I fell in love with her the very first day we met. It was not love at first sight; no, it was more of love sown at the first meeting.
I had gone to the bank where she was attached as a Youth Corp member to open a new account. As fate deemed it fit, she was assigned as my account officer and after all necessary documents had been filled I asked for her name; more out of courtesy than necessity.
“Dinaat” she answered unsmiling and obviously uninterested.
“Okay, Dinat. My name is Momoh,” I replied flashing my well–practiced smile as I offered my hand.
“No, it’s not Dinat; it is Dinaat. D .I. N. A. A. T?” She emphasized each letter as if she were a primary school teacher trying to force some new word into a dullard’s brain.
“D. I. N. A. A. T?” I repeated, careful not to misspell. “I thought it was a shortened form of Modinat, the muslim name,” I quickly added in a last ditch effort at sounding smart.
“No. I’m not a muslim neither am I Dinat,” she answered, her eye brows arched to a now–you–know stance which shockingly revealed a beauty cloaked in a façade of deliberate hostility.
“Okay, Dinaat then. What part of the country are you from?”
I regretted asking the question immediately I saw the pretty look melt into a flash of anger.
“What is it with us in this country about tribes/tribal sentiments?” She asked rhetorically. “Is it not enough that I’m a Nigerian? Must you unnecessarily know what part of the geographical conundrum I am from?” She added.
Her reaction stunned and held my tongue captive. Before I could gather my thoughts and reply, she shook her head in an exhaustive sigh and chipped in: “I am a Nigerian and I believe in one Nigeria. So I’m sorry, that’s all I can say Mr. Momoh.”
With those words, she left me gaping at her sense of patriotism and detribalized sentiments. The sentiments; that flash of beauty and of course, my new account continually led me back to her. Before long, we started dating and three years later, our marriage invitation was out.
Everyone who was someone in my life was against the marriage. My mum could not understand me.
“How could an Akoko man from Ondo state marry a lady from the North?” mum would ask whenever the discussion came up.
“But mum, she is from Egbe in Kwara state…”
“Ehn ehn, isn’t she a Northerner?”
And that would be the beginning of a ping-pong of words.
My dad never really minded, as long as I loved her. My friends, especially Kazeem, my best friend, were skeptical. Aren’t there better Yoruba ladies to marry? They all asked. My standard answer to them all was: One Nigeria.
So, it was kind of apt that I chose Friday the 1st of October, 2010, Nigeria’s 50th Independence Anniversary, as our wedding date. We picked the 1st of October for two simple reasons: One, it guaranteed us a government-sanctioned public holiday as our wedding anniversary, till death or irreconcilable differences, whichever comes first, do us part. Two, the date fell on a Friday, which looked more like Saturday, the beginning of the weekend.
I live and work in the Rock city of Abeokuta, some one hundred kilometres from Akute, a sprawling, developing community lost, in a cruel twist of fate called urbanization, between Lagos and Ogun states, where the marriage is to be solemnized. The rigours of work and my in–born detest for everything Lagos -my fiancee being the exception- and the reassuringly short distance prompted me to delay my trip till the morning of the wedding. My wife was already in Lagos and my parents too, they didn’t share my sentiments about leaving on the day of the wedding. They expressed their concern but I eased it telling them I’d leave Abeokuta early enough. That is a decision I still regret.
The wedding convoy consisted of six cars including my boss’s SUV which conveyed me and my best man. We were supposed to take the Lagos–Ibadan expressway but we got information that the Redeemed Christian Church of God was organising an early-morning prayer session for the nation at 50. And knowing the traffic bottleneck that was sure to take over that expressway, we decided against it and headed for Abeokuta–Oshodi expressway via Sango.
The service was for 10am and we left Abeokuta 6:30am, knowing fully-well that the journey, no matter what, should not take more than two hours. But we were wrong.
Clad in my dream, thick magician suits complete with the hat and walking stick, I looked stunning as we sped towards Lagos. By 7:30am we were in Sango, where a traffic hold up some ten kilometres long kept us at a standstill.
“I thought they’ve completed this bridge,” I asked my best man who was seated with me at the back of the SUV. The bridge had been under construction for almost three years.
“Yes they have. But it’s such a poorly-planned and badly-executed project that even a first-year civil engineering student could never be forgiven for coming up with such a model,” he answered with bitterness in his voice.
It took me twenty minutes to understand his bitterness. The bridge was there alright but it was accessed by a four-lane express while the bridge itself was two-lane. It was a practical bottle neck; like a wide pipe emptying into a narrow one.
I thought the twenty minutes we spent on one foot of the bridge was all, but it wasn’t. At the other foot, it was another fifteen minutes. By the time we got to the old Lagos toll gate, it was pushing 8am. Snail speed movement occasioned by the sheer volume of human and vehicular traffic on the road cost us a further 15 minutes before we took the turn at the Alakuko junction, less than fifteen kilometres to Akute.
We had not driven up to five kilometres when we were confronted with the worst stretch of road I have seen in my entire life. The road was untarred but amply covered with red soil. Huge craters reminiscent of some excavating site dotted every metre of the road. And to compound matters, an early morning downpour had filled the craters such that the road resembled a disjointed assembly of neglected mud-filled pools.
I thanked Goodness I was riding in a jeep but pitied my friends in other smaller vehicles. My SUV navigated the road much easily, so also my friends’ cars, though they were slower. I prayed for them silently, hoping we all made it down in one piece. I was never to know that ‘let he who stands take heed lest he falls’ like my pastor would say in Sunday school.
The driver was about navigating yet another crater when the SUV coughed and stalled. The driver turned the ignition but it did not start. He gave up after several attempts.
“Oga, na to get down o,” he spoke in pidgin, resignation blowing his every word towards me.
“Get down?” I asked incredulously. Not wanting to believe, I opened the door and looked at our position. We were stuck in the middle of a crater covered with mud the colour of badly-prepared yam porridge. As I pondered my fate, a voice from my side of the car answered me. It was coming from a man whose face was the colour of fresh charcoal, a Alomo bitters in his left hand while a wrapped substance I couldn’t immediately decipher inhabited his right hand.
“Oga, your driver for no pass this side,” he began in a voice that was shockingly thin. “That other side no deep reach dis one. But as una don enter am now, na 5 thousand we dey collect help people push them cars. But dis your car, na jeep and as I dey see am so, na wedding car, abi no be ‘about to wed’ dey the plate number? Your money na 20 thousand.”
“20 thousand naira?” I exclaimed, cold beads forming in my head. I checked my watch, fourteen minutes to nine a.m. My wife–to–be’s voice suddenly jumped into my head:
“Darling, please be punctual. That Reverend is no–nonsense o. He once conducted a funeral service without the corpse and the children of the dead because they were late. I also heard he once walked out of a wedding service when he smelled alcohol on the Groom’s breath as the couple were about to exchange marital vows…”
“Oga, wetin you talk?” The tout’s voice brought me back from my reverie.
“Abeg, 10k,” I whispered in a hollow voice I scarcely recognised as mine.
“15k. Last price. And we go help the other cars too.”
“Okay,” I agreed without thinking even as my Best man was about to complain.
As soon as we agreed on a price, five other guys, as mean looking as the one who’d been negotiating with me, came out of nowhere and they got down to business. Apparently they’d been lurking around, waiting for a victim. And I was the unlucky one.
In thirty minutes, the SUV was out of the mud but was still not starting.
Time was running out. I became restless. That was when her call came in.
“Hello?” My eager voice echoed back at me, network problems.
Three more attempts, three more echoes and the panic alarm in my head began to hover on the peripheral of despair. It was 9.25am.
The emergency mechanic one of the touts arranged for us battled away at the engines for over twenty minutes to no avail.
After another ten minutes and more dropped calls, I decided to go on a bike to the church. After all, it’s just some eight kilometres away.
“I think we should look for a bike Tunde,” I whispered to my Best man.
“Bike? Are you alright man? On this kind of road? No no. we’ll find a better alternative.” After much deliberation he agreed on an alternative means of transportation: a tricycle.
The tricycle we could get had passengers before we got on. They were tomato traders ostensibly coming from the market. When they saw the condition of the SUV and my dressing, they promptly allowed me and my Best man to manage with them. My other friends wished me well and promised to join me in church as soon as they could find other means of transportation too. I hugged them each and got on the tricycle. It was five minutes to ten.
The tricycle was loaded with tomato at the small space in its boot. The two traders sat at the back with my best man while I managed with the rider in front. When the tricycle started on its way, I noticed the rider maneuvered it towards a section of the road where some planks had been placed across to ease passage for bikes and tricycles. As if the driver knew I wanted to ask a question, he started speaking without being prompted.
“Our government no make sense at all. Na for we eyes d road spoil. And government don abandon us sef. Na wen election dey come dem go come pour red soil on the road, patch am small make e dey motorable. But wen election pass, kpsheew,” he hissed like an angry snake, “we no go see dem again. Na rain spoil am reach as e be. Na we okada and keke people contribute do dis small gada wey you dey see so make we fit take am dey pass dis deep area.”
“Don’t you guys have a councillor or chairman or something?” I asked, pissed at the sheer inhumanity and insensitivity of our elected rulers.
“Councillor ke? Kpsheew.” He hissed again before continuing, “we neva see dat one since e win election. Chairman no even get our time. Oga, na only God fit save dis country.”
“o ga o.” I whispered to myself in Yoruba. I was glad to have gotten a means of transportation; at least, I’d still be able to take my wedding vows.
I made to check my watch and that ended it all.
I had forgotten that my watch hand was also the one I used to hold on to the keke to give us stability. So as I withdrew my hand to check the time, I felt my balance tilt towards the entrance. Quickly realizing my error, I reflexively made to hold on to the partitioning iron in the tricycle. Just then, the tricycle, which was navigating through yet another crater, hit a bump to the other side. The force of the hit coupled with the shifting weight of the tomatoes at the back and my tilted centre of gravity threw me out of the tricycle. I landed face down into the pool of mud.
I slowly picked myself up from the dirt. I was covered from my face down to my shoes in mud. Unconsciously, I made to check my watch. It, too, was covered in mud. With my other palm, I cleaned its face, saw it was still working perfectly.
It showed 10.32am.
I knew there and then I would not get to take my marital vows in person.