‘Twas the night before New Year in the bustling city of Lagos when I, like thousands of other Nigerians everywhere, decided to go to church to pray and usher in the New Year. Some people like to spend the evening of New Year’s Eve partying and drinking but the average Nigerian Christian likes to spend that time in church, fervently praying that their lot in the New Year will be better than that of the old. Never mind the fact that most haven’t been inside the four walls of a church in ages.They somehow want to feel purged, forgiven, renewed and ready to be unleashed unto the New Year in style and what better way to do this than on one’s knees in holy supplication to God Almighty!
So there I was, feeling very pious with my Bible tucked under my arm, heading to church which is situated in the suburb of Sango-Ota. Actually, I had a bad feeling about this trip…. a feeling I could not shake off try as I may. Squelching all such thoughts as temptations from the devil, I trudged on.
It was a warm, humid Tuesday evening. The sky was a deep navy blue, almost black and was adorned with a crescent-shaped moon and the stars, twinkled brilliantly like a million gemstones. On the ground below at Onipanu Bus stop on Ikorodu Road, teeming masses of people from all walks of life made their way to their various businesses. Revelers decked in their Sunday best, rubbed shoulders with street urchins and pickpockets dressed in rags. Street hawkers calling out their wares in their peculiar sing-song voices, competed for attention with the din of car horns. The thing that amazes thing me about Lagos is its teeming, boisterous population. No matter the time of the day, you always see people walking purposefully on their way somewhere and today was no exception.
From time to time, the rickety old yellow-and-black-painted commercial buses popularly called molues came throttling by, at breakneck speed. So packed full of passengers it was practically tilting to one side, it spewed fumes of carbon monoxide and people in its wake. The “Funky train” as the Molue is fondly called, is also a well known death trap, responsible for the deaths of several lives. Reasons given for these accidents are over-speeding, over-crowding, brake failure or just plain old negligence. No one is ever caught or sued as the reckless driver and his conductor usually escape, leaving the hapless passengers to their fate.
On this particular evening, the molue slowed down but continued to move at a steady pace, emitting its weary passengers, while others jumped eagerly on. The bus conductor, red eyed, with the raspy voice of someone that had smoked too much marijuana, hung precariously to this side, rapidly calling out numerous bus stop like an auctioneer at a rodeo round up; “Ketu! Ojota!” Enter with your change o!” “Ketu!” “Ojota!” A bit confused at the rapid way he was speaking, I asked him timidly, “Please….are you going towards Iyana Ipaja?” Totally ignoring me, he continued to call, “Ketu! Ojota! Enter with your change if you no want trouble o!
Suddenly a smaller commercial bus (the danfo) arrived on the scene, cutting recklessly in front of the molue. The conductor called “Ipaja! Ipaja! Ipaja!”Before I knew it, like the other mad hatters standing with me at the bus stop, I was pushing and shoving my way into the bus like it was no man’s business. Thankfully, I got a seat at the corner and the bus took off like a shot down the pot-holed street. We were on our way, on the first leg of the journey.
Lagosians (as the inhabitants of the city are called) are well acquainted with the traffic situation in the city but for the uninitiated, it can be a daunting, experience to say the least. Typical Lagos traffic called “go slow” consists of cars jammed bumper to bumper on the road, moving at a snail’s pace. This could go on for hours till you get to your destination.
Being New Year’s Eve, the road was especially jam–packed with more people than usual. Some were doing last minute shopping, others were hurrying to church while revelers were on their way to a night out on town. So there I was, in one of the worst places possible…. stuck in a commercial bus on New Year’s Eve on Ikorodu Road during one of the worst traffic jams seen in Lagos in recent times. Believe me, I was in one spot on the road for close to 45 minutes!
