The crow of the chicken woke Fatai and when he rose from the mat, he had a smile on his face. He didn’t know why he was in a good mood today, but it was a welcome respite to his heavy head the past few weeks. He realized he had started to feel safe, not safe as in from physical harm, not even emotionally, but a kind of existential headspace that he had been in ever since he moved to Lagos from his village in Osun state.
He went outside to the tap, to do his ablution. He saw that his landlady’s door was opened, so he quickened his actions and slipped into his room just when he heard the woman’s steps near her door. It was the last day of the month, so she would be asking for her rent and he had not completed his money, he hoped he would be able to do so today.
Fatai worked as a bus driver, working in the intersections between Maryland to Ikorodu road. When he first came to Lagos, he had wanted to be a barber, since he had trained in that, so he went to work with a barber in Epe, but one day, the man had accused him of doing Juju.
—Na you dey make this business suffer, since you don join, no money again, you be razz person, see mark for all your face, gbere mark, you village people wey dey carry curse for head, comot for my shop this instant, before I comot you for life, the man had said.
That day he wandered around Epe, looking for jobs, until finally, he came across the Aro Meta, Agba Meta statue, tired and dehydrated. To him, it didn’t look like they were welcoming him at all, it looked like they were warning him, Lagos will pummel you to death, if you’re not careful.
Now he prayed, for mercy, for good luck, for protection against the powers that be—people who would rather die than see him succeed. After he had finished praying, he wrapped up the mat and went outside. He hoped the landlady wouldn’t accost him in front of the other people. Today was a Saturday, which meant it was environmental day and he wouldn’t start work till ten. He wanted to go back to listen on radio Lagos, for the derby match between Manchester united and Manchester city, but he had to work. It was part of the enforced rule by the landlady that all tenants had to clean their surroundings during environmental.
—You people dey waka for this side, some people even park their car, you dey dis side, and all your environment just dirty like something wey person neva see, you want make I dey pay Mallam, when you dey comot go ouside, dey come back inside, and your eyes no tell you say, you suppose clean.
There was a tree in the middle of the yard, the tenants called it an apple tree but it wasn’t growing apple, but a fruit that tasted like it. Fatai liked the taste of it and he always stole from the tree. Many a time, when he was hungry and had no money, had the tree sustained him.
He liked to work under the tree, sweeping off the dry leaves because it afforded him the opportunity to steal a few fruits, which he would save to eat later in the day.
—How body, Alfa fatai, everything dey? Maria said.
Maria was a corper from the east, Delta or Bini, he couldn’t tell, but what he could ascertain was that he dreamt of her, she was the kind of girl he wanted, the kind of girls that when they spoke pidgin it rolled off their tongue like a new language entirely. But he didn’t like that she called him Alfa, he wasn’t a Muslim cleric, he didn’t have a beard and the legs of his trousers touched the floor, he wished she would stop calling that and say only Fatai, sometimes he liked to pretend that she didn’t say Alfa but called him Fatai my baby.
She was wearing a Jalabia, and through the flimsy material, he could see her buttocks jiggling. He wanted to speak to her, to have conversation, but his worry that he was not good enough to even talk to her, hampered him. He worried incessantly that she would never get to know him, while she was still in Lagos, finishing youth service.
Fatai went inside later, and washed his face and arms again, this time not in ablution, but to be clean. He took off his shirt and wore another. He grabbed his portable radio, put it in a polythene bag, looked around him and went out the door.
He walked down the road, past the shops with the Fuji posters, the woman frying Akara, the Mallam dusting off his wares, the boy selling Oroki bitters, and as he walked, he thought of the city as a living thing that oozed human beings from its pore, everywhere you looked, there was always someone doing something.
He had about fifty minutes before he was to go to the bus park and meet his conductor, so he went into Iya Risi’s food shop. He liked going there because Iya Risi too had immigrated from Osun to Lagos, and even though she had been in Lagos for about twenty years, she still retained her Ife accent.
—Ahan, Ogbeni Fatai, na you be this?
—Na me oh, wetin dey house ma?
—Everything dey, Eba, Rice, Beans, Yam sef dey
—I go take Eba and Ewedu, Bokoto and Pomo, plus pure water, like three.
—How many Eba?
Iya Risi gestured at Peju, one of her workers and explained Fatai’s order to her.
—Ewedu no dey again, the girl said.
—Ah, Ewedu no dey oh, Iya Risi said to Fatai, shey make dey put Okro?
Fatai shook his head
—You no dey chop Okro? Wetin happen, you don suddenly turn Ijebu?
