The alarm of his touchscreen smartphone rang continuously. Bernard shot up from his bed not without a sigh, as he normally did especially after the long weekends. Monday was one of his worst days. He knew in an instant that it was 4am before dismissing the alarm. This day, as with every other Monday, he had had enough sleep because the evening of Sundays was spent in paying back the sleep debt he owed his overburdened body. Living in the remote hinterland of Lagos and working at Victoria Island entailed that he had to leave his home between 4.30 and 5am if he was to get to his office before 8am. Anything later than five would mean he would have to endure at least three hours of typical Lagos’ traffic with its characteristic jam and disorder.
Hurriedly, he fell on his knees to rap but silently a short prayer which by reason of overuse he had memorised. He did this for conscience’s sake, for he was accustomed to being asked, as with other members of the congregation, if he had his daily quiet time all through the week by his pastor nearly every Sunday in church. Being a worker in the church, he did not want to be one of the black sheep who had to stand up while the rest of the church folks, now considered saints for their faithfulness, remained seated, as the zealous Pentecostal preacher began to make a sermon out of him. That would be most embarrassing, particularly when there was a beautiful humble ‘sister’ in the choir whom he was eyeing for marriage with. He needed to prove his religiosity, nay, spirituality to impress her. After all, this was why he joined the ushers to begin with.
After a quick ‘thank you Lord’ and ‘protect me Lord,’ he sprang up to his feet, removed his night clothes, flung them onto the bed and dashed to the bathroom. ‘Thank God there is light today,’ he thought to himself on his way into the bathtub. The day before saw no electric power supplied to his house or street. This was not uncommon. Today he won’t have to cope with the relatively dull beam of his made-in-China rechargeable lantern. Besides, it won’t even be bright at all since its battery was almost flat as there was no electricity with which to charge the lantern yesterday, and he forgot to do so when he put on his generator. ‘Maybe Nepa wants to bring the bill today,’ he continued.
Out of the bathroom with nothing on, save the medium-sized white towel he was using to wipe his dripping wet body, he made for the wardrobe pondering what he would wear. He was tall, dark and handsome. And he was conscious of this. What’s more, he was young and well-built. He looked 30ish, but not the late one. His pointed nose, thin pink lips, and dark curly hair gave him the looks of a half-caste, possibly African-Italian, but he was of no mixed parentage. It was just nature’s accidental or well-thought-out gift to him. Added to this, he was intelligent, something that made him graduate with a first-class degree at a relatively early age of 23. It was this feat that quickly secured him a choice managerial position in one of the foremost new generation oil firms while many of his mates were still busy parading up and down the streets of Lagos with their certificates seeking even menial jobs.
He picked up his phone, turned on its screen, and glanced at the home screen, then gave one last push to his tie knot. ‘4.33,’ he emotionlessly blurted, but in his head. He calculated that he still had about half an hour to spare. After that, he’d be late. With his shoes and everything on, apart from his jacket, he proceeded to prepare himself a light breakfast. The jacket normally waited till breakfast was over and after every other morning ritual was done and dusted. He picked two slices of bread from the loaf he had just placed back into the fridge, forked the egg he had recently fried and placed it in between the slices. Of course this sandwich would go down with a cup of hot tea, so called as is the norm in the country, even though it was made with nothing more than cocoa and milk.
By the time he left the house it was few minutes to five. With a fast pace he went up the street towards the exit where it joined the road, almost running. At few odd moments he had to jump muddy puddles here and there on the unpaved lane if he could not circumvent them. Some days he had his heart in his mouth as he jumped with uncertainty, not knowing whether the earth immediately following the puddle was slippery or not in the darkness of the early morning. At worst days of the rainy seasons he had to leave home with, in addition to his umbrella, an extra pair of footwear – the rubber slippers, which he put on, with trousers rolled up, dress shoes in one hand, and the umbrella in another while he waddled through the flooded street. This flooding was compounded by the amazing fact that the street lacked gutters, as most streets in the rural and semi-urban parts of the Centre for Excellence usually do. The few ones which do have are for the most part blocked and non-functional. He was wont of complaining, but this day he gladly put behind any hint of bitterness. Maybe it had to do with the light from the security lamps on most walls and gatepost which lit the street. Light has a way of injecting life into any person’s mood, especially when such person is used to living most of his days in perpetual darkness. The road, as with many others, have a switchback effect, as each vehicle passing made the puddles deeper.
