Welcome Home (Sanitarium)

Last week, I had to wake up early to catch a flight. I live on an estate that doesn’t allow public transportation in, so I had to walk all the way to the entrance with my luggage. It was just about five a.m., there were no cars or pedestrians and it was still dark. As I exited past the security guards, a bike pulled up to the gate carrying four people. 

There was the okada man, behind him was a woman, and sandwiching her was another man. In the front, between the handlebars was a little boy. The man at the back dismounted from the bike and swung the boy off, carrying him in his arms. He said “Wait” to the bike and trotted to the gate house. The woman grunted in response.

The woman was having trouble breathing. She put her head on the okada man’s back and put her hands on her pregnant stomach. I could hear her panting. 

I could also hear the man talking to the security men. “My wife…. ” he turned and pointed back at her. He went into a pleading explanation. His wife had an emergency and needed to get to the hospital inside, could the guards let the bike in?

The okada man on hearing this, said, “If I dey enter, na two hundred naira.” The woman was hyperventilating. She raised her head, clutched her belly and wailed, “Nooo….” she said, “one fifty.” The bike man shook his head. In between her gasps, they haggled. “Two hundred naira.” “Lai lai.” She screamed, “Argh” and bent forward, “one fifty.” Back and forth like that, nobody was budging. 

The woman started to get off the bike even though she was in great pain. She rocked side to side, huffing the whole time, then she stretched one leg to the ground and struggled off. 

The security guards had opened the gate. The husband was standing with the boy in the crook of his arm, waving the bike in. He was surprised to see the woman standing beside the bike. “Ah ah, what happen?”

The following day, I was returning to Lagos. The Owerri airport is one of those small ones that are like bus stops. It has just one runway and one building. No gates or any of that fancy stuff. When the plane lands, it rolls to a stop at the end of the runway, drops people and picks up passengers at that spot then K-turns and takes off. There is no room for anything else. 

We were lined up at the boarding stairs to climb into the plane. We had just trekked all the way from the one building to the plane because there’s no such thing as taxiing in Sam Mbakwe airport. 

There were two wheelchairs that had brought people who disagreed with all the walking. Airline staff were patting people down at the foot of the stairs and at the top, they were checking boarding passes. We shuffled up the steps bit by bit. Behind me, I heard someone say, “What is wrong with you? Let her pass!”

I turned around. It was a woman about four steps below shouting and she was addressing me. Closer to me was a woman carrying a wrapped infant. The shouting woman glared at me. “Let the woman with the baby pass. Why are we behaving like animals?”

Was I blocking the woman with the baby? I didn’t think so. Was I standing in a Lagos stance with my elbows out to fend off imagined competition? Not consciously.

I opened my mouth to defend myself and realised her question was not just for today. It was for every time before now. For the previous day with the pregnant woman. For the okada man who wouldn’t let fifty naira slide. And for me who jumped on the bike as soon as she wasn’t using it, saying to myself, I’ve got a flight to catch. Why were we behaving like animals?

I swallowed the insult and entered the plane. 

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