By Unoma N. Azuah
Editor’s Note: Please see Part 3 at this weblink - http://thenewblackmagazine.com/view.aspx?index=3287
Sunday, May 11, 2014.
When we finally got to the border post, we were told to disembark, take our passports to the one room office where we were grilled about our passports, yellow fever cards and why we were on the road. Most of the other people in the bus with us went to the one-roomed post and came out almost immediately. We the Nigerians were detained for hours. We were told to pay extra because our yellow cards seemed falsified. We insisted that they are the right ones, and proceeded to let them know that we have links with ECOWAS. That piqued their interested, so they wanted to know more. We revealed as much as we could and at the end of what felt like hours, they gave us back our passports. It was rather annoying and frustrating especially because they were friendly and pleasant to the Caucasian tourists. When they were done with everybody’s passports, we looked around for our bus. It was nowhere to be found. I panicked for a moment. We asked the border officers and they told us that we had to walk across the Mali/Mauritania border while our luggage were to be conveyed across to the border with donkeys or camels.
At first, I thought I didn’t hear them right. Some walked the miles; some took taxis, while some others were transported by donkeys. When we arrived at the border, the Mauritania immigration officers wouldn’t let us cross. They wanted to see out visas first. So they took our passports to their bunker office and took about thirty minutes before they came back—without the passports. They asked us where we were coming from. We told them. They were smiling when we met them. But it seemed their attitude changed as soon as we told them we are Nigerians. They had the audacity to ask if we had drugs with us. They almost tore our bags in the process of searching. When we were finally cleared to cross the border, it felt strange that a few yards away close to the same border post were another group of immigration officers. They took our passports and disappeared for hours on end. There were no places to sit and the sun was fierce.
We were shocked to see them lounging in a make-shift shade and sharing a large brewing pot of tea. They set the pot on a small tripod hand-held stove. Its blue flames flared intermittently. They kicked their legs into the air in loud laughter. The jokes must have been very funny because a couple of them convulsed in laughter. Those who merely smiled gazed into the distance as they sipped their tea. We resorted to placing our bags and whatever pieces of papers we could find on the dusty, sandy ground and sat. Some mothers with wailing babies approached their tent to keep their babies away from the harsh sun, but the lounging men hushed them away. At first, I thought it was the desert mirage playing tricks on me. So, I went and sat at the edge of their mat. They yelled at me and waved their hands at me to leave their mat. I didn’t understand their language. It was neither French nor English. I ignored them and dared them in my mind to touch me. I knew they were not going to hurl me off their mat. They didn’t. I beckoned at the mother and her children to join me. She spread a wrapper at the edge of the mat to give her children more room to sit. She smiled at me and I smiled back. A couple of the officers got up from their mat and headed towards their office. I sprang up and followed. I thought they were ready to attend to us. Others rushed toward them as well, but they got into their post and slammed the door on our faces. I hissed. I was about to make my way back to the mat and the shade but the children were already lying down. I just lingered around the door area of the officers’ post.
I got tired of standing, so I placed a magazine on the dusty ground and sat. Others had done the same. The heat was unbelievable. I was so scorched that I wanted to swallow my tongue. Not too far from me was a British teenager. I knew because my travel mate struck up a conversation with him. He had graduated from the University with a BA in English, and then he worked in a bookstore for a year and got bored with life. With the money he saved, he set off on a journey to explore Africa by road. I was rapt, listening to his conversation when spittle landed close to my toe. I looked up; it was one of the officers. He spat again through their open window. I wanted to run in to the window and insult him, but I had to hold my anger. I had already caused a stir by refusing to get off their mat. And the fact that I was wearing shorts in an Islamic country made me conspicuous enough. I just gnashed my teeth. After a few more hours of waiting, they continued to ignore us: nothing. It became obvious that they were just being wicked to us. Eventually, we got rather hungry and restless. We demanded for a reason for the delay. Their response was that their computer was malfunctioning. Another hour crawled by. I got very hungry, then, I sighted a provision store opposite the immigration post. I scampered to the store only to be disappointed. There was nothing there to eat. I would have thought that a business person would know what to stock and at what time. There were only soda drinks, water and biscuits. There were cans of sardine, which was a relief to see, but there were no bread to go with it. How could any business person not realize that when one buys cans of sardine that they ought to buy something else to go along with them? I missed the Seme and Cotonou borders. The folks there are brisk business men and women. I got the sardine and ate the fish with relish. That was one of the best meals I had had in days. As soon as I gulped down the last bit of water I bought, I heard my name being called through the window of the immigration post. I was invited in. I got in and the three immigration officers didn’t say a word to me. Two of them were staring at their computer screen while the third finally spoke.
