In Johnson, there is no time to be slow. The street is impatient; filled with hustlers waiting to make a move on you, to rip you off to the last Naira. There is a quickness in the air, literally; the dust in Johnson swirls faster, the rain falls rapidly as if the sky cannot wait to empty itself of water, the sun blazes ferociously, doing its utmost best to fill up its heat quota for the day. Bikes and cars zoom in and out with unhealthy speed, each trip a close brush with death. In Johnson, there are 24 rush hours, seven days a week.
The impatience is felt everywhere and every time; the vendors always assume what you want, depending on your disposition and prior encounters. Never does it occur to them that you might want something different from a store that sells general merchandise. It is always the same thing with them. Change wastes time, and there is no time to waste. Going to the store is to prepare yourself for assumptions; you might want to buy matches but the stone faced attendant is a hundred percent certain that you must have come for what you bought the last time. Mirinda abi?
In Johnson, everyone has one name. Calling two names are extra seconds that could be put to good use. One name, two syllables and we are good to go. Nonso, Abu, Obi, Jeje. The people with extra syllables are frowned at, and treated with suspicion. Aloma, Adamu; all violations of the core principle of Johnson Street: Don’t Waste Our Time.
On the vehicles that move on the dusty, uneven road, varieties of this street motto are promoted via stickers. “Time Na Money” says the keke napep, its yellow cover giving way to the creeping brown of rust. “Time Waits For No Man” shouts the sticker on the back of an okada. It is everywhere, this rush, this desire to beat time.
There are only two reasons why the constant hustle and bustle of Johnson’s men and women can come to a standstill;
Nightfall: because even the most restless of men must take some time out to rest. Also, drugs. Sometimes, the alcohol and marijuana calm the nerves and muscles, making them sit and think awhile.
In Johnson – you see, grammatically, the correct phrase should be “on Johnson Street”, but Johnson is not a regular street. In fact, it is not really a street. A street is a mere road with buildings by the side. Johnson is more than that. It is a cover; a blanket over the heads of its inhabitants. It is a pair of glasses stuck to their faces, forcing them to see everything in a particular way. It does not matter what the issue is, there is a particular way it is dealt with in Johnson; business, relationships, sex –
Ah, yes. There is a lot of sex in Johnson. Every day, cars and bikes, both the regular okadas, and the ride share services like OPay and Gokada, come in bearing gifts of the opposite sex; men and women dropping in for a few hours or even minutes of passion. The sex is an open secret not discussed or mentioned, but evident in the huge amount of condoms sold by the various shops, or in the way the girl with the brown braids smiled nervously as she bent to pick up the pack of Postinor 2 that fell out of her bag as her bike hit a bump in the road. The most glaring evidence of sex in Johnson however, is the incredible number of children in every corner; playing, crying, eating, working. Every day, they seem to multiply, like products of some mass cloning experiment. The children of Johnson are quick too. They are born with a certain cleverness, with a distrust for everyone and an uncanny focus on all their tasks. Everything they do seems purposeful; every step, every race, every tear shed. Immediately they come into the world, the Johnson shades cover their eyes and they see everything through tainted glasses.
The main industry of Johnson however, is football. At the entrance to the street, a black board provides a list of matches available at the local viewing centre;
Arsenal v. Man U – 12:30.
Liverpool v. Brighton – 3:00
A little further down, there is a little shack with white plastic chairs in front of it. Seated on these chairs are the men of Johnson. On Mondays and Fridays, they discuss their favourite teams and players. On the other days they place bets on their favourite teams and players. No competition is left untouched; The Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1, the Bundesliga, Eredivisie, the Champions League, the Europa League and so on and so forth. There is always a game, there are always stakes and odds to play.
On weekends, the vendors are most busy. The viewing centre is a wooden construction just beside the three major shops in Johnson. Due to this, the patronage is fantastic on football weekends; beers, cigarettes, matches, lighters, cans, plastic bottles. Any, and every thing is bought as the fans hope to make themselves comfortable. Inside the viewing centre is where Johnson is truly seen. Littered with various jerseys and affiliations, the crowd respects the players with technical ability but absolutely adore those who show energy and desire. They are all hailed and praised for their passion. This treatment however, is for the players that are good but cannot be considered world class. Despite rivalries, there is an unspoken agreement that certain players are deserving of respect and therefore are not subjected to too much complaints for their mistakes; Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Hazard, Kante. They are the main attractions, the stars. And because they rarely disappoint, their shortcomings are quickly forgotten with the blame heaped on their teammates.
Unlike other streets and avenues and closes and crescents, the football in Johnson is not limited to the men alone; the women are free, even encouraged to participate, and they do so with a zeal that rivals the other gender; returning banter and insults with equal fervour. The viewing centre is the melting pot; ground zero. In the viewing centre, everyone is equal, except the Arsenal fans who are the brunt of most jokes.
The second biggest industry in Johnson is food. It goes without saying that in a place where so much energy is expended with so much movement, constant replenishment is expected. There is the bread and beans woman (who also sells the most divine plantain), the potato woman, the Mallam/Aboki (depending on which tribalist is addressing him), who provides noodles as well as bread and eggs. Other makeshift stores covered with umbrellas display coolers of Jollof rice, beef and in some cases swallow. At night, under the soft light of the moon, the suya men come out with their coal to grill sweet, sweet meat garnished with onions and cabbage/lettuce (nobody knows). Beverages are not to be outdone in the refreshment business; the ground is littered with bottles, cans and sachets of all sizes and different brands. There is no time, nor need for garbage cans when you are always on the move.
As I lay here, typing these words on a foldable keyboard, it all comes to me; the smell of the dirty, polluted canal at night, the noise of locomotion, the sight of puddles in the mud; leftovers from that persistent Johnson rain, the children playing with purpose and that other thing in their eyes that I cannot quite place, and the feel of the rushing air on my skin. I think of Johnson; the good, the bad and the ugly and how I wouldn’t change it for anything.