You’re at the fueling-station, in your car which could only be worth anything if it’s sold in scraps and pieces. You pay two hundred naira to the clearly high fellow manning the wheeled cross-bar like it were the gate of heaven, and he lets you through, looking hesitant as though he is unsure whether or not to do you this favour.
Your inside-man at the station spots you and makes his way over to you with a broad smile on his face. It is the smile of a tax-collector or a good-natured thief, and you return it, enthusiastically. This is who you are now, the guy who is usually so wrapped up in his thoughts he hardly notices anyone or anything else is now on first-name terms with half the fueling-station attendants within a three-hundred mile radius. This one’s name is Tayo. It was he who called you to inform you that, Bros, we don dey sell fuel for jerry can now. Hurry show before manager change im mind.
And you did hurry. Between you two, you know that he who has the petrol has all the power.
Greetings are brief. He seems harried, and he should be. Business is booming.
It takes two thousand, eight hundred naira to fill each of your petrol jerry cans —what used to take two thousand, five hundred (six hundred, at most) at other fueling stations, except those ones haven’t sold fuel into jerry cans in weeks —and you pay an extra two hundred naira on each jerry can as some sort of BAT (barawo added tax) or a punitive charge for coming to buy petrol with jerry cans, as against, perhaps, putting the petrol pump in your mouth and drinking up as much petrol as you need, before going home to throw it all back up into your generator’s tank. One can’t be too certain what this fee is for, but you pay it at any rate, and try to look friendly while at it, because with all the stress and uncertainty that attends living in this country, being seen to not be a part of the corruption cycle is a lot less important than sleeping under a rotating fan and having the option of watching old episodes of Downton Abbey if sleep, as it usually does, refuses to show up. You also put a neat five hundred naira bill into Tayo’s waiting palm. His niceties come at a non-negotiable price.
It’s a last minute decision to fill the car’s tank. In reserve, six thousand naira usually fills the tank. It’s not in reserve now, but five thousand naira worth of petrol barely brings the gauge to the half-tank mark.
You make a point of thanking Tayo as you leave, rolling over stanzas of Arise O Compatriots! in your head. Guide our leaders right, help our youth the truth to know…
You hate this country. Life here is so freaking difficult. It’s hard to not be poor, and when you’re poor, survival is no short of a miracle. This country with its systems that don’t work and it’s fucking useless leaders. This country where there’s no justice and ones life isn’t even as expensive as pure water in Ore traffic. You hate it here, but yet you stay.
Everyone at home’s been bending your ear of late about the merits of moving abroad or at least going overseas for your masters: It’d be easier to push this your writing thing, you never know…
Leaving is doable, but you don’t want to go, and it’s not something you say very often because people then tend to look at you like you’re mad. And you very well may be.
You hate it here, it’s hell here, but it’s a hell you recognize. Here you know the extent of bad. But even then, it’s still more than that. You know what’s keeping you here. It’s that evil spirit that always seems to push you in the opposite direction from where you’re expected to go. The same evil spirit that made you switch from Sciences to Arts in SS2, mid-term, even though your Daddy wanted so desperately for you to become a doctor.The same evil spirit that caused you to face off with teachers and stand up to seniors; the same spirit that pushed you to embark on one-man protests, to speak your mind always, regardless of consequences; that spirit that has brought you a lot of trouble and almost nothing else.
You met up with your best friend from secondary school a few weeks ago, and he reminded you of an incident you’d all but forgotten. This one time in JSS-something when a senior student had come to your class and asked you all to kneel down, and then brandishing a terrible-looking leather belt, asked if you all knew what you were being punished for.
No, your entire class had chorused, completely clueless.
And then the senior said: If you’re not sure what you’ve done, move to my right. If you’re sure you’ve done nothing wrong, stay where you are.
Everybody moved, but you.
It was that evil spirit then and it’s that evil spirit now. The spirit your Mum always said she admired. She said she’d always found it fascinating how you live your life on your terms. How as a child you wouldn’t let anyone pick out your clothes, and did exactly what you wanted because you were convinced it was the right thing to do. I thought I had a rebel on my hands, she said, but I soon realized it was more than that. You know who you are in a way very few of us do, and that knowledge gives you conviction. Chi gi nedu gi. It’s a gift, she said.
You know all too well that it’s a curse too.
But it’s as much that evil spirit then as it is now. And that evil spirit keeps telling you:
You can make a difference here…