As soon as I came out of my house at 6 Agho Street on the March morning, someone shouted in my direction: “Hold the debtor! Don’t let her run away. Hold the debtor!” Without looking at the person, I knew it was Gomo. In the night of the day before, he sent a note through my sister, Janet, saying that I’d borrowed money from him six months ago, money meant to treat the burns on my face and arms, but I did not want to pay it back. What did I think he was? A Father Christmas? He would get his money from me in the morning even if all the people in Benin City pleaded that he should leave me alone. After reading the letter, I tore it, and Janet asked why. Did I not know that, when Gomo was like this, he would carry out his threats? I told her: “Gomo cannot do more than a harmless rat. By the time he comes, I’ll be at the bus stop for the journey to Abuja.” I told her that Gomo, like the drunkard he was, would be too busy sleeping when I began my journey and that Janet should forget him. Unfortunately, Gomo surprised me, as he woke much earlier from his usual drunken slumber. And I knew all the prayers to Jesus Christ would not make him give me more time to pay my debts. Despite this, I decided not to run and headed toward the bus stop, about eight hundred meters away. Gomo, shouting at the top of his voice, caught up with me before I covered ten meters. By this time, some of the women living on Agho Street, attracted by Gomo’s voice, trooped out of their houses. Mama Sarah, a woman who owned the provision store next door, ran toward us. Mama Johnson tied her wrapper around her waist and came out to the street.
Though men did not come out, some of them were disturbed by the scene. One man opened his mouth so wide that his chewing stick fell out of his mouth to the ground. As he bent to pick it, I turned to Gomo. “I’ll pay you when I come back from Abuja,” I told him. “That’s been your story for the past six months!” Gomo shouted. “Is that what I’ll tell Mama Gbenga when she comes for her money? I want my money now.” Mama Sarah told him to have pity on me; after all, Mama Gbenga had traveled, and I never used to owe money before I was wounded and disfigured by a kerosene explosion two years ago. Mama Johnson told him he should have the milk of human kindness and allow me to go on my trip. “Will the milk of human kindness save me from Mama Gbenga?” Gomo shrieked. “So you don’t want to forgive and forget?” asked Mama Sarah. “All right, we’ll see.” Before I knew it, the women grabbed Gomo. Mama Sarah pulled at the belt of his trousers, swearing, demanding the money for the bottle of beer he bought on credit for his girlfriend. Mama Johnson pulled at his dirty shirt and said: “Where is the money for the stick of cigarette you bought from me two weeks ago?” As they dragged Gomo from one side of the road to the other, he loosened his grip on my black blouse, and I pushed his hand away. While this happened, I hoped more people would not waylay me. Gomo was not the only person I owed since the kerosene explosion, and the fear of harassment kept me on edge every time. Even now, if a dog barked too loudly, I jumped, thinking one of my creditors had come to say, “Abuja, where is my money?” If I heard a knock at my door, I scurried under the bed, thinking the landlord had come to collect his rent, which I could not pay because I’d lost my job over the burns. These hassles frequently angered me. We had bought adulterated kerosene from government filling stations. Then it had exploded, scarred our faces, made us lose our jobs, and turned us into paupers. Government officials promised to help us; instead they abandoned us, leaving us to fend for ourselves. Have they done the right thing by allowing us to live like sewage rats? The Abuja issue came six months ago. Our leader, a man called Eldorado, told us that God had at last answered our prayers, that some doctors from America wanted to carry out surgery on our burns in Abuja. We would not pay anything; it was free. Since then, I became hopeful that my scars would go away. When the boys in Agho Street laughed at me over my scarred face and arms, I gloated, saying I would soon look better than they did, and that everything would be corrected in Abuja. I spoke so much about Abuja that the area boys changed my name from Mabel to Abuja. I first learned this a month ago. As I walked to the bus stop for a ride to town, one of my most stubborn creditors, a man called Tolu Player, stopped me. Before I could speak, he waved his hands as though he did not want to listen to more stories. “That’s why they’re calling you Abuja. I don’t want to hear about any surgery. Just give me my two hundred naira.” Another of my creditors, Oviedo, a woman selling secondhand brassieres at the nearby New Market, came to meet me at home, and said, “Abuja, where is my money?”
The day for the journey to Abuja had come, but I was having problems. As I hurried down the street, pulling away from Gomo and the women harassing him, I struggled to overcome my disbelief I could catch the Abuja-bound bus. People trooped into the street as though they were ants coming out of their anthills, and many of them were my creditors. Any of them could stop me and say, “Hey! Abuja, where is my money?” or say that they wanted to use it to pay the secondterm school fees of their son or hire a band for the second burial of their great grandmother, wasting the time I could use to catch the bus. There was another reason for the doubts that crept into my mind. I was so anxious not to miss the Abuja bus that I woke by three at night, staring at the ceiling of my room till five, growing weak from lack of adequate sleep. When Janet came and saw me, she said that my eyes were as swollen as a frog’s and my hands shook as though I suffered from fever. I told her I was all right. But as the minutes passed, weakness overtook me, and pains from the burns on my face and arms overwhelmed me, making me fall asleep again. When I woke up, Janet, who returned from morning prayers at a church nearby, said it was seven, and I knew it would be difficult catching the Abuja bus. But I could not afford missing it. If I did, Janet would call me a careless fool. Was it because she provided me with three square meals daily that I did not find it necessary to cure myself, start work, and begin feeding myself again? How could I afford missing the only real opportunity for cure to my burns? If my best friend, Agnes, heard I missed the bus, she would say, “Ah, ah, Abuja, how can you allow this to happen?” I was in hot soup. My creditors would say I was careless, and they would no longer have pity on me.
My fellow tenants, if they heard, would say the
witches that caused the kerosene explosion in the first place still dogged my
life, and that I suffered from “home trouble.” I was inclined toward believing
the last view. My father had taught me that when a woman sneezed, a witch was
behind it. I believed him. Were it not so, how did it come about that I bought
the killer kerosene when so many other people purchased the original one? Was
it not because a witch put a spell on me? And now, on the day I was to go to
Abuja for surgery, I was overwhelmed by fatigue because I had not slept long
enough and had to sleep again. Was it not because my enemies wanted me not to
travel? As I walked up the street, I wondered whether it was possible to
overcome the witches on this all-important day. While these thought troubled
me, I looked up the road and saw Tolu Player. As soon as I spotted him, I was
filled with panic. Why should he appear on the day I wanted to travel? At the
same time, I was furious. How long would I continue to shake like a cold fowl
when I saw my creditors on the streets of Benin City? Was this not why I must
travel, no matter what happened? And a little fighting spirit flowed into me.
When Tolu Player stopped in front of me, he scowled, and I knew at once he
wanted to ask for his two hundred naira and would not take no
for an answer. His scowl was so frightful, Mama Sarah, had she seen it, would
have asked: “Why are you frowning as if an ant has bitten your face?” His shirt
looked rough and threadbare, the kind the small boys in Agho Street called
Okrika, the kind my former boyfriend, Cletus, would wear “over his dead body.”
Tolu’s pair of shoes was old and dusty, as though dust settled on them after he
trekked tens of kilometers. Had Agnes seen him, she would have asked why he
always trekked on the road and could not board a bus once in a while. Was he
the only one in Benin City who did not have money? To make matters worse, Tolu
was not only a debtor but also never paid his debts. He once owed Mama Sarah
three hundred naira, money owed for the bottle of beer he bought for his
girlfriend. When Mama Sarah asked him for it, he said he would pay her the next
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