For a while, that was my routine. Four days a week, I would go to JAMB lesson right after school, and Tokunbo would give me a ride home. Actually, it was his mother’s driver who did the driving, but I guess it’s the same thing.
During the car ride home, I could not speak as freely with Tokunbo as I did at lesson or where there wasn’t any adult around. But this had nothing to do with any strictness on the part of the driver.
No, Mr. Julius was very cool and would often joke about the things that had happened over the course of his day. It helped that he was in his early 20s, and was therefore easier to talk to than a middle-aged man, for example.
However, my “clamping up” and general reluctance to be chatty with Tokunbo in the presence of Mr. Julius owed to my own shyness.
But one day, all of this changed with the occurrence of a good problem.
That day, a Wednesday afternoon, we had finished JAMB lesson as usual. Tina had set her sights on another guy in our class who was feeling her, so she completely ignored us.
Usually, Mr. Julius arrived before lesson ended. That afternoon, however, he was nowhere to be found. Ten minutes after lesson, there was still no sign of Mr. Julius.
So, we waited for thirty more minutes.
Still no Mr. Julius.
Where was he?
At that point, it suddenly occurred to me that I knew how to get home. And that before Tokunbo started coming to lesson with me, I was able to find my way home alone.
Maybe this was a sign from heaven, that I needed to reclaim my independence, at least as it related to making the return trip home.
“Tokunbo, I’m going to take bus and be going home. My parents expect me back at a certain time, and it’s getting late,” I added, rather impatiently.
Tokunbo would arrive home to meet a house help, meyguard and possibly his sister, Yele. His mother would not arrive until it was really dark.
I, however, did not have the luxury of time.
“That’s true. Okay, just give me five minutes. Let me call my mum to find out what’s up. Then, you can go,” he said, rising to his feet.
That plan sounded fine to me. So, I waited in the classroom, while Tokunbo went to the main office to make a phone call to his mother.
He returned almost ten minutes later, looking dejected.
“What is it?” I asked, alarm rising in my voice. “Did something happen?”
“Well, yes,” Tokunbo replied with a large scowl on his face. “My mum said Mr. Julius is still at the mechanic’s shop and it might be another two hours before he gets to me. And she can’t pick me up because she has customers she’s attending to.”
“Ehen? Okay, bye-bye!” I said, rising hurriedly to my feet. The only thought on my mind was:
I must get home before Daddy, or else, I’m in soup.
As at then, my parents did not know that the Williams had been giving me rides home. And since my father usually got home just before nightfall, I would have to have a solid explanation to give him if I got home after dark.
Since telling my father that Iya Tokunbo’s car was held up at the mechanic’s did not sound to me like it belonged in the “solid explanation” category, I had to move fast.
“Enitan, is this life?” Tokunbo chided. “Just because there’s no car, and no driver, you want to jabbor me.”
He sounded quite hurt, and I quickly launched into a brief explanation of the sudden urgency to head home. Even while he was accusing me of disloyalty, I could see just how shallow I sounded when I initially voiced my decision to leave.
He saw the sense in what I told him. However, his next statement took me by surprise.
“Oya, let’s go,” said Tokunbo, picking up his school bag and strapping it to his shoulders.
“Go where? You and who?” I asked, more than a little apprehensive. “Aren’t you going to wait here for Mr. Julius?”
“Enitan, I might not have a father who will flog me for coming home late, but I refuse to wait here for any driver. If public transport is good enough for you, then it’s good enough for me.”
I stood there in shock, just staring at him. Was this guy serious?
“No, no, Tokunbo. You can’t come with me,” I insisted.
“Okay, have you ridden a Danfo before?”
“No, but there’s always a first time,” he replied with an air of dismissiveness.
“True, true,” I said, my mind searching in vain for another reason to discourage Tokunbo from what I deemed a foolish move.
I found one.
“Those agberos at the car park, they’re very rough o … I don’t want anything to happen to you, and then your mummy will start blaming me for–” I began.
“Hey, hey, Enitan. Calm down! You can’t protect me from every real or imagined danger. I’m a guy. I will be fine. And today today, whether you like it or not, I must enter bus!”
At that moment, I realized that any further protests were useless. Tokunbo had made up his mind, and there was nothing I could do to dissuade him.
To tell the truth, I was probably overreacting. I myself had taken public transport almost every day, to and from school, since I was in JS1. And here I was, still in one piece.
What could possibly happen to Tokunbo?
Besides, ours was a straightforward route. We had to catch a bus from Onike to Yaba, and from Yaba, which was a major bus terminus, we would catch another bus going to Masha-Kilo. Once we alighted at Masha, we would make the remaining journey by foot to our street in Surulere.
