Patronage at the dental clinic where Ma’aka worked has been low for days now owing to the Ebola scourge currently ravaging West Africa, which finally found its way into Nigeria on the back of a lie. Patients had simply stayed off, showing up only when absolutely necessary. Ma’aka couldn’t pass up on the opportunity of making a journey to Abuja when his friend Toby (who was going on business) broached it, it seemed like a good time to burn his Ebola-induced idleness. There was nothing to lose but time, as it were.
Abuja was the right call because it’s been a while since he last stepped foot on that part of Nigeria, though he has close family and friends there, and the fact that he would be going by road made it all the more appealing. For him it was going to be about the journey itself rather than the destination, interestingly it turned out to be about the journey and not the destination eventually!
They left Lagos by 5am in the rain, which made a mockery of efforts by Toby at keeping the car in crisp and clean shape the night before. Expectedly, the road was free all the way to the Lagos-Ibadan expressway, which was undergoing repairs and expansion (after President Jonathan revoked the contract which concessioned the road to Bi-Courtney Limited on a Build, Operate and Transfer basis for a period of 25 years during the President Obasanjo regime), but they had to divert to continue the journey via Shagamu to avoid meeting the other part of the Lagos-Ibadan expressway not in the hands of JB Construction company, for the shabby handling of traffic in that sector.
Toby’s Kia Spectra 2004 model car in which they were traveling appeared fragile but seemed capable of managing the rigours of the more than 780km (about 487 miles) journey from Lagos to Abuja, which they expected to take about 7 hours, 52 minutes. Toby had just had the car shipped from the United States, finished all necessary customs and vehicle registration documentation and infact was taking the car on it’s first long distance trip after having his most trusted mechanic put finishing touches to the interior and exterior parts and components, just a few days earlier.
They got to Òrè very early, and decided to have breakfast at one of the eateries there, twas the first time Ma’aka will find any of the eateries there devoid of a flurry of activities and customers angling to fill their stomachs, and it wasn’t difficult to understand why seeing that it was still rather early in the day. The meal of rice and tomato and pepper stew laced with gizzard wasn’t bad, though the stew appeared darker than usual probably because it was overcooked, something he brought to the attention of Toby with whom he’d been having a long drawn battle over which tribe in Nigeria made the best stew and jollof-rice delicacies. Toby had always felt that Igbos also do good stews, while Togolese women do better jollof rice, but Ma’aka had never wavered in his belief in the superiority of the mouthwatering jollof rice delicacy off the stable of Yoruba women either in the home or as professional party cooks. After eating, they bought a few things they felt they’d need for the journey before proceeding.
All seemed well till they got to Benin-Ore Road. Before then, they serenaded themselves with the top charting Lil Wayne and Rick Ross raps, mixtapes and collabos, bopping their heads to the rhythm even rapping along to the ones they were familiar with, which almost meant all, though Toby aced it over Ma’aka to some extent. Suddenly, a hideous pothole knocked them out of their state of delectation, when Toby drove right into it at top speed but responded instantaneously to tip the car off what would’ve resulted in an accident, that would’ve put them at the risk of losing their lives, and then decelerated to park some metres ahead of the pothole and to the right. But he didn’t have to turn of the ignition because the car appeared at that instance to have lost power.
Attempts to start the car afterwards proved abortive, and they both alighted from it to look at what had happened. Toby felt it must be a problem with the fuel pump, but still went ahead to lift the hood off the bonnet, the way many people would do even when they haven’t any inkling as to what exactly could be wrong with their car, or what to do to repair the anomaly. Unfortunately, the car broke down on a stretch of road notorious for spates of armed robberies and kidnappings.
Ma’aka obviously had no idea what was wrong, and though it appeared like Toby had some ideas, he also looked incapable of solving it, the engine was very hot and neither of them could touch a thing. A part of the rim of the left front wheel was kinked and though they knew that was a weak spot that could come to hunt them in the nearest future their main concern at the time was getting the car to start. A good Samaritan recognized the danger they might be in and turned in to help them, and even when he found he couldn’t help much he decided to delay his water distribution rounds for a while just to stay with them till proper help comes as leaving them alone on that stretch of road could be dangerous.
Soon, some locales which included mechanics turned up to check the car, offering to help for a fee. Toby declined their offer as it looked like they were more inclined to exploit than help. It was in this condition that a young man appeared with a towing van, armed with scary tales of what could happen had the government approved towing vans appeared and not him. Seeing the helplessness of their condition, they succumbed to the prompting of the towing van driver, who after much haggling and pleading agreed to accept the sum of =N=3,500 (about $21), to help them tow the car to the nearest mechanic workshop which incidentally turned out to be just a few metres from their location, something Ma’aka found rather interesting considering the fact that the road leading up to that ditch had been recently paved! They encountered, at the mechanic workshop some of the boys they had met earlier who looked more like exploiters than helpers.
The rain clouds that had been gathering for some minutes before now let themselves go, and after managing to park the car, after it was unhinged from the towing van, everyone scampered for shelter from the rain that fell torrentially, then stopped abruptly. Toby ignored most of those mechanics they met sometime after their car broke down on the road for a particularly calm one who had concurred with his suspicions that it could be the fuel pump that was responsible for the challenges facing the car. Once contracted the calm mechanic who appeared to major in fixing electrical components of cars, known in local parlance as “rewire” checked the engine which had now cooled and concluded eventually that the fuel pump mechanism must’ve been affected by the thumping the car received when it careered into the ditch at top speed more than an hour before. It was now past midday.
