Being poor will make you so angry. Your emotions are so taut. Your thoughts overwhelm you until you feel claustrophobic. Your freedom is not yours to give. Your lips are locked, emotions pocketed until you explode in different drabs of depression. Depression keeps you angry, and anger is the spice of poverty. How gruesome it is to wake up every day to a recurring state of disappointment, go out, see the life you are living, the life you are trying to avoid and the dreams you are struggling to sail in. In secondary school, we are indoctrinated to master the arms of government and the fallacy of fundamental human rights. The reality is far different and disappointing. You realise that the average man in Lagos cannot afford his rights or even use them. He is in a situation where rights do not function in his reality and it is only his pursuit of wealth, the pursuit of happiness, that matters. Even though he isn’t free to use this right as a collective, even as an individual, his hands are still tied. He lives in a crappy bungalow with seven other neighbours, sharing a bathroom too small for the average height and too narrow to pick up a bar of soap when it falls. He wakes up to the noise of the neighbour’s child at midnight scrunching for milk and refusing to swallow the dusty nipple of his malnourished mother. He can hear the banging of the neighbour by his other side and he cannot tell if the noise is the intensity of rape or he is simply beating his girlfriend like any other normal Tuesday. His privacy, just like his fundamental human rights, does not function in his reality.
In Lagos, you either pocket or unleash your emotion depending on who is seeking your attention. When the grumpy landlord comes with his first-born illiterate son seeking rent, approval, respect or an enactment of a ridiculous rule for neighbours’ unfortunate enough to stay in the dingy crooked apartment, your parents smile and nod their head. Of course, they do not agree with whatever he says and they would rather not spend their Wednesdays on a very insignificant meeting. Your parents keep their anguish and anger for the little children who misplace their lunch money, or any other ridiculous reason like wearing their slippers in the wrong foot or talking too much or too fast. The slap meant for the oppressors will land on the cheeks of the unfortunate victims that meddle with the patience of the oppressed.
Amidst the growing rate of poverty and insecurity in rural areas, one resource that never seems to be scarce is the children. The poor man works hard in labour in the day and gropes the skirt of his housewife at night. With no care in the world for family planning or the use of a condom, his wife’s stomach grows every season. The children are thrown into the pursuit of excellence in public schools. Their intelligence is based on whose memory works the fastest. Indoctrination takes the centre stage; religion keeps them in moral check and the whip is used to remind them of how good a citizen they are supposed to be. But even this mesh of love and torture doesn’t work forever. For as puberty knocks, growing questions surrounds their actions, thoughts and desires. Questions that the housewife mother cannot answer and the father is too ignorant or cannot afford to care enough.
Many of us were left to figure out the answers to our unexplainable bulging desires from the colourful pages of our biology textbooks, inquisitive neighbours, and the friends who knew more they should. And so, we embraced all myths, truths and lies. And when our desires overwhelmed us, we bade no concern to morality. Rather we explored and desecrated the boundaries that separated the boy from man, and a girl from a woman. The years that come make puberty look like a foreshadowing to the terrors that would later hunt our realities. For the boy, he begins to realise that he is treated and talked to differently. His choices are limited, his desires are franchised and his responsibility emerges out of the curtain as if they were invisible before he became aware of them. He realises that his worth is tied to monetary value, the same way a slave’s is. If the family is very poor, the boy might not achieve his dreams of education and might be pushed into the streets, into the world that embroiders the word hustle. He might scan the environment where he lives and try to adapt the same way that men that have come before him have used and succeeded. His lady counterpart, at the inception of puberty, comes with fear as her body evolves. It is hardly ever talked about the fear that comes with puberty. I do not mean the emergence of age, but seeing the body that you once owned and control, grow out of your control or thought comes with a slight scare.
