Monday, January 7, 2013

Of traffic snarls and the land of the rubber men

It is a hot day.
Another of those days that traffic stretches as far as the eyes can see causing people in cars to share something other than the unity of crawling traffic and sweltering heat: short fused temperament.

This is Lagos, the heat and traffic snarls are constant realities that we have learnt to live with, no matter how hard that is. Nigerians, we are special breeds, rubber men that defy the laws of elasticity—we are yet to find that elastic limit and we continue to adjust to constantly shifting challenges. Nothing seems to shift more constantly than our traffic laws. Perhaps they don’t really shift, change, rather the government finds new way to express them. That way they keep us on our toes, sweating in choking traffic.

We do have constants, those things that remain the same year in year out. The danfo bus, a modified Volkswagen van that perhaps ferried goods from one point to another in the European country that hosted its first incarnation, is one of the things that remain the same. A testament of our dump mentality, the danfo, like millions of other automobiles in Nigeria, comes second-hand: Europe’s discard serving faithfully here, still.
There is little to see in the scrap-like drabness of the danfo bus I boarded in the hope that their street and alley meandering ability would perhaps shorten the time I would otherwise spend in the traffic snarl—a vain hope. The clammy intensity of the heat that comes from within and without did not gift concentration, so Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I will Write About This Place rests in its place in the side pocket of my well-used bag. Yes, I had discovered that the three hours spent in traffic heading to work and the three hours spent on the way back is a good time as any to catch up on reading. Before One Day I Will Write About This Place, one of those Ikeja-under-bridge-paper-backs—a novel by John Varley—occupied the space in the bag. Victor Ehikhamenor’s brand new book Excuse Me!, a testament of where Nigerian literature is headed, will replace Binya’s in a few days.

My BlackBerry—a mobile phone that typifies the Nigerian experience: expensive, problem prone, essentially not worth its hype, but a must have for any forward thinking hustler—had already exhausted its morning charge, so social media exerts no pull. In search of somewhere, something to lay my eyes, I turn outwards, looking across the young lady between me and the window, away from the drab interior, the equal drabness of my fellow sardines-in-scrap-metal-confine.

In the close past, the view would be of  hawkers darting between the traffic, Okada’s  snapping side mirrors as they sweep through and drivers leaning out of windows to hurl abuses at their receding backs. Now all one sees are cars, cars and more cars. The new view is a thank-you-Lagos-for-for-the-second-term gift from erstwhile man of the people, Babatunde Raji Fashola, governor of Africa’s most populous city. The Road Use Bill he signed into law a few months ago is said to have brought sanity to the roads, but that remains debateable. Who decides what sanity is? I guess the people in the cars with humming air conditioners would call this sanity. I stare at them, in their choice brand new cars—not for these ones the more common second hand cars we call tokunbo—that seemed immune to the dents that are the lot of any lesser-priced car on a Lagos road. I could spy an executive kind reading a newspaper in the owners corner, a suited banker type working on his laptop, and a couple of youngish professionals watching a movie on a backrest screen. These ones, the ones that have connected with success, can afford to call this traffic, devoid as it is, of hawkers and okada operators, sane. They are immune, with drivers to do the driving, with ACs to keep the air western-cool, with music, probably indie rock, or jazz, or R&B—not the shrieking fuji in the danfo—to help them coordinate money making thoughts. I wonder if their thoughts go to the man who only recently saved enough to buy a second-hand motorcycle, only to find that its engine capacity falls below the 200cc that the new traffic law demands for motorcycles before they can cruise hundreds of major highways in Lagos.

Yes, the rich own motocycles, the type we call power bikes, mostly above the 200cc engine capacity. They can still ride the forbidden roads. The law has a way of protecting the rich. The poor can go to blazes.

Hence, the executive type reads a newspaper, suave-like, in real-leather interiors. For these type, it is super cooled office to super cooled car, to super cooled home, an Island of opulence within the oppressive heat of the tropic.

It is when I look away from these ones, the comfortable, that I see her, no it is they, they are two, similarly dressed, but one more eye catching. It isn’t the garish colours that call attention—I have already gotten used to the colour blind madness they call colour blocking—it was the hips of the plump one.

