BEFORE THE TRIP - Welcome to My Woven Words


As soon as I came out of my house at 6 Agho Street on the March morning, someone shouted in my direction: “Hold the debtor! Don’t let her run away. Hold the debtor!” Without looking at the person, I knew it was Gomo. In the night of the day before, he sent a note through my sister, Janet, saying
that I’d borrowed money from him six months ago, money meant to treat the burns on my face and arms, but I did not want to pay it back. What did I think he was? A Father Christmas? He would get his money from me in the morning even if all the people in Benin City pleaded that he should leave me alone.
After reading the letter, I tore it, and Janet asked why. Did I not know that, when Gomo was like this, he would carry out his threats? I told her: “Gomo cannot do more than a harmless rat. By the time he comes, I’ll be at the bus stop for the journey to Abuja.” I told her that Gomo, like the drunkard he was, would be too busy sleeping when I began my journey and that Janet should forget him. Unfortunately, Gomo surprised me, as he woke much earlier from his usual drunken slumber. And I knew all the prayers to Jesus Christ would not make him give me more time to pay my debts.
Despite this, I decided not to run and headed toward the bus stop, about eight hundred meters away. Gomo, shouting at the top of his voice, caught up with me before I covered ten meters. By this time, some of the women living on Agho Street, attracted by Gomo’s voice, trooped out of their houses. Mama Sarah, a woman who owned the provision store next door, ran toward us. Mama Johnson tied her wrapper around her waist and came out to the street. Though men did not come out, some of them were disturbed by the scene. One man opened his mouth so wide that his chewing stick fell out of his mouth to the ground. As he bent to pick it, I turned to Gomo.
“I’ll pay you when I come back from Abuja,” I told him.
“That’s been your story for the past six months!” Gomo shouted. “Is that what I’ll tell Mama Gbenga when she comes for her money? I want my money now.”
Mama Sarah told him to have pity on me; after all, Mama Gbenga had traveled, and I never used to owe money before I was wounded and disfigured by a kerosene explosion two years ago. Mama Johnson told him he should have the milk of human kindness and allow me to go on my trip.
“Will the milk of human kindness save me from Mama Gbenga?” Gomo shrieked.
“So you don’t want to forgive and forget?” asked Mama Sarah. “All right, we’ll see.”
Before I knew it, the women grabbed Gomo. Mama Sarah pulled at the belt of his trousers, swearing, demanding the money for the bottle of beer he bought on credit for his girlfriend. Mama Johnson pulled at his dirty shirt and said: “Where is the money for the stick of cigarette you bought from me two weeks ago?” As they dragged Gomo from one side of the road to the other, he loosened his grip on my black blouse, and I pushed his hand away.
While this happened, I hoped more people would not waylay me. Gomo was not the only person I owed since the kerosene explosion, and the fear of harassment kept me on edge every time. Even now, if a dog barked too loudly, I jumped, thinking one of my creditors had come to say, “Abuja, where is my money?” If I heard a knock at my door, I scurried under the bed, thinking the landlord had come to collect his rent, which I could not pay because I’d lost my job over the burns.
These hassles frequently angered me. We had bought adulterated kerosene from government filling stations. Then it had exploded, scarred our faces, made us lose our jobs, and turned us into paupers. Government officials promised to help us; instead they abandoned us, leaving us to fend for ourselves. Have they done the right thing by allowing us to live like sewage rats?
The Abuja issue came six months ago. Our leader, a man called Eldorado, told us that God had at last answered our prayers, that some doctors from America wanted to carry out surgery on our burns in Abuja. We would not pay anything; it was free. Since then, I became hopeful that my scars would go away. When the boys in Agho Street laughed at me over my scarred face and arms, I gloated, saying I would soon look better than they did, and that everything would be corrected in Abuja.
