ENGLISHMAN IN BENIN CITY, 1981 (Part Twenty-five)

ENGLISHMAN IN BENIN CITY, 1981 (Part Twenty-five)

Oyinbo drove us home from the burial ceremony.

Rufus and Felicia sat in the middle row of the bus. I sat all by myself at the back row. Nobody said a word as Steve drove slowly and solemnly through the city, negotiating the traffic with the dexterity of a spider moving through its tightly woven web.

When he was new, Steve found it difficult to drive through the city, because in Britain, they drive on the left side of the road, but in Nigeria people drive on the right side. Also, Steve found the drivers on the roads of Benin City extremely rough for his temperament.

“I can never drive here,” he would say, and marvel at the flow of the traffic. “Why is everybody pressing down their horns? They don’t need the horns to drive!”

After a couple of months, he summoned the courage to take the wheel, and sooner than later, he acclimatized with the heat of the streets.

Those you try to imitate you may end up besting. That was the case for Steve. He became rougher than the roughest taxi drivers of Benin, and he would weave through the traffic with total abandon, his hands permanently on the horn, as if he was a daredevil stuntman trying to get everybody killed.

Many taxi drivers, shocked by his insane handling of the road, would yell, “Oyinbo, ‘e nor go better for ya mama!” “Crase-man, you no dey see!” “Sho! Dis Oyinboman wan die for Benin gutter!” “God punish you, Oyinbo!”

Steve was not impressed by their yelling. He always wore a permanent grin on his face as he sat behind the wheel, pushing the limits far beyond the absurd.

“There is no road sign with the speed limit,” Steve would say, “it means you can go as far or as slow as you like.”

He kept the bus on the fast side of haste. When he drove the beetle, he was even worse. The small size of the car meant that he could always turn the streets into a three-lane traffic, if it was meant to be for two, or he was free to convert a one-lane traffic into two. The moment he created the extra lane, other drivers would follow. If Oyinbo created the lane, the drivers seemed to conclude, it had to be right to join his lane.

But as we returned from the burial ground, Steve was slow. He seemed lost in thought. I imagined that he was reviewing his time in Benin and the reckless pace of life here, as if he was living in a fast-forward film reel, with the volume blasting as loud as possible. Or maybe he had transported his mind back to London, and was homesick, ready to announce to us that he had had enough of us, and was ready to go home.

“Oyinbo how body now?” Felicia asked, breaking the silence.

“My sister, body dey inside shirt,” Steve answered in his fast-growing Benin pidgin.

“Steve,” I said, “flies are eating the tires o” That was how we said to taunt him when he was still learning the tricks of driving on the streets of Benin. It was a way of telling him that he was going too slow.

“Leave me, joor,” Steve answered. “Let flies eat the tires.”

“I will fall asleep o,” I continued to taunt him.

“Snore if you want,” Steve responded. “I don’t give a hat.”

Rufus did not utter a sound.

When we got home, and Steve parked, Rufus stepped down, almost stumbling. Immediately, his chest began to heave convulsively, and he started throwing up. But because he had not been eating for the past couple of days, beyond the one or two spoonfuls of peppersoup that he managed to swallow in the morning, he had nothing to throw up but spittle dribbling out of his mouth. He was retching over and over again, with very little coming out. His entire body shook from the waist up, and he pitched his head forward. His open jaws were opening and closing involuntarily. He seemed to choke, as if his throat was plugged. The massive muscles of his large neck writhed to force out things from the interior of his body, threatening to empty his entire entrails, with all his intestines, bladder and lungs. He was about to faint, it seemed.

Felicia supported his body. She said, “Moyo, go and get a bucket of water, quickly, before he passes out.”

I ran indoor, grabbed a bucket from the balcony, seized a plastic container from the kitchen, ran to the bathroom, filled the bucket with water and ran outside with it.

With one hand supporting Rufus, Felicia scooped out water with the other hand, and poured the cold water on Rufus’s lowered head. “Papa Ru,” Felicia said, “wipe your face with your hands.”

Rufus did as she said, and after a couple of minutes, he seemed to feel better.

Felicia supported him and led him inside. Rufus fell on the sofa, breathing heavily and slowly, gasping for air, as if every breath that he took was going to be the last. His breathing was uneven. I bent over him and undid his shirt, soiled with his vomit.

“It’s best to remove the shirt entirely,” said Felicia, “to enable his body to cool down.”

Rufus did not move. It was impossible to pull off his shirt as his full weight rested on it.

“Can both of you move him to his room,” Felicia said. “It’s best to let him just rest inside his room. He can sleep there on his bed if he wanted.”

“If only Josephine was here,” I said unconsciously. “A nurse would know what to do now.”

Suddenly, it dawned on me that we would never see Josephine again. That was when I began to cry.

“Don’t lose it now, Moyo,” Felicia said. “We need to get Rufus inside his room.” I tried to stop, but couldn’t. Tears were snaking down my eyes. But I bent down to carry Rufus.

Rufus was a stout man. Steve and I heaved him up, propped him between us, suspended his hands around our shoulders, and dragged him across the sitting room to his bedroom. His bed was rough and unmade. “Wait, wait,” Felicia said. “Lemme make his bed, quickly.” But he was too heavy. We dumped him on the unmade bed.

He was sweating. Felicia suggested we should remove his clothes. It was easier to do that with him on the bed. We rolled him around a bit and removed the shirt. Then I undid his fly and pulled down his trousers. He was left only in his underwear. I turned on the ceiling fan.

“Let’s rush him to the hospital,” said Steve.

“I don’t trust them at that hospital,” I said. “Perhaps we could find a private hospital nearby.”

“Those are worse than the public hospitals,” said Felicia. “When the case gets complicated, the private clinics rush their patients to the teaching hospitals.”

But what can we do now,” Steve asked. “We can’t just leave him like this.”

Felicia laughed. “He is only lovesick. I will nurse Mister Rufus back to life. Just watch me. My mother is a native doctor. I know how to treat this sort of thing. I will go to the local herbs market and get some…. ”

There was a soft knock on the door. It was almost imperceptible. But we were all so near the edge that we were startled.

“Who is it,” I yelled.

“It’s me,” said the voice, softly.

“Who?” Steve asked.

“Adolo,” the voice said.

I went to the door and opened it. Adolo entered. She was no longer wearing the uniform she had on at the burial. But she still wore the dark glasses. She brought with her a large basket with four handles.

“I brought you people some food,” Adolo said. “I reckoned you wouldn’t have the presence of mind to cook.”

She placed the basket on the kitchen table.

“Where is Rufus?” Adolo asked. “I removed Josephine’s ring from her finger before they buried her. I wanted to give it to Rufus. Josephine, I’m sure, would like that. She loved him so much. Moyo, you look awful. Are you feeling sick?”


The picture is Overamwen Nogbaisi, The legendary Oba of Benin.

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