Chinyere Evelyn Uku tells of the thrill of riding a grimy danfo minibus in Nigeria’s biggest city.
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Lagos is the only place I know where I can see the grit, the grime, slick my pen into it and write.
On the 70 bus in DC, all the grit is mopped up with hand sanitizer or something to purify and wipe away, only to invite in the mundane. You hand over your singles or five-dollar bill to a machine or you tap it with a smart card for a ride so boring your imagination just might start to bleed.
I hop danfo in Lagos expecting calamity at every turn, hoping that in my irresponsible quest to satisfy my wild craving my spine doesn’t end up split somewhere under a bridge in Obalende, somewhere where nothing can bridge me back to normal. I try to silence the daredevil, put on compliant shoes and summon an Uber, but I won’t.
After trekking to the junction in the midst of the dug-up roads that peel car tyres – dug up in a bid to alleviate the bumper-to-bumper tension we have grown so used to, with pockets of puddles from the rainy season downpour forever pouring away our hopes of better – I stand and wait for one of the little buses that hopefully won’t careen into a ditch with bits of floating algae and plastic Coke or Fanta bottles. The stench here and there is typically ignored by others that have gathered waiting patiently, until a bus that seats about 12 arrives.
I place my foot in the contraption and remove 500 naira from my back pocket knowing full well that more may be demanded depending on how the journey elapses. The vehicle does not move until it is stuffed to capacity – baby and all and sundry take their seats groaning but not saying much. It still doesn’t move, as though the driver is hoping to mount his final passenger on the roof, the back boot packed with sacks, windshield wounded by damaged wipers; windows don’t budge as the gaping door, door with no door, is the only means for air to pass. Some type of tape has been applied to the back shield and it is not certain when the taped down glass will yield and unleash into our faces. The music comes on and we launch.
“Ekate! Ekate roundabout! Oya o, money for back.”
When the wind moves through the vehicle and my hair whips out of place, I want the ride to last forever, as the rowdy box barrels down the expressway off the island and onto the Third mainland bridge where the setting sun hovers over the University of Lagos and shimmers in the water as we pass. Suddenly, the vehicle chokes, the driver slows to the edge, passengers barrel out vexed as their feet scrape the bridge in annoyance.
“Oga gimme me change, jare!”
It’s scary, it’s exhilarating, I pause and stare at the barrier hoping it won’t suddenly give way and blow us into the shimmering water. A bandit could appear out of nowhere – I clutch my bag, my sides, my body hoping the faint internal shuddering is not noticeable.
Oga busies himself moving hurriedly, standing directly in the middle of the bridge to beat down another bus.
It’s as though there’s this unseen chain, a grand linkage of all danfos to each other, as he pats the vehicle down and a familiar face emerges from the driver’s side. Like a trail of ants on the move that rush to a wounded brother, the driver willfully stops and jumps out, the passengers amble about until shepherded into the new bus equally as tore up as the former. The vehicle blasts off as I peer through the back shield at the fading image of the broken down bus and its owner still ambling around trying to come up with solutions.
“Money for back!” This is not directed at those of us from broken down bus but the few that must have climbed on before we did. Crumpled bent notes are handed over while conductor squeezes the notes into his satchel, spits in the air, belt buckle flapping while revealing part of his underwear, and ignores the insistences for change.
“Oga my change, jor, wetin do you?”
“Oga slow down jor, abi you won kee person?”
The bus quickly abandons the third mainland bridge as it approaches Iyana Oworo.
“Owa o, owa o,” an elderly woman bends her head and carefully steps out, adjusting her wrappa and motioning to the conductor to help her with her things at the back. It’s incredible the weight that many market women, young or old, can carry or mount on their heads without the slightest wince or show of pain or annoyance. As some dip their heads and disembark, others rush and squeeze themselves into the back seats, squeeze their threadbare notes into the conductor’s hand as he yells again and again. As it’s late, the sound of slippers slapping the ground accompany tired worn individuals shoving to enter with buses taking their sweet time to appear. The throng beat the vehicle and it starts back up while the conductor appears, disappears and reappears, latching on to the side of the bus to hail at the next stop and search for non-existent change and then beg passengers to wait. This time a baby is strapped to its mother’s back and every time the bus shudders and we feel the impact from the absence of a shock absorber, the baby squirms and squeals; the mother says nothing. Every conversation a passenger has with an annoyed client or a demanding boss must be heard, must be shared at the top of their lungs as if to compete with the blaring sounds from the radio. We pass fuel stations, eateries and estates, the driver showing little care when driving into occasional portholes. When we finally come close to my stop right underneath an overhead bridge I have to hit the side of the bus and yell so the driver won’t careen past the stop and dump me somewhere I can’t identify, an easy target for muggers. The bus finally slows down, and as I step out a few white-garment church passengers push forward clutching their bibes saddled with tambourines and possibly in mid prayer as the bus blasts off with song emanating from it, my eyes watching it fade down the road.