"Oh, make una form line!” The security officer’s voice rose and silenced the conversations around him. He waved the barrel of his automatic in a wide arc over the people congregated around the night bus to Lagos.
Interviews: "Out of the Darkness" (July 11, 2006)
Ada Udechukwu on art, writing, and the politics of her troubled homeland.
Passengers scrambled to form a line. The officer strolled past and prodded the cartons, suitcases, and bags that stood alongside their owners. Satisfied with his inspection, he returned to the head of the line, saluted no one in particular, and mounted the bus steps. He leaned against the door, pinched snuff into his nostrils, and surveyed the passengers below him. From time to time he inhaled deeply, let loose a violent sneeze, hacked up phlegm, spat, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
The conductor began ticketing passengers. Whenever he cleared a traveler for boarding, the officer left his post. He examined hand luggage first. He conducted a body search on male passengers by running his hands along their clothing, feeling pockets, and occasionally ordering their contents displayed. Women were treated to a metal detector waved back and forth over their clothing.
Uloma held her ticket out to the conductor. He motioned toward the open luggage compartments at the side of the bus. She shook her head, tightening her grip on the duffel strap.
Visibly annoyed, the conductor pointed to the bag and said, “Sista, you no fit take am inside.”
Uloma smiled. “Oga, no vex. E go fit for inside. I dey carry dis bag before.”
“Na oga security go decide.” The conductor tilted his head in the direction of the security officer, who now stood at the bottom of the steps, poised to intervene.
Uloma gazed at the conductor. With palms clasped in front of her, she pleaded, “Oga, biko. Tell am breakable dey for bag.”
“You ladies. Na so-so trouble you dey cause me,” the conductor muttered. He jerked a thumb at the officer and asked, “You wan make I talk to am?”
The conductor left to confer with the officer. They spoke for several minutes. Twice the officer pointed to the luggage bins beneath the bus, packed with bags as large as Uloma’s, and to the duffel she carried.
“I don tell am,” the conductor said, in a voice loud enough for all to hear. A moment later he leaned over to the officer and whispered in his ear.
Impatient murmurs rose from the waiting passengers.
Uloma looked behind her. She saw no sign of Monye, even though they’d agreed to meet at the station by three o’clock. She rocked on her heels, an arm cradled under the duffel to relieve her shoulder of its weight. Although everything appeared to be working out as he had said it would, Monye’s lateness unnerved her.
Minutes passed. The duffel strap cut into her shoulder. She raised it and shifted it to the other side. Beneath her clothes and other personal items, several thousand dollars for the secondhand Mercedes that Monye planned to buy from a dealer in Cotonou lay under the duffel’s false bottom. The exchange rate had been good that week—140 naira to the dollar. The naira that Monye had carried to the exchange bureau had been reduced to the compact packets of dollars now hidden in the duffel. He’d explained about the money the night before, when he fixed the bag. Tomorrow morning, while Uloma bought bales of used clothing for resale back at her stall in the Aba market, he’d negotiate for the car. Together they’d drive the car across the border from neighboring Benin and return to Nigeria, where he would sell the car for a good profit.
The officer and the conductor burst into laughter. Uloma looked at them. The officer winked at her, pointed to his chest, and waved with both hands. Uloma waved, and stretched her lips into a forced smile.
Within seconds the officer dismissed the conductor and sauntered over to Uloma. His bowlegged waddle heightened the ridiculous effect of tight trousers tucked into boots in imitation of a commando uniform. He stood before her, his fly only partially zipped, revealing aquamarine nylon underpants. She cursed Monye for putting her in a situation where she needed to ask a favor of this oaf. The day before, Monye’s request that she make sure the duffel stayed with her had seemed simple enough; now the prospect of debasing herself sickened her.
The officer grinned, took hold of Uloma’s arm, and led her around the bus. She needed all of her willpower not to tell him to get his hands off her.
“Fine woman, why you no fit put your bag for under? I tink say you know na extra we dey charge for overweight.” The officer’s sly smile amplified the lie he told.
Uloma wrinkled her nose at the fermenting mixture of beer and kola nuts on his breath. A window opened above them, and she gazed up at the passengers staring down in anticipation of the drama to follow. Beads of sweat trickled from her armpits. She hugged her duffel to her.
“Wetin dey for bag? E be like you wan hide sonting. Oya, drop am, make I see what you carry.” The officer pointed to the space between his feet.
Uloma put the duffel down. The officer knelt and rummaged among her things. He pulled aside layers of folded clothes and dug deep into the bag. When he encountered something that interested him—a toilet bag, a packet of sanitary pads, a makeup kit—he held it up and queried her about it. He ignored the novels and magazines at the bottom of the bag, squeezed something, and pulled it out.
