Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Vending food or article along the streets is something no woman would like to make her lifetime occupation. Even in a country where the average lowest income earner is on less than US$2.00 per diem, this type of job is considered as best fitting for non-indigenes or nomadic or immigrant refugees struggling for survival.
For Magdalena, it was not a matter of choice or the lack of it that she was into street trading. Worse still, she was into selling oranges and peanuts which made her even more vulnerable.
Street trading business demands strict observance of the rule of survival of the fittest if one must manage to break even. In spite of the meanness or awkwardness of street trading, a preponderant majority of African women and men are helplessly embracing it as any other white-collar or dignifying profession.
With the legislative embargo on employment into the civil service still in force in most African states, many school leavers as well as college graduates can hardly expect to land any meaningful job except as help-hands in some private enterprises such as mechanic workshops, at the artisans’, or as house-helps in homes that have not yet been scrambled off.
Magdalena was in her 12th grade in one of the Montessori educational houses in the city when she fell for one of those flattering and sugar-coated words from an infatuated honey-bug in the neighbourhood. No sooner had they started some hideous affair than she was put in the family way. Her man happened to be one of those houseboys who would convert his master’s house into a brothel while the family is away on their usual preoccupations.
Magdalena was too naïve to understand the difference between a house-owner and an impostor. She had been taken in by the leisurely manner with which the boy conducted himself whenever he hosted her. They would share some drinks from the variety of wine and spirits that lined the family bar. He would usher her into the kitchen and even coax her into helping out with preparing some of the dishes they shared amidst more flattering words and empty promises of marriage.
If anyone was to blame for the incongruity between these two lovers, it would be the gods that seem to have chiseled Magdalena out of some unusual and extraordinary clay, with such dexterity that gave her the most exquisite physique ever on earth. If she had been born into some well-to-do family, one could bet she would emerge the world’s most beautiful girl with the right statistics. This one traverses beyond “beauty in the eye of the beholder” class.
Any uncastrated man could have fallen for this smashingly beautiful mermaid, but for her tender age and probably the family background which was not anything to write home about. In a rural setting where there is no hiding the fact that Magdalena is a single-parented child whose real father one could be sure of, men are skeptical of venturing into any serious relationship lest they contract an outcast.
This house-boy who happened to have migrated from the woods was not familiar with the ancient rules of this locality. Moreover, his secluded residence did not afford him any opportunity of making friends with the indigenous boys of his age. It would not have mattered to him if he even fell in love with a ghost, let alone an outcast. He was in essence freer than the people of this village who were still enslaved to obeying the rules of the jungle in the name of respecting tradition. Such was the fate that gave him the incontestable possession of the most beautiful girl of her time. As a matter of fact, nobody envied him. Instead, he would be regarded as a gullible idiot who had taken what everybody would not accept even for a price.
GRAND CHILD ON THE WAY
Barely two months into this frenziedness, things turned sour when Maggie as she was fondly called by this lover-boy, began to experience symptoms that are usually associated with early pregnancy, such as drowsiness, vomiting and loss of appetite. Maggie’s mother would be deceived by her daughter’s age to dismiss these signs as mere happenstance. And it would be considered serious embarrassment to imagine or suggest that the poor girl had started eating food that is an exclusive reserve of adults. The frequency of these symptomatic occurrences continued to be a source of concern to her mother whose sense of modesty beclouded her sense of reason to see that no other form of illness could be associated with those signs.
By the third month, it had become obvious that this one-time angel was no longer a virgin. Valleys in her abdominal region had given place to rapidly obtruding mountain. Her almost invisible breast had suddenly assumed the size of an organic-grown and tenderly groomed South African apple. The type that first-time visitors to the south would like to take home as souvenir. Hairs were showing on her forehead as never before. Her school uniform no longer fitted to expose her gorgeous physique.
The mother who could no longer restrain herself from voicing her fears, had to confide in one of her woman friends who happens to be a close associate of the family. It is usually said in some African parlance that the baby reptile beheld by one person can easily be construed a python. She really needed a second opinion to convince and reassure her that Maggie was still the baby of her childhood. Her lady friend was alarmed to learn that she could not distinguish between a pregnant girl and one who had swallowed a cow. Whether it was convincing or reassuring, the verdict of the second opinion alarmed and devastated Maggie’s mother beyond redemption.
She had a million and one reasons to be so devastated by the revelation that her only daughter would end up like any other girl from a poverty-stricken family in town. As a single mother, it had been her long-held belief that if girls were treated like an egg, they would last long enough to hatch a live chick at the appropriate time that will gladden the hearts of their parents.