I spoke so much about Abuja that the area boys changed my name from Mabel to Abuja. I first learned this a month ago. As I walked to the bus stop for a ride to town, one of my most stubborn creditors, a man called Tolu Player, stopped me. Before I could speak, he waved his hands as though he did not want to listen to more stories. “That’s why they’re calling you Abuja. I don’t want to hear about any surgery. Just give me my two hundred naira.” Another of my creditors, Oviedo, a woman selling secondhand brassieres at the nearby New Market, came to meet me at home, and said, “Abuja, where is my money?” The day for the journey to Abuja had come, but I was having problems.
As I hurried down the street, pulling away from Gomo and the women harassing him, I struggled to overcome my disbelief I could catch the Abuja-bound bus. People trooped into the street as though they were ants coming out of their anthills, and many of them were my creditors. Any of them could stop me and say, “Hey! Abuja, where is my money?” or say that they wanted to use it to pay the secondterm school fees of their son or hire a band for the second burial of their great grandmother, wasting the time I could use to catch the bus.
There was another reason for the doubts that crept into my mind. I was so anxious not to miss the Abuja bus that I woke by three at night, staring at the ceiling of my room till five, growing weak from lack of adequate sleep. When Janet came and saw me, she said that my eyes were as swollen as a frog’s and my hands shook as though I suffered from fever. I told her I was all right. But as the minutes passed, weakness overtook me, and pains from the burns on my face and arms overwhelmed me, making me fall asleep again. When I woke up, Janet, who returned from morning prayers at a church nearby, said it was seven, and I knew it would be difficult catching the Abuja bus.
But I could not afford missing it. If I did, Janet would call me a careless fool. Was it because she provided me with three square meals daily that I did not find it necessary to cure myself, start work, and begin feeding myself again? How could I afford missing the only real opportunity for cure to my burns? If my best friend, Agnes, heard I missed the bus, she would say, “Ah, ah, Abuja, how can you allow this to happen?” I was in hot soup. My creditors would say I was careless, and they would no longer have pity on me. My fellow tenants, if they heard, would say the witches that caused the kerosene explosion in the first place still dogged my life, and that I suffered from “home trouble.”
I was inclined toward believing the last view. My father had taught me that when a woman sneezed, a witch was behind it. I believed him. Were it not so, how did it come about that I bought the killer kerosene when so many other people purchased the original one? Was it not because a witch put a spell on me? And now, on the day I was to go to Abuja for surgery, I was overwhelmed by fatigue because I had not slept long enough and had to sleep again. Was it not because my enemies wanted me not to travel? As I walked up the street, I wondered whether it was possible to overcome the witches on this all-important day.
While these thought troubled me, I looked up the road and saw Tolu Player. As soon as I spotted him, I was filled with panic. Why should he appear on the day I wanted to travel? At the same time, I was furious. How long would I continue to shake like a cold fowl when I saw my creditors on the streets of Benin City? Was this not why I must travel, no matter what happened? And a little fighting spirit flowed into me.
When Tolu Player stopped in front of me, he scowled, and I knew at once he wanted to ask for his two hundred naira and would not take no for an answer. His scowl was so frightful, Mama Sarah, had she seen it, would have asked: “Why are you frowning as if an ant has bitten your face?” His shirt looked rough and threadbare, the kind the small boys in Agho Street called Okrika, the kind my former boyfriend, Cletus, would wear “over his dead body.” Tolu’s pair of shoes was old and dusty, as though dust settled on them after he trekked tens of kilometers. Had Agnes seen him, she would have asked why he always trekked on the road and could not board a bus once in a while. Was he the only one in Benin City who did not have money?
To make matters worse, Tolu was not only a debtor but also never paid his debts. He once owed Mama Sarah three hundred naira, money owed for the bottle of beer he bought for his girlfriend. When Mama Sarah asked him for it, he said he would pay her the next day. When the next day arrived, he promised to pay the next one. Exasperated after six months, Mama Sarah shouted at him: “Will tomorrow tomorrow never end?” That was how Tolu acquired the nickname “Tomorrow Tomorrow Never End.” Even as he stood in front of me, I was not sure he had paid Mama Sarah’s debt.
Staring at me, he cleared his voice.
“Where’s my money, Abuja?” he asked.
“I told you I’ll pay you when I come back from my surgery operation.”
