By Andy TT Obuoforibo
The village slipped quickly from view as the car began its journey. To its four occupants, sealed in their air-conditioned world, all was quiet. They heard no report of the construction work they passed. The hum of the steamroller, as it pressed down the earth where the other lane would be, was lost to them. The scenery sped past them, fields, which next became bushes, and finally, far ahead, collected themselves into an impenetrably dense forest of tall, heavy, leafy trees. In the middle of this wall of Green, they perceived, after turning slightly, a breach. A grey sliver, brilliant under the Nigerian sun, appeared to cut the forest in half. In its small space, nothing grew. It overruled the trees completely. Yet on either side of it, the forest continued, like green thread through a needle. After this new vision of the road, the silence of the car was finally broken.
“Imagine how long it took for them to clear all the trees!” The young civil servant in the front seat said these words to nobody in particular. As he spoke he pointed ahead with all the fingers of his left hand, palm upturned. He maintained that pose after he had finished.
“Very long time,” volunteered the driver. The enthusiasm of his voice betrayed how long he had been waiting for conversation.
“Even with machines,” continued the young man, equally happy about the new connection.
“They will eat something, sha.”
“Ehen now. Serious money. This is a multi-billion naira contract.”
The driver lets out a low, short whistle. “And me who will be driving up and down on the road, they are giving me 15 thou a month.”
“Anybody can drive nah. Can you build a road?”
“Is that my work? And who told you they can build road? Road that will have potholes in two months?”
“Because of your careless driving.”
The man behind the driver chuckled. Unlike the older gentleman beside him, he had been awake for the whole conversation. He wanted to join in, but found no good opening to make a comment. The civil servant seemingly got the hint.
“Oga, the company doing this road, are they not good?”
“Oh yes. They are the ones that did the roads near Government House.”
“You hear am?” The young man grinned victoriously at the driver.
“In fact,” continued the man in the back, relishing the attention, and the chance to be an authority “my company dredged some of the sand they used here. They are using a lot of sand. That’s good for the road.”
“Ehen!” interjected the civil servant again. “These are professional people. Dem go do di work sharp sharp!”
“Every time, na so dem dey tell us,” replied the still-skeptical driver. “We go see sha.”
Silence again. The men soon turned their attention back to the world outside. They watched the two expanses of trees roll past them as they went deeper into the untamed land. As the minutes ticked by, they looked on, mesmerized by the undulating border of the forest, sometimes nearer, sometimes farther. It seemed like the forest was in motion, like two tides washing onto a beach. Or the walls of a long, deep throat, swallowing them down into the bowels of an enormous green monster.
“People will start coming here,” said the businessman finally, “when the road is finished.”
“Yes oh!” agreed the civil servant. “Some are here already. You’ll soon see some women who sell market for the builders.”
“Yes. But big businesses will come too,” continued the man in the back. “As more people travel, there will be more money to make. You’ll see petrol stations.”
“And mechanic workshops,” suggested the driver. “And stores.”
“Mr. Biggs sef,” the man in front added helpfully.
“This road will bring business,” the driver continued. “They will make money here.”
“Me, I’m trying to buy some land along here,” said the businessman. “I can buy it cheap from the community, and then when Mr. Biggs comes,” he chuckled, “I can sell it and make gain.”
“That’s what I’m telling you!’ exclaimed the civil servant, even though he had said nothing of the sort. “Land is big money!”
“Very big money,” nodded the driver. “But the chiefs won’t sell like dat nah. They know that the big money is coming.”
“Chiefs no sabi anytin abeg,” the man in front said, with a dismissive wave of the hand. “If you give dem one million for hand, dem no go tink sey na serious money?”
“One million na serious money na.” The driver was laughing a little.
“See dis man.” The civil servant hissed. “You sabi how much company dem go give dis oga when im sell di land? One million na paper, no be pepper!”
All three laughed.
