Friday, November 25, 2016

Growing Up Poor In Nigeria...


…Growing up poor in Nigeria also meant sometimes taking up odd jobs like serving as an ad-hoc staff for the government during an outstanding program. Like....the national identity card registration exercise...instead of opting for prostitution or arm robbery [being broke will make you think of the unthinkable].

Getting the ad-hoc position itself took a process. You either had to know somebody who knows somebody that works at the local government to secure a place or depend on God.

After the application and selection process, a rigorous speed-date like training followed. We had to learn how to fill the forms accurately and operate the machine used for headshots. Then we were divided into different groups of three. My team had two fine and level headed guys. The year was 2003, and I faintly remember the days that followed after we were all posted to different stations across the state.

Our station was at the Millennium school compound in Ojodu. I “grew up” in that neighborhood so you can tell the amount of pressure I was put under when “familiar strangers” came around with a sense of entitlement to be attended to first instead of joining the queue like other well meaning Nigerians. Well, there were times we had to bend the rules and “keep space” for these strange neighbors. Talk about corruption in quiet places. We didn’t get away with it much and soon decided to stick to the rule of first-come-first-serve. The people fell in love with us and would sometimes sing our praises out loud while comparing our stations to the others around us.

There were the egocentric big men and women who would not want to join the long queue of ordinary people. We treated them with respect and showed them where the line ended. I sometimes did that while looking away because I could sometimes feel their glare burning through my skinny frame.

I think the part I enjoyed most was learning the dynamics of how a society work just by watching the people who trudged into the center day in day out.

The experience also exposed me to how angry citizens can be when they feel that the system is not being fair to them. There were times we would “open for business, ” and midway through the registration process, the batteries of our machines would run out without warning. Those days were not funny. We would spend the rest of the day apologizing to the crowd for the unexpected interruption and broken promises. Sometimes they openly expressed their suspicion and wondered aloud if we did it on purpose to escape the overwhelming number of people waiting in line.

The following day, when we resumed fully charged, we would meet a more lively crowd. Like the fault in yesterday never happened. Some people even get there as early as 6.00am - way before the resumption time. And they made it a point to announce it :-) to our hearing. The kind ones among them go out of their way to make us comfortable. Sometimes they brought us cold drinks, snacks and left tips with the comrade who took the headshots. Those days were the best. We didn’t mind working overtime.

When the people were not cheerful, they were furious, especially the days when it felt like we were operating right inside the sun. The hot weather also messed up the mood of the exercise. The people waiting for their turns under the hot sun grumbled the loudest. The queue suddenly appeared slow. And the registration process and team? Too clumsy for their liking.

On one of those scorching and angry days, one petite woman stood out in the crowd. She nagged about almost everything under the sun. Then...if I remember clearly, she went on to blame the government and us for the broken system in Nigeria. I can’t remember what my response to her was, but all I remember was that a hot slap landed on my right cheek. I saw stars. Before I could react, the crowd intervened and would not let me return the slap.

I got up, shut my registration book and told them I was done for the day. As calmly as I could muster, I told the crowd that the woman had abused my office...and they tried to change my mind:

“But you are serving the public...”
“It is part of it....”
“I beg na, don’t leave....”
“Sister, sorry....”
“My daughter…”

The helpless crowd called out as I left my desk, blinded by hurt pride and anger. But the following day, we resumed again. This time, I perused the crowd more carefully because I understood that each person brought with them questions and stories I had no answer. My business was to register and pass them on to my colleagues who took the thumbprint and headshots. I minded my business carefully.

I can’t remember if anything more dramatic happened after that hot slap except that for that particular assignment we rendered to the government and the people, we still had to spend days protesting on the streets of Alausa [an area where state officials work] before we got paid. Rumors had it that someone embezzled the funds allocated for our salary, but somehow the good Lord touched the heart of those in power. The funds were later disbursed.

Serving the public is no small feat.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Why The Dog Came After Me



One Saturday morning, I was standing in front of our house, a 13-tenant bungalow, when I saw her- the girl who always hurled insults at me whenever I passed by her neighborhood. She lives three streets from where I live. The location was easily accessible by everyone coming in or going out of our neighborhood. That is why our paths always crossed.