They both laughed and Fatai said he would take the stew ordinary. When it came, he washed his hands in the small blue bowl that was provided. He said, Bismillahi and dug in into the Eba. It was yellow Garri—Ibo eba—he’d always thought Ibo Eba was the best, the texture when prepared carefully and when combined with the perfect stew, tasted like bliss on the tongue.
He swallowed the food and when he looked into himself, he was surprised to find out that the good mood was still there. But the day has just started, he thought.
He bit into the Pomo and smiled, because a bit of soup had spilled on his shirt, if nothing spilled on your shirt, then you were not eating Pomo, he thought. The thing with Pomo was, nobody ate it because of the supposed nutrients—he’d heard it has none—but for the process of eating it. The way, depending on the tensile strength of the meat, the teeth sank into it, the immediate Pavlovian response from the taste buds, the sound of it inside the head as it was chewed, was what made it a beautiful experience. There was the stigma surrounding it as a poor man’s meat and even talk about the government banning it one time, but Fatai knew that he couldn’t stop eating Pomo even on the threat of death.
Aside from Pomo, there was one other thing that Fatai was passionate about: Music, Juju music, Afro-Juju music and all other genres that spawned from that. So much that in primary school, people used to call him Fatai rolling dollar, after The Fatai rolling dollar. One time, his mom had tried to have a spiritual intervention after he had bought a collection of Shina Peters CD’s using money he stole from her.
Even now as he walked to the bus station. Ijo shina was blaring in his head. If you’ve listened to a piece of music for a long time, you learn to deconstruct, to separate the various instruments in the song, and to him that was the root of Juju music—the pacing and how several layered instruments co-interacted in one song.
—Wetin dey do you wey you just dey smile and shine teeth? You don get woman? Jamiu said.
—Haha, no be so, Na today I just wake up see how this life con too beautiful, he just be like say everything dey shine, but no be every day I day get this kin thing for my chest, somedays I just dey cry when I wake up, I dey tell Allah say why you just create me for this Nigeria, but today na happiness dey my mind.
Jamiu was the bus conductor and they had known each other for almost a year. Fatai liked that Jamiu was dependable, the sort of somebody you needed in Lagos, someone who knew every police, who knew what to say to what soldier, how to salute the Lastma a certain way, where to tell him to maneuver and corny jokes for the days Lagos turned its back on them.
People—even the owner of the bus, Chief Jegede—had admonished him not to take Jamiu on as a conductor, since he had one eye. How that kin person go fit see for Lagos traffic, how hin go fit catch person wey won dupe am? How hin go fit know fake money?
But the weeks before he hired Jamiu, he’d worked with an unimpaired man who was drunk on the job and tended to harass the female passengers. So much for having both eyes.
Jamiu used to be a beggar in Mile 12, maybe that was how he seemed to be able to strut anywhere and everywhere like he owned the place.
The only thing, Fatai, didn’t like about Jamiu was his taste in music. Jamiu liked to listen to contemporary music—Psquare, Olamide, Lil Kesh, Simisola—but Fatai didn’t particularly hate them, he just didn’t connect with the songs, didn’t feel they said anything to him.
—You dey happy abi? You never jam Lagos traffic ni, that na real jolly killer.
Jamiu ever the sage was right. The line of cars that stretched in front of the bus was never-ending, along with it a cacophony of curses, horns, shouts of hawkers squeezing through gaps, okadas and Keke Maruwas battling for space and the occasional haggard beggar on his knees rolling along on a makeshift skateboard.
The first thing that stood out to him when he first got on the road in Lagos were the curses, first he had thought it was the audacity of the people milling about on the road, people walking so close to luxurious buses, lorries, okadas, that you could just reach out and slap them in the face.
But it was the curses. Curses everywhere—everybody cursed, pastors cursed, Imams cursed, young girls walking back from school, people in suits, Agberoos with no clothes on, women with babies, people in cars with air conditioning.
Oya were abi!
Odape ori e ti daru!
You’re mad abi?
God punish your mother!
Waka! Shege bansa!
Ma je kin shepe fun e o, tin ba shepe fun e, waa sha bata de Abuja ni.
This were words he knew about, but in the mouths of Lagosians, it sounded alien to his ears. Soon he had become like them, he had become well versed in what kind of curse to use, to a particular person, in what context, in which environment. For example, a word and look that would work in Epe would not work in Ajegunle.
They were in Ketu now. The bus had sixteen people in it.
—Mile 12! Owode! Jamiu shouted, as he hung by the side of the bus.
Fatai had lived in Ketu for some days in the house of a woman who was the first female carpenter in Lagos and probably the whole of Nigeria. She said she had a house in Ife and that her son was studying Journalism at Obafemi Awolowo University. When he was leaving her house, she bought foodstuffs and gave him her late husband’s clothes. Maybe one day he would go visit her and bring along a gift, she did use to eat a lot of garden eggs.
