ENGLISHMAN IN BENIN CITY, 1982 (Part Thirty-Two)
Steve quickly realized that it was a bad idea to take off his shirt to enjoy the breeze. He hurriedly wore it back. He had complained about the heat, which was one of the reasons we left the house.
Steve, finally, decided to take us to a place not too far from the house to show off the body of water he said he discovered. He had been raving about it, but we were unable to go and see it, distracted by the various things happening in such rapid succession.
Prominent on the list of my to-do-things was a visit to River Steve.
But that evening, when Steve said we should get out of the house because of the heat, and he hinted we could go and check out his discovery, we agreed it was a good idea to pay a visit to River Steve.
“I’m not sure it’s a river,” Steve quickly tried to correct me when I named his local discovery after him. “It could be a lake, or spring or anything.
“Who cares,” I said. “I still call it River Steve.”
“I didn’t stay five minutes there; I ran into it just by pure chance,” Steve explained. “I missed my turn off the highway when I was returning from an errand, and I ended up by the side of this gorgeous body of water just some twenty minutes from the city center.”
“And you haven’t been there since?” I asked?
Steve shook his head.
“And you’re sure it’s not a mirage?” I pressed.
He shook his head again. Then he said, “If it’s a mirage, we will soon find out tonight.”
“And you know how to drive us to River Steve?” I asked.
“Trust me,” Steve responded. “I made sure to pay close attention to the detail of the area. Blindfolded, I can find my way there blindfolded.”
It was quite a totally different matter when we got in the bus to navigate our mission to River Steve. No sooner did we turn off the highway than Steve began to look puzzled.
“This city looks so different at night,” Steve said. “In the day, it’s one city, and at night, it becomes a different place as its juju spooks sip out and you can’t recognize anywhere again.”
He didn’t seem to know whether to turn left or right when he got to the major road junction. He stopped.
A car honked behind him and the driver cursed Steve, shouting, “Mad Oyinbo, where is your wife?”
Steve took both hands off the wheel and spread out his ten fingers wide at the other driver as the fellow, cut sharply away, and to speed past him in fury. Steve gave him the ten finger-sign—which is an indigenous signal placing the plague on the entire ancestry of the other driver, up to several generations.
As Steve gave him the ten fingers, the driver was pleasantly surprised that Steve knew the street language. He smiled knowingly when he caught the sight of Rufus, and then saw me.
“Armed robbers,” yelled the other driver, as he sped off, leaving us stranded on the spot.
Steve decided to turn right. “At the worst, we will navigate in this direction for some time and if nothing looks familiar we will turn back and try the other direction.”
“Yessir Mungo Park,” I responded.
It was not a good situation to be in. I had found myself with Steve in that same setting several times before. It always got complicated because Steve would sometimes not be sure where he was, even when he said he really knew where we were.
After we drove down that turn on road for some fifteen minutes, Steve looked increasingly lost and it was clear he didn’t know where he was.
He turned to Rufus, saying, “Is Felicia or Adolo coming over tonight?”
Rufus did not respond.
Steve then turned to me, “Will it be Gina or Adolo?”
I did not respond.
“Someone has to explain these things to me,” Steve exploded. At the same time, he kept prying at the houses and landmarks to see if he could recognize where we were. “You these two Yoruba men confuse me! I am an alien! An Englishman! In Benin City! Whose is Adolo?”
“If you would just keep your eyes on the road,” Rufus said, “you won’t be so confused. Adolo belongs to no one but herself.”
“What is going on with Gina, Moyo?” Steve asked.
“You want Gina,” I said, “and she is all yours. I mean it. You want me to talk to her on your behalf? She likes you.”
“Not Gina,” Steve said. “Talk to Adolo for me.”
“Yes, serious!” Steve responded.
“Okay,” I said, “I will. She might be at the house by the time we return. I think I heard her say something about dropping by this evening.”
Steve didn’t seem to be looking out for the landmarks any longer. We continued to drift for a couple more minutes.
Abruptly, Rufus asked Steve to stop the car and park. He jumped down from the bus and yelled after two young men on a bike, just before they turned into a corner.
The bike stopped.
“The road to the river!” Rufus yelled.
“Oselu River?” the man in front of the bike yelled back.
“Not sure if it’s Oselu River.”
“There’s just one river around here,” the man yelled back. “It’s called Oselu and you are going in the opposite direction.”
“Turn back?” Rufus yelled.
“I said you are going in the opposite direction,” said the man riding the bike. “And you are asking me if you should turn back. Don’t turn back. Keep going forward and Oselu River is waiting for you just ahead.”
He kicked the gear of the bike with carefree abandon and practice; and within a second or two, the two men disappeared into the corner.
Rufus joined us on the bus.
“He said to keep going?” Steve asked.
“No,” Rufus explained. “He said to turn around.”
Steve looked perplexed. “But if I heard him clearly, he said, ‘Keep going forward and Oselu River is waiting ahead.’ I just repeated what he said verbatim.”
“He meant the very opposite of what he was saying,” I tried to clarify. “Just turn around and let’s try the opposite direction, or return home, or let’s go find a place to drink in town.”
Steve carefully turned the bus around, and in a matter of minutes, we left the clear wide path behind us and ran into a narrow stretch of road that he immediately recognized.
