Once upon a time, the molue was a very present fixture on Lagos roads.
In case you are wondering, it was a large, yellow coloured, mass transit intra-state bus that plied major routes in Lagos. Think about it as the granddaddy of the modern-day BRT buses but without the modern structure and build. The bus was designed to carry 49 sitting passengers but to maximise profit, the bus conductors would allow many more people to also stand throughout the trip, and you would see a sign with “49 sitting 99 standing” in the bus. If 49–99 seems familiar, it’s because you’ve probably heard Tiwa Savage’s song of the same title but did you know that it was inspired by “forty-nine sitting, ninety-nine standing”, a line from Fela Anikulapo- Kuti’s “shuffering and shmiling” song?
So, back in those days when the molue was the king of public transport, one of my aunts took a trip on one of them. As she settled into her seat, she saw a sign on the side of the bus, written in Yoruba. It read: “Múra dada nítorí ẹni tó jókòó s’ẹ́gbẹ̀ẹ́ re”. Yoruba speakers would know that this sentence can be understood in at least three different ways:
- Dress properly because of the person sitting beside you (the literal meaning)
- Be wary of the person sitting beside you (another angle)
- Comport yourself appropriately so you don’t make your seatmate uncomfortable (the meaning intended by whoever made the inscription on the bus)
My aunt read the sign, understood it in the context of the first meaning, and pondered why anyone would be interested in how people dress on the bus. When she got home and told us about it, we all had a good laugh whilst explaining to her that the third meaning was the actual intended meaning.
Molues were always jam-packed. Having any form of privacy was impossible as someone could very visibly eavesdrop on your conversations or your seatmate could doze off and lay his head on your shoulder or the very worst, a passenger could acquaint themselves with your personal belongings or touch you inappropriately. You were also bound to perceive all the different body scents on the bus and if you were unlucky, add some animal scents as well.
And what about the people on the bus? Molues were infamous for hosting all sorts of characters; from the medicine sellers offering all sorts of panaceas to the preachers offering redemption from sin, the prayer warriors with direct lines to heaven, and then the beggars, both the professional ones complete with suit and tie and the ones who really needed the alms. At least one of these people would be in your face throughout the journey; an absolute invasion of personal space was guaranteed.
Hmmm, personal space, something I have realised many people are unaware of. We consciously or unconsciously maintain a certain amount of physical space between ourselves and others based on how well we know them, how we perceive our relationship with them, whether we trust them or not, or even our cultural dictates. There are unstated rules of personal space and a quick listing of some of these rules include:
- Do not touch or grab people you do not know. In the same vein, do not attempt to give a bear hug or drape your arm over someone else’s shoulder except they know you well enough
- If I can smell your breath, then you are standing too close to me
- Do not stand right behind a person in a line, leave some space between you
- If in an uncrowded place, ensure that you leave an extra seat between you and the next person
I have a hunch that social distancing hasn’t succeeded much in our environment because many of us have been conditioned to invade other people’s personal space. I think about people like the salesmen at Tejuoso constantly grabbing passers-by, bus conductors as well and bus owners, do people maintain social distance? What about joints, clubs, bukas, and beer parlours? Hair salons? Even the banking hall isn’t left out as you find people standing too close for comfort disregarding social distancing signs. And not forgetting people who constantly throw street parties every weekend. We were designed to be communal and adapting to social distancing has been a challenge.
Some people have tried though as we see levels of compliance here and there but I wonder if social distancing, practiced properly, would not significantly affect our cultural practices. It could just be a threat to our very communal nature but then again, culture is never static and I guess, we will have to evolve in some way to adapt to this. That is the way I see things today.