A BEAD of sweat drips down his furrowed brows to mirror a sweaty beer glass opposite his in which a housefly struggles in foam. Early on, a giant rat leapt a foot-high from a gutter running with slurries nearby and as high again across the plank on which the beer glasses lay, to give Allen Moshe the jitters, but like a nice guest he keeps his counsel, saying nothing, until his bead of sweat betrays his heart of hearts.
A penny for your thoughts! I ask Allen, as a good host should. Very British, a wry smile firstly flashes on his face, followed by a cross between a grin and a scorn. “Oh, no it’s okay, buddie, I am used to these things, you know?” he says, looking at my eyes. “Nigeria is just finding its destiny” he continues in wry humour. “The country is putting off all pretences and becoming a garden-variety African country”, he says amid some suggestive chuckles.
I say nothing in reply at that moment as something more telling happens. A middle-aged poorish woman a few metres away from the frontage of our open air bar, emerges with a chamberpot from her room apartment in a typical Lagos tenement where residents live promiscuously, to empty fresh faeces into the open gutter running past our seats from which the rat had leapt.
Silence drops at once. We all keep quiet, half-breathing to be sure, in Socratic dilemma of a sort. Then comes the waft of smells; and now, better to observe the grief than try to go on to animate a conversation under choke.
We all seem to agree that by telepathy before Allen Moshe breaks the moment of silence with irony of ironies. “You know how much I have always loved to come back to Nigeria. I saw this country last in 1960 and had longed for a chance to see it again”. Oh, yes, I remember.
Allen Moshe was a son of a British colonial officer in Nigeria. He sure knew how Lagos was like in the beginning. “Not much has changed, actually….the same Lagos lifestyle as then,” Allen says amid his personal struggle to breathe normally.
But I choose to jump his verbal trap. A society that has not become any better in 53 years is a basket case, not a traditional society, since nothing in the meaning of ‘traditional society’ precludes decency or knowledge of sensible ways of doing things. “What do you miss most about Lagos, Nigeria, now that we’ve toured it all and seen nearly every inch of it?” I ask Allen.
Oh, for sure I miss the sophistication that was here in the 1960s,” he says. “There was a budding class of very fine Nigerian speakers of English language here in Lagos at the time, highly civilized and they were all in bespoke suit, with cigars and pipes! How they all just totally disappeared in Lagos is one of the wonders of the world.”
Now I get it – the meaning of a garden variety African country Allen Moshe says Nigeria of today is. “Look over there… just behind that old prison,” he calls my attention. “That was a race course used by all Lagosians at the time and not just for horse race, but also for cricket and athletics.
Lagos schools used it for inter-house sport too, it was the rallying point for all Lagosians, but now you fenced it for use only by your government officials.”
Yes, indeed, Tafawa Balewa Square is the old race course. I look the other way momentarily for inspiration as if to change the topic. Then an ill-clad child in tatters passes by. A student by definition but not by description.
He has no school books, no school bag, but just going through the motions as student, whilst in actual preparation for a future life as street urchin. Soon, a jarring noise driven close to our eardrums would startle the bar.
A muscular passenger of a decrepit yellow bus bearing contrails of overarching diesel smoke brings the noise home to us. It is not clear exactly what happened but the gist is that the passenger says he gave 200 Naira note to the bus conductor who denies it.
Both of them now choose to bleed to death over who owes whom a hundred Naira. The bus driver pulls to the side of the narrow road as if ring-fencing.
The muscular passenger and the bus conductor then pull each other down the bus and deal deadly blows over the equivalence of half a U.S dollar. Blood flows and Allen Moshe runs. “You don’t know me”, the bus passenger boasts in broken English like a braggart. “I am ready to die with you here.
Nobody can ever cheat me in this world and go free,” the passenger warns the badly bleeding bus conductor with menaces. But the conductor who’d been running hither and thither soon finds a bottle near the tyre of an olden car.
He wields it, hits it against a culvert brick and charges at the boastful passenger with intent to maim or kill at first strike with the bottle’s pointed edge. The passenger makes a run for it but the bus conductor gives a hot chase.
Seeing the bloodiness, an oncoming newspaper vendor freezes behind a parked tricycle, after his stack of newspapers fell off his head to be later trampled upon into shreds by a stampede of a fleeing crowd.
The vendor’s wares were all gone – well, except for the four newspapers left in his shaky hands. Neither the passenger nor the bleeding bus conductor cares for the headlines. They both run swiftly past the shivering newspaper vendor; ignoring the papers’ eye-watering theft news of Nigeria’s collective wealth.
The bus conductor’s chase continues up to an intersection down the road where nothing then seems clear from our distance. “Yeeeh” someone watching then screams. “He has killed him O, he has stabbed his neck”.
A murder amid an ensuing stampede is worrying. I must get out of here, but first I must find Allen Moshe who’d fled his chair at the very first yell from inside the bus.
Could he be hiding behind the freezer of the bar? I run there to fetch him but Allen Moshe is not there. I rush down the corridor of the next house behind another clutch of a fleeing crowd but Allen Moshe is not there either.
He is white. He’d have stood out amongst the blacks. So, what to do? To find Allen Moshe is first priority. To explain what caused the murderous fight is the next.
How can one sensibly say a principle lay behind this murder over half-a-single dollar? How does one explain this cultural nuance that 11 trillion Naira of Nigeria’s money is announced as missing but causes no flinch or burst of anger?
But that half-a-dollar of bus fare leads here in Nigeria to a passenger’s painful death by slithering? What will Allen Moshe now say of us?