AGONY OF A MOTHER
She would go as far as pledging some of her valued jewelries and wrappers in order to pay Maggie’s school fees as well as give her a comfortable lease of life that would make her fit properly into the society comparing favourably with her peers. In almost all the instances, she had been unable to redeem the pledge, and had in so doing been left with a dwindling reserve of convertible wealth. Ironically Maggie was about to hatch her own, though prematurely.
She was devastated and ashamed to know that she had been living with a fellow woman and she didn’t know it. Her other worry was that she had inadvertently let out a family secret to a third party whom she could not trust to keep the lid closed. She was even more disturbed when it was revealed that the prospective father of her grand-child would be a house-boy and a non-indigene. This woman was not unaware of her daughter’s astonishing beauty, and had secretly nursed the wish that one member of the bourgeoisie class would ask her hand in marriage when she came of age. She knew that such a development would suddenly uplift her to a higher level of material existence and put an end to her perpetual suffering. She almost cursed the day she conceived Maggie, but for her religious devotedness.
How was she going to cope with members of her Women Group who would insist on proper upbringing of a member’s child especially the girls? Who would make them believe that she always went the extra mile to ensure that her child got more than most of her peers? How could they understand that she truly practiced what she preached as she had on several occasions chastised mothers whose daughters fell short of religious morality?
Could she afford to feed an extra mouth at a time when they had resorted to a ‘zero-one-zero’ eating plan? These were some of the questions that bugged her already beclouded mind. How could anybody think clearly in such circumstance? All she could do was slump on her bare floor and try to suppress her anguish and tears which were bubbling like fresh keg of palm wine. Any uncontrolled outburst will usher in uninvited neighbours who would do her more harm than good by helping to peddle the news as fast as an unfriendly whirlwind would scatter a thatched roof in early winter. All the persuasion from her lady friend to maintain tranquility fell on deaf ear. She knew for certain that it was only a matter of time before her friend would be the first to start a gossip that would soon spread around in a village where everyone knows everybody.
When she appeared to have surmounted the initial shock and devastation, the next question that came to mind was how to confront the lover-boy or the master. Her friend who had a clearer reasoning had argued that it were better to pass on the buck to the master on grounds of vicarious liability.
They both agreed that that was a clever idea and decided to take that line of approach so that this rich man could at least sponsor the pregnancy up to and beyond delivery while his wife would provide most of the unborn baby’s essentials.
One week before the two-man delegation would set out on the scheduled visit or confrontation, Maggie had gone to announce to her lover-boy that she was carrying his baby; expecting the boy to jump for joy, hug her, shower her with precious kisses and dance around the living room of their supposed apartment, with some rock music at the background. When she pressed the bell that she was accustomed to, it was a woman that opened the gate to ask what the matter was.
“Good-day, ‘Ma,” she greeted, stooping halfway down as a sign of respect to a senior.
“Yes, my dear, how may I help you?” asked the house owner, with her gentle eyes curiously screening this unusual and unfamiliar visitor.
“Please ‘Ma, I’ve come to see Andie.”
“Oh, Andie? My husband asked him to wash the car. He’s at the backyard. Wait a minute.”
“Andie!” she called out.
“Yes ‘Ma,” echoed Andie from the distance.
This girl’s countenance became suddenly engulfed in utter confusion. She had never encountered other faces in this home that she looked forward to sharing with her future husband, Andie. She had never been opportuned to notice that the building had a backyard and a car park. If she did, as her naivety would hardly permit, she never bothered to probe further. Hearing that her hubby had been sent to wash another woman’s husband’s car was an incomprehensible and inconceivable ‘April Fool joke.’ For a moment she thought she had knocked at the wrong door, but the familiar landmarks were still there to prove that there had been no mistaken identity. She was deeply engrossed in these contemplations to notice Andie standing beside her and shivering like a frightened puppy that had just been fished out of a dirty gutter. His unguarded and uninhibited fright expressed more than words could say. Madam didn’t need a soothsayer to explain what had gone wrong. But to give both of them the benefit of doubt, she broke the silence by asking the girl if that was the Andie she was looking for.
“Y-ye-s-s ‘M-ma,” replied Maggie, amidst sobs and gritting teeth.
Andie who was still holding lather-soaked towel in one hand and a hard brush on the other stood with his mouth agape as if he was beholding a ghost. Presently, his master who sensed that some unusual dialogue was going on in his abode had arrived at the gate.
It was he who asked Andie who the pregnant girl was; expecting to hear that she was one of his sisters or cousins. Andie known to be of plausible tongue suddenly became dumb but not deaf in the face of this unexpected visitation. Silence, they say, is golden. This one conveyed more than a pound weight of golden message to both Master and Madam.
