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Neverwhere 3.0: Riding The Bus 

I’ve taken about 1050 bus rides since February.

That’s an average of 25 bus rides every week for 40 weeks. At a daily cumulative average time of 3 hours spent on these rides, I’ve accrued about 840 hours in transit across 1000 bus rides. (The occasional Uber ride and cab rides are unaccounted for here).

It’s an incredible amount of time to spend on the move. That’s 35 days – or a month and a week – mostly spent looking out the window of a moving car in Lagos, staring intensely at nothing in particular.

I started a new gig in Lekki this year (more of that in another post I hope I have the good sense to finish) and joined the horde of people shuttling between the Island and Mainland for work. Nearly every activity that takes me out of my house every day happens on the Island, and it’s quite ridiculous how I’ve managed to convince myself that remaining in Yaba is still a better option for me, financially. Seeing as all I come to do at home nowadays is sleep at night, I’ve started to think that my rent is a rather steep price to pay for a bed to lie on at the end of the day.

Moving around in Lagos is a nerve-wracking ordeal. You’ll find soon enough that you’re constantly racing against time. Lagos traffic is a time-bending force of nature all by itself. You could ply the same route and achieve astonishingly different ETAs each time. A route that takes 25 minutes today could balloon to a 97-minute trip on the return leg.

You know how there’s always a “study” coming out that tries to chronicle all the cool, fixer upper things you could be doing while you’re in traffic? Well, they didn’t factor in Lagos in those studies, apparently. You can’t be taking an online course while trying not to die, Sam. Plus, the network signal on Third Mainland Bridge keeps gesticulating that you couldn’t possibly be thinking of such things.

Depending on your mood, looking out the window in the morning isn’t half bad. Granted, it eerily feels like being in a moving cell and peering directly out into other people in other moving cells and farther onto gen pop. Except, on Third Mainland Bridge, gen pop is mostly filled with scantily clad men, 20 feet below, squatting and taking a shit in the black river, along with their comrades, perched on wooden rafts docked 35 yards away from their homes. The whole act seems very pedestrian, nothing to make a big deal out of, much like a bunch of guys in a dorm shower brushing their teeth and discussing the games from the evening before. It’s only a big deal to the glaring eyes from above, eyes which the men promptly ignore or pretend aren’t there.

The sights are better at night, obviously. Peering into lit office spaces and apartments as they trudge past my point of view creates diverse, fleeting scenarios in my head. I think of the company culture of the folks in that lit office on the 8th floor of the Civic Towers,  and wonder if the guys still at their desks are staying the night. Maybe they stayed back to complete their torrent downloads before heading home. Maybe they’re waiting out the traffic.

Riding the bus is a deeply immersive experience. Violently so. You can only pretend to ignore everyone else for so long until something dramatic occurs – and it usually does. Something as innocuous as checking your notifications and responding to messages can devolve into the guy sitting next to and behind you telepathically joining the conversation you’re having on a private chat. Under the gaze of passengers turning the pages with me with their eyes fixed on my phone screen, I’ve read copious amounts of Alain de Botton, Noah Harari, and Teju Cole in transit this year.

You can only ride in these steel cages for so long until they start to take a toll on your body. Before this year, I only grossed 100+ minutes in a moving vehicle in one day only when I was traveling between States. And that happens maybe 3 times a year, at the most. I was always weary after each trip and wary of the next one. Because my body always took a hit. Now I gross about 180 minutes nearly every day. Sometimes more. Let’s just say my body isn’t too psyched.

Another year has passed in which I didn’t improve on my Yoruba. Even though nearly every conversation that happens in buses is in Yoruba, I’ve managed to blend in well into things without really learning the language. But my understanding (response-ability, more like) has broadened significantly since. I get it now when people tell me it’s about the easiest language to learn (I don’t agree, I don’t know). But Yoruba is a gesture-heavy language, speakers gesticulate so much while making a point that it’s basically loose sign language with the audio turned on. I’ve gotten better at reading the signs and matching patterns to get by without really knowing the language.

