On the day before Easter we head back home in Ajegunle, me and my little sister, Mira, who is smiling and eating sweets we brought from Apapa. Mommy Remi, our stepmom, should be mad now worrying about us in Ajegunle. Her cane should be mad, too, from waiting for too long to bite our backs. We didn’t tell her we were going to Apapa. She was giving Baba a massage when we sneaked out without a trace.
Going to Apapa was fun for us. Apapa is not like Ajegunle. Apapa is the richer, finer sister of Ajegunle. She smells of costly perfumes while Ajegunle, the Jungle City, smells just like when someone with a bad stomach farts. In Apapa, a white man gave us money for wiping the windscreen of his Toyota Hilux on which was a CHEVRON sticker. He was a thin man with a very long nose. He let me wipe his windscreen in the traffic jam, nodded his head with a smile, rolled down the glass of his window and gave us a five hundred naira note fresh from the bank.
“Happy Easter, guys,” he said smiling.
“Same to you!” Mira said, giggling. We prostrated ourselves on the road. “Thank, sah!” I yelled. I was crazed with joy. “Adupe o oyinbo!” Just then a LASTMA policeman bounded towards us in a terrific rage with a stick like one who had heard us abusing his mother’s buttocks. Mira screamed. We scrambled away. We clambered over the road dividers and ran into the multitude of people and honking danfos on the fringes of the road, which covered us up like a good mother would do. Then we fled to Boundary.
The whole world comes together at Boundary. It is a big marketplace that swallows the road. Houses apart are big and old. The sun is too hot here. Cars and danfos honk everywhere. People pay the horns the least attention. A herd of cattle crosses, tearing through the crowd with their horns. People pour in here, confusing our eyes and our movement. I have a feeling that spirits mix with human beings here, smiling, frowning, yelling, and moaning. We could easily be spirited out of this place without anyone knowing. We could be trampled dead by a thousand feet of grownups and the black hooves of cattle. People sell wares from the bare road, from tables, from stalls with bright awnings, from kiosks, from under large rainbow-colored umbrellas, from bicycles, from the boots of old cars, from cars converted into containers, from carts, from the gutters. There are sellers of books. Pamphlets. Perfumes. Poisons. Fetishes. Clothes. Belts. Shoes. Flip-flops. Women’s makeup. Women’s wigs. Hair extensions. Mobile phones. Recharge cards. Beef. Food. Water. Soft drinks. Beer. Gin.
Everybody is in a hurry. We bump into men and women of different sizes. Giants of women. Hulks of men lifting heavy loads. Women thin like wires and those fat as tanks. People with deformities. Amputees. We walk and look with confused eyes spiced with amazement. We leave Boundary, pass Bale Street, and approach our home in the stomach of Ajegunle. The sun is about to set. Mira and I are like rats waking from a bad dream to fall into the happiness of a big wild cat.
The noise of people greet us again. The bloodshot eyes from shacks stare at us. Men from the beer parlors spit into the nearby gutters. From the mosque a muezzin’s voice worms its way in the air. The Pentecostal churches bark like dogs. Everything frowns at us: the litter and filth, the uncompleted houses, the kiosks, the tin shacks patched with tarp, the stinking gutters….
When Mommy Remi sees us, she grabs her stick. She flogs us with the magical speed of a witch. Her cane seems to multiply in her hand so that in one moment she has a dozen sticks in her hand and in another she holds a forest of sticks. We cry and run about in our candle-lit house, yelling out Baba’s name. “Awon omo tobaje!” She spits. “Bad children! Where have you been since yesterday? You want to die and take others to the land of death, abi? You killed your mother and you want to kill me now with worry…”
Baba weaves into the house with a scummy iron bucket in one hand and a sooty hurricane lamp in another. The odor of the room worsens because of him. His face is like a black, squeezed towel. He is ready for work this night. His boots are black and muddy, with ropes of jute tied around them.
“You have flogged them enough, Remilekun,” he says. His voice is low like a woofer. “Enough…I said ENOUGH!”
Mommy Remi’s cane falls limp on the floor, losing the powers of witchcraft. Mira and I writhe in pain on the floor of the room, yelling, tears and snot running down our faces. When we grow tired from crying, we stop, curl up in our own corner of the floor and fall asleep.
