Overheard at a Petrol Station

After only three hours on the queue, it would soon be my turn to enter the petrol station. They were letting in only 20 cars at a time because otherwise chaos and pandemonium would reign – we are in Nigeria after all, where it seems people have a deep-set aversion to making and maintaining lines without external coercion. Anyways, I was in front, and when the security guard opened the gate next, I would drive in and buy petrol. I was in a good mood. Unlike some people who had spent the night at the petrol station so they’d be among the first served, I’d only had to wake up at 6am on a Saturday morning. I’d had a rough night, so I did not get nearly enough sleep, but that was trivial – I could sleep later. In any case, a few months ago, people had to wait three days at the petrol station to get fuel, so this was nothing in comparison. Normally, the oil tanker was supposed to have arrived the previous night and offloaded the fuel into the underground reserve tanks before 6am, but apparently it only arrived this morning and so they didn’t start selling petrol till about 7.45am. But at least they were selling petrol and even if we stayed there hungry and tired till noon, we would leave with full fuel tanks. I was content.

You see, this is Nigeria, where we have learned to adjust our expectations to the lowest possible setting. When faced with situations that we should ideally deplore and try to change, we somehow manage ignore the depressing facts staring at us and latch on to the only silver-plated lining available. For instance, when a mother of six who was married off at age 15 to a man twice her age, who earned peanuts and actively discouraged her from working, loses her husband, is kicked out of their ramshackle squatter shed house and can’t afford food, school fees, or capital to start a small-scale business, she is consoled with “at least you have your children”, and expected to be content with that. I fail to see how these could possibly be soothing words in this situation. Chances are that this woman and her children will starve, or beg (i.e. starve and be humiliated). But this is Nigeria. When a person says “at least you have your children” we’re simply supposed to nod our heads in acquiescence like this singular fact will somehow make all her problems vanish.

It would seem that I just wrote an entire paragraph about things that have little or nothing to do with my original subject matter. I will excuse myself for my tendency to wander, go back a few steps and continue with the story that I had originally set out to tell.

While optimistically waiting in front of the petrol station gate, I overheard a conversation between the security guard at the gate and an acquaintance of his who seemed to have stopped by for a chat1. As the acquaintance walked away after their chat, the security guard called out to him:

Security Guard: Abeg buy akara2 for me!

Acquaintance: The people wey dey sell akara don die!3

Security Guard: Ok, then buy me bread.

Acq: De people wey sell bread, dem too dey don die. (Walking back towards the guard). But you know wetin I fit give you? Girls. (Now directly in front of my car, he lowered his voice). E get plenty girls for where I dey live.

Guard:  I no need; I get permanent one for house.

Acq: E no mean. E get plenty girls, around forty. Dem get work and dem go help you manage your money.

Guard: I say I no want; I no go fit do that kind thing. I get permanent one for house.

Acq: Ehen?  So because you chop okro soup, you no go follow chop egusi4 soup?

Then the acquaintance chuckled to himself and walked away. He was lucky. If they had opened the gate before he walked away, I would have accidentally knocked him down with my car. My lack-of-sleep-induced happy stupor had its limit, and this man had unwittingly managed to find it. In his mind, a woman is comparable to akara, bread, okro soup and egusi soup, that is, an item to be consumed (by a man). That morning, I was prepared to deal with the absurd fuel scarcity that is one of many absurd situations that Nigeria throws at its inhabitants. However, this level of nonchalant disregard for an entire group of human beings caught me off guard.

Sexism in Nigeria is not new to me. After all, when I got to the fuel pump a few minutes later, the pump attendant asked me whether the car I was driving was my husband’s – I’m not even sure what he was getting at and I’m not going to waste brain cells analysing it. Some people think that sexism against women means physically abusing them, or marrying off young girls to old(er) men, and that when it doesn’t take these ostensible forms, then it doesn’t exist. No. Sexism means guy one asks guy two for a snack, and guy two says, “instead of this snack, I can give you free girls”. Is he going to eat the girls? Because otherwise I don’t see how girls are an adequate substitute for a snack. And then when guy one gets the implied meaning – that the girls are simply items to satisfy him sexually – and declines out of respect for his wife/girlfriend, guy two waves this aside as though he is crazy/silly/naïve for considering this woman in his decision making. Because, women, like soup, are supposed to be devoured, not respected.

This was just one conversation overheard at one petrol station on one morning; a drop in the bucket. As I drove home with my full petrol tank, I thought about the other times I’ve encountered men who think that women are objects, like my cousin who thinks that I should “dress sexy so that men will enjoy”. I was sad. After getting the petrol that I lost sleep and waited hours for, I was sad.

  1. Either due to my lack of sleep, or my happiness at finally reaching the front of the line, I was feeling very generous that morning. What actually happened was that the man came to see if his security guard friend would let him cut the line. Since the fear of a violent riot is the beginning of wisdom, the security guard gently refused.
  2. The closest English translation I can think of is fried bean dumplings.
  3. This conversation took place in Nigerian pidgin, if you’re not familiar with it, try using this pidgin dictionary to translate. I have included an English translation below, but give it a try.
  4. Melon seed soup

Here’s the  above conversation in English:

Security Guard: Please buy me some akara.

Acquaintance: The people who sell akara are dead!3

Security Guard: Ok, then buy me bread.

Acq: The people who sell bread are also dead. Then walking back towards the guard. But you know what I can give you? Girls. Now directly in front of my car, he lowered his voice. There are many girls where I live.

Guard:  I don’t need any; I already have one at home.

Acq: That doesn’t matter. There are many girls, maybe forty of them. They work and they’ll help you manage your money.

Guard: I said I don’t want any. I can’t do that sort of thing. I have one at home.

Acq: So? Just because you eat okro soup, does that mean you won’t eat egusi soup?

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