At the onset, it felt like “rewire” didn’t know what he was doing, but it appeared he wasn’t successful trying to leave things the way it was factory made, but once he took the initiative to draw his path independently of that as organized by the car manufacturers, he made a headway and the car responded positively, and though a minor setback in the form of a fire in the fuel pump compartment (which was promptly put out) did cast some doubts about Rewire’s competence, he still managed to instil confidence in onlookers when besides assuring Toby that the setback was inconsequential, he went ahead to make the car start, though the fuse to the fuel pump had to be sacrificed.
Toby and Ma’aka hadn’t envisaged the challenges they now encountered and have not carried with them enough cash besides the much needed to buy fuel, eat and other sundry things to use ATM’s at the different locations whenever the need arose. Toby knew that there was no way he could be asked to pay anything less than he paid for the towing of his car, so when ‘rewire’ asked for his due three hours after battling with the car amidst intermittent bursts of rainfall, he invoked the only option left to him, ‘to beg’. Rewire, at the end appeared to be a very considerate person understanding the dire straits the travelers were in, he elected to oblige them, and collected much less than Toby paid for the towing of the car, for all his troubles. Interestingly, Rewire continued to call them to find out about their progress long after they left him. It was some minutes before 5pm when they resumed the journey to Abuja and the rains had become a permanent feature of the journey at this time.
The journey continued howbeit on a cautious note, as Toby locked the speed at 60km/hr, steering only when necessary but that didn’t stop the inevitable from happening somewhere along the Benin Bye Pass. The kinked part of the rim tore into the tyre and from just a funny noise they thought was manageable, to the wobbling of the tyre, their journey for the second time was halted. The discovery that the car didn’t have a compartment for “Jack and Wheel Spanner” did not shock them to the marrow as the fact that those tools couldn’t be found anywhere in the car, even in the most obscure of places. The haggard-looking boys who showed up later were amused at the finding, even volunteering to use a bamboo stick to raise the car if a wheel spanner could be found. Toby thanked them for their help, and once they were out of sight managed to move the car away from that spot for fear of the unknown. Ma’aka at this time appeared genuflective in his mind, he went ahead to shred a piece of paper from his wallet on which was written all his bank account numbers, disposing of them at two separate sites.
A few meters away they met a family whose SUV had broken down along the Benin-Ekpoma Road in the rain, who were magnanimous to lend them their “Jack and Wheel Spanner”, unfortunately their car was so low that they took turns to raise the left side of the front of the car just to pass the Jack underneath, before raising the car to the required height to change the wheel with the smaller spare tyre and rim that came with the car. All of this they did in the rain, such that by the time they were done, they were already drenched and gritting their teeth.
They resumed their journey after returning the tools they’d used to change the left front wheel, it was an opportunity to test the car’s heating system in their now frozen state and thankfully it didn’t disappoint. They had made the mistake of not changing the tyre at the roadside mechanics’ (where they’d have noticed that they hadn’t the requisite tools to address that situation and moved to redeem it) and it had come to hurt them, and badly too. On this stretch of the journey, Lil Wayne and Rick Ross had to take a break for the meantime while they reviewed what had befallen them, while munching on some bananas and roast groundnuts they bought earlier that morning at Órè, the only semblance of a meal since then.
When the spare tyre also began to make the same funny noise as the one it replaced some minutes later, now dark, they found they couldn’t even be angry despite their frustrations. The GPS told them that no-man’s-land was Uhunmwonde, so Toby managed to continue labouring their conveyance on asphalt till they got to the first bungalow which was electrified. The signpost on it read, “PRIMARY HEALTHCARE CENTER, IRUEKPEN, EDO STATE”. Toby parked the car right in front of the building, walked to the gate and banged hard on it to gain the attention of the inhabitants if any, though they noticed that one of the rooms had the TV on.
A young lady looking scared walked up to the gate but couldn’t help with directions to a vulcanizer or even a hotel as they now began to consider the possibility of staying the night in the place, as it was beginning to appear like it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for them to be able to get one that night. Her colleague was however forthcoming with directions and they simply waltzed down to the filling/gas station just a few metres ahead with the car doing its best imitation of a pregnant woman in labour. The vulcanizers around the gas station had expectedly called it a day by the time they got there.
The gas station attendants appeared to be teenage girls, or atleast seemed so. One of them pointed Toby to a hotel in the distance downhill while the other was suspiciously reluctant. Ma’aka was by himself shivering even with warm clothing and a head-warmer in place. Their happiness at discovering an ATM just directly opposite the gas station soon faded when it occurred that it “wasn’t dispensing cash” at that moment. With no money, they got into the car and Toby managed to move the car to the hotel.
The hotel was filled with church men, women and children in white flowing gowns. It appeared the members of the Cherubim and Seraphim Church in that district had just ended a retreat. When the Ghanaian manager eventually had time to attend to Toby, he was empathic and agreed to allow them stay the night in one of the free rooms, and pay before leaving the next day. They could also park their car within the premises. Ma’aka wasn’t surprised to find that the cost of a room per night was =N=2,500 (about $15), he’d spent nights at hotels in Benin, Igara and Uromi in Edo State at several times and it appeared that that was the going rate for most standard hotel rooms in two- or three-star hotels there, unfortunately this one unlike the modest one he’d spent the night in at Igara once, had no boiler, so Ma’aka headed straight for bed still shivering, once inside the room, while Toby left to move the car further into a part of the hotel where he could easily visualize it from the hotel room, according to what he told Ma’aka, but in reality went to chat up the young female bartender with a Ghanaian English accent in the lobby.
Left alone to his thought, Ma’aka played back the events of the day. He wondered if he could still continue with the journey as all appeared to be conspiring to thwart their effort at reaching their destination.
Was he like the biblical Jonah?
Would Toby not find it betrayal on his part if he decides to up and head back to Lagos?
Could all these be premonition of even a worse outcome in Abuja, should he decide to continue?
What omen could this possibly…….then he became somnolent.