Hell Is a Traffic-Jam on the 405 to the Afterlife
‘Hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing.’ – T.S Eliot
‘Hell is not a place. It’s a people.’ – A concerned Lagosian
The Encyclopedia Paranorma offers an accurate description of what happens when a person dies. They either go to Alaafia where they dwell in harmony and peace for all eternity, or they go to Apaadi where the occupants are famous for their non-stop weeping and gnashing of rotting teeth.
If you’re a candidate for the former, the moment you breathe your last, the moment you give up the ghost, your spirit ascends to the higher realm where Onibode, the Keeper of the Gates, is eager to usher you into paradise. No hassle. If you’re lucky, they’ll even throw a feast in your honour, and all the notable Òrìsà would attend.
Now, if you’re slated for the other place – the latter – you are so dead! Obviously, only, it’s a terrible death for two major reasons:
- Apaadi isn’t exactly what you’d call a five-star anything. The beds have worms. The beer is hot as molten steel. The bread is really just the unholy mixture of wormwood and vinegar baked in brimstone and the darkness has an uncanny belligerence to it. Don’t even get me started on the room service.
- Throughout the ages, humans have witnessed the unfolding of catastrophe in all its shapes and sizes; not even the five-year long nuclear wars could compare to the Global Disaster Crisis of ’09. The year 2209 had brought with it many good tidings and advancements in technology. People were generally happy, and nobody would have suspected that in one night, 10 billion people would meet a horrifying end.
They had all been dancing and making merry in their Assisted Reality Interface when tragedy struck. The Assisted Reality Interface was a program that granted the user access to a world of endless – albeit virtual – possibilities at little to no financial cost. The corporations made most of their profit by capturing, harvesting and selling the attention of the billions of people on the platform. All courtesy of a cybernetic implant in their heads. The user could spend all their days indoors with no relation to the outside world. The streets were desolate in those days. The habitable parts of communities (those that were untouched by harmful nuclear radiation) were empty except for the occasional package-delivery drone or a police android car on patrol. Even the homeless people had access to Assisted Reality and usually went there to beg for alms.
Bars, nightclubs, movie theatres, amusement parks – all long gone, out of business. The old gods had been usurped by the combined presence of technology, media, and fashion. The society willingly sacrificed their freedom and submitted to their new taskmasters, the gods of pleasure.
To this day, nobody knows what caused the system malfunction in the Mainframe. However, because the program was connected directly to the brains of its users, immediately the glitch caused an incredible power surge and everyone in Assisted Reality died a horrible death.
At this point, I presume that the reader is already asking the Encyclopedia what all of this has to do with the bad state of things in Orun Apaadi. The book as always encourages the reader to turn the page.
When 90% of the 10 billion people who had suddenly kicked the bucket found themselves at the gates of Apaadi, not one of them was surprised. In fact, most of them thought they’d simply unlocked a new level in the simulation because everything looked uber-real. The others had stopped thinking about anything such a long time ago that their dead brains did not even notice they were in hell. The one person who was surprised though was Ikú, the Reaper of Souls.
Ikú had long dropped the ‘grim’ part from her name and had only kept the ‘reaper’ after she’d gone through a phase in the late 2010s where she’d exchanged her nihilism for the other wonders the universe had to offer. That period saw her take dance classes, study art history, film theory, and classical literature. Her scholarship took her from the prestigious University for Mages in Ursa Minor to the beautifully breathtaking Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife. She had always told Olódùmarè that she wasn’t really cut out for something as terrifyingly macabre as death; she had tried many times, without success, to resign and get Èsù to fill her shoes.
When it looked like she was stuck with her soul-reaping duties forever, she accepted her fate and found solace in novels filled with absurdist humour. She read everyone from Joseph Heller and Eoin Colfer to Terry Pratchett and Amos Tutuola; her favourite author was without dispute, the eccentric Douglas Adams. She knew that he was eccentric because she had hung out with him a couple of times. They’d met for drinks at a bar in the Odder World, a bar called The Space between the Realms. They had really bonded over a lot of things and Ikú found herself thanking Olódùmarè for the authors death as this meant they could meet up like this anytime they wanted.
On that fateful day, she’d been reading the seventh book in his The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series when she heard the beep; a sound that could only mean two things:
- Due to Ikú’s disillusionment with the whole business of death, she had delegated her duties to the millions of reapers she had at her disposal. They gave her updates from time to time on their activities, and she attended her periodic meetings with Olódùmarè armed with data that she’d played no part in collecting. The reapers had to report to her if any Òrìsà or spirit beings gave them any hassle. So, the beep could have been one of them coming to report such an occurrence.
