Keeping a family is like holding water on your palms. You must not let any of it drop to the ground. Your hands must remain balls of fists even if you have no use for them.
The first stirrings of responsibility came when you were completing your undergraduate degree. It overtook you with an unwholesome fear that sucked all your zest for learning. You struggled with classes, exams and deadlines. Leaving school was a rite of passage into the community of those who are providers. After graduation, you worked as a cleaner and labourer in a factory, a teacher and a librarian. But the guilt sits on your head, the pressure to make more money, solve problems that are not necessarily yours. These things live under your nose if you have siblings.
Mornings greet you with a bowl of tasks. First, you awake before cockcrow, sit at desk in the corner of the sitting room and ruminate about how being over 30 feels like 50. You survive by drinking glasses of memory from childhood: a life time ago when you and Sibling One were called twins in the neighbourhood. Look after your sister Mama always said. You would go and return from school holding hands. And there was food waiting for you. Sibling One would leave much of hers for you. But as kids, anything could tickle your fancy. So when Sibling Three came, with his rogue innocence, all the authority you thought you had evaporated. It took Sibling Two to tame him, with her round face and large yes. Teenage-hood fizzled out in the early 2000s when the Sharia riots broke out here in Kaduna. Papa’s place of work – a firm where he worked as a senior surveyor – was at a standstill. Mama’s foodstuff shop was closed too. The village – the southern part of the country – provided an alternative for survival. From then, while Papa and Mama returned to Kaduna, you were scattered among uncles, aunties, and relatives. Now, each time you are together, something is always missing – the effortless bond of childhood is replaced with a mask of strange newness. Much of it is chewed in silence.
Then, a yawn confronts you. Sibling One lies on the settee and fidgets with Ciprotab tablets on the table. You take solace in how her lips curve into a lazy smile. “I am better,” she says as Sibling Two throws you a long face, and grumbles “…N7000 for the test…” Your voice rises to your throat. Yet, it slips out as a mere ‘Okay’, crumbling on a piece of blue stripped cloth in her hands – an insignia for an ongoing training in fashion design. Sibling Three’s ‘good morning’ chronicles his travels to construction sites and the pending payment for his building designs.
But you must make decisions. Yesterday, you didn’t make any decisions. The kitchen was an unused space. Paraffin is finished. Palm oil too. Salt. Maggi. Pepper. Crayfish. Egusi. Soap. Questions boil in your head. You swallow them with a sigh and make a list. Cross it. Make another. The cooking gas is still pending. Why didn’t you buy it the last time, and the time before the last time? Rule for spending money: close your eyes and spend the money on the thing you desire. Else, the next time you want it, the money will not be there, or it may not be enough. Now, you want a new house, for you alone. But this feels like betrayal. And you regret ever thinking about it. You squeeze the paper and make another list in your head.
Those thoughts vanish as you approach Sabo market. The ambience does not care that a dollar trots between N400 and N500 and you are just a seamless addition to its eternal rhythm. Your rhyme – a mudu of beans has gone up to N500. You buy six mudus. Garri has tumbled to N500. You buy six mudus. Four tubers of yam go for N3000. You haggle. The seller makes a face at you and weighs each tuber in both hands. Oga, yam don cost o. We no dey fit go buy because of these kidnappings and Fulani herdsmen. In fact, yesterday, dem kill people for Karatudu where we dey go buy. You shoot a wince. Kidnappings and herdsmen attacks are no longer stories you hear from faraway places or watch in movies. The news smoulders with deaths and ransoms and farmers staying away from their farms. Recently, students of a university were kidnapped while on campus. Not that Boko Haram has relented in other parts of the country. The best way, it seems, to remain sane in Nigeria is not to think about these things. Or pretend they do not exist, yet…
After I sell this one finish, I no go buy yam again sef…
N2500, she says.
N2000 madam… Well, while you feel sorry for her, you can’t help it either.
She straightens up, ties her loose wrapper and stares at you. Oga, na wa for you.
The six tubers will last some weeks, you hope.
