6:05 am. Utako, Abuja.
I sit in the lobby of ABC Transport terminal, awaiting departure. On the wall opposite me, a flat-screen TV plays a Nollywood film, and in it, a young lady with chestnut skin, braided hair, clad in a t-shirt and knee-length shorts, grabs a man by his balls, her fist clenched as tight as a gator’s jaws.
When I was a child, watching Nollywood films used to be a family tradition, something my siblings, my parents, and I bonded over. We laughed at the comedic scenes, shared grief over the tragic ones, and mocked the home videos we felt were a waste of screen-time. It’s been long since we’ve had such moments. Adulting has taken my elder sister and me away from home. Retirement has taken my parents, who grew tired of city life, back to our village home. With age comes distance and death of traditions. All we have now are the memories of those times when we were inhabitants of each other’s spaces.
The lady’s hand is still fisted over the man’s crotch. She demands he pays her the debt he owes. Gimme my money! she says to him, her eyes widened, her neck pulsing with bulging veins. Gimme my money! she says. The man grimaces and screams, wincing in pain. His hands dart about and quickly search his pockets. He brings out some naira notes and gives them to her. She takes the cash with her free hand, unclenches her fist, and walks away.
The bus leaving for Owerri is ready. An announcement to the passengers leaving for Owerri summons us outside the lobby. Our luggage has been weighed and sorted already, so we stroll to the bus and board. The engine purrs. The terminal’s gate opens and ushers us into A. E. Ekuninam Street where the bus glides, rolls gently on the quiet road, alongside other cars.
We drive out of Utako, past Jabi, to Olusegun Obasanjo Expressway, and the driver picks up speed on the speed lane. There are a few cars on the road, fewer passersby. Away from the roads, behind the buildings filled with waking lives, the outlines of hills, darkened by the morning’s mist, kiss the horizon.
Abuja is my first home. I was born here. This place where, before I was born, my father had earned his pay from working with construction companies who were beating the rural land into an urban ground, in preparation for its ascent to the country’s capital. Abuja was to take the baton from Lagos – a decision made in the mid-1970s. The rising population in Lagos was a heavy concern. Also, there was a strategic take to the decision: Lagos sat at the Atlantic’s edge and was too open to be home to the country’s head – Abuja was more sheltered, safely ensconced in the centre of the country, carved out of lands from Benue, Kogi, Nasarawa, and Niger.
What engages the eyes most in this city is its beautiful landscape. And sometimes the beauty is evoked by how these works of nature interface with urban infrastructure: how some roads are walled on one side with rocks cracked to make way for the roads’ construction; or how buildings are held in the gaze of distant mountains, a mast in the background, passersby, a flock of birds bisecting the clouds hanging above the scenic view – all of them that way, arrayed like a painter’s prop. From most views, hills line the horizon, giving one the illusion that while driving, the road would terminate at a hill. But it never does. The roads are worms that wriggle into connecting networks between small streets, city districts, or bounded states. And because of how wide the roads are, they are mostly free from traffic jams and, despite the distance between districts, give the voyager an illusion of nearness.
My earliest memory is of this city, before it got this fancy. And in this memory the day was sunny. My sister and I were walking down an untarred street, a street rumpled with swells and depressions, with solid undulations looking like an ocean frozen in a dance of waves. We ascended the bumps. We descended the slopes. We got to one so steep my legs shivered. Afraid I could not climb, I stood and cried, and my sister took my hand, hushed and guided me as we climbed. She’s two years older, this sister of mine, and she’s here in Abuja, a working-class woman with whom I came to spend some time while I mapped this city of my birth that has become a stranger to my mind and I a stranger to its land.
In 1995, when my family left Abuja, we moved to Calabar, Cross River, where most of my childhood memories formed, then from Calabar to Omoku, a suburb in the oil-rich Rivers, where puberty met me. From Omoku, I moved to Owerri, Imo for tertiary education, and it has been my base since university.
Of all the places in which I’ve lived, I miss Calabar most. Maybe because of childhood nostalgia. When I visited around November 2018 (thirteen years after my departure) and spent a week, it was that desire for things far-flung into the past that kept me interested. I wasn’t excited by the sight of the city. Spaces familiar to my childhood memory did not cause any emotional stir. But what did, not surprisingly, was the sight of familiar faces, people I knew from childhood – some as neighbours, some as church members, some as classmates. Remembering the moments we shared in bygone years while creating new memories over our meeting was what warmed my heart. What we mostly miss about places are the people with whom we had fond encounters. But Abuja defies this logic. It’s the sight of the city that keeps me interested. It is what I, still leaving, miss already.
