01 March 2009

Our Daily Bread by Ayodele Morocco-Clarke

My first perceptible memory is of a starry night when we bedded down to sleep in what was our home under the Isolo Bridge. During the day, we’d trudged the streets under the blazing sun, as we always did, in search of food and other collectible bric-a-brac and had retired exhausted to our little corner under the bridge. The space under the Isolo Bridge was home to a good number of people. Most of the inhabitants of that space were people who had fallen on hard times or people who were rejected by society as a result of one malady or the other.

On the night in question, Mama, Bisi and I had curled up on our cardboard mattresses. The usual daily crepuscular noises had eased to a more comfortable night hum which helped lull us to sleep as we lay our weary heads on the tattered rags that served as our pillows. Bisi was positioned next to a chunky wall, which was really one of the pillars of the bridge. I lay next to her, with Mama on the outside lying next to me. We used Mama’s large old tattered wrapper as a blanket to shield ourselves from the chills of the night.

I do not recall exactly what it was that woke me from my slumber. It might have been the desperate tugging on the wrapper, or maybe it was the fervid whispers which invaded my dreams and beleaguered my sub-conscious, or maybe even the frantic tussle going on between Mama and someone unknown. It was probably a combination of all three, but I woke up with a start, calling out to Mama in a panic-stricken shrill voice.

All frenetic movements and sounds in our immediate vicinity ceased as Mama gathered me up in her arms, stroking my hair and trying to coax me back to sleep, telling me I had had a nightmare and she would not let anything harm me. I could hear the occasional car speed past on the road, but Mama’s sweet susurrations were like a lullaby, and before long, I had achieved the hebetudinous state in which I straddled the fence that divides slumber and consciousness.

Thinking I had gone back to sleep, Mama withdrew her arms, causing me to stir. No sooner had she moved away than I saw a form move beside her. It took a while for my brain to decipher that the image being transmitted by eyes was not a dream. Once it did, my droopy eyes shot wide open. Nobody slept in our little corner under the bridge. There was an unwritten rule regarding territorial boundaries and all inhabitants of the space under the bridge strictly adhered to this rule.

I heard some more urgent whispers between Mama and the unknown person. From the person’s silhouette, I made him out to be a man because of his bare chest and short hair. I opened my mouth to cry out once again, but something stopped me. I could see the man struggling with Mama and when he realised that she was not going to give in, he tried to inveigle her into accepting his unwanted advances. When that also failed, he finally resorted to trying to cajole her in a desperate voice.

“Mama Mukaila, why are you being so wicked? If not for my present condition do you think I will be here begging you? Just five minutes. Give me five minutes. I swear I will finish quickly. It has been a long time I have been with a woman, Mama Mukaila. Please.

At the height of his plea, his voice had risen from a whisper.

“Shhhhh. Do you want to wake everyone up?” Mama whispered furiously, casting an anxious glance in my direction. I quickly shut my eyes feigning sleep.

Haba, Mama Mukaila. Why are you behaving as if you are a virgin? After all, you have two children and no one knows their fathers. Is it because I am not one of those rich men who come to frequent you for sex? Is it because I am poor? I may be poor, but I am not ugly like that toad that everyone knows slept with you last month.”

“Go away and leave me alone,” Mama whispered angrily.

“I am not going anywhere. Today is today and my body is not a piece of wood. If you don’t agree by my pleading with you, you will agree by force. I am sure that is what you like and I will give it to you in abundance,” he said, grappling with Mama and almost overpowering her.

“What is the matter with you? You are going to wake my children up.”

“Let them wake up.”

“I will shout out if you don’t leave me alone,” Mama warned.

“If you shout out, I swear that I will kill your children.”

Fear paralysed me and I started to cry noiselessly. I could not understand what exactly was happening, but I knew that it could not be good if the man was threatening to kill Bisi and me.

Mama and the man were still locked in battle. In the struggle, she had been moved away from her cardboard mattress which adjoined mine. I saw him straddle her and with one hand loosen the cord which held his flannel trousers tied to his waist. He yanked his trousers down and Mama struggled fiercely. Blood and fear pounded in my ears blocking their subsequent words out, but their movements must have created some noise because I heard a voice ask loudly in Pidgin English, “Na who be that?”

