June 12, 2008

An Uneventful Bus Ride

        "Chris Chemist?" I asked the bus conductor who was hanging from the door of the bus passing in front of me. It was drizzling and I was standing at the bus stop getting wet. He banged on the side of the bus and it stopped a little distance away from where I stood.
        "You dey go Chris Chemist?" I asked again.
I climbed into the bus. All the seats seemed to be occupied. Why did he let me in if all the seats were occupied I asked myself knowing the answer. I walked to the back of the bus, holding the seats as I passed to steady myself because the bus was already moving. The bus seats clearly designed to seat two passengers comfortably, now bore the weight of three. The bus driver apparently felt that letting two people sit comfortably would be wasteful. Comfort is not important in a bus ride, Nigerians have long learned to expect that. On the only seat unoccupied by three passengers, a fat woman sat. This was clearly where the conductor intended me to perch throughout the bus ride to Chris Chemist – wherever that was.
        "Please could you adjust?" I asked as politely as I could because I was getting annoyed. She made the motions of adjusting, but nothing changed, the space on the seat remained exactly the same. I sat, feeling the metal support of the chair pressing hard against my buttocks. The rain falling outside became heavier and everyone shut their windows. I was surprised that all the bus windows were in good working order despite the battered look of the bus. A man got up, held onto the iron grid behind the driver to support himself and began to hawk drugs on the moving bus. NAFDAC says this is illegal activity and should be reported. I saw no attempts to call the Police. The bus driver and his conductor were chatting in front of the bus as though they could not hear him. I listened as he spoke. He was using a lot of big words, maybe he hoped that by sounding learned his drugs would seem more authentic. I unconsciously began correcting his grammatical blunders in my head, while the fat woman next to me produced buns with a full egg in it from the depths of her bag and began eating noiselessly. The air in the bus steadily became comfortably warm despite the rain lashing at the shut windows. It was the heat generated from all the bodies in the bus, not from some warming feature the bus had or something, and despite subtle odd smells, the generated heat felt nice.
         The woman in front of me was seated in between a man looking out the window and a boy of about six. Clearly he was her son; he was asking rather rudely for some biscuit it seemed his mother had in her bag.
         “Mummy!” he whined. “Gimme that biscuit” There was no ‘Please’ in his sentence and no plea in the tone of his voice. It was a demand. She ignored him, but he kept hitting her on the shoulder.
         "MUMMY!" He hit her harder and I wondered why she did not restrain him and give him one or two knocks or slaps whichever would be effective in disciplining the young tyrant.
         "Junior." She said in a low voice. ‘That biscuit is for you and your brothers. Wait till we get home."
         "NO!" He said loudly. Everyone was watching to see how she would handle him. "Gimme, gimme." He tried to put his hand into her hand bag, but she pulled them out. He began to “cry”; she sighed, dipped her hand into her bag, pulled out the biscuit and gave him two pieces, wrapped the remainder and put it back into her bag. He stopped “crying” or should I say making the sounds immediately, and began chewing happily on the biscuit. I was surprised that she caved in easily. Junior reminded me forcibly of a young girl no older than three that was running around a public office where I went to transact business. Her parents seemed incapable of keeping her seated for more than a minute, and woefully incapable of disciplining her. I shook my head, and suddenly became uncomfortably aware that some thing or things had just dropped on my arm. I looked down at my arm and then at the woman by my side. There was no bun remaining in her hand. Clearly the bits of egg on my arm had fallen from her mouth.
         "Sorry." She said, sounding truly apologetic.
         "It’s okay." I lied and before I could find my hanky, she tried to wipe them off as though the bits of egg were liquid. The result was that her open palm crushed the bits of egg onto my arm, making the whites stick to my skin.
