Rachael sat on an old one legged bench outside the house. The bench, beyond repair, was able to remain standing by the help of a boulder.
The house was an old ‘face-me-i-face-you’, with five rooms on either side of a narrow passage which led down to a commune kitchen. The two toilets were totally detached from the house, as they stood rather askew in a corner of the fenceless compound. Like the kitchen, they also served the whole house—a conglomerate of about twenty-one tenants.
Rachael was not disturbed by the creaking of the toilets’ door, nor was she bothered by the harmattan wind that blew ferociously at her. Her flustered face was set down the untarred street. She half-expected an old man to ride into their compound on a bike. He would be bringing with him a sack of plantain for Rachael’s mother. Though Rachael watched for his arrival, she silently prayed against his coming.
The day was Friday, New Year’s Eve, and the delivery of the big sack of plantain would mean that she and her mother would be selling roasted plantain the following day. Rachael didn’t want to sit all day at the stall selling boli on New Year’s Day. Her mother had been skeptical just that morning about the old man’s capability to deliver the plantain, and Rachael took hope from that lack of assurance. If there was no plantain, then there would be no boli to sell. But the man did arrived.
“Ájọkẹ́,” he called to her, climbing off his bike, “where’s your mother?”
“She’s inside the room.”
“Okay, go and call her. Tell her the plantain is here,” he said merrily.
Rachael went into the house, head bowed in dejection.
Early the following day, Màmá Rachael and her daughter headed out, bearing the sack of plantain and another sack of coal. It was a lengthy trek from the house to the stall, which was located at the intersection of a major road. As they walked, Màmá Rachael watched the uneager gait of her daughter. She felt terrible putting the girl to such a task on New Year’s Day. But there was little choice.
The bills had piled up unbearably given to a number of unfortunate circumstances. She had three children, and the youngest of them, a little girl of six, had taken seriously ill. Màmá Rachael had spent all her savings on treatment. The girl, Mary, needed some more medication, and she was determined to provide them. Likewise, basic necessities were become more and more difficult to afford. Schools were resuming in a week, and the house rent was overdue.
She had little to no help from her estranged husband, who was wallowing in the northern part of the country. He’d credit her bank account with 1000 naira every once in a blue moon. He left home three years ago, and the sum of the money he’d sent in those years was a paltry 6000 naira.
She’d left the money untouched all those years until recently, when she was forced to withdraw it on account of their daughter’s illness. Having now run out of resources, she had no choice but to try and make some money today, even if it was a holiday.
Rachael, her first daughter, was only 12 years old, but her mother found all her comfort in her. They shared very similar convictions, and despite the girl’s young age, she never complained about their dire situation. Rachael borrowed most of her physical features from her father, though. She had his eyes, tiny and sparkly. Her nose was like his, long and sharp. She also had full lips that seem to have taken a perpetual smiling posture. Only now, she wasn’t smiling.
Màmá Rachael pinched herself, trying to shake off the pang she felt in her heart. She knew how supportive the girl was, but one could only ask so much of a child, especially on New Year’s Day, when she’d rather be out playing with friends.
“Àjọkẹ́ mi,” she started, “what are you thinking about?”
“Nothing mum,” Rachael replied, looking gloomingly ahead.
“You won’t have stay too long at the stall. You’ll help me a little, then you can go back home and play with your friends, okay?”
She watched her intently to see if there was any change in her expression. Her eyes had the same enduring twinkle about them, and she now had a slight smile back on.
“I’ll send you over to Grandma’s later, so you can check on your little sister, okay?” the mother continued. “Then you can go from there and play with your friends. But, you will first of all help me set everything up at the stall, dear.”
“Yes mum,” Rachael replied with enthusiasm.
“Where will you be going, you and your friends?”
“I don’t know. We won’t go far, so don’t worry.”
Her only other child was Samuel, her first born. He’d gained admission to university a year ago, and had been away since. He’d asked his mother if he could spend the holidays at a friend’s. She wanted him home, as she’d thoroughly missed him, but she couldn’t impose.
