Agbor Park, one of the most popular commercial parks in Benin City is alive with the usual hustle and bustle, untainted, even with the scorching rays of the very hot Nigerian sun. Mobile vendors of newspapers, magazines and Hawkers of Oranges, Kuli-kuli (Groundnut cake), and Cold drinks walk to and fro the large area, squeezing themselves in-between commercial buses and taxis, big, medium and small, coloured red and yellow, the official colour of Benin public vehicles; some of them designed with colourful graffiti and very wrongly spelled quotes and Bible verses. Reading one of such on the body of a badly damaged red and yellow bus—‘Only God Nose 2moro” I am reminded of the front page of the earliest edition of Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born Probably tucked neatly somewhere in Daddy’s new library wherever he is now.
Only God Nose 2moro is in the long, seemingly endless queue with many other commercial vehicles waiting for passengers. It’s driver, a young, malnourished-looking man is sitting relaxedly on one of the back seats, unabashedly smoking Indian hemp; the thick, grey smoke escaping through the space created by his wide-open door.
“Wetin dey worry all of una? Wetin dey worry you this man? Na you suppose load? ”
I turn to find that a very big man in a badly torn singlet is shouting at a much smaller man, who sits inside his almost filled-with-passengers bus, drinking alcohol from a small ‘Chelsea’ sachet. The big man pounds his fists on the body of the bus now, making ‘Boom Boom’ noises as his voice echoes in the hardly noiseless Park.
“Na you suppose load?! See this man! Na today you start work? ” He yells in vernacular English. I can see a small pool of spittle on the sides of his mouth, and a little shower of saliva in the air in front of him. I pity the young woman who sits the closest to where he stands, the unfortunate lady already leaning back into the bus and as far away from the man as possible.
I have taken enough bus rides to know that it is trite law that the bus at the front of the long queue loads passengers first. The ‘Chelsea’ Driver seems to be disobeying this law, and so, the passengers already seated in his vehicle have to alight. They all do so; murmuring and grumbling in irritation.
One woman with a baby on her back comes towards us, adjusting her wrapper and using her hand to protect her eyes from the sun.
“All these bus drivers sef… dem nor get sense? If dem nor dey load, why dem go say make we enter?”
My mother and brother wordlessly create a space for her on the long bench we sit on. When the woman settles down, she asks:
“Abeg, which bus dey load?”
Mummy points at one bus with deep coloured red and yellow, three people already inside.
“Na dat one we dey wait for ohh… We nor fit sidan inside. The heat ehnnn” Mother answers, fanning herself with the loose end of her fine wrapper. I wipe my damp forehead with my fingers and mutter under my breath. I feel my body burn from inside out with the terrible heat, and my stomach rumble from the growing hunger. The irresistible aroma of Rice and Pepper stew from the ‘Mama-put’ shop a few yards away gnaws at my insides and I feel my mouth water involuntarily. I turn to Mother who is already engaged in serious discussion about infant breastfeeding with the woman from the Chelsea driver bus, and dissuade myself from asking her for money to buy. Her words of warning to us, hours before leaving home echoes in my head—“Better eat now ohh, do not expect me to buy food on the way”
I wish now that I ate the boiled yam and garden egg which I had no appetite for then.
“Where is your uncle now? The bus will soon be full ohh” Mother says to us suddenly, cutting the woman-with-the-baby off momentarily. She sounds exactly as she did when she and father had that ending fight. Her eyes are still actively monitoring the almost-filled bus we are to board.
“Maybe they are at the market” My brother, Ede offers. I try to stifle my snort. Uncle Feddy better appear fast; preferably without the ‘they’ Ede refers to. Our twin cousins, Osayamen and Osadebamen are not exactly the duo one would appreciate on a ‘relaxational family trip’ three days to Christmas.
We all turn and see Uncle Feddy, walking briskly and waving at us in a frenzy, his carefully ironed shirt soaked at the armpits with sweat. His wife, Isoken walks closely behind, holding little Bim, her last child on her waist. The two year old child waves his hand in the air like his father and shows his cute teething gums in a big, happy smile. The dreaded duo, Osayamen and Osadebamen are not far away, their identical faces devoid of any expression as they come to meet us on the Park bench.
“Feddy, We vharé?” Mother asks him, in the tiring way African adults acknowledge someone’s presence. ‘Have you come?’
“Ehe. If you see the hold-up ehn?! Two tippers just blocked the road for hours! Sorry ohh… We came late. How are you? How is my favourite nephew and favourite niece?” Uncle Feddy gives my brother and I big squishy hugs. He smells like sweat and cocoa butter. Aunt Isoken gives us hugs as well; awkwardly however, since she carries little Bim. She smells like curry and thyme. My hunger returns as my mind thinks about the leaf-rice she probably prepared for the journey.
Uncle Feddy confirms my suspicions as soon as my brother points out to him that we are his only niece and nephew and so we could not be his favourites.