Riding the Lagos bus is more than a means of getting around for me now. It’s a cultural experience all on its own. Every bus on the road across the city, with the attendant anyhowness that marks its pulsating voyage, is a metaphor for the charges, firing and traveling in indiscriminate bursts across the city’s meshy neural network.

There’s the occasional Uber – my personal favorite for when I’m out later than 9 pm. Apart from creating the occasional comfort and being driven around in complete silence that I seldom crave, it has proven to be an efficient means of getting home without the risk of getting mugged. I had the misfortune of breaking my MO once and took a bus on a humid Wednesday night in July from Lekki at past 10 pm. It was the most dramatic ordeal I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of on the road. Long story short, we were robbed by men dressed in police combat gear, relieved of our phones and bags (I dunno how, but I miraculously walked away with my backpack containing my Mac that night). I’ve strictly adhered to my MO since. No buses at night.

Jetpacks. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my obsession with jetpacks this year. You spend so much time commuting, a few wonky ideas start to flood your mind. There hasn’t been a day I was on the road this year I didn’t crave jetpacks. I genuinely think they’ll help cut down commute times significantly across the city. Or we could have civilian Iron Man suits. Someone should build a business around those. Or, maybe there should be a legislation that mandates companies to offer some form of remote options to their employees (Techpoint wrote an article about this totally based off of my tweet, by the way).

One gets to leave the city behind sometimes. Sometimes for work, or when one takes a break from work. I don’t understand people who stay back here when they take a vacation from work, though. The city will always be here, the smell and the madness won’t go away. You’re meant to be here only if you absolutely have to be. One is besotted with thoughts of leaving every now and again when you can no longer muster up sufficient patience and tolerance for the bus life, when your bones ache more than normal.  When you need to rest your mind. But one promptly returns – unwillingly, but without as much a fight as is needed – to the yellow mobile cells. It is the identity of Lagos. It is also, in a weird way, my identity. I am riding the bus and finding myself.

 

 

Read Neverwhere 2.0

Read Neverwhere 1.0

The Confession 

I’m all set to leave when the boy enters the booth and sits. At first I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman on the other side. The person just sits there, hesitant, like they’re still fighting the decision to be here without realizing that they already came.

It’s 9:16pm on my watch. Time for the sessions have long elapsed for the day and there’d be no one else in the premises at this time. But I sit back on the chair anyway. Whoever it was on the other side must have some humongous load to get off their chest. I might as well hear them out and send them on their way.

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. ”

His voice is faint, a bit raspy – like he’d choke on the words if his tone was any louder. He must have been crying. I sense fright in his voice, not remorse. He couldn’t be more than 16.
“How long has it been since your last confession?”

“This is my first time, sir”

Poor kid. Admittedly, this routine still needs some getting used to on my part as well. I don’t say it, though.

“You’re meant to call me Father, son.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I… I’m sorry, Father.”

“What is it you’ve done that you require forgiveness?”

Then he goes quiet for a spell that gave a rather violent tug at my patience. The traffic on my route back into town should be building up now and won’t let up for another 90 minutes or so. This is going to be a long night.

“Don’t worry, son. The Lord is merciful and he can grant you pardon regarding anything if you ask.”

“I slept with my sister, father. We’ve been doing it for a while now.”

Okay. I didn’t see that coming. Stupid kids. There has to be less retarded ways to let out sexual tension than…

“Are you sorry and ready to repent of this sin, my child?” I almost shudder as I try to balance the words on my tongue without letting my utter contempt for the kid slip out.

He says she’s pregnant and they’re contemplating abortion. “My father will kill us if he finds out, Father. My sister says she’s afraid and wants to have the baby.”

“And you? You want to kill the unborn child?”

“I don’t know, Father. But, see, my sister cannot carry a pregnancy that she can’t explain. We’re both in SS2. My father will kill us. He will kill me.”

“I think you’d agree that it is explainable. You both had sex and she got pregnant. It’s quite simple, son.”

