Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Extracts from “On the African Bus” by Abimbola Lagunju

The State of the African Bus

The bus is in an appalling state, inside and outside. The outer paint has peeled off in many places, and attempts to retouch the painting give it a leprous appearance. Water-emulsion paints have been used to “gloss” over the different patches where the original painting has failed. The headlights have broken and the cable from the guts of the right one is hanging out with its dislodged bulb. The front bumper is twisted; the chrome has peeled off, exposing the rust going on beneath. The side mirrors have fallen off, the front screen has cracked in many places. It is a wonder how the driver manages to see the road. The roof of the bus is dented, and a green pool with some floating garbage has formed in the depression. The water stinks, and hordes of flies and mosquitoes hover around the pool, from where they make their way in and out of the bus. But for one stubborn one, all the side glass windows of the bus are all broken. Here and there, the passengers nearest to the windows have contrived plastic sheets of different colours and painted cardboards to cover the windows. The cardboards all bear inscriptions more or less reflecting the state of mind of their inventors. There is one with “The Lord is my shepherd: I no dey fear” the other says “Time and Tide no get time; dem no dey wait,” another reads reads “Consultance de l’Oracle Adjonifere gratuite. Devinez votre destine! ” and yet another says “Deus è grande!” And there is another that says “Immediate answers to your prayers. No questions asked. Hebrew, Arabic and Latin services available.” Some inscriptions call people to worship, some confess the faiths of their inventors and others are just commercial adverts. It is dark inside the bus, because of the different window covers. The air is heavy and still. There is a garbage heap in the middle of the bus. The bus is overcrowded.

The left side of the bus is dented and there are what appear to be bullet holes in the body of the vehicle. Smoke from the exhaust pipe is leaking out of these sides holes. The vehicle appears to have many exhaust exits.

The rear end of the bus is in the same state. The rear lights are broken and the reverse lights are permanently on irrespective of the direction of the motion of the bus. The number plate is faded, but one can still see traces of half letters of Africa. The rear baggage compartment is half-open, held together by a blue rope; the belongings of the passengers in different plastic bags are bulging from all sides, and threatening to fall off.

The noise of the engine of the bus is deafening. Added to this is the clanking noise of the broken front wheel of the vehicle. The Bus grinds its way slowly round and round in the same place. Jonscariot has been told that under no circumstances must the Bus remain stationary. The broken wheel makes its impossible for the Bus to move forward. It can only turn around like the hands of a clock in the same place. It can also move backwards to some extent. Jonscariot alternates between moving the Bus backwards and turning it round in the same place in order to keep the Bus in motion. 

At the far right end of the bus is a group of wild-eyed worshippers in billowing white gowns, singing and praying for rapture. Right opposite them on the left is another group arguing about the direction of the east in order to take up their prayer positions. They finally agree that the east is in the opposite direction of the movement of the bus. The bus hits a huge pothole as they take up their prayer position and they fall on their backs. They decide to face the direction of the movement of the bus to say their prayers. One of them holds up a piece of tattered green cloth to screen off the white-robe worshippers on the other side of the bus. Their prayers must not clash.

The passengers shout to communicate with each other. Words lost in the enveloping noise make sentences either meaningless or offensive. There are pockets of quarrels and fights from misunderstood sentences. One man punches his neighbour for proffering what he considers insulting words to his tribe. The man had said, “The Thakas are great smiths, they can forge any implement; and are as hard working as the industrious Tivs.” The noise swallowed some words and contorted the sentence. The other man, apparently from the Thaka ethnic group heard, “Thakas can forge any document...and are hard thieves.” The attacked man falls on his back in the garbage heap in the middle of the bus, his nose and mouth bleeding. Other Thakas in the bus begin to attack members of the felled man’s tribe. Missiles fly about in one section of the bus. A missile hits the last glass window of the bus and shatters it. The splinters cut the face of a baby on his mother’s laps. The baby yells, the mother screams, and pandemonium engulfs another part of the bus.

The driver’s cabin is completely sealed off from the interior of the bus. There is no communicating door or window with the rear part of the bus where the passengers are seated. The partitioning is made of very thick (bulletproof) opaque glass. The passengers cannot see the driver; neither can the driver see them. The direction and the route of the bus are entirely at the discretion of the driver; the passengers have no say. Once every four years, the driver comes down through the front side door, climbs into the section with passengers, talks with them, gives them some gifts and then returns to the driver’s compartment. Sometime the driver does not come down for as long as fifteen years. He just drives.

