Oprah Book Club Author Ewem Akpan's New Fiction

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A female passenger starts to scream in the molue, or you-beat-me-I-beat-you bus, in front of my battered red Volkswagen Beetle, introducing another ripple of confusion into the midmorning Lagos traffic. She jumps out. Squatting by the roadside, she tilts her head so that the blood dripping from her torn ear won't soil her yellow onyonyo dress. Someone had reached into the bus to steal her earring, tearing her ear in the process. A group of child hawkers, whose schools are on strike, gather around her, drumming consolations into the other ear. Each time I try to move my car, there are at least two motorcycles ahead of me. The traffic stops. Up front, there's a throng of people chanting and dancing. They carry amulets, clubs, and locally made hunting rifles. They're members of the Oodua People's Congress, or O.P.C. They say that Lagos belongs to the Yorubas, so all others should understand that they're just guests. They say they will not tolerate armed robbers or corrupt police anymore in Eko City, and that this year, 1999, it is their turn to rule Nigeria. Well, this madness could have happened in Onitsha or Abuja or Ugborodo, I console myself after waiting thirty minutes for them to pass. Besides, this isn't my first time in Lagos.

After an oil fire killed hundreds of my fellow swamp-dwellers in the Niger Delta, after the mass burials, after negotiating with the leaders of the scores of tribes that make up our church to insure that everybody's burial ritual was represented during our week of mourning, I came to Lagos two days ago to visit some rich parishes and beg for aid. Now I'm staying at my brother's place in Ikotun and driving his car. This morning, to my brother's surprise, I had already sniffed out the black-market petrol crooks. I told him the fuel scarcity wasn't going to stop me. I dipped my fingers into the liquid they were selling out of huge jars and smelled it--before buying. I sure know Lagosians, and Grandpa used to say, "If you know the people, you know the place."

Now, suddenly, people--even the drivers--are jumping out of molues, to see a boy struggling in a bonfire on the road. The earring thief has been caught, ringed with tires, doused in petrol, and set ablaze. There's great rejoicing by the mob, as if a goal had been scored in a soccer match. No matter how scarce fuel is, there's always enough for the thief. My dashboard clock says 10:30. All the vehicles on the road attempt to turn at once. I should have listened to my brother and waited to go with his driver at the weekend. I should have put on my Roman collar, as my bishop likes his priests to do. Perhaps some Lagosian Catholic would have had mercy on me. Ah, no, such thoughts won't help me now. I smile to myself, to ward off the Area Boys who are beginning to take an interest in my confused driving. I wrangle my way through poor Isolo to St. Dominic's Parish, in crowded Yaba; and then to the Parish of Assumption, in highbrow Ikoyi. I see the blue tides of the Atlantic wash up in white effervescent bubbles. I come to industrial Apapa, to the Ajegunle slums, and popular Surulere.

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