The Gospel According to Lagos
By Olusola Akinwale (Nigeria)
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I had heard so much about Lagos before I left Enugu. The many flyovers; the molues; the loafers popularly referred to as area boys that lived under the bridge; the barking traffic;, the ever crowded Oshodi; the Bar Beach; mermaids that turn pretty girls and go to nightclubs to seduce and punish, perhaps kill, lecherous men; the statutes of the three white-cap chiefs that welcome you to the city.
Papa had called me into his bedroom on the eve of my departure, the night he had lectured me for a little over an hour,telling me about what he called the ‘mystery of life’. Issues he felt I needed to know as a young man. I had just turned twenty-two. I listened as Papa said things he had never told any of us before. Not even Mama, his wife.
“I don’t know why I’m telling you this, Chime. But I know it will somehow be useful for you later in life,” Papa had said.
Papa had told me his past mistakes, which he felt were still affecting him to some extent. He had mentioned his unfulfilled dreams; what he would do right if he had the opportunity to live his youth again. I could feel his pain as he talked in measured sentences. It was evident in his tones. In the dimming lantern light, I saw his face fall and sweat break out his brow. That was Papa’s tears, I had thought. At a point I could not understand why Papa’s tone expressed sadness. Whether it was because of his unfulfilled dreams or because his only surviving son was leaving him for another land. He was almost betraying his emotion, what he never did when we lost my elder brother six years before.
Monday morning. I stood at Ketu bus stop waiting for a Mass Transit Bus going to Mile Two, my place of work. Securing a seat or a stand in a bus in the morning is a survival of the fittest. There is no decorum, no etiquette, no chivalry. Everything is thrown to the LAWMA bin. The only place where there is sense of decorum – or rather, where people are forced to be orderly, is the bus stop of BRT buses – Bus Rapid Transport – introduced by the incumbent Administration to ease the transportation problem in the city. There, it is first come first serve. People hold their tickets and form a queue as they enter. But there is no BRT on my route.
I could not secure a place in the last bus going my way. People were already pressing in when I got there. A woman shoved me aside in the process. I should not complain. It was part of the game. I had done similar wickedness to not a few. Cousin Jude had prepared my mind for it before I came here, the early morning tussle. I stared straight ahead, and all I saw was a sea of heads. Heads of Lagosians – artisans, market men and women, civil servants – heading in different directions but with a common goal. To search for their daily bread. I sighted another bus coming and girded myself, my loin, in readiness for another round of tussle. I am so confident I have a place in the bus. I am no longer bothered about the person I shoved – young or old, male or female. I am no longer inhibited by any part of a female I may accidentally touch while pressing in. I used to be when I first came here. I used to act like a holy one, not wanting to commit touchery by making contact with a female’s flesh. It was a sin. Sacrilege. But I had to change when I was getting late to work more than allowable; when I was getting queries frequently.
The bus glided to a halt and the mad rush began again. I gritted my teeth, shoved two people aside and squeezed past people alighting at the door. I quickly took a seat by the window and was satisfied with myself, my victory. I gazed out at others still rushing in. A man shoved one woman aside, not minding the baby on her back. The woman reacted angrily, hitting the man on the head with the object in her hand. The man cried out. I giggled.
Now all the seats were occupied. People were taking a stand in the aisle, holding onto the overhead pole. A bearded man wearing a white gown –presumably a prophet – was sitting beside me. His locked hair was as brown as the earth. There were stains of hands all over the gown, a result of the rush. I wondered if the sanctity of the so-called holy gown was desecrated. I wondered if he would still be acceptable before God since I knew the gown was supposed to be without blemish, spots or wrinkles. The man, like every other passenger, was sweating. I glanced back and saw the woman who had been shoved aside with her baby now standing in front of a man nearly middle-aged.
I am not that comfortable on my seat. It was meant to occupy only two people but three of us are occupying it. The third person is a girl possibly in her early twenties. She is sitting quietly, not minding the noise in the bus. Perhaps she is meditating. Who cares? She has a scarf round her head and her skirt is almost touching her heels. She wears no earrings or necklace. I think it better to be uncomfortable on a seat than standing in the aisle where you are flung back and forth by the lurch of the bus.
The bus finally pulled away to Oshodi, en route to Gbagada. The conductor is asking for the fare immediately, saying he has no change. His own hair is spiky and there is a stud on his left ear. He wears a replica Chelsea FC jersey, but the club logo on the blue jersey has faded. I dip my hand into the pocket of my trousers, trying to squeeze out a hundred naira note; it is not that easy because I am wedged on my seat. I hear the shout of ‘Praise the Lord’ and few passengers mumble ‘hallelujah’. I look up and see a man standing in front, two seats away from the driver. I need no one to tell me that he is one of them; the unconventional Lagos Preachers. You meet them every so often, preaching their own gospel. And they are as charismatic as the tele-evangelists. Buses have become their hub of commerce and they sell different kinds of things. The other day, one was selling an herbal medicine he called nature. He said the medicine was multi-purpose. That it was antibiotics and could cure rheumatism, e-coli, syphilis, staphylococcus, infertility and all manner of diseases.
