The sun came before the christmas day, a bright let down of rays that lifted the torment of harmattan a bit.
Many people left their lip glosses in their pockets and purses, sure that they would not need it for a while. Vasline,petroleum jelly, and Shea butter were all left in their containers.
The sun had come, and it dried up bleeding lips, mended sore feet, and excommunicated the harmattan chill. Balminess took pre-eminence of the air, making it unnecessary for one to be rubbing chinese balm on any part of their body- but that was what Iya Nkiru was did, before sinking her fingers into the parted, and creamalized halo of one of her christmas customers.
Iya Nkiru had been smiling all day because this meant more money even if the hair do was the same. She had charged ‘express’ for the customer not coming last week, and so was receiving slightly double of the normal price.
“Madam that robb dey disturb ooo, shey heat dey nah” the customer helplessly complained.
“Ah my dear, no mind me. But you never can tell when this sun will leave and harmattan will carry itself and come again” Iya Nkiru explained.
The customer grumbled something about poor service rendering, and ova sabi.
Iya Nkiru was sitting back, so as to comfortably let the end of an attachment end in a slim fuzz, when Mrs. Raji came calling down to her flat from where she lived at the upper floor of the old apartment building. So old that it had housed many people before the present occupants.
Some even said that solders had once used the apartment building as a refuge during a long forgotten war.
Iya Nkiru looked up at the older lady, and greeted her in fluent Yourba. That was why the neighbors took to calling her Iya Nkiru, instead of something more igbotoic like, Mama Nkiru, or Nne Nkiru.
They were marveled at how eloquent she was in the western language, how much of the Yoruba culture she knew and how well she practiced it,- in her greeting, her cooking, her relationship with other neighbors, all in all the neighbors had come to see her as more Yoruba than Igbo.
Besides she’d lived in Oyo, before losing her husband to a political raid…..
“When you finish that come up, the women are here already” Mrs. Raji instructed, every woman had come to respect, depend, and confide in the wise old lady.
Coupled with her ability to impeccably organize things, the women had little problem preparing for festive times like this.
“Ok ma, I’ll be through very soon” Iya Nkiru said loudly, her smile expanding.
“Madam this your hair too much ooo” Iya Nkiru complained to her customer this time around.
Mrs. Raji was somehow affiliated with the owners of the apartment building. No one could tell how she was related to them, but they all knew that her flat was the biggest, her balcony the widest, her bathroom tow, and her kitchen even had it’s own store.
When Priye was climbing up to Mrs. Raji’s flat. She was trying to ameliorate her worries by imagining what the christmas would be like.
Even though she’d just packed into on of the middle flats, in november last year – she’d been absorbed into the festivities, Mrs. Raji had asked one of the neighbor’s son to call her down to the backyard where the mass cooking always went on.
She’d been lazing around her flat dressed in a night gown, with a wrapper up to her breasts , and before she went down to Mrs. Raji’s call she slipped into a sweater and flower patterned culottes.
“Carry the onions in that basket and start chopping, make them tiny so it will disappear in the sauce” Mrs. Raji had said even before she’d reached the last step.
The other women who were dressed in their nighties were all twittering as they worked, turning the big cooking pot with a long ladle, tending to the fire made from firewood set into an enclosed tripod.
They were all comfortable with what they were doing, and the way Mrs. Raji instructed Her, it gave space for no argument, and incited love and acceptance.
“Mama” Priye called Mrs .Raji what everyone else called her – for the first time. ” Where is the knife?” Priye had asked as she made her way to the large plastic basket filled with purple looking onions, waiting to be chopped!.
“We should not buy tomatoes from Iya Sikira, she no longer sells well” Iya Olaitan suggested just as Priye came in and offered a loud greeting to the whole room.
“That’s true oo,the ones she sold to us last time started to spoil on the second day” Mama Eucheria said, her calabar accent slightly affecting her passable english.
Many other women, including Ama, an Hausa woman whose husband was a christian, and lived on the last floor , close to Iya Nkiru’s flat. Mama Mike who lived on the third floor close to priye, and Mummy Shina who seemed in a haste to go back to her fabric shop – were making plans and suggestions as they usually did.
They did this while Mrs. Raji sat quietly on her grandmother cushion, stuffed with old wrappers, and half naked throw pillows. The cushion reeked of fineness- in some certain time.
It was only Priye that did not make any suggestion, she just sat at the farthest end of the room, nodded when necessary, shook her head at the appropriate times, and managed to laugh when it called for it.
And as always, Mrs. Raji cleared her throat, so as to begin the first phase of assignment allocation, which was :Going to the market.
“Mama Mike, you and Iya Nkiru will go to Ipata to get us meats, Mummy Shina, you and I will visit a good tomato and pepper seller at Ojagboro……”
On and on like that, until they were all dismissed.
Priye was the last to go because Mrs. Raji called to her just as she was leaving behind Mummy Shina.
“My Oyibo, come let’s talk” Mrs. Raji called her that because of Priye’s light skin, a cream lightness.
“What is wrong” Mrs. Raji asked, still sitting on her grandmother seat.
“I’m going to the village to explain to them why I still haven’t gotten married” Priye disclosed, without reluctance.
“And what do you intend to say?” She asked , her eyes taking on a wise shade.
“I really don’t know….. Now my mother would be saying why haven’t you caught anyone , upon all your beauty and english” Priye’s voice had taken on a plagued tone.
