These events take place in a fictional market in Lagos, Nigeria.
“Are you mad?!!”, screamed Hajia Wura into the phone with flecks of spittle flying every which way, You were supposed to be there for them to drop the load in the car!!!”. She paused. “Did I send you to go anywhere?!”, more spittle flying as she gestured holding her free palm up, “Did I send you Ode oshi! Where did you go?!”
She paused as she impatiently tapped her right foot and waited for a reply from her offending driver who seemed to have driven off somewhere without taking permission. She was a light skinned woman, but at the moment she was flushed red with beads of sweat running down her temple and the dark circles under her eyes glaring. She was like a string that had been pulled too tight and was about to snap.
Hajia wura was a regular visitor to the market and was known to be a drama queen. The nickname for her at the market was Toyin Tomatoe, inspired by a character from the Super Story series. She was always so boisterous. Everyone was alerted of her presence as soon as she stepped into the market because she hailed greetings as she passed between stalls and hurled insults at unsuspecting passengers that refused to move faster in the already tight and crowded path. Besides her energetic presence, she was also known for her distracting Gold-capped teeth. Unlike conventional pilgrims who were known to put their Gold or Silver tooth on their Canine to indicate they have travelled to Mecca, Hajia Wura installed two Gold-caps where she had a gap. When asked why she had done that, her reply had been triumphant, like she had just made the most intelligent move in her life. “she bi people won’t be calling my teeth open teeth again, it will now be Gold teeth”.
Standing not too far away from her watching the drama was the Alabaru, Ladi, who was concealing his amusement with a blank expression. He was a dark man of average height although his slight hunch made him appear shorter than he really was. His eyes which were regarding Hajia Wura were red veined and pigmented which gave his face a permanent apathetic look, with his lower lips that were much fuller than the upper and slightly protruded. His white turned brown vest and old Adidas shorts hung on his slim frame which belied the impressive strength in his lean muscles.
The packaged goods before him were Souvenirs for her niece’s wedding that he was supposed to carry to her car. She had another market to go to buy more souvenirs because according to her “they sell the same ‘orishirishi’ everywhere here”, and if she didn’t stick to time, she wouldn’t be able to finish everything she had on her to-do list for that day.
“Ehen? Buy fuel?” she questioned disbelievingly, “And you didn’t tell me?! Oya! start turning back now!”, she said making a swift curved motion with her hand, “Oya, oya,oya!”
She cut the call definitively as if hoping it would pinch the driver and turned to Ladi . “kpele my dear I have doubled your work this morning”, she said in Yoruba, implying that he would have to carry the load again after he had just dropped it.
“Ah No problem”, Ladi replied waving the apology away. He knew she would make up for it by paying him extra. Besides she was a loyal customer, and It was important to do anything to keep loyal customers.
He heaved the goods on his back once again, grunting as he did so and taking a moment to balance the load on his back, and followed her to the car park where they would wait until the driver arrived.
The Driver came about twenty minutes later, looking disoriented and mumbling apologies as soon as he got down from the dusty pickup with its muddy tires. “I’m sorry ma”, He repeated, slapping the back of one palm against the open end of the other as a show of helplessness. Hajia Wura hissed at the trite action as she eyed him up and down.
“Sorry for yourself”, she retorted and pushed past him despite the wide space for her to walk to the passenger’s seat. The driver looked on after her scratching his head in confusion and looked at Ladi, seeking assistance with her. Ladi simply shrugged. If the driver could handle the insults and the mostly-harmless threats especially of him getting fired, he would be alright.
After Ladi and the driver had hoisted the carton into the boot, Ladi walked to the passengers side and stood as Hajia Wura fumbled in her bag for change. “you no go invite me for wedding”, Ladi grinned showing a good set of yellowed teeth. Hajia flashed a smile momentarily, the nub between her gold teeth pronounced. “Ofcos”, she said, not really meaning it, and handed him a rumpled 500 naira note. “Thank you ma” he greeted effusively making a show of wanting to lie on the ground before Hajia tutted at him. He knew she would not disappoint.
Ladi walked towards the gate of the Car park after his customer has driven off. Being a weekend, the car park was mostly full. The car park was a stretch of land lined by Tin roofed shacks, and petty traders infront of them who sold just about everything. The shacks housed mechanics selling car spare parts and Mama-put joints. On occasion he had seen desperate mechanics created the potholes that now marred the carpark, and put sharp objects in them so drivers would have to patronise them.