“Anyway,” the businessman resumed, “the community will make money anyhow. Even after you buy the land, it’s still in their home, abi?”
“It’s true,” said the civil servant. “Any small thing, they will shout ‘bad community relations,’ and you will have to settle them.”
Some low-flying birds cut across their path. A monkey wandered to the foot of the forest, and peered at them. The road curved sharply, hiding itself behind an outcrop of green. Finally, the turn sped past, revealing a new stretch of tarmac to them. On one side, they saw a lorry being emptied of its cargo: brown earth, standing in sharp contrast with the ever-changing shades of the green forest. The squat, leaf-covered trees had flowed away, to be replaced by white-trunked giants. Their branches were thin and high up, covered in large leaves. Their rapid movement out of sight made them appear to the passengers like long-legged soldiers, running in a tight phalanx to some unknown war. Nearer the road, dwarfed by their white cousins, a scattering of plantain trees were to be found, their leaves drooping heavily. They were not many, and were closer to the road than any tree so far.
“See dis plantain?” asked the civil servant. “Na now now people come plant them. When they saw that company was building road, they came and planted their tree near it. So now when bulldozer nak am down, dem go come shout sey ‘Oh, my tree! That’s how my children were feeding!’ Then company will say ‘Ok, sorry, take money. We no want palaver!’ 419 e dey village sef oh!”
“Real 419,” concurred the driver. “Real fraud.”
“Like you said na,” laughed the businessman, “bad community relations.”
“Na im oh.”
“When we were dredging in Nembe,” continued the businessman, “one afternoon, two pythons came from the bush to sleep on my dredger…”
“Jesus Christ!” the young man exclaimed.
“Odum” the driver said.
“Yes oh. I told the Mopols to shoot them, but the native workers were protesting. They said it is their god. They said if we kill them, they won’t work again.
“I cannot believe!” the civil servant had turned around to see the storyteller.
“Yes now,” said the driver knowingly. “They worship python in Nembe. Even in Okrika. We call it Odum. But Nembe people are the original. Dem no dey carry Odum play oh. Nembe man fit cry sef if you kill python for im front. Im go carry am bury, den im go pursue you.”
The civil servant began to laugh, but the driver shot him a quick glance, and he quieted down.
The road made its own snakelike way through the forest, past shirtless workers, and dirt-caked lorries. The ranks of the giant white trees were invaded little by little by shorter ones, thick with leaves, their fat branches spreading out low over the darkened ground. Large white logs lay on the roadside near their stumps, as though the grey beast had uprooted them while it slithered over. Soon, the road stretched out next to a wide clearing, covered with heaps of white sand. A red lorry was being loaded with sand as they whiz by, a white man directing the operation.
“Ah, I didn’t know Sammy had a sand contract too.”
“Bros, you sabi dat oyibo?” the driver asked.
“Ehen. Na di same business we dey na.”
“All dis oyibos wey dey come here,” the civil servant complained, with a shake of the head. “See as im don dredge sand finish. Na from di water here oh! How im go carry pipu sand no pay dem anitin? Im suppose pay na!”
“Who tell you sey im suppose pay?” asked the driver “Dem dey use di sand before?”
“Which one consain me wit use? Na dia sand abi? IM SUPPOSE PAY!”
“Okay im suppose,” the driver diplomatically suggested. “Who tell you sey im neva pay? If im neva pay, why dem go gree am?”
“Becos im for don bring mopol na, so if dem talk, trobu! Im suppose pay!”
“But as we dey inside dis moto, we no sabi weda im no pay or weda im pay. Oga, dis oyibo na betta man?”
The businessman stopped himself from laughing long enough to say “yes.”
“Ehen,” continued the driver confidently. “As na correct guy, maybe dem don pay na.”
“Ok, maybe dem pay,” conceded the civil servant.
“Yes maybe dem pay.”
“DEM NO PAY!!!” He erupted again. “We suppose drive all dis oyibos dem commot!”