“So, you’ve been sleeping around with girls, uh? And this one is already carrying your baby.”
Having assessed the whole situation from an old man’s point of view, Master retired back into the room for a brief moment and promptly returned with an envelop which he handed to Andie.
“Here, he said, is your salary for this month and another sum representing your one month salary in lieu of notice. I don’t think we need your services any longer. Go, gather your belongings right this moment and leave this house immediately. Suspend the car washing. I will deal with that myself.”
Maggie stood there with her face stuck to the ground which seemed to be caving in under her bulky weight. She would have relished it if the ground beneath had opened its mouth to swallow her and her unborn baby. Tears from her eyes were continuously and freely dripping but unable to create the flood that could sweep her eternally out of this embarrassing and dehumanizing situation. The sky with its heavenly bodies seemed too distant to behold, and she could not fathom rendering any supplications for rescue to the Deity she used to know and serve. In her present condition, she felt some sense of self-condemnation and considered herself unworthy to be begging God for mercy. Getting pregnant for a total stranger and a houseboy for that matter was anything but what she could wish for. She remembered moments when Mother would jokingly but prophetically call her ‘Lo-o-lo-o,’ a title used by the Igbo people of Eastern Nigeria to denote a rich man’s wife. More sobs, more tears, and a bunch of regrets kept sweeping over her. But it was too late to dwell on such mortal predilection. There was nothing she or anybody could do about the situation.
As Andie went to bring out his bag and baggage, the couple engaged Magdalena in some compassionate heart-to-heart talk during which she told how she had been deceived into believing that Andie was the owner of the house and that he meant to marry her, whereupon she consented to sleeping with him; the evidence of which was the three-month-old pregnancy.
The couple had sincere compassion on her on account of her frail nature and tender age, but was cautious not to betray any impression that would make her believe that she could get any form of assistance from them. The same reason why no indigene would want to have anything to do with the likes of Magdalena was what informed the couple’s restraining instinct. They didn’t want to be victims of their own failure to follow the traditionally accepted line of rectitude.
Meanwhile, Andie emerged from the house with an empty fifty-KG bag which constituted his luggage. The couple felt relieved to bid them both farewell forever. The man instinctively reminded Andie that he should not bother to call by or even call them on phone. Thus was Andie thrown back into the over-saturated labour market with the additional burden of an unsolicited wife and an unborn baby.
Whoever coined the adage that “poverty is a sin” ought to receive a philosopher’s award. Imagine how this one-time homeless and hopeless Andie who had been offered not only a peaceful home and a well-paid job with other fringe benefits had to plunge himself back into penury in a twinkle of an eye by frolicking with something that lies next-door to the channel of the worst of all human excretion. In the present circumstance, it is difficult to imagine who is the greater looser. Is it the young girl who had not only lost what every girl treasured most, but also her future educational opportunity; or Andie who had sojourned from a distant land and had been fortunate to find a job and a family he could comfortably relate with, only to lose all that for a mess of porridge?
NO HIDING PLACE
The raven and other birds of the air have their nests. The squirrel and foxes have their burrows, but Andie the son of man has no place to lay his head. He had just lost an employment opportunity of a life-time.
As soon as they backed out from the residence of his former employers, Andie attempted to open his stinking mouth to ask Maggie why she chose to embarrass him with such an unprecedented and unannounced visitation. Maggie immediately descended on him with her massive body and was slapping him all over with her feeble hands. Andie held fast to his luggage so as not to spill the contents to public view. This incapacitation on his part proved an advantage which Maggie exploited to no end as she continued to slap, kick, bite and scratch Andie all over inflicting some visible cuts here and there. Andie was taken aback to see his angel display such unrestricted level of hostility in public. He almost froze to death with the realization that he had inadvertently contracted putting up with what he thought was a ‘tiger in sheep clothing.’ He knew quite well that it would be difficult for any family to take him in after hearing of his activities at his former employers’. The hardship that sent him out to this foreign land had not assuaged way back home. He only needed to brace up to drink the full gall of the consequences of his exuberant recklessness.
Some neighbours who had witnessed the spectacle had gone to alert Maggie’s mother who promptly appeared at the scene with her lady friend and comforter closely treading on her heals. Within minutes, the much dreaded gossip had gone into circulation. The parabolic Job says that what he feared most has come upon him. This mother would have pledged or traded the remnants of her possessions in exchange for keeping the state of her daughter’s disgraceful and abominable act forever concealed. But the unthinking and unmindful girl had dug not only hers but her mother’s grave. The mother’s friend who had been contemplating how to handle the inevitable gossip without giving out much of her own involvement, felt very relieved that the cat had already been let out of the bag by the culprit and victim herself.
