood and her fledgling career, and navigating a marriage from across the sea. Glad for the help, she hands the kid over to me for some uncle-niece bonding.

Aunt G has aged since the last time I saw her – being a three time grandmother cannot have helped either. In agreeing to sleep over, I have gambled on her not having enough time to give me an earful. She had been a big fan of F from day zero, and I got an earful over the phone when she heard that we were history. This being the first time I am physically seeing her since then, I am braced for a barrage which never comes. She does ask though, and I give her my version of the story. Ageing seems to her mellowed her a wee bit. Papa G and I have a quick chat on his return, his own concern primarily being the future – a return to Nigeria, marriage and how my parent s are. It is almost 11pm when my various conversations wrap up. All in all it has been difficult territory navigated fairly safely, I think.

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.