“Wetin dey for here?” The officer held up a black plastic bag.
“Oga, biko.” Uloma extended her hands.
The officer swung the bag and laughed when Uloma groped for it. He tossed the bag into the air, caught it, untied the double knot at its neck, and peered inside. A pungent odor escaped, and the officer grimaced at the bloodstained panties.
Uloma covered her mouth and smiled into her palm, glad that she had heeded Monye’s advice about packing the underwear.
The officer hastily stuffed the bag back into the duffel and stood up. “Sista, n’only because I like you. So, find kola, make I chop.” He motioned to his mouth. His eyes ran the length of Uloma’s body and came to a stop at her breasts.
She handed him a folded bill. He checked its denomination and slipped it into his pocket. Uloma reached for the duffel. The officer’s hand brushed over her breast. He flashed a smile at her, and the dull red of his tongue filled the gap between his front teeth, pulsing like a live animal. She flushed, fighting an urge to strike him.
“Make we go,” the officer said, and turned on his heel.
The two of them rounded the front of the bus. Sighs came from the waiting passengers. A wave of grumbles rolled from the back of the line, and people stepped out to eye Uloma. She bowed her head.
The officer returned to his perch on the steps. He waved Uloma over to the conductor and signaled the man to resume ticketing. Loud protests filled the air. Several people called out, “Ye-ye woman,” “Ashawo,” “E be say like you don give am de ting.” Uloma blushed at the abuse, her face hot.
The conductor ignored her when she held out her ticket. One after another he cleared passengers for boarding. Soon a plump middle-aged woman in an expensive brocade wrappa stepped forward. A stiff headtie sat on her head, its towering crown secured with a large knot whose two loose ends spread out like wings behind her. The conductor grinned and greeted the woman effusively. Oblivious of the waiting passengers, the two of them enquired about the health of family members and conversed about mutual acquaintances.
Uloma glanced behind her. Monye still hadn’t arrived. She couldn’t understand his delay. This trip had been his idea. Weeks before, when he had suggested she accompany him, she had protested about making another journey so soon after her regular monthly trip to buy stock for her used-clothing business—she hadn’t yet sold three-quarters of the goods she’d bought on her previous trip. But Monye had persuaded her that it was a good opportunity to beat the Christmas rush. He’d also assured her that after his deal with the car, the traditional marriage ceremony she longed for was next on his agenda.
The conductor turned to Uloma. “Sista, you don settle am?” he asked with a smirk on his face.
“Oya, now, bring my own.”
Uloma held out her ticket. The conductor sighed and shook his head. He rubbed one palm over the other.
Uloma placed a twenty-naira note under her ticket and handed it back.
On her way into the bus she squeezed past the officer. He pinched her arm. But when she looked back, he made a show of adjusting his cap. She paused beside the driver’s seat and surveyed the bus. Behind her the officer accosted a passenger.
“My broda, wey you dey go?” the officer asked.
“That lady you pass now-now, nko,” a man retorted.
Uloma looked over her shoulder.
The officer glanced at her and snickered. “I don check am behind.”
Both men laughed.
Uloma turned away. She walked down the aisle, stopped halfway at a pair of vacant seats, and took the one by the window. Perched on the seat beside her, the duffel looked normal, no different from the way it had looked before Monye created the false bottom. She located the seam, pulled at a loose thread, and pressed it down again, appalled that she had doubted Monye. She understood why so many dollars were needed: the car dealerships in Benin insisted on being paid in foreign currency. Monye had told her what he’d done with the bag—how much cash he’d hidden, and exactly how he’d packed it. For once he’d trusted her with the details of his business, explaining the technicalities of registering and licensing, and also the process of “settling” people in the motor-licensing office. When she asked why he couldn’t carry the money on him, as she carried hers, he said that if anyone knew he had all those dollars, he’d be forced to pay double the bribes he anticipated.
Yet something continued to bother her about his insistence that she hold the money for him. Inexplicably, her thoughts wandered to old gossip from her university days. On campus, Monye had stood out, with his good looks, sports car, and expensive lifestyle. Rumors—none of them good—abounded about the source of his seemingly endless supply of cash. But the rumors did not hurt his reputation with women. He’d asked her out once, and she’d accepted, surprised that he’d notice someone like her.
Uloma stowed the duffel under the seat in front of her and glanced at her watch; in another hour the bus would leave the station. She debated whether to move to the aisle seat. The window offered a view of the roadside, but if she were next to the aisle, she’d be able to see anything coming toward the bus. She made a hasty sign of the cross to protect herself from any trouble. Unzipping the duffel, she retrieved a bag containing a jar of groundnuts and a packet of biscuits, and she placed it on the seat beside her. She zipped up the duffel and placed it back on the floor, between her feet.