Mama Yaba by Florence Ọlájídé

It was time to pay another visit to my neurotic great aunt, Mama Yaba, and for some unfathomable reason, Mum wanted me to take my youngest sister, Idowu with me. With Mum’s over-protectiveness and the six-year age gap between us, my interactions with her were minimal and I had never been solely in charge of her outside our home before.

‘Mum!’ I protested. ‘How am I going to manage her through public transport?’

‘You’ll cope,’ she said.

The image of me dodging a bus conductor’s wandering hands whilst dragging my sister behind me flashed through my brain.

‘I can barely manage myself. What if she misbehaves with Mama? Then what?’

‘You can show her what to do, just like your dad did with you.’

As if that would work.

‘But Mum, she never listens to anything anyone says!’

Mum turned to Idowu. ‘You will listen to your sister, won’t you?’

Her head bobbed, ‘Yes Mummy,’ she murmured, but the mischief behind those long eyelashes told a different story. Why didn’t Mum see that?

‘Mum, she’s saying that now, but you know she won’t!’

‘No more buts. You are taking her and that’s that.’

I stomped from the room in frustration. Between the little minx and my neurotic great aunt, the trip would be a disaster.

On our way to Mama’s house, I gave Idowu all the warnings Dad had given me. To be fair, she listened carefully and followed all my instructions. With relief we got off the last bus and started the short trek to Mama Yaba’s house. My stomach clenched when I spied the silhouette of Mama Yaba’s roof in the skyline. I tightened my grip on Idowu’s hand as I approached the doorbell. As usual, Mama poked her head out of her window before throwing down her key. Idowu followed timidly behind me, careful not to touch the banisters as Mama Yaba’s beady eyes tracked our progress up the stairwell.

I greeted Mama before introducing my sister. Mama peered suspiciously at her for a moment, then seemed to decide she was harmless. She invited us into the hallway and the tightness in my belly eased slightly. So far, so good. If only it would stay that way. Mama and I exchanged our usual pleasantries. I brought her up to date with my progress at school. She asked after the rest of my family. Left out of the discussion, Idowu grew bored. She swung her feet forward then back, hitting the chair legs with the backward movement. Mama Yaba flinched at the loud thud. I jabbed a warning finger into my sister’s hip, while I continued the conversation with Mama. Idowu ignored me and kicked again. I pinched her hip, hard. ‘Ow!’ she moaned, rubbing her hip vigorously. Mama stared at Idowu, then at me. I arched my shoulder, feigning ignorance. Mama’s lips curled in a knowing smile.

The pinch did the trick. Idowu quietened down, but not for long. When Mama moved into her kitchen to make us some refreshments, Idowu got off the chair, leaned into my ear and whispered, ‘I want to go to the toilet.’ Oh, dear God. My eyes narrowed, shooting a warning glance, ‘No,’ I said, shaking my head vigorously. I had never seen the insides of Mama Yaba’s toilet with good reason. If the woman wouldn’t let me beyond her hallway, why would she let me near her toilet?

Idowu squirmed on the spot, squeezing her thighs together.

‘I’m desperate,’ she said, as Mama Yaba walked out of her kitchen, tray in hand.

‘What’s up with her?’ she nodded at my sister.

‘Mm…,’ dare I ask? ‘She wants to use the toilet.’ There, I’d said it.

‘Wh-a-a-a-t!’ Mama shrieked.

Quickly, I freed the tray from her hands before she dropped it.

She needs the toilet,’ I repeated with more than a little trepidation.

Mama’s eyes bulged as if she could not comprehend the simple words. For a few seconds she stared unseeing, straight at the wall. Next, she paced up and down the hallway, ringing her hands together, muttering under her breath. It looked like Mama was about to have a meltdown.

Aware that she had unleashed something she didn’t quite understand, Idowu shrank nervously back into her chair. I waited silently, my eye following Mama’s every move, wondering how this would play out. Bringing Idowu was definitely a mistake. I should have defied mum.

‘Can’t she wait until you get home?’ Mama finally asked.

I glanced at Idowu, unable to tell if this was one of her silly games or whether she truly needed to go, after all, she was only seven.

‘I don’t know Mama,’ I said dejectedly.

Mama mulled over my response before deciding.

‘Fine. I have a toilet downstairs in the boys’ quarters, behind the parking bay. She can use that, but you have to wash it thoroughly afterwards.’ That went without saying. Mama foraged around a small basket underneath the side table in the hallway. ‘Here,’ she held out a brass key, dangling on a chain. I took Idowu’s hand and led her back down the stairs. ‘It’s the first door on your right,’ Mama called out.

The rectangular boy’s quarters block had three doors which once upon a time must have gleamed black. Now, the weathered and chipped wood sported various shades of grey. The keyhole was smothered in dust, and I doubted the door had been opened in years. In between the roof fascia and the downspout pipe, enormous, intricate, triangular webs fluttered gently in the breeze. Spiders, Mama’s Yaba’s nemesis, had woven their magic once again. I inserted the key into the door lock and hesitated. If it were this bad on the outside, what would it be like inside?

I twisted the key and pushed the door open. A colossal waft of dust flew in my face. I sputtered and stepped back quickly, fanning the dust away with my hand.

Are you alright? Mama hollered from up the stairs.

‘It’s too dusty!’ I continued fanning, until the dust settled, allowing a better view. I shook my head in disgust. The recessed squat pan, in the ground, wasn’t the problem. The spiders had overindulged in an epic fantasy for their very own Halloween party. Tiny, silvery threads crisscrossed ghoulishly from wall to wall. In the centre of the ceiling, three-dimensional, geometric shapes peaked like inverted spires on a cathedral.

I stepped aside to let my sister have a look. She recoiled in horror, hiding her face behind my skirt.

‘Do you still need to go?’  I didn’t bother hiding the sneer.

‘I’ll wait.’

‘Are you sure? If you don’t go now, you must wait until we get home.’

‘I am.’

I popped my head around the building so I could see Mama at the top of the stairs.

‘She doesn’t need it anymore,’ I announced, but it was too late. Mama already had a broom and bucket of water waiting. She invited me to take them.

‘She didn’t use it,’ I began, but Mama wasn’t listening.

For the next hour, Mama fetched copious amounts of water while I washed, and just as before, she refused to stop until I begged from sheer exhaustion. Once it was clean, Idowu asked to use the toilet. The malevolent look I threw her way, she should have made her disappear in a poof. Sadly, all it did was shut her up. With the cleaning all done, I informed Mama that I better take my sister home. Mama agreed wholeheartedly, so we left.

A few minutes into our trek to the bus stop, I pushed the back of Idowu’s head with my knuckles, just hard enough to cause discomfort.

‘Ow!’ she exclaimed, ‘what was that for?’.

I smiled snidely. She was in for a hard ride home. A few minutes later, I did it again.

‘Stop it! I’m going to tell Mum when we get home.’

‘You can tell all you want.’

I was prepared to deal with any repercussions from Mum. It was more important to make sure that Idowu would never willingly follow me to Mama Yaba’s house again.

If you want to hear more about Mama Yaba, be sure to check out my new book, Coconut!

Coconut

Florence Ọlájídé

A generation of Nigerian children were born in Britain in the fifties and sixties, privately fostered by white families, then taken to Nigeria by their parents. Coconut is the story of one of those children.

A moving, uplifting and inspiring account of one woman’s self-determination to discover who she is and find her way to a place she can call home
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