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Ike Okonta

The Season of the Typhoid

Ike Okonta recently made the Caine Prize Shortlist. He teaches at St. Peter's College, Oxford. This story is from his forthcoming collection, The Expert Hunter of Rats.



Disaster finally overtook Dapo Olusunle on the seventh day of his apprenticeship as a Molue conductor. That morning, Dapo had heard the piercing cry of the Muezzin waking up the people of the quarter for the dawn prayers. But he was unable to rouse himself. His legs felt dead, wooden, as though they did not belong to him. He was sure there were bruises all over his body. He wanted to go back to sleep. He shut his eyes again; he tried to shut out the Muezzin’s shrill insistent voice. He snuggled closer to the hard wall. He imagined himself fast asleep, snoring loudly. The trick had served him well in secondary school when the early morning bell went and he didn’t want to get up. Just as he was drifting back to sleep again, he heard Jimoh stride noisily into the room, shouting his name.

‘Still asleep? Wake up, University Boy!’

Dapo frowned as he struggled sleepily to his feet. He had told Jimoh to stop calling him that name. He did not like the mocking tone in his voice. One day soon he would tell him his mind. It was only that he respected him as his father’s younger brother. But Jimoh never behaved like an uncle. He had never liked him anyway. He would never forget that it was only Jimoh in the whole family who had opposed his late father when he wanted to sell his share of the family cocoa farm to send him to the university. Jimoh had brandished a machete, threatening to...

‘Stop staring at me like an evil child. Go and see if there is enough water in the radiator.’

Dapo went outside. It was still dark, and he could just make out the big hulk of the Molue etched against the dark purple of the horizon. He prised open the bonnet. A thick smell of rust and engine oil rose to his nostrils. Rust and decay, that was all he had smelled these past six days. That and the thick odour of sweat and unwashed bodies. He peered darkly at the engine. How does he expect me to see in the dark? Then he remembered there was a torch in the toolbox of the cab. He went to get it. He saw by the beam of the torch that the water in the radiator was low. He added some from a jerry can. The trouble with the engine was that it always leaked water and engine oil. But then the Molue was not exactly new. Jimoh had had it for as long as he could remember. And he worked it the way a cruel taskmaster worked his slave, from dawn to dusk, plying the Little Sodom-Idumota route.

He put the torch back and leaned on the rotting bodywork of the bus, waiting for Jimoh to finish his prayers. A sudden gust of wind hit him and he shivered. It was very cold. He sniffed the air. The harmattan was approaching. His mind went back to the warmth of the room. He wished he was back in there, curled up on the hard lumpy mattress, secure and warm and comfortable in the room while the cold harmattan wind made music against the window panes. Or better still he wished he were back in Iludin. Mama would be waking Taiwo and Kehinde now, shaking the twins gently on the shoulder one after the other, urging them in her soft insistent voice to wake up that it was another day and that there was Ogi to be sold and cocoa pods to be split that they should have been awake a long time ago if they really had any pity for their old mother that other good and obedient children had woken up long ago...And on and on until Taiwo, no Kehinde (he usually woke up first) would get to his feet grumbling loudly about a certain woman he knew who never allowed her children to get a moment’s sleep but would wake them up as soon as they lay down and...Hei, Kehinde wake up! Can’t you hear Mama calling you?

The roar of the engine jolted him and he scrambled to the door of the Molue, wondering if he had forgotten to take something he might need later in the day. They would not be back until well into the evening. He decided that there was really nothing he needed and grabbed the rail and hoisted himself up into the bus. Jimoh was reversing toward the orange tree in the centre of the compound so he could have ample space to manoeuvre the bus through the gate and into the road. He could hear him singing a Fuji tune softly under his breath as he wrestled with the wheel. He picked up a rag and wiped away a speck of dust on one of the windows. The seats shone. The floorboards were scrubbed clean too. Now the bus smelt fresh and clean, but it would only be a matter of time before the stench of sweat and stale breath took over. Remembering this, he shuddered. He tried not to think of what lay ahead: the unbearable heat, the crush of hot sweating bodies, the quarrels with the fat market women and their sweating armpits, the salesmen of dubious wares, the fare dodgers, the lovers holding hands and pretending they were in a shaded garden instead of a stuffy, overcrowded Molue lurching crazily down some expressway in a hot sulphuric afternoon.


The first wave of dizziness hit Dapo as the Molue was approaching Ikeja bus stop. He was straining his ears to catch the lyrics of Fela’s new song coming from a record store when he felt the ground lurch under his feet and a sudden wave of darkness enveloped him. The darkness left with the swiftness with which it came, leaving him shaken but otherwise quite normal.

