by Unoma Azuah
Thankfully, my travel companion knew of a cozy affordable hotel where we could spend the night. It was heaven: a hot meal, a shower after three days of no bath and a bed at last. While we quickly savored these luxuries P-Square’s “Yoli Yoli,” wafted through our open window. Who would’ve known that Nigeria had penetrated the music scene of Burkina Faso. I giggled with pride. Bobodilasso was quite a party scene, an ancient town with a quiet beauty. Considering how late it was, it took me by surprise that no one had mentioned armed robbers or expressed the fear of being attacked on the road. My giggle was instantly replaced with a wince. This place is very much unlike Nigeria.
6:20am the next day, we returned to the bus station. The story changed. We were directed to a near-by bus station. Bamako buses leave from there. At the station, we were turned backed. Bamako buses were no longer available. We spent extra money going back and forth between stations—tossed around like a Ping-Pong ball. There were five of us stuck in that predicament, three men from Ghana and us two. The Ghanaian men seemed so slow; it took them forever to utter just a word. We bore it, but they rattled our cage when we suggested that we should go and demand a refund for the fraud played on us. Instead of putting-up or shutting-up, they pleaded with us to take it easy and not cause trouble. At that moment, we missed our rather aggressive Nigerian men. A Nigerian man would fight for his money.
When the director was finally found, he agreed to a refund, and so began yet another lap of a search for a means to get to Bamako. We didn’t like the look of the mini bus that we found; it didn’t look like it was going to be able to drive beyond 20 miles. Its tires were unbalanced; its body was festered with cracked and fading white paint. But before we could finish inspecting the rackety bus, the motor park touts had already hauled our luggage on top of the bus, eagerly working their ropes to secure the bags from falling. We yelled at them to get down the bags. They paused their busy hands and glared at us. Obviously, language wasn’t a barrier as we followed up with the little French we could muster,
“C’est ne pas bon?”
“Non!” We yelled simultaneously.
They seemed to be threatening us when they reminded us that there were no more buses going towards Bamako. We ignored them and took our bags from them. The taxi driver we had was lingering, trying to make sure we had settled into a bus. He suggested that we look up another near-by station. We did, but the luxury bus we saw didn’t look too healthy. It had no air-conditioning, almost all its windows were sealed and cracked, and then its luggage section was agape. The cover had fallen off its hinges. We all concluded that it was a potential death-trap and left. We were the first to be there. Even if we had decided to take a chance, we had no idea about when it was going to be filled up.
We went back to the rackety mini bus station. And next to the bus was a red better looking mini bus, so we asked for a swap. We were allowed to get into the better looking bus, but refused to pay any money until the bus was full. It was not heading to Bamako but it was going to get us as close to the border as possible. It was going to the city called Siakasso; a seven hour drive. The driver promised to leave at 9:30am, whether or not the bus was full. There was a thick lady knitting under a shade next to the mini-buses. She blurted out something in French. We figured she was trying to convince us to believe the driver. She was a passenger in the bus and was herself heading to Bamako.
At 9:30am, the bus moved but instead of continuing the journey, the driver, this time, drove across the road and then stationed itself under a shade. All our protests fell on deaf ears. So we resigned to fate and busied ourselves by watching a couple trying to soothe their crying son. He must have been two years old. He wanted to travel with his Dad. His mother assured him that his Dad was to be back in no time. He wailed some more. His Dad carried him on his lap in the bus and wiped his tears, but he wouldn’t stop crying. His Dad handed him back to his mother. She strapped him to her back with a long wrap and drove away on her scooter. The child’s cry faded in the distance.
Finally, 30 minutes later, we were on our way. The driver didn’t seem too happy that his bus was not filled up. The drive to Siakasso was slow because the driver picked up passengers along the road. Perhaps because the population of the country is small, the drivers relied on constants stops and pick-ups to make up the money for long distance travel. About four hours into the journey, we slowed down. Ahead of us was a group of teenage girls-nothing less than 16yrs of age. They had stripped white and blue pieces of cloth wrapped around them. Their faces were smeared with white chalk. They were chanting and asking for money. We could see some Burkina Faso and Malian currency strewn their way. Our driver dropped his and they let him pass. It was a female circumcision ceremony. The lady in the bus with us explained. I exchanged curious glances with my travel mate: female genital mutilation was still going on. We sighed and resorted to admiring the landscape which seemed to be a mixture of the Sahel savannah and some plantation. Cashew, rubber, mango plantations stretched on and on. These countries, as dry as their landscape seemed to be have an abundant supply of food. Even solar panels were littered across their terrain. Sigh. Nigeria is focused on oil. The abundance of food is nothing to brag about in Nigeria. And I’ve never chanced upon a single stretch of solar panels in an open space in Nigeria.
