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You are travelling from Port Harcourt to Yenagoa. Everybody knows the best place to board a cheap bus is at Mile One Bus Park, right under the bridge. It’s been a long while since you came here, but you still remember the countless stories of pick pockets, missing wallets, handbags and phones. Loaded shopping baskets have vanished from the heads of women who paused just for one quick bargain before heading home. Here, men have miraculously lost their penises. Someone touched them, grazed their elbows on the sly, and at once, the thing between their legs disappeared. It’s true. But these stories are not so common anymore.
A man is ringing a bell and shouting, “Yenagoa, five hundred naira! Three per seat, five hundred naira.” He tugs at a lady by the sleeve of her blouse as she walks past, as though he might persuade her to embark on a journey she has no intention of making. She slaps off his hand and throws him a mean look, but he is on to someone else already, ringing his bell. “Yenagoa! Two chance … Who dey go? … One chance one nyash one nyash!”
You get a window seat at the back and try to make yourself comfortable. Since when did these thieves double the fare to Yenagoa, you mutter aloud to yourself, then reach into your backpack for a book, a novel yellowed with age, which you bought from a bend-down- select heap of second hand books from a vendor at Rumuola Junction. The name of the previous owner and a 1987 date are pencilled in on the first page. Not feeling ready to read, you put the book aside and bring out your note pad and pencil.
You pay no attention to the hawkers who shove their wares in your face through the window. Garden eggs, banana and groundnut, agidi, moi-moi, buns, Gala sausage rolls.
Buy your sweet orange! A voice calls out over the bustle, the tone young and unformed. Buy your sweet orange! it calls out over and over again as it recedes toward the other end of the park. A Hausa man appears before you with a show-case display of watches, bracelets, rings, necklaces. “All fure gold straight prom Kano. This one, eighteen carat.” He holds out a coil of necklace and then beams at you, flashing a gold tooth of his own. You pay him no mind. You suspect you may soon snap at him if he persists at this rehearsed stupidity. He moves on. A woman in a red blouse gets on the bus and takes the front row middle seat, next to a man who is sat with an elbow sticking out of the window. There is a bald patch on the head of the man in the passenger’s seat in front. His left arm rises and falls as he fans himself with a little book. He looks back to see if the bus is full, then glances at his wrist watch, “Where is this driver, for God’s sake! Or are we going to sleep here today?” He shakes his head, rumples his face, “Nigeria!” as if this was the answer.
All around, buses are loading, to Bori, Enugu, Omoku, Calabar, Benin, Lagos, Aba… Conductors ring their bells, hawkers project their voices and task-force men from the city council lurk about in plain clothes, demanding selling permits. Seizing goods. You look to the bus nearby where a man in a white, long-sleeved shirt is shaking his head, refusing. The little girl holds on to the window. Yellow skinned, long haired and dirty, she is insisting “Oga I never chop since morning” she motions to her mouth, and then holds her belly. The man looks in another direction; she moves as the man turns his eyes, and plants herself in his new line of vision.
“God go give you better wife.”
“I done already marry.”
“Him go give you better children.”
The man is quiet; she snatches the moment, breaks into a church chorus, shivering her hand like a tambourine. “Tamuno-eh…” the Ijaw words stumble out of her mouth, awkward, fervent, indistinct. The efficacy of performance is about to unravel: will the man part with some change? The little girl’s parents, equally as filthy, are crouching by a corner, watching. You feel certain they are not Fulani. Not dark enough. You wonder if they are Tuareg or Arab. You wonder how many miles they have travelled from the north of the continent and what it might feel like to suffer a drought, or be displaced. Living near the coast as you do, the harmattan winds are your seasonal reminder of drier places as they blow southwards from the Sahara, leaving the air hazy with fine dust. And although people try, a supply of dust still steals in from beneath window louvers and shut doors.
An old man has appeared at the door of the bus with a bowl in hand and tales of a surgery gone bad. He makes to lift his shirt to show evidence of the ruptured abdomen. You all protest and the man lowers the hem of his shirt reluctantly then holds the bowl out with two hands. The woman beside you passes a crumpled note ahead. The man next to her tries to reach his wallet from his back pocket and disrupts the seating arrangement. You shift on your seats, bottom to bottom, to allow him room to be generous, and when he finally gets the cash out and sends it ahead to the old man, he doesn’t return the wallet to its former place; he just holds on to it.
As the last two passengers try to take their seats, the bell ringer goes round to the driver for a quick transaction, and there seems to be a stiff argument between them but this dissolves into laughter after money changes hands, and the bell ringer starts calling passengers to another bus.
