Part 1 of 2
I was on my way to Bida. The first leg of the trip was a taxi ride to Suleja. I fell asleep right after we set out and when I woke up, we were on the Abuja-Kaduna expressway. I considered nudging the driver next to me and asking, “Are we there yet? Are we, are we?” He wouldn’t have found it funny though, he was the most serious person I had ever met. Sitting in the back of the Nissan were an old man with a cane, a girl of about university age and a woman with two children.
An interesting thing about road travel, especially in the North (and possibly in most of Nigeria) is this: When someone shows up to the taxi park with young children, they have no intention of paying for seats for their children. In an unspoken agreement, the children become everyone’s responsibility. Without asking, the parent climbs into the car next to you, plops the child into your lap, says something like, “Meet your new uncle” and you can’t complain.
Sometimes they ask, one woman passed me her baby and said, “Please make space on your lap.”
Huh, make space? It is a lap, not a storeroom. It’s not like I’m going to move old furniture around, stack boxes on top of each other, squeeze my thighs together, suck in my stomach, tuck my balls out of the way, and say, “There ya go, enough room for two. Pass me one more baby.”
If you complain, all the passengers turn on you like you’re some sort of animal. “What kind of person would deny an innocent child sitting position? Do you expect the child to stand the whole time?”
After carrying someone else’s child for an eight hour road trip before, I said never again. A woman had come into the bus with three kids and distributed them to the people around her like she was passing out packs of peanuts. She gave me the heaviest pack, the child weighing about as much as I do. We should have swapped places and had the child carry me, but even though I am small, I have a greying beard. It would have been unbecoming. I accepted my pack with a smile and I was limping for a month after.
On this Suleja ride, I had chosen the front seat. A woman would never pass her child to you in the front. They believe the front seat is closer to any potential accident and therefore more dangerous than the rest of the car. It would be like saying, “Here, take my child and chuck it out the window.” So in the back seat, the woman with the two kids sat in the middle and the old man and university girl took turns carrying the woman’s spare child.
The Abuja-Kaduna expressway has two lanes on both sides separated by a median barrier and in places, a deep ditch. It is a smooth road, giving the type of comfortable drive that lulls you to sleep. I drifted in and out.
In one of my periods of wakefulness, there was a loud pop and the car lurched to the right. It appeared to happen quickly, but in the bubble I was in, it was stretched out into distinct events. I heard the pop before it happened, a pre-pop whistling that grew into the sharp pop. Then a rumbling like a car would make driving over gravel. I turned to the right, and saw, out of the corner of my eye, black rubber strips shred off the back tire and fall off behind us. The car was in the right lane and it swerved further right threatening to go off the road. The driver tried to control the car and it pulled in the opposite direction. Cars sped past, one of them narrowly missing us.
There was a screeching sound as the tire spent itself and the metal rim hit the ground. The car swerved to the left dragging its bad leg across the two lanes. It spun, pitched on the edge of the road and rolled into the ditch towards the concrete divider.
We were moving backwards now, I watched our destination through the rear window. The woman had both her children in her arms, the old man’s hands were pressed against the roof of the car, and the college student was holding on to the the door handle. They were all screaming. With the missing tire and the rough undergrowth, the car slowed and hit the divider with no more than a slight bump.
The student continued screaming, then realising we had stopped, she fumbled for the lock to get out. The driver yelled at her to stay where she was. His hands were still gripping the steering wheel, his leg pumped impotently at the brake. He ran his eyes over the passengers to make sure they were okay, looked outside around the car for signs of a fire. Then he held his hands open, palms up and prayed.
We clambered out of the car into the bushes. The woman was pacing back and forth, her childen in both arms. She kept saying over and over “Two children? Two children! I brought my two children.” I thought she was in shock and had lost count of her kids in the chaos. A friend explained to me later that Nigerians don’t travel with all their children together, so in the event of an accident, they would have substitute children waiting back home.
*Phone rings* “Hello? Huh, accident?! Don’t worry darling, we still have three at home. Ttyl”
I climbed up the embankment to the road and took pictures with my phone. There was a streak on the road stretching back about 40 metres from the other side of the road and ending at the car in the ditch. We put in a new tire with the help of villagers that emerged from the bushes. No cars stopped, not even the ones that almost hit us as we swerved across the road.
The first thing they teach you when driving in Nigeria is never stop for anyone because it might be a trap by robbers. Unless it is someone you know, and even then, only stop if you’re sure they are not being used as bait, held hostage by someone hiding behind them.
I would drive past my own mother on the road, waving to let her know I sympathize. Unless she called me to say I should stop, and unless she used the safe word we have agreed upon to let me know the coast is clear. (Safe word: yoghurt)
It took seven men to get the car back on the road. We drove slowly on Suleja, the woman now carried both her children. She kept rocking back and forth and chanting, “Two children? Two children.”
I think she learnt her lesson.