Night Bus (Malanville to Niamey)
How little the darkness seems to perturb everyone! The little towns along the paved road are all aflame with ineffectual fires – a blue pillar of fluorescent lights along the gendarmerie, a storm lantern or a coffee tin filled with kerosene lighting every vendor of onions or soap or rice. The meat-sellers are lit by nothing but their glowing coals. And everyone goes about their business just as if it were broad day. Women bargain for stacks of spices as if they could see them clearly, men make their way home by flashlight without evident resentment at the inconvenience. By intermittent flashes of flashlight, no less – you can’t keep it on constantly without draining the batteries, so at every other stride you flick it on just long enough to glimpse the way before you before flicking it off again. Perhaps light, after all, is not something to which we are entitled.
Away from the towns, the obscurity is complete; the only things visible are the lines on the road. The battered bus travels in a bubble, illuminating nothing of where it has been, and precious little of where it is to go. Occasionally an overhanging tree or a spray of dusty grass flares into life, but the highway lines always lance ahead, marking where the road will be. That’s a piece of luck, too – if the quality of the road reflected the quality of the bus, it would be pocked and pitted, cracked and crumbling, as stippled as the vehicles traversing it. Darkness will forgive many faults – ugliness, for instance – but not potholes. This road is fine by night as by day, and perhaps even clearer under high beams than under the diffuse, punishing sun.
The passage of the bus is not unremarked by the night landscape – creatures of the small and harmless variety go scampering out of its path, and the great creatures of the road flash their beams in warning and salute while still a long way off. Night is the time of the predators – the bikes and motos have all gone to bed and even the long-working, long-suffering 504s and 505s are stabled for the night. Busses and trucks rule the road, the powers of the night time, carrying bulk cargo; cotton or oil or human souls. On the back of one truck two tires were affixed, and the bar of the bumper transformed the whole thing into a huge mask. Was it inadvertent? Does its inadvertence make a difference?
But there’s a ghost abroad in the night, flying through the darkness like death or the devil. Light limns the lines of all the quiet faces in the bus, all but one. Black people turn black in the darkness, but white people turn green, chloris, as pale as the pale horse. The apparition is so ghastly that it seems that it should strike fear into the hearts of the people in the dim bustling towns (not sleeping, still not sleeping, do these people ever sleep?) If the maladies and the curses that swoop through the night were to take on a face and form, surely it could be no more terrifying than the death-pale human negative sitting in the bus, as quiet and patient as the lawful travelers, as if it had every right to be where it was.
Katherine Nehring served three years in Peace Corps Benin, travelling by night bus, bush taxi, moped, bike, and the occasional chicken truck. She currently lives and writes in Washington, DC, and is working toward a degree in conservation of wall paintings.