Agbowo That Never Sleeps
7PM and still there was no light, I began to wonder if something had burnt or blew up, or a pole had fallen somewhere. All my devices were low on power and I had nothing to do. Staring at the darkness slowly gathering in my room held no appeal this night. I thought to visit a friend, except they were all in other states, the times we are in.
I walked to the nail on the wall where I hung clothes I wore when I went outside to get stuff, they saw little use, seeing as I am fiercely against being fully clothed when alone in my own room, I’d once been told I love being free. The shirt I was currently wearing was small and patterned with a smattering of light colours mostly yellow, the shorts I picked were simple grey things. I didn’t even lock my room when I left, only closed the door. I had walked for less than a minute when I turned back, I didn’t feel right in the shorts, I returned to my room and exchanged it for the track pants, it was loose fitting, I had removed the hemming so it gently kissed my ankles as I walked, I like it.
I was going to take a walk, usually I preferred walking when and where there weren’t many people about but living in Agbowo, meant that could only happen after 10:30 PM and before 5:30 AM. Before I moved off-campus that was safe, UI despite all her shortcomings was safer than most other campuses in the country.
I left home about a month ago, citing unfinished business. While that was true, I also was tired of being cooped up with the rest of my family, I went out the least, spoke the least, it sometimes felt as if I was something akin to a ghost, I also only left my room for food and water, morning and evening devotions (sometimes I skipped those), and sometimes I interacted with my family. My return to school was a relief for everyone concerned.
I greeted nobody as I began my walk, it was dark and I kept my head down, it lent me a sense of anonymity. I played the music very low, I couldn’t hear what people said but I could hear the sounds of the streets. I wanted to connect, if only on an ethereal level to the world around me. Tonight I was also listening for one thing, when the generator orchestra would cease their performance, the silence that followed after people turned them off, which usually followed shouts of UP NEPA, an exclamation religiously kept in use by every generation of children, through all the name changes of the Nigerian power holding right up to its privatisation. In Oyo it was now the IBEDC but something about UP IBEDC just didn’t hit.
I saw the usual people at the intersection where sat the house wherein I lived. The rival shops beside each other, the owners of which also lived in the same house, I’d given up trying to understand their relationship. Elder and his boys were however missing. The lords of these streets, they ruled it nicely enough, Elder was in fact ‘my guy’, that meant I gave him some money or bought him something one out of four times he asked, the other three or so times, we ‘whined’ each other, turning ourselves here and there, hailing the other person higher than they last hailed you and generally talking in the most indirect and light-hearted manner possible. Sometimes I simply lied to him and promised him another time but I knew enough to remain in his good graces. Elder wasn’t going to hurt me, the gangs mostly bothered their kind but it is good to have someone who would take up arms for you in case an injustice was done to you on the streets. Besides, Elder would consider me easy game if I gave every time and his boys would accost me on their own and demand. On campus whining was rarely anything more than jokes but out here, it was a skill. Not that I wanted them back, sitting and smoking as they catcalled women and demanded but the past two times I went home and returned to find they’d all cleared out. Somebody had died.
I turned to my right, deciding to walk to the expressway that led into my street, walk to the school’s gate, then follow the expressway to another junction that led into my street and return to my room, going in a rough circle. About half a dozen roads led to where I lived, maybe some other night. I breathed in the air, tainted as it was with all the humans mucking about in it, felt the breeze on my face and took my steps slow, it would not do to just blaze through. I passed the recently renovated house beside mine, opposite it was the woman who sold roast maize and sometimes yams, plantain and banana or whatever fruit was in season. She had two children, a boy and a girl, neither was present, her crudely formed fire pit over which she placed the blackened mesh over which she roasted her maize was cold. I’d spent one particular maize season eating a lot of her roast maize, now every time I passed by she greeted me with a smile and an ‘uncle’ and advertised whatever fruit she was selling.
