Dad and Mum shared the last row in an old, slow-moving bus with a fat and fair Igbo woman and a lean, tobacco-chewing Fulani man. Amina and I sat behind the seat in front of them. Mum had Maryam sleeping or sucking breast in her arm. I remember this arrangement because of how much my legs ached; it felt like the bit of space where I sat was cooking my buttocks. Dust, smoke, tobacco, and stale sweat hung in the air. The bus galloped over dusty stretches of road, staggering in and out of potholes. I shook along involuntarily, like a bobblehead with a loosened spring, to the unsettling, unrhythmic rhythm of the bad road. But Dad’s smile had not dimmed, and he didn’t stop sending greetings to the driver from our backseat space.
Though the view through the back window was blocked with piles of bags and sacks of luggage, through the window beside Dad, I could see so much rushing past—trees and bushes, NEPA wires and poles, hilly peaks, a cloud-splattered blue sky. Sometimes there were people and goods: Neatly arranged pestles and mortars, kegs of palm oil, buckets of snails, heaps of oranges and banana bunches. We passed through cities, towns and villages, where the trees and bushes gave way to buildings, markets and people rushing between them. When the bus slowed, hawkers raided us, shoving bread, akara, fried plantain and other goods into our faces through the window.
Bread, two-naira fifty kobo. Akara, five for one naira. Plantain chips, one-one naira.
At intervals the bus stopped, and after brief conversations with gun-slinging men in uniform, we were on the move again. Driver, I want to piss o. It didn’t matter who said it. We all wanted to piss, or at least unfold from the cramping and stretch our limbs. Once outside, I looked around and wondered how this sea of people had all fitted into the sickly-looking bus. The dust coating our heads and eyelashes looked like a mediocre makeup artist’s attempt to make us look old. Maybe it all felt normal to everyone else, but it was pure suffering to me. Don’t the teachers in school always talk about how blessed this country is? We sure can do better than this.
It was then that I noticed how bad the experience had been for Amina. Her face was pale, her legs shaky, her mouth too weak for the words that burdened her tongue. I had pains and discomforts of my own, but seeing my younger sister this way hurt more. I hooked my arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. Sorry. Her response came with a gleaming mist in her eyes: I don’t want to go back inside. I wished it were that simple. It wasn’t. So, when the pissing party was done, we all filed back into ‘cramptivity’. The driver huffed and puffed the ignition, but the bus wouldn’t start.
So we all came out, and all those with strong arms pushed and pushed, but still the bus was done with this journey; and because we were in the middle of nowhere, all the men demanded alternatives. The driver began to flag down passing vehicles, fitting his passengers into them. When we were just five left – excluding Maryam, Aminat and I – a Peugeot 504 Wagon going in the opposite direction stopped. This was no commercial vehicle, but it was driven by a worker whose oga was elsewhere and who at the mention of money decided to turn back and take us to Ilorin. While Maryam continued to be obviously oblivious to our troubles, sleeping or sucking breast in Mum’s arm, Aminat and I sat in-between our parents at the back of the car and we exchanged looks and twinned a smile. It was a different window, but the bushes and trees and poles continued to rush past. Dad was pointing, showing us the plains where he believed deer came out to graze, and a flowing body of water that he believed ran into the Osun River many kilometres away, and hills that he believed housed colonies of monkeys. I wanted to hear more, but the adults had begun talking about how hard things were in the country.
At home mum and dad had similar conversations, with fingers always pointed at the military head of state, but here, no one dared mention his name, although they mentioned everything else. At a checkpoint, the car stopped at the command of a uniformed man in dark shades, carrying a gun. He had an open palm out and wielded a koboko in his other hand. His face was as hard as an angry teacher’s. The driver took two notes from his breast pocket and placed them on the open palm. The officer scowled and threw them back. The driver picked them up and added two more. The officer took them from him and waved us away. Mtchewwww! my mum hissed. Everyone else agreed that this was disgusting behaviour.
These ones na kill-and-go o, better to give them jeje and avoid wahala o. Everyone else also agreed with the driver and the conversation drifted from one unpleasant topic to another. Daddy, what is kill and go? I do not remember his answer, but I remember the pain that shrouded his eyes at the question. Clouds of dust flew up around us as the car raced towards Ilorin on a ribbon of greenery-bordered, pothole-strewn road.
