A Smelly Mouth, A bus, and A Lagos Love Story—Notes On A Short Story by Igoni Barrett
August 19, 2013
“My Smelling Mouth Problem” by Igoni Barrett is a strange story and is written in a peculiarly Nigerian English that sounds more lyrical when it is read than when heard.
“My Smelling Mouth Problem” is a love story between man and a city. The 22-year old LASPOTECH student from Port Harcourt clearly has a fondness for Lagos. The only thing that gets in the way of this love is the nightmare on four wheels called Danfo buses.
Here is why.
“Every time I enter Danfo,” the character explains, “I must open my mouth.” In Danfo, the privately owned commercial buses that ply the city’s roads, he either has to call out his stop, yell if the driver fails to stop, quarrel with a thieving conductor, or jostle with fellow passengers for extra space in the horridly cramped bus. These are all actions requiring speech, which for a man in his condition, is something fraught with danger.
It would seem as though sitting by the window would help, but no. Passengers are too tightly packed. When he speaks, as he inevitably has to do, there is no way to avoid offending others with his bad breath. He then has to endure evil looks from fellow commuters. Invariably, a commuter or two would ask whether someone had farted. “Either the person beside me will look me with bad eye, or the person at my back will say, who has messed?” Nothing fun about having your mouth and your anus mixed up by strangers in a space as intimate as a bus.
At that moment, what he dreads the most happens. The condition of his breath becomes a matter around which the community of commuters gather. “All the whole bus will gather together and advice me to be brushing my teeth. I am sick and tired of this embarrassment.” Danfo buses had turned the ritual of going to school and returning home—a rather banal aspect of city life—into a nightmare. It had turned a city he seemed to like a lot into a place of shame and suffering. If only he could find a city bus that allowed him to fulfill his desire to be mute in the midst of many. But isn’t that a mere dream?
Salvation came from the most unlike quarters—the visionary governor of Lagos, who instituted the BRT bus system. When BRT buses came around, our man was ecstatic. “Joy gripped me,” he says. He said his goodbyes to Danfo and embraced the new ones. They are cheaper, newer, faster, roomier, and safer than Danfo. But that is not why he loves it. ” I only enter BRT bus,” he explains, “where I don’t have to open my mouth.”
In BRT buses, there is a certain kind of order that makes speech unnecessary, that elevates one to a silence that saves from the shame of a body’s defect. For this character, at least, BRT buses offer a new way of inhabiting and moving through the chaos of sounds and bodies that define the city.
After all, what is a city if not a lover that gives us the promise of embrace no matter how flawed our bodies might be?
Thanks to Teju Cole for the image.
Wondering where to find “My Smelling Mouth Problem” ? It’s in Barrett’s recently published collection of stories titled Love is Power Or Something Like That.