Dotun’s father, Mr. Ogunleye, was a farmer in Isare-Remo, that peaceful town in Ogun State. He was also a palm-wine tapper, but neither of these two trades fetched enough money to take care of his family of four. His only son, Dotun had been apprenticed to several tradesmen so many times, that Baba Dotun thought he was incapable of learning.
From the vulcanizer to the woodcarver to the carpenter, Dotun who had a strong build for his age never completed his apprenticeships. All the men gave the same reason for letting him go: he was too absent-minded. And they were right. Dotun was a dreamer.
The last apprenticeship he undertook was with the carpenter. The man terminated their arrangement within two days, after Dotun almost sawed off his left hand one afternoon. Cursing and swearing, he sent the boy home to his father. Not long afterwards, one of Mama Dotun’s relatives came to visit from Lagos, and it was this relative, a personal acquaintance of Mrs. Phillips’ cousin, who secured a position for Dotun as a houseboy. His father reluctantly let him go, reasoning that the boy could not come to much harm as a domestic help.
Now on this particular day, which was exactly 15 days after Dotun’s arrival in Mrs. Phillips’ house, this woman got it into her head that she had to bake a cake. There was no special occasion that called for a cake, but that did not stop her. To reach her goal, she needed a few basic ingredients, which she was missing in her kitchen. Therefore, a trip to the market was necessary. And who else would she send on this errand, other than her absent-minded houseboy, Dotun.
That was the purpose for which she called him, that Saturday morning. He was scrubbing the floor of the kitchen when she shouted his name. Although his arms were moving mechanically in slow circular motions, his mind was far, far away. Down on all fours, he imagined that he had stumbled on an empty plot of land. A voice told him to dig in a specific spot, and he struck gold. Literally. He pictured himself grinning and laughing with reckless abandon, skipping for joy and dancing vigorously.
And as men are inclined to do with wealth they have neither labored nor toiled for, he thought of many ways to dispose of the wealth he had just acquired. Expensive toys, cars, houses and every other thing the mind of an 11-year old boy is capable of imagining, appeared before him in this make-believe world. But, just as he was about to ride his brand new motorcycle, a harsh voice broke through his thoughts and rudely interrupted his fantasy.
“Dotun! Dotun! D-o-t-u-u-u-n! Are you not in this house?” and then “Didn’t you hear me calling you?” the same voice demanded angrily.
The only thing that prevented Mrs. Phillips from knocking the boy’s head was her fear of slipping and falling on the wet floor. At her age, she knew that breaking old bones was not in her retirement plan. She had to satisfy herself with expressing her anger from a safe distance.
“Must I call you 20 times before you answer?” she asked impatiently.
“Sorry, ma. I did not hear you, ma” the boy answered, truthfully.
He had stopped scrubbing and was making a half-hearted attempt to stand up on his feet. Miraculously, he did so without slipping.
“Oya hurry up and finish what you’re doing. I need you to go to the market for me.”
“But Madam, I went there yesterday and–”
“And so what?! If I want you to go the market 100 times in a week, you better do it. What do you think I am paying you for?”
Dotun could think of at least five different things Mrs. Phillips was paying him for, which did not seem to be related to his duties, but he was wise enough not to offer his opinion. The boy held his tongue and listened, his head slightly bowed. He avoided Mrs. Phillips’ gaze as much as he could. She continued.
“I’m baking a cake today, so I need you to buy–” and she began to read items off the list she had neatly handwritten. The list included baking items like flour, sugar, baking powder, raisins including the quantities for each item. She painstakingly described which particular market woman to go to for the ingredients, how to ask for jara, and all those other things women gripe about when they are sending children to the market. After handing the money and list to him, and after giving him a stern warning to watch out for cars and okadas, she left him. Not quite two minutes later, as Dotun was finishing his scrubbing, she approached him with an additional request:
“Ehen, I forgot to tell you: I need you to buy two sponges and some potash for me too.”
Sponges and potash? The look of confusion on Dotun’s face was hard to miss. She might as well have told him to buy a cow that played the guitar.
“Buy sponge, koin koin … two of them, and potash, kaun … one pack. I need you to buy them for me,” she repeated. The words now made sense to Dotun, and he nodded in understanding.
As soon as he finished scrubbing the floor, Dotun left for the market.
The markets in Lagos are more than just meeting points for buyers and sellers; they are places where dreams are born and lost. Wives and mistresses buy from the same sellers and none is any wiser. The rich, the poor and the so-called middle class, all share a common need in the struggle for survival: food. The basis for meeting that need comes from the same source: the local market.
Sabo market was not as big as say Oyingbo, but it had its loyal customers nonetheless. Bustling with life, there is a bus-stop located close to one of the market’s entrances, making it convenient for customers and sellers alike to come and go. That area also has a small concentration of secondary schools whose students flood the market and surrounding areas on school days. Being a Saturday, however, the school children were nowhere to be found. Or better yet, they could not be easily identified as they were not wearing school uniforms.
In his brown cotton shorts and blue-and-white check shirt, Dotun looked oddly enough like a school boy in uniform. And on a Saturday morning, it was a strange sight. As he made his way to the section of the market where baking items were sold, several people actually stopped him and asked why he was going to school on a Saturday. His reply was simply, “I no dey go school.”
He eventually made it to the stall of the woman his Madam had directed him to patronize. Her name was Mama Clara. As soon as Dotun got to her stall and greeted her, she took the list from him and began to assemble the items one after the other. This was fantastic as far as the boy was concerned because between the house and the market, he had forgotten most of the instructions Mrs. Phillips had given him, including the quantity for each item.
Mama Clara was used to this and after ascertaining from Dotun what the ingredients would be used for, she carefully measured out and picked out the items and handed them over to Dotun. While she was counting the money, he asked her to direct him to the section of the market where he could buy koin koin and kaun. Mama Clara obliged and with a basket of items in his hand, he followed her directions to that part of the market to complete his errand.
On his way back to the bus-stop to catch a bus back home, he saw a crowd of people gathered outside one of the market entrances. The crowd was so tightly packed that he could not see what the center of attention was from the fringes where he stood. It did not help matters that Dotun was short, even for his age. He desperately wanted to see what had captured the attention of so many people that afternoon. In moments like this, he understood why Zaccheus had climbed the tree to get a glimpse of Jesus.
Unfortunately for Dotun, there was no tree that could offer him a vantage point. Besides which he had no way of guarding the merchandise he had bought even if he decided to execute that plan. With his curiosity mounting, Dotun did what any normal 11 year-old would do: he pushed his way through the crowd until he got close enough to the center. That was when he saw them: a man and a baboon.
– to be continued –