A journal of narrative writing.
Living Precariously

Mama Nneoma woke up slowly, the bad dreams seemingly reluctant to let go of their tenuous hold on her. A sharp feeling of dread made itself felt even before her eyes opened. The details of her dreams were blurred, blending into each other without resolution. They left a taste of fear in her mouth, and she found that she was trembling slightly, her heart beating fast as if she had run to Afor — Udo, the village market several kilometers from her house. She had been lying on her left side with her arm in an awkward position that now made it ache. Still somewhat disoriented, she sat up unhurriedly in the dark room, the old wrapper with which she had covered herself falling partially to the bed. Unconsciously, she reached over to the other side of the bed as if reaching for someone, but no one was there. Tears welled up in her eyes and she shook her head, a little angry at herself for forgetting the unforgettable, always present in her thoughts in daytime, but sometimes forgotten when she woke up in the middle of night: there was no one to reach for in the middle of the night anymore. She reached for her rosary under her pillow and began to pray, her thoughts on her children, particularly the first two who now lived in Lagos.

Her prayers calmed her spirits. She commenced, with deliberation, to reduce her dreams to reason. They were nothing - who would not be shaken after attending that sad funeral yesterday, she asked herself. A family had lost three of their children in a gully erosion incident. The house had apparently collapsed during the night and the parents were only able to escape with one child, a baby, and the clothes on their backs. The gully erosion incidents that bedeviled Nanka were nothing new, but the people always had cause to mourn when the huge python under the earth moved and made the land cave in. Very sad, she thought with the distant and proper concern of people who did not suffer direct loss.

Her rationalizations failed to distract her, however, and her fear stayed with her. She had promised Papa Nneoma, as he lay dying of swollen legs a little over a year before on this same bed after he had come back from the disinfectant-smelling hospital in Enugu, that she would take care of their children and protect them from their enemies. She had kept her word. Both Nneoma and Okechukwu were safe in Lagos. Nneoma was a married woman living with her husband, a Nanka man, in Lagos. She had married at a younger age than Mama Nneoma would have liked. Not that eighteen was too young an age; she herself had married at younger. But she had hoped that her pretty daughter who loved books would go to university, perhaps become a doctor or marry a doctor. She could not afford to send her to university however. Not as a widow, not with selling only kolanuts in Afor-Udo, not with two other children. And so went that dream. Iloanusi, the land grabber, the thief, the evil one, had ended that hope when he sent her husband to an early grave with his witchcraft. God would pay him, she vowed. Okechukwu - the son whom she loved with that special love which mothers sometimes had for their first sons, but who had shown tendencies of becoming an ofogoli, a prodigal, especially after his father died - was now, thankfully, learning a trade in Lagos, and thus away from danger. The two younger children, Ozioma and Uzoechina were still too young to leave, and she kept her eyes on them. She could not do otherwise. Her husband's death was proof that their enemies’ evil witchcraft was potent. She prayed again reminding God that he was the husband of the widow and the father of the fatherless. She got up and began to take matter-of-fact steps into the day, reaching first for the box of matches on the floor by the bed to light the lamp which she had placed beside the door. Her thoughts, however, stayed on their journey to Lagos and to her children there.

* * *

The day began like every other day in Lagos, nothing out of the ordinary. The sun hid itself until past six that morning. People who had to go to work woke up early to join the morning traffic; nobody in Lagos waited for the cocks to crow.

For Ugochukwu, the day started out quite normally. He woke up early and went into the small, dark bathroom to take a bath. He dipped his hand into the cold water in the bucket and grimaced as he splashed some on his face: the water from the well had begun to smell bad again. As he splashed the smelly water on his body, his thoughts were occupied by his bad luck in choosing this house to move into. The landlord said there was nothing he could do about it; he was not the one who made water smell bad, nor was he the government who refused to make sure the water was treated properly. For all the man cared, Ugochukwu thought bitterly, they might as well be bathing in sewage so long as they paid their rent. Even the Unachukwus on the ground floor had complained that cracks had appeared in their walls and that they had noticed water seeping into the floors of their rooms. He knew the house was not built strongly enough. Their landlord, an Igbo man like Ugochukwu, was one of the people who gave Igbo people a bad name, defining them as people hungrily and greedily in pursuit of money at any cost, Ugochukwu mused angrily. But his friend, Nnamdi, who lived in Ilasa and had a Yoruba landlord, had told him that Yoruba landlords were worse because they really liked juju too much and if you didn't pay your rent in time, strange things began to happen to you.

