Girls With Neat Box Braids
Updated: Nov 27, 2021
It was amidst pandemonium at Ojuelegba bus stop that I met Rosemary, one Wednesday evening on my way home from work.
I was waiting at the bus stop, along with a myriad of people, like every other crowded Lagos evening, when we heard gunshots. At first it sounded like the loud, rapid sounds were coming from some distance away, so while I wondered what the sound was and where it was coming from, my brain didn’t immediately register any present danger. A few of us at the bus stop were still trying to make sense of the noise when people started running, amongst them a policeman with his rifle slung across a shoulder. Oh, boy. See race.
Now, what made the pandemonium worse was the fact that people were running in different directions, so it was difficult to tell where the gunshots were coming from and what direction the best option for safety was. We were all just running. Into and around traffic. Into roadside shops and behind kiosks. Yelling, pushing and shoving. At some point, motorists were so confused, they abandoned their vehicles and started running too. I was just thinking, God, what kind of country is this?
As I ran to God-knows-where along Itire Road, holding unto my satchel with my life (because how many of you know Lagosians will rob you even in the middle of hell?), I noticed the person running alongside me fell. I don’t know why I stopped to look, but I did. She – that is, Rosemary – had fallen unto the asphalt, and people were running over her, as though she was not even there. She was curled into a fetal position, her hands covering her head. I saw blood on her knuckles. As I turned around to help her up, someone ran right into my chest and knocked me over. I crawled on my palms and knees to where she lay. She looked up at me through the blur of calves and trousers that were brushing past us. You have to stand up, I yelled, you have to stand up or you will be crushed!
We managed to stand up together and continued running down Itire Road. The craziest thing is, we got not up to four hundred meters down Itire Road and life was going on as usual. Nobody was running, nobody had heard the gunshots. No cars or duty posts abandoned by drivers or policemen. We had left the madness behind in Ojuelegba. Those further down Itire Road were asking those of us panting what had happened. Do you see how a day in Lagos can kill you? A woman who had run with a baby on her back and a toddler in her arms sat down on the curb, gasping, crying. Rosemary’s knees and knuckles were bloodied. Danfo drivers who had left their buses behind in the mayhem started considering going back.
My way was Yaba, so I was thinking about walking back to Ojuelegba, when a new wave of runners started running into Itire Road again. For God’s sake, what kind of a country is this? Rosemary and I started running again. No questions asked, just race. Pure madness. When we got to Ogunlana Junction, a few of us darted into the Forte Oil petrol station to take cover. Motorists buying fuel asked what was going on and nobody could give a definitive answer. It’s like say dem dey shoot for Ojuelegba side. Who dey shoot? We no know but dem dey shoot.
Is this a country? When we are not in the middle of a full-blown war that civilians should be running helter-skelter. I’ve been meaning to leave since I was 16, to join my mother in Wigan but the money never complete. But may this be the year that I leave. I cannot do this anymore. I am a 24-year-old young man and Nigeria will not kill me before my time.
We waited at the petrol station until we were sure the running had ceased. People didn’t know which way to go again. We waited for over an hour. We started hearing that it was a turf war between cultist factions in Ojuelegba, then we heard that it was a fracas between the army and the police. Then we heard two people had died and one of them was a pregnant woman. Then we heard twelve people had died and all of them were cultists. It was a mess.
Rosemary’s knees were still bleeding. She washed her injuries at a tap behind the petrol station. Yaba was my way but now I was terrified of moving an inch. When I would tell my mother about this incident, she would sigh and pray that Nigeria get better, and I would inwardly grumble about when we would have enough money to get me a visa and a one-way ticket out of this damn place.
Rosemary asked if I could walk her home. For the first time, I noticed her small, bewildered eyes, and the loose strands of braids that must have sat proudly atop her head in a neat bun earlier in the day. Her pretty peach-coloured dress was soiled.
She lived off Ogunlana, so the walk wasn’t too long but it took a while because she kept limping, as though her whole leg had been blown off. Small injury.
Rosemary lived down a narrow, untarred street lined with small bungalows with concrete compounds you could see through railed gates. It was a nice little neighbourhood, far removed from the shack of a boy’s quarters I shared with my two cousins in Yaba.
“Do you want to come inside?” Rosemary asked when we got to her gate.
I hadn’t said “No” when a woman, sans-brassier, came running out of the house in a flowing bobo, screaming, “Chi mo! Chi mo!” Behind her were four hefty mannish boys, equally as eccentric. They were speaking all at once, in pidgin and Igbo; they had been calling her phone all afternoon, the police was raiding in Ojuelegba and had killed two people (one of them was a pregnant woman), they knew she would be caught in the foray on her way back from choir practice, what happened to her knee, and who was this (me)?
