The man sitting next to them was cursing and swearing impatiently in Igbo. He looked at his watch again and resumed another fit of ramble, talking to no one in particular. Nnenna craned her head in search of Madam.
“Look, maybe this isn’t happening today,” her cousin Ifeoma whined, undoing a strand of braid to re-do it for the umpteenth time.
“Maybe it’s not even happening at all!” She continued. Nnenna shook her head, afraid at the thought of Madam not turning up.
“No, no don’t s-s-ay that, it’s b-bad l-l-uck,” she stuttered, already feeling anxious. She had always been one to believe in bad luck – ‘there’s power in the tongue,’ their grandmother would always warn. But nonetheless, she feared her cousin might be right.
The agreement had been to meet at Peace Park Nsukka by 7a.m. prompt. They had initially agreed to converge at another bus park closer to the village, which would have been easier and even walkable. But, as madam had rightly pointed out, they would run into too many people that know their mothers and they might sense there was something fishy going on.
She closed her eyes to catch some rest. She needed it since sleep had eluded her the whole of last night. She had gotten up every five minutes to either urinate or peer at the small watch-head she had earlier stolen from the rusted container where her mother kept her pieces of jewellery.
The cry of a toddler filled the space and the young mother tried futilely to soothe him. Eventually, she scooped him up to her laps and began to breastfeed him. The room quietened down. Nnenna noticed how stressed out she looked. Her downcast demeanour made her look like a woman in her forties, a look she could only akin to the one her own mother had worn during the months of Nnenna’s fathers’ passing; constantly muttering to herself and staring into space.
A muffled voice mumbled something she couldn’t make out through a speaker, and everyone began adjusting in their seats, getting up and picking their bags. The man next to them was the first to leave, he walked briskly, cursing and swearing. The young mother took her time to collect her baby’s items into a bag and strapped the toddler to her back. They remained in their seats and hoped for Madam to appear. Harmattan breeze blew impatiently, raising a good amount of dust and throwing everything in its path around. She held her breath to avoid inhaling the dust. Harmattan had come early, too early, the harshness evident in the deep cracks on their lips and the jagged tears on the soles of their feet.
Nnenna had met Madam for the first time on the second Friday of last month. She was the passer-by at the market gate that had prised her from Uchenna that hot afternoon. She had sat on his bulgy stomach to beat and punch the living day light out of him, knocking sense into him and reminding him never to call her an afurafu again, since neither her late father nor her mother had named her a useless person at the time of her birth. She had given the woman that dragged her off him this explanation, while holding back the part of the story where she was hitting him for always making fun of her stutter every time their paths crossed.
Madam had given Uchenna a stern warning and had gone ahead to buy all the oranges from Nnenna’s tray, even letting her keep the extra fifty Naira change. And since that day, whenever they ran into each other at the market place, she would either buy a good quantity of Nnenna’s oranges, or she would buy the entire bunch. Nnenna sometimes wondered why Madam needed so many oranges, or what she did with them, but this wasn’t her problem to fathom. She took an instant liking to Madam and always prayed to run into her.
“You are a very smart girl,” she had said to Nnenna one evening after she had bought every orange on her tray and had offered to buy her a bottle of Fanta from the woman in the kiosk shop across the road. “Why don’t you do something better with your life … something meaningful?” Madam had wanted to know.
She had asked more questions to which Nnenna barely had the answers to. At the end of their conversation, she had scribbled her house address on a piece of paper and had asked her to visit anytime. She had, accompanied by her cousin Ifeoma, who had chosen to come with her only because she didn’t believe her fishy stories about the ‘good’ woman who always bought all Nnenna’s oranges while she rarely sold any herself and ends up being called lazy by her mother.
They had set out on a windy afternoon, their orange filled trays being their alibi. The address had been easy to locate since they were well familiar with every street in the area. They had banged on the iron gate, gently at first, then much harder when no one answered. Eventually, the gate man showed up, cursing them even before he reached the gate. And when he found them standing there, he hurled more insults at them for confusing such house as a place to sell oranges. He shooed them away, sucking air through his teeth before banging the small gate violently. They had stood there contemplating their next move when suddenly the gate opened again. It was Madam. She had welcomed them and asked them in.
Nnenna had craned her head, admiring every nook and cranny of the house; it was the kind of house she wished to live in – the kind of house every child in their village dreamed to live in. Madam served them biscuits, layered with lots of cream and offered them Fanta. After they had drained their bottles, Madam, who had been sitting at the opposite couch and watching them intently the whole time, began to speak in a concerned but gentle tone, repeating all she had said to Nnenna the last time and going much farther.
