COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to soar. During the weekend, the NCDC DG, WHO Officer-in-Charge, and the NCDC Director of Surveillance were in Lagos to listen to our plans for strengthening surveillance and data management and coping with the challenges of case management and isolation. The outbreak is entering a new phase. But it was time for somebody to finally leave the battlefield and return to the command centre. I got one of my colleagues from Abuja to take my place in the COVID-19 response in Lagos. She arrived two days ago. I settled my hotel bill last night so as to avoid delays this morning.
We left the hotel at about quarter to six because we wanted to beat the traffic on the way out of Lagos. The last time, it took more than an hour to get out of the bottleneck at that portion of the Lagos-Ibadan expressway commonly called the Long Bridge. It is actually a causeway above the swampy flood basin of the Ogun River. Because it has no ramps or exits, once there’s an occlusion due to an accident or a broken-down vehicle, it’s a nightmare.
It wasn’t light yet. The receding darkness of the dawn was filled with many pairs of yellow-white lights as vehicles zoomed in the direction of Ikoyi and Victoria Island. They will surely get to work before time, but they had to leave home and get here at this time before the traffic built up at the numerous bottlenecks on the way.
We got out of Lagos in no time and went past the Long Bridge in a trice. But traffic, especially big trailers, tankers, and lorries, was thick on the other side of the road.
I soon dozed off.
When I woke up, the driver was trying to cross over to the wrong side of the road. We were around the Ishara area. There was an obstruction down the road. We soon discovered that we could not continue along that path. We were stopped and asked to turn back. A crane was trying to move the trailer that had crashed and was lying along the road. It looked like it would take a while before the objective was achieved. There was already a very long line of trailers and other vehicles behind the obstruction. All this, despite the ban on interstate travel. We saw the grim prospect of losing an hour or two here. There had to be another way. Google indicated that there was another road running more or less parallel to the expressway and looping back to rejoin the expressway before Ibadan. But Google gave no information about the motorability or security of the road. The driver was dubious but did as I suggested. We did a u-turn and went back a couple of kilometers on the way back to Lagos. As we turned to the unnamed road, the driver’s Google Maps re-routed. The driver is fond of using Google Maps even when he knows the way.
Not many motorists were following the route. Doubt was written all over the driver’s face. The road was barely wide enough for two cars. The forest started right from the edge of the paved road and was so thick that, at some points, one couldn’t see through it beyond a few meters. Some branches stooped to touch the Hilux. Leafy branches met high up above the road sometimes forming an arbor over short stretches. The driver continued to have misgivings but I nudged him on. The road narrowed to take only a car at a time as we passed through a village that seemed to be observing a market day. Mainly foodstuff – pepper, tomatoes, spinach, and other green leafy vegetables. The ride was bumpy as the road had a lot of potholes filled with muddy water. Only one car, a Toyota Camry, was in sight. The journey was punctuated by the sight of motorcyclists heavily laden with farm produce going in the opposite direction.
Then we passed by Ajebo, the largest human settlement along this road. After the Foursquare Camp, around a village called Seriki-Sotayo, we came by McPherson University. So many private universities have mushroomed out of the Nigerian soil in the last decade that it seems that one is established every single day. I had never heard of this one before. Wikipedia told me that it was founded by Foursquare Gospel Church. But why a Scottish-sounding name? To sound exotic, foreign, posh? Who is McPherson? The university website was unhelpful. I dug deeper. The FSGC was founded by Aimee Elizabeth Semple McPherson, a Canadian Pentecostal evangelist who passed away in 1944. She was a pioneer of radio evangelism and the megachurch. I see.
Covenant. Babcock. Bells. Crawford. Crescent. Chrisland. Christopher. Hallmark. Mountain Top. Southwestern. Ogun State seems to be chock-full of private universities. It probably has as many private universities as the whole of the country north of the Niger. In truth, many of these private ‘universities’ are, in the American sense, more like colleges than universities – they focus on bachelor’s degrees in the humanities and social sciences. Whatever, the gap continues to widen between the North and the South. More people, fewer schools. More people, less enrollment in schools. More people, more children out of school. Bridging the gap needs to start post-haste. But the catch-up journey has not even started. The South will not wait.
