Frustrations come in different shapes and sizes, but yours seem to fit into no shape or size. First, the rude reality of your change of environment dawned on you the day your British Airways flight landed at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja. You were first welcomed by a sharp hot breeze that had you nearly stripping at the arrival lounge and a young immigration officer who flashed you a rehearsed smile and quickly asked “anything for the boys?”
That day, being rather distracted by the sudden change of weather and your indifference about being back to your country after a few months that felt like a decade, you paid little attention to anyone. You concentrated on getting your luggage and leaving the airport for your hometown, Ndiowu.
Your arrival was one of the best moments in your family. Visitors and family friends arrived in their numbers to recount how much you had changed, how polished your skin looked, how your haircut resembled that of Chris Brown, how big your tummy had become and how your lips had suddenly turned red. Oguebego, a close friend of your fathers joked about how much beer and hard ciders you must have consumed while in London.
“Tell me what else would make your stomach this big, did you take in for a white woman?”
Everybody laughed, but you did not. Rather, you nodded and tried to force a smile. The smile turned sour.
Oguebego’s humor and wit had earned him a place in the hearts of many people. He worked as an MC and often got more jobs than his colleagues. In the whole of Ndiowu and even beyond, he was best known as the only MC who knew how to talk money out of the pockets of stingy moneybags who would rather stay away than donate a penny for any community project. Once, during a fundraising ceremony for new bore holes in Ndiowu, Chief Okolo, an affluent Lagos-based businessman had donated the sum of one hundred thousand naira to the dismay of the audience. It only took Oguebego’s witty remarks to get Chief Okolo running back on stage to multiply his donation by twenty, leaving the audience in wild jubilation. Born during the end of the Nigeria/Biafra Civil War, Oguebego, at every event, often told the story behind his name which literally translates to “the war has ended”.
That same evening, Olisa, your childhood friend had taken you to a corner of the living room to ask how many white girls you had kissed because your lips couldn’t have turned red just like that. You laughed hard and told him you never kissed anyone. He looked into your eyes, saw the lies and shrugged in disbelief. You didn’t even believe yourself. However, you felt the lie was necessary since you already had a fiancée—his immediate younger sister, Mary. You were treated to your favorite meal of pounded yam and egusi soup specially prepared by Mary, your heartthrob whom you had always pretended to miss while away in London. Although you had promised yourself to be faithful in the midst of ravishing and tempting Caucasian girls who were more willing to accept your romantic proposal even before you asked, London’s winter gave you a reason to succumb.
“It is not good for a man to be alone and definitely not in this weather,” you often said to yourself as an excuse.
You played safe.
You knew you would be breaking two hearts, Mary’s and Olisa’s, if you ever got caught. But all these didn’t matter so much while you ate. The pounded yam and nsala soup meant more than a treasure. You concentrated on the small pieces of stockfish that congregated in the soup. As you relished the meal, your mind wondered back to your days in New Malden. In all those months, you could count on your fingers how many times you had eaten a well prepared pounded yam and soup. It took you some months to finally find a befitting African restaurant in Old Kent.
In the company of Yipake, your Ghanaian friend and flat mate, you took a South-West train from New Malden to London Waterloo and a bus from Waterloo Station all the way to Old Kent’s Afrikiko, just to have a meal of pounded yam and egusi soup.
The day you discovered Afrikiko was one of your best days in England. Although the winter cold was getting to your lungs and bone marrows, you didn’t bother, so long as you were going to swallow some food with the flavor of home. Some food that transported you back to Ndiowu for a moment while you sat in that restaurant where everyone pretended to be African and the heaters tried vainly to assuage the cold. Sometimes, home is the taste of familiar food. While you ate, Mary sat quietly, all the while watching your gestures.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked.
“London, my dear. London. I paid so much money to eat this while I was there.”
“And you still wish to go back?”
“I haven’t said so yet. I have no such plans, for now.”
