Put yourself right in, and you’ll never get in; so it seems with Lagos. I am tired, you see, about writing this city – although I have practically written nothing – but there is a lot that have been written about here, so much that it becomes Here, gathering too much attention. This is Lagos, you’re told, a ’!’ beside the words; this is the city that must be written about because of its avalanche of imperial novelty, calcification, and feverish opacity.
Let’s imagine, assume, or consider that we can speak sincerely about Lagos if we – or I – tackle things more imperceptibly, and agree that we – or I – cannot see clearly. This is true about many facets of this city’s life, especially its mobility. Overland mobility is, I believe, this city’s favourite means of dealing with itself – and I think, in using ‘it,’ that I speak not merely about a place, but a Place, an accreted multiple persona, such that in one word I speak of people, idiosyncrasies, language, colour, and existence.
You see, I am interested in overland because I worry too much, each day, about travelling overland. Travel, in my experience – two months or so in Lagos – has become a word that is as intra as inter; prior to now travel held the promise of moving across cities, now it is the very act of moving within a city. It’s travel because I move, and because I See. It’s travel because it accommodates more than just movement; I gain newer colours each day I move between Ikeja and Yaba, or vice versa. And colour is hard to define.
Yet, I will try. Let me presume that there is even logic to moving within Lagos, and attempt to chart this logic. You will, of course, expect that I will present no logic.
It begins with ‘loading.’ There are shrill cries of this or that (Yaba-Maryland-Opebi), then waiting. People come aboard, carrying with their respective entries their respective smells, no-smells, fashion, aura, no-aura. They sit either out of choice or compulsion. If out of choice, you sit because there’re empty spaces in the bus – you sit, with impatient patience, knowing you have no option, cursing and blessing time, saying a prayer to Time that you know will not be heard. And if out of compulsion (perhaps the bus has picked you on the roadside, coming at top speed you had thought you would not join it) you will sit beside an obese passenger, or on a seat without a backrest. The general rule is to redefine what is Time, and what is Not Time, because an overland movement always commands the propriety of a blur.
Then, there’s ‘collection.’ It’s really an art (and act) of your-money-for-back. This asking-for, this demand-for, is a direct assault on have-nots, which is to say you cannot move for nothing, you must part with something to have moved. Of course, there are other interesting features of the process – the bus conductor, after your-money-for-back, announces (almost often) that there’s no change. E wole pelu change yin o! There’s, he’s saying, zero tolerance for incompatibility – this is movement on a basic level, which can be afforded by Anyone, there’s no need to tell us you’re as rich as a 1,000 Naira note, e wole pelu change!
Let me tell you a story of how change (change mi da?) became a fundamental passenger right. This guy is sitting beside the man beside me. He’s holding a church bulletin, he’s just returning from church. It’s a Sunday. The driver is standing outside the bus, asking for his money. One passenger, behind this-guy, passes his 200 Naira (consisting of 2 hundred naira notes) through this-guy to the driver. But, this-guy intercepts the 200 naira. He is being owed 300 naira as change. The driver is beside himself with fury. You don’t do this in my bus, see this devil intercepting my money, give me the 200 I will give you 200 naira note, please, you people look at this devil, oya get down from my bus, I am not carrying you again. This-guy says something like, I am just coming from church, I will say nothing to you, you’re just insulting yourself. And there’s this exchange between both men – other passengers interfere, begging This-guy to relinquish his right, somewhat, so that we can move in peace, on time. He relinquishes a 100 naira note, holding on to the other.
Change mi da is a declaration of a passenger’s right, an affirmation that every passenger who responds must be responded to. There’s no trivializing of any amount – not even ten naira is small enough, ten naira can be the basis of a fight. There’s another story, of this-guy who’s reading David Abioye’s book beside me (if you know David Oyedepo you’ll know the other David). He’s to stop at a point, but for some reason or the other, the driver stops him elsewhere. He asks for a refund of his ten naira. You see, this-guy is wearing a suit, he’s dressed middle-class. But when the conductor and his compadre the driver refuses him the entitlement he has declared, he starts a fight, dragging the errant conductor by the belt. You see, then, that it’s really not about the amount. It is something else; I am thinking there’s a You Can’t Take Me for Granted, This Is My Money, and all other screams that point to affirmation, entitlement, and possession.
And let’s consider another story. This-man is given a certain amount as change; he rejects, vehemently, saying he does not want dirty money. He has a heated argument with the driver, who’s quite famous for his impregnable insistence. Passengers, as onlookers, the audience in the unfolding (free to watch) drama, throw themselves onstage, arguing about dirty money. One says no one should reject it. The other says you can reject it if you know you are not guilty of making it dirty. The first contributor goes further to posit that women are most guilty of making Nigerian money dirty – squeezing and hiding cash in such-and-such places. There is protest from the womenfolk, which is not coherent, and the argument goes back and forth. This-man keeps demanding for a cleaner currency, the driver keeps refusing, until he drives into a filling station, paying the attendant with the money that had been rejected, and making a sarcastic comment, saying to the attendant that this is the money that was rejected and it is being used to pay you.
If I speak of overlanders’ rights I must not fail to speak of filling stations and vulcanizers. You would never get used to this, never. Every time the driver drives into a filling station after takeoff, you’d scream at his insensitivity, how na only himself ‘im dey think of, why you no buy fuel since, na now you know say you go pump your tyre, foolish man.
But these rants and declamations pass too quickly, and that is my grouse. I am not interested – do not get me wrong – in the longevity of insults and ravings. I prefer, however, that drivers take their passengers seriously. Well, not seriously. More fraternally. In short, I wish drivers could be more human with their passengers. But, you see, the word that is used is ero, which is translated ‘load.’ You see, further, that there’s every attempt to detoxicate the relationship of its humanity, or to lessen the severity of a tangible human interaction. All conversations, all exchange, is premised on the rites of passage, the constancy of movement, the fact that what’s seen (who’s seen) may never, ever, in this world or the next, be seen again.
I use ‘detoxicate’ because that’s what it is. Being too kind is, as it seems, reprehensible. In the ethics of molue-driving, one must refrain from too much affinity, warmth, and kinship. The driver cares less if he stops the bus (the conductor screams final bus stop!) in an inappropriate spot, two hundred yards or so away from the right bus stop. You are not a person; you are load, a product; you are not being rendered a service you paid for; a driver is simply making ends meet, this one that has had life so hard he had to resort to this means of livelihood (one driver says, ‘You think you are more educated than I am, because you see me driving? I have children your age in the university!’)
Is it preposterous to think that this driver who shuttles between Ogba and Yaba would have commuted 60% of Ogba’s residents? Or perhaps that’s not even statistically correct. It might be easier to say he has commuted 50% of all those who know those that make up the other 50%. Please, do not take me serious. I am simply trying to prove ‘coming and going, these several seasons.’ Our overland vessels have become a contemporary repository of abikuism, a state of come-go and waka-about and Ajala-travel.
And what if there is no end to this?
– Emmanuel Iduma