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When Rain Hits This City Already Floundering

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January 11, 2008

Dimie Abrakasa was at Railway Junction when the rain clouds caught the sun. The world turned a dull gray. The temperature plummeted; playful gusts of wind sprang up from nowhere. The wind grew steadily stronger: it began to shriek and fling dust into averted faces. Then the first lightning-flash split the gloom—a rumble of cascading boulders burst from the heavens a heartbeat later. There was another flash, sulphuric in its intensity; the thunderclap that followed was like a shredding of the very fabric of the heavens.

Birds winged their way across the sky, their progress hampered by the buffeting they had received at the hands of a furious wind. Suddenly there was a lull, everything froze in that instant; then, with a sound like swishing silk the rain announced its approach. The first drop had not yet made landfall when a bolt of blue-white lightning, like a forked tongue, flashed across the sky, and one of its prongs struck a fleeing swallow. The bird stalled in mid-flight, then began the slow, slow hurtle earthwards while the rain hit the ground in a rush.

There was a panicked scamper as the rain came down in sheets. Dimie Abrakasa made no attempt to evade that which could only be hidden from, not outrun. He decided that he had no choice but to enjoy the rainstorm. At first, he could see nothing through the iron-gray curtain except for the shadowy forms of fleeing pedestrians. Soon, the sidewalk was deserted. His clothes were soaked through. The puddles that had by this time turned the sidewalk into a paddy-field began at first to flow into each other, and then became little streams that rushed for the gutter. The gutters, already overburdened, overflowed. The frothing waters poured unto the road.

Within minutes of the rainstorm, the roads became muddy-water rivers. Vehicles floundered where the potholes set traps beneath the flood. The weaker engines gulped water, coughed out steam, and then expired. In no time at all both sides of the road got jammed, and the sidewalks, after letting a few madcap drivers escape, followed suit. The holdup soon stretched back for miles, winding through side streets and back roads. The sight of the motorists’ defenselessness, like a Pavlovian stimulus, brought on a plague of hawkers and soapbox charlatans—regardless of the driving rain, they converged on the road from all parts of the city, like a flock of vultures on the carcass of a boa. The horn blares of irate motorists became a steady refrain.

The policeman, glancing nervously at the column of blank-faced soldiers when he made his reply, did not see the sudden twist of rage that disfigured the sergeant’s face as he roared, “Bloody civilian!” and dealt the policeman a sledgehammer blow to the throat.

As the rain continued unabated, the smell of steaming mud-water that had at first filled the air gave way to the reek of sodden clay and uncovered putrefaction. Exhaust fumes hovered fog-thick over the stalled cars. The pedestrians, drenched by the whipping winds, began one after the other to emerge from under the eaves where they had gone to seek shelter. They waded through the swirling floodwaters with rucked-up skirts and rolled-up trousers, their shoes dangling from their hands. Gangs of street urchins and agbero boys bustled about the road, offering their services to stranded motorists and pedestrians alike, in exchange for money. Some of them piggybacked women and children across the neck-deep potholes. Others of a more entrepreneurial bent organized themselves into squads. They then raided nearby construction sites, carted away the scaffolding, and laid the springy, wafer-thin lengths of board over the ponds. Then they collected tolls from every man, woman and motorcycle that wobbled across their gangplank. An innovative few set up franchises on both sides of the road. Their pockets heavy with cash, they then retired to the nearest beer-parlor to drink away their good fortune.

Adding to the tumult of sound that overhung the road was the shriek of distressed okadas. These motorcycles, loaded with persons and goods from handlebar to back-rack, weaved between the car bumpers, clambered over the plank bridges, and when necessary, rode out of tight spots on the shoulders of the rider and passengers. The sight of the okadas’ uninterrupted progress only added to the motorists’ aggravation. Thus when one unlucky rider and his passengers—three girls, their hair flying in the wind, their thongs hanging out of their jeans—rammed into door of a sparkle-new lime-green Daewoo, the owner (a woman who had out of frustration already picked loose half of her braided hairdo) leaned out of her window, grabbed the driver by the lapels while choking off his apologies, and screamed “My car! My car! My car!” She clawed his face to ribbons.