And as she spoke, her words wove its web around their souls, awakening something in them. Something new. A hunger they never knew existed began to seethe in their minds, settling in their stomachs and claiming their entire being. Until the answers to Madam’s questions began to drum louder and clearer in their minds: Of course, we wanted a better life than this! Of course, we know we are much smarter than many kids our age that can’t even weave an ordinary raffia mat with their bare hands yet have it much better in life than we could ever have hoped for! God forbid we end up like our mothers…
And so, they had sat there conceiving these thoughts because Madam had been right – because life had been bias. That afternoon before they left Madam’s house, she had bought every single orange on their tray and had given them some extra money to bike with. They did not take a bike. They didn’t need one. Instead, they had walked home with their empty trays held tightly under their armpits, and the thought of everything they had heard brewing deep in their minds. They had returned several other times after that day to see Madam. And on the last visit, on the last day of that month, they drew out a plan.
The days that followed had drifted by slowly, dragging in an unannounced harmattan weather. One morning, Nnenna’s mother woke up to find a strange looking bird on their front porch, flapping its wings and wagging its tail like an expected guest. Not flying away when her mother went outside to water the vegetables close to where it was perched, not flying away when her little sister, Kachi, went very close to it to offer it palm kernels and admired its bright features and feathers.
“This one is a stranger in our land,” her mother had said as she spread grains on the ground and beckoned on the little bird. By the time she was done getting ready for school that morning, the bird had flown away.
It was also the morning the Headmistress had come to the Assembly ground clutching the white paper – the one they all knew what it meant.
“If you hear your name, you come out!” She bellowed. Heads turned, and feet shifted; the Assembly ground went dead silent.
“Chibuzor Mbah, Amuche Nwachukwu …” She called out names. Every neck craned to get a look of the shameless offenders as they crawled to the front row of the assembly line.
“Nnenna Eke…” Nnenna had stood there motionless, imploring the ground to swallow her up.
“Eke, that is you!” she turned to find Ije, a girl she didn’t like much from Standard Six, smirking at her from across the line. She cursed her with madness and proceeded to the assembly stage, dragging her feet with her. Five more names were called, and the Headmistress commenced her usual monologue. “We don’t run a charity organization here, do we?”
“Nooooooooo Ma!” the voices of the other students had rung out.
She had walked home that morning with the heavy chant of “Nooooooo” ringing continually in her ear. She hated them. She hated them all. But most of all, she hated her late papa.
The next day, she didn’t return to school. She joined her mother in her shop where she sold vegetables gotten from their backyard. Her mother sat all day tying them up and talking to them like they were persons, human beings that could understand her doleful mutters about how papa’s brothers didn’t have the conscience to leave her and her three daughters any of papa’s property, how her God whom she serves would fight for her one day. And as her mother muttered and conversed with the vegetables, Nnenna went over the plan with Madam in her head.
The days after she was sent away from school, Ifeoma and her would spend the very windy afternoons together, weaving raffia mats for their mothers to sell. And In the evenings, they hawked oranges. She had been in grade five at the time of her being sent away from school and had one year until her West African Examinations Council (WAEC) examinations. Ifeoma, who was only a few months older than Nnenna, never made it to secondary school.
Her parents had asked her and her four siblings to stay home while they put all their resources into training her eldest brother, Dindu, who was in the University studying Anthropology and human resources. And as he was expected to finish schooling, get a job, and return to train the rest of his siblings – even though Ifeoma’s mother had started hinting at marriage for her. They never went back to Madam’s again. This being part of the plan, they only had to keep a low profile and wait for 12th of November. They had waited. One dry November morning after another, not saying anything to anyone for they would not understand. A message would be passed across to them not to worry about their whereabouts, but that would have to be when they were well away from home.
Finally, the long-awaited day arrived. Nnenna had woken up very early before anyone else, and that had meant getting up by 4a.m. since her mother usually got up by 5 to commence her long morning devotions. Washing only her face, she stuffed a few clothes into the small Ghana-must-go sack she had bought with the money Madam had given them on their last visit. And had made her way through the dark village roads to the village square where she had to wait an unending thirty minutes for Ifeoma to arrive. When she finally did, the two girls made their way to Peace Park Nsukka together.
Nnenna attempted a yawn, being careful not to rip open the deep crack at the centre of her lower lip. The last time she had yawned carelessly, it had split open, dripping blood down her chin.