We are out of the city gates now, past Lugbe, driving through the regions unoccupied. The road is flanked by sparse vegetation misted in the cold January morning. Silhouettes of hills adorn the terrain. As I watch the mountainous shadows in the distance, a flock of egrets, wings flogging the air gently, fly past, and I see myself in an old memory where I was a little boy in Calabar, about six or seven years of age, standing alongside my peers, our eyes set skyward, tracing a flock of egrets in migration, and our hands raised and fingers flapping as we sang: chekeleke give me white fingers. Sometimes, afterwards, we would notice a speckle white as the bird’s feather on our nails, and we’d bask in the satisfaction of the egret’s blessing.
Before Lagos, Calabar had served as the administrative centre of the Southern Protectorate. Administrative activities moved to Lagos in 1906 and remained there until the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates in 1914. After the amalgamation, Nigeria was born, and Lagos became the first official capital of the infant country.
Because of Calabar’s early brush with the British, it was the first for some things in Nigeria. Football was first played there. Field hockey; crickets, too. The first army barrack was built there. And so was the first prison.
Apart from those historical claims, which my memory associates with the city, there are also superstitious and fairy tales, many made popular at that time, by the rise of new-age miracle-working clergies and a series of home videos produced by Mount Zion films. A wall-gecko listing on the wall of your living room or an agama perched on your window was a spy from the kingdom of darkness, listening for your plans so they can terminate its fruition. A swarm of mosquitoes in your neighbourhood, despite the open gutters and breeding puddles around, was a vessel through which witches and wizards mined your blood for their coven’s use. Nails, hairs, things private to the body, if left in the open, put its owner at risk of spiritual manipulation.
One popular and unverifiable story, which children especially liked and recounted, was the tale of the Itu Bridge Mermaid.
During the construction of Itu Bridge – intended to connect Cross River to Akwaibom – a mermaid had disturbed severely. She came at night to destroy everything they built in the day. It went on that way for a while until one of the foreigners overseeing the bridge’s construction, a spiritual man himself, tired of the mermaid’s obstruction, dived into the river to meet her. He proposed they played a game: they would take turns jumping in and out of a bottle he brought for play. It interested her, this game of his, so they began. After some turns, when it got to her, as she jumped into the bottle, he corked it and sealed her there. The bridge’s construction continued uninterrupted.
Our bus makes a stop at Gwagwalada. The driver says he has something to pick at the ABC terminal here. He parks and hurries off. A man on a pine green caftan, a lime green cap, approaches our bus and markets his balls of onion heaped in small baskets. Two passengers buy. The driver returns and our journey continues.
The sun is a muted-yellow eye on a cloudless sky. A perfect circle circumscribed in a grey canvas. It races alongside us, fixed on this sky that is, perhaps due to the mist, the colour of steel.
Road trips are therapeutic for me. It is soothing to sit in a comfortable, moving car for hours, watching the roads and things that happen at the roads’ edges: the expansive landscapes with sprawling hills, long valleys, thick or lean bushes, the bustle of bush markets, roadside sellers, vignettes caught in passing, in brief pauses, of strangers acting out a scene filled with warmth. I try not to touch my phone or read a book while travelling. Instead, I watch the road and allow my mind to wander.
We reach Kwali at 7:40 am. The mist is heavy here, persisting despite the rising sun to blur distant views and turn objects into apparitions of themselves. Ladi Kwali, the famous Nigerian potter, was born here. She made pots, bowls, jugs, all from clay, incised with geometric patterns and sometimes depictions of small animals like scorpion, lizard, snake. Her works had a polished shine, with symmetry striking to the eyes. To date, her image sits on the back of the twenty naira note, making her the only woman printed on a Nigerian currency. Her hands were influenced by her Gbagyi tradition, where pottery was, for them, alongside farming, a primal skill. They used their moulded pots for grain storage, water, among other things. The Gbagyi tribe fascinates me. Their traditional Knunu religion is similar to the Odinani the Igbos practiced, where one had a private chi to whom they reported. Divorce is not strange to them. Children who are in love, against their parents’ approval, can elope but should turn in themselves after they do, so their families can convene for the proper marital rites. A peace-loving clan. Their shoulders carried loads in place of their heads. For the Gbagyi people, the head is sacred: a tool for thought should not be laden.
