Hawkers, hustlers and beggars pressed their weary, weather-worn faces against the car’s tinted windows as Tijani told his madam the triplets could be bought and offered to a charity. Earlier, as they snailed along in the traffic jam near Magboro junction, the madam had said, “Tijani, look at that woman, just look.”
He had turned to look at the one-eyed woman sitting on the side of the road with triplets spread, their bodies arranged in alternate head to toe directions, on an Ankara wrapper in front of her. “Ah! Look at what some people are praying to God for. This life ehn… What can be done to help her?” Madam had said.
Later, reflecting on that moment, Tijani blamed the Gbenga Adeboye comedy he was listening to on his phone for his false attempt at a joke. Gbenga, with his stories about crazy landlords and farting bus passengers, is the kind of comedian who makes even tedious men believe they are capable of cracking glued mouths open in laughter. After he mentioned the buying option, madam went quiet as if she had forgotten the matter, only to speak up minutes later.
“That is true o, Tijani. I have a number of nursing homes I donate to annually, and they will be more than eager to take those kids once I promise more donations.” Tijani did not know how to respond. His suggestion was supposed to be too ridiculous to be considered valid. “Thank you so much for that suggestion. I will see what I can do about it,” she added.
No, woman! No! He wanted to scream at her. He wanted to tell her normal people didn’t go around thinking about how to buy people’s children. But Tijani worried about his job, and did not want to become unemployed because of a bad joke. So, he kept his mouth shut and focused on navigating the crazy city roads.
The rest of that day passed without further mention of the woman and her babies. They attended an owambe, returned home, and Tijani, again, thought that was the end of the issue. He returned to work the following morning and met madam sleeping on the couch in the sitting room. When he reached for the car keys that were on the hanger behind the door, she stirred and rubbed her eyes with the back of her wrists as Tijani greeted her. She had that focused, slightly-crazed look Tijani recognised as the signal of the start of new charity projects. Her gold-framed eyeglasses hung from the neckline of her sleeping gown. There was a pen stuck in her brown hairnet and she clutched a diary with shell embossed on its cover to her chest.
She yawned and stuck her feet in red flip-flops. “Tijani, good morning. Hope you had a pleasant night?”
“Yes I did madam.”
“When you are done warming the cars, please come and wake me. I want to explain the plan we will use to help that woman and her kids to you. But first, I need to sleep.”
“Yes now. Since you came up with the idea, it would be unfair to go on with the plan without you. There is great reward in helping people, you know? And I don’t want to deprive you of yours.”
That morning, Tijani did not just warm the cars, he also washed them—an activity reserved for weekends or after long trips on dusty days. He washed madam’s two cars and her husband’s Toyota Prado that had not been used since the man went on a trip to Paris.
Madam’s husband spent most of his time jaunting around the world. Tijani knew he loved his wife and would do anything to please her, because any argument they had in the car usually ended with the man doing her wish and smiling as he agreed with her, even when he had the better opinion—only people in love did that. It was almost as though he was making up for being away all the time by indulging her when he was around. But then, the man would travel and her face would start shining like a teenager whose parents were away for the weekend. And it wasn’t that she was the kind of person who loved owanbes. Whenever Tijani took her to parties with her friends, she was always the first to leave, eager to return to her house and move around the rooms alone, singing to herself. But once her husband’s trip lasted longer than one or two weeks, her mood would wilt like vegetables after the market day. On the day Tijani and his Madam drove past the one-eyed woman, her husband had been away in Paris for five weeks.
After five hours of scrubbing the bodies and insides of the cars like newborn babies, Tijani went into the house and saw madam on the sofa, again. This time, her glasses were on and the diary had dropped from her hands. Tijani backtracked, closed the door carefully to avoid rousing her and spent the rest of the afternoon talking to the security guard.
Just as their discussion moved from weather and politics to soccer— Tijani’s favourite—madam stepped out of the house, dressed in a plain blue t-shirt and black jeans skirt. She looked average without the jewellery that usually adorned her neck and wrists.