Nnenna was the first to sight Madam. Her conspicuous light skin could not be missed anywhere, a woman of medium height and plump figure that took up everything she wore. She hastened towards them, handbag clutched tightly under her armpit. They both heaved a sigh of relief. As she got closer, Nnenna noticed she had not come alone. A teenage girl walked alongside her. After exchanging pleasantries, Madam introduced the girl to them as Chinenye – Nnenna thought the girl looked familiar, but couldn’t quite place where she had seen her before.
The journey to Lagos had been long and tedious. The bus kept running into potholes that sometimes sent the passengers falling to different directions. A pregnant woman in the backseat cautioned the driver and eventually resorted to threatening him with a police arrest if anything happened to her unborn child. Young children and adults hawking various goods cramped their windows at check-points offering cold pure-water and other edibles for sale. Each time she looked at them, Nnenna felt a sense of gratitude to Madam. And the more distance their bus covered, the more she put that life behind her.
When they arrived in Lagos, a woman Madam called her sister – though the two women bore no resemblance whatsoever – came to pick them up to her place. Nnenna liked the hustle and bustle of Lagos, the fast movements of pedestrians as if all were in an unending hurry to get somewhere. She liked the boisterous streets that allowed her to get lost in them, blending in like she had always been there.
Few days after their arrival to Lagos, Madam’s sister, whom Nnenna found it hard to like, took them to the juju man, the one who shaved off bits of their pubic hairs and collected their used underwear, which he told them would be used to perform the ritual that would put madness on any of them that tried to get-out-of paying Madam all she spent in making their lives better. That night, Nnenna had a fuzzy but frightening nightmare; she had jerked awake feeling jumpy and scared.
For the rest of that week, she tried her best to move the event of the juju shrine to the back of her head, burying it there, never to visit it again. She guessed her two companions had also done the same as neither of them ever spoke of it or brought it up again. Their dampened mood was deepened the following week when Madam called the three of them to the sitting room in the morning to give them the bad news and inform them about the change of plans. Stating that every work place she had in mind for them were all filled up by workers who had arrived earlier during the year, explaining that she had to resort to an alternative plan … a difficult, but attainable plan.
She had said it almost as simply as one would mention – going to the stream or going to the village square. She had said: “We will be going to Europe.” And just like that, Europe was uncovered on their minds. Born naturally like an idea that had been there all along, simply waiting to happen. They speculated amongst themselves on what part of Europe it was going to be; they did not ask because they didn’t want to seem too nosy or desperate. Chinenye had said with conviction that it was a French-speaking country, as she had overheard Madam talking to someone on the phone in French language. So, they had planned, packed, and prepared for Europe.
On the morning of their trip, Madam gave all of them their new names, including Chinenye who had said she didn’t like the name Gladys. Although Nnenna figured that they weren’t new names, they belonged to the people in the booklet – the green booklet Madam had called travelling passports. Nnenna couldn’t help but wonder if these people knew they had their names. She didn’t spend much time pondering this matter as she planned to discard the new name as soon as they got to Europe. Maybe she would pick another name, a name that didn’t belong to anyone in a booklet, or she would stick to her name, her real name. She would have to decide eventually, she thought.
She noticed him from the transparent glass door even before they reached it. The man with the shabby beard and distressed jeans. Standing next to the small car parked across the street from the airport, pacing back and forth and throwing several glances toward the airport entrance. Madam noticed him too, for this was the man she walked towards when they exited the airport and the two began to talk like two people very familiar with each other. Nnenna didn’t understand the language, but it wasn’t French. It was almost an argument.
Eventually, the man looked around, scratched his head and began to look intently from one girl to the other, as if sizing them up with his eyes. When he was done, he pointed at Chinenye, then with a little hesitation, he pointed at Nnenna. Neither of them knew what it meant so they stood motionless and confused. He then proceeded to producing a brown envelope from his jacket, which he gave to Madam who collected it and without looking inside, stuffed it inside her handbag. Grabbing Ifeoma’s arm, as if suddenly recalling she had to hurry to be somewhere, Madam said to Chinenye and Nnenna, “You will follow Mr Zeef,” and with that words she jostled away through the busy street, with Ifeoma throttling beside her. They were left standing there with Mr Zeef. She felt her throat tighten from confusion and attempted to gulp in more air.
“Well, what are you two waiting for?” Mr Zeef snapped impatiently.