It was only after the scandalous street fracas and a few words of caution from the other woman that Maggie realized that the prospects of the rumour spreading as fast as it would meant that she had to remain in solitary confinement for a very long time. She would lose her school friends as no sane mother would allow her daughter to mingle with not only a street fighter but a spoilt and prostituting child like Magdalena. She was the socializing type of girl who made friends easily, and subjecting her to the type of isolation that was imminent could be very unbearable.
NO GOING BACK
Thoroughly bemused and not too sure how far the gossip had spread, mother went home with her daughter followed by the fiancé and the other woman.
The bombshell dropped when after preliminary interrogations and explanation of the entire episode, Andie announced that he had no place to go to. It dawned on Maggie’s mother that she had not only inherited unwanted pregnancy, but an unsolicited son-in-law and irreversible scandal.
It was at that juncture that her friend took her aside and suggested that since the deed had been done, there was nothing more to be afraid of, and that allowing Andie to stay would not make any difference. She added that the boy could even help her out in her farm work which was draining much of her energy on account of her age. That idea pleased her and she whole-heartedly consented to accommodating Andie and damning the consequences. Andie was very grateful to find a home, a wife, and not the least a job even though he did not expect to be paid for that. To him, the end justified the means. The previous plot to accost Andie’s master and intimidate him with a pregnancy that he knew nothing about was discarded in the face of those compromises. It remained to figure out how to manage the girl through ante-natal until the baby would be safely delivered.
To avoid all the tongue lashing and reprisal attacks that awaited her at the Women’s Group, Mother decided to voluntarily exclude herself from their meetings for good. It did not bother her that such a decision meant that she would lose all the benefits of membership should anything happen to her.
Soon it would occur to the family that the combined efforts of Mother and Andie alone were not enough to provide sustenance to the family as well as acquire the necessary essentials in readiness for the baby that would soon arrive. When the other woman who had played the role of family adviser was presented with the difficulty the family was passing through, she advised that since Magdalena was in very ebullient state of health, she could engage in some petty trading to augment the family’s meager resources. She cleverly added that a pregnant woman needed to engage in some form of exercise in order to make her child delivery an easier task. That was how the idea of hawking oranges and peanuts was conceived. That executive decision was handed down to Maggie, not with a view to sampling her opinion, but for immediate implementation. If not for the pregnancy, she normally would have earned herself severe whacking and immeasurable sanctions from her no-nonsense mother.
During her initial outings, she could not muster the courage to venture into familiar territories for fear of being seen by her erstwhile school friends. But as she continued to record low sales in spite of having to trek long distances, it dawned on her that her only option was to catch the bull by the horns and carry on with her life and the stigma. She started moving to every corner she imagined there would be high sales output. During the course of her rounds, she would buy some necessities that she thought her baby would have need of.
The most patronizing customers of Maggie’s line of commodity were mechanics, taxi drivers, motor park touts and petty shop owners who could hardly leave their businesses to go to look for food. She suffered the greatest harassment in the hands of auto mechanics and taxi drivers who would make passes at her and would want to take advantage of her. On many occasions they would say to her:
“Magdalena, we used to believe that you were one of the untouchables. Now that the chips are down and the unfriendly breeze has exposed the back side of the hen, how about letting us have a piece of the action?” She would try to avoid wandering into such places for some time, but would soon return if she noticed that her sales level was dropping.
If she felt wearied out by the scorching sun and would take a hike home, the taxi driver would henpeck her not a little and would offer to drive her to some brothel before dropping her off for free. These were very tempting and annoying moments for her, but she soon learned to cope.
On one occasion, a filthy-looking apprentice lured her into a junk wagon in the workshop and offered to buy her entire ware for the day in order to save her the ordeal of perambulating the length and breadth of the town all day. She almost leaped for joy at that offer because it meant half a day’s work for full earning. But wait a minute. What would a trainee mechanic be doing with perishable consumables the cost of which far exceeded his one-week stipend? What degree of compassion would stir his benevolence into making such a generous offer? If his kindness was accepted for once, what would happen on subsequent days? This must be a big joke or the poor boy must have gone mad. After all, given his dirty and tattered mechanic outfit, it was not easy to distinguish him from a regular psychiatric inmate. But he was not mad. From the bottom of his heart, he meant every word of that offer and was ready to live up to his promise if only the pregnant girl could condescend to having fun with him right in the makeshift boutique – the rickety vehicle in the workshop.
