We all called her Aunty Tope.
In 2013, I rented a shop beside hers in one of the ‘modern’ markets in Lagos State. At that time, I was moving back and forth between Lagos and Abuja and needed storage for some of my things. The shop also served as a workshop so my tailors could work whenever they wanted to. I left one set of keys with her so the tailors could have access to the shop. She, therefore, became the informal caretaker of my shop, my eyes and ears in the market.
It was a respectful, unobtrusive relationship, marked by long absences, sometimes of up to five months, on my part. I would send my monthly bills to her and she would pay them diligently, and even when I forgot to do so, she’d remind me they were due.
Each time I came back to Lagos, I would clean out my shop and throw out things, and leave them by my door. I assumed there were people who cleaned the market at the beginning or end of each day. Unknown to me, Aunty Tope was the one throwing out my trash and keeping the front of my shop clean whenever I wasn’t around. She did it all without complaining. When I found out there were no cleaners in the market, I was remorseful and grateful at the same time. I expressed my gratitude to her but she told me not to worry, that it didn’t matter.
She was reserved yet friendly and accommodating, and so her shop was a constant going and coming of people, some to buy things and others just to sit, refresh and talk. She would call out greetings and she would reply to greetings in turn. She had none of that ‘pepper bodi’ that we associate with market women. I never saw or heard that she had an altercation with anybody.
Two years ago, a certain fracas had come up in our national space, with Igbos at the centre of it. I was in Lagos at that time and as I walked into the market, there were people in Tope’s shop, as was usual. I was acquainted and even friends with some of them, but they were all saying things that drove a knife through my heart, things that were at best wild assumptions and generalisations. But I noticed that Tope did not join the conversation. She must have known it would hurt my feelings if she joined the others in castigating Igbos. Most importantly, she must have known that sometimes it is best to maintain a silence no matter how many words you have in your mouth.
I didn’t know the details of her personal life and she didn’t know much about mine, but in all our interactions, she was well spoken and came across as educated. I would later find out she had an HND from one of the polytechnics in the West, yet while some of us chased our dreams and pursued the bright lights, she was content to sit in her shop, day after day, week after week, year after year, selling biscuits and drinks, stationery, garri, sugar, razor blades and such items. She was the first to arrive every day and one of the last to leave.
In the past couple of years, the local government had been issuing notices that it wanted to demolish and rebuild the market. This year the call became stronger so, on the 10th of August, I travelled to Lagos to arrange for my things to be moved out. As I walked towards our line, there she was, sitting in her usual place. She sighted me and screamed, “See Aunty Vivian o!” That was her usual reaction whenever she saw me. The next would be, “You have added o.”
With the demolition of the market drawing closer, she was said to have become very anxious. She confided in a friend that she had no money to rent another shop and didn’t know where to start from. This may have triggered a series of health-related issues which culminated in her developing a high blood pressure.
This calls to mind the arbitrary demolitions that go on in Nigeria. From public libraries and parks, estates and markets, our state governments exhibit the highest forms of executive high-handedness when they demolish and rebuild public infrastructure, with no other aim than to enrich themselves and their cronies. They eventually become the new owners of these ‘improved’ properties with rents pegged at prices that are too exorbitant for the former occupiers, most times men and women from lower income groups.
I was told Tope had attended a party where she looked forward to re-uniting with old friends and class mates. Right there, she slumped and the battle to save her life began. Her blood pressure was more than 300 when she was brought into the hospital. She went in and out of coma. She was eventually moved from the private hospital where she was to a government-owned one. With the quality of health care available in our country, it was inevitable that Tope would die.
And so on Wednesday 20th of September, one more star was extinguished from our galaxy. She was buried the following day, in a shallow grave, shrouded in white cloth. Those who attended the interment said her grave was not more than three feet deep, in one of the small, less-known cemeteries on the Lagos mainland where grave robbery is not uncommon. That is how the one who gathered men and women to herself was buried. Even as I type this, her body may have been carved up already, its parts harvested and sold to the highest bidders, her large heart taken by people who have no heart.
Tope, you deserved to be buried like a queen.
But I understand her family had no money again after paying her hospital bills for almost a week. So there was no coffin, no obsequies, no entertainment, just a lot of tears and a pastor standing at the edge of the grave, intoning prayers to the dead.
I still see her in my mind’s eye. She was always well dressed and well made-up, and during my January-February visit, she wore a turban on most days, a different one to match her outfits. She loved ‘native’ and each time I was to travel to Lagos, I would plan to buy Ankara for her from Wuse market, even if it was one piece. Obviously, I postponed it one too many times.
I regret that I did not appreciate her as much as she deserved.
We are all sad – all who knew her. But we will not mourn like those who have no hope. We will exchange our tears for memories of her.
She is a queen, always.
Written by Vivian