A Smuggler’s Story

Esther Eze

“Mummy, Ijeoma o, ahia oma o.” I am repeating the prayers my sisters flung behind my mother and me just before we left the house this morning. Our driver hits a pothole – sending me down from my mother’s lap – as he swerves to avoid oncoming traffic. He placates us: “No vex o, na government road.” It is unbelievably hot and our journey seems interminable. When my mother woke me up at 4am to say that I’d be accompanying her to “The Place” – an underground black market where all kinds of contraband goods are sold, and cheaply – she had said it was far away, but I had not realised that it was this far.

We have been on this stretch of road for nearly two hours and have already changed buses twice.

I feel claustrophobic wearing a face mask in this bus where all the riders smell of dust, ashes and unfulfilled needs. I find some way to amuse myself: I take myself down to the half-finished dream of my phantom lover and me – I was building our relationship, laying it down, mortar by a mortar. I had planned the place that we would meet: some exquisite restaurant – where the waiters wear pristine white clothes and serve you bubbly white wine in long glasses and the chef leaves the kitchen to welcome you personally. I am  sitting in the restaurant, wearing silky, expensive hair and makeup that makes my face seem like I have just had surgery done. My lover sits in this place too, talking with his friends. He is about to take a bite out of his over-priced brioche when he happens to turn his head, and catches sight of me, daintily eating from my plate of oysters or fish eggs or whatever else they serve in such restaurants. He will not be able to help himself; he will walk up to me with a smile that will send my heart wiggling all over the place, but I will play it cool.

For anyone who doesn’t know, public transport in Nigeria is hellish – four strangers sitting in a yellow bus, struggling to get arm room. It is especially worse when you are a 20 -something-year-old female – who gets car sick – sitting on the lap of a mother who is asleep, snoring, and keeps falling forward to rest on your back because she is almost always tired from the stress of the life she leads – black market visitor by day, seller by night.

The bus comes to a stop with a loud rumble and the other passengers climb down from it. I tap my mother awake to ask her if we should get off. She nods and tells me, “We go still enter motor two times before we reach where we dey go.” I barely stifle a growl of complaint; this is what she has to do every week. She only asked me along because she has been getting into trouble lately with the black-market patrols – government officials who will only look the other way if you pay them the right amount – and she has lost a lot of money in the process. She hopes that I can somehow persuade the patrol men to release her goods that they recently seized.

Black tax: a stipend one is expected to pay to one’s family members; a system which ensures that black families remain poor for all generations. You know this story. A Poor family tries their best and gets one or two of their children to school (read: university), the child graduates, gets a job and has to give back to their community by paying the bills of every relative under the sun. They cannot refuse because that is the reason the family sacrificed for them. They work hard with no progress in their lifestyle until they fall sick or die.

It is unbearably hot, and the road is deserted. Since there are mostly only industries along this area, my mother and I hope to hitch a ride from one of the trailer buses that ply the road. We have already spent 3000 Naira for fare so far, 2800 Naira more than I spend daily on food. Speaking of food, my stomach rumbles, and I am beginning to feel sick from the hunger. I hadn’t gotten a chance to eat anything before we left the house the missed meal was getting to me. Mercifully, one of the trailers my mother has been frantically waving for stops, and I squint my eyes to see what the driver looks like – I want to gauge the level of harassment we will have to face and how long I will have to keep a smile on my face; snicker at every anecdote. My mother takes the spot in the middle, so it will not be too bad. To be clear, this harassment isn’t about my face or body, but simply because I am a woman

We have only gone a mile when the dirty man spits the crud out of his mouth and onto the highway, opens his teeth wide enough so that I can see the brown stains on them and turns to my mother: “Madam, shey you no go give me your daughter?” My mother knows the drill; she gives her dry laugh (the one that tells me not to pay the area boy the money he has come to collect from us. The one that tells me to lie and say that she’s sold nothing yet. The one that says ‘see the useless men that have us at their mercy’) and she says: “Han han, oga no be me you go ask o. no, be me wan marry nau” then she averts her gaze.

