She turned into a corner and came face-to-face with Papa Chima, who clutched a polythene bag tightly to his chest.
“Unu apụtala taa?” she greeted, regarding him with a greedy look, as if to say ‘I wish I could steal those from you grip’. The thought of snatching the bag and bolting away scared even her. The famine had shown the worst of mankind. People were too willing to inflict pain than give happiness. Are they to be blamed? When all around reasons to express cruelty and wickedness, from the frustration and hunger were abound.
“Eh… enyi m a kwanụ? Unu na ha ahụla ụbọchị ojo a?” Papa Chima returned, looking at her with a sort of agony, forcing a smile.
“Anyi nọ nụ, na-ele Chineke anya oh!” she replied over her shoulder, as he too continued on his long walk home—to a hunger-stricken family waiting patiently for few cups of garri and a tied sachet of salt, accompanied by coconut.
Times like this were not for women and children—indeed they were the most vulnerable at this time. Times like this were for men, the toughest of them, who set off into the dim darkness to fight their battles with hell in seclusion.
“Ọ gaghị adịrị ndị China mma!” he cursed.
She arrived at Mama Ebuka’s shop and sat on a bench that leaned against the entrance door, which creaked and slammed menancingly under the wind.
She stared into blank space and grimly concentrated on an empty wrap of Yale bread that was tossed back and forth under the force of the wind. She stared down at it, as if willing it to—in some twisted magical way—transform into a loaf, a miracle she too would find hard to believe.
The shop owner, Mama Ndukauba had just dismissed a customer standing over the counter and leaning a little forward to catch the woman’s object of attention. Sensing her agony, she asked,
“Ọ dịkwa mma, Mama Anayo?”
she repeated the question a second time, before the woman winced and nodded numbly.
She stood up and stretched herself absent mindedly. “Nye m garri cup use, sugar a kwọrọ kwọ 50 naira and that Yale bread nọ dia abụọ.”
Mama Ndukauba handed her the bag containing all that she had asked for, as she gave her a five hundred naira note.
“O zubekwa, nwunnye di m. Ego gi wụ 1,200 naira.” Sensing the woman’s confusion, she explained, “Otu cup garri wụ 150, bread wụ 200, ị gbakọzie ha niile, ya wụrụ 1,200.”
Tears escaped her eyes, thoughts of the same scenario at Dee Njoobi’s shop flooded back in threatening torrents. She had come here as her last resort; she had being to almost all the shops in the village, none seemed to be godly enough to sell all that she wanted at the price of that N500.
She had come with hopes that Mama Ndukauba, who sold at fairly good prices would be better than Dee Njoobi, who insisted he would sell at prices that would not hurt his pocket. “Otu m siri zụọ ka m ga-esi ere oo. Onye ọ na-adịghị mma, ya gawa ebe ozo biko,” he often complained.
She began sobbing and heaving in a crescendo of torture. Why were people being cruel to her? Was there a secret grudge they all bore in unity against her? Or were they like everyone else, fighting for survival, even if it meant being cruel and mean?
She fought hard to conceal the tears that threatened exposure. This fight heightened, between her and her emotions. She fought even harder, but soon she began to choke for air.
Mama Ndukauba got up from her seat inside and peered into her face, hoping to find the remaining N700.
“Nwunye di m, kwuo nu okwu. Ị ka na-azụ? Ka ọ wụ m dowekwe ahịa m?” she asked.
She simply said, in more of a soul-piercing plea, “Ihe m ji ma n’ụlọ ma nga wụ N500. Nwunye di m, agụụ egbuola mụ na ezinaụlọ m. Nwaanyị ibe m, mee ebere.”
People who had come to buy things at the shop stared blankly at her kneeling position, and soon carried on with that peculiar noncommittal look of ‘what’s my business?’
A woman muttered a few derisive comments to herself, “Ndị arịrịọ amaghị na ụbọchị agbanwela.”
Mama Anayo, now hung in a permanent slouch, rummaged her thoughts for a clue to this whole madness, this shedding of old friendships with such ease, like duck on water back. She bit her lower lip and cursed under her breath, “China zute China na iwe gị onwe nwem!”
“Nye m ahịa m biko,” Mama Ndukauba yelled, jolting Mama Anayo back to reality, her kneeling position and arms outstretched in a passionate plea. Mama Ndukauba snatched the polythene bag for her, grumbling aloud, as if to assuage the guilt that hung above her, “Last card mụ na di m ka o ji ga bute ahịa ndi a. M jiri ya mewa ọgọ, agụụ egbuzienu mụ na ụmụ nke m, ọkwa ya?”
She emptied the contents of the bag on the floor and flung the bag behind, re-tying her wrapper in an uncoordinated manner. “Biko gawa oo!” she said, while turning to attend to the two customers who came to buy beans and rice.
An ice-cold sweat bathed her from head to toe; her sight became blurry as she peered harder and harder into the faces of people who she once knew that now seemed like strangers. The care and cheer in their faces had left, leaving anger and selfishness in their place.
She stood up and attempted to walk, she nearly fell as she held unto a pillar and regained her footing. She walked away in muted misery, muttering to herself, “Agụụ egbuola Chibundu nwa m.” She walked a few paces and stared back, as if in a last attempt to appeal to these people, no one noticed.
She continued, the world behind seemed strangely peaceful and blissful without her, as the cackle of Mama Ndukauba sang mockingly in the air.
Those customers must have bought a lot, she must be very happy,” she thought to herself.
The events of a month ago slipped through her thoughts: she had sent Mama Chetachi a bagful of onions, yam tubers, cups of garri and maggi seasoning cube. Papa Anayo had just returned from Kaduna, where he resided, owing to the outbreak of the Coronavirus. For a typical Igbo man, it was safer and far more respectable to die on one’s soil if death eventually calls.
So he had returned with bags of food items. For the women here, there was an unspoken rule where women gave out cheerfully to friends and co-wives when husbands, well-off children, or relatives came home from long travels. It was a favour every woman looked to receive and returned freely too.
“Asịla ama na-agbara onwe ya, chai!” She wallowed in a pool of her own thoughts. Her regrets bit deeply into her, for here unguarded frivolity and generosity. For it is said among the Igbo people that “Ori otu mgbe, amaghị eri.” Her own folly hung about her like a shroud.
She took the long walk home, holding loosely to the last shred of will to live. The money in her hand condemned her too. It began a protest to fly way, far away from her.
She looked into her palm in sheer contempt at the 500 naira. Was she to let it fly to a place where it could buy her foodstuffs to feed her dying family? There were clans and villages famed for sorcery and magic.
Wasn’t this one of those times when their goodness could be put to good use—speak to their magic and give all the villagers enough food to last them throughout the famine occasioned by the outbreak of the virus?
Suddenly she strayed abstractedly into a bush path and strangely too, the storm in her head had died down. It had taken such drastic turn from noises of regret and despair to a melodious tune coming from an owl that hooted above her on an ọjị tree.
She could already feel the blood rush, the bleeding that would follow quietly afterwards. A sort of darkness had engulfed her, her thoughts and soul, as her eyes caught what seemed like a broken machete whose handle had a small part made of metal.
Minutes later, she saw clearly, and smoked numbly at the faces of her children, on the fresh leaves of a cassava stem. Her husband appeared at last. They smiled at her, in that ‘we-may-not-live-too-far-apart’ manner as she went. The owl flew, away, disillusioned.