“It's your turn to go buy relish; the money is on the table next to the onion!” My sister barked from her room. She expected protest but it was just what I wanted- to escape the noise that she called music and my claustrophobic room.
It was time to pull the old rusty gate while avoiding the greasy handle. All the men in the houses in the compound pull and push it. The women, the children and the strangers that drop in to waste our time or hawk their cheap Chinese goods, perched on dirty shoulders and pinned on old cartons, all pull and push it.
I would wonder what would make that grease on the handle. As for the men; the sweat, the oil from work, the pudenda they had been fumbling minutes before sneaking out or morsels after a meal of fish, potatoes or pork.
Anything could be in that grease on the rusty gate handle that I have to pull at when going to the market. Think of the younglings of the compound: wiping their behinds with hands when elders are not helping or looking, the mucus combed from noses and pasted on unlucky surfaces, gate handles included. Or it could be the mud or the greasy fresh mangoes they had been wasting.
The mothers: they could have been tending to the babies seconds before fumbling the gate handle or could be coming from the toilet fixing their pads to prevent menstrual-used-oil from leaking and the most noxious of all, the hair chemicals.
The thought of a husband making love to a woman with repugnant hair is unsettling; it makes one envision a man in a gas mask on top of his wife making sure that he keeps his head away from the woman’s head. No kissing and no whispering sweet nothings in the ear.
By this time I would be out of the rusty gate, past the cakey and crackly brick fence and would be strolling down the dust path towards the bridge. A look at the brick fence would raise questions in me- why did the build it? It is obvious that it can’t keep out thieves; I would then conclude that it was designed to keep out the neighbours’ kids especially at lunch time, nothing else.
I then would stroll on, down the path towards the bridge clasping the money and the same paper bag that I would have used to buy relish for the last two weeks before it is used to light the charcoal stove when there is a blackout. By this time the paper bag is really just paper, with only one handle functional and the colour bleached due to overuse and the washing it faces each time it unloads that day’s load from the market.
My sister says we don’t have to enrich the paper bag sellers; strange logic, I nearly thought she had been reading about pollution. It would not be pollution though, because the neighbourhood survives on it, not one house has a rubbish pit.
That thought would remind me of the day my aunt ordered me to escort her on a drive, I was so happy to ride her car that she defended so much from our behinds. It was around six, I sat in the back of the car fantasizing about her driving to a park to teach me how to drive.
As I sat there seeing myself on the wheel, she slowed down on the culvert and lowered the window next to me and told me to throw out the big lump that was sitting next to me. I complied and watched how the bag rolled downhill; rupturing and revealing the disposable baby towels, onion and potato peels that it encased.
I felt bad but then noticed that everyone was slowing down at the spot and everybody pulled something from somewhere and flung it sideways while continuing their drive or stroll.
“The neighbourhood has no space for rubbish pits, here the filth will soon be washed away by the river,” she said while stepping on the gas. She must have seen my inquisitive face.
Even when I walk to the market I see the road littered with debris from houses, either the rain, wind or cars carry it away or the soil will burry it. It invokes the image of futuristic archaeologists digging and pouncing on a disposable diaper and say, “Eureka! There used to be a baby around here!”
I would then push aside the thought as I approach the small market before the bridge. I have never seen anyone buy from here; their everything is just too expensive. My sister told me that the market is made to milk moneys from lazy people who don’t go to buy relish in time, and when its dark and the main market is too far people have no choice but to pay double here.
I would then pass the miniature market with my eyes cast down; I wouldn’t manage to face the women behind the merchandise. They see my paper bag and they know I need relish and they probably hate me for passing them with the money. In their minds they are probably wishing me bad luck.
“May he fall off the bridge and break his knee,” they are probably mumbling, “why would one walk past such good vegetables, just to save five Kwacha?"
My mind would then wander on as I cautiously win my way through the tattered paper bags that litter my way. With the evil women’s thoughts aboard my clear mind, I cautiously climb down the hill towards the bridge.
The so called bridge is really just two logs running parallel across the river with sticks flung clumsily across the logs for people to step on, barely keeping them from sinking in as one would in quicksand. Under the two logs, a small stream meanders among the rocks.
The water is green as if there is a Chlorophyll factory upstream, but it is just the collection of urine from bogus and porous sewers, used oil, grease from washing bodies and fertilizer from the maize fields that line the stream.
The smell is nearly pleasant at first, it hits you as cooking potatoes and then the real nastiness comes, revealing to the nose buds every smell in the smell: the urine, the oil, the rotting frogs and their unhatched dead eggs and the decaying branches that lie on the riverbed.
