By Ojima Abalaka
Danjuma, Mama Afam’s houseboy, tells me to forget my family. He says Mama sold me to Uncle Joe. I try not to believe him but it is becoming harder not to. It has started to rain and I hate the rain. It rained on the day Uncle Joe came to take me away.
Mama took special care in ironing my dress that day. It was the best dress I owned and it was usually reserved for special occasions. I had last worn it to Papa’s funeral. It had been two years since Papa died.
I had watched Mama as she worked, diligently straightening every crease on the red dress. She had started to look older than she actually was. I imagined being able to iron out the creases on her face as she did the ones on my dress. Her once non-existent cheekbones had become more visible than those of Agbani at the Miss World pageant. That is what poverty does to you. It gives you the features of a skinny model, albeit a not so tall one. I wouldn’t mention these things to her though. She was already under enough stress. Uncle Joe was coming to visit.
She had told us that his coming was very important and had asked my brother Enebi, and I to behave like well-mannered children. This request was more directed at me, however. She said Uncle Joe would take me to Lagos if I seemed well behaved. I would live with his family and help his pregnant wife with some house chores. In return, Uncle Joe would send some money to her. She would use this money to pay Enebi’s school fees. We had stopped going to school when Papa died. I did not really miss Papa. He owed almost everyone in the village money before he died and the burden of repaying his debts had fallen on Mama. We didn’t own much but the little that we had; Mama sold to pay off his debts. Mama would often say that Papa ran away like a chicken, leaving us to sort out his problems. He had died a careless death. A lorry had hit him while he was trying to cross the road on his bicycle. The people that had witnessed the tragic event said that Papa was drunk. He had died on the way to the hospital.
It will never be well with you Papa Enebi!” she would cry. “Even in death, it will never be well.” She would then say that the rain will not stop falling simply because the gourd is full. Life must go on.
Sometimes, I wondered if Papa could hear her, regretting not being alive to beat her up. I doubted that all was well with him. Even in death.
When I told Mama that I was not comfortable with the idea of going to live with Uncle Joe, and that I didn’t want to serve as his maid, she broke down in exaggerated tears. It felt like I was in a theatre, watching a badly produced play.
“You are just as selfish as your father. Don’t you want my only son to go to school? Who will take care of me when I’m old?”
I told her that I, too, wanted to go to school. I asked her why Enebi couldn’t work for Uncle Joe. After all, we both had two hands. I didn’t understand.
She told me that it wasn’t done, that Enebi was older than me and that he was, her only son. It was his responsibility to take care of us and to do so; he had to go to school. It had troubled me how, although my mother seemed to strongly value education, she didn’t always make the most educated decisions.
I was not really convinced by her explanation. There was something about it that didn’t just sound right. I was also her only daughter. I couldn’t see how Enebi being her only son was anything special. When I told her that I was also capable of taking care of her if I went to school, she promised to ask Uncle Joe to send me to school. “Do this for me, Imayo,” she said. “I beg you my daughter.”
I watched as Enebi toyed with the controls of our old television, pretending not to be interested in the conversation. The last time the television had worked was when Papa was alive. I had always thought my older brother was a coward and that moment confirmed it. He was just as weak as Papa but Mama loved him. Mama loved him almost too much. I felt something then, a feeling I would never admit. I was jealous.
I remember looking around the one-room apartment the three of us shared. Besides the mattress that was almost as flat as a mat and the kerosene stove that had darkened the ceiling of the small room, there was not much to look at. We had sold almost everything else. I watched Enebi as he played with the torn window net, letting in mosquitoes by the hundreds. I had lived in Lokoja all my life and suddenly, the idea of going to Lagos with Uncle Joe didn’t seem like such a bad one.
It didn’t matter that Uncle Joe wasn’t really my uncle. He was Mama’s cousin’s friend. He had attended Papa’s funeral and had brought a goat. He had been given the title ‘uncle’ since then. We didn’t know if ‘Joe’ was short for Joseph, Jonathan or Joshua and we didn’t even know his last name. We only knew that he lived in Lagos and could afford a goat.
“I will go Mama,” I finally said. My mother smiled and gave me a hug. “I know you will not fail me,” she said. It felt awkward, the hug. I could not remember the last time my mother had embraced me.
It was raining when Uncle Joe arrived. He looked fatter than he was at Papa’s funeral.
‘He’s eating good food,’ Mama whispered to me as we watched him struggle to get out of his car. I remember Enebi quickly rushing out with an umbrella to help the fat man. He reached out to collect Uncle Joe’s suitcase and I watched as he tried hard not to stare at the man’s stomach. It was huge. Enebi had to hold the umbrella with his arm outstretched to protect Uncle Joe from the rain. I wondered then how he was both tall and fat.
Uncle Joe looked out of place in our one-room apartment. His glossy kaftan stood out sharply against Mama’s faded wrapper and Enebi’s torn t-shirt. Sitting there, it didn’t occur to me that just as my red dress was the best item of clothing I owned; Uncle’s Joe’s glossy kaftan was probably his best outfit. It would take a while for me to realize that poor people could also be fat and that Uncle Joe was one of those fat poor people. That just like me, Uncle Joe was poor. The only difference was that he was he poor in Lagos and to be poor in Lagos is a better type of poverty. I watched quietly as Mama and Uncle Joe determined my fate. They spoke in hushed tones. I felt uncomfortable in the red dress. The sleeves bunched up under my arms and made my armpits itch.
Uncle Joe agreed to send me to school. ‘Education is the key,’ he said. His voice was what I imagined a rich man’s voice to sound like. It was deep and authoritative. He sounded like he knew what he was talking about even when he didn’t. Although I wondered what key he was referring to, I looked forward to being a student again. ‘Education is the key,’ I whispered to myself.
Once it had stopped raining, he decided that it was time to leave and gave Mama what he referred to as ‘small change’ for food. I had already packed up the few clothes that I owned and changed into a skirt and a t-shirt. Mama gave me another awkward embrace before I sat at the front of Uncle Joe’s old Volvo. She avoided my eyes.
As the car drove away, I waved until I could not see Mama’s fair arms anymore. The tears I had been holding back started to fall. It didn’t occur to me then that it might be the last time I would ever see Mama.
Ojima is a
school dropout taking a gap year and currently has no clear ambition in life. She blogs at aladiabalaka.com about the hopeful paths to self discovery as well as ramblings about life.