Have you being to Uja before? Do you plan to visit there before the end of the 21st century? I’m sorry, but I just returned from a trip there and all I have for you is bad news.
They say that if you can survive driving on Nigerian roads then you can survive it on any road in the world, but what they didn’t tell you is that there is a town in Nigeria whose roads make the saying seem subtle. If you are Nigerian and you have been to Uja, then you have a good reason to thank whoever uses that saying for putting such a thick shroud over a well-deserved insult.
The problem here isn’t just bumpy or porthole-ridden roads, but also the kind and state of vehicles allowed on the roads, the recklessness of the drivers, the absence of traffic lights and signs, and ultimately the fact that law keepers break regular traffic laws more often than the masses.
God, it’s like the Dark Age out there. I mean, how can one be driving on some blasted dirt roads when someone else is out there on a mission to pave the whole of the United States of America with solar panels? You think that last part was a joke? Google “Solar Roadways” and after you have been awed and motivated, maybe someone would finally realise why Uja is such a great place to visit – of course with solar panels and the intentions to invest in the city’s roadways.
My first night there was one of an army of mosquitoes assaulting my skin in the darkness. If their power company was at least functional, the dusty ceiling fan over my quaky hotel bed would have helped disorientate the annoying flies. When I now mention the temperature of my body and the ooze of sweat that accompanied it that night, you begin to understand why Nigerians flee to the temperate parts of the world by the thousand.
The weather did change a tad around 2am. I noticed the curtains fluttering in a light wind because the cocks woke me. Those bloody cocks… I would have been pissed with them, but then I was busy relishing the wind as I sat on the window.
In the morning, I began my mission to locate and take shots of the Asho Forest known to harbour giant snakes that were supposedly friendlier than the stench emanating from the tricycle man I asked for directions. And as he explained that I had about seven stops to make, his tricycle being the vehicle that would convey me to the first stop, I couldn’t help but notice he kept pulling up his T-shirt and exposing his musky black stomach, as if it were that of Jennifer Lopez, and putting his hand on his waist (the heat, I heard, can make people do crazy things in public). So I took a shot of that before boarding his tricycle, also popularly known as keke in the area.
There were three other people on the keke and this made the journey too uncomfortable (I usually wasn’t claustrophobic) and tedious. Imagine a one-hundred-and-one-year-old woman carrying five babies, two in her arms, another two on her shoulders and one on her back. That’s what the keke felt like. Vehicles were speeding past us so much that I began to wonder whether we were on reverse.
When we got to Onigbo Roundabout, the statue of a woman fetching water with a basket at the centre of the roundabout fascinated me as I alighted, but then the Onigbo Market whose encroachment onto the traffic has turned the road into a half of itself made me forbid going to check the sculpture out. The last thing I wanted was walking through the market and letting traders tug furiously at me the way they did prospective customers.
So I climbed onto a commercial motorcycle and headed for Stop Two, only to regret it a few minutes later. The okada man had a knack for dabbling with risks. He saw an orange rolling on the road and, like a child, sought to run over it. Then he saw a girl walking on the nearly-absent pedestrian and drifted so close to her and then laughed as she jumped. If not that he always honked each time he neared a crossroad, he didn’t slow down by the way, I would have concluded that he had a death wish and a sinister plan to take a few souls, or mine at least, with him.
I didn’t bother screaming at him. I simply asked him to stop and I stepped down. Just then, something terribly terrifying happened behind us.
Whatever you do, try to avoid accidents in Uja. With the many sick vehicles allowed on the roads and the absence of the necessary traffic facilities, death is inevitable. The accident was one made horrible by the inspiring courage and love that one of the victims demonstrated before his death.
They were hawkers, four hawkers selling gala and soft drinks in the traffic. A trailer’s break failed and it came trampling on three of the hawkers. The fourth could have escaped, but he couldn’t bear the thought of his sister’s brain being crushed by giant wheels, so he dived to save her, only to serve as the wedge that stopped the vehicle from killing more people.
That was when I decided I had seen enough of the town for one day. And talking about sick vehicles, a line of them trailed clouds of black smoke ahead of me as I retreated from my undertaking in a quaky taxi that complimented the shrieking roofs by the roadsides. At a point, I wondered if I had strayed into Mordor. I mean, I had seen a goblin, an orck, a troll, and numerous Gollums in the forms of a keke man, an okada man, a murderous trailer, and pesky cocks respectively.
Those bloody cocks… It was they and I again.
In America, it’s highly possible that one could sue his neighbour just because the neighbour’s cock crowed a few dozen times a night. But in Uja folk expect the crows. Not that they don’t have alarm clocks; the ringing of those might seem too alien to them, though; I believe they find the cries of cocks more soothing and timely. That was why after the town’s miserable traffic had stirred a sudden disinterest in the Asho Forest in me, I simply crashed into my hotel bed and didn’t bother to set the alarm.
And when the cocks began to crow again, I knew it was time to pack up and leave the godforsaken town.