She smelt it before she saw it and the large flies which were beginning to circle her head in the morning sun confirmed what it was as they led her in a procession towards it. At first she thought it was the corpse of some animal that had been knocked down by a careless driver but as she drew closer she realized what it was and gasped loudly instantly covering her mouth before one of the flies could decide to take a trip down her throat using her tongue as a surfing board.
The charred remains of a human being lay several feet away from her and as she walked rapidly past it, she had to fight the human curiosity not to gape at the remains of the dead person while at the same time trying as hard as possible not to gag as the putrid smell jolted her senses to life and threatened to eject the contents of her stomach
Without looking she tried to cross to the other side of the dirt road as thoughts whirled through her head and she confirmed to herself that the body that lay there now had not been there when she had walked down this same road several hours before the previous day on her way back from work. The loud honk of a horn startled her momentarily as she realized that she had stopped in the middle of the street. Tears stung her eyes as the okada driver and his passenger – a young man clutching a manilla file folder while balancing steadily on the back of the motorcycle – cursed at her simultaneously. Their voices faded into the morning air and as she approached the bus stop she realized that was sobbing loudly. Almost immediately she heard the steady stream of a familiar tune from one of the ramshackle stalls which dotted the bus stop, and she laughed out loud as she recognized the upbeat tune of Onyeka Onwenu’s One Love. She wondered whose corpse it was that she had seen lying so ordinarily on the street on a weekday morning, was it male or female. Probably male, probably an accused thief possibly a victim of the jungle justice meted out recklessly by young people in the city often catalyzed by the howls of ‘Ole o’ ‘Ole o’.
Several minutes later she boarded the staff bus which pulled up at the regular pick-up point to transport her and the other people she worked with to their place of work on the Island from the Mainland. She still could not get the image out of her mind and resolved to take the longer walk home to avoid seeing it all the while asking her Creator to rest the soul of whoever it was that had suffered such an indignity.
She began to focus her attention on the day that lay before her, she had a lot to be thankful for even though she knew that a number of people would do a number of things to be in the position that she held as the Personal Assistant (PA) to the Head of Human Resources at a well-established and successful commercial bank, she alone knew that she was nothing less than a glorified errand girl. Mrs Kalu was the Head of Human Resources and her boss. About a decade and a half earlier, Mrs Kalu had earned a degree in Microbiology from some obscure university located on the West Coast of the United States. During her time as her PA, Olawunmi would come to believe that she would probably be kinder to micro-organisms than to the human beings in her life. With a blend of egocentrism, haughtiness and the odd sprinkling of sarcasm, Mrs Kalu had a knack for meting out all forms of invectives to everyone she came in contact with in the workplace for a variety of reasons from the banal to the serious. It did not seem to matter what level of the echelons of the career ladder you were on, no one was immune.
During her first week on the job, Olawunmi had cringed as she listened to a telephone conversation between one of the branch managers in the Northern part of the country who was seeking reimbursement for medical expenses incurred when his wife had a complicated birth which required additional surgical interventions. Mrs Kalu, confirming from the man that this was their fifth child proceeded to give him a thorough lecture on family planning going as far as accusing him of being one of the many men who was overpopulating the country.
Following her initial experience during her first week on the job, Olawunmi would spend the next three years in her position acquiring a great deal of ambidexterity in her role as the PA to the Head of HR. It was a necessary skill combined with the patience and tact that was required to put out the conflagrations which were inevitably lit as a result of her boss’s obvious intolerance for people. Her boss’ nuances and quirks were given the summary title ‘Mrs Kalu’s wahala.’ Nobody was prepared to deal with this metaphorical wahala which was almost like a saber-toothed tiger tearing up everything in its way and leaving people with the lowest form of self-esteem imaginable all the while condemning them to an episode of nail-biting and teeth-gnashing. If possible it was avoided like a plague and most people eased themselves out of situations where they would have to confront it.
