Uzokwe's Searchlight

Monday, April 24, 2017

Alfred Obiora Uzokwe, P.E



My first visit to Nkwo market Nnewi on return to Nnewi

lowly, we disembarked from the vehicle. I went around and took one look at the busted tire. Fully aware that many have perished as a result of vehicle tire bust, in my mind, I thanked God for his mercies. As people clustered around the vehicle, I walked away from it and kept a distance. The busted tire was on the traffic side so while vehicles continued to zoom past ours, I wanted to be able to warn passengers around our vehicle should any vehicle start straying towards ours.

I have to comment that Abuja- Lokoja road, at least the section we were in, was smooth with nice shoulders. Why can’t the same feat be replicated in all parts of Nigeria, I wondered. Seeing that the road was smooth and devoid of potholes, I wondered what triggered the tire burst. The previous day in Abuja, as we inspected all manners of vehicles in an attempt to find a sound one that would safely convey us to the east, I paid particular attention to the tires. Vehicles with well-worn tire treads were a ‘no no’ for me. This was because of the frequent tire burst incidents I read about that lead to fatalities in Nigeria. It was now ironic that a problem I tried to preempt, was now in my face.

A slight movement in the bush next to where our vehicle was parked caught my attention. I looked in that direction and saw one of the women passengers in our vehicle standing akimbo, with legs slightly spread apart. Her gown was slightly pulled upwards with both hands. At first, I wondered why she was standing still inside the bush just a few feet away from the roadside. Then it hit me, she was actually answering the call of nature oblivious of the fact that she was creating a public spectacle. The incident reminded me of when I took my son to Nigeria for the first time many years ago. We were travelling in one of the buses to Nnewi from Lagos. In Umenede or so, the driver stopped so interested passengers could go down and “ease” themselves. Seeing a series of passengers streaming out of the bus to go and answer nature’s call, my son followed them to go and do the same. A few seconds later, he practically ran back into the bus and sat in his chair, half panting but maintained a straight face. I was surprised that it took him just a few seconds. Out of curiosity, I asked how come he was done already. Still looking away from me, he said he no longer had the urge to “ease” himself. I asked why he changed his mind but he kept silent so I dropped the subject. It was later that I found out that when he followed the passengers, he thought they were headed to a roadside rest room. Instead, when he got there, he saw that it was an open space where all the passengers were in different poses, some like the woman I just described, answering the call of nature. Being the first time he was witnessing such a cacophonic spectacle, he ran back to the bus, preferring to hold his own urge. I thought that was funny.

Anyway, our Abuja bus driver was quick to replace the busted tire with a spare and shortly after, we resumed our journey but I no longer had the urge to sleep. As we began to enter sections of the road with ubiquitous presence of potholes, I observed that the driver did not even try to slow down on getting to the potholes. As a consequence, every time he encountered a pothole, the vehicle would jerk upwards with passengers literally lifted off their seats and dropped back again. This continued and I imagined that by the time we would get to our destinations, our “rear ends” would be on fire! I was surprised that his driving style did not seem to faze other passengers. They were chatting and laughing as though nothing untoward was happening. That may be the “suffering and smiling” syndrome that Nigerians have become known for and which Fela sang about. But my wife, who grimaced every time we galloped into and out of the potholes, did not seem to be finding the whole thing funny.

After a while and to my surprise, the driver pressed a button on the vehicle dashboard and a small TV screen/monitor slowly glided out from the ceiling of the bus and steadied itself. Then the screen came alive and soon, we were watching a Nigerian comedy show. Most, if not all the passengers fixed their gaze on the screen and would periodically burst out laughing. They were truly being entertained by the comedian AY or so. With the entertainment holding passengers spell bound, I felt like the driver felt free to speed without getting the attention of the passengers. Much later, we stopped at an eatery in Lokoja and passengers went in, ordered their food and ate. “Do you know that this nice eatery is owned by an Igbo man?”, one of the passengers said to me. I was not surprised because Igbos are everywhere. I think I do a disservice to the owner by calling the place an eatery. It was a huge restaurant, clean and organized service. We resumed our journey afterwards. Segments of the road were bad and exceedingly dusty. In some areas, traffic was jammed or crawling at snail speed.

