BY SULAIMAN BELLO
My brother was a loud snorer, comparing the level of the noise his snore generated with that of the barber’s never silent generator during the day was within bounds, and that night I am sure he was snoring as loud as ever, having slept in the same room for so long, it never seemed to bother any of us. My sleep was particularly sound. Even the annoying buzz and painful blood sucking bites of the relentless mosquitoes couldn’t interrupt. The wave of heat that had plagued Lagos in recent nights seemed to have been diverted in other directions, and the temperature was as should be to be considered normal. Then it got better, it actually started getting cold, I could feel it in my sleep and my sub-conscious reckoned it was good for deep sleep, so I just slept on. But then the cold got awkward and wet. It took a while before it registered, then it hit me. It was raining! And, we were in trouble.
Okobaba area of Lagos state was popular for its shanties, tiny little wooden huts that jostled for space in an already cramped area, creating an eye sore similar to the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression. At least the villes were built on solid ground, the shanties of Okobaba were built on foundations of tiny wooden piles driven deep into the marshy land and shallow river sides. Cafeterias lined the dirty shore of the water body, barber shops that doubled as barber’s rooms during the night each with rickety little generating sets that infuriated neighbours with the noise and smoke they generated, sex houses with hideous looking whores at every corner that provided enough cover for their activities. Our house – permit me to call it that- was one of those built at the point where the land began to emerge, the total space could comfortably take only one bed of student sized mattress, but since we had no bed we slept on mats.
That night as we soundly slept unaware of how much entangled our bodies were, legs crossed over torsos. The wetness I had felt before was the rain dripping through a hole in our zinc roof, I sprang to life like I would if pricked by a pin and I ran out to get buckets to collect the water. It was going to get worse, there were more holes in the ceiling that haven’t started dripping, but they will.
By the time I got back my father and little brother were awake too, their hands cupped underneath drips in a bid to keep our mat dry, the unrelenting downpour signalled the end of our night. Backs against the wall – actually the planks that bordered our space – three of us just sat and stared, surprised but grateful that the youngest of us could sleep undisturbed by the condition of our abode and the quality of our lives. This is our story, the unstable state of our hut reflected the state of our very lives. Not sure of how anything will ever turn out for us, not even what the next meal time holds in store, and there were plenty of those times that held nothing at all. While me and my brother always knew to avoid heartbreak by assuming we were going to bed hungry, my younger sister always asked to be sure.
“What are we eating tonight, daddy?” “We will find something by God’s grace,” was always the reply, never a definite name of a food.
The amazing thing about God’s grace is no amount of work would justify earning it, at the same time it is absolutely free. In both cases it eluded us. We worked so hard, but never enough to merit it, and we were so poor, too poor in fact, even affording free things was a bit of a challenge, so we were absolutely on our own.
I was eleven, would have been considered too young in a normal society, but ours wasn’t normal. I was responsible for our filled bellies on some of those nights we actually got something to eat – notice how its always “night” when I talk about eating, for us breakfast and lunch was a rarity. A lot of times I looked at my father and caught the glimpse in his eyes, I understood more than a boy of my age should, the pains of his inability eating up the essence of his manhood. I understood the frustration of trying so hard to make life better but finding it gets worse with each measure of energy expended.
The level of noise in the area rose as did the sun, and so did my father’s apprehension about the daily dosage of harassment he got from a few of his creditors. That was another thing about us, the little money we made for our troubles during the day went into paying debts that never seemed to be fully settled. My sister was half awake now, with her in my arms we sat outside our hut, watching the children of more fortunate ones march off to school in their tattered uniforms and worn sandals. Swinging his old net over his shoulders, father got ready to go and get the fish traps he had set the evening before, at least he could get little money from their sale, and that too would be spent in no time.
Just after he waved us goodbye and turned to go, he bolted back into the house. Oh! I didn’t say, the little shanty we lived in didn’t even belong to us, and just like in the luxurious estates of Victoria Island and Lekki, the shanty town of Okobaba also had landlords and they too liked being paid on time.
“Good morning sir,” we chorused as the landlord approached, hoping that would soften his heart towards us. He must not have heard our greetings, for he just demanded to see our father. My younger brother got up to fetch him and I pulled him back down so hard his buttocks would have exploded if they were any softer.