Before I could stop him, he grabbed my hand, twisted it, and removed the bag I hung on my shoulder, pushing me out of the way.
“When you come back from Abuja, come and take your bag.”
I grabbed his shirt and shouted: “Give me my bag! Give me my bag!”
“What is happening there?” Mama Sarah, who still held Gomo’s trousers, hollered.
I told her that Tolu had seized my bag because I hadn’t paid him his money. Leaving Gomo to Mama Johnson, Mama Sarah headed toward me and Tolu, who struggled to push me away as soon as he heard Mama Sarah’s voice. Succeeding, he took to his heels, heading up the street. But he did not see a cement block in his way, and he tripped over it, shouting as he crashed to the dusty street.
Groaning, he got to his feet. Dust stained the side of his face and left arm, and he looked like a dirty masquerade. His shirt was also stained by dust, and its top right pocket was torn. He staggered on his feet when Mama Sarah grabbed him by the belt of his trousers.
“Where’s my three hundred naira?” she demanded. “I want it now.”
“Why are you doing this to me, Mama Sarah?”
Just then someone shouted on the street: “That’s him! Tomorrow Tomorrow Never Ends!”
Turning, I looked up the road and saw two men run toward us, shouting at the top of their voices. I knew one of them, a man the area boys on Agho Street called the Leader. Though he had no job, he drove a sleek Mercedes and always seemed to be in money. It was rumored that he was the leader of a ruthless moneylending group operating in the area. Also, he owned a dog named Bingo, a fearsomelooking animal that barked anytime I returned home late at night, only restrained from jumping at me by the gate locked against it. As the Leader and his friend reached us, Bingo bounded down the street, tail wagging, his leash trailing on the ground. Seeing the dog, I shifted away from Mama Sarah and Tolu.
“You can run but you can never hide,” the Leader said to Tolu. “Give me more time,” Tolu told him. “I’ll pay the money.” The Leader turned to Bingo and picked up the leash.
“Get him!” he commanded.
Bingo barked at Tolu, and fear gripped me. Had I heard such a bark when I returned home at night, I would never have come late again. The big dog lunged in Tolu’s direction, and the debtor cried, held out a hand against the dog, and dropped my traveling bag to a nearby patch of grass. Mama Sarah had left him since she saw the dog. She now jumped over a gutter, almost falling, and disappeared into the courtyard of the bungalow opposite us, shouting at the top of her voice. Mama Johnson ran after her friend, holding the end of her wrapper with one hand to keep it from falling to the street. One man ran down the street, yelling Bingo wanted to make a meal of Tolu.
But the dog did not get to Tolu. The Leader pulled back the leash while it jumped, and Tolu leaped away. Getting to his knees, he pleaded he would get the money that very afternoon. A woman in the next street owed him and promised to pay by twelve. The Leader would get it immediately after, and he should forgive Tolu for not paying as it would not happen again.
“Get his shirt, Gatecrasher!” the Leader said to his companion. “When he pays his money he’ll get it back!”
Gatecrasher gave a wolfish grin and closed in on his prey. Had Janet seen his chest, she would have said, “That’s the chest of a wrestler.” Gatecrasher’s arms were big, and his biceps rippled with muscles. Gatecrasher looked like the kind of men found lurking around street corners and seedy drinking joints. He grabbed Tolu by the arm and wanted to kick his legs off the ground. Tolu dodged, flailed his hands, begging, saying he would pay the money in the afternoon.
“Kneel down!” Gatecrasher roared.
When Tolu hesitated, Gatecrasher clenched his fist and raised it in the air, aiming to smash it down the debtor’s head, but Tolu pleaded. He would get the money without fail. Still raising his fist in the air, Gatecrasher ordered him to remove his shirt and put it in his palm immediately. But I did not want to witness more of this. My bag lay on the sand five meters from me, so I ran to it, grabbed it, and sprinted up the street. Bingo barked, and Tolu yelled from Gatecrasher’s blow, but I did not stop, dashing toward the nearest street corner.
