Wednesday 21 December 2011

Driving to the Village

Mbaise Imo State
Around this time of the year, Igbo people from all over the world, begin to troop towards their villages. It is a Christmas exodus like no other, befitting of a people who claim to be descendants of the Jews. From America, from Europe, from Hong Kong and of course from Lagos, Amakas, Ifeanyis and ChiChis start to wend their way home. After all, Agaracha must come back and the more style Agaracha returns with, the better.

My father hails from Ubulu in Imo state, a village which he often remarks is not shown on any map of Nigeria he has ever seen. It was thence we returned in December for almost all the Decembers I spent in Nigeria. There is a reason why Ubulu is not on any map of Nigeria. We are not like Nnewi, our bourgeois cousin down the road, whose entrance is marked by an arch decorated with dollar and pound signs. Neither are we notorious like Okija where bodies pile up at a mysterious shrine. Neither are we cannibals nor python worshippers nor any other quirky thing which would draw attention to us. 

The journey to Ubulu is pretty straight forward. You leave Lagos, get on the express and go straight until you reach Ihiala junction. Turn left and ask for the village with all the yellow girls. Those were the directions my sister used to give when people asked where Ubulu was. We always planned to leave the house early, sometimes as early as 6am but usually, time would trickle away as we ran around trying to pack the one last convenience that would make the next few days less onerous. Looking back now, they must have sold Nasco cornflakes and powdered milk and Cabin biscuit somewhere close to Ubulu, but we always brought these things from Lagos. My aunt from America, was on another level. She took sweets, chewing gum, cereal, hot chocolate, microwaveable meals, if not for baggage restrictions, she would probably have brought metal canisters labelled Air.  

Sometimes, as late as noon we would finally set off. Our mode of travel varied every year. Sometimes it was a bus from my parent's hospital, other times it was a standard four seater car, other times it was a convoy of cars, it depended on how many of us were going. The checkpoints were perhaps the scariest part of the whole drive. They were illegal. Police men with large guns would place wooden planks or barrels across the road and force every car that passed to slow down. Some were waived forward, some were told to park so their papers could be examined. It was entirely random who was stopped. Of course, once stopped, it was expected that you produce a bribe to be let go. I found out that these checkpoints were illegal entirely by accident. One day, we were told to stop when we heard the sounds of a siren convoy behind us. Immediately, the police pushed the barriers away, kicking a plank to the side of the road as if shocked to find it there.
"Who said you should stop?" One shouted at the driver. "Begin dey go." 

Once, we were stopped on the byroad that allowed you bypass the traffic through Benin City. It was a quiet  slip of a road and not many cars used it. These men came out of nowhere. They were not police men but they wore bright yellow tunics over their clothes, as if to lend themselves a degree of fluorescent officiousness. They threw a plank and a barrel in our way and shouted, "Park here!" 

They didn't ask for papers. Instead, there was a sticker we had to have. A sticker worth 7,500 Naira. Without this sticker, we could not pass. They brought a concrete block and placed it in front of one of our tyres. We had been going to the village for several years. We had never needed that sticker before but we were a car full of women. The only man was the driver and he was quite a thin man at that. The road was deserted. My mother took an executive decision and paid the money amidst cries of, no, no from the back seat. Even me, I added mouth. "Mummy don't pay these people."  But the money was paid and we were sent on our way. 

On that same trip, we were stopped at Onitsha. Again, by a group of touts wearing fluorescent overalls, asking for this same mysterious sticker. Hastily, my mother produced the one we had purchased a few hours ago. Unfortunately, she made the mistake of telling the man that she had already paid seven thousand five hundred Naira for it. Once the man heard what she had paid for that worthless piece of paper and glue, he was determined to get his own share. 
"Let me see that sticker,"  he said. My mother handed it to him and he pocketed it. "It's not the current one. You need to pay again." 

I think that's when the people on that Onitsha road knew that Agaracha was not stupid. My mother is a Yoruba woman. She does not understand Igbo. But she came down from the car that day and began to demand that her sticker be returned. My aunty who is also Yoruba and was the most vocal critic when my mother paid for the sticker the first time, jumped down from the bus and went to look for a police man. My cousins and I remained in the car, wondering what to do. As we wondered, one of the bystanders who had gathered, slid open the bus door which we had forgotten to lock after my aunt came down. 

He looked at our stunned faces and remarked, "Nah only woman for this bus." Then he saw the portable DVD player we had strapped to the front seat. "Dem even get TV for inside here." 

For some reason, it was this comment that roused my cousins, who speak Igbo fluently and also grew up in the East.
"Get away from there." 
"Who said you should open that door?" 
"Bush man."  

The man retreated and we slammed the door and locked it and continued to wait. A few minutes later, we saw my aunt returning with a police man behind her and a crowd following them. 
"We must have our sticker." 
" Give us back our sticker." 
"Today today." 

Eventually the tout had to acquiesce. The sticker was returned and we continued on our way. Agarachas triumphant.  

The kinsmen the Agarachas must impress
Once we had driven over the Niger Bridge that was bombed during the Civil War and rebuilt not long after, we began to feel that the journey was almost over. In truth, distance wise, Ubulu and Onitsha are not very far from each other. But the Onitsha traffic, can make them hours apart. After Onitsha, the roads deteriorated rapidly. Sometimes they were not even tarred. They had been cleared for construction, but someone had forgotten to lay the bitumen on top so the cars drove on the red, clayey earth. The tyres would raise so much dust that the bush that lined the roads would be stained ochre for most of the dry season. 

After we turned left at Ihiala, we began to drive through villages proper. It was then you had the opportunity to see, if daylight permitted, the monstrosities some Agarachas had built to impress their kinsmen. Even then, I wondered at the stupidity of it. Why would people build such enormous houses and spend no more than 4 weeks of a year in them. There was one property I remember. The owner had built a respectable Georgian style house of about two stories. It was grand enough but perhaps, this particular Agaracha had struck it even richer and wished everyone in his village to know. Beside this Georgian villa, he began to build a gargantuan thing, that was six stories high and twelve stories wide and made the first house look like a boys quarters. Such waste.

Finally, we would reach Ubulu. No matter how often we went, we could never find our village if my father was not with us. It was as if it shifted its position every year. Without fail, we would ask for Ubulu and sometimes, when it was dark, we would have to ask for the Onuzo compound. Eventually we would reach the house that my father and his brothers and their children shared. Then we would tumble out, our legs cramped. Then we would run to the toilet to release our much distressed bladders. 

The Agarachas had returned.


  1. Quite a hilarious story! I especially enjoyed the drama at the illegal roadblocks: particularly, the scene where the Onitsha touts waylaid you. It's funny how most Nigerians pick Christmas holidays to swindle their countrymen. As i write, the prices of food stuff and other basic commodities have rocketed.And of course, the roadblocks have increased exponentially.

  2. Interesting indeed. You really had me laughing all through this post. But it's true; what you have captured in this very vividness are what Nigerians are faced with at every Yuletide. What irritates me most is the road blocks. There was one the bus I boarded was stopped at; you can't imagine that the police had me toppling all the clothes in my bag over the ground all in the name of stop and search. How disgusting that the policeman eventually concluded that I was a student after seeing there were more books in the bag than clothes.


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