Nigerian nightmare

Jeffrey Tayler describes a death-defying bus adventure across Nigeria.


Jeffrey Tayler
December 31, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

I was expecting bus travel in Nigeria to be somewhat less comfortable than motoring on Capri or yachting around the Greek Isles, but I had resolved to plan my 700-mile trip from Lagos, on the Gulf of Guinea, to the Sahelian city of Kano so that it would be less so. Careful planning would reduce discomfort. My guidebook said this and I knew it to be true. So I decided to buy my ticket in advance, for the best seat on the best bus leaving at the best possible time: early in the morning.

It had been a long day in Lagos. With my driver, Rotimi, I had taken in the chief sights of the metropolis, including the cockroach exhibit at the National Museum and the military dictatorship's Operation Sweep raids against the leprous beggars and bedraggled hawkers that flooded the traffic jams of the chaotic center. Toward evening we ended up near Iddo Motor Park, from where buses departed for Nigeria's north. We turned off the thoroughfare and rattled into the park's cratered lot, scattering vendors and lurching to a halt by a crowd of men with visors and ticket books.

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"Kano? You go Kano?" asked one, shoving his head through my window.

"Kano by what?" Rotimi shouted back.

"Kano by bus. This bus here."

A sturdy, cream-colored vehicle stood gleaming spotless behind him, emblazoned with the words FEDERAL URBAN MASS TRANSIT SCHEME and decorated with long green stripes on its flanks -- the very picture, all in all, of safety and reliability. The driver, dressed like a postal worker in a crisp blue-and-white uniform, stood by its side polishing the rearview mirror. He smiled and tipped his cap to me.

"Kano by this bus -- eight hours," said the ticket man. "Going time at 7 in the morning."

"I'll take a ticket now," I said.

"Tickets in the morning. Be here by 6:30." The tickets he was selling then were for the night bus, which he said was dangerous owing to the activities of highway robbers after dark. I agreed to come back at dawn.

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Rain fell heavy that night, breaking the heat, knocking out the electricity and turning the gutters into rapids flowing with banana peels, castaway rubber sandals and corn cobs. At 6 in the morning Rotimi picked me up at my hotel. We drove out into cool streets mottled here and there with puddles reflecting the auroral light with such fidelity that one might have thought they were windows opening down onto a subterranean dawn sky. I was sleepy but looking forward to rolling across Nigeria's jungle-and-Sahel countryside in the comfort of the FEDERAL URBAN MASS TRANSIT SCHEME's finest carrier, and I told Rotimi so. He waved his finger with a cautionary flourish.

"It is not good to speak of the road before a journey. Let us just say you will be in the hands of God."

We pulled into Iddo Park. Immediately touts surrounded us, hawking Kano and other cities. We said goodbye and I hopped out. I pushed my way through the crowd -- to an empty lot.

"Where's the Federal Scheme bus?" I asked.

"Bus left early. Bus filled up and left early," answered the hawkers in a strophic, choruslike chant.

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I pushed my way back to Rotimi's car. Rotimi was unfazed. "Ah, Nigeria," he said. "But don't worry -- we find you a new bus. Hop in."

We rattled around the craters, splashing hawkers and displacing carts, until we came upon a ticket seller for what turned out to be the only other vehicle heading to Kano that day. He and Rotimi exchanged a few lyrical words in Yoruba, the native language of Lagosians. The seller opened my door.

"He don't delay," said Rotimi. "He go to Kano now. Half-price of the bus and just as fast."

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We parted and I got out. The seller took my arm and pulled me through the crowd.

"Here de bus."

Ahead of me, listing to the left, stood a ramshackle blue Toyota minibus whiskered with two green-white Nigerian flags. A pair of pasted-on eyebrows raised in alarm -- stickers proclaiming, cryptically, "GOD DEY!" -- graced the upper corners of the windshield. The bumper mouth was covered with a splattering of crushed bugs and sparrow carcasses. The skin-thin tires seemed to be of various sizes, and all were as smooth as a baby's behind. A wavy white line resembling the EKG of someone in acute cardiac distress ran down the sides. Across the brow, I noticed, was the lettering UNCLE AYOS EXPRESS. Seven hundred miles to Kano, I thought with a shudder. Involuntarily I stepped back and found myself shaking my head in denial. Where was Rotimi?