He was an exceptionally brilliant 19 year old boy. And he practically took care of himself now. She’d paid the tuition for his first session at the university, but she suspected he didn’t tell her the full fee so as not to burden her. ‘How kind he is,’ she thought, ‘my Samuel, how kind he is.’
Màmá Rachael placed immense value of education. She herself didn’t get the chance go past secondary school level, but she wanted all her children to become university graduates. Having grown up with a single mother, she understood how tough it was for the kids, especially Rachael.
However, she managed to input some determination into them. It was the determination to get quality education, and excel against all odds.
Màmá Rachael used to blame herself when she was much younger, for getting married to Délé. She used to think her life would have been better if she’d had her children in another marriage. But she’s now gone past that phase of self-loathing.
She was now forty-six years old, and she knew her mistakes were beyond her marriage. In fact, she’d come to bless her marriage for the three kids she had. She didn’t even hate her husband, neither did she blame him any bit for practically forsaking his family.
She wanted to help her daughters avoid the mistakes she’d made, and she believed it all began with their getting a good education. So she was determined to provide them such, even if it meant selling roasted plantain on New Year’s Day.
Joseph retreated into his study, away from the boisterous atmosphere in the living room. His children, who’d previously been grumpy about coming to their hometown for the festivities, were now beyond themselves with ecstasy. They spent the festivities with a couple of their cousins, with whom they explored the fun parts of the town.
They were home now, unpacking and comparing gifts, and planning their New Year’s Day celebration. His wife was still asleep in their room, tired from last night’s vigil. She too couldn’t have been more relaxed coming to Ògbómọ̀ṣọ́ for the holiday.
Her first choice was that they travel to Dubai or somewhere fancier, but he’d managed to change her mind. He used the Covid-19 situation as an excuse, but the truth was that he’d had a bad year financially and was cautious about every penny spent.
Coming to Ògbómọ̀ṣọ́ was the best option for this holiday, as he wouldn’t have to spend so much. They had a fine bungalow where they could stay, and the outings they had didn’t put a hole in his pocket.
In his study, he opened up his laptop and went over last year’s expenses again. He clasped his hands and made a silent prayer that this year be better. He tried to wrap his head around the numbers, to think of ways to make them better, but his mind was muddled.
He stepped into the living room and told the children he was going out for a walk.
“Tell your mother I’ll be back in half an hour,” he said, “and don’t answer the door if anyone knocks, okay?”
Outside, the sun shone with mild radiance in the white sky. The harmattan wind hit his face as he stepped out into the street. It was completely deserted.
A herd of goats walked past him, followed closely behind by a hen and her chicks. Fascinated, Joseph walked after them. He wasn’t excited for novelty, for he’d grown up surrounded by livestock. His mother had goats and chickens, so it wasn’t new to him.
No, he was fascinated by these two chicks who lingered behind all the rest. One of them had a bad leg and was forced to limp. The other chick, having two good legs, was walking fine. But it would stop every now and then and wait for the limping one. One could see the concern in its comportment, as it tried to help its sibling on.
Joseph followed them till they branched into an uncompleted building, and disappeared behind the brushes. He kept on walking till he got to an intersection at the far end of the street.
The houses on the estate were an assemblage of diverse forms and aesthetics. There were duplexes, some of them highly exquisite and others just plain looking. There were bungalows too, like his own, and they varied likewise in attractiveness. It was a serene environment, even on normal days, and Joseph always enjoyed retreating there.
He turned to the left at the intersection where the street led straight into a similar one. And from there, another street, more alive, took him to a major road. The sun had begun to shine with intensity when he emerged onto the road.
He considered turning back, but decided to find a store where he could buy something, anything, and not return home empty handed. He had not gone twenty paces in his search when he sighted, across the road, the boli seller under an oak tree. He crossed over to her with a satisfied smile.
The plantain seller was a middle-aged woman, and seated beside her was a young girl that was surely her daughter. It suddenly occurred to him that it was New Year’s Day, and he thought it strange to find this woman and her daughter out here.