“Tijani! Tijani! I thought I asked you to come and wake me up.”
“I came ma, but you were sleeping.”
“So you couldn’t wake me up abi? Oya bring out the BMW, we are going to see the woman. I’ll explain the plan along the way.”
As they journeyed from the calm, silent, posh atmosphere of the estate to the rowdy outskirts of the city where they had seen the one-eyed woman and her children, Tijani prayed that the woman would have left Magboro junction. Madam, on the other hand, bombarded his ears with her plan.
“First of all, we will make friends with the woman by offering her basic things and a little money,” she said. Tijani kept his eyes on the road and didn’t talk.
“Tijani can you hear me?”
“Yes madam.” “Good. Then we can increase the money small small, use that to gain her trust. Sebi that makes sense to you?”
“Yes madam.” It didn’t, but who was he to question her.
“After that, we will stop the money suddenly, and disappear for a while.” Tijani looked in the rear-view mirror to be sure it was her voice he was truly hearing. How do you tell a woman who thinks she has the power to save others, he wondered as he flicked on the turn signal, that she’s not even powerful enough to save herself?
“Finally, we show up later and promise her more money if she can let go of two of her triplets and allow them to be taken care of by a nursing home.” She closed her diary and breathed in and out. “Tijani, I worked hard in coming up with this plan o. That woman and her kids must be helped at all costs, even if she doesn’t know she how much she needs it.”
Tijani sighed. Good God, the woman was just too rich. Plain stupid rich with too much time on her hands. They got to the junction and went past it well into Magboro, but they didn’t find the woman. Tijani whispered Alhamdulillah, and was scouting for the appropriate place to make a U-turn when madam shouted, “There Tijani, slow down, there she is.”
He slowed the car down, parked beside the road, opened the car locks and was about to recline his car seats and resume his usual waiting position when madam said, “Oya now. Come down. Remember I said we’re doing this together.” As they approached the one-eyed woman and her triplets, she stood up and held her hands out to them with her face bowed.
Madam greeted her and said she wanted to offer her good help. At the word help, the one-eyed woman raised her head and stared at the two of them, Tijani and his madam, through her good eye. The other was glazed over, grey, with a tiny black spot in the middle. Her washed out buba had many stains that had become permanent with time and the veins in her arms were small earthworms running across her skin. Her fingernails, though dirty, were neatly clipped and her hands looked smooth and delicate.
“Iya Ibeta,” madam said, “we just want to offer you and your triplets a better life by giving you a stipend every other week as long as God gives us power.” The woman continued to stare and madam took this as a cue to continue.
“Tijani here is my driver who I trust very much, and he will be the one to bring you the stipend. He’s a good man and has been working with me for a long time. Also, I would like him to know your place so that when you’re not here, he can bring the things to you at home.”
As she said this last part, she opened her purse and counted out five hundred naira notes. “This is just little to show we are serious about this. Tijani will come back with more, and take time to know your place.”
The woman knelt down as she collected the money from madam. “Thank you ma. Thank you. God will bless you.”
“We should thank God. He’s the one who keeps us alive and has given us these children as gifts. I’m sure it is so they can be taken care of that he has also gives some of us money.”
She turned to Tijani. “Once we get home, you will park the car, return here and follow her to her place.” “Thank you. Thank you ma.” The woman repeated, as Tijani and his madam walked back to the car.
Tijani started a fresh round of prayers as he sat in the bus on his way to Magboro. He hoped his madam’s creepiness would have scared her off, but he had no such luck. When he alighted, the woman was ready to leave for the day. She had tied one of the triplets to her back with the Ankara she laid them on, and carried the other two on each arm. She took one look at him, turned and started the walk without uttering a word.
They continued in silence for about twenty minutes, weaving in and out of pathways carved between fences and beside gutters that filled the slum with a foul stench. The stench hung in the air, stale, unmoving and so strong that Tijani thought it possible for a blindfolded person to identify the place just by the smell.
