This piece is dedicated to Olajumoke Orisaguna aka Olajumoke the Breadseller.
December 31, 2015. Eleven-fifty p.m. The Man of God strutted up and down the podium. He spoke very fast and shook his head vigorously. Once in a while, he dipped his hand in his trouser pocket and retrieved a white handkerchief with which he wiped his skull then forehead. He wore a black suit which suited him perfectly. His shoes were black and shiny; and an expensive-looking wristwatch illuminated his left hand. Altogether he cut a figure of sophistication. His congregation cried: ‘Amen!’
The hall was large, but the crowd was larger. There must have been around a thousand people in there – sitting, kneeling, squating, standing, jumping – all of them sweating profusely (the A/C having stopped working a long time ago), all of them united in cause, none of them privy of the other. And just outside the double doors, the crowd continued, even doubling the one inside the hall, for this was the day they’d all be waiting for. The media had counted down (’30 days to night of miracles’, ’10 days to night of miracles’); word had gone round: mothers told daughters who in turn advised their husbands; friends informed friends, informed foes. This was it! They’d come so far and they were ready. Bristling with energy they were hitherto oblivious of. You see, that was the thing about God: He was full of surprises. How else could the good pastor who had been a ne’er-do-well rapist before receiving God’s holy call be explained? He was now arguably one of the most prominent men of God in the country, but, if one looked closely enough, there were still signs of his past life: his eyes that were at all times a dull crimson, his lips like charcoal, the calluses of his hands. God works in mysterious ways, Hallelujah!
Eelevn-fifty-five p.m. ‘Fakakarabububushamamata! Holy! Yes! Yes! Holy!’ Said the pastor, his body trembling steadily. That he spoke in tongues increased the people’s estimation of him. It was a confirmation, they believed, that he was truly blessed with the Holy Spirit, unlike many a self-proclaimed man of God nowadays. They’d even heard that the humble pastor despised worldly materials. He lived in a small, ordinary house somewhere in Surulere with his wife (Mummy G.O.) and two daughters; ate only what he needed; and dressed as simply and fusslessly as the next person. Hallelujah! And he could never falter in the eye of his people; he wasn’t capable of it, which was why on seeing him tonight with his expensive clothes and shoes and wristwatch their minds had quickly come up with a reasonable explanation: ‘Oh, but it’s the last day of the year. Shouldn’t the next year meet us all looking good. Hallelujah.’
‘We’re getting to it! Less than five minutes and we’ll say bye-bye to this day, and to this year. Less than five minutes, my people. Count your blessings of the year 2015! Count them and thank God for them. Oh, yes! Thank God for the gift of life! Thank him for good health, for your children, for your job, for your husband, for your wife. Oh yes. Hallelujah.’ The din in the hall increased by several decibels. After about thirty seconds, the pastor said: ‘Count your woes of the year 2015. Yes, those things that you didn’t like, that you didn’t want. No job? No promotion? No children? Sickness? No visa? Count them, all of them, and tell God no! Tell Father you want a change in 2016! Oh, yes. Skeskeskeboboboboboske! Father! Tell him! Speak to him. Father! Father!’
Eleven-fifty – eight p.m. The Man of God had calmed the people down. He broke into a brief song:
Odun n lo sopin o Baba Mimo
Fiso re so mi o tomo-tomo
Oun ti o pamilekun o lodun tuntun
Ma je ko sele si mi o Baba Rere.
‘Let me tell you this: the bell rings at twelve o’clock and this year is over. Oh, yes! You know what that means? God is giving you a second chance. Did you steal in 2015? Fornicate? Rape? 2016 is your second chance. You can right your wrong. So when the bell rings,’ he pointed at the wall clock on the wall behind him. It was huge, the hugest most people had seen. ‘When the bell rings at twelve o’clock, I want you to shout Hallelujah with every strength in you. Let the earth tremble with the sound of your voice. Oh, yes! Show Baba God that you are grateful for the second chance!’
Just then the bell rang. The people didn’t wait for the pastor’s command; they let out the most powerful, earsplitting ‘Hallelujah!’ ever recorded in the history of ‘Hallelujahs’. The pastor was proud. He corners of his lips touched his ears. When the ‘Hallelujah’ had died down, he paused and took a long look at his congregation. They were all on their feet, awaiting his next command. He said: ‘This is it. We’re in a new year. 2016. Let me tell you something: you have won! You have battled all the evil forces of 2015 and here you are! Oh, yes! Here you are in 2016. Say to yourself: Congratulations.’
‘Oh, yes! Turn to your neighbour and tell him: Congratulations.’
‘Tell him: You have won. You have battled the worst and you have won.’
‘ You have won. You have battled the worst and you have won!’
‘Now listen: How many of you know that as we walk, bathe, sleep, two angels follow us, one on the right and one on the left?’
Only a smidgen people raised their hands.
‘Good. This is what we’ll do. We’ll speak to these angels. Look to your left and look to your right and say: ‘Angel East, Angel West; 2016 will be my success! Hallelujah!’