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The door flew open and a pencil-thin man sprang out, proclaiming in a helium-high rasp, "Kano! Kano! We go to Kano now! Eight hour to Kano!"

"Our driver, Ayos," said the seller. "He excite for the trip."

Ayos grabbed my hand and pushed me into the front seat. "Eight hours to Kano," he repeated, jumping around like a puppet animated by invisible strings. Julius Caesar and the Koran lay on the dashboard in front of me. I looked behind me: Crammed into the middle rows were a scowling young Yoruba man with a megalithic head and a pair of tired-looking Hausa women with high headdresses and a brood of half-naked tots. Behind them were others lost in a profusion of tie-dye shirts and wraps. Ayos collected my fare and disappeared into the crowd. A legion of one-armed teens soon collected around the bus to plead for alms. Ayos returned, and from the driver's side, pushed a final front-row passenger into the seat next to mine. This man, who introduced himself as Ezekiel, was glum and sleepy-eyed, and found that no matter how he sat, the gearshift knob poked up between his legs.

A troop of youngsters gathered around the Toyota's rear. Ayos shouted to them in Yoruba, stomped on the gas pedal, then yanked at the gearshift between Ezekiel's legs. The youngsters pushed us off, the engine caught and sputtered, and we lurched ahead, scattering the beggars. The children pounded on our sides for good luck, and Ayos acknowledged this with a beep -- more like a strangulated bleat -- of his horn. Off we charged toward the main road and shot out into the shantytowns. Everywhere we drove there were puddles and peddlers and piddling toddlers.

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Within half an hour, we had left the city behind and were sailing
along on a smooth, double-lane highway cutting between groves of low
rain forest. The engine emitted a high whine that gave our ride an Indy 500
feel. According to the dashboard, however, we were stationary: The
speedometer arrow drooped flaccid; the gas tank read empty; the engine's
revolutions per minute were zero. None of the indicators was functioning.


Ayos, it soon became apparent, felt no need to pass cars as long as
he was on wide, straight stretches of road. But when he sighted a blind
bend or, better yet, an oncoming cattle truck bristling with horns and
thousand-pound steers, he was suddenly seized with the desire to overtake
the vehicle ahead, which he did while leaning on his horn and despite howls
of protest from the passengers behind me. The wreckage of four head-on
collisions -- which included corpses -- that we roared by in the first hour of
our trip did nothing to temper his lust for speed. At times, in fact, so
irresistibly did he feel the need to overtake that he passed the car in
front of us as it was passing the car in front of it, thereby turning the
highway into a three-vehicle-deep wall of death for anything approaching
from the other direction.


Only the police compelled him to slow down. Every dozen kilometers
a checkpoint arose, usually marked by a branch tossed across the road and
manned by a pair of flack-jacketed officers. Ayos would decelerate, extend
his hand as if for a friendly shake, pass the lead sergeant a balled-up
20-naira note (about 25 cents and popularly called "beer
money" in Nigeria), then speed up. We might have been a busload of
notorious bandits armed to the teeth, but the police never looked carefully
enough to see; their only concern was collecting funds for their evening
tipple.


Near the city of Ibadan, we came upon a succession of toll booths.
As we slowed for them, hawkers would rush forth from their spots at the
roadside to run alongside us, shove their wares through our windows and
shout "Bre! Bre!" or "Bisqui! Bisqui!" or "Wata! Pure wata!" Ezekiel
would lean over me and, glaring superciliously, stab with his finger at a
plastic-wrapped bunch of apples or a loaf of bread and bark "How much?"
then grab the item and squeeze it. If the price was right and the goods
fresh, he balled up a bill and tossed it to the vendor, who usually missed
it and had to drop back to snatch it from the ground, evading cars and the
stampede of his besandaled colleagues as he did so. After a while Ezekiel
had amassed a veritable market's worth of road-bought eatables and sundry
other items, including Air Mail envelopes, a Bic pen and a counterfeit
Sanyo calculator.


