Sunset was my favourite time of the day. I watched the golden light beam brightly as it battled with the creeping shadows of the night as we walked towards Mama Joy’s buka. My colleague, Sonia, chatted loudly, but her voice faded into the background as I listened to the breeze sweep through the palm trees. The sunset on this side of the island was glorious because the rest of the world became silhouettes in the perfect golden backdrop.
Mama Joy’s buka sat close to the lagoon. She always sat outside on a plastic Coca-Cola chair, cradling a faded margarine container in between her thighs. It was her prized possession because she never moved around without it. Whenever we paid her, she often placed the container securely under her arms, using the lid to hide how much change she had whilst she searched for the dirtiest note to handover. We would frown, resist, and demand for better quality. Sometimes, she would shut the container and simply state that she had no change; other times, she would open the container and shove it in our faces for us to see.
Today, Mama Joy was not seated outside, but rather we stepped in to find her scolding a little boy. He looked very unkempt in his baggy khaki shorts and sand kissed hair. Mama paused when she saw us walk in.
‘Oh, my customers! Una welcome o.’ Her high pitched whiny voice called out in between a wide gap-toothed smile as she waved her flabby wings for arms in the air. We smiled back at her and mumbled our replies. Today, her ghastly yellow skin complemented the evening’s glow despite its discoloured nature.
‘Ah mama, wetin happen?’ Sonia nodded at the little boy seething at us, as if we were the cause of his present plight. His anger filled the room like an elephant; it seeped from his sides to create this giant storm cloud, ready to unleash its rage on us.
‘This one? Don’t mind him o. He is the only one I managed to catch. He came with his friends to come and steal food from my customers. I’ve told him that I will report him to his mother, but not until I’m done finishing him.’ She eyed him cynically and kissed her teeth. ‘The boy gets away with too much rubbish. By the time I’m done with him, his mother will not recognize him.’ She proceeded to pinch his ear, dragging it down until he was bent forward in the perfect position for a hot slap to the back. The slap sounded painful but he did not flinch. He flared his nose like that of a bull and took deep breaths with tight-clenched fists. I suddenly feared for Mama.
‘Please, ehn Mama, just free him.’ I decided to speak up.
‘Mama.’ I pleaded.
‘Oya, you.’ She grudgingly shoved him towards me, ‘go and meet uncle.’
The boy eyed me suspiciously before walking towards me. As he walked slowly, he looked back and taunted Mama Joy.
‘See this small boy o! If I-’She reached for her worn out Dunlop slippers and tossed it. He ducked, so it flew over his head and landed right in front of me.
‘Na God wey save you. Baboon. See your face like monkey.’ She hissed. ‘Make I no see your face for this place again or else.’ She licked her finger and pointed to the poorly thatched roof. ‘Ah, if I no finish you that day, no be my mama wey born me.’
She let out a forced laugh and rolled her eyes. ‘You think say you be big boy ba? You never jam. Monkey. Omo ale.’ She continued to rain insults that escorted us to our seats.
‘Perhaps we should have just minded our business.’ Sonia said as we settled down. I said nothing, being preoccupied with trying to get the little boy to take a seat. He proved stubborn as he simply stood there with folded arms, a stiff scowl and eyes glued to the ground.
‘Joko jo.’ I scolded and he sat down slowly without looking up. I noticed that he responded better to our native tongue and proceeded to ask him a few questions in Yoruba. After a few minutes, I learned that his name was Samad.
‘Omo odun melo ni e?’
He looked up and held up his hands with one palm outstretched, while the other was balled up in a fist except for a thumb sticking out. I looked at him again and finally found the soft, innocent eyes of a six-year-old. The anger that had hardened his face previously suddenly belonged to someone else way older. I dusted the sand off his hair and shoulders; I half expected him to move away but he stayed still and I sensed him loosening up.
One of Mama’s girls, Nkechi, came around to take our orders. Samad looked up with pleading eyes. I ordered him a plate of jollof rice, fried plantain, two pieces of meat, and a cold bottle of coke. Samad could not hide his excitement as he wiggled his feet restlessly, unable to suppress a smile.
‘See this small boy. So you don get big friend eh? See your teeth.’ Nkechi teased and everyone laughed, including Samad.