“Happy New Year,” he greeted, putting on a more cautious smile.
“Same to you sir,” the woman replied, flashing him a bright smile in return.
Joseph studied her face intently, as he was accustomed to do when meeting strangers. She was a woman of no more than forty-five. She had pronounced wrinkles which curved down the middle of her forehead. Her eyes, though big, were mistrustful and sidelong. Her nose was short, thin, with a slight protuberance at the nostrils. And her lips, though tiny, were frequently pursed so that they looked fuller.
She didn’t share much resemblance with her daughter, but one could still tell they were mother and daughter. They had the same oblong face, with slightly pronounced jawline; and possibly the same hairline, but that was hard to tell since the mother was wearing a scarf. They were both slender, from want of adequate nutrition, he surmised.
Joseph suddenly met her eyes and realized that she’d been watching him all along. He started and smiled awkwardly.
“How much are these ones?” he asked, pointing at the biggest plantains.
“Those are 100 naira,” she replied, “these are 80 naira, or you can take two for 150.”
“Hmmm,” Joseph pondered. Then he threw a quick glance at the daughter, who seemed engrossed in her task.
“Is that your daughter,” he asked.
The girl looked at him and smiled sheepishly.
“Happy New Year to you,” he said, waving at her.
“Happy New Year.”
When the girl returned her attention to peeling the plantains, he looked at the mother with purpose.
“I’d like to give you some money ma’am, so you can enjoy the day,” he suddenly blurted out. He spoke candidly, without emotion, not even a smile.
She hesitated before replying. “Oh thank you sir, but it’s okay. We are fine.”
“Yes, I’m sure you’re fine. I just want to help you with a little something, and… you know, just to make your day.”
“No no sir. You’re very kind, but no. Thank you very much, but I can’t accept your money.”
Joseph, who was already reaching out for his wallet, paused and quickly thought of a way to make her accept the money. He didn’t want to appear overbearing, however, so he left his wallet in his pocket.
“Okay, I want to buy all these off you?” he said, throwing his hand over the grill.
“You want to buy all the boli?”
“Yes, everything. Including the ones that are yet to be peeled.”
“You can’t do that,” she said to him, smiling sincerely.
“Yes I can. Tell me how much it is. Calculate it, I’ll wait.”
The daughter was now engrossed in the exchange between her mother and the strange man.
“You’re playing sir, you can’t buy everything.”
“What will you do with all this plantain?” she asked him, opening her arms wide.
“Do you ask all your customers that?”
“Not all my customers want to buy everything.”
“Well, this customer wants to buy everything,” he said, and pointed at himself.
The woman looked at him seriously. She was still smiling but there remained that distrustful look in her eyes. Then she shook her head, and fanned the flame under the grill.
“Okay, you’re right, I’m not really buying the whole plantain,” Joseph finally admitted. “Just tell me how much you hope to make today, and I’ll give you the money. I just want to do something nice for you.”
“Because it is the new year. That’s why.”
“But you don’t know me,” the woman protested, looking at him even more suspiciously.
“I just want to do something nice for you. I saw you here working hard, even though it is New Year’s Day, and I want to appreciate that.”
The woman still shook her head slowly, though her gaze was now more relaxed, and she didn’t seem so distrustful anymore.
“Please, let me just give you something,” he continued, “it is nothing much. You can use it for anything you like. There’s no catch at all.”
“No catch?” she asked, confused.
“Yes, no strings attached. Take it as a gift from God. God sent me to you.”
The woman glanced at her daughter, and found the young girl staring back curiously.
“But who are you sir?” she asked him. “I’m sorry for asking.”
“No, that’s perfectly alright. My name is Joseph Ọládélé. I work in Lagos, in real estate, and I sell materials for construction too. I live in Lagos, but I’m from Ògbómọ̀ṣọ́, and I brought my family here for the holiday. I live in the estate just there, not far from here. I have a daughter, Temitope, she’s 14, and a boy too, Temidayo. Hmmm, yea, that’s me.”
