Essay: A thank you note to all the drivers we've ever had

I am not sure what it is with my family and drivers. We keep them. Maids don’t last longer than 6 months, cooks 1.5 years, but drivers don’t spend less than 7+ years. All my life, we’ve only had 4 drivers, their names are: Otu, Mr. Emmanuel, Ugochukwu and Onyeka. Anyone who’s known me for only a certain period of time will most surely know one of these names. This is an ode to these men, who we just barely notice, I mean, we care for them and look after their families, but still they are only our drivers, and as Ugochukwu taught me, these relationships are not forever bonds.

These men, who form part of the background of our every day, shuttling us from one place to the other, listening in on our most random and most intimate conversations; who know the way to all your friends’ houses and where the moin moin lady lives, and knows the generator man’s number and deals with the mechanic that we’ve never met, who come to pick us up from the club at 2am, come to change our tires or check our engines in the middle of Lekki Expressway, switch off their phones so they are beyond reach after we’ve set an agreement in place, but will send a text message about where not to fill up the tank.

Otu, was our primary school driver, there are pictures of my sister and I hanging from his arms — kind of like you would with an uncle. This would almost never happen in today’s Nigeria. When we lived in Bar Beach Towers, he would drive us along the beach (on what is now referred to as Ahmadu Bello Way) stopping at all of the suya sellers lining the street for “tastings”. We would “taste” so much that there was never the need to buy any suya. In Milverton Road, all 4 of us used to go to the boys’ quarters to EAT the SOUP he made with periwinkles in it — my poor mother, still has no idea of this. Let me state here, that my family grew up like a stereotypical Igbo family, with aunties, uncles and cousins in and out of our home all the time, plus an older grandma-type nanny and 2 maids, such that at every point in time there were no less than 6 adults in the compound (not counting my parents). So 1.) there was MORE than enough food to go around and 2.) there was no shortage of minders to watch us. Accordingly, I still don’t understand why we did this or how we got away with it. I think I was attracted to the smell of the kerosene stove and of course, the periwinkles — this was food made by a Calabar man. I don’t even remember how the food tasted or even eating it (the mechanics of same, did I use my hand?), my siblings counter this memory (but they never remember anything), all I vividly remember was the smell of the soup and the knowledge that I was a dead man, if I was caught in that section of the compound. I should also mention that we only went a couple of times and for like 30 seconds, the boys quarters was kind of close to one of the expanses of land where we played soccer. I think about this all the time, especially now that I am grown and know about child abuse and how prevalent it is. Not only were we lucky at the type of human that Otu was, I can’t believe, being the type of older sister that I am, that I ever led my siblings into harm’s way. I shudder thinking about what could have, but never did, happen. I can’t say enough how grateful and thankful I am to this man.

Mr. Emmanuel, was the first, and probably only staff, to ever tell me “no” in my father’s house (LOL)! Not, I can’t, but I will not. No excuses given, or, in his mind, apparently needed. And I wasn’t a child, I was a feisty, temperamental teenager that even my parents handled masterfully, but with care. It was the last day of my holiday, I was going back to boarding school the next day, my parents were having a party to celebrate their anniversary, so it was in January, which means that this was the term that was only about Val’s Day. I wanted to go to Park & Shop to buy chocolates for my boyfriend and to LoP to buy Timbs, these were the types of moves that would’ve propelled me to legendary status in the boys’ dormitory, you know the type of acknowledgement you live for when you are 15. Because at that age, at least for me, giving presents on Valentine’s Day was not strictly about showing that I cared, but also about forming P. And Mr. Emmanuel said no, bursting my best laid plans. Looking back, he must have been tired from all the work related to the party, and I must not have been as immature as I remember because I didn’t throw a tantrum or cause a scene to get my way. Salute to the only person to have broken my wings. Salute! Salute! He named his son after my brother — high praise in Igboland — and his daughter is studying medicine thanks to, and following in, the footsteps of my mother. So all is forgiven.

Ugochukwu, I don’t remember much about him, expect that he stammered and he was always smiling. My cousins (who go to school in the US, but live in Enugu remember him well) so he must have picked them up from, and taken them to, the airport often. He was my ride or die driver though, driving me during the period after I just got back to Lagos — i.e. when I didn’t know road and Lagos driving wasn’t yet for me, plus I was always out — at night. You know how it is. What I do remember is that he BROKE MY HEART. Ugochukwu left abruptly, like he just up and left, no goodbye. No thank you. He just left. Honestly, as a Nigerian, you are set up in life to handle disappoint and betrayal, and as a woman someone leaving really isn’t news. Walahi, only a couple of my romantic breakups hurt worse than Ugochukwu leaving.

And finally Onyeka, our current driver. All our drivers come from the East; they come to Lagos specifically to drive us. I remember when Onyeka came I used to tease him because he didn’t know how to do Lagos driving, he was too polite and hesitant about changing lanes. After 8 years, there is none of that anymore. My mom always teases me that Onyeka is more Lagosian than me based on the places he knows and the areas he’s gone to. This is probably true, the first time he took me to Ikorodu Town (3 months ago) to volunteer, he went to visit his friend in the area while waiting for me to be done. Prior to that trip, I didn’t know there was an Ikorodu Town separate from Ikorodu Road. Onyeka is family; until she died recently, we used to help out with his mother’s health bills and I apparently before I left for school, I used to pay him N10K extra, in addition to, his salary every month. Once my dad was mad at him, and told my mom he would fire him, my mom (who has sharp mouth) said, “see ehn, if you fire him, we will go and rehire him, and just tell him to stay far away from you” LOL. Onyeka cuts my dad’s hair, quickly irons out the lines in his trad before they head out and polishes his shoes.

Onyeka reminds me of a driver in my grandparents’ home with the same story of longevity, service and importance. This driver has been with my grandparents for over 35+ years (way before I was born), he tells me stories from when I was a baby, he now cares for my 100+ year old grandpa and other than my grandma, may, in all honesty, have been my grandpa’s closest lifelong companion — but you know, still only a driver, because those walls and lines that separate are always present. This driver’s name is Nnorom, he is a northerner, but his name in Igbo literally means: I have stayed and it is a name that he got in my grandparents’ household. He has always been Uncle Nnorom to me, so I guess 20+ years ago when they gave him the name, they acknowledged he had already stayed a long time. I wonder whether at the time it was expected that he would spend an additional 2+ decades?