‘ Wetin you carry’ and memories of a distant past

 

It was my first trip outside my native Iju in Ondo State, if I do not count the frequent trips by foot to Itaogbolu, three miles away.  I remember well that it was the first quarter of 1958 and we were headed to Akure to write the Common Entrance Examinations.  This was when the list of so-called Federal schools was but just a handful and getting admitted to Queen’s College, St. Anne’s or K.C. or any of the few schools meant little boys and girls got the very heady feeling of reading their names in the Daily Times during the wet days of August.  That was still far ahead, though, and we were still stuck in the hot humid pre-rain days of Lent.

The road condition and that of the vehicle were very similar and while I do not remember how long it took us to travel the twelve miles, I do recall that we did not get to the Ondo Road residence of our Uncle Emannuel Olowere’s house before dusk and I believe we had waken up early to be on our way.

Then, as now, Ondo Province (new names: Ekiti and Ondo States) was under the radar in Nigeria’s development project schemes even though it produced a lot of Nigeria’s wealth.  Thanks, though, to our man at Ado, Governor Oluwayose/Fayose, at least we are in the news, constantly these days.  The days of obscurity is over.

I do not know if I have ever had as eventful a trip as that one in that vehicle in which you sat backing your destination, thanks to one of us, a forever smart aleck who remains a dear friend to this day.  We had been traveling for what might have been hours and had just passed Odudu about halfway between Iju and Akure.

Fortified by the general cheer and excitement we were filled with, we were high on nothing more than anticipation.

My childhood home is almost next to the route to Ado-Ekiti  and we used to see a passenger-carrying lorry years earlier with the bold inscriptions “Ghana” on both sides.  I have always taken particular pleasure in car inscriptions and decorations on Nigerian roads.  The most popular Biblical verse inscribed on lorries (no, there were no commercial Peugeot cars back then) seemed to be ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ and the ominous ‘Remember six feet’.

With the great increase in road network in the country, it’s like fantasyland for me these days even to Ife, just fifty miles away because I get to see vehicles from various parts of Nigeria.  Without reading a vehicle’s license plate, for example, the kind of drawings on it would instantly announce to me which part of the country it is from: the man with dagger in hand, the crescent are easily recognizable as coming from the North but so also is a drawing that has a man holding a snake in a death grip or slaying it with his dagger or stomping it under his foot!  The vehicles from the East are also unmistakable:  Jesus with a flaming heart and/or barbed wire piercing the heart; Jesus the Shepherd carrying a person (lost soul?) on his shoulder and Angels. The ambitions of truck owners and/or sign-writers also show: ‘Model 2004’, signifying the year of make is common on rickety old trucks!

In the West [of Nigeria] these days, there is no pattern:  there are still prayers – and the like, in which the parts of speech cannot be discerned because multiple words are often written as one, as in “Somi Oluwa; Iwo ni mogbekele, Oluwa”(So mi …; … mo gbekele …), thus creating hybrid Yoruba parts of speech.  This hybridization has produced an inscription someone who knows my interests once gave me:  Aja ni baba Wahidi … instead of Ajani baba Wahidi!  A dog becomes Wahidi’s father instead of Ajani!

There are also  food-for-thought sayings as in ‘No food for lazy man’; ‘Lagos is my school, Abule Egba is my classroom’!  There are also obscene drawings and indecent words and I have the photographs of quite some, including infantile drawing of a dancing woman with the caption, “iya eyi ma po ju, e sa ma ju ‘ru (Mommy, this na wa, o; de shake tail).  In a way, these are all pop art.

It was a simpler era during that trip in 1958 and earlier and the writings on vehicles reflected signs of the times.  Ghana became independent in ’57 and seemed to set the pace in everything; hence, perhaps, the inscription on that lowly vehicle we used to see along that route.  However, it was not our transportation to the examinations.

Encountering corners and bridges were always momentous along Nigerian routes of old because, including so-called Trunk A Roads which one of which Akure to Lagos was back then, and they were hardly better than Trunk B (Akure to Ado, for example).  For instance, we would join the old mail carrier, Armels, at Akure at about ten in the morning and St. Anne’s girls would not disembark at Molete, Ibadan till around seven in the evening. It would take another six or so hours, around one the following morning, before those of us who were last on the lorry would disembark around Campos Square/Broad Street!  Enough time nowadays to travel from Nigeria to New York.  And to think we considered what we had very great progress because a mere twenty-five years earlier, relations walked from Iju to attend Christ’s School at Ado-Ekiti and about twenty years earlier than that, white missionaries who taught at Oyo, that is St. Andrew’s College, half-walked and half-rode on hammocks from Lagos to Oyo!

We had just stopped before the narrow bridge outside Odudu so that an oncoming vehicle could pass through the bridge and suddenly, the lorry conveying us reached a corner and swerved erratically to one side, not slowing down one bit.  We were all thrown in the direction of the curve in what became my first of zillions of near-accidents that anyone traveling Nigerian roads is quite familiar with.  My smart aleck friend shouted, “e e e, abajo Ghana!”  We all laughed raucously.  We could not see the driver’s face but his voice told us how he felt:  “i se fo abajo Ghana?” (who said ‘no wonder this lorry is described as Ghana?’) he shouted from the front.

What in the world was the implication of the word ‘Ghana’ but I could not voice this question; I felt sure it was the end of any dream of writing the common entrance.  Within minutes, the driver had righted the vehicle and parked.  He and his assistant, the one that always put a piece of wood in front of the tires on hill crests to prevent rollbacks, came behind and threatened to return us to Iju if we did not say who uttered those terribly offensive words.  Needless to say, we were scared to hell and glanced at each other.  I think there were about eight of us.  Somehow, smart aleck did not own up and neither did any of us fingered her.  The man and his assistant finally turned round after what was a very long wait and we glanced at each other, believing the driver would turn round towards Iju.  He did nothing of such to our surprise and great relief but we became a subdued bunch all the way to Akure although one more eye-opening event lay barely a mile ahead.

Nigerian policemen now carry assault weapons, pistols and tear gas guns at roadblocks which are effective in cowing motorists to parting with money in part of the web of deceit that constitutes heavy indirect taxes on the hapless citizens of Nigeria but during that trip, and in those days, a policeman carried a baton.  I do not even recall whether the two who stopped us carried anything more than the object of their greed, a cancer that the ‘law-enforcement’ agency has become world-famous for.  Unlike now when the police as your “friend” would stand belligerently in the middle of the road, those of the earlier era acted the part of the thieves they really have always been.  While we could not see them as our vehicle approached, we saw them enter the bush as we departed and as I traveled more on Nigerian roads and attained the status of traveling in vehicles that allowed me see what was ahead rather than what we had passed, I got used to seeing police emerge from the bush to ask the usual question, wetin you carry?

 

That first encounter pales in comparison to what obtains now.  E no matter wetin you carry, anymore, as long as you can pay the toll that the Force assiduously works at collecting, more than keeping law and order within society.

The Comet on Sunday, November 2004

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