Although heavy with more questions, she sat in silence and let her eyes throw the questions and probe deeper for answers. You knew she yearned to talk about many things which, if not for distance, would have not been an issue. You knew you had too many questions to answer, one of which was your silence for weeks that led to months, only to reconnect three weeks before your arrival. Those were pointers to something sinister. You knew. Mary was not a pushover, and you knew this before you professed your love for her. Even when she hesitated, it took Olisa’s extra pulling of strings to set your ship sailing. In fact, Olisa had promised to get you a job as a lecturer in the Federal College of Education where their mum whom you feared, was provost. The promise was made under one condition—that you do not break his sister’s heart. He introduced you to Sammy, his mother’s secretary with whom you exchanged Facebook chats and Skype calls while you were still in London. Sammy too had promised you that everything was under control and the job would be all yours as soon as you return. But now, you were not sure if Mary’s heart had broken yet, or was still going to break depending on your response or more lies. While your father’s friends were still drinking, chatting away and laughing loudly in the living room, you took her right arm and quietly led her to your bedroom where you both had lost your virginity. There, you sat for about half an hour, looking into each other’s eyes—searching for untold stories that could compress twelve whole months into one night.
It is 7:00am on Monday and your phone beep wakes you to a morning of hangover. The previous night, you had consumed two full jugs of palm-wine and a plate of nkwobi while chatting with Olisa. You said lots of gibberish when the alcohol got a better part of you.
You check your phone and a new message from Sammy reads:
Good morning, sir. You are invited to the Office of the Provost today at 9.00am. You are advised to come with your CV. Be Prompt. Thank you.
The text suddenly clears your hangover as you rub your eyes to read again and again. “But why would Sammy sound so formal now?” You think. You shrug and conclude that this part of his job requires a good measure of formality even with close friends and acquaintances. From Ndiowu to Owerri would take about an hour and a half, and it’s almost 7:30am.
This means that you must get prepared and leave for Owerri immediately.
A motorcycle taxi drops you off right inside the TRACAS motor park. You jump down and hand the rider a crisp two hundred naira note and he zooms off, leaving a cloud of dust behind him. The park is busy with people who all seem to be in a hurry, save for a few men who sit idly at a corner, smoking, drinking tots of what looks like dry gin and chatting away their idleness. Hawkers outnumber themselves as they roam the park, looking for buyers amidst the blast of car horns and the revving of car engines. You wade through the rowdiness that is Ekwulobia to buy a one thousand naira cost of ticket to Owerri. Luckily, the bus needs two more passengers and you will be on your way.
“Abeg write the manifest!” a man who appears to be the driver warns as you make your way into the bus to settle down. His voice is hoarse and his bloodshot eyes hold your gaze as you turn to collect the manifest and a pen.
“Oji n’ebe a! Onye choro ya? Buy your kolanuts!” a middle-aged woman nearly pushes her wares into the bus, showcasing the large kolanuts. Her voice rings out again and receives no response. She gives up and walks away. As you wait for the remaining passengers to arrive, you begin to wonder why a traveler would want to buy kolanuts on a Monday morning. A fair lady arrives, fills the manifest and sits beside you in the third row.
A girl leads a blind man to your bus and they stand close to the entrance. The man sings and accompanies himself with an old tambourine. The tambourine looks older than the girl. Some passengers begin to drop twenty naira notes into the blind man’s bowl and you drop yours too.
“Dr Cure All Herbal Medicine is here! Buy one, get one free!” You hear his voice before you see him. The man is short and formally dressed. He displays different bottles of medicines and an accompanying flier as he speaks.
“Do you experience pains as you urinate? Do you have boils around your private part? Don’t be ashamed to save yourself now! We cure all kinds of man and woman infections. Staphylococcus. Syphilis. Gonorrhea. Do you have low sperm count or watery sperm? This is for you! Are you having irregular or painful menstruations? I am here to help you. No other doctor or hospital can save you. Dr Cure All is your friend. Yes? Who wants to buy? Buy one, get one free. Save your life now. Don’t die in silence!”
The man is completely ignored. He lifts his wares and walks away to save the lives of others.
