Morning descends on the slums differently that it does the dwellings of the prosperous. The crows of the skinny cocks that plague the neighborhood I grew up in is a thousand decibels short of those from the fat birds in that dot the Mezies’ compound where I am maid, nanny, cook and other things that fit into no specific job category.
It is barely dawn but I can already hear my father making ready for his job at the factory. Papa has always been diligent at, and proud of his supervisor role at the cement plant. I have always wondered why this diligence failed to show up in his role as father. Before every month was over, my father’s wages were already spent, leaving our expectant bellies unfilled. There was Ibe, the pam wine tapper to be paid. There were numerous debts to lotto dealers. There was always something more important than the needs of my father’s family.
I push down the bile of bitterness that threatens to rear its ugly head. It is too early to be bitter. I had been bitter for most of my life and it had changed nothing. I hear my father curse out loud at some object with which he has collided. He only has himself to blame. Yesterday when Mama asked him for money for kerosene to fuel her lamp, he paid her no mind. It had been while he was singing one of his happy palm wine songs. He had not missed a beat as he heard my mother out, all the while singing and nodding his head.
I roll over on my mat and pull the little one closer to me for warmth. She coughs but settles back into deep slumber so quickly that I smile. I envy her. She sleeps on a mat and is content. I used to be content too until last week when I resumed at the Mezies’ and got a queen bed to myself. Things had changed so much in the space of 7 days. I am no longer satisfied with the lot fate had carved out for me in these miserable dwellings.
I know now that there is escape from this place where simple soap is a luxury. I have dined with kings and now my mother’s cooking burns holes in my throat so that I cannot swallow down the fufu she lovingly pounded in expectation for my visit. Guilt fills my belly as I remember how I had turned away from my mother’s food last night. She had looked at me with hurt eyes. My brothers were only too glad to polish off the rest of my food.
I wait till my father leaves the house before I stretch and yawn. The sun has finally found its way to these parts and it is easier to see my squalid surroundings. My brothers lie on a separate mat from me and the little one. Okemute’s trousers are already too small for him. Mama had bought them just two months back. Ochuko lies sprawled like a drunken prize fighter. Only last night, Mama told me with so much pride how he has been chosen to participate in some inter-school sports competition. She assured me he is faster than Ben Johnson ever was. I had laughed long and hard at that last night. I long to ease their slumber with one of the many soft blankets at the Mezies’. If I could, I would protect them from the mosquitoes and the life the slum breeds. I long to do better by them. I am no longer content to just be their sister. I want to be their savior.
‘Akueke!’ My mother calls out. ‘Are you awake?’
‘Ooh Nnem. I am awake.’
‘Did you sleep well, my child? Are you hungry? You know you didn’t eat last night. Should I make you something? I have the brown pap you love so much. Ojuigo’s mother just made a fresh batch.’
‘No Nnem, I am fine. I ate heavily before leaving the Mezies’ yesterday.’
I fold my wrapper and turn my back on her so she cannot see my face and tell that I am lying. My mother always knows when I lie. When I finish, I turn around but she is gone from the one bedroom that also serves as living room, store and home to my family.
I find her outside tending a newly made fire. I cannot tell whether the tears in her eyes are from my refusing breakfast or from blowing on the coals.
‘Nnem, I have to be on my way back.’
‘O di mma. It is well my child. I hope they are treating you well oh? If they aren’t, I can ask that woman that helped us find youwork with them to look for another family.’
‘No Nnem, they are very kind and Mazi Eze has even instructed the children’s lesson teacher to help me prepare for JAMB.’
‘God will bless him for me. My chi will make his path in life easier.’
I do not say amen to her prayers. Instead, I open my bag and hand her my wages. Her mouth falls open at the sight of the sheaves of notes.
‘All this for us, Aku? Plus all that food you brought home yesterday? Ah! You have done well my child. God will continue to use you to bless us. Daalu, o.’
I smile and let my mother’s praises soothe my sore body and lighten the heaviness in my heart. She is still praying for me when the little one makes her unsteady way from inside the house. I had hoped to leave without any drama. One look at me and my packed bag and the eyes she was rubbing sleep from fill with tears.
‘Aku? Are you going again?’ She asks tearfully.
‘Only for a little while, my love.’ I say to her as I kneel to kiss her.
‘I will see you again on Saturday. Make sure you take care of Mama and Papa and read your books. When next I come, I will bring you a new dress.’
‘You promise?’ She asks, her lips quivering with unshed tears.
‘I promise.’ I tell her, my heart breaking.
I dust off the dirt from my knees and look in my mother’s direction.
‘Nnem, I am off.’ I tell her. We exchange a look and I mouth her a thank you that my child cannot see.
They are still waving goodbye as I take the turn that leads to the way out of this life. My heart is plagued with the picture of my graying mother straining to lift the child. She has no business taking care of a 4 year old at 66 but this is life in the slums, a vicious cycle, with no rest for the weary.
I stare at the half naked children that are already out in the streets, playing football to forget the hunger that gnaws their little bellies. Someday, I promise myself, some day there will be no need to leave my child behind in this sorry place. No need to wave unhappy goodbyes.
Mazi Mezie will be home alone. He had whispered this little secret in my ears as he forced sheaves of naira notes into my hands after that first night when he forced himself on me.
‘The children will go church and then their mother’s. We will have the house to ourselves. There is more where that came from.’ He had said to me pointing to the money in my hands.
I shudder as I think of the bald man who will be waiting expectantly for my return and my stomach boils with vomit. I want to run back to my mother and find safety from the world in her bosom. I think of the child looking forward to Saturday and a new dress and I swallow back my vomit. I force my feet to go in the direction of Mazi Mezie’s four poster bed
There are different roads out of the slum. I hail one of the commercial motorcycles that plague the area. I give him directions; I want the fastest way out. I want the short cut.