We wake up in the middle of the night and find a plate of amala and ewedu soup next to our feet. The food has been left uncovered. Mommy Remi had left us the food. I rub my eyes with my finger, to make sure I have not been tricked. Mira is the first to rejoice.
“Mommy Remi gave us meat?” she asks.
“Let’s be sure, Mira,” I advise.
I poke a finger at one of the brown objects of our happiness. It breaks into a race, like in a movie, alerting the other two. This annoys us. Three fat intruders messing with our food! We fall into a rage, stamping our feet, throwing things within our reach, slamming our palms on the floor. We kill two of the cockroaches. One escapes into a hole in the floor.
Our room is a small chamber separated from Baba’s room and sitting room by only a black sheet of cardboard. The cardboard has been brown before, but the touch of countless rains has left on it an ugly pattern of moulds. We have smashed countless mosquitoes on it. We have killed moths suspected to be witches on it. We have squashed cockroaches on it. On it we have crushed spiders that cause bad dreams. We have killed many rats on it. And Baba’s buckets, ropes, Wellington boots and gloves encrusted with mud and sewage lean on the cardboard, scowling at us. They stink as bad as the hole in the floor.
After killing the two cockroaches, Mira and I pounce on our food. It is after we finish the meal that we realize that we forgot to say a prayer before eating. Mommy Remi says prayers prevent stomach aches and cholera which are pure works of witchcraft.
“Nothing will happen to us,” Mira says, licking her fingers.
“The soup was a little sour,” I observe.
“The cockroaches caused it,” Mira reasons.
“Those greedy devils.”
“I don’t even know why God created cockroaches.”
“God didn’t, Mira. Satan did.”
“If so, there must be cockroaches everywhere, even in Apapa,” Mira says, still busy with her fingers.
“Satan is everywhere, Prosper.”
“Even if there are cockroaches in Apapa, they can’t be as big as the ones in Ajegunle.”
Something strikes me now. “Wait o, Mira. We never see Yewande since we come back,” I say in pidgin English.
Mira looks around, her eyes large like those of a praying mantis. “That na true.”
“Let us check her things.”
We put our plates aside. I take the dirty hurricane lamp on the floor and look at the corner where Yewande’s mat and pillow and bag of clothes are. We don’t know where she has gone. We normally share this room with her; but recently she has been behaving like one who is getting ready to be married off. She doesn’t sleep here sometimes. We know she has boyfriends. Yewande is eleven. But her eyes are wide open now. Some nights she is out in beer parlors, drinking with men, who pay for her drinks and always like to take her to their houses. I don’t know why the men always act crazy when they see Yewande. “Ssssss!” they call out to her. “Eiiii, fine gyal, come make I talk to you!” “Come, omo sexy, I get wetin you want.” Maybe it is because Yewande has big eyes. Maybe it is because she is a fabulous dancer. She can dance galala, dance hall, reggae, makossa. She is Muslim, but she is not too strict about it. The music of the Pentecostal Church that Mummy Remi, I and Mira go to lures her and she joins us sometimes. She is happy that in our Church she is free to dance galala and makossa and dance hall, unlike in the mosque. She likes our pastor, Pastor Ayo, a lot because he dances beautifully in different styles, and because he does not discriminate against Muslims. As a matter of fact, Pastor Ayo’s first wife is a Muslim. It was recently that he married his second wife, Mummy Abundance, a fat terrific dancer from an Aladura Church.
We begin to turn Yewande’s things over. We do so like people who have just discovered freedom. Yewande’s corner was off-limits to me and Mira. We are pests, she says. Rats. Cockroaches. Termites. We could destroy her precious belongings. We could cut the tender strips of her G-string underpants. We could damage her spaghetti blouses. We could spill her lotions and break her bottle of perfume. We could also run into things we lack knowledge of and which would put us in big trouble for the rest of our lives. Because of her warnings, we had stayed away from Yewande’s corner. We had lived as if we were rats afraid of Yewande’s rat poison.
Now we carry on with this exploration. Mira overtakes me in discovery. She uncovers Yewande’s perfume. Mira presses its small black head: it hisses like a snake, stabbing the air with sweet-smelling venom. We are just mad now. We love the hissing animal. We keep making it hiss and hiss and hiss. We giggle and giggle and giggle as the perfume drops on our faces and necks and arms. We make a big noise in our room. We are not afraid of anything. We argue about what to buy for Easter with the money we have made at Apapa.