The man standing in front was wearing a rumpled blue suit with a tie that barely reached past his sternum. He began to pray, but most people did not respond. He stopped and talked about the need to pray, about the need for everyone to commit his or her journey into God’s hand. Pray without season, the Bible says, he hammers. He reminded people of the bus involved in an accident four days ago in another part of the city. The media had reported that over thirty people died in the terrible incident. He says the people had left their homes with plans and expectations for the day, just like everyone in this bus, before they met their un-timely death. There is a thin line between life and death, he is repeating. I knew he was saying this to put fear in the heart of everyone. To force us to say amen. And when he resumed praying and he was getting a thunderous ‘amen’. Just like me, a firmly built man in adire, sitting two seats away from the preacher’s, was unmoved. He was reading a newspaper, Complete Sports. Another sitting behind him was peering at the paper. The conductor was collecting the fare, not minding the man’s prayer too. When he got to our seat, there was a brief exchange of words between him and the girl because the latter had presented him a five hundred naira note. He was insisting he had told everyone that he had no change. The girl replied that finding change for passengers is his duty. Her face is stern and the conductor’s own begins brimming with fire. He collects my fare and moves away. The girl has to wait for him to collect the fare round. Then give her change.
The preacher ended his prayers. I was not paying much attention; but I think I heard him breaking yokes and binding evil powers over the people, those that said amen. He began talking, gesticulating like a grand opera, making to win the heart of his newly found congregation. Before I met Christ, I used to dine and wine with the devil every twenty-one days. I used to be his second-in-command, he is boasting.
This is a lie I did not want to hear. I have heard it several times before. I have heard his like tell people that they were Satan’s deputy before meeting Christ, like the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus. He goes on narrating his sojourn in the kingdom of darkness, rivulets of tears running down his face. There is an eerie silence in the bus, which is broken by the occasional cry of the woman’s baby. He or she must have been finding the heat unbearable too.
“Abeg make una take am away from your back,” someone tells the woman.
“She can’t carry the baby in her hands now. You want her to fall down in the lurch of the bus?” another person objects in the local language.
The preacher seems to have captured the minds of many. The firmly built man has dropped his newspaper. He is now listening to the preacher like a servant listening to his master. I notice another girl two seats away from mine who I think is not in the bus at the moment. She is staring out the window, or so it seems. I doubt if she is seeing the road or any other thing the bus passes by outside – vehicles, houses, pedestrians, billboards. I wonder why her hair is disheveled on a Monday morning or what could be troubling her. Something tells me she could be a concubine that has just met her waterloo in the hand of the legal wife. Maybe the legal wife had caught her in bed with the husband and dealt with her ruthlessly. Maybe some gossips in the neighbourhood had informed the wife of the illicit affair she had been having with the husband. Maybe the wife had caught the two in a hotel. It could even be on their matrimonial bed. That is the worst.
I had witnessed it in Enugu. Mama Obi caught her husband in a compromising position with an undergraduate girl in their bedroom. What then did she do? She simply locked the door against them and went out to call her friends, the busy-bodies. Together they returned to the house and pounded the girl like a pestle pounding substances in a mortar. They dragged her outside in the glaring eyes of the public, and tore her clothes to shreds. That day I could not stop my eyes from joining others to look at the girl whose anatomy was explicitly revealed. I was in my teens then. The girl was sobbing. She might have cursed her luck as well. I could see the shame hanging over her neck like a necklace of stone. But I took no pity on her. Instead, I took the time to view her everything – curve, boobs, thighs, pubic hair. I must confess that I did not like it when the police came to her rescue. Papa was always telling us, his children, to guard our hearts. To beware of what we saw, read, or heard. I could not on that day. I can say, that was the day I lost my innocence because I was on the wrong end of fantasy. Although I did not taste the ambrosia of a woman’s bosom until about two years later.
Judith, the girl or woman that had me in her bosom, was older than me. I do not know how many months or years she was older. But it was obvious from her looks. Papa, on the eve of my departure, warned me to be wary of Lagos girls who he said were heinous and seductive. I had thought I had been given enough anesthesias to make stolid to women’s seductive acts. I had thought I was immune against unholy sex – as Papa would say. I was let down – or rather, I let myself down when Judith came round. It all started with a glance and a brief introduction. An introduction that soon buried my power of resistance in the sepulcher of lust.