He was dimly aware that Jimoh was shouting at him. He looked at his moving lips and his face contorted with rage but he did not hear a single word of what he was saying or why he was so angry for that matter. Then he realized that they were at the bus stop and that there was a big crowd and they were banging at the door which was still shut. He rushed to the door and threw the bolt and the first wave of passengers hit him with the force of a kicking ram, sending him reeling back into one of the seats. He scrambled to his feet again and went to the window and screamed with all the power in his lungs: Idumota straight!


An angry retort came to his lips but he quickly bit it back. I will tell him my mind one day soon. He will see. I will tell him my mind one day soon. Jimoh kept shouting at him but he ignored him, mentally shut off the grating voice dripping with insult and abuse and began to work his way through the crush of bodies to the front. Fela was still singing. He hummed the song as he began to collect the fare.


There was a lull in the early afternoon after they had made three trips to Idumota and back. It was very hot. There were few people in the bus now and he sat down on one of the empty seats to rest his aching feet. He felt a great hollowness inside him, as though someone had punched him, forcing him to throw up all he had ever eaten. He felt hot and tired. He stuck his head out of the window to get some fresh air. Jimoh was coasting leisurely now that there were few people at the bus stops. Occasionally a Molue or Danfo would overtake them at top speed, the driver blaring his horn like a demented man, the conductor perched precariously at the door, one leg hanging out and dirty Sokoto flapping in the wind like a scarecrow suddenly come to life.

On the first day of his apprenticeship he had tried to imitate the other conductors, jumping in and out of the bus while it was still in motion. He found it ridiculously easy at first. He would wait until all the passengers had entered and the bus was gathering speed and then he would leap after it and with one bound, hoist himself inside, screaming like the others did, GO ON BUS! He stopped the acrobatics on the second day when he nearly broke his head. It was the early morning rush hour and the Molue was full right up to the doorway. He was running after it as usual but just at the moment he made his leap the vehicle went into a pot hole and lurched crazily, knocking him right back onto the expressway. He landed in a puddle and that was what saved his skull from being split like a coconut. He stopped imitating the other conductors after the incident. But he still envied them their expertise, the ease with which they leaped in and out of the bus on the expressway like happy monkeys, the way they traded jokes and insults with their passengers, their brazen, full-throated laughter.

He felt the gulf between himself and these denizens of the road keenly. They took each day for what it had to offer. He faced each day on the road with loathing and trepidation. The long hours and hard grinding work agreed with them; a little part of him died each day on the road. They were in their element. The four years he had spent in the university had not prepared him for this.

Sometimes, lost in thought, he forgot himself, forgot where he was and drifted into an imaginary world of sunlight and beauty far, far away from Jimoh’s crazy Molue. A snatch of music from the dashboard radio, a pretty face among the passengers, a whiff of some strangely familiar perfume and he would be off, dreaming with his eyes open. When he was not dreaming he amused himself by picking out faces in the crush of passengers and imagining who they were, where they lived, what they did for a living, what they were thinking at that particular instant. Staring at the hundreds of faces that came and went he had made a startling discovery: these were not a happy people. Ugly faces, drawn faces, faces dark, fair, bleached, powdered, creamed, scarified- they all bore the unmistakable handprint of hunger and pain and worry and discontent. Sometimes they laughed, conversed with their fellows but the pain was always there in the eyes, in the bent of the mouth, the worry was there in the tiny lines on the forehead. He stared at the anguished faces, the shoulders slouched as though under an impossible burden, and he shuddered. Sucked into this maelstrom of murdered dreams he sometimes forgot to collect the fare until Jimoh shouted at him. SON OF A WORTHLESS HARLOT! WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?

On their fourth trip back to Idumota, Jimoh left the Molue on the queue at the bus stop and they went to eat. It was very hot inside the buka. It was dirty and noisy and crowded as usual and all the benches were occupied. The odour of cooking Amala and Ewedu soup and sweating bodies hung thickly in the air. He was in the long snaking queue, clutching a plastic plate and waiting for his turn at the food counter when the dizziness hit him again and the next thing he knew he was on the ground, the whole world spinning crazily around him. As from a great distance he heard somebody shouting that he had the fits and then he felt torrents of water being poured on him.

‘He has Malaria. It is Malaria.’

‘No it is not. He is suffering from poverty, from hunger.’

‘It is this sun. I have never seen anything like it before.’

‘He is an Abiku, a spirit-child. I can recognize one a mile off. I can cure him for a fee.’

‘Let me see road, Mister Man. What are you doing here driving Molue if you are such an expert herbalist?’

‘I tell you, he is an Abiku. Can’t you see the scarification marks on his face?’

Someone suggested they carry him outside so he could get some fresh air but he waved them away and got to his feet. He went to an empty bench and sat down and one of the maids brought his food. The crowd of sympathizers dispersed. Jimoh called him to his cab when they returned to the Molue.
‘You have disgraced me long enough. You have disgraced our family long enough. Tomorrow, you will go back to your mother in Iludin.’