Once again, all movements under the bridge ceased.

I say, na who be that?” the voice repeated and almost from nowhere I saw someone appear right beside Mama. He lit a match and for some seconds I saw clearly who Mama’s aggressor was. It was Mr. Friday, the teacher who had taken up residence under the bridge two months before.

Mr. Friday had fallen on bad times due to his incessant drinking and compulsive gambling. He was sacked from the teaching job he had held on to for seventeen years. His wife had left him a few years before, remarrying his best friend within three months of leaving him. Without a job, he had been unable to keep up with paying his rent and his long-suffering landlord, tired of his lame excuses had evicted him from his flat.

The light from the match illuminated Mr. Friday’s face. He looked like a child who had been caught with his fingers in the soup pot. He was on top of Mama’s recumbent body, half-supported by his arms, with his trousers bunched at his knees.

It was a man called Rasaki who held the match. He was also an inhabitant of the space under the bridge and occupied the spot adjacent to our allocated spot.

Haba, Oga Teacher!” he stage whispered in Pidgin English. “So you know how to sleep with woman ehn? When it is daytime, you go dey act like say you dey better than everybody. Na on top of Mama Mukaila I come catch you. Na God want me to catch you today.”

“Please don’t shout. It is the devil that pushed me. I have not slept with a woman in a very long time. Please,” Mr. Friday begged. He was now on his knees. His trousers were still gathered around his knees. Mama lay immobile, her face averted from the match’s effulgence which soon dimmed as the match flickered and died.

Why I no go shout? You wey like to act as if you be big man and you always behave like you dey better than all of us. I go shout make everybody come see how useless you are.” By this time, Rasaki held a small candle which he had produced from nowhere and lit.

“Please,” beseeched Mr. Friday. “I will give you money.”

Greed flickered in Rasaki’s eyes. “How much?” he asked.

“I will give you Twenty Naira.”

You dey craze. Na who you wan give that chicken change?”

“Please, I don’t have a lot of money,” Mr. Friday whined.

No problem, I go just start to shout now,” Rasaki whispered fiercely.

“No! No, please. I only have Fifty Naira and it is the money I have to stretch till I can get my redundancy pay packet.”

All these big grammar, bring the Fifty Naira. I go manage am.”

“I cannot give you all the money. I will not have anything left if I give it to you.”

You still dey talk nonsense abi? Give me the money now before I change my mind.”

“Okay, okay,” Mr. Friday whispered hastily. “At least if I give you all my money, can I finish what I was doing?” he said digging around in the pocket of his bunched trousers.

“No problem,” Rasaki said, collecting the money from him. “But, make you hurry up. I want to do my own when you don finish.”

“Thank you. I will try to hurry up,” Mr. Friday whispered and he again mounted on top of Mama who out of shame had obstructed her face with her tattered diaphanous scarf. I don’t know what happened next because I fell asleep.

In the morning, when I asked Mama about the incident, she looked at me shocked and admonished me, saying that I must have been dreaming. I never mentioned it again, but I could see that she was shaken by what I said. I forgot about that night until several years later.

The day after the incident, Mama made us move away from our home under the Isolo Bridge. We slept rough for a few days, meandering from one place to another. After about four days, we discovered a partially completed building which looked like it had been abandoned. It had overgrown bushes and was located towards the end of a beaten dirt track.

Mama, Bisi and I set to work clearing the back room, which was the only room that had a complete roof. It looked as though the workmen had left in a hurry. There were discarded building and carpentry implements strewn haphazardly throughout the building, most of which were either broken or brown with rust. The whole place was overrun with weeds and numerous reptiles which scurried away as we cleared the room. They appeared startled by our intrusion of what had hitherto been their exclusive territory. I saw a large snake-like reptile - which somewhat also bore a resemblance to a lizard - and screamed. Mama killed it, saying as she did that it was not a snake. After getting rid of the weeds we had uprooted, Bisi and I swept the room with some palm fronds we had retrieved from underneath the palm tree that was growing outside the yard, while Mama set about making us a meal. After our meal, we arranged our meagre possessions in our new home.

We remained in the house without any disturbance from anyone and I often asked Mama if it had no owner. Her favourite response was that God had prepared a place for us.

