She stared into space, willing herself to ignore the wails of her five-month-old daughter and the pitiful whimpers of her son. He would be six on the 27th of December, but he looked younger. It wasn’t something to be proud of; her son should have grown up to his age, but he didn’t eat enough. There wasn’t enough.
Her husband, the ‘man’ who was supposed to provide for them had left them and traveled to the village. It was obvious that he had run away from his responsibilities again. Nneka sighed as her daughter’s cries subsided. If only she had listened to her parents. They were right. Love would never feed her. At least her husband had proven them right.
But then she loved her children; and she could not bear to see them suffer for her mistakes. Her love for her husband might have died out of malnutrition, but her children would not die. Her love would save them. But what could she do? There was no morsel of food in the house; only some food ingredients, which were useless. And she certainly couldn’t steal.
Or could she?
As the thought started taking shape in her mind, she thanked her fate that her neighbours, the Uwaochas had told her that they were leaving for the village to celebrate Christmas few hours ago. Should she break into their house and help herself to some food. It wasn’t for herself but for her precious children. But how could she get inside their compound? She didn’t have the key to their house and even if she did, she would not risk going into house from the front gate. Someone might see her. That left one option—the fence.
She was still battling with the consequences of what she was about to do when Chibunna, her son walked to her. He swayed as he drew closer and she reached out and held him, drew him closer and wiped the tears that ran down his gaunt face.
“Mommy, I’m hungry. My tommy is aching me,” the child complained. He didn’t understand that his mother was incapable of providing the thing he wanted most.
Seeing the pain of hunger in her son’s eyes was the last straw for Nneka. She seated her son on the stool beside her chair and dashed out into the compound. She went to the corner and lifted the ladder her husband used for his work as an electrician. She carefully placed it on the fence that divided her compound from that of the Uwaochas. And she began climbing.
At the top, she scanned the compound and her elevated surroundings for the presence of somebody. Finding no one, she was about to climb over when she realized that she didn’t have anything to break the neighbour’s doors with. She hastily came down and went into her house. She located the hammer in her husband’s toolbox which he usually left in their room as a testament to the fact that he was the one who worked in their home.
When she reached the ladder, she slotted the hammer into the back pocket of her jean trouser and began climbing again. This time she was faster. At the top, she scanned her surroundings again and swung her legs over the fence. She sat on the fence and after saying a prayer for her children, she jumped down. The jump left her dazed. She stood still and listened to the sound of the silent compound as she regained her bearings. She went straight to the kitchen of her neighbours, and using the hammer, she broke the lock in one swing.
She stepped inside and went to the bag of rice she had seen when she last visited the family she was about to rob. She had the thought that she could have begged them for some food two days ago when she came visiting. But she had been raised to have dignity and to be contented with what she had. That is for those who are rich, she thought, and she filled a sack she found in the kitchen with rice. She was careful not to allow a grain to fall on the ground.
As she tied the bag the way she saw it, she heard something that turned her blood into ice.
“Mama Chibunna is a theif oo! Neighbours come and see oo!” It was Nkoli, the woman who told her that she was traveling to the village. Without thinking she rushed to the door of the kitchen, but Nkoli had probably anticipated her move and she locked the door just before she could reach it.
Nneka banged on the door with all her might. She knew what happened to theives in her area, and it was something she never could bear to witness happen to someone. Talkmore of her. She thought about her children and how they would be motherless when the people in the area finally got their hands on her.
“Nkoli! Please, I’m sorry. Please open the door. Stop shouting please!” she pleaded, with tears already coursing down her bony cheeks.
Nkoli seemed to need her pleas for her to increase the tempo of her shout. “I have a thief in my house o! Come and help me o!” she shouted, running around her compound in order to make her voice heard. She would have gone outside the compound to call for help, but she didn’t want Nneka to have an opportunity for escape.
“Please Nkoli. I did for my children o!” Nneka shouted as she heard other voices in the compound. Then the door was opened and Nneka faced the very man who had sent many people accused of stealing to their graves. He grabbed her hand and dragged her outside. She stumbled and caught herself before she could fall to the ground. He then flung her on the ground in the center of the compound as people started raining abuses and blows on her. Then she was dragged again towards the gate, and then she was thrown outside the compound, where more people had gathered with sticks and clubs and fists which would land on her immediately Nkoli finished narrating how she found her in her kitchen.
“… and that’s how I found her o! If I did not forget the gift I got for my mother-in-law, I would not have caught this thief,” Nkoli concluded, and gave Nneka a crackling slap.
That was the cue the mob needed as they descended on her. As fists, sticks and clubs landed on her body, she curled up in foetal position and prayed to God to take care of her children as she was about to die.
Then suddenly a voice boomed above the cacophony of the mob’s blood lust. “Stop this all of you!” But they did not listen. Instead they increased their tempo and someone raised her and slung a tyre over her body. A gallon of fuel appeared from nowhere and its contents were used to bathe her—the bath of death.
A shot rang out. And it rang out again. “I said that you should stop this!” the voice which shouted before bellowed. This time, everyone immediately became silent. The man elbowed his way through the crowd and came to where Nneka sat, bloodied and battered. He squatted in front of her and removed the tyre from her body. Then he helped her to her feet.
With a commanding voice the man faced the crowd and said, “This woman that you are about to lynch deserves to speak before a sentence is passed on her fate.” He then turned to Nneka and in a gentle voice asked her, “Why did you do it?”
Nneka was torn between pain, relief and shame. She tried to speak but tears clogged her throat. She started coughing and the man held her gently. When she had gotten hold of herself she spoke up: “I would never have thought of stealing if my children were not on the brink of starving to death. I took some rice from Nkoli’s kitchen because I couldn’t stand to see them die of hunger.”
To her surprise, the man slapped her. That earned a collective gasp from the crowd. “What you did was wrong, but that slap would be the only other punishment you would be getting. I will pay for the damages and the rice you stole,” he said and held her to his chest.
One woman stepped out of the crowd and hugged Nneka. “You are a brave woman,” she said, “I know how your husband barely provides for you and your children. And I also know that it was the love of a mother that pushed you to do what you did. For that, I’ll give you two thousand naira for you to use in feeding your children.”
As if that was the signal they needed, other people stepped out of the crowd and came to meet her. She was speechless as the woman who had spoken started collecting money from the people who were contributing to buy a bag of rice and some other foodstuffs for her and her children.
Nneka was utterly speechless; she cried and laughed at the same time. But she completely broke down in tears of appreciation when Nkoli also stepped up and contributed three tubers of yam. She knelt down and thanked her, and at the same time pleading for forgiveness.
Nkoli helped her to her feet. “I’m sorry for the way I acted,” Nkoli began, “I didn’t understand what pushed you to come into my house. But seeing what these people are doing, I realized that you must have done it out of love.”
Nneka could not speak, she only nodded as tears of joy streamed down her face. After the contributions, several of the young men who had gathered to beat her to death helped her in taking all she was given into her house. As she stepped into her house, she looked at the foodstuffs and knew that hunger would not be part of her family for a long time to come.
This story was based on actual events. But some things were changed by the author for the purpose of the anonymity.