It was on one of these stretches of road that I beheld a sight that amused but made me sad. Suddenly we started hearing a police siren coming from behind. I assumed that an important person was coming so vehicles were getting out of the way for the convoy. By the time the vehicle passed ours, I noticed that the open pickup vehicle that had the siren was transporting a cow! Yes, a cow! I was amused that a cow was now a very important personality in Nigeria. Apparently, the “big man or woman” that owned the convoy wanted the Christmas cow delivered so urgently that it became an important personality that needed a siren. Only in Nigeria.

Our journey continued and with every gallop, I saw that my wife was grimacing even more and her face seemed like someone in pain. I asked what the matter was. At first, she said nothing but much later, she confessed that she was feeling nauseous and that each gallop worsened her situation. She brought out a cellulose bag she had and half-covered her mouth in case of “accidental discharge”. Even though I was upbeat about the journey, preferring to see the galloping as something others go through every day and still survive, seeing her face looking stressed and unhappy, dampened my happiness somewhat.

The journey continued through places like Okene and into Edo state. So many bad sections of road. Later, we got into Delta and finally into Asaba. I was hoping that when the galloping stopped, my wife would recover but by the time we entered Asaba, she could no longer hold on. She was now acting like she was going to choke. When I tried to call the attention of the driver, other passengers became aware of what she was going through and joined in asking the driver to stop. The goodness of Nigerians manifested here! One passenger asked the bus driver to stop because “one mommy in the bus is sick”. That term “mommy” later became one that I would hear every time I went somewhere with my wife throughout our stay. I later came to find out that it was a term frequently used in Nigeria, a term of endearment, if you will for women. I teased her that she was the cool-headed and nice “mommy” and I was the “rascal”.

As soon as the passenger called the attention of the driver to the fact that “one mommy was sick”, other passengers began to urge the driver to stop despite the high traffic volume that we had encountered trying to go to Onitsha. I found that gesture from fellow passengers very refreshing. The humane part of Nigerians was shining true in spite of the tough “dog-eat-dog” environment that difficulties seem to foist on Nigerians. The bus driver steered into the dirt shoulder and stopped. I asked the boy next to me how long it would take to get to Onitsha with the go slow. He surmised that it may be another two and half hours. I had had it! I did not want my wife to go through more torture for many more hours en route to Onitsha. When she came down, I told her we were going to disembark and find a place to pass the night in Asaba. That way, I could get her some medication. I told the driver that we were going to stop there. Some of the passengers helped bring down our stuff. The driver flagged down a taxi for us and I asked to be taken to a good hotel to pass the night and off we went.

We checked into the hotel and the attendant led the way to our room. Pausing in front of the room briefly he opened the door. As soon as we entered, my eyes settled on the bed. Lying comfortably on one of the pillows was a wall gecko (agu uno) probably having its daily “push up” exercise. Before I could say anything, my wife had already seen it and began to retreat towards the door. “I will not stay in this room” she said, “do you see the lizard?”, she added, pointing towards the pillow. I was amused and wanted to joke that if a wall gecko would prevent her from settling in to recover from her nausea, she was not really sick but I decided it would be an off-color joke. As for me, I was somewhat indifferent about it because wall geckos are harmless. By this time, the attendant had also seen it. As if aware of what was going on, the gecko crawled away from the pillow onto the nearby wall towards the window and disappeared. Having witnessed the whole thing, the attendant, of his own volition, said he was getting us another room, this time upstairs. We later settled into another room after arranging for a taxi to take us to Nnewi the next day.