There was nothing exceptional about our neighborhood. Most of the streets were dirty and untilled. When it rained, floods danced their way into the gutters that were already vomiting water.

Iju Ishaga, the neighborhood where I first learned how to speak pidgin-English, is not considered a central part of Lagos. But it is a community that has evolved into a haven for both poor and rich. There was no apparent segregation by economic status. All the children played together as one, except for when there was a personality clash. 

I never really understood why. But the girl enjoyed taunting me. Every day on my way from school or while running errands, I always prayed not to run into her. Sometimes my prayer was answered. Other times, I fall right into her. She called me names, coloring each with words such as stupid, crazy or ugly. I could never respond because she was always in the company of her siblings.

But today she was in my territory. Unarmed. Unaccompanied. I could do what I liked with her. It was payback.

“Shebi na me you dey abuse every time?” I asked in pidgin English.
She starred blankly at me as she walked past. I followed briskly.
“Eh hen, I don catch you today,” I said authoritatively, in an attempt to intimidate her.

She just kept walking. I thought of what to do. I couldn’t allow the opportunity slide, unutilized. I certainly didn’t want to fight. The girl was taller than me. She also looked way older as well. What if she ends up beating me in my territory? I thought to myself. That would be a shameful story to narrate to others, I thought to myself.

While I was still thinking up ideas, I saw Whisky. A perfect weapon. Whisky was the neighbor’s dog. It doesn’t know me, but it always responded by barking whenever I called its name, always from a safe distance.

“God don catch you,” I called out as we both approached whisky’s house- seven blocks [houses] away from where I live. The dog looked bored. He stood like a guard at the entrance of the building.

“Whisky,” I called out.

He responded with two barks. Perfect.

The girl looked at me frightened. She stopped on her track. She was where I needed her to be. In my territory. Unarmed. Unaccompanied. Frightened.

I smiled as I called out to Whisky again. I pointed at the girl as I did so.
The dog walked toward us, away from the gate and kept barking.

“Whisky, Whisky,” I called out again, “Go and bite her,” I commanded.
Something went wrong.

Whisky’s bark became vicious. Before I could call out its name again, the dog charged at me, and I took to my heels.

But my short legs couldn’t outrun the angry dog. I tripped over a stone and found myself on the dirty street. Whisky launched at me. Its bite pierced through my trouser. I let out a scream.

Neighbours from different houses soon gathered around us. The sight of a helpless six years old girl and an angry dog must have torn at their hearts. One of them called for the dog’s owner. No one asked what happened. They all looked at me with kindness in their eyes and asked me where I lived. The girl whom I planned to prey on was also there, sandwiched between the adults in the crowd.

She looked at me, pitifully.

That day, I learned an important life-lesson- if you point one finger to haul evil at someone, you have four fingers directing it back at you.
I could not look directly at her, out of shame. I ran home without responding to the inquisitive crowd.

Oh! I didn't wonder for too long why the dog came after me. I figured it out.

(c) 2014 Jennifer Ehidiamen

Saturday, August 14, 2010

FULL MOON



Moreni knew no other night would pass until they completed their mission. She could see the determination in the eyes of the little old woman everyone called Iya wa, which means our mother. The two stout men that served as Iya wa's bodyguard walked protectively behind the girls as they traveled through the dark forest, all engrossed in their troubled thoughts.

"They know this is wrong," Moreni thought quietly to herself, as hot tears rolled down her chubby cheeks.

"This is not about right or wrong," Iya wa's baritone voice echoed in her head. The full moon was a custom the people of Abule village firmly honored. A time when teenage virgins were usually selected from every home to be circumcised to indicate their readiness to be married to any man who could afford the bride price.

The Earth is cold tonight. No warmth came from the fire that blazed at the center of the compound. The motherly moon positioned its round figure over Iya wa's hut. The drummers and singers took their seat at the entrance of the hut, ready to sing and dance to Iya wa's favorite rhythm as Abule village awaits the pruned flowers to return home in pride, oblivious to the pain inflicted on these girls and the scars they are left to nurse into adulthood. How generations suffer from lack of knowledge.

