A city’s push towards modernization creates a problem – a backlash on the urban poor who struggle daily to eke out a living.
Asmau Baba straddles rather impatiently her fourteen-month old daughter to her back as she stands guard over a large basket of unripe plantain she is displaying to passers-by. She is standing in the middle of a dusty strip of what had once been an open marketplace with wooden stalls. The broken down and burnt pile of wooden debris at a corner nearby serves as a stark reminder of the raid by government bulldozers a few weeks ago. Asmau’s eyes scan the open space dotted with mostly traders, some sitting by make-shift stands of umbrellas over wooden tables with laid out wares while others stand by, their merchandise on a mat on the bare ground. Together, they call on the men and women who throng by hoping to find a buyer for their displayed goods.
Asmau fidgets as she stands guard over her basket. She is uneasy and it appears the other traders are as well. Occasionally they look up as they haggle with customers, jittery eyes scanning the length and breadth of the open area while others laugh nervously as they share jokes with one another in the scorching heat of the hot Lagos afternoon. Car honks and Okada (motorcycle) hoots filter down from a major road a few metres away. Traffic has already built up and the vehicles on the road could be seen moving at a snail speed. Pedestrians make a quick detour through the market place and, excited at the steady supply of potential customers, the traders call out in glee.
The Jakande market had always been a popular spot for traders until the government demolition late last year. A more modern shopping complex had been built nearby by a private developer commissioned by the state government, however the prohibitive cost of leasing a space in the complex meant only a few traders were able to move into the complex. The others, and these constituted the bulk of the traders, had defiantly decided to set up shop on the fringes of the market by the roadside.
Asmau’s baby lets out a cry and with a sigh, Asmau proceeds to untie from her bosom, the wrapper with which she had secured the baby. Then she stops, mid motion. From the corner of her eye, she can see the other traders hurriedly packing up their goods, lifting baskets of wares onto their head and taking to their heels.
The local government task force officials are here again.
Quickly, Asmau tightens her wrapper, lifts up her basket and joins in the dash across the street. For a second, there is a melee and stampede as traders run across all directions. Then, as quickly as it starts, there is calm. The local government officials enter their vehicle—a dusty, beat-up, pick-up van and drive away.
Today, they are unable to catch any trader nor confiscate any goods. But tomorrow they would be back. Or perhaps, they may show up later in the day in an effort to deter and enforce a government ban on illegal street trading.
Lately, the government has been on a gale of demolitions in its drive for urban improvement and mega city status. Unplanned open markets and slum settlements have been at the receiving end with bulldozers tearing through them and rendering many homeless and without a source of livelihood. Okada (bike) riding which had also served as an alternative source of employment for the teeming male youth has also been banned from major roads and highways.
From an objective point of view, these are all good policies. The bike riders posed not only a threat to themselves but also to the passengers they carried as well as other road users owing to their reckless attitude on the highway. Also, the conditions of living in the slums are already debasing enough, it can’t be argued that they are suited for the people who live in them and should be left alone. However, when such communities are displaced without adequate provisions made for resettlement and alternative means of employment, it only creates more hardship for a people whose existence is already one marked by strife and struggle.
I observe the traders converge slowly again, one after the other, at the exact same spot they had earlier fled. Those whose goods had been knocked over, survey the mess and attempt to salvage any left pieces they could while the others set up shop once again. With the government officials gone, I presume they felt it safe enough to resume their trading. I see them laugh and tease each other over the encounter with the task force officials just before earnestly calling out to passers-by once more.
I could not help but marvel at their resilience in the face of hardship; at the ease with which they bounce back from what had been a near traumatic experience to going right back to trading like nothing had happened. Only very few people can go from laughter to tears and right back to laughter in a few seconds and these people had mastered it—an epitome of strength and the strong will to survive in a cold, harsh world that didn’t seem to care.
Then I pause from my reverie as something suddenly strikes me.
I do not see Asmau.
Hurriedly, I scan through the sea of faces on the open strip before me. I look around the area, from the front of the building where I stand – a supermarket, opposite the open strip of land and from where like a voyeur I have observed the afternoon’s incident. But I do not see Asmau. I begin to feel the first tickles of concern but soon see a lone dishevelled figure slowly walk up the dusty street towards the open strip.
And I gasp.
Asmau is walking back to the marketplace with a limp. She lifts gingerly one foot, placing it in front of the other, as she slowly treks to the marketplace, baby on her back, basket of plantain on her head, and a hand clutching at her side. I see pain written all over her face as she approaches with much difficulty. Soon she reaches the other traders and takes a position beside some women displaying basket trays of dried catfish. One or two of the traders say something to her and then hand her a wooden stool. I see Asmau offer her thanks, then proceed to gingerly sit on the stool. She sets her basket of plantain on the ground.
I cross the road and get to Asmau at the same time she was lifting her baby from her back and onto her lap.
“Customer,” Asmau greets with a strained smile as she looks up at me. I can see her mood is low and that she’s clearly tired but she quickly brightens up and becomes the ever efficient saleswoman. “Good afternoon ma. You go buy plantain today?” She asked in her customary fractured English and I nodded, playfully tweaking her baby’s chubby cheek. The baby blesses me with a toothy, dimpled smile in return while her mother’s mouth creases lightly around the edges, the action softening the weathered harsh lines across her forehead.
