Shop 47 – Emmanuel Fehintola
The Gwarima abattoir market was like an ornament strapped around the neck of a lunatic, its twinkly beauty dampened by the filthy neck on which it hung. It was a mix of modern stalls with glass windows, tables of chomped cow meat covered in the smell of rot and the buzz of flies, and sun-beaten black men in tattered clothes, their body drenched in sweat.
“Tasty meat is here.” They called at passersby, mostly in Hausa, sometimes in a heavy pidgin tongue, and they swore in the name of Allah about the doubtless freshness of their meat.
“Come check it out Aboki.” A middle aged man, his eyes sunken like a well dug too deep tugged at the end of my shirt. I shook my head in the way of saying I do not want to buy meat. But he was adamant. “He good well well.” He insisted, his exaggerated smile covering his face like chicken pox disease. He had that look too — that weary and yet unrelenting countenance of people striving to escape poverty, only to be caught in its tight embrace. He was perhaps, I thought, more suitable as a beggar, his pitiful façade more likely to compel sympathies than patronage.
“Two hundred Naira.” I said.
“Just two hundred?”
“Yes.” I answered.
“What of your children? Don’t they eat meat?” He asked subtly, as if disappointed. I had no desire to spell out to him that I was buying not out of necessity, but of a pressing desire to help him. He was like a drummer, deaf to the beat of his own drum, estranged from his melody of penury.
“Two hundred.” I said again. My voice slightly raised at his hesitance.
He grinned and stretched a slimy chunk of flesh, waving off flies while cutting it into smaller chunks. With each slice of the knife, he spoke, feelingly, about the new president, Buhari, how his economic policies had caused a recession and how even shrubs have gone scarce, depriving cows of much needed nutrients. He was a taint funny, his words spoken with a bold certainty, as if national economy was something he understood deeply.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Yunusa.” He responded.
He was as friendly as one could ever get in Kano – This city on an edge, where strangers, though warmly embraced, are constantly reminded of their strangeness.
“Where is my jara?” I asked, in the way we refer to the chunk of fat that was customarily added as bonus.
“Big man don’t need jara” he smiled. Of course, he added the butter-coloured chunk, and handed the meat in a black polythene bag.
“You from Onitsha?”
“No.” I answered.
“I have friends there.” He said with a chuckle, pronouncing ‘there’ as ‘dia.’
I imagined his friends, men with bony cheeks and clothes with the grainy smell of cheap things, roaming the streets of Enugu, with countenance not different from that of their cattle.
“Big place, plenty money.” He said of Enugu.
“Thank you Aboki.”
I made to leave then paused, my legs frozen at the spot.
“Please can you direct me to shop 47?”
“Shop 47?” He repeated. There was a faint glow in his eyes and I wondered what it was about.
“Fine place, Big Igbo woman.” He answered, and I chuckled at his constant use of adjectives, as if ‘fine’ and ‘big’ were enough description for a place I do not know.
“Go straight.” He said, pointing to the adjacent lane where grey-faced boys pushed disabled men in wheelbarrows.
“Very big shop. Igbo people come here and do fine.”
“I’ll see you some other time.” I said, gently, unwilling to sound arrogant to this new friend of mine. That was of course, a lie. There was not a chance that I will see him anytime soon, and possibly, ever again. It was the last day of my week long trip to Kano, and had my mother not insisted I find aunty Okoroafor before leaving the city, I would well had been on my way to Enugu.
Aunty Okoroafor was the younger sister of my mother, the one who sucked their mother’s breast after my mother. She had been in Kano long before I was born, and her name was something of a legend, only whispered in hushed tone, like the forbidden tale of death at night. She was the wild child of their family — a young Igbo girl of eighteen, who had eloped to Kano with a Hausa man. She had been gone for twenty-something years. No one ever heard from her. Whether she was dead or alive, no one knew. She was like the memory of a ghost, sometimes popping up in little gossips, creeping into our thoughts, and other times, she was just the fair skinned girl in my mother’s childhood picture, her beautiful grin adoring the otherwise colourless portrait.