The driver gently leads a blind young man in dark shades to the bus. He pleads with the young man already seated in the front seat to vacate the seat for the blind man. After a few seconds of arguments, he succumbs and joins the passengers in the fourth row. The driver helps the blind man into the bus and shuts the door.
It is 8:15am and you are on your way to Owerri. Your heart starts to beat faster while you wish you could hold back the hands of the clock so as to arrive the provost’s office at 9am. Barely fifteen minutes into the journey, another group of policemen stops you for the fourth time. One of the policemen walks round your bus, inspecting your faces as if he is looking for a crime suspect. He walks back to his superior who is sitting in the front row of a police van and whispers to him. The man looks at your driver, nods, and waves at the bus. The driver speeds off again.
“Hi, Good morning. My name is Chinenye.” The young fair lady who is sitting beside you says cordially as she passes a glance from your face to the novel you are holding.
“My name is Obinna. Obinna Nwude.” You say and try to catch her gaze, but she is admiring the cover of Half of a Yellow Sun.
“So, are you a fan of Adichie’s writing?” she asks.
“I am not quite sure about that. I read every book I find interesting.” You say and pass a quick glance at your wrist watch. It is 8:55am.
The smell of food fills the bus and your tummy starts to rumble. You remember that you skipped your breakfast. On the first row, a fat woman is eating beans and fried plantain and a boy child sitting beside her is wailing uncontrollably. From the back row, a middle aged man shouts “Madam hol your pikin now! Which kain thing be this?” The woman appears unperturbed.
A young lady sitting directly behind you starts to talk loudly into her phone. She laughs out loud and tells the caller that she just flew in from Abuja and landed at the airport in Enugu. You get mad at yourself, fighting the urge to hush the girl and tell whoever cares to listen that the airport in Enugu is temporarily shut down and undergoing renovation, to tell the fat woman to stop eating and console the boy, and even tell Chinenye that you are not interested in having any conversations. But you cannot do any of those. Your mind is taking possible questions about your prospective job at the provost’s office in Owerri, but your body is trapped in the bus.
“Children of God praise the Lord!!!” the blind man sitting in the front sit shouts.
There is no response.
He shouts again and a few voices respond with no enthusiasm.
The blind man proceeds to introduce himself as Evangelist Onyeka from the Word of Heaven Ministries Inc. He recounts how God is using him as a clean vessel to lift burdens of sin and sorrows off the shoulders of all believers. He testifies that he is a living miracle that God has called and uses as an instrument of blessing. But you are not interested in any of his stories. He begins to pray very loudly and passengers rain responses of “Amen” intermittently. But you are not saying any Amen.
“Turn to your neighbor and say, neighbor, you are blessed!” The blind man commands.
The bus is becoming rowdy with too many you are blessed declarations from several passengers. Chinenye turns to look at you, but you don’t say anything to her. You check your wrist watch again and the time is 9:35am.
Evangelist Onyeka begins to preach.
He is talking about how King Solomon received wisdom from God for killing a thousand cows as a sacrifice. He says that people of God must learn to make sacrifices, sow seeds of faith, and ask God for wisdom rather than asking for worldly riches that vanishes when we die.
“How many of you want to receive divine wisdom this morning?”
There is no response.
“Driver, please stop me here!” Chinenye says and the bus slows down and stops at a bus-stop. She waves you goodbye and alights.
An irritating odour gradually fills the bus and some passengers begin to hiss and cover their noses. At the back row, a woman is pleading with another man to wear his shoes. You look back and see the source of the rotten smell. A passenger had removed his shoes and his socks smell as though they had not been washed in six months.
“How many of you are willing to give to God this morning? Please, bring out your offering as we pray.”
Evangelist Onyeka begins to pray. He is asking God to bless all hands that will give to his servant in advancement of his work on earth. He is asking God to transfer Solomon’s wisdom to all hands that will make sacrifices to him. He starts to speak incomprehensible words and is intermittently interrupted with “Yes Lord!” responses from the fair fat woman on the first row.
“There is a young man in this bus. You beat your wife everyday and curse her with all the strength in you.”
