I run after her as she’s forcing the money in her hand back inside her fancy handbag, I tap on her leg to draw her attention. When she looks at me, I quickly rub my palms vertically in three swift successive motions, then I forge the five fingers of my right hand into a union and motion them into my mouth. ‘Please, I’ve not eaten’. She looks at me with a familiar scowl, as if I dare touch her. Her face forms into a warning while she continues to walk, faster now. I run quickly and kneel in front of her repeating my earlier gestures, this time throwing my head into a more convincing angle, looking into her eyes all the while. It is Amira that taught me this the day I first set out.
“Look in their eyes, always in their eyes, that’s how you will know to stop begging them or not”, she said as her mouth curved into seriousness and her eyes danced with something that implied experience. “Don’t mind their faces, only their eyes or else you will just be hungry”, she added as she mixed her Kanuri with wavering bits of English. I envied her but I knew that one day, I too would begin to pick pieces of this curious foreign tongue. It’s been almost two years since.
The woman’s face momentarily melts into pity or shame or surrender, I can’t tell which, I don’t care, but she dips her hand into her breast pocket and brings out two tired five-naira notes, ‘take’. I collect it and run away victorious.
It has taken me a while to learn this but there’s an art to begging here in Ring Road. I’ve learnt not to sit down with a plate in front of me, that is for old people and pregnant people and people who cannot walk or hear or see. I’ve learnt that with piteous clothes on your back, a tireless spring in your steps and an earnest look of helplessness on your face, you can survive these streets. It’s simple really, hang around places where people sell things because when customers buy things, they always have change. Don’t take no the first time, or the second or third. Don’t take it to heart when they call you Boko Haram pikin or when they chide you ‘nah me born you? You nor know your papa abi?’ They usually don’t mean it. And even if they do, why care? As long as you get what you want. Run after them, kneel down in front of them, wrap your arms around their legs. Just keep saying abeg until something gives. Something always gives.
One day not too long ago, a woman whose green veins were so visibly seated under her shades of yellow and charcoal skin rebuked me to leave her leg and go hold my mother with my dirty hand. She hissed and spat on the floor as she raised her nose at me as if I was something fetid, a haram. I wanted to tell her to shut up, that her oversized red skirt was a ridiculous choice for her vanishing buttocks, that her knuckles, knees and elbows looked like the dirty yellow canvas for testing black paints. Of course, I would have said this in Kanuri but people have a way of picking out insult in any language, it must be the way the mouth take due labour on each word as if they were sharp stones. I was not about to lose my chance over the jagged words boiling at the back of my throat, so instead I hugged her leg tighter and begged her in hope. ‘Fine sister, gimme chop’, gesturing to my mouth.
I stay with Sufia in front of the primary school painted like blood along Akpakpava street. She is around 16 or at least, that’s what Aisha says. Aisha has taken it upon herself these days to put an age on the name of everyone. Kadiyat said it’s boredom that is doing her.
“This one cannot be more than 7 years”, she said pointing at me two years ago when I first arrived. But nobody knows for sure. Nobody ever does.
Sufia is not my sister or my mother or my relative. Before I followed Sufia from Zarbamari, I stayed with my father, his four wives and my many half-siblings. The night our village fell was quiet, like many nights before. The village was still sleeping by the time the first bomb went off, then people started to run like a chicken that had its head cut off. The second bomb hit a girl, I saw it with my own two eyes. I saw as her body parts randomly delivered themselves everywhere by the very hand of the evening wind. It was after then that I saw the men with covered faces and giant guns rounding up women and children and burning down houses. I could not find my father or his four wives or any of my half siblings. Women took their children as they ran haphazardly into unfamiliar paths, men made for the bush. If my mother was there that day, she too would have carried me. I had been lonely before but that night I was all so alone. I was rooted to one spot looking as if I was in a dream I needed to remember. It was Sufia that took my hand, shaking me back to consciousness as she led me into hiding with her son Azeez on her back.
I like it here in Benin. Unlike back home, there’s no fiery sun even though people in the market will claim the sun is hot. No sleeping in the bush because there’s rumour that they might invade your village. There’s even no expectation of a bomb or raid. No men who will dip their strong hands into your hijab to fetch from your innocence. In fact, there’s no need for hijab. People talk, shake, hug, hold each other. Everybody is always walking or waiting anxiously or selling or buying but usually in a hurry.
It’s evening, I’m watching as the sun craftily sneaks from the sky leaving a blanket of yellow calm wrapped over the evening. I’m running to the spot and hope he comes as he promised. It was yesterday evening; I was returning to Sufia when I found him staring at me. Yes, it is normal for people to stare at me, people like me, except that there was something about his bloodshot eyes. Something that carried warmth. For a moment as my eyes met his, I didn’t hear anything, or see anybody. It was just him in his black jean short, with ‘be the red’ boldly written in white in front of the red shirt that had holes on his left chest. The neckline hanged over his right shoulder like a noose looking for a neck. He didn’t remove his eyes from me even once. He looked at me like a whole person looks at another whole person, no pity, no resentment, just pure acknowledgement. I knew this then because I saw it in his eyes. His eyes made me feel like I was the new moon on Ramadan. His look was more than any Zakat; it was an offering to my existence. The only person that has ever looked at me like this is my mother. I have not seen her since the day my father drove her and my suckling brother, Habib from our house, because she would not stop smelling. She started to smell after she gave birth to my brother Habib, her thing (Amira says it’s toto here in Benin) could no longer hold her water, it came out by itself. My grandmother said she must have committed adultery for Allah is great.
I didn’t know when he got close, but he put his left hand on my left shoulder and stretched his right hand towards me all the while still looking at me, ‘take. I be Aisosa, I dey see you here every time, I go come again tomorrow after I close from bus conductor’, he said with anxiety that had a blush of urgency. Aisha would have guessed his age to be nine or ten. The bits of English that I’ve picked since helped me to understand just enough to know that I would be waiting for him the next day, today.
When you have spent as much time as I have on these street corners, you will know that you can vanish with time. You can exist and also not exist at the same time. You will know all these and not care, I swear, because soon, you too will start to see people only as wallets.
I wanted to thank him for seeing me, for letting me know I’d not yet vanished. I wanted to damn hadith and hug him right there and then. But I felt something like a stone in my throat choking back my every word. My feet would not move, like that night that my village emptied itself of peace, I was rooted again. So, I nodded. I was still nodding when his palm grazed my elbow as he walked away.
“Niai, my name Niai” I finally found my voice.