But there was one thing, which even though sinister, pointed to her being. Every year, towards Christmas, that time when hymns fill the atmosphere like Harmattan, we get a letter, with cash in it, the envelop bearing a strange address, Shop 47, Gwarinma Market, Kano.
“What fool sends money to a wrong address?” My father asked the first time.
“She is not a fool.” Mother retorted.
“Don’t you see it is Okoroafor, my sister.”
My mother swore that she can smell her from the letter.
“Okoroafor…?” My father asked. He gave mother a look that seemed to have said ‘if you hadn’t been my wife, I’ll knock your head for foolishness.’ Then he suggested, subtly, that it must have been Ogaga, the money moving spirit or criminals who had sent loots to a wrong address.
“You are a very wise man.” My mother cut in, her tone was bitter, carrying a contemptuous sarcasm, the kind reserved for fools. The argument that day was long-drawn and inconclusive, erupting the next day and the day after. But in quite a jiffy, it no longer mattered who had sent the money. Mother bought a bag of rice and turkey for Christmas. Father thought her ‘wasteful’ – his idea of ‘useful’ being one or two crates of aromatic schnapps. And soon, it was as if the money had never come. For ten years, it kept coming like a ritual, each letter bearing its own abeyance, our lives momentarily paused by its concealed tidings. For ten years, it came, until last Christmas, when the postman did not knock, when the letter never did arrive. That Christmas was as mournful as the funeral of a toddler. There was no rice, no turkey and mother could not wear the pink fluffy satin she had fantasised about. She, at first, was placid, thriving on a false sense of hope – that the letter would still come, that the postman perhaps ailed, or like most government workers, that he was indisposed and taking a detour off work.
“It will come.”
She soon began to despair like everyone else, her rock-solid hope battered/caving like a helpless roof blown into the winds.
“Okoroafor is dead. Oginni? My sister is gone.” She moaned.
It was not atypical of my mother to throw caution to the wind. She had an affinity for the dramatic, a penchant for the absurd. It was she who once misconstrued missing meats in her cooking pot to be the handiwork of a vengeful ghost. The sleek ‘ghost’ eventually turned out to be her husband, who as it sauntered out, had formed the unsavoury habit of chowing in the thick of the night.
“Okoroafor nwanne. But why?” Mother moaned consistently.
“Shut up your mouth.” Father blared, as if she were some child with no sense of her own. She countered with a mournful demeanour, buoyed by her hot-head, refusing to go to the market or put stock fish in Ugwu soup because she was ‘bereaved.’ She wailed at every opportunity, her moan of ‘Nna mo‘ colouring the rooms of our house. It was hard to understand her bereavement, until I heard father say: “Stupid woman. It’s the money she missed.”
By and by, Mother’s moan withered. Its bristling flame died like a lamp forgotten in the path of the wind. During that period, she took solace in hymns, her ’till we meet again’ songs unwittingly drowning us in her gloom. One Monday morning, it ceased; her ugwu soup bedecked with Panla, her face wearing its twinkly mischievousness. Nevertheless, when my photography job presented the chance of a week-long visit to Kano, my mother made me swear to Amara Okudili, her dead grandmother, that I will find shop 47, that I will find Aunty Okoroafor.
“Wasn’t she supposed to be dead?” I asked.
“Tufiakwa? God forbid that my sister is dead.” She retorted bluntly. “When you go about doing click-click with your camera, do not forget what I sent you.”
“And what should I say to her?”
“I don’t care whether you tell her your father drinks like a cow. Just find her.” She answered forcefully, grinning in the ways of persons satisfied with themselves, finding superfluous pleasure in her flawed being. It was that unquenchable longing to find my Aunty – to finally meet a woman who had existed all these years as a myth – that had drawn me to Shop 47 like a madman attracted to the rowdy midst of a market.