Some passengers begin to look around, perhaps in search of the young man.
“She goes to bed every night in tears. Your business is failing and your account is almost empty. It is the work of the devil. The Lord has asked me to tell you that by the reason of your sacrifice this morning, you will no longer beat your wife. He will restore your business. Can I get an Amen?” He asks.
“There is another young man in this bus. You are going for a job interview.”
Your heart skips.
“To secure that job, you must sow a seed of faith this morning. Emulate Solomon and the Lord will grant your request.”
You are not sure if the blind evangelist is referring to you or another passenger. However, you make up your mind to heed his instruction. He ends his prayer and passengers begin to gather money for him. You check your wallet and hand in five crisp one thousand naira notes and the eyes of the young lady who is collecting the money widens in surprise. They pass the money to Evangelist Onyeka.
“May God bless you all” He says.
“Amen.” This time, you respond and nod in affirmation.
It is 10:20am and you are in Owerri.
You alight in front of the college gate and make your way into the campus.
The ambiance is busy with young people strolling in small groups and heading to different directions. You make your way towards the administrative block where the provost’s office is located. Under the orange tree before the parking lots, two students are holding a newspaper and arguing loudly. The taller one is vehement, touching the ground with his fore finger, then his tongue and pointing to the sky to back up his arguments. Behind them, some men in blue uniforms are loading some cartons into the trunk of two white vans and a short middle-aged bespectacled man in black suit is counting wads of naira notes. He looks up, orders the uniformed men to hurry up and resumes his counting. As you approach, the two young men stop you at once. It seems as though they were waiting for you to arrive.
“Excuse me, please. Good morning. Please, in your own view, is Mr. Kanu a Biafran hero or not?” The taller vehement one asks.
You look at him, not sure of what to respond. You want to tell him that you hardly know who Mr. Kanu is, and therefore cannot give any answer. Instead, you nod in affirmation and continue towards the administrative block, leaving behind their shouts of “You see, I told you so!” and “Nonsense! Mr. Kanu is not a hero!”
You call Sammy’s phone to inform him of your arrival. It rings but he does not pick your calls.
In the reception, a security man directs you to the Office of the Provost and you run upstairs, adjusting the file containing your CV and placing your novel below the file. You arrive at the office and Sammy is one of the many faces you see in a large office that supposedly leads to the inner chamber where the provost sits. You wave and he walks up to you, looking surprised to see you in the office.
“Wow! Good morning, Obinna” He greets.
“Good morning, Sammy. What’s up?”
“I’m good. It’s good to have you back, bro. I hope you got some goodies for us?”
“Yeah, I did. You’ll definitely get all of that later. Please, I hope I’m not too late?”
“How do you mean late? Have you got an appointment?” Sammy asks, still looking surprised.
“Oh Come on, Sammy. This is not April fool’s day now. I got your SMS in the morning inviting me. Look, here’s my CV”. You show him the file. You bring out your android, and as you unlock it to show him the sms, he stops you.
“Hold on, Obinna. I think I know what happened. I’m sorry. You must have got the SMS in error.” He explains.
“How? But we had a deal.”
“We? Look, Obinna. This is not the right time for this. I remember all we discussed earlier. But trust me; the provost is not expecting you today. I’m sure about that.”
You stare at him, feeling both defeated and exasperated.
“I’m sorry,” he says again.
You turn and walk out of the office. Downstairs, the security man at the reception post is greeting you, but you do not respond.
Outside, the sun’s hotness dries your throat and vibe and your face is wet with heat. You open your wallet and find one five hundred naira note only. You check for your debit cards and remember that you left them in your hand luggage at home.
Your journey back to Ndiowu ends before it begins.
Biography: Echezonachukwu Nduka is an Academic, fiction writer, poet, columnist, and pianist. His works of fiction have been published in Ake Review, The Kalahari Review, Tuck Magazine, NigeriansTalk LitMag, ZODML Blog, and elsewhere. He is an alumnus of the University of Nigeria and Kingston University London, UK.