- The second thing the beep could mean was something she was terribly afraid of –during the nuclear wars, thousands of people had died, literally every minute, and while she’d felt like going down to earth to help stop the madness even the Òrìsà were helpless against, she’d had to join her reapers in actually collecting the helpless souls and checking them in. They’d been stretched thin due to the sheer number of dead people. This meant coming face to face with something she’d pushed out of her mind a long time ago: the horror of mortality.
When she heard the beep, Ikú made her way to the gate, slowly pushed it open and gasped at the horrendous sight before her. Dead people! Her worst kind of people, they were in a single line that stretched on for several eternities. After three billion heads, Ikú simply stopped counting. There was no way in hell she was going to check all these people in. No freaking way! What also annoyed her was that the counting meant she’d have to put down her novel, and she was just getting to the good part.
So Ikú did what any one of us would have done in such a dilemma. After completely trashing her quarters and burning her entire collection of graveyard poetry, she grabbed her emergency luggage along with an eternal supply of palm wine and snuck out the backdoor riding on an equally disgruntled Cerberus (whom she’d won from Hades in a bet), never to be seen again.
Thou Shalt not say ‘Hot Spot’
The Encyclopedia Paranorma describes the effect of Ikú’s absence from Apaadi as ‘a gaping hole in the heart of the natural order of things.’ After months of waiting for her to no avail, the dead folk made camp and set up shop just outside Apaadi. Most of the soul reapers fled Apaadi too, choosing to live out the rest of their eternal days watching the sun rise and set on the plains of Àwáwí. Those that stayed tried to perform Ikú’s duties, but without a leader, they were so disorganised that things only got worse.
Eventually, the court of Òrìsà convened and after an eternity of squabbling they finally reached a consensus. Èsù and Oya were to fill in for Ikú in their positions as Dweller at the Crossroads and Goddess of Death, respectively. Even Mr. high-and-mighty Oníbodè had to offer his services at some point, albeit reluctantly. It’s worth noting that due to the large influx of souls at Apaadi as well as the immense backlog of people from the Global Disaster crisis of ’09, none of them managed to get much work done.
Èsù was presently tasked with finding Ikú and bringing her back safely. Before he embarked on his quest to the distant reaches of the galaxy, Orunmila advised him to check the Space between the Worlds, maintaining that the treasure most people go to Sokoto to look for would probably be found in the pockets of their sòkòtò.
Oya, on the other hand, sought out more creative ways to get the job done – an opportunity presented itself one afternoon at the academy where mages were trained in the ways of Olódùmarè, the University of Ursa Minor. During a lecture she was giving on how to predict weather patterns and climate change in places where the universal laws of physics meant nothing, a student had asked a question and she’d had an epiphany.
“Yeye, could you please recommend any fancy places for internships for us during the break?” the student asked. Her name was Láwùmí and she belonged to the Oya clan. The goddess remembered her as the precocious first-year mage from two years ago. She had not changed one bit. “I’d personally love to study weather patterns in different places in the Odder World. Are there any hot spots?” Láwùmí added.
There was a glint in Oya’s eyes when she responded: “Hmm. There aren’t a lot of hot spots, but I’m sure I can think of something.”
It was then that she announced to the class that she’d decided to send someone to Apaadi, someone who would fill in for Ikú and take up the responsibility of marshalling the remaining reapers. Oya knew that a lot of them would not want to give up such an opportunity since having it on their resume alone would guarantee that they did not have to worry about getting jobs, at least for the rest of their lives as mages. But to her disappointment, no one volunteered. Not even one of them!
“Kí ló selè? No takers?” she asked for the umpteenth time. But the students were adamant, they all sat there po-faced, holding their breath.
She was forced to hand-pick one of them herself, and the rest all heaved a sigh of relief.
Hell is a traffic jam on the 405
Her appeals before the court of Òrìsà had fallen on deaf ears and Lawumi was currently en route to Apaadi, seething. The editor in chief of the school paper had added to her problems by saddling her with the responsibility of writing a travelogue. She did play with the thought of dropping some lightning on him, but it wasn’t worth it. Despite everything, she didn’t want to get expelled for conjuring magic on school grounds was highly prohibited, and besides, she wasn’t ready to get an earful from Orunmila about the ethics of using magic; somehow that would be more unbearable than an outright expulsion.
