Mama Risikat set down the large basket of fruits she had been carrying on her head. The small piece of cloth she had used to cushion the rough base of the raffia basket on her head promptly fell to the ground undeterred. It began to unravel from the tight cylindrical form into which it was wound.
But, Mama Risikat did not even try to stop it. Although, she had carried the basket for just a short distance – from the bus-stop on her street where the bus had dropped her off, to the front door of her home – she still felt tired. The pounding in her head did not help matters, but she chose to ignore it. Her day had just started.
Turning to her eldest child, a girl of about sixteen, who looked like a younger, fresher version of this woman, she asked for some water to drink. Risikat – for that was the name of this young girl – obeyed and watched her mother gulp down the contents of the cup greedily. She carried out this instruction three more times until the thirst of the older woman was quenched. While her mother sat on an apoti – small stool – cooling off, Risikat took an empty bucket and walked to the front of the block of flats where they lived.
This was Shitta, a working-class neighborhood in Surulere, where each block of flats had stationed in front of it, a profusion of water taps for public use. Just about anybody could use the taps, and people often came from miles away to come and get water. Even in a middle class suburb like Surulere, getting water for daily use was a tedious, costly and mostly inconvenient process. To get running water indoors, people usually had to pay for water tankers to deliver water into huge storage tanks.
But for the residents of Shitta, which ironically was an experiment in government-subsidized housing, clean, pipe-borne, alum-free water was free and sort of convenient. Everyone who came there to fetch water understood these facts. Notably, on days when there was a significant shortage of water in the surrounding neighborhoods, it was not unusual to see long lines of people with different colors of jerry cans and other portable water storage containers, who had come to fetch water. Luckily for Risikat, today was not one of such days.
It was a typical Wednesday morning, and there was no one else at the taps when she got there. She filled the bucket with water and went back to the house. From experience, she knew that her mother would no longer be sitting in the house. And she was right. Mama Risikat had dragged the basket of mangoes to the back of the house where she stood waiting for her daughter to return.
As soon as Risikat arrived, they both simultaneously rinsed off the mangoes and sorted them out into three piles. Each pile contained a specific variety of mangoes: the first pile had mangoes with tones of red, orange and green, as if the mangoes were confused as to what color to assume when they ripened; the second pile had mangoes that were completely dark green in color, but were ripe, nonetheless; the third pile had smaller mangoes that were yellow in color, with a few black spots on some of them.
Mama Risikat, who had been selling mangoes at Oyingbo market for more than ten years, had learnt to keep as many varieties of mangoes in stock as possible. Customers who had diverse tastes often wanted to buy more than one type of mango, and it was wise to stay a few steps ahead of them.
After washing the mangoes, Risikat fetched a large metal tray and helped her mother select about ten fresh-looking mangoes from each of the three piles. While they were doing this, her mother told her in Yoruba:
“You know your WAEC exams are around the corner. And I don’t have your exam fees. If you don’t sell enough mangoes, I can’t pay for your exams, and you know what that means. So, you know what you need to do.”
“Yes, ma” was all Risikat said in response to her mother’s admonition. Even though Mama Risikat knew that her daughter was aware of all these challenges, repeating it aloud to her hearing was somewhat therapeutic for her. In her mind, if she said it loud enough, long enough and often enough, everything would work out the way she wanted it to: Risikat would be able to go back to school and take her final exams, her husband, Baba Risikat would make more money from his taxi driving business, her other three children would not keep falling sick from poor nutrition, and meat would not keep disappearing from their meals day after day.
After wiping the sweat from her brow with a corner of her wrapper, Mama Risikat gave her daughter some loose change, a few more instructions on which neighborhoods to visit, and sent her on her way with silent prayers. But, she didn’t stand by to watch her cross the street with the heavy tray on her head.
Rather, she briskly walked back to the house, took her 13-year old daughter Rashidat with her and headed to Oyingbo market where she would sell her wares till nightfall. She left her other two children both under the age of 10, alone at home with a little money for their upkeep.
Although there were a lot of fruit sellers stationed at various junctions and on different street corners in the same neighborhood, Risikat knew that this would not deter her from selling her wares. She understood that what she was really selling was convenience.
People who had no intention of buying fruits, let alone mangoes, would quickly change their minds as soon as they saw her approaching or heard her advertising her goods. All she needed to do was to call out every now and then “Sweet, sweet mangoes! Fresh mangoes! Buy mangoes!” and those who were interested would call her to come and sell fruits to them.
She usually frequented places where people were known to conjugate, places where her voice could rise above the everyday noise of passing cars, music blaring from speakers, the inescapable power generators and similar distractions.
On this particular day, she walked past bus-stops and commercial stores, but only three people bought a total of seven mangoes from her. And they were all yellow ones. Despite all her efforts, she was unable to convince them to buy any of the other two varieties – the green ones, and the ‘confused’ multi-colored ones – which remained untouched on her tray. By this time, she had been walking around in the sun for more than two hours. How would she sell the remaining mangoes before nightfall?
She was still asking herself this question when she decided to take a quick break at a shop that sold cold drinks. Knowing precisely how much money she had to spend, she did not even go near any of the bottled drinks that filled the freezer. Rather, she opted for a sachet of pure water,and a packet of locally-made biscuits. The sugar, she reasoned would give her a little more energy to keep going, and the water would quench her thirst for a few more hours. As she sat down on a bench outside the shop, eating the third biscuit in the packet of four, a thought suddenly occurred to her.
– to be continued –