The first time we went to bed together, I was the novice, the naïve one. She was the lord directing the whole thing like a quarter back in American football. Telling me what to do with certain parts of her hungry body. She had called them her ‘hotspots’. Atop Judith, the incident of seven years before sprang to mind. I began to picture the naked undergraduate girl and, the ugly fantasy returned pell-mell. Though my body was with Judith, my mind wasn’t. It was with the poor girl. When Judith noticed I was not in the small room, she clawed me on the back with her artificial fingernails, telling me to return to her. It hurt me, but I could not complain. Shortly, the creaking of the rusted iron bed was over. I cannot describe the measure of my breath other than to say it was rapid, skipping like a petulant ram. Under the dark green light in the room, I could make out a mischievous smile lacing Judith’s face, as we lay on the bed, naked, quiet. I had started thinking about the undergraduate girl again. Judith too must have been thinking her own thoughts. I do not understand what it was all about. Maybe it was all about me because when a giggle suddenly escaped her lips, she said, “You tried Mr. JJC, you go get beta huh? I go teach you how to sama a woman well; I go give you somethin’ to give you power when you are with her.”
I began to wonder what made her think I would be sleeping with other women. Perhaps she thought she had exposed me to the world of women, which I would not be able to do without. Judith introduced me to sepe, a local herbal alcoholic concoction. Papa must not hear that alcohol has become a friend of my tongue. He loathes it. Judith said sepe was an aphrodisiac, so she was always giving me - a mixture of three or four sometimes. I learnt the act of cunnilingus from her. And our time together would not end until we had worn ourselves out, gasping for sex. Breathless cocktail sex. Often. But it all turned out to be a brief fling because Judith disappeared without leaving a word for me. Quite unthinkable, I did not know any of her people; that is if she had any here. She did not know mine too. We had met at the Bar Beach one Sunday evening and I had kept the affair secret. Even cousin Jude, who I was staying with then, did not know about her. We would meet in a small guest house, a brothel more or less, and hire a room for the pleasure of flesh.
I mentioned Papa told me about his past mistakes, which he did not want me to make. One of them was the fling he had with a girl when he was living with his uncle. His father had died when he was thirteen, and the uncle was the only one he could look up to as a father. Papa had aborted the plans his uncle had for him when he got the girl impregnated. He was nineteen then. When his uncle got wind of the pregnancy, he sent him back to his mother in the village. So Papa’s dream of a good education was truncated. The girl’s pregnancy? It suffered abortion just like Papa’s dream.
I am always at sixes and sevens whenever Judith springs to mind, I mean the manner she dumped me. There is a voice that tells me not to bother about her; that she was gone for good. While my mind would want to relax, another voice would roar there is a cause for alarm. That Judith could be a mermaid and perhaps she left me because she had completed her assignment on me. Or that she could return any time to make me pay for the time I had with her. To make me regret the fling like my father had. This second voice tends to prevail over the first. It could be right in its judgment. My last time with Judith was strange. All the while I had been wearing a condom to sleep with her, she had always been the one to buy it. But on that Saturday night, she did not produce any. Something I later realized she did deliberately. She said her body had been developing an allergy to condoms, and that it was high time she feel me deeply. She had her way.
What if she returned with a child one day, say on my wedding day, the second voice is fond of threatening. It is something I do not want to imagine. Judith standing up in the congregation to object my marriage, saying the boy or girl in her hand is my child. There will be chaos. Susan, the bride, will go down, unconscious. Her friends and family members will quickly rally round her in panic. Papa will ask if it is true. I will not be able to provide an answer. I will be staring at Judith, mouth agape. Tears will course down Mama’s sunken cheeks. Jude will be dumbfounded. Papa will likely sit down on the floor later, staring into blank, and sweat breaking out on his brow. His own tears. The bad news will spread quickly like prairie fire. No, it must not happen. Its aftermath will be too hard to bear. I mean the shame it will bring on my family.
The bus has been creeping in a hold up. The preacher is now holding a pack of CDs, which he says contains the full account of his sojourn in the kingdom of darkness. He is selling it at one hundred naira per copy. Shortly he begins to beg for offering. A nylon bag is passed around for the people to drop whatever amount they can afford to give. God loves a cheerful giver. You too can give your widow’s mite, he is announcing. The nylon reaches our seat. The girl passes it to the bearded man, dropping nothing. The man drops a twenty naira note and directs the nylon to an indifferent me. He sees the unwillingness in my eyes and passes the nylon over to the seat behind.
Scores of people run after the bus as it is gliding to a halt at Oshodi. They are desperate to be among the next set of passengers. The conductor opens the door and gets off, calling out, Cele/Ijesha/Mile Two. Here we go again; the mad rush. Those alighting and those stepping on shove and curse themselves at the door. The two beside me have got off the bus. I make to move to the front but my right leg would not allow me. It is heavy, stiff, requiring blood to circulate round it. I remain on my seat, my face rumpled.
The bus is filled up again with passengers pressing on one another on the aisle. I can see the woman and her baby on a seat at the front. A respite for the poor boy or girl. I have two new neighbours. A blowsy woman is sitting between me and another man, looking younger than me. The woman occupies much of the space on the seat. I exchange a glance with the young man who had been grimacing. Obviously unhappy with the space the woman is occupying. There is nothing I can do other than to remain stoic for the last leg of my journey. A twenty minute drive, barring hold up. But from the look of things, I’m not sure if I would not get another query this morning.