Rosemary tried to explain but they wouldn’t let her speak. They crowded around her like bees to honeycomb, looking at her dirtied dress and bruised knees and bloodied knuckles. The woman cupped Rosemary’s face in her hands. I supposed that was what love looked like. All my life, had I ever known love like this?
I was walking back towards the main road when Rosemary called after me, asking that I stay, at least come in for a drink of water.
“I need to go home,” I said.
“Oh.” She shielded her eyes with one hand from the glare of the setting sun. “Well at least let me give you my number.”
I handed her my phone and she punched her number in. Her fingers were short, her nails chipped. She was a nailbiter. Do you know that nailbiting is a tension-releasing mechanism that is causally related to anxiety?
“Will you call me?” She asked as she handed me the phone.
“Yes, I will.” I said it absentmindedly.
Rosemary and her cute face were the last thing I needed. What I needed to do was get back to Yaba alive, that was the short-term goal. The long-term goal: Get the hell out of Nigeria. The sun was disappearing beyond the horizon and the roads were growing dim. I decided to take a bike to Tejuosho, and then a bus to Yaba.
It was later that evening when I was taking a shower that I saw the injury on one of my big toes. The nail had dented in and a pool of blood had gathered beneath it. It was a goner.
Honestly, I forgot all about Rosemary. I had school and projects and exams. The days I worked, I sometimes didn’t get home until past midnight, because the store closed at 9pm and the Island and Mainland are on two different continents. I needed money for rent, for fuel, for food, to fix my laptop’s motherboard. I just needed money to live and leave. Cute girls with their neat box braids and the lipstick the perfect shade of coral that matches their dress, and stubby little fingers, and soft brown skin, and the smell of coconut oil that comes off their hair when they take your phone and give you their number – I needed none of it.
None of it.
But I called Rosemary the week after. And she was so mad at me. And her voice, it sounded less tense and less afraid than it had that evening on Itire Road, and the laughter, it seemed to bubble beneath the surface of her words as she playfully rebuked me: “You, you, how many fine girls have ever given you their numbers that you couldn’t call me all these days, eh?”
We met up in the Shoprite Mall that weekend, each had a small tub of Coldstone ice-cream that cost way too much, sat in the crowded, stuffy food court with the whirling extractor fans and open mesh ceiling, and talked about that terrifying evening the Wednesday before, about her family, about my mother. Rosemary’s injuries had become scabs and I noticed that her fingernails had a new coat of polish she was sufficiently chewing through. We talked about her schooling at Yaba Tech and mine at Uni Lag; about mass communications and computer science. She told me about growing up in Owerri, the last of five children, the centre of her father’s universe. He died when she was seven and her mother moved them to Lagos, where there were better opportunities for her retail business. I told her about growing up with my grandmother and mother until my mother left on a visitor’s visa to the UK when I was eleven and promised to come back to get me. It had been thirteen years, my grandmother had since passed on, and I was still waiting.
When we were walking out of the mall a few hours later, Rosemary laced her fingers into mine. Her skin felt so good. My heart rate spiked. I wanted that walk to the kekenapep stands by the curb to last forever. I slowed my pace down. She slowed down too.
Outside, we stood in the teeming frontage of the mall with the eager sellers of balloons and the aggressive taxi drivers soliciting for passengers.
“So,” Rosemary said. Her feet were right next to mine. She was looking up at me and I was trying to look away, failing.
“So,” I repeated.
“When will you call me again? Next year?”
She playfully pushed me away, and I knew immediately that I didn’t have the time for this: for another thing like a fling that may or may not lead to the swell of repulsion deep in your gut each time you remember their face, or hear that song, or hear someone say their name a few months later when the crackling of fireworks have faded. I needed to stay focused. I needed to graduate. To save up. To leave. She was one girl. There were a million others.
She managed to convince me to escort her home. Walking down her street, I remembered again that crazy evening just a week earlier, I remembered her disgruntled self, my wounded toe with the blood that had now caked to an indigo colour.
We lingered outside her gate.
“Do you want to come inside?” She asked, her voice mellow.
“You always need to do something.”
“Next time.” I lifted a loose thread off the fabric on her shoulder. “I promise.”
She wrapped her arms around my waist, and I wrapped mine around her shoulders. Held her. We stood like that for a while. Then I turned to leave. I knew she was looking at me as I walked away, but I never looked back. And I never called again.