Soon after, we emerged from the jungle of Remoland as we looped back to join the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway at a small spaghetti junction. Out of the woods, literally.
After Ibadan, the clouds were massive, grey, and thick. The clock had been turned back two hours into the night; the sun was nowhere in sight. The wipers suddenly quickened as the sky dissolved and poured in sheets. There were two camels standing in the dense tuft of greenery down the middle of the dual carriageway, untethered, their coat the color of beach sand. Unexpected and incongruous, as there was no herdsman around. What are two loose camels looking for here? Have people started eating camel meat in these parts?
As we passed through Akure, we saw Fulani herdsmen and their cattle on the roadside. Egrets were perching on the cattle and on the boughs of the trees along the road and on the fence. I had not seen these white birds for a while. Which reminded me of a children’s folk song which I immediately started singing. The driver laughed, wondering what I was singing about.
Lekeleke bami leke
Eye Adaba bamileke
Mu dudu lo
Mu funfun bowale
Gb’o’ka re, gb’o’ka re
Mamu toro lo
Egret, give me white fingers
Dove, give me white fingers
Take the black away
Bring the white home
Take your ring, take your ring
And leave the threepence
This was supposed to magically etch a little white line or patch into the nail of the thumb. We would rub and rub our fingernails to see a white patch. I can’t remember whether it really happened or not. Since only the sight of the egret elicited the song, I never deciphered why the dove was always brought into the matter.
As we passed through Oka-Akoko, we saw a Fulani man holding a dead duiker upside down. I didn’t know that such games still existed in our jungles. I thought we had hunted them to extinction. We have to conserve what remains.
At Ibillo I was slightly tempted to try the famed pounded yam and egusi but the driver was not keen and my resolve was as thin and brittle as a wafer. Maybe another day. We moved on.
In the villages around, people lived just next to nature. Many of the houses were aligned in a single row along the road with the dense jungle right behind them. As if they were mere clearings in the forest. Charming, sleepy, serene. I imagined spending a weekend here, hiking up the rugged mountains, and, at night, serenaded by hissing snakes, cawing birds, and chirping crickets.
In front of a one-storey house, I saw a grave covered with the kind of square white tiles used for bathrooms, toilets, and ablution areas in mosques. A common site throughout Yorubaland, rare in the North. Up north, everybody is taken to a community cemetery where individual graves do not stand out more than a heap of earth and marked by an occasional concrete headstone.
Lying beside me on the seat were two books. Why would a person carry two books on a journey too short to complete the reading of one? Which one should I read now?
For most of the rest of the journey, I buried my head in Lagos Noir, a collection of Lagos-based stories edited by Chris Abani. The book is one of the rewards of my book-buying whims and madness. One day like that, on my way back to the hotel from Yaba, I told the driver to make a detour to Palms Shoprite at Lekki. Like many times before, I had felt a sudden urge to buy a book. Just like that. So I went to a bookshop and bought Lagos Noir, Virginia Wolf’s To the Lighthouse even though I have her complete works on my Kindle, and The African Scholar and Other Essays by Abiola Irele. One of my faves in this very noir collection, Eden by Uche Okonkwo, jerked off a hot droplet of tear, not for its darkness but for the touching bravery and selflessness of Madu who takes ten lashes of a three-tongued koboko for a collective sin while protecting his kid sister, who out of a sense of guilt eventually confesses her complicity and gets her own whipping.
Anthologies of short fiction are perfect for travel and a busy life, created to be savoured in independent bits and pieces. A box of assorted chocolates rather than a large piece of chocolate cake. Many little books in one volume. Unlike a novel. Within the limited space of each story in this collection that features the likes of Chika Unigwe, Nnedi Okorafor, Jude Dibia, A. Igoni Barret, and Sarah Ladipo Manyika, clever plots unfold to reveal the dark sides of the great city by the sea. Lagos, the bejeweled ravishing damsel in ragged satin and velvet, who reeks of body odour, leaves her boudoir untidy and filthy but who, nevertheless, continues to attract all manner of men.
By the time I raised my head from the book, we were passing in front of the University of Abuja. The other book on the seat, International Sisi Eko and Other Stories, would wait for its time which may not come until the next Lagos trip which may not come until coro is gone.