Make it Bun Dem

At the BRT park in Ajah, there was a short queue of about ten people. It was early morning and it had rained earlier. There was no bus yet so the people there were waiting in faith.
There is a critical queue length (CQL) which is the minimum number of people who have to be on a line for that line to appear legitimate. Once the queue has accumulated that number of people, it generates enough conviction to passers-by that those waiting are certain that a bus is coming. And like that, the line attracts even more people.
But if you asked anyone gathered there if they knew if a bus was coming, they would stare at you blankly and say something like, “Can’t you see the line?”

About five people from the start of the queue was a woman carrying a backpack.
The man behind her was playing with his hands. He shuffled to her left, he shuffled back behind her. He kept turning and looking around like he was expecting the bus to sneak up on him. Someone standing around them shouted. “Chai! Madam be careful, this boy is trying to steal your phone.” The woman swung the bag to her front and saw that the bag was unzipped. The fidgety man behind her opened his eyes wide, pointed to himself, Who me?
The person who had alerted the woman said, “It’s true! I saw you.”
More of the people on the queue got involved. “Picky pocket. That’s how they do, they will be standing on line waiting. Then they will disappear, your purse will be gone, your phone too, you won’t ever see them entering the bus.” “It happened to me like that one time.”
The woman zipped her bag up and hugged it tight in front of her. A few minutes later, the accusations died down.

Now the alleged thief, to prove that he wasn’t stealing, was stuck on the queue. He was waiting with everyone else, acting impatient. When the BRT official walked by, he joined the other passengers in complaining, When is the bus coming? We have been waiting for over thirty minutes.
But even when he was united with them, the people would not stop talking about his stealing past. “Look at him pretending like he has somewhere to go.” “I know, just watch and see.”
Someone said, “That’s how they always do here. And they are never just one. Once you catch them, another one will come and be supporting him.”
The group evaluated each queue member searching for who was most likely to be his accomplice. A new man joined the queue. He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt with a tie. He was carrying a file folder and the belt holding up his trousers was looped around his entire body twice.
He overheard part of the conversation and asked what happened. He listened, nodding at all the speakers and looked the thief over.
“Why you no slap am?”
“No o, you no dey beat thief, they just come back dey tiff again. You must kill them.”
The alleged thief was cleaning his fingernails, being interested in the dirt he found there.

The BRT bus pulled up and the bus assistant came down the front steps. She asked the first person for their destination and held her hand out for the passenger’s ticket.
She took the ticket and tore the stub off the end for herself. She ripped the remaining part of the ticket in half and returned it to the passenger. She did that for the next three people. The woman with the bag stepped forward, submitted her ticket and got into the bus. Then the alleged thief was at the head of the queue.
A brief look of confusion crossed his face as he stood at the entrance of the bus. He did not have a ticket in his hand. Instead, he tapped his chest three times and turned into smoke.

Someone from the back said, “See? I told you.”
The ticket collector waved her hand back and forth to dispel the mist and called up the next passenger. The passenger stepped forward, she took their ticket, and tore the stub off for herself and ripped their ticket in half and returned it to them. Then she did the same thing for the person after that, and for the person after that too because she had a long line to get through.

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So, Mo picks me up from work on a mall run. We are five minutes away from The Palms when we get stuck in traffic. A blind man and his companion step off the sidewalk onto the road. They make their way down the line of cars. At each window, the female companion stops. The blind man leans into the window with his palms open and runs through his list of prayers and blessings.

With a signal that is imperceptible to the rest of us, the blind man lets the girl know when it is time to move on to the next car. Or maybe the girl decides herself. She stares into the distance as he speaks and when she gets tired of listening to him, she walks to the next car dragging him along.

I see them do this a few times ahead of us watching their interaction, then I turn to Mo and tell her something that happened the previous day.

I am in the same area in Victoria Island. Two blind men pass each other on the street. The girls leading them are friends so they stop to talk. The first blind man keeps his hand on his girl’s shoulder and waits as she chats with her friend. The second man does not wait. After an initial pause, he sighs and walks off leaving his guide behind. He strides away confidently, not feeling his way slowly tapping his cane every step. He is just an ordinary man in Lagos wearing a kaftan with dusty feet who happens to be holding a cane.

He walks right into the intersection. A motorbike swerves to avoid hitting him. A keke sideswipes him and pulls up in front. Cars pile up behind it. Everyone is honking. What is this blind man doing, they are saying, where is his PA. The keke driver sticks his head out and yells at him. The blind man has made it halfway across the road. Maybe he knows the place. Maybe he thinks it sounds like Adeola Odeku and he can smell the pizza dough wafting over from Domino’s. The road is divided by a raised barrier about one foot high. The blind man has to step over it or find the gap to walk through. The man is feeling the stick along the highway barrier looking for an opening. He is stuck. 

