|Apr/May 2012 Fiction|
The two men in red coveralls arrived at an underground parking lot on the Rue de Treves on the invitation of a valet cum aide of a Brussels businessman, who immediately led them to a white Mercedes Benz 230 that had apparently seen better days. They were a mechanic and an electrician, among many other things, sent by a company which bought off used cars for resale. The son of the valet's boss had dumped the Benz after a brand new Citroen C6 was given to him on his 21st birthday a week earlier by his father. The young man had almost wrecked the Benz in three years of driving it; after inheriting it from his father who had himself previously driven the car for two years. So excited about the new car was the young man that he had zoomed off immediately with his girlfriend back to their campus at Solbosch, as though the new car would be retrieved if he didn't drive it away as fast as possible.
The technicians first checked the exterior of the dumped Benz 230, feeling the body and tires with their palms while the valet stood watch. Then they assessed the seats and carpets, rattling in Arabic to each other as they did so. Following that, one turned on the ignition and listened with rapt attention to the sound while the other keenly observed the linear wisps of smoke produced by the exhaust. Thereafter, with assorted spanners and screwdrivers and other miscellaneous odds and ends, they opened up practically every nook and cranny of the vehicle and took a good look. They were done in half an hour or so, and as they cleaned their greasy hands on their coveralls, the one who spoke better French addressed the valet.
"The car is in a worse state than we were told," he began, with a shake of his head. "The carpets and seats are well worn. The tires are almost worthless, and the gearbox and exhaust are in a sorry state. The steering and brakes need a lot more work than we thought. Only the engine seems to be in some state of health, though it still needs some work." He paused, looked at his colleague who seemed to give a go-ahead blink, and then continued. "We will be lowering our bid from the 1,000 Euros we earlier offered, to five hundred."
"That's too low!" the valet protested, "I can sell it to other buyers for more than that."
But the haggling didn't last long at all, ending at 750 Euros. Thereafter, the valet handed over the car's documents and spare key as required, and the Lebanese men handed over the cash and drove the abandoned car towards the direction of Antwerp.
Fouad Bashir stood at the Antwerp dock in the summer sun watching keenly as the Liberian-flagged Pure Car Carrier, the Rosa, sailed away. The Ro-Ro ferry was carrying 2,000 cars, half of which belonged to the Bashir family. Fouad's brother Walid would be receiving the family's cargo at its port of destination in just over two weeks, all things been equal. Sourcing this particular shipment hadn't come easy. Fouad's men had worked tirelessly for over three months to deliver the goods from as near as Gent to as far as Amsterdam. Some of the products were in very good shape with as little as 5,000 miles on them and were certified by the port bureaucrats without much more work. Others were pretty bad and required many more man-hours in the workshop; hours of mending and replacing and painting. There were not many of the latter in this shipment, and that made the final part of the job easier than the first. The one particularly problematic product was the Benz crap with 60,000 miles on it, brought by Imad and Moustapha from Brussels, for which they had paid an annoying 1,000 Euros. Those idiots did not even discover that the air-conditioner wasn't working until they arrived at the workshop! The jalopy took almost a week to fix up and repaint, gulping an extra 250 Euros. He wouldn't have bought it for more than 400, had he gone to pick it up himself.
He would have to straighten those guys sometime, he told himself, whether they were older than his 25 years or not. He sighed and called Walid to inform him that the ferry had commenced its journey. Satisfied that he was finally through with this consignment, he strode towards the port's massive car park and eased into his Land Cruiser. As he turned the ignition, he smiled at the luxury of a brand new machine that didn't have anything close to the myriads of issues that some of those painted rattletraps on the Rosa had.
Professor Amangala's nine-month suffering appeared to finally have an end in sight. Since that six-month-long strike for increased salaries that commenced nine months ago, that rather resulted in the meager salaries being suspended, his life had not been the same again. It was that same month in which his pay stopped coming that his 28-year-old Peugeot 504 Station Wagon finally gave up the ghost. The professor of Chemistry thus went everywhere around Port Harcourt with public transportation, squeezing into dilapidated minibuses with his students. But it was Agatha's torment that gave him sleepless nights and made him lose weight. The woman lamented every single night about the stench of the buses and her children's friends who recognized her at Borokiri and Rumuola Junction. And the non-academic staff who called her "Prof's wife" and hid their laughter when they saw her inside cramped taxis. She cursed herself for giving birth to five children she couldn't feed properly, and on one particular night she cursed herself for turning her back 25 years ago on Tari Banigo, who was now a local government chairman in Bayelsa and owned a fleet of jeeps.