I’m not helping. The boy is terrified and I’m quite content playing Mr Smarts.

“But she can’t be pregnant, sir. We’re going to remove it before her belly rises.”

“Why have you come here tonight? You seem intent on committing more sins.”

“I hear one could speak to a priest to grant me forgiveness for my sins, Father.”

“That’s not how this works, son. You’re supposed to ask for mercy only when you’re repentant for sins you already committed. You don’t come to Confession to make out an insurance policy for sins you’re yet to commit.”

My impatience is getting the better of me. I should have been on my way by now. The boy sits quietly for a while longer. He sighs and gets up. I can visualise a complementary shrug. He asks what I would suggest he do instead, then interrupts my response with “nevermind, I know what your response will be, Father.” I’m not sure if I had one, to be honest.
“Tell your parents. Both of you. You will not be killed. They’re responsible for you. Let them decide the next line of action.”

“You don’t understand, Father. I’m sorry.”

He was gone before I could think of a retort.

 

************************************************************************************************************

It’s 9:49pm now. Father Greg looks shell-shocked on the floor next to me. I’d cuffed his hands behind him and made him lay on the ground with my gun pointed to the back of his head. He’s heard the entire conversation with the kid and I can’t tell if, underneath that cloak of fear for his life, he is actually impressed with how I handled myself with the kid. Of course I had my gun trained on him the whole time.

I wait 4 minutes and motion for him to walk with me to his car parked outside. When I open the trunk and motion for him to get in, he casts me a forlorn glance – like he had something to say but thought better of it – then he gets in.

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” I say as I slam the hood shut. I pull out of the empty compound and head for the highway. “For I will sin,” I mutter under my breath as I join the highway traffic.

Neverwhere 2.0: The Human Condition

When I look back now, it almost feels like the year I’ve had could very well have been a scripted show. Not some blockbuster flick, mind you, but more like some story with a rather random, mildly pointless, sickly sweet plot. Like Donald Glover’s Atlanta – without the rather effusive Paperboy soundtracks. The theme song for my 2016 was predominantly Jon Bellion’s music. You may roll your eyes now.

The Beginning – He is The Same

2016 didn’t really start in January for me. The series of events that formed the plot of the entire year began on August 31, 2015. I had come into Lagos the day before to have a meet-up with the CEO of the company I would eventually work at. I’d recently left my previous job in Port Harcourt, as the raging oil crises at the time laid waste to my department and virtually a third of the company I worked at. I decided it was time to pivot and had 3 of the top companies in Nigeria’s burgeoning Tech industry in my sights. My friend, AY, being already there greatly influenced the company I eventually focused on and came to. The August 31 meeting happened and I was asked to start the next day. Being a typical nomad, I never went back for my stuff in PH, save for the backpack and the suit rack I came to Lagos with.

I’d never had to work under so much pressure in my life – which is weird, because only the Christmas before that, I was attaching sand-control sensors to a live gas wellhead with a pressure of 2700 psi. This was a different kind of pressure though: the blistering pace at which things ran (and changed), the KPIs and deadlines that lunged at you at neck-breaking speed, it was all new to me. I was at my wits end a lot and, quite frankly, I don’t know how I survived the first few weeks. Many didn’t.

I wanted to quit a thousand times those first few weeks. It literally felt like I was on the House, MD set – working with a team of uber-smart young people who all wound up here because they wanted to come work for a man who loomed larger than life, so to speak, and be part of something greater than themselves. It was tedious, exhilarating stuff and I stayed because I wanted to prove a point to myself. Also, because it was fun, for the most part.

In January, people generally have the popular sequel to the season of introspection that engulfs them in December: resolutions. The same is true of companies. In January, my team sat through meetings everyday for the entire month, chromecasting data and spreadsheets, planning, deciding on and hacking away at the Trello Board activities that mattered and where critical for Q1 and Q2. Also, I was finally able to move into my apartment in Yaba – after having stayed at my friend’s since September 2015.