‘Angel East, Angel West; 2016 will be my success!’
Jumi would think back to that night many days later. She’d recall the way the pastor swaggered up and down the altar, speaking in tongues and sweating like a mad goat. She’d recall saying those English words that she’d been able to manage only after two trials (1. A…; 2. Ay-jeli, Ay-jewe…; 3. Anjelist, Anjewez, twenty-sistin we be my suses), and the way she felt afterwards: relieved and hopeful. She’d recall, also, how she had been reluctant to go. It was her friend and fellow tenant Titi that first told her about the vigil while they were picking beans in the dark narrow vestibule off which Jumi’s room was. Titi’s room was one of the new ones in the backyard. The Landlord had been quite impressed with his income last year and had decided to erect another ‘face-me-I-face-you’ building, albeit smaller, in the backyard which used to serve as washing area for adults and playing area for the kids.
‘Have you heard of the end of the year vigil that Pastor Chucks Ibidapo will be hosting?’ Titi was from Ibadan; she’d lived there all her life until two years ago and her Yoruba had the strong accent of the Ibadan people. Like Jumi, she hawked bread very early in the morning and just after sunset – because those were the times the bakers baked them, and the consumers liked them hot and fresh.
‘Pastor Chucks? No o. I’ve not heard o.’
‘Do you live under the rock ni. It has been the talk of the town.’
Jumi shrugged. She had never concerned herself about petty things like the talk of the town. She had two children to take care of, the youngest barely six months, and she didn’t have a husband. So: screw the talk-of-the-town. And screw the pastor too. None of them both could give her what she wanted.
‘Joo, jare. I don’t have time for that. Will your pastor come and help me take care of my children. If he’s so good and prays so much, why hasn’t Nigeria changed? Why are there still poor people like me, ehn?’ She hissed. She had no patience for people that claimed to be men of God. When this impatience started or why, she couldn’t exactly say.
Titi smiled and shook her heard. ‘I forgot where you stand on religious issues. I’m sorry for bringing it up.’ But Jumi knew that this was less of an apologetic remark than a sarcastic one, so she said: ‘I’m not an atheist. I just don’t believe I have to go to church, or some useless vigil for my God to hear me. Don’t they say that God knows what we think before we think them? That He can look into our hearts? So why do you people shout when praying to Him as if the louder your voice the more chances you have of being heard? And if that’s the case, how’s He suppose to hear one particular person when everybody is shouting their throats off? Maybe that’s why you people’s prayers are never answered: He never hears them!’
The next person to tell her about the vigil was her mother. The seventy-five – year-old woman whose back was slightly bowed had been to a vigil at a church in Jumi’s area the previous night and had come over to her daughter’s to get some shut eye before moving on to the next church later in the day. At four-thirty-six a.m., she knocked on the door of the little room Jumi shared with her children and woke them up. The six-month old cried as Jumi unlocked the door and let the woman in. Inside was dark and stuffy and the old woman gasped like a fish on land. Jumi groped around for a small flashlight which she promptly flicked on. Then she picked up her child and suckled him.
‘Girls aren’t this troublesome,’ lamented Jumi whose firstborn was a girl.
‘It’s one of the troubles of motherhood,’ replied her mother as she settled herself in the only couch in the room. The couch was terribly worn. Somewhere in the tiny room a rat squeaked.
‘You’ve gone to one of those vigils again, abi.’ This wasn’t a question; it was an accusation.
‘What else can we do? The year is coming to an end. Many friends have invited me to the end of the year programs in their churches. I can’t say no.’
‘You can. You’re too hold to be moving about like this.’
‘Laelae! I am as strong as a horse. My Lord Jesus gives me the strength I need.’
‘I hear you,’ said Jumi mockingly. ‘Don’t you want to sleep?’
She vacated the bed for her mother and occupied the couch.
‘Say,’ said Jumi’s mother after a moment’s silence, ‘you should come for Pastor Chucks Ibidapo’s vigil on the thirty-first/first. I hear it’s going to be powerful.’
Oh, not again, thought Jumi.
‘Oh, mother. You know I don’t have patience for things like that. And besides, I have work to do.’
‘You can find time, Jumoke. And I even wonder when you lost interest in church-going. You used to love the church when you were younger.’
‘I can pray on my own. In my house.’
‘Is it this crappy, God-forsaken hole you call a house? When will you ever grow wise? You know, I’ve begun to see why your husband left you for a pepper-seller. At least she had peace of mind, and only those who have peace of mind can give people peace of mind.’ Jumi’s mother hissed. ‘You never give yourself peace of mind. Work, work, work, everytime. You work so much you forget the One that makes that work possible: Lord Jesus. And then you expect bounties. If a farmer has given you a part of his harvest this year and you do not say thank you, will he be so eager to do the same next year? Listen, you’re coming with me to the vigil whether you like it or not. End of story.’