Mrs. Raji furrowed her brows for a while, before her eyes brightened, confirming that she’d just gotten a good idea.
“You know what you’ll do for me?, when you mother asks you that eh, tell her that if men were fishes you would have caught one, but because they aren’t she’ll just have to wait.
And also, explain the kind of men we have in this kwara to her……..”
On and on and on, until Priye came out looking relieved and very well amused.
Mama Mends was so happy as she made her way through Ojagboro a large sack bag in hand, and Iya Nkiru who was searching for something in her bag.
On impulse, Mama Mends nudged Iya Nkiru on the arm, playfully so as to get her attention.
Iya Nkiru looked up with a frown that changed into a smile when she saw the mischievous look on Mama Mends caramel skin face.
“Wetin happen now” Iya Nkiru asked, hilarity lacing her voice.
“What ere you looking for” Mama Mends said in her ghanian accent.
“The list, I think I tucked it in one corner of my purse” Iya Nkiru explained, then looked back down and began to search her purse again.
Mama Mends came to her side, and together they moved to a closed shop and continued their expedition.
Two weeks ago, before Mrs. Raji settled their quarrel, before they almost burnt down their stalls because of a customer.
Though it wasn’t the first time that year, it had begun when Mama Mends decided to move her shop from Taiwo Sale to the front of the apartment building.
She constructed a wood and zinc shop similar to Iya Nkiru’s, and since then they’d made dog and cats look nicer.
But times like this, made it easier for fights to be settled, squabbles mended, and differences made similar.
This of course was always courtesy of Mrs. Raji and the mass christmas cooking..
“See it here, ye need glesses o” Mama Mends joked, as she pointed out the folded paper to Iya Nkiru.
“You’ll go and get them for me nah” Iya Nkiru countered happily.
And with a healing dissension, they hooked their arms as they made their way into the crowded market, their differences and all.
Many things in motion now, it was christmas eve, and the saint.james catholic church was alight, and filled with twinkling lights inside and out.
Police men could be seen looming around, trying to catch any unsuspecting child who played with fire crackers, cars were parked roughly as though the owners couldn’t wait to get out of them, smoke reigned over the night from different angles- houses, backyards, open spaces, burning tyres in the middle of the streets, from cars- and many more available spaces.
Mama Alimi was good at what she did – which was subtly selling firecrackers.
On christmas eve vigils like this, she brought out many firecrackers of different shapes, length, and sounds from on of her friend in Lagos.
Children knew how they bought it, when they wanted to, they did not call say, “I want to buy banga” as they normally would.
Instead they said” I want to buy candle” and she would ask in her yoruba coated english.
“How many?” Which was for how many sounds…..
After the ‘candles’ were gotten, it would be lighted with shared matches, and lighters, the sounds intensified when midnight came.
After the Revrend Father had sang praises, the choir had rendered christmas hymns in their best forms, the drama department had presented the same play they always did every year- the birth of jesus christ-.
It was while this was going on that Kelechukwu decide to accost Nkiru, who had a long multi-coloured braid on her head reaching down to her slim waist, and was standing with her friends, as they talked excitedly.
Cautiously he stepped towards them, even the church speakers were not loud enough to overshadow their upbeat conversation.
“So how many of us are going?” Amara asked, shifting her weight from one foot to another in unconscious impatience.
She got many affirmatives , except Nkiru’s who said” the time is too early. And I don’t know Gaa-akanbi well, besides sef can’t we just go to Flower garden or amusement park”
“Like we did last year” another girl Gloria asked, shaking her head in disapproval.
“What would be keeping you till 2pm nah” Amara asked, the impatience had found it’s way into her voice, and it sounded more unintentional than not.
“After helping with the mass cooking I have to help and serve food to almost the whole street, and the beggars coming from Ipata” Nkiru explained, pleading.
Alexis another girl, whose clothes never seem to fit her frame suggested” Why don’t we all go and help her then go to where we are going on time”
Gloria nodded ” It makes sense sha” then looked at Amara for support.
“No qualms, when does the cooking start?” Amara asked.
“12. You guys will just bring your clothes-” Kelechukwu’s call intercepted what she was going to say.
“I’m coming” she said , then excused herself from the group to walk up to Kelechukwu whose hands were sweaty from nervousness.
“Howfar” he stuttered.
“Am fine” Nkiru said, looking down once in a while. Many minutes passed before Kelechukwu mustered courage and asked something that’d kept him awake on a few nights.
“Would you like to go out with me?”
“I’ve got plans with my friends”
“Next tomorrow nko?”
“That sounds nice, no wahala”
” Ok……” Kelechukwu’s voice faded.
And as the night wore on, Kelechukwu smiled when he remembered the last thing Nkiru had said to him before walking away.
“Stop squeezing your hands before talking to me”
He did not know she noticed before.
On nights like that, things like that happened.
Christmas day finally came, with the normalcy of sunday, some people made it church, and the rest spent their morning slaughtering chickens, grinding tomatoes, and preparing for their visitors.
The same thing was happening in the backyard of the apartment building, this time they’d decided to use a goat along with the three chickens they’d bought.
The men were outside setting up the tents, and arranging the chairs.
Priye went out to call someone who would kill the goat,and chickens. Her feet dragged slightly on the floor, and it was what announced her presence to the busy men.
But only one man’s gaze held longer than expected……..