By Peter Esele
The old man was dressed in an elaborate outfit he had obviously outgrown. It must have been a relic from the past, a reminder of the status he once possessed. He was pleased with himself all the same and seemed oblivious to his ill-fitting, riotously coloured regalia. This was his birthday, 59 no less and part of his annual ritual was to dress for the occasion. He always look forward to the celebration because it coincided with his country’s independence day. With patriotic fervour, he made it a point of duty to participate in any accessible independence day commemorations. Last year, he was too broke to make it to the march past so he sat in front of his box TV, dressed to the nines and listened to the Presidential speech. He stood to attention at the end of it. This year, he was determined to make it outside and was all anticipation in spite of his challenges. His Mercedes 230, a museum piece as far as his neighbours were concerned, had acted up that morning. Neither him nor his beleaguered godson turned driver could figure out the problem. He had children who felt nothing for him by way of commitment. After all, he invested very little in them. And when he throws biblical scriptures at them, they retort with the same- “you cannot reap where you did not sow.” The same biblical rhetoric was thrown at the situation with the uncooperative car. “The devil is a liar” he screamed as he stormed out of the decrepit compound, determined to celebrate his birthday at some national event. Indeed, he had much in common with the country he was keen to celebrate. Denial, abdication of personal responsibility and a firm belief in heavenly signs and wonders and demonic sabotage.
With limited options for commute, he opted for the nearest bust stop. Rallying his steadily declining energy, he marched on down the road to board a bus to the celebration square. Things rapidly fell apart from there.
Much to his chagrin, fellow passengers sniggered and stifled laughter at his affected pomp and pageantry. He was fooling no one. The way they saw it, you cannot prevent decline , with an even more declining outfit. The bus conductor was the biggest culprit. No respect for age and grey hairs when the old man appeared to have insufficient funds for the fare. 59, railing at a boy young enough to be his grandson. They hadn’t even allowed him the front seat. He had hoped to gain much goodwill with his age. You see, to the old man, age was indeed a number. His vain state of mind often had him demanding respect instead of earning it via actions.
Frustrated with the humiliation, he blurted out the age old maxim of the defeated, “do you know who I am? Am I your mate? How dare you treat me so shabbily? I am old enough to be your father!”
The entire bus went still. Then laughter broke out in unison.
The bus conductor knew the type. “ Baba park well joor! Who you be? You no see jeep enter instead of this bus?”
Livid beyond measure, the old man opened his mouth and released a string of incoherent gibberish about status, greatness and disrespectful youths of today.”
For his efforts, the bus conductor retorted, “Oldman respect yourself, make I no slap you! Mumu!”
“Slap me ! That is all that you do , indolent and insolent youths of today!”
“Ha! Me lazy? You nko? Tell me what you have achieved?”
“No mind am”, another passenger re-joined, stoking the fires of conflict. “See you with your green-white-green agbada, what do you have to show? Entering bus and abusing everybody!”
The Oldman raging to the brim, turned to the new culprit, “In my womb is a fertile land filled with all natural resources enough to cater to over two hundred million people. From oil and gas to gold, bitumen, diamond and many more, just name it and I have it. I am more than what you see!“
“This Oldman don drink ogogoro”, said more culprits as everyone in the bus started laughing at the elderly one. This was now sport. Another haggard looking passenger who couldn’t resist a jibe called out, “crude oil ke? And you are here like this? If it is in your backyard as you was or in your belle, why haven’t you helped us stop importing? Mad man!”
A visibly angry Oldman responded, “How dare you blame your lack of creativity and vision on me ? If you are given a wife, should you also be assisted with the conjugal duties? Na me go help una give am belle?” He didn’t realise when he switched into pidgin English.
“Baba you are now speaking pidgin English?”
“ Yes I have to, if that will help your reasoning.”
“Oya, give us Petrol, oil and gas baba!” ?
With his mouth spitting fire and brimstone, he fired back, “even if I give you crude oil, you still won’t be able to convert it efficiently! You will still blame me. How is that my fault?”
At some point in the course of his jeremiad, the bus had stopped laughing and taunting.
“What will you call a man who imports what he has and exports what he lacks?”
“Mumu”, they all cried out in unison, even the irreverent conductor.
“And if that same man keeps blaming everyone else but himself, what will you call him”
“Mumu”, they all cried again.
Suddenly, the bus started jerking and threatened to halt. The erstwhile silent driver announced that the fuel tank was empty but there was a petrol station few metres away. He barely managed to roll the bus into the station where both the tank and some jerrycans were filled to the brim with petrol. “It is for my generator at home” the driver said to the old man who had alighted to inspect the fuelling process.
“What a shame”, the old man muttered. Over 20billion dollars expended on power and its subsidy since 1999 and yet…”
“Baba, help us ask them”, a passenger called out, having heard the old man’s comment.
While he was still mulling over the turn his day had taken, a loud aggressive voice rang out, “park there or I shoot”.
A wiry policeman was advancing towards the bus.
“Who be driver? Wetin you carry?”
“Human being sir”, replied the unruffled driver.
“What of this jerrycan? Is it not against the law? You want to burn passengers?”
The driver stayed silent. Passengers and the old man looked on.
“What do you have for us?”
Before the driver could respond, the old man shouted “look here, are you not aware of the wonderful anti -corruption crusade of this administration? This is wrong”
The policeman looked too bemused to be angry with what he considered an ignorant interruption by an obviously senile old man. He took it upon himself to educate. “If we don’t collect money on the road, how do we fuel our police car or sometimes even pay for our uniform?”
In the course of the Officer’s lecture, the heavens opened, giving the driver and his passengers the chance to scurry back into the bus and drive off.
The old man was exhausted and worried the rains might dampen his celebrations not to mention his already dampened spirit. When they ran into a traffic jam, he listened to the animated conversation in the bus rather than join in.
“How can a city of 20 million people have only one means of transportation? Why can’t there be other transport options?”
He still did not join in but further retreated into his thoughts. He had a nagging feeling that for all his posturing and rhetoric, he had actually been speaking to himself. He was just as culpable. Like the country he was keen to celebrate, he had not done much with his own opportunities nor invested in his children. He had no diversified streams of income, he was just as myopic as those he was accusing. But he had to celebrate no? It was his ritual. He couldn’t afford to be dispirited.
As the arguments inside the bus reached dizzying heights, he cried out to the driver, “stop the vehicle , I am tired of you all, call me whatever you like, I will celebrate. Next year I will be 60. Next year, maybe I will do better, I don’t know. But, for now, let me celebrate.”
Once again, he swept all his failings under the cover of superficial lamentations and went on his not so merry way.
• Comrade Peter Esele, is the former President of PENGASSAN and Trade Union Congress of Nigeria.