For the Igbo in Lagos and other parts of Nigeria, travelling to the east, their ancestral home for Christmas is an annual ritual for which they have to work hard to save enough money in advance for the trip. Apart from Christmas holidays some Igbo in Lagos may never bother to visit the east except for occasional visit for funerals of their relatives or loved ones or marriages of close relatives. Christmas holidays is a period when they close down all economic activities or are rather forced to do so and travel for holiday. Christmas for the Igbo is a period of mass return when they meet close relatives and friends who also come home for holidays. Whether this period offers rest for holidays is a discussion for another day because during Christmas holidays all sorts of meeting ranging from family, kindred, age grade, village and town union are normally scheduled. Besides these meeting, Christmas festivities include numerous weddings, traditional marriages, house warming, harvest and bazaar and lunching of development funds are held. All these ceremonies are held because as I said earlier, it’s only during Christmas holidays that many members of Igbo community are at home together than other times of the year. Prospecting bachelors and spinsters also travel down to the east to use the period of mass return to look for spouses.
Christmas holidays starts for many from the 17th of December when most primary and tertiary schools close till the next 10 days of January. Once schools close, movement down to the east starts. Most individuals prefer to send members of their families (wives, children and wards) home first as an advanced team. Back home the advanced team is supposed to tidy up their ancestral home which for many, may have been unoccupied for months and get the house ready for the holidays. The advance team also travels early to avoid high cost of transportation which is peculiar to the period of Christmas and also to avoid being trapped in road congestion and traffic jams which is a hallmark of travelling to the east for Christmas.
Transport companies see the period of Christmas which is characterized by high number of travelers as a period of boom for which they will squeeze out as much money from travelers who have little or no option than to patronize them. Often, transport cost increases as the Christmas day approaches and continues till the early days of January when travelling to the east subsides. The increase in transport cost often takes ridiculous dimensions some days when the cost changes within hours. It’s not impossible to pay a certain fee early in the morning only for an increase of up to N1000 hours later especially when there is an increase turnout of travelers. Since there is no rail link to the east and the numbers of people travelling by air are very few, travelling to the east by the Igbo is predominantly by road. For this purpose Luxury buses, mini buses, hummer buses, private vehicles, rickety Lagos mass transit buses (moloue) are all used.
From Jibowu, Ojota, Iddo, Alafia, Volks, Maza-Maza and Ojuelegba etc, the predominant bus terminals, the story is the same for travelers to the east. It’s usually a period of bedlam at such points during Christmas travel. Women would come to the parks with their children some strapped at the back with bags of all sizes. The more the bags the more you will have to pay the transport companies who would charge exorbitant fares. In the past, bags of foreign rice were also part of the load that accompanied travelers to the east. These bags of foreign rice would often be given out to relatives, friends and in-laws as gifts. The foreign rice is also seen as luxury items and signs of good accomplishment. Some also travel with items of furniture and beddings. Inside the bags many travel with special food items to take care of their culinary needs and refined appetite for the period the holiday lasts.
A typical day journey to the east for Christmas starts from as early as 4.30am for the transport companies. For those travelling with their private vehicles, some depart Lagos from 4 am to enable them beat traffic and reach home early enough. For those using luxury buses, the day’s journey starts once their vehicle is filled with passengers and those on attachment with prayers being offered by Prayer warriors who would beckon on the travelers to hand over the safety of the journey to the heavenly forces. These prayer warriors who often parade transport companies daily would start with praise songs and clapping which normally last for many minutes into the journey. This would be followed with supplications for protection from accidents, armed robbers, witches and wizards and all forms of demonic and diabolic attacks for enemies ( who presumably reside in the ancestral villages), ancestral curse and more recently, kidnappers. Usually the tyres, brakes, engine of the vehicle would be invoked to be covered by the blood of Jesus to ensure safety throughout the duration of the journey and stay in the village. To engage the attention of all travelers, the prayer session is often participatory whereby travelers would be commanded to touch their neighbours or shake them and recite certain phrases. The prayer session normally comes to a close with the sharing of envelopes by the prayer warriors to the travelers to support the ministry. The prayer warriors often disembark at Shagamu or Ijebu Ode to commence their journey back to Lagos.
Soon after the prayer session, hawkers of petty items, orthodox and herbal remedies would take over. To soften the ground for their trade, they would employ comedy and jokes to attract enough attention of travelers. These mobile comedians sell all manners of items at exorbitant prices for toothpaste, insecticide, soaps, teas, Jerusalem stone, mustard seed, anointing oil, herbal remedies which are advertised as possessing the potency that could cure all manner of diseases. Most often they feed on the gullibility and fear of passengers by selling concoctions in liquid forms which are supposed to ward off all forms of extraterrestrial attacks.
By the time this is over, the transport company will put on home movies, usually African Magic to entertain travelers.
Ijebu Ode, Ore and Benin are transit towns where buses stop for travelers to stretch themselves and ease themselves. While a good number of fast food companies exist in some of the towns, most buses stop just along the road. Because the road to the east is an open toilet you would find many travelers urinating or defecating in open space. While the male folk is comfortable at any spot, their female counterpart would, for decency step inside the bushes a little further but not too far to avoid insect or snake bites. All along the road to the east you would see human wastes at different levels of decomposition deposited by travelers. A loud horn from the driver beckons everybody to re-join the vehicle for the journey to continue. Ijebu Ode, Ore and Benin are also where travelers buy snacks, pure water, bottled water, banana, bush meat, snail and if time permits, eat too.
Last year’s journey to the east was a good one for those who travelled with their private vehicle as there were no police check points all along the road. Shagamu-Benin stretch was notorious in the past for police to stop commuters to demand for vehicle particulars, clearing documents, tinted glass permit, proof of ownership certificate, change of ownership and all sorts of jargons manufactured to extort money from car owners. The Ogun state stretch of Shagamu-Benin was notorious for having check points almost every three kilometres in the past. A lot of thanks to the present Inspector General for banishing road blocks. Last year, we only encountered a few highway patrol teams who would give you a Christmas salute and ask for “any thing for the boys”
Hours into the journey, you would reach Benin. Most vehicles would ply Benin bye-pass. Along this 23km stretch, travelers would be on the alert and looking sideways afraid of bandits and armed robbers who normally storm the highways from the bush to rob. Between five and six hours of departure from Lagos, you would arrive Asaba, capital of Delta state. That’s where the nightmare of travelers to the east starts. This stretch of road is less than five kilometres but has in recent time been notorious for long and unnecessary hold-up and terrible traffic congestion. It takes a minimum of two hours and sometime four hours to cross Asaba and enter Onitsha. The build-up starts in the morning as early as 10am and lasts till the 9pm. Despite the heavy presence of traffic wardens, police men, military patrol team, men of the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) to instill discipline and control traffic, you would stay for hours. The funny thing is that by the time you get to the end of the traffic, you would not point out to the actual cause of the heavy build up. Last year’s Christmas was terrible. For most travelers going to Abia, Ebonyi, Cross River and Enugu states, the second leg of the journey starts after crossing Asaba into Onitsha. The question on every body’s lips is; when would the Second Niger Bridge be constructed to ease traffic into the east. This proposed bridge has always been used to woo voters and hoodwink Ndigbo for votes since the Alhaji Shehu Shagari Second Republic era till now.
For now this is the question on the lips of Ndigbo; When would work start on the proposed Second Niger Bridge?
Anazodo wrote from Lagos