Lagos, my friend says, is sick in both senses of the word; a city dealing with Dissociative Identity Disorder, with an emphasis on Dissociative. Its two main personalities—chaos and bliss, depend on what part of the city you find yourself. I laugh and ask him if he is talking about Douala. It is my second visit here; flying from Douala to Lagos to a deja-vu chaos standing solid on the street: bike riders slithering through impossible pinhole crevices, keke na pepsovertaking any and every vehicle they can,and just across the road, bus drivers have parked their buses to fight. I once read on the internet that saying, “I live in Lagos and I missed an accident today” is tautology. Lagos is a potpourri of some Cameroonian cities—of chaotic Douala and serene Limbe, and something of Yaoundé, blended and dubbed; with Yoruba and Igbo replacing French, and different accents of English and Pidgin English. Like Douala, navigating the city by public transport is a chore at best. And while there are different degrees of this chore, my friend says his best bet, the car-less human that he is, is a taxi.
Taxis in Lagos are fancy. In Cameroon, they are all yellow, announcing their taxi-ness, except for the clandestine ones that transport people from one town to another. The first taxi I board in Lagos takes me from the Murtala Muhammed International airport, to a hotel in Oregun where I lodged. The driver’s hair is kempt and he is fingering a fob which he wouldn’t use. He compliments my luggage—the matching Ankara prints of my travel bag and backpack, before helping me lift them into the boot. He welcomes me to Nigeria with a smile that seems rehearsed before starting the trip.
Taxis in Lagos are fancy. In Cameroon, they are all yellow, announcing their taxi-ness, except for the clandestine ones that transport people from one town to another.
My friend says he likes the white 2005 Toyota Corolla LE waiting for us outside. I tell him black is my colour when it comes to cars. The driver has been waiting for twelve minutes or so but he greets us politely and asks if he can start the trip. We thank him for waiting and ask him to take us to the bank. I am reminded of the Douala taxi driver; a vibrant late thirties-looking man who held us hostage in his car, asking us to pay an extra thousand for keeping him waiting ten minutes. We were hiring him to transport some equipment. Lagos is suffering a heatwave; the heat sticks to the skin like a bad nickname. I fan myself with a sheet of paper, waiting to turn into some kind of pastry from baking in the oven that was the car. The driver apologizes for the heat, tells me his AC had just stopped working, and I wonder if it is true. He apologizes so much that I stop counting after the third time. We are talking and he tells me he runs a Master’s Degree program in Systems Engineering at the University of Lagos. I am impressed, ask him how he manages school and driving a taxi. He tells me, declaratively, that this is Lagos; nobody owes you anything in Lagos, “you have to work for your bread,” he says, and then insinuates that rich kids may not know this struggle. I tell him I am in Nigeria for a writer’s residency program and he gushes, asks if I am not Nigerian. No, I tell him, I’m from Cameroon. He says Oui oui, confesses that is the only French he knows, laughs loudly and then says I could have fooled him—my complexion, my hair, I look Igbo. I laugh too, I have never thought of myself as someone who could be Igbo. He tells me his name is Femi, and as my friend approaches us, done with his transactions, as we prepare to leave the bank premises, the still smiling driver asks for my name and phone number. I give him, wondering if he will ever call.
It’s been two months or so from the time I arrived Lagos— the undeniable hub of events. I am getting dressed now, preparing to go for one about sex and sexual health. It is happening at a highbrow restaurant on the island called The Backyard. The driver who takes me from Oshodi to The Backyard looks, in his T-shirt and jeans, like he is in his early twenties. He greets me when I get in and stays silent for the rest of the trip. A phone hangs from a holder attached to the windscreen, the map spread for both of us to see. I think of how functional this is, unlike with the drivers who kept glancing at the phone from their lap. It is dark and he is speeding on the highway, crossing red lights, overtaking anyone on his way. I think to make a joke about his telepathic knowledge of my hurriedness, but the grimace of concentration on his face leaves me silent. I watch him take turns as I try to follow up on the map like it was a video game. It is on this drive that I experience Lagos’ bliss—speeding on an almost empty bridge, watching the city lights and water, listening to quiet afro-pop, the soundtrack to a trancy moviesque scene. It reminds me of Limbe, calm and breezy, and of the fact that if you asked a Limbe denizen what traffic is, they’d stutter at the question. In front of The Backyard, the driver shows me the tracker and we thank each other politely when I pay. It is the cheapest I have ever paid from the mainland to the island.