By this time, the sun had climbed a quarter of its way up the sky, and I felt the beads of sweat that broke out on my face. Worried about the sun, I quickened my footsteps, noting only a little breeze blew, unlike at dawn when it blew strongly. As I turned a corner and stepped into a new street, I caught a whiff of iodine in the air. I feared the smell because it caused me to gasp, and I hurried down the street, intent on getting to the bus stop as quickly as possible. But when I got to the middle of the street, I frowned. Oviedo, the woman who sold secondhand brassieres to women living in Agho Street, marched toward me.
An inner voice told me to run, that I stood the chance of getting to Abuja if this woman did not stop me. I was about to run, but another voice said I should not risk it, that I was without my usual strength. Who knew what would happen if I ran? Perhaps I might collapse to the road, canceling the trip altogether, leaving me at the mercy of people like Oviedo, Tolu Player, and Gomo permanently. I decided not to run, to risk facing Oviedo, who stopped in front of me.
A very fat woman in her midforties, Oviedo was a legendary figure in Agho Street. People rumored that she’d sat on her husband during a fight and the poor man could not stand up after the incident. He had to be rushed to the hospital where doctors revived him. Another account said that he’d stood up after the fight, but he began to sweat, farting as though his wife’s weight had punctured his internal organs. Still another woman, giving her account of the incident, said that Oviedo had taken him to the hospital after the fight and told him: “Next time you disobey me, I’ll beat you, sit on you, and you’ll never stand up again.” But one thing was clear in all the accounts: Oviedo had beaten her husband, she had sat down on him, and he could not get up. It was rumored that she hated people referring to the issue.
At first, she did not see me, and she spoke to herself as she lumbered up the street, abusing someone who owed her and refused to pay the debt, that she would sit on her and she would not get up. Looking to my side of the street, she saw me, and she hardened her face. I felt like running again, not wanting the massive woman to sit on me, but I felt I could not risk it, so I stopped and faced her.
“Where’s the money, Abuja?” she demanded.
“Let me come back, I’ll give it to you.”
“Come back when?” she roared. “Never! You must pay me now, or I’ll sit on top of you.”
She veered toward me, and I shouted. It attracted people who sat in the courtyard of a nearby bungalow, and one man stood up, jumped over the gutter beside his chair, and came toward us. He pleaded with Oviedo that she should sympathize with me. Did she not know that if she sat on me I could choke to death? Did she think she could sell secondhand brassieres to the women living in the area again if I died? Oviedo asked him: “If I leave her, will you pay her debt?” When the man did not answer, Oviedo told him to leave her alone or she would sit on him as well.
As the exchange went on, a small crowd, attracted by it, stood a few meters from us, silent. Joe, the local wit, stood in the crowd, making fun of Oviedo. “Leave them alone,” he told her. “Do you want to send them to the hospital?”
“Are you talking to me?” Oviedo asked.
“No,” said Joe. “I’m talking to the fat woman who sits on people.”
“I’ll teach you to stop interfering in other peoples’ business,” Oviedo said with anger and headed toward him. But she stepped on a slippery pond in the way, staggered, and fell down, staining her white lace blouse and wrapper. The crowd laughed, Joe’s voice sounding above the rest. Angered, Oviedo swore under her breath and stood up from the pond, beating her dress.
“This will teach you to stop sending people to the hospital,” Joe said to her.
Yelling, Oviedo stepped out of the pond and ran toward Joe, people scattering in all directions. One man’s cap fell off his head as he ran, but he did not stop to pick it from the ground, fearing that Oviedo would pounce on him if he did. Joe took off up the street, yelling that Oviedo wanted to sit on him when he’d done nothing, and was it now a law that she should harass innocent people?
As Joe ran away, I glanced at the sun. It had climbed farther up the sky, its heat increasing. Already, the surface of the burns on my hands was swollen; if I did not leave the sun, they would crack and blood could seep out of the wound. If blood appeared, it would not cease flowing, and I might as well forget about the journey, since it would drip all the way to Abuja, discomfiting me and causing nausea to everyone in the bus through its smell. To make matters worse, the morning air was still, and I found it difficult to breathe. If I did at all, I smelled iodine, which meant my condition was desperate. I checked my time—thirty minutes to ten. If I did not move now, I was in danger of losing the bus.