“Here we are,” Steve said with excitement. “The water is just down the valley once we get over this peak. On the other side of the rock”
But it was just that moment immediately before the sun finally disappeared. The valley rapidly turned dark, even before we reached the body of water clearly visible head of us.
It was the end of the road, a total surprise as you turned the bend and saw it. The water lay directly in front of us silently. It sat directly below us.
The ground at that section was rough, with a huge crop of rocks coming between the bus and water.
It was too dark to tell if the water was large or small. Bushes surround the area, blocking the view even further.
We got out of the bus.
“Did you bring your antibug lotion?” Rufus asked Steve. “There may be a couple of mosquitoes squatting here.”
“No, I didn’t,” Steve said. “If you guys can handle the bugs, so can I. I took my malaria medications. I’m good to go.”
We found a flat spot under the crop of rock to settle down. The moon was shining bright, and the wind was warm and breezy.
Turning sharply, we all gazed at the water: there was a loud splash as if a large fish or some other marine animal had noticed our arrival and was warning the others of our presence.
The steady sound of night insects provided a rhythm that gave the night its own color and mysterious vibrancy.
“This is the sort of evening for telling stories,” said Rufus, with nostalgia. “The entire scenery reminds me of when was a child in Iludun, just after dinner, as we sat around in the dark to watch the moon and listen to stories.”
“Cut it off, Papa Ru,” I said. “That was a long time ago, Steve. You saw when we visited Iludun that kids now watch television at night there.”
Rufus laughed and threw a rock into the water, in the direction of the splash.
The smell of water, mixed with the natural music coming out of the wildlife relaxed my muscles. I inhaled the air very deep.
Though it is only a matter of moments from where we were, the city of Benin felt like hundreds of miles away. Yet, if you listened carefully, you could still perceive the traffic of the city as a soft background for the natural sounds surrounding us.
I relaxed and settled into a serenading mood.
“These mosquitoes are simply terrorizing me,” Steve screamed suddenly, breaking the silencing.
He slapped his arm with a loud sting, trying unsuccessfully to swat the invisible insects from him. It was dark, and the creatures were certainly there because you could hear them.
“They are here to cannibalize you,” I threatened Steve.
“They do not belong to the same species as humans,” Steve said, clearly aggressively.
He was so mad with the bugs that he was unable to resist the temptation to tutor me. He continued: “Technically, you can only use cannibalize if mosquitoes were classified as humans, or if the mosquitoes were feeding on one another.”
“Moyo is a poet,” Rufus informed Steve, as if explaining an important topic. “You probably noticed he uses your Oyinbo language any way he wants. He is free, reckless even.” Rufus brought out a pack of cigarettes. ”Maybe if I light a cigarette they would go away? The bugs don’t like smokes, I understand.”
“I know Moyo is a growing poet,” Steve said. “He should spend more time writing. It is gratifying that a native is colonized enough to speak better English than an Englishman.”
“Someone is really pissed,” I said, “and it’s not me.”
“What’s really annoying me now?” Steve asked. “These bleeding mosquitoes!”
“Thanks to Olodumare,” I rejoined, “the mosquitoes are here and doing splendidly well. But for them, your ancestors would still be here and ordering us around.”
“We still order you around,” said Steve. “Neo-colonialism.”
“But your ancestors returned home,” I wanted to make my point. “The bad bugs got them. They would never have left us alone in peace in West Africa. They would have settled in millions here as they did in southern and eastern Africa. We have this mosquito army to thank for our independence.”
“Ingrate. The colonizers gave you a nation, you must admit,” Steve said. “It’s annoying, though, isn’t it? I mean the bleeding mosquitoes are barely touching the two of you. They swarm all over me!”
“That’s because of your light skin,” said Rufus. “You glow in the dark. We blend so nicely with the shade of the night, and they can’t see us that easily.”
“I’ve put my shirt back on!”
“Your face, you arms, bare,” Rufus said.
“I figured as much,” Steve responded. “If I weren’t here, they would be feeding on you. But now I create a diversion.”
“Even the mosquitoes are partial to white people!” I protested, throwing up my hands in submission. “They favor you over us, Steve. That’s not fair! Sheer racism!”
“You can have your mosquitoes back,” Steve said, slapping his cheek. “Ouch! Damn hope I got that one–after hitting myself so savagely.”
“Hey, someone stop him!” I yelled. “You are wantonly massacring some of our bravest mosquito forces!”
Steve slapped himself again, straight across his face.
“You can’t do that Steve!” I yelled. “You’ll kill yourself before the mosquitoes kill you!”
“This is a bad idea,” Steve said. “Let’s head back home, pleeeeze! We’ll find some other time to return here with antibug lotions. I can see Gina already waiting for you at home now, and you are sitting out here getting bled by the water bugs.”
“You just want us to rush back home to see if Adolo was there,” I jested. “If she comes, I promise to talk to her for you. I think it will work.”
“Really?” Steve asked with undisguised excitement.
“You’re fortunate it’s too dark here to see your face,” I said. “Bet you’re blushing.”
“No, I’m not!”
TO BE CONTINUED.
Title: Bi A O Ku, Ise O Tan (Life Goes On)
Medium: Acrylic on Canvas.
Date: December 2020