As images of the dead body she had seen early that morning managed to shadow her thoughts during most of the day, Olawunmi busied herself with her work which most days consisted of following instructions barked at her by her vixen of a boss and pacifying a number of people who had been rubbed the wrong way by Mrs Kalu and her wahala. It was a wide range from those who were in the headquarters with them to those who were in the branch offices and who would ceaselessly burn the phone lines with one story of infraction or the other. The only time she felt she could exhale unperturbed was when Mrs Kalu finally left the confines of the office suite which they shared to attend a management meeting. Then Olawunmi felt free to stretch all 34 inches of her legs under her desk.
She was summoned into Mrs Kalu’s office when the latter returned with the news that the fleet of staff buses – a well-received perk which was helped to assuage the commuting woes of a high percentage of the staff at the headquarters was being yanked away from the beneficiaries in the most sudden and unexpected manner.
The fact was the city of Lagos was undergoing a crippling petroleum crisis and it was becoming increasingly difficult for the bank to continue to justify buying fuel at exorbitant prices for the buses all of which were assigned to various routes on the mainland part of the city. It was for this reason that senior management had decided to pull the buses off the roads until such a time as when the fuel crisis had dissipated and things were back to normal. The staff buses would with immediate effect be parked on the premises of the bank and staff members (Olawunmi included) who relied on the staff bus for the commute back home would have to find other ways of commuting. Olawunmi had the unmerited pleasure of drafting the memo and also bearing the brunt of the insults meted out by her colleagues who demanded a more detailed explanation since none of the members of senior management were relinquishing the company cars which were assigned to them.
The truth was the senior management could care less, since they had little or nothing to do with the staff bus and if there was a member of that group who showed the slightest form of compassion to the plight of the people who relied on the staff bus to get to work, it was clear that he or she would have borne the full weight of Mrs Kalu’s wahala. The staff buses were parked on the company premises until further notice pending a time when things normalized in the city. The announcement was made on a Friday evening, everyone found their way home with whatever means they could that evening.
The following Monday when several colleagues met to swap stories of what they had to endure during their commute to work, Pius Anyiam a brilliant yet dull and unassuming character in the Accounting Department swore that he had seen one of the staff buses in his neighborhood early on a Sunday morning, with the banner of an evangelical church concealing the familiar acronyms of the Bank which had been emblazoned on the side of the bus. Standing a short distance away from the group, Olawunmi shook her head in disbelief. It was possible that she was the only one present that knew that Mrs Kalu and her husband were the Grand Patron and Patroness of that particular church and that only that past weekend, the church had held its Annual Prayer Meeting which involved people from all over the country to convene at the church’s headquarters which was located smack in the middle of a densely populated area of the mainland which just happened to be the neighborhood where Pius Anyiam livede. She was not wrong in her suspicions that Mrs Kalu had used the staff bus in order to convey people who were attending this Prayer Meeting to the destination especially when the perceptive Mr Anyiam described the vigorousness with which the occupants of the bus were belting out popular praise and worship hymns.
Olawunmi herself had had a grueling ordeal commuting to work that morning. There were fewer commuter buses plying the roads at this point of the fuel crisis. She had ambled to the bus stop this time taking the longer route in order to avoid having to encounter the body which she had heard from people who had walked down the road in recent days was still lying languidly on the side road where she had last seen it. Unlike previous days when she waited for her staff bus at a side of the makeshift bus stop that was far from the madness of the crowd, she had had to mingle with the throngs of people who waited for the commercial vehicles that would take them to their various destinations. The word chaos took on another meaning and dimension of its own. It became clear the extent to which the fuel crisis had reached when the familiar danfo buses were a rare sight as most of them ran on the fuel which had become a precious commodity in town. The only form of transportation that was visible that morning was the black and yellowed-hued mammoth-shaped bus which had been given the incomparable name – Molue.
There was nothing else like it in Lagos and for many commuters that morning it was a godsend because it ran on diesel. Although at that point of the fuel crisis, diesel had not fallen into the ranks of what was considered essential but scarce commodities, many cynics were quick to point out that it was just a question of time since word on the street was the scarcity was about to extend to diesel.