“He is not around sir.” I had to repeat what I said to myself to make sure I hadn’t insulted him in any way, for he just started raining all sorts of abuses and curses on us. After a few minutes of shouting and attracting all eyes to us, he left promising to be back.
Father came out faced down, embarrassed as he always was when that sort of thing happened in our presence, he couldn’t even look us in the eyes. You would wonder how a poor man had so much shame. My father wasn’t always poor, he wasn’t rich either, but he was a man to provide for his family. He was married to my mother, and that was what happened. She wasn’t the kind of woman to weather the storm with any man, but she was the sort that made a calm and clement weather into a storm.
Without a word to us, he picked his net and was on his way. I knew he was praying we go in search of something to eat, he just couldn’t bring himself to tell us. Few minutes after he left we dragged ourselves hand in hand along the paths of our beloved shanty town. Eyes scanning every corner for anything edible and they came to rest on SANWO KI O TO JEUN Canteen. Busy as ever Iya Ade served her customers with practised dexterity, my eyes followed her hand as it went from pot to plate, and I day-dreamed about her handing me one of those plates.
Beneath a dirty umbrella, beside the canteen sat amongst filth was the area’s popular lunatic, he was always calmer than most sane men. Our eyes met and I thought I saw pity in his, but I chose to believe our condition wasn’t as bad as being pitied by a mad man.
My attention returned to the food, and the death of our neighbour, uncle Duro, came to mind. When he died people blamed hunger, and some had joked that the angels in heaven would refuse him admission, they would have asked why he didn’t grab a loaf of bread from Iya Ade’s table and run away. I didn’t want any of us to die of hunger and those loaves were inviting. I looked around to see if anyone was watching, stepped a bit closer, looked again and stretched out my hands, but the fear of being lynched made me retract it.
“Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat” that was Mother Theresa, I wonder what she would have thought of us. Unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten and yet extremely hungry. Seeing as no food was here for us we went our way, to wallow in hunger and self pity for most of the day.
It was evening, the setting of the sun turned the sky to a beautiful canvass of impeccable divine brush strokes with a mixture of different amber shades, but my mind was too young and distracted by life’s hardship to take a moment to enjoy the spectacle. The day had been good, never mind the way it started, we resorted to begging and Lagosians were in a giving mood. We made a couple of hundreds, enough to buy us two meals. Not that food was that cheap but we were that good at managing. Silently thanking God, I looked down at the wad of green and red polymer notes I clutched, just to make sure they were still there. They were.
The gentle rumble above momentarily took my mind off the money and my face to the sky. The sky was now dark, and looked like a filmmaker’s portrayal of it above Armageddon few minutes to the final battle. Flashes of lightning lit up portions of the vast darkness for split seconds. The first drop of rain landed on my cheek and I knew we needed to hurry to the shelter we called home, not for fear of getting wet but of getting cold and sick, we had no money to waste on drugs and clinics.
We were now at full speed running into what marked the beginning of our hood, a tiny pass between rows of shops owned by light complexioned women with dark knuckles, all selling either food or gin, or both. We wanted to take shelter in one of them but father had warned us never to go near them, so we ran past them. Fortunately, a bulldozer was parked right after the passing. It wasn’t there in the morning, but we were grateful it was now. We clung to its side in a bid to get away from the stinging rain that slanted in. I looked down again to be sure I didn’t lose the money while running. It was still in my grasp.
The rain had slowed now and I peered from behind the bulldozer like I was making sure God wasn’t playing a trick on us, for sure it was down, and we hurriedly went our way again. Two steps and we stopped in our tracks, staring up ahead confused, we looked at ourselves and back at the bulldozer. The Lagos State Government had made good its threat or warning to rid this area of our shelters for the eye sore they caused and according to them, because they were inappropriate to live in. Looking back at the leveled ground before us, ground that had kept us away from beneath the bridges for years. Nothing seemed to make any sense, our lives just got harder. We didn’t understand why God or the government would allow this happen, but “homeless” just got added to the list of demeaning adjectives to qualify us.