“We will buy perfume.”
“No, we will buy shoes.”
“No, ice cream.”
“No, ice cream will give us runny stomachs.”
“Then we buy a shirt.”
“Or eye glasses.”
Mommy Remi is sleeping like a blind snail now. Nothing can stir her. Not even a gunshot right next to her ears. Baba, who sleeps only a dog’s sleep, is out now in the ghetto on night duty.
As we celebrate, a small wind tugs at our roof. But it grows bigger and bigger and lightning flashes across the sky. The blazes filter into our room, scaring us. Thunder gurgles like Baba when he is loudly swallowing water. The wind behaves like it is going to lift our house and throw it into the Lagos lagoon or even deep into the Atlantic ocean. We hear the frantic voices of women in the neighboring houses.
“It is a big rain coming,” I say.
“Rain will beat Baba,” Mira fears.
Cold begins to press our bodies and we gather up Yewande’s clothes and cover ourselves with them. Then the tin roof starts to beat drums over our heads. The window, which has many cracks and holes, starts to spit. The roof starts to pee. We set Baba’s buckets to catch the roof’s urine. A python of water, crawls into our room from under the door. It crawls and buries its head into the hole in our floor. It grows bigger and meanders in search of us. Then smaller pythons break out of its body, searching for us. We throw some of our clothes at them so that they don’t find us. The wind shakes our house wildly and we hold each other firmly and we begin to pray like Pastor Ayo, asking God to spare us this night even if our sins are as big as Ajegunle.
Easter for us begins with Mommy Remi waking us up on Sunday, saying:
“Oya, wake up. Don’t you know that Christ has risen from the dead?”
She said it with great happiness and certainty as if Jesus were standing outside our house.
“Good morning, Mommy,” we greet her.
“Morning, good children,” she says with a big smile. She slept with make-up on her long face, and now her face is like a hurriedly done painting. She could have scared us if not for her kind Easter voice. “I hope you had sweet dreams?”
“Yes, Mommy,” I say. “We slept well.”
She rubs Mira’s head as if to make amends for last night’s caning.
“I slept well, Mommy.”
“Oya, go to Baba and say ‘Good morning’ to him. Quick. Today is Easter. Don’t kill time.”
We enter Baba’s room as we do every morning. He looks big in his sleep. He is lying on a mat, snoring heavily, or appearing to be snoring heavily, his flywhisk laid across his chest. He looks dirtier than yesterday and there is something that looks like a wound dressing on his neck. But Baba’s work clothes are never to be trusted. Sometimes they make him look murdered when he is not.
“Ekaro, Baba,” Mira and I greet in concert, prostrating ourselves. The floor is wet, obviously newly mopped by Mommy Remi.
Baba replies with his snoring. We are surprised that he does not wake, because normally a sheet of paper falling on the floor will wake him.
We look at the hanging on the wall with the legend: NO WEAPON FASHIONED AGAINST ME SHALL PROSPER, BECAUSE I HAVE A MIRACLE-WORKING GOD. Mira and I like this wall hanging because its legend carries our names. Mommy Remi bought it last Easter Sunday in our church, when Pastor Ayo said we must buy his wall hangings to protect our families from witchcraft and poverty. This hangs on the wall opposite Baba’s own hanging, a present from our landlord, Alhaji Fatoki, on the day he returned from Mecca. The present is an oxblood cloth of velveteen with Arabic words in wood carving glued to it. Baba says they mean “As-Salaam Alaaikum“. And Baba is always guided by those words, because all the good things in life, he would say, money, cars, houses, aso oke clothing, boubous, agbadas, gold, big man’s food, good job, children, friends, relations– all is useless without peace.
After greeting Baba, we turn and go to meet Mommy Remi, who is waiting outside.
Our street has risen from last night’s destruction and death. Our house is among the few lucky houses on the street that have risen from this death without a bruise. The street is bad and running with flood. Some of our neighbors are crying now. There are people sweeping out water from their homes, some bailing out water with plastic cups, some counting their damaged property. Some people throw awful garbage into the flood like it is a natural thing to do.
