My Driver, Sunday
Mona Zutshi Opubor
Two years ago, my Nigerian-American husband told me he wanted to move our family from New Jersey to Nigeria. Though I’d never lived outside the U.S., I immediately agreed to go.
After researching Lagos online, I regretted my knee-jerk marital support. Dire warnings of crime abounded. My husband assured me that we would all be fine.
John had never steered me wrong but I panicked. It was clear to me our deaths were imminent. I gave away most of my possessions and had a lawyer draft our wills.
For the record, John was right and I was wrong. No one was killed. But according to marital law, a husband must never realize he can win an argument with his wife so please do not tell him.
On the day we moved, our suburban house stood empty, the furniture was crammed into a shipping container at the Elizabeth seaport, and my beloved minivan sat in a lot at the dealership, for-sale signs plastered to the windows.
Our Honda Odyssey could hold two adults and five children. My kids snacked frequently and the floor was littered with fish-shaped crackers. Between the art projects they shredded on the way home from school, the crumbs, and the shrieking, it was like driving around with a frat party. Washing the minivan was pointless. It was filthy a day later.
In Nigeria, life changed.
I won’t drive in Lagos. I can’t. It's too scary and I'm not equipped. I have anxiety just thinking about it. If I were ten years younger, I wouldn’t be afraid. But ten years ago, I was still operating under the assumption that I could outsmart death.
We hired a driver named Sunday.
I ended up spending a lot of time with Sunday as we sat in traffic. Sunday talked to me and gave me advice. At least, that's what I think he was doing.
I couldn’t understand a word Sunday said.
At first I asked him to repeat himself. But that didn't help. Sunday's first language is Igbo. He also speaks Pidgin. Often he listened to Pidgin radio programs. I couldn’t understand those either. They sounded like Martian and then all of a sudden, the announcer would slip something in like, "Victoria Island," or "Lekki-Epe Expressway," and I would remember we weren’t listening to an alien transmission.
I began to suspect Sunday understood very little of what I said, as well. But he embraced my technique of feigning comprehension, laughing heartily and nodding in agreement.
When I asked him to take me to Reddington Hospital, he took me to the Radisson Hotel. When I asked him to take me to Deli’s, he took me to the American Embassy. He tried to take me to the Embassy so often that I wondered if he was suggesting I repatriate myself.
I began writing down addresses of places I wanted to visit. Whenever I asked Sunday to take me somewhere new, he would snatch the slip of paper from my hand and clutch his head like he had a migraine. He would mumble the street names for a few minutes. It was unclear if he was trying to plan the best route or gathering up the courage to start the car. He seemed shaken.
After some time had passed, he would begin to drive in slow circles. After half an hour, he would ask a passing okada driver for directions. If Sunday had understood my accent, I would have suggested that he begin by soliciting the help of an okada driver.
When commercial motorcycles were banned in Lagos, the odds of us finding our destination plummeted.
Sunday enjoyed sharing his pro-Igbo viewpoint with me in regards to other Nigerian ethnic groups.
He once spoke to me at length regarding the Hausa. I couldn't understand that conversation at all. Maybe he gave me a cogent analysis of their defining traits. I have to assume not, however, based on what he told me about the Yoruba.
Sunday had the ability to blame any and all social ills squarely on the shoulders of the Yoruba people.
For example, when I told him I planned to withdraw the kids from school because the teachers had slapped them, I knew what was coming. My husband was in the car so he was able to translate Sunday’s English into actual English.
"That's terrible," Sunday said. "We Igbo know how to beat children. We know there are limits. But Yoruba, they don't have limits." Sunday then claimed that Yoruba parents wake up their children every morning by beating them.
I was curious about Sunday’s interpretation of current events: Were the Yoruba responsible for the European debt crisis? Did they cause the war in Iraq? Has Barack Obama been briefed on the Yoruba menace that surrounds us?
It was upsetting to hear prejudice openly discussed. I seethed on behalf of Yoruba everywhere. I am all for ethnic pride but not when it hints at ethnic cleansing.
I took comfort in the fact that I couldn’t make heads or tails of most of Sunday's comments.
As the months passed, however, we adjusted to Lagos. I began to understand my driver’s accent. We were often stuck in traffic. And to my horror, Sunday began to talk all the time.