After several such melees, near Ilorin, a gang of youths wielding
squeegees and orange buckets and wearing fluorescent yellow MR CAR WASH
windbreakers stepped into the road. Furrowing their brows, they blocked our
path, weighing their implements in hand as if itching for a rumble.
Trouble was in the air. Ayos sucked in his gut and maintained speed. The
youths dived out of the way at the last minute, but one left behind a
nail-studded board. Ayos swerved wildly and missed it, then exploded into
Yoruban vitriol. Hanging out the window, driving forward but shouting
backward, zigzagging in and out of the opposite lane, he berated the
squeegee thugs until they were beyond the reach of his voice and we had
scared several oncoming cars off the tarmac.


"Pikin chop here," Ayos later announced as we pulled up to a
restaurant. The pikin, or toddlers, tumbled out of the back seat like rag
dolls, one after another, squatted on the shoulder of the road and loosed
a series of tiny yellow rills into the red dust. I walked into the
restaurant. Three beautiful and kindly waitresses smiled at me and told me
that their only dish was rice. In the meantime, the mothers had unfolded a
feast of fruits and bread and cassava on their laps and were feeding their
pikin.


Noon passed somewhere near the Niger River. Soon after, on the
outskirts of a village, we saw a hand-painted sign that read MECHANIKING.
Ayos, following its arrow, turned off the road, pounded down a muddy lane,
and pulled over a pit next to a shack.


"Bearings," he said to me gravely.


A half-dozen urchinlike mechanic boys came running out, the leader
of whom was brandishing a can of axle grease. He and Ayos began an
animated colloquy in pidgin. The other urchins dived into the pit and,
with Ayos shouting instructions, started disemboweling the vehicle, tossing
its innards onto the concrete, slathering axle grease here and there,
hammering and torquing and oiling everything they could lay their hands on.
Within 30 minutes whatever had been broken had been properly
mechaniked, and we were off again.


The road after that deteriorated from smooth asphalt into stretches
of craters alternating with mud wallows. Rather than observe the basic
bi-directional order of a two-lane highway, Ayos -- and every other
driver -- appeared to have decided that it would be best to veer madly from
right lane to left and back again to follow the most pothole-free venue,
regardless of oncoming trucks, buses and jalopies. The acceleration and
deceleration involved made necessary constant gear shifts; Ayos would yank
the stick between Ezekiel's legs, time and time again elbowing him in the
stomach as he up- or downshifted.


"Listen, we must stop for chop," Ezekiel said around 6. Ayos
ignored him. We had been on the road 11 hours. Even counting the
repair stop, this was too long. I leaned over to Ayos.


"What happened to 'eight hours to Kano'? We should have been there
by now."


He looked resolutely ahead. "To Kano eight hour."


Night fell in a rush. Ayos turned on the headlights, which cast
forth a feeble yellow glow, flickered, then died. We stopped. A ruckus of
advice on what to do erupted from the back seats. Ayos jiggled some wires
under the dashboard; the lights flicked on. But after a few more miles
they failed again and we were plunged into darkness. We lumbered through a
few potholes and halted -- in mid-road.


"Don't you think you'd better pull onto the shoulder?" I said to
Ayos. He blinked at me, opened his door wide, then climbed half out to get
under the dashboard. Seized by a presentiment of danger, I disembarked.
The mothers grabbed their tots and did the same. Soon we were all standing
on the shoulder. The tots, as usual, squatted and peed. I listened to the
chorus of insects and owls and croaking frogs.


A truck horn blared from up ahead. Then a horn blared from behind.
The mothers hoisted their children off the shoulder in mid-stream and
jumped back. We shouted to Ayos: One truck was bearing down on us from the
north, a second from the south. Ayos, however, had crawled all the way
inside and left the door swinging open in the middle of the road. The headlights
flickered on just as the two trucks converged at our minibus.


"Hey!" one of the drivers shouted, swerving violently to avoid the
rear of our bus. An explosion of glass and tearing metal followed: The
truck tore Ayos' door half off its hinges, dislocating it and leaving it
wrapped around the nose of the vehicle. Both trucks hurtled on ahead and
Dopplered away into the night. The lights then failed for good.


