Slim, multi-coloured canoes dotted the surface of the lagoon under Third Mainland Bridge like props in a tourism picture. When the car punched through the side of the bridge, hurtling nose first into the water, it upended the nearest canoes and upset the balance, sending a shockwave through it for kilometers. Fishermen out of eyeshot of the accident said later that they felt the vibration and clutched the side of their vessels, looking this way and that for the cause. Some of them wondered if a mami wata had risen from the water as happened every few years – they rose to mate with men, eventually leading them to their dooms. This thought had made them grab their oars and paddle furiously back to the land.
Up on the bridge, at the exact moment of the accident, three signature yellow buses with twin vertical black lines, eight saloon cars, two sleek SUVs and one trailer occupied the Mainland route of the dual lane bridge. The crash of the car through metal jolted the inhabitants of all the cars, pulling brief screams from their lips, their bodies shaking as they craned their necks to find out what had happened.
Papa, an elderly driver of one of the buses, caught sight of the gap in the guard rail, wide like a yawn, and fear swept through him, travelling down his hands which had become shaky over the last year. They jerked of their own volition, dragging the steering wheel to the right, bringing the bus into side of a brand new Kia. The Kia reacted as if it had been kicked in the stomach, crumpling in the middle and swerving into a Toyota. The Toyota hit one of the SUVs. The SUV ran into the path of the trailer. The trailer flung it forward, where it hit two more cars, continuing the chain. When it finally stopped and everything fell quiet, the cars were on their backs or their sides or crumpled like soda cans at the bottom of the dustbin, and the route to the Mainland was blocked.
Yemi sat on the hot ground with her back pressed against an overturned car, staring at the blood trickling past her feet. She had always hated Lagos. It was a humid city, full and crowded. Since she’d arrived three months ago, she had carried around the constant feeling of being overrun by ants, unable to get them all off.
She was born and raised in Abuja where it was all tall buildings and wide, sprawling roads. Coming to Lagos for her new job at an oil company had been a culture shock. The roads were skinny and constantly clogged by traffic. All the buildings were old. The people were rougher, uncouth. Even the Island, which was said to be similar to Abuja, connected to the Mainland by the bridge on which she now sat, still seemed dense and aged.
“How are you liking Lagos?” her mother asked a month after she arrived. They had always been close. She was an only child, and her father had died when she was in secondary school, leaving only the two of them. If her mother sensed that she was unhappy in this city, in this job that she had taken so her mother would no longer have to work from morning till night in the overcrowded government hospital cleaning bedpans and pushing patients in wheelchairs around, she would go quiet, her silence speaking her sadness more than words ever would.
Yemi had forced herself to smile over the phone, “I really like it. It’s nice. Lagos has so much character. Not like Abuja where everything is fake and manmade.”
It was a literal lifting of what her colleague, Amaka, had told her during her first week at work. She had balanced on one bum on the side of Yemi’s table, smiling down with her bright, red lipstick and overdrawn eyebrows which were arched like a comic villain’s, and prattled on about how lucky Yemi was to have moved. Lagos had colour, Abuja was beige. Lagos had evolved organically, Abuja had been made, like something in the lab, to be the capital. “Me, I can’t stay in Abuja for longer than one week. Ha! I’ll just die.”
Yemi had smiled up at her without saying anything. Before her move, her last visit to this city was seventeen years ago when she was nine. She came to visit Uncle Ike, an old friend of her father. Uncle Ike and her father started together at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but Ike had seen the crawling bureaucracy of the Ministry and the paltry, inconsistent pay. He’d resigned and started an importing business instead. Five years later he was rich and her father was still struggling.
Her visit to Lagos had not been as thrilling as she had thought it would be. The moment she stepped off the plane, her chest had tightened; she couldn’t breathe. Uncle Ike’s wife had rushed her to the hospital where she had been diagnosed as asthmatic and given an inhaler. She slurped up the contents her entire stay, unable to leave the house without aggravating it. She returned to Abuja two weeks later. Her chest expanded immediately she touched down. Fresh, sweet air poured into her. She never had to use the inhaler again.
Yemi could not see straight. The hot sun blared down on her, making her dizzy. Chaos flew around her. A woman cried, “Jesus! Jesus!” A man shouted, “Hey God! Hey God! God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob!” Another woman was screaming, “He’s dead! Jesus oh, he is dead.” She knew who this woman was referring to. The trickle of blood she had not been able to look away from had come from the dead man, a few feet in front of her where he had been thrown through the windshield. Road Safety had been trying to enforce the wearing of seatbelts for years. In Abuja, it was more or less set in stone. In Lagos, it was still largely a suggestion. Now look at him. The app had said his name was Dele when she requested him. He had had a grim picture of himself in a striped, dress shirt and when she entered the car he hadn’t bothered to glance at her. She had thought, “This one is getting one star.”
Impatient horns from motorists filled the air, spiced with the shouts of angry men blaming each other. They were cut off from Yemi’s view by a mangled car, but she had pieced together what had happened: incoming cars had spotted their accident and tried to avoid it by quickly turning to head back to the Island, but the new cars coming would not give them room and in minutes that part of the bridge was knotted tight as well, plugging them in from both sides.