He sniffed at himself then told himself to be quick. He swiped at the soap with the local twine sponge he got from the village; the modern sponge sold in Lagos did not scrub properly. He scrubbed himself vigorously, as if scrubbing a pot to which cooking grime was stubbornly stuck. He wiped the water off his body with his old, worn, faded blue, hole-filled towel and pulled on his shirt hurriedly in the dark small room lit dimly by a lamp, and wondered if he smelled as bad as the water he had just showered in.Ugochukwu, sighed; life was too difficult. He tugged on his trousers and belted his narrow waist. He could feel his stomach grumble and hoped that he was not about to have diarrhea, he knew he should not have had that moi-moi last night. Moi-moi always sent him to the toilet. He had told his wife this before but she never listened.

When he finished dressing, he reached for his work bag lying against one corner of the bed. His wife was still sleeping, and he looked at her for a moment, a scowl on his face. The net on her permed hair had slipped off and her hair, thinned by recent relaxer treatment, was tousled, her mouth was slack open, drooling saliva. He shook his head and heaved a sigh of resignation; he had married a lazy woman. Other women in Lagos were up by this time and rushing around to prepare breakfast for their husbands, go to work or set up their shops. But his wife was sleeping at past six o'clock in the morning as if money grew on trees. He called her name. She did not answer. He bent down and shook her.

"Nneoma, Nneoma."

It took a few shakes to wake Nneoma up and she sat up groggily and rubbed her eyes.

"Why do you wait for me to wake you up everyday?" her husband asked her irritably. "Get up and let us pray."

"Good morning," his wife said in a voice, slurring and still full of sleep.

"Good morning," her husband replied in the voice of one who fully expected to be greeted first.

They knelt down side by side, their hands on the sleep-jumbled bed. "In Jesus' name, in Jesus' mighty name, in the mighty name of Jesus," Ugochukwu began. He went on to thank God for the day, to ask His protection, and to bind all the blood-sucking demons on the roads.

After the prayers, he said, "Make sure the house is cleaned up. That is the least you can do, since you sit at home all day and do not go to work. Don't spend valuable time talking with Mama Onyeka. She is a lazy woman who wastes time gossiping and doing little else."

He picked up his work bag and went out. It was still dark outside although if you looked closely you could see the day slowly trying to take over from the night, the streaks of the dawn seemingly shaking hands with the dark as they said 'goodbye' and 'welcome.' Ugochukwu walked from one side of the road to the other, trying to avoid the mud and the dirty rain water on the untarred street. He turned into Fasehun Street at the end of which was the bus stop. He noticed that there were no okada, the motorbikes that took people to the bus stop. No wonder, where would they find petrol? Ugochukwu wondered again why the NLC was threatening to embark on a new nationwide strike. Had they not yet discovered that it solved nothing? Apparently not, he answered himself as he stood at the bus stop, wiping with his bare hands the sweat that was already pouring out of him from the ten minute brisk walk. The leaders of the labour union thought that it would frighten the government into reducing the increased fuel prices that they had thrown at the Nigerian people. Of course, they would reduce it somewhat and increase it again by the end of the year or next year perhaps. In the meantime, fuel prices would increase by twice the price and people would have to sit at home or, like him, be forced to go to work. He knew that no matter how high the cost of petrol became, he would have to go to work even during the strike because his boss Chief Akhigbe insisted that they must work, after all, Chief would say, private organizations like his had nothing to do with whatever nonsense the NLC cooked up. He did not care that transportation prices were up by nearly two hundred percent. Ugochukwu did not enjoy his job as a law clerk; it paid little, nothing to survive by in Lagos, but he could not afford to lose his job. He shook his head slightly. This country was crazy, but crazier still was the conductor who was shouting at people.