I would cut airflow to the lungs as I balanced my way on the two logs and step on the other side, then let in a big breathe of air to feed the empty lungs, regrettably the gulp of air is also full of the detested smell.
It must be something with my uptown nose because a look downstream shows women washing in the water, children somersaulting into it and some drawing it for home use. I would then visualize green rice made from it, what dish would that be? ‘Rice on the pollutants?’
Soon after the bridge I would be ready to enter the market, but not before passing the refuse dump at the market gate where shabby and shaggy members of society sift for what is good in what the rest have termed garbage. Sugarcane, wood chips, metal bits and plates, torn sacks and rotten tomatoes. Why did they not sell the tomatoes at discount than to lose it to bacteria?
Different people ooze in and out of the market. Men holding hands, men in skirts and in women shoes, men looking like they have no shaving money, men that overdid the shaving with heads cleaner than buttocks, men with red eyes and men sucking on sugarcane. If there was a statistician at the gate, the mode would fall on men sucking on sugarcane.
There is something with sugarcane and folks from high density areas. The streets are lined and smeared with white cleanly chewed sugarcane remains and city officials seem not to have problems with ridding the streets of the cane remains every morning.
It seems ghetto people know that they cannot afford the processed sugar and they see the fresh cane as the source of all their sugar, the only sweet thing they can afford.
I would be past the sugarcane guzzlers and sellers near the gate and squeeze my way in the sea of people wandering up and down the market.
There is something about the women here that I find interesting every time I come for relish. No matter how beautiful they are they all have one serious issue to point out.
Talks of a beautiful girl, a beautiful face that it but with breasts hanging at the same level as her navel and she cannot even think of the word ‘bra.’ I spot another well dressed and pretty girl and then she smiles at you and walks straight to a stall where they sell mice and she buys about thirty and goes away...
Gangster looking faces smile and blush to the ladies in the market crowd making me think of replacing the police with these ladies. She can walk to a tough guy and ask him, “Do you have ganja on you?” And if the gangster says yes then she calls in backup and asks again, “do you want to hear your rights?”
Talking of gangsters and ladies makes me imagine the intercourse that takes place in the neighbourhood. HIV faces and babies keep appearing indicating great activity after dark. My uncle once said overpopulation can be dealt by bringing electricity.
“Dinner is at six, at seven people are in bed, what do you think couples do in the dark? If they village and the ghettos had lights, people would be watching TV or listening to radios till they are too tired to make babies, simple logic,” boasted my uncle.
The market has everything one would need from salvation to damnation. There is a guy selling burnt bulbs here and another guy hawking old calendars, empty nonreturnable bottles and empty TV cases there.
Grasshoppers and small birds selling like hot cakes, used bent nails, video cassette tape rolls for people to decorate their weddings with and a stall with chicken heads only, a thousands of heads.
Stalls separated by two meters playing different music both at high volume, a seller shouting at his customer after he changed his mind after already paying for cooking oil in plastic phials.
There would be a charming preacher speaking of hope and riches that come to those who give. It’s funny how market preachers research so that when they shout the message is almost directed at you and you are so touched that you give some of your money in offerings in the dirty plates that aides circulate as the preacher prattles heavenly dogma.
“God saw what you did yesterday, he saw what you did to her, he heard what you said about him...if you know you have sinned raise up your arm and pray with me,” the preacher would say, attracting scores of people, most of whom did things the previous day.
I would then shrug off the fantasies as I pass the boys with paraffin tubes on sticks on the corner and then suddenly a vast open space of relish sellers would face me.
“Makelele Crapao, cheap,” a Mackerel seller chants, “veges here, sire: these good with groundnuts and those with cooking oil,” another would say, “somba nyama apa!” another would chaunt and leave me wondering what kind of fish really tastes like meat.
I would then stand and realise that I hadn’t decided what to buy, leaving myself at the mercy of the coaxing and intimidating hawkers.
I cannot buy the Mackerel because my sister claims she is allergic to them, not the cabbage because my brother says the sugar in it causes nausea when mixed with salt and the eggs are also out of bounds because they are for tea not dinner.
“Don’t pretend that you can’t hear because you can, go and buy relish before it gets dark and worse still before brother comes from work and finds no relish!” said my sister, still shouting and jostling me from my fantasy.
I pushed aside my novel, slipped my feet into my sister’s sandals and put the money into the tattered paper bag and closed the door behind me facing the gate handle, I carefully avoid it and I disappear towards the market.