Not everyone, however, perceived this as an inconvenience. Street hawkers and beggars for one saw this as the perfect time to solicit for customers and alms respectively. Street hawkers especially, came peddling their wares, calling “Buy your cold pure water!” “Bread! Fresh Sliced Brad!” “Oranges! Sweet Oranges! And on and on they went hawking everything from food items to cheap electronics devices such Taiwanese irons, radios, calculators and what have you. They had more than willing customers in the tired, thirsty passengers that sat, cramped in buses and cars. Once a passenger signified interest in buying any item, the street hawker clad only in a pair of straggly trousers and a ragged shirt, chased after the vehicle, several times narrowly missing being knocked down by other moving vehicles. Risking their lives, all in the bid to make a few nairas, but it was all in a day’s work. After all, this was Lagos, the city where only the fittest survived.
Finally the bus got to my bus stop, Iyana Ipaja which was the end of first leg of my journey. I came down from the bus into the teeming mass of people that were at Iyana Ipaja bus stop.
Sounds of fireworks or as the locals called it, “knockout” rent the air, exploding indiscriminately every few minutes. The scene at the bus stop wasa little like the one I had just left in Onipanu, only it was more crowded (if possible). Street traders spread their wares on mats by the roadside, in effect taking over about a quarter of the road. They displayed their wares, dimly lit by kerosene lamps, oblivious to the traffic hazard they were causing. Calling gaily to passersby, they cajoled them to turn aside to buy something for their families at home. I frantically searched the horizon, anxious to get out of the bedlam, looking in vain for a bus going to Sango Ota but no such luck. Not a bus in sight. All I could see were a sea of faces that stretched as far as the eye could see. Then all of a sudden it happened. From out of nowhere, several deafening explosions went off. Some commuters and I scurried for cover, wondering what was going on. More deafening explosion went off. Just as I was beginning to think the worst has come, I heard some giggling from somewhere behind me. Incredulous, whipping round, I saw several street urchins huddled together, giggling in delight at the confusion they where causing. They were lighting several fireworks (of the variation known as Bangers) and were throwing them into unsuspecting crowd. The result was pandemonium as people scrambled to safety.
Satisfied with their handiwork, they preceded to light more bangers and throw them in the vicinity of the crowded bus stop. The ensuring panic that followed, sent them convulsing in laugher. Other urchins on the opposite side of the road decided to join in the fray and what ensured was a mega explosion of gargantuan proportions. Just as I was about to completely lose it, miraculously, a bus came throttling toward me and the conductor calling “Onipanu! Onipanu!” The same bus stop I had just come from! Without a seconds hesitation, I jumped into the bus, collapsed into the nearest seat, silently asking God to forgive me for not going to church as planned. I beseeched him to understand, look at my heart and see my good intentions but for the traffic situation.
As the bus took off, a young gentleman stood up. After greeting everyone, he proceeded to tell the bleary-eyed, bone weary passengers about a new wonder drug he was selling which could cure headaches, malaria, dysentery, and every type of ailment. As he droned on about his wonder drug, I could not help shaking my head and chuckling in amusement at his preposterous claims and soon, my chuckles turned to laugher and before I know it, I was laughing aloud, tears streaming down my cheeks. I laughed at the salesman’s absurd claims, my experience at the Iyana Ipaja bus stop, the street urchins and the fire works, the traffic jam and the whole ridiculous fight for survival just to get from one end of a town to another.As I laughed, no one in the bus even battled an eyelid or looked in my direction. I could have been going out of my mind for all they cared. Why should they? It was not going to put money in their pockets, was it? After all this was Lagos, where motorists drove like they were on a death wish and bus conductors shouted abuse at passengers who gave back as good as they got. Despite all this, I could not help but love the city. It was like an old favorite shoe, badly in need of repair but hard to throw away. There was a vibrancy and aggressiveness about the place that pushed you to be, to make it.Indeed the saying that if you can make it in Lagos, then you can make it anywhere in the world, rings true. Even though the capital had since been moved to Abuja, Lagos still retains its charm and continues to be the commercial capital of Nigeria attracting visitors daily from far and wide.
As the bus screeched to a halt at my bus stop, I jumped down and headed towards the warmth, comfort, and security of my home… far from the madding crowd of street urchins, fire works, bus contractors and dubious salesmen.