Metropole Magazine

Today's Weather: Abuja NG: Partly Cloudy, Day 360|Night 260

12 Jun Written by  Oris Aigbokhaevbolo

On Buses, Ballads, and Bias

Frequently you will find that the most comfortable seat in a commercial vehicle is the front seat. This is due to some reasons, a major one is, it takes a limited number of people— two. If the driver is not greedy, a single passenger is admitted to the front seat’s comfort. This is valid, of course, only when other conditions— age of seat, degree of moisture, uprightness, state or presence of levers for windows— are satisfied.

A few buses have two ‘real’ seats, so two persons, helpfully, hopefully of average size, can cohabit without tension; others have a single seat and some flimsy upholstery as second seat. The greedy, but inventive, drivers and conductors may install a piece of wooden furniture and a negligible amount of threadbare fabric as covering. Anything from rags, to a block of wood, to a stool— a 'joko' — can serve as seat, one layer removed from the vehicle’s heated viscera.

For interstate vehicles, it is not desirable to be first passenger because the wait is often interminable; neither is it great to be last because the chances of obtaining a good seat diminishes as passengers increase. Mostly, time is the difference between sufficiently soft seats and an implacable radiator; or for that matter, the difference between ample leg room and pins and needles.

But, it is not possible to time these things, so when weeks, months ago I arrived at a park too early, I was cursed with waiting forever for the vehicle to fill. (The bus had German inscriptions, perhaps directions on how best to ferry mechanical waste.) At the back, I counted three seats; seats so long they could be settees. Welcome to forever, I thought. But there are worse things, and at least this provided an array of settees to choose from. Naturally, I selected the front seat, which had a back so far back it looked like a cheap chaise lounge. I put a backpack to secure the seat.  (I had heard, “I didn’t see anything on the seat” too many times.)

The second front seat was a legitimate, if smaller, one. So, all I needed was a regular sized human on the seat— anything oversized and the driver would find it hard to locate the gears or I would be absorbed by the vehicle. And so it was. Skinny young man speaking Hausa to the driver took the seat. In less than an hour we were off.

Boring journeys are the best on Nigerian roads. You don’t want to have a story to tell when your friends or folks ask, “How was your journey?” — you want to nod, and smile, and say the generic “It was fine”. No one enters an interstate vehicle thinking to offer remarkable narratives of the driver’s irregular 'shuteye' after an overnight journey, how the tires deflated in a remote village, how the tires couldn’t be vulcanised for miles; although you might permit the curious case of the eternal urinator, or the passenger who thought no one could hear him farting because he had earphones on. We’d rather save the intrigue for the destination. We prefer the miracle of an uneventful trip.

This was one of the infrequent boring journeys. Potholes came and went, and without the luxury of display glasses hawkers dangled groundnuts, bananas, and roasted corn in our faces.

My front seat affiliate decided to spice up the prosaic silence with some music; some Hausa music— this particular never-ending one had melody between the whimsy of Bollywood soundtracks and the exotic chanting of prayers in Arabic. It was not agreeable to my Southern-Christian ears. So, trying to drown out his music, I applied my earphones. It was a futile act as easily the volume of his music overcame mine. By now, several Nigerians are aware of phones of a particular nature with a certain aptitude for noisy amplitude.

What is it that drives people to play music in public: is it perceived as a great favour to all, a public service of some sort? Or maybe it is selfishness?

Anyway, as if to render me powerless and maybe expose some hypocrisy, the louder than life speakers produced a Celine Dion song, a pop pleasure I am often loathe to concede. Lyrics learned from pirated cassettes over a decade ago easily came to my lips, all unvoiced protestations comfortably dismissed. The music recalled several evenings in the late 90s.

 “How sweet it is,” Goethe wrote centuries before the success of Celine Dion, “to hear one’s convictions from another’s lips.” My music acquaintance, bolstered by the unlikely affirmation from the previously squeamish stranger, played another Dion, and then another, the songs careering into her later, weaker output. He started to sing along and soon we formed a chorus. It was well and good until I had an out of body experience: in today’s world, the sight of two men in close proximity, singing ballads— or anything other than praise and worship— has a significant number of uncharitable connotations, or maybe just one.

I stopped singing— my voice was never great. He alighted minutes later. No farewell handshakes, nary a word exchanged directly the duration of his journey. Nothing remains of the episode except these words.

There might be something profound in the incident, some moral, some culture lesson, some psychosocial insight. But it was night, and I was too tired to attempt foisting meaning on the event— it was what it was.

Now, I realise it would be commoner to have an abrasive encounter with this person because, in real life, seldom does the fabled strength in diversity, as announced on television and taught vigorously in Social Studies, survive the resistant layers of prejudice and bias. Thankfully, for that night, truth was stranger than friction.