Travels in Africa

(A Nigerian Travelogue) By Martin Bennett


A mammy wagon is a wagon - one third lorry, one third bus, one third something else especially itself, mammy wagons were originally named, 'mammy wagons' after the market women or “mammies” whom they carried to work along with hens, goats, yams, peppers, tomatoes....and, of course, babies tied with wrappers to the mammy’s backs. Transport moves with the times, however, like most things. 'No condition is permanent', and nowadays many market women travel to market not by the old mammy wagon but by Nissan bus.
Not that the mammy wagon has died out. It has merely changed its function, transporting not mammies, but farm produce, cartons of beer, transistor radios, car-batteries and other manufactured goods from one part of the country to the other. At present the only passengers are the occasional iron-buttocked males, perched on makeshift benches at the back, their heads bared to the sun or rain or stars. Then alongside the driver in front, sits the driver's mate whose job might be anything from mobile mechanic, to push-starter, to diplomatic negotiator with traffic police, to retriever of goods fallen off, with the driver's misjudging of a pothole or bend.

Some of the mammy wagon's original features remain, nevertheless. If the colourfulness and gaiety of the market mammies is missing, there is still the colourfulness and gaiety of the vehicles themselves; first, there are the eye-catching names and mottoes painted on the front, along the sides, at the back, or anywhere else. Each driver or transporter brings to the road his own philosophy of life in brightly-painted capitals, either in English, in Hausa, in Yoruba, in Ibo or in any other of Nigeria's two hundred or so languages.

Mammy wagons are not just a form of transport. They are a sort of speeding encyclopaedia or reference library providing the watchful road-user with a rich store of proverbs, texts, cautions, invocations and other bits of wisdom to help tackle problems along life's highway. The message might be down-to-earth and practical as in 'Horn b/4 Overtaking'(a common abbreviation) or high sounding and mystical as in 'By their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them'. It might be hopefully progressive as in 'Venture is Success'. Or it might be despairingly realistic as in 'Who can please the world?' or 'Baboon dey work, Monkey de Chop.’ It might be stoical as in 'God's Time is the best', or vengeful as in 'Dem Go Tire.’

It might be polite and well-meaning as in 'Always Willing Transport service'. Or it might be, less politely, 'Kiss My Gnash' as the backside of a human being or of anything else is known in the local English. 'Slow but Steady', 'Time is Going', 'peace and Plenty', 'Man no Rest', more mammy wagon mottoes, contradictory, but so is life. Or should we call them metaphysical advertisements?

A speeding reference library. Mobile billboards. Mammy wagons are also a mobile picture gallery. Whereas in most countries one goes to look at paintings in a museum, in Nigeria one has only to take to the open road. Instead of canvasses in frames, there are mammy wagon tailboards, an art from in their own right.
Getting stuck behind one in a traffic jam is a way of being treated to a free exhibition, 'the only walls are open air’, the gallery attendants are mobile police or traffic wardens; the admission fee is the cost of a few kilometres per hour, then an appreciative horn before overtaking.

The subjects portrayed in tailboard art are many and varied. Some tailboards advertise the trade of the vehicle's owner; some are inspired by Kung Fu films, some by spaghetti westerns, and others by more traditional hunting scenes, but a theme that occurs in many tailboard paintings is power. Not common horse power, by elephant power, Eagle power, Crocodile power, Hippopotamus power, Rhinoceros power, Leopard power, Shark power, Jackal power, Hyena power, or lion power.

Proud Artist
Proud Artist

Especially lion power. Single lions. Twin lions. Triple lions. Angry lions. Tame lions, Patriotic lions. Cowardly lions. Sitting lions, leaping lions, and even speaking lions complete with a cartoonists balloon to contain the words. In their various shapes and colours. those animals are there to wish the driver up front more strength to his elbow. That tailboard picture is a driver's mascot, an ‘armour-painting’, as it were, to protect him from the perils of the road ahead and illustrate his claim to the title of 'King of All Roads’, 'Junior Tarzan’, 'God's Statesman' or whatever else the mammy wagon travels by.