Forced into the drainage when the cars began their scramble for the sidewalk, Dimie Abrakasa was still there. The force of the rain was now reduced to a stolid drizzle.

“Hey you boy, commot de gutter,” someone called from one of the doorways behind him. He did not look back nor give a reply. Holding on to the bonnet of the car in front of him, he clambered out. The bonnet was warm to the touch—the car, though empty, still had its engine running. The driver was a tall, thick-necked man who had shouted a curse and flung off his babariga robe before jumping out of the car, and he was, on account of his naked upper body, still visible in the crowd of gesticulating motorists who had gathered at the mouth of the logjam.

The obstructed traffic, as far as Dimie Abrakasa could tell, had been caused by a lorry which, overloaded with cattle and speeding at a crawl, had tried to charge across a pothole that could pass for Lake Victoria. The driver’s bluff had been called: the lorry was sunk up to the bumpers in mud. The driver had alighted from the cab of the lorry and, after engaging in a bout of fisticuffs with a motorist who had warned him not to attempt the crossing, was now down on his knees in the tea-colored water, scooping out oozing handfuls of mud from underneath the lorry’s tires. It was a futile effort. The water lapped against his chest.

Dimie Abrakasa squeezed between the tightly packed cars and headed in the direction of the gathered crowd. Forcing his way through the press of bodies, he finally arrived at the edge of the flooded crater. All around him the men were deep in argument: some wanted the lorry pushed to one side, others recommended a detour round it, while a few suggested that the driver’s land-moving efforts be augmented. The only point on which the babel of voices was all agreed was upon the importance of their destinations.

“Look, I am in a great hurry—what are we going to do?” This question was from the tall, thick-necked, bare-bodied man. At first, his words were met with silence; then the arguments, picked up again and grew fiercer. Dimie Abrakasa watched with wide-eyed fascination as the pros and cons poked each other in the chest, and, even more bizarrely, some proponents of concordant views, misapprehending the other’s argument in the heat of the moment, accused each other of gross stupidity. As the situation spiraled towards a free-for-all, the only representatives of the law present on the scene—two traffic wardens and a police officer—each tried to exert some control. While one of the traffic wardens gawked at the fractious crowd with his hands clasped behind his head, the other directed his gaze at the mired lorry, his features twisted in a scowl of deep loathing. Only the police officer attempted to arbitrate contending views; but he was paid back for his efforts by getting sucked into a verbal cesspool that saw him flashing his handcuffs in an attempt to extricate himself. While the crowd was thus engaged in finding a solution to their predicament, a new sound entered the fray. They turned as one in its direction.

“Thank God!” someone exclaimed, “the army.”

The policeman scrambled out of the water on all fours, gasping for air. Without sparing the prostrate form another glance the sergeant turned to his men and ordered, “Clear that lorry from the road.”

A column of soldiers approached the crowd at a brisk trot, their boots drumming the road. They cleaved a path through the packed cars. The motorists scrambled out of their way. When they arrived at the point of obstruction, their leader (a stocky, pot-bellied sergeant who bore on both cheeks the long slashes that was the mark of Egba nobility) bellowed, “Qua Shun!” The soldiers came to attention. Every one of them had a horsewhip in his hand. Twirling his own whip as he turned to the crowd, the sergeant ordered, “All civilians clear the area, now!”

Without a word, the crowd dispersed. There was a flurry of banging car doors.

Though the yellow of the traffic wardens uniforms was nowhere to be seen, the police officer stood his ground. Pushing out his chest, he sidled up to the sergeant. The sergeant turned to him with a raised eyebrow, his stare bleak.

“Sergeant sir!” the police officer said, giving a salute, “the situation on ground”

The sergeant cut him off. “What ‘situation?’”

