…You know you want to
My name is Mekuluni. It means beauty from the sky. I come from a small village by the border of Badagry. My Mama has eight children and she is pregnant again. My only sister and Mama’s eldest child, Samara is sixteen. I don’t get to see her often because she has been working in Lagos since the year she turned ten. She comes home every other Christmas, looking very well taken care of and she always brings home a lot of money and food at the end of the year. Her madam is a very wealthy widow whose grown children live in America. Samara keeps her company and takes care of her. Mama cleans people’s houses and washes clothes everyday while Papa sometimes drives big machines at the government farm. Some of my brothers work on the farm too. All their incomes combined is barely enough to feed our growing family.
Every time I follow Mama to wash clothes for Dinah’s mother, Dinah sits with me and tells me the things she learned in school during the week and whatever new story she has heard about girls in our village who went to work in Lagos. Most people in our village think the whole of Nigeria is Lagos but Dinah knows better. According to her, Lagos is just a city in the big country called Nigeria. I wonder if Samara is in some other city and not Lagos.
Dinah is ten years old just like me but knows so much more than I do. She makes me wish that Papa would send me to school. I know that’s never going to happen because he barely has enough money to keep clothes on all our backs as it is. I told Dinah that Papa said I would soon leave for Lagos to work. Dinah was scared for me.
“They will do bad things to you too”, she said.
I can never forget the time she told me about another girl in the village, Abenah. Abenah ran away from her employers in Lagos and the village gossips told Dinah’s mother that Abenah’s master and his son did some very bad things to the poor girl. Her mother didn’t say what was done to her but Dinah and I shivered even at the thought of what could make a young girl run away from a big city like Lagos and back to our rotting village.
“Nobody will do such bad things to you Mekulu’. They will pity you because you are still a small girl.” Mama said as we made dinner that night. I wondered what being a small girl had to do with it.
“Mama Lagos is a good woman. She will find you a good place like Samara got”, she continued as she wiped the sweat from her brow and checked the cassava meal for softness with the same hand.
I am afraid to leave mama alone. She works so hard every day and she is heavily pregnant. The baby might come any day now and I wonder who will wash and clean houses while she is still weak from childbirth. I begged Papa to let me stay but he refused. Our family needs more money he said, especially with the new baby coming. He doesn’t have a steady job but he and Mama keep having new babies every other year. Meanwhile, the other village women envy Mama for being so fertile.
I was afraid of going to live with strangers so far away. I wondered if they would be kind to me or do bad things to me like they did to Abenah. I wondered if I would know my way if ever I wanted to run back home. I was scared to be without Mama.
Mama Lagos came for me one Friday night. I packed my good clothes in a single black nylon bag and stood near the door. She gave Papa a brown envelope and told Mama not to worry about me, then she put her arm around my shoulder and flashed Mama and Papa a frightening toothy smile. We walked off to her van and mama waved amidst tears. My skinny legs constantly buckled against each other as I kept twisting my neck over Mama Lagos’ fat arm to look at Mama. She was wiping her tears with a corner of her wrapper. I wanted to run to her and place my head against her firm protruding tummy but Mama Lagos’ grip on my shoulder was almost like a vice.
I hopped into the back of the van on command and saw some other children sitting on the metal floor already. Most were girls. I don’t know how to count in numbers but if I put one finger to each child, I would have counted with all my fingers and most of my toes. There were four girls who looked to be about Samara’s age or older and the rest looked about my age or slightly younger. I found a small spot that was free and sat down just in time before the van jerked and sped out of our compound. I was too far from the window to see Mama but I knew she would stay outside and cry for me a little longer.
The van drove for a long time and it got darker and darker. None of the other children spoke. Some of the younger ones cried softly and one kept coughing uncontrollably but no one said a word, except for Mama Lagos who often told the coughing child to stop making a noise. Soon, the bus started to drive terribly fast. I wondered why the driver was in such a rush. Then he slowed down and stopped suddenly. Most of the children who had been sleeping woke up and sat up straight. The older girls didn’t seem as surprised as the rest of us and one of them put a finger to her lips signally for us to keep quiet.