         "Don’t worry." I pulled out my hanky from my pocket and removed it. At that moment, the bus entered into a pothole and I was lifted momentarily from my seat and brought back to the seat with force. "Ye!" I exclaimed in a low tone. The metal had jammed my seat bone. Because my seat was directly above the tire, I felt every bump and every shudder. Hoping Chris Chemist wasn’t too far away, I returned my attention to the “drug peddler” just in time to see him hold up a small container for us all to see. He claimed the cream could cure scabies, rabies and itching in the private parts. No one had bought anything before now and I took comfort in the fact that NAFDAC’s commercials were finally enlightening the public to the dangers of buying fake drugs, especially from peddlers like the skinny man in front of me. He repeated himself again for everyone’s benefit that the yellow cream inside the small container could cure itching in the private parts. He demonstrated itching, making it immediately clear that he wasn't referring to that occassional, pleasurable itch in the crotch but something more sinister. . . I felt the woman by my side squirm in apparent discomfort. Who would buy medication for that private problem in a place as public as a bus full of people? And from a hawker you couldn’t even trace if for instance the cream damages your skin. . . To my surprise I heard someone from behind me say:
        “Gimme one." I had started turning my head to see this person when I decided against it. It would embarrass him. Money changed hands and a second voice from behind called out:
        “Bring am come.” Money changed hands again. Two sales. I still did not turn but tried to imagine their bold faces. My imagination was cut short when my nostrils took in the repugnant smell of fart. I don’t think I've smelt anything worse ooze out the behind of a human being, the smell was terrible. I suddenly had the mad urge to throw open the window despite the heavy rain. Soon other passengers began to move in discomfort. “Jesus Christ” I thought desperately, holding my breath. I had another mad urge to brave the rain and alight from the bus no matter how far away Chris Chemist was.  
        "Hmmmmmmm!" Junior shrieked loudly drawing all eyes to him, echoing what all everyone else wanted to yell but decorum prevented. “Mummy! Mummy!” He shook her with one hand while the other pinched his nose shut. “Mummy, someone has polluted!” He fanned the front of his nose rapidly after he had successfully forced his mother to acknowledge him. She tried unsuccessfully to shut him up with her eyes (he refused to understand the message) and then she put her index fingers to her lips to tell him to shut it. “Mummy, it’s smelling…hmmmm!” he shrieked. I wanted to laugh, but opening my mouth would mean taking in all of this foul air which I had already begun to suspect was coming from my seat mate especially since she was the only one at this point not showing any signs of discomfort. This time, Junior’s mother cupped her hands around his mouth but he fought her off easily. He stopped shouting but continued to fan the air around his nose rapidly and look at the other occupants, clearly at loss to why the rest of us could not smell something so rotten, it was turning my stomach.
         But we could smell it. It was filling our lungs rapidly and we all made appropriate but covert motions to block our nostrils from inhaling any more of the noxious gas. There was a young man who couldn’t hold his breath any longer, so he opened the window, letting rain and cold wind fall on his face. Everyone seemed to lean towards the window like plants in a dark box gravitating towards the only source of light. But it was short-lived. The man seated behind him was dressed in a suit and asked him loudly, perhaps rudely, to shut it. Everyone including I, stared at him like he was the Devil incarnate, but he pointed to his threadbare suit and glared back at everyone defiantly. Someone behind me whispered to the passengers seated at his side about the “akwa-oche” suit the man was wearing and then they sniggered. But our smelly problem had not been solved. Although it had abated a little, it hung heavily in the air like rotting…rotting…egg…Who ate egg? The woman beside me had and she sat there calm and composed, looking straight ahead. I put two(she was the only one on the bus I knew had eaten egg) and two (she was the only one who showed no signs of discomfort) together and decided she was the one who had farted, remembering her peculiar body movement earlier on.
        "Chris Chemist?" The conductor asked. Before I could find breath to yell “Yes!” a couple of other people said it. He banged the side of the bus loudly and the bus stopped. I hurried to get off it. Luckily I had the exact fare on me, so I did not have to linger while he sorted through the crumpled bills in his hand for change. I gave him the money and rushed past. Immediately I alighted, I took in a great gulp of air without thinking and I gagged. I looked around to find the culprit fouling the air this time. It sat there staring me boldly in the face; A refuse heap close to where I stood. I shook my head and crossed the road heading for the park where I would catch the next bus to Nsukka.

