You Must (Not!) Set Forth at Dawn

Olubunmi Familoni


There are cities that never sleep. I was raised in one: Lagos. So you can imagine the rude awakening that awaited me in this new city that doesn’t just sleep but does so deeply it is reluctant to climb out of slumber in the morning. Sometimes, it takes the burning fury of the afternoon sun to draw Ibadan out from under the covers.

Lagos may be the capital of ‘wokeness’ as far as Nigerian cities go, but it being a city that never sleeps might just be an exaggeration of its nocturnal vibrancy. I think it is more of a city that steals a few winks, while nobody is looking, and sleeps this inch of sleep with one eye half-open, never going beyond the surface of slumber. Ibadan is just shouting distance from loud insomniac Lagos. You’d expect that because of this proximity, Ibadan wouldn’t be such a deep sleeper.

The first thing you notice, on your very first night in Ibadan, is how early everybody turns in. And how this early retirement doesn’t necessarily result in an early rising. Early to bed does not equal early to rise here.

The city is still in bed when you bounce out of the house at 5 a.m., filled to the brim with that bubbly Lagos energy, ready to face the day head-on, liquid enthusiasm pulsing through your veins and propelling your feet forward. All the ginger pumping from your heart soon dries out when you reach the bus stop at 5:03. There is no bus. No crowd waiting for one, no rush, of bodies or limbs pressing through the door of a danfo. Not a breath of life anywhere. Everywhere dead silent; the city a corpse. Not even the odd thief, up and about his business early, to relieve you of your phones and wallet. Everybody, from pupil to pickpocket, from area boy to market woman, from businessman to ‘runs girl’, is still in bed.

You go back home and try to go back to sleep. But that would take some getting used to for a person with hot Lagos spirit still fresh in their blood. So, you lie awake watching the day grey out as it breaks outside your window, trying to measure when it is dawn enough to set forth. Or, if it was already too late and the bus stop would have become Babel; but no, it is still just a ghost town, with only a handful of people shuffling about like zombies, as if their beds were graves they had been forcefully exhumed from and they would rather just be resting in them, in peace, instead of carrying on this show of trying to make a living, making a production of it.

No, this is not some semi-rustic neighbourhood on the outskirts clinging to the hem of the city for life; this is Challenge, one of the major commercial centres of the city! It is half-awake. At half past six. On a Monday morning.

This is a bus stop. But there are no buses. No buses stopping, or doing anything. Well, there are no passengers to stop for. There are a few cabs parked some metres away. These are the city’s famous Nissan Micras, the tiny taxis that have become the symbol of public transportation in the city, and an utter nuisance on the roads, with their suicidal manoeuvrings through traffic and total disregard for traffic rules. There are no drivers in sight. There are some men drinking their breakfast (of koko or paraga) and chewing sticks under the awning of one of the many electronics shops or boutiques that line this thoroughfare that runs through the heart of the commercial nerve centre. They are probably officials of the transport workers’ union, NURTW, which controls the activities of drivers and conductors and is responsible for collection of daily revenue from them (which they sometimes resort to violence to achieve). These men are carrying on a slow-moving conversation that is not going anywhere. You approach them and ask where you can get a cab or bus to UI, the University of Ibadan, the nation’s premier university and one of the city’s main claims to fame; it is a city of quite a number of firsts, that is the first thing you learn about the city.

One of the men points a lazy finger in the direction of another line of Micra cabs just around the corner of a petrol station that doubles as a motor park. Those are the ones going to UI, he says in Yoruba. When you get there, nobody is going anywhere; the driver is asleep, his seat reclined as if he’s on a vacation, his bare feet on the dashboard, his mouth hanging open as if in amazement that the grey of dawn is quickly giving way to the white of day. You get this wicked idea to wake him up with his own car horn, as punishment for still sleeping at 6:43 in the morning. When you press the thing all you get is the empty click of a dead horn (cabs in this city have been known to get by without such little inconveniences as horns, side-view mirrors, rear-view mirrors, and even sometimes, brakes). The clap of this empty click of the horn wakes the driver and he considers you with that bewildered look of a person startled awake, which quickly becomes a glower as he pats his pockets for his phone — it is there; the scowl softens. You tell him you’re going to UI. He says he is going to Mokola Roundabout and you can only get a cab to UI from there.

You sit in the cab and watch the city rouse slowly, people moving about slower than you’re used to seeing, as if they don’t really have anywhere to go to and they’re just going, just moving, not with the determination of reaching a destination that Lagosians move with. These ones aren’t going anywhere.

You sit in that cab for about thirty years and only two people join you. A few people had come, and left because of disagreement with the driver over the fare (in this town, people would rather dry out in the sun or walk a mile in rain because of a difference of five naira in the fare; they haggle hard out here). And the driver wasn’t going to move an inch unless three more people came along to complete his ‘full load’ (yes, these drivers cram five people into their matchbox Micra cabs; two in front in the passenger’s seat; the person with the misfortune of sitting between the driver and the other front-seat passenger has to sit with only half of his buttocks, the other half squashed into the space between the driver’s and the passenger’s seat, the gear lever grinding viciously against his/her left thigh as the driver struggles to change gears. No passenger ever wants to make a whole trip in that half seat).

As one year climbs upon another, and you can feel yourself greying, you opt for a motorcycle ride to your destination. The first okada you flag down, the man says, sleepily, that your destination is “too far”. “UI here!” you say, even though you don’t know where UI is, but you imagine it has to be just here; I mean, it’s inside Ibadan, isn’t it! But the man mumbles something and zooms off. You think about how nowhere is ever “too far” for any Lagos okadaman; they’ll take you to heaven if you so desire to get there, you just have to be able to pay the fare. The second bike doesn’t even know where the university is. You sigh and are about to give up and head back to the taxi when a third okada stops. “Three hundred naira,” this one says. You hop on, expecting a short ride, measuring this by the amount charged, of course using Lagos rates. But the journey is what you can call a peregrination, covering about half the city! You feel as if you have cheated him when you hand the man that measly three hundred, for a distance that would have cost you about three thousand, or an arm and a leg, in Lagos.

Your business in the university done, your stomach reminds you of its existence with a grumble of protest. You remember that you’re in the town of the much celebrated local delicacy, amala and ewedu/gbegiri, a dish that should be on the city’s official insignia. You have heard about the famed Skye Bank (no, not the bank, the buka, so called because of its proximity to a branch of the bank), or Skyelolo as it is popularly called. It is a testament to the popularity of the place when you tell the okada man you’re going to Skye Bank and he knows it is the amala place, not the bank, and he drops you right in front of the buka, which is buzzing with activity outside as much as it is inside, with cars parked everywhere and more customers in there than there would be in the banking hall next door. There are men in suits and women in heels, yahoo boys in fly gear and aristo girls with expensive weaves and warpaint make-up on, mechanics in greasy overalls and teenagers in school uniforms, everybody jostling for space, voices piling over voices, each one fighting to be heard over the din of orders that fills the small room to bursting, plates raised over heads, plates in people’s faces. . . There are a few friendly greetings scattered about as well (somebody is always running into somebody else they know here; Ibadan is a large city, but it is a ‘small world’; everybody knows everybody, or there’s always somebody that knows somebody that knows you, that kind of thing). You don’t know anybody. And you don’t know your way around this place, so you’re ignored by the people dishing out food; well, it doesn’t help that you’re there in the back of this crowd, not able to get your plate forward enough to be noticed, lost in the madness. And people are pressing up on you from all sides just as the heat is pressing down on the place. Where you’re from you’d endure this kind of thing to get on a bus, not to get food in your stomach. You give up and decide to leave. You miss White House, and Ghana High Commission. You miss home.

Home is the bracket within which the mind exists at any given time. So, when you board a bus and tell the conductor hanging from the door that you’re going to Challenge, your mind tells you you’re going home, and it is not Lagos. (Challenge would become home for the next one year while you ‘served the nation’ in that post-graduation lull known as National Youth Service).

On your way to Challenge, you pass through the stretch of Beere-Oje-Oja’ba-Molete, and you are transported through J.P. Clark’s poem, “Ibadan”, the allure of that running splash of rust and gold in all its glory is spread out before you. It is poetry, this ancient part of the city, the part that presents you with the paradox that Ibadan is, an urban centre deeply rural in its core. Now you understand why in the numerous literary explorations of Ibadan, the brown rusted roofs cannot be ignored; it is picturesque. Photographs, poems, paintings, none of these can do justice to the beauty that this expanse of brown, hugging seven hills at the edge of the city, is.

It is evening when you reach Challenge. The boys, and men who never stopped being boys, are out on their daily ritual of drinking. That is something else that is a local sport here in this town: drinking; from beers to bitters; and there are bubbling venues to participate in this sport everywhere you turn: the lowly neighbourhood beer parlours, with huge loudspeakers blaring raucous fuji music tunes; dimly-lit mid-level bars, with a DJ in a corner spinning mixes of contemporary pop songs; and the upmarket lounges with lush interiors and ambient music emanating from hidden speakers. All these are ably represented in the commercial hub that is Challenge; but since you’re just a fresh graduate with a slim budget, you choose the beer parlour, where the beer is the cheapest, and hence the least cold, actually almost warm, because, as the barmaid put it, there has been no light since morning, and they just turned on the generator (the little thing is just as loud as Pasuma’s gravelly singing blaring out from the speaker beside it).

You settle for a table at the back, in a corner where you can be alone and pretend to read your Roth without anybody bothering you with those conversations people like to strike up with strangers just because they’re drinking the same brand of lager as them. Anyway, you’re three bottles in when your stomach raises placards in protest of the inhuman treatment meted out to it, and you remember that you have not had any meal today. You rush to the junction. Many shops have closed, others are closing, roadside bukas are clearing up for the day, there are no hawkers in sight; the city is preparing to go to bed. It is only 9:54 pm. You look around, hungry, tired, lost. Lost at home. Lost for words to describe how you feel when you get back home and pick up the phone to call home.

Olubunmi Familoni

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.