Indeed, Nigerian roads seem to have an unofficial highway code all of their own’ There is little room for slow, weak, or even over-cautious drivers. Setting out on a long journey is not very different from riding into battle. Aggression, courage, foolhardiness (call it what you will) is a key quality. 'Who knows Tomorrow’? or what might be lurking round the next bend. Will it be a band of armed robbers or a band of policemen, or a band of armed robbers dressed as policemen as sometimes happens? Will it be a vehicle parked in the middle of the road with its lights off? Or will it be that one kilometre long snake which according to legend prowls the steep downhill run into Enugu? whatever the case, being a Nigerian driver is ‘not a small thing’ as those tailboard lions bear witness.

‘Life is Struggle.’ 'Life is war’, and Money, if you didn't know, 'Dey Hard.’ You can read it written clear and large across the mammy wagons. The gods of roads are fierce. Danger is best met with danger. Survival of the fastest. And should there still be an accident, then that was how it was meant to be. To use an Ibo proverb: ‘He who fears for his life is liable to be killed by a falling leaf.’ The '56 Kilometres per hour' written at the back of many tailboards is for decoration only. All too often the only practical speed limit is, barring breakdowns, flat out, to the point of the driver forgetting he is in a landbound lorry at all. Aeroplanes, not 'surprisingly, are nearly as popular a driver’s tailboard emblem as lions; more than one mammy wagon travels by name of 'DC 10', 'Boeing' 707', or US Air Force, ‘B44’ Bomber complete with a picture of the same, raining- bombs on poor motorists below.

Needless to say, Nigerian road safety campaigners have an uphill task. The Guinness Book of Records ranked one stretch of Nigerian road as the world's most dangerous.

'Ghastly motor accidents' as they are known, reach almost epidemic proportions. Daily they supply the newspapers with fresh obituary notices. Poor vehicle maintenance might be one cause. Other causes of accidents are potholed roads, wrongfully-gained licenses or no licenses at all in the case of some drivers, inadequate traffic signs, stray goats or donkeys, or wiggle-waggle cyclists without lights. Then, there is always drunken driving, either from alcohol or from 'wee', or ‘ganja’ a commercial driver's favourite, though arguably the most common and fatal drug of all is the sheer sensation of speed for speed's sake.

Nor are things altered by a widely-held sense of fatalism which sees accidents as an inevitable part of life, or death. 'What will be will be’ goes one popular mammy wagon motto. ‘God’s Case No Appeal' goes another, casting a helpless eye on whatever roadside disaster passes along the way. 'Only God’, 'By Allah’, or just plain old 'Destiny' also appear in paint, yet never, unfortunately, ‘God Helps Those that help Themselves.' Road safety is often as much a matter of prayer and supernatural goodwill as of down-to-earth careful driving.

And it is true that when they are so often ignored, obeying anything as fallible as man-made traffic regulations is scarcely enough.

Significantly, in Laranto Lorry Park, next to the Drivers’ Union office there is both a church and a mosque, while for drivers of no fixed denomination there is an assortment of native charms: Dried monkeys' heads, chameleon’s tails, a snakeskin, a leopard's claw. Along with herbs and bottles, they are spread out on the ground and presided over by a wizened old man from the North.

How closely the affairs of this world are bound up with the affairs of the next is further reflected in the tailboard paintings. Along with the lions, the cowboys, and the Kung Fu warriors, we get pictures of angels at prayer beside a cross or grave. We get pictures of mosques. And we get, half-horse, half film star, a portrait of a mystical Moslem monster. Not so mystical, however, that the artist forbids himself using the monster's earlobes for a bit of advertising. No, that 'S’ and that 'A’ hanging like ear-rings are not sacred symbols, but abbreviations for Sunny Arts, a painter's workshop.

But how did the paintings and others like them get there in the first place? To find the answer to this and related mysteries of mammy wagon manufacture, let’s now take a trip to Laranto, one of Jos township's busiest markets and a centre for the timber trade.

Kano was not built in a day. And nor was a mammy wagon. The building of a mammy wagon can take up to a fortnight, in fact, and several different trades and stages are involved.

