By Rafiq Raji
“Ojuelegba, Ojuelegba, …!”
The bus conductor cried out in one of the City’s busiest motor parks. From the well-dressed, to the trader aiming for the market and the mechanic going to his workshop, we all took our place in the beaten bus. It is always a mistake to underestimate the resilience of these rickety vehicles.
“Abeg, abeg, oga shift inside. Na five people dey siddon there!”
Already sweating in my suit, I retorted instantly.
“What do you mean five people? Are we sardines?”
“Hey, hey, see this one, you think say you sabi English abi? Oya now! No shift, you hear?”
I should have just kept my mouth shut. The agbero was not done yet. As we headed towards the bridge and his breadth reeking of dry gin, he goes on mockingly.
“Dem no get motor but dem sabi English. Oyinbo, where is your car? Your mates are driving jeeps. Are we sardines? No, you be Titus! We too go school na.”
Likely accustomed to the ways of his assistant, the driver simply looked ahead. Now the wiser, I start to placate the “gentleman.” Well, in a manner of speaking.
“You no see say the place too tight for five people?”
To succumb immediately would have stirred the hornet’s nest. Not that this would stop the odd mix of resentment and jolly written all over the face of the veteran “assistant driver.”
“You too e don do you! The man don keep quiet.”
The trader who couldn’t wait to get to her shop tries to calm things down. Now somewhat chagrined and embarrassed, I try to throw in a few expletives of my own.
“No be your fault now, if no be because of hard times, me and you for they drag on top seat?”
At this point, the other passengers could no longer contain their mirth.
“So you fit speak like us. We think say you be oyinbo na?”
Of the myriad of voices, one was distinctly familiar. I remembered now. Earlier, her dress was nearly torn as she tried to maneuver the tight spaces between the seats in the bus. Ever keen to make an extra buck, the bus owners insert additional rows into the bus, tearing apart the much more comfortable factory-fitted arrangement.
Not one to be left out, the agbero tunes it up a little bit.
“Ojuelegba na 200 naira o! I no get change o!”
While still trying to get the attention of my neighbor, Deborah, that was her name. I quickly did a mental calculation of how much I had in my pockets. When did they increase the bus fare? I pondered. The bus conductor and I were really going to get into a real fight now.
“Wetin you mean by 200?” I quipped in pidgin English.
The bus conductor, now really amused, puts on his best bully’s countenance.
“No waste my time abeg. Na 200. If you no fit pay, come down now! With all him suit and tie, he no get 200 naira. Oya now, speak English! I say speak English!”
Of course, I couldn’t disembark midway to our destination. Apart from the fact that it would cost more, there was also the potential police palaver to worry about. The wily conductor knew this. Seeing my dilemma, Deborah quickly hands out twice the amount to the conductor.
“Take, for two”
Feigning chivalry, I quickly pull out the 1,000 naira note I’d been carrying with me since the beginning of the week. I bring the note out just enough to be in sight while making the requisite protestations.
“No, Deborah. That won’t be necessary” saying this as I tried to reach for the conductor’s hand. Just close enough, of course. The conductor already had Deborah’s money in his hands. My bus fare had been paid.
“I really don’t understand how they can arbitrarily increase bus fares like this? Just last week, it was 150!”
My lamentations to her were just loud enough for the other passengers to join in. It was a well-rehearsed ploy. Soon, the debate would get heated and no one would remember or care how it started.
“You never hear? Tanker drivers don strike!
“This country sef! No be just yesterday dem finish one” another passenger says.
Now in my elements, I raise the tempo.
“They are not patriotic! Is the suffering not enough? Any little thing, they go on strike. Teachers, doctors, tanker drivers! We, ordinary people are the one who suffer. The politicians don’t care! What, with their chauffeur-driven cars and sirens. And what do we do as citizens? We just sidon look like mumu!”
While I’m pontificating about all that was wrong, I look slyly through the corner of my eye to Deborah. Okay, a little bit more.
“If I’m the Oga at the Top, I won’t tolerate such nonsense!”
The bus conductor who had been unusually quiet hitherto – however briefly – now couldn’t contain his anger.