Just now, we see Yewande coming home. She is wearing a short white gown and carrying a plastic bag. She wades through the dirty floodwater on our street, holding up her shoes in her hand, her gown hugging her body like a boyfriend.
Mummy Remi slaughters a white chicken for Easter in front of our house. She spills the blood. The blood mingles with the flood. The flood carries it away. Mira and I pluck the feathers of the chicken and Mira burns four of her fingers in hot water.
“Be careful, Mira,” I coach her. “You have to pluck the feathers with tact. Like this…” And I show her. But she can’t learn now.
Yewande cuts up the chicken and cooks jollof rice. The smells of chicken and nutmeg and curry and onions and pepper saturate the air of our house.
Mummy Remi does not go to Easter Sunday service today. But she insists that we go because Jesus has risen from the dead and won’t be happy if he goes to Our Provider and does not see us giving him thanks. Yewande opts to go with us. We are happy that she is going with us. We are full of expectations. Yewande is going to dance makossa and galala and dance hall today, I think.
At Christ Our Provider Pentecostal Church, there is loud drumming and singing already. We have missed the opening part of the service and are right in the middle of the Praise and Worship session. At the back end of the church is a heap of rubble, from last night’s storm. But the front part of the church is spared by a miracle. It is amazing that the musical instruments are sounding today, even louder than before. Pastor Ayo sings a Kirk Franklin song, which sweeps Yewande’s feet. Mama Abundance is looming at her Pastor’s wife’s position, holding a trumpet. She doesn’t seem to like American songs. But she breaks loose the moment her husband begins to sing “Me, I No Go Suffer “. She blasts her trumpet and throws the whole church into wild dancing. Yewande begins to dance makossa. Mira shakes and giggles at the circular motions her big sister’s waist is making. I dig my own steps, looking up to Yewande for more styles.
There is nothing in the church sweeter than its music. When Pastor Ayo begins to preach, asking us to sow a seed in the church for Christ’s death and resurrection and for God’s protection from witches and wizards, I become drowsy. Mira begins to snore. At the end of the sermon, Mama Abundance is slain in the spirit and bursts out moaning.
“God has showed me the future,” she says. “Ajegunle will be swept by a latter rain! The latter rain God has showed me is the rain of prosperity! Of promotion! Of money! And gold! And cars! And good houses! And electricity! And agbadas! And boubous! And aso okes! And fine jobs! And fruit of the womb….!”
We shout amens till our throats itch.
“Come forward,” Mama Abundance yelps to the congregation. “Come and receive the promises of God. Come for God’s deliverance from the curse of poverty and sickness and barrenness!” She warns us never to come with empty hands. There is a scramble to reach her now. People stumble through plastic chairs with money in their hands. She lays hands on their heads. She daubs anointing oil on their foreheads. She casts out demons. She heals the sick. She prophesies. She smiles.
When we return home, hungry for Yewande’s jollof rice, we hear for the first time that Baba had an accident last night while at work. He is sitting up now, eyes swollen, his clothes off, except a green wrapper covering his nakedness. Our landlord, Alhaji Fatoki, is in the room, his prayer beads between his fingers. The muezzin of Baba’s mosque, Taiwo, is here, too, leading a prayer in a sweet sonorous voice.
When the visitors go, Mira and I and Yewande enter Baba’s room, prostrate ourselves and say we are sorry about what had happened.
“I fell into a pit latrine last night during work,” Baba said in his woofer voice.”But Allah the Merciful brought me out.” Because it had never happened to Baba before, I imagined his fall into a pit latrine and coming out was the same as dying and rising from the dead.
Baba begins a sermon to us on the importance of keeping one’s hands clean and living peacefully with all people.
“Look around our street,” he says. “Look further down to other streets. Go to Wilmer Crescent and see the dead from last night’s rain. Some babies were swept up by the flood and drowned. Alhaji Fatoki has just told me that the flood broke into one of his houses in Orodu Street like a robber and killed the young tenant inside.”
He clears his throat and continues.
“Ajegunle is a bloody creature. It drinks blood. It eats human beings like chickens. We must keep our hands clean and always ask Allah the Almighty and Most Merciful to protect us.
He picks up his Koran and begins to read. We leave him in peace.
Outside, the flood is slowly receding, leaving in its wake mud and refuse from our street.