Twenty-five years or so later I was 35 and back on the road to Ilorin, behind the wheel myself this time. My son, Adisa, was only a few months old. He was nestled in his mum’s tired arm at the back of the car, covered up in a wooly shawl and an oversized head-warmer. Too much cold is not good for a child, she’d said, dressing him up.
I am belatedly studying for another bachelor’s degree in an American online university. I went through school years ago, of course, and I hated it all the way. I definitely do not wish my own experience of being forced into studies I had no interest in on my son. He nibbled on his mother’s nipple in the rear-view mirror, his arm going up and down in the air as though he were paddling through water. Maybe he’ll want to be a swimmer. Unlike me I believe he won’t need twenty years to find his way back to himself, to the things he wants to do. The system will not have that much say. But in many ways, I know there’s no real difference.
Adunni sneezed and startled him in her arm. Baby, is the AC too much? No, she said, but asked me to turn it down a little. In the rearview I caught sight of her tired expression, so like the one Amina wore that day, and I was transported twenty-six years to the back of that dreadful bus. I panicked and pulled up by a thick bush on the side of the road.
Seriously baby, I’m fine. Taking care of him just really drains me sometimes. Plus, the road is terrible.
While Amina’s pain had been obvious to me on that long-ago trip, it had never crossed my mind that my nursing Mum and her assisting husband might have had theirs too. Now, we were traveling in comfort and privacy, the time of military rule long past, a distant memory. But how is anything different? The same men that ruled us in that distant history are the same ones ruling us now. Through all the years of rain, and wind, and seasons, and constant use, the road still has us bobble-heading through the same multitude of potholes.
At a checkpoint, a policeman with an overgrown moustache, wearing a rumpled uniform, flagged us down. He wore a name tag bearing an unpronounceable name. A beatdown van slouched by the roadside with its back to the bush, two other policemen seated in its front seats. Anything for the boys. I did not smile back. I reached for my papers, but he was quick to wave my gesture aside. Oga, e no reach like that o. Leave your papers, oga. Just find something small for us. At all at all. We loyal to your government. The window slid down behind me, and Adunni proffered a two-hundred-naira bill. The policeman bowed, took the money, and with the other ones in the van bade us farewell.
He’s not like those really rude ones, that’s why I gave him. I understood. Adunni needed to have been there to know just how hard-faced and hard-toned the bully from the 90’s trip was.
Yes, much has changed, but not enough; what really is the difference between the military era’s kill-and-go and the audacious gunning down of protesters at the Lekki toll-gate three months ago? Adunni and I talked about the protests, then the government, then about possible countries to emigrate to, then about how those countries should really not be better than here, and about the gift and the curse of vast resources and grossly ineffective leadership, and the institutionally corrupt citizens, including ourselves.
We only stopped after we pulled up by a plain through which a stream flowed. We pissed and ate from packed takeaway plates, looking out for the deer my Dad had told me about as a child. Our son slept in the mounted car carriage.
I dream of telling him about these plains, and the hills, and the stream. While the world sped past, this road and its environs have remained stuck in that sunny afternoon from twenty-six years ago, and the journey has not given me anymore to talk about than it gave my father.
Baby, I can see you’re very tired. I’m good now. I will drive. I objected but her eyes told me it was useless. She veered onto the road and began to navigate the potholes.
A boy watching this scene might one day have much better things to write in his diary: smooth roads stretching through beautiful towns and countryside, bushes, hills, and everything else along the way; people who are happy and well cared for; police, if there are any to be seen, who neither scowl nor brandish their firearms, nor beg as if for alms.
What will my son’s diary say about Nigeria? He should not have to grow up to fill his diary with the same nonsense I read in mine last night. Hell no, he should not!
The road to Ilorin is still thronged with the people and their goods: Neatly arranged pestles and mortars, kegs of palm oil, buckets of snails, heaps of oranges and banana bunches. And when we slow down, the hawkers still rush forth, crowding the car window trying to sell. But for the prices, this could have easily been the same road on that day twenty-six years ago. Bread, three hundred naira. Akara, five for hundred naira. Plantain chips, fifty-fifty naira.