* * *
Shop 47 was a wasteland; its crumpled ruins piled high like a heap of rotten garbage. It had the demeanour of a rich man disrobed of wealth. Its huge frame belittled by shreds of what was left. ‘Shop 47’, was in itself wrapped in deceit. For it was not one of those roadside shops with unconsciously misspelt names like ‘MUSA INTANATIONAL SUPAMAKET’, or ‘ADAMU FASHUN DESINNER‘. It was a mall, bedevilled by serpentine stairs, and what had become a gleam-less marble floor. The pervading smell of placated flame coloured the air – its choking aroma pinched the nostrils. I took some steps closer, my shoe pinged the hardened floor, where pieces of glass and fine ashes laid undisturbed. Shop 47 was no more. But my mother would not take that for an excuse. She would remain pissed for days, she would call my trip to Kano ‘a waste’, and her moan would once again haunt the house. I needed a story; one that goes beyond a ruined shop, one whose tale involves a cheery Aunty Okoroafor, subtle enough to last mother till another Christmas. The story was one I do not have – so I returned to Yunusa.
“You come back?” He grinned.
“You didn’t tell me there was no Shop 47.”
“You don’t ask.” He retorted with a jerk of the shoulder. “I think you be newsman.” He said ‘newsman’ and pointed naively at the camera hanging from my neck. He had a ghoulish appearance, an apprehension that I do not understand.
“We don’t talk about it to strangers…”
“It was October.” He started solemnly, his voice hushed and heavy. He told me the story, in quite a confounding style, using ‘we’ and ‘they’, as if he was there and yet not there.
A man had left the comfort of his own stall to pray in shop 47. He performed his ritual of washing, and was about laying his mat in prayer when the guard stopped him.
“You can’t pray here.” The guard answered.
The man ignored him and bowed in prayer, his wordings recited loud enough to court the contempt of the confounded guard.
“This is business place. You can’t pray here.”
“All places belong to Allah.” The man hummed.
“Your shop might belong to God, your children can as well belong to God. But you can’t pray here.”
“Kano belongs to Allah, and I can pray anywhere.”
The guard was infuriated. He grabbed the man, threw him a couple of punches in the face, flung his mat into a heap of thrash, with it, a concealed copy of the Quran.
“Oh you unbeliever, have you no piety?” The man asked.
“Sorry.” The guard apologised, his voice shaky at the effect of what he had done, like a child scared of his mother’s whip. He grabbed the Quran from the trash can, dusted it with his beret, and handed it back to the man.
“You have desecrated the holy book.” The man fumed, and then walked away.
Two hours later, he came back. But he was not alone. He came with an army of boys from Miyetti, a popular Quranic school nearby – some of those boys barely old enough to wear clothes by themselves. They laid siege to shop 47, chanting and dancing to songs of war, their combined voices forming a quodlibet.
“Death to the guard.” A boy yelled in Hausa, and like people with the mind of a piss artist, with no control over what they do, they grabbed stones and sticks and cudgels. Soon, it was no longer a gathering of chanting boys. Their countenance stiffened as they punched the air, and their teeth gnawed in wait like fretful dogs.
They were let loose. They slammed into the supermarket, ramming through its glass barricade like it was paper. They tore down the shelves first, leaving shop attendants scampering for safety. Then they filled their sacks with loaves of bread, and shiny tins of milk, and boxes of sausage roll. And they called upon others; to come and share in the loots of the ‘Kafir’, to partake in the ‘blessings of Allah.’
“It was wrong?” He said.
“What?” I asked.
I thought he was going to justify the act; that he was going to argue about disrespectful non-Muslims and their penchant for provocation. But he did no such thing.
“Here people hungry, children don’t go school, we fight too much. But Allah want no fight, he want peace.”
“What happened to the woman?” I asked.
“You know her?”
“Yes.” I answered, and then I wondered if ‘know’ was the right word for a woman whose existence I am uncertain of.
“The woman did not come shop that day.”
“Thank God.” I sighed, relieved.
“She came back next week and cry and fainted.”
“Do you know what happened after?”
“No. But maigida came, and Emir and Governor.”
I imagined my Aunty, her hands wrapped around her head, refusing to leave or be consoled. I imagined the governor, in his flowing buba, paying a condolence visit to the ruins, preaching tolerance and respect, but forgetting once again to send children to school, to create jobs for youths, to busy hands and minds that violence so readily recruits.
Fehintola Emmanuel is a graduate of English and Literature, University of Ibadan. He is currently studying his Masters Degree in Literature from the same university. He is a avid reader and writer, his works have been published on Kalahari Review and The Tick Times Journal.