In Mile 12, they picked up a priest they knew—Father Stanley. Every day they always picked him up at the same place and every time he always had Agbalumo for them—except if it wasn’t in season. Father Stanley had survived the civil war, as a kid and sometimes he told them stories of how when he and his mother came back to Lagos from Nsukka, their textile store was already destroyed. Still, he loved Lagos, he said and his mother had come back here because of him.
Fatai liked him because of the way he spoke, halting sentences, that you had to really listen to get. He also liked him because of the fruits and that, since he’d been boarding their bus, the priest had never once talked about church or Jesus Christ. Countless pastors had slipped posters and insignia of their churches into his hands, even though they saw the Quranic verses inscribed on the dashboard.
He also regularly praised Fatai’s choice of songs and when the priest alighted at Elias estate, near a Mr. Biggs, Fatai would glance at Jamiu and say,
—You see, na confirm people dey like my music.
—We don hear, Mr Dj, Jamiu would snort.
Fatai liked to listen to music as he drove, but sometimes an old woman would come in and she would ask if he could change it to 107.5, Radio Lagos. Jamiu always told him that was wrong, people no do that kin thing for other drivers, they see say you be mumu, that’s why, na the driver dey set the radio, he said. Not the passenger. But Fatai always acquiesced to older people, especially older women.
Now the radio was set to 107.5 and there was a news report about how the governor had issued a directive to smash the slum houses in Otodo Gbame as a security measure.
—I get cousin for there, a man with tribal marks at the back of the bus said to another passenger. Just because you wan build safe mega city nah hin make you destroy pesin life? Where he want make those people go now? People wey den bury den palle and malle for near that water? Ehn? Na God go punish that foolish governor named Ambode.
It was raining now and Jamiu had stopped hanging off the bus, he entered, shut the door and sat at the small seat reserved for the conductor and when the bus was overfull, a passenger. When someone at a bus stop flagged down the bus, Jamiu quickly opened the door and said, where you dey go? The passenger entered and the door shut again. When a passenger shouted Owa! at their destination and Jamiu had given them change for their money, they alighted and the door shut again.
The wiper waved left to right, streams of water dripping down the front of the Yellow Danfo—only Lagos buses were painted Yellow and black, Fatai learned. It was raining that day when he first arrived in Lagos and in the chaos and smell and sound of Lagos, only the rain felt familiar.
Sometimes the strained silence in the bus was broken by noise—congenial talk between passengers, about the failure of Buhari, about the deceptiveness of Nepa, about corruption, about Chelsea and Manchester United and how Arsenal must fire Wenger and buy better players, about Juju and kidnappings for money, about young girls that wear miniskirts and end up pregnant, about how all this is caused by the government, why wouldn’t girls get pregnant when there’s no education. Sometimes not. Sometimes the silence was broken by the cry of a baby or babies or of goats, even chickens. Sometimes not. Sometimes the silence was broken by a pastor praying for the soul of this demonic country or by the hawker hawking oroki bitters or drugs to make you fuck your madam better or the cry of somebody suddenly realizing he had dozed off and missed his bus stop. Sometimes not. Sometimes everything was quiet and Fatai glanced through the mirror at the grim faces in the back and sometimes his eye fell on young schoolgirls in school uniform chattering away on their Nokia phones and at their faces where light and hope still resided.
They were at Owode Onirin now where auto chassis littered the side of the gullied road, leading up from Mile 12, and countless auto-mechanics and vulcanizers plied their trade—Number one master of Lexus! Buy parts, you don’t have to go to Yaba!..pump tire here.
Fatai admired these people, mechanics who didn’t know anything about the new cars being imported into the country, but through sheer will and doggedness—plus various mishaps—were able to get the workings of that new Benz or the shiny Ferrari.
Times were changing though, Fatai knew that. Soon these roadside mechanics would fade away and the engine oil soaked ground would sprout grass once more. Just last month, he had heard that big men in Lekki don’t take their cars to “Mechanics” any longer, they took it to people with computers who readily pinpointed the problems plaguing their million dollar vehicles.
—You still dey happy? Jamiu asked.
Fatai bit his lip and considered the question for a while. He shook his head.
—Small, I been dey happy small my broda, he said.
—Ogolonto last bus stop! Jamiu called out to the remaining three people in the bus—two women and a man dressed in black despite the hot Lagos sun.
When they got to Ogolonto bus park, they decided to go eat at Iya Busola. Iya Busola was not like Iya Risi, the food just lacked a certain something, but this was the best place in Ogolonto by far. When they got back to the bus park—for their next load of outgoing passengers into the Lagos mainland—they would have Iya Risi for the night meal, he decided.
