Okene-Benin Road

“You are coming for Christmas, right?” she said as she helped fold my clothes into the bag. I grunt an answer, trying to avoid her face. It is my go to response whenever someone ask if I will make the journey again. I simply grunt like most buses on the roads. My mother has done nothing wrong, neither has any other member of my family.

My heart ached as I saw my father’s worried expression from the corners of my eyes. I mean, who wouldn’t want to spend the holidays with their family? “Is the road that bad?” he asked. “Yes. Very.” It was all I could say. I sat on the bed, turning my options in my mind while my brain regurgitated vivid pictures of my journey home, sending instant dread down my spine as I prepared to return.

Travelling from Abuja to Edo state did not come with options, especially as my family lives away from the capital. A road trip was a no brainer when I found out that the federal road linking my hometown to Benin was ridden with potholes and a journey that should take 35 minutes would be made in 4 hours. It means, even if I had tried to escape with air travel, the journey home would still cause aches and torture. I marched to the bus park instead.

As the driver settled in his seat, three young men behind me yelled with excitement. I turned and wondered what was special. “Ėpa, na you first carry us come day before yesterday,” one of them said. He was shocked that we were shocked by his statement and clarified saying, “Una no know say na luck we get. This man sabi all the road wey no go make us sleep for road. That Okene-Benin road na danger zone. Una never know anything yet.” The rest of us did some ohs and ahs. We knew the road was bad but did not see the need to celebrate a driver. Not yet.

It was 8:51am and with all said and done, we entered the road of possibilities. One thing was clear — anyhow wey e be, we go reach house. That is, regardless of what the road presents, we will get home. As expected, the road was smooth all the way to Abaji and began to crack once we sighted the first campaign billboard for the forthcoming Kogi state gubernatorial elections. It got worse as we got closer to Lokoja but this was bliss compared to what was to come.

The men, who had yelled before, were all lawyers. Two had come to attend a court proceeding and the other came to visit family. They discussed loudly with disgust at the state of the nation. Before long, the entire bus was deep in conversation, each person lamenting that they would rather not make the trip in December. “You people have not seen anything, you are complaining. Wait let us pass Lokoja,” the bald headed one in the middle said. His light skinned friend echoed the words and added, “Who sleep inside say he see ghost, wetin who sleep outside go come talk?”

11:38am. Touch down Lokoja and the men immediately start to laugh as someone exclaimed, “Thank God o. We have gone halfway.” I would laugh too when next I hear someone say that in Lokoja because now I know. By 12:05pm, we had moved again and that was where the decay became plain. The road was filled with potholes, so the driver was intent on dodging the bigger ones while sacrificing the tyres at the altar of the big ones. It seemed as though the bus was jumping, leaping even, trying to make it from end to end. That was when the stories poured out.

“There is no way I am passing this road in December. I will package the transport and send to my siblings at home. This is the worst it has ever been,” a middle aged man with a strong Benin accent said. He went on about how a federal road that links the capital to the most parts of the country ought to be smooth and well catered for. He added that it would be painful not to see his family for Christmas but they wouldn’t want him embarking on the suicide mission either. His mind was made up.

Everyone else started sharing stories as we navigated bushes, earth roads and potholes together. Yes, there was one driver but we all gave directions. You would hear things like, “You fit enter, dress back small, oya come follow side. Correct.” “Them say one road dey here. Just cut your hand small. See that hole for there. No enter make motor no sink.”

There was nothing we did not do to get a better road experience. We followed backyards, bush paths and community earth roads to avoid the traffic caused by trailers and tankers parked by the road side who were affected by the bad road. Still, it seemed as though the checkpoints were doubled with security officials collected fifty naira at every stop. The area boys were not left out as they made a living blocking the bush paths and taxing the drivers who used them. While we managed our way, two incidents stood out.

The first, around Okene, was a political convoy that was struggling to find its way in the traffic, like the other vehicles. However, instead of waiting in line, the uniformed escorts stepped out of their van with whips ordering every other vehicle to create a path for the politician to pass. It was futile as there was a gridlock but they continued to brandish the whips anyway. It didn’t matter because we were all stuck.

The second was at Agbede where uniformed security men were stationed doing nothing while vehicles struggled to meander in the mud without sinking. Just beside them, community boys placed logs of wood to block the road, only opening it up when paid hundred naira. The uniformed officers, who ought to safeguard the road and its users, watched as the brisk business went on.

As the stories poured out, my seat partner remained mute. I nudged him, curious to hear his story. “Would you be coming to Edo in December or are you not returning to Abuja?” I asked. He sighed and rolled his eyes. Just when I was about to feel bad for intruding, he said, “My mother is sick and that is why I am travelling. When I get home, I will tell her how this road is. I will send money from Abuja because even she would want me alive.”

He explained how bad his mother’s sickness was and how he intended to get a caregiver in Edo. He loved his family just like the rest of us in the bus but the journey places you between life and death. We talked some more until I reached my stop at 5:50pm. My mind was made up as to whether I would make the journey in December.

I am still hurt that I won’t sing with my siblings while we watch our parents dance during Christmas. I will miss the black soup but my life is more important. How long would this go on for, though? In a few months, the road will be completely damaged. What then happens to our families and businesses? What happens to Nigeria?