It had been the most humiliating period of Amangala's career in the academia, a season in life when it really dawned on him that at the age of 52 and with five children to cater for, he did not have much savings to fall back on. It was the season he came to realize that being an upright teacher in a Nigerian university for 20 years didn't amount to much. It was within that period too that he came close to suspending his loathing of colleagues who took money from students in exchange for good grades because it was clear they would never find themselves in his sorry state. But he didn't. He upheld his belief that integrity mattered more than wealth. He consoled himself with the thought that he was a better man than Professors Bako and Weber, the scoundrels in Mathematics who stopped marking scripts years ago, allotting grades in exchange for money and sex.
The strike was called off six months after it began. It did not achieve anything. Amangala could have predicted this. It followed the same pattern. The ministers and senators in Abuja had demanded the suspension of the strike as a precondition for "meaningful negotiations," and the union leaders, either because they were tired of the sickening saga, or because their palms had been greased, obliged. The meaningful negotiations were still being awaited, but the arrears of the six strike months were mercifully paid the previous month. While Amangala's colleagues groaned about how the six months' salary of a professor couldn't even amount to a million naira in a country with so much money, he was grateful for it, and he immediately commenced plans to get a new car, which he would hand over to Agatha in exchange for peace and sleep.
It was his oldest son Tubonimi who initiated the process. The 21-year-old knew nearly everything about Port Harcourt that needed to be known, and whatever he didn't know, he knew friends who did. It was through Tubo's labyrinth of friends that it emerged that one Ifeanyi at Oroazi travelled regularly to some port outside Nigeria's shores to bring in good second-hand cars which were half the price of what one would have bought them from a sales outlet in Port Harcourt, and probably two-thirds of what one would buy them in Lagos. Ifeanyi had no office. He came to your house with pictures of vehicles and a range of prices, and then you made your choice. Payment was subsequently on delivery, which had to be because no sane Nigerian could trust another with money without first seeing and touching the product for sale. The meeting with Ifeanyi was held the previous week, and the young man gave a two-week time frame within which he would return with a "strong Benz"—as chosen by Tubonimi. "It won't cost you more than 800,000, sir," he promised the professor.
One week was left until the promised car arrived, and Professor Amangala's anxiety was mounting with each passing day.
Walid Bashir was more than impressed with the shipment that just arrived at the Cotonou port. The quality of the goods was as good as it could get; he had rarely seen a better consignment in 12 years of the business. Even the Mercedes Benz that Fouad complained so much about didn't look that bad after all. That boy was just too hard on himself and the men who worked with him. He was sure to get a good price for it, and most likely from a Nigerian. Among the West African retailers who came from all the over the region to Cotonou, the Nigerians had a thing for Mercedes Benz. Personally, he would never buy a Benz.
They were all over the docks now, the mad crowd of retailing Beninois and Nigerians and Nigeriens and Togolese who couldn't wait for the goods to clear the port and come to the car market. They whispered his name as he moved around in the company of two armed Beninois gendarmerie, inspecting his cargo and signing papers and giving bribes. He would ignore them for some time. The best of the cargo had to be sorted out for the showrooms of close business associates in Abuja and Kano who were helping his other brother Abdullah with oil servicing contracts in Port Harcourt and Warri. After those had been separated, the leftovers could go to the mob hanging around and chattering away in Fon and Hausa and Igbo and Yoruba and hundreds of other tongues and twangs. These people had shiploads of languages, by Allah!
As he walked towards an exclusive port bar for a quick beer, one of the Nigerians ambushed him. "Oga Bashiru, remember me?" he whispered, "I be your customer. I just need one Benz and one Audi..."
