Shame-stripped

young-black-girl-cartoon

You fell into your present profession by mistake, and in the beginning, your stomach would coil and roil and recoil with shame and disgust and trepidation and fear. But two years doing the same job, earning more than enough to keep body and soul together and a little extra to send home to the family every month has stripped you of shame. Or of disgust, or of fear.

That day began like any other day for you. You rose early, you bathed, you got dressed. Then you made your way from Igando, the Lagos suburbs where you live to Ikeja, its mainland. You waited in line for your interview, same as you have done for the past year. You waited in frustration, and in hope, and in distress, and in anticipation.

By the time you were done, you were sure you were not going to get the job, just like you didn’t get the job the last fourteen times. And by then, the heavens opened and rain fell in torrents, leaving you drenched and all the more miserable.

As Lagos commercial drivers are wont to do on rainy days, they hiked the bus fare. And you stood under the grey clouds, totally bereft, not knowing how you’d get back home. Because all that you had left in your purse was N150.

Ordinarily, it would have been enough to get you home, but not that day.

You waited for a miracle to happen, but after thirty minutes of shivering and being miserable, you had to act. The first person you approached for help was very helpful after you explained that you’d been for an interview and was stranded and couldn’t get back home. He handed you a crisp N500 note, and your eyes filled with tears of gratitude. The N500 was enough to get you home and get you dinner even.

Because it was so easy, and because you needed to attend another interview the following day, you approached someone else with the same story, then another person, then another yet. You were not always successful, but in one hour, you’d collected enough money to live on for three days.

You vowed never to do it again.

But you did do it, because it is temptingly and overwhelmingly easy to do. You’d take a bus away from the suburbs, and into the jungle heartland of Lagos where you were less likely to run into someone you knew. You always made sure to be well dressed, your hair perfectly groomed, your clothes perfectly ironed, your nails exquisitely polished. You always dressed well, and you always spoke impeccable English. You are always the picture of a polite young lady momentarily down on her luck.

In the beginning, your heart would thunder in your ears, and your stomach would knot up something awful. But after a while, you got over yourself. You got relaxed. You knew who to approach and who to not.

You’ve become a professional.

You hadn’t stopped applying for new jobs, and no one was more surprised than you when you did get a job. You’d attended that interview like you did the others, half heartedly and with no hope. But you got an offer letter and you began work the next month.

You worked at your job for two months, but the pay was meager, and couldn’t even begin to cover the most basic of your needs. You tried so hard, you wanted so badly to be legitimate; you needed to be successful at your job, build a career, go places in the corporate world.

But you always came back to the pay. It was too paltry. When you’d been a professional hustler, telling exaggerated tales of how you couldn’t get back home from an interview because of hiked transport costs, you’d made at least four times your present salary every month. And you’d had full control of your time. When you’d been a hustler, you’d not needed to get up as early as five in the morning and be out of the house by six, and not come back until night.

You tried so hard, but the lack of sleep and the demanding hours and the little salary finally got to you.

You stopped going to work. By the fourth month, you’d returned to the streets.

And now, you’re shame-stripped, shame-cured, completely shameless. Your rationale; one has to keep body and soul together somehow. You are aware that you cannot live like this forever, but you are prepared to milk the cow for as long as you possibly can.

This is your second year on the streets, and nobody but you knows. Your neighbours assume that you have a job you go to everyday, although the job must be so flexible for you to sleep in most days.  Your family at Ilesha thinks you’re employed, and you even manage to send something home once in a while. Not that your parents need any support from you, but because you want to.

This morning, the clock strikes nine. It is a bitterly cold and wet June morning, but you are warm. In front of your cable TV, you snuggle under mounds of thick blanket and warm yourself from within with a steaming cup of cocoa. You will stay indoors today, because it is wet and miserable, and you raked in enough funds yesterday to last a week.

You change the channel to African Magic. It is good to be alive.

 

**I was stopped once by a well dressed young man with tales of how he’d gone for an interview and needed the bus fare back home. I gave him more than he asked for and walked past him, but had to come back that way in ten minutes. Forgetting my face, he approached me with the same story still. This fiction piece is inspired by him, and others like him.

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Susceptibility

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

I don’t love easily and I don’t scare easily, thanks to a childhood filled with torment at the hands of permanently drunk parents who showed love to each other and to me with numerous ear cuffings and head knocks.

I was forty when I got married; it’d taken me that long to find someone I could be myself with. Maureen was twenty-eight, so petite her shape was almost like a child’s, with eyes so round and wide she seemed to be in a permanent state of wonder. But under that fragile exterior lay a woman of steel, a woman of strong and final decisions.

For the first time in my life, I understood what love was. I felt what love was. I breathed was love was.

I was forty-three when I became a father. Sarah has eyes as big as her mother’s, huge round dimples that are made for kisses. The first time I held her in my arms, I fell in love again. And I swore I would protect this little girl of mine with my life if need be.

For four years, I kept that promise. For four years, we lived a wondrous, tension-free, joy-filled life, all three of us.

Until that day.

For days, Sarah had been complaining of a full tummy, headaches and knee pain. She’d been throwing up her meals and there were purple marks all over her body. Her pediatrician sent us home with antibiotics which did not help at all. By the time we took her back to the doctor, she’d started to break out in night sweats and could not retain any meal that was not liquid in composition.

The diagnosis at the specialist’s numbed me to the very core. Leukemia. Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. The fan in the room seemed to stop spinning, the clock seemed to stop ticking, the floor started to rotate. The doctor’s voice seemed to come from far away.

I had learnt love from Maureen and Sarah. Now, I was to learn fear.

As they dripped the poison which was to kill the bad white blood cells in her system, fear consumed me. What if she didn’t make it? How do you learn to unlove a child you’ve loved for four years?

As my baby lost her hair and even more of her appetite, as she lost her laughter and her Sarahness; as Maureen lost her wit and her wonder; I died a little each day.

I went through the motions. I was with Sarah each day as she underwent chemotherapy. I held her teddy to her chest when she was too weak to hold it herself. I peppered her feverish forehead with kisses.

In the dead of the night, I held Maureen as her body shook with uncontrollable sobs. I brushed her thick black hair. I made breakfast so she could rest.

And inside, I died a little each day.

In those terrible months, it came to me why some people choose to live lonely lives, why some people choose to die as old maids and old codgers.

It is because love is sometimes a burden too great to bear.

And then Sarah started to get better. The purplish marks faded and disappeared, the headaches lessened in intensity, she started to eat better. A month later, she was allowed to come home. Two months later, they could not find the cancer cells in her blood anymore.

Sarah’s hair grew back, although fluffier and not as dark. Life reverted to normal, almost.

It’s been two years now. Sarah is still in remission, but I have not lost my fear completely. I am always checking her skin for the telltale sign, always second-guessing myself when she does not clear her plate.

And now that we are expecting our second child, I worry about Maureen. I worry about pre-eclampsia, breech birth, post-partum depression.

Love, I say, is a burden, but a delightsome one and the only way to go.