“Yes.” I reply and then change the tone of my voice to a gruff, stern one. “But Asmau, I thought I told you to stop coming to this place, ehn? I just saw you run off with the other traders when the task force officials came here a few minutes ago…” Asmau gives a forlorn look and goes quiet, as if contemplating what to say. Then she replies in a small voice-
“I know ma… but how I go do? I have to make sales to feed my children, take care of my family…”
“You need to stay alive to take care of your family, you mean,” I cut her short, “What if you had been hurt while you were running? Fallen down or even had your baby knocked off your back? What if…” I stop as I notice Asmau wince and clutch tightly at her wrapper, the action pulling the wrapper up slightly. I look closely.
It was then I noticed the wrapper was stained crimson around the edges. There was a bright big gash across Asmau’s knee…
“Asmau!” I scream, shocked at the fact that despite knowing she had been injured in the earlier scuffle following the arrival of the government officials, she was calmly sitting down trying to sell off a couple of starchy staple. Had she no value for her life? Didn’t she know the risks associated with leaving an open wound untended? What if the wound got infected? What if she suddenly passed out from the trauma of it all? Who would tend to her baby? Or her so called goods she was desperate to sell off? “Whatever has come over you?” I continue, my voice a notch higher than usual, “Do you want to kill yourself? You have an exposed wound, bleeding right through your wrapper, yet you sit here? What silly market are you selling?” I’m still shocked at the thought of it all and Asmau bursts into tears, sobs racking her tiny shoulders as she holds tightly to her baby. Watching her, I could not help but feel pity for the poor lady who was only trying to survive, who was only trying to go against all odds to provide for her family.
“I’m sorry.” I say patting her on the back, in a move to placate her. The other traders had gathered around us now wondering what was going on.
“What happened? Wetin you do am aunty?” One of them asks and I wondered, just wondered if they didn’t all know Asmau had gotten a cut on her knee before they offered her a stool to seat on and continue trading.
“She has a wound on her leg,” I explain patiently, “I’ll have to take her to a hospital or clinic to get it cleaned up.” I continue and Asmau lifts her tear streaked face to look at me.
“Ah aunty…” she began a refusal but I cut her short.
“The longer you sit here the more chances the wound will get infected. Have you had your complete dose of tetanus shots?”
“Teta-nus?” Asmau repeats blankly and I shake my head.
“You see, you’ve probably never heard of the word so chances are that you’ve not had any tetanus shots yet… and that’s a bad thing.” I said, giving a short pause before continuing, “You risk getting that wound infected so please get up and let’s go, there’s a clinic right across the road over there.” I point it out to her and she nods, handing her baby over to one of the women.
“My market,” she reminds another, pointing to the basket of plantain and the latter replies;
“Don’t worry, I go help you sell am. Take care of yourself, you hear?” Asmau nods and we set out. Asmau walks with difficulty, limping with pain from her wound and I stop a cab to take us to the clinic. We get there in a few minutes.
The clinic is a small one, a converted flat on the ground floor of a storey building of four separate flats. It is a privately owned clinic and when we get in, the nurse on duty tells us the doctor is away but she takes a look at Asmau’s knee. Then she takes her in for some wound dressing. I wait back in the lobby and a short while later Asmau and the nurse emerge. She hands Asmau some drugs and I pay up our bill with firm instructions to Asmau to go to the Government General Hospital for further checks.
“And I also think you should call it a day today as well,” I tell her as we walk back to the market place. It is past 4 pm now and the weather is pleasantly cool. In a matter of hours, dusk would fall.
“Ah aunty, I can’t go yet,” Asmau replies in protest, “I have to sell off all my wares…”
“But you do realise you’re limping, right?” I point out to her, “Tell me how you intend to go home, late at night with your baby in this condition you’re currently in. Should something happen that would require you to quickly run and get to safety, tell me how would you achieve that?” I ask and Asmau bites her lips, deep in thought.
“You are right aunty. But…”
“But nothing. Listen Asmau, there’s something I need you to understand,” I launch into a speech, “I think you need to slow down and take better care of yourself. I appreciate you working so hard to provide for your family but have you ever given a thought to what would happen to your children should anything terrible happen to you?” I ask and Asmau is quiet, her head bent, as stares at the floor and I continue, “You need to take better care. Please, the next time you’re hurt in a stampede, don’t just go right back to your goods especially if you have a cut on your skin. The same thing goes to your baby too. Anytime you notice something, take action. Your health comes first. If you fall terribly ill and are admitted in a hospital, I don’t think you’d be able to sell your goods from a hospital bed or would you?” Slowly, Asmau shakes her head. “So now you get my drift?” I conclude and Asmau nods.
“Yes aunty. Thank you very much ma for everything you did for me. I’m very grateful.”
“You are welcome. Just take better care. Now, let’s go back to your baby.”
We walk back and when we get there, Asmau reunites happily with her baby and co-traders. I buy up all her remaining plantain so she can leave for home and Asmau is over the moon. When she profusely thanks me, I extract a promise from her about not coming to the open market again to sell her wares.
“Yes, aunty. I won’t ever come here again, I promise you!” She tells me, grinning from ear to ear as she counts the money I just paid her. I nod and turn on my heels.
But as I leave, I cannot help having a niggling feeling that if I were to turn up the following day, I would find Asmau at the exact same spot, with the exact same women, and doing the exact same thing of packing up and running whenever the government officials came.
For women like Asmau, such a way of life had become part of the norm…