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The International Writers Magazine
When Bombs go off in Lagos - Fiction from Nigeria
'It dawns on me that Lagos is in trouble again, the moment the Toyota symbol on the Cressida wheel cover disappears…'

Meeting Water
Tolu Ogunlesi

Only these were no professional fishermen
Angling for monster fishes,
They were daddies and mummies
And sons and daughters sinking
In swimsuits woven
From survival instincts,
Pockets weighed down
By bombs they never saw…

There are six or seven of us. Most have been to church and back, to confess another installment of sins and receive some anointing for the next few days. We are seated around a table that seems to be shrinking – our beer bottles are finding it increasingly difficult to find space on the table – until one of us has a brainwave and suggests we put emptied bottles on the floor. But unanimously agreeing on which bottles are empty and which are not is getting increasingly harder than we imagined.

It is better to drink in daylight than under the cover of darkness. In daylight you are far less likely to be labeled a drunkard. Night drinkers are viewed far less sympathetically than their daytime brethren. Think of it – Darkness and Drunkard seem to belong together.

Someone has just finished cracking a joke about another difference between the two species of drinkers when the rain starts. It just pours suddenly, as though someone up there were absentmindedly emptying a huge basin of water. No prior warning. In some odd way, I am quite relieved. Some part of me has been imagining hearing fresh blasts in commemoration of the first year anniversary of last year’s explosions; so when the rain starts I am relieved that the forces of evil have on this occasion settled for a low-keyed re-enactment.

We refuse to relocate from our table on the verandah of Mama Nnedi’s Cool Spot, despite the fact that the rain is fierce, and sudden gusts of wind are regularly spraying us rudely with rainwater. We are not so bothered. We politely turn down Mama Nnedi’s offer of space for us within the cramped confines of her buka. It’s amazing what beer emboldens you to endure. The rain forces our voices to rise, till we are practically screaming. The intensity of our voices succeeds in causing us to veer off into coarse jokes. And we decide to play a game. One by one every member of the circle has to supply a Very Lewd Joke, and we are to do it in quick succession of one another. No breaks, no hesitations, no variants of the same joke.
Predictably, I’m the first to drop out. I switch off and content myself with watching the growing flood, using the tyres of a Toyota Cressida parked across the road as a benchmark. The Cool Spot is perched on an elevation, so we are still somewhat comfortably detached from the rising flood.

It doesn’t take too long for it to hit me hard that Lagos is in trouble. What I find hard to acknowledge is the fact that I seem to consider myself absolutely qualified to have that premonition. *Barely a year ago, Lagos was torn from its roots by a series of near-mysterious explosions.
When the explosions started, they were like a joke, a cosmic prank in fact. I’m alive to recount all this because I am a fairly good swimmer. NUGA Gold Medallist for the University of Jos in ’83. Some time ago, I would have said I remain alive because God blah blah blah… But I think it really has nothing to do with him. God knows!

…Bodies bodies bodies. Thrashing bodies, still bodies, baby bodies, elderly bodies, ballooning bodies… those memories travel with you like a blob of saliva on the other side of your car glass. You can’t wipe it off, at least not while you’re still driving. So you stop looking at it, at least till you can’t help but stare again…
That afternoon (it was a Sunday too), we were seated at a table, like we are now, discussing politics and sports. Back then I didn’t have a single bottle of beer standing in front of me, as I do now. I declined while everyone else increased their number of empty bottles with gusto. Drinking and smoking were sins I considered beneath me. I didn’t believe in them at all. They were too crude.

When we heard the first explosion, no one said anything about it. At that point in time, I remember we were in a Very Heated Argument about who the richest man in Nigeria was. How did we even get into that particular argument? Some ignoramus had brought up that crap again about the fact that the poorest man in America being better off than the richest man in Nigeria. I first heard that blasphemy when I was in Primary Two, and I have heard it countless times since then. I’ve stopped believing it since I was in Primary Five.
Various folks were swearing with their fathers’ private parts that so-and-so was the richest Nigerian, No! Lailai! Na so-and-so! Evidence flew back and forth, every once in a while someone knew someone who knew one Accountant who managed so-and-so’s wealth, or who knew someone who had been so-and-so’s personal driver who used to drive him (never her) to his Swiss bank.