Your bus is full and it’s now left for the preacher to hurry in a word and prayers for the road. The vendors give the passengers a break once the preacher emerges from among the stalls and stands, leaning into the bus.
“I am Evangelist Lebanya Godwilling Chimaroke of Effectual Fervent Prayer Ministries Worldwide.” His voice is strong and clear. His maroon safari is faded at the shoulders; the seams on his breast pocket are puckered. He says a few words, clutching a black leather bound bible which has faded stickers on it. And then, “Let us pray.” There is the usual, “Sisters please cover your hair, and brothers take off your caps.”
“Our brother at the back, we are praying, please, close your eyes,” Evangelist is looking straight at you. You don’t do anything; you just stare back. Some passengers turn around, and there is a murmur as though you have set out to jeopardise their journey. You are the Jonah in the ship. The fly in the ointment. You close your eyes to get them off your case but open them again as the prayers begin. You are captivated by the tremor of the Evangelist’s face, the quake of his double chin. “We arrest every blood sucking vampire, every monitoring spirit, every territorial demon, every spiritual wickedness in heavenly places, every principality…” With each category of adversary the Evangelist pronounces, some fervent passengers plead the blood of Jesus and snap their fingers.
“We bind,” he continues, “every agent of Satan, every messenger of Lucifer positioned upon the highways to cause accidents and mayhem! We, right now, issue and tender their arrest warrants!” A few hands clap and even the men who seemed reluctant at first have now surrendered to the groove of the thing.
“We release angelic supersonic spaceships from the seventh heavens to boom down and destroy!” The Amens lift in a chorus. “To boom down and scatter! …To boom down and rent in sunder! Are you not hearing me?” he charges. “I say are you not hearing me?”
Outside the bus, a park warden is pacing with a pen and tattered note book in hand. He beckons to another bus driver to get ready for loading. He taps his pen on the note book, looking in to see if the prayers are over.
“Oya! Begin to laugh at the devil,” the Evangelist urges the passengers, “I say begin to laugh at the devil right now and claim your victory!” He allows a few moments of quiet to pass and then exhales like someone who has completed a work of a life time, “It is done.”
As heads rise, he informs everyone that the Lord is seeking men and women who will support his work here on earth. Those who do not withhold from giving to the Lord will have his blessings and protection. Are all powers not in His hands? Does He not stoop down to watch over the highways to rescue His people from destruction?
The driver starts the engine and the conductor finally gets in the bus and takes his seat. The collection is hurried. Evangelist smoothens his suit as stands outside the bus, holding himself in quiet dignity as some passengers now realise they would like to make an offering too and reach for their purses and wallets.
The conductor shuts the door, the park warden outside beckons wildly to another bus driver to come and take the loading position just as the bus begins to move.
Vendors call through the window, running after the bus as it makes its way to the park gate. They shove the newspapers, magazines and books through the bus windows, calling out titles and summaries of the texts:
Collection of 101 most powerful romantic text messages, fifty Naira only.
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
The Audacity of Hope. Steps to the Anointing. Rich Dad Poor Dad.
I love my pikin, no be for mouth. Buy this colour-me drawing book to prove you love your child; Yes, one hundred naira only, two for one fifty.
Unorthodox medicine pamphlets. Herbal healing. Natural cure for cancer, pile, hypertension, diabetes, stroke, low sperm count, barrenness, internal heat, waist pain, migraine, restless sleep, man-power problems…
The bus pushes past the commotion, out of the park; past old GRA and Nzimiro where colonial houses still sit on manicured lawns, grand, white, quiet; past Garrison junction where tall bank buildings have sprung up. There is a big new sign board with the picture of a smiling man in a fedora hat, asking you to vote for accountability and sustainability. You look away. Meanwhile, further ahead, there is Rumuola, then East-West Road towards a green horizon – and beyond that, in the mind’s eye, Yenagoa, Sapele, Okene, Abuja, all lying in the same sunlight.
The bus gathers speed. The woman in a red blouse shields her hair from the wind then stretches over the man next to her and shuts the window. The man is already asleep, if not an argument would have ensued. The bald man in front cracks open the guinea fowl eggs he bought at the park. The air goes rotten. The woman in the red blouse pinches her nose and makes a show of her discomfort, then reaches across the sleeping man again and pushes the window open with the gumption of someone taking up a challenge.
“Madam, why are you so restless eh?” The sleeping man says. “Did you pay my fare for me that you won’t let me rest here?” He gives a short hiss and rests his head back again.
“Oga, please don’t insult me, do you want me to suffocate here? So because you paid your own transport that is why you won’t allow us to breathe fresh air. Why did you sit by the window? If you want to relax, why don’t you buy your own car where nobody will disturb you?”