Dapo did not say anything. He just looked at the dark sweating face staring angrily at him.

Jimoh went on in a bitter voice: ‘Seven whole days and you have learnt nothing. A simple task like calling out the destinations, calling out the bus stops you can’t do. I have to do it for you. To collect the fare is another wahala. I have to shout, I have to remind you. You are too weak. It is your mother’s blood in you. Tomorrow you will go back to her.’ He stopped and scratched an itching ear. ‘I will find another conductor, one who has not read too much book. This work does not require book knowledge anyway. So tomorrow, you will go home. I have finished with you...Imagine! Fainting like a woman!’

He did not know whether to feel sad or happy. Tomorrow he would say goodbye to all this. He had known from the outset that he would not like it. But staying in the village for two years was enough to make a young man try anything just to escape from the deadening routine, sleeping and waking and going to the cocoa farm and sleeping again. So when Jimoh came to Iludin and suggested he come to Lagos and be his conductor, that times were hard and there were no longer office jobs to be picked up on the streets of Lagos he agreed, partly to please his mother who was getting sadder and sadder by the day because her first son who had read all the books in the world was wasting away in the village and partly to escape from the tedium of going to bed at six o’clock in the evening because there was nothing else to do. He would go back to Iludin. Anything was better than Jimoh and his crazy bus.


It was a little past four in the evening when their turn came to load for the return trip to Little Sodom. The bus filled up rapidly: civil service types fairly well-dressed and reeking of cheap perfume, fat overblown market women sweating in the armpits and grimy from trudging the dusty alleys of Idumota market; school children clutching raffia bags, happy and cheerful and chattering without a care in the world. When he finished collecting the fare he leaned on the hard metal of the doorway and watched the tall buildings speeding by. The dizziness worried him. He had never experienced anything like it before. He wondered if it was typhoid fever. He had read in the Daily Times that another typhoid epidemic had hit the city and had killed a hundred people in Little Sodom. Thinking about it, he shivered. He was sure he had contacted typhoid. It must be from that buka in Idumota. He did not know why Jimoh patronized such a filthy place when there were more decent eating-places in the vicinity. He had complained to Jimoh that the buka was too dirty when he took him there the first day but Jimoh had merely laughed and said that was where all the Molue drivers and their conductors ate and that he was not better than any of them. He must have contacted the typhoid from the food or the drinking water they had served him in that place. It was a very dirty place, very unhygienic and you had to leap over an open gutter to get to the doorway. He didn’t know why he agreed to follow Jimoh to the buka in the first place. Now, see where it had landed him...

Dapo felt the shiver run through him again and he thought it was the beginning of another wave of dizziness. He left the doorway and walked up the aisle to the centre of the bus. He gripped the overhead rail and held his breath, waiting for the dizziness and the hollowness in the stomach. But the moment passed and nothing happened and he let out a rush of air in relief.


The salesman got in at Costain bus stop. He was a tall and dark young man and he wore a brown shirt, which had been bleached a dirty grey by the sun. His polka-dotted tie was dirty and askew and he kept adjusting it with one hand while he gripped the overhead rail with the other. His plastic briefcase was trapped between his legs.

Dapo did not pay attention to him any at first. He had seen many like him in the past six days. And they all looked alike, the same faded shirt and threadbare trousers, badly knotted tie that had not seen soap and water for God knows how long, briefcase crammed full with medicines and consumer items of dubious value. Their opening pitch was always the same, and this one was no different:

‘A very good afternoon to you nice gentlemen and ladies in this blessed bus.’ He had a strong lilting voice that carried to the far end of the bus. ‘My name is Doctor Extraordinary Hezekiah Olugbemiga and I bring you good tidings...’

Dapo lost interest. His mind returned to the typhoid. Yes, it must be typhoid. He would have to ask Jimoh for money to see a chemist. He wondered how long the typhoid had been festering in his bloodstream, eating up his insides, spewing liquid poison into his system in readiness for the final kill. How long did it take for typhoid fever to kill its victim? One week? Two? And how long had he had it? He would go to the chemist’s later in the evening, after the day’s work. He would ask Jimoh for the money.