Everyday, we set out from our home in search of food and other collectibles. Our favourite destination was the huge refuse dump that stood almost at the intersection leading to Ikotun Egbe and Idimu. Many destitute people scavenged the dump in search of discarded valuables and food. Often, there were many perfectly working items to be found amongst the garbage. In addition to the homeless people who rummaged through the dump, there were numerous ‘professional recyclers’ who scoured through the refuse for various items ranging from plastic articles, to aluminium or metal items, to clothes and shoes. The refuse dump also played host to several wild pigs, dogs, goats and vultures. All living creatures who frequented the dump did so for one reason only; survival.

There was a non-stop overpowering stench which emanated from the dump. It was nauseous, totally disgusting and had the power of making a person involuntarily bring up whatever meal he might have eaten. The dump could be smelled over a mile before you reached it and was a way of the dump warning people of its presence from afar. It was a gigantic dump and attempts by people to hold their breath whilst passing by were futile since it spanned a vast expanse of space.
Daily, we saw people holding their noses or covering them with handkerchiefs. It was hilarious watching the mannerisms of people who sat in passing cars. Often they wound up the windows of their cars and still held their noses. For people who did not have any air-conditioning in their cars, it was a funny sight to see the sweat pour off their faces in the sweltering heat whilst they were stuck in the ever present traffic jam which was in part caused by the dump.

Although the overflow from the dump was initially responsible for the traffic jams, the main cause for the inordinately prolonged periods vehicles were stuck in the traffic bottleneck was impatience. In a bid to escape the unbearable stench from the dump, many drivers attempted to jump the slow moving crawl by overtaking the vehicles in front of them using the opposite lane, only to be stopped by the oncoming traffic headed in the opposite direction. Other drivers, having observed that the first rebellious driver had advanced successfully for several yards, ultimately emulated him, resulting in traffic chaos.

Cars were stuck in the bottleneck for hours on end and many motorists who had no functioning air-conditioning in their vehicles finally gave in and resorted to winding down their windows and indeed sometimes even opening their doors in a bid to aid air circulation. The stench from the dump was usually long forgotten as anger and frustration became the new emotions that were uniformly felt by all motorists. The truth is that after several minutes of inhaling the putrid air around the dump, people became used to it and stopped noticing it. The stench from the dump was at its most potent in the afternoon when the hot scorching sun blazed down mercilessly on the earth. Indeed, on most hot afternoons, a person could visibly see the fumes rising upward from the dump like steam would rise out from a boiling pot.

I was used to the smell from the refuse heap. The only time I noticed the smell was when we first approached the dump in the mornings. After a few minutes, the smell was imperceptible. We survived from what we got at the dump and retrieved many useful possessions from the dump. The kerosene stove we used whenever we could lay our hands on kerosene had come from the dump. Most of the clothes and footwear we wore came from the dump. The pots, plates, cups and crockery we used, all came from the dump. When we were lucky, we managed to gather things we thought were useful and if we did not need them, we cleaned them as best as we could and either sold them or bartered them for the things we needed. Our existence, though not rich was happy. Bisi and I spent many laughter filled hours playing with and chasing our friends up and down the refuse dump.

One morning, years after we had moved into the abandoned house, I set off from home in search of something for the three of us to eat. Mama was ill and we had not had any food to eat in over twenty-four hours. Desperately hungry, I decided to try my luck out on the streets, leaving Bisi behind to look after Mama. At seven, Bisi was two years younger than I was, and like me, she was a precocious child, leading me to conclude that she would be able to cope alone with Mama while I was gone.

Getting something to eat was harder than I had thought it would be and I spent the whole day moving from one place to another trying to get food or money. Along the road, I joined a band of beggars who were gathered at a busy junction begging road users for alms. I was not allowed to hang about for long as the other beggars thought that I was invading and trespassing on their patch. I cried, pleaded, grovelled and begged, pressing my hands together in supplication, all to no avail. In my distress, I called upon God to help me, however it seemed that my cries were destined to go unanswered; succour was not forthcoming from any quarters.

By evening, I was half crazed with hunger. Dizzy and weak, I struggled on, spurred by the thought that my mother and sister needed sustenance. A mental picture of their emaciated bodies was firmly plastered in my mind. I could not fail them. I rummaged through refuse bins in a bid to find something edible, but came up with nothing.

