Itam Junction was noisy and teeming with the usual morning crown going to and fro on the four roads that led to it. Men and women hurrying off to work, mingled with street hustlers and roadside hawkers, who called out their wares and prices in very loud voices. A woman dressed in iro and buba, her head-tie perched precariously on her head, looked left and right before crossing the road to board a bus under the pedestrian bridge. She took a few steps and was accosted by a young boy selling rechargeable lamps.
“Auntie, buy rechargeable lantern here,” the teenager said, shoving one in her face. She hissed and violently brushed his arm aside, muttering an expletive. The boy stumbled back and fell against a man standing behind him.
“Unam ikot! Se nte afo aka a. Idiot. Watch where you’re going,” the man barked, shoving him forward. The boy righted himself, gave a cheeky grin and without an apology, moved on to another spot, shouting the prices of his wares as he went.
Across the road, in a little kiosk set back from the road, sat Asandia. Right elbow on her knee, her palm supported her chin as she stared out unseeingly. The kiosk, fashioned out of a shipping container, was well situated and stocked with inexpensive items like handkerchiefs, roasted groundnuts, water in transparent sachets, soft drinks, airtime recharge cards, stationery and a few other knickknacks. No matter what time of the day it was, she always had customers.
This week however, business had been very slow. It was Wednesday and with the exception of two packets of biscuits and three sachets of water which totalled a hundred and thirty naira, she’d sold almost nothing. This isn’t good at all, she thought. Her brow furrowed with worry as she thought of Zachariah. A new school term was beginning the next week. Since he was moving to a new class, she’d promised to get him a new pair of shoes and a Spiderman school bag.
He was so gracious and understanding, her boy. Last term, he’d still worn his tired old pair of shoes, held together with twine and gum.
“Mummy, I’ve told you not to worry. I am not one of the popular children in school. So no one will notice whether my shoes are new or not.” His words comforted her, but she hoped business would improve. She did not wish to break her word to him.
For the umpteenth time, Asandia wished Zach’s father was with them. Perhaps, things would’ve been better.
“I don’t have any savings. You may even have to get a job. What are we going to do?” he’d wailed, holding his head in his hands. That day, he’d returned home with stooped shoulders, a sad expression and a pink slip. His company was downsizing.
“Don’t worry, my darling. You’ll find something soon, as will I. There are jobs everywhere in this city.”
I was too optimistic, Asandia thought. Their hopes had been chipped away at the end of every day they’d both returned without finding employment. Things were tough, no one was hiring. In her case, it seemed that even the most menial of jobs these days required years of experience and no one wanted to hire a university drop out whose only job experience was being a stay-at-home- mother. They looked at her thin resumé and tried not to sneer. In one of the offices, a kind secretary called her aside and said, “Sister, you know how our country is. Paper is important. Go home, find small jobs and build your CV.”
Then Abbey, her husband’s friend had paid them a visit. He’d grinned, that toothy, infectious grin of his and said he had good news. There was an opening on an oil rig off the shores of Ibeno. No job experience needed and it would be perfect for Ubon. They’d stared at each other, afraid to hope but their hearts awash with joy. Who would have thought it? Her husband was going to be an employee of an oil company. She’d heard those boys on the rig were paid a lot of money.
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you’ll miss me,” he said, chucking her under the chin. His eyes were twinkling again and his shoulders didn’t droop anymore.
“You know I will. As soon as they permit you to leave, come home.” He’d gone off to Port Harcourt, accompanied by her tears and good wishes.
A wry smile flitted across her face as she remembered the day he’d retuned after being away for a month. Zach had been so happy to see his father. They’d gone for ice cream at Big Bites on Aka Road, and then had a family dinner at Oliver Twist.
Then he’d gone off again. With each going away, his return had taken longer. Their schedule had changed, he said. He no longer had two weeks on and two weeks off. He would be home for a week at the end of the month. How was Zach doing?
“My phone fell into the ocean while I went up to the deck for a smoke,” he’d said, after one frantic week went by and she couldn’t reach him on the phone. “I had to put my sim card in my colleague’s phone.”
Though she wondered why he hadn’t done so on the very day of the accident, she asked no questions. Not even when the calls became less frequent, the money began to come in trickles and her friend Felicia wouldn’t stop talking about those rig boys, as she called them, and their wild lifestyle.
“I’m even surprised he came home three months in a row,” she said, smacking her lips, with the relish of someone who’d just finished consuming a plate of hot catfish peppersoup.
“Those boys? I know them nah. Don’t I have them in my family? Once they reach Bonny, kiss them goodbye. Men! Money and women will not kill them. Ah!”