The man looks a little chastised, goes back to facing the road, and we ride in silence for a while – since this is a village, there are few people and even fewer buses on the road. By now, I have taken off my face mask. I inhale the clean, unpolluted air and feel it settle in my chest and fan out from there to other parts of my being, filling me with unknowable emotions. When I am in the presence of other people, I forget my humanity – I fight, I bicker, I hate. But when I am alone, or, like now, riding away from the world in a trailer bus with my hand stretched outside, the wind racing and trying hard to catch me, I’m magnanimous and my humanity is a precious, tangible thing. I am reminded that I love this earth. I think I understand God a little now.

The man’s head swivels to me again, and he opens his mouth but is interrupted by the ringing of his phone. “I dey road,” he tells the caller. Immediately the call ends, he turns his head to me again, smiles, and hands over his phone to me. I take the phone and stare at him blankly, pretending that I do not know what he wants of me.

“Give me your number,” he says with a Yoruba accent. His smile repels me, but I put my number in the phone anyway, return it to him and go back to watching the scenery.

I am not the type of person the Universe gives hints to, I am like a baby with a burning thistle in front of me. The Universe sees this fire captivate me, it sees me walk up to the fire, and it lets me touch it. A voice does not  call out to me from the flames, it doesn’t say to me: “Do not come close, take off your sandals. I am your maker; go back to Egypt and save the Israelites and I shall be with you.” No. It lets me get close to the fire, put all of my fingers in and burn myself. If my mother is close, the Universe leaves her deaf to my cries till I scream myself hoarse then finally learn to save myself. This is the way that I have learned most of life’s lessons – hard. I learned to watch others, to listen when they tell their tales. This is how I learned that when a man chases you, pretend that he is a speck of dust in the horizon and not worth your time. This is how to get him hot, by denting his pride.

The driver asks my name, but he doesn’t wait for me to answer before he goes “Chinaza abi?” Another smile. I return his smile this time as I nod.

Sometime ago, my family lived at a place that required us to take a boat to cross over to the other side whenever we left the house – in place of a bus. One day, my older sister and I returned from the market in the dead of the night; we were the only two passengers on that boat when the boatman got impatient and started the trip. Halfway, he killed his engine in the middle of the water and asked my sister her name.

She replied, “My name is Ugochukwunemmema naha Jesus.”

The silence in the boat was palpable. The man tried several times to say the name, but couldn’t entirely wrap his lips around the conjured up name. He later settled for: “I will call you Chinaza” then  revved up the engine, and we were again on our way. 

The man turns into the driveway of the industry he evidently works for and parks his trailer in front of the gate. As my mother and I render our profuse gratitude, he reaches into his vehicle compartment and brandishes a 1000 Naira note at me. I wonder if his smile is a tic in his face.

“Na my company be this. Take this money use am enter motor, I go call you later.” He is smiling.

“Thank you.”

I take the money and leave the vehicle, my mother following closely behind. This part of town is more populated than the other places we’ve left behind. This is because of its proximity to the company. It’s a hub of activity, many people are eating, drinking, arguing loudly, playing Ludo, talking, just lying down, generally being people. Armed with the money that I have just received, I squint and look for somewhere I can get something to eat. When I find a shop I like, I march over there and take a seat. This is where I take out my phone from my pocket to check my messages. It’s past 1pm, my mother and I eat quickly after we are served, then we get on the road again, this time around, we continue on a bike. 

The bike man slows down at a grove and my mother pays him. At first, I do not notice anything out of the ordinary, but then my mother takes my hand, turns me around and I see it: the patrol officers’ makeshift office, and it is a circus. There are all sorts of people there begging them, crying profusely, singing the same song I am certain my mother had been carrying: “Abeg officer, help me, I am a widow. Abeg help me.” One overweight old woman is rolling on the floor, wailing in Yoruba: “ejo, darijimi officer, I borrowed the money.” Another man is begging for his bike to be returned else his family would die from hunger. I watch this procession with a sinking heart. Obviously, merely allowing them to grope me wouldn’t do – there were already several young girls doing that for their parents – so, what to do?