“Are you Nigerian?” He asked with a smirk and I said yes. He went on to say that Nigerians are tough. I concurred. He described Nigerians as strong and then tried to pull a punch at me, playfully. And we engaged in a few minutes of a mock boxing. He threw a few punches and I ducked. I threw a few at him, he ducked. When we were done being playful, he described the whole act as an example of Nigerian aggression. I smiled at him trying my best to be polite and at my best behavior. Then one of the men staring at the computer asked for a phone number and an address for our destination. I gave it to them. A few minutes later we were cleared, but there was yet another hurdle to cross. We were to wait for the bus that was to take us to Mauritania. The bus that took us from Mali was not the same bus that would convey us to our final destination. So a few more houses, we sat on the other side of the Mali/Mauritania border waiting for the bus. We were standing in front of a provision shop and the owner was kind enough to offer us a mat. We sat and continued waiting. I got hungry again, was able to get another can of sardine but there was nowhere to find bread.
So one of the ladies from Ghana who was heading to the same destination as we were, offered to take me to the local market a few miles away from where we were. I was glad because I needed to eat the next can of sardine with some bread. I was already weary, famished and fatigued. Off we went, heading to the local market. I was happy to discover that the lady that accompanied me could speak something the locals could understand. There were mostly men in the market, which made me uncomfortable. The lady nudged me on. We came upon a couple of tall fierce looking men. They had what the lady told me was camel meat on display. She asked them where we could get bread and they must have told her that the bread sellers were gone because she looked at me with a frown and asked that we leave. There was none to be found. Disappointed, we headed back to the waiting spot. A few feet away, I saw a young mother spreading out her cooking items. Beside her was her baby boy, crawling around her in the dusty sand. I pulled my companion’s hand and pointed at the lady. We headed to her and behold there were about twelve pieces of French bread in one of her basins. They were flies all over them. I didn’t care. I’ll wash them if I needed to. We asked her if we could buy some of her bread. She agreed but explained that they were for her family’s dinner. We were able to get one loaf from her. I was ecstatic. She refused to take the money. We insisted. I was finally able to settle down to somewhat of a meal of fish and bread. I peeled off all the skin of the bread.
As I ate, I took in the activities of the surroundings. Ahead of us was a vast plain arid land. There were more than a dozen mules and donkeys crossing by the only road where we sat. It was a narrow road. The mules and donkeys conveyed people from their farms to their homes. The harder they were wiped, the faster they moved. I watched as they disappeared into the horizon. I then hurried into the store not far from where we were and bought a bottle of cold water. Water tasted like soup in the desert. A few hours later, our bus arrived. I was so relieved because we were finally about to enter Mauritania. The bus didn’t move beyond a mile when we saw another border post. I wanted to scream.
The driver and his co-driver came out of the bus with our passports and walked to the post. After a few exchanges of pleasantries, the border officers, one black, one Arab, came to the bus and asked us all to disembark and meet them with our pieces of luggage. They took their time to look through bags and boxes. They violently kicked some bags open. When they found nothing implicating, they asked everyone to show them how much money we each carried with us. There was a long delay because my travel partner felt they were being unfair. According to them, we didn’t have enough money required to cross the border. We were frustrated; we yelled, cursed, begged, and cried. They were not moved. I sputtered the little French I knew pleading and begging, but they insisted that they’ll punish us for being difficult in the first place. We were the only ones singled out. All through the journey, we were always singled out, threatened, frowned at or asked if we had drugs. In some instances, we were levied heavily for no reason. Each time this happened, we maintained that we had the same rights as other travelers because we are from an ECOWAS country. That seemed to make things worse. They asked the bus to leave without us, that we were to be detained. I could feel the nerve on my neck throbbing. I didn’t think it was wise to be left with the border officers. They could do anything to us and nobody would know. Finally, the drivers of our bus begged and pleaded and they agreed to let us go.