“Shut up, abeg! Thief! If you get there, your own go worse! You way use wayo collect Auntie money just now.”
A few of my co-passengers manage wry smiles. They had their own worries. But this was interesting. The conductor continues.
“No be the same thing these ones wey dey there now talk yesterday? Where dem they now? Na so so siren you go they hear”
“True talk” someone seemed to say. It was a common truth.
“The other day, I go buy shoe for my pikin. You know wetin dem tell me? 2,500 naira. Ordinary Kito!”
The middle-aged man had seemed unconcerned about the conversation hitherto. Then he goes further.
“Dem talk say market don dear for where dem they import the shoe. How much be my salary? We no go chop?”
“I simply tell my children say make dem go repair the ones they have”
As a new school term was just about to begin, this was a common dilemma.
Undaunted, I continue as well.
“But, I’m serious. There are procedures. Essential personnel cannot just go on strike. You take them to the industrial court!”
“Hmmn” goes the chorus in the bus. In jest, of course.
“You way no get liver. You be Gani, abi? Sidon abeg!” another passenger adds.
As if totally oblivious to my remarks, the middle-aged man continues with his lamentations.
“With all that is going on, I had to bring them back home from their boarding school in the North.”
At this point, a sympathetic passenger tries to comfort the man.
In my cynical mind, I’m thinking: Now we’ll hear about your own tribulations as well. Wait for it.
“Before the wahala start, I dey go Kaduna go buy textile material. You still fit go, but the wahala don too much now. Police go check everything. Checking points everywhere! So I decide say if my customers no want Aswani material, na dem wahala be that!”
Trying to still be part of the conversation, I ask with surprise about the textile factories in Kaduna. I didn’t know they were still functioning.
“I no know say the factories still dey work” No point trying to seem educated now.
“Yes, some are still working. But a lot of them don close” the lady replied as she adjusted her very elaborate head gear. The sense in going through the trouble despite the discomfort made sense now. She sold textile materials. Putting on her patterned dye prints was good business.
While all this is going on, we are stuck in traffic. Horns are blaring and street hawkers are bearing goods.
“Pure water, pure water!” Slow traffic makes for good custom.
One of the passengers hands out a 5 naira note to the rather persistent vendor.
“Oga, na 10 naira!” the sachet water vendor shouts.
“What do you mean 10 naira? For ordinary water?”
“Oga if you no fit pay, give me back my pure water!”
In slow traffic on a sunny day, the vendor had power. The sun was friendly. Fate itself was smiling. The vendor knew this. At some point, commuters would need to slake their thirst with something.
Now a little tired from my stint at sanctimony, I look to the vendor.
“Do you have mineral water?” This was deliberate. To my mind, it was unlikely such distinction was lucrative enough to warrant bearing the scorching heat for the occasional custom.
“E dey, 200 naira!”
A little astonished, I take the bottle reluctantly. To get out of this, I had to conjure up a very credible excuse for not buying the drink. So I proceed with the ritual of touching the bottle with the back of my hand as if to check its temperature.
“It’s not cold, take!”
He ventures down into his ice cooler and brings out one almost at freezing point. An experienced man, this vendor. Now we’ll see how you get out of this one, his eyes seem to say. I had little choice now.
“Okay bring 800 naira change?”
As I said this, I was dreading the thought that I might have to part with my 1000 naira note at last. I was playing a delicate hand now. There was a great chance that the vendor might not want to part with that much change. He would wonder if it was worth parting with change that could be used to service at least a dozen or more customers. And from the look of things, the slow traffic was going to endure for much longer.
“Hey Deborah, do you want a drink?”
It was the least one could do. Or so it seemed. So much for not wanting to part with the bus fare. As her makeup was already deteriorating under the heat, taking a drink would have ruined it even further. As per tradition, she was meant to decline anyway.
“Sure, I’ll have what you are having.”
She was not being polite. Or maybe she just wanted a drink.
“Oya, bring one for Auntie. Very cold o!”
Realising she might not have contemplated the additional discomfort taking the drink might cause her, I make to wipe the sweat on my face. She caught on.
“I’ll take it when we get moving again”
A good sport, this one.
“So, tell me…”
*”Agbero Tales” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.