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© 2005 - 2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas.


I had to admit that my new job at Federal Community Bank was harder than I’d expected, so stressful that I looked forward to going home to an empty flat every evening. I remember clearly the Wednesday of the following week, I returned from work, blind to the people on our street, chatting, buying food from hawkers, laughing for no just cause, and blaming the government for their woes. I noticed a new poster wrapped around a National Electric Power pole. Lateness to work was an act of indiscipline, it stated, and only reminded me of how much I disliked Mr. Salako and how I would never get used to working for him.

I’d reached the gates of our block of flats when I saw a bright light in our back yard. It seemed as if a star had fallen from the sky and landed there. I heard voices and knew that a crowd was gathered. Mama Chidi, one of the tenants of our block, who had four children and a baby she carried on her back, was standing by our gates. She was trembling. I thought we’d had armed robbers again.

"Ewo, it’s bad, it’s bad," she said, when she saw me.

"Armed robbers?" I asked.

They charged through our streets at least three times a year carrying fire torches and machetes. When they left, they killed at least one person. Mama Chidi bounced up and down. Her glasses became lopsided and her baby’s head bobbed. I had to hold her still. I could feel her bones under my grip. There was no flesh on Mama Chidi, because she was looking after so many children, all under the age of eleven, and she always smelled of burnt beans.

"The septic tank," she said. "He fell inside. It sucked him under. I’m waiting for his mother, to tell her myself."

I touched my chest. "Who?"

"Mrs. Durojaiye’s youngest, Ayo. He drowned in the tank."

I threw my handbag on the ground and sat by her feet. I was slapping my head. There wasn’t a tear in my eyes. The septic tank had sucked Ayo in, Mama Chidi said. She was waiting to tell Mrs. Durojaiye and to hold her down until the poor woman recovered from shock.

The crowd in our back yard were other tenants. They were gathered around the septic tank, carrying kerosene and battery lanterns. When I saw them I became conscious of an awful stench, like a sewer. It was the waste in our tank. The cement surface had a huge hole. Mama Chidi’s husband was dipping a long stick into it and seemed to be stirring the contents. "It’s Tolani," I heard one or two tenants say. The heat from their lanterns made their faces shiny with sweat. Even their children were gaping at the hole. I stood by the pole of a washing line. I could go no further.

"We need a longer stick," someone said.

"This is the longest we could find," someone else answered.

"Go across the street to the tailor’s. They have plenty of bamboo there."

"Don’t! They will come rushing here!"

"Go across the street! Ask for bamboo! Don’t tell them what it is for!"

Someone pushed a teenage boy in my direction and he hurried off. I heard other people talking about Philomena, Mrs. Durojaiye’s girl, who was meant to be watching little Ayo.

"She’s run away."

"Wicked girl."

"What kind of heart does she have?"

"Abandoning the boy…"

She would be beaten and taken into police custody if ever she returned, they said. Philomena couldn’t have been more than thirteen years old herself. She’d probably run home to her parents. From their talk, I gathered that Ayo’s body was still inside the tank. I pictured him as I saw him when he was jumping on the surface in his khaki shorts. I must have been standing there a while when I heard Mrs. Durojaiye’s voice.

"My son? My son?"

She stumbled round the corner. The terror in her eyes, had someone pushed her into a den for sacrifice, I would not have known the difference. Mama Chidi tackled her. Mrs. Durojaiye pushed Mama Chidi away. Mama Chidi caught her arm. Mrs. Durojaiye cried out. Mama Chidi’s glasses fell off but she continued to wrestle as two other women broke from the crowd to help. The men stood with their lanterns; their children watched. Mrs. Durojaiye flung her captors off, grasped the collar of her nurse’s uniform and ripped it apart when she saw the broken surface of the tank. Her bra and girdle held her together underneath. She was breathing as if she were fighting for air. She slapped the woman who tried to cover her. I stood by the washing lines as they held her like a prisoner. Mama Chidi was on one side of her and the other two women on her other side, begging her to be strong. Mrs. Durojaiye brought them all down as she began to cry, "Jesus of Nazareth. Lord, have mercy on me. Please. Have mercy..."

The teenage boy returned with the bamboo stick as the women dragged Mrs. Durojaiye away on the cement ground. I remained by the pole. Another man took over from stirring the inside of the septic tank and feeling around for Ayo’s body. The smell grew stronger. More people filled our back yard as news of the drowning spread on our street. If a body were brought out, it would be a spectacle for them. I turned away from the crowd and walked out of the compound.

I was tired of these people, a birth, a death, they were there, ready to bear witness. They did not know the difference. They were grief mongers. The women who held Mrs. Durojaiye, why did they have to do that, hold her down and beg her to be strong? As she stumbled around the corner, dribbling from the mouth, the one thought I had was, Let her go. What was the sense in holding her?


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Grief Mongers,  from the novel "Swallow" by Sefi Atta