Streetlights stare into the night with eyes which do not see. An underage conductor dangles from the side of a yellow bus with black lines wrapped around its frame. “Obalende, CMS”, his voice rings out, shrill notes racing through the evening air as fatigued passengers disappear into the iron and wooden bowels of the bus. Four threadbare tyres groan as the droopy eyed driver begins the final journey for the day. He maneuvers from pothole to pothole and his passengers cuss the government in Yoruba, Igbo and Pidgin. The engine lets out a strained sigh as the bus ascends the Third Mainland Bridge. Somewhere in the distance, the darkness is punctuated by tongues of fire, a thousand and one lanterns which announce the existence of Makoko. The driver whistles an incoherent tune as he thinks of the family waiting for him at the other end of the trip. He is dredged from his subconscious by the sudden appearance of two pinpricks of light racing at breakneck speed in his direction. A truck on the wrong side of the bridge; two sweaty hands clutch a steering wheel and attempt to steer the bus away from a head-on collision. Tyres skidding on concrete, hasty prayers, and the collision of metal with water are the last sounds the passengers hear.
The next morning, a newscaster announces the death of fourteen persons and the recovery of a bus from the depths of the Lagos lagoon. There one minute, gone the next, the news of the accident passes as swiftly as the accident. To the half a million viewers at home, the deceased are just numbers on a screen.
When I was a child, I had an aversion to numbers, preferring Literature to Math, Silas Marner to Pythagoras and Treasure Island to Algebra. My math problem was one which accompanied me into adulthood but not before I had spent ample amount of my childhood years staring at blackboards stained with chalk figures and signs scribbled by a small army of private tutors recruited to improve my ability in the subject. As one math teacher after the other attempted to stoke my interest in the subject, my mind churned out more questions than I had fingers. What is the relevance of two plus two? What’s the point of square roots and surds and trigonometry? Sometimes, I wondered where numbers came from and if they had a life before they showed up on the pages of my textbooks. Did Mr. Two have a wife or children? What life decisions led to him being added to three? Sometimes, I turned my overactive imagination in the direction of my exasperated teachers, spending significant chunks of those lessons wondering if Mr. Branch Atuma had siblings named Root, Stem and Trunk and if Mr. Dennis had misgivings about his name. Why should anyone be named Dennis?
Now that I think about it, my aversion was more lack of interest than outright problem. Stories, literature, appealed to me more. It was easier for me to wrap my head around the existence of Ali and Simbi, Okonkwo, Robin Hood, and Long John Silver because beyond the placement of characters in a book, literature gave my mind something to work with in a way that math didn’t. The characters in my English text were polar opposites of those in my math textbooks. The figures existed beyond the pages of the book. They were alive, robust with emotions and thought processes and wielded the ability to leap beyond the pages of the books they were written in to take the reins of my imagination.
Each time a person dies, a story comes to an end. The way their story is told determines if their entire identities are reduced to mere numbers. The first paragraph of this piece, a re-telling of one of several accidents which happen every day, could have been written in this way: “Fourteen persons die in midnight collision on the Third Mainland Bridge”. But this would have meant the loss of information which separates humans from impartial digits. Without information, the conductor is not underage, he is just one of fourteen casualties. His entire life is reduced to a series of numbers on the lips of a fast-talking broadcaster. The driver does not have a family and the passengers lack emotions.
Besides keeping count, numbers wield little value. During my time in university, funeral processions were a common sight. Each semester, a crowd of bereaved students, funeral songs on their lips, journeyed from one end of the campus to the other. For the greater part of my time, I lived behind a smokescreen forged from my inability to relate to the grief for the deceased. From the outside looking in, each deceased person was one more shade of blue in a sea of faces. This blasé perspective persisted until I found myself in a motley crowd of students and lecturers, my shuffling feet taking me from one end to the other of the campus while the picture of a classmate I have only fond memories of was held aloft.
For the greater part of the last decade, the Nigerian army has fought a war to suppress an insurgency in the north. Numbers provide estimates of the deaths on either side or the civilian casualties caught in the cross-fire. But there’s nothing else for the imagination to work with. As much as numbers ensure the deaths don’t go unnoticed, they do a terrible job of preserving their memories. With numbers, the dead are just corpses, war statistics. But the dead are so much more. They are fathers, brothers, daughters, and friends. They have favourite meals, and in various parts of the country, their kith and kin keep vigil, waiting for them to come home.
The way I see it, everything is a number until it becomes personal. Numbers are pieces of a jigsaw left out in the rain for too long. Washed up and devoid of colour, they do not tell the entire story, because at the end of the day, they are just digits forged for the purpose of keeping stock. Take the number four for instance. Four is the number of Champions League titles Marcelo has won in his career. You can spend the next century staring at that number and it won’t tell you about the anxiety attack Marcelo had before the 2018 final or the relief he felt and the tears he shed when his team scored a second goal in that final.
To rely on numbers is to visit a museum with your eyes sheltered by a blindfold, because numbers are robbers which work double shifts, plundering the dead of the fullness of their lives and draining the living of the ability to do more than breathe, closed off to the reality of the world around them. Stories are curators, pointing this way and that, providing nuance, knowledge and improved perspective.