Perhaps you have heard stories of poverty, or even seen poverty. Maybe you are one of those who have had to bear the lash of hunger as it whips you mercilessly until you become so immune to the pain that it no longer hurts you. You who the ache has become so familiar that you are now friends with it. You who your mother has had to tell stories to make you forget the hunger in your belly. You who with every rain is afraid you would be left homeless or worst die should the wind be too heavy for the excuse of a house you call home. You who have seen death, filth, hunger, pain and deprivation, for you my story would not be surprising. It would be nothing new because you have seen what a single heavy wind can do to a dingy wooden shed, what starvation can do to a newborn baby, and have seen men do the unthinkable to survive to feed their family.
For those of you that have not had to fight your siblings over the bowl of garri your mother had to leave soaked for as long as possible with hopes that it would magically swell and be plentiful enough to fill your craving stomachs till the Lord is kind enough to bless you with another meal. For you who have never known the pleasure of finding the remains of a leftover bread in the refuse dump. You who have never had to tread murky waters barefooted just to make it to school. You who the buzzing sounds of insects and flies have never rocked to sleep on the bare floor made soft with tattered tarpaulin discarded by the woman selling boli. For you, I have to start my story at the beginning just so you might understand a bit of why I did what I had to do.
I am not exactly sure what woke me up, whether it was Mama’s dry cough that wouldn’t stop or Bimbo’s foot hitting me squarely on the mouth as she rolled on the mat that we shared in our wooden shed somewhere in Dustbin Estate, Ajegunle. I contemplated biting one of her toes in anger but then something told me I shouldn’t have had my mouth open in the first place while sleeping. I couldn’t bear it any more, Mama’s cough came at me again like a reminder and I stood up from the mat and turned up the lantern wick that had been left burning slowly. Mama wasn’t going to be too pleased that I was allowing the kerosene burn faster than necessary but I found cold comfort in seeing the room brighten up. My eyes took in Bimbo who slept on despite my having banged her foot angrily on the wooden floor, and I looked at Mama who as if sensing that I was looking at her with her faded wrapper hanging loosely around her coughed again.
I stood up and went towards the door. I had to get out of there, I felt like I was suffocating seeing my five other siblings lying in a state of sleep in the tiny room that could barely contain three in the first place. A gust of air hit me as I stepped out into the dark and the heap of refuse that was the view stared right back at me. I wish I have some money, maybe Mama could have some drugs for her cough, I thought to myself. Mama’s cough came again as if no matter where I go, I was never going to be able to escape it and I sighed in sadness as frustrated tears welled up in my eyes. This wasn’t the life I had asked for! She deserved better! She deserved more than to have had her husband crushed to death by a careless trailer driver when his only crime was being an inexperienced bus conductor trying to make a living so his family could have food.
Following Papa’s death, I had had to grow up fast. We had always been poor but things were not as bad as this when he was alive. How could I tell Mama who could not afford to buy drugs for her cough that I needed money to write an exam in school? It wasn’t her fault, the only little money she made from her boli sales went into feeding the six of us that she called her children. We were lucky enough to have food to eat and I couldn’t possibly add to her worries. Should I take Tade on his offer?
Tade always said that boys from the Dustbin Estate had to survive in life by taking from those who had more than them. But then Mama warned me not to join the boys who she said would amount to no good if they didn’t change their ways of depriving other people of their possession. Tade called it obtaining. “Snatch one purse in go-slow, you would have enough money for your fees. These rich people get money for their bank account.” His voice resonated in my head and I sighed. That had been three weeks ago. The deadline for payments was two days away, and I still had not paid. Should I take him up on his offer and accompany him tomorrow so that I could have money to pay for our fees? Had he not said I could even get a bag or mobile phone that could help improve Mama’s business?
“Kilo n se nitan niwoyi?” I turned around and Mama was standing there. Under the bright moon, she looked like a frail goddess starved of offerings with her hair hanging limply around her ashen face. The sorrow lines seemed to be etched into her face as if they belonged there naturally.
“I came to wewe.”
“Okay, emi na fe to. Don’t stay out…” the cough again. She leaned against the door for support and tried to catch her breath.
“Maami, e kpele.” She nodded her head and wiped away the tears that the cough had brought with it. My own tears were of genuine grief as I watched her go into the heap of refuse and squat to relieve herself. I decided then I had to do it for her. It was going to be for Mama, not for me, but for the other kids. They deserved better, Mama deserved better and if it takes going on a robbery just one single time, if taking away from the rich could give them that, then so be it!
Now how could I have known that I was going to get caught? How could I have known that I was not as smart as Tade, and the mob would catch up with me? How could I have known that I would ruin the news that Bimbo got a scholarship with the news of my arrest, and throw Mama into a state of further sorrow just when she was beginning to think life was smiling at her again?
“Why did you do it? Omo mi ko kin jale,” Mama sobbed when she came to see a battered me at the police station.
“I did it for you, Mama…”