Anger over my situation flowed over me once more. Why should government allow people like us to buy adulterated kerosene from its fuel stations, making us suffer from its explosion? Were we the ones who adulterated the kerosene or owned the petrol stations? Why would government officials say on the radio and television that the victims were taken care of, that they had not been abandoned and left to suffer? Were they taking care of me when I had to borrow money from a Shylock like Oviedo so I would not die from my wounds?
I knew we’d been abandoned because no one wanted to take blame for selling the kerosene. When we met the governor, he had asked us whether we were sure we’d bought the adulterated kerosene from the petrol stations. At the petrol stations, the owners said that we hadn’t bought the kerosene from them, that we’d gotten it from sharp roadside traders who mixed kerosene and petrol together in order to make quick profit. They were the ones to blame for our troubles and we should go and complain to them. One petrol station owner even said: “You people should be punished for patronizing touts. You’re all enemies of progress!”
At meetings with government officials, we would tell them, “We’re suffering.” But they would say—especially the chairman of the explosion victims’ task force, a man we called Sufferhead—that they were suffering too, and had not been paid their salaries for three months. They could not pay the school fees of their children and found it difficult eating three square meals a day. Their landlords visited them the previous day for rent and threatened to throw their properties to the streets if they did not pay before the end of the week. Their wives had lost their jobs just the day before and they did not know how they could cope with family expenses.
We were also abandoned by many people living in Agho Street. When I asked for money from a few of them who were not moneylenders, they would shake their heads, sigh, and begin to tell stories. They could not do much, I should know, because they were not government people, who had no problems with their children’s school fees, ate three square meals a day, and generally lived off the fat of the land. These people were all corrupt and selfish. A revolution organized by good people should come and flush the rats into the sea.
And that is the summary of my story in the past two years—until Eldorado, our chairman, told us that some American doctors wanted to treat all of us in Abuja free of charge. The American doctors, thanks to Obama, would even give us stipends for the exercise. But now the Abuja trip was in danger, due to events I did not foresee a day back.
As I hurried to the bus stop, I wondered why I was not yet there, something that seemed so easy a day ago. I remembered how, when Gomo appeared just as I got out of my house, my inner voice told me to run, and how I’d disobeyed the voice, thinking of the pains from my burns and fatigue. I recalled how Tolu Player stopped in front of me and the voice told me to run at once and I did not. And I remembered how, when fat Oviedo appeared and asked for her money, I looked at her like a fool because I feared to take to my heels.
At that moment, I felt the intense heat of the sun on my burns, and I glanced at my hands. They were more red than they ever were, and if I wasted any more time in the sun blood would seep out of them. It might mean good-bye to Abuja and more of the rat race with Oviedo, Tolu Player, Gomo and the others. I was convinced this could happen when I smelled more iodine and felt my stomach heave. If it got to be too much, I would have to sit down under a shade somewhere so I wouldn’t faint, meaning I would waste more time.
And then I thought of what my father told me—when a woman sneezed, a witch was behind it. I knew this was at the back of my mind, weakening my resolve to solve the situation. But when the inner voice told me to run, was it a witch telling me to stand? If I said it was to the small boys living on our street, will they not ask, “Did a witch put a wedge between your legs?” I remembered when Oviedo appeared and I could have run but did not; was it a witch that whispered into my ears I should not run? If I told Agnes it was a witch, would she not ask, laughing, whether a witch had tied a piece of rope around my ankles?
Thinking about this, I checked my watch and found I had ten minutes left to get to the bus stop. If Gomo, Oviedo, Tolu Player, or any other creditor arrived, I vowed to run because I suspected it was the only way out. After making this vow, I turned the corner into the road leading to the bus stop but stopped. Gomo stood twenty meters down the street.
Sixty meters behind him, I saw the bus taking us to Abuja parked under a mango tree, but I knew Gomo could intersect my path before I get to the vehicle, so I decided to be cautious.
