There was never a time when we lived in the slums, while i was with my parents. The slums were always dirty and morbid; consisting of hurriedly built houses which clung together as playing cards shuffled together. Where we lived was worse than the much antagonised slums. Our home stood on four sticks which stood like freezed soldiers, and over the long canes were pieces of raffia palm – serving as our shade from the eternal deities of the sky. Instead of walls to provide some privacy, we had pieces of flat wood which were made to rest toward the rough edges of the raffia roofing. Of course, it did not provide enough privacy. The flat woods still left enough spaces between them, enough space to permit a pregnant woman with a baby strapped behind her, advance sideways in and out of the shelter.
Very early in life, i learnt from my father that there were four levels of living. It was either you lived in the urban area, or the rural area, or the slums, or in the wasteland. It was a pyramidical structure, which meant that those at the top were few, those below were much. My father never told me, but i knew. I knew we were at the bottom of the pyramid, because we lived on a wasteland.
Every morning, i would rise to the stench of burning smoke, sniffing its way to the heavens. My mother, a dark beautiful woman, would rouse me from my pretentious sleep – i alwys woke up very early but lay still on my thin mat for the fear of being asked to join in the morning work. She would wrap her arms around my head and rest it on her bosom while mumbling some words. I think she was praying for me, asking her dead father to watch over me so i could become the man she wanted me to be. Though, the exact words she used, i do not know.
The first thing that i did every morning was to join my father and the other men outside the shelter, so i could help in hunting for the valuables, in a multitude of trash. We were scavengers, and that was what we did for a living. My father always reiterated these words to me, ‘never for a moment think your work is dirty. No work is. For as long as it respects the dignity of labour and the ardous task of sacrifice.’ Those words, throughout my life, kept ringing in my ears just as the bells of St Anne Cathedral religiously chimed forever. They would always be like a mantra to me, one that i chanted ubiquitiously and persistently.
We were poor. I had only one piece of clothing. An oil greased khaki short, over a white-turned-to-black velvet vest. My parents could not afford to buy shoes for me, so i had to make do with chopped-up shoe laces that i came across during work. Creatively, i mend them together to make myself something to hide my shrivelled toes from the dangers of the wasteland.
On a normal day, we worked till the sun set, exploring the vast land. I used to think all earth was a wasteland. It spread further and further until you saw no end. The mornings, before the sun rose, were the better part of my days. The air was damp and fresh and the dew would make my feet feel soft and fresh. Those mornings were utopia for me. When the sun came around, it brought with it pain and anguish. A sickle in my hand and a nylon woven bag slapped across my back, i ventured on despite the scorching heat.
One day while working, i asked a fellow worker why the sun made life so unbearable. Adamu produced a wide grin, placed his hands on my shoulders and bore his oval eyes into mine.
” the sun is doing its job, we are doing ours”, he said and continued working.
Adamu was a fine fellow; though he was several years older than i was, i considered him as a friend. His face was black, an epitome of my mother’s charcoal tar. He had horizontal lines deeply engraved on his black cheeks – personally i thought it made him more handsome. I thought a lot of good things about him.
By the time the sun had set and darkness started to creep in, i would have stopped working. My toes already numb with weariness and my whole strength completely drained from the day’s work. My father would call out for me, and together with the day’s treasures – which were carefully stacked in our tall bags – we set off for the shelter, what my mother used to call home.