“Have you eaten, Ede? Itobi? There is rice in the flask ohh… Will you eat?” He asks. I refuse to accept the gesture even though I am dead hungry and Mother would not mind. Ede, however replies promptly: “We ate at home, Uncle. Don’t worry. When we get to Okuru we will eat the rice”
“Are you sure?” Aunt Isoken asks with a half-smile. I nod.
“Don’t mind them, jare. They will not talk now. Kpekere! Kpekere! Come!” Uncle Feddy calls for a hawker of plantain chips who was already some yards away. Some people join in the shouting of ‘Kpekere!’ to get the attention of the hawker. I turn away so my facial expression would not give me away as one relieved and peckish city girl who longs to have a taste of the dry, fried chips.
“Twins, how are you? See how your skins are shining? Your mother is trying for you two ohh… and see my little baby of yesterday” Mother greets the two little girls by Aunt Isoken’s side and pinches Bim’s cheeks as Uncle Feddy negotiates with the chips hawker. The girls and their mother smile. Mother embraces the little ones who fall into her arms like harmless, beautiful-souled angels—exactly what they are not. But of course, the adults do not know that. My brother and I share a secret look.
“Bus Wan full ohh” One of the women on the bench exclaims and runs towards the bus. Mother pushes us forward and we all scamper into the cramped vehicle like rats in a sardine tin. Uncle Feddy and his family sit on the row before ours. The twins sit close to their father who noisily munches away hard plantain chips. Aunt Isoken sits the closest to the half-open window, straddling little Bim on her laps. I offer to take the child from her and she readily agrees. Smiling down at the beautiful boy, I place him on my laps and tickle him. He laughs and make sounds like he hiccups. Ede rubs his cheek and curly hair. I remember when Bim was born; a few years before, in our living room in town, some weeks before Father served Mother with the divorce papers and she had signed. Before he left the house. I remember the fatigued Aunt Isoken; the bloodied bedsheets, and the new born Bim, covered in blood. Ede held him to his chest then, like the way I was told Father held me when I was born; his white packet-shirt uniform soaked with blood, a white towel wrapped around the baby; a towel brought by the evil twins, a towel that was mine.
“Oga, my load dey your boot…” One fat woman calls out to the bus driver gearing the engine, struggling with her wrapper as she climbs into the bus beside me. Her large arms squash mine, making me want to squirm to release myself but I hold still and wince, feeling a bead of sweat drip down my face.
“Ahh… See heat, driver abeg. Open your window. Abeg, dooh” Someone complains from the back seat. I hear the window by the side force open. It does nothing to alleviate the intensity of the heat.
“Make una bring money ohh!” The driver yells, as if he did not hear. While the passengers including Mother and Uncle Feddy pay the fare, I hear the blast of horns and the screams of impatient, angry drivers.
“You nor go comot road?! You dey craze?!” Our driver yells out of the window.
“Shut up there! Uwazua!” Another curses in Bini. I do not know if it is our driver he refers to. All around me are bigger, more sweaty and smelly passengers blocking my view of the world outside the sardine-tin bus.
It is my first time travelling with my family to the village for Christmas using public road transport. Without our posh, spacious car. Without my father. For a moment, as I stop myself from inhaling the unpleasant smell around me, listening to the loud, ear-splitting local music the driver blasts, and feeling the suffocating heat inside the vehicle, I imagine myself inside my father’s air-conditioned, noiseless, and breathable-aired car. I glance at my brother. He looks straight ahead, above the heads of the passengers in front (Ede is incredibly tall), sweat dripping from his forehead and blank faced. He looks comfortable. More comfortable than I am. I turn to sneak a peek at Mother as the bus moves with full speed on the highway, the engines roaring and little breeze filtering into the vehicle. She relaxes on the seat, her eyes looking vacant and far away. I wonder if she thinks about Father. If she remembers the day he left the house. The day after we returned from our last trip to the village last year.
“Brothers and sisters, let us bow our heads in prayer” I hear a voice from the front. The young man who says that and who wears a fine kaftan pulls his cap and bows his head. We all bow our heads, the women tying their scarfs on their head and the men removing their caps.
The young man says a short prayer, his voice having an accent I cannot place, and the bus moves on.
The road is neither smooth, nor bumpy. Once in a while, the bus meets potholes, making the vehicle jerk a little. I watch the shrubs, which seem to move as the bus moves; on the side of the lonely tarred road, looking past the fat woman by my side. Bim, who is still in my arms starts to struggle, his face contorting into a scary frown. I know immediately that he is about to cry.
“Aunt Isoken…” I start, holding him away from my body.
“Bring him. It’s like he’s hungry” Aunt Isoken says and I give Bim to her.
“Let me carry Bim! Let me carry him!” Osayamen shouts, stretching out her hands towards the baby. Aunty Isoken hushes her at once with a long hiss and a glare.
“Itobi…” Uncle Feddy turns towards me and hands me my Kpekere chips. I say my ‘thank you’ and munch the snack.
