It is Saturday. I am going to town to buy the new pair of shoes for which I managed to save the small profit I earn selling candies by the roadside, braving the rain, the sun, and the cloud of dust raised by vehicles. And hunger.
It is not often I wear anything new. It’s been more than four years now since last I bought a new pair of shoes that from mending disintegrated into bathroom slippers. And this Saturday I feel as blissful as if I were traveling to America.
I board a dilapidated 60-seater American school bus jam-packed with commuters, like pig feet in a barrel. After the hell to get on board, I am streaming with sweat and breathless. A fat woman, dressed in an oversized wig halfway pulled over her eyes, sit between a man and me. The seat is made just for two. The woman, who has big hips, has taken up almost all the space. Yet I manage to hang on, digging with one of my feet into the aisle, where already more than a dozen people stand huddle together. I hold tightly on to the seat in front of me. The bus dodges more than a dozen potholes; we break-dance in its cramp confines, smelling of exhaust fumes and sweaty and unwashed bodies.
At a little distance the traffic starts to crawl. The drivers ahead of us must negotiate several more potholes or their vehicles will get stuck in the middle of the tarmac road. The sun is hot. I start to sweat again and, with the bus more than fill full of passengers, begin to fear I might die of suffocation or cramps. I want to get off and walk the few minutes to the city’s center. But the aisle is full of people and leaves me exasperated. So I sit where I am and wait. Desperately. I feel almost as if I am about to die.
Finally the bus reaches central Monrovia. As it heads toward the intersection of Broad and Johnson streets, a traffic policeman appears suddenly and waves the bus to the side of the tarmac road. A few of the passengers immediately burst into laughter; some cursed under their breath; others sigh with exasperation. We all know what the policeman wants; it amuses us, disappoints, annoys.”Give the police his cold water so he can leave us alone,” one passenger says. “The way the police extorts money from taxi drivers,” says a second passenger, “one wonders if the government pays them at all.” “For me,” says a third passenger, “the only difference between a Liberian policeman and a petty criminal is the uniform the police wear.”
The policeman appears on the side of the bus, in a shirt that looks ready to split upon his big stomach. He demands some papers. Together with the bus driver, who leaves the engine running because he obviously wouldn’t be staying long, the policeman goes to the side of the road. He flips through the papers. Then the driver puts a closed fist into the policeman’s palm. He closes his fist and pushes it in his pocket. Then he waves us on.
We laugh again.
The bus stops a few paces after the intersection. We all spill out, like seeds out of a ruptured tomato. Street vendors are everywhere. Healthy but graying young men are shining shoes at the street corner. One can buy cheaper shoes on Mechlin Street and I start to walk there because it is not far. I go past several office buildings, many with paint peeling off.
Then I reach Mechlin Street and pause at the corner. There are more vendors and street hawkers, young women mostly. Then I start to walk, bumping against people, even though I know about Ebola, even though I am wearing no protective clothing, even though I am afraid of Ebola. I keep my hand with the money in it inside my pocket for fear of thieves.
I buy a pair of shoes at a store near the street, put it in a polythene bag, and start to go back. There is change left. I see a young man by the curb selling donka-flag. I buy a pair of shirt because I haven’t worn any new clothing for a long time. The young man wraps it into a polythene bag. After a few minutes of waiting and chasing taxis, I finally board a taxi and start to come home.
The bus is a long distance away when suddenly I realize that I am carrying only the polythene bag with the pair of shirt in it and have left the other with my pair of shoes behind. “Taxi stop,” I shout. But the taxi doesn’t stop; I bellow a second time, “I say stop!” This time my voice crackles like lightning. The passengers look at me as if I am mad. The taxi stops. I dash out and begin to run the forty-five minute’s drive back.
I reach Mechlin street, goes to the young man from whom I have bought the shirt. He sees me and looks away, as if out of guilt. I point to his table and say, “I left my shoes here in a plastic bag. Did you see it?”
“I didn’t see anything,” he says, and narrows his eyes. I look at his dour face and realize all efforts would be futile.
Then slowly I sit down on the curb and start to cry.