A bunch of ugwu leaves, smaller than the one you bought last week, goes for N50. Arrange N200 own. You say. Make I cut am? The seller, a boy of about fourteen says. You nod. He frees the leaves from their stalk, gathers them in one hand and with the other slices them into bits. He does this while his eyes dart about for new customers. A notebook is tucked under his stool. He picks it up, handing your buy to you in a black nylon bag. Then he steals some glances at the blue pen inscriptions of his book. What class are you in? SS2, he says, looking away from the text and calling out to a customer. Now he flings the book down without looking at where it drops and calls out more. His voice rises and clashes among other voices of sellers calling for customers.
Buy fish, Buy fish, buy fish o, a woman in a brown faded dress chants. This one go make you younger. Her face burns with a smirk.
Oga, you no go buy fish?
Na how much you dey sell?
N500 oo, oga. How many I go cut?
You point at the biggest one among an ice-held mackerel bunch on a tray. She looks at you then at the ware.
I no fit sell this one for N400.
Madam, na wetin I get be that. You make to leave.
Oya bring. She pulls your choice apart and places it on the chop board. The fins give way with a quick rise and fall of the knife in her hand. The board has many scars to show for its many years of witness to chopping. As you tie the sack of goods, your phone blinks a call from Papa and Mama. They have been in the village for months now. Initially to attend the burial of an aunt, but the pandemic and resultant lockdown held them longer. And they stayed back even when the ban on road travel was lifted. Though an unforeseen and unprepared decision, it coincides with Papa’s ultimate desire to retire to the village after many years of living in the north. This is fitting, since work had been sparse and salaries were always pending. Even Mama’s shop suffered from lack of inventory. Now they can tender the family house Papa built before you were born. There is abundance of land to cultivate too.
You dial back after your phone stops ringing. Following the perfunctory release of: it rained yesterday in the village, the sun is lazy today, harmattan will come soon, our farm is doing well, you don’t accept it when they say they are fine. The cough has subsided. The pains in the knees and backs too. The tentativeness in their voices gives way to a debt that is due. They are waiting for you to say something. Your account balance sings red. You make a transfer, anyway. They begin to flood you with thank-you-calls. And your finger reaches for the end call button. Mama’s lips smack. Papa’s chuckle fills your ears. In spite yourself, your face shreds into a ripple of soft cackles
You straddle a bike and heave the sack on your lap. Unguwan Bissau, tushin mangoro, you say to the bikeman. You bump along, swerving around potholes. Apart from the express road leading to places deeper south like Kujama, Kasuwan Magani, and beyond, the roads connecting the various interior communities are untarred. The bikeman jokes about how he has to ensure the ride is smooth for you. But under his voice is a scream of gratitude. You imagine how many passengers he has ridden today, how much your fare adds to the amount he has made, how today’s proceeds would grant the family another hope for survival.
Plates clatter in the kitchen to announce dinner.
Yes, break them, Sibling One says.
Abeg, let me hear word. They didn’t break. Sibling Two says. And Sibling Three lets out a fake sneeze, wipes off the crease on his forehead with a blue towel, and continues his affair with the pestle and the mortar.
As their voices trade on, you pour your eyes on the bookshelf and pick a book at random. These days, you have barely read except to navigate through sentences or chapters of several books simultaneously. It appears an effective way to plough through the many things knocking on the door of your mind for urgent attention. A roll of chuckle escapes from you as a N500 note pops out of Layton’s memoir, Waiting for the Messiah. You don’t remember how or when it got here. The chuckle spreads, rising above the chatter from the Siblings. But it folds up when you realise your voice is the only sound in the house.
“Bro…,” Sibling One is saying.
You join them, completing a circle of four around the steaming plates of pounded yam and egusi soup. Sibling Two passes the wash hand basin around and Sibling Three blesses the meal. Eating together is always an invitation into a void that seems painful at first. Being a provider does not imply any compensatory measure of goodness from the Siblings or even Papa and Mama. It does not make you the centre of their lives. It is about power. The use of power is to make life liveable for yourself and those around you. This makes it less about what is expected of you than what expectation you are able to meet on your own terms. And that’s a relief.