The woman’s house was a bungalow with a long dark corridor lined with doors on both sides. She stopped at the main door, turned around and talked to Tijani for the first time. “Na here we dey live.” She pointed into the building, indicating no particular room as if they lived down the open yard at the end of the corridor.
Tijani’s madam had asked him to give the woman five thousand Naira and to instruct her to stay off the streets, but after the long walk and the stench he had inhaled, Tijani decided to keep a thousand naira as compensation. He knew the woman was lucky he was madam’s driver and not one of his friends with their red eyes and quick fingers. As he handed four thousand naira to her, he reminded himself that any other person would have taken all the money and lied to the madam. He was a good person .
Tijani had been working as madam’s driver for half a decade. He’d started a year after he earned a higher national diploma in food technology. After a year spent roaming the streets in faded shirts and slim ties, clutching a transparent folder containing his documents, enduring rejection after rejection, he’d responded to a call for an educated driver.
In the five years since he’d started working with madam, she had only increased his salary once— from fifteen thousand to twenty thousand after his probation period—yet, he had witnessed her throw money at people whose only claim to it was that they were helpless. Every time he brought up the issue of his low salary among his friends, many of whom were unemployed, they always told him the same thing: “You better keep quiet and thank God that you even have a job at all. Or you can just tell us when you plan to complain so we can take your place when she kicks you out.”
But he couldn’t be grateful. The woman was paying him just enough to eat well and save a stipend every month to pay the yearly rent of his one-room self-contained apartment. His budget was so lean that any over-spending would put him in danger of starving or squatting with his friends—five of them—who shared a room. When madam increased Iya Ibeta’s stipend to ten thousand naira, he took four. When she increased it to twenty, he took ten. But he did not touch any of the baby food, milk and cocoa the madam sent with the money. He believed there must be a special hell for people who can steal milk from babies.
Five months after the first contact with Iya Ibeta, madam initiated the third step in the plan. She took a onemonth trip to Dubai and instructed Tijani not to visit the woman or even drive through that part of town.
“I know you’re a good man,” she said as he dropped her off at the airport, “and might want to go and give her money out of your salary, but please don’t. To make this plan work, you must stick to it to the letter.”
The day after her arrival from Dubai in the middle of June, madam instructed Tijani to drive her to the woman’s house. They went in the evening, just before the residents of the slum returned from their hustles. Madam chose a knee length black dress for the trip and accessorised with a gold necklace and matching bangles. She wore heels and looked as if she was heading for a business meeting. They met the one-eyed woman in the corridor of her house, cooking stew that was devoid of meat or fish or onions. It smelt of pepper—just pepper. “Ah! Madam, good evening ma.”
She knelt in front of madam and stopped just short of bowing and touching her heels with her head. “Long time no see ma.” “Oh my dear, don’t mind me. I travelled and forgot to leave instructions with Tijani about what to get to you.”
“No problem madam. But you for no come o. Only oga Tijani dey enough.” She looked at him and smiled a smile that had been absent in all the times he had delivered her stipend.
“I wanted to see the triplets myself. How have they been?”
“We dey fine madam. All of us dey fine.”
“Your children, how have they been?” Madam squeezed her face, trying and failing to hide her discomfort from the pervading stench of the slum. “One of them dey cough and the other one get craw-craw for body, but them dey fine.”
“Cough? Craw-craw? Let me see them for myself.” The woman wiped her hands off her wrapper and opened the door. She opened the room’s sole wooden window and the stench rushed in to fill the room. There was a bed on the floor and an old threadbare sofa just by the door. Beside the bed were Ghana-mustgo bags that contained clothing and opposite those, by the chair, were blackened pots, buckets, a rusted, out-of-commission stove and other curiosities.