I began to head my own team in March and got to experience the satiety that came from accomplishing stuff I wasn’t sure I’d be able to achieve before being assigned the role. Growth.

This year wasn’t all about work, even though that was the biggest chunk of it. I had the good fortune of making and reinforcing new bonds with some people I’m glad are in my life now. I’m always preoccupied with the many things life is tossing at you in Lagos and the few people and things that help take my mind off of everything came in handy this year.

“I Wonder Why I Miss Everyone But I Still Don’t Call”

I didn’t keep in touch much with so many people this year because I was almost always too preoccupied with work. And, after a while, the I’m-so-sorry-I-forgot-to-return-your-call excuse began to sound so contrived it made things even worse. It felt like I was alone in this maze trying to figure life out on my own, estranged from nearly everyone. I literally had to schedule phone calls to my parents on my calendar after a spell of forgetting to reach out. They never got tired of calling though. I remember a period I’d call just to hear my 2 year old niece speak on the phone. She never said much but those calls helped me through some really difficult moments this year. She turned 3 this week, by the way.

“Paper Planes”

I briefly fell in love (I know, I know) this year and she loved me back but it wasn’t meant to be. Everything crumbled right as we tried to get off the ground – and it sucked really bad because it was no one’s fault. I think the hook on Jon Bellion’s Paper Planes is a more fitting description of our story:

We started to fall right out the sky

Without a warning call. Nahh-hoo…

We started to fall, no parachute so we had no time to call, for mayday mayday..

We bought two tickets down to paradise

One last flight trying to make it right

But that’s when the rain came

That’s when the pain came

We were never ever gonna make it far

We bought two tickets down to paradise

One last flight trying to make it right

But love came like a hurricane and we were just a paper plane

I know we tried to fly away, but we were just a

Paper plane

Sheesh, look at all this mush! Oh well…

“Hand of God”

One thing I’m grateful for is my faith and how I managed to keep it throughout 2016. This year was insufferable, for the most part, and it was difficult to pray on the many occasions that I should have.

September was the peak! Life came at me so hard on so many fronts it was near unbearable. At some point, my mild insomnia kicked into overdrive and I went days without clocking in any sleep – nights spent lying listlessly in bed, unable to rest easy. I had to take sleeping pills on two such spells this year. I saw an apt quote once that described these moments: “sleep is no use when it’s your soul that is tired.”

I found myself whispering prayers and “talking” to God like I would to a therapist on such periods – no fervency nor “earnestness”, as it were. I was on autopilot. But even those half-hearted prayers proved enough sometimes.

I’m so grateful for church and the privilege to have served in the choir (still do). That did me a world of good this year, acting as an anchor for my soul and helping to rein my mind in every now and again.

“Ungrateful Eyes”

In August, after a super long general meeting that really should have been an email, a year of accumulated burnout began to take its toll on everyone at the company who had arrived right before or about the time I came. Some of the best folks started to walk and it wasn’t the same from then on. The culture had evolved so much that walking was a more agreeable option than the alternative. I will always look back at this year and be thankful for the chance to have been around and work with the set of people I worked with. And for the amazing things we pulled off and those KPIs we crushed.

“Maybe IDK”

2016 is ending just as the previous year ended: with me on the cusp of a new adventure. It’s been a packed year with so many things that, on their own, really don’t matter much. But I grew this year in so many ways. I learned so many new things that helped me do my job, juggled a podcast and a radio show – among other things. I read more books this year than the last but not nearly as much as I’d have liked. I’m on a group chat with 3 of my friends that’s basically a book club with associated life chatter on the side.

I learned to be a tad less impatient with people (Femi would invoke the C-word here). I was also fortunate to be of help to a couple of people and to receive help when I needed it. Yeah, I have a few regrets about some things that never happened (like how I’m still not rich yet and don’t own a beach house) or that I could have done better, but I can sit back and look at 2016 and say to myself: not a bad year, mate.

In 2017, we go again.

