It is Sunday morning. I am a stubborn sleeper. My fingers find and silence my phone when the alarm goes off at 5am. My mind silences the muezzin in the mosque in front of my house as he begins his sweet call to prayer shortly after. They are not enough to rouse my sleepy head. But when the dozen motorcycles begin to roar away from the mosque after the Morning Prayer, I cannot sleep any longer.
It used to take me a lot of adjusting to make the daily mental transition from the concrete and glass jungle that is Abuja city where I work to the dingy satellite settlement, Lugbe, 20 kilometers away, where I call home. Moving from Lugbe to the city centre used to feel like the sudden burst of a halogen lamp after being in pitch darkness for so long. I used to feel self-conscious when I first moved here, wondering if people could tell by looking at me, that I had travelled 20 kilometers to get to town.
Some days it feels like Lugbe is chucked away, to the side, in the dark shadows of Abuja city- the days when, driving home at night I miss my turn because the lights I use as a signpost aren’t turned and every junction looks the same; days when I wake up on Sunday morning and find that none of the two functional ATM machines in Lugbe work and I have to make the long 40kilometer round trip just to get some cash; days when I stroll past Malam Haruna’s wooden provision store, which doubles as a house and see scores of young men coming out of shacks made of wood and old cement and rice bags.
On other days when I feel thankful for cheap restaurants like Iya Alaje whose rough stew and fish is just as I like it, for the effectiveness of motorcycles which are banned in the city, for a rent I can afford, I am careful not to romanticize poverty, privation and the absence of government.
Lugbe as a settlement has no running water and the sale of water from boreholes is big business. Men push carts through the streets carrying yellow 20-litre water gallons.
I walk into the bathroom and discover my 50-litre bucket is empty as are the two smaller buckets. I wait for the sound of clanking metal which is how the water sellers announce their presence. In Lugbe one learns to master sounds and calls. A series of clanks done to a rhythm is the water seller. The jingle of flattened bottle corks is the cobbler. The call “Trade by barter” sung repeatedly as “traybabata” is from the guy who gives exchanges plastic containers for old clothes or household items, “Doze-bee!” is the garbage collector and the call “digiway poto-poto comot” which is an attempt to say “Digging well, Poto-poto (mud) comot (out)” announces the guy who cleans abandoned wells or fixes collapsed wells.
I recognize the water seller passing by and call out to him in Hausa.
“Galan biyu”, I tell him and he brings out two gallons from his cart. I think of asking him if there is a rule mandating all the water sellers to use only yellow gallons. I have never seen a water seller with a white or black water gallon even though these are easily available in the market. As I take the first gallon into my bathroom I smile and decide that it is a silly question to ask.
Sandra runs the drinking joint that has no sign post or business name. We just call the place Sandra. My neighbor and I like to come here on Sunday because it is close to Iya Alaje, the only decent restaurant that sells food on Sunday morning. We ask one of the attendants to go get us rice and fish.
Sandra converts from a drinking joint in the day to a brothel at night. In the day time, the sex workers mill about, smoking, chatting or washing before their work hours begin. Occasionally a desperate customer will show up in the day time and the sex worker will frenziedly drop all else, rush a bath and prepare to do business. Unlike brothels in the city- most of which operate in the shadows- Sandra is smack in the heart of residential Lugbe, loud and confidently carrying on business. I am friendly with one of the sex workers here. Like many of the other girls, most people have no idea what her birth name is, apart from “African Queen” which is her business name.
African Queen is sprawled out on one of the couches- Sandra does not get much patronage on Sunday mornings. As we walk in to sit, she sits up and says hello. She smiles what I call her business smile.
My friend asks her where she is from. Enugu, she says. There is something both sad and curious about African Queen. While she is the most popular sex worker in Sandra, she is also the most humble and courteous. It is hard to find her screaming or fighting, something that happens regularly here. I risk her becoming suspicious or aggressive and ask her why she is here in Lugbe.
Through a somewhat incoherent narration, I am able to glean certain facts- she is from Enugu, is from a large family and goes home every month to convince her mother she is actually in school, studying. She does not give me a pathetic story of poverty and privation.
“I no like to dey ask anybody for money,” she says. “If you ask man for help, all of dem want to fuck you. Nobody want to help you without getting something. And me, I want things. So I do what I can to help myself.”
I am both impressed and saddened by the honesty in her story. I ask her why she chose the outskirts, why she chose dingy Lugbe over the city.
“When I dey for East, den tell me say, if I just come Abuja, fuck man just a night, I go get 50,000. Na im I come. But when I come, I see people dey prize me 4,000. When I ask, why, dem come tell me say, dat one na for town. By den I don already start.”
She tells me of men who took her for the night and abandoned her without payment. She remembers one who felt bad, because she didn’t react aggressively and came back the following day to pay what he owed. And then of course there is Sandra who regularly slaps and punches her sex workers sometimes for offenses as little as being ‘rude’.
Lugbe casts a shadow even over African Queen. I leave Sandra, with a bellyful of rice and fish, grateful for little privileges.
As I take a shortcut through a particularly muddy road back home, thinking how I will need to buy more water to wash up, I feel sad at how much acceptance there is of the lack of government presence in the Federal Capital Territory, as close as 20 kilometers from the city centre. I think of how, although much of the manpower and labour that services the city pours into it daily from settlements like Lugbe, this place sits sadly in the shadows of Abuja.
I wonder if the President who passes by almost every other week on his way to the airport, knows that African Queen and I cannot get something as basic as running water.
I lay down in my room and wait for electricity so I can iron my clothes for Monday. I hear the sound of thunder. The darkening clouds darken my room. I know I will wait a long time for the electricity.