Poverty

#26

Today’s post is late and sincerely, I’m sorry. But I believe, it is worth the wait because once you read this, I’m sure you’ll be asking for more.

The sun’s one red eye looked down at me mercilessly, reminding me of a hungry policeman’s stare, caressing my back with red-hot fingers through the threadbare formerly-grey-now-off-white shirt that could not protect me from the gentlest of it. I wanted to get out of the heat, duck somewhere; most preferably a joint where extra-cold drinks were served, and just knock back about two bottles of Udeme. Ironically, I had walked past about three of the spots I was describing earlier. All the people who sat in there, under the cool shade, laughing noisily as they guzzled cold beer and ogled the young women who strutted up and down the street as if the weather was cooler on their side of the road.

Which it probably was.

But; even more than the intense heat, I was painfully aware of the lightness of my pocket. All I had in there were three polymer notes; that would be sixty naira, and one particularly crisp ten naira note. As little as it was, those notes represented hope to me; hope that I could afford at least one pure water, hope that I would still get home today.

It was not easy.

As I walked I thought about what had brought me to this side of the Island from my Alagbado home; about why my feet had chosen to turn into this particular street. I thought about the bundle of certificates I carried in a transparent manila folder with me, and I wondered if I had known all six years in the university would amount to eventually was this; walking all over Lagos searching for a job after two years of finishing Youth service.

What was the point?

The folder protected my head from the worst of the sunshine, but my back was unprotected and sweat had made the shirt sticky and had plastered it to my back. The earlier I got water…

But then I remember that drinking water in such extreme heat was just like fetching water into a basket; I would sweat it all out faster than I could drink it. I decided to walk some more, and then look for a place I could have a drink in a shade and not feel inferior to people who were drinking beer so early in the morning. As I thought of those sweating bottles of alcohol, I swallowed and winced. My throat was terrible dry.

Deciding immediately, I walked into the next joint in sight. It was a canteen that sold Igbo food and the sight of the eba and draw soup and dried fish just made my stomach growl, reminding of the fact that I had not had breakfast.

I shrugged. “Pure water, abeg.” I told the girl who came to ask me what I wanted. As she went to get it I looked around at the establishment. It wasn’t much, but it was very neat. A middle-aged man sat about two seats away from me, gobbling up draw soup as if his very life depended on how fast he could consume the soup. Another man sat on the other side, reclining in his seat and lazily picking his teeth with a broomstick. A couple other guys sat outside, drinking Harp and Stout.

My stomach rumbled noisily in reaction to the lively aroma of cooking food, but all I could I do was grit my teeth and pray.

God, I thought, please help me be able to get something before the close of today. Please, if not for my sake, for the sake of my mama who was selling roast corn and coconuts on the road. For the sake of my sister who is studying hard for her WAEC exams. I don’t want her to become desperate enough to begin considering selling herself for a few naira. Dear Lord…

“Na im be dis, oga. You no chop?” The service girl spoke from my elbow.

“Thank you. No.” I smiled at her as I collected the very cold water which she had placed in a small plate. She nodded and left.

It was very cool in there, and as I sipped the water slowly, trying as much as possible to conserve as much moisture as I could and not just sweat it all out, thoughts of life; my life kept running through my head. Things just had not been the same after papa left us. Sure, it was a story you saw everyday on Lagos streets; the pure water boys, the Gala hawkers, the credit sales people – there were such cases everywhere. Even Nollywood kept rehashing that particular story with several casts, or as my kid sister would say, same script, different cast. Come to think of it, we were even lucky.

Bad as e be, I was a graduate of Accounting from Ife. That was not beans. At first it had been rough, but my mother had her family and they rallied around her. They promised that at least, they would do their best, and that I would finish my university education. They had kept their word, after all they did not owe us anything, and they also had their own burdens to carry. But God bless them, they had really tried hard, especially Uncle Gbenga. He made it a point to always add a little extra after my fees were paid and books were bought. He was the one who always took me along to building sites he worked on so I could earn a little bread for myself. And he taught me survival.

But now I was my own man, and more importantly, I was the man of the house, with a mother and young sister to take care of. And I would not be able to care for them, sitting on my behind as it were. I rose to my feet and carried the last of the water in the sachet with me as I walked from the shop.

Pinpricks of pain opened up all over my back on my entrance into the street again, but this time I think I was better prepared. I walked a few metres, and then emptied the pure water sachet over my head and shoulders, sighing in pleasure as the soothing cold washed over my shoulders. I knew it was a temporary victory; knew I could not walk into any office looking as I did right then, but I did not care. At least not then. I was just thankful for being alive, thankful I could at least still enjoy a simple pleasure like cold water on my hot back. I felt better.

Even the gravel had stopped burning the soles of my feet through the thin soles of my shoes, which were the best thing in my entire appearance. They weren’t much, but they were genuine leather shoes, a gift from my cousin Banke when I finished service. She was one who made it a habit to always call me and encourage me whenever I seemed down or rapidly giving up. I was grateful for her.