I was about to start querying if retired Generals had any moral right to be included in our local Forbes Top 10, when the very first explosion came. It wasn’t at all alarming as I remember I was still able to complete my question and flag off a side-debate on the propriety or otherwise of including any Nigerian of whatsoever profession. Y’know, the All Have Sinned and Fallen Short kind of stuff …

The second one came about thirty minutes later, and sounded more insistent than the first. The ground stirred beneath us. Someone dived after his fallen half-empty bottle of beer, cursing.
After that, I lost count. The explosions came in more frequent successions, like once every five to ten minutes, till they were too present for comfort. By now all of us had joined in diving for the bottles, even I the teetotaler.

Folks were beginning to gather on the street, discussing in loud tones. I began to notice people gathering excitedly around the white garment church some distance down the road. I thought I could see them periodically nodding in our direction. I guessed their excitement had to do with the fact that they were finally going to be vindicated. I remembered my Sunday School Lessons of many years ago, when our Teacher would paint a very vivid picture of The Rapture, and White Horses and The Mark of the Beast and Trumpets, and how everybody Jesus found in a beer-parlor would immediately be dispatched by some kind of speed-post to the Lake of Fire. We kids would listen attentively, partly in excitement, and partly benumbed by fear, and we would pray fervently not to be caught in a beer parlour when Jesus came back.
Now here I was.

Jesus himself would – more like should – know that I hadn’t been drinking. He was omni-everything, wasn’t he? I recited (tried to) the Lord’s Prayer, and then realized I was muddling it up.
Forgive us this day our trespasses, as it is done in Heaven… and deliver us from all evil for surely goodness and mercy shall follow us and ….no … give us this day our daily bread, as we forgive those who trespass against us…

Some people suggested an earthquake. Others swore it was a coup d’etat, and instantly began to regale us with tales of how they lived in Obalende close to Dodan Barracks those days when it used to be the seat of power and how exciting those days used to be when coup plotters struck.
"I saw Orkar with my koro-koro eyes," I remember hearing one man say. As expected a small crowd assembled around him instantly. He continued, his voice now more assured, insistent. "…Orkar himself o! He sat on an armored tank and blasted straight through the Dodan Barracks Gate, heading for Babangida’s bedroom…Babangida’s very private bedroom, the one even Maryam was not permitted to enter…only Babangida and the Israeli engineers who built it knew what the inside looked like…it had this secret door hidden under the coat of arms on the floor in the center of the room that led into a tunnel which opened out at the Airport…"

I at once began to imagine a scared-off-his-pants Babangida looking over his shoulders endlessly as he ran, sweated and stumbled along in an air-conditioned, carpeted tunnel, remembering that the last time he was subjected to such an exertion was decades ago in the military academy.
"Ojoo Cantonment nko…Did Orkar capture it?" someone had asked, more in show-off of his knowledge of military formations in Lagos than in genuine curiosity.
"Alfa jona, o n bere irugbon!" the mouth whose eyes had seen Orkar replied. "You should know that Bonny Camp is the powerhouse of the army in Lagos state. That is where all the Colonels and above are. Ojoo is for recruits and so on…"
At this point I was tempted to bash the man over the head for his barefaced misinformation. Besides I didn’t think a coup was likely, not at this time when the politicians hadn’t convincingly proved just how adept they were at ruining us.

But if I had any such thoughts (denting the man’s head), they quickly vanished in the face of another hypothesis, one that emerged as a slight stammer from a tall, thin, baby-faced man – that Lagos, albeit Nigeria was being bombed.
Now that seemed likely.

We began to brainstorm on possible invaders, and theories. In between two explosions (that means in a space of about five minutes), if I remember well, we had come up with an impressive list of Conspiracy Theories. I was getting excited. This reminded me of the heated discussions we used to have in POS 411 – The Cold War and Theories of Global Conflict in A New World Order – in Jos back then. Someone mentioned Cameroon. Reason – the conflict over the Bakassi Peninsula. As doubtful as we all were of that postulation, we half hoped it was true. The Coup plot veteran rose to the occasion to voice out our reason:
"Cameroon cannot stand a chance beside Nigeria. We have the best military capability south of the Sahara…"
"… Except for South Africa," I chipped in.

The man frowned to show that he didn’t entertain interruptions; only the respectful questions of ignoramuses. He continued. "Imagine, Nigeria has sixteen MIG-29s, Cameroon has only four. We have a combat strength of eighty thousand soldiers…. Cameroon’s army is less than thirty thousand…"

He would have continued if the next explosion weren’t especially intense. We heard the sound of breaking glass, and felt the earth rumble like diarrhoead bowels. By then panic was beginning to break forth amidst us.
All of a sudden someone mentioned Osama. We permitted the name to sink, and were shocked to find that it chose instead to crash wickedly onto the floors of our minds. Things were getting clearer. Osama bin Laden, The Terrorist, who had single-handedly brought America to her face in the dust of ground zero; that same Osama had turned on Nigeria. Why he did that was not far-fetched. Our President had publicly railed against Al Qaeda and called Osama an idiot. In addition he had placed a reward of twenty five million American dollars upon Osama’s head, for the very fact that countless Nigerians had perished in the Sept 11 US attacks.

