Although this was the sixth time she had traveled on the night bus to Lagos, the journey still frightened her. Recently, after a spate of hijackings and robberies, all the major transporters had started moving in convoys, with an armed guard on each bus. She knew that when they got to Onitsha, their final stop in the east, they’d be joined by five more buses, and from then on until they reached Lagos, buses would be behind and in front of them. That meant that there would be at least six armed guards. But this did not alleviate her fears.
The long journey, commencing in the late afternoon and continuing into the early hours of the following day, always made her uneasy. But she had no alternative if she wanted to get her goods and return home without having to close her market stall for more than a day. A quick turnaround meant more money at the end of the month. Monye’s willingness to lend her interest-free seed money for the business had helped, but she had to pay back some of the principal every month. In addition to this she gave money to her parents in the village—her siblings still in secondary school had tuition fees to be paid. And she had expenses of her own.
Out in the parking lot three other buses stood in front of the station. They would be journeying to popular destinations in the north: Abuja, Kaduna, and Kano. All the buses, including the one she sat in, were multicolored. Plastered against diagonals of fluorescent blue and pink on their flanks, bold yellow letters proclaimed LANDJET TRANSPORTERS, INC. Along the top of each bus the prowess of Landjet was advertised with the words CONCORDE OF THE NIGER. Lower down, near the tires, a biblical passage secured protection from the Almighty: THE LORD IS MY STRENGT & SHIELD, PSALM 28:7. Uloma smiled at the misspelled word and wondered if the phrase actually came from the Book of Psalms.
A short distance from the parked buses people milled around the narrow veranda that fronted Landjet’s offices. Latecomers battled for the few remaining tickets at the counter, and a disorderly line stretched from the door.
Uloma patted her belly and felt for the small apron underneath her outer wrappa. Three hundred thousand naira, half the cost of three bales of secondhand clothing, was stitched into its pockets. Earlier in the afternoon, before coming to the bus station, she had divided a further 290,000 into three envelopes and hidden them in her handbag. The cups of her bra were padded with another 10,000.
She looked around the bus. Only a few people were inside. Some of the seats across from her held bags, left by passengers to colonize places for themselves. Most people boarded the bus, secured their seats, and got off to walk around the station’s premises in search of snacks and drinks, returning only when the final departure call came.
Out in the Landjet compound a mobile market spread itself among the crowd. Food vendors darted in different directions, hastening to attend to customers. Uloma raised the window beside her. A boy selling bread caught her eye and shoved a loaf high into the air. “Aunty, touch am,” he called out. “Na today own, fresh.” She shook her head. A flock of hawkers scuttled over. They clamored for her attention, showing her their wares. A woman held out her tray of boiled eggs and shouted, “Egg, ten-ten naira, aunty!” A young girl pushed herself in front of the woman, raising two plastic bags of water into the air. “Pure-water, pure-water,” she sang in a falsetto.
Uloma slipped the strap of her handbag from her shoulder and brought out her wallet. Her late lunch of pounded yam and vegetable soup felt like a stone in her stomach. The snacks she’d brought with her were enough nourishment until the bus stopped for breakfast, at Ore. All she needed was a cold drink and some bottled water to keep with her for the journey. She waved at a woman carrying a bucket of soft drinks and drinking water on her head. When the woman set down her load, Uloma pointed to a bottle of Fanta and a large Eva water bottle swimming around in the melting ice. She paid for her beverages, took hold of the bottles, and shook her head at the woman’s offer to wipe them with a dirty rag.
Passengers streamed into the bus in twos and threes. To discourage anyone from approaching her, Uloma kept her arm draped over the bag of snacks on the seat beside her. She looked behind her and tallied the vacant seats on the bus. Other than the one next to her, only two seats remained empty. But once the bus left the station, the conductor would bring out “attachments”—crude padded stools that fit in the aisle—so he and the driver could earn extra money for themselves by picking up passengers along the way.
Uloma peered into her handbag and checked again for the manila envelopes that contained her cash. A bead of sweat rolled into the valley between her breasts, and she rubbed the front of her blouse. Its stiff lace fabric rustled. Her breasts itched from the damp naira notes in her bra. She untied her outer wrappa and fanned herself with it, twirling the ends while she blew down the neckline of her blouse. The ankle-length fabric of the wrappa still tied around her waist trapped the heat, and her moist thighs slipped against each other. She dressed this way—the lace blouse and double abada wrappas—only to fit in with the other madams who rode the bus. This was not the life she had imagined for herself when she graduated from the university with her French degree. Still, her French came in handy when she bargained with Beninese traders in Cotonou. They thought she was a native.
Uloma checked her watch again: fifteen minutes to go. Perhaps Monye was going to miss the bus. If so, she’d get off and go home. She had not wanted to make the journey in the first place. Carrying all this money made her nervous. And Monye’s scheme that they travel as strangers seemed unnecessarily complicated, even though she understood his fear about the money. But if it was so expertly hidden, as he said, why did they have to pretend not to know each other? She’d tried to press him for answers, but he’d brushed aside her concerns. And she’d given in—as he knew she would—when he told her that this deal with the car would provide him with the money he needed so they could get engaged and he could talk to her parents about wedding plans.
Her parents bothered her about Monye all the time. Whenever she visited them, they welcomed her with criticism: “All your education gone to waste—you are now a common trader kept by a man,” her mother would say. “When is he going to bring his people to see us?” her father would ask. Yet every month they accepted the money she gave them without questioning where it came from.
Monye helped her out with the monthly stipend she gave her parents. If it weren’t for him, she’d probably be a prostitute by now. Many of the girls she knew openly flaunted their sugar daddies, the older married men who kept them clothed and housed in return for services. At least Monye loved her and provided her with an independent income.
A year before, she’d been unemployed and living off her small savings, shuttling between the homes of friends and worrying about how to support her parents and five younger siblings. It was a terrible time. Monye came to her aid when all seemed hopeless. They’d met up again in a party given by a mutual friend. All night, Monye danced only with her; when he held her close, his body told her what he wanted. Barely a month after their reunion, he asked her to move in with him. He vowed his love and promised to marry her when he had enough money to support a family.