Most evenings on my way home, I write a story in my head or my phone. About people, faces, feeling and conversations I saw, heard or felt during the day. Some stories never make it out of my head because I struggle to find the right words for them.
Others trigger strings of memories. Today, it’s about one mama I see every day on my way from work. She sells wosiwisi* around Onipanu Shopping Complex but slaps children for a living and bullies her customers “on the side.” That’s where I buy my shea butter, camphor, rubber band, razor, hair pins and other paraphernalia of feminine razmataz.
Every time I see her, she is angry. If she’s not telling you to gboja mi le* at the slightest provocation, she is telling you “ko ni ragba fun e*. My brother, my sister, next time a Yoruba person tells you this, osiso, they are finding you in Prayer City.
And just when you think you’ve heard it all, she is using one beta abara* to send an errant boy back to his mother about four stalls away. You know the kain abara you feel in your heart one hour after impact. So, I used to think that mama was in a bad mood until I realised she was always in it. And you know what folks say if you’re always in it, it’s no longer a mood, it’s a personality. In the order of Madea…
She reminds me of one woman that terrified me as a child, her name was Iya Photo. It was said that one of the finest photographers had his shop in that house, and so for convenience and easy recall, the rice seller was named after this prodigy, hence Iya Photo.
The Iya Photo I met was actually the daughter of the original Iya Photo whose recipe – I heard – was second to none, so she handed down the trade to her daughter, also named Iya Photo. That’s the one I am talking about.
Iya Photo sold the finest rice on Herbert Macaulay Way. Her shop was about four houses away from my house. And just beside one house we were warned never to enter. You know how folks just spin myths and ballads around random occurrences, and stigmatize a house and the people in it? (Ezzally!!!) Since no one wanted to be the first to disprove this claim everyone skirted around the house like it was some vile plague.
Mothers dropped their voices in a whisper as they warned their children never to go near the building. But me, I kept my own company, laughed to my own jokes, and took my own counsel. The sheer quietness and calmness around the house was palpable. It wasn’t mere absence of sound, it was a Presence, pulsing, raw. It beckoned.
There is something about dated buildings I can’t resist. The sheer history of the colonial architecture beckoned. Like the Piper, it lured me to draw closer and I could hardly resist reaching out my hands to feel the white washed paint; try my tiny feet on the dusty Mahogany stairs, or scream my name to hear it echo through the vacuum. It was a delicious appeal to my senses.
Many times, I crossed the “front-line,” but took off just in time to see the dark hallway and the silhouette of a young ghost skid across the yard. I’d run for my dear life, not forgetting to cross myself and “plead the blood of Jesus.”
My little heart threatened to burst each time I went into that ominous house, yet I couldn’t help my love for it. That house filled me with such awe and horror! It was like a study in Extremes
Stay with me.
So, every day you pass that house. At first, it went from being a distraction to being a hobby and then a habit, till finally you became so accustomed and bored, you’d pass without noticing it. But not this house. Each time I passed by, one question kept nagging me: “what exactly happened here many years earlier?”
There was something mysterious about this house – a curse. Probably because on that long stretch of houses it had fewer numbers of residential tenants; a reputation that made it an easy target in a densely populated face-me-I-face-you community.
Back to the story. So Iya Photo’s stew was the hottest in town. People from all walks o life converged before her in a neat queue, plate in hand; swallowing spit till they get to the finish line. At Iya Photo’s, you ate your heart’s fill but you’d best have a cup of cold water beside you since the pepper can bring the end of you. Abi, how else can you distinguish Yoruba food if the aroma lasan doesn’t give you acid reflux?
Her stew looked dark and grainy, just like ewa aganyin sauce. E jo e epp mi, is it sauce or stew, because this latest “sauce” rave is getting on my nerves. I only know two types, and they are soup and stew. Sauce is oyibo food, and you know it. So, who are you deceiving calling Yoruba omi obe sauce?
Sha, my Aunty Gbemi ate Iya Photo so tey she came down with ulcer (as usual). I remember dropping off school bus and sprinting to her bed side in the hospital every afternoon so she wouldn’t die of ulcer. Do you know Life Back Pharmacy on Old Yaba Road, Ebute Metta, not far from Eni Afe? Ezzally, that’s where the hospital used to be. I never left her side. See, if I do mistake and love you kperen, I become a nuisance. Like that dog that’ll always get between your legs, always making you trip every step of the way. I am loyal laidat.
As I was saying o jare, usually, Aunty Gbemi would ask me to help her buy rice and meat at a ratio 1:8 or 1:12. She liked meat like that. Halfway, I’d have forgotten half the things she sent me no thanks to the distractions on the way, the house no less.
Iya Photo was the most hostile food vendor I’ve ever seen. Her face lasan, I can write a 100-paged piece on it. Her dark face, fiery brows, mismatched “pancake’ and red lipstick be looking like hostile neighbours forced against their will to live together given the inconvenient face-me-I-face-you circumstances. How that confused me and to cap it up, she always wore a jerry curl and the meanest scrawl that told you she wasn’t the kinda woman you want to mess with. Iya Photo had no time for bullshit much less from a stammering little lump like me.
“Soroooo*,” she’d bellow at me, while I stare at her awestruck and all I crammed will be playing sandalili sandalili on my head. She’d motion me to step aside so she can answer “awon eyon gidi* because she cannor lose her time and lose her temper. And so I’d step to the sideline, summoning all the Mayweather people in my head to silence so I can place my order in one breath gbadun*.
And because I wouldn’t stop stammering, so Aunty Gbemi decided to write me a list instead. The first time I took it was the last. Iya Photo wasn’t even patient enough for me to read, so I handed her the list since she was a better reader. Haaaa, I shan’t forget that day. I hear the story of my life. Instead of mama to admit she can’t read, she now turn it on my head, saying I lack home training.
Haaaa, me that I’m sweet laidis! Maybe that piece of paper reminded her of her aborted dreams. Partly accounts for why she sold rice instead of being in the civil service where she can ghost work and make extra money on the side sef. So unfortunate, I couldn’t talk, and she couldn’t read, what a “fraudulent togetherness!!!”
So, after collecting beta injections and huge pills, Aunty Gbemi will still scribble her guilty pleasure on a sheet of paper (rice and eran orishirishi* with their price written again them) to gwan give you know who… (Iya Photo of course). How can someone expect to recover from ulcer if she can’t lay off Iya Photo?
Her mum (my aunt) would explain the health implications and warn me never to buy Iya Photo for her daughter in my life again. And I’ll be torn between two worlds of opinion; between “the talking drum and the wailing piano.” To buy or not to buy, but that was never the question.
Hell, I bought it for her again, and again, and again, till one day they discharge us from the hospital. Because both of us were not responding to treatment. She was not responding to the drugs and injections, and me Serekode* was not responding to instruction; always getting in the way of the nurses. So we returned home o, “Photo shopping” all the way and life was good. So I see this woman every evening at Onipanu and it throws my mind back to the 90’s when I was a scared little girl whose mouth couldn’t keep up with her mind…
*drop my market
*it will not buy calabash for you – a curse
*hot slap often administered to reset children’s brain
*little rascal or something like that