Dejected, I started to make my way back home. My return journey was more tortuous than the journey from the house. All day, I contended with the hunger which was burning like molten lava in my belly, gnawing away at my intestines. As if that was not enough, the blistering sun had sapped away what little energy I possessed when I left Mama and Bisi in the morning. There was a constant ringing my ears. I had intermittent moments in which I suffered blackouts and there were times when it seemed that I was somnambulating.

Along the way, I saw several obstreperous children trying to outdo one another while chasing a football. It was clear from their tumultuous behaviour that none of them had hunger problems, and I spent several minutes looking enviously at them playing their carefree game.

As I continued down the Oshodi Bridge, my eyes took in various people displaying their wares. Many of these people were selling foodstuff of some sort or the other and I approached a few of them to plead for a scrap of food to appease my riotous, rampaging stomach – just a tiny morsel. Their responses were the same; vicious disdain and even anger. I was shooed away like a flea ridden stray dog. I guess I must have been no more than another canine to them.

It was in a state of inanition that I spied a tray on which was stacked several loaves of freshly baked bread. I saw an opportunity when I observed that the bread tray was not being closely watched by the owner. With the last bit of energy I could muster, I pounced like a predator and within the twinkling of an eye, my dexterous fingers had snatched up a loaf of bread. I was already making a getaway with my loot when the bread seller saw me and raised an alarm, but by this time I was several yards away and could taste victory.

Victory was short-lived. As I dashed around people and between cars to the shouts of “Ole! Ole!! Ole!!!” and “Thief! Barawo!!” being flung around me, I came up against a huge barrel of a man blocking my path. When I made to dart around him, he put out one of his legs which looked like the trunk of an Iroko tree. I saw his leg at the last minute and nimbly leapt over it, impelling my body to put a distance between me and him. I apparently was not agile enough as my toes nipped the leg, causing me to stumble and go sprawling onto the dirt floor. My heart sank with dismay when I saw my treasured loot go flying out of my arms to land a few metres away in the dirt. Tears of frustration stung my eyes and I struggled to rise up as swiftly as I could. Hunger must have dulled the reflex of my limbs, because I struggled to my feet the precise moment the mammoth man clamped one of his enormous hands on me. Yanking me up, he shook me like a grizzly bear would shake its prey. My legs dangled helplessly, oscillating with each violent shake he gave me.

“Come here you filthy thief,” he thundered.

With his other had, he gave me a mighty slap. For a few seconds, I thought I had suffered another blackout because everything went totally black and I could not hear anything. It felt as though I was confined in a tomb. I however could feel the sharp sting of the slap, so it occurred to me that it was no blackout and I might have instead gone blind and deaf. Tears burst forth unchecked from my eyes and as the sepulchral darkness of the moment overwhelmed me, I started to scream hysterically.

“I cannot see o. You have blinded me.”

I don’t know how long my blindness lasted, but as suddenly as my sight and hearing disappeared, they made a re-appearance. It was like an eclipse, one moment, darkness, the next moment, light.

I saw that a truculent rambunctious crowd of onlookers was pressing its way to the spot my ruthless assailer held me captive. Suggestions were being bandied about as to what was to be my fate. When I heard someone mention that to serve as a deterrent to other thieves, I should be roasted alive using a tyre doused in petrol as a necklace, I struggled in the man’s grasp and managed to break free. Because I had taken my captor by surprise, my hopes of escape were revivified, and before anyone could stop me, I dashed across the Oshodi-Isolo Expressway to shouts from the crowd and the screeching tyres of oncoming vehicles. Being chased by an angry mob, I was desperate to get away and successfully darted past a speeding car, only to look up to see a huge trailer bearing down on me with the screams of numerous people resonating in my ears.

Our Daily Bread was written by Ayodele Morocco-Clarke

Copyright Ayodele Morocco-Clarke 2009.

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Ivor W. Hartmann said...

Welcome to ST Ayo! and what a great start here. Our Daily Bread is an intense, honest and heartfelt journey into the heart of literally living under a concrete bridge; in the second most populated city in Africa. I was left wanting more, wanting to know what happened next. Which can work in two ways for the reader. I felt a bit let down, like watching a disk movie that is (unbeknownst to me) scratched right near the ending. But in all it's a great story.

sarudzayi barnes said...