The triplets were asleep on the bed, naked, with their bodies turned upwards. They were all girls. Their mother lifted the one with heat rash and placed her in madam’s outstretched arms. Madam turned her this way and that way, inspecting the armpits, the space behind the ears, the gap between her thighs and every hidden crevice like the baby were part of her china collection.
“Why didn’t you take them to the hospital?”
“No money madam.”
“Really? Eeyah. Anyway, that is part of why we’ve come here today.” She returned the baby to the mother who placed her carefully on the bed. She looked up at Tijani as though seeking approval to continue, but he just stared ahead. Then she cleared her throat, placed both hands together on her laps, and started to talk.
“Iya Ibeta, you know how we told you when we saw you at Magboro that we want to help you raise your children properly.”
“And that is what we still want to do, but—” At the sound of the but, Iya Ibeta turned her attention away from her children, whose legs she had been fiddling with, and looked from Madam to Tijani and back to Madam.
“No o, it’s not like we want to stop. We just think that we’ve found the very best way to take care of these children and give you a life too, one that will empower you and give you the opportunity to leave this place.”
“Yes ma,” Iya Ibeta replied, anxiety draining away from her face, but her body still stiff like she was bracing herself for bad news.
“Now, what we want to do is this: there’s this nursing home that has offered to take two of your triplets in, not all of them o, just two so that you can have all the time to take care of one of them and also have time to work. I will also give you money to start a business, any business you want, so that you can begin to make your own money to take care of your daughter.”
Iya Ibeta stared at madam, her mouth slightly agape. Madam adjusted her skirt, crossed her legs and turned out the heel of her shoe. She looked at Tijani again, and continued.
“You know how we say that rather than have a thousand small plants I would prefer one mighty tree, that’s the way I want you to think of this issue. There is more value in one healthy child than three diseased, or god forbid, dead ones.” At this point, Iya Ibeta’s body had slackened and sunk into the mattress. She tucked between her arms and sobbed quietly. But Madam continued. “It is the best thing in the world to raise strong and powerful children who will help us in our old age. Just look at the street, look at many of these children who behave like they have nobody, it’s not because their parents did not want to help them, but because they had more than they could handle. If we do this, the one with you keep, and the ones we take to the nursing homes, will all be healthy. I guarantee you this. And you will see that in the future, all your children will be proud of what you’ve done for them.
Tijani looked at the woman’s oval face with her high cheekbones, and thought, that if it were possible to give her one of his madam’s eyes in exchange for the bad one, they would be equals in beauty. In that moment, he wanted to stuff something—rag, rocks, handkerchief, anything—into his madam’s mouth to stop her from torturing the poor woman.
“So what do you think?” Madam said at the end of her speech.
Outside the window, the slum was already rumbling with the sounds of returning school children and workers. The air was still the same, foul and hot, but it did not bother Tijani as much again, and even though his madam had brought out her handkerchief, she did not cover her nose with but placed it on top of her skirt in a perfect triangle. The woman was silent, her head still between her legs and her body rocking gently. And after a few minutes of maintaining this position she lifted her head, wiped the tears and said, “I dey come. Make I check the stew on top fire.”
While she was gone, madam adjusted her skirt again and looked at Tijani, raising her eyebrows and shoulders simultaneously as though asking, How did it go? Tijani did not respond. He shifted his gaze to the triplets who were sleeping on the floor, their tiny bodies rising and falling in unison like objects buoyed by a sea wave.
“How much will I get?” the woman asked when she returned to the room.
“I’ll give you one hundred thousand naira at first, and then put enough money in an account for you to be paid ten thousand naira every month for the next ten years.
During that period, I will try and find a good job for you.”
The woman went silent again. “But I can’t give you the babies now. You have to give me one night to decide which one to keep and which ones to give away.”
“Ermmm. Okay. That sounds good. In that case, I will give you two hundred thousand naira now and the rest will be given to you when you hand over the babies.”
She opened her bag and held out a pack of hundred one-thousand naira notes. The notes still had that fresh-mint smell on them. “Thank you madam.” The woman knelt. “I’m very grateful. God will continue to prosper you.”
