By Ayodeji Matuluko
The Sunday market road was jammed with traffic. Construction workers in neon vests and helmets hovered around. Some of them dug away, others observed or drank or smoked. The dust from building materials coated the road and as cars passed by; dust lifted into the air and beclouded the vicinity. Dust settled on cars and passers-by clothes. As we approached the market, a young boy, about my age, started to follow our car. A cane basket hung down his right hip, which his right elbow clasped inside the basket, clasped firmly to his side. We picked up pace and he ran to catch up. Finally we slowed down as we started the search for a good parking space among the cluster of cars, men standing around a grill preparing suya, boys standing idly arranging Naira notes in their hands, other young boys and girls holding cane baskets and men in blue vests standing beside bicycles with boxes of frozen yoghurt on top of them for sale.
One of the young men fondling naira notes in his hands came close to our car and started to direct us into the best possible spot for parking. He twisted his hand left and right and signalled this way and that way until my mother’s car was perfectly aligned in the narrow space between a Cherokee Jeep and a Toyota Camry. The young boy with the cane basket, who had followed us, first stood by our car waiting and expectant. As we my mother and I alighted from the car, he greeted, bending his head and upper body halfway.
“How are you my dear? I’m not buying much today. I might not need you to help me carry anything”, my mother said, a tone of familiarity in her voice.
The boy looked timid and as I looked at his face I imagined what his story was. Just as I tried to imagine what the stories of the other children would be.
“It’s okay ma. I will still help you carry your load,” he said, stroking the top of his basket while his gaze moved from my mother’s face to his hands.
His accent sounded sharp and free of any form of native influence. I assumed he was a boy who came to the Sunday market, eager to be an alabaru for anyone, with the resolve to take something home, no matter how little, to his widowed mother. He might not have to be a secondary school dropout. Maybe he just did this only on weekends.
As we entered the market we passed the gates with worn out and rusted iron bars. The two gates stood very much apart from each other, almost standing on their sides. Near the rusted gates, the men grilling suya stood around their coal fire and squinted as they turned flat pieces of red meat around in rhythmic fashion, sprinkling the grilling meat with vegetable oil from plastic bottles with punched holes on their covers. A fruit seller was bent over her wares, just close to the gates; pineapples, watermelons, oranges. She splashed water on the fruits from a blue basin containing water. Opposite her, on the right, were the women who sold chickens. The chickens were kept in cages lined up on wooden boards up to three levels. They clucked away and flapped their feathers. The area smelt putrid. We stopped at a yam seller close to the chicken sellers’ stand.
“Madam welcome oh,” the yam seller jumped up.
“Thank you. How do you sell your yams?’ my mother asked.
“These ones are N800, these ones N500,” she pointed to the large and medium-sized yams.
“Haba. That’s too expensive. Why now?”
“Ah madam, it’s not expensive oh. Yam is very cost nowadays.”
My mother, tentative for a moment, held up one of the yams which were placed high on a stool.
“It’s very fresh ma” the yam seller chipped in.
“Let me take 3 of these ones at N1200”
“Ah! No, madam. Help me. Yam is expensive. Take it for N1400.
My mother twisted her lips to one side in the semblance of a smile and motioned to me to let us move forward.
“Ah, madam oya come and take it like that,” the yam seller called out. My mother hesitated and then went back a few steps.
“It’s just that yam is expensive,” the yam seller continued as she handed the yams over to the young boy who had followed us. “It’s because you are my customer. If not…”
“Thank you,” my mother said as we moved on.
I turned back as we passed between the people selling peppers, to make sure the cane basket boy was following us. He kept behind me. I smiled at him. We stopped to buy fish. The area was wet and the smelt repulsive. I watched as a woman chopped a fish into four pieces on a wooden slab; tail, two middle portions and then head. She searched for change in the folds of her wrapper after she handed over the black nylon of chopped fish to her customer. Her fingers were covered in fish scales and tiny spots of blood. She tucked those same fingers under her scarf as she scratched at a section of her hair absent-mindedly.
I started to look around as my mother continued to price fish with the fish mongers. I turned on my heels to my right. There, were the butchers. At our back were the vegetable sellers and turning back to my right to face the fish sellers, my eyes caught those of our young boy’s. He was squatted by the cane basket containing our yams and he had been staring at me. He averted his eyes at once from mine and let them go down, from my gown, to my ballerina shoes in furtive observation. His gaze rested on the shoes for a little bit before he turned away.
My mother handed over the nylon of chopped fish to the young boy. We went further into the market with traders calling out, “Come and buy your provisions! Sweet oranges here! Mummy, see fresh catfish!”
We bought ogbono seeds, egusi seeds and roasted fish and went back to where the vegetable sellers stayed. I watched as the men and women chopped with precision, the rapid motion of their knives causing thinly chopped strings of vegetable, carefully avoiding their hands. Our ugwu was handed over to our young boy.
As we walked back to our car, I stood close to my mother.
“I thought you said you were not buying much today,” I said, my voice tinged with amusement and accusatory.
“Most of them were relatively cheap, I couldn’t help it. Besides, I only realised I even needed more things than I listed”
“Okay. So how much are you giving our alabaru?”
I turned back to see if our young boy was close to us. He was walking at a slight distance, the basket of items unmoving on his head as he took firm steps.
“Why don’t you give him N200?” I whispered.
My mother laughed.
“I’m giving him N70.”
I gave her a stern look and raised my eyebrows in exaggerated disapproval.
“Okay I’ll give him N100.”
I raised my shoulders up to my ears, shook my head and placed my hands-on waist. We were now in front of our car. Our young boy started to help with transferring our items from his basket into the car boot.
My mother watched him as he placed the yams one after the other on the cut-out portion of a sack she in the boot.
“My dear, how much is your money?” she asked, peering at him.
“Will you take N70 if I give you?”
“Yes ma, it’s okay.” He kept at his activity of placing items in the boot with a fervent devotion.
“Are you sure?”
When he had finished, my mother handed N70 to him.
“Thank you ma,” he said tucking the money into his back pocket with his right hand and holding his basket loosely in front of him with his free hand.
I didn’t say anything to my mother in the car. I was considering whether to register my disappointment with her or not. I started to talk, but the words hung painfully in my throat.
My mother looked at me.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Omode lo n se e. You are such a child.”
I fixed my seat belt, folded my arms over my chest and faced the road, as we reversed out of out parking spot with the help of our warden.
I thought about how N70 would not buy even me a plastic bottle of Coca Cola.