I could see people around me walking about their own businesses, some of them dressed in suits and looking really neat, hurrying back and forth in the hot midday sunshine. I could see some of the abokis who sold confectionaries walking back and forth…as they had gotten to their station for the day. I could see ladies wearing short skirts and tight blouses with their creamy breasts almost bursting free, and I felt a little cold clamminess in my tummy. I smiled to myself. Maybe I am not so hungry, I thought; if I can still appreciate the curves of a woman in this state. I kept walking.

Just as I began wondering how many more streets I would have to walk, or how many offices I would have just burst into before something happened, I rounded a bend on this particular street and came face to face with a construction site. It looked like someone was building a plaza of office buildings, and they had gone as far as the fourth floor up on the main building. They evidently were building the frames first, because there were no walls, just pillars and floors. There were men everywhere, walking back and forth, carrying blocks, bags and bags of cement, offloading trucks of sand and gravel, fetching water and so on.

Till today, as I sit to type you this story, I do not know what possessed me to bend my steps into the site, but almost of their own volition (like they did when bringing me into this street) they just turned and there I was, walking up the gangplank placed across the ditch into the compound. I hadn’t even had time for rational thought. I just approached the first man I saw, a Hausa man who was carrying a back of cement unto his shoulder.

“Well done o. Abeg, na who be the foreman here?” I asked him politely. He silently pointed to a burly man in a crash helmet who was directing the flow of activity. I had a second of actual rational thought. It occurred to me that I was stupid; crazy, to think I could just walk in here and get a job. I told my feet to turn and carry me back the way I had come, but as I said before they just seemed to have developed a mind of their own, and carried me towards the foreman.

Before I had even gotten close to him at all, he spied me from the distance and scowled in my direction.

“Why are you just coming? Do you think I have all day?!”

I was surprised to say the least. He had obviously mistaken me for someone he was expecting. I stopped in front of him and attempted to stammer an explanation.

“Sir…I am not…” He cut me short.

“I know. Anyway, are you ready to work or not?”

I only had one chance and I took it. I promptly answered, “Yes sir!”

Pointing to a small room on the ground floor of the building (the first two floors actually had walls), he grunted, “Get in there and change, and then join the men at in the water team. Any questions?”

I was already halfway towards the building, afraid he might have a change of heart; afraid he might realise I was not the one he was waiting for after all so I just threw a “No sir!” over my shoulder and kept moving till I entered the room he had indicated. It was obviously the workmen’s shanty; I could see a pile of clothes and shoes in a corner. Some tools also lay around and on the table. I quickly stripped down to my undershirt and boxers, folded my clothes carefully, placed them on my folder and in the corner with the rest, and then looked around for something I could wear to help me look less inconspicuous. I found a tattered pair of jeans hanging on a nail, with dried cement crusted all over it. It looked like it had not been worn in a while, so I scrapped off the cement and put it on inside out. I quickly rushed out and looked for the direction in which the water men were coming from, and then I headed there. They were coming from behind the building; I guessed that was where the pump was located and moved quickly in that direction.

There was another man standing beside the tap, tall slim and fair. He was dressed in workmen’s jeans and a helmet like the foreman was wearing, holding a writing pan and frowning at the men as they carried two large paint buckets each. He brightened up when he saw me.

“Another one? Good. Lord knows we’re seriously short-handed here today.” As I stopped in front of him, he asked me for my age.

“28 years, sir.” I told him.

He looked me over carefully, and then said “You started work quite late so you get a thousand naira at the end of today, that’s six pm. Is that okay?”

I wanted to cry. A thousand naira!

As it was, I could only nod. He looked at me again, and then pointed to a pile of buckets and said “Get to work.”

I did not care about whether I was a graduate. At that point, it did not interest me whether I had a second-class upper degree in Accounting. It did not interest me that I had become a common laborer for around thirty thousand naira a month. I had even forgotten that I had not eaten breakfast.

I was just grateful that I was taking money home to my family that day. I picked up two buckets, strength in my shoulders, a song of thanks in my heart.

Written by: Seun Odukoya

Seun Odukoya is a graduate of Educational Psychology, the award-winning author of the e-book For Days and A Night, e-comic Songs About AIDS and the online series Saving Dapo. He’s working on a full-length novel and two short story compilations at the moment. His writings can be found at www.seunodukoya.wordpress.com and he tweets as @seunodukoya.

Okay Everyone, as Seun Odukoya’s stalker 🙂 I’m proud to present to you, his upcoming novel Saving Dapo ( Drum roll).  If you know Seun, you’ll know that for a while, he was (and probably still is) referred to as Saving Dapo. I read this captivating series on his blog and I advice you to look out for it 🙂

Saving Dapo Director's Cut

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12 thoughts on “Poverty

  1. Hey! You’ve done a wonderful job here, and it’s not just this piece I’m alluding to. That you are a great writer is no contest: I’m new to the blogging process, but I’m most honoured that I have tutors borne with finesse- I’m most obliged to add you to that list! Again, well done, ma’am!

  2. Goodness me! I’m reading this in the chill of a cool night and I felt the heat of that sun with the young man.
    Wow! Well done, Seun. You outdo yourself with each new piece.
    I know Saving Dapo is going to blow our minds

  3. Strength in my shoulders song in my heart.. That line was just epic. Saving dapo was an interesting series I followed too, tho m surprised its being turned into a novel. Is it hard copy or e-book????

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