I explained this briefly to Tokunbo, as we walked to Onike bus stop where we would catch the first bus. As we walked, I told Tokunbo:
“Follow my lead. Don’t just enter any bus o. I don’t want them to show your face on NTA News, saying: This young boy was found wandering on the streets of Lagos. He can’t remember his house address, and as you can tell from the tears on his face, he is scared, confused and wants his mummy! ”
Tokunbo burst into laughter from the moment I mentioned “NTA News” to the point when I ended with “Mummy.”
“You!” he yelled, shaking a finger in my face. “You’re just a wicked girl sha! So that’s what you’re praying for me, abi? It won’t work o!”
I giggled, secretly hoping that none of the things I had jokingly referred to would ever happen to either of us. I certainly did not want to be responsible for Tokunbo’s “Lost in Lagos” experience.
By the time we got to Onike bus stop, twenty minutes had passed, and we started looking out for buses heading towards Yaba.
Usually, they were almost empty and had space for at least ten people.
But that afternoon, the conductors of all the Yaba-bound buses that came to Onike, all said the same thing:
That meant that there was just one seat left on the bus.
Ordinarily, I would have had no qualms about hopping on the bus and claiming the last available seat, enduring any discomfort all the way to Yaba, especially because the Masha buses tended to be more comfortable and spacious.
But as I had a fellow traveler with me, a newbie for that matter, I had to be more considerate and more careful.
I remember telling Tokunbo that the next bus that had space for two or more would be the one we would board.
But he must not have heard me.
One minute, I had turned my face to the left to scan upcoming buses headed towards Yaba to gauge their occupancy and prepare to hop on. The next minute, I turned to my right just in time to see Tokunbo hop onto a Yaba bus yelling:
“Enitan, jump! Hurry!”
I ran after the bus with all the strength I could muster, and that is taking into consideration the fact that I had a fairly heavy school bag on my back.
But as I ran, I became immediately aware of the fact that I could not outrun a four-wheeled moving vehicle. Certainly not a Danfo.
I heard the passengers urging the driver to stop, but he simply ignored them and drove away at full speed.
A regular occurrence at bus stops? Yes.
But that was not the day for this sort of rubbish to happen.
I finally stopped running, several yards from the bus stop, out of breath and overwhelmed. I almost burst into tears as the realization of what just happened hit me.
Why hadn’t this silly boy listened to me? Why did he take that bus? How would I find him in the chaos of Yaba bus stop, the congestion of human traffic that made Onike look like a toothless two-day old baby? What if Tokunbo got off at one of those other bus stops before Yaba? What if he got off at Yaba and then got on the wrong bus, going to Iyana Ipaja, for instance?
I was furious, scared and frustrated all at the same time.
What would I do now?
“And I told this boy o! Why didn’t he listen?” I repeated to myself over and over again, as I considered my next move. “I told him to wait.”
Then, a thought struck me.
“At least, he took the right bus,” I reasoned, “so maybe he has enough sense to wait for me at Yaba.”
It was that calming thought that I allowed my mind to dwell on as I boarded the next available bus to Yaba. This one had two free seats and I gratefully sank into one at the back near the window on the right.
As the bus got closer to Yaba, and at each bus stop, passengers got down, while others boarded our bus. Despite the conductor yelling “No change o!” at every bus stop, people still entered the bus without the exact change for their bus fare, sparking heated arguments with the conductor over whether or not their ears were working.
I had the exact bus fare and had given it to the conductor as soon as the bus left Onike, so I watched these squabbles with the eyes of a person whose thoughts are far, far away.
My mind was, of course, on Tokunbo.
That NTA News scenario, as funny as it had sounded at the time, had lost its appeal, and instead I had converted it into a prayer point, which I chanted in my heart, almost non-stop.
“Oh Lord, please don’t let Tokunbo get lost and appear on NTA News in Jesus name.”
I kept this silent prayer going until we reached Yaba.
Once the bus stopped at Yaba bus stop, across the street from the majestic Lagos Presbyterian Church, I alighted from the bus, my eyes searching frantically for a male teenager in a blue and gray school uniform.
After several wrong guesses, I finally heaved a sigh of relief and muttered, “Thank you Jesus!” as I made my way to where a boy stood engaged in conversation with a young hawker.
The hawker, a boy of school age himself, was shabbily dressed. Delicately balanced on his head, was a wooden box with a glass display, full of snacks.
Each of these snacks was a perfect replica of what would happen if a large puff-puff or bun, tried to swallow a hardboiled egg, and halfway through the exercise, decided that it (the puff-puff, not the egg) wanted to give the world proof of what it had attempted to do.
