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Saturday, April 1, 2023

Spare Change, by Onome Olive Etisioro

Adukè was about to lose her mind.

“Madam, the increase in the price for these foodstuffs is not our fault o,” the buxom yam seller said, spreading her hands in a gesture of helplessness. “This yam comes from the market at nine hundred and fifty naira. When I add transportation cost and my little profit, you don’t expect me to sell it at one thousand naira.”

Nigerian Naira
Nigerian Naira

Adukè had known this would happen. The entire city was in a rush to stock up their houses, with the impending lockdown looming above their heads, and she just knew that the sellers would take advantage of the panic.

Well, she wasn’t having any of it. “All of you sellers are the same,” she spat, angrily gathering her bags in preparation to stomp away. “Any small opportunity you get, you want to use it to cheat customers out of all their money.

The seller frowned. “Ah ahn, Madam, e never reach like that now,” she said, wiping at her face with the hem of her wrapper. “Why you go talk that kind thing? Abi you think say na only una dey struggle to carry foodstuffs put for house?”

Adukè clenched her jaw, her anger wavering, as she stared at the woman’s pitiable mien.

“You know say you be my customer,” the woman went on, shaking her head this way and that. “I no go fit to cheat you now. How I go do that kind thing? Na the truth I dey tell you so.”

Adukè sighed, her hands clenching and unclenching on her grocery bags as she debated. At that point, it was pretty hard to hold on to her anger, not when the woman looked even more frustrated than she did. Honestly, the circumstances were very unfair for everyone. She shouldn’t take her anger out on another innocent, struggling woman. Not in the middle of this madness, she told herself.

But now Adukè was in between a rock and a hard place. Even though she sympathized with the woman, she still wasn’t sure she could buy the yams in the end. They were frankly too expensive, and she was shopping on a budget. There were still so many foodstuffs to buy, and she couldn’t let herself use up any more than she’d intended to on any one product.

Do you even really need yams? The thought popped into her head, and she found herself seriously considering it. Were the yams a necessity at this time? She still needed to buy some garri and rice. At least, those were essentials to her.

She had to be careful with how much she spent here today. Her family’s survival rested in her hands.

“Abeg,” she said, shifting her hands this way and that, as if searching for something even as she gathered up her bags of bought goods. “I go come back. Make I go buy small rice come.”

She knew very well that she was not going to return at all, but what else could she do? Even though she was panic buying as much as everybody else was, she couldn’t afford to lose her mind. No matter how close she was to doing so.

Honestly, Adukè had already been panicking before it became the state craze. And, at this point, she was already in such a constant state of flux that she was sincerely shocked how she could still function at such high levels. How else was a woman to react to the fact that her husband had just been relieved from work all because of a global pandemic and the lockdown order?

Her mind was whirling in all directions, thinking, panicking, never resting. And for all that, she still couldn’t say she’d found any kind of solution to their predicament.

Her predicament. Because her husband’s work was the only reason he was never fully around to nit-pick at every single little thing and get angry at whatever it was he thought she did wrong. And now he no longer had that job, so all that focus that he would have given to his job – that she happily let him give to his job – was going to fall on her. She was going to be his scapegoat, and the mere idea of that sent panic coursing through her body as if it was her lifeblood.

Adukè’s hands shook as she gripped her bags tighter and maneuvered her way through the market, struggling with one hand to pull her face mask back up to her nose.

But even as she did it, she wondered. Whether it was all worth it. As things stood, she was much more terrified of being in the same space with her bored husband than she was of this virus getting her. As the panic heated her blood, she even found herself hoping that the virus would get her. And that maybe she would die, because that was the only way she knew of to be free of him.

And with each step she took away from the yam seller, she tried to come up with a way to explain why she hadn’t bought any yams after all. She knew that she was playing with fire, she knew how her husband liked her to buy yam tubers and pound them rather than the already processed yam flour most people ate nowadays. She also knew that he would find a way to taunt her about it, but even then, she didn’t turn back around.

Because there simply wasn’t enough money to waste, and even though the evidence was right in front of their eyes, she knew that he wasn’t going to believe her; that he would accuse her of deliberately deciding not to buy more things because she wanted to steal money from him. Which was rather ironic, seeing as it was her money she was using to buy the foodstuffs for stocking up.

Not that he even thought that. He thought that he was entitled to her money because he was the one who funded her with part of the money she’d needed to buy that sewing machine. To him, her little job was just an extension of his own pocket. He owned her, and everything she had, even when it was clear that she didn’t think so. He never seemed to care about what she did or didn’t think. Adukè knew well enough not to antagonize him about anything, because he could just easily blow up in her face.

Aduké almost lost her footing as the razor-edged memory of the time he slapped her until her ears rang and how the bruises wouldn’t fade for weeks surfaced in her mind.

No, the idea of spending a whole two weeks locked down inside the same space with her own husband filled her with so much dread that it was becoming harder and harder to appear sane. Or, at least, as sane as anyone could manage to be in these times.

Adukè couldn’t stop moving, but she made herself take in a deep breath even as she wove between Lagosians who seemed to be dragging their own worries around with them.

“Good afternoon o,” she forced a smile as she stopped in front of a man sitting behind his wheelbarrow of rice. “I want to buy two paint rubbers of rice. One paint rubber is one thousand eight hundred naira, abi?”

If she bought two rubbers of rice instead of three, she might be able to buy two rubbers of garri instead of just one. That sounded like a better plan. Or she could buy the new cheap beans she heard was made in a laboratory. Yes, those beans, or cowpea, what did they call them? Genetically engineered beans that kills weevils that try to eat them. She knew her husband had sworn he would not eat insecticides. He called the beans insecticides!

The man shook his head, his lips turning down in helpless disagreement. “Ah, madam, no be so o.” He said and Adukè’s heart dropped. “Price don go up o. We no dey sell paint rubber one eight again o.”

She was almost afraid to ask. In fact, she almost turned around to get on the first bus she found heading for home. It was the idea of meeting her husband behind closed doors with nothing but ‘excuses on her lips’ that kept her immobile.

“How much you dey sell now?” She sounded subdued, even to her own ears. Resigned. Helplessly trapped in the jaws of a cold-blooded predator. Only now she didn’t know which one it was: her husband, or the unyieldingly callous jaws of a pandemic that was out to make her sell her very soul.

“One paint rubber na two thousand nine hundred now o, madam. Two paint rubbers go be five thousand eight hundred.”

That was more than she could even afford to spend. And just like before, Adukè was stuck between two very hard decisions. She just didn’t have that much money to spare, and now she was going to have to buy two rubbers less than what she’d originally intended to buy. At that point, she dreaded asking about the price of garri, wondering if she’d even be able to buy any in the end.

“Oya give me one rubber.” She felt like her very lifeblood was being drawn from her as she conceded to him at last, but there was nothing else she could do.

On both fronts, she had already been defeated. Life, it seemed, didn’t plan on sparing her any time to catch her breath. Adukè’s fists clenched and unclenched on her bags, but it wasn’t like she was going to fight. She couldn’t change anything.

And that was the problem.

The look of things might make it seem like she was stocking up as much as she could now, but the truth was plain to see for anyone who cared to look that she was the one being sucked dry.

In the end, she was losing a lot more than just her mind. She was losing her very self. There was nothing left of her to spare.

Etisioro is a lawyer, novelist and prose poet with a love for literature and food

“Spare Change” is extracted from “A Walk in a Curfew and other Pandemic Tales”, a 2020 publication of HOMEF

Readers can download the full eBook at www.homef.org

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