About a week later, my friend and I are on our way to the mall. Mr. Kunle, the elderly taxi driver, hates the Nigerian police. “The police is your friend my nyansh,” he says and we laugh. He tells us hilarious stories of his police hate all the way to Ozone. He tells us about the different kinds of cars one would find on Lagos roads, tells us too about the girl who once got into his car with a big plastic bag containing weed; how the police had wanted to confiscate his car as if he was supposed to search passengers before carrying them; how they took all the money he had worked that day. We drive pass by some police officers and he grumbles an insult at them. We laugh. We are chatting and laughing so much he gets lost from not following the map on his lap. We see a handwritten banner that says Repent and give your life to Christ for the judgment day is coming. He agrees with the banner and preaches to us about the ills of fraud and fornication until he finds his way. I imagine he imagines us his children. At the mall, we tell him we are going to see a movie, and he parks his taxi and comes with us. He makes a joke about enjoying some of the money he works so hard to make. He lectures us on Captain Marvelas we walk in, and I am stunned that a man his age would know so much about American superhero movies like Captain Marvel. We go in to see the movie Usand he wants to find some amala to eat first. As we get our popcorn, I think of all the parents who toil so much making a living that they forget to live.
We once forget our keys in Solomon’s black Camry and he drives all the way back to find us. The young Uni-Lag graduate, who quit his corporate job and has been driving a taxi for 3 years, tells us of the woman he had carried to Lekki, twice; a coincidence. And both times, she had insisted he come into her apartment. We would call him later, this driver with whom we discuss the pros and cons of social media, to give him a little thank-you token for returning our keys.
In Lagos, drivers of Ubers and Taxify are usually educated and rated by the passengers after every ride. It is a two-way street, as the drivers rate the passengers as well. There are consequences for bad reviews, and so everyone tries to be on their best behaviour. But it is not the case with Cameroon.
In Douala, a driver taking us to Akwa almost bumps into another car while trying to squeeze in an opening too small for his taxi. When we reprimand him, scared for our lives, he asks us to come sit behind the wheel if we think we are better drivers.
But true politeness is one that is not induced by the fear of receiving a poor rating. Like with Mr. T, who wears a tie, keeps his taxi sparkling, and welcomes all passengers with a smile, as if they just walked into his office. In Limbe, I sit in his taxi, so pleased that I refuse to take my balance, let it go as tip. There is also this driver I meet in Douala, whose name I do not ask. He tells me bits of his story. How he had been living and working in Bamenda before the Anglophone crisis started and he and his family had to run to Douala for refuge. He has lost his farms and now drives to support his family and find new schools for his children.
My friend says roads in Yaounde, in spite of the largeness of the city, are all interconnected. So one can take a taxi to anywhere standing on any side of the road. The problem is knowing where to stand to pay less. I have once paid triple the fare standing on the wrong side of the road, as the driver had to go round and round before arriving at my destination. Hiring taxis in Yaounde is different from hiring taxis in Lagos. In Lagos, you use an app; in Yaounde, you simply step out and find any empty taxi and tell them you are hiring. Sometimes, you just kick out the passengers already in the taxi before you hire it.
My friend says roads in Yaounde, in spite of the largeness of the city, are all interconnected. So one can take a taxi to anywhere standing on any side of the road. The problem is knowing where to stand to pay less.
I’m in a hired taxi headed to Palais des Congrèsfor a movie award show in Yaounde. I am in a tailored blue suit; white espadrille and my pocket square is made from an Ankara print. I am feeling myself. The driver, a chatty elderly man looks at me as if sizing me up, before telling me the money I am proposing is not enough. I beg him, saying we are all hustlers in this country—he should forget the suit. He laughs, shakes his head and tells me he’ll carry me because I look like his son. In the car, he complains about that same son he says I look like. Midway, he pauses, looks at me again and asks what is happening at the Palais des Congrès that he had seen too many people going there this evening; was it a wedding? I think of explaining that it is a movie award show, one of the biggest in the country, but I worry that he will ask what that means, that he will ask if I am an actor, talk about the irresponsibility of young people in the entertainment industry. I worry that he will complain to the next passenger he carries about me, his son’s look-alike, who was just as irresponsible as his son. I nod, and tell him, “Yes, it is a wedding. Me, and all the people you had seen before are going for a wedding.”
When we get there, there are actors and actresses, TV presenters and guests, standing outside, in different shades of glam, different styles of dapper suits, designer agbadas, gowns that open at the back, right down to the waist, and then flow for meters like wedding dresses. He is looking at the scene, photographers with cameras, clicking on end, hosts with microphones interviewing guests as they walk in and I can see him trying to make sense of it all. I pay in a hurry and alight; from the window of the front passenger seat, before I leave and join the party, I explain to him that it is indeed a very fancy wedding.
“Taxi Drivers who Drive Us Nowhere” is from Bakwa 09: Taxi Drivers who Drive Us Nowhere and other Travel Stories