The Curious Death of Baba Sola

My mother’s cousin died last month and relatives called from the village to tell her.
But the phone connection was so bad, she couldn’t hear them, so when they said he died of cancer, my mother, standing by the window for better reception, said, “What? Tanker ke? Ni bo?”

The person on the end of the line replied, “At home.”

My mother hung up and put her hand over her mouth.

She said, “Baba Sola ti ku o. A tanker ran into his house and killed him.”

What struck me later, after it was cleared up, wasn’t her mistake but that for her, both options seemed equally likely. That here, between tanker and cancer, one did not seem more farfetched than the other.

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Poor Mrs Omikunle.
Her house was washed away in the flash floods of 2010. Two of her children were swept off, lost in the rushing waters.
Kneeling in the wet rubble, she threw her hands to the sky, wailing in Yoruba: “Why God, why?”
The rain had petered out. There was a rumbling like thunder.
And God replied, “You know why.”

Country of Ember or Death and his friends

There is a scourge threatening the lives of millions of Nigerians.
No, not terrorism, or AIDS or cancer. Although those are terrible things too. It is the evil face of the -ember months.
As the months count off to the end of the year, in what is known as the curse of the -ember months, there is a deluge of people dying in deceptively normal ways.
Death, it appears, suddenly realises he has a 31st of December deadline and an unmet target of souls to harvest so he has to ramp up his activities.

It is unclear why the threat of the -ember months is so prevalent here. Either Death and his minions have to concentrate on one location in what little time they have and it is always Nigeria they choose. Or Death is more organised in the Western world and he kills regularly throughout the year to meet his targets rather than focus all his effort at the end like he does here.

Whatever the reason is, the end of the year sees the country turn into a killing field. People huddle in churches praying against the spirit of the -ember months. They make t-shirts and stickers. Like this one that says: “Mber Months: Back to Sender!”
Huh? Back to which sender? Pope Gregory of the Gregorian calendar? Does he know you don’t want his months?
I don’t think you can return months like they are unused data on your phone plan.

Meanwhile Death never thinks to switch things up. He never goes: “Maybe I work a little harder in May and June so I don’t have to struggle at the end.”
Death is chillaxing mid-year. No one in the country died in July and that didn’t raise any eyebrows. He is lying on the couch, his black cloak bunched up around him, watching Scandal. He is eating a hunk of watermelon, spitting the seeds into a saucer. He is doing stretches from this yoga DVD he bought on Jumia. His stress is melting away. “Eh, I’ll just pull some all-nighters in November and December. It will be fine.”

Then the end of the year comes and his friends call him:
“Hello. Yo Death, meet us at the lounge, we hanging out.”
“Sorry, I can’t come. I’m swamped with work, you know how the -ember months are.”
“For real? Where you at?”
“Ugh. Nigeria.”
“Word.”

Smoke ’em if you got ’em

Part 2 of 2

The second part of the trip was a bus ride from Suleja to Bida. I was hours behind schedule. With the blown tire and the slow pace we had adopted after fixing it, we had gotten to Suleja late and I wouldn’t get to Bida until long after sunset.

At the Suleja bus park, the last bus filled up and we left.

I tried sleeping, but I was still shaken up from the accident. I brought out a book but reading was impossible. My head was pounding and I couldn’t keep my hands steady. The smoke from the engine of the bus was seeping into the bus. I couldn’t see it, but I could smell the exhaust and feel it sting my eyes. None of the other passengers seemed bothered by it. I put my head down, and rubbed my temples, going over the events of the day.

It was a bumpy ride. The Suleja-Bida road is terrible, it is so bad that there wasn’t any risk of dying in a high speed accident. That was one thing to be grateful for.
The bus lumbered on, stumbling into potholes, swinging back and forth across the road. We would stop and turn off the road to avoid a bad patch, I would look up to see why we had slowed down and my eyes would fill with tears as my face was hit with a puff of exhaust.

I was sitting in the first row, directly behind the driver and he kept a casual conversation going with the woman next to him. At some point about halfway to Bida, the woman asked the driver to stop, she wanted to pee.
The driver pulled over and the woman bolted into the bushes. The driver got out to pee as well. He crossed the road in the opposite direction.

The driver hadn’t announced the pee break to the rest of the passengers because he didn’t want to spend a lot of time waiting for everyone.
A man who had been sleeping by the door woke up as he felt the bus stop. He saw the woman run out of the passenger side front door, and he saw the driver get out too. Then the man looked back at the front of the bus to verify that it was indeed the driver crossing the road running away from the bus. It was.
The driver’s seat was empty and there was light smoke coming out of the dashboard; the same smoke that had been bothering me throughout the ride. There was also a faint smell of burning rubber.

The man shouted, “FIRE”, pushed the door of the bus open and ran out. Panic swept through the bus. I had been looking around at the other passengers, so I had seen the man raise his head drowsily and his eyes widen with fear. People were screaming and jumping out of windows. A woman carrying a baby on her back climbed over two rows, stepped on my shoulder and got out, sleek like a ninja. A large woman fell backwards in the rush and I was trapped behind (and under her) as the other passengers scrambled past her to escape.

The woman made several attempts to get up, but every time she tried, another passenger would push her down as they struggled to get out. By the third try, I had managed to extract most of my body out from underneath her, but I was now wedged in the space between my seat and the back of the driver’s seat and the woman was half-sitting on my right leg.

Everybody else made it out of the bus. Except me.
By the time the woman got off my leg, I had given up and stopped trying to move. I sat there on the floor between the seats with my leg twisted up on the chair, an indifferent broken man waiting for the inferno to engulf him.

The driver heard the noise and came back to the bus. He calmed everyone down. “Smoke from the engine? It’s normal. Completely normal. Been happening since Suleja.”

The passengers gathered around the bus were amused by their overreaction. One of them pointed inside at me, and they laughed as they climbed back into the bus.

Later, when my mind returned to me, I was thinking about this, about people who live under the constant threat of death, of explosions, of violence. It doesn’t take much for people to go from being excited about life to apathy.
With repeated exposure, those who live in these situations permanently lose hope, and those who hear about it stop being surprised.
It becomes just another day in Kano.