It’s about to rain. In Lagos, the rain does not always fall when the clouds are sombre. Sometimes it’s mere climatic shakara – a deceptive foreplay of lightning, dark clouds and thunder that ends in thin-legged gusts of rain and nothing more. But the imminence of this particular rain is established in tentative raindrops that descend in huge, single balls of malice, drops that can break eggs.
I have just bought a bending machine from the Idumagbo market of Lagos Island, which I’ll be taking to a construction site in Ikoyi. The machine is quite heavy, but the Hausa load-bearer – the Alabaru – insists he’s borne far heavier burdens. From the point of purchase, the machine is to be taken to Jankara, where I’m told transporters are stationed.
Along the busy road towards Jankara, walking becomes running, as people flee from the impending deluge. The Alabaru is running too, either for the same reason or to faster attain relief from the menace on his head. I virtually pant from chasing him, aware of the familiar possibility that he can dissolve into the crowd, forever lost with my luggage. But I’m able to keep track of him until we get to the line-up of rickety haulage vehicles at Jankara.
As I move to choose a fairly decent one from among the queue of auto junks, a voice calls out to me, and directs me to a particular contraption whose driver is not immediately around. “Taye! Taye! Your turn don reach o!”, yells the middle-aged owner of that voice, in-between noisy sucks of dental crumbs, lips twisted to let his toot-pick have convenient poking. He leans on the fender of his vehicle, and a half-drunk sachet of pure water squatting on the bonnet completes the gossip about a just-concluded lunch.
Taye’s apparatus, a hatchback, has embraced a complete loss of identity. Nothing signifies the vehicle make. For rear lights, there are empty sockets; for vehicle name or model, a single letter “M” is lonely somewhere at the back, the other letters having vanished like the teeth of some old people. The front grill seems like the improvised handiwork of a local welder. A mangled, dusty stretch of fibre is the dashboard, with holes that betray the loss of interior gadgets, yet revealing a world of complicated wiring.
I refuse to have anything to do with this mayhem of a vehicle, but I’m told that I cannot choose another. “Na turn by turn”, intones Taye, a young man that must be in his mid-thirties. The Alabaru has left, the rain appears to be holding its peace to let me quickly sort out myself, and I cannot bring in another vehicle from elsewhere to come load my luggage; the transporters will not allow a driver not registered with their station to come snatch a meal right from their mouths. There is no choice. Taye and I agree on the charge and I allow loading.
Ignition is the wedding of two wires when the monster is pushed a little, helped by a foot to the accelerator. Then the engine starts, first, by clearing its throat, coughing, and then barking to the nudge of Taye’s right foot. The vehicle cannot steam, so the engine can only run by continual revving. Its noise exaggerates the size and power of the vehicle. Driving the vehicle itself is what it really means to multi-task: the left foot for the break; the left hand to clear the mist building up on a part of the windscreen; the right hand for the gear; the right foot alternates between the accelerator and the clutch, but more for the accelerator. I advise Taye to probably find a brick and sit it permanently on the goddamn accelerator, since the vehicle goes off each time he takes that foot off there. He smiles, “No worry chairman, I’m used to it.”
We set off for Ikoyi, and the rain gets really busy. I sit beside him, barring the stickiness of filthy leather. Our contraption roars noisily as if to out-scream the noise of the pouring rain. There are two wipers to contain the rain; no, one and a half wipers. The other one is an amputee, its hand chopped off from the elbow. So my side of the windscreen is a complete layer of frost, such that I see nothing. Taye looks for a rag he had earlier tucked somewhere for the purpose of wiping the screen, but cannot find it. He takes off his polo shirt, stretches a hand towards my side of the glass, and wipes. His back of healthy rashes is revealed, and I recoil from the mild tang of armpit hair. I tell him not to worry, to wear his shirt back. A waste of speech. And I say, “Why can’t you fix the wiper? If I ask you now when it got damaged, you’ll say it happened just yesterday.” He guffaws, “But true-true, na this morning Area Boys break am.”