Doctor Extraordinary Hezekiah Olugbemiga had opened his briefcase and was now distributing its contents. The market women were scrambling for the satchets - two, three apiece. The salesman stuffed a wad of Naira notes into his trouser pocket and brought out a soiled handkerchief and wiped his face. ‘You see, ladies and gentlemen, this is a very strong medicine. Original Four-In-One.’ He extended the first four fingers of his right hand and waved them in the air. ‘Four-In-One! You drink it and it cures malaria, cholera, typhoid and yellow fever one time. You are very lucky that I am in this bus today. This medicine is in very strong demand all over the world. In fact I have just returned back from Taiwan where I sold four containers of Four-In-One in two days. They like it very much. Their President did not want me to go but I had to tell him that I must to return to Nigeria, that I heard in the radio that my people are very sick with typhoid epidemic and I can’t be there with all my experience in doctoring and my people are dying. So I have to come back because I love this country and I am a patriot. Buy Four-In-One today and you will be a healthy man tomorrow. Health is wealth. Charity begins at home.’

Dapo saw two young men give the salesman some Naira notes and collect the sachets. The man had talked about the medicine curing typhoid fever. Perhaps this was what he needed- an instant cure. Another man extended a five Naira note and the salesman gave him two sachets, all the while singing the praises of Four-In-One. ‘A tiger among medicines. Comforter of the comfortless. The cow that has no tail, it is God who chase away flies from his yash. Four-In-One has come to wipe away your tears.’

Dapo looked at the man and hesitated. Perhaps he should give it a try. It was cheap too. Only five Naira. He wouldn’t have to ask Jimoh for money and endure all the insults that would inevitably follow before he gave it to him. He fingered the Naira notes in his pocket and hesitated again. The trouble was that you never knew when these salesmen had the genuine thing. He had heard so many frightening stories about them. There was the story he read in the Daily Times about a Molue driver who had bought a typhoid elixir from an itinerant salesman. He had swallowed the syrupy substance with a bottle of Fanta and feeling a little better, had loaded his bus with passengers bound for Idumota. Midway, speeding along the Third Mainland Bridge, the driver began to boast to his passengers that he was the best Molue driver in the world, that he had just swallowed juju that could make him fly across the Lagoon with his Molue, that his father before him had crossed the River Niger on a rickety bicycle during the Civil War. But nobody paid him any attention.

His eyes glittering strangely, the Molue driver went on to make even more fantastic claims. In a contest of all the Molue drivers in the world to determine the best and fastest, he had driven to the moon with water as fuel and won the first prize. He had received an invitation from God to come to heaven and teach all his angels how to drive Molue. He would have gone long ago only that the immigration people were demanding a bribe of two million Naira to process his visa. Some of the passengers laughed and told him to concentrate on his driving. He became angry. He began to shout. He said he knew they did not believe him but to convince them that he truly possessed supernatural powers, that he was the best Molue driver in the world, that he had been to the moon and back and that God and his angels were waiting for him, he would take them all on a demonstration flight across the Lagoon in his Molue, right away with no extra charge. Before anybody could do anything to stop the demented man, he swung the Molue off the bridge. It crashed through the aluminium railing and plunged straight into the Lagoon. That was the last anybody heard of the flying Molue driver and his passengers, except for the little boy who miraculously survived the ill-fated flight across the Lagoon to tell the story.

He thought he heard Jimoh calling him and he hurried to the front. With his eyes still on the road Jimoh shouted over the roar of the engine. ‘Get some of that stuff for me. Five Naira worth. Iyawo may need it.’

On an impulse Dapo gave the salesman ten Naira and collected four sachets. He put them in his shirt pocket and returned to his place by the door.

Doctor Extraordinary Hezekiah Olugbemiga got down at Stadium Bus Stop, clutching his briefcase of potent elixirs and whistling a tune to himself. Dapo was sure he had heard the tune somewhere before. He thought it sounded like a funeral dirge, the kind mourners sing in Little Sodom when the disease typhoid cuts down a man in the prime of his life but he was not quite sure. He thought hard but he still could not place it. Then he gave up as the bus approached Ojuelegba and he saw a huge crowd waiting at the bus stop.

The dizziness hit him again just as the bus began to climb the overhead bridge, heading toward Palm Grove bus stop. But it was mild this time and did not send him crashing to the floor. The typhoid. It was the typhoid. He quickly got hold of himself again, and, hand shaking slightly, brought out one of the sachets and ripped it open with his teeth. He swallowed the brown syrupy contents quickly, sucking, swallowing until it was empty and then he let the now empty cellophane packet fall from his hand and flutter lazily away in the wind.

The effect was instantaneous. Dapo felt a sudden rush of blood to his head. He felt it expanding, expanding to twice, thrice its size. After a while he felt that his head had swallowed the rest of his body and he had become a huge butterfly and could float in and out of the bus as he liked. He felt very strong and at the same time very light. I can fly! A strong wave of happiness coursed through him and suddenly he began to laugh.

The bus was cresting the overhead bridge now. Dapo, still standing in the doorway looked at the ground far below and the laughter bubbled from deep inside him again. I really can fly! He released his grip on the handrail and stepped from the speeding bus into the air, his arms stretched wide open, sure that he would float gently down like the butterfly he had become.

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