There are adaptations I’ve learned to live by as a street-savvy Lagosian, and chief among them are these three: to leave my house with either or both of these two on me – a backpack or tight trousers; and to never loiter in Oshodi. The first rule is one of the reasons why I do not like going out clad in native wears; the traditional style makes taking along a bag a fashion faux pas, and the looseness of the tailoring means my essentials would be at risk. And Oshodi is not a place you loiter in. They say everything can kill you in Nigeria; well, what they didn’t tell you is that a vast majority of this everything reside in Oshodi Underbridge. From police trouble to agbero shenanigans, basically when you get to Oshodi, you should keep passing through, preferably with the bag holding your earthly possessions secured in front of you.
In a single morning, I violated every one of these rules.
It was Sunday, and I had an appointment to meet an entrepreneurial friend of mine. He had a delivery for me, and was on the move from Mushin. Ideally, we had to meet at Oshodi so I could claim my package and he could be on his way.
I was still luxuriating in bed when he buzzed to know where I was. We were supposed to meet by 7am, and it was a few minutes to. So I typed back the requisite lie that everybody who’s ever run late falls back on: ‘I’m on my way.’ I got up to run through a quick toilette. Then I pulled on a T-shirt and baggy three-quarter shorts, slipped my wallet and phone into my pocket, connected the phone to my ears with an ear piece, and bobbing my head to Falz-and-Simi’s new song, Chemistry, I stepped out, flagged down a bike and got on it to begin my day.
Because it was Sunday, the madness in Oshodi was not at its usual peak. There were still conductors yodeling for passengers and people plodding along on the sidewalks, but both pedestrian and vehicular traffic were very reduced for such a bustling part of the Lagos metropolis. I’d been dropped by the bike man at the junction and was now walking the rest of the way to Underbridge. Because of the loose fitting of my shorts, as I moved, the weight of my phone and wallet in both pockets caused the shorts to flap around my legs. I wasn’t very comfortable with this vulnerability. I suddenly regretted not coming out with a shoulder bag; I’d have tucked the essentials inside the bag rather than have them so loosely held inside my pockets. But Billy Gilman was serenading me with his cover of Adele’s When We Were Young, so I wasn’t too bothered.
As I approached the BRT bus stand, where my friend and I had agreed to meet, I noticed a well-dressed young man ahead of me, who’d clearly just purchased a ticket and was about to board the BRT bus. He suddenly paused when he looked in my direction. He was looking at me, and yet not quite at me. I did a quick mental scan; he didn’t look familiar, so he couldn’t be someone I know. But his gaze seemed fixated on a spot just beyond me – that odd I’m-looking-at-you-but-not-really-looking-at-you stare.
I shrugged and walked past him. Through my peripheral vision, I saw him turn to follow me with his eyes.
And that was when I felt a tug on my ear-piece. One of the plugs was beginning to slip out of my ear. The millisecond I felt that slip, realization came to me. There was no moment of bewilderment. I didn’t raise my hand to adjust the plug inside my ear. Oh no. My instinctive reaction was to slap my hand down on my pocket, clamping down on the fingers that were deftly slipping the phone out of it. My heartbeat accelerated as I whirled around to glare into the gaunt, nasty-looking face of a tout. He jerked his fingers out of my grasp and backed hurriedly away from me.
For a few moments, I stood there watching him, feeling an inordinate rush of adrenaline surge through my body as I grasped my pockets to ensure that my phone and wallet were still in them. I was suddenly shaking and my heart was still beating quite fast as a rush of all the ugly encounters I’ve had with theft on these Lagos streets rushed through my mind. (HERE, HERE and HERE) I was marveling at how close I’d come to being a victim of a pickpocket. I mean, say he stole my phone, in this recession, it would probably take a decade for me to get back on the smartphone neighbourhood. On trembly legs, I moved to the long bench right there at the bus stop and lowered myself onto it. Thoughts were whirling through my head as I contemplated some more on what had almost just happened, and somewhere at the back of my mind, Niyola was agreeing with me as she sang Crazy into my ears.
