I live on the outskirts of town, well not exactly town as you’d imagine. My journey involves breaching one of the most notorious slums in the country to get home. And by home I mean a sharp contrast to the gloomy prologue that sucks your mirth and makes you appreciate the resilience of those who made it across the river. Mine is a residential community north of the slums, founded by the nouveau riche who made it out of the squalor of the slums. I have never been ashamed of where I live, never been bothered that people look down on me as a product of the slums. Never felt superior to my distant neighbours; to the best of my knowledge I grew up in the middle of the squalor till my parents crawled out.
This particular afternoon I dreaded the journey home from school. Anytime I left the comfort of my university campus for home, I return a shade darker. Probably, the sun like everything else is in a grand conspiracy to perpetuate the slum status with signs and wonders. I sat uncomfortably in my dingy trotro, showing more rust than paint and a stingy spread of leather over dirt-ridden foam and a generous view of the metal frame of what was supposed to be the seat. Beside me at the very rear is this big woman whose abundant backside robs me of much-needed seat space and is sweating profusely. I am perched uncomfortably, with my long arms tucked between my thighs and my shoulders hunched to avoid any contact with the woman’s greasy, rash-ridden arms. I was also perspiring on the crowded backseat of the immobile trosky in the middle of a crowded market; sitting by a fat woman with god knows which skin disease who won’t sit still!
I was in the kind of traffic that makes you empathise with mummies. The market is never wanting of bright colours- which I’ll gladly trade for the sepia tone of this sunny afternoon and the weird sounds that make you search for the source if only to confirm that it was produced from a human windpipe. The fat lady besides me, on top of everything else, carried on her abundant lap a sickly looking baby (I don’t want to say ugly). The baby’s thin limbs were sticking out of an oversized thread bare T-shirt, her hair sparsely distributed on her barren scalp and her eyes severely jaundiced; she was screaming like a banshee. From where I sat, I could smell that the baby reeked of urine, as did the mother who had had her strapped to her back all day while she sold boiled eggs with ground pepper. At least I gathered that much from her tray cushioned with a flour sack cloth with depressions the shape and size of an egg. The tray had chunks of table salt sprinkled all over it and she placed it right in front of my long legs that would have gladly pushed the first row of seats out of the way for more space, effectively cramping my knees.
I decide to escape my present predicament by looking out the window; I knew I would see young men heckling passers-by to buy jeans or skirts or t-shirts from them. I also knew I would see the women who sell canned food or biscuits at prices cheaper than they are sold for in the shops. They always argue that when you sell at a cheaper price, you will make less profit but, you will sell more and as such, earn enough to live on. I know some make as little as 20 pesewas on each item they sell. On top of that, the city authorities or do I say slum authorities do not want them there and so they had to keep an eye out for the task force. If their eyes were too slow to spot the task force, their ears had been sharpened enough through practice to listen to the catcall from their colleague hawkers. ‘Aba ee!!’ was the call; it was a sign to pack up and dash for the nearest corner. The nearest was their first concern, the safest corner was secondary. .
I stare blankly and wonder if these people had dreams and what happened to those dreams, do they have children, and are their children ever going to come out of this rat-race. How much do they earn, does it feed and clothe them at least? Do they blame God, or do they serve Him with glad, thankful hearts. My thoughts are interrupted by the catcall and all the traders ran off, hanging tightly onto their wares. The traffic jam subsides very briefly but the world stands still again. Soon the hawkers return laughing and cursing the idiot who cried wolf. It wasn’t a wolf-cry. The task force was wearing mufti on this occasion and so they were like ordinary shoppers.
I watch with disinterest as sixteen year old stopped a man to market to him a pair of faded blue jeans, pointing at the conspicuous red cloth sticking out and mouthing the brand name LEVIS as if to make a case for the price he will quote but the man produces an I.D card and seizes the bundle of clothes on the boy’s head and snatches the one in his hands; time stopped for a second as this boy tugged at the man’s shirt, pleading for mercy and the man tries in vain to yank the sturdy limbs clutching at the straws of survival. He finally resorts to a back-hand slap that distorts the young man’s senses immediately, making him lose his grip and crash to the pot-hole ridden street. The man sprints towards a waiting van and casually picks a tray of canned mackerels from an elderly lady’s head; she has almost doubled over because of either a waist or spine problem and couldn’t run to save her dear life. In no time, the traffic had been cleared and the cars had started moving.
The hawkers were the cause of the mad traffic. As the lorry moved and let in a bit of cool air, I wondered what the young boy would do, worrying also for the older lady with the back problem. However, I took consolation in the corruption of the task force. I knew that they would probably return the seized items for a disgracefully small bribe. If they did that, wouldn’t the bribes they demand be the entirety of the hawkers’ weekly earnings? My consolation was short-lived.
The little banshee kept screaming her lungs out, and she is not even two years old. Other passengers were yelling at the mother to breastfeed her. She replied that she couldn’t; she had been in the sun all day and her breast milk wouldn’t be good for the baby.
I reached into my bag and brought out a bar of white chocolate a friend brought me as souvenir from London and gave it to the baby. They wouldn’t even know its value I thought. The lady thanked me, broke a piece for herself (I don’t know whether she was dying to have a taste or was taking it first in case it was poisoned) and gave the baby. In under a minute, the crying stopped and the baby was playfully opening her arms to come to me. WHAT??
I took the baby in spite of the stench and slipped a 10cedi note in her left palm; I just felt like doing that. The mother who would be more than 10 years older than me, called me auntie and added that God bless me. I smiled and told her she had a beautiful baby – I wasn’t lying.
BY ENYONAM DAMESI
Enyonam is a budding writer; she writes poetry, short stories and plays. She reads a lot, has a wicked sense of humour and wishes to be a dancer in her next life. She shares her thoughts on her personal blog
You may follow her on twitter via @mz_enyo