A lady wearing a highly provocative dress with earphones in her ear starts to sing aloud. Someone taps her to keep quiet. Bim continues to cry. Uncle Feddy carries him.
“Do you think Aunt Rukky would be in the village now?” Ede whispers to me. “She should have come sinceeee” I drawl, also in a whisper. I think of Aunt Rukky, Mother and Uncle Feddy’s cousin and her fast feet. I think of her sharp tongue, refusing to stay back for two more days so she could come with us. I think of her in the back seat of a private taxi, plying the lonely road to the village.
“What about Uncle Michael?” Ede asks again. Uncle Michael is Mother’s second-cousin. I snort. “For where?” Uncle Michael was supposed to come with us. But this morning, he called Mother and told her that he would come tomorrow. I know why. I think of Uncle Michael’s wife, and her last quarell with Mother. I think that the reason why the Okunsebors are not coming with us is because Aunt Mary had a fight with Mother.
“Abeg, make I buy fuel! ” The driver says and makes a sharp turn to the filling station. There is wild murmuring of complaints from some passengers.
“Why you nor buy fuel since, Oga! ”
“All these drivers!”
“I dey go market ohh..... You better fast do am”
My family and I remain quiet; Uncle Feddy, the only person making a noise with his munching of chips.
Within minutes, we are back on the road and speeding away. I read the signs on the road as we go; the signs bearing the names of the various villages we pass. I mouth the words. Eshe. Uhugbe. Nania. Ughota.
We are close.
The bus jerks suddenly just yards away from the Ughota village.
“Ahh… driver Abeg ohh! Egg dey your boot!” The fat woman by my side screams.
Mother taps Uncle Feddy and he turns.
“Wẹ tiẹ Uwa? Have you called home?” She asks.
“Ẹhe. Yes. Mama ru uwa. Mama is at home” He answers. I rememeber the old woman at the family house with hair sprinkled with gray, and skin as wrinkled as a cloth chewed by goats. My grandmother.
I give Ede a look. He smiles. We were right about Aunt Rukky.
“Michael…. Ẹhho nor rey? He does not want to come?” Mother asks.
“Mẹ hẹn re? Do I know? You know your brother” He replies and his left brow shoots up.
“You know your brother’s wife” Mother corrects and hisses. I remember the the last fight she had with the woman. I remember Mary calling Mother a ‘failed wife’ after father left, and Mother giving her a hard slap.
My eyes catch a glimpse of the next road sign just in time before we pass. Okuru. Our village.
The familiar mud buildings and dusty road welcomes us; the dust rising more due to the heavy harmattan this season. I block my nostrils with my fingers as dust enters the bus. Some passengers cough.
I remember last Christmas, when we drove through this dusty road in father’s car, the village children who were now running towards our vehicle clinging stubbornly to our wound up and tinted windows and hailing us.
“E re! E re! They have come! They have come! Waa bokhian! Welcome!”
Father threw out wads of naira then, making the children stop holding the body of the moving car and start scrambling for the notes. Now, as the children race with the public bus towards the village park, no one throws out naira notes. The passengers only adjust their clothing and prepare their bags ready to alight.
As the bus slowly halts, the fat woman besides me tries to force open the door. It does not bulge.
“Oga Driver, come do your door ohhh…” She complains. Everyone pauses while the driver walks to the door and tries to pull. It does not even move an inch. He tries to pull harder. Even the village children who welcomed us joins him but the door refuses to move.
After a few minutes of futile pulling, the passengers begin to mutter bitterly.
“Ahh… Wetin be dis na?” A young lady beside the man in Kaftan speaks up.
“Which kind bus I enter so?” Someone else complains from the back.
“I Don already late for where I dey go! This driver sef….” The fat woman adds.
“Na Wa ohh...Driver” Mother grumbles. Her eyes look heavy as she sighs.
The driver walks to the back of the vehicle and opens the boot. Crates of eggs, Sacks of rice and vegetables, and Aunt Isoken’s giant food flasks are revealed.
“E be like say una go pass here come outside… Abeg…Nor vex” The driver says. There is uproar.
“Ehn‼” One thunders.
“How we Wan take pass boot?” Says another. But other passengers have already started squeezing themselves through the boot.
“Abeg, egg dey dere ohh‼ Take am easy” The fat woman yells, spitting into my face. I remember the unlucky girl at Agbor Park.
Turning to Mother I tilt my head. “Mother…”
“Looks like we have to come down through the boot ohh….” She says. I glare at Ede who shrugs. More passengers alight. Only my family and three others remain.
“Oya, twore. Come down. We are home” Uncle Feddy says as he carefully drops the just-awoken twins first. We all follow suit. Aunt Isoken, then, Me, Ede and Mother. I adjust my sun dress and take in badly-needed air immediately I reach the ground. Looking around the wide bus-and-taxi filled landscape I think strangely of the village house, of scents of sweat and spices, of the familiar faces I am soon to see again, of Aunt Isoken’s rice and pepper stew I am going to eat.