An assortment of okada, keke, and several kabu’kabu/taxi’s, park lackadaisically on the hard-packed earthen kerb, beside the gutter that Mama Put used as her frontage. This is a busy corner of the road side, which teems with human traffic.
Mama Put’s shack is brimming with customers going in and coming out. Some still have their toothpicks in-between their teeth, sucking in air, in an attempt to dislodge a tiny morsel that had stolen into a gap, whilst some insert a finger in their mouths, using it as a wrench to pluck out remnants of chewed meat.
Lunch time is one of Mama’s busiest period. These rushed gathering of men jostle each other for space on the worn wooden benches and the few mismatched plastic chairs inside the crowded shambolic tent of the popular buka.
The men are taking a proper break from the morning rush. Most times they leave their homes on empty stomach as early as 5:00am for the quick business turnaround of taking passengers to their places of work and trade. Leaving early not only helps to put more money in their pockets, but it is also a means of beating the unbelievable go-slow which builds up as early as 6:30 in the morning.
Hasty gobbles of soft Agege bread, slathered with blue band butter chased down with hot tea from the local Mai shayi, serves as a respite till lunch time. On days when there is a lag between passengers, then it could be a quick meal of hot fried akara balls and ogi or kunu.
From 6.00am in the morning till she closes shop in the evening, Mama Put’s domain is a place of systematic chaos. She endeavors to start early to cater to her early bird customers and it was not a strange sight to see a flashy car or two with a customer carrying a food warmer to make purchase and eat in the comfort of their office, shop or home.
Her rivals spread snippets of malicious gossip that mama uses spiritual powers to keep her customers enraptured, but these back talks neither stopped her nor did it deter her customers. Nkoyo – Mama Put’s real name – could cook. Her food is always tasty, fresh and her demeanor pleasant.
The men look forward to their lunch. It is a place of camaraderie; a place you need to be, to keep abreast with the goings on in the vicinity. Heads crowd the steaming pots of jollof and dodo, white rice and stew, porridge beans and yam; each customer making their request and pointing out their particular choice of a piece of assorted meat or fish, whilst those who waited on the next round of pounded yam straddled their benches and engaged in idle chatter.
As they crowd the eating arena, an overpowering smell of dried human perspiration clings to the air, mingling with the divergent aroma wafting from pots of food and this creates a unique smell in itself.
The deep hums of their voices rhyme with the kpom, kpom, kpom beat of the pestle and the mortar at the back of the tent where a young lad mashes the boiled yam – which occasionally mingles with beads of his sweat – into softer lumps for swallowing with native soup. Pounded yam is a heavy meal appreciated by the hardworking men. It kept the hunger pangs at bay for hours on end.
Over their hot plates of food, their loud voices compete to regale each other with anecdotes of the days events. Of cantankerous, corrupt officials who dot every few meters of the road, casing the riders and extorting money from them. Sometimes, it would be the story of an irksome passenger or a tussle with another rider. They argue over football, a division of thoughts depending on the persons Premier League of support and their gist’s are often interspersed with ribald jokes. They talk politics, share their opinionated advise about women, touching on this and that.
“Ha!” “Mama, na wa o!” exclaims a stocky regular. This poundo fit belleful person so? E small o, he carries on talking as he receives his plate of pounded yam and afang soup.
Mama generously cuts a little extra portion and adds to the lumpy mound on his plate.
A beg give me pure water, another customer known as Sadiq requests.
Mercy, one of Mama’s kitchen girl heeds his request and ambles over with a cold sachet of pure water, which is kept cool with the ice blocks purchased from the ice block supplier.
Sadiq, calls her “my wife, my wife”, pats her ample waist and Mercy giggles as she steps away to answer another customer.
It’s a typical selling day and nothing is amiss until a customer rushes in, breathless with news of calamity. A demolition order from the new local government chairman is taking place. Makeshift stalls, shacks and all are being callously pulled down. They say it is to make way for modern stalls that Mr. Chairman wants to construct and sell or rent to the highest bidders.
Grumbling of mistreatment of poor masses in the hands of elected officials ensues. The men disperse quickly in order not to be caught in the backlash and have their properties impounded, as the rumble of the crushing Bulldozer is heard chugging it’s way slowly and surely, leaving destruction, tears and anguish in its wake.
Mama flounders as they hasten to gather crockery, aluminum pots, pans and other items that they can move quickly. Her thoughts are scattered to the four winds as she glumly watches her modest enterprise bulldozed to the ground. Tears leak out of her gritty eyes, rolling down her face unashamedly. She is caught in a wave of abject despondency.
Her sweat and efforts of many hard months fast turn into a crumpled heap of rubbish. It has taken so much to get to this point. To get to a point where she had a steady stream of customers and feasible income. Her family existed from hand to mouth; from the sweat of her brows and thoughts of her children, Uduak and Kufre’s school fees which is due in a couple of weeks cause more tears to well and brim over.
The bitterness of her situation pools and curdles her spirit. She rails and rants in anger, her vitriolic emotions overflowing its bounds. Her life has been a deep struggle; from one point to the other, that it sometimes feels as if the current sweeping her is too strong for her to keep her head up.
“Where will I start from?” Nkoyo mutters to no one in particular.
“How will I now catch up with my book me down customers?” She ponders fleetingly?
The vote she that she cast for the imbecilic Chairman a thought to regret and hiss over.
For as long as she can remember, she pays the local government touts protection money in cash and with free plates of food too. They extorted sums of pin money with promises that her space will always be maintained. She even contributed when all the vendors were approached to add their meager support to the Chairman’s campaign kitty.
Now that trouble had come calling, where were they to flex their lying muscles? Where were the thieving local government officials and their area boys? The Area fathers have slunk away like sly foxes with their tails tucked in-between their legs.
Nkoyo sits on an overturned mortar beside the rubble in weariness, her ambitions of expanding her business callously truncated. Her leaden legs are too tired to carry her home.
Glossary for words in italics that you may not know:
Afang soup: A vegetable soup originating from the South Eastern part of Nigeria – Cross River states.
Agege bread: A very popular low class bread baked in Lagos and favored by laborers. Usually very soft and eaten with so many variations of items e.g eggs, beans, bean cakes, etc
Akara: Bean cakes made from peeled black eyed peas and fried in hot oil.
Area boys/fathers: These are loosely organized gangs of young men, who roam the streets of Lagos. They extort money from passers-by, act as informal security guards, and perform other “odd jobs” in return for compensation.
Book me down: Customers who purchase food on credit and keep an account with the food vendor.
Buka: Local food canteen a step below restaurants. Food cheaper than the restaurants.
Dodo: Fried ripe plantain
Go slow: Slow crawling traffic
Jollof: A popular meal eaten in most West African homes, a one-pot meal made with fried tomato and pepper stew, rice, meat and spices
Kabu’kabu: Shared taxi
Kpom, kpom: Typical sound made from pounding.
Kunu: Popular drink consumed throughout Nigeria but mostly in the North. Made out of millet or sorghum
Mama Put: Road side food seller so called because her customers are known to beg for extra food for their plates ”mama abeg put more now”
Mai Shayi: Road side hot tea sellers
Na wa o: Exclamation which expresses so many things such as surprise, woe, you don’t say etc
Ogi: Liquefied maize meal which is thickened with hot water and sweetened with sugar and/or milk.
Okada: Commercial motorcycle used as vehicle for hire in Nigeria.
Pure Water: Water bagged in disposable sachets.
This poundo fit belleful person so?: Will this pounded yam fill me up?
© Jacqueline Oby-Ikocha
Image credits: Nairaland.com