It was a small community called Prestige Community that Bernard lived in. The community is not crowded, the streets are spacious, the buildings are mostly detached, some semi-detached, but the walls are joined together at either sides of the tracks forming a continuous strip to the end of the dirt road where all tracks converge at various junctions along its length to join the tarred main road. Occasionally, the long strip of walls, some of which are not plastered, is broken by open compounds belonging to older houses or flats owned by peasants who cannot afford to build walls. These houses are usually bungalows and unplastered, and the flats are one-room apartments which sometimes house families of up to about eight members in a single room. These have shared or ‘public’ facilities like toilets and kitchens. Some houses have the front room turned into a shop.
Bernard got to the mouth of the road facing the street. If he were moving in the hot afternoon with this pace and acrobatics, he would have been sweating profusely by now. As he made to cross he noticed a danfo bus slowly halt at the bus stop on the other side of the road. The bus conductor no sooner had he jumped down than he began shouting: ‘Iyana Ipaja! Iyana Ipaj–Egbeda! Iyana Ipaja!’ on top of his voice. A foreigner, upon hearing this for the first time at a distance, would have sworn that either the man had a rope tied around his neck, and was being dragged by someone wielding a sharp knife to his slaughter, possibly one of those skilful butchers he had heard of from the north; or that the man was probably a preacher crying: ‘Repent! Repent and be saved!’ in his native tongue. But neither of this was the case. The conductor was simply calling the ultimate destination of the bus to passers-by, as conductors do. The road was relatively free by this hour, so when Bernard crossed he did not have to do so hastily or panicky. If at all he ran, it was only because he was avoiding being late or missing this bus. Before Bernard got to the entrance of the bus a young woman, equally in business suit, who had been waiting before the bus arrived climbed in. Bernard arranged himself to follow suit when the conductor, with the sighting of his designer suit, warned rather harshly, almost pulling his right ear to drive home his point: ‘1000, 500 no enter o…; I no get change!’
‘You no get change?’ Bernard remonstrated. ‘Abeg na 1000 Naira I get, make we dey go you go get change. Na for last bus stop I dey stop.’
Bernard had hardly completed his plea when the conductor gave a loud hiss and yelled ‘Malo jo!’ to the driver as if transferring the anger to him. The conductor immediately jumped into the bus which zoomed off, leaving behind a cloud of thick grey smoke that had the most revolting odour you had ever smelt, as a memento of its once terrifying presence. Bernard jumped back. It was as if the bus was venting its displeasure alongside that of the driver and conductor at him. No sweat – he would have to wait for another bus. He brought out his phone from the right pocket of his trousers, turned on the screen and glanced at the time. He hardly wore a watch since his university days even though he used to be very fond of watches in his childhood. Probably the advent of hand-held devices like the mobile phone made it less functional or fashionable.
In about two minute’s time another bus appeared from the end of the road as far as the eagerly anticipating eyes could see. As it approached nearer, this one was not as small as the danfo, neither was it as big as the molue. It was, for want of a better word, a semi-molue. It already contained a sizeable number of passengers that Bernard did not bother involving in an exchange with the driver about the availability of or the possibility of getting his change. Besides, the tally of passengers would improve as the journey progressed. He contentedly entered with two others who had joined him while he waited at the bus stop. He made sure he sat by the window side – the left end of the penultimate seat. Any window side or the front seat by the driver, which was now already occupied, was his favourite. It was seven past five. Quickly and routinely he surveyed the interior of the vehicle. He noticed that it was not old and shredded as most buses were. The leather of the seat and the panel of the body were more or less as smooth as his Italian shoes. And the novel gentle rumbling of the supposedly new engine added to the overall atmosphere of cosiness in this moving small world. This was the kind of feeling he usually had in his saloon car. This was a feeling largely unknown in commercial transport. This was compensation, so he thought, for the unwholesome experience with the obnoxious danfo earlier, and the resulting time loss. Memories of how he on several occasions tore his shirts or trousers flashed by in quick succession. ‘Thank God, it won’t happen this time,’ he murmured under his breath in momentary relief.
