Resilience, hunger and lack, a hefty whiff of stew, scour the air for every scrap of smell, German-like efficiency, a regimented procession of ants, snarl
“Listen! Can you hear that?” Igirigi asked his sister, Nwanduri. “What?” She asked. “Can’t you hear it?” She listened intently. “Now I can hear it. It is the sound of Mama Chinasa’s cooking.” “You are correct. I can hear her fresh succulent onions tumbling and rumbling in boiling hot oil,” said Igirigi. “How I miss that Igi,” Nwanduri lamented. “It has been ages since onions were fried in this house on a Sunday,” said Igirigi. “We used to have rice and stew every Sunday and bread and tea every morning. The bread and tea were the first to disappear, and then rice and stew vanished from the menu on Sundays.” “Nwandu I can smell it. That woman can cook. Since our parents can no longer afford rice and stew on Sundays, I might as well enjoy the smell of Mama Chinasa’s cooking.” Igirigi rose from the bed where he was lying beside his younger sister and walked to the door. It was a 'face-me-I-face-you' kind of house. The back door of their tiny bedroom was overlooking the kitchen shared by seven different families.
He pressed his nose tightly against the door and took a long, deep breath. “Nwanyi a na esi uwa! (This woman can cook!),” he exclaimed. “Igi, it is my turn. You have been smelling the stew for the past few minutes. Please let me get a sniff,” Nwanduri pleaded. Hesitantly, Igirigi stepped aside and Nwanduri assumed his position. She pressed her nose between the door frame and the door. Instinctively, she unbolted the lock and pushed the door slightly ajar. A gentle breeze rustled by, carrying with it a hefty whiff of Mama Chinasa’s stew. “Chei!!! O dim ka m buru Chinasa (I wish I were Chinasa),” Nwanduri said, bemoaning their fate. “O kwa I na anu isie? (You can perceive the rich aroma, right?)” Igirigi asked his sister. “I can imagine the onions, crayfish and tomatoes commingling in the pot to generate this fantastic smell. If only we could lay our hands on the food itself,” she replied. “At least the smell is better than nothing,” Igirigi answered philosophically.
“Obu gini ka anyi mediri? Kedu ka nkea anyi si puo iche? (What have we done, really? Why is our fate so terribly different?)” Igirigi asked. The poor state of their family defied his ten-year-old mind. Their father, Nwannadi was laid off work several months earlier, and he had not been lucky with a new job despite searching everywhere one could possibly imagine. His former company claimed they were losing money, so they had to restructure to stay afloat. Their mother sold vegetables, the proceeds of which had been the sole source of income for their family of six. They could not fully fathom their parents’ situation, but what they did understand was that hunger knocked persistently at the doors of their stomachs each day. Sometimes hunger smashed the doors open with arrogant authority, ravaging them with merciless liberality.
“Don’t you think we should stroll over to Chinasa’s apartment? Her mother should be able to dish some of that rice and stew for us,” Igirigi suggested. “I think it is too early. The stew is still boiling on the fire. I can see through the curtain. If we go now, we will overstay our welcome. Let’s catch them just before she starts dishing food for her children. Even if she was the devil, she would be touched by the presence of two hungry children to at least offer us some of her food,” Nwanduri laid down a more detailed strategy. “Eziokwu ka ikwuru (You have hit the nail on the head),” Igirigi concurred, accepting the superiority of his younger sister’s masterplan. “Ihe a biakwa ozo (It is happening again),” Nwanduri remarked as the aroma of the stew which was boiling and whistling on the fire wafted past their aggressive nostrils that picked up every smell in the air. “You know when you are hungry Nwandu; your sense of smell becomes sharp!” Igirigi pointed out. “Eziokwu! (That is true!). I smell food from afar when I am hungry, which is pretty much every time. If there was an award for perceiving food, you and I would win it over and over. We live off the smell of other people’s food.”
They both managed a laugh at their joke as they continued to scour the air for every scrap of smell that wafted by. Like the long, sticky tongue of a chameleon, their nostrils scrubbed and plucked the air around them with German-like efficiency. This had been their routine every Sunday for a few months. After church, they’d take their places on the bed, prostrating fully like starving lions patiently lying in wait for an unfortunate prey behind tall grasses. Their ears were just as sharp. They listened with razor-sharp alertness to the goings-on in the kitchen. The power company had lived up to their tradition by pulling a plug on power supply, so the room was dark except for the ray of light that peeked through the crack in the door after Nwanduri had unlocked it. Thankfully, they did not need light for their sniffing exercise. “I think she is about to start dishing lunch,” Nwanduri announced. “Let’s go!” Igirigi replied hastily. They scampered to their feet, opened the door more widely and lazily walked to Mama Chinasa’s door. “Good afternoon Mama Chinasa!” They echoed. “Good afternoon Igirigi and Nwanduri. Kedu? (How are you?)” She replied with a dashing smile. “We are fine thank you,” they answered in unison. “Is Chinasa around?” Nwanduri asked as though she did not already know Chinasa was at home – in the living room to be precise. Her radar-like hearing had already picked up Chinasa’s exact location with pin-point accuracy. “She is in the living room with her brothers,” Mama Chinasa answered.