The air was pregnant with the smell of meals from the different joints and stagnant water in the potholes and gutters that never seemed to dry up. Gravel crunched beneath his sole of his worn rubber slippers as he walked past the slippers sellers and mama funke that sold Bole. He passed the idle boys, tattered and dirty loitering about waiting for customers to park their cars so they could lead them to stalls. As he got to the road side, he was momentarily startled by the blare of a horn. Apparently he had been blocking the way of a Tow truck. As he stepped aside, he watched the Tow truck drive pass with a rusted chain link hooked to someone’s car. Shaking his head, he crossed the road and walked to a sturdy pot-bellied man who had just finished directing an unsuspecting motorist to park in an impermissible spot. Ladi grinned as he got to the man and slapped his back. “Baba!”, he hailed in mock reverence to the man, Razak, who beamed and shook Ladi.
Ladi and Razak used to lift Tomatoe, Onion and Pepper sacks to different stalls when they were brought in by large trucks from other states and were offloaded at the market depot. Those were Ladi’s toughest days when he initially got to Lagos. The more sacks you could carry, the more money you got all for a paltry sum of N100. He remembered the first time when he lifted a sack of pepper on his back, how the sack scratched and the dampness seeped through and the pepper juice stung. What had made it worse was passing through the crowded path to get to the stalls, finding the strength to have a voice so people gave way for him to pass. He had barely made it to the first destination when he dropped the sack in a manner that nearly rendered it apart. His eyes filled with tears as his back burned with pepper juice, and he rubbed his back hoping it would dispel the sting but it only seemed to make his back absorb the juice. He was going to give up after carrying one sack, and that was where he met Razak who dissuaded him. “Oga”, Razak had said to him as he dropped that first sack panting and shaking his head vehemently convinced he couldn’t go further, “if you won chop tomorrow, make you bone carry this thing”. Razak had gingered him to carry 9 more bags that first time, making it a total of 10, while Razak carried about 30 bags that day as he was already used to it.
That night Ladi was in serious pain.
“Nothin dey happen”, Razak crooned as he massaged Ladi’s back with congealed palm oil while Ladi groaned and grimaced in discomfort. Razak chuckled at that. “no worry u no go die ur body go get used to am”.
After a while, the sting gradually dissipated into a mild feeling akin to that of rubbing methylated dusting powder on a wet back. As for the body ache, he had overdosed on Panadol and had drifted into a nightmarish sleep where he dreamed he was being doused with liquid fire.
Razak had been right, the job did get easier. He made a makeshift nylon top which he wore whenever it was time to carry the sacks that prevented the juice making contact with his skin, and although he still felt prickles from Sack, he got used to it. The job even came with its own benefits. Usually after all the Sacks had been disposed at their destinations, they were usually stray tomatoes, pepper and onions in the truck that the Alabarus had the privilege to pick and sell afterwards. Ladi had tried selling but he was no good at it. He had no patience for bargaining and gave the traders that helped him sell his bit while he gave them some percentage.
After a while carrying the sacks began to leave an impression on him. He noticed that an invisible weight seemed to be on his back even he wasn’t carrying anything and his neck had begun taking a crooked angle. Razak seemed to have no problem with the bow his spine had taken, but Ladi couldn’t take it. Innately Ladi knew he wasn’t going to be an Alagbaru forever, or work in the market for long. He had dreams of owning his own business, and he knew deforming himself wouldn’t open the doors he needed to get to the places he wanted to go. So he quit carrying heavy sacks, and only carried that for customers that bought things at the market at his own convenience. While the customers loads were occasionally heavy, they weren’t as bad as the Sacks. But he was getting tired. He had been doing this for four years. He needed to do something that didn’t make him feel like an animal; a beast of burden.
“Baba!”, He hailed, “Anything for your boy”. This was Ladi’s usual greeting for Razak whenever they met. Razak laughed shaking his head. “Omo nothing dey oh.”, Razak said referring to how he was finding it harder to find people to dupe.
After Razak had stopped carrying vegetable sacks, he pioneered duping customers to park in wrong spots so their cars got tolled after which he got a fair percentage when he shared the money with Towers. In the beginning he had been very successful, but over time other Agberos got wind of what was going on and joined in on the ‘business’ which led to a steep competition. On a good day, Razak gave Ladi N200. But it seems today wasn’t going to be a good day.
“No wahala”, Ladi conceded with no ill feeling, although disappointment stubbornly hovered. “So how far that Stuff na?”. The ‘Stuff’ to which he was referring was a new joint business Razak had been operating for nine months now. Selling weed to some club owners on the Island and he seemed to be making good money. Enough for him to open a Mama-Put joint in another market.
“But guy”, Ladi had asked then when Razak had told him of his new venture, “you for put the buka for here na”. Ladi thought it would be able to help Razak keep an eye on his business.
“Abeg Abeg”, Razak said waving the opinion away, “You wan make I die before my time?”.
