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The Trash-Can Pilgrims: Fiction by Chika Unigwe

(An excerpt)

The people of Uwani had always emptied their trash themselves. It was a common sight to find women and children, children very young that they are hardly able to hold up their heads, carrying oversized cans of trash. Many of the inhabitants had done that in their childhood and they expected their children after them to do the same. It was almost like an unwritten rite of passage from infancy to adult-childhood.

Nkem lived in Uwani. She did not have any children to take her trash out to the public incinerator at the end of her street. It was therefore a common sight to see Nkem, all five feet ten of her, a trash can on her head, trudging wearily with the others.

Trash was always emptied by the light of dawn. Nobody knew why. Or bothered to analyse it. It had simply always been so. These early morning workers formed a long line, like pilgrims in a holy land. Their array of trash cans brightening up the blank sky. They constituted the local bush radio. On those early morning trips, with cans of waste adorning their heads, they transmitted more news than you would hear anywhere else. When Chidi’s husband was about to take a second wife, Chidi heard it from one of the women on the early morning trail. Chidi’s husband had confided in this woman’s husband who had told his wife who had told Chidi. When Ify became pregnant, the news was spread by the trash-can pilgrims and it reached Ify’s mother’s ears before the teenage girl could tell her, herself. The news of the savage beating she got from her father was naturally also transmitted via the radio waves of the pilgrims. When Chief Okonta’s father was buried, everybody on the trail knew exactly how many cows had been slaughtered for the funeral ceremony.

It was an exclusive women’s group. Apart from a few little boys the rest were girls and women. They had grown immune to the smell of the dirt, of rotten fish from their kitchens, of left-over fufu and soup, of decaying meat. Their chatty voices flirting with gossip overpowered the smell. They enjoyed their exclusivity. For some minutes each day, the world belonged to them. There were no husbands asking for breakfast to be set, for their shoes to be polished, for their work-clothes to be laid out. Women whispered in each other’s ears, telling secrets and making plans. They made fun of husbands with beer-bellies as full of water pots. And of husbands, old age spread all over their faces like butter, pretending to be young. The women enjoyed this morning ritual which brought out the chattiest in the most taciturn of them.

One day they heard a strange piece of news. If Nkem had not heard it herself, she would have dismissed it as untrue. She would have laughed it off as a silly rumour. But Nkem had been sitting beside her husband while he ate supper and listened to the evening news on his black battery-operated radio when she heard it. The State Governor had announced that as of that day, he was closing down all public incinerators. In their place would be planted beautiful flowers; roses, lilies, carnations, hibiscuses and some other-eses. The roads of Uwani would be transformed. Transformed into miniature palaces, the Governor said. Trash would be collected by government trash collectors in their brand-new pick-up trucks. Uwani would be civilised, rival the most beautiful Western city. Nkem’s heart sank as the governor’s voice boomed on and her husband got all excited about the new look Uwani would wear. She did not know which annoyed her more, the Governor’s going on or her husband’s sudden burst of laughter. He slapped his thigh and laughed again. A long satisfying laugh. He looked at Nkem and asked her, “did you hear that? Did you hear that, woman? We will be civilized. Yes, our turn for civilization has come.” Nkem was devastated.

The next morning, Nkem woke up with a sense of foreboding. She knew something was wrong but could not quite put her finger on it. Then she remembered. No more going to empty the trash cans. No more early morning chats with her friends. No more getting away from her husband for a breath of fresh air. She felt like she was suffocating. How could the Governor do this to her? She let out a mournful sigh and got out of bed.

The first three weeks, the black government truck arrived punctually at 1 pm on Friday afternoon. The disposal men wore yellow overalls and went about their business like men on a mission. They solemnly lifted the many cans of garbage left outside by the women and emptied them into the hungry trunk of the truck. Children gathered to watch and learn.

On the fourth week, just as all the women had learnt to accept the sight of the black truck as a regularity in their lives, it did not appear. There were no men in yellow either. The garbage cans left outside in preparation for their disposal stood untouched, rejected. The next week, the men did not turn up. Trash was piling in homes and on the streets. And the odour was pungent. The local incinerator had already been knocked down in readiness for the promised civilization. Nkem and the other women did not know what to do. There was no word from the Governor on what was going on.

On the morning of the third week when the rancid smell had assaulted Nkem’s nose enough, she dumped all of her dirt and her hopes of resurrecting her early morning pilgrimage to the incinerator, in a big carton box. The carton box that their brand-new television set had come in. Then, she set out with the box held resolutely on her head, towards the Government House on Udi Road. She was a woman on a mission.


Chika Unigwe
Chika Unigwe
Chika Unigwe is the author of the widely acclaimed novel, 'On Black Sisters’ Street' and winner of the 2012 Nigeria Prize for Literature.


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