A couple of steps further, I passed in front of the pork stand which was nothing more than two stools, one for whoever was attending the pork that night to sit on and another to place the tray of pork on and a big umbrella that covers both the seller and the pork. It seemed as if whoever owned the pork always found new people to sell it as the faces sitting under the umbrella changed every few nights. The lady under the umbrella looked up expectantly, it was right in front of her I’d turned around to change into the track pants, but I wasn’t buying anything this night, in fact I had nothing on me, not my phone , not my wallet. If something happened to me, I suppose I was a familiar face on the street and someone would be able to point to where I lived.
A couple of guys were sitting outside a house, talking, laughing and intermittently checking their phones. In those times when their faces were bathed in the phone’s light, I looked at something else. They watched me pass by as they always did, I had long concluded that these guys saw me as a pompous student who thought himself too good for the streets of Agbowo, maybe I was wrong but I saw nothing but dislike and who-the-hell-does-he-think-he-is in those eyes watching me. I stared back. Another house went by, this one’s front mercifully devoid of people, but I got some stares from the cobbler’s shop joined to it, they were only looking at whoever passed by. Why do people stare? I’d always wondered.
I passed two small shops these were the ones that closed early, before 8PM they’d be closed. As I passed by a row of shops, I thought to myself, ‘there are many shops here, many of them selling the same thing but they all have customers regardless’. I’d walked past Aunty B’s shop before noticing something different, I looked back to confirm, she had fully closed off her shop with wire mesh leaving only a square opening through which she answered her customers. I never patronised her unless I couldn’t find whatever it was elsewhere, she was sluggish and would keep you waiting for as long as she liked, she was handing a man a pack of cigarettes, her face impassive. My barber was playing his new favourite song, every evening whether there were customers to attend to or not, he would play music, most barbers did. My parents had been frustrated at my refusal to have a haircut at home, I repeatedly told them I would only cut it if they let me go to my barber, they didn’t. When I finally relented, their recommended barber whom they’d highly praised ruined my hair.
I’d refused because of the special care I get from my barber. He cuts my hair the way I comb it, that way we’d kept my hair in the same shape for about two years. Hearing my parents apologise and admit they should have listened was however a delight. My barber had been horrified upon seeing my hair and had wanted to immediately remedy it but I told him I wanted to grow it out first. Truth is, I have no intention of cutting it or the moustache and the small beard I’ve grown until school resumes.
The new hostel that was being built has been finished while I was at home, a ‘For Rent’ sign would have been put up were school in session. I almost walked into a Hausa woman and one who I assumed is her daughter, they were directly in my path, I went around them and had to go around another set of people who were gathered before yet another shop, this one three shops after Aunty B. They all sold the same things with little variation. All the way to the next turning were shops, some doing business, some seemed invisible to people as they passed them by to patronise those beside them.
I arrived at the light I’d been spying from afar, a new ‘supermarket’ had opened on our street. The supermarket was no bigger than Aunty B’s shop, both smaller than my room but it had tiled floors, shelves, fluorescent lights and a POS, about six people were sitting inside, I imagined some of them were there to gossip, a big generator rumbled outside. I was nearing an intersection and I briefly considered whether to turn and take the road to the expressway or follow the path that cut between a row of houses, I’d left my room partly because it was beginning to feel claustrophobic so I turned to the left and faced yet another shop that was doing brisk business. I faltered as I saw a familiar profile but upon turning around, I exhaled, she got on a bike and was off.
The smell of smoked fish assaulted my nose, the stall was closed today but the smell had become part of that corner. In front of the carpenter’s workshop was a display of his recent works, they were beautiful. He stood beside them talking to one of the muslims who seemed to never leave the mosque beside his workshop. There was no hour I passed that people weren’t at the mosque, they stared too. I saw a lot people as I walked but they were mostly adolescents, children or adults. The student population was largely absent, and these people felt it, the streets were a little quieter, they sold less than they usually did, the streets were somehow less colourful, I appreciated it this night because I met no one who knew me.
