The Day We Went to Steal Yams in Benin City
1980: One Friday, Rufus told me that we should visit the messenger of the University of Benin, Department of Creative Art, whose wife just gave birth to twins, both boys.
I told him that we needed to go to the bank to withdraw some money. I kept the purse for both of us. We were out of cash, and it was the end of the week. But Rufus said we would go to the bank later.
Rufus drove his Mitshubishi bus and we went into the interior of the old city, behind the studios of the bronze casters. The red earth burned bright like fire under the blazing sun, as we left the tarmac of the main street and turned to the natural laterite path.
It was deep inside the compound of the old city, a destitute section I had never before visited.
We parked the van, and called a street urchin, “Fine boy, where are they having the naming ceremony?”
He pointed to a small house constructed with adobe. Only the front was plastered with cement, with the three other sides left bare.
We entered the house. It did not look festive. We thought we were going to a party, but perhaps we were in the wrong house?
But Joseph, the new father saw us, greeted us and led us into a room with an open window through which some light fell on a tiny section. There was a bed that took more than half the size of the room, and it was the only furniture in the room.
The mother sat on the bed with the twins. She greeted us shyly. She hardly could meet our eyes. She was ashamed. She felt she had disappointed us because they were not able to give us anything to drink.
Joseph explained to Rufus, “Oga the twins came at the wrong end of the month. We have no drinks for you. The twins hardly have food to eat.”
I saw Rufus was very touched. His eyes welled with tears, which he quickly fought back. He asked me, “Moyo, do we have any money left?”
I brought out everything we had and gave it to him. He took it and gave it to Joseph’s wife, who received it thankfully, with both hands extended.
“Look, Joseph, that’s all we have. But, hey, this room is too tight for these twins. I have two empty rooms at my boy’s quarters. You want them? The yard is large, and as the boys grow they have some clean space to spread out. It’s a little far from here.”
“I know your house, oga. At GRA, not so? The university flats where the lecturers live? I have a farm there where I grow vegetables to supplement my salary from Uniben. We earn starvation wages.”
“I know,” Rufus answered. “The boy’s quarters are clean. We use them as a studio now. We will move our stuff out this evening. And you can move in tomorrow morning if you want. You’ll like it.”
He and his wife thanked us profusely.
We left and returned to the Mitshubishi bus, sober. Rufus said we should go and get our things out of the boy’s quarters immediately to make room for Joseph and his family.
For those who don’t know, a boy’s quarter consists of a small apartment built behind the main house for the servant and his family. It is a colonial practice that continues in many government housings.
We didn’t have servants and the space was empty most of the time, except when I used it to paint. But I did most of my painting in the main house.
So we went into the boy’s quarters and moved out things. It was not as clean as we thought. It needed a lot of work, because there were paint splashes everywhere. We decided to paint it. There were a couple of gallons of white emulsion that I used to prime my canvases. We set to work and painted the place white, washed the floor, and brought a large bed from the main house and set it in one of the two rooms. The second room got a table and two chairs that Rufus removed from the dining room. “We don’t need a table to eat,” Rufus decided. “And they have no furniture at all.”
We worked all day long, and finally we got the place all set for Joseph to occupy the following day.
“We finished it papam-papam,” Rufus said, happy with what we did. “I’m hungry. Let’s go get something to eat at that buka down the street.”
“Hey, Papa Ru, we have no money left. We gave Joseph everything we had.”
“And the banks have closed now,” he said. “It’s past 5pm. Let’s look for something we can cook upstairs.”
“We are totally out of everything. No rice, beans, gari–nothing we can cook,” I informed him. I said we should go to the bank this morning….”
“We forgot. And it’s Friday. We will starve until Monday.”
“Perhaps we should go to Dr. Rogers, my supervisor,” I said. “She will lend us some money until we refund her on Monday.”
“Rogers said she was traveling to Warri today for the weekend. Saw her yesterday.”
“What about Iya Ngu?”
“I don’t want to go there.”
“So what are we going to do?”
“We have some beer and a lot of cigarettes. We just need some food.”
“True,” I responded.
“We just need some yam, tomatoes, peppers and I bet we have onions.”
“Good, Papa Ru. We need money for those.”
“No, we don’t,” he said. “There are those farms nearby here. Let’s go raid them….”
“The farmers would be annoyed,” I said.
“They won’t catch us. People raided our farm in Iludun when I helped my father with gardening as a kid.”
“Trust me, omo Okediji, we will be fine. It will all take five minutes. I know how to do it.”
“We don’t even have a hoe.”
“We have a spade in the garage.”
We went and got the spade, and walked about five minutes to the large expanse of cultivated land. There were several plots of farms there. Further down this green stretch was a stream. And many mornings we would jog to the stream from our apartment. I carried the spade, Rufus had the sack in which we planned to move whatever we could steal from the farms.
“We will be fast,” Rufus said. ” We just need two tubers and some peppers. We have salt and onions….”
Night was already beginning to fall. And we saw a figure approaching us.”
“Darn,” said Rufus. “A stupid farmer is still there.”
“It’s Joseph,” I told Rufus. I was caught by surprise. My eyes were better than Rufus’s.
Rufus opened his mouth and couldn’t close it.
Joseph had a bag in his hand. He beamed with a bright smile.
“Oga, I told you my farm is near your house,” he said. “I wanted to come and collect the key to the place, so we can use a taxi to bring our things tomorrow morning. We nor get rent money and today be the last day of the month. Why stay there and owe rent for another month.”
“Makes sense,” said Rufus.
Joseph continued, “And I went to the farm to get you some tubers of yam.”
“Good,” Rufus said without skipping a beat. “Do you have some peppers too, because we were coming to raid your farm.”
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