The lagoon was a vast sea of quicksilver reflecting the golden light of the morning sun. The rising sun appeared in a hiatus between grey floating clouds, which soon sailed in front of it, the reflection on the water vanishing for a few moments. Today, at the first Third Mainland Bridge interchange, instead of taking the descending ramp towards Ebute Meta, we went straight ahead. After sixty-five largely hectic days, I was returning to Abuja. What better time to take a break from the COVID-19 epicentre than two days to Eid? Fishermen in canoes were out casting their nets. Is there a lot of fish in this fetid lake by the sea? Perhaps human and other organic wastes are a delicacy to the fish. In which case, the aquatic animals would be recycling our wastes.
On the left, there was a fog over the amphibious city of Makoko, the rest of the Mainland blurry in the background. I had a feeling that I had forgotten something. As usual, I had only packed a few minutes before I left the hotel. I hardly ever pack until the morning of departure. Even when it is a foreign trip. As is likely with packing hurriedly, I have often forgotten things in hotel rooms – Bounty chocolate left in the fridge to harden up before munching, a shirt, a belt, phone chargers. Or the two occasions on which I left my yellow card behind and had to get a new one at the airport. Or that day when, on reaching the airport, I discovered I didn’t have my wallet on me and had to go back to home.
The Ojota interchange was as busy as ever. There was a traffic jam on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway after Ojota. It got worse after 7up. A little after Eleganza, we stopped for a colleague who had a parcel for another colleague in Abuja. It contained some surgical instruments for otorhinolaryngology, the surgical specialty otherwise known as Ear, Nose, and Throat, or ENT for short. The package had arrived – from overseas of course – before the lockdown. But it had been difficult getting it sent to Abuja. I wonder how many surgeries would have been delayed or canceled because goods can’t easily move around. Covid-induced global trade paralysis. A few weeks ago, I ordered some items from the London Review of Books store. After a while, they finally sent me a mail informing me that they could retry sending the parcel after covid or I could request a refund. I chose the second option. Who knows when coro will end?
The traffic jam got worse. We got off the expressway to pass in front of Magodo estate. So many trailers. Where are these guys going to? I thought interstate traffic was banned? But with the way Lagos and Ogun have melded into each other, crossing the Ogun River was only symbolic. Many people live in Ogun State and commute to Lagos every day for work. It’s like the FCT and the neighbouring states of Niger and Nasarawa. And right after the imaginary boundary, several motorbikes – banned from Lagos roads – were waiting to convey passengers to their nooks and crannies.
It took quite a while before we finally extricated ourselves from the dense traffic.
Ibafo. Loburo. Sagamu Interchange. Ishara Junction. Ogere. This expressway was boring. Like the Abuja-Kaduna expressway.
Ibadan is a mosaic. Depending on one’s mood or where one visits, one can easily conclude that Ibadan is just a city of rusty roofs sprawling on several hills, growing like a tumour, distinguished for its ancient, dull and unimaginatively coloured taxis. If one always side-steps the city centre, as we did today, to join the Ilesha expressway, the bubbling Yoruba metropolis is mainly a collection of several villages stitched together in urban squalour.
On its way to join the Lagos Lagoon, the sacred Osun River passed almost unnoticed under a bridge just before Ikire.
Ikire, where girls and women without face masks were hawking dodo Ikire – plantain chunks fried in palm oil, bespangled with pepper seeds and sometimes garnished with onions. It must be as hot as fire. I have never tried it. Ehen, why does it even look so black?
Gbongan, Ile-Ife, and Ilesha, which the road largely by-passed.
Zoom reminded me of a meeting starting in ten minutes. I thought it was scheduled for the next day. Too many zoom meetings and webinars these days that one can’t remember which one is next. Sometimes, there is a clash even. Thinking it was tomorrow, I had not prepared my PowerPoint slides. I meant to prepare them this night. In spite of having so much to report on the activities of the Nigeria Field Epidemiology and Laboratory Training Programme in the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I just had to listen to the presentations of the other countries in the network. Ghana. Zimbabwe. Liberia. The Gambia. Burkina Faso. I refused to surrender. I started to prepare my presentation as others presented. Laptop battery went flat. I lost the connection on my phone too. I finally gave up. I cannot come and kill myself.
I picked up Peter Enahoro’s How to be a Nigerian. It is indeed a mystery that I had not read the tiny book before now. I had come across the book so many times in the past that I thought I had read it until I started to read it yesterday. The book demonstrates that Nigerians have not changed a bit since the sixties.
Ipetu, Ikeji, Akure, Owoh. Tall straight oil palms towered over the dense undergrowth.