They joined Chinasa and her brothers, Chude and Ezema in the living room. They were sprawled on the floor of their living room. Each of them was heavily armed with a shovel-like spoon, which they brandished menacingly as they awaited the imminent arrival of a plate of rice decorated with hot stew and chunks of goat meat. A cup of water sat still in front of each of them like a serene lake. Ezema was a glutton. He could devour the entire pot of rice in a twinkle of an eye. He was the youngest; however, his stature appeared as though he was far older than his older siblings. His stomach had ears on either side, which protruded a considerable distance away from the rest of his waist. In front was a rotund extension of his stomach; so extended he could balance his cup of water on it. He was not to be fooled by this seemingly friendly visit.
This was another calculated attempt by Igirigi and Nwanduri to reduce his intended portion for the day. How come they always know when to show up? He wondered. His face was adorned with a hostile and ugly frown. He stared at them infuriatingly. “Would you like to go play with us later?” Nwanduri asked Chinasa. “Yes of course. My mother likes us to rest after eating, so I guess after resting we can go and play oga outside.” Chinasa responded with her usual enthusiasm. Igirigi found a vacant spot on the floor next to Chude and quickly slotted into it. “We can wait for you then,” Nwanduri suggested. “You don’t have to wait!” Ezema snarled. His face contorted into an even meaner demeanor. “You think I don’t know why you are here? Go and come back later. Why do you always have to visit just when we are about to eat?” Ezema’s tirade continued.
“Shut up Ezema!” Chinasa retorted. “You don’t talk to my friends like that.” As if Ezema did not exist, Nwanduri found a spot of her own and slotted in calmly. She had gone without rice and stew for far too long to be bullied out of this golden opportunity. Besides, eating at Chinasa’s would sustain her and Igirigi until tomorrow morning in case there was no dinner in their household. “We only want to play,” Igirigi said, directing his comment at Ezema, but he did not buy it. “Be respectful Ezema,” Chude said to Ezema. He pulled at his ear as he spoke warning him that if he continued to act disrespectfully to their guests, their mother would hear of it. Ezema sat there, seething with rage. Igirigi and Nwanduri subtly made eye contact. Words were not spoken between them, but they shared volumes of information in that singular exchange. We are in!!! They suggested with their eyes, managing a subdued smile. “Children food is ready!” Mama Chinasa yelled from the kitchen. Chinasa and her brothers dashed happily to the kitchen. Igirigi and Nwanduri knew the drill. Rushing with them would buttress Ezema’s scathing allegation. They sat tight, daring Mama Chinasa to ignore two little children; their neighbor’s children while her own children fed sumptuously. “She will call us shortly,” Igirigi whispered. “Shhh!!!” Nwanduri signaled by placing a finger over her mouth.
Like a regimented procession of ants, Chinasa and her brothers filed back into the living room, each with a plate of rice that piled high and wide. “What are you waiting for Igirigi and Nwanduri? Come here and get something to eat,” Mama Chinasa called to them. They leapt to their feet and proceeded to the kitchen with the urgency of the fire brigade. “Can’t you say; no thanks?” Ezema fired at them as they marched to the kitchen for the final leg of their mission. No sooner had they left than they returned with each clutching a plate of rice and stew in hand. Ezema stared angrily at them throughout the meal but he dared not say a word. His mother would not tolerate that and he knew it. He shot missiles at them with his eyes instead, but they happily ignored him. “Thank you Mama Chinasa,” they both echoed at the end of the meal. “You are welcome children,” she answered. Shortly afterwards, they returned to their bedroom through the same back door. “I will come back in a while so we can play outside,” Nwanduri said to Chinasa as they left. “Yes, I will be waiting.” Ezema’s eyes left a burning trail behind them as they merrily walked away. “We made it!!!” Igirigi announced, muffling his voice as soon as they had safely locked the door behind them. “We stayed the course and it payed off. Ezema thought we had time for him. We took care of the most important thing; our empty stomachs,” Nwanduri replied. They both lay back on the bed filled to the brim. Their faces beamed with gleaming smiles as they lay down on the bed. Their faces burned so brightly that they threatened to illuminate their dark bedroom.
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