Bobby Benson was from Ikorodu, Fatai Rolling dollar died in Ikorodu, he thought as they headed to the mainland through the Ikorodu road. The traffic would have worsened.
In Nipco filling station, the bus was full and the rain was coming down like hailstones now. They were stopped by an army man who was raising his black gun.
—Yes sir? Fatai said, as he rolled down the window.
—Open your door, the soldier said.
—What for? Fatai said. He was already scared, soldiers in Lagos were like barely covered keg of gunpowder, anything could spark it and make them angry. It was like they had something in the head that just told them to beat, beat, beat.
—What for? Look at this bloody civilian, open door, this is a staff thing.
Ah, he understood now. The usual, the soldier wanted a lift. —No space oga sir, bus don full sir, sorry sir.
—Which full, that space wey I dey see for that door side nko? I dey see am through this window, you think say I no dey shine eyes abi?
—That na conductor side sir, he dey stand now dey collect money from passengers but na that place hin dey seat, no space again, rain dey fall.
—Hin no fit stand hold bus? I said I’m staff.
—Yes I know you be staff sir, everyday you dey say you be staff, everyday soldier dey enter this motor with no payment, nothing person fit do, you be staff, we know sir, but today no space.
—You dey mock me abi?
—No sir, how I go fit do that kin thing
—Are you mad?
—Take am easy, Jamiu whispered in Fatai’s ear. If you no wan end up for Igbobi.
—Sorry sir, Jamiu said to the soldier.
—Fuck you there!
—We’re sorry sir, please, a woman said from the back of the bus. Pls sir.
—Shhh, another person said.
—You people better shut up for there, the soldier said.
—I dey sorry sir, Jamiu can stay outside hold bus, just come in sir.
—No, no, no, you have disgraced this uniform, so you must pay.
—Ah, Fatai sighed. These men were irrational, he thought. Something like this had happened too, when Fatai had first arrived in Lagos, on the fourth day, he had gone to eat at a buka, and when he finished and was heading out, he bumped into an army man who staggered and fell theatrically. Fatai apologized profusely, but the man didn’t hear and Fatai ended up at the army barracks doing frog jumps.
—Stay here, the soldier said, if you move, you die.
They watched as the soldier stepped on a puddle and walked away from the bus, past the cement bags that served as protection outside the barracks, far away from sight, presumably into the fortified citadel.
—Wetin we go do now, a woman said, me I no dey for this trouble o
—Why the driver no answer the soldier ehn?
—What’s wrong with a conductor being outside inside rain? A man in glasses said. He’s a conductor, people like him do that every time. You’ve put us in this mess Mister driver, you’ve also made me late, I have a conference to attend about medieval literature. Something which only happens in Nigeria once in a blue moon.
—That is true, this driver doesn’t know what he’s doing, a girl said.
Fatai looked at Jamiu and raised his eyebrow. Jamiu sighed and shrugged.
—Go, Jamiu said.
—Dey go! Dey go! Before the soldier man come back! Make we dey go! Speed!
—Ah, Fatai sighed. He looked outside. Should he do that? He thought.
Some of the passengers had heard. —Are you mad? This was the man with the glasses.
—Are you stupid, he continued, how do you know that there are not snipers watching us? Do you think a soldier would just leave a vehicle on the basis that the people in it will be respectful of his order? Are they stupid? I don’t want to die, it seems as if you want to…. they shoot now, nobody will question them. Accidental discharge, that is what the Guardian Nigeria will say tomorrow.
—Wetin be all this grammar wey you dey talk sir, Jamiu said to the man. Abeg go jare, he motioned to Fatai.
—You be murderer, a woman said, as she suddenly stood up, hit her head on the roof of the bus. The slap wey I go give you for here now, look at this foolish conductor oh.
Someone said they would break the conductor’s head, another person said they were sitting with their kid and did the driver want to have the blood of a kid on his destiny? Fatai watched them argue, his head heavy as if encased in cast, his mouth dry and his heart like a speed car at the Monaco Grand prix. He felt utterly helpless. He watched Jamiu push the door open and stretch his legs and saw him quickly enter as he sighted the oncoming soldier.
The soldier was heading towards the bus with five other huge men in white shirts and grey camouflage trousers.
—Yawa don gas o, Jamiu chuckled sadly. We don enter hot soup.
Fatai rubbed his face and switched off the engine. He glanced at Jamiu and shook his head. As the men continued to near the bus, he knew he wasn’t going to complete his rent today.
Ridwan Tijani was born in Nigeria and now he lives in Indianapolis. His work has appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, Lunch Ticket, Brittle Paper, Afreada and Mulberry Fork Review. He is at work on a novel.