Mma Tata’s dark glittering skin had seen tough days, and that morning, it was clothed by the dust which spread as cars drove through St Bonaventure’s dual-passage gate under the dry weather. Beaten by the sun through days of sitting at odd and strategic roadsides, she was sweating through her pores, even at 9 o’clock in the morning. She felt sticky, yet wouldn’t care. It was a long walk from home; and everyday confronted her with the challenge to survive. “Why can’t I survive with ease?” she often wondered and asked herself. She had arrived the church gate quite early, in time to welcome the earliest comers. She wore a round-necked faded turquoise polyester blouse upon multi-coloured wrapper that had seen times and seasons. Her head was covered with a scarf of a different fabric. She was seated where she couldn’t be overlooked. Beside her, to her left, was a black polythene bag containing a few bread rolls, two litres of water and some naira notes, of higher and lower denominations. To her right was an enamel bowel, her offertory receptacle, inside which were one twenty and one fifty naira notes.
“Please, help us. God bless you,” she chorused, stretching out her beggarly hand repeatedly.
On her lap lay her six-year old son, face-down. She had her legs stretched out in yoga form. The boy wore no shirt, his upper backside covered with burns that seemed to have affected the dermis, darkened by some form of healing balm. There seem to be visible swelling, with the boy lying calmly, as one numbed by an excruciating and helpless pain.
“God bless you,” she prayed, as cars stopped, windows wound down and naira notes squeezed and thrown at her. Same was repeated as passers-by stooped to drop their alms into her enamel bowel. One could hear her sharp, coarse voice and see her left eye affected by cataract. She was visibly a woman in need. Periodically, her little boy writhes in pain, making tiny harrowing sounds. Passers-by could not help sympathizing with the little one who looked so helpless on the mother’s laps. She would draw the dark dirty blanket over his buttocks, using her left hand to drive off flies that sought to feast on the boy’s freshly dressed wounded back.
St Bonaventure Catholic Church was a highbrow parish, with parishioners comprising key politicians and high-flying corporate individuals. Even visiting businessmen and women to Abuja staying over the weekend would find St. Bonaventure homely to worship in. They would always see someone they want to meet, their business partners, top public servants, ministers and parliamentarians. The parish pastor even had a younger brother who was then the Chairman of Senate Committee on Public Accounts. The first Mass had just ended and the second one was about to commence. The entrance, which doubled as exit, was busy with people coming in and going out of the church premises.
An army green Audi, driving out of the church compound, slowed down close to Mma Tata, the glass wound down slowly and a lady, Mrs. Leeya Ekondo, a member of St. Bonaventure’s St. Vincent de Paul Association and the Parish Action Committee on HIV/AIDS (PACA), folded a one thousand naira note neatly and aimed at the woman’s bowel. She missed it, the note falling by the side. Mma Tata bowed her head in appreciation, chorused her blessing, stretched out to pick the alms, drawing the blanket off the boy’s backside. As Mrs. Ekondo adjusted her break from neutral to drive and the car rolled away gently, she thought to herself: Maybe I could help this woman. Today is first Sunday of Lent. It could be my work of charity. She turned off slowly on the main road, let the car roll some distance, and then stopped. She wound down the glass of the passenger side, picked her black handbag and turned to her thirteen year-old daughter who was seated with her younger brother at the back seat.
“Thelma, stay inside the car with your brother. I’ll be back soon. I want to help that woman sitting by the gate.”
“Mummy, are you bringing her home?” It was Cally, her six-year old.
“I don’t know, dear,” she said, as she stepped out of the car. “Maybe.”
She went to the back of the car, opened its booth, dropped her handbag and took out a first aid box that was inside the booth. Over her years of practice as a medical doctor, she has seen the first aid box as part of dressing code, never to go out without. As she banged the booth to lock, Cally was hanging from the inside, looking through the rear glass, then turned to Thelma, who was watching as their mother walked towards the gate.
“Sister, is mummy going to give the woman injection?”
“No. She’s going to dress her son’s wound.”
“What happened to him?”
“I don’t know; maybe he was jumping up and down playing, and when his mother told him to stop, he refused. So, when he fell down, he wounded himself.”
Cally, who was actually jumping up and down on the seat, stopped when Thelma told him what might have caused the boy’s injury.
At the time Mrs. Ekondo reached the gate, Mma Tata was stretching her hand to her, with her chorus “Help me, please. God bless you. Help me, please. God bless you.” Her enamel bowel now had a single fifty naira note with a few twenty naira notes. She couldn’t remember Mrs. Ekondo, it appeared. Leeya dropped her first aid box on the ground and brought out a set of gloves.
“What happened to your son?” She asked.
“Aunty,” Mma Tata began. “I went out to sell by the roadside one evening, as I usually do. I left my two children at home. Ukpa and his younger brother; I don’t know what happened o. I was just sitting down there at the roadside, when I heard screams…” She paused, sobbing and breathing in fast-paced manner. “I don’t know. This life; my sister, my son was burnt to death. Yes. Emma. His younger brother,” pointing to the boy on her laps. She drew the blanket to cover his wounds. She shook her head, faced down, grief-stricken, “When I reached the house, I was told Ukpa wanted to use the pit latrine and so, tried to light the lantern. It was the lantern o…,” her sobbing voice in a crescendo. “It was the lantern. Yes. Yes. My son, Emma; Emma died. In trying to save my family, my little property, I lost one eye. Now, I can only see with one. Ukpa is dying o. Help me, Ma. God bless you.” Her entire composure was sobbing.
Leeya spoke, “Calm down, madam. It’s alright. Have you taken him to see a doctor or to any medical centre?”
“Ah ah, madam. Where will I get the money? A neighbour helped dress his wounds.”
“But he needs to see a doctor. The wound could lead to swelling and decreased blood flow in his tissue resulting in destruction of structures in his system. The earlier he is treated well, the better. You need to see a doctor.”
“That’s why I’m here, Madam. To raise money and see how to survive.”
“I’m a doctor. Let me see the wound,” she said, as she bent down, touching the hem of the blanket with her gloved hands.
The woman became agitated, shoving Leeya’s hand away, her face stale and withdrawn, as though talking to a doctor was abominable.
“Madam, don’t touch him,’ she said coarsely. “He might infect you.”
“I can see he hasn’t infected you yet.”
“I’m his mother,” she said, drawing her polythene bag close to herself. She pinched the boy beneath the blanket and he sat up, with the blanket wrapped around him.
“I’m a mother too.”
The boy let out writhing screams, gaining the attention of Leeya. She moved closer to him and pulled the blanket. She peered to examine the wound, just when the boy stood up in a flash, with a shout of “Run! Run!” from the mother. In an instant, there was a commotion around the gate. The little boy ran off, gleefully across the main road to the other lane and disappeared into an undeveloped plot of land. By the time those around could make sense of what seemed to be happening, Mma Tata was seen running down the walkway towards the direction of her son, so swiftly. She had packed her belongings in quite a well-rehearsed manner. Leeya stood perplexed, as some parishioners who had observed the incident gathered around. For a while, Leeya was spellbound.