It was torture to be marooned in a sea of vehicles while the kids fought and Sunday rambled. He broke the monotony of his chatter by crashing our SUV into pedestrians, stationary objects or other vehicles, depending on what was available.
Sunday appointed himself my life coach. At first, I wasn’t troubled when he began interrupting my conversations to correct my speech. He insisted that “Chevrolet,” rhymed with, “omelet.” He informed me I was pronouncing my children’s names wrong, which was peculiar. I am Indian and they have Indian names.
I took it in stride until Sunday declared himself a fashion stylist. He began pointing out beautiful Nigerian women and suggested I pay attention. He urged me to invest in lipstick and high heels. As I sat in the car dressed like a hobo, I grew annoyed. How dare Sunday give me the exact same advice my parents and husband have given me for years?
My parents are stuck with me, and I have borne John three beloved children. Their criticism is blunted by love. Sunday was an independent observer who studied me in the rearview mirror, like fungus in a petri dish. His words stung.
I complained to my husband. My husband ignored me.
Then an okada clipped the car in a traffic jam. Sunday removed the key and attempted to chase down the driver, leaving John alone in a sweltering vehicle for twenty minutes while the police screamed at him and tried to extort money.
John feared Sunday would place his wife and children in a similarly volatile situation.
My husband had a talk with Sunday. John told him to improve or we would fire him.
After that conversation, Sunday stopped offering me pointers.
When Sunday reversed into the gutter by accident, I had to wade through green sludge to exit our SUV but I didn’t mind. I knew it was only a matter of time before we hired a new driver.
The family settled deeper into Nigerian life. We enrolled the children at a new school. We left corporate housing and moved to a little house, around the corner from school. We were no longer daily hostages of the go-slow. Sunday stayed quiet. I began relaxing in the car.
Then one day, Sunday mentioned that he had a son who was late.
"Late for what?" I asked.
"He is no more," he said.
"No more what?" I asked.
"He died, Madame."
Oh. Oh, no. As my heart broke for Sunday's loss, deep down inside, the ugliest part of me said, "Damnit!"
After I learned that Sunday's son passed away in 2006, I told my husband we couldn't fire our driver just for being a terrible driver.
Sunday’s son is late, I explained,and it would be cruel to add to his pain. Now we are stuck with Sunday until he kills us in a car wreck.
When we first met Sunday, we assumed he was elderly based on his baldness and wrinkled, shrunken appearance. His shoulders slumped. He wore his pants well above his natural waistline. He spent a large percentage of time napping in the car. John and I felt magnanimous for giving an employment opportunity to such an unqualified senior citizen.
One day, I asked Sunday if he fought in the Biafran War, which took place in the late '60s. Luckily he didn't understand my accent.
Guess what? I saw Sunday’s drivers’ license. He was born in 1969. He is forty-four years old, only a few years older than me.
In February, I asked him when his birthday was and, when he answered, I blinked.
"That's tomorrow," I said.
"Do you have plans?" I asked.
Sunday laughed. "I am a poor man, Madame."
"Well, is your wife going to make you a special meal at least?"
"Everything comes from my sweat. If I give her money to buy me a meal, she will make it. But I am poor, Madame."
Late Son + Poverty = Drive me to The Palms Mall so I can buy you a gift.
I gave Sunday a digital camera for his birthday.
He unpeeled the wrapping paper slowly. He stared at the box with wide eyes, his lips peeled back in fright. I couldn’t understand his reaction. He behaved as if he’d been handed a bomb.
In the U.S., I had no household help. As a result, I don’t know how to treat my staff in Nigeria. I do what feels natural and it’s never correct.
Sunday had complimented my camera once so I thought he would like one of his own. Then John pointed out that he has no computer so it’s useless to him.
It was so much less complicated in America, when I handled the housework by myself, when I drove around town in a filthy blue minivan.
Sunday has started asking for extras on top of his salary. Last month he requested a large sum of money to buy his children a TV. He said he wanted something simple and not a "lasma," which in Sunday's language means plasma.
We gave him the money. It’s obvious that Sunday is trying.