Of course, Bernard had a car – a car, new and sleek, given to him by Clam Oil as soon as he got his appointment there. But he preferred commuting by commercial transport, namely bus, particularly since the Bus Rapid Transit – the BRT – was introduced by the state government in a bid to not only ease movement through congested traffic, but also to reduce traffic congestion. He looked out the window and a gust of cold wind smashed into his face hurtfully, chiefly at his orifices. He dared not look out again when the bus was at full throttle.
The bus sped on, stopping occasionally at almost all the bus stops along the way amidst and despite the irritation and protest of the passengers. Most of these stoppages were to either pick more passengers or to drop some. The ones that were greeted with the loudest protest were when the driver, waiting longer than normal, called to non-responsive people standing or walking and minding their own business at the bus stop.
‘Driver dey go now,’ ordered Bernard on one occasion but not harshly, ‘you see say they no wan enter. Na by force?’
‘I tire o! As if him no know say time dey go,’ another passenger supported.
‘Abeg no vex. I just dey find customer.’ This driver was unusually polite. He was also unusually neat like his bus. Perhaps he is a school leaver who could not afford higher education, Bernard assumed. Sometimes the bus had to stop indiscriminately almost at the centre of the road to discharge or enlarge its content – the passengers, causing other motorists behind to horn and swear. Loudly. Apart from these continual interruptions, the journey was a relatively smooth one.
By the time they turned to Egbeda Road, just immediately after Isheri Roundabout, a woman who had recently joined this chance family brought about by their shared journey peeked at her watch. Bernard did likewise, but with the one on his phone of course. It was now half past five.
‘Abeg, help me gather your money line by line,’ begged the driver. Of course, he had no conductor, so he had to do the collection of money himself, and to transact directly and, if need be, quarrel with the ‘customers’. Bernard quickly offered to collate the money of those in his row. This he did because, possessing a banknote of the highest denomination, he had a large sum of change to collect, and was careful so as not to lose some of it to others who might need change for themselves too. Those who dropped earlier had their exact fares to pay, and did so singly directly to the driver immediately they got off.
Few miles before getting to Egbeda Bus Stop the bus decelerated once more, slowly coming to a halt. But, no, this time it was not to pick or drop anyone, but in surrender to the familiar terrifying monster that found its fixed abode in almost all the junctions and crossroads of Lagos – the traffic jam, or hold up as it is fondly called by its regular captives. The time of the day did not matter. As long as it was not between 12am and 4am when it retired because its prey had equally retired, any person, regardless of the staff of authority he wielded, or the weight of urgency his journey carried, was brought under its overpowering sway. This is not to say that there are no other parts of Lagos roads, say the long motorways, where the monster did not torment, but the junctions and crossroads, so it seemed, were its focal points and headquarters from where it co-ordinated its state-wide operations.
The man beside Bernard who until now had made sonant contribution to none of the previous drama on the bus hissed. He had a series of tell-tale tiny tribal marks on both corners of his eyes, and wore a Senegalese kaftan. His ethnicity was easily identifiable. He could no longer hide his displeasure. If only the government can build flyovers where they should be we‘ll not have these congestions even at this unearthly hour, Bernard thought. The atmosphere on the road became tense. It was not even dawn yet, and they had not even got to the busier major roads like Abeokuta Road at Iyana Ipaja which he would soon take or Ikorodu road. The bus inched forward and stopped. Then moved again and stopped. It continued like this until they reached a diversion by their right, a narrow winding road within a street which they took to get round the junction. Commercial buses were wont to do this, but most private cars, presumably those whose drivers were not conversant with the area, stuck to their guns. The road, that is the circuitous detour, however, had its attendant problems – an ample share of potholes, inclusive. Regrettable, but preferable.
Although one cannot gainsay the fact that there are excellent roads and road networks in the highbrow areas of Lagos, like Alausa, Ikeja, the seat of the state government; Ikoyi and Victoria Island, the financial capital of Lagos which is the financial capital of Nigeria, the financial capital of West Africa; one still cannot deny that there are innumerable poor roads and road networks in other areas which form a major chunk of the state. Potholes, always never attended to, are an everlasting feature that it is almost as if they were incorporated in the initial design of the roads. Moreover, there are many unpaved roads as there are tarred ones, and so many Lagosians are cursed to drive ever slowly on such roads, especially in the rainy seasons which, to add insult (or salt as most Nigerians say) to injury, take up about two-third of a year.