But for the strange items in the cabin, the driver’s compartment is sparkling clean, air-conditioned, and very modern. The seat and the armrests are of pure leather. The floor of the cabin is covered with a beautiful and expensive Persian rug. The dashboard of the vehicle is however in a bad state. The dashboard has cracked in many places and here and there, the crevices disgorge long and short lines of mites carrying white bits and pieces of the gut of the dashboard. The speedometer is broken, the fuel gauge is non-functional, and the engine temperature gauge is hanging limply down. It is rusty. The only functioning instrument on the dashboard is a bright new radio with a disc player. The driver has turned it up loud. Its stereo effect has shut out the noise of the engine of the bus. On the passenger seat beside the driver is a small refrigerator with all kinds of drinks. The driver drinks deeply from a chilled can of beer and belches loudly.  The driver hardly looks at the road; he is either counting the money in his pocket and in the little safe in the seat-side glove compartment, or he is eating and drinking, or he is changing discs in his bus hi-fi. Occasionally, from under his seat, he takes out a big book with a brand new cover, but with yellow-from-age pages and consults it. He seems to be looking for direction for the bus in the book. After rummaging through the book without much concentration, he returns the book to its storage, and then turns his attention to his radio or to the refrigerator.

The driver hums to the music of the hi-fi continuously. He does not stop even when he is eating or drinking. Occasionally, he takes out one piece of paper or the other from any of the different crevices under his seat. He looks briefly at whatever is written on the paper and memorizes them loudly. Now he is memorizing “EPA; Economic Partnership Agreement.  PPP is a win-win strategy. Public Private Partnership is a win-win strategy.” He repeats this over and over again. Occasionally, he confuses the order of words; he pauses for a minute, takes out the paper again and refreshes his memory.

Unlike all the passengers in the bus, the driver is very smartly dressed. Very neatly cut business suit, silk tie, silk socks and leather shoes. He sports a silk handkerchief in the breast pocket of his suit. But for the ludicrous cap on his head, he would have easily passed for a successful businessman anywhere. The cap is a strange combination of a bowler hat, a turban from Arabia and traditional African cap. It has patches of dried blood all over.

In the right corner of the dashboard, between the dashboard and the windscreen of the bus is a Bible, opened at the psalms pages; in the left corner is the Koran. Different charms are hanging in all the nooks and corners of the cabin. On the floor, in front of the passenger seat is a clay bowl with a slaughtered bird, some sand, a red candle, and salt. A burning incense stick with pungent odor, hung on the ceiling of the cabin makes the air quite difficult to breathe. However, this does not appear to bother Jonscariot.

A pregnant woman falls into labour in one section of the bus. Some old women hover around her. A woman carrying a sickly looking baby with yellow hair on her back explains the situation to another woman. She says, “Poor woman! That is her ninth child. I hope this baby survives. All the other eight died. The last child had a bout of fever, vomiting and diarrhea, and despite all the sacrifices to appease the gods, the child died the next day. Some people suspect that the old woman mumbling to herself over there, the one in the brown boubou[i] is responsible for the deaths. They say she is a witch. See! I always tie a little stone in my children’s clothes to ward off her evil looks.”

The woman in labour groans. The old women shout, “Push! Push! Push!”
“I am tired,” the woman says.
“But you have to do it. You must have courage. Now, take this drink. Take it! It will give you strength.” One of the old women puts a dirty cup with a brown concoction to her lips. The pregnant woman sips some of the drink. The woman groans again.
“Push! Push! Push!” the old women chorus again.
A distraught barefooted man in green shorts and a dirty white T-shirt, apparently the husband of the woman in labor, asks one of the old women, “Mother, can I go and get the doctor? This is taking too long. She has been in labor since yesterday morning. The herbs seem not to be
“Okay! Go quickly. Get the praying group too. They are at the back of the bus.” The husband runs down the aisle of the bus.

The man returns to the scene a few moments later with a group of six women. The leader of the group sports a dirty white cap with “Prayer Warrior” written in blue in front of it. The women have red sashes tied around their waists in a true warrior-like fashion. One of them is carrying a crooked staff; the other has a club with the inscription “With this, we overcome the devil.” The prayer warriors squeeze themselves among the group surrounding the woman and begin to pray in loud voices. The leader of the group produces a little jar from among the folds of her clothes. She sprinkles some of the contents on the face of the woman in labor, and then asks her to drink the rest.

The pregnant woman groans again.
“Push! Push! Push!” the old women chorus.
“Push! Push! Push!” the prayer warriors echo.
“Where is the doctor or the nurse?” the mother of the husband asks her son.
“The doctor says he is busy. He is playing cards with his friends. The nurse says I must give her some money before she comes. What I shall I do mother?”
“Let us leave things in the hands of the gods and God! Do not worry my son.”
“Push! Push! Push!” the old women chorus again.
“Push! Push! Push!” the prayer warriors echo.
The woman gives it one last effort; and suddenly, the cry of a baby boy rises from among the group. The old women hug each other; the prayer warriors throw their arms up in the air and begin to sing. In their joy, they do not see the mother of the baby quietly give up the ghost.

Meanwhile, in the midsection of the bus, near the garbage heap a man wearing a dirty yellow armband with “Black African Activist” written in red on it is on his feet, talking or rather shouting to a group of passengers. He gesticulates in all directions. He appears angry. A member of the audience, a barefooted white African with a red T-shirt with the inscription “Son of the Soil” raises his hand either to speak or to ask a question. The Activist ignores him. The white African shrugs  and waits for the Activist to rest his case.

[i] A large flowing robe.

No comments: