Art & Life: Nigeria – on the road – suffering and smiling
At 5.30am in Abuja a small crowd of prospective travellers gathers at the Utako bus park, to register themselves on the 10-to-12-hour journey from the country’s Middle Belt to Lagos. The passengers contend for the best seats on a old Sienna vehicle that is close to being consigned to the junk yard.
The car takes off to a preselection of music CDs on rotation. Sometimes the bus company provides air conditioning. On other occasions passengers have to contend, depending on the season, with intense heat or dust clouds swept up by fast-moving cars and potholes.
The car stops twice for food and rest breaks. In one of the more prominent stops a horde of mostly children and young adults rush at the incoming cars, stretching out an assortment of edibles. Nobody questions why they are not in school.
“We have to manage,” says an imam on the journey to Lagos. “What else will we do?”
Any road trip around Nigeria has a decent amount of scenery. Driving from Abuja to Sokoto, the sun beats down on large stretches of dry ground. Travelling from Lokoja in the Central Region to Abuja small mountains, waterbodies and swathes of foliage fill the landscape.But such a trip also provides consistent evidence of systemic breakdowns. Decrepit buildings dot the interstate roads, whittled down to the point of losing all their capacity.
Prayers kick off the journey, prayers end it. In transit, passengers share chargers, earphones and food, sometimes getting into topics of the day, or bonding over the failings of the government. Fela’s iconic “suffering and smiling” song could not sum up Nigerians’ attitude more. “We have to manage,” an imam on the journey from Abuja to Lagos says, smiling. “What else will we do?”
The Sienna beats the odds, again, and arrives in Lagos, plunged into hours of traffic. Passengers sit silently taking in the corrupted air. No one complains. At the last stop those remaining disembark, sweating. Everyone mumbles goodbye and heads to their various corners of a country that exists on uneven springs, yet magically stays afloat on the back of its citizens’ misguided resilience.
This article first appeared in the July/August 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine