I am Sammy Adams, a taxi driver. Friends call me Shine Shine Bobo. You will recall Shine Shine Bobo, the byline for Star Lager beer. You know, also, what wonders a cold glass of beer can do in a living man’s life. I suppose it was sheer accident that pals began to call me by the slogan of a beer. I am not an alcoholic, but I was, and still am, a beer man.
Let my thing with beer rest for the moment. I want to bring you, today, into the daily adventures of a taxi-driver’s life. But I speak not for every taxi driver in town. I speak of, and for, myself.
In my work, I meet lots of people, everyday, from different works of life. I understand that scholars have lots of bogus vocabulary for this sort of thing, but I simply call myself a people person. I would go gaga, I think, or perhaps it would be the one occasion in which I would contemplate suicide if – as film-makers sometimes try to render in sci-fi movies – if everything and everyone were suddenly blown away and I were the only one around. The thing I hate most is to have a passenger for longer than an hour and he says nothing the whole time. You should know that I get quite a number of such people, folks whose vocal passageway has been clogged up by the cares of this world. It is a funny conversion you experience – you go from deep resentment to overwhelming sympathy.
Gazing in the bathroom mirror this morning, I encounter a middle-aged man. I was born in 1972, just after the war. A middle-aged man with a three-day-old stubble. Fair complexioned. Five feet seven by the look of it. Stocky. Handsome too, I’m vain enough to report.
“He’s looking younger by the day,” my wife Nneka teases, creeping in on me from behind. Now I can see the strands of moisturized grey amidst her full, coiffed head of hair. She comes and places her manicured fingers on my shoulders, and nudges her cheeks against my neck. It is 8:00 am. Ours is not exactly an empty nest, but we started this business early on, so Zoba and Jason are now virtually on auto-pilot. This morning, they have both left the house for Mom and Dad. Zoba for work. Jason for school – only he has gotten a basketball court constructed behind the house and is doing more practicing than studying these days – and the school authorities are loving it.
“And she has gone from a princess to a queen,” I tease back. I put the hand that is not holding the shaving stick around Nneka, move it down her back and buttocks, feeling the contours of age and natural endowment. In times like this, I have total conviction that this twenty-two-year romance between Nneka and I has much to teach many a divorcee PhD who writes books about love and marriage, both of which Nneka and I have been through.
The only problem, when the vicar asks people like us to teach classes for intending couples, is that the demands of a happy marriage are difficult things to understand without experiencing them firsthand. Young couples would have to accept words of experience from the mouths of older ones – which also has its own problems, since no two marriages are meant to function the same way. So you either get your own experience or, as my math teacher of yore would say, “accept it by faith.” Or you settle for vicarious experience – the type that Zoba and Jason have been acquiring, watching Nneka and I be husband and wife, mom and dad.
The mirror we are both looking at is three feet long and two feet wide. The frame is plastic. Sky-blue plastic one or two shades deeper than the color of the walls of this bathroom. Nneka is in charge of the colors and décor of this house – a house we can now proudly call ours after fifteen years of mortgage payments. She is in charge of the many shades of greens, blues, reds, the earth tones, the garish yellows, the purples, and the black-and-whites. She rejected the plastic pots for those molded from red earth. She had stylish, translucent weather protectors affixed to the windows. We have an enormous porch, and Nneka has carefully decorated it. They are all Nneka’s handiwork; wooden flooring and fur carpets, paintings – realists and impressionists – many of which sustain arguments in the household all evening over tea and cakes; doorbells that play Cherish the Love we Have.
I look at her through the mirror. I see the freckled skin, the wrinkles that have arranged themselves around her eyes, the wonder of her dimpled smile, and I am in love all over again. Yes, here am I, rediscovering something I first discovered twenty five years ago. I am persuaded that this is a world of discoveries and rediscoveries. For example, I am discovering anew, the potency and adequacy of the Lord’s Prayer:
Who At In Heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done on earth
As it is in heaven
Give us this day, our daily bread
And forgive us, our trespasses
As we forgive those
Who trespass against us
And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
For this is thy kingdom
Thy power and thy glory
For ever and ever
What more could a living person want if he understood the requisition of that prayer? They rib me for it – Nneka, and Zoba, and Jason. And my friend, Goddy, who comes over for chat and dinner now and then. They say I have become too lazy to pray conventionally. I say, no, no, the Lord’s Prayer is good enough for me. It is good enough for anyone who understands its provisions. Last night, Nneka and I held hands as we prayed. After she had made supplications and it was my turn, I recited the Lord’s prayer.