A few bikes passed me by, coming and going to the expressway that fed Agbowo from UI in front and Agbowo Express behind. I smiled at the white board placed outside a viewing centre, Arsenal VS Chelsea, I was not a fan of either clubs but I delighted in the suffering of Chelsea and their loud-mouthed fans. Tomorrow, the clubs would be changed, European football was on. I slowed my steps so I could observe the game of draught going on by the torchlight, I wonder how much you have to love a game to play under such conditions. People gathered around the players, the pieces were bottle caps, one side blue, the other red, which had more pieces left. The noises of honking cars and semi-reckless to reckless okada riders greeted me as I came out to the expressway. Just beside it, two women were closing up, one came out to turn off a red generator, she backed a sleeping baby, I caught the younger woman’s eyes as she closed a refrigerator. She was wearing a pink and white shirt, its collar spread about her neck and black jeans. I couldn’t see what footwear she was wearing, the generator and the goods being boxed up blocked my view. She was pretty, somewhere around my age. The noise was too much here, nonetheless I took the road up to UI.
I kept my head down as I passed a house and the couple of shops in front of it, I was known here and I did not want to answer questions. Someone was cooking noodles and frying eggs, the road here was curved so I couldn’t see them despite being less than forty steps away from them. Three girls stood outside the shop, one preparing the noodles and eggs and two backed the road, talking to her, she shook her head at something one of them said and they all laughed. They were all wearing open-toed fluffy slippers. A man passed by me and I gagged, the smell of beer enveloped him. I wouldn’t go near a drop of beer with a thousand metre straw, it tasted and smelled horribly. In front of the beer parlour that had opened just few months before we had to go home a car was parked, its bonnet was up and someone was looking at something in it. I skirted the car, thankful for the obstacle it presented between me and the sight of people guzzling beer but mildly annoyed at having to take the six or so extra steps.
By the time I reached the engineer who’d spoilt my phone when I took it to him for repairs, I had passed two other cars being looked at, something was on the road tonight. Before his wooden stand, I passed three shops that sold clothes, one that sold teddy bears, two men selling meat, stale meat by now, people didn’t know better so they bought them still, these men would not go home until they’d sold everything, a shop that sold appliances and a graphics designer’s shop. I once went to the man to ask prices for plaques and framed certificates, I flew out of there on the wings of his prices. The engineer was sitting in his usual seat and I tried to bore a hole in his forehead with my eyes.
Someone rushed past me, hurriedly talking to someone, the part of the conversation I caught wasn’t enough to deduce anything by but it was apparent that his hurry was to get home. A cold arm brushed mine and I looked up, a woman and man were leisurely walking by amongst all the hurrying people. It was past 8PM and dark, more people entering Agbowo than were leaving, I estimated I would have passed close to two hundred people by now, two hundred lives flashing by me, reduced to nothing but a part of the sight, sound and smell of the streets of Agbowo. I was walking very slowly, looking at everything and seeing only little. The fruit seller had gone home, the lady who sold snacks beside him was still there however, a few cakes in her ‘show-glass’. She was talking to the man who sold phone accessories piled high on a stand beside her. When I looked up I saw the Hausa woman and her daughter walking in front of me, when they’d gotten passed me I didn’t know, the mother had been talking to a woman selling soap in a tiny strip of a shop just beside the house after my barber’s shop. She held her daughter’s hand and was moving resolutely against the crowd, the little girl took two steps for each of her mother’s hurried one, they both wore pink.
Someone had bought land behind the walkway, demolished the individual shops and built new ones that had all been rented out. The first shop sold just about anything that could be needed around the house, I wondered if it was the woman previously selling the same here that rented this shop. Beside her was a barber, also playing music, the remaining four shops had closed for the day, the shop on the other end which was just closing up, sold drinks. On the walkway a number of people peddled their wares, mostly things needed to make stews and soups. I used to buy smoked fish from the biggest of the women until the evening she sold me a bad fish saying it was ‘today’s own’, I found maggots in it upon opening it.
UP NEPA! My head snapped up and I saw everywhere light up, immediately the rest of my rough circle straightened into lines. I turned right at a small hotel, took a road I knew would be nearly devoid of people and nearly ran home.
Despite rising cases in the state, we’d never been fully locked down but I had been to many places that seemed to be asleep during my three months at home. But not these streets, the people living here were enough to keep the buzz going, Agbowo never slept.