Southern Nigeria April 2012.
A place where men and women sell themselves for food,that is what the labour market is. It is a place where money and desperation meet, also called Urua Owo, human market. Everyday except Sundays we gather on a parcel of government land and pray for buyers. Today business is slow. Tuesdays are often like that, Wednesdays too. Fridays and Saturdays are better, sometimes you can pick and choose between employers or haggle for a wage higher than the going rate. Today, we are crane our necks and huddle round the fringes of the plot hoping to spot a buyer before he is swamped by the others. No one comes.
My belly growls. I wrap myself tighter in the old shawl i picked from my late grandmother’s trunk box. Clouds are beggining to gather, it will rain soon.
Warm hands grab my face, covering my eyes from behind, i struggle briefly, then i realise who it is and relax. It is Unwana, the only person I call a friend in this place.
She talks a little too loudly and i feel a bit of the day’s gloom lift.
Wide eyed and giddy with glee she says
“I have a job today, better one, you go come?”
It is an unecessary question, i nod all the same.
“Where is the job? I hope say no be to carry shit oh!”
We laughed, a few months ago one of us had gotten a job with a government official. He was so excited. When we saw him two days later, he was bitter, he told us how he had to clean out a pig stye, an abandoned poultry and make compost. Then when he was through they paid him less than they had offered. Terrible.
Unwana feigns a wounded look ” Kai Okukmma! How can you say such a thing? This is a clean job, they are even going to give us uniforms.”
My eyes lit up, uniforms were good, they meant the buyers had money and weren’t afraid of spending it. I drew her away from the crowd as she explained the details. Silas, a distant cousin of hers had gotten a contract to provide security at the children’s day celebrations the governor was hosting in a week’s time. He didnt own a security outfit so he had to recruit from scratch.
Unwana was talking, waving her hands wildly for emphasis. Her bony frame animated with hope. Her thin face brightened by dreams. Her voice light and cheerful like a kite.
“…he will pay us small tin from now till then. If you dey interested come make we go.”
I followed her. In a few days we had been registered,’trained’, kitted and ready for the big day. Our stipends were paid on time too.
I found myself dreading the children’s day event. It would mark the end of the party and a return to Urua Owo. I couldnt bear that. Just the thought of it brought back the feelings of despair, barren hope and the pain of never knowing if you would get anything to go home with or not.
Little did I know that Urua Owo was a playground compared to where I was headed.