The woman seated beside me gestured for my attention. When I turned, she pointed at the BRT bus. I looked to see that well-dressed young man with the odd look gesturing at me from inside the bus. He was talking and doing lots of sign language, and the much I could understand indicated that he’d seen the pickpocket following me and he wanted to tell me now to be more careful with my belonging.
Like seriously, WTF!
That was why he seemed to be looking at me but wasn’t looking at me. He’d been watching the little thief mark me. And the ‘Good Samaritan’ that he was, he’d said nothing! Didn’t even alert me! Instead, he’d chosen now to let me know that I should be careful?!
The smug sonofabitch!
He actually looked self-satisfied as he signed to me from the bus, like he felt he’d done his Christian duty for the day.
And the more astonishing part was, it wasn’t just him! A good number of the other passengers in the bus seemed to have understood what had happened to me. From where I sat, I watched three women turn to gab away with the young man, clapping their hands intermittently and nodding their heads in that ‘shebi I said it’ manner. I even caught some pedestrians at the bus stop smiling at me that ‘you are lucky’ smile, as though they were silently congratulating me for surviving the pickpocket incident. I sat there and watched them all, my fellow Nigerians, who preferred the gist of the aftermath to actually stepping in to avert a tragedy.
As I sat there, I spotted the pickpocket walk by. He was with another unruly character like him, with the shifty expression and unkempt appearance. I noticed that a lot of these pedestrians at the bus stop were also watching them, guardedly, with also a hint of amused indulgence, that kind of look you give an errant child when he misbehaves and you say, “Boys will be boys.” These people weren’t disgusted or outraged. They didn’t seem appalled. If anything, they seemed to be anticipating the drama of who the boys’ next target would be.
That target happened by soon enough – a middle-aged man with an afro and a backpack hanging on his back. He had JJC written all over him, an anxious look on his face as he ambled about the bus stop, clearly confused with his bearings.
The touts zeroed in on him and converged. The backpack hanging on his back, with its zippers just begging to be zipped open, was too much temptation for the thieves. They swooped down on the man, looking like they were asking him where he was headed. As one distracted him with the ‘helpful’ query, the other’s hands were swiftly moving over the bag on his back.
But the man was jittery. He didn’t stay in one place. He kept moving his body about, so that the tout with the quick fingers kept retreating. The other one pointed directions to the man, and he began moving that way. The quick-fingered one, the same one who’d tried to rob me, followed him, hovering behind him, his hands darting over his bag and retreating each time the man shot a distracted look behind him. It was the man’s anxiety that was saving him.
Meanwhile, everybody was watching and no one was intervening. Suddenly realizing that I was doing the same thing, I got up, and with a cold expression, I started toward the man. The cold look was for the tout still hovering behind him. He saw me approaching and moved away. I stopped before the man. He too stopped and looked up at me.
“Sir, please be careful with your bag,” I said to him. “Those boys giving you directions earlier are thieves.”
“Oh my god!” he gasped and yanked his bag around. Two of the zippers were almost completely undone. “Oh my god!” he said again and began looking around him, searching for the touts with angry eyes.
They were of course out of sight, melted away into the crowd.
He turned back to me. “Thank you so much.”
“Don’t mention it. Just please be careful. Don’t put your bag so carelessly on your back in Lagos.”
“Thank you again. I appreciate.”
“Where are you going?”
“Okay. That’s the BRT bus you should enter. You pay for your ticket there.” I pointed this way and that.
He extended more profuse thanks before heading to the ticket seller. He brought a wallet out of the bag and rifled through a wad of cash as he paid for his ticket. Some of the cash stuck out of the wallet, which he held absentmindedly as he collected his ticket, while answering a call that suddenly came in on his phone. With the cash sticking out of the wallet in one hand, a phone in the other, and his bag yawning open on his back, he presented a very fine target for these roadside thieves.
I sighed as I watched him finally get into the bus. Something told me he’d be robbed eventually before the end of the day.
“Hey Walter,” someone called me just then.
I turned to face my friend, and the first words out of my mouth were, “we cannot meet in Oshodi ever again.”
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