Her body was broken. Her legs were contorted in front of her, reminiscent of beautiful women in circus acts, draped in sequined red, suspended from hoops and ropes, their arms stretched out as onlookers went wild. Except her legs were not beautiful; there was something horrific about the way they were angled, in jeans of all things, against the concrete. She could no longer feel them, which scared her more than the fresh pain that had consumed her immediately after the accident. A fat man in a grey sheda shirt and trousers, who had been one of the passengers, had dragged her out of the front seat of the car and laid her out here. He stared into her face for a moment, his large cheeks, small brown eyes and heavy breathing imprinting permanently in her mind before he had hurried away to help others.
Yemi caught a flash of pink now out of the corner of her eye before the girl materialized in her vision. She looked to be about eight years old, standing by the dead man, her slender body clothed in a pink, sleeveless ankara dress, patterned with yellow flowers. She seemed familiar but Yemi could not quite place where she had seen her. She used to have a dress like that herself, she thought, but hers was a bit longer, mid-calf and not knee-length. Or maybe she was wrong. It had been a long time ago and her headache made it difficult to think clearly.
The girl smiled suddenly, holding Yemi’s eyes. Yemi felt her own face stretch into a smile in return. The girl began to move towards her, never looking away until she arrived and settled at her side.
Over the last few weeks, Yemi had begun thinking that not everyone belonged everywhere. She thought, as her body weakened against the cooling car, that some people’s blood was tailored to certain places and if you uprooted them and transplanted them somewhere else, they would wither and begin to die. She had proof of this. When her roommate from University, Bukky, emigrated to Canada with her husband immediately after graduation, she started to look more and more ashen over their skype calls. A year later, she was dead. Yes, they said it was the cancer that killed her, but Yemi couldn’t help thinking that if she had stayed in Nigeria, it would have been different. Maybe if she had stayed, she wouldn’t have gotten cancer at all.
Something similar almost happened to her mother twenty years ago when her grandmother was dying. Her mother had taken her with her to the village as soon as the news came and they went to see her grandmother in her room when they arrived. The room was crammed full of treasured possessions in Ghana-must-go bags. They were arranged along walls that had cement peeling off in large chunks, exposing the blocks underneath. It smelled damp and heavily of agbo, the herbs they gave her to drink every day in hopes of a recovery. Her grandmother’s emaciated body, covered in a faded wrapper, was stretched out on a thin, narrow mattress. Even before her sickness she spent much of her time on this bed or in the white plastic chair by the window, reading by sunlight or lantern. She had been strong in her youth, trekking long distances to the farm and to the market, but as she aged, she developed a fear of the outside world and could no longer leave her room.
Her mother had said repeatedly over the years that it was unnatural. She said someone in the village, one of her cousins, used juju to make her afraid of the world. The weeks they were in the village before her grandmother’s death, her mother had grown increasingly anxious that they would use the same thing on her. The morning after grandmother’s death, they left quickly. They returned to Abuja and her mother never left the city where she believed she was safe again.
Her father had come to join the girl in pink. He sidled up to Yemi’s left side, so close that she could smell his perfume – the same one he had used when she was a child – and she could feel the scratchy fabric of his royal purple agbada against her skin. The girl was tucked into her other side playing with a shard of glass. Yemi wanted to take it from her but she could not raise her hands to pry it away.
He was chattier than she remembered. He kept propping himself up on one hand to scan the vicinity for the latest updates. He told her a news crews had arrived and were on the Island route of the bridge, searching for gaps in the barbed-wire partition to cross through. He told her that only the injured were left on the bridge. All the others had trudged off through the crush of cars, still locked at a standstill, disappearing between them. Emergency services had still not arrived, but he expected that they would come soon, probably in another hour, just as darkness began to touch the sky. They would speed across the clear lanes on the other side of where the cars that had been involved in the accident had piled up, to get to them.
“Just wait and see. They won’t leave Third Mainland blocked for long. The whole of Lagos will collapse.”
Yemi agreed but she was too tired to answer. Her eyes were growing heavy and she was having trouble keeping them open. She wanted to doze for just a few seconds; when they came they would find her. As her eyelids fell shut, her father began to jostle her arm.
“Yemi, Yemi, you can’t sleep now,” he begged. “You have to wake up. If you sleep, you won’t come back. Please, you won’t come back.”
Sunrays poured down on the cars speeding across the free dual lanes of the bridge. The Island and Mainland awaited the passengers on either side, as their fingers moved over their phones and they laughed, gossiped, conversed or argued among themselves within the hot containers of the cars. They discussed the pile-up as drivers slowed to give them time to examine the residuals of shattered glass and a sky-blue bumper wobbling in the breeze. It was Lagos, they concluded. The city had no favourites. It could be any of them today, it could be any of them tomorrow. Lagos would not be quelled.
Zainab A. Omaki is a Nigerian screen and prose writer. She is an alumni of Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus Trust Writing Workshop. Her work has appeared magazines, including The Rumpus, Ake Review, Brittle Paper, and others. Her collection of short stories, Side Babies, was published in 2016.