I hate Lagos.
No, not exactly. I hate Lagos when I’m broke. Flat broke. As broke as an underpaid government official in charge of a remote village outstation. Forget all the hullabaloo of the infamous Lagos traffic, the sheer human and vehicular movement on the road at every time of the day. Forget the deafening noises emanating from a thousand places at once that threaten to permanently reset the ear’s natural frequency. Forget the cluster of homes that reminds you of a cassava farm overgrown with weeds. Forget all those. Lagos can be fun, mad fun, if you’re loaded.
But when i’m broke, Lagos loses its allure. Its night time becomes a cacophony of sadness and the girls suddenly resemble monsters from way beyond. Even my favoured two-bedroom apartment, located somewhere between Egbeda and Idimu, gets stuffy, nauseating and unwelcoming, like a bowl of ewa agoyin left unattended to for days.
It is then I won’t be able to go to the muvees with my girlfriend of three years; it is then that I won’t be able to order pizza for her every Friday afternoon; it is then I cut down my dear bottles of ‘mortuary standard’ Star to two from the normal six, every other day. It is then I wake up early -too early sef- to go to work. For it is a secret of true Lagosians that transportation fare is much cheaper the farther from daybreak you get to the Bus stop.
That fateful Thursday morning, one of those days Lagos brings the bile to my mouth, I woke up very early such that I was at my bus-stop at 5.00am, awaiting a bus to Oshodi. Ordinarily, traffic and other factors remaining as usual, getting to the bus-stop at 6am would still see me getting to Oshodi around 8am, the official resumption time at work. But this Thursday, the state of my wallet would not permit the luxury of an extra thirty minutes in bed.
I stood with three others at the bus-stop, each one of us not looking the other in the eyes. Not that we could see one another’s eyes unless we peered really deeply and closely, but there was this unwritten rule that said ‘MIND YOUR BUSINESS.’ And so, I minded my business and waited for a bus. If I had the guts to break the mind-your-business rule, maybe i’d have been privileged to meet before hand, the man who inspired this story. Anyway, meeting him was destined to be a sooner than later affair.
I was at the bus-stop exactly five minutes when the full-lights of an approaching vehicle scared away the darkness that had engulfed us. The vehicle turned out to be a car, a Toyota Camry, the one they call pencil light. At the wheels was a young man of around my age looking sharp and prim, ostensibly on his way to work too.
“Oshodi,” he called out, straining towards the passenger side so we could hear his voice. We all rushed towards him as he opened the passenger door for us to enter. I chose the front seat while my two other ‘companions’ sat at the back; the car’s inner light gave faces -though blurry- to the silhouettes that had waited at the bus-stop with me earlier.
As the driver was about to move, someone from a side street came running towards us, a backpack dangling from one shoulder, shouting ‘Oshodi, oshodi.’ The driver waited for him to join us before setting the car in motion.
As we moved, I took a cursory glance at my fellow passengers as a matter of course. When you enter any vehicle that early in Lagos, it is imperative you scanned the faces of your fellow passengers as subtly as you could. I don’t know why people do this but I guess it’s out of an inherent attitude rather than any security measure. For really, one would never know a criminal at first sight nor by dressing; even the best dressed are the most likely thieves. In a quick scan, besides the backpack guy who had come in later, the other two passengers looked like word and opposite. While the one closest to the door by the driver’s side wore a check brown shirt, donned a yellow tie and brown trousers; the other wore yellow check shirt, brown check tie and and brown trousers. The yellow-tie guy looked like someone who had had an early morning spat with his wife while the other looked dreamy like a sleepwalker. I wondered if he was really not sleep-riding as the case was. The third guy was just the backpack guy to me as he was seated directly behind me.
“Oshodi is one-fifty o,” the driver said as we took off. Nobody said anything; we all knew the same ride would cost two hundred and two buses at day break. I adjusted in my seat and settled for the ride. The car itself was very comfortable and clean. It was without doubt a private car the owner used to help people early in the morning en-route his workplace.
“He must likely work on the Island,” I said to myself as I pulled the seatbelt out of its holster and clicked it into place. I believe only those who worked on the Island left home that early.
Just as I clicked my seatbelt into place, the driver brought out a CD from the side pocket of the driver’s door. He checked to see which one it was. Satisfied it was what he had in mind, he inserted it into the CD player and left it to play.
The unmistakable percussions of Dr Orlando Owoh’s 1970s classic, Logba Logba, filtered from the hidden speakers somewhere on the dashboard. The music found its way into my soul and I smiled sheepishly, like a girl whose boyfriend had offered a box of her preferred brand of chocolate. Before the song was three minutes gone, I fell asleep. Give it to the Kennery Master himself, therapeutic music, aided by unique konga and guitar, were his trademark.
I was getting comfortable in the sleep when the voice woke me.
I got to realise that as soon as I fell asleep, the driver had asked for the transport fare and everyone awake had paid the pre-agreed one-fifty naira save the man in yellow tie. The man had paid one hundred naira.
“Oga, your money is one-fifty,” I heard the driver say from dreamland, his voice calm and patronising.
“Why one-fifty? Ehn? Why one-fifty?” the man voiced out, his accent distinctly eastern, the aggression in his voice hard to miss. It was that aggression that brought me fully awake.