They are spread across Kaduna, Kogi, Nasarawa, Niger, Abuja, Plateau, and were the prominent indigenous settlers where Abuja now settles, but were displaced from their homes and dispossessed of their farmlands so the government could carve a capital city set in the centre of our map, a capital city redolent of Brazil’s Brasília.
The tribe is quite large. Too large to be swept under the umbrella of the Hausa tribe, as Nigerians unaware of the differences do.
Outside my window, the sun has turned a bright yellow. It spills its yolk over the still dull sky, its rays bursting through the crack in my window curtain. A signpost on the roadside reads Goodbye from Orehi.
In the next community, Ozi, a herder with a stick balanced on his shoulder strolls along the road’s length, his herds marching behind him. We drive past them, past rural buildings, lean bushes, mountains, empty spaces, until we arrive at Lokoja, the confluence city, where arms of the Niger and Benue rivers meet.
Our bus makes a detour and stops at the ABC Transport terminal here. The break is for relief and refreshment. I climb down, alongside other passengers, into the sun’s mild warmth. The place has the chatter of a market-square. A wide range of things are sold here: apples, bananas, caps, roast plantain, suya, textile, yams.
I lose appetite for food during long road trips. I can manage water, soft drinks, but things solid and filling scare my stomach.
The building here, painted green, is shared. On one side, ABC Transport has its cargo office, a convenience for travellers within. On the other side: a mini-mart, owned by a different establishment. Behind the building, in the distance, is the spread of an expansive field too green for the harmattan season known for browning things. And on the field, bodies of water glint like coins scattered in the sun. The field stretches far into the distance, thicker with mist the farther it goes until it bleeds into the horizon and becomes one with the steel-coloured sky.
We have ten minutes to kill. I go into the restroom for relief. Then the mart where I pick a biscuit and a bottle of water.
Lokoja is another city filled with colonial history. Mount Patti, which rises about 1,500 feet above sea level, is a sight. It is the tallest mountain in the city. The mountain where Fredrick Lugard had built his rest house while he was the governor-general of the Northern and Southern Protectorates of Nigeria. That vantage point which allowed him to oversee the city and activities of ships running on the Niger river. The building still stands and has become a tourist attraction. Lugard shared the space sometimes with Flora Shaw, the British journalist for London Times with whom he had an affair and later married. In the late nineteenth century, it was from there, overlooking the brown flow of the Niger, Shaw had given Nigeria its name. Niger Area, she had suggested. Then, for short, Nigeria.
The water named the land.
Our time elapses. We return to the bus and board. As we leave, we bend into a road that allows me a clearer view of the field. A few people dot the land. Scarecrows, too. A man holds a hose skyward. It slushes water onto the lush green plants around him. At the end of the field, an arm of River Niger trundles.
I look to the roads, unfamiliar to a stranger’s eyes. The roads are just roads. Connecting links between point x and y. Conveyor belts rolling our bus from departure to destination. In cities with roads with which I’m familiar, roads are their names, and their names carry memories, histories, caveats. For instance, at Douglas Road, Owerri, especially in evenings, I know strolling with a soft countenance could invite street bullies. As a safety measure against the roadside thugs, I harden my face and thud the road like I own it. At Calabar, IBB Way and Eta-Agbor Road have an overlay of my childhood memories: they were routes through which I went to and returned from school. At Omoku, Ikiri Road was the road where, at a bar, I had my first beer. At Abuja, Murtala Expressway lies next to Gilmor Estate, Jahi, where I spent some weeks at my cousin’s during my stay in the city, the road that fed the first sound to my waking ears: a sound of cars gliding, and because there was no honking or unnecessary engine revving, because the traffic flowed freely, the sound was so smooth it sounded like a rushing stream.
It’s 10:07 am now. The mist is almost gone, lingering in spite of the sun’s soft burn. I look away from the roads. The estimated time for this journey is eleven to twelve hours, so we have about seven to eight hours to kill in transit. I brace myself for the fatigue. I lean into my seat, close my eyes, and listen to the purr of the engine hurtling us through places.
Zenas Ubere is a Nigerian writer. A Pushcart Prize nominee, he has works in Lolwe, Barren Magazine, Gordon Square Review, Akuko Magazine, The Voyage Journal, and elsewhere. He is a prose reader at Quarterly West and Fractured Lit. Find him on Twitter @zenasubere.