We all knew the party was over at that point.
We were just marching on, sometimes breaking into a half-trot. Every now and then a crazy driver would hoot furiously and weave through the snaking line of refugees. But most people were walking. There were abandoned cars at every point on the road, some with the doors wide open, others with their engines still running. The explosions were crazy now. Sometimes they would come in a volley, three four seven explosions, all as though they came from the ground beneath us. Then they might cease for a while, then a single one, and all of a sudden another volley.

The crowd was getting confused. Some folks would just break out and run. Somebody would suddenly postulate that the explosions seemed to be coming from, say, Ikoyi, and we would change direction.
We clustered around the few men who clutched transistor radios, in a bid to catch some information from …the authorities?…goddamn it…anybody! Virtually all the stations were playing hip-hop, the few that were not were either about to shut down to rest their generators or hooking in to BBC or VOA to bring us foreign news. One man tossed his radio into the drainage. Someone waited for him to move ahead and then dived after it.

I thought of my family. I eventually decided to go home and find them. Finding a taxi or okada was impossible, so I decided I’d have to jog home. I slipped out of the crowd, and decided on the fastest way home, dragging along my guilt at not immediately going home when the explosions started.
Everywhere I passed through, people were headed in all directions. Yet we were all running from the same thing. Even more strangely, we didn’t know what we were running from. Somewhere around Ikotun, I saw a danfo calling passengers who were interested in heading for Badagry, enroute the border Nigeria shares with the Republic of Benin. The danfo was almost full.

Our street was deserted. The landlord’s twenty-something year old son emerged from the building clutching some electronics. I asked about my family.
"Dem don comot. Everybody comot," he said.
"All of them? My wife and all the children?… where did they say they were going?"
"I no sabe," he said. "Even Iya Agba no wait," That last statement was supposed to put an end to what I presumed he had concluded was my silly questioning. Iya Agba was the oldest occupant of our building. She claimed to be a hundred and two years, and, well, I didn’t doubt her. She looked that old. If Iya Agba could disappear, then I should know everyone else had too.

The landlord’s son was about disappearing too, and he immediately did, into the alley beside the house, still clutching his loot. I entered the building, the long corridor which all our apartments shared, knocking on the doors one by one. I entered our own apartment and could picture the scene just before my family moved out. There was a half-eaten bowl of eba on the center-table, with efo - elegusi beside it, but without the meat. They had forgotten to put the stove off, and it still burned brightly in its corner. Blessing’s (our youngest daughter) shoes lay scattered where she usually played, together with a half-eaten packet of biscuit, meaning her mother hurriedly snatched her from play – or sleep, and carried her off in her arms.
I switched the TV on. I had to fiddle with it at the controls on the panel itself. The remote control was nowhere to be found. Samuel must have been clutching it when he ran after his mother.
Only one station was on air, and it just displayed its logo, while Shina Peters crooned on.
Ninety percent, bribery and corruption
Caused by men
Ninety percent, motor accident
Caused by men
Na wa o…

Another time, I’d have stopped all I was doing to dance, and engage my wife in an argument over the veracity of male culpability in the fallen state of society. Maybe tomorrow, we’d do that again.
I looked at my mattress, and was tempted, I’m ashamed to say, by the thought of lying down and sleeping. I’d wake up the next morning to see my wife beside me, in the favourite iro she wore to bed; and my children sprawled out on their mattresses, in the very familiar, varying stages of what I had come to term nakedness-in-progress.
Besides, I always slept on Sunday afternoons.

I wasn’t so sure what to do next. Was I to go in search of my family at my mother-in-law’s? No one is at home in Lagos, I argued with myself. Everybody is on the run. Even the rich, I thought, remembering that a significant percentage of the abandoned vehicles we had come across on the streets were glossy SUVs. Someone had even pointed out a 2003 model Lexus that sped past. I decided to get back onto the streets and join the crowd. If something evil had to happen to us, I might as well be in the midst of other victims. Dying is more pleasant by the dozen. And who knows, all this might just be a nightmare; an extended hallucination I (and we) needed to endure first in order to get rid of. The consolation was that this was a nightmare or hallucination that seemed to chose not to discriminate between the psyches of the rich and the hopeful. We were all in it together.*I decided to take my car. Usually the engine never started at the first attempt. Countless mornings the neighborhood had to help in pushing it while I manipulated the pedals. But this afternoon was different. It roared into life without hesitation, without even the dark cloud of jubilant smoke that usually heralded its awakening.