“I knew you’ll pass here,” Gomo told me. “That’s why I came to stand here.”
He looked terrible. Even though he constantly harassed me over his money, I was shocked by his appearance. I wanted to ask him, with a straight face: “Gomo! Who beat you like this?” But I did not; instead, I stared at him. His torn green shirt revealed a chest stained by caked mud and charcoal, making him look no better than a madman. Had it not been that I knew him, and was desperate to catch the bus, I would have turned back and taken to my heels, shouting that people should save me from a madman. His trousers were stained by sand and dust as though he’d fallen into a pond, or rather, as if Mama Sarah and Mama Johnson pushed him into a gutter. He reminded me of the pig that came to the back of our yard, grunting, foraging through the yam peeling, rubbish, and rotted plants we dumped there. The children living on Agho Street, had they seen him like this, would have said that Gomo had suddenly gone crazy and stayed away from him. But since I was aware of my mission, I decided not to stay away.
“Won’t you leave the road and allow me to pass?” I asked him.
He coughed and pointed a forefinger to the ground like a native doctor who buried a charm in the soil.
“I want my money today,” he said. “If I don’t get it you’re not going anywhere.”
Behind him, I saw three women come up the street, but I did not bother to look at them because I was thinking of how to run past Gomo.
“I promise you, when I come back from Abuja, I’ll pay you,” I told him.
“Are you deaf?” he shouted. “I said I want my money now. I borrowed the money to you in Benin City. I know about Benin City. I don’t know about Abuja!”
“What is happening there?” one of the three women, who had got to where we stood, demanded, and I recognized her. She was Mama Gbenga, the woman Gomo spoke about earlier in the morning. It was rumored that Gomo had borrowed some money from her, saying he wanted to use it for the burial ceremony of his mother, but used it to run after women and drink beer up and down Agho Street. Mama Sarah told me that Gomo had jumped out the window of his room two days ago when Mama Gbenga surprised him and came to his house. Agnes told me that Gomo would be in soup if Mama Gbenga ever caught up with him. Now that she had, I was afraid it could complicate matters for me, as she would ask for her money and Gomo would insist that I pay him. I might miss the bus in the course of the trouble.
“Gomo!” Mama Gbenga yelled, “Where’s my money?”
“That’s what I’m looking for now,” Gomo replied in a subdued voice. “Once I get it from Abuja, I’ll give it to you.”
“Was that our agreement?”
“No, but . . . ”
“Hold him!” Mama Gbenga said to her friends. “Immediately.”
Before Gomo could run, the two women with Mama Gbenga grabbed him by the shirt. Turning, he stretched out his hand and grabbed my blouse. At the same time, the driver of the bus taking us to Abuja stepped out of a bungalow down the street and waddled toward the vehicle. One of us, a woman called Lizzy Babe, ran down the street after him.
While this happened, Mama Gbenga shouted at Gomo that he’d lied to her. He’d promised to pay his debt within a week, but had not done so after three years. What did he think she was? His mother? If he did not pay her at once, she would strip him naked, take his clothes to the nearest secondhand trader in New Benin Market, and sell them.
As she droned on, the feeling that I would lose the bus grew inside me. Could my father be right? I thought. When a woman sneezed, a witch was behind it! Could someone somewhere not want me to go for the surgery operation that would cure me of my pains?
While I mused on this, Mama Gbenga began to beat Gomo’s hand. “Leave her!” she shouted. “What has she done to you? Leave her alone!”
The other women joined her, trying to make Gomo loosen his grip on my hand. After a few seconds, I was free. The first thought coming to me was that no witch stood in my way to Abuja. At that moment, I felt the heat of the sun on my burns, and I knew that blood could seep out at any moment, but I did not care. Without thinking of my fatigue, or the weakness that came from not having a proper sleep the previous night, I ran toward the bus, shouting at the top of my voice. The bus moved as I got to its side; but I stretched out my hand, beating the window several times, screaming, saying that the bus should stop, and one of my mates saw me and told the driver, who brought the bus to a screeching halt.

by Adetokunbo Abiola

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