I entered the empty bus after walking a good stretch of the bus stop looking for a less messy point to cross the pool of mud that had gathered in the middle of Oshodi. I tip-toed over puddles and chided myself for leaving the house fifteen minutes late. I’d fallen prey to that additional minute of sleep that always blossoms into an extra hour of commute. It was six thirty, and although it was drizzling when I woke up, I knew that wasn’t enough of an excuse to squander time.
Other people climbed into the bus. They, too, were sombre and resolved, I presumed, to the misery of work that was about to visit them after a pleasurably long holiday. We like to complain about the large number of holidays in Nigeria, but I’ve never seen someone on Lagos streets happy they were resuming work after a long weekend. There was no reason to pay attention to any of the other passengers, because I knew we all feel the same way about working in this city.
Beside me was a young lady with a white hijab covering her head and ears and framing her face into a perfect oval. I didn’t see her until she bent to move the nylon bags by my left leg and bumped hard into me on the way back up. She had a pimpled nose, a daughter seated on her laps, and on her short skirt riding up her thighs was sand from the girl’s feet.
Any other moment in a bus and I might have made an effort to smile at the girl, but I was still mad at myself for being tardy, so I returned to my phone, to an essay by Claire Vaye Watkins in Granta that held my eyeballs ransom, making me oblivious to the stagnant traffic on the bridge. Then I heard, in Yoruba, “Is your stomach paining you again? Do you want to vomit? Óyá vomit.” I turned and saw the mother holding her right palm covered in a rag to the daughter’s mouth, pushing her body gently against the girl like she was edging her on.
I turned away immediately and felt nauseous from what I thought was going to be the next chain of events. I wondered why she would encourage the girl to vomit in the bus. But it’s really difficult to get mad at a mother trying to make her daughter feel relieved. The girl coughed, but nothing came out, and I was glad crisis was averted. I returned to the essay, but now that I’d taken notice of mother and child, they were firmly fixed in the periphery of my vision.
The duo looked like they could be sisters, and I thought of the conditions that have could have led to mother and child catching a bus ride at dawn, traveling across two distant parts of this oft inhuman city. The child was still uncomfortable, still had that look on her face that there was something in her body that was itching to come out. The mother hailed one of the hawkers by the bus and asked for plantain chips. She stretched out a five hundred Naira note, but the man said he doesn’t have change, so she returned the chips and kept her eyes out of the window, looking for an alternative.
I had a hundred Naira with me, and could have given her, but I was questioning the wisdom of buying plantain chips for a child who is about to vomit. I couldn’t ask her why she wanted to buy the chips for the girl instead of getting to her destination and buying real food.
Once, while traveling home from Lagos, I bought and ate plantain chips at Ogere that sent my body into chaos the moment it hit my guts. My body was quivering. It was impossible to sit still. I tried to manage it till we got to Ibadan where I could find a place to do number two, but my body couldn’t take it. Somewhere between Guru Maharaji’s heaven on earth and toll gate, I barked to the driver to stop, grabbed tissue and ran into the bush to experience relief. Since then, I’ve considered plantain chips risky food, along with moin moin and eggs and such edibles no one should attempt eating while commuting.
The mother stopped another hawker, and his response to the five hundred Naira bill was the same. At this point I was telling myself how haughty I must be to think I can decide what is good for the daughter or not. So I said the next time she calls another hawker, I would offer her a hundred Naira note.
A man tapped her shoulder from the back of the bus and offered her a hundred Naira note. But by then, the act of benevolence was unnecessary, because the bus was moving rapidly again and there were no more hawkers on the bridge.
Why did I hesitate to give her the money thinking chips were bad for the child? I think there’s something silly about not offering the money, then feeling bad later because I thought I knew what was best for mother and daughter. I try, these days, not to pity people until they tell me that’s what they want. Still, shouldn’t we feel sorry when we miss opportunities to be kind and make other people smile?
As the bus increased in speed and wind blew into it, the child puffed her cheeks and, before the mother could reach for the rag, out came the vomit, a clear liquid full of relief.
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