As soon as I caught the vendor’s eye through the car window I knew I’d made a mistake. I was new to Nigeria. I’d just arrived in Lagos that morning, less than an hour ago. I’d shown a flicker of interest in what he was selling and now he expected me to buy it – a toddler’s ducky potty.
I didn’t mean to stare. I know that in these potentially awkward situations it’s best to hide behind sunglasses and feign blindness, or to speak loudly into a cell phone so you look like a busy man on a mission. After several stints in Asia and four whole weeks in Africa, I was an old hand at smiling politely and brushing away zebra necklaces, phone cards, Ladysmith Black Mambazo CDs and Rolex watches as if they were troublesome flies.
But this was new to me – a young man in a traffic jam (‘go-slows’, I was soon to discover they’re called in Nigeria) trying to sell ducky potties to passing motorists. I mean, when you’re caught in a traffic jam, in the heat and oppressive humidity, it’s possible that you might develop the need for a bottle of cool water, or an orange, or a bag of nuts, or a newspaper, or even a phone card if you have to let someone know that at this rate you won’t make it to the office for another five hours. Other enterprising vendors were already selling these items. It seems totally improbable that you’d suddenly experience an overwhelming urge to buy a ducky potty.
Who is this ducky potty man? I wondered. What made him decide to sell potties by the roadside? Are they his potties, or is he an agent for someone who’s found a large batch of toilet items fallen off the back of a truck, and who now needs help to offload them? How many potties does he sell in a day? In a year? How much profit margin is there in selling a potty? When he was a kid, did he aspire to be a potty vendor when he grew up? Do his parents talk proudly about ‘our son who’s in Lagos doing something very big in potties’? Is he hoping this potty business will be a temporary phase in his career; something to tide him over in hard times until a more glamorous and lucrative job turns up? Is he maybe an actor between engagements, or a student putting himself through college?
The point is; the ducky potty man has no choice. If he could do anything else in life, he wouldn’t choose to stand in the heat and the traffic fumes, hoping against hope that someone in the next car to inch past might just want a ducky potty. If he had any say at all in what he could sell, he’d go for something with a bit more commercial oomph than ducky potties.
We fill our lives planning what we’d like to do, where we’d like our careers to take us, what our children will be when they grow up, deciding where to go on our next holiday. Such decisions cannot possibly be a part of the ducky potty man’s world. There are an awful lot more people in his situation than there are in mine.
I raised my eyebrows at him, trying to indicate amused incredulity that he might think a big grown up boy like me might still need a potty. He put on his best pleading expression. I shrugged. I didn’t even have any local currency yet, so I couldn’t even make a donation. The ducky potty man gave up, grinned broadly and gave me a cheerful wave. I had to admire him. If I had to swap places with him, I don’t think I’d be grinning and waving very often.
The car crept away from him, and his place at the car window was taken in turn by vendors selling dog leashes, magazines and dartboards. ‘American International School‘, said my driver, pointing into the middle distance. I looked out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the place where I would be working as a writer in residence for the next week. All I could see was a group of nondescript buildings surrounded by other groups of nondescript buildings.
’How long until we get there?’ I asked.
’Depend on traffic,’ he said, ‘we must take long way round, then come back. This street, only driving one way. Maybe a half hour more.’
The cars in front were still barely moving. My plane out of Nairobi had been cancelled the day before and I’d been awake all night waiting for the next flight to leave. I was expecting to work that afternoon, so I’d boosted my consciousness with a few cups of coffee on the plane. Now the third and fourth cups were working their way to my bladder. There was nowhere for the driver to pull over. We were in the middle lane of a highway in a built-up area, maybe even within sight of the students and parents and teachers from the school.
I crossed my legs and wished I had a ducky potty.