His helper finally hears the commotion, she darts into the road and takes his hand, leads him away from all the people calling her stupid girl. The entire time I don’t see them speak. I am saying this to Mo now. I am telling her, I don’t think they talk much. I say, The girl was very chatty with her friend and when the blind men are together at the foot of the bridge, they stand with their hands stretched out and talk to each other. But the men don’t talk to the girls. I say, How about that? 

Mo is thinking about it. She’s also struggling with it, thinking to herself, this is a weird conversation to be having. 

Mo says, Maybe they don’t talk because they don’t know each other.

I say, How can they not know each other, they walk together every day.

Mo says, That doesn’t mean anything, maybe they are assigned to each other. 

I scoff at her, Assigned how, like a temp agency? Are you serious?

Mo is bites her lower lip, she nods, Yes, I’m sure they have something like that.

I say, So you think the blind man wakes up in the morning, dresses, and goes to some office. There they check the database, because obviously, all these helper children would have registered earlier. The office has a man wearing glasses and a short sleeved suit behind a wooden desk with a rusty standing fan in the corner. The man pulls out today’s availability report from a file, runs his finger down the page humming to himself, Hmmm….. Aisha is free today. And then she gets assigned to him?

Mo fixes me with a frozen stare.

I say, This is what you believe, right? That there’s a whole infrastructure around it. Something where at the end of the day, the blind man can bring out his braille phone, give her one star and leave a comment: “Aisha talked throughout the day. She made me walk into traffic, I’m lucky to be alive. I will not ride with her again.”

Mo blinks. She says, You know sometimes you take these things too far. 

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. 

Zatoichi

A narrow road runs along the edge of the Akesan model market. The road is bounded on one side by the gutter that drains the market, and on the other by the high barbwire-tipped fence of the military cantonment. The road is just wide enough for one car but on market days, with traders spilling into the streets only half of that is usable. Pedestrians clutter to either side to avoid being sideswiped by passing vehicles.

A young hijabed girl led a blind man on the side of the road. The man, in a white kaftan top, had his hand on her shoulder and he felt his way along with a shiny metal cane.

Coming in the opposite direction was a woman carrying a wide tray stacked with loaves of bread on her head.
The girl leading the blind man walked past the bread woman, and because she (the girl) was short, she passed the bread woman and the tray skirted over her head. However, she neglected to signal the blind man about the low clearance.
The tray clanged against the man’s head. He screamed, clutched his forehead with one hand, and baring his teeth, he turned and swung his metal stick hard into the bread woman.
The blind man yelled at her, his gray eyes glowering at the region in front of him. The bread woman held her hurt arm and looked apologetic.

A few metres away, an area boy saw the hit. He hurried across the road cutting between hawkers and stepped up to the blind man. He did that thing that tough guys do before they start fighting where they puff their chests up and stick it in your face and in his gravelly voice, he said, “Kini!”
Even though the blind man heard the confrontational bark, without any visual to go with it, he responded by raising his chin up, and weaving his head from side to side.

The bread woman was holding her elbow, watching the encounter with the sweetest, most innocent look on her face. She wore a brown half pleated skirt and a tight striped multicoloured blouse. And the way she held her hurt elbow with the hand across her chest, she formed a rectangle that framed her breasts.

The area boy, trying to impress her, was not backing down. “Why you flog am!” He was getting more agitated, chest bumping the blind man who was trying to explain by pointing at the bread woman. Or in the general direction of where she had been before he was initially chest bumped. A crowd was growing around them. Someone blamed the leading girl for not warning him and steering him around the tray. The girl cowered in the corner, covered her face and cried into her hands.

People tried to appeal to the area boy. “No vex, no vex.” He had muscled forearms, and to accentuate them, he had wristbands of large gleaming black beads around both wrists.

The area boy made a sudden move, phase two of stepping to someone where you spread your hands and try to scare them by pretending you will hit them. The blind man did not flinch. But the area boy’s bracelet caught on something and it broke. The beads scattered, making pinging noises as they bounced on the street.
The blind man’s ears perked up. His face darted left then right, his sightless eyes tracking each bead as it plinked on the road and clinked into the gutter. He was still staring after the beads’ fading sound when the area boy’s fist hit him low in the belly. He whooped out all the air in his body, folded in on himself, and fell to his knees.

The crowd surged in and pushed the area boy away from the blind man. They surrounded the area boy, attacking him as a shoving wall hurling insults. He swung blindly into them. Punches, kicks, his shirt was dragged. It tore down the middle in front. The shredded shirt was pulled off him leaving him absurdly wearing only sleeves. The melee went on for several minutes.

Gunshots rang out. A barrage of bullets rent the air. The crowd froze.
Then the shouts of soldiers: “Hey! You, stop there!”
Everybody scattered. Not as a unified mass. Some ran this way. Some ran that way. More shots, more shouts. Some doubled back and ran the other way.
Finally the place was empty.

Except for the blind man feeling his way slowly along the fence.