It was a hot day indeed, one of the hottest days in the history of the world, so hot that I could barely breathe. The heat mixed with the smell of oily, sweaty flesh pressed together five-a-seat in the rickety Coaster bus was near-suffocating. We were stuck in the ubiquitous traffic at Orile Bus Stop. It was around 4pm in the evening and I was heading home to FESTAC. What should have been a 45 minute drive from Lagos Island was now, thanks to the bad road and corrupt policeman collecting illegal toll at the bus stop, apparently taking the rest of my life.
Lucky I was sitting by the window. I tried sticking my head out for some fresh air when suddenly a truck moved up to the side of our bus and belched thick fumes from its exhaust pipe directly into my face. I moved my head back in immediately and attempted to close the sliding window.
“Madam, leave that window!” a man sitting a person away from me on the same seat snapped almost aggressively. “You no see say this place hot!”
He was a middle-aged man with prominent tribal marks- four grooves on each side his face. He also had on thick coke-bottle bottom glasses. He looked and smelled evil.
The fat woman jammed in between us obviously gave no damn about his looks as she retorted sharply, “You no see the smoke!”
I continued sliding the glass shut, thinking that I would leave a small opening for “air” to come in. But Tribal Marks leaned over and with such force that was belied by his looks pushed the window back. At the same time the truck pumped out more exhaust smoke into the bus.
“Oga, wetin dey worry you?” Fat Woman yelled pushing the man off her. She slid the window close herself.
Seemingly defeated, Tribal Marks turned his attention towards the front of the bus, “Driver, will you move away from here! You want us to choke to death. See as you come park us for here.”
“Oga, e be like say na only you no know say we dey for go-slow,” the conductor calmly replied from his perch by the door.
“My friend will you shut up there!” Tribal Marks bellowed so aggressively that Fat Woman and I jumped. I thought to myself that this must be much more than the heat in the bus. Probably, he had been unable to make enough money that day to take home to his wife and sixteen children.
“Can you not see this smoke coming inside the bus? You want us to die,” he yelled even as the man next to him begged him to calm down.
“Oga, you can die if you want to die!” Conductor replied dismissively.
And in spite of the suffocating heat, the exhaust fumes and the traffic jam, they both decided to just go for it. As the insults increased, other voices soon joined in the fray. Some supported the conductor, others Tribal Marks.
“Why you sef pass Orile?” one man close to the conductor snapped. “Una know say hold-up dey always dey hia!”
“Where hold-up no dey for Lagos?” someone else replied from the back of the bus.
“Conductor, shut up! You do not have respect! How can you be talking to this elderly man like that?” came another voice.
“Where driver wan drive go for this hold-up?!” conductor spat. “Una no dey see! Every time you people will be talking to driver and conductor like we are your houseboy.”
“And are you not a houseboy?” Tribal Marks screamed. “Look at you; You this common thug!”
“Oga! Your son is a thug!” conductor retorted.
The heat in the bus increased with each barb that was hurled across the bus, whether from conductor or Tribal Marks or their supporters’ club. The bus moved forward an inch then stopped. This time the driver shut off the engine.
“Uche!” the driver called to the conductor. “I don tell you say make you no dey follow mad people argue for my bus.”
At this, Tribal Marks almost blew a blood vessel in his lungs. He jumped up, his frail frame quivering.
“God punish you! Your mother is a mad person!” he screamed at the driver.
“Driver, why you dey talk like this na? Instead make you dey try stop fight!” a peacemaker cautioned.
“Do you know who you are talking to? I will deal with both of you today,” Tribal Marks ranted.
The truck beside us belched out more smoke into the bus and suddenly the conductor was on fire.
Or at least that was what I thought.
A woman screamed. And then a man. The smell of burning flesh filled the bus getting rid of all other stink.
There were more screams as people started hurling themselves out of windows. Tribal Marks was still up on his feet. The fat woman beside me, guessing that she might be next, practically shoved me out of the window that was suddenly missing the sliding glass. Almost like I was in a trance, I jumped down from the bus. I saw the driver leap down from his seat and start to run between the idling cars in the traffic jam.
