“Allaaaahu Akbar, Allaaaaaaaahu Akbar…”
Sote woke up with a jolt as the megaphone from Alhaja Rahmat Asabi Raimo mosque blared its morning renditions, calling on all worshippers to prayer and success. “…Iqamat as-salat…” He had to put up with this every morning, as the mosque was opposite the cubicle of a home that he managed with the rest of his family – a wife and three children. Even though the drowsiness had not left him, he pulled himself up from the naked mattress and dragged himself to the door while trying to avoid stepping on his children, Oke, Taiwo and Kehinde. They were all asleep on the floor.
Outside was very chilly and this made him regret not taking a second wrapper for his chest. Sote went to the out-house to relieve himself. The putrid combination of stale piss and shit hit him hard as he shifted the corrugated sheet used as a make-shift door. By then the sleep had wandered off completely and he was able to think of getting a better life for his family. A life where the abuse of quiet by that mosque would not disturb him, where his children would have rooms of their own and where his toilet wouldn’t smell like something close to a death sentence.
The part he dreaded most of the morning was taking a bath. The warm water Oke had fetched yesterday evening had turned really cold so that it’d pass for iced water in the hot weather. Once Sote poured the bowl of water over his head, there was this electric shock that ran through his body and straight to his heart. Such cold could put a stop to life. Well, the worst had been overcome and so he went through with his bath. The mosque had cried out again calling on its worshippers as the prayer time was due. This time, his wife and children had risen and were taking turns doing their morning rituals of brushing, toilet-business and bathroom business.
Already in his shirt, tucked in his trousers, Sote was getting ready to leave for the office. He was tying his shoelaces when his wife, Maryam, came in with the children. The twins were so scrawny that Sote couldn’t look at them for too long without feeling despair. He knew why Maryam was back in the room, even though normally her station should have been the kitchen where she’d be preparing the twins’ and Oke’s meal. She was going to ask for money again. Money for soup, that she never cooked properly. Money for the children, that didn’t even look like they got any at all. He had given her money on Monday, today was Friday. Couldn’t she have managed the #1,500 he gave to her till today? Maryam just stood near the door without saying a word to her husband. Once he got up to leave, she blocked him. A sign that he wasn’t leaving the house without a fight if he didn’t drop anything.
As much as he hated to do it, he pushed her scrawny self too away. As if on cue, the twins begun to wail and wail. He couldn’t leave; his children were hungry. Standing at the door with his head bowed to the wall, Sote thought of his life. Such a joke. Dressed in a shirt, tie and trousers. His hair neatly arranged. One would think he actually worked in an office. His family thought so. He went back to beg his wife who had started yelling at him for being a selfish man that wouldn’t bring money home to his family. “She actually thinks I work as a big man” Sote thought as he kept begging her to keep quiet. Buried in his right pocket was #200 for transport and in his left pocket was #100 to feed for the whole day. He dropped the #100 and left for work. Oke was all ready for school, she just had a few chores to do before leaving the house. #100 wasn’t going to do anything for them, Maryam thought, but she didn’t protest when her husband dropped it. Yesterday had been fortunate by leaving her with #500 in totality.
Sote didn’t know so many things. He didn’t know that his wife worked as a cleaner in the new supermarket that opened up three weeks ago. He didn’t even know that a supermarket had opened in his area. He didn’t know that Maryam locked the twins up in the house so she could go and work. He didn’t know that she had to come back to her neighbour’s scolding for leaving their sons home alone. He didn’t know that she had been saving some money from the stipends she got from cleaning at the supermarket.
Sote alighted at the motor park. Another day of screaming, arguments and fights. The driver of his bus who doubled as his boss had gotten there before him. That meant two things- trouble and trouble. Sote rushed into a shack to change into the long sleeved cotton shirt and Ankara trousers (both worn-out) that he normally donned for work as a bus-driver’s assistant.
Sote was a conductor.
Pope, the bus-driver, wasn’t smiling. He had been waiting over 30 minutes for Sote and the guy still had the guts to waste time by changing clothes like a woman! Couldn’t he see that the day had long begun? He even had to skip his turn more than two times because of the useless man. Sote, a rag in hand, hurried out of the shack to greet his already fuming master who replied with a grunt, and proceeded to clean the interior of the bus. The seats and windows of black leather and glass were wiped to shine. Sote’s job description wasn’t just calling on bus-stops and collecting money from passengers, it included keeping the bus as neat as a pin because Pope said, “I am an orderly man.”
On the turn of the ignition, the vehicle started with a cough, a grunt and then a loud hum before it moved to join the queue of other buses that were ready to take in passengers. This was followed by Sote’s announcement of all the bus-stops and routes the yellow and black was going to ply. In high and uneven tones, Sote’s mantra joined that of other conductors in the park.
In twos in threes, the fares boarded the bus but not without a quick reminder of the amount of money they should pay. A very big problem of his work was the issue of change. After every ride, all the money gathered was turned over to Pope. Even when he (Sote) tried to make him see how difficult his situation was and turning over didn’t help, there was no remedy. So Sote was left to deal with that problem alone by warning the passengers fervently. Those who didn’t have change had to either step down or be forcefully married to another passenger with the same problem. Anytime an altercation begun as a result, Pope never intervened. Little wonder why he purposefully demarcated his space from the passengers with a plank.
It was most frustrating for the conductors that worked for him so that he changed them every two weeks; nonetheless, Sote wasn’t ready to leave even after two months.
The whole day as is every of his days was filled with discomfort and anger. Frustration, sadness, wishful thinking. If only he could get another job, if only he could earn more money. He had received a slap from a woman who claimed to be within his mother’s age group because he told her angrily that he had no change. He had engaged in battle with the touts who extorted money from them at every bus-stop. That afternoon, he was determined not to release any amount to them in spite of the vehicle part they tried to pry off. The security of the bus was in his hands, Pope only had to drive and collect the money. The bleached-skin man had already hung himself on the bus holding the conductor by the shirt. He wasn’t going to leave without a fight or his money. Within seconds, Sote was wriggling in pain on the road. The tout had beaten him to a sorry state, no mercy, and had even taken more money than was required. After regaining consciousness, Sote opened his eyes to shoes and sandals, different pairs of legs. The war had been a spectacle for passers-by who couldn’t even offer help. They all went about their businesses as if nothing happened. Sote, in excruciation, noticed that the vehicle wasn’t even in sight. So Pope couldn’t wait to rescue him? On the awareness of the name, Sote searched his pocket for Pope’s money and saw that half of what was gathered had been deducted. The bleached bastard had stolen his money.
He arrived at the park to find Pope waiting for him, or rather, for his money. Even after explaining his ordeal with the tout, the father of three got no sympathy from his boss. After receiving his own share of the day’s gathering, nothing close to what Pope had, Sote took a bath at the park’s toilet, donned his shirt tie and shoes and went to eat at FOOD IS REDI COME AN EAT.
Maryam, Oke and the twins were all asleep on the bed, when he got home but he didn’t mind. After stripping off his work clothes to lay on the mattress, much painful, Sote thought of how he’d recover #2,250 to replace what he’d lost. It was in this thought that he drifted off to sleep.