Thanks for reading.

PS: This is the second post in the Neverwhere series – a collection of writings chronicling my work-life experience as a young man living and working in Lagos. Read Neverwhere 1 here.

Oblivion

One of the common questions we throw at candidates at our interview sessions at the office is the rather smug “do you consider yourself smarter than the average person?” tripe. The result is hardly surprising every time. Most of the candidates respond in the affirmative after a brisk introspection. And, more often than not, they are not wrong – our process is already optimized to ensure that the best candidates make it to the room. It is the ones who take a longer time to respond that hold my interest. For, in that prolonged pause before they reassure themselves, I too, find myself on the spot, trying to answer that same question.

I have lived in my current apartment for a year now and my spatial judgement of the area hasn’t expanded significantly since I moved out here. The first three trips to my apartment before I moved in, it seemed like I was visiting the area for the first time. I was petrified I might take a wrong turn and miss the street. For months after I moved in, I only stuck to the same route from the office to my house. I never explored any other detours out of my street, even though there’s at least five of them. I have tried one of them out since that time.

There’s a guy – at least, I assume it’s a guy, I can’t say for sure – in the apartment beside the stairwell to my floor who is something of an instrumentalist. He plays at least 2 musical instruments – I have heard sounds belting off of a saxophone and a piano at different times. He’s almost always practicing. Or maybe it just coincides with the times I am home – my schedule is pretty regimental. Over the months that I have been here, I have managed to put a face to about 7 of the people who stay in my building. The possible number of neighbours I have in that 3-storey building is at least twice that number. And I don’t know which one of them is the musician. Now that I think of it, I only got to know one of them is an engineer from people yelling “engineer” at some man on the ground floor every now and again. He fixed my generator too, according to my flatmate. I think about how so little I really know about the people around me or the environment I live in and the things that go on there. But the people here know me – as the guy who largely keeps to himself, leaving in the mornings and returning late in the evenings. But I am mostly oblivious and not too eager to do anything about that realization.

I have no idea what my flatmate’s car looks like. I know he has a car and he parks it in the compound sometimes when he returns from work. He leaves for work at least an hour before I do and I may never see him drive out or in with the schedule we both keep. The man in the flat above ours gave me a ride once when it rained and I had to go to work. He carried me beyond the flood so I woudn’t have to step in the water. I had probably stumbled across him or his son not more than 3 times before that day. I  and my flatmate speak often (if we can call it that) at home when we’re both around on weekends, especially in the kitchen on days we each feel like making our own food instead of ordering take outs. But I don’t really know him – at least, beyond the surface level stuff. I am the one who is least inclined to strike up a conversation, to be honest. In my rather busy street, I only occasionally speak to the lady who sells me confectioneries, the noodles guy and, recently, the barber who has cut my hair twice now. Short, polite, meaningless conversations to ease our transactions.

When I was in university, ladies got bored from me not having a clue when I was being greenlighted. The subtle nuances were always lost on me. Lol, it hasn’t greatly changed now, to be honest – I am always second-guessing the signals or I’m oblivious altogether. Sometimes I require a floodlight to get a hint, I’m afraid. At work or some other set up I’m involved with, when I get to hear of people who are rumoured to be seeing each other, I kick myself at the realization that the hint was there all along and I missed it because I wasn’t looking.

I’m usually not looking at these things – and there lies my problem. I am largely oblivious of my immediate surroundings and I could maybe hold a decent conversation on politics, foreign policy, physics, math, media, psychology, technology and all those things that one can grasp from reading books and observing people. But it seems I am oblivious on purpose, because I tend to make connections pretty quickly when I absolutely have to. I always joke about how my aloofness tends to immediately fade out when it really matters.

The average person is not necessarily aloof. Ignorant, maybe, but everyone is ignorant about some things. Thoughts like these run through my mind in those few moments the person sitting on the spot is contemplating whether they consider themselves to be smarter than the average person. When they finally say yes, I quietly think, yeah, me too. I think.