At night, the heat comes with a terrible haunt and hurt. And if you can survive that meandering fury, what tears into your privacy is the cries of the children. Not your children but the ten or dozen children squabble that always erupts from your neighbour’s home. They say walls have ears, but in your case, the walls have holes in them, gaps that age and rats have chewed fiercely into. Now it seems there is no wall at all in the first place protecting your ears from the squabbles and discordant symphonies that always erupt out of the night into your vulnerable lobes. You moan about these cries because with them arise the birth of a new terror. That is the day that your conflicted soul will face again, at least for a fleeting day. Then, I say again, with these children cries, comes the suckling, and fingers, scratching for food and attention. But of course, the children surround and limp over a half-empty bed with the comatose mother, sleeping and fading away. Today, you cannot tell if she is simply running from her real world or if she has just been raped again to a comatose state. Then, the banging on your door. The knock of one who does not sleep behind the same doors as you but certainly owns the floor you sleep on. The fingers keep bulging and slashing until your mouth responds to calm the knuckles. And then you stretch your shorts, wipe the spittle off your face, twist and turn so that your legs do not kick against the face of any of your siblings. You stand in for your parents as you see other parents with shrunken bodies and furious eyes, who have endured the same nightmare of an evening that you have staggered through. Greetings are exchanged, rejected and spat. The landlord, of course, throws a tantrum about topics that you have condemned to your unnecessary folder. Words that you will receive and reject before you see your parents again at twilight to pass it on. You sleep through half the sermon and only jerk awake when the flies buzzing out of the toilet comes close enough to rest between your nose or sing choruses behind your ears. You catch the lackadaisical eyes of the other tenants and you can still hear the cries of the dozen children behind your rooms, limping and singing for a mother whose spirit is miles away from her torment. The only person alive this morning is the landlord punishing you with his authority, anger and a restless ego seeking to renew its worth by reliving its strength and tormenting the helpless tenants with a cliché Thursday morning. At last, the words end and greetings are exchanged, picked up and spat at again. You cannot recall if, at one point, voices had been raised, tempers had been tested or threats had been issued. All noises now operate at a familiar frequency of disturbance, stress and abuse. You crawl back to the warm floor. By now, it is wet, dusty and you had left the door open on your way out and the mosquitoes had swarmed in to make a meal of your siblings, half sleepy and half-listening to the cries and raised voices. You barely close your eyes before the alarm tears off. The siren reminding you that it is a crime to be poor and be at peace.
The queue at the bathroom is long. Children who are naïve in body and mind choose the easy option of bathing outside the house with brown water and detergent. But you have to queue along with the older ones, a treatment that you are getting used to, not because you have to queue at only this time of the morning but because you have realised that you have to wait at every time of the day for anything you need. The queue is a measurement for the yardstick of patience, and the poor have the virtue of patience. We stand in a queue to vote in the election and anchor the same patience for the next election even though we know that we would always be forgotten and abandoned immediately after the votes are counted and carted. We anchor the same patient after we slip a thin, almost invisible wad of cash into the hands of the security guard and wait for the call to inform us about our interview for a job. Whether in reading, or praying, or even waiting for the fingers behind the clouds to open up our prayer requests and answer our prayers, we anchor the same patience, and so you stand at this queue, watching your neighbours go in and come out with exaggerated fervour. This is the quietest part of your day. There is no need for discourse in shame and filth. Now comes your turn, and you barely have the time to rest your towel before the grunts come in. They come the way the water from your bucket empties. First in quiet small lumps and finally the big ones. You do away with the sponge, the songs, the dreams and just wash your face, legs and your armpits.
Your siblings hop and jump over the tight walls picking up clothes and looking to make themselves the ghetto consideration of what the word beautiful is before they all disperse into their different halls of struggle and torment. I call it torment because this exercise is done out of the utmost unnecessary desire except for the idea that this has now become their idea of a well-spent day. You have to search for their answers with them and stop their fighting if any one comes up, and they usually do. Your own fighting begins at the bus stop. There, you punch, kick, yell and scratch for a seat at the bus. Sometimes your hands even slip behind another person’s pocket and you cannot fight off the temptation to squeeze and pick off what you would call a Friday’s blessing from God. There has been no light for days and now you pick up your cloth from underneath the bed where you have left it for two days to maintain the seams that you have planted since you were a child.
Today, the bus is slow. There is a tanker that has decided to rest its inefficiency in the middle of the road and the buses are moving like the legs of a constrained millipede. You are afraid to look at the fingers on your broken stopwatch because you do not want to accept the reality that you might be late for your interview. You jump out of the bus and start running through the yawning streets of the city. Noises accompany and desert you and eventually, you realise you are alone in this race to salvation. You sweat and rest until eventually, you arrive at the front of the company that has managed to filter your number out of the thousands of applications that they received in the past week. You arrange your clothes, wipe yourself and offer a short prayer before entering through the doors.
