Saturday, June 23, 2018

Paradise Road

It was a morning like any other morning, on a road like any other road. 

8 a.m.  
“Conductor, give me my change.”  
The dust, smoke, and everything were making life miserable for all of us on the bus.  Meanwhile, through one guy’s phone speakers, Kendrick Lamar was trying to sing his “If These Walls Could Talk” but it just sounded croaky - croaky like the bus radio. 
“Conductor, my change,” the same female voice called again, because the conductor had just got some change and served it round to those near the front. 
The conductor, the usual six-pack specimen of youthful Yoruba sexiness, gave an exasperated “ah” and hissed.  He would get to her eventually, he said, and anyway, he had warned everybody to only get in if they had exact change. 
“Conductor, if you don’t give me my change today…”  You know how Yoruba women can threaten.  Essentially, she said he should not test her, lest she show him who was mad between the two of them. 
Her stop came, and the conductor didn’t have the money to give her, so it was time for some more elaborate drama.
“Haa, fun mi ni change-y mi.”  Surely everyone could hear her now.  No, she was not joking. 
“Haaa, o’o ni fun mi ni change-y mi ni?” but this time she grabbed the conductor’s shirt just as the bus began to move again. 
Her bellow made you think of a long-time smoker, but then you finally looked over and saw that the voice was much bigger than the person.  She looked like a teenager, probably Muslim or at least from those areas of town where dozens of people shared each house, with a wife to each room.  That was what the shallow wells below her neck told me, and the nothing-flabby-or-bulgy around her abdomen, not to mention the well-defined “yams” at her buttocks, pectorals, and arms. 
Poor people got their good physique for free - no gym membership required.   She looked like she would be able to fight well, but not with a conductor.  Conductors really know how to fight, as you already know.     
She ran alongside the bus when the bus-driver decided to lose her.  Now as we slowed, she dragged the conductor off the bus. 
Her face was not bad.  In spite of the hyperactive sun in this crazy city, the girl had an attractive chocolate tone, somewhere between milk chocolate drink and double-choc Maryland cookies.  Maybe she was twenty, but maybe she was younger.
“Do you want to kill yourself?” one passenger scolded. 
“The boy should give her her fifty naira,” said another woman. 
“All these drivers are useless.  Give her her money and let her go,” said another. 
The girl held the young man’s clothes in a tighter bunch than before, but the conductor was being a gentleman and only grumbled rather than lash out. 
Somebody got down from the bus, but before going his way, he slapped the conductor’s head, saying he should give her the money and stop wasting everyone’s time. 
“I’ve given her twenty naira,” the conductor said with a smirk across his young and handsome mug.  “If anybody has change…” he announced again, but because he really had no change and no passenger was offering, his intention was to slip away.   
“You will give me my fifty naira today,” she screamed, still clinging to him. 
The bus started to move again. 
The conductor, expert monkey-bar athlete that he was, sprung back to his work-station, hanging in the doorway, but the girl ran after the bus and grabbed him again.  He really should have got inside the bus and shut the door! 
Things were looking dangerous so I threw what change I had - a twenty naira note - through the door, so that maybe the girl would stop to get it.  She did not.  She held on to the boy.    
The money did not make it out of the bus anyhow; I think the air pushed it back.  Meanwhile, the passengers started to shout “haa…hey…haa” because the bus was rolling down this granite-hard road with a human being hanging on to life by such a delicate thread. 
“These people are wicked!” somebody said.
Seeing my twenty ignored on the floor of the bus, I decided to tune out the girl, the boy, and their stupid matter.  Seriously: according to my mathematics, twenty and twenty naira was practically the same as a fifty, but maybe there was a deeper principle I was missing. 
Anyhow, the windsurfer girl was still on the ride of her life, hanging on the conductor’s arm.  The older passengers were nervous on her behalf:
“…if she should fall!”
“Haa, this driver wants to kill somebody today”
“Stop this vehicle!  Stop this vehicle!”
“These people are wicked.”
When the vehicle stopped, the men in front started shouting at the driver:  “If there was a policeman here, he would have given you the beating of your life,” said one.  The other spat, “Useless man!”   The first one said, “When everybody was saying stop, why didn’t you stop?”  The other shouted, “dangerous driving!”
The conductor picked up my twenty and stretched it to the girl but that was not acceptable.  She wanted her fifty naira.  The conductor begged the driver for change; the driver said he had none for God’s sake.  The girl threatened that if he tried to take off again, she would hold on to him and follow him wherever until he paid her money. 
The men in front abused the driver for putting the woman’s life at risk.  “God saved you that you didn’t kill somebody.” 
The women in the back abused the conductor for not giving the lady her correct change.  “Is it not your job?  Are you not supposed to have change?”
The conductor saw a potential passenger and called out his route: “Fifty naira, enter only with your change.”  The new passenger had fifty naira, the girl was paid off, and the bus rolled on to my stop. 
As most of us exited, I wondered how anyone could judge the case differently.  In my view, the one to blame was not the conductor, nor the driver, but the one who was prepared to give her life for fifty naira. 