First there is the lorry. Or almost a lorry. When it arrives in Laranto, it is more a mechanical skeleton fresh from the assembly line in Onitsha than a complete vehicle. There is barely room for the driver, let alone a tranporter's load. At this stage the mammy wagon's body is an indefinite number of planks in one of the long sheds that make up, Laranto’s timber market. then, equally important, in another section of Laranto there are metal hinges, joints, nails, rivets, bolts. Under the supervision of a 'Master Body-Builder’ the wood - mahogany and iroko, the strongest in the forest - is measured and sewn, then nailed, then bolted together. several thousand hammerings and hangings and sawings later we end up with a sort of giant fortified box. Some two thousand naira worth of timber and workmanship, strong enough to withstand a minefield of potholes, this is the mammy wagon's body complete with spacing at the top across which to place makeshift benches for passengers.

The next stage is getting this giant box up from the ground and onto the lorry back. But how? Take four strong men; take an even stronger lever; take a sure mixture of method, and patience. And slow and steady ‘Ba Gudu Ba Lati'- the union of fortified box and mechanical skeleton is complete.

It is now time to fit the cab. This is also made out of wood not metal, 'there are two explanations why, first wood, unlike metal, contains free built-in airconditioning to prevent the driver getting too hot. Second, it provides, once the wagon is on the move, a loud rattle with every pothole or 'gallop’ to keep sleepy drivers awake. (wood also happens to be cheaper that metal; then in case the lorry’s engine or axles crack with too many long journeys, a wooden cab and body can always be taken down and fitted onto another lorry.) but now at last, to the painting.

It is early morning at Sunny Arts workshop, Laranto. The more straightforward part of the painting has already been done by the apprentices. But still the tailboard is empty, a blank white rectangle reminiscent of a vacant cinema screen. To bring to life we now await the magic brushstrokes of Sonny Abdulhai, workshop manager and master painter whose handiworks can be seen speeding down all roads of the Federation.

At 9 o’clock he emerges from his corrugated-iron shed, pots of paints balanced on a tray. He stands back from the tailboard taking its measure and how it might fit into his inspiration.
Abdullahai begins his work of art
Abdullahai begins his work of art

Already a group of children of varying heights and age have gathered to watch the show. It is a special early matinee performance, paint replacing celluloid. The same the world over, the act of creation has a fascination all of all of its own. And if most of us go through life as spectator rather than creators, this only increases the artist's power.

Abdulahai honours his audience's presence and deftly aims his brush. The first figures start appearing against the tai board - birdlike eyebrows, a nose here, a mouth there, hair streamlining into a pigtail, a waist, a chest, a leg, two legs, where the tailboard ends feet dandling invisibly into thin air.

The audience watch spellbound, supplying no doubt the missing sound track inside their heads. Kung !.... Fu! Now a whole figure emerges, complete with lethally-aimed hatchet. Kung!.....Fu! Now there is another figure, this time with three-pronged fork. A few more expertly aimed brushstrokes and the pigtail of the first figures is wrapped round the second's waist. There is no escape for either. And if you are wondering what the struggle is about, Abdulhai now paints below it the words ' WAR AGAINST INDISCIPLINE' , one small white capital letter niftily after another. It was the title of one of the Federal Government's nationwide campaign against corruption in the 1980’s, bribery, lateness to work, and , of course, reckless driving. Make no mistake, it is a war to the finish. Abdulhai redirects his brush. Three blood red blotches burst across the first warrior's chest. Another shift of Abdulhai aim and these are matched by three blotches on the prongs of the other warrior's raised fork.


A final drip drop of red against background white and Abdulhai matinee performance is over. He places his brushes back into their pot and puts on his sunglasses. The crowd ripples its approval and two Fulani boys break'-out" into Kung Fu across the wheel-churned roadway behind.
The Apprentices fill in the colours

Pending payment and collection by the owner, the mammy-wagon is freshly armoured with paint and ready to carry its war against indiscipline out onto the open road.

Travelling on the back of a mammy wagon is comparable, I imagine, to being an astronaut. That hard-benched cramp in your buttocks is amply compensated by the lofty view. The world is at your tyres. 'When there can be no complaint about lack of air-conditioning. Past five, four, three, two, one traffic wardens, each with his different style of directing traffic - politician style, spider style, Kung Fu style, disco-dancing style, and statue style - you at last make it to the open highway. All the sweats and go-slows are behind you, the raucous herds of traffic, the waspish taxis, horns and hand-and-fist-shaking, hawkers of everything from videocassettes to chewing sticks weaving their opportunist way between.

