As I board a bus from central Monrovia en route to New Georgia Estate, the thought that flashes through my head is I am going to catch Coronavirus. Someone on the bus could have it and spread the infection. Perhaps someone who has it has left it on the bus, leaving the air tainted. What about the seat on which I am going to sit? That is a question I shove to the back of my other thoughts. Besides, buses like this one, an old yellow school bus imported from America, is one of the only source of public transport for people, like me, who are too poor to own a vehicle.
So I board the bus. I try not to touch any part of it or the few people who are sitting with their bodies partly in the aisle. And I do not touch anything or anyone until I am seated. I sigh heavily because I am tired. It is not only from my fear of coronavirus. The truth is I am not used to this sort of thing. How can anyone go into a crowded place and try not to touch or be touched by anyone or anything?
In the bus are only a few passengers; it would take a while before it is filled and ready to go. I look through one of the windows to the street outside. I am careful that my head does not touch the window.
Outside are hundreds of street sellers, some with trays on their heads, some selling from wheelbarrows, stalls, tables, and cement blocks placed by the roadside. The walls of houses are built so close to the sidewalk that the space is not wide enough for three people to walk side by side; other vendors have hung several things for sale on the wall, among them bags and clothes which look as if they have been put in the sun to dry. Above the shouts of street sellers, of music playing from shops and stores by the roadside, and the footsteps of people everywhere is the noise of the traffic. I wonder how anybody would walk into such a crowded street and not touch or be touched by anyone or anything.
In the bus, a woman comes and sits in the seat on the other side of the aisle. She is slightly built, dressed in a green lappa suit and head-tie, and carries a handbag slung over her shoulder. From the handbag, she removes a hand sanitizer, puts a drop of it into the palm of her right hand, and rubs her hands together. Then with the palm of her left hand, she rubs the back of her right hand and repeats the same exercise on the back of the left hand. Then she looks at me and smiles. But I am nervous. Instead of returning her smile, my face turns into a tight knot and I look away. I am not sure if coronavirus can be spread through a smile. But lately, I have gotten suspicious, even of a smile.
In a few minutes, all the seats are full but not as you would expect.
Before the coronavirus, three people sat shoulder to shoulder, with the third person almost falling into the aisle; the aisle would be full of people standing so that there would be no way to pass; the air smelled of exhaust fumes, sweat streamed from bodies packed together like spaghetti, and it was so hot it would be almost impossible to breathe.
Fortunately, today is different. On the seat on which I sit are only two people – a man sitting opposite and me. The man is short and has broad shoulders. But I cannot make out his face properly because like me he is wearing a mask which leaves only his eyes, his forehead, and hair visible. The man says something to someone else in the seat in front of us. His words come out as if he can’t breathe, like George Floyd. I bow my head and laugh so he is not able to see me.
I turn and look at the woman who sits on the other side of the aisle. I am surprised that she too is looking at me but trying not to let me catch her. Perhaps she thinks I have coronavirus? I am not sure.
The woman takes a handkerchief from her handbag, holds it close to her face, and coughs. I look at her with eyes and mouth wide open but try not to panic because she could only have a common cold. Besides, how can I leave the bus anyway? As one of many measures taken to curb the spread of coronavirus, the Weah government recently imposed a curfew which ends at three o’clock in the afternoon. It is past two o’clock. I cannot risk being found in the streets and flogged by police who have been ordered to beat up anyone found breaking the curfew. Besides, this bus could be the only one going to my area.
“You woman da coughin,” someone says, “why you na wear mask?”
“Before you ask de woman why she na wear mask,” someone else retorts, “I can see you yourself na wearin any mask. Or if you worry because someone will cough while you in de bus, then you suppose to buy your own car or refuse to come to town and stay home.”
“Stay home! And how you wan me to feed my family?”
“I don’t know. But it lookin like you worry about coro.”
“And who na worry about coro? Look, my man, turn your mouth on da side because da de woman who coughin.”
“And who can cough?”
The whole bus laughs.
The woman coughs again, this time so violently that she can barely hold the handkerchief to her face. Everybody turns and looks at her. For a moment, the bus is quiet. The woman coughs a third time and almost falls down into the aisle.
“Coro,” someone shouts.
“Stop de bus, driver,” someone else shouts.
But the driver does not hear.
“I say driver stop de bus now. You wan de woman to infect us with Coro?”
The man next to me stands up and shouts at the top of his voice, and soon we are all standing up and shouting at the tops of our voices. Then suddenly the bus stops and sends us falling over our seats. Almost immediately everyone tries to get out, and what follows is a stampede. I am pushed into a group of people rushing for the door. Someone pulls and tears my shirt, and I strike out with hands and feet as I make my way to the door and fall out of the bus, careful not to let my head hit the tarred road.
I rise to my feet and look at my shirt in shocked silence. The shirt hangs on me wide open. One of the sleeves is gone, all the buttons are missing. I feel my forehead and find that there is a small swelling. In the bus, people are still shouting and trying to get out but they can’t be heard above the noise of the traffic, the sound of music playing from shops and stores by the roadside, the voices of people in the street, and the shouts of street sellers.
A passerby stops and asks, “My fren wuh happen?”
“Perhaps,” I say, “the world is crazy.”
©2020 Saah Millimono
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