One gendarme enthusiastically lurched forward to dismiss the stoutly-built retailer, but the 36-year-old Lebanese businessman stopped him. The much fussed Benz would actually be going faster than he thought. "Of course I remember you. Emeka, right?"
"Yes, yes, Ifeanyi. What kind of Benz and Audi?"
"Good Benz C or E Class, and Audi V8."
"I have just the right ones for you. Follow me."
Five hundred and fifty thousand naira—about 2,500 Euros—was the final bargain on the Mercedes Benz sedan. As an assistant quickly counted Ifeanyi's total pay of 950,000 naira, Walid smiled to himself. That boy Fouad simply worried too much.
It took only three days for Ifeanyi and his apprentice Chigozie to drive to Port Harcourt from Cotonou, the fastest he had ever driven in two years of his burgeoning business. By keeping his ears to the ground in Cotonou, Ifeanyi was able to learn from a Lagos-based clique that all of his proposed routes via Idi-Iroko were swarming with the no-nonsense species of customs officers. On the other hand, the Owode-Yewa route further north appeared to be the least risky of the hundreds of illegal thoroughfares on the Benin Republic-Nigeria border. And true to the grapevines, they crossed via Owode-Yewa with very little difficulty, he in the Benz and Chigozie in the Audi, meeting only one friendly customs checkpoint where 5,000 naira dismantled the roadblock. However, no diversions could save them from six more customs teams and over 40 police checkpoints prowling at various points along the journey to Port Harcourt, where parting with more money after considerable delay was inevitable. All in all, Ifeanyi paid roughly 50,000 naira for each vehicle and delivered the professor's car to him five days ahead of schedule.
Mrs Amangala was ecstatic at the sight of the dazzling white Benz W202 C-Class sedan. With her headgear tied around her waist, she danced round the car several times, her younger children following suit. After the fifth revolution, she hugged her husband thoroughly.
"Able Prof!" she hailed.
Prof smiled sheepishly, feeling the car himself to make sure it was really there. Mrs Amangala declared an immediate family prayer for the car, to which Prof grudgingly obliged. She forced all present to lay their hands on the car, after which she worshipped Jehovah for giving her family such a mighty blessing, hailing the Almighty by every conceivable English, Hebrew, and Ijaw title. A rather amused Amangala, thankful that he would now be allowed to sleep peacefully, grinned through it all, as his younger children roared thunderous amens to their mother's invocation. In an animated manner almost reminiscent of prophetesses in white-garment prayer houses, she took the session to a new level.
"No weapon formed against this car shall prosper!"
"Ameeeeeeen!" her congregation howled.
"I bind every witch, wizard, and demon that will attempt to hurt this car or its occupants at any time!"
"I cast them into the bottomless pit!"
At that point Amangala wanted to suggest that Tubo, who was impatiently staring at his watch as the prayers went on, be added to the list of devils to be subdued, for that young man had contributed in no small way to the demise of the previous car. He nevertheless held his peace till the kingdom of darkness had been thoroughly debilitated by his wife. But even after the prayers ended, Mrs Amangala still wasn't done. With the solemn face of one who had just received a word directly from God, she turned to face her husband.
"A miracle such as this needs to be shared with God's people in church," she declaimed with authority, "so we must testify this Sunday. As head of the family, you have to be there."
"No way!" the professor objected, turning around and making for his bedroom. He had not been to the university chapel since one young blustery rascal sent as chaplain two years earlier complained that professors were not jumping high enough during the prayer and singing sessions. He could not attend now simply because he had bought a new car—or rather a second-hand new one. Moreover, the last time he spoke publicly in church was about three years prior to the rascal-chaplain's arrival, when the then chaplain made the unforgettable mistake of appointing him to head the harvest committee. During his address to the church to garner support for the harvest, he had veered off into the problems of the university and the country, liberally quoting Marx and Soyinka and Saro-Wiwa instead of the holy apostles and prophets.
On their bed later that night, as he maintained his stand against the testimony, Agatha switched into nag mode. The chemist, knowing better than anyone else that his peace would remain elusive if he didn't oblige her request, finally acquiesced.
"Alright. I will join you to church next Sunday," he said, facing the wall and closing his eyes, "and I will render the testimony."