I was in an argument some time ago, about what men call female privilege aka ‘bottom power’. If a man had been with me for this trip, they would have raised their eyebrows when the truck driver handed me the 1000 naira note and I collected it. I shall repeat what I said: Women sometimes have to do whatever they can in a world that doesn’t exactly leave them with much. One of the things I learned early as a poor woman was how to swallow my displeasure, to put a lid on my emotions, to do what I have to do. Women, especially poor women, sometimes have to settle for less because that is what is available and society does not encourage them to want better. What were even the chances that I’d ever get to go to that restaurant? This privilege is not a privilege, it is bondage. In an ideal world, it will take more than a man getting me groceries to get my attention. 

It was 4pm and the din had quietened. The head patrol officer had arrived, guns blazing, and ordered everyone to vacate the premises. The old woman who had been rolling on the floor had risen to her feet when the officer threatened to tear gas us.

“Come on leave here!

He was frothing at the mouth. The younger girls, too, had come back to sit with the rest of us. His displeasure had extended to them. My mother’s hand wringing got worse as it got darker and people started to leave one after another, she couldn’t believe that on top of losing such a huge sum that she had wasted the fare too – it really was the little things.  It was dark now, about 7pm. The only people left were me, my mother, and some of the patrol officers, about three of them, who had not left for their homes yet, and that was when I stood up to meet the superior officer.

He sees me approach him and yells at me to stop, but I ignore his command and continue walking till I stop in front of him. I tell him my name, not Chinaza this time around, but a distant-sounding name that fits my effrontery: “Helen.” I ask him if he would like me to cook for him and the other officers. I’d noticed some pots and pans and some foodstuff, so I could make them rice or any other thing that they’d like. He looks at me like something the earth just vomited out and takes several furious strides away from me, leaving me with the younger officers. He returns 20 minutes later to find me in conversation with his younger officers, now joined by my mother who tells them the story of how she borrowed the money for the goods they had seized.

“Abu. Wetin this people still dey do for here? Comot them for here now!” The head patrol officer interrupts us, shouting to one of the officers who stands up to herd us out when I get up and shout – my blood heat up in my veins, reason left me.

‘‘I am not going anywhere,’’ I said. ‘‘Go home how? Why? To what, deeper debt?’’

When I was younger and still new to the university, I’d naively gone to visit a boy that had caught my eye. When the date was over, and I was leaving his house, he asked to kiss me, and I was so touched by his display of gentlemanliness that I agreed. He moved from kissing me to roughly grabbing my breast and when I protested, he  begged me; he had never done something like this before, he said: “Please allow me. I haven’t had sex in a while, I’ll just put it in.” When I refused, he threatened me. While pelting me with spittle he told me that he was bigger and stronger and that no one would come over to help me or even believe me. I was out of my mind with fear, and my breath was coming in short bursts, but then, a calm descended on my mind. I could let him rape me, or I could do something. I unbound my hair and walked up to him and began to stroke him, I held his face in my hands and told him: “Take me daddy, I want you, daddy.” I said as I kissed him, I took off his shirt and his boxers. Then went and sat down on the tabletop and told him to come and take me as I took off my own dress. I was running on adrenaline, I felt like a fraud, but it was either lose or lose. My attacker stood frozen where I’d left him, his penis would not come erect. With a disgusted hiss, he went to open the door and ordered me to leave his room. I ran out of there, the smell of his sweat from when he had pressed me up against the wall hanging on my nostrils. I learned something about power that day – to match up to my oppressor and to take it back even at the threat of death.

The older patrol officer looks at me quietly, then asks a junior to come with him. When they return, he asks us, “Madam, how many bags of your produce did we seize?”

