Saturday, 11 February 2017

Thoughts from Places: Benin City

Benin City smells like when you dice garlic into extra-hot vegetable oil. The people there are literally 'not your mate' (they let you know this every chance they get): from the guy who gives you directions and when you say thank you, he says ‘I hear’ in a manner that is so apathetic, you cannot help but feel a sense of condescension, to the pot-bellied cabbie who is obnoxiously singing long to the radio as P-Square’s extinct hit from the 19th century, Busy Body, plays and then a man riding a jeep turns the bend suddenly and narrowly avoids hitting him and he laughs hysterically and says, ‘no be who dey ride big car na who get sense’, ‘it is not the person that drives a big car that has sense.’ Or the old lady who owns the restaurant and sees you standing and asks why they have not attended to you and you point at the queue in front of you and she tells you, ‘e be like say hungry never do you.’ And she goes ahead to do the same thing with all three people on queue.
There is an air of calmness. It’s almost as if they know that there is absolutely nothing to be in a hurry about. They are not quick to laugh even though to you, the visitor, almost everything they say is hilarious. Like in a bus ride, a girl sitting in the back tells the driver to stop and he drives a bit further before he finally does but she remains seated and he looks at her and says ‘no be you say you wan stop?’ and the girl says, ‘as you don pass the place wey I wan stop now, wetin you wan make I do?’ and the driver says, ‘okay, make I dey go?’ To which the girl, dressed in a dashiki, altered so much, it now looks more like a bikini, begins to storm out of the bus. Once she’s gone, the driver hisses and snidely remarks, ‘I for carry her reach New Bini.’
Even the students are not playing. There are only a few speed bumps along the road leading to the University of Benin, and to the University Teaching Hospital, there are none. The city tells you, ‘Nobody gives a shit, take care of yourself.’ Or more like, ‘take care of yourself, Idiot.’ The students are unflustered by this and unflustered by everything, very unlike many Nigerian university students. It hardly seems as though anything worries them. They saunter around, dressed in whatever the hell they like, waiting for you or a bus driver or a conductor or a fellow student or anybody at all to provoke them, waiting to give you a piece of their mind. The proportion of students in the University of Benin who dress as though they know about decency or propriety or even piety is more or less negligible. In Nigerian universities, you often find that female students in year one and generally pious female students, the ones called SU dress obviously: long black skirts and large, leather long sleeved shirts or long black shirt and a huge parachute of a hijab whose one single job is to hide every cleavage or idea of cleavages attempting to rear its ugly head, you can’t miss them. At Uniben, however, the case is different. I did not see a single lady dressed as an SU or in a hijab, fancy or parachute. Even the dashikis that many ladies wore had been severely altered so that it looked like lingerie.
Benin City is also a place where fetishism thrives. I heard of this many times before. People make jokes about it. There are pictures that normally circulate on Facebook, there is one of some Edo woman tying red clothing around an electric pole and the caption reading: Oya PHCN, if dem born una well come cut light. Maybe this is the reason you feel the calmness ― there is nothing to fear. It is not something they hide even. They talk freely about it in buses and cabs. For example, the same fat, obnoxious cabbie who was laughing and saying it is not who drives big cars that have sense, when asked what he would have done if the big car had hit him and had caused an accident, said ‘na bird I be na. No be to fly comot?’ I was scared of this fetishism a bit on the day I was to leave. I needed to check out as early as 6 in the morning to catch the car coming back and at that time it was still dark, the sun was yet to rise. I devised a plan: I wore a black shirt on a black trouser and that solved my paranoia. The few people I met as I walked from my hotel to the ju1nction to get a cab heading to the park swayed off my path. When you live in Rome…
It is a nice city, Benin. It is full of history and art and signs and wonders, as well as good people who would make you laugh regardless of your mood.

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