“Don’t speak to me like that, this woman. Go home and insult your husband since you have no respect. I have a woman like you at home that I’m feeding and taking care of. Do you hear me?”
“Impossible!” She snorts. “Not my type. You can never smell a woman of my calibre. You have a woman like me at home, yayaya. Who dash monkey banana? I have a man ten times better than you at home. Rubbish.”
The man says something back that you don’t quite hear. The bus runs into a pot hole and the driver throws the steering this way and that and steadies the galloping bus. Another man in the middle row snaps at the driver to watch where he is going. You wonder if the Evangelist shouldn’t have included the pot holes and craters on the road in his prayers. Or perhaps the principalities and powers he took charge of were just metaphors for whoever gets to share the funds meant for road maintenance. For a passenger bus to arrive at its destination without, at least, one Obituary announcement on the radio the following week gives cause for thanksgiving.
The notepad and pencil are still resting on your lap, and just now you realise what to write.
Draw closer my friends and listen to this tale about how the trouble began. It is the story about a boy and a girl. Boy liked girl. He liked her very much, and from the beginning he always knew this. They were both fourteen years of age when they became friends, and they remained so for eight years, until one afternoon the boy couldn’t hold it back any longer, so he told the girl how he liked her, no, not just liked her. He really liked her, the boy said. It wasn’t just her fine figure, her lovely wrists and fingers or the shape of her collar bone. He said all these things to her while his heart tapped swiftly beneath his chest. He looked at her, hoping she would say she felt the same way. The girl stared at him coolly across the table. I don’t like you like that, she said, I don’t like you like that at all, and I can see the way you have said this would make it difficult for us to continue being friends….
The bus driver tunes the radio to a station where an Ijaw voice comes through in staccato. You arrive at a village, although there is a welcome sign naming it a town. A scattering of huts with rusted roofing sheets stooping low like beggars. The village looks bewildered, unsure of its status, as if its inhabitants had left in a hurry hundred years ago, with a few clothes still hanging on the line and some abandoned livestock.
There is a shed by the road – the only sign of commerce. A grass-cutter, roasted and torn in parts, is hanging above a gallon of what looks like palm oil.
You bite your pencil for a while and then resume.
The sky crashed on his head that afternoon, after she said those words to him. He went home and mourned for nearly 40 days and refused to see anyone. Two months later, something stirred in his heart and he decided to go and see her again; he felt confident she would come round. Hadn’t she come to look for him and been turned back? He washed, put on his nice clothes and went in search for her. On the way he met an old friend who told him his love was engaged now to be married. Wedding date set, in four months time. How? When? This time the sun fell from the sky and a deep darkness enveloped him. He stumbled home and shut himself in, weeping in the midst of all his books. Friends laughed: how naive, how simple of mind. He dreamt that night that she was involved in a road accident in which a motorcycle knocked her down and she died before she got to the hospital. At the funeral he couldn’t shed a tear even as he watched her father and mother throwing sand into her grave, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The bus bumps you out of your thoughts and you lay your plotting aside to look out of the window. Swathes of bush rush past, but at different speeds. It meets your eyes like a new thing: that the land is actually green, and actually pleasant. The countryside moves quietly on while the tall trees run backwards. You try to find a line in the landscape which holds still, a spot where the past reverses and the future bends at your whim and impulses.
The man by the window seat is still sleeping. The woman in red beside him has her head lolling sideways as the bus dances along in high speed. The driver slows at a bend and then pushes into a new gear. You put the notebook back in your bag as the bus glides and plies into that middle distance in every journey where most passengers doze off and dream of things. Any other traveller might have returned to his book, or settled in for a nap, but you have just noticed the awkward tilt of the drivers head. The road seems completely free of potholes now and the bus is on such high speed it feels as though a little wind could blow it off the road. Now you are sure you just saw the driver nod off: a sudden drop of the head and quick snap back to position. Within a moment, and you imagine this vividly, the bus could collide, head on, with an on-coming truck; could swerve off the highway and descend into a gorge, and the voice of the radio presenter who would announce this unfortunate incidence is crisp and clear, close enough to your ears, almost blowing on the nape of your neck. You shake off the world of your mind; you let it retreat. The driver’s head is upright, just as it should be.
Still, you decide to take your future in your own hands: you cough, and clear your throat. You cough again, loudly this time, and do it over and over again, bruising the sleep of the other travellers. After a brief lull, you resume coughing. The man next to you shifts and turns his face away, not wanting to catch whatever it is you’ve got. The bus slows, climbs a lump onto a little bridge, and then slices ahead, past acres of swampland and green forest.