Earlier in the week, your mother had offered seed of faith in a brown envelope at the pastor’s altar in hope that angels would grant you a favour and drop this job and salary bonus in the centre of your itchy palms. You look at the company again. You do not remember submitting your credentials here, and for a second you blink rapidly to make sure that you are not delusional. You breathe in and throw your legs in front of you. The secretary desk is empty. You do a little pace and search through the walls and perforated air before you call out. Finally, she comes. A tall woman who smells foreign, with a raised eyebrow that spells arrogance. She looks at you and you can tell in that mini second that she knows you. She has seen you come into her office once every week and ask about a vacant position. She speaks in a low tone and tells you off without shouting or threatening to call the security except you linger and threaten to go on your knees. She wants no part of you. The smell of the heat and old musk that you carry around you is one she recognises around the children that run around her asking for money whenever comes out of the shopping mall with big bags and wines.
“Yes?” she says without opening her mouth. All she does is cock her head and raises her eyebrow while walking to her desk to grab at her sanitisers and press her hands around the security number on speed dial.
“I am here for the interview.”
“Which one? The one that ended an hour ago?”
You want to tell her about the landlord, the meeting, the queue, the tanker in the middle of the road and the two-hour leg-walk through the busy streets of Lagos, but she does not give a hair, and you know she doesn’t. She is already back to her desk. You have seen this scene a thousand times. You are tired of begging and asking and promising and slipping almost invisible seed of faith bribes into itchy palms. But you know she doesn’t give a hair, and so you walk out. You walk out and search your pocket to see that your wallet is gone. You are about to throw yourself back into this secretary’s presence again when you realise your folly. You had run out of the bus, forgetting your one thousand naira with the conductor. The voices that trailed you when you started running seem more familiar now. The conductors and passengers calling for you and your change. What story do you have to tell when you get home to your family? As you walk back home through the busy roads, now awake and roaring with fast cars, smoke and broken dreams. You do not wipe the sweat off your face; instead you let it surround your eyes and flow down your hair, down your ears to your back. Your phone buzzes and at the top of the notification is a message from your girlfriend, Joy. It is a short text praying for you to get the job, and hoping your salary will be big enough to cover your parents and take her out to eat big chicken at Tantalizers. You close your eyes and walk down the long lane as the sweat envelops your body.
What hurts more than the long walk is not the pain you feel but more than that, the agony when you realise that your fears are kicking in, winning and even stretching out of your body into the heart and minds of your siblings. You first see this fear in your younger brother who has started moving with the yahoo boys crowding around your home. Every word from your finite wisdom rises and falls back to dust when he learns how deeper you sink into agony and poverty. He does not want to end up like his parents. A bricklayer of a father and a mother who sells failing wares. He does not want to end up like you, a jobless university graduate with a long list of dreams and unanswered prayers stretching out of his prayer mail into real life. He now thinks that the responsibility of raising his family from the drawls of poverty is his. Your sister comes back home today with a wet patch on her skirt. You recognize it but you do not want to ask her about it. Asking her is tantamount to accepting that it is real, that your sister is on the same path you led girls her age when you were twice their age. You remember, don’t you? When you were younger and had the arrogance of a secondary school graduate? When did you feel the world was at the tip of your tongue? Your dreams were as visible as puberty, yours to own, control and manipulate. How beautiful a poet karma is.
The heat comes again when you try to escape through a nap. The breeze spluttering through the window is not enough to sail a paper, and now the dried sweat on your hair is stretching its stench through the whole apartment. The neighbour’s children are back from school and now the cries resume. The walls suddenly disappear and now you can hear the cries. For a moment, it seems that the universe is taunting you. Listening to sad songs to accompany your tears is not working today. You look around the house, the dusty fans, the cobwebs growing at the centre and sides of the room, the untidy clothes and the flies buzzing through the compound. You close your eyes and realise there is no escape. Reality is a terror.
Again, you walk to the crowdy and rowdy market. The noise would stretch for miles and still reign over your thoughts when you are miles from it. You recognise the stalls, the familiar calls and the regulars. You walk over to your mother’s stall. Your father is already there. His head is buried over a bowl of garri, and you can see the sweat dragging sand and age around his back and head. He has been laid off again. Your mother searches your eyes. There is no need for words to be exchanged. She knows. You know. Everyone knows.
Festus Obehi Destiny
is a student of English at the University of Lagos, and an author of four short story projects. He lives in Lagos and works as a freelance writer. Since his debut collection in 2019, Obehi has carefully showcased how literature can mirror the political, moral, and cultural issues prevalent in African societies.