In other words, it was a large, golden brown, puff pastry, wrapped around an egg. At least twenty of these snacks were stacked on top of each other, so that the first things you saw through the glass were the eggs.
As I got closer, I heard Tokunbo asking the boy where he could get a bus going to Masha-Kilo. There was no fear, uncertainty or any of the emotions I had battled with when he abandoned me at Onike, in Tokunbo’s voice.
No, Tokunbo looked perfectly calm, like he did this sort of thing – negotiate his way through Lagos, unassisted – every single day.
I wanted to kick him.
As soon as I reached him, I tapped him angrily on the shoulder, not caring to know who was watching us or what people would think.
“Why did you leave me at Onike, ehn? Didn’t you hear me say, ‘Wait for me?!’ ” I practically screamed at Tokunbo.
After waving and thanking the boy who had pointed him in the right direction, and who promptly left us in search of customers who would give him money in exchange for his wares, Tokunbo turned to me with a calmness that further aggravated me, and said:
“I heard you, that’s why I took the bus to Yaba, but–” he began.
“Didn’t you know we were supposed to enter the same bus? Why don’t you ever listen?” I shouted.
“Hey, hey, hey! Don’t shout at me!” Tokunbo yelled back. And then, in a calmer voice, he said: “And what do you mean I never listen? I should be the one telling you that! I was telling you to jump on the bus and now you’re angry because you weren’t paying attention.”
I stood there astounded. How did this suddenly become my fault?
“You know what, Tokunbo? After today, just be going home by yourself, you hear? You cannot come and give me heart attack over jumping bus!” I stormed as I set my feet in the direction of Masha-Kilo buses. They were lined up in front of the section of Yaba bus stop where the public toilets were.
All the way till we reached the bus, Tokunbo begged and pleaded, but I just ignored him.
We rode the bus home in silence, and this time around, we got down at Masha together. On the bus, we sat at opposite ends on the back row, each hugging a window seat, two people separating us.
Then, once the bus dropped us at Masha, Tokunbo resumed his talking.
“You can’t go home like this. Talk to me now, even if it’s just–” he started.
“You scared me!” I blurted out. “I was so worried and I had no way of reaching you,” I added, feeling the pent-up anger oozing out of my pores with every word that came out of my mouth. Talking was certainly therapeutic.
“Okay, I’m sorry. Oya smile for me.”
I eyed him and said: “I’m not a puppet, you hear? You can’t just tell me to smile and I will come and start shinning teeth like a fowl.”
“Do you know that if you frown too much and the wind changes, your face will be stuck like that forever?” Tokunbo asked as we walked past a supermarket.
“Ehen, and so? Who told you that?” I mumbled.
“I read it in a book, Enitan. And you know what? I’ve been praying for the wind to change so your face will stay like this forever,” he added with a mischievous grin.
In my mind, I said: “Your fada!”
But aloud, I said: “You’re not serious at all, at all.”
“Oh, but I am,” he insisted. “I’ve already told you, you look extra cute when you frown like this. Keep frowning, you hear?”
Whatever Tokunbo was doing, it was working. I broke out of my foul mood, and slowly, a slight smile replaced the frown.
We kept talking until we got home.
Just before he stepped through the gate of his house, Tokunbo turned to me and said:
“Thank you, Enitan.”
“For what?” I asked, puzzled.
“For caring,” he said, with a smile before heading indoors.
I quickly went inside too, relieved that I had beat my father home.
As I washed my school uniform later that evening, I kept replaying Tokunbo’s words over and over in my mind.
“Thank you for caring.”
He was right.
I cared. About him.
That day was a turning point in our friendship because from that day onwards, every week day, except on Fridays when we had no JAMB lesson, Tokunbo and I rode public transport from Onike to Masha, completing the last leg of our journey by foot, gisting and talking, sometimes arguing all the way.
Once when I asked him why he had suddenly chosen to ride Danfo buses instead of waiting to be chauffeured in his mother’s air-conditioned car, he told me:
“I enjoy walking … and talking to you, Enitan, and this is the only chance I have to do this.”
That was quite true.
Although we lived right next to each other, that journey home from lesson was the number one activity we could do together without people asking too many questions. Our friendship was viewed with a bevy of mixed reactions: suspicion, envy, indifference, confusion, fear. Name it.
In these moments, these capsules of time, I learnt more about Tokunbo than I ever did before.
But, like they say, nothing lasts forever.
We didn’t know that something was about to happen to test our friendship. It was precipitated by, of all things, fuel scarcity.