‘My children, where will I put them?’
‘I have a friend who is a Muslim. We can put them with her for that night.’
‘No. I’m not comfortable with leaving my children…’ Jumi was saying but her mother’s sinfully loud snore cut her off. The woman wasn’t actually sleeping, Jumi knew, it was just her way of saying that the conversation was over. Deeply hurt and feeling rather rebellious, Jumi settled her six-month old on the bed and went about her morning ritual.
Many, many days later she’d remember this moment and silently bless her mother for having been so insistent. And the pastor for having been so prayerful; for making her believe once again, she that had totally lost faith. So glad would she be that, as she suckled her infant or bathed three-year-old Sope, she’d proclaim proudly that no one had been as lucky as her in this year 2016.
And it was true. Some people, on hearing her story, would comment: ‘Oh, but wasn’t she a lucky bastard!’ How?
It started on a particular evening. No one could exactly remember which day, but Jumi had gone hawking her bread. It was a fast business day; she was smiling as she ambled through streets, tray of bread balanced on her head, singing her usual mantra: ‘Faa-iin Bota Bread!‘ She had worn a long red gown and had made up her face really pretty. Jumi was tall, about five feet six, and thin, model-like. No one had actually ever called her beautiful, but the thing about Jumi was that she didn’t need anyone to make her feel good. She felt good by herself, and always had a smile ready for strangers.
Now: she was walking down a familiar street and many people she knew were saying hi. A dirty-looking man who sat on a culvert and drank from a small green bottle winked at her and threw flirtatious words about. She smiled and ambled away, making a right turn at the end of the street. The street she entered was quiet and only a handful of people could be found sitting on pavements in front of their houses, chatting or brooding. In the other street, a myriad urchins had been running about, playing ‘boju-boju‘ and ‘ten-ten‘ and ‘tinko-tinko‘; in this new street, no single urchin was to be found. In contrast to the previous street, this one felt lifeless, dead. She thought of going back, for wasn’t it pointless crying out her wares to ghosts and djinns? And it was getting dark already. But she kept putting foot in front of foot until she finally reached the end of that street and took a left turn.
Then she saw why the street she’d just passed had been so empty. This next street was packed full, so full in fact that at first she thought that something bad had happened and would have dropped her wares and taken to her heels had she not sighted those two small boys grinning from ear to ear and pointing in the direction the crowd was facing. She took gentle steps in that direction, and before she was the wiser she was standing right in the middle of a photo shoot. This made her nervous and blind. Some people from the crowd shouted at her to hurry back, others barked at her to hurry along, and she became confused. Blind and confused.
She just stood there, glued to a spot. Her heart raced madly, the hairs on her skin stood at attention like faithful soldiers. What had she done? When the cloud of her eyes finally began to disappear, she found herself standing a few feet away from a young man with funny-looking glasses and a bad-boy haircut. His skin was so fresh and smooth that there was no doubt in her heart that he was a foreigner. He was the star of the photo shoot; that was obvious. The reflectors and lights and camera lens were pointed at him. And the photographer. She looked familiar. She had a huge afro, her nose was large, her dark skin shiny. Beautiful. Where had Jumi seen her before?
‘Whoa! Whoa! Just…stay there. Don’t move. Please,’ cried the photographer who’s voice was startling deep. She took two shots. Then she hurried to the photo star and gave him some directions, hurried back to her place and took two more shots. ‘Thank you,’ she said to Jumi and gestured that she could leave. Jumi was relieved. And glad that she had been able to help. She didn’t look back as she hurried away.
Around a week later, two-eighteen p.m. Titi came knocking on Jumi’s door. Jumi had just returned from picking Sope up from school and was dishing her food. When she let Titi in, Titi said that there’d been talk that people had come looking for Jumi earlier in the day. This made Jumi anxious? What had she done again? she asked Titi.
‘It doesn’t seem like trouble,’ replied Titi, ‘I just thought you should know. I have to get going now. My husband will be home soon and I’ve not made his food.’
Jumi nodded and watched quietly as Titi left. It took a while before she could get back to her chores.
Later, when she walked out of the small compound, she almost ran back inside, for what she saw made her heart flip. There they were, the photographer from last week and some of her assistants that Jumi had seen. Her eyes twitched, her lips trembled. What did they want with her? Were they coming to arrest her for ruining their photo? She stood, transfixed to a spot, her mind racing around for questions. When they were only a feet from her, the photographer smiled, said:
‘You are Olajumoke. We’ve been looking for you for a while now. Do you remember us? You bombed our photoshoot. And the result was thrilling. We’d like to make you a model.’
Jumi remembered where she’d seen the photographer before now: on TV. Yes. She was TY Bello; the lady that sang Greenland. Jumi couldn’t believe her eyes, or her ears for that matter. It was at this moment that she remembered her mother and the pastor. It was at this moment that she remembered the pastor’s words: ‘Anjelist, Anjewez, twenty-sistin we be my suses.’