In the meantime, molues were the saving grace for Lagos commuters relying on public transportation. And if you were yet to master the art of jumping on a molue in motion, it was a good time to learn. Molue jumping was an art which a fair share of the commuting population in Lagos – old and young, male and female had mastered to an impeccable tee. And Olawunmi tried not to look too astounded as she watched a young mother with her infant strapped diligently to her back run quickly and catch a molue in motion and hold on for dear life squeezing herself through the throng of people who populated the entrance to the bus. She braced herself thinking that if that young woman could do it there was no reason why she could not. Well aware that in this crowd could be nestled one or two predatory pickpockets, she held her handbag and her other larger tote bag which contained her decent work shoes and a number of items which she knew she would need to freshen up when she got into work . As she followed the singsong voice that screamed the words CMS! CMS! she made her first futile attempt to board the molue. It was almost like magic, the crowd of people that had a moment ago been subdued suddenly came to life and everyone leapt towards the large behemoth of a vehicle. A rotund-shaped man with a tie sticking out of his shirt pocket shoved her aside as she tried to retain her equilibrium someone else pushed her and in the middle of this she saw the house slippers she had on slide off her feet in the opposite direction of the rush. Hopping on one foot she tried to go after her runaway slipper and as the crowd pushed and shoved her from one side to the other she did not lose sight of it and finally managed to put her one nude foot into the rubbery interior catching her breath and looking in the direction of the receding vehicle. Even as the vehicle was moving faster more and more people were trying to get into it, one young man reeled forward and jumped on only to be jettisoned off because he could not hold on tightly enough. And almost immediately it started, the madness was over and all that was left was the ebbing of the sing song voice of the conductor of the molue still calling on passengers to board for CMS even when it was obvious that the bus was full to capacity. In its wake the molue had added to litter on the busy street – a pair of matching Dunlop slippers, a baby’s well-used feeding bottle and several oranges which were now being snatched off the ground by children who seemed to appear from nowhere, were a reminder of what had just transpired. She resolved to get on the next molue to CMS even it meant she had to lose all the dignity that she had built up for herself in all her years of grooming as an adult. Two molues later, she found herself in one standing conscious of everyone around her while nursing a sharp pain on the toes of her left foot which she longed to caress but could not because there was standing room only in the space she occupied on the bus and if she even tried to bend she was sure that everyone else would lose their balance and curse her for it. A wide variety of smells on the molue made her feel sick – the interior of bus was reeking of some stench that was a combination of dampness and degradation.
By the time she sat at her desk that morning, she had spent enough time freshening up that there was not even a trace of her commuting ordeal and when Mrs Kalu arrived two hours later than the rest of the office, she was able to welcome her with a smile plastered on her face and a warm greeting and customary courtesy. The latter replied by looking her straight in the eye, scanning her appearance from head to toe and nodding a response.
During lunch with her friend Uloma later that day, Olawunmi narrated her ordeal to her in as graphic a manner as possible highlighting the details while Uloma chuckled loudly in between mouthfuls of food. Uloma who worked for a smaller organization which did not have a staff bus elected to remind Olawunmi that the ordeal that she insisted on griping about was the commuting reality for not too few people.
‘Let me introduce you to another way of coming to work,’ Uloma said with a twinkle in her eye in response to Olawunmi’s question of how she was managing in the face of the commuting dilemma which many were faced with. ‘The Ferry Boat!’
Uloma went on to explain that there were actually ferry boats which were located in strategic parts of Lagos and which helped to transport workers from the mainland to the island. They were not as common as the molues or the danfos but they did exist.
