Alvarado, Cassandre 2009

Her problem was N50 and you had better believed it. I listened to her tell the person on the other end of the line that she will not be able to make the detour because it will cost fifty Naira extra. I heard her say “I no go fit come oh, abi will you support our transport?” the ‘our’ being she and her son whom she was carrying on her laps, and the person must have said he could not because she then decided to go on home. I knew it was a man because she kept saying “oga.” I mouthed at her “fifty Naira, Maryland to Allen is fifty Naira” but she said she was going home anyway. That was when I realized that fifty Naira was a big deal.

I was on a bus going home from Tejuosho market and this lady having this phone conversation was the passenger sitting on my right. On my left was the window and for most of the trip, my forehead was plastered on the glass staring at other cars crawling past and watching as their windscreens and other metal parts caught the occasional glint of sunlight in the slow-moving traffic. I had been drawn into this woman’s phone conversation and her story and like a dog with a bone, I couldn’t let it go. It kept whirling round and round my head, fifty Naira.

Now, I have had fifty Naira issues before, in fact, as recently as two weeks ago, I had a period of about three days when I did not have a fifty Naira. But looking at this woman, I could tell that her story was not my story. Her fifty Naira was not a phone call away, a trip to the bank away, a borrowing from friends away, a bluffing my way away, a corporate begging away, a writing job away, a clothes delivery away. This was a story of no fifty naira home and away.

I looked at her. The strongest impression that stayed with me was her “born again” hair. It was wound up tight with rubber thread in a style known as tie-tie and twisted into curls on her head. I also noticed her ill-fitting blouse which kept sliding off her shoulder. The boy who sat on her laps looked about eight years old and his tiny teeth were spaced, pointed and brown at the base and he looked like he would start drooling any minute. I had to look away and I wondered what kind of life a child like that would have. They looked poor. Beyond the way they looked and the fifty Naira the woman didn’t have to spend, was the aura. It was in the self-conscious way she spoke on the phone to her reluctant patron, a way that suggested that if she were face to face with him she would curtsey and curtsey while shaking his hand with both of hers, it was in the way she started telling the bus conductor the long story of how a phone call had informed her change in plans and she was no longer stopping at the bus stop for which she had paid-the fact that she felt the need to explain at all.

Anyway, the bus conductor was telling her “madam, you don pass your bus stop, you go add fifty Naira.” While still trying to decide whether to make the detour, she had asked me how much it cost to get to Ikeja under-bridge from Allen and I happily told her fifty Naira thinking I was delivering good news. That was before I realized that this fifty Naira was a serious matter. Now she replied the conductor “I will see if I have it” and I almost started laughing. You will see whether you have a Lagos conductor’s money? That was rich. I dipped my hand in my bag and brought out a two hundred naira note and was about to pass it to the woman when like a heat-seeking missile, the little boy’s eyes glued to the money and started tracking it. He tracked the progress of my hand from the bag to the mother’s shoulder and I paused.

I hope you understand this but this is the whole point of this story. In that moment, I realized something. I realized that a child will in future make jokes about being poor, about wearing rags and turn it into an anecdotal experience. But I somehow felt sure that a stranger passing money on the bus to his mother because they could not afford the fare was something no child should have to endure, to live down, to battle to forget. I was determined that I would not be part of this boy’s trauma story. So I started trying to figure out a way to pass the money onto the woman without alerting the boy.

I draped my hand over her shoulder and started tapping, only to realize that the shoulder I was tapping belonged to the next passenger. I said sorry and thought oh damn it and shoved the money roughly down the front of her blouse and mouthed “take“. It all went downhill from there. The woman exclaimed, “ah ah but I need only fifty naira, this is too much” and all my rapid blinking and hushing gestures were disregarded. By then the kid had turned full around and was staring at me and his mum in turns. The conductor then repeated his demand for payment and she handed him the money. He did not have change. I had lots of loose change. I really do know how to hoard change because Lagos bus conductors are really irascible and it is best to put yourself at the best possible advantage. So I just handed the conductor a fifty and he gave her back the two hundred note which she tried to return to me. When I said no, feeling further embarrassed, she was now quite beside herself with gratitude. She kept saying “God bless you” and calling me aunty. She was at least ten years older than me. I was acutely uncomfortable and while I tried to leave the bus as hurriedly as possible, she dogged my steps, thanking me all the way and by this time my lower lip was trembling because of how big a deal two hundred and fifty bucks was, because it is a big deal when someone does something for another which should not be a big deal at all, but also because the very thing I had tried to avoid, her son seeing all this, had happened. To make it worse, she then nudged the boy “thank her, have you thanked this aunty?”

Some parents have no idea. I do not judge her, she doesn’t know better but if she did, she would have known that allowing her son witness that loss of dignity, letting him watch her “humiliation” and worse of all, making him a party to it by forcing him to add his thanks is a hard thing for a child to forget. And children do not forget, they see more than you imagine and they do not forget.

This is for children who have had to live this down and have risen above it, and for parents who get it and wishing that more would.