We get to a filling station, and he drives in. Dilemma is that should the vehicle be switched off, there’ll be no one in this rain to help push it to start again. Taye asks the attendant to allow the engine to run while fuel is dispensed. No, he replies. Off goes the engine and after buying the fuel, monster refuses to start, as expected. Two vehicles are now behind us, to take our place by the dispensing pump. Taye fiddles with the wires, but the engine only grunts. Attendant becomes impatient. “Ogbeni carry your gbege comot naaw,” he growls. Taye maintains a mortuary silence, concentrating on engineering those wires. It dawns on the attendant that howling will not solve the problem, so he calls two of his colleagues, and they push the vehicle forward – not to help it start, for they do not know of its character – but to make way for another driver to buy fuel. And as the vehicle rolls forward, Taye seizes the moment, does his thing and engine starts. We laugh, triumphantly.
The rain persists. We are now close to Osborne, Ikoyi. Suddenly a few drops of water settle on my forehead, from the roof. I adjust to avoid the thread of that leakage. But soon enough, more drops locate my new spot through what seem like multiple perforations. I’m torn between anger and laughter. Taye smiles, and stretches a hand towards that part of the roof where he had previously inserted a sheet of plate to thwart the treachery of the leaks. He adjusts the sheet, which seems to have gathered a few litres of water that fall freely on me. Leaks worsen. “Do you have an umbrella? That’s what I need. The roof is a basket,” I remark, phlegmatically. He chortles as he apologizes. I accept my fate.
As we get to a certain junction at Osborne, he makes a detour that will make the journey longer. Before I protest, he explains, beaming: “Them fit dey for front.” Silence. I know what he means by ‘them’. It is a familiar categorisation of law enforcement officials – VIO, Road Safety, LASTMA officials, etc. ‘Them’ is the symbolic construction for enemy identity, for agency officials who make trouble for the Nigerian law-breaker. I recognise that terminology out of familiarity from equal usage.
We by-pass ‘them’ – imaginary or real.
Finally, we reach destination. I’m completely drenched. The rain has subsided, and site hands help put the machine down, and then put hands behind Taye’s monster to help it start. As the vehicle croaks its way out of the premises, I notice, surprisingly for the first time, a faded sticker stuck somewhere on its back: ‘A Stitch in Time Saves Nine’. I’m struck by the fact that the owner of that sticker is the very caricature of his own teaching, his vehicle the evidence of that contradiction. I regret seeing this declaration too late, missing the opportunity to relocate that sticker to where it should be: on the steering. Or perhaps he understands it differently – that word ‘stitch’ in that idiom – not as a call for preemptive maintenance, but as the art of shoddy patching? After all, ‘stitching’, in its ordinary sense, denotes a certain sense of repair and improvisation, not of prevention. Perhaps that is the sense in which Jankara has appropriated that saying.
In my mental engagement of the whole episode, I begin to wonder how a young man has easily settled into this daily shoddiness; how he tolerates, almost romantically, a livelihood by endless stitching. “I’m used to it”, he says, contendedly, if not excitedly. I begin to replay his calm industry, his exuberant stoicism through the journey, his happy conversion of suffering to art. I recognise a hardening occasioned by the repetition of experience. A toleration imposed by a lack of choice. It is this toleration – this equanimity – that leaves the rich baffled at how the poor cope and still find happiness; it makes the free man marvel at how the prisoner survives without freedom; it creates surprise for parents as to how a barren couple can laugh and bubble; it enables the invalid, the disabled, and all such deprived humanity sustain life without choking from frustration. That tolerant equanimity that stitches the mind of the individual towards fatalistic acceptance, against the intrusive sadism of problems. A stitching that deadens awareness of conditions over which the individual has no easy control. For it is awareness that highlights problems. Whether it’s positive or negative is a different thing entirely. But in the meantime, this calm indifference extorts happiness from a prevailing evil.
And I finally draw a conclusion: that problems are what they are depending on whether we choose to solve them or choose to tolerate them; and that in both cases, the results can be the same – we can be happy.