She’d left the University early while the sun, Polaris, was still rising in all its elegance. Her car was a vintage 504, and she’d piloted it all the way to the South Border. The South Border or ‘Southies’ as it was popularly known, was the gateway for mages who needed to go to the afterlife while still in human form, for one reason or the other. The portal at the border was a tempest made of brilliant colours, all of them flickering this way and that. She put up her ionised shields to protect her from the radiation, she then drove straight into the near-blinding light and appeared on the 405.
According to the Encyclopedia, the 405 was built long ago to enable gods, mages, spirits and other non-human entities bypass the traffic on the way to Apaadi and move on to other places in the Odder World. But this didn’t do much; not only because all the roads to different places in the Odder World were interconnected, but also because no one wanted to embrace the change. The 405 was therefore almost always congested.
Lawumi could not believe her eyes. There were different types of vehicles from hover buses and spaceships to Ether craft and vintage cars, like hers, all of them trapped in what was the worst case of traffic jam she’d ever seen. Someone was even on a horse on the lane beside hers. What was going on? A couple of people were on foot though and on closer inspection, she recognised them as àbíkú and emèrè spirits returning to the afterlife from the world of the living.
The heat was especially intense, she had to lower her shields and roll down the windows. Her senses were immediately assaulted with the aromas of different delicacies from around the realms. Behind her, there were hawkers carting around scores of food and fluids. She paid 10 cowries for a bottle of chilled spring water, not minding the hike in prices that her mother would have described as daylight robbery. These spirit-traders simply knew how to read their audience.
When the meter in her car indicated, five hours later, that she had moved only a couple of feet forward, she decided to stop dawdling at the wheel and get down to business. The back seat was filled with her luggage – clothes, books, equipment for her para-climatology studies, a letter of recommendation from Oya, and her writing materials. After rummaging through the bags, she found the one with her notepad and pen. The firmament darkened and she peeped at the sky only to see the souls of dead dragons obscuring the light. She heaved a sigh, said a silent prayer to Olódùmarè and began her story for the paper:
‘Hell is not a place. It’s a people. It’s 10 billion kajillion people trapped for endless miles in bumper-to-bumper traffic, all creeping at the speed of light in a black hole.
Hell is real. It is not an imaginary place. It is right there or rather right here, wherever this is. Kajillion, however is a made-up word, and that’s on me. When you spend endless hours stuck in traffic with no end in sight, your brain is forced to adapt and get creative, really fast.
If you think I’m wrong or you feel like the situation here seems too unbelievable to be true, just ask a Lagosian (especially those that understand the horrors of journeying every day on Apapa road).
The sound of a car door slamming shut broke her stream of thought and made Lawumi look up. The noise had come from the car in front of her – a sleek model made from Ogun’s precious carbon-metal alloy. The driver had gotten down to lean against the car and smoke something that produced purple fumes when it burned. He was wearing an adire dashiki and his full afro hair was well-groomed. His skin was brown and smooth and the light kissed it softly, beautifully. Lawumi wondered what his story was. Why was he on the 405? What urgent business did he have to attend to?
She didn’t have to wonder for long though. After spending about five minutes outside, the driver got bored. He muttered an expletive and opened the door on his side. Lawumi thought he was reaching for another cigarette, but the 405 was full of surprises.
The driver turned on his speakers instead and the most beautiful song Lawumi had ever heard filled the atmosphere.
‘Bibanke, b’omi ba n san/ fi mi sile…’
As the driver left the car door open and climbed atop the car, purple fumes danced around him like tempestuous clouds.
‘Bibanke, b’ojo ba n ro/ fi mi sile…’
This time some people on the 405 joined in, their faces bright with smiles. Lawumi wondered what would happen when the song ended. Would the driver play it again? Or would he just put the entire album on repeat?
With a smile on her face, she decided to let the future worry about itself, at least for now. As she got down from her car to join the people screaming ‘mo ti f’oro mi f’oluwa’ at the top of their lungs, she thought about how she would describe this moment in her travelogue:
Hell might be a traffic jam on the 405 but heaven is billions of people, in the middle of nowhere, singing along to Asa and hanging on to her evergreen sounds for dear life.
Osamudiamen Joseph is interested in writing and reading stories that fall withing the genre of speculative fiction – science fiction, fantasy, horror, dystopian fiction and so on. He also loves to write poetry, scripts and fiction with afrofuturist themes and is a strong believer in the wonder and imagination present in Africa and her stories. He is the founder of The Telescope Media, a collective of young African artists and entrepreneurs, committed to creating and curating African art that portrays us as a people of hope, joy and imagination. He has an account on Medium where he shares his thoughts . He is currently working on his first medium-length film.
*Image by Mòje Ikpeme