A journal of narrative writing.
Living Precariously
Page 2

As she left the room for the kitchen, a rat so big that it looked pregnant darted across the room. There were too many rats in Lagos, many of them looked bloated and overfed, Nneoma thought. She remembered that Mama Onyeka had told her that some of them were not natural rats; they were amusu: witches who came into homes to cause trouble and destroy them. Mama Onyeka, repeating the stereotype that was the stuff of fantastical stories, told her that she was sure that their other neighbour, Mama Calabar, was a witch and that Calabar was a centre for witches. Remembering this, she began to cast and bind all demons masquerading as rats into the Sahara desert in the name of Jesus. Now that she had missed two periods, she had to be extra careful. She rubbed her still-flat stomach proudly, and wondered how she would tell her husband and how he would react to the news. Perhaps, he would become warmer and more loving like her father had been to her mother, she thought. Her father, even on his deathbed with his legs swollen to terrible proportions and with little breath left, had called her mother Obidiya- her husband's heart. Did she want to be Ugochukwu's ‘heart’? His potbelly, dour manner, and perfunctory lovemaking, did not encourage such thoughts.

* * *

In a different part of Lagos, Emeka turned over on the bed and yawned widely, mouth open, cheeks stretching. It was only about four in the morning, his usual waking time. He did not have an alarm clock but his inner alarm, honed since his apprenticeship days, had gone off as usual. Emeka did not really feel rested, but survival did not really call for respite, and survival was what life was all about. He rubbed his eyes and struggled to sit up. He wiped his face with his arm and looked over at Okechukwu on the other side of the mattress whose face was blank in sleep and who was snoring gently, his mouth open. He sighed. The boy did not realize that Lagos was hard. He reached over and shook Okechukwu's shoulder. Okechukwu groaned as if in disappointment and turned over the other side.

"It is morning," Emeka told him. And then without waiting for a response, he pulled himself up, went outside to the yard picked up a bucket and went to the bathroom, knowing that as usual he would be one of the first legs to go for a wash.

"Are you ready?" Emeka asked Okechukwu. He had had his wash, dressed up in the room, and was ready to go. Okechukwu was just coming back from the bathroom and he did not look like he had showered. Emeka knew that the lineup at the only bathroom in the compound must have been quite long and Okechukwu would have been unable to get in. Emeka was angry that his cousin overslept every morning. Then he would wait in line to use the only bathroom in the compound. Okechukwu disorganizes my life, Emeka thought. Still, he pitied Okechukwu whose father had died recently of swollen legs caused by the witchcraft of a clansman. The two men had fought over a piece of land. After the funeral, Okechukwu's mother gave out her bright first daughter, who everyone had thought would go to university, in marriage to a townsman who lived in Lagos. She then begged Emeka to take her son, Okechukwu who had no brain for academic work or any other trade, to Lagos and teach him the mechanic trade. She pleaded with him not to let their enemies kill her only son. Emeka could not refuse such a desperate plea.

"You are not having your bath today," Emeka told him.

"Please. . ." Okechukwu began drowsily.

"No," Emeka said sternly. "It is already six o'clock. I woke you up at five when I went to bathe and you went back to sleep." Repairing cars was a dirty job. Emeka could not understand Okechukwu's insistence on his morning bath. Perhaps this was because one could almost drown in night-sweat in the tiny room they shared in Badagry. There was usually no electricity to use the fan.

Okechukwu dressed reluctantly and soon they were on a bus to Abule-Egba.

"Abule-Egba hundred naira. Make you hold correct change o. I no get change," the conductor warned.

At the shop, Emeka said, "I am going to buy some motor parts."

Okechukwu nodded, his mouth full of his breakfast of Agege bread.

"Do not leave the shop," Emeka ordered.

Okechukwu nodded again. He was glad that Emeka was leaving the shop, even for a short while. When he left, he would go and talk to the other apprentices. He did not like mechanic work- it was dirty and not respectable. He had never wanted to be a mechanic and still resented his mother for pushing him into this trade. Even though he did not like school like his younger sister Nneoma, if his mother had waited a while, perhaps he would have been lucky to become an apprentice to Mathew Nwankwo, another distant relative who had a medicines business in Onitsha. But maybe even that would not have been such a good idea- Emeka had mentioned the other day that he heard NAFDAC, drug regulatory agency, had had Okechukwu arrested for selling fake medicines.

Emeka went out thinking to himself that it was a pity that Okechukwu was the first son of his father and that the boy would never make a good mechanic. He was not bright and he was lazy. But, he had promised to teach him the trade.

"Okey," Tunde, another apprentice, shouted later. "Where is your oga?"

"He went to buy spare parts," Okechukwu said. "Who is looking for him?"

"No one," Tunde replied. "I just wanted to be sure the coast was clear. Do you have a bucket in your shed?"

"No," Okechukwu said. "Why do you need a bucket?"

"Haven't you heard fuel is pouring out on the road? They say a pipe burst. I want to collect my own share. People have been scooping since last night."

"Are you sure?" Okechukwu asked. "How did the pipe burst? What about the police? Are they there?"

"There is no police," Tunde assured him confidently. "They say that some big boys came with a truck yesterday and drilled the pipe open. The petrol has been pouring out since last night. Do you want to sit here and waste time asking useless questions or are you coming?" he asked impatiently, making as if to leave.

Okechukwu thought it was a good idea. He could buy some new shirts and maybe even send some money to his mother. Hopefully, Emeka would not come back before he collected some of the petrol gushing from the pipe. He would not spend too much time anyway, he told himself. He would be back in the shop before Emeka came back; Emeka would not be happy that he left the shop.

"Let's find buckets," he said to Tunde. "We can make money from this. The price of petrol has gone up."

When they got there, they saw many of their fellow mechanics already pushing through the growing throng of people to dig in their buckets or jerry cans into the dark red, nearly black liquid, flowing like blood from a cut artery.

* * *

Nneoma walked down the street to the junction where Mama Onyeka had her 'shop.' Mama Onyeka was attending to a couple of customers when she arrived, so she sat down on the bench below Mama Onyeka's table and hoped that she would not accidentally fall over into the smelly wide gutter behind the bench. On the table Mama Onyeka had laid out pieces of coconuts on a plate, fried groundnuts wrapped in cellophane, a couple of roasted corncobs, and some fresh corn still encased in their husks. A crude furnace stood on the other side of the table. Mama Onyeka stood before it roasting some corn and the local pears for the customers waiting for her.

When the customers left with their corn and local pear wrapped in a sheet of old newspapers, Mama Onyeka sat beside Nneoma and they began to tell stories, Mama Onyeka doing more of the talking and Nneoma, the younger woman, the johnny-just-come, listening intently. Mama Onyeka told her of the fight she had had with Papa Onyeka before he left this morning because he would not give her enough housekeeping money. She admonished Nneoma not to let Ugochukwu get away with his stingy ways. Otherwise, she said, he would give the money he earned to another woman because that was the way God had made men; they had to give their money to a woman. She told Nneoma how she had got up to rebuke and bind Mama Calabar when she had appeared in their room the previous night. Lagos was full of witches and one had to keep ones eyes open and one's wits about her. She told her how the woman who had tried to open a similar corn business close to her and bring unwanted competition had been thoroughly beaten by her husband, because, according to Mama Onyeka, she did not look after their children properly and had been disrespectful to him. What else was expected from a woman who lacked any home training, she asked Nneoma? Nneoma did not say that she did not think there was any good reason to beat your wife; perhaps this was how people acted in Lagos. Instead she turned round and spit into the gutter; she had learned that such questions raised in the middle of a story were rhetorical. The spit landed on a purewater wrapping, floating with other rubbish in the gutter. She tried to suppress a nauseous urge to vomit that had now begun to attack her every now and then and thought Mama Onyeka could be unduly critical of people. But she was the only one who had befriended her after she moved to Lagos, and her 'shop,' consisting of table and a furnace by the gutter on a busy road, was the only place Nneoma could go to.

In between her stories, Mama Onyeka was suddenly silent. Nneoma had just turned round to spit into the drainage yet again and looked up to see if customers had approached the table, but there was none. Mama Onyeka was looking at her quizzically.

"So, you don't want to tell me," she said. "I thought that seeing as I had taken you as my daughter that you could tell me."

Nneoma looked at her in puzzlement.

"I am not a child you know, I was not born today." Mama Onyeka's mouth turned up in a slight sneer.

Nneoma suddenly realized that she must be talking about her pregnancy.

"I was not trying to hide it from you," she assured Mama Onyeka. She had really not been trying to keep the news from Mama Onyeka, but she would have preferred to tell her mother first. But Mama Nneoma did not have a mobile phone, though mobile phones had now become ubiquitous since their recent introduction in the country.. Neither did Nneoma, even though Ugochukwu had promised her one during his early visits to marry her. He had also promised to send her to a college in Lagos. That, too, had not yet happened. She had passed the senior secondary school exams, but had not taken the university entrance exams. Not for the first time, Nneoma wondered what implications her pregnancy would have on her prospective education. Her mother had assured her that if she was a good wife to Ugochukwu, he might even send her to university. With the way Ugochukwu quarreled over money for crayfish and pepper, she was losing any confidence she had in that assurance. Now that she was pregnant, she was becoming even less sure that a university education was in her destiny. But she did not tell Mama Onyeka this; she would have been surprised to hear about such lofty dreams.

She stayed a little while longer with Mama Onyeka, listening to advice about not eating nchi meat, it would prolong the labour as the nchi, a bush rat, had long labour, and to refuse sex this early in the pregnancy, it could cause a miscarriage. She walked back to the house a little tired. She was getting more tired these days, she thought. She decided she would have a little nap before preparing supper for Ugochukwu.

* * *

It was Papa Onyeka who told Ugochukwu. He did not give him any details. He only told Ugochukwu that he needed to get home as soon as he could. You did not give a man the kind of bad news that Papa Onyeka had on the phone. You did not tell him that his home had collapsed. You did not say that his wife was in the house when it collapsed.

Everybody knew that the four-story house was bad, the walls had cracks, and some had said that they noticed that the house, which was less than four years old, seemed to be tilting to one side. Still, the crumbling surprised the people who lived nearby, all of whom rushed out to see what had happened. Some said it was fortunate most people had not come back from work; the few people who were trapped in the building were just unlucky. Others did not talk; they were busy digging with spades, sticks and whatever else was handy, in attempts to dig out people. One lucky woman had been dug out alive and with only minor injuries. Lifting equipment provided by one of the construction companies was working, but no other living person had been extricated from the house. No one knew for sure how many more were trapped. Five bodies had been found thus far, four of them children, one of them a young woman.

Ugochukwu came home in a taxi, something he never did because it cost too much. But Papa Onyeka had indicated it was an emergency. He sat in a traffic jam regretting that he had not bought Nneoma a mobile phone; she, at least, could have told him what had happened. Perhaps, there had been a fire in their apartment. That woman was careless. He had warned her time and again about paying attention to details. Or maybe she had gone out to gossip with Mama Onyeka and a thief had broken into the apartment. How many times would he tell her that this was not the village where people trusted others blindly? How many times would he have to say that this was Lagos where people kept their eyes open? His mind was roiling with these thoughts when he got home. He saw the crumbled house, the people gathered round it, and knew what had happened. But he refused to make the connections.