It was Uloma’s idea that Olawunmi spend the weekdays with her in the home that she shared with her cousin in FESTAC town which was closer to the Ferry Boat Terminal so as to ease her commuting woes. At first Olawunmi was hesitant, not because she did not think of it as a valid offer and one that she felt would make her life a lot easier, it was because of the Zuby issue. Zuby was short for Azubike. He was Uloma’s cousin whom she shared her living space with. His parents who owned the house had immigrated to the United States over a year ago with the rest of his siblings in tow and the only reason he had been unable to join them was because his two applications for entry visas had been rejected. While he nursed the wounds of the double rejection, he concocted a scheme to get the passport of a neighboring West African country and try to apply from a US Consulate over there. The problem with Zuby was that his mind had taken permanent residence in the gutter. If there was anything lewd or lascivious to be said he said it. The first time that Olawunmi had visited Uloma in her home in FESTAC she had been stunned with disbelief at the words that he uttered while she waited for her friend who was getting dressed in her bedroom. Not content to describe his desire in words he had produced a magazine with the topless images of women and couples in various coital positions which he assured her was her destiny with him. Wide-eyed, Olawunmi was trying to summon all the rage that was building up in her when Uloma emerged and gave Zuby a stern warning which only emboldened him to snicker in the ugliest manner imaginable and wink at Olawunmi blowing her kisses in the air and letting her know his feelings. Later they had laughed it off as Uloma explained the incident away saying that Zuby was becoming the devil’s workshop the inevitable product of an idle mind that did nothing all day but wait for a stipend from Western Union® sent by his absent parents, while cooking up schemes of reaching his goal of going to America. Still the incident with Zuby had managed to discourage Olawunmi from making any other attempts to visit Uloma at her home
When she voiced her reason for hesitating to take up Uloma’s offer to Zuby’s wanton display of affection, the latter was quick to dismiss this. She concluded that Zuby was as harmless as a dog chasing a car. Responding to the puzzled stare that Olawunmi gave her, she proceeded to give Olawunmi an account of how Zuby had been trying out his charms on a local girl who sold oranges on the street corner. Unlike many females who spawned his bawdy advances, this girl actually took up Zuby’s offer to rock her world. The two had been locked in Zuby’s bedroom for close to an hour when the orange seller had exited raining abuses on Zuby and letting anyone in the neighborhood who cared to listen know that Zuby was all mouth and no action nothing more than a dog who chases a car but does not know how to start the engine. It had been a long time since Olawunmi had laughed so hard and so the Zuby issue was laid to rest.
The following day, well-versed in the art of molue-jumping this time armed with an additional bag of clothes for the week, Olawunmi had left the house she shared with her widowed mother and younger sisters and taken the first Molue into Lagos Island. In the evening, the commute from work to Uloma’s place was simplified by the assistance of a good Samaritan who had given the two young ladies a ride to Uloma’s house. It was not until the next day that she would experience her first ferry boat ride into Lagos.
The ferry boat terminal close to FESTAC is on the stretch of road called the Lagos-Badagry Expressway which takes you past the busy Mile 2 bus stop towards one of the borders between Nigeria and the Republic of Benin past the sleepy town of Badagry. It is tucked in a corner of the Mile 2 bus stop albeit a short distance away from the madness of the bus stop and the Interstate Motorpark but it is bestowed with its own special brand of madness. In those days, you could get a good view of the Ferry Terminal if you stood at the section of the expressway where the Interstate night buses parked in a place called Maza Maza.
Uloma and Olawunmi walked down from the FESTAC first gate towards the ferry boat terminal. Zuby was fast asleep on the sofa in the living room as they left the house and during their walk to the terminal, Uloma attributed his ordeal to the pride and stubbornness of his parents especially his father who insisted that the boy join the rest of the family in the States against all odds rather than take the advice of various friends and relatives who advocated the eighteen year old enrolling in an institution of higher learning rather spending endless months as a prime target for the devil’s whims and fancies in an idle state of redundancy.
As they approached the ferry boat terminal, Olawunmi noticed that the passengers who were scattered around the terminal were not quite different from those who used what she termed regular transport. There were school children, some of them their faces still dusty with the white powder that their mothers had sprinkled on them, the odd male office worker with a bored look on his face as he tried to look unnoticeable especially as two young ladies approached. For many young men, it was not a thing of pride to be seen taking public transport least of all the ferry boat which was lowest in hierarchy of commuting options. Most of the potential passengers were market women encumbered by their merchandise of various shapes, sizes and odors which hit the olfactory lobes with an unforgiving fierceness. Closer scrutiny of the setting revealed a dinghy boat with some inscription on it indicating that the service was operated by the Lagos State Government. This did nothing to calm Olawunmi’s anxieties as she tried to inspect the vehicle as much as she could to make sure that water was not leaking into it from underneath. She had nursed fears of the ferry boat sinking in the middle of the Lagos lagoon ever since Uloma had told her about it and not even the most calming thoughts or memories she tried to muster could shake off those fears.
