Tolu Daniel travelled from Abeokuta in the South Western part of Nigeria, down to Calabar in the South South. He tells us about his encounters on the road and the patience he had to exercise so many times.
It was dark. Everywhere was clothed in a sea of black, aside from the painful streak of blurry headlights that illuminated the road. Half of the people in our bus were either asleep or about to sleep. Three more hours and it would be twenty-four hours since we’d been on the road. My legs were heavy as though I’d sat bags of rice on them. My eyes were laden with sleep, but I dared not because I couldn’t trust the driver not to sleep off at the wheel and land us in a ditch or, worse, drive us to a different destination than we initially bargained for. Worst things have happened in this country of ours. The events of the day had changed my trust in people.
The journey to Calabar from Abeokuta had taken several shades since it began and this was one of them. We were so close to our destination, yet so far away. The road stretched ahead as though it had no plans to end. “You guys are close by,” Ukeme had said on the phone when I told him we were at a place called Power-line. Power-line looked like an appendage of town, like a place you get to before getting to the main town. I worked that math out in my head. There is a place just like that on the road to Abeokuta called Kobape. But that conversation happened two hours ago, I doubt if we had moved a hundred meters since the call.
My travel companions and I, about six of us, had embarked on the trip at Ukeme’s invitation for his wedding in Calabar. We had been thinking of getting away from the bore and quietness of Abeokuta for some time, but we had not yet agreed on a befitting destination. So when the invitation came, it rode on the wings of perfection for most of us. Since we had the numbers and we wanted to have conversations en route, we decided to make it a road trip. I was to coordinate the transportation activity since I was the one with the knack for spontaneous travels. Nothing was to go wrong. Our reservations had been made at the beautiful Petesville Hotel in Calabar. I had booked our spots with the transportation company—Raymark Movers—too. We would be travelling with a Siena cab and we were supposed to land in Calabar with the style and grace of people who had had so much fun on the road.
But right now, at this moment, things weren’t going according to plan. I scanned the faces of my companions. They looked fatigued, like labourers who had been carrying bags of cement all day long. Sleep made its deposit on each of their tired bodies. I took my wearied face away from them and sat myself back down. The road had holes which couldn’t be described by the cliché of the shape of a pot in different patches of it, very large truck-sized holes in the middle of the asphalted single carriage way.
There was no point in throwing tantrums in the middle of the night in a town I wasn’t so familiar with and with a bus driver who couldn’t speak my language. I calmed myself down.
Arriving Owerri had changed everything. After a seemingly eventless drive from Abeokuta, which had us taking pictures and smiling and talking about everything from Church to politics to school to music, we witnessed a dramatic event of a bullion van manned by gun-toting policemen break down in the middle of the city of Owerri. They caused an unavoidable traffic jam, which was as long as infinity, till they cleared themselves off the way with our driver speeding off as though the policemen were out to get him. He had then driven us to a park where he said he would hand us over to another Siena cab driver like himself, who would take us to Calabar.
But on arrival at the Owerri Park, the story changed. The driver said he couldn’t find us a cab and that we should please join a rickety-looking bus to ferry us to Uyo where, he swore, we would find a comfortable cab. After about two hours of result-less banter, we realised time wasn’t taking sides and had to settle for what we got, after swearing never to do business with Raymark Movers ever again. At the time, we had eaten nothing. We were famished and still got bundled into the bus which took us to Uyo, from where we were assured of finding a cab to Calabar. The trip from Owerri to Uyo would swallow another four hours of precious time we didn’t have. The roads in between Owerri and Ikot Ekpene were sad, like metaphors for the kinds of governance in those parts of the country. Between Owerri and Uyo, we passed through Umuahia and several-like towns in Abia State. These towns reeked of nostalgia from a time spent in the villages and trenches of the most rural parts of Ogun State. I told myself I wouldn’t judge and this is how I don’t judge.
Of course there was always the possibility of an exaggeration. By 10pm, we got to Uyo city, one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited. Even at night, one couldn’t deny the serene beauty. The town slept like a new-born baby, with sparks of life in stranger parts, like at their parks. I doubted the possibility of us getting a cab to ferry us to Calabar at the time of the night. The driver who drove us from Owerri assured me we were going to find one. I had no reason to doubt or believe him. I was tired. I just wanted the trip to be over. He drove us to the car park and, true to my fears, there were no cabs plying the route any longer at the time.
I got off the bus to stretch my legs and they followed me. “Legs don nearly commot,” said one of them.
I was angry, I felt like hitting someone—the driver, maybe. I thought about the money we may need to spend in a hotel while waiting to continue the journey in the morning. I thought about the assurances I had given my travel companions as we were about beginning the trip, after I made payments to the hotels in Calabar on their behalf. The anger was rising to my throat. I knew I had to keep my head. There was no point in throwing tantrums in the middle of the night in a town I wasn’t so familiar with and with a bus driver who couldn’t speak my language. I calmed myself down. We eventually boarded a bus, where we were packed like sardines in a can and bundled off on the way to Calabar. The journey was over three hours, whereas the driver told me the average travel time, all things being equal, was two hours and, since we left Uyo so late, he couldn’t envision any delays on the road.
But hours later, we were stuck. We were not alone. The road was unusually busy. There were tens of heavy-duty trucks on the road. Some were stuck in the middle of the road, condemned with one mechanical fault or the other. Several others were abandoned and parked at the odd ends of the road. The driver kept talking about his need to refuel the car. We found a roadside shack where he got a ‘10 litre petrol’ for four thousand naira. I thought the prize was too much, but the driver said that prices sometimes varied with the time of the day.
The reason for the holdup was unclear. The only thing clear was that we were not moving. I have travelled through many bad roads in my time, but this road from Itu to Calabar has to be the absolute worst. There were some indigenes of Calabar in the bus with us. They didn’t look as tired or as surprised as the rest of us were. Perhaps because some of the men had medicated themselves with gin which oozed from their breaths as they spoke. The women just slept as though they had no care. The men were making jokes about the time to our destination. I felt like shutting them down. They were making expensive jokes. One said we would reach Calabar by 6am. I couldn’t imagine being stuck in traffic for more than an hour. Another one refuted the other and said we were about thirty minutes from Calabar and, once we were free of this hold -up, we would be on our way.
I got off the bus to stretch my legs and they followed me. “Legs don nearly commot,” said one of them. There was something hilarious about the way they spoke, their pronunciations of some English words—despite the fact that they were speaking pidgin—was dented heavily with efik, the local dialect. We walked for about two minutes, passing other passenger buses like ours and trucks that were stuck with us in the traffic. I could count about fifteen passenger buses.
As we moved further ahead, we found the reason we had been stuck on one spot for so long. Two long trucks had crossed each other and, at the same time, crossed the road, making it impassable for either of them and everyone else. The boys with me, as though they had a plan before they left the bus, went to meet both truck drivers and began negotiating how to ease the gridlock. In less than fifteen minutes we were on our way into Calabar city. It was around four in the morning. I struggled to keep my eyes open to watch the driver, to ensure he wouldn’t drive us into the many ditches on the road. By five in the morning, we had checked in at our hotel.
Tolu Daniel is a writer and photographer. His works have appeared on Muwado Hub, African Writer, Saraba Magazine, Afridiaspora, Waza Africa, and Elsewhere Lit Journal. He lives in Abeokuta and can be found on twitter via @iamToluDaniel