Turned into an unsightly 8 by jeans obviously meant for some flat assed chick, with the part that spilled out of the jean flapping with each step she took, it should serve as a bum lover’s nightmare. Grotesque; that’s the word that came to mind. As I pull my eyes away, I wonder where her fashion sense came from.
My eyes wonder still, searching that which will hold my fancy.

We crawl away from the expressway. We attempt the meandering that I had hoped for. We don’t get far. The gridlock in the side streets of Mushin is worse than what we left in the expressway—there we crawled, albeit very slowly, here we are stagnant. The driver cuts the ignition, to conserve fuel.

This is an old neighbourhood. The heart of the city in the days that white lords walked this city, when our allegiance was to a king, then a queen, from lands across seas our ancestors feared to sail. Now we pledge allegiance to a two colour flag, but in our hearts wonder what that means. Feeling no strings pulling at our heart, we wonder what it means to be patriotic, to love ones nation. Same way we wondered what the chant of God bless the King/Queen meant in the days when concrete forests sprouted here for the first time, replacing building of raffia and mud, replacing forests of lush green vegetation and the abodes of proud sons of the earth.

I see men, beaten men, devoid of the pride that was their ancestor’s mien. They stare at the cars, at the sweating passengers, catching eyes, their body language suggesting shared understanding, all hope faded in the face of stark reality. There is no future here, only a cyclic hopelessness. The staring eyes, the aged eyes, they know this for sure, they’ve seen it before.

On the wall of one of these buildings, a poster, A5 paper, announces a welcome back party for “Iyabo Martins, USA returnee”. I stare at it, wondering why visiting or living in the United States of America is worth a party, but I understand, I really do.

Somehow, we are on an expressway, another one. Beyond the front windscreen, Oshodi looms.
Here, far away from the officious nature of Ikorodu Road, the atmosphere is relaxed, lower class friendly. A few hawkers now dart among the cars, ears, eyes and nose flaring alertness as they quench thirst here and assuage steaming body heat there. As I pour ice-cold bottled water down my throat, I wondered what we would do without these hawkers and why the government thinks they do not provide essential services.

The hawkers scatter. An AK47 wielding police officer, riding home on a motorcycle, one of the outlawed variety, waves at them. Don’t worry. They return, nervous. I smile.

I wonder about my country, this rubber society. What would happen if we ever reach the breaking point? Would we turn on these ones in cars whose price can build three to four health centres in the ancestral villages of their owners, ancestral villages they don’t visit anymore? Would we replace what we have for something worse or like the Egyptians, trade a secular tyrant for a religious one? Would we like the Libyans destroy our country and become the client nation of a super power, all because we hate the guts of our leader? Would we learn to trust the voting process enough to become a real democracy?

Thoughts, near and far, new and old, flow through my mind as the Danfo jerks as if in time to the beat of the raunchy fuji song that blasted from ill-tuned car stereos. Two hours have gone by; I am not even half way home. I lean back, avoiding seeing the same scene that have become a constant feature, seems a good idea. From further back comes the sound of sirens, an oga type using the power of the lords of the land to break through the gridlock, wanting to spend as little time as possible on the road. Looking around, seeing the intense tailgating, I did not even bother to question how they would get through. Though it seems impossible, they always do.

A nation of rubber men, Nigerians are very amiable to change. Stretch us all you want, we just adjust to accommodate the extra strain and soon that becomes the normal from which further stretching emanates. We're super elastic. Dr. Reed Richard has nothing on us. This is a survival skill that allows our continuing rape. I am scared of what would happen if we lose this power to adjust, to stretch, to accommodate.
The sky is turning cobalt. Rain looms in the horizon. The traffic continues to crawl.

A version of this article was published in The Guardian
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  1. Wow. I loved reading this. Thank you.

  2. This is splendid. A pictureseque depiction of the complexion of a typical Lagos traffic, sauced with enough periscopic penetration into the liver of the average Nigerian pyschology. Great piece.

    1. Thanks Oni. Glad you like it. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. A fitting musing for a danfo commuter in Lagos hellish traffic. It'd be interesting to know how you'd view the situation when seated in owner's corner of one of those air-condition luxury cars.

    1. lol. I wonder about that too, really. Will try that and see what I come up with. :). Thanks for reading.