9 a.m.
The suicidal girl’s mother, Alhaja, was the colour of Maryland cookies - not double-choc but choc-chip - not because that was her natural colour, but because she believed in looking fine.  “Fine” for her was something that was accomplished with time, attention, and a variety of beauty products.  A business woman when it came to time for business, Alhaja’s real love was romancing men – men the colour of Maryland cookies. 
On this Monday morning, she was transitioning back to business from pleasure, on the bus ride from the two-storey home of her “man-friend” near Ofada to her provisions shop in Lagos.  A carpet of thick, black eyelashes accessorized her red-and-green-blotched, maroon-and-molehair-specked face. 
One car tried to pass her bus on the left.  It was going too fast.  Some passengers saw it and shouted “haa” just before they heard that knocking sound “pa” and knew that they had been hit.  Why had their stupid driver chosen to swerve left at the same time, as if he had not seen the car? 
He was not really stupid; it was just that there was a pothole ahead and he could lose his door if he took the pothole at the high speed they had gained while descending the bridge.  Now that his bus was swaying out of his control, he was beginning to wonder if he had done the right thing. 
Soon, the driver had applied his brakes and his experience to stop safely.  Now he would - as usual - get down and look at the damage to his car and there would be a shouting match or, if the driver of the modest silver sedan wanted to prove himself a wild animal, well then, he was certainly prepared to beat up his face.     
Meanwhile, near the door, Alhaja’s wrapper had got caught in one of the many rod-and-wire parts.  Then the door had fallen off its hinge and started to spark like Ogun-meets-Sango, screeching like the cutter at the welder’s workshop. 
There was nothing very unusual about a door dropping on its knee on one side of a passenger bus, it was just that it fell just at the moment Alhaja reached out to unhook her wrapper and the metal parts scratched her arm.  Seeing blood, the woman panicked and decided to exit immediately.
“Ehn, this is not where I’m going to die,” she said to her ancestors and to her God, Allah, the One she had adopted at her marriage.  Her hefty arm, with its stretch-marks broad like tiger stripes, pulled her wrapper so hard that the door yielded a shred of it.  In a flash, her hefty legs with their violent tiger-scratches got her away from the death-trap. 
She tumbled free and ran to the street shoulder; to safety.  Her legs had not felt such a burn since The Second Republic.  She didn’t often think about her childhood, but this was the occasion to remember its major event.  In that memory, she was a child and she and her brother were living with their father, but on this day the food looked like rubbish and they hated it, so her brother told her that they had been stolen from their mother and now they had to go and find their true mother’s house. 
It was a strange but true story, and she’d been told that it happened on the day Obasanjo handed over to Shagari.  They, the two children that her mother had with her father before they parted ways, had got out and run through farms and streams to find her. 
She being three years younger than her brother, it had taken a lot of effort to keep up with him, and she had got sick afterwards.  It was her usual sickness, featuring high temperature, vomiting, fire that her grandmother lit to keep her warm when she said she felt cold; featuring sweat, convulsion, the meetings with bad spirit children that she could never remember, then her waking up after everything to find the spoon that had been used to stop her teeth from biting off her tongue, eventually getting well enough to finally ask for food - the ogi (corn pap) that she was allowed to drink as much as she wanted. 
That day as she escaped the bus, memories from 1979 flashed before her eyes.     
What the crowds saw was a bus that had hit a car but not very badly, the door hanging at an awkward angle, and a half-naked woman fled from the scene. 
The sight of her would have been more entertaining, but Alhaja wore what she and other market-women still called a girdle.  Her girdle was brown, a little transparent, and looked painful the way it pinched her belly and her thighs.  The idea was to hold the fat in and look approximately sweet-sixteen again.  It had served her well for years, but on this day it also served to cover her nakedness from the public.  
An instant later, she noticed that all was calm with the bus, and saw that she was undressed, naked in full view of strangers, on the interstate highway, so she ran back to get her wrapper.  As she dressed, she said thanks to God that she was still alive.  So far, she had only one grandchild; she would see many more insha’Allahu.  
The other passengers started to dismount one by one. 