Breakfast is a snappy tea and bread affair. No sugar in the milk. Honey is permitted. Butter on the bread is a no-no, but if you have Bama…It is weird the kinds of edibles they try to take from you as ages begins to tender petitions against your diet. It is weird too, in the weird manner of life’s ways, the kinds of alternatives that start to reveal themselves as one is pressed to the wall. Honey instead of sugar. Olive oil for regular cooking oil. Raw, fibrous fruit for fruit juice.
“Zoba says she has gotten a raise,” Nneka tells me.
“Really?” I sip my tea.
“You haven’t met Kingsley, her new heartthrob.”
“No, I haven’t met Kingsley.”
“He will be visiting this weekend. I’d like for him to meet you.”
I reply with a nod.
I am taking the dishes to the kitchen when Nneka asks, “How is it with Jason and school?”
“Jason and school…what do we say…I think they are intent on giving him a scholarship. Aint we lucky?”
The thoroughfare on the driveway to the government hospital where Nneka works is crowded and busy – as usual. Nneka unstraps her seatbelt, opens the door, steps out, blows me a kiss, and turns towards the driveway, her handbag swinging after her. It’s a driveway lined with tall trees which cast long shadows everywhere. This is a mild September morning. There was light rainfall last night. Cleaners in rain boots and plastic headgear rake dead leaves off the walkways. Nurses, doctors, social workers, all kinds of workers, are rushing to duty posts. Nneka melds with the crowd and is gone. I hit on the accelerator and drive away.
My first client today is a talker. I love talkers and there is so much to talk about this morning: the lacunous weather, the election of America’s first black president a few days ago, the sound trashing of Team Nigeria by the Argentines in last week’s friendly soccer match, or the threat by doctors to embark on a nation-wide strike.
“It should be unethical for doctors to go on strike,” my passenger is saying. “The work they do is too sacred. Too essential.”
“The work they do is too essential to go hungry and die doing it, I remind him.”
“The work they do is too essential for the government to let them resort to strike action,” he says.
“The government…is that not where the buck always stops?”
He is in his early thirties, my passenger, or perhaps late twenties – in any case, that age range in which they love to wear beards to rubber-stamp maturity upon themselves. He has bright, hooded eyes. He wears an afro haircut.
We are close to his place of disembarkation, and it has been an engrossing chat, so I ask him, “Son, where are you going?”
“Didn’t I already tell you? Gregory Road. You are almost there”
“Not that, I know that. I mean, where are you going?”
In my experience, people are either going somewhere or coming from somewhere. Those cushions behind bear ample witness. They have borne the arses of these travelers since five years ago when I decided to come out of early retirement and do something to help me, in the words of Dr. Bolade, “age gracefully”. There are those who are in a hurry about their journey. There are the laid-back cruisers. And everyone, without exception, carries baggage: Worry, esteem palaver, vanities great and small. This taxi is a sort of transit station. You might as well go to the airport and sit in the lounge and watch folks coming and going.
I stop at Gregory Road bus stop, and my passenger – Jackson – disembarks.
“Take care,” I call out. I hope he is almost there.
My next pick-up is a family of three. Black Papa, White Mama, and half-caste Junior. They are a crowd in the back of the taxi, and I’m loving it, until Mama asks Papa to tell me to concentrate on my driving. It is more upsetting because she said it in a whisper, and in English, and we have been conversing in English all the while. Why didn’t she say it to me directly? This little gloved fist punches me in the belly and I look at the glove and it is branded “racist”. But I cannot tell if it is authentic racism or a cheap imitation. Of course I will let it go; I have no qualms with a racism that brings a black man together with a white woman. Besides, Junior has seized attention: he is demanding something and throwing a tantrum. He is maybe three years old. Curly hair and skin the color of chocolate. The same he is now gulping with gusto, smiling through a teary face.
