In the place where I grew up, the people love to pepper their talk with adages. When they were unsure about a thing, they’d say, Like the dog, I’d better deep my legs into my water before what’s mine becomes another’s. If they had very tight schedules, you’d hear them say, Like the mad man, I've got so much to do, including my dance at the market square. Or when a neighbor slaps our butt for sticking out our tongues or wriggling our tiny bums or just being impertinent to an older person, no one complained or hauled anyone to court for disciplining someone else's child.It was common belief with them that it takes a village to raise a child.
But there’s this adage that I never loved, yet so true, so applicable and often used on me: If it pleases a child, he can sit on the loo from sun-up to sun-down, his chores still await him. On my mother’s lips, it was a final resolution, a dismissed case that the task you've been dodging would never be delegated to another.
Perhaps the dishes have piled high, or that crazy dog has defecated all over the compound; the dirty clothes in the basin are pressed down, shaken together and running over, or the cars needed washing. I’d run into the toilet praying, Let this cup pass away from me, forcing out what was not there in my empty bowels, lifting the plastic covering of the toilet seat high enough to let it bang so that the noise would warn everyone that I was doing serious business in there. But then a knock would come, “This child, what in the world have you been doing in there? Are you shitting out your intestines?”
“Mummy my stomach….”
“You can seat there for eternity, those dishes still await you.”
“Please tell another person….”
“You must be joking.”
In those days, before the government thought it wise to create the Municipal Waste Management Board that employed those good people that came to take your dirt from your doorsteps, throwing the garbage was my least preferred, most loathsome chore. It was condescending. But as a kid I didn't mind this task. It even posed as a kind of adventure to me; I,tagging behind an older sibling, asking inane questions: That mad man that lives in the dumps is he married…? Why does he- why does he-feed on the dirt if he’s married…? Can’t his wife cook him a meal and then take him home and- and they would open a shop together and...? until you were hushed and threatened that the object of your curiosity would bounce on you if you so much as whispered.
But when you have become pubescent and your own body becomes a perplexity, an entity of bafflement to your young mind-when you had to be careful so no one would elbow the small and strange protuberances budding on your chest and there happens to be a boy you were infatuated with down the lane who, however does not notice you; and there is another who stalks you unashamedly though you do not care a fig about him; throwing the garbage is just… ah, I just could not bring myself to do it. What if he( my crush) saw me or maybe someone from school…? Gratefully, with time, I did not need to bother my head with these. My saving grace was my younger siblings who still enjoyed the adventure the chore possessed.
However on this occasion, being back from boarding school for the mid-term break and needing all the sleep that the accursed rising bell that chimed daily by five a.m. had deprived me, none of my younger ones were home (they were in a different boarding school) . The refuse bin was a quarter full.
To prevent it from getting to the brim, I began throwing some of the dirt over the fence, of course after I must have crept slowly, darting my eyes about, making sure no one beheld my act. I threw them into an old woman’s farm,well, only degradable matter: the gutted parts of fish, egg shells, dead rats, orange and paw-paw and pineapple peels, stalks of vegetable etc, etc. I felt my crime was only benign, not so culpable. After all, the old farmer would need the manure.
Yet incipiently, the odor crept into the house. I had a few more days to stay and I began the countdown: Four…Three… Two….
Not that I was callous enough as to think my elders, maybe my mother or uncle would carry out this task while I was home, No way. Even while we were all away, the neighborhood kids helped them with the garbage.
But this morning, still lolling in bed and summarizing my sleep, with everything in perfect harmony: the skies bright even though the sun was not yet out and from a distance I could see the moon taking a bow. And I, reveling in how much weight I had put on, how the prominent veins and scrawniness have disappeared after a week of home-made food. I, reveling in the thoughts of how tighter my day-wear and school uniform skirts shall become…., I heard her voice from outside:
“Mmmhn,' she sniffed. 'This dustbin has begun to smell badly. Ezinne…!”
I threw the duvet over my head, curled up and began snoring anew. Not today, I prayed, not today.
She was already in my room, pulling the duvet off me, “Ezinne.”
I stretched and produced a long yawn.
“Carry on so long as you can, but as for that garbage, it must be thrown this morning.”
“Does it sound like I had water in my mouth when I said that?’
“This broad daylight? No one throws their garbage by this time. Let me do it at night.”
“Don’t let me repeat myself.” She strode out of my room.
Finally it’s today! I’m done for. The thing which I greatly feared is come upon me. Perhaps if I had begged her, my mother might have acquiesced even though her face now wore that unflinching resolution characteristic of mothers, God bless their hearts! But in those days, as opposed to now, I hadn't mastered the art of inveigling, of being polite, of rubbing backs, of pleading my case and being obsequious when the need a rose in order to have my way eventually. For if you grew up in the place I did, you needed to be a pro in these arts. Their mastery made your life a lot easier. Back then sadly, the only art I was interested in learning was the puffing and dusting of shoulders, mastering an insolent pout and strutting to the music playing in my little head.
Juvenile you think, but there was more to this garbage thing than met the eye. It was way too bright for me to wheel a barrow. Supposing I saw someone from school, how would I re-explain to my friends that our house was not really teeming with a herd of domestic staff that carried out such mundane domestic routine? Then on further probing, (those girls could probe, Lord have mercy!), what would become of my reputation when they discovered that there was no garage filled with exotic automobiles, no army of drivers, no swimming pool, no cousins abroad sending me beautiful fripperies, that these fripperies were actually from the secondhand clothing shop? Ah mother,why? No box filled with skinny jeans; I wasn't even allowed to wear trousers!
I braced myself and brushed my teeth and hair, all the while murmuring and grumbling. On a second thought, I applied perfume generously.(Now, in retrospect, this vain act makes me laugh and I want to ask my younger self: Chick, the perfume, what was the motive? You were going to the dumps!)
I loaded the rusty barrow. The puppies yelped and yanked at my ankle-length skirt, begging to be petted. I pushed them away. This hour forbade sentimentality.
How loudly that barrow gritted as I wheeled it across the streets; its noise, an addendum to my shame.