They scurried inside the messy car, which reeked of some foul smell. The engine cranked several times before roaring to a lazy start, and the night breeze carried exhaust smoke to her nose. Nnenna held her breath. They drove past streets covered in lights and more lights, they drove past tall buildings that towered to the skies, they drove past road signs that all had Lisbon written somewhere on them, they drove past a crowd of people holding placards, marching and chanting what Nnenna could not make out. Mr Zeef cursed, called them “Fuckers!” He rounded up to a street, a tatty street, far away from the tall and fancy buildings, far away from the lights and manicured streets, then he pulled up into a driveway.
They followed him inside a house cramped with newspapers and young girls who were either dosing off on the couch or watching the loud soap-opera playing on the TV screen. They hardly looked up as they entered. Nnenna’s eyes lingered on a younger girl who looked fourteen like Ebere, one of her nieces’ age, lying on the couch and wearing a weary look, showing no sign of interest in the television. She looked at Nnenna and their eyes met. Nnenna looked away and wondered if her brain had exaggerated the girl’s swollen stomach. Mr Zeef asked another girl to show them to a room. They followed her, walking in silence through a corridor. The girl walked ahead of them, with very skinny arms dangling by her sides. Her hair was dyed blue. She reminded Nnenna of the hungry kids in her village.
The silence was interrupted by a loud noise coming from the direction they had just come from. It sounded like a brawl. The girl stopped abruptly, looking back. She stared into the empty corridor. The brawl died down after some seconds and they resumed walking.
“What was that?” Nnenna asked, not sure of a reply.
“That is Mr Zeef and Theresa,” the girl replied in a strange accent, “she doesn’t want to abort the baby, but Mr Zeef says she must. She still owes him twenty thousand euros.”
Nnenna pictured the weary looking girl she had seen in the sitting room. She didn’t know how much money that was in Naira or why the girl must abort her child for the said money.
“You will stay here with Ivie, Nehita and Gloria,” the girl said to them as they entered the last room in the corridor. “How old are you both?”
“Fifteen,” Nnenna replied. “We are both fifteen.” She noticed a fleeting look cross the girl’s face.
“Errm, where will we be working?” Chinenye interrupted from behind Nnenna.
“Hu?” the girl blinked her big brown eyes several times at Chinenye, as if she had just become aware of her presence. Then she said, “Mr Zeef will take you people,” with that she left the room. Nnenna thought her eyes were too big for such a small face.
A distant noise sifted through the room and kept increasing up to where Nnenna lay. She opened her eyes as her brain tried futilely to process her surroundings but was interrupted by a voice shouting and spitting into her face. She scrambled to her feet as Mr Zeef reached for her upper arm and Nnenna found herself being dragged out of the room, past the corridor, past the sitting room now deserted and eloped in darkness, save for a lazy dim light that flickered from a side lamp. She managed to catch a fuzzy glimpse of the wall clock which was at something past midnight.
Shoving her towards the door, Nnenna stumbled outside and almost bumped into Chinenye. She was shivering from the cold, looking as confused as Nnenna felt, with eyes darting from side to side. Mr Zeef hurried out before they had time to ponder the situation, marching towards the car, they followed behind.
They rounded up to a busy street and Mr Zeef slowed down to make a call. Soon a young girl approached the car, legs quivering as she walked in very high-heeled shoe. She was putting on what looked more like a brassiere than anything else. When she got closer to the car, Nnenna noticed the blue hair. Bending down to level with the driver’s window, she dipped a hand in her brassiere and came out with some money which she handed to Mr Zeef who collected it and began to count. When he was done, he gave a vague nod, and the girl disappeared into the night.
They drove through the streets lined with vans and girls in skimpy outfits, either standing under a light pole or patrolling up and down in very high heels, calling out to men.
“You will start work today,” Mr Zeef said to no one in particular, as he parked in front of a building. “You will work like other girls; you came here to hustle, like your mates…” He paused to light a cigarette and puffed out smoke, looking through the review mirror, he said, “your job is to be with men for money.”
Nnenna felt she had not heard clearly. Maybe because he spoke in an accent that was a bit difficult to understand, or because of the hunger that kept tugging at her stomach all night. “You m-mean like prostitution?” Chinenye blurted from beside Nnenna, and she knew she had heard properly.
“Call it whatever you like!” He snapped, sounding irritated. “I did not bring you here to ask me stupid questions, I am NOT your father!” He stormed out of the car, disappearing into the building.
The night breeze threatened with more force. Nnenna could feel her teeth chattering from the cold, as blood rose and left her head, and the flat voice of the woman in the car radio carried on in a language that was not French…