“But, sir, didn’t I tell you it was one-fifty from where I picked you?” the driver asked again, the calmness in his voice intact.
“I no hear!” the man answered matter-of-factly.
“You no hear?”
“Oga, we were all here when the man said one-fifty now and you didn’t object, why…” the backpack guy tried to interfere but yellow-tie would hear none of it.
“My friend, please, mind ya own business o! Ahn! Wetin concern agbero concern traffic? Abeg, face ya front o!”
The man in the middle, the one donning the brown check tie, was quiet all through as the sparks flew around. Even when yellow-tie nearly brushed his jaw while trying to point a finger at the backpack guy at the other end, he only slightly squirmed his face and looked on. Not one word nor cursory glance at the feuding parties. It was almost as if the duo didn’t exist to him. I guess he was truly sleep-riding.
“Sir,” I joined in the argument, trying my best to be as courteous as possible, “all of us dey here wen hin talk say na one-fifty, why you wan cause trouble na?”
“See, you beta go back to ya sleep. You know wetin dey happen for here? Ehn? Talk na! Sebi na you wan do peacemaker, ehn?” yellow-tie retorted, his face twitching and un-twitching like someone in a fight against himself.
“But sir, you no say anytin na!” I quipped in, not minding the man’s increasing aggression.
“Ol’ boy, you beta keep ya mouth shut dia! Wetin be ya own sef? Ehn? The driver no talk anytin, ehn? I say na hundred naira I wan pay, una dey query me. Abeg, make una leave me o.”
The words he uttered made sense. Really, what’s our own with the fact that he chose to pay one hundred naira if the driver that was supposed to be emphatic about it had said a few words and kept quiet?
“I don’t know why we dey always make life difficult for ourselves in this country. Transport from hia na hundred naira before and we even know sef say d money too mush dat time. Wen Oga Jona increase fuel to 140naira, d tin jumped to two hundred, now wey we don go fight for Ojota, dem bring am come 97naira but all of una no wan reduce una own, ehn! Why? I no know why we dey like to legalise illegality for ds we country. Ah!” The man ended with a prolonged hiss which reminded me of my ex-girlfriend. A barrage of sweat had broken out from the millions of pores on his skin and he resembled a preacher giving a sermon under the scorching sun.
As I opened my mouth to talk, the driver who had been largely inactive all the while just slowed down the car and parked. Before anyone could say a word, he killed the engine.
“Mr Illegality, please get out of my car.” The voice was by now firm, courteous but daring.
There was silence in the car as we all turned to look at the man with the running mouth. The man didn’t answer. Instead he pouted his mouth and began looking at some indeterminate object only he could see.
“Mr Illegality,” the driver repeated, “get out of my car.”
“I no go get out!” he answered this time, pulling at the driver’s seat. “If I no get out, wetin u go do me? Ehn? We just like promoting illegality in this country. From hia to Oshodi no suppose pass hundred naira, eh, wetin?”
The driver didn’t utter any other word. Instead, he leaned across to the glove compartment, pulled out a bright green beret I immediately recognised as a MOPOL service issue. An officer’s belt followed. He then opened the door and got down. He wore the beret, folded the belt into two and opened the back seat door.
“Mr Illegality, come down please.”
“Ah Oga! I no know say you be my person na!” Yellow-tie -Mr Illegality- responded, a broad smile stretched across his mouth.
“You suppose don know say na play I dey play na. How I go wan enter Oshodi from hia for hundred naira? I dey craze?” he asked rhetorically, still smiling but refusing to get out of the car. “No vex Officer, no vex at all.”
“See, I no want wahala, but if you ask for it, i’ll give it to you plenty,” the driver, whose voice by now brought back memories of our Commandant from way back at the Navy School, stated slowly.
“Me sef no like wahala, oga. No vex.”
The mopol-driver didn’t bother to answer him, he just slammed the back door, got into the driver’s seat and restarted the engine after he had dumped the beret on the dashboard.
“Oya, Oga, take money.”
Mr Illegality passed the fare from behind to the driver.
The rest of the journey was spent in silence. No one thought to say a word. Infact, the sleep I had so much enjoyed went off the radar like a missing plane. But deep inside of me, something craved expression, the kind that couldn’t be bottled for long. I held it in there, like unwanted sneeze, hoping it’d pass. It refused to. And I had to let go.
The laughter that ran out of me was the needed impetus for the whole car to erupt into laughter. Even brown-check-tie driver who I had assumed was sleep-riding joined with a wide grin. Only Mr Illegality didn’t find anything funny. Or maybe he did but couldn’t muster enough courage to join the hearty laughter.
Bankole Sijuade Banjo is the winner of the Naija Stories Christmas Nostalgia Contest (2012). He was also a finalist at the Farafina New African Writing competition (2012) and the JLF Competition (2010). His short story, The Writer’s Cinema, made the first anthology collection of Naija Stories, Of Tears and Kisses, Heroes and Villains. Bankole works full-time as a copywriter at one of Nigeria’s foremost advertising agencies. Recently, as part of a 3-man creative team, he won a Gold plaque at the 1st ever Young Lagos Advertising Ideas Festival contest(Young LAIF 2012). He tweets via @banky_writes.