When you have lived in Lagos long enough to be bruised by those ugly aspects they don’t include in the commercials that tout the city as the Centre of Excellence, there is a great possibility you’d have acquired battle scars along the way – scars that come in the form of paranoia, an overdeveloped sense of awareness that makes you view your surrounding with an almost accusing countenance, like everything and everyone is out to get you. That is why Lagosians are said to be the angriest people in Nigeria: the streets are a battlefield and every Lagosian knows this and is armed before stepping out.
That afternoon, I’d stepped out to meet my good friend, Dozie at a pre-arranged spot in Oshodi. We were headed for an event in the Island, and had to get on a bus going to Obalende.
“I have to get my own car real soon,” Dozie lamented as we strolled down the side of the highway in Oshodi-Oke, walking idly along while keeping an eye – and an ear – out for whichever bus trundling down past us would have a conductor hanging from the door and yelling, “Obalende-balende-balende!”
The trek very quickly turned tedious as the morning sun, with all the ferocity of a teenager trying to prove himself, beat relentlessly down on us. Our casual eyeing of the roadside turned into a frantic combing, a desperate plea for just one goddamn Obalende bus to come along already. Dozie was still daring his village witches to mess with his impending plan of buying his own car, while I was dabbing at the flourishing sheen of sweat on my temples, wondering if I could pull off cool and fashionably late if I got to the venue of the event looking like I finished from my shower and stepped into my clothes without toweling dry first.
I was walking along the service lane, while Dozie was a few metres behind me on the other side of the gutter, on the highway. And this was perhaps why I didn’t notice that he’d had a quick interaction with the conductor leaning from an idling bus.
“Walter!” he called out to me. “This bus is going to Obalende.”
Relieved, I turned and retraced my steps, all the while keenly accessing the situation. Now, I love my friend very much, but I don’t care that he was brought up in Lagos; I consider myself in possession of more street smarts than he does.
Nothing alarming pinged off my senses as we approached the bus. There were five people in it, all males – the driver, the conductor, a man seated on the bench directly behind the driver, and two males who were climbing down from the front seat. One of them began walking away (clearly this was his stop), while the second began haggling with the conductor over something to do with his change and the bus stop he’d wanted to be dropped at.
Dozie and I paid them no attention as I reached for the front passenger door to take the seat the two men had vacated. I climbed in first. Dozie was about to get in after me when the conductor came between him and the seat.
“We no dey carry two for front,” he said as he shut the door.
“What do you mean?” Dozie queried.
“We no dey carry two people for front,” the conductor reiterated while gesturing to the seat behind for Dozie to get in.
I found his claim odd, given that two people had just alighted from the same front seat. And when I find something odd out here in these streets, I don’t ignore it. My brows furrowed as I turned and watched Dozie climb into the seat, shifting to sit next to the man already there. I also watched as the man who’d come down from the front, the same one caterwauling for his change because he simply had to get going – he climbed back into the bus, next to Dozie. Then the conductor got in, completing the sandwich, and shoved the door close.
As a survivor of a not-so-recently past bus theft incident, the hairs on the back of my neck instantly began to bristle as my misgivings flickered to life inside me. This was when I got the first ping of alarm.
The driver engaged his gear and began trundling forward. The conductor occasionally – very occasionally – opened the door to mildly call for Obalende passengers. There are different junctures on the Oshodi-Oke highway where pedestrians are allowed to gather, where buses usually stop so the conductors can get down and hustle passengers their way.
There was one such juncture ahead of us, and naturally, I expected the bus driver to pull up, seeing as the area was busy with conductors jostling amidst pedestrians.
He didn’t stop. He didn’t pick up speed either. He simply drove slowly past while the conductor peered from the window, hollering “Obalende” like he wasn’t sure that was our destination.
Second ping of alarm! I mean, a conductor that is not out to fill his bus to bursting, who won’t practically shovel passengers off the road and into his bus, is that one a conductor?
At this point, I wanted to say something, to put on the toga of Lagos aggression and heckle the driver over why they weren’t interested in picking up passengers. But there was still that well-mannered chap in me, the reserved, unassuming fellow who would rather not cause any stirs holding me back. Holding my tongue. Paralyzing my paranoia from springing into action.
Then as the bus continued on, down the highway, the conductor grunted, “Owo da!”
I turned to see Dozie attempting to maneuver his wallet from his back pocket. The man on his right, that pesky man who was supposed to get down two bus stops behind us, said to the conductor, “Shey una go pass Egbeda?”
“How much to Gbagada?”
“Okay, I go kuku stop for Gbagada.”
Third ping of alarm! For a man who’d exchanged a brief spat with the conductor over the bus stop he’d wanted to stop at, this decision to drop someplace else, someplace ahead, was very suspicious – and the final straw that snapped me out of my quiescence.
I whirled around to face the driver and snapped, “Driver, I want to get down here.” I was already reaching for the door handle even though the vehicle was still in motion. I was prepared to make a jump for it should the driver step on the gas. Either that or fight for the wheel with him.
“Eh, you say?” he said, turning a grim expression to me.
“I said I want to get down. Stop the bus please.”
“Oga, but na Obalende we dey go na,” the conductor said from behind.
“I’m not going again. We’re not going again,” I said, raising my voice as I turned to face him with angry eyes. “Can we get down please!”
Dozie looked a question at me.
I responded by saying, “Take your money back. We are coming down here.”
Dozie turned to the man, his hand outstretched as the conductor complained, “Nawa o! Shebi we talk say we dey go Obalende. Make we carry una dey go na.”
For someone who didn’t seem interested in picking up passengers a-ways back. He seemed invested in keeping us.
“Driver, please stop!” I snapped at the driver, reinforcing my voice with a steely tone that told him I wasn’t asking. I was telling. “Stop! We want to get down.”
Muttering a Yoruba expletive, he veered rightward and pulled up. I shot out of the front seat like it was literally a hot seat. Literally.
Dozie took a bit more time to get down because the man, that “I will now drop at Gbagada” man seemed reluctant to let him through.
“Excuse me, you have to either go down or move your legs properly for me to get down,” Dozie snapped at the man, looking annoyed.
He was also pulling at his trousers, the front pocket, like he was trying to preserve something in there while getting down.
“Sir, move your legs,” he flashed at the man again.
The man finally obliged and moved, and as Dozie stepped down, his phone dropped to the tarred ground. He bent down, picked it up and swore under his breath as he glared at the man in the bus.
“Obalende!” a horde of passengers yelled as they pounded down the road toward the bus.
“We no dey go,” the conductor said before slipping back into the bus and slamming the door shut as the driver revved the engine.
“What happened back there?” I asked Dozie as we watched the bus vroom off.
“That jackass was trying to steal my phone from my pocket,” he answered, still looking surly. “I felt his hand moving over my pocket when you said we should get down. And he was almost successful too. The phone was halfway out, that’s why it fell on the ground.”
I chuckled, the kind of laugh that comes with relief when you know you’ve just escaped the street notoriety called One Chance.
“Obalende!” a teenager shouted from a bus whipping down the road. “Obalende-balende-balende!”
And we joined the other pedestrians in a hurried surge toward the bus.
I am @Walter_Ude on twitter