 My mother answers: “Five, sir.”

“I am going to return two bags to you, that is the most I can do for you. We have taken the other bags to the headquarters. I wish I could do more.” When he has finished talking, he turns to the junior officer and tells him to bring two bags out to us.

9pm, and we were still camped outside their office, my mother and I. It is cold, and the food we had earlier is now a distant memory,  we also had some of the bags of produce we came  for, but we didn’t have transportation. My mother is muttering: “All my money is gone but at least I have these two bags, right? Maybe I can still recover from this loss.” We wait outside for a while more before I decide that I’ve had enough and go to ask the men for help. 

“We cannot get transportation at this time. Please can you help us?” I tell them. Coincidentally, one of the officers was just about to head home and is able to take us with him. We gratefully pile into his car.

The man drops us, my mother hides the bags with a vendor so that we can walk ahead to the hut where she and other market women sleep when they are unable to get to their homes the same day – a hastily put together place with a ‘ceiling’ made of raffia and some pillars holding it together. The patrol men had sworn us to secrecy, warning us not to tell the other women that we had had some luck and some of our bags had been returned to us.

We tell the other women that we didn’t make any headway and that we have returned empty handed. We mourn together and everyone goes to sleep. We will return home and recoup. My mother and I agree that one of us will have to be up at 2am to catch one of the trailer buses that would be leaving the village for town the next day.

When I open my eyes, it is exactly 2am. The temperature has dropped and the stars are nowhere in sight. I sit up and trace the moon’s craters  with my eyes. When I was little, my mother told me the story of how the moon got tired of merely watching people come and go and decided to come down to earth to meet them. While everyone ran away afraid, one pregnant woman remained. She got close enough to touch it and was swallowed whole. If you lay down now, you can still see her distended tummy. The story of Selene, the Greek goddess of the moon, isn’t much better. I often try to imagine her riding on her chariot, snapping her whip, bearing down on me – gracefully ruling the night. What did it mean to be a god?

I decide to go for a walk down to the shop where we had kept the bags, thinking about all that happened that day. It’d be so easy to think I’d achieved anything by my guile – that I had been smarter than everyone else. Or maybe it was the prayers my sisters and my mother said before we left the house that helped us. If so, what had the other women done wrong? What had we done right? Did they not have enough faith? Had their God set some kind of test for them? Or was he just powerless in   this instance while my God was a beacon? If so, how was faith measured? Who determines the correct scale? What about all the other times that I’d tried, prayed and failed? The times the door had been shut firmly against me no matter how hard I knocked, pushed, threatened, cajoled.

‘…but time and chance happen to us all.’ 

When I get to the shop, I sit down on the table that had housed the vendor’s biscuits, soaps and loaves of bread earlier in the day. The trailers are starting to ride by, some of them driven by sleepy men who parked to buy fuel and rest – the sellers are men in jalamirs, and they stand on the road, holding out gallons to advertise their business.

“Good morning.” I walk up to one of the drivers who just stopped. He assures me that he is going our way and that he is just going to rest before he continues on his journey at 4am. Satisfied, I return to my table-top.

It is so easy to get lost here, in this place where time is meaningless. To live here in this village is to live at a slow pace, and to forget ambition, to live on a different plane. A stray dog walks over to me, his tongue lolling, wagging his tail. I swallow my initial fear of it and bend down to scratch its ears. We observe the market activity – both of us listening to the music of the voices in different languages, (rising and falling, along with the occasional spurt of laughter) watching the trailer buses as they move out of the village – together in companionable silence, before the dog tires of my company and prances away. After the dog is gone, I lie on the table and close my eyes.

Esther Eze is an Igbo, Nigerian writer and Product Manager. She lives in Lagos Nigeria. She hopes to one day make films that everyone else is afraid to make.

 

*Image by Muhammadtaha Ibrahim Ma’aji on Unsplash