I heard a strong voice from outside and then I saw a man with a black cap point a torch-light inside the van and over our heads.
“Una don come again, abi?” (You have come again) the voice said harshly and someone struck the side of the bus with a hard object as if to give the voice more potency.
“Oga, no worry, we don prepare your kola” (Don’t worry Sir, we have prepared money for you) Mama Lagos replied.
No more words were said and in a few seconds, the van was speeding off again into the dead of night. Samara once told me that the first time Mama Lagos came to take her to Lagos, some men wearing black uniforms had beaten all of them in the van with canes, including Mama Lagos and they had sent them back in the direction from which they came. Mama Lagos was new in the business then and she had not been well prepared. Thank God they didn’t beat us this time, I thought.
I was still lost in my thoughts when the van stopped again. Mama Lagos called one of the men by a name which she kept repeating over and over with a higher pitch each time. I imagined the man swelling with pride and beaming all over. I heard the rustling sound of paper and this time, the men outside began to chant ‘Mama Lagos’ repeatedly in the same manner that she had hailed one of them earlier.
Then, one man came to the side of the van and leaned in through the window.
“Mama Lagos, shey you get anytin wey boys fit take relax for here?” (Do you have anything for the boys to relax with) he said, pointing his stick through the window.
Mama Lagos laughed like a hyena and said “I go give you something but make una no waste my time o!” (I will give you something but don’t waste my time)
Then she looked behind her and motioned to one of the older girls who got up immediately as if she was already on stand-by and the driver of the van came around to let her out. Then the men’s chants of ‘Mama Lagos!’ started again and faded into the distance.
The girl came back after a while and she immediately lay in a corner, shivering a little bit. As the bus sped away from there, I kept wondering what that man meant by ‘something wey boys fit take relax’ and why Mama Lagos sent the girl out to them.
We entered the big city towards mid-day and Mama Lagos started dropping the children off one after the other. Once, she dropped off a boy and a girl at the same house. When it was my turn, I hopped out of the van with my bag clutched tightly to my side and followed Mama Lagos through a big iron gate. I adjusted my threadbare scarf and pulled it lower over my forehead as I looked up at the tall painted house and the coconut trees in front of it. A plump woman who I assumed would be my madam met us at the entrance.
“Is this your sister’s daughter whom you told me about? Are you sure this small child can work?” she asked pointedly.
“Yes, she’s the one. She can work very well o. In fact, she has been working for me in my house since last week when I brought her to Lagos. She’s a very good girl.” Mama Lagos returned her vice-like grip to my left shoulder as she said the words. I didn’t need anyone to tell me what that meant.
My new madam looked me over again and handed Mama Lagos an envelope which she promptly received with thanks and shoved between her breasts. I wonder how many envelopes she had shoved in there that morning. As she turned around and left, my new madam led me to the backyard where I was to wash all my clothes, including the ones I had on and scrub myself from head to toe before entering her house. She gave me a bucket, two different bars of soap and a new sponge then she pointed to the tap on the wall.
Before she turned to leave, she looked back and asked “What is your name”?
“Mekuluni” I replied.
“Meku-? My children won’t be able to pronounce that. We’ll call you Doris, understood?”
I nodded quickly and emptied my bag into the bucket as she walked away.
After washing every single one of my clothes and giving myself a thorough bath like my madam ordered, I stood with only my two hands for some modesty and pondered whether to walk or run to the front door of the house.
I thought about Mama, I thought about all my brothers back home. I wondered what Mama would be doing at that very moment; probably scrubbing someone’s floors with her protruding belly. My life had certainly changed within a few hours. I wondered if Mama Lagos would tell Mama I now had a new name. I struggled to remember the new name my madam gave me like a young child trying to catch a wet bar of soap.
“Doris!” I suddenly heard from the front of the house and without thinking, I ran… around the house and towards the main doors; into my new life, totally oblivious to the fact of my vulnerable bareness.