“Make I here word abeg,” the driver snaps in frustration. “No be progress dem dey bring come?”
“Which kain progress?”
“Now as we dey drive ontop betta road, e no sweet you? Before no be flyingboat you dey take come work?”
“And so, it was oyibo man that now came to build this road that you are enjoying! Soon roads will full this State. People go dey travel quick quick. All dis kain places wey person neva step before, we go dey enta dem, build house. Companies go full ground. Work go plenty. Boys go fit chop. Land go plenty. Levels go change. Even if you no like oyibo, you suppose happy sey dem dey build road.”
“Dey drive dey go, commissioner!”
Silence reigned again. The wall of trees got darker and taller as the road wound on. Ahead of them, the men made out a gap in the trees, right at a point where the road reared upwards. A bridge. When they were finally on it, they could see a narrow river snaking its way underneath the structure. Soon it was gone, and the lush vegetation returned. They were in the thick of it now. There was barely a clearing between the road and the trees. The branches seemed to reach out to the car, outstretched arms of desperate hitchhikers.
Further down the road the forest pulled back again. Even the spaces between the trees widened. Eventually the travelers were brought to a wide open area devoid of any trees. Except one. A huge, leafless tree towered to their right. Its bough was as thick as the car. It rose high above them, tapering into a charred, black point. Beside the tree laid what used to be the rest of it. Large, twisted branches spread out from a larger stem, like a gigantic, ashen broccoli. The sheer size of the broken tree overawed the three men.
“That thing is amazing. I bet it used to be somebody’s god.”
It was the fourth man who spoke. This older gentleman didn’t even seem to be looking at the tree. His eyes still appeared heavy with sleep.
“Now their god has been struck by lightning,” he chuckled.
“Ah, Professor,” the man beside him said. “I didn’t realize you were awake. You missed an interesting conversation between your driver, assistant, and me.”
“From the little I caught, I am in no doubt,” the professor responded, with a slight smile.
“Oga,” his assistant called, with a puzzled look on his face. “I don’t think anybody worships that tree oh. Nobody can live here. The bush is too thick!”
“Is that so?” the old man inquired, with the same calm tone as before.
“Yes sir,” the driver joined in. “See as dis bush is thick. Nobody has lived here before.”
“See those trees with red flowers?” the professor asked, seemingly unfazed. Their attention turned to the trees growing in number around them. A few of them were slim and short, their overgrown leaves nearly concealing small red dots. “Those are fruit trees, from upland. They do not belong in the Niger Delta. Who brought them here?”
“Maybe they are new,” his assistant suggested. “Maybe people have come because of the road.”
“But these trees are old,” the professor continued his lecture. “They have been here for years. Moreover, nobody has cared for them. People were here before; before the road.”
“Why did they go?”
“Who knows? Sickness, war, any reason. Nothing is permanent. Just because we are here today, doesn’t mean we’ll be here tomorrow.”
“Maybe that was true in the olden days,” said the businessman, “but as advanced as we are now, we cannot be wiped out.”
“It’s true,” agreed the assistant. “Nobody can stop progress.”
“Ah yes, progress.” The professor’s tone was almost mocking. “Thousands of years ago, a people in Europe called the Romans were also making progress. They colonized the whole land. They built roads made of stone. They made water pipes. They built marble houses. Today, we hear of Englishmen, Belgians, Americans, but not Romans.”
“Why sir?” inquired the driver. “What happened to them?”
“Their time passed. They stopped progressing, and scattered. And now, do you know what’s left of the Romans, for all the progress they made?”
“Their roads,” replied the businessman, with a slight tremble in his voice.
“Exactly.” The old man reclined his head and shut his eyes.
The other three turned their attention to the road ahead. It carried them along, past turns, over bridges, down slopes, through clearings. The sights it brought to them, the places it showed them, were theirs to experience but for a fleeting moment, while it remained forever. Forever behind, forever ahead, forever a reminder of where they once were.