10 a.m.
Alhaja’s mother was fifty-nine, so there was not very much for Death’s bony hand to gain by snatching her.  Her body was frail and her wallet was empty, but she was marked for tragedy anyway.  People would mourn her briefly, but those that would be really, bitterly mourned lay a few meters from her where the same angry force had crushed a fine SUV, taking the souls of a rich woman and her three-year-old son.  
Having claimed those three, the evil trailer had twisted and fallen to its side.  As it fell, its countless crates and glass bottles poured over the shoulder of the highway where motorcycles and tricycles had like magic been deserted so that more people didn’t die. The glass roared like the sea and glistened with the sun’s reflection.  The giant monster quit its thrashing and chose to lie down, docile like a puppy. 
The truck driver had disappeared before the impact or the crowd might have lynched him.  He was probably among them, sighing and sorrowing, trying to blend in. 
Traffic built up on the side street because cars couldn’t pass, and a crowd grew within minutes as more people arrived on foot wondering what was causing the hold-up.  As those ones stood about, they picked up the gist: trailer accident, dead bodies.  The young ones went away shaking, crying; the men gathered around, waiting for the removal of the corpses; while the women travelled on, spreading the grim tales, especially the tale of one dazed elderly woman trying to cross the street - how she had first tried to run this way and that, but the trailer would not leave her; how she had stopped running and let it smash her into the tarmac. 
“It was her time,” one said.
“It was too horrible,” said another. 
“May God have mercy on us.” 
“I will never forget how her leg kept moving like she had an electric shock.”
“What about the car they said was crushed like paper?”
“Why would I go out of my way to stare at such a thing?”    
“God have mercy.  Why is it always here?”
“There was an accident here not long ago.”
“Not up to two weeks.” 
“It’s the fastest road to paradise.”
“God have mercy.” 
Blame the bad brakes. 
Blame the steep descent. 
Blame the squandered budget. 
Alhaja, in her shop, suddenly felt dizzy.  She felt something evil had happened, but when she tried to guess what, she only saw clouds.  The state governor was planning a wedding party for his third child, and so in far away Kenya, 3,000 pearl-white roses had to die that day. 
It was past 10 o’clock and she really had better things to do than to sit in that dead place babysitting her grandson and making phone-calls.  Her mother would soon return from the prayer camp she had gone to since Friday, or her lazy daughter would return from another fruitless trip to scrounge for money at her lazy husband’s place.  Then she would be able to hit the road to meet with her debtors and suppliers.
Although she had already eaten breakfast, Alhaja felt weak, so she paid fifty naira for a Tasty - the new brand of clear and bubbly sugar-water.  After drinking that, she felt steady enough to continue working.  She read her recent text messages again and felt impatient to leave the shop.  She decided to phone her daughter to see if she was nearby.  Her own mother was trying to reach her in the wind and the clouds but she did not understand.  Just dead, she had become a spirit floating around town saying last goodbyes before going to her Christian paradise where she would be forever free.  
Free from poverty. 
Free from accidents. 
Free from the fear of dying. 
That same fear had led her to spend the entire weekend, from Friday till that morning, on a mountain-top where she had gone to pray under the guidance of a man-of-God.  The man-of-God had described a vision in red that meant death, and three steps to combat the almost-inevitable:  
According to him, the woman and her family were to avoid any toll-gate at which no toll-fees were collected.  It was at one such out-of-use toll-gate that death was hunting for her kin.   They would have to observe his warning until it was revealed otherwise, he said, since they did not know the hour of death, only the place. 
Secondly, he asked her to pay one thousand and six hundred naira for a chicken, yam, and other miscellaneous foodstuffs, with which he would offer special prayers.  He accepted a thousand since that was truly all she had, but before he could perform the cleansing rituals, death had caught up with her. 
In the meantime, since the toll-roads could not be avoided in practice, he said that whenever she or anyone in her family was near a bridge or any rising or falling road, they should call “Holy Michael” seven times to activate the archangel’s protection.   

At the former tollgate, at the first test, Alhaja’s mother had failed to remember the angel’s name.  While the poor woman stood there, scared, stammering and confused, the driver had ditched the truck and fled for his life. 

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