The bus steadily reduced the distance between Igando and Iyana Ipaja amid the routine hiccups. Finally they were at their destination. It was already crowded; it was not even 6am yet. Even the hawkers, roadside vendors and professional beggars were taking their places. Iyana Ipaja serves as a major bus station to many parts of Lagos, like Ikeja, Oshodi, Yaba and CMS. That explains why it is crowded virtually the whole day. The usual mayhem had already descended at this bus stop, as with other major ones. Shouts of conductors calling various destinations, blaring of horns and smoke from the exhaust of vehicles saturated the air, making it almost difficult to breathe. Bernard hastily pushed through the heavily congested road. He was rushing as much as possible to meet up with the BRT or LagBus to CMS whence he would board another bus to Victoria Island. It was only a few miles from where they had dropped that the BRTs where stationed. If he got there late, he would have to join the long queue, and might not be guaranteed a sitting position. He might not even be guaranteed a bus because there were no more than four BRTs to CMS. He would have to wait till at least 8am when the first of the BRTs might have returned, and this, of course, was out of the question. Almost every other person too was in haste.
On getting to the station, Bernard purchased a ticket and quickly joined the queue which was now fairly long. He left a 20-Naira change with the ticket vendor. The fare cost 180 Naira but he had a 200-Naira note and no time to contend.
The BRT looked almost as new as the semi-molue he had just alighted from. Some of them, though, looked as bad as most danfos. These BRTs with their dedicated lanes, initially expected to curb considerably the need for commuters to leave with their cars, was, as with every other good idea, applauded. And it did take off as predicted. But not long had it taken off did it begin to go down the plughole, but not to the surprise of Lagosians. That the inerasable culture of law breaking and brutish driving of Lagos’ gentlemen – and sometimes gentlewomen – would eventually take its toll on the BRTs and the whole BRT scheme was known to all. The buses became almost identical with the deplorable molues save for the colours and adverts on them which still gave them some tint of prestige. Other than these they were battered and almost always unwashed. The rules guiding the use of the lanes, which were enforced in the early period of the scheme, were now openly flouted. This is the common fate of Lagos’ laws. Private cars, commercial buses and even, to most BRT users’ annoyance, the slow lorries and trailers competed for access to the dedicated lanes with the BRTs. Not to mention the personnel carriers and other vehicles of the military and police who started breaking the laws as soon as they were promulgated. Ironically, in Lagos the Police and other law-enforcement agencies are above the law they are charged with enforcing.
All these contributed to the fact that the BRT system no longer enjoyed generous patronage from those high social class professionals they were intended for – the plenteous commuters who normally go to the Islands with their private cars. Bernard, of course, remained with the few wealthy commuters who still patronized the BRT. He was down to earth and sociable. He was even unassuming and meek, if anything. If we should say he had a hint of pride about him, it was only because of his extremely good looks which he generously used to get through in many occasions.
Bernard entered the bus and sought for his usual position. A few other people came in, and then he observed a young stunning lady in a smart dress at the doorstep. Her ticket was torn in two and her own part which served as a receipt was given back to her. She headed straight without premeditation to the seat beside Bernard. ‘Good morning,’ he said, but the lady gave no more than a simple cold nod. Ouch! Bernard’s ego was punctured. He pretended it was okay as he tried to gather his confidence back. His boyish charm which he attempted to use to impress her was rubbished. Probably she had a bad spell herself while getting here. Lagos is not Paris, is not Venice. Simply, Lagos is not romantic. A couple of minutes later the bus moved from the ‘loading zone’ only to get stuck right away in the traffic jam on Abeokuta Road and to every other thing Lagos roads would throw at its way.
The sky was not sky blue as in the day, nor was it navy blue as in the night; it was something in between, Bernard observed. He heaved a sigh of weariness, or rather resignation and reached for his expensive phablet. Maybe this will impress her. He surreptitiously glanced to his right through the corner of his eye. Oops! She was already dozing. ‘Sleeping beauty,’ he thought. On a more serious note, then, he began skimming the news. Then his mail inbox. And then finally he went to his social network site. He did everything he could to divert his attention away from the exasperating traffic.