The web of one-way streets and overcrowded crossroads has yielded to double and treble lanes along which vehicles move at corresponding speed, overtaking on the inside or the outside, whichever is quicker. An unwashed soap factory flashes by, a Coca-Cola plant, a sweetly-smelling biscuit factory, sister mammy wagons queued up at its gates for loading. Complete buildings are now interspersed with uncompleted ones and walled-in plots fortressing their owner's stake in the race for development. Another bottling plant passes, a brand-new supply company with nobody in it, a nexus of mechanical workshops and panel-beaters placed strategically for a first crack at vehicles bruised by the gods of the road.

The scenery unwinds like a film going backwards. No windscreen to get in the way, your head is surrounded by wind and weathers. Then at nightfall by the stars, only the engine's drone reminds you that you are not adrift in the ionosphere. The road is for you. You are the 'Highway Master’, ‘King' of the Road.’ the volcanic litter of a bygone age, mighty boulders balance on top of one another for your entertainment; with its open spaces and its outcrops of rocks as large as houses, Nigeria’s central Plateau spreads itself behind you. You are within braking, distance of the highest point in the country, though you would hardly realise from the surrounding flatness. Ramshackle towns and more established villages appear than disappear within a change of gear. Their names have a curiously - Chinese sound to them: Shendam, Panyam, Pankshin, Pandam, Akwanga.

It is at Akwanga that you pull up for refreshment. 'There are only about four streets, one of them full of 'Eating Rooms’ shacks with signs outside 'Madam Arrival’. 'Good Way Hotel' 'Deparamount Inn, for Respectabill Gentelmen and Ladies.’ Inside more benches, tables laid with plastic mugs and perhaps a kettle for drinking water. The walls are covered with posters of the latest military governors, Indian film stars, musicians of the world, the Pope's visit.

Then, almost always, there is a mirror. Sectioned off by a counter, the kitchen is smokily at the back, full of gigantic fire-stained pots. Eating is orchestrated by the clonk of plastic cups against tabletops as travellers down their food with water, or, alternatively, beer from the large green bottles, the local ‘Rock', or Star or Harp or Gulder or More. 'there are some eight brands to choose from.

And if, instead, you want tea-as coffee and Bournvita are also confusingly called - you can get it outside on another bench at another table filled with more plastic mugs and piles of bread in cellophane wrappers. At quickfire speed the tea master dips a beaker into a blackened oil drum and pours a rusty steaming liquid from beaker to mug, then back again. This is the cooling process. Then he adds Bournvita or coffee plus a dash of milk according to taste. The ‘tea’ is ready. It tastes neither of tea nor of Bournvita nor of coffee, Only of heat.

Not that there is time to drink it at leisure. 'Time is Money’ as many a mammy wagon motto states. His mouth clenching a kolanut to fend off tiredness, the driver is sounding his horn, or two horns displayed silverily on the wooden pelmet above the windscreen. No choice but to down mugs, spoons, beer bottles, and mountaineer yourself back into position at the back of the lorry. A grind of gears, a belch of exhaust, and you are off.

The town is over in no time. Bread sellers, orange sellers, groundnut sellers, and beggars rattling metal bowls at the end of the stump, the player of a two-stringed guitar with a voice that sounds like gravel: All vanish into the slipstream along with the whole host of others who make from the road a living. Distillers of illicit petrol and liquor. Hawkers of dangling elephant fish and river crabs and bush rats. suppliers of dubiously sized fan belts and sparkless spark plugs. More brewers of tea. 'Then, of course, customs officers and policemen, provided the driver can produce the necessary 'paperfication’ and whatever else might be required, whether an apology, joke or whatever!

At one point in the journey you can look down into a ravine and count four trailers there, rear ends jutting into the air like broken-backed dinosaurs. The slope and the brakes could not have matched. Only pray the drivers managed to abandon vehicle before that final plunge; also pray that those kola nuts keep your own driver wakeful to any perils round the next bend. The Ibo proverb 'He who brings kola., brings life’ can apply to long distance driving as it does, more traditionally, to welcoming guests.