"Lagos, one fifty," the conductor shouted. "I no fit argue, if you no carry the money, make you come down now o. Fuel don cos," he said, holding up his dirty jeans from falling off his hips with one hand and pounding on top of the bus with the other.

Ugochukwu entered the nearly full bus and sat beside a fat woman who was sitting by the window and muttering that hundred and fifty naira was too much for a bus that cost only one hundred and twenty naira only yesterday. He said nothing to her, but silently thought that the small seats would be too tight on the journey because of her fat behind and thought also how he did not want his wife to become fat; she was already getting heavier since she came to Lagos, with nothing to do except sit and spend his money. He continued to nurse his general dissatisfaction with the hand that life had dealt him as the bus filled up and then headed towards Lagos.

* * *

As soon as she was sure that Ugochukwu had left the house, Nneoma went back to bed and slept for the next hour. When she woke up, she blew out the lantern, went to the bathroom, washed her face and thought how good it was to have the house all to herself. Her husband complained about everything, from how she kept house to her to her cooking and her inability to find work. Only yesterday she had made him delicious moi-moi, going to the trouble of washing the beans and walking down the street to grind it, and then spending time to wrap it in plantain leaves to add a delicious leafy tang that tin-cooked moi-moi lacked. He did not appreciate her efforts. All he did instead was complain that he did not like to eat moi-moi at night, and that she had used kerosene which was becoming scarce to cook moi-moi which took a lot of time and therefore consumed a lot of kerosene. He had even gone on to warn her not to cook beans and yam, another time-consuming meal, until the price of kerosene went down. Ugochukwu was too thrifty, even stingy, she told herself. But he was right about the kerosene; the price had gone through the roof.

She had come to Lagos from their village in the East six months ago for the first time. She had heard many tales of this big city called Lagos. People who lived in Lagos - 'abroad' as it was called - were looked upon with awe when they came home at Christmas. They always seemed to have more money than everyone else. It was one of the reasons she had allowed herself to be persuaded by her mother to marry Ugochukwu, a much older, dour man. He had asked for her hand when her dreams of going to a university died with her father just after she finished secondary school. He lived and worked in that big city. He could also provide money to take care of her family. But, disappointment gripped her when she eventually came to live with Ugochukwu. He did not have much money, and what little he had, he preferred to keep to himself. Lagos itself was nothing like the village; at least the village was nowhere near as dirty. The city seemed to be bursting at the seams with people. The air in many places stank like sewage and rotten garbage packed together in an airless container. The gutters were full of dirty, dark smelly water and debris. The roads were a nightmare when it rained, full of mud water in pot-holes and causing terrible bumper-to-bumper traffic jams that could last hours. There was an ever-present alertness and vigilance in the eyes of people and in their movements - possessing or lacking these attributes could mean life and money or death and emptiness in the pocket. Still, she had learned a lot of things since she came to Lagos, from shouting 'o wa o' to get one of the sardine-packed buses to let her out, to holding onto her bag tightly when she went to Cele bus stop.

She looked around the room. She would have to sweep it and make the bed. The sheet on the bed needed to be washed. She was not sure if there was still bar soap or whether Ugochukwu had used the last bit that was left to wash his shirt last night. She decided she would eat first; there was still some of the moi-moi left and she could warm that up for breakfast. Afterwards she would clean the house and go down to Mama Onyeka's shop. Although Ugochukwu did not like Mama Onyeka, Nneoma told herself that she was the only friend she had in Lagos and what Ugochukwu did not know could not hurt him. She really would have liked to go down to visit her elder brother Okechukwu at their shop in Abule-Egba, but she did not have money for transport: she had not had any opportunity this past week to go through her husband's pockets.