Prompted by the principle of ‘once beaten, twice shy,’ the thoroughly alarmed girl, who was already packaging her articles of trade for the kind-hearted wholesale customer, stumbled out of the wagon, screaming and cursing as she spilled part of her peanuts along the trails.
The family continued to face the harsh realities of penury from day-to-day. Mother and Andie spared no single day without working at one or the other of their farms. Maggie did not cease from bearing the burden of her new-found occupation on her head and another burden of disobedience in her womb.
Up to that point in time, Maggie had so much improved in the manner of packaging and dressing her merchandise to make it more appealing to the public. She would build a circular base with the oranges and top it up with the groundnuts arranged in a conical pyramid.
Fast forward. One fateful morning, a company executive, obviously attracted by that meticulously arranged pyramid of merchandise and the astonishing beauty of the vendor, had to pull over to patronize the young lady. As Maggie tried to lift down the heavy load to sell to her latest customer, the weight gave her such an uncomfortable contraction of abdominal muscles and made her experience what the women call a “show.” This is associated with bursting of the placenta and gushing out of hot fluid, signaling the readiness of the baby to emerge.
The young and inexperienced mother-to-be not understanding what had happened to her, tried to suppress her embarrassment. When she stooped down to select what her customer had chosen, another hot fluid splashed and dripped down to soak the lower part of her tight-fitting gown. She was forced by circumstances to incline herself to the body of the man’s jeep, hoping to regain her composure.
When the man noticed her ordeal, he carefully managed to alight from his vehicle to help her to stand on her feet. To everybody’s surprise, the restless baby had already popped out his head. The man did not know how to handle the situation. Looking across the road, he beckoned on two women who promptly rushed to the rescue. It was agreed to convey the girl to any nearest medical facility.
The two women assisted to position the lady into her customer’s jeep. One of them sat to ensure that her head remained propped up. The other ensured that her legs remained eagle-spread so as not to suffocate the emerging baby.
Before they arrived at the nearest clinic, the baby had completely and safely been delivered by the two ‘peripatetic midwives.’ He was a boy. It only remained to give both mother and child some professional brushing-up. The man apparently overjoyed that fate had placed him in a position to render such humanitarian service, offered to pay the hospital bill. He bargained with the girl that the boy should be named after him if that would please the father.
The girl was highly pleased to behold all those unfolding events. She knew the implications of naming her baby after such a rich man. In most African cultures, it meant that the man would bear greater part of the responsibility of the child’s upbringing. There was no limit to what he could do for the boy in particular and the family in general.
She thanked the man and gave her word to communicate his offer to her parent in due course. The man demanded of the staff of the clinic when they hoped to discharge mother and child. Having learnt that it would take some four days in order for the nurses to keep mother and child under strict observation since it was her first pregnancy, he promised to return to convey them home.
When he returned home later that evening, he narrated his experience to his wife, and she was equally pleased that Providence had blessed them with such a miraculous coincidence. She promised to join her husband to drive the family home on the scheduled day.
Before Mother and Andie returned from farm, news had already spread that Maggie had put to bed. Rumours were peddled that she had delivered right by the road side. Others said she had delivered in a strange man’s car. Whether it was in a lorry or on a mountain-top did not bother the family. All they were grateful for was that it had been a safe delivery, and a bouncing baby boy for that matter.
They quickly gathered whatever rags they could find and rushed to see the baby at the clinic. When they arrived and saw some brand new baby’s wears, napkins, expensive powders, lotion, soaps, towel, bath-tub, feeding bottle and every manner of baby’s toiletries delivered by the ‘foster parents,’ they dared not let anyone know that they had brought some rags for the same baby.
Magdalena narrated to them how she had encountered an “angel” earlier in the day, and how the baby chose to emerge just then.
It is customary in some African cultures to name the first son after his grand-father. In this case, the boy should bear Andie’s father’s name. But since Andie’s father had no meaningful existence, and it would bring no fortune to the family to name the boy after him, the lot fell to name it after the ‘Good Samaritan.’ Maggie who had not yet communicated the man’s request to her family was pleased that the Almighty had arranged everything to fit properly for her unborn child.
Eight days after the child’s birth, the families came together with friends to pronounce the boy’s name as custom demands. Mrs. Samaritan personally provided all the food and drinks that guests shared on that occasion. They bought a bag of toys and amusement and educational objects for the baby. To cap it up, the man offered to sponsor Magdalena to finish her education up to any level.
And they lived happily ever after.
Story by: Vincent NNANNA.