After some lessons from John, Sunday has begun using his mirrors and glancing behind him before putting the car in reverse. He is determined to stop crashing.
Since he lacks innate driving ability, Sunday has developed a new technique to avoid accidents. He has begun driving slower than anyone else on the road including wandering goats.
The car dips in and out of a lone pothole as galaxies are born and die.
As an additional courtesy, Sunday no longer talks nonstop. He has a deep-seated need to express himself, however. We can see how much it pains him to remain quiet.
Now he mutters.
Sunday mutters all the time. It is maddening. Half of me wishes he would stop and half of me is dying to know what he's saying. Sunday mutters when other drivers yell at him for his low speeds. He mutters when collectors at the tollbooth yell at him for using the wrong lane. And he mutters when the police officers yell at him for trying to make illegal left turns.
But until the day we went to Ghana, I had never known what Sunday was muttering.
Let's start at the beginning. John and I woke up at 4:00 a.m. to finish packing before our flight. I got the kids dressed and gave them breakfast. We were all ready to go by 5:15, but where was Sunday? John called him. Sunday said he would be there soon.
He arrived an hour later.
When we finally climbed into the car at 6:20, John was furious. "Our flight is at 7:05. You were supposed to be here sixty-five minutes ago. If we miss our flight—and we will miss it—I am holding you responsible. I need a driver who's punctual."
For once, Sunday drove fast. John urged him to drive faster. And when he began muttering, I was sitting right behind him. I pushed my face against the headrest so I could catch what he was saying.
Sunday was mumbling, "JesuChristJesuChristJesuChristJesuChristOhLordJesuChristJesuChrist."
One day, I saw a woman slap her housemaid outside of Domino’s Pizza. That night I dreamt I gave Sunday a vigorous beating. I boxed his ears until they bled.
I understand why my driver has seeped into my subconscious. As we approach the second anniversary of our move to Nigeria, being driven by Sunday remains a maddening experience.
When Sunday’s malaria flared up last week, a company driver replaced him. The replacement was young, alert, a dynamo. He sped down side streets to avoid traffic jams. He plowed through potholes. He possessed a breathtaking mixture of intelligence and confidence. I arrived at Shoprite twenty minutes before I expected to.
We should have been delighted. Instead, John and I were relieved when Sunday returned. The replacement’s competence terrified us. What if he used his cleverness to steal fuel money or kidnap our children?
We have grown accustomed to Sunday’s plodding but honest demeanor. We trust him. We see how challenging Sunday finds driving a car. He has no spare mental energy to scheme.
Ultimately, does it matter if our driver can’t drive well? Does it matter that we’re often lost and never arrive anywhere on time?
No. We have decided to throw in our lot with Sunday.
As I fumble toward becoming a Nigerian Madame, I take my cues from my driver. I can tell he approves when I walk the children to their classrooms in the morning. He likes when I wear Ankara dresses and wear my hair loose down my back. He roars with laughter when we try to speak Pidgin.
Sunday scowls if I come back from a party and I’ve had too much to drink. And whenever I have lunch with a male friend, Sunday looks murderous. The only men who meet his approval are himself and his Oga, my husband.
He drives around town at a snail’s pace, but so what? There are worse things.
We crept past a four car-pileup on Awolowo Road just this morning, Sunday muttering something I didn’t quite catch. A reckless driver in Lagos would be disastrous.
In my previous incarnation as a New Jersey housewife, I had intended to trade in my minivan for something sporty like a Mini when the kids grew up. I never imagined I’d live out my days in Nigeria, relying on Sunday to drive me around.
But life moves in surprising directions that can’t be plotted in advance. It meanders like a mumbling Igbo driver inching down a bumpy road. Though frustrating, the journey has grown richer for all the twists and turns.
About the Author
Mona Zutshi Opubor is an Indian-American short story author and memoirist. Mona has work appearing or forthcoming in venues including Allusions of Innocence, Descant, The Kalahari Review, and Lowestoft Chronicle. Mona received her B.A. in English Literature and her M.A. in Fiction Writing. She was a 2014 participant in the International Writing Program of The University of Iowa. Mona has lived with her husband and three children in Lagos, Nigeria since 2011. She enjoys cooking spicy food, travel, doing charity work, and reading.