The aroma from the tilapia on the grill wafted around the street corner, entering every home through the front door and exiting through the windows.
Everyone in the neighbourhood knew when Mama Ogie had set up shop for the morning and when some tilapia sizzled on her open grill. The pull was magnetic.
It was 10am on Thursday and, as usual, a line of community folks and passers-by had formed even though the first servings were yet to land on the plastic plates that crowded the tray on the rickety wooden table that served as her bukateria.
“I’m grateful to Mama Ogie,” Ola said to his neighbour as they moved forward on the line. “Her grill is so special, but I don’t come here because I am hungry.”
“You don’t come here because you are hungry? Please, say something else,” his neighbour interrupted him. “What do you come here for? To learn how to cook?”
“I come here,” Ola calmly replied, “because whenever I perceive the aroma of the tilapia, I am assured that I am well. You know one of the symptoms of COVID-19 is the loss of sense of smell.”
“So, this is your testing centre? Why don’t you smell the aroma from a distance instead of wasting my time by taking the space before me?”
“I would gladly have done so and saved some cash,” Ola replied. “Unfortunately, I have to eat the fish to be sure that my sense of taste is intact as well.”
“Hahaha. We all know how you eat your fish though. Through your nose!” his neighbour scorned. Ola usually bought either plantain or fish. Mostly only plantain as it was cheaper.
Mama Ogie looked up at the customers lined up before her and splashed some vegetable oil on the grill. Today will be a good day, she told herself.
Ogie, her 10-year-old son, shared a broken wooden chair with his friend, Idemudia. The two were inseparable. They had big dreams of becoming either business tycoons or politicians. Every day they had the same debate: what is the difference between a politician and a business tycoon?
“Who will be the politician and who will be the tycoon?” Ogie asked.
“That is easy to know,” Idemudia laughed. “Who makes promises and never keep them?”
Mama Ogie turned the fish and nodded, satisfied by how they were turning out. The roasted plantain and fish made a perfect lunch for those who could afford them. Just a few months ago most of her customers bought a combination of fish and plantain but since the pandemic, only a few could buy both. They had to decide whether to snack on fish or pile their belly up with plantain.
Soon it was Ola’s turn to place his order.
“That’s Mr Social Distancing,” Ogie whispered to Idemudia.
“Yes,” Idemudia agreed. “We will see if the plantain will keep a social distance from the fish today.”
Ola looked around furtively and signalled his neighbour to maintain his distance. He drew in as much of the aroma from the fish as he could. He wished he could get a mouthful of the delicacy through his nostrils. Then he bent forward, got closer and closer to the fish…
“Mr Man,” Mama Ogie yelled. “Be careful! Maintain your social distance.”
“Social distance is between people,” Ola replied, “never between man and fish.”
“This bridge is crossed with Naira,” Mama Ogie stated sternly. Then she laughed. What does your pocket say today? Can it close the gap between the fish and the plantain?”
Ogie winked at Idemudia. No social distance between man and fish? Has he ever been to the river or even a pond? Ogie always enjoyed the banter between her mother and the man. This was their street corner school. They learned the habits of the neighbours just sitting here besides Mama Ogie’s Fish is Ready shop.
Ogie thought they should prepare a signpost to brand his mother’s business. Maybe even produce some business cards, Idemudia suggested. We could even start a fish delivery service. Mama Ogie’s Tilapia Special. That sounded nice. Since Idemudia’s father was a fisher, they could ensure there is enough supply of fish. We will be rich! We can turn it into a joint business. Mamas’ Special Tilapia?
Trouble was that Idemudia’s mother was a dealer in catfish. While Mama Idemudia was engaged in aquaculture, her husband would not tolerate any fish that was not caught at sea. He had no qualms killing fish but believed that the fishpond was restrictive and punishing for the fish. Eating farmed fish to Idemudia’s father was like eating chicken bought from the big poultry farm across the city. “Fat, lazy chicken”, he would say. You could kick them, shove them and they would not be moved. They can’t move.
Papa Idemudia believed that for chicken to land on his plate it must have been chased across the neighbourhood and be able to fly over buildings. The chicken has to fight for its life before he would be satisfied. Just the way he chased fish when they dragged his line in a futile attempt to escape his grasp.
Fishpond fish or fish from the sea. This was the contention at the dinner table most nights when Papa Idemudia was not out at sea. One day he had a bout of runny stomach after dinner and accused Mama Idemudia of having cooked some of her catfish.
“You can tell by the length of their whiskers, can’t you?” she asked her husband. “You know everything about fish and can tell which is from the pond and which is from the sea by looking at them or simply by looking at how they lie in the pot.”
“Of course,” Papa Idemudia answered. “I can tell which is which even in the darkest night. In fact, when I am out fishing, I just have to whistle a tune for a particular fish to jump into my net. Or to swallow my hook. There is one particular fish I know by sight. It likes playing around my boat. Sometimes I pat its head with my paddle. I think it may want to come home with me, except that I do not think it would like your pond.”
Ogie’s eyes widened as a big car pulled up. Mama Ogie urged Mr Social Distance to pick up his roasted plantain and move on. He looked wistfully at the fish he could not afford. He couldn’t just saunter off. He hung around to test his sense of smell a little bit further. Maybe his belly could be filled through his nostrils as the doctors say at times.