I made my way out of the compound, and decided to head for my in-laws’. I guessed my wife might also have decided that perishing was nicer when you did it with family. That was the least privilege you could accord yourself when you didn’t know what you were going to perish from.
I soon discovered that I couldn’t ignore the growing mass of refugees on the roads. So I decided to fill my car with fellow sojourners. It was unthinkable that I’d drive an empty car to oblivion when so many folks were walking.

By now the explosions were very intense, and they seemed to have lost their sense of timing. And I noticed I was getting accustomed to their presence, such that I was able to conveniently miss hearing one or two. My passengers expressed the same sentiments.
The radio still had nothing to say. My car radio brought forth crisp, static-free sound, another highly unusual occurrence. In the absence of any hints about the goings-on, we polished our conspiracy theories.
"The Osama story sounds most plausible," said the man sitting beside me. We hadn’t bothered to introduce ourselves; and in these strange times that didn’t appear too odd to us. "Our president has succeeded in bringing us this final dividend of democracy – annihilation by a man half our population wouldn’t even recognize if they saw him"
"The man has loosed what he can’t tight," echoed the only lady, who looked like she was midway into extensive renovation work on her hair and make-up when the explosions started.
"You mean the president, or Osama?"
"Na president o," she replied.
"You are right! Osama is not a man who will tamper justice with mercy,"
"That our President is a very stew-pid man. Very very stew-pid. Now we all gonna pay for his big mouth…Hey…watch out…the red light …"

I stamped on the brakes. Purely by instinct. Ordinarily I shouldn’t have bothered to obey the lights. The car in front of mine had raced past in disobedience. And from those behind me I could feel the irritation that burned towards me for halting. But since I had stopped, they had little choice. A minute later the red light disappeared. In its place the light panel glowed meekly like a dying bulb and died out. In irritation I started the engine and as I made to move, the green light came on. I let my foot down impatiently on the throttle, unaware that the leading driver approaching at a right angle to me from the left had chosen the same response. We met in a messy metallic tangle at the junction, like the tight-clasping embrace of long lost friends. We would have had a vicious fight if not for some observant genius who pointed out that it wasn’t any of our faults. The traffic light-box had apparently shown green to both of us at the same time.

*My in-laws’ family house was (still is) a crumbling eighteenth century colonial structure in Isolo, with the words NOT FOR SALE, CAVEAT EMPTOR graffitied all over its façade. Some peace came over me as I spotted it from a distance. I could see my wife and children huddled on the 100-year old Arabic mat that formed the sole furniture in the cobwebbed living room. Only that they would be worried about my whereabouts.
I don’t know if I may say I was very surprised when I met the house empty. It was puzzling, I must confess, since this was a house that held, at any point in time, sixty inhabitants at the least. Now the only living creature I saw was Kekere, my mother-in-law’s lame, slightly deaf and perpetually pregnant mongrel.
I entered the rooms one by one, remembering the many moments I had spent in the house, right from the time my wife and I were courting. A smile came to me when I remembered the times we used to steal kisses off each other under my wife’s grandmother’s nose, in the one-windowed room that opened out from the living room. The old woman spent all her days in the room, and since she was extremely shortsighted, we took advantage of her to carry out our slightly-less-than-chaste liaisons in her presence, at a carefully calculated distance of course. We couldn’t afford to do that in any other room, where normal-sighted folks were bound to be. We would just lock ourselves in with the old woman, and experiment – with kisses…(nothing more, God knows). It used to amuse me that such an easy means existed of outwitting my father-in-law who was a perfect epitome of that personality type Nigerians love to interpret (mostly in the obituary notices of their beloved patriarchs and matriarchs) as "Strict Disciplinarian".

