The year she finished secondary school, while she waited for her WAEC and Jamb results, Egoamaka had to live with her parents for one year; a year that had her feeling nostalgic about the boarding house life she had enjoyed for six years but didn’t wish to relive; a year that had her yearning to get admitted to the university so that she could experience firsthand the stories she heard about life in the university. Leaving for university would grant her independence, freedom to do whatever she wanted. But for this one year, Egoamaka had to stay at Onitsha to do her ‘Home service’. Home service, as she and her elder sisters nicknamed the one year that would have her cooking, washing clothes, and doing all the mundane domestic chores she had somehow managed to avoid when she lived in the boarding house in her secondary school, Akwaete High School. In particular, this Home service year, she would learn to pound fufu even though she thought that the chore was absolutely unnecessary. Garri was a good substitute and was much easier to prepare. She already knew that when she got married, she would never buy fufu, what with its foul smell and all the sweat that drops into the mortar from the brow of whoever was doing the energy-sapping chore of pounding the meal. To that end, she had decided that when it was time, she was going marry a man who didn’t mind the difference between garri and fufu, a man who wouldn’t say that fufu was more enjoyable because a ball of fufu was smoother and therefore moves down the throat more easily.
Egoamaka and her sisters often joked that Home Service was a parody of the National Youth Service Corps, a program of the Federal Government of Nigeria that mandates young university graduates to work in public service in return for a monthly stipend. Though no stipends were paid for Home service, Egoamaka appreciated that the one year helped her improve her culinary skills and gave her privilege to travel with her parents to their village, Nnoka, on weekends. Traveling to the village gave her an advantage over her siblings because she got to know some of her distant relatives who she would otherwise never know existed. It always fascinated Egoamaka that everybody in Nnoka seemed to be related somehow. Whenever they met someone in Nnoka, usually at a funeral, St Thomas’ church or Orie market, her mother would say something along the lines of ‘Egoamaka, bia, o kwa ichetera Liyoonadi (Leonard), a na-alu nwanne nna ya, Mgbokwo, n’obi anyi’ , inquiring if Egoamaka remembered the stranger, Leonard, and explaining that Leonard’s aunt, Mgbokwo, was married to one of their kinsmen. Despite her mother alluding that Egoamaka had met the stranger before then, Egoamaka was always sure she hadn’t but would tell her mum that she recognized the stranger, to save herself from embarrassment. It amazed her that her mother always took time to introduce her, sometimes, to people she was sure she would never see again.
For the most part, Egoamaka, enjoyed the one year she spent at home as it gave her time to bond with her parents, including being told by her mum when there wasn’t enough ‘ogiri’ (a foul smelling pasty spice made from fermenting a local seed)in the ‘ora’ soup she made. But there were things Egoamaka didn’t enjoy about Home Service. None of them, however, paralleled going to Main Market at the behest of her elder cousin, Ijeoma, who lived with them. A once popular international market, Main Market had become a shadow of its old self. Once, Egoamaka wore flip-flops to Main Market during rainy season but came back home barefoot. Between stretching her hands sideways to maintain her balance as she gently lifted her flip-flops from the sticky mud at the market, and trying to avoid a cyclist honking directly behind her, she had lost her stance and the footwear gave way forcing her to carry them in her hands. The shoe repairer she met insisted she had to pay fifteeen naira to get them fixed and she didn’t have that much on her. But it wasn’t the mud or the rude cyclists that Egoamaka worried about. Egoamaka didn’t mind either that each time she went to buy vegetables at Freezone (so called because the market women at that section of the market sell in an open space and do not have permanent spaces), she had to buy a plastic bag or bring one from home or she would have to go home with her ugu leaves uncovered. Egoamaka loathed that the market women who sold fresh produce apportioned the often damaged wares in small mounds, mixing wholesome ones with pitiable ones, and wouldn’t allow her to pick only the fresh ones from each portion even when she was willing to pay more. They wouldn’t even let her touch them lest she left them in a more damaged state. She didn’t blame them. That was how they bought them from the local farmers who insisted they buy them in baskets the farmers had already packed, often with the bad ones hidden beneath the good ones.
Egoamaka had also noticed that the florescent lights at the stores where laces were sold made the materials look more beautiful than they actually were. That was no problem for her either. She had learnt to step away from the humming generators and persuasive traders to go outside, to the irritation and discomfort of the lace sellers who worry that other desperate traders will try to entice her once she stepped outside the shop, where she can use natural light to truly assess what she was buying. As inconvenient as all these were, they weren’t the reason Egoamka hated going to market for Aunty Ijeoma. What she hated was that each time she got back from the market, Aunty Ijeoma would ask her: “Ikwegharikwara onu?’, Hope you shopped around. And often, Egoamaka didn’t.
PS: The sequel ‘The Hesitant Haggler’ is coming soon.