The door of the big car opened, and Mama Ogie was certain that the man who approached her had never stopped by before. She was effusive in her welcome. There was to be a party the next day and the man wanted to give invitees a special treat of street food.
Some people still hold parties in these times, Mama Ogie thought. But she wouldn’t be bothered about that. Her business was to deliver the large order that was placed for grilled fish and plantain. Tomorrow at 12 noon sharp. A wad of cash exchanged hands and the car zoomed off, tyres screeching, water splashing.
“Street Food. How could anyone call her special food street food! In any case, the money was good. No receipt. No guarantee. That person may love street food, but certainly he had no street sense”, she concluded.
Ogie eyed Idemudia. That’s the sign to confirm that we are in business.
Mamas’ Special Tilapia. And Catfish! Yes, Mamas’ Special Tilapia & Catfish.
They would sell the idea to their mothers, and their mothers will sell it to their fathers.
They gave themselves a congratulatory high five and fell off their broken chair, almost knocking down the grill. They looked plaintively at Mama Ogie. Would she hit them with her ladle?
“Go home, both of you,” Mama Ogie shouted, alarmed. “Idemudia, what will I tell your mother? That I poured hot oil on you? Go home now!”
“Yes, home, children,” Mr Social Distance spat. Then unable to stifle a sneeze, he let out an earth-shattering burst, tripping over a pile of charcoal. His plantain flew out of his hand, and landed in a puddle by the roadside, making his enviable dive to capture it completely useless. He sat in the puddle lamenting his misfortune.
Although his olfactory organs functioned okay, he would have no way of knowing if his taste buds were yet in good order. No way to know today, except someone offers him a morsel to bite, that is. And nobody did. Not yet. His neighbour walked close, clutching his plantain and the head of a tilapia. He wouldn’t offer him even the eyes of the fish.
“Go home!” Mama Ogie shouted again. “What must I do to you two?”
Idemudia began to pull Ogie by his shorts. Blame it on Mr. Social Distance. No, blame it on the broken chair. No piece of grilled fish for them today. Just then Idemudia’s father came by on his bicycle.
“Good morning Papa Idemudia,” Mama Ogie greeted. “I will need plenty of fish tomorrow morning.”
“W-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l!” Papa Idemudia replied slowly. “That sounds like music to my ears. Some big contract abi? Or are you celebrating something?
Ogie wanted to step forward to greet Papa Idemudia but his friend pulled him back. Too late.
“Idemudia! Idemudia! What are you doing here at this time? Papa Idemudia yelled. “You should be at home. These days no one knows who is spreading the virus and you should be helping your mother feed her fish. Come with me quickly.
“The pond is empty,” Idemudia whispered as his father drew him and made to leave.
“Wait!” Mama Ogie called after him. “Please, take a deposit for the fish.”
That was a new one for Papa Idemudia. Getting paid before he goes fishing?
Was that a good or bad omen? And did she say, please? Wonders will never end.
Mama Ogie, pleading with him to collect a deposit for fish he was yet to catch?
Where will the fish even come from? His fishing expedition of last night had confirmed a recent pattern. He had toiled all night but what did he come home with? A pitiful catch that could hardly fill up a bucket. What a rough time it was.
Even for his wife. Didn’t he help her pick fish from the pond two weeks ago? Just one throw of his net and everything came up, flapping this way and that. But three days ago, he saw Mama Idemudia peering at the pond. She threw a few scraps into the water, expecting a fight for her offering. But there was no stir. The only ripples she saw came from what she dropped. Her heart thumped. The pond remained silent.
Yesterday he had gone to the sea with hope. He had to stay in the shallow waters as a naval blockade stopped movements into the deep waters. Did COVID-19 come from the deep? These days, throwing nets at the shallow waters mostly yielded debris, plastics and invasive weeds. He caught only a few wiggly creatures.
“The Navy is keeping us at the shore while international thieves come with big trawlers and take everything away unseen, unchallenged”, Papa Idemudia scoffed.
It was annoying that they were stealing the fish to make animal feed, not even for eating. What more rotten ideas would humans come up with? Thieves trawled in the deep and oil spills coated the coastal waters. And the oil companies not only polluted the waters, they slashed through the mangrove forests creating canals for their barges and monstrous machines.
Our freshwater creeks are turning brackish. Adding salt to injury. He began to see sense in what some other fishers always said that fish is better than oil. He had dreamt of Idemudia on an oil rig. Of becoming a big man and caring for him when he retired from fishing. But we cannot eat oil. We cannot drink oil. Oil is forcing him into premature retirement. Should he give up?
Will tomorrow be better than last night? What if it isn’t? Will I betray Mama Ogie? Pandemic. Pandemonium.
I should take the cash. And then what? The pond was silent! The sea? He could only hope for better tomorrow.
“Here is the money,” Mama Ogie stretched her hands to Papa Idemudia, jolting him back to the reality in front of him.
“Ammm,” Mr Social Distance cleared his throat, still seated in the puddle, his plantain sinking deeper into the mire. Out of sight. “I need to test my taste buds.”
Bassey is an architect, activist and Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF)
“The COVID-19 Test Centre” 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