We were woken up the next morning by the phone and when I answered, the voice said the taxi we asked for was there. I asked my wife how she was feeling and with a smile on her face, she said: “Thank you for making the hotel arrangement, I thought I was dying yesterday”. I was surprised to learn the seriousness of it all but felt relieved that she was okay. We got ready, checked out and in a few minutes, a young man in a fairly used Toyota Camry was speeding towards the Niger bridge, en route to Nnewi with my wife and I on board. In spite of the fact that it was still about 5:45am, on getting closer to the Niger head bridge, we met a traffic hold up. I was determined to see what was causing the hold-up. We got to the head bridge proper and started seeing police in uniform. Midway into the bridge, the road was as wide and open as ever. It was the policemen on the bridge that were causing the hold up. They used security check on the bridge as a subterfuge for stopping and collecting money from Christmas travelers. I was appalled.

Once we crossed the Niger bridge, the road was wide open to Nnewi. I engaged the young man driving us in a conversation. He asked where we were from and I told him. He said God had delivered America from Obama. “Excuse me?”, my wife and I said almost simultaneously. He said Obama was turning America into an ungodly nation by “legalizing” homosexuality through marriage but that God had changed things with the election of Donald Trump and things would straighten out soon. To my chagrin and surprise, he spouted so many negative “talking points” that were circulating in the United States during the election including opining with unbridled assurance that Obama had done nothing for blacks for eight years and that a vote for Hillary would have been another Obama term. He even said that Donald Trump would support an independent state of Biafra. I was not sure where he got that from but because his opinions were so far out, I did not find it necessary to waste my time trying to challenge him to prove his assertions. I was simply amazed that even though he was in Nigeria during the election, he followed it like a hawk all through from far away Nigeria. Many of his assertions and conclusions were misguided but he was unfazed.

One thing about him that cheered me up though, was that he said he owned the taxi outfit. According to him, after school, he could not find a job and rather than get into crime of kidnapping, robbery or 419, he used a small loan to get a used vehicle and started transporting people to and from their destinations via private arrangements. It was the period when kidnapping incidents were rampant so many “big men and women” no longer wanted to travel in cars that gave away their identity. So they would engage his services to take them to events and pick them back up. With that, he saved up money and got another fairly used vehicle. Now someone drives the other vehicle for him. He said he was a no-nonsense person. “Some big men and women sometimes engage my service but when I go to pick them up, they would not be ready”, he said. “Any time that happened”, he emphasized, “I normally turn around and leave”. He was not ready to indulge them in their “ego trip”.

He told us how one of his uncles came back from the United States with his full-grown son – his cousin. We were amused when he said that in spite of the fact that his cousin was basically a grown man, “he was speaking American slang to me, showing that he was still not matured.” If he had a say in the affairs of his uncle, he said lightheartedly, “I would advise him to send his son back to Nigeria to learn some common sense and manners”. According to him, when his cousin encountered elders, instead of saying good morning or so, he would say: “Hi”. He concluded that if that was what people learned in America, he would not go even if invited. He practically dismissed his cousin as a good-for-nothing that would amount to nothing.

We found the young man arrogant but sometimes amusing; radical but intelligent. He made conclusions with incorrect facts though and was too conservative for the modern world. He seemed so self-assured yet the arrogance in his demeanor made it difficult to fully embrace his good sides.

In a little bit, we were in my home town Nnewi. I was away for 5 years and many of the places I used to know had changed because of the many buildings that had sprung up. It was now suffering from all the bad things that a town experiencing uncontrolled urbanization experiences.

My next article will focus on other random observations I made during my trip on issues like roads, bridges, solar energy, filing stations in residential areas, shopping centers, indiscriminate burning outdoors, and more. Tune in

Continued from Part 3

Changing busted tire on our bus

Inside our bus - watching comedy

Onitsha end of the bridge - no traffic jam

Shanties on the roadside on the Asaba side of Niger bridge

The young man that drove us from Asaba to Nnewi

Traffic jam - Abuja to Asaba

Traffic jam on Niger bridge

Unsafe loading of traffic between Abuja and Asaba

Unsafe loading of vehicles in Onitsha