This beautiful family live on Governor’s road, in Ikoyi. I stop to let them out in front of their home. The gate-man is already pushing the roller-legged gate aside, and I can see the innards of the yard. Afterwards, on the same road, I pick up a proud and arrogant man.
This man orders me to turn down the volume of the radio, which I do immediately. Customer is king. He is talking on the cell-phone, shouting orders and imprecations at the poor fellow on the other end of the phone line. His grey, checkered, three-piece suit and black hat gives him a distinguished look, a distinguished look that is bordering on ostentation on account of everything plus two golden wristbands and several ringed fingers. His palm is caressing the rounded head of a staff.
“Where to?” I ask.
“Address me as Honourable.”
Oh God, this traveler is also deluded.
“Honourable what?” I venture.
He ignores me, and speaks leisurely and pompously into his cell-phone. After three minutes of his talking on the phone, and my driving aimlessly, he says:
“Yes, what did you want?”
“Where are you going, Honourable?”
“Take me to the airport.”
I turn and head towards the airport.
My next client will not as much as sit in the backseat. He is a man on the go, he tells me by his mannerisms. A modest man, too. He has the build of a foreman at a construction site. His short-sleeved T-shit is made of high-quality fabric. Black jean trousers. Moccasins. No socks. He is nodding to the music on the radio. It is Shade Adu. I tell him what I know about Shade Adu, that she was backup singer for years before she came to limelight, which happened on a fortuitous night when the lead singer was indisposed to perform. He tells me what he knows of Shade Adu, that her father was a Nigerian, that African sweat and ingenuity such as theirs have made America great.
Of my own volition, I turn down the volume of the radio as our conversation gears up. We talk about business and industry. We talk about culture and art. My passenger is concerned about expatriates, how they seem to have cornered all the positions beyond middle management across the Nigerian economy, starving indigenous peoples of opportunities to cultivate our own economic development.
Contrary to first impression, my passenger is an information technology consultant, a contractor to the government. I tell him that I and my taxi are available for all-day hire. We exchange business cards. I stop at one of the gates of the State House and he disembarks.
“Keep the change,” he says as he hands me the money.
I am not surprised.
One of the wonders of taxi-driving is that one runs into very interesting people from time to time. Famous people, for example. Last week, I was speechless for minutes when I realized that the man in the back seat was the Bishop of our Diocese of the Anglican Church.
“I’m most honoured, Sir,” I managed, when I’ve found my voice. He smiled, and seemed to be amused by my confusion.
“How come, Sir? Who would have thought – “
“What do the scriptures say? For this cause have some entertained angels”
The Bishop gave his blessings and made my day. I took pictures with the man, for the benefit of doubters.
Last month, I met the writer Ngugi wa Thiongo. You must understand that I have been reading Wa Thiongo since secondary school. His play, I Will Marry When I Want, is a classic to me. What would Wa Thiongo be doing in my taxi if I am not a blessed man? I tell him I’ve read at least five of his books. He tells me he is here to attend a conference on African Studies.
In this taxi, I have met Sunny Ade. In this taxi I have met Bright Chimezie.
Still on the subject of fame, you must know that famous and infamous things have happened on the backseat of this car. Lovers have smooched on it times without number, and a psycho once tried to rape a companion on it. I had to pull over and drag the mad man off the screaming woman.
It is 8:00 pm as I cruise towards home. The city has lit up with electric lights, resplendent against the dark skyline. The epiphany-inducing quality of an electronic billboard is always heightened at such a time and condition as this. On this giant board up there in the black sky is the picture of a young rockstar with an electric guitar and a punky haircut. It is an advertisement for Pepsi, but I recognize the young man; a smidgen who rode in my taxi a couple years ago. A musical wannabe lugging a box guitar around.
“Look and listen,” he had said to me. “I’m going places.”