June 03, 2008

Esther's Diary: The Scribbles Of A "Stranger"

Dear Reader, this is the last part of the series Esther's Diary. To follow the series, read the first part "Exiled", the second part "Settling Down" , the third part "Untitled", and the fourth part of the series "My Baby".

Diary Esther, Aham bu Uzoh (My name is Uzoh). I know Esther has told you a lot about me because I have read her entries many times over. It’s amusing to read Esther writing in Igbo, but yes, her spoken Igbo got much better after she came here. You have told me a lot about my sister that I did not know. I know now in her own words what she has been through since the man who fathered me exiled her down to our village here in Imo State. To read in her own words how much I comforted her, how much she was grateful, and how much she loved me, made me cry like a child.

You’re probably wondering why I have read something as private as my sister’s “Diary”(You’re actually just an exercise book she found lying around). You’re also wondering why I had the guts to scribble in it too. I was the one who captioned each of her entries as I deemed fit after reading it. I captioned the third one “Untitled” because I could not find a suitable word to label that entry. Under normal circumstances, all these things I have done to you would be wrong. But the circumstances are not normal. They have never been normal since she started writing in you. Diary Esther, Esther died after childbirth. Esther is dead. I was by her hospital bed when she went into labour. She pushed and pushed until the baby came out. It was a dark complexioned baby girl, not a boy as I have read she hoped. She looked at it from under heavy eyelids while the nurses took it away to bathe. She fell asleep while I was rubbing her hand gently and dabbing her sweaty forehead. When the nurses returned with the baby, I left her side. You should have seen the baby; so tiny and light I was worried I would drop her. She stared at me with great intensity and gripped my index finger tightly. I covered her with kisses. She did not cry, neither did she smile. The nurses woke Esther up to breastfeed the baby. I watched her suckle the baby while thinking aloud what to christen it. Now I realise she probably had only names for boy child in her head. Finally, she decided to name her after Grandma and Onyinye; she christened the baby Ezinne Onyinye Ezeilo. After breast feeding Ezinne, she handed her to me and slept. She never woke.

I have never cried so much in my life. I ditched school for a month to take care of Ezinne. I’m happy I made that decision because a month after she was born, Ezinne died of sickle cell anemia. I mourned Ezinne for a long time. It was like losing my sister again. You’re cold print, you can’t understand what it’s like to be bereaved and I don’t think I can put it into words. Turns out that bastard, Emeka is an AS, Udoka is also an AS. Ezinne did not get a chance to be all her mother wanted her to be. I’m going to have to repeat SS2 but that’s nothing. Nothing at all compared to what I have gained in these two months.

After these deaths, I was seething. I was furious with everyone who abandoned her, everyone who made her feel less than she was. Remember Uche, Mazi Ikenna’s son that called Esther a prostitute? He came for the burial to eat rice. I ran into him a few days later in the dark. I did not “smack him silly”, I gave him a sound beating and left him on the ground crying loudly. I don’t see how I can possibly payback Charity and Adanma, but I will always bear what they said in mind.

There is so much Esther did not tell you. She gives no detail of her family background and she doesn’t mention our youngest sister, Amara at all. I can’t explain why. In her four diary entries, she refused to mention her surname… Was she afraid of ruining Dad’s reputation by telling you? Her surname is MMADU! She is Esther Udoka Mmadu! Our father earns a living, travelling from one school to another in the East, educating students on the ills of premarital sex and sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV/AIDS. He’s renowned and he has won an award from an NGO (I don’t remember the name). Yes, I can understand how he may feel terribly embarrassed by Esther’s pregnancy, but is that enough reason to just abandon her here? He never called her, he never carried her child. He refused point blank to let me invite Esther’s friends or even mine for the burial. The burial was a family affair. Is his fear of losing his reputation and every thing he has worked for, so strong that he could not come down here even for one day in those nine trying months of Esther’s life? I’m ashamed to call him my father. God forbid that I’d be like that. Diary Esther, I’ll keep you safe. Reading you is like listening to Esther, the sister I’ll never forget.