Mother served me to the world when she was nineteen years old. At least, so she told me. I believed her for her voice was my first teacher and her arms my first classroom. My father I would never know because my mother never knew him. She was not sure who among the five men, who had visited her brothel the week I was conceived, fathered me. She once told me that she should not have attended to customers that period of the month. But she had to in order to pay Babajebu, the landlord, who never allowed anyone owe him for half a minute. Mother said she had an option of taking her turn in their monthly contribution, Isusu, but passed it up to save money for a television set. As a result, she had to do business that critical period of the month, against her judgment.
She did get pregnant and I was born. She said she could have “flushed me out” like the other women always did. But she did not. She had, before then, promised herself that the word “murder” must not find a space in her guilt book no matter how abortion was justified by the others. It was Mother’s personal choice to keep me. As she would later confess, giving birth to me saved her from a life she had lacked the will to save herself from.
But in keeping me, Mother began to lose her customers. This worsened, as her tummy ballooned week after days and month after weeks. In losing her customers, she lost her only means of income. The entire money she had hoped to save for her first television set was gradually, but steadily, funneled into me. This mattered little to her for I was the centre of her world. My eyes expressed tears when she, one day, said in my hearing: “You were born lovely and lively and that was why I named you Loveline.”
I loved my mother and she knew it. I loved her not just because she was the only family I knew I loved her because she never lied, at least to me. Before she died, she told me she had an illness that she was sure would kill her. She also told me the full story of her life and her health. Please pardon me for I won’t tell it today. She begged that I walk a life different from the one she had led. I agreed. Except that I did not agree to change her greatest virtue – never to lie.
It is for this reason that I have decided to make this confession.
Even though I loved her, the first word I ever spoke was not ‘Mother’ but “Good evening!” It was a phrase that danced on the tongues of my mother and other females who worked in those dark alleys lit with blue, red or green coloured electric candle bulbs at night.
I was born in Goriola Street in Ajegunle, where dozens of children, like me, never knew that the word “Father” described the head of a family. Our lives were woven around our mothers, older sisters and aunts. Male children did not count to our mothers as such. I would later learn that they couldn’t count because boys fomented trouble and never really grew the family business. Goriola Mothers were always quick to let their male children find their own lives in the streets, yet reluctant to let go of their females. In one rare case, a successful male once returned and took away his reluctant mother and sisters out of Goriola to a better place. My mother said he took them entirely out of the misery of Ajegunle. Mother seemed to be the only one proud of the boy’s action. I could remember the boy’s mother screaming to everyone’s hearing: “You no be my pikin, I no born boy. Leef me for yere. Na yere I wan stay. A be ashawo A no shame.”
The less successful Goriola boys, who lived with their mothers, crowned themselves princes of the dark – picking pockets, smoking weed and picking house locks. Their girl counterparts played adults- painting themselves in daylights, like their mothers did in the evenings when the sun began to draw the veil.
I would later learn that outsiders had christened Goriola the “Good evening Street.” They would not understand for they were not in sympathy with us. Even though it was not part of Lagos culture to greet strangers the women in our street greeted strangers. They solicited for customers using the salutation of the hour of their business as an opening line. In our sub-culture, it was almost bad breeding to see an adult male and not say: “Goodevening!” Some of the men would grunt a reply, some would say nothing and yet one or two would pull the hands of a female towards himself. The couple would then freeze into low speeches. It was only on very rare occasions that the couple failed to wind up inside the brothel occupied by the female trader.
I knew all these because we talked about them in daylight and validated them – peeking through cracked walls and doors and torn curtains – at night.
Sometimes, we repeated the stories the adults told. I remember this with a smile. There was the story of a customer called Iroko whose “stick” was as long as an electric pole and another called, “Tintini” because his “thing” was as small as a baby’s last finger. I must confess that I really never saw any of these or was quite clear as to their import in the beginning. But as I began to grow, I equally began to learn.
People grew up fast in Goriola. The boys learnt the fastest way to cut open a pocket, bag or sack containing money with a sharp-edged coin, whetted for that purpose. The girls learnt early how to make their breasts grow fast by touching themselves. Right or wrong then, I couldn’t tell. But we believed it. Do I still believe it? Honestly, I can’t tell.
One day, inside my room, I practised one of the exercises I had learnt from the girl living next room and found it very pleasurable. I tried it again and enjoyed it, and again and again. This continued until the day my mother caught me. That was when she decided we must leave Goriola.
I will never forget that morning. “Loveline, na Ashawo you wan be?” My mother fired. “Oh na Ashawo wey me I do I no see beta na im you wan be?” Her voice rammed through the wood walls of the small room. Her fury filled the room like choking smoke. I feared for my life for I never before then and after that day saw Mother that angry. She quickly removed her rubber slipper and began to whip me all over. I cried my guts out that day. None of our neighbours could gain entry to rescue me from her wrath for she locked us in. When she stopped, she broke down crying, cursing the spirit that had plagued me. She swore that I would never have that life and that we must leave the next day.
Fifteen minutes later, when her leash had fallen off my neck, I settled in a corner outside our room and examined the slipper marks all over my skin. Indidi, the girl next door picked out the word “Metro” printed in reverse on my swollen thigh. Indidi, who was in primary four, said it was the name of the plastic company that made the slipper.
True to her word, the next day, Mother took me away from Goriola, the “Good evening” Street to live elsewhere. Yes she did, but the habit for which she had judged me, is still with me ten years after her death and nineteen after I left Goriola.