The Roads Between Us: A Journey Across Africa
Travel Stories: In a five-part series, Frank Bures explores the meaning of travel when arrival is not guaranteed
“Mr. Frank?” said a small voice. It was Zainab, the older of two sisters sitting next to me in a share-taxi going from Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, to Kano in the north.
“Yes.” I answered.
“Are you Lebanese?”
“No.” I said. It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked this.
“Then where are you coming from?”
Zainab and her sister Fatima talked about this for some time. They both wore headscarves, and were also going north, to the part of Nigeria where Sharia law is in place. The Muslim north is the now-famous part of the world where the underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, came from, and where violent clashes between Christians and Muslims are not uncommon. When I’d gotten into the share-taxi in Abuja, I hadn’t been sure what kind of reception to expect, and I wondered how feelings about my country might have changed with our Iraq adventure and the endless war on Islamic extremism.
I felt a poke in my side.
“Mr. Frank?” This time it was Fatima, the younger one. “Is it true that the president of America can rule other countries?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Can America rule Nigeria? No, it cannot,” I said.
After staring out the window for awhile, watching the land get drier as we headed into the Sahel, I felt another poke in my side.
“Mr. Frank: Is it true,” Zainab asked, “that one man threw something at George Bush—it was a shoe?”
“Yes, it’s true.” I said. “Actually, it was two shoes.”
“And that man is in jail?”
“No, I think he is out now.”
As we continued north, the girls continued to pepper me with questions, about my family, my country, their math homework. I asked them about themselves: They were 9 and 12, and were headed to a boarding school in Kano. Their father was some sort of businessman who had actually been to America. It was the kind of exchange I have always loved, and the kind I had been afraid might be a thing of the past: the friendly, curious probing of a world far away. It reminded me of my days as an English teacher in Tanzania, and of the innocence in that endeavor. I wondered about these girls, where their lives would take them and if they would remember me as I will remember them. A few hours later, when we pulled into Kano, I got out to get my bags, and Fatima came running to the back of the car.
“Mr. Frank!” she said.
“Please take this small gift.”
She handed me a pink plastic bottle of perfume. It said, “Love Angel.”
“Thank you,” I said, and I wished her the best, and watched their two small hands waving in the window as they pulled away.
I remember so clearly the people I talked to as we bumped along together on African roads: the man heading home from the UK, with whom I changed money in the back seat; the guy who gave me a puzzled look when I asked where to put my empty can (Answer: Out the window); the young woman who rubbed my leg with her own, just lightly enough to make me wonder.
Usually, we first met in the bus park, where you went when you need to go anywhere in Africa. There, I piled into the vehicle going my way with a bunch of strangers. When no more people would fit, the doors were slammed, and we would be swept along on a river of asphalt together, our lives (and sometimes our limbs) briefly entwined.
I spent several days in the Muslim north, and was met only with small kindnesses: In Maradi, an engineer I sat with paid for my meal without telling me and a coffee vendor refused to let me pay for my drink. In Kano, I sat down for tea at a roadside stand, and watched the vendor fry an omelet over a little charcoal stove. Then he handed it to the man next to me, who set it between us.
“Eat!” he said.
I pointed at myself.
“Yes! Eat, eat! Eat very well.”
And so we ate together.
These were the things I loved, and the things that made it worth tolerating the necrosis I felt in my legs a few day later, as I headed down the highway in Niger, in a minivan with about 25 other people on a 13-hour journey across the empty, austere landscape to the capital Niamey. I stared out the window at country that felt a little like a game park with no game, like Tatooine with trees. The two-lane road was freshly tarmacked in some places, with bright painted lines. It should have been fast. But we hit a check point or speed bump at what seemed like every mile, so we couldn’t go much faster than the camels that once traveled this route. All I could really focus on was whether I’d have the full use of my lower extremities when I got there. It was impossible to turn my body any way other than to look out the window, so I sat and tried to will the feeling into my feet. I remembered the words of Shiva Naipaul.
“I sit absolutely still,” Naipaul wrote about being on a bus in Kenya in North of South, “trying to work myself into the trancelike state of mind which, I have discovered, is the sine qua non of long-distance journeys in this part of the world. It is a state of mind that combines fatalism, self-surrender and a steely determination to maintain one’s toehold of possession.”
I tried every maneuver to get the blood back into my toes, but it just resulted in a different parts losing circulation. So I tried to forget about it. I tried to look across the Sahel and conjure up that trance-like state. I stared ahead at the road, at the trees, at the far-off horizon. But just as I thought I might achieve it, the driver slowed for a checkpoint and a wash of clear yellow liquid ran down the windshield, and I remembered seeing two goats being strapped up there before we left. I remembered thinking PETA would not be pleased.
I also remembered thinking: Glad that’s not me.
Now, however, I wasn’t sure who had the worse seat.