Somehow I got to hear that people were trooping towards the weed-choked, rubbish-choked canal that ran through Isolo, all the way to the other end of Lagos. I joined the crowd. It was at this point that I started to feel some panic rising in me. I madly hoped my wife hadn’t chosen this moment to repress her morbid fear of water. I just had the feeling that this canal news was bad news.
I arrived at the canal and saw human beings plunging into the dark, slimy depths, attempting to head for God-knows-where. The canal looked like a lush soccer pitch, thanks to the fertile water hyacinth that had annexed the entire surface.
I plunged too, only realizing that I had done so after the fact. It was as though I had been pushed. Now I imagine it was like that for every other person too who entered those murky depths that Sunday. But in truth, I have come to the conclusion that it was a Final Act of desperation by a people for whom desperation had become the sole ticket to a continued existence…
I think there were about six or seven folks who plunged with me. No symbolism intended in my numerology, I swear. It just strikes me.
As I was saying, I plunged.

In actual fact, We plunged. Lagos plunged!
I think it’s clear now why I have (and feel qualified to have) that hollow, sucked out feeling that today is another festival of Death. Another Death by Immersion. One difference is that last year, we went to meet the water. This time around, one year after, the water has chosen to come to meet us, to save us the trouble. *I have recently read about Closure; it’s supposed to be psychologese for some kind of coming to terms with life-altering events in one’s life. And I’m beginning to feel that seeing and touching those mass graves one year after might bring some sense of much-needed closure. Especially since I wasn’t present that day they lowered the 1000-strong flag-draped coffin congregation into the moist tomb on the banks of the canal. I refused to go because my pastor said going would mean doubting God. That if I went, I was more or less declaring that God had failed, and Devil was the victor. His argument sounded plausible. Since I hadn’t identified my wife or kids amidst the bloated corpses stacked in the fourteen or so mortuaries, I just had to wait on God and not do anything that would challenge his ability to handle the situation; that would show unbelief.

For lots of folks, seeing their loved ones’ corpses meant closure. For others it meant every other thing but closure. For me? I don’t know what it would have meant. That’s the truth.

Lagos is in deep s**t!
I can imagine the Atlantic greedily rolling its eyes as its stomach bloats with water, waiting for that perfect moment when it would in one bowel movement belch the water onto an unsuspecting Lagos. My friends are soon forced to suspend their game and acknowledge that Lagos is indeed in for it. We watch in silence as the tires of the Toyota disappear. We are all soaked, and we don’t bother. I don’t think it dawns on anyone that it is almost exactly a year now since we last consigned a Sunday to the dustbin of tragedy. And I certainly do not feel like letting them know.

Soon no fingers reach onto the table any longer to caress a bottle. Just the silence. Our silence, of course, for the storm is nothing near silent.
We have no radios to switch on. Good riddance.
One man begins to worry aloud about the wife and week-old baby girl he left at home. My heart goes to him. He lives in a mansion in Lekki, built upon a plot of land that has been snatched and re-snatched countless times from the ocean.

…In the absence of such worries, my mind is free. Free to commiserate with the many who will this year take their turn to wade through bloated bodies stacked on mortuary floors, awaiting that Aha! that comes when you recognize a face, or even three.

I don't know why I'm saving this till the very end. Maybe it's because I have always felt that a good story should be told like a good joke - with one-hell-of-a-punchline.
Hours after Lagos plunged, and wove a mausoleum out of seaweed, we learnt that Osama was innocent. The explosions we thought were his, turned out to be ours.
They came from the tonnes of explosives warehoused in the ammo depot of the Ikeja Cantonment, stockpiled by our second-best-in-africa army because they didn't want us to be helpless in the event of an attack by such enemies as Osama (and Cameroon).
Whether the explosions were accidentally set off, or an act of sabotage (possibly by one of the thousands of unpaid army pensioners who daily roam the streets of Lagos), only the Good Lord knows.
And maybe the victims too would know. I have always reckoned that the dead are closer to possessing God's omniscience than we the living.

 © Tolu Ogunlesi  Nov 2 2004

Tolu Ogunlesi was born in 1982. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria, and works as an intern pharmacist. He is the author of a collection of poetry LISTEN TO THE GECKOS SINGING FROM A BALCONY (Jacobyte Books, Australia). He is an aspiring photographer and novelist -
an intern pharmacist in Lagos. He is the author of a collection of poetry LISTEN TO THE GECKOS SINGING FROM A BALCONY, (Jacobyte Books, Australia).
His work has appeared or is forthcoming in A Melody of Stones (PEN Anthology of New Nigerian Writing 2003), Olongo, Times Arts Review, Sable, Hackwriters, Eclectica, InkPot, Mississippi Review, amongst others.
He is at work on a collection of stories, and at the same time saving the courage to start work on his first novel.


Tolu Ogunlesi
Author, LISTEN TO THE GECKOS SINGING FROM A BALCONY, Bewrite Books, UK tel: +234 803 337 6685 e:

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