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The sun was hot on the back of my neck. Hunger stretched and yawned like an expectant embryo needing nourishment in my belly. I unwrapped the plantain from the newspaper, the smell teased my nostrils. Boli roasted plantain, was usually eaten with palm oil, sold on the streets wrapped in paper. The groundnuts were in the second wrap of the newspaper. The trick was to break off a bit of plantain and follow it up with the nuts, that way, the sweetness of the roasted plantain blended with the savoury saltiness of the roasted nuts.
I ate while seated at the back of a sweltering Molue stuck in the legendary Lagos Go Slow. It was 1977, Obalende. Lt Col Buka Suka Dimka had just assassinated our President, Murtala Mohammed. My school was just down the road from where it happened.
It was perfect pandemonium, like something out of that old film “Dogs of War.” Students, traders, office workers were all running towards Obalende Bus stop looking for transport to get them as far away from Ikoyi as possible. Cars hooting, sirens blaring and long queues waiting at the bus stop for transport that was woefully inadequate.
The heat was enough to make your sweat curdle. A bus would arrive, and the crowd surged forward. It would be filled up in seconds. Two hours later I was still there. Waiting. I was a child wearing a secondary school uniform too big for me. A child with expectations bigger than the bag of books balanced on my young shoulders. I wanted to get home. This was my second year in Nigeria and I had not stopped missing England.
I was born in England, but returned with my parents and my siblings to Nigeria in the mid-seventies. Still nostalgic, yearning to go back to what was familiar. I had just managed to come to terms with the sporadic transport system and wondered how I was going to get home.
A man saw me crying and hoisted me through the window of the bus. I sat on someone’s lap as the bus, heavy with its human cargo, rumbled down the road past the army personnel brandishing guns and shouting instructions at the crowds. A black cloud loomed in the sky as we sped down the road. Army personnel jumped out whipping anyone that stood in their way. Some street boys decided to create havoc by burning a tyre in the middle of the road. The soldiers were looking for coup plotters in the eating houses and petty traders in the market. They were brandishing whips and canes with amazing tenacity for people who had just lost their commander in chief.
Years later, boli and plantain became my favourite snack when swotting for exams. During my final years at secondary school, I decided if I were to make my parents especially proud I must study the sciences. In my youth, I believed that society conferred science students with a level of intelligence that I realised as an adult was in many cases totally undeserved. I was tiny and needed glasses, although I didn’t know it at time. Walking to school with a copy of “Biology for Tropical Schools” gave my wavering self-confidence a momentary boost.
Boli and groundnuts were a typical Nigerian street food. Best eaten with any of the books from the African Writers Series. They provided the perfect antidote for the long journey stuck on Lagos roads home from school.
I got my lessons on life and love hunched over a book, reading about the ill-fated lovers Obi and Clara in No Longer at Ease. I remember reading about the travails of a young immigrant family in 1970s London in Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen while on a three and a half hour ride back to my home in Kiera. I would read and think about my life and my future. I was a very serious 14 year old. I worried about a world where Buchi Emecheta’s children would grow up. I worried about a world where you could be treated like a second class citizen because your parent was an immigrant. I saw parallels between the life of the writer and my parents, Nigerian students in England in the seventies.
I seldom studied without a snack. Nothing helped you digest the law of thermodynamics or memorise for your chemistry exam better than a hot smoky plantain and a bag of roasted groundnuts. They were comforting. They helped me stop pining after the Golden Wonders salt and vinegar crisps and Cadbury’s chocolate of my childhood. They reminded me that I was in Nigeria. Although I could not fully grasp at the time, a lot of my destiny lay waiting to be discovered on its shores.
Last year, I went back to Lagos and treated myself to some boli and groundnuts. They still tasted as good as they did all those years ago. I hardly recognised Obalende Bus stop or my old secondary school—gleaming buildings in contrast to the potholed roads. Boli bought at the roadside might have lost its charm for many of the youth I saw standing at bus stops waiting in the blinding sun for transport. As a symbol of their frustrated potential, it represented their desire to make an impact thwarted by the silent bureaucracy of a corrupt, aging ruling class. But for me, it reminded me of the little girl that just wanted to get home one chaotic afternoon, because she knew her parents would be worried about her.