From Lagos, Nigeria to Sikasso, Mali, by road, toddlers were in the bus. I didn’t pay attention to bleating goats strapped to the bus seats beside me. It was the screams of babies, I paid attention to. The trip was usually a long non-stop hours of driving, so mothers had containers for their children to ease themselves. The stench of s#it or urine splattered through the open windows was nothing to complain about—anything to make the children comfortable. Through the quarries and highlands of Northern Ghana, we entered Burkina Faso. Ouagadougou the capital city was abuzz with life. At the motor station, red-eyed Motor Park touts imposed assistance. Help was not solicited. Not being fluent in French, didn’t help matters. The only French I could muster at that point was, “sorties mon baggage.” That must mean “get out of my luggage.” It worked. I needed to pee. A few feet ahead, I saw the sign “toilet.” I rushed ahead.
The gate keepers of the toilets were collecting money per p#ss. I assumed that part of their services was to provide tissue. They had kettles of water instead. I didn’t know what to do with the kettle. Then my eyes settled on a lady in her full hijab regalia. Though she backed the crowd, I watched her squat, pee and then wash her private with the kettle. I envied her effortless skill. To pee outside was cheaper. It may have been easier for me to squat and wash if I had a wrap, but I was on shorts. I went inside the toilet. By the time I was done, my short was drenched with water and urine. I got to my cab on time; it was full.
After about a 1000 miles, I arrived at Sikasso, one of the biggest cities in Mali. Starving. All I had throughout the trip was dry French bread and orange juice. Each time I thought about a hot plate of rice with beef stew, my mouth watered. Out of the cab, I headed to what seem to be an open market, took a bend, down a crowded road. I ran into a roadside teenage food-seller. She was frying fish. There were left-over potato chips in her fish pan. A group of young men sat around her eating what seemed like a bowl of grits mixed with palm oil. They took a bite of their fish and scooped a handful of this strange looking grain into their mouths. “Cest combian.” I asked the girl pointing at the fish in her bowl. She said something in French. I didn’t understand. I showed her all the money I had. One of the young men licked his lips and asked me in English. “You want fish?” I answered. He interpreted. The seller scrapped up what was left of the chips, in a wet plastic bowl and then tossed the fish into the bowl for me. I cringed at the wetness of the bowl and grimaced at the swarm of flies around the food. Many perched on her cooking utensils. The young men carried on even as the flies buzzed around. It was as if the flies shared in their meal. I made the sign of the cross and proceeded to eat my fish and chips. Bland. After my first bite of fish, my face was rumpled. The seller reached for a bottle of hot source under the table where her toddler sat and stared at me. I grabbed the hot source with a smile but my eyes settled on the crawling baby. This time she laid flat on her belly, and that was the first time I observed that she was crawling too close to the gutter near her mother’s cooking spot. I waved at her. She chuckled. She had large eyes and a smear of mucus across her cheek. I pointed at her indicating to her mother that she was too close to the gutter. It was the young man that replied in English, “She’s ok.” I settled back to my meal. Half way done a fat fly landed on my hand. In my attempt to get slap it off, I hit my bowl. It toppled out of my hand and landed on the muddy ground. The lady apologized. “Merci!” I said. She gave me soap and then sprinkled some water on my hands. The water dripped into the gutter. I stole one last glance at the baby and left.