“I know this will be difficult for you, but you have to think of what you can do for the child you will be left with. How much her life and yours will be better because you are making this right choice.”
Madam stood up. “Tijani will be here tomorrow with the car to pick them up.”
The woman placed the bills in one of the pots, closed the lid and led them out of the room. As they entered the corridor, a tall full-bearded man stumbled into view. The woman rushed to meet him and knelt immediately.
“Ehen? Wh…wh…who are these people.” He strained his eyes in the dark and wagged his finger at Tijani and his madam.
“They are the ones who have been giving us baby food all this while.”
“Ehen. Okay. I hope my food is ready?”
He staggered into the room and slammed the door without waiting for an answer. Panic crept into Madam’s face as she watched the woman and her husband. “Oh my God! Oh my God! Why didn’t you tell us about the children’s father? Oh my God!”
“Ah madam, don’t worry about that yeye man o. Even if the girls them die today, god forbid o, but if them die, he no go know anything. He go don drink belle-full before him come house and na early momo he dey comot. He no give the children name. Na me dey call them wetin I like. No just worry about him case.”
“Okay. Okay.” Madam breathed out. “That’s good.”
“Once oga Tijani come tomorrow, I go give am two of the babies.”
On the trip back home, madam did not stop chiding herself for not thinking about the woman’s husband.
“Tijani, how did we miss this? How did we miss this woman’s husband?” There is no we in this matter, he wanted to tell her.
“Is our plan not going to fail like this?”
He was tempted to crack a Gbenga Adeboye joke at that moment, but decided against it. “No ma, it will not fail, insha allah,” he said instead. “God is on your side; it will not fail.”
The next morning, he parked the BMW at a filling station close to the slum. As he turned the corner that led to the woman’s house, he saw a crowd gathered: men and women talking, with arms on their waists or on their heads. A tall, full-bearded man stood in the middle of the crowd, shouting.
“I saw them yesterday before sleeping. I just woke up and they were gone. All the clothes, gone. Everything, gone. Please help me.”
Tijani stopped midstride, kept his eyes on the crowd and walked back slowly, careful not to call attention to himself. Just as he was about to turn the corner, the man shouted, “That is him, he was here yesterday with the rich woman. He is one of the people who kidnapped my wife and children.”
Tijani ran. The crowd gave chase. He jumped over gutters and brushed past women and men on their way to work. Stones flew over his head as he fled, and some of the people chasing him started to hit the slum’s wooden shacks with sticks to call the attention of everyone. People on the street who had no idea what caused of the furore joined the chase.
“Thief, thief,” they shouted.
“What did he steal?”
“Ewooo! Triplets! These people are wicked. Oya chase him. Catch him.”
The mob caught up with him just in front of the filling station where he’d parked Madam’s car. They pummeled him with everything in sight: sticks, stones, crowbars, hammers, screwdrivers. The tools of their trades became instruments of justice. They dug into their minds, brought out the well-kept anger about the things they’d lost to pickpockets and handbag snatchers, highway robbers and petty thieves. They heaped the rage on him, driving it in with each blow they delivered. He was the sacrificial lamb chosen to bear the sins of the city’s criminals.
As the mob worked their frustration into his battered body, he heard Gbenga Adeboye’s voice. It was narrating a story about how Laisi Abesupile was once mocked on the street. People taunted him about his inability to bring the doom he had pronounced on them to pass. As they were talking, a lorry lost its brakes and crushed all of them, stopping just before it could touch Laisi. Laisi, of course, thanked God for protecting him and shaming his enemies. As Tijani listened to Gbenga narrate this story, he sank into the voice that had made him laugh many times while sat in the BMW, waiting for madam. He imagined that he had Laisi’s powers, that at any moment he could laugh and command his attackers to perish. He looked up, through bloodied eyes, at the people battering him, and his lips curved into a smile.