Ayos, unhurt, raised his head above the dashboard. He clutched at
his sparse hair, and surveying the wrecked door, began a low moan,
interrupted with babbled supplications in Yoruba. I joined the other
passengers in bending the door back toward something like a closed
position. We bound it with rope and climbed inside.


"Just manage like that," said the big-headed man to Ayos. "Just
manage."


Ayos boarded from my side and started up. The passengers showered
him with Yoruban abuse, tossing in the choice English phrase for my
benefit, I assumed. "You mad man ... You not a sensible man ... Stopping in de
road like a fool's fool ..." And so, in utter darkness, down the potholed
tarmac we rolled, creaking and scolding.


When we reached Kaduna, at 11, in the 16th hour of our
eight-hour trip, an odor of sheepshead, cow's hoof and goat guts wafted in
from the roadside food stalls. We pulled up to them. A small crowd, many
members of which were absent-mindedly chewing on a hoof or sucking on a
hank of intestine, gathered around to gawk at our demolished bus. I got
out and, wobbly with fatigue, thought about spending the night there. The
other passengers were tired, too; they took seats at a food stall and
nearly nodded off into their entrails.


Ayos finally gave up trying to fix the door and lights. He talked
to a nearby station wagon driver, handed him a fistful of naira, then,
without explanation, hurled my bags into the wagon's trunk. When I asked
him what was going on, he said, "Sorry," and motioned me to get in, which I
did. On the way out of Kaduna, I dozed off to dreams peopled by the
now snarling and helmeted policemen of the checkpoints we were slowing for
and, during my hazy waking moments, tried to forefeel the soft hotel bed
awaiting me in Kano.


At 1 in the morning we finally reached the outskirts of Kano.
The station wagon turned off the road at a MOTOR PARK sign, sloshed across
some puddles, rambled past a steel gate and stopped in a mud flat
surrounded by the ghosts of old buses and ramshackle trucks. I stumbled
out, grabbed my bag and turned to ask the driver where I might catch a
taxi for the two-mile ride into the center. He muttered something about it
being too late for that and, to my fatigue-numbed consternation, drove
away. A soft, warm wind whispered around the lot.


There was a tug at my arm. An old man wrapped in a blue Tuareg
turban and robe was standing at my side. He leaned into my face.


"Taxi? Taxi no," he hissed. "I tink dese hour no moto. Too
danger now to commout. But we see."


He took my hand and led me along a winding route between puddles
silvered by the half-moon and rippling with the breeze. Five taxis stood
just outside the gate. He rapped on their windows, but the drivers inside
would not answer.


"No moto now. Dey no fit to commout. You sleep here."


"Where?" I asked, exhausted and exasperated, thinking only of the
hotel bed and a hot shower. He grabbed my hand and turned left down a
pitch-black alley. I resisted, suddenly fearful, unable to see the sky
because of the overhanging roofs, bumping into black slimy walls, feeling
his hand tighten around mine.


"Come! Don't 'fraid!"


There was a shimmer of indigo silk in a doorway. We emerged into
an empty lot surrounded by storefronts that were lit in places by flames
wavering above kerosene tanks. The silk shimmer fell in beside me.


"As salamu aleykum!" it said. I saw the whites of eyes under a
turban. "My name is Abdurrazaaq. I am a student. I come here too late,
like you. You see, we have danger now. No lights in the city. The police
can rob you, the taxi can not be true taxi. Even I will stay here now.


What can we do?"


We all three stopped under the awning of a storefront. The old
man pulled out benches and urged us to recline on them. The wind, warm
from the Sahel but pregnant with rain, fluttered the flames of the
lanterns. We lay back on our benches. I bundled up some laundry beneath
my head and dozed off.


At 5:30 in the morning the old man and Abdurrazaaq roused
me; they had found a taxi. The driver, still sleepy, welcomed me into his
creaky Peugeot. I gave him the address of my hotel. Abdurrazaaq leaned
into my window.


"I will check up on you later today. Welcome to Kano. Ma'a Salama!"


I did feel welcome, after that, and even somewhat rested, thanks to
the old man's bench and the warm winds. We set off down the pitted road
for town, with the sun blushing a soft pink into the sky behind us.


Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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