Moreni helplessly watched on as the first girl was led into the hut. Her innocent look and breastless chest revealed her vulnerability to the full moon. Suddenly, a cry of pain rang through the night. Moreni felt her heart race in fear. Just one more girl and it would be her turn. The little courage she had left was dashed when the first group of girls came out walking with their two legs wide apart.

"Oh mother!" a girl screamed from the hut.

Although the door was shut, everyone could hear Iya wa commanding the girl to lie still. The singers began to hum mournfully, and Iya wa came out, her white wrapper soaked with the red blood of the innocent. She stared into the night and announced without remorse "she bled to death" before leading Moreni inside.

The only source of light in the room came from a small lantern. The floor was untilled, and a blood-stained mat was spread at the center of the hut. A small bowl of water and Iya wa's handbag were the only items in sight. Iya wa gestured towards the mat, as Moreni made to lie down, she was shocked to see a lifeless body on the floor. She took one look at Iya wa's cold face and ran out of the hut.

"Come back here!" Iya called out to her.

She heard heavy footsteps behind her, perhaps Iya wa's bodyguards in pursuit? She had to keep running.

"Moreni, the full moon is for your good, It is the pride of every woman in Abule village," her mother's untrue lines pierced into her heart. No one mentioned death, or the blood or the rusted knife Iya wa used for her operation.

She couldn't tell how far she must have ran. The full moon remained still in the sky. Moreni knew she couldn't hide from it!

"Freedom, here I come," she screamed in excitement.

Someone pulled at her shoulder. She turned to find Iya wa's bodyguard behind her. Dogs barked in the distance, and a forlorn silence fell on Abule village. Everyone knew the fate of any girl who tried to defile the full moon.


(c) Jennifer Ehidiamen

RUNNING IN ERROR


In the heart of all men lies a burden of words of their feelings tied together in a knot, waiting to be let loose. I am fifteen years old, but I feel fifty, my bones crack in protest each time I move my bulging stomach, my pillow cry out to be relieved of my weight upon it. I sit in idleness every day, counting the minutes as it crawls into hours. I come from a “humble” home; my father is a poor man who makes a living from washing other people’s clothes. The meager some he makes from it is used for feeding his wife and six children. I am the second child, the only girl in my family. I hungered to see my family’s poor state reformed. It was this desire for a better life that made me wander away from home, into the hand of a boy whom fate has forced into a man.

Truthfully, I thought Hassan had what it takes to make my future bright in a split second, at least that was what he used to tell me each time I met him after school. He boasted about his father’s wealth; this led me to give myself freely to him without thinking twice about the consequences. I knew there was no turning back the day the doctor confirmed that I was three months pregnant. I only packed my bags and fled from school, into the home of my lover and friend. Hassan welcomed me with open arms thinking it was for the usual Night of bliss, but after I let the cat out of the bag, he lovingly stared into my eyes and begged me to abort the child. “Bisi, you are too young to be a mother, and at twenty I don’t think I am ready to take up the responsibility of a father,” Hassan said sadly.

“But I thought you love me, and you promised to give up anything to be with me.” I cried until I had no strength left for tears. I was perplexed. Did my parents look for me? Only my mother did, my father had no room for unconditional love.

Today marks the eleventh month since I left home, to me, it seems like a decade. As usual, my Mother is babysitting my daughters, Hassanatu and Halimatu.

“A twin brings healthy wealth to all who loves them,” she keeps telling my broken heart. Hassan is out working, and I am supposed to be resting. Rest? I know I will never find it. The devil with his long tail has used me in destroying the future of a young boy who has now been disowned by his father for rubbing his name in the mud of irresponsibility diluted with immorality. I have devastated my world, which until now was secured and bright in its little light. “A wasted investment” is what my elder brother calls me. I have brought two children into this world when I can barely take care of myself, and now another is on the way. What was it my Mother said? “Oh! My baby is manufacturing babies!” What a sad reality.

I tell myself every morning that it will get better, the fears and tears will be gone tomorrow, but I know these are lies I tell to help cover up my wound of shame. Now I understand why my father always say that life can only be fair when we play our role well in it. I have run in error, a race I pray no girl ever run again. I do not know how to begin. This is the story.

(c) Jennifer Ehidiamen