At other points in the Journey, crashed cars start to merge with the undergrowth, metal carcasses rusted the colour of cockroaches by the recent rains. Then, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, the driver careers to a stop, led by a boy of about twelve years old, a herd of bush animals cattle are crossing the road, they have long horns, big mournful eyes, humped backs, and they are the colour of clouds. No use telling them that you are 'Highway Marshal’ or ‘King of all Roads’, for these cows and their herdsmen life continues as it always has done, from pasture to pasture, road or no road. Speed for them is measured by dry season and rainy season and watering holes rather than by kilometres per hour.

Also Sign Art
Also Sign Art

The last beast lumbers across. The Fulani boy leans on his stick and waves. Another grinding of gears and the mammy wagon gathers back its momentum. You overtake a sister mammy wagon, mottoes 'Confidence', then another proclaiming 'The Lord is My Shepherd.' Then, three, four 504 Station wagons overtake you. in quick succession. one Is entitled ‘Phobia Bird’, the driver-carelessly dangling his arm from They window, and dart for first position like dragonflies. Then the road is clear again.

And then, despite the hardness of the bench, you fall asleep.... A minute, an hour, two hours later, a pothole bangs you awake. stand and stare everywhere. No, you are not flying on a magic carpet, however far the road seems below, or perhaps, more dramatically, a river, the bridge you are crossing so narrow you cannot see it. Your buttocks are starting to ache.

Time to start counting milestones if only they were visible. Instead, there are villages, hurricane lamps flickering like tiny constellations, then darkness and more darkness pitching itself between....

And if at your next stop the horizon set wide before you, has leapt to a few yards either side of you,. you are not on another planet. Take the change in vegetation and landscape as a sign only of the distance travelled. The rocks and plains and savannah of the country's middle belt have been replaced by the tropical rain forest of the south, its trees towering centuries high. The driver has been driving for some five hours none-stop. His kola-nut has done its utmost. He must now Pull up at the roadside and catch some sleep before the dawn run-into Onitsha market, our destination.

Sleeping, or trying to sleep - in the back of a mammy wagon is not easy. Your body writhes and twists for a more comfortable position. Amidst all those crates and trunks and boxes your head feels as fragile as an egg. Your dreams and half-dreams are tortured with geometrical nightmares, dizzying angles and verticals. reality is only fitfully restored by, somewhere, a radio wailing forth an irksome Jim Reeves lullaby. Or perhaps you are dreaming that as well...In one ear, then out the other, comes the crunch of footsteps against gravel, a volley of voices, more silences splattered by the gibber of bats in the surrounding trees. If you were not so tired you would start worrying about armed robbers and that money hidden in your sock.

But sleep again takes over. The mammy wagon's body is your unlikely cradle, a box of Japanese transistor radios your pillow, Your next dream is that they are all switched on and blaring out different stations.

Only with the dawn, breaking like a slow green bomb, do any normal whereabouts return. those Japanese radios are still packed silently in their boxes. The ghostly shadows of an hour or so before reveal themselves as run-of-the-forest bushes, creepers strung like curtains from the branches of trees, the driver is chewing on a chewing stick. His prayer mat spread out on the roadside, one of the Moslem passengers is praying.

Some minutes later, a mighty roaring. Not a lion or tiger with whooping cough, but the driver warming up the engine. Back you clamber onto your benches for a bird’s eye view of the highway, more forest, more kilometres unwinding greenly behind you. The
tactically-placed oildrums of a police checkpoint. ‘How now, Oga?’ 'How now?' This time the only particulars required are greetings. Another river in which, parked up to the rims of their wheels, in water, are lorries are receiving a free car-wash.

Soon you Join the go-slow into Onitsha. It has been a safe journey and arrival.

You clamber down from your perch and your feet meet the dry land of the lorry park.

As it is written upon mammy wagon and in scripture,
thanks Be to God.

‘Psalm 23’ ‘The Lord is My Shepherd’.

‘Allah Kiyaye!'

BY Martin Bennett
Photography by Arthur Brooks

Footnote: Martin Bennett is an old and dear friend whom I have lost contact with, if anybody is in contact please connect me, I hope he will forgive me for plaguerising this story without his permission - Arthur Brooks.

P.S. In April 2007, I eventually tracked Martin down via a poetry website, Martin now lives and works in Florence, Italy, where he teaches Writing and English

Inside the Art Workshop
Inside the Art Workshop