They had been sitting on the railing of the bridge that night, with their backs to the ocean that rippled below. Their legs dangled as they shared a joint. A cool ocean breeze blew momentarily and their joint glowed red in response.
“You gats shine your eyes guy”, Razak said taking a long drag, and pausing to savour the heady feeling that ensued, before expelling through his nose. His eyes were red rimmed and glazed. “because people dey shine teeth with you, no mean say dem no ready to slice throat”
Ladi nodded grimly, as he watched Razak take another puff with his eyes indicating his mind was on some distant painful memory. Ladi was not naïve to their reality which was why he was eager to leave the market ambit. Every man was looking out for himself. Everyone was hustling. Anyone would backstab you to get to the top. These were things he had learned through snippets of experiences during the period he had been at the market. He looked across and beyond the river at the tall sky scrapers of companies and multimillion residential estates. Even the river seemed to proffer a barrier between classes of people, with the ripple of the waves flowing towards them, seeming to say ‘away away’.
He hated the people who resided in those buildings. Their livelihood mocked his pathetic existence. Often he would watch them, Ajebos, drive past the market in their elevated cars, with their windows rolled up tight and their eyes straight ahead. The way they drove past the market like they had no option and if they had a different route they wouldn’t deign to pass there. He hated them, but couldn’t help but wish to be like them. He imagined himself residing in one of those buildings and driving their prestigious cars. He knew it was not just hard work that was going to get him there, he needed to go extra mile. He would do anything. He was ready.
Now, Razak shook his head. “Guy no worry”, he said making a conciliating gesture that did little to wane Ladi’s impatience, “another batch of the level go drop soon”.
Ladi replied gruffly, “I don tire to dey wait”
Razak chuckled at his friend’s eagerness and impatience, and patted his shoulder. “Wetin we go do na”
Ladi had to grudgingly concede. Everything happened with Time.
After he and Razak had talked about market runs, booze and females, Ladi walked back into the market. It was midday and the Sun was out in its full glory casting its glaring heat. He decided that he would rest for an hour before he picked up a new customer to carry their goods. Just as he was walking through the car park he saw a couple of grim looking men walking determinedly in the direction he was coming from.
It wasn’t long before Ladi saw they were actually coming for him.
Ladi halted in his tracks, his mind a chaotic jingle of decisions and questions.
But what did he do? Who were these men? Why did they look so.. angry?
Shouldn’t he start running?
He decided running would be too suspect and instead would only change direction with the pretence that he didn’t see them coming. Before Ladi could act on that last thought, they had already gotten to him. He recognized one of them, Wasiu who was a danfo driver and Alabaru in his spare time. He had also seen him around Mama Anu’s stall, a tall and lanky dark man with a long beard, as he helped her bring in packs of detergent to her stall. He only knew Wasiu on a platonic basis. Their conversations were usually greetings.
As for the other man, he had never seen him before.
“Wetin?”, Ladi asked in confusion, a frown marring his forehead, as they flanked either side of him and held onto both arms firmly.
“Dem say make we bring you”, Wasiu replied curtly, his mood indicating impatience. He started to pull Ladi forward, but Ladi remained stubbornly rooted on the spot.
Dem, Ladi thought, who dem be?!
Ladi looked around for solace. He noticed people had paused their activities and were watching them with no intention of interfering. It was either they were privy to the reason for his apprehension and were watching for the drama, or they were just as oblivious as he was. Either way, he didn’t like the attention he was getting.
More specifically, he did not like how helpless he felt.
A mounting panic was clawing at Ladi’s chest. “Who send you?, he asked dubiously and tried to flex his arms to test his assailants grip on them, “Wetin I do?”
“Ehen?? So you know say you do something abi”, Wasiu engaged him, tightening his grip on Ladi’s arm.
Ladi’s mind reeled. He didn’t do anything to anyone. He hadn’t stolen anything in years. Infact the only thing he considered as crime worthy was the new business deal between him and Razak. And nobody knew about that.
Unless, Ladi’s throat clogged in fear at the thought, someone got to find out.
“You go know wen u reach there abi make I refresh u with one slap”, the other man replied, and yanked Ladi forward again.
Ladi shook his head. He wasn’t having this vague explanation at all. He had seen scenarios such as this a lot of times in the market and they always boded ill. He pulled at his arms, roughly trying to struggle free but the men had already anticipated his reaction.
The unknown man kicked both his legs and twisted his arm painfully making him yelp while Wasiu sharply elbowed his chest. With Ladi’s footing no longer secure, they forcefully dragged him to their destination with the top of his feet scraping the ground.
The struggle had garnered attention and pulled a quizzical crowd. They were used to this kind of scenes, and though they wanted answers, they knew they would not get any immediately.
And so like a pack of wild dogs on a scent, they followed.