Great story Ayodele,a well crafted narrative that challenges us all to the problems faced by 'street'-kids. It is food for thought. Well done. I think you can develop it into a very good novel.

Emmanuel Sigauke said...

I enjoyed the story, especially the suspense. Thanks for sharing.

Masimba Musodza said...

Lagos, but not as we know it. Or rather, not as we want to know it. Biting reality, victims victimising victims the glaring pessimism tempered by the suspense. I enjoyed it.

Ayodele Morocco-Clarke said...

Thanks guys. I am glad to be in the fold.

@ Ivor, I do know exactly what you mean about the story. This is probably attributable to the fact that the story you read is less than half of the original work. I am quite imaptient and I actually grew tired of all the gloom in the story and therefore could not bring myself to finish it (especially after a mate had labelled me "The Queen of Doom and Gloom"), so I chose a point and chopped it off at that stage, thus I understand the feeling of dissatisfaction.

@ sarudzayi, Thanks a bunch. I am not sure I can bring myself to write about that life for the extended period it would take to write a book, seeing people living in those conditions is bad enough.

@ Emmanuel, Thanks for reading the story.

@ Masimba, Thanks. I am glad you enjoyed the story. You will be surprised just how many people see this part of Lagos. It is the Lagos that millions know and it only degenerated to this extent within the last 30 years.

Ivor W. Hartmann said...

That's it exactly, you answered a feeling I had about the ending. If it were me, I'd round it off a touch, but that's just my personal opinion :). Always feel free to ignore anything I say. There is a nice quality to this cliff hanger ending, of that there is no doubt.

Anonymous said...

MOROCCO! You know I've always admired your command of the english language and I must say your writing skills are superb. This story was definitely a teaser. Very vivid and left me wanting to know more.

Let me know when Random House signs you up!


Anonymous said...

Nice story. Enjoyed the suspense but wish i got to read the end. Unfortunately what you've written about is the true story of so many. Proud of you

Anonymous said...

Nice story! Enjuoyed every bit of it.Wish I got to see the end. That last comment was mine.Osayi

Dazy said...

I read it to the end with almost closing my breath. And enjoyed it lot. Keep on posting like this.

Rkayat (Iyabo) Obaitor said...

Great piece Morocco. Always knew you were going places. Keep the flag flying.
Urs- Rukayat (Iyabo) Nigerian Law School Class of 99/2000

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma said...

An interesting story, I am left wondering how this came to your mind, what made you write about it, it comes across with an unusual 'feel'. The voice employed and the way the chosen angles are explored, blow over with an air of freshness. The description of the dump is rich- is this a dump that exists, because here the description is very 'real'. The ending left me suspended, I did not expect the story to end the way it did, or when it did- another deliberate manipulation of the story here? It's interesting, in stories I suppose we expect some form of 'cushioned' landing, but you do not spare us, you take us through, past those places we are running away from, and even as we are running we dare not leave the page. And here, our protagonist starts off poor and ragged, a homeless beggar, and in the end she is still that, poor-ragged-homeless-beggar. A reflection of another one of those ironies of life. Reminds me of the Phil Collins song 'Oh, Think twice, it's just another day for you and me in Pa-ra-dissse..' Great stuff.

Ayodele Morocco-Clarke said...

@ Nneka, Anon, Dazy, Osayi and Rukayat, Thank you for reading and leaving some feedback.

@ Novuyo, Cheers! Yes, I knew such a rubbish dump back home in Lagos years ago. I don't know if it is still there, but it was an eyesore and a disgrace. Like I said in my previous response above, this story is much longer, but it threatened to overwhelm me with its gloomy depression, so I just chose a point and chopped it off there. I must however say that the ending the full story had was much more gruesome and still would have left many dissatisfied as the protagonist still ends up in penury. By the way, I have thought of the protagonist as a boy and not a girl as you have concluded.

Thanks once again for reading.

Rkayat (Iyabo) Obaitor said...

Great piece Morocco. Always knew you were going places. Keep the flag flying.
Urs- Rukayat (Iyabo) Nigerian Law School Class of 99/2000

bimmy carter said...

I want more

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