Every week Felicia came by, she always had a new story about some relative of hers who worked offshore. Asandia began to avoid her. Her hands were already full, trying to hide this new development from her sweet boy. If it weren’t for him, she wasn’t sure she would have minded so much, this new person Ubon had become.
One day, she ran into Abbey at a supermarket, his wife hanging on to his arm and smiling up into his face. Her heart had twisted with what she later deciphered to be jealousy. She thought of walking away, afraid to air her troubles and confirm her fears. It was the reason she’d refused to call him all these months, to ask after her husband.
But her feet wouldn’t move. Seconds later, he became aware of her presence. He nodded at her and she said hello to the both of them. It’s been a while. How are the children? How is Zach? They hmmed and ahhed, before he smilingly shooed his wife off to another aisle.
“The last time I saw him, he was living somewhere on Bonny Island,” he said, in answer to Asandia’s unspoken question.
She stared at his lips which were firmed and eyes that held pity and something else. “Is he living alone?” she asked, unaware that she was holding her breath.
“Don’t lie to me, Abbey,” she said, breathless. “When you saw him, was he living there alone?”
“Nn….no,” Abbey replied, looking everywhere else except her face.
Asandia’s heart sank and the breath whooshed out of her lungs. So, her fears were real, not some monsters in the dark that tormented her at nights, when she held her pillow and wept.
“See, I’m sorry, Asandia. If I’d known Ubon was that kind of man, I wouldn’t have told him about that job. I didn’t know my friend. I never imagined he’d be easily swayed by money. And women.”
“We didn’t know,” she said softly and walked past him, out of the supermarket. Imagine that! Instead of coming home to raise his son, he’d gone off to gallivant with other women. Ah, my God will judge him, she prayed for the thousandth time.
“Madam, do you have recharge card?” someone asked, drawing Asandia out of her reverie.
“Ah, customer,” she greeted with a winsome smile. “Which network do you want?”
The woman thought for a moment and said, “GLO, hundred naira.”
“I get am,” Asandia replied, as she riffled through the fanny pack around her waist and fished a stack of cards, held together by a rubber band. The woman collected it, rummaged through her bag, brought out a thousand naira note and held it out to Asandia.
“Ah. Please ma, do you have two hundred or five hundred naira? I don’t have change. I haven’t sold anything since morning,” Asandia said.
“I don’t have,” the customer replied, a moue of displeasure forming at her lips. That said, she bent her head and began to type in the numbers on the voucher into her phone.
“Madam, hold on!” Asandia exclaimed. “I say I don’t have any change to give you.”
“Then go and find it,” the customer snapped. What kind of nonsense was this? What a terrible businesswoman this one was.
“There’s no one to ask from and I can’t leave my shop unattended,” Asandia replied, narrowed eyes and flared nostrils betraying her irritation. “Please, let me have my card back.”
“But why won’t you go and look for change?” the other woman demanded, her voice now a few decibels higher. “What kind of business are you running, that you don’t have change for customers?” With her tongue, she kissed her teeth to produce a hissing sound, to show her annoyance.
“Madam, I can’t leave my shop to find nine hundred naira, because of a small hundred-naira recharge card. If you had at least five hundred naira, I would’ve considered it.
The woman glared at Asandia for a few seconds and then threw the recharge card on the ground. “Take your stupid card,” she spat, angry. “Common change you don’t have and you’re selling?” She hissed with disdain.
“Please-o, carry your wahala away from my shop,” Asandia said. “You mustn’t buy from me. She returned to her seat, while the customer said a few choice words and stomped off, huffing.
This one must have been sent by evil forces to ruin my good fortune, Asandia thought. Who had she offended? She looked to the sky and muttered a prayer.
“Please Lord, I need a miracle. Zach must not begin the new term without new school shoes and bag.”
Dusk approached and brought with it, hundreds of passengers who converged at Itam Junction. They jostled and shoved each other as they waited for the long buses that would ferry them to their different destinations. The roundabout which had a raised grassy platform with a short statue in the middle, was now occupied by a man who held a microphone and had gathered quite an audience, apart from those queuing for the buses. He spoke of the miracles awaiting his listeners.
“I am a prophet sent by God to bring you revelation and liberation,” he bellowed into the microphone. Some paid rapt attention while others looked on, partly amused and partly curious.
“I say God is going to catapult someone to another level today,” the prophet yelled, his sharp eyes scanning the faces of those in the roadside congregation who stood closest to him. “I say, my God is going to takes someone to an unexpected level today,” he shouted again. “Can somebody hear me?” The crowd gave a collective affirmative.