She listened intently as he went on rather inordinately. He was inordinate, but she wouldn’t say she didn’t appreciate his vulnerable speech. Looking away from him, she fanned the flame under the grill again. She kept her head down and refused to look back at him for a minute or two.
Joseph turned to the daughter, who was herself now watching him closely. She looked away immediately, and pretended to be peeling plantain again.
Joseph reached for his wallet, and brought it out this time. It contained just eight thousand naira, but he had four thousand more in his pocket. He took the whole twelve and handed it out to the woman. She looked up at the money with leery eyes.
“You really don’t have to do this sir,” she protested weakly, though not without passion.
“Just accept it as a gift ma’am,” he said. “You can use it to buy something for your daughter.”
At that moment, three teenage boys approached the stall. Joseph withdrew his hand, the money still uncollected. The teenagers stopped beside him. They picked one boli each and bargained the price. Then they paid and left with their purchase, biting at it as they went along.
Joseph presented the money again; this time moving closer to her, he bent down to entreat her. She took the money without argument. Then, all of a sudden, she shrieked. Joseph and the young girl both jumped.
“What is wrong?” he asked her.
Covering her mouth with the left hand, she stared wide-eyed at him with embarrassment.
“This money is too much sir,” she said, “please take some of it.”
“No, it is not too much,” he said, stepping away from her till he was standing again in the former spot. “It is not nearly enough. If I had more in my pocket, I’d give you more.”
“But why? Why are you so kind to us?”
“I just want to make you happy,” replied Joseph, “you’re out here on New Year’s Day, working hard, trying to provide for your family… God sent me here. He did.”
The woman, who hadn’t even counted the money previously, now counted it and exclaimed again.
“Thank you sir.” She got off her bench and knelt down before him.
Joseph rushed over to her, and helped her up. “Don’t do that, please. I’m not worthy. Thank only God. God is the only One that’s worthy.”
“Oh, but you’re worthy too, sir. You’re a kind angel,” she said, collapsing to her knees again. And again, he helped her up.
“Don’t do that ma’am.”
“Rachael, come here, thank the kind man. Mr Joseph is your name, right? Yes, I remember. It is Mr Joseph. Thank you sir. God bless you. You’ll never lack anything good sir.”
“Amen, amen. God bless you too.”
Ten minutes passed before she regained her composure. A customer had arrived within those minutes and was watching the whole scene with keen interest. Finally he was attended to by Rachael, and after making his payment, went his way. It was then that Màmá Rachael regained her composure. She took the money of that last customer, and pursued him down the road.
“Take back your money sir. It is free boli for you today. Happy New Year.”
When he collected the money, she cheerfully ran back to the stall. The confused customer watched her skip away, stuffed the money into his pocket, and kept going. Màmá Rachael sat back on the bench, smiling brightly.
After having more prayers rained upon him, Joseph decided to leave for home.
“But you’ve not collected your boli yet!” she cried out.
“Okay. I won’t mind a few pieces, two or three.”
“Just wait a little, sir. Let me blow the fire under these. They’ll be ready very soon. Just wait a little.”
She fanned the flame, turning the plantains mechanically to make them roast evenly. Then she wrapped six pieces into a nylon bag for him.
“If only you’ll wait for more sir,” she cried again.
“This is more than enough,” he replied. “Thank you ma’am. Have a wonderful day. Rachael, it was nice meeting you. I wish you a wonderful year. Bye bye.”
Joseph walked away feeling absolutely fantastic. He was extremely glad, so much so that he walked away in the wrong direction, and a minute passed before he realized it. He stopped, crossed the road, and headed back the right direction.
He stole another glance at the stall. The woman had her left arm around her daughter, and waved at him with the right, still holding the money in her hand. He waved back.
As he walked off the major road, he made a resolution. He would see the woman and her daughter again, and offer them even more help. At that moment, he felt like it was the most important thing for him to do.