The policeman, who towered head and shoulders above the sergeant, leaned towards his ear with a smile of complicity plastered on his face. “The lorry responsible for this problem”

Again, the sergeant interrupted him. “Are you a soldier?” he asked.

“No sir.”

“Are you a retired soldier?”

“No sir.” The policeman began to fidget

“Is your wife a soldier?”

“No sir!”

The policeman, glancing nervously at the column of blank-faced soldiers when he made his reply, did not see the sudden twist of rage that disfigured the sergeant’s face as he roared, “Bloody civilian!” and dealt the policeman a sledgehammer blow to the throat. The policeman collapsed to the ground, jerking as he fought to keep from swallowing his tongue. Grasping the fallen man by the back of the neck, the sergeant dealt him a series of rapid-fire slashes across the face with his whip, and then dragged him to the edge of the flooded pit. He let go of him and stepped back a pace. His face had regained its humanity.

“Roll in the mud, you shit,” he said, calmly.

Trembling from fear and shame, and bleeding from the cuts to his face, the policeman took a deep breath and, squeezing his eyes shut, slid into the muddy water. A sigh went up from the spellbound spectators as he sank out of sight. The water rippled. The sergeant hung his whip round his neck, and, with deliberate methodicalness, began to fold up his sleeves. When he was through with this action, he said, his voice barely above a whisper, “Out.”

The policeman scrambled out of the water on all fours, gasping for air. Without sparing the prostrate form another glance the sergeant turned to his men and ordered, “Clear that lorry from the road.”

The soldiers, like crazed dogs off a snapped leash, leapt into action. First, they beat some sense of responsibility into the head of the lorry driver. Then they unloaded the cargo of cattle, and, with kicks to the rumps of these long-suffering beasts, sent them galloping off. Next, they dragooned thirty men into service and placed them at the end of chains that they attached to the front of the lorry. While the men pulled, the soldiers pushed. The sergeant directed the traffic, his whip flailing as he bellowed out instructions to the motorists. In twenty minutes the cars were honking their thanks, and speeding off.

The rain had stopped. Dimie Abrakasa was wet, hungry and tired. Though the only place he wanted to be was home, he still owed the marketplace a visit. Thinking of the shopping that lay ahead of him, Dimie Abrakasa’s vision of home was suddenly blighted by the picture of his mother’s face. He had forgotten all about the injunction that had chased him from the house, and whose fulfillment was the only key that would open the door upon his return.

These thoughts were interrupted by the sound of his name. When he looked up, all he could see was a sea of cars.

“Dimie!” he heard again, above the roar of the engines. He saw a waving hand, and recognized first the car, then the face of his landlord, Alhaji Tajudeen. Alhaji Tajudeen was trying to push the car alone, but his efforts, though grimace-worthy, were not meeting with any degree of success. Dimie Abrakasa ran over to help him.

“Afternoon, sir,” he greeted, heading for the back of the car. They pushed together in silence. The car began to gather some speed.

“Can you push alone?” Alhaji Tajudeen suddenly asked, looking over his shoulder.

“Yes,” Dimie Abrakasa answered, with more hope than truth.

“You sure?”

“I think so.”

“Ok.” Alhaji Tajudeen took a flying leap into the driver’s seat and slammed the door shut.

“Push! Push!”

Dimie Abrakasa strained against the car. He bit his lips in shame; he watched his feet scrabble for a toehold.

“Push! Come on, you’re not a woman! Push!”

The car’s exhaust backfired with a blast of thick, black smoke. Then the engine caught, and roared into life. Dimie Abrakasa, sweating buckets but nevertheless happy with himself, sprinted for the passenger door. He was reaching for the handle when the car swerved into the fast-flowing traffic, and sped off. Dimie Abrakasa stood clutching the empty air for seconds.

Then he began to walk.

A. Igoni Barrett is the author of a collection of short stories, From Caves of Rotten Teeth. He is a winner of the BBC World Short Story Prize in 2005. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria, where he works as the managing editor of Farafina magazine.

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