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By Emmanuel Iduma

I feared I was late, but nothing in the manner of the man who handed me my ticket indicated a sense of urgency. Outside the office, I saw the minibus described on my ticket, a Sienna, parked close to the farthest area of the terminus. I walked to it. I was journeying east, to the fringe areas of Igboland. Owerri would lead me to Okigwe, and Okigwe to Afikpo.

      Despite my anxiety, I was the first to stand beside the Sienna. A man arrived with an older woman a few minutes later. “Is this the car going to Owerri?” he asked, and I said yes. “Okay, Mama, let me go,” he told the woman in lgbo. “Take care of my mother,” he said to me, with the faint hint of a plea. He dropped her suitcase beside me and walked away, hurrying off to work or to get more sleep. It was the least tender of farewells, I thought. But Mama, who was likely in her midsixties, nodded at him, without a scowl or drop in her jowl to show that she judged him uncaring or absentminded.

      Around me, others were also practiced in minimal affection, unwilling, as it appeared to me, to be suspected of sentimentality—such as the three men who arrived after Mama, two of whom were older and one young enough to be a son to either man. Father and son, I surmised, traveling home after a visit to a brother/uncle, who had driven them to the terminal. The uncle, perhaps in his late fifties, dressed in a short- sleeved shirt and holding car keys, counted some money, handing a few notes to his nephew, then to his brother. Right away, the father passed the money to his son, as though embarrassed by the gesture or the paltriness of the sum.

       “Uncle, thank you,” the young man said. The older men, brothers, did not look each other in the eye.

       The Owerri-bound man looked older by a few years. “You have done well,” he said to his host in Igbo.

In that moment, I wondered how my father might have looked at my uncle, if they had lived to the age of the men I now observed, after four or five decades together. The small arch of an eyebrow during a glance, the graze of a palm against a shoulder, the midsentence interruptions: gestures that were so natural to them they failed to be irritated or amused by them. Only when they were looked at or listened to by others did their similarities become apparent, just as it is often remarked to me by those who know both of us that my brother and I sound eerily alike.

The Niger Bridge, built in the sixties, considered an engineering marvel at the time

           Around six thirty, we made our way out of the terminus. There were six of us in the Sienna. We headed toward the foot of a bridge, then made a U-turn onto a road that led out of Lagos. But when the driver got to a roundabout less than a kilometer away, he circled it, and headed back to the bus station. “You guys have to be strong,” he muttered. He made no effort to apologize. He returned to the bus station knowing what was wrong with the minibus and knowing, too, that he was unwilling to put himself at risk on behalf of his employers. No one in the minibus said an angry word to him. Perhaps I also admired his cunning, a feigned attempt to drive us to Owerri.

            But if we spared the driver our frustration, we directed it at the manager, who arrived with a fussy mix of apologies and snappiness. “There is another bus going to Owerri,” he told us. “We’ll put you on it and give you the change from what you paid for the Sienna.” He seemed unprepared to handle a sudden shift in the character of his day, a half dozen begrudging customers.

          “Oga,” I told him, “there is a reason we paid to go with a Sienna. You knew your car was bad, and you put it on the road!”

He began to walk away, waving his hands in the air. His paunch hung from his shirt, as if he remained committed to wearing his outgrown clothes. I took my eyes away from him, and, for a second, wondered why I had become so upset as to snap at a stranger.

After it was built in the 1960s by a French construction company, it was known as a marvel of engineering, traversing the Niger River and connecting the farthest frontier of midwestern Nigeria with the Igbo heartland in the southeast

         This was the first impediment in my journey. I considered calling the trip off and beginning my investigation into my uncle’s fate another time. I was worried about the difficulty I’d face if I arrived in Owerri too late to look for lodgings in a town I was unfamiliar with.

         That belied my real anxiety. Ten months earlier, my father had been buried in Afikpo. I was returning for the first time since then.

************************************************************ THERE WERE eleven passengers in the Hi Ace bus headed to Owerri as I journeyed to Afikpo on that first trip. I sat close to the aisle in the third row, beside a teenager who was traveling alone. Every hour or so, she asked me for our location. Her mother was calling repeatedly, I realised bow the small towns that pockmarked the stretch  of highways could seem undifferentiated, how she might have failed to see a signpost for a church or a restaurant as the bus hurried past. “We are in Asaba,” she relayed into the phone, then turned to confirm with me whether we had crossed the Niger Bridge. “Almost,” I replied.

        The bridge is nearly a two and a half kilometres long and as high as 122 metres, with pedestrian walkways on either side of the road. After it was built in the 1960s by a French construction company, it was known as a marvel of engineering, traversing the Niger River and connecting the farthest frontier of midwestern Nigeria with the Igbo heartland in the southeast. I thought of the bridge as a kind of welcome, the point at which I was in home territory.

         The teenager beside me proved more useful to me than I had been to her. Our journey had lasted twelve hours. But her face showed no anxiety about the night. She was, in fact, increasingly animated. She sang along to music from the stereo, joined other passengers in mocking the drivers inexpert maneuvers, and when I asked her for the right place to disembark, she told me what route to lake to avoid the end-of-day traffic. With her air of practiced authority, she reminded me of members of my family.

-Excerpted from I AM STILL WITH YOU: A Reckoning With Silence, Inheritance and History, by Emmanuel Iduma, published by Masobe Books, Lagos Nigeria, 2023.

 

 

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