The street is not a mattress. The street is a war zone on flat rocks with no rules of engagement. Nobody asks questions or pretends to care whether you survive or not. If you fall on the road, fine, life continues without any silent moment.
I cannot remember when I joined the street community. Maybe it was last year. Maybe it was the year before last year. But one thing I know is that I found the kin, the togetherness, and acceptance that my home-life refused me. I found comfort among these different faces. It is funny, right? Nobody cares, yet we are kin. This is the fun and diversity of the street. We know ourselves, even though we are not always together. We wake up and wander off. Unlike my home-life, nobody asks, “Where are you going today?” We are hustlers. We engage in anything that will bring us money. They, home-lifers, regard us and our hustles as nuisance. Does it matter? No! Our hustles feed us, and we are okay with it.
What is that fine word I heard my friend, Effiong, call me one day? Ehem! Entrepreneur. Yes! We are entrepreneurs on the streets without suits and ties. We pick scraps – metals with shiny edges that still look useful to us, plastics, cans and bottles. We sell the pet plastics to the women making Zobo and Soymilk. Four cans for thirty naira. The metals and bottles, we sell to blacksmiths and big industries that need them for recycling. We are okay that dirt is our trade and our friend. We are okay that our days are spent on the streets and our nights on grounds of open spaces. Some mornings, we stand by the roadsides, watching the house-lifers in their hustles, with their clean cars and clothes, starched and ironed in razor edges, participating in the race for dailybread. Occasionally, we nerve them with our Ibibio street jabs and they reward us with disdain stares – for indigenes. The foreigners erase our presence with intense eyes-front stares.
Crowd fascinates us — churches, rallies, traffics, fights… In crowd, we would stretch out our lean scruffy arms for anything to drop. Or we would quietly snatch valuables when the people harden their hearts against our hungry faces and demurring beggar eyes.
Warning! Do not get caught! Your life depends on it!
Food is important on the streets. We call it “the chairman”. It can chase without pursuit and kill without violence. And like fuel, nobody wants to see the venomous ready-to-kill soot it puffs when lit. We fight against its chief agent, hunger, by minute. We fight it with all of our strengths and vigor. Nobody cooks and call you to eat. We are food hunters. We hunt in different forms. In dustbins, where we pick food in freshly dumped dirt; on holdups and traffics, where we clean windscreens, expecting the drivers to drop something — but I will advice you not to clean for keke-napeps and Uyo orange buses, because their conditions are worse than ours; in shops, where we carry loads; in Mama Bukas (M.B. for short) where we beg to wash plates.
These days, these MBs refuse, saying that we scare their customers with our filth and they have people who are willing to wash at the same rate. Like us, they ask for food in return, but the difference is that they dress in finer and cleaner clothes. Those ones could afford water and detergents to escape the enveloping street dirts that do not seem to ever go on vacation. Still I do not understand why one will have fine clothes, detergents and water, and still wash heap of breakfast and lunch plates for a plate of food.
I am street but my entire life is not street. I am not supposed to think about yesterday; yesterday is another day out of so many days I have lived. Tomorrow is something I am not sure of, but as for today, I can see, feel and control. That is the way of the streets. The only code: what are you doing now? And people who think about tomorrow are seen as defaulters and unworthy of the streets. They are kicked out and red-marked.
My big secret: I want to leave the streets some day. Shuuuu! Don’t tell anybody yet o. I want to leave the cold nights on bare floors save for the Indomie cartons. I want to leave the fight for cartons and bed space. I want to leave the rainfalls, the mosquito-larva laden Uyo floods staying for days, the kidnappers that prey on us at nights, the big boys that muscle me out of my money, and big Okon. Nobody has a permanent bed space except you have street credibility like big Okon who mingle with police. Nobody sees him but he sees us all. He has eyes everywhere. Everybody is under him. With his big muscle that breathes separately whenever he humps his commands in that ganja-quaked voice, his face would have been handsome in another clime.
Warning! Don’t mess with big Okon and his boys! Your street membership is at stake!
I watch home-lifers. Sometimes, I approach a random home-lifer, begging not for money or food, even though hunger is to me what a fly is to a decaying animal. I would beg for knowledge of how he/she could afford the fine appearance and manner. I want to have them.
That was how I met Effiong, my older home-lifer friend about to finish secondary school. One evening hidden in early darkness, somewhere in Aka road, in his smart yellow and black uniform of Community Secondary School, Aka, I approached him, pretending to beg. I stretched my right palm to him, he stopped and started touching his pockets.
“Iyo,” I said, “talk to me.” He was puzzled, but I fixed my eyes at his growing beard.
He breathed out, “My name is Effiong Unyime. What is your name?”
“Abasifreke Akpan. A. A for short.”
He smiled, and I knew I would see him again, and maybe another again.
It is now five months old since that day. Effiong is writing his last WAEC paper and preparing for university JAMB. I am dreaming of being like Effiong. He tells me that I could be him by dreaming and working.
“First, dream, then work for it. That is how you build tomorrow.”
Help (a life needs SOS)! I have a dream for tomorrow and willing to work, will you help?