“I say, the Lord is about to bless some people!” he repeated. He jumped in excitement and walked to the left side of the makeshift pulpit. The wire that connected the microphone to a single box speaker that was placed behind the statue grew taut, forcing him to return to his former position in the middle of the roundabout.
“Brothers and sisters, I, Prophet Dominion is telling you that the Lord is about to begin the deliverance of his children.”
He paused to pull out handkerchief from the left back pocket of his trouser and wiped his sweaty face with it.
“You. Yes, brother, you!” he suddenly yelled, pointing at a young man that stood about three rows from the front. The fellow pointed at himself to be certain he was the one.
“Yes, son. Come up here, my brother,” said Prophet Dominion. The man, nondescript in appearance, made his way through the body of onlookers who willingly parted for him to go through, curious and eager to see why he’d been chosen. He got on to the roundabout. The Prophet turned to him and nodded, wiping sweat from his face again.
“Brother, do you know why I called you up here?” asked the Dominion, intently gazing at the man’s face.
“No, prophet,” the man replied, shaking his head.
“I called you out because God has come to liberate you,” he said, placing one hand in the man’s shoulder. “I hear it whispered in my ear “Overseas….overseas….” It’s like you’ve been praying for the oppoortunity to go abroad and God is saying that he has answered your prayers. I’m hearing a name like Kelechi….Kelechi…..overseas.” He wiped his face again. “Young man, what is your name?”
The man, wearing a stunned expression, said, “Kelechi. Sir, my name is Kelechi.”
Some of the onlookers oohed and ahhed with surprised. A few laughed at what they were convinced was chicanery and began to taunt the prophet. He ignored them all, his attention wholly on Kelechi.
“You will go overseas,” he said. “That is what I’m hearing and that is what God wants me to tell you. You’re going abroad. Go and prepare yourself.”
He dismissed the man, who walked back to his position on the queue, his hands outstretched to the sky and his lips moving in thanksgiving. Another person was called out of the crowd, this time, a woman.
Asandia looked at her son who was wolfing down the yam porridge she’d kept for him in the blue and cream plastic food flask. He usually came straight to the kiosk after lessons and would help her out until they packed up and went home.
“Don’t gulp down your food like that,” she gently chided. She always spoke correct English whenever she spoke to him in that language and considered it a thing of pride that though she hadn’t made it past her second year in the university, she could boast of being well-spoken.
“Sorry mum,” he replied with a full mouth, an askew smile on his face as his mother threw him a mock glare for speaking with food in his mouth. He chewed and swallowed, running his tongue around his mouth to catch stray morsels. Carefully, he scraped off the broth at the bottom of the flask and greedily licked the spoon until it was shiny.
“Why don’t you rinse it and drink the water?” his mother asked, amused. He laughed and went to the cooler to get a sachet of water.
“Mummy, you haven’t even sold water today,” he said, eyeing the full cooler before closing it.
“You noticed?” his mother asked sarcastically. He looked at her askance and she sighed.
“I’ve only made hundred and thirty naira since morning,” she said, cradling her jaw in her right palm.
Zacharia looked at his mother and wished he had super powers that would enable him mint money and stop her from worrying so. He knew the new term that was beginning next week was on her mind. It would be wonderful if he could get a new schoolbag and a new pair of shoes, but neither of that was worth a moment his mother spent in anxiety. He thought of his father and cursed him for the thousandth time; unbidden, his fantasies of shaming the man if he ever chose to return, filled his mind, assuaging his anger a little.
“Mummy, kufuna idem mfo…..don’t worry yourself,” he said, placing a comforting hand on her shoulders. “I can manage the bag and shoes until the money comes,” he added, returning to his seat.
“Abasi akan! God forbid!” his mother explaimed, circling her hand over her head and throwing it behind her back, just like their neighbour Ezinne often did when she was showing her dislike for something. “You won’t wear those tattered shoes to school as long as I’m alive,” she swore. “Just pray that God will give us a miracle,” she added, her voice filled with hope. Her whispered prayer was swallowed up in the loud voice which boomed from Prophet Dominion’s speaker.
“……….as I round up, to give all of you a chance to partake of the heavenly blessings like the brothers and sisters that I have liberated here today,” the Prophet said. His soaked shirt was slowly drying in the evening breeze and he raised his face up, savouring the touch of the air. Stuffing his soaked hanky in his pocket, he looked at the faces of his audience and thought how easy they’d accepted the word. This was the moment he enjoyed the most; the moment when he knew that even the sceptics among them was ready to believe. They were ready to be saved and to pay the price for that salvation. Soon he would make a call for seeds to be sown and freewill offerings to be given. It never ceased to amaze him how desperate people were for signs and wonders. A little smile lifted the corners of his lips, masking the dark guile eneath. He lifted the microphone to his mouth and continued with the show.