We stopped on the outskirts of Owoh where the road was flanked by stalls with foodstuff on display. The driver wanted to buy palm oil. Also available were egusi, ogbono, and avocado pear. One of them pleaded: Oga please buy egusi now. I replied: Who will grind it? They were not wearing face masks except one who was wearing it over her mouth only, with her nose exposed.
– Why are you not wearing a facemask?
– It’s not easy sir. It’s hot and we have been in the sun since morning.
– Oga, since I’m wearing mine, can you please buy ogbono from me?
Then I saw two huge bunches of plantain tied together. I remembered some people in my house who must eat fried plantain every day.
– How much?
– 3,500 naira.
– How much last?
– How much do you want to pay?
The sister said: Oga, pay 2,000. I asked her to get me a sack for the two bunches. I gave her 3,000 and didn’t ask for change. She beamed. I shouldn’t have even priced it to start with.
Adekunle Ajasin University. The late former governor of the old Ondo State deserves it. He was one of the brains behind Awolowo’s Free Education Scheme.
Akoko towns and villages struggled for space with several rugged hills and many massive rocks. They occupied the cultural transition zone between Yorubaland and Benin Kingdom. That there is Akoko-Edo on the other side of the boundary is telling. Situated far from Oyo, their dialect is not very easy to follow but still somewhat intelligible.
Magongo, which I always remember hyphenated as Ogori-Magongo. It’s in the geographical and cultural watershed between Yoruba and Edo. I do not understand a word of Osayin, their nasalized language. They have ventured too far from the Ile-Ife, the well-spring.
Okene, the heartland of the Ebira, which dovetailed along a valley with Adavi, a long tail of settlements stretching for miles along the Lokoja-Okene road. The highway seemed to have, like a river, found its way along the valley.
Lokoja, the confluence of almost all the vehicular traffic from the southern parts of the country. The capital of a state that is contiguous with about ten other states, all of which have reported COVID-19 cases. It’s miraculous that they have not reported a single case of COVID-19. While the driver refueled, I combined the two afternoon prayers.
Between Lokoja and the Niger bridgehead, the great river loitered around on the right, spilling its water into the low-lying area between it and the road. Beautiful scenery. Beautiful to behold, dangerous to live in. The road itself seems to have been mostly built on elevated ground at the foot of the highland to the left. These people living in vulnerable mud houses in the flood plains, can they not be relocated?
At the foot of the bridge, people were selling dried and smoked fish – I can’t tell the difference – as they have done forever. Neither face masks nor social distancing was their concern. By the time we crossed the Murtala Muhammed Bridge, the sun was descending between the trees on the left, with a gentle evening glare.
Koton-Karfe, an Ebira settlement said to be older than Okene but the inhabitants of which I have heard the Okene people refer to as Bush Ebira. It is obviously less urbanized than Okene. Not that I agree with the Okene people o. Just making an observation.
Abaji, said to have been part of the Igwu Kingdom centering on Koton-Karfe. I had expected that it would still be daytime by the time we reached this place and was almost salivating at the prospect of buying dakkuwa and freshly fried crunchy kuli-kuli.
Through Ogun, Oyo, Osun, Ondo, and Kogi, I lost count of the number of checkpoints we encountered. Quite a few were manned by policemen, some by road safety guys and some by soldiers. There were even drug law enforcement guys. At each stop, with the number plate and COVID-19 sticker, they waved us on. But the other motorists folded something which they dropped into the receiving hand of the uniformed men. These guys were supposed to monitor and enforce the observance of the ban on interstate travel. The motorists who were carrying passengers and goods must survive. They have families to feed. Bills to pay. They earn their living in daily bits and pieces. Palliatives most probably had not reached them. Many of the vehicles were dangerously overloaded with goods. Some were packed with passengers who must have paid five times the usual fare. Otherwise, where would the drivers get the money to pay the illegal toll at the checkpoints? The uniformed guys were taking advantage of these poor fellows. Pay your tolls and we will let you pass. We understand. Partners in misery and corruption. In my country, bribery has been woven into the very fabric of society. It lubricates the movement of its rusty unwieldy creaking machinery.
Gwagwalada. Almost home.
Airport junction. River Park. Shoprite. City Gate. Federal Secretariat. Ecowas Secretariat.
After more than fourteen hours and over 700 kilometres, I was now at home. Glad to be back in my crib. I couldn’t remember the last time I had traveled such a great distance by road. It was initially conceived with a bit of trepidation and misgiving but quickly became an almost feverish anticipation. I would continue to Zaria tomorrow. Things in the room were covered with a thin layer of dust. I needed to go out to get dinner before it was too late.