He ate his meal hurriedly and left no grain untouched. He gulped down his coke but not without spilling some on his bare chest and knickers. He seemed to be oblivious to his surroundings as he attacked his food hungrily, ignoring the stares he attracted.
It had gone dark now and the sound of a generator filled the buka. A dim fluorescent light, crowded by tiny pestering insects hung over our table on a thin line. I looked across the buka and found Mama Joy seated on her favourite chair, battling mosquitoes as she counted her money with her feet propped up on a stool.
‘Uncle, can I go?’ Samad said to me after a while.
I looked out and was greeted by darkness and chirping crickets. ‘Do you know your way home or should I follow you?’
‘It’s there.’ He pointed south even though it was too dark to make out anything in the distance. I looked down at those big brown eyes and suddenly felt protective. I wanted to take him home and show him that the world was not against him.
‘Before you go, I want you to go and tell Mama sorry.’
He stared back at me in disbelief. Perhaps he thought that I had pampered him just to feed him to the dogs at the end of the day. Perhaps I had fattened him up for the sacrifice.
Tears slid down his face as he apologized to Mama. I knew they were not tears of remorse but rather, this admission of guilt felt like some sort of self-betrayal; it went against every stubborn bone in his body. It was alien to him. He walked back to me with his arms folded defensively and his lips bent awkwardly in a sulk. I moved to pat his head but he pulled away abruptly. I decided that I would walk him home to ensure his safety.
My left hand stayed glued to Samad’s shoulders even though he seemed unbothered by the darkness as he made his way through the streets with ease. He knew when to avoid a carelessly placed brick lying in the middle of the road and navigated us swiftly through steep potholes.
‘So do you go to school?’ I said, smacking a mosquito off my arm. He nodded slowly to indicate that he was still sulking.
‘What are your favorite subjects?’ I asked and I heard him kick a pebble into a near distance.
‘I don’t like going to school,’ He said after a while.
‘Why?’ I asked and he shrugged.
‘I just want to be a footballer.’ He kicked another pebble. I screamed goal and he laughed.
‘My mummy said my daddy is a footballer in London.’ He volunteered. I looked around the neighborhood and I doubted that an international footballer would allow his son live in a slum.
‘But grandma is always telling me that he was an omo ale jati jati like me.’
‘Don’t mind her. I’m sure she’s just jealous that she can’t play football like you. Ronaldinho of Lagos.’ I rubbed his head teasingly and he laughed.
We went on to discuss football and his favorite club was Barcelona, even though I tried to convince him that Real Madrid was the way forward.
‘I just want to be a footballer.’ He sighed as we reached the end of yet another street.
I looked down and caught him staring off into the distance. I suddenly remembered the first time I laid eyes on him earlier and how it had felt like I was looking down at a younger version of myself; those days when it was me versus the world. I wondered if he was desperate to have some kind of affection in his life, considering how willing he had been to surrender to my care. Perhaps, he was just glad to have a saviour. I had once been desperate for such but it was continuously put down by my father’s disapproval.
‘Stop being soft. Be a man.’
My father’s words had always come with a hard slap on the back. He said this to me at a time when all I ever wanted to be was a child, yanking me out of the warm embrace of my mother. All I would then think about was how my mother’s arms had felt just fine and safe. So, I grew up to loathe my father for the fear he instilled in our home. His arrival often meant silence and walking on egg shells. I wondered if never knowing your father at all was better than never knowing a father’s love. I wondered if they were both sides of the same coin and I started to question my father’s presence in my life.
‘My house is there.’ Samad’s voice interrupted my thoughts and I saw him point to a blue bungalow down the street with a light bulb hanging from a thin line over a dark wooden door.
‘Oya, take.’ I pressed a wad of Five Hundred Naira notes into his palm and he broke into a wide smile, muttering thank you. My phone rang just then and I gestured for him to wait.
‘Tell me you are still with that little boy.’ Sonia panicked through the phone.
‘Check if he has my wallet.’
‘Don’t be silly.’
‘He stole my wallet.’
I looked down but he had disappeared. I looked around and saw the silhouette of a little figure running down the road with slippers slapping the back of his feet as he raised a cloud of dust. I searched my pockets and felt that my wallet too was nowhere to be found. I tried running after him but gave up after seeing his little frame jump on cars and over high fences. So I stood back to catch my breath and watched him disappear into the night.
Photo credit: Wonuola Lawal (IG: @Thephotographerscorner)