A man who she assumed was the conductor was having an argument with a woman whom he wanted to charge an additional fare for some load that she was carrying. It took her a while to understand that they were waiting for the ‘driver’ of the boat, who eventually showed up a short while later, with a well-used chewing stick dangling from his lips like it was a part of his anatomy…he talked in rapid-fire Yoruba to the conductor who was obviously much younger than he was and Olawunmi marveled at the fact that the chewing stick stayed put in between his lips even though it moved, there was not even the slightest chance that perhaps it would fall to the ground.
With a swift move of his hand…the conductor indicated that it was time to board, that was when she noticed that there was already someone on the boat…a younger lad who could not have been more than fifteen, he was the one who let the crowd in. Disorder was everywhere…but it was organized disorder since most of the people who boarded the ferry were quite conscious of the gap between the boat and the quay and knew that with one false move, one could fall into the lagoon below. Uloma and Olawunmi who had hardly spoken as the novice took in the scene at the ferry terminal joined the rest of the throng who poised to enter the ferry. The lad who was already in the bus took charge of collecting the fare from the passengers before they boarded the ferry boat and the two ladies managed to find a seat together. Olawunmi sat saying a silent prayer of protection which was interrupted by a loud droning noise as the engine of the boat was started.
From where she sat, she could see the murky lagoon waters lick the base of the front of the boat and caught a glimpse of the driver who was now wearing a brass-rimmed pair of sunglasses. He steered the boat with one slow circular motion of his left hand away from the quay shouting a spontaneous phrase to a group of youth gathered on the shore who responded with a singular gesticulation.
The boat eased into the water and Olawunmi was beginning to relax in her thoughts when a voice broke the solemnity. A man dressed in a threadbare suit threw a lukewarm greeting to the crowd gathered on the boat. He introduced himself as a ‘Minister for Christ’ and proceeded to say a prayer over the boat calling on all the lost souls on the boat to accept the message of salvation he was preaching. His approach was brash and abrasive as he used graphic and uncouth examples of the wickedness of man most of it focusing on adultery and fornication using passages from the Bible to buttress his point. By the time, she had gotten the full gist of his message, Olawunmi allowed her mind to wander again. Conversation with Uloma was impossible given the combination of the loud diatribe of the minister and incessant droning of the boat’s engine.
There was a small puddle that had formed in a corner of the boat, she had noticed it when she had sat down and at first thought it was a confirmation of her fear that the boat had a leak underneath it, when the level of the puddle remained the same, she realized that perhaps it was the residue from some other trip the boat had taken down the lagoon. As the morning sun caressed the boat, some its rays hit the puddle of water giving it an iridescent shimmer and as she gazed at the brilliant hue, she felt a surge of hope build up in her. She thought about her life and how she was left to care for her mother and younger sisters since their father’s untimely demise which was the result of a nameless illness. Her role as breadwinner had been an uncontested reality as she completed the mandatory National Youth Service and was counted lucky to be able to have been snapped up in what many termed an enviable position in a bank. Her mind was still on this journey as she thought about Zuby and wondered how he could live such a banal existence holding on to some dream of joining his family in a land where perhaps he believed that all the things he wished for and hoped for would come to pass. Her mind came to rest on the body she had seen rotting on the street as she imagined that it was some mother’s son whose life had come to an end in the most depraved way conceivable. As these thoughts colored her mind, she still felt that sense of hope that all was not lost and later when the boat pulled up to the pier at CMS, she actually caught herself smiling perhaps out of relief for having survived the journey or the knowledge that she could survive anything that was thrown at her at this point in her life. A throaty voice shouting the words Agaygay Buredi heralded her into the island of Lagos as she and Uloma joined the passengers who disembarked onto the pier.
© Jola Naibi