By Ochuko Tonukari
When I was very young, way back in the 80s, one of the few places that filled me with a sense of wonder and curiosity was the Sapele market. I love it at all times of the day, in all its moods; crowded and gay in the afternoon, deserted and mysterious at night or in the early morning. I always ran there when I was bored or unhappy, when I woke up very early or when I had been naughty and my parents were angry at me. There I found variety enough to chase away all boredom, comfort for all my heartaches, and more than enough food for my imagination.
I would go there quietly by the first light of the morning, before anyone else had arrived. Then indeed it was “my market”. Silent as the grave, for it sure looked like cemetery of wooden bones stacked up this way and that to make an eerie graveyard. I never stopped to wonder how the women managed to pile up their stools, packing cases, cardboard boxes and the pieces of wood and tin their stalls were made of in such different ways. Some were so orderly and neatly arranged that it seemed as if the stall-holders must have spent hours doing so. Others looked as if some angry giants had thrown everything one on top of the other in a violent temper. Others, heaped at dangerous angles with heavy things on top of light ones and wide ones on narrow ones, made it seem as if a puff of wind would send them cascading to the ground. Only, nothing really crashed; everything was silent- silent as the grave.
Sometimes, when I was alone in the market in the first light of the morning, I would hear a horrible noise behind me. In the silence, it seemed so loud that I would almost jump out of my skin with fright and great fear tingling all over my body. Had the ghost of some dead stall-holders come back to haunt the market? I held my breath and felt my pulse beat hard inside of me. Then I breathed again. It was then I realized much to my chagrin that it was only a goat looking for scraps of food in the rubbish.
Most of my holidays were spent in the market. My mother had a stall there, so I would occasionally help her, or look after it when she had to go away for half an hour or so. But often, I would meet my companions there or just slip away from everyone and wander around the stalls on my own, staring at the wares and passively listening to conversations, the usual gossips and the quarrel. I must confess that I love the quarrels, especially when they were between a trader and a customer.
But most of all, I took delight in the cry of “thief! Thief!!” ringing through the lane with everyone chasing after the thief; myself inclusive. In most cases, we only chased one another while the thief got away in triumph but sometimes the thief was caught! Whatever the outcome, it was very exciting. I never noticed the blazing sun or the falling rain. I was too busy running, pushing and shouting with the rest. No doubt, I was a dormant participant. Like everyone else, I tried to avoid bumping into the women and girls carrying their wares on their heads but did not always succeed. In fact, when somebody’s wares cascaded down, it only added more weight to the excitement because the person would start yelling in anger or burst out in a paroxysm of tears and other people would stop and help to pick up the person’s goods, but others ( like myself, I am afraid) would just run off. Chasing a thief was more exciting than picking up boxes of matches, tins of milk, and seeds of tomatoes or loaves of bread.
After the chase, whether the thief was caught or not, everyone had something to say about the incident; what they had seen or more often than not, what they thought they had seen happen. This could go on endlessly for hours after the event, especially if the police was called in. I used to laugh secretly to myself at some of the stories that were told to the police. Everyone thought they were helping matters by telling exactly what they believed had truly taken place. But the stories were so different that they all could not possibly be true. I even felt sorry for the policeman trying to make sense out of the different accounts given of the event or maybe take statements with everyone talking at the top of their voice or rather shouting at the same time.
There were other times when we youngsters thought it was rather dull and boring in the market and decided to liven things up by shouting a cry of “thief! Thief!!” if our parents or the other adults had realized what we had done we would have gotten into real trouble. However, we were very cunning and never started a chase near our mother’s stalls.
On days when my mother left me in charge of her stall I felt very proud and on top of the world. On those days, I never ran after thieves, real or imaginary, or wander aimlessly along the gaily colored lanes. I did my best to sell as much as possible so that she would be pleased with me. I was usually so happy when she came back and saw how much money I had made for her. And then she would say I am a good child and how sure she was that the money being spent on training me in school was not being wasted. “I am really glad about the fast way you are growing. You seem to know a lot more than your age. If you work as hard at your book as you did at my stall today, you shall have a good job one day and I will be very proud of you,” she would sometimes add. Afterwards, she would give me some money for my use and I would go off with a light heart, beaming like a possessed child and dreaming of the day I would be able to earn so much money so that my sweet, lovely mother would not need to trade. In the middle of the busy market that I cherished so much, I would imagine myself in another larger and more civilized town or even in another country, the most famous and successful person in the whole world. Then I would help in educating the poor and providing all their needs for them free of charge.
I love the Sapele market in the evening too. It was again different then; not frightening as it was in the early hours of the morning before sunrise or as gay and noisy as it was in the daytime. In the darkness, there were no sharp outlines and bright colours, so the stalls, the goods for sale and the people seemed like shadows. Familiar objects, often seen in the feeble, flickering light of the little oil lamps on the stalls changed their shapes into unfamiliar and unexciting objects. A face, fat and ugly by the day light, had new highlights and hollows that made me gaze at it again and again to ensure it belonged to the same person I had seen by day. By day light, you saw the numerous colours of different head-ties; at night you saw only their shapes which cast monster-like shadows over the market place. As children, we were made to believe superstitiously that anybody who dares to look at a mirror in the market place would see or be slapped furiously by spirits. Though they had always said so, I never saw anyone who said categorically that he/she had had such an experience or looked at a mirror in such a place. One day, a young lady was bargaining for a mirror and was looking at it at the same time. Perhaps, she wasn’t aware of what she was doing. This made me to want to experiment it. One thing led to the other and I told my mother about it. She said that what I saw the lady doing was unintentional and that it would be irrational for anybody to do such a thing deliberately. That stopped my daydream.
In the daytime, there was so much to see that I did not notice the smells of the market. It was quite different at night; the air was full of smells. There were the sharp smell of oranges, the delicate scent of woodsmoke, the harsh stench of freshly ground raw pepper and the equally salivating aroma of smoke fish. arising from the little wayside food stalls bordering the River Ethiope also, was the familiar smell of hot palm oil that always made me feel hungry even if I had just had a meal.
Another reason why I love the Sapele market so much in those days was that I did not, and never could, know everything about it. I knew what it was like at dawn, in the day time and in the early part of the night and after that, when the last lamp had been put out and the last trader had gone home, what was it like then? Of course I never went there at that time because I would be in bed; fast asleep. I often used to wonder what it must be like, especially on a dark night when there was no moon and half the stars were covered by clouds. If I could have gone there then, what would I have seen? Would I have seen anybody- or somebody? Possibly I would have seen fairies or ghosts. My father used to say they (ghosts and fairies) used to come out during night hours when everyone was believed to be asleep. They would come out in their different shapes and sizes, attired in different kinds of uniforms, all having their own missions. Some were spirits of the community while others were deities, demons, goblins, spirits and the like. Due to this belief, it was said that one must not come out to ease him/herself nor call names at night.
Despite the fact that I could have gone out on such nights (as I desperately wanted to) if I had left home quietly and no dog had barked in the street, I never did. “Why not?” You may be tempted to ask. I will tell you the gospel truth: I was much more too frightened.