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I traveled to Lagos one weekend, and my head did an immediate switch; happy to have malls, ice-cream, and pizza within thought distances. Then I returned to Abeokuta and the first thing I noticed was a strike by members of the Union of Road Transport Workers. The cause of the strike: an over hundred percent increase in taxation had been placed by the State Government. That, in a city where passengers perennially haggle for the lowest fares conceivable, and some plead to pay twenty naira for some distances! It was simply impossible. A deliberate act of cruelty which could neither be allowed nor accepted. For a minute I stood at the garage and just stared at people walking down the long road; a vision of colours, luggaged backs, and stretching legs.

At the bus-stop, there were some parked cabs. There were also men beside them occasionally in conversation with people as they walked. The people often walked past them shortly after. On rare occasions, the people got into the cab. I guessed that some few routes were bereft of protesting Union staff; hence safe for cab drivers to ply. Hoping my route was among the ‘safe’ ones, I took contemplative steps towards them.

“One-fifty ni”

“Shey nitori strike? Sebi awon egbe yin naa l’on fa wahala? Ibo ni k’a ti ri? Ko ni da fuun yin. Ebi l’o ma pa yin ku. Shey thirty naira ori e yen lo ma je ke la? Oloriburuku oko asewo…*”

I felt my jaw fall, but couldn’t lock it back. A woman had gotten to the cabman I’d heard calling destinations along my route just before me. And she was cussing him out because of a thirty naira increase in the fare.

Is she bloody joking?

My mind couldn’t grasp it. I had mentally prepared to pay a hundred percent increase in the fare, and she was going crazy over a less than fifty percent increase. When the financial risk he ran for operating at a time his union members were protesting was –at the least– over ten times the fare he was requesting. I was shocked!

You see enh, in Lagos: when anything happens to cause a driver any inconvenience -whether or not there’s a risk attached to it- passengers compensate with higher fares. Rain falls; you pay for the inconvenience of his being on the road, instead of cuddling in bed with his wife. At rush hour, you pay for the ribald tales, pepper soup, and bobbing, laughing stomach which should have been his at any of the many bars sprawled all over the city; if he hadn’t been driving you. On any random day, you pay extra if you’re too impatient to wait for another vehicle, and he needs money to make up his children’s school fees… or give his woman for that fashion accessory all her friends want/have…. The list is maybe endless.

While the woman’s tirade and my thoughts debated, I slipped into the cab. The people already in the cab were divided; some empathized with the driver, others lamented the increase. I looked at them closely; then smiled. The ‘lamenters’ had tribal marks that proclaimed them from Abeokuta; while the others bore travelling bags, and soon began to speak of other cities.

Aah, I thought, case dismissed.

*Translation:

“Is it because of the strike? Isn’t it your colleagues who are causing the trouble? From where do you expect me to find the fare you request? It would not be good for you. It is hunger that would kill you. Is it the thirty naira increase that would make you successful? A no-good person, husband of a prostitute…”

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Humans of Abeokuta: Episode 3

Abeokuta is an ancient town. It’s people live by ancient ways. This means they adhere to ways of life indoctrinated by their forebears; including food and drink. I used to think its status as a State capital, and location between Lagos and Oyo States would have influenced it someway. You know, introduced the love of junk food and luxury beverages. I was wrong. And the discovery of only 2 standard shawarma spots should told me so. But it didn’t.

Time was 8:45 a.m yesterday, and I was at a residential training. I had strolled to the breakfast table was heavy feet and eyes; the effect of catching sleep in brief glimpses of shut eyes and quiet mind. My words slurred when I greeted “good morning”; heavy, thick, and seductive, with some unintended bedroom huskiness. A hand paused midair. Oil gathered at the base of the scooping spoon.

“Plop. Plop”

The sound of oil dropping on stew in the warmer sounded like the tick of my wristwatch.

It is loud. Too loud. Louder than it should be.

The words seeped slowly through my subconscious; cautious, as if not to jar me. The tiptoe of the hungover. Light dimmed, my eyes squinted to focus on the face of the person holding the scooping spoon. It was my colleague. Mouth agape, adam’s apple bobbing like one repeatedly swallowing spittle or strugglng for words; he looked lost. Something nudged at my consciousness; a persistent knock seeking attention. There had been a subliminal message in the initial thought.

If the drop of oil sounded too loud, then the room was too quiet.

The room hadn’t been quiet when I walked in; brief seconds ago. Curious, I looked round the room. There were colleagues with forks halfway to their lips, and some with hands idly twirling spoons in mugs. They were all watching me. Puzzled, I lifted a brow; a low shift of my face to ask a question. That seemed to break the jinx. Laughter, hushed comments…

“Did someone keep you awake all night?”

A voice, filled with laughter and teasing. I shook my head, jesting acknowledgement of the thought that raised the question.

“Your voice is strange this morning. Like you’re still asleep. And coffee’s been exhausted.”

Coffee…exhausted.

That was all I heard. While my head questioned how coffee could finish, my feet led the way to my room. Once there, I fetched my wallet. It was not the kind of day to broach without coffee.

Fifteen minutes and eight shops -5 of which were still locked- later, I was still without coffee.

Who doesn’t stock coffee?

How does someone sell these chocolate beverages but not coffee?

Do people in this area live coffee-less?

Why are some shops locked?

Who knows if the locked shops have coffee in them? Can I check?

Is breaking-and-entering still a crime?

Unanswered questions racing through my mind; disbelieving my coffeelessness. How could neighbourhood shops be locked at almost 9 a.m? Why would anyone have a beverage shop and not stock coffee?

Desperation awoke my basic survival instinct. I recalled the back-up sachet coffee lying peacefully in my purse; untouched for almost 6 months. Feet lighter, I strode purposefully back to the hotel. Splinters of memory replayed in my mind. The attendants in the 3 shops which had been open. Two of them had gone blank, asking what coffee was. The third had raised eyebrows, examined me up and down like one who’d just discovered an alien, and asked:

T’anin mu Nescaafu?

Translated: “Who drinks coffee?”