Footsteps round the world

We are a few miles from the airport in Logos when our path is blocked in a blacked out street. The car is surrounded by uniformed men holding torches and machine guns. They want the white man to step out of the car.

‘I hate these people,’ Emeka mutters beside me.

My friends are quick to respond. I sit there wondering why I have returned to Lagos and trying to look irrelevant, while negotiations take place outside. I guess that money changes hands because suddenly everything is resolved and we are allowed to go on our way.

A few miles later the car brakes in front of two large metal doors that are opened from within. The car sprints inside and stops. We tumble out into the steam of a night in the tropics and walk in single file in the darkness around the side of something, up some steps, round some corners, through a triple door into somewhere unbelievably hot and smelly. Food smells. A kitchen.

A generator splutters into life. Lights blink on. Ceiling fans begin to churn. Having exchanged subdued hellos, we are here to attend Emeka's mother’s funeral, he and I are shown to the room we will be sharing for a couple of days. The Mickey Mouse sheets suggests this is a child’s room.

Emotionally I am in chaos. Joy at being in Africa. Anger at being in Africa. Joy at seeing Ojiugo and the family, sadness and homesickness at having voluntarily put so much space between myself and my family. Last night Jaz and Dominique, my daughters, vied with each other to tell me how much they loved me. Jaz, at four and half, old enough to understand the days of separation ahead, buried her face in my shoulder. I felt so ashamed at upsetting the balance of her world, and I still do tonight. I saw her counting off the sleeps of my absence on her fingers, quietly to herself.

The generator chugs away on the balcony, pushing the heat out of the house and powering the fan that sweeps the left and right in the darkness. The air in the room is so thick and humid that the fan’s job is more like kneading dough than shifting gas particles. The window is wide open but the mosquito mesh over the windows is so fine that the night air cannot circulate. The mesh has to be small, the mosquitoes are much small than their English cousins and they operate in stealth mode, no buzzing to warn you of their presence. I have two choices: sweat angrily, or sweat resignedly and get some sleep. I choose the latter.

A few days later, before dawn, the compound gates swing open we finally leave Lagos in a minivan. People rushing to work. People with their work on their heads, bananas, books, carpets, glass cabinets full of hot snacks, tables ... People working as they rush between the horns blaring cars and mini vans that joust the streets, street sellers offering bread, water, fruit, toilet seats, plastic cups, maps of Nigeria, chewing gum, doughnuts, crisp dried plantain ...

We reach the main road. Young men hang with one arm to the sides of lorries as the drivers swap lanes and carriageways as the fancy takes them. Tired of waiting in traffic, motorists and cyclists ignore convention and drive or pedal the wrong way down the fast lane, coming straight at us. Good naturedly, both sides simply steer round each other.

Leaving the smoke of the city rubbish tips behind us we head east. A continuous canopy of trees lines both sides of the road. Every few miles makeshift wooden huts or market stalls dent the edge of the forest. On the ground or on tables are piles of yams, cassava, pineapples, bananas, plantain, oranges. Sometimes there are just piles of sticks. Almost as frequent as the piles of fruit are the burnt out hulls of cars, lorries vans, and coaches that never made it to their destination, sometimes standing on the hard shoulder, where there is one, sometimes on their sides and partially concealed in the undergrowth.

Piles of burning grass serve as traffic cones as we approach an accident. A bus is half-on half-off the road, at a forty-five degree angle, clouds of toxic smoke billowing into the air. As we pass, I glimpse a fleeting eyeful of bemused passengers, boxes of livestock, a large fridge, piles of suitcases. All wide-eyed and anxious. Beside them a path leads down, away from the motorway into the darkness of the jungle. Somehow they have to get away before nightfall. You do not want to break down on a motorway in Nigeria and you do not want to be on a road between two towns after nightfall.

Someone remarks that the last time they took this road there were only twenty-five military check points between Lagos and Obosi. Interesting use of the word only. It’s going to be a long hot drive.

This is an extract from Time to a Wake. Copyright © 1999 Christian Vassie