“All I want you to do is, if you have a white handkerchief, bring it out. I am going to pray on it and anything you want, God is going to pass through that handkerchief and give it to you,” he intoned. “Today, poverty will end in your life! Every sickness will disappear from your body! You will never lack agaaaain!” Each declaration was accompanied by a loud amen from the crowd.
“Bring out your handkerchiefs let me pray for them,” he said. People began to dig inside their bags and pockets, looking for that piece of fabric.
“If you don’t have, please hurry now and buy! I will give you two minutes before i begin praying,” he said, prancing from one side of the circle to the other.
There was a sudden scramble as those without hankies began to make a mad dash to the shops that lined the sides of the streets, eager not to miss their miracles. In the midst of the shoving, bags and pockets were relieved of the wallets and purses within, and wandering fingers filched mobile phones from their owners. Asandia was still musing on her conversation with her son when she saw a horde of people making their way towards her kiosk. Wondering what the matter was, she got up and stepped outside the wooden structure.
“Madam abeg you get white hankashif?” the first person to arrive at her shop asked, her tone urgent.
“I get,” she replied and went back in to unhook the packet of hankies from the hanger she’d hung them. She pulled out one and was about to hand it to the lady others surrounded her shop, all clamouring for hankies. Surprised, she handed over the kerchiefs and reached for the extra three packets in the bag that acted as a store. While she gave out the handkerchiefs, Zacharia collected the money. In between, she was able to piece together through bits and pieces of conversation that her wares were being bought for miracles. Hand over fist, finished the five packets of handkerchiefs she had and apologetically directed the latecomers to the other shops down the road. Some customers came and asked for soft drinks and sachet water which she handed out. In the space of fifteen minutes, her goods had greatly reduced. When the crowd dwindled, she looked at her son in amazement and they both burst into joyous laughter, astonished at the sudden windfall.
“Mummy, God really answers prayers o!” Zaki said, his smile wide and full.
“He surely does,” his mother concurred, still dazed. Then she leapt up and danced a little jig, thanking God for answering their prayers.
“I wish that prophet will come back for the rest of the week,” Zaki said.
“Abi! I wish he would,” she said. “You know what? Let me go and see the prophet too. How can I sell hankies for others to receive their miracles and I won’t receive my own? Watch the store, I’m coming,” she instructed her son. She pulled out her old kerchief from her handbag, its colour now off-white. It would have to do. She made her way to the roundabout and using her small body, wound her way through the crowd, saying amen to each of the prayers as she went. She finally got the front and raised her hand, waving her hanky like everyone else. Then she looked up at the prophet and couldn’t move. She stared at him, her hand up, the white square waving in the air.
“I say, every sign of poverty in your life, I command it to dieeeeee!!!” he shouted, looking at his victims.
“Ameeeennnn!!!” the crowd thundered.
“Every enemy fighting against you, I comma…..” At that moment, his eyes landed on Asandia and he was electrocuted. He stared in open-mouthed shock, hoping she was an apparition. The crowd gave a loud amen to the unfinished prayer, already in a praying frenzy.
Mama Zaki shook herself out of her trance-like state and stared hard at the man in front of her.
“Calistus, so you’re now a prophet?” her words were inaudible as the crowd had by this time noticed the prophet’s sudden silence and were loudly debating the cause. Calistus couldn’t hear her, but he could read her lips. Fear clutched at his heart and he wished he could disappear.
“Calistus, I said are you now a prophet?” Asandia shouted, anger and bitterness giving strength and volume to her words. The few people around her heard and looked down at the little woman.
“Madam, you sabi am?” the man beside her asked, raising his hand to silence those who were still talking.
Asandia hissed and glared. “Na my husband wey run leave me and my pikin,” she spat, her narrowed eyes reading the unconcealed guilt on his face. “Now e dey hia dey lie lie say e be prophet.” She added, hands on her hips.
Within seconds, her words spread through the crowd; the prophet was a fake! Calistus edged towards the less crowded side of the circle, looking for an escape route. Those who now knew the truth raised an outcry and began to push towards the front, their eyes on the bag beside the prophet which contained their hard-earned money that they’d sowed and offered. As the crowd pushed forward, the buses began arrive to ferry the waiting crowd home. Some dashed for the buses while others were torn between getting to the prophet and hurrying to secure seats on the buses. In the melee that ensued, Asandia raised a loud cry, pointing at the roundabout. Those who looked followed her pointing arm to the roundabout.
Prophet Dominion and the offering bag were gone.