As soon as we pulled into Siakasso, a group of motor park touts rushed towards us, and without asking for permission made for our bags. “Bamako!” they called out. We insisted that they should leave us and our bags alone. I had to watch our bags while the rest, my travel partner, and the Ghanaian men went to scout for a reliable bus to Bamako. The wait felt like forever. Almost every hawker of every item–from food items, to children’s toys came to ask that I buy something. Once I said to them, Je ne comprends pas le Français,” they hurried away. It took about 20 minutes before my travel mates showed up. They saw a good bus to Bamako, but we had to wait for the bus to fill up.
After putting our bags in place and finding good seats in the bus, we realized how hungry we were. So I went in search of something to eat. I dreamt and wished for egusi or okra soup with a bowl of pounded yam. My mouth watered. It was an impossible dream to come true. I took a bend and headed down a crowded road, and ran into a roadside food-seller. She was frying fish. I eyed the left-over potato chips in her fish pan. A group of young men sat around her and devoured what seemed like a bowl of dry garri mixed in palm oil. They tore away at the chunks of fish and scooped a handful of this grit looking grains into their mouths.
“C’est combien?” I asked the teenage girl and pointed at the largest piece of fish in her bowl. She gave me an amount. I didn’t know what it was, so I showed her all the money I had. One of the young men stopped his meal and asked me in English. “You want fish?” I said yes. He acted as an interpreter. The teenager scrapped up what was left of the chips in a wet plastic bowl and then tossed the fish into the bowl for me. I cringed at the wetness of the bowl and grimaced at the swarm of flies perching on her cooking utensils, on the exposed fried fish and then at the corners of her serving tables. They all carried on as if the flies didn’t exist. I made the sign of the cross and proceeded to eat my fish and chips. The fish was bland. As if she read my mind, she produced a small bowl of pepper source from under the table where her toddler crawled around. I eagerly grabbed the container of pepper source and poured some on the fish. As soon as I ate the first piece of chip with the pepper source, my body warmed up. The pepper gave me a good sensation. I polished off the chips and asked for more chips and fish. I took a couple of bites before a huge fly made for my plate. As I tried to wave it away, I mistakenly hit my plate and it fell off my hand. I was staring at the fish and chips on the ground when my eyes settled on her crawling baby. She was flat on her belly, and that was the first time I observed that she was crawling too close to the gutter near her mother’s cooking spot. I smiled at her and indicated to her mother that she was close to the gutter. It was one of her customers that replied in English, “She’s ok” and handed me some soap. The food seller then sprinkled some water on my hands. As the water dripped into the gutter, I stole one last glance at the baby. She looked rather scrawny for a baby with a food-selling mother. I left.
When I re-entered the bus, a waft of stale urine settled around my nose. I made a quick decision to sit close to the exit door. Move air filtered in especially when it was constantly opened for new commuters. As time inched towards late afternoon, the bus pulled into what looked like a missionary secondary school. Workers, mostly a group of men who looked like teachers and clerks got into the bus. A middle aged man displayed his wares of torch lights and watch batteries. He had a handful of them and peered into our eyes just as he shoved them towards our faces. I looked away. The bus was not quite full, so I was not surprised as the driver shuttled towards a dirt road, to what looked like a remote, hilly and dusty part of the town. He stopped at the gate of a huge mosque. A crowd of men lingered around the mosque, while some rushed out of the Mosque and queued up to enter the bus. They were all well-built, and they had traditional Muslim garbs. Their heads were well-wrapped with black pieces of cloth. It covered even their necks and trailed down their chin. They all found spots to sit, mostly at the rear of the bus. Our bus pulled away from the Mosque, and negotiated its way through the paths of rocks and red earth. We came upon a wider dirt road.
All around it were clusters of mud red thatched houses. A couple of emaciated children waved at us. The bus sped past them and within five minutes we were in the major tarred road. It was a long journey to Bamako. I was hoping for some quiet to snatch a nap but within minutes the Muslim men turned to the east, facing the setting sun: prayer time. They chanted for hours on end. I thought I was going to run mad if I heard one more chant. I had to block my ears with my fingers. Every moving minute seems to be punctuated by their wails and chants. Within the hour they seemed to have taken a break, a stout young man displayed his herbs in the aisle area close to where I sat. He spoke endlessly about the wonders of his herbal medicine. Everything he said was in French. At some point he started to share bon-bon candy. I took some as a respite for my near grumbling belly. It was when somebody explained that the bon-bon was one of his medicinal wares that I tried to spit it out, too late. Most of it was already melted in my mouth. I tried to get close to the open window next to the Muslim man sitting next to me. His glare sent me sitting, very quickly. I swallowed the bon-bon with a deep furrow etched on my brow.
To be continued…
Unoma Nguemo Azuah is an award-winning Nigerian writer and an important new voice in African literature. She holds an MFA in Poetry and Fiction from the Virginia Commonwealth University.