One of the little luxuries I enjoy in Lome is the baguette-salad sandwich. (My dietician will have a fit if she gets to know this. She insists that flour products are not good for me. But if she is not dogmatic, she would indulge me on this.)
Indeed, the treat is the baguette with a good helping of avocado pear stuffed into it with a touch of onions and a dash of olive oil. Just give this to me, and you can have all the caviar in the world. Next to my wife’s fried rice, culinary delights can’t get better!
And don’t stretch your imagination on who serves me this special delight and for how much. I buy it off the streets of Lome. Women who hawk bread also carry the whole works as complimentary products. And I buy it for all of CFA 200 (roughly N130)! My breakfast is not over without this treat. True bohemian.
This Wednesday morning is not different. I rest after the heavy breakfast, then I take a walk. Soon enough, the sun starts showing muscles – time for the beach, as my schedule again is deliberately packed for the evening.
At the Marina beach, I decide to move away from the spot of yesterday which was the drug zone. I pick a coconut tree, some 75 metres away from Satguru Travels. My coconut tree is in the first row, close to the road, but it is fine; providing the needed shade and the Atlantic breeze washes over just fine.
As I sit down, I notice that it is mostly women that are within sight here. I see Miss Spindly Legs, the skinniest of the women I saw yesterday. A little flash of surprise crosses my mind. Was I expecting her to have died overnight? That’s very uncharitable. But truly, whatever dried her out this way can take her any moment without notice.
Truth though, is that death often leaves the likeliest of candidates for a long time. I remember Bonny Nwagbo from my village. I grew up to know him to be perpetually drunk, Sunday to Sunday (but somehow managing to earn a living as a mason in-between). Even if you didn’t catch a whiff of alcohol around him, his face looked perpetually stoned. But he lived to cross 90 years, of which I could count up to 40 years (the much I personally knew) of being chronically drunk! Death harvested so many of his mates who lived very careful lives before bothering with him. Spindly Legs, I apologise for my initial unkind thoughts.
Spindly Legs is not with any man today. She is in the company of a woman who is lying down with her head half-hidden inside an aluminium bowl which would take some 30 litres of water. I look around and notice that most of the women lying around there have the same aluminium pan – some hide their heads inside the pans and some use it as a pillow. Then I understand. I am in the porters’ zone today, unlike the drug zone of yesterday. None of the women here is smoking. (But some 40 metres away, on the third row of coconuts towards the sea, there is a group of about six young men, smoking).
Amongst their cousins, the Ghanaians, these women porters are called kayayei. I don’t know what they are called here (and I make a mental note to find out). And for the umpteenth time, I wonder why it is women that are porters here exclusively. In Lagos, female porters dominate, but you still see male porters, especially if you go to buy foodstuff at Mile 12. In eastern Nigeria where I hail from, as well as northern Nigeria where religion discourages the exposure of women, you don’t find female porters at all.
In 2001 when I came here in January, this phenomenon caused one of my compatriots a great distress. Me too. Opposite the hotel where we stayed was a warehouse. And this gang of women porters were offloading a truck with reams of paper that cold harmattan morning. I’ve worked with reams of paper and know how heavy they are. These women were carrying reams of 20 x 30 inch bond or bank paper stacked on their heads in multiples. Among them was this young woman, heavily pregnant – perhaps in her 8th month, if you asked me. Her mates didn’t stack up for her as much as they carried. She would waddle slowly from the truck to the warehouse and return. I was on the balcony of the hotel watching them. So was this other Nigerian from the north.
“Where is this woman’s husband that she is doing this type of work at this stage of pregnancy”, the northerner blurted out. Indeed, he took it straight from my mind.
“The husband is at home, or drinking, waiting for her to get the money and cook for him”, a lady who heard him retorted sarcastically. She was Yoruba Togolese and spoke English with a heavy accent.
This reply would not be totally fair on Togolese manhood, my mind told me. But whichever man allowed this young lady to do this kind of work at this stage of pregnancy must be an irresponsible husband, culture or no culture, I concluded.
(Continues next week)
•First published in www.afrika247.com