Curious to know what was really going on, I ran to the other side of the bus where the main door was. A crowd was already gathering around the burning body that had stumbled down from the bus onto the dusty road.
Tribal Marks who still remained on the bus, now tried to leap out through a window. But someone yelled, “Catch am! E don do juju for the conductor!”
Later, I would marvel at how brave some people can be. Here was someone accused of casting a spell that saw a man going up in flames or at least smoke and without thinking that he might cast the same spell on you, you go ahead to apprehend him. Some roadside thugs and one or two male passengers from the bus managed to catch Tribal Marks, brought him around the bus and made him kneel beside the burning body.
The body was actually not burning, more like sizzling. There was no fire or smoke for that matter emanating from the man as he writhed on the ground. He was obviously in pain and kept screeching in Yoruba, “Kill me! Kill me.”
But rather than touch him, the crowd turned on Tribal Marks threatening to lynch him. Already some one had rolled some tyres over. One of the thugs was punching him.
“Wetin you do this man? We go kill you here now if you no talk?”
What did they expect him to say? Was it not obvious?
As the burning man kept screaming in pain, the thugs put a tyre over Tribal Marks neck even as he pled his innocence.
“I no do am anything! I no do am anything! Abeg make una no kill me.”
They had just sprinkled some fuel over him when a female voice called out, “See conductor!”
And sure enough the conductor appeared.
“Una sure say na conductor be this,” one of the thugs asked not wanting to be denied a good lynching.
“Yes!” most of us from the bus answered almost in unison.
“So who be this?” someone asked. “Una sure say na from this bus he come down?” asked another.
“Yes o!” conductor answered. According to him, the burning man had materialised in front of him from nowhere. “See my body wia he touch me,” and he showed some blisters on his arm.
“Na him even push me comot from the bus.”
One of the passengers from the bus added his voice saying that in the midst of the quarrel he had turned to see the man smoking beside him but had just assumed that it was the conductor.
“Who are you?” a thug hurled at the burning man, nudging him with his foot.
Just then someone shouted, “Yee!” and pointed towards the bus where the drama had all began. And as we watched three men who seemed to have appeared from nowhere came down from the once empty bus.
It was as if a spell had been placed on the crowd. We all watched in near trance as they approached the burning man. Tribal Marks still with the tyre around his neck hurriedly scrambled to his feet.
The three men were all dressed almost identically in short sleeved shirts and trousers. But their clothes varied in design and print. The men had amulets on them- around their necks and forearms.
As they approached, burning man tried to crawl away. “Help me! Help me!” he screamed.
One of the three men calmly grabbed burning man by his ankle and hurled him backwards.
“You see this man?” another asked addressing the crowd in Yoruba. “He is a thief. We caught him in Sagamu. We burnt him but he refused to die. Can you see his juju?”
The one holding the burning man’s ankle turned it so we could all see the white bone-like bracelet on it. At least that was what I saw. Maybe, it was really just his bone and I didn’t see any bracelet at all.
Then the man addressing the crowd turned to the burning man who was still howling in pain. “You think you are the only one with juju?” he asked.
He motioned to the third man who suddenly produced an axe out of nowhere. We- the crowd- must have all been in a trance because it was obvious what he was about to do but no one stopped him.
The third man raised the axe high above his head and in one smooth stroke decapitated the burning man as he lay helplessly on the ground. And still, we all stood there.
The third man grabbed the decapitated head while the other two grabbed the body and- BLANK!- they all disappeared.
I swear! I kid you not!
And that was when pandemonium broke!
Everybody! From the thugs about to burn Tribal Marks, the conductor who had returned from only God knows where, Tribal Marks with the one tyre still around him, the road side sellers who had ignore the crowd to sell their wares, the policemen who had ignore the crowd to continue collecting bribe, commuters who had ignored the crowd to continue on their way- everybody stopped what they were doing and picked race!
It would be needless to say that that bus remained abandoned at Orile bus stop for a long time.