As we pulled away from the border of Mali into Mauritania; it was a relief. We drove in silence. The heat of the sun intensified. In between hours I snoozed. I opened my eyes and saw a small truck approaching. The roads were so narrow: one lane paths. The trucks were so close to each other that it knocked off our side mirror. The impact from our bus flung the other truck into the bush beside us. Our bus pulled to the side of the road to see if the passengers in the truck were OK. They were. Our driver yelled at them for not giving any space between us. They yelled back, but we asked our driver to calm down and get back to the bus. We had a long way to go. A few hours into the ride, I didn’t know when I dozed off. A blasting sound woke me up as the bus shook violently. One of the tires had exploded. The heat of the sun had become unbearable. We felt cooler as we all stepped out of the bus into a space in a vast stretch of a sandy terrain. A few grains of sand found their way into my eyes. I blinked several times and saw people walking towards scattered shrubs and tree to ease themselves. I found a shrub too and relieved myself. But, my urine was nowhere to be found. I watched it come out as I peed. Where could it have gone? It vanished without a trace. I hurried on to sit with others as they all gathered under a shade and sat on a wrapper that was spread out in the sand. The wrap belonged to the same Ghanaian woman who accompanied me to the bread hunt. She told us about herself: a baker in the city of Nouakchott where she lives with her husband. Baking cakes for birthdays and weddings was a brisk business she revealed. They took orders to bake and they also sold their pastries in their store. Mid way into her life story, I started panting. She suggested that I should get into the bus where there was a metal gallon of water. When I got to the gallon it was turned upside, empty. I panicked for a moment. I was so scorched and I didn’t know how soon the tire was to be fixed. After what felt like an eternity, the tire was replaced. We continued on our journey. It must have taken hours before we pulled close to a convenient store. It had all sorts: tons of cold water, cookies, biscuits, ice cream, pies, sardine, bread, and many other snacks. There was a long queue but I grabbed a huge bottle of water from the refrigerator close to the entrance door and hurriedly guzzled it down. The store owner glared at me. I was too thirsty to acknowledge his face. When I was done drinking, I stood in line with the empty bottle of water. I’ve never drank so much water in my life and I wanted more but I didn’t want to be rude by taking a second and third bottle without paying first.
When it got to my turn, I paid and hurried back to the bus. We continued on our journey. The roads got bumpy this time because they were potholes on every few kilometers. When I looked out through the windows there were stores on both sides of the road, mostly provision stores. In no time night fell upon us. We had reached a city called Assaba. The name struck me because it was spelled like my mother’s town of Asaba, Delta State, except for the double ‘S’. There were night traders of food just as I know it to be in Nigeria. Some men hurriedly made tea, and served bread with freshly fried eggs. As soon as I saw them, my mouth watered. It was the sight of fresh pepper that excited me the most. A couple of fried eggs with plenty of pepper and onions were just about to make my night. I hopped out of the bus and pointed at the things I wanted. They didn’t speak English or French. It must have been a dialect of the Arabic language that they spoke. When I asked for more pepper the young man looked at me as if to say, “Are you sure?” I nodded vigorously. As soon as he handed the fried eggs, tea and bread to me, I abandoned the bread and tea and eagerly bite into the eggs. As soon as the pepper hit my mouth, a warm pleasant feeling spread all over my body. I sucked in a generous amount of fresh air in satisfaction.
When I was done eating, I looked out through the window and was surprised to see a group of four Caucasians: three men and a lady. In the pitch black city, where burning lanterns and cooking fires were the only light, these tourists sang into the night. As they danced, their hair bounced and was illuminated by the slanted lights of the night. The men had no tops, just their brown khaki shorts were all they had. The lady had a white t-shirt and blue jeans. Her long hair swung back and forth as she gyrated to the Arabic music in the background. I was amazed. The journey was a mixed bag of frustrations and pleasure. There I was craving my home and home food but here were a bunch of Caucasians feeling at home in the middle of no-where. Even as we pulled away, I hurried to the rear of the bus to watch them some more. I watched till the dim sound and light surrounding them faded.
Unoma Nguemo Azuah is an award-winning Nigerian writer and an important new voice in African literature. She holds an MFA in Poetry and Fiction from the Virginia Commonwealth University and has edited literary publications in Nigeria and abroad. She currently teaches at an American university.