At the Buka by A. Igoni Barrett (NOVEL EXCERPT)

guest-edited by Jeffery Renard Allen

When the mind is at rest the body shouts its demands. Furo Wariboko, back on the streets of Lagos, now realised how hungry he was. Weak with it, his head aching, stomach juices churning, his breath reeking with it. He considered his options. He had eight hundred naira left from the money he’d borrowed from Ekemini, and that amount would just about cover a meal at Mr Biggs, the cheapest of the fast food chains. But he was reluctant to spend everything. Thus far he had refused to spoil his happy mood by thinking about where next to go, where to sleep tonight, but somewhere behind the wall of his mind he knew there was no going back.

        No choice then. He had to eat in a roadside buka.

       The roadway beside him was jammed with traffic, cars crawled along at a pace that turned the drivers’ faces tight with frustration, okadas tore through gaps that even the bravest hawkers feared to enter, and petrol fumes from overheated engines disinfected the air. Like oases on a desert caravan route, apprentice mechanics and child vulcanisers and motor oil vendors loitered in roadside sheds. Exhausted vehicles dotted the curb, some with bonnets opened to let out steam from gasping radiators. A riot of honking assailed the ears: short warning honks, long angry honks, continuous harrying honks, siren-mimicking honks: a language as universal as a scream. But in Lagos, overused. The clamour was deafening.

       ‘Oyibo!’ someone yelled from across the road, and Furo, startled out of his fascination with automotive babel, glanced over. Vivid in her Fanta-bright shirt and white gloves, a traffic warden sat on a truck tyre under the shade of a neem tree. She was eating a peeled orange that was gripped in her right hand; when she realised she had caught Furo’s attention, she grinned and gave him a left-handed wave. Furo moved his gaze along. Beside the neem tree, outside the shadows cast by its leaves, stood a three-legged easel blackboard, and scrawled on its surface in pink chalk was the legend, FOOD IS READY. Furo stepped onto the road, squeezed his way between trapped vehicles and strode across to the buka, a lean-to backed against a block fence and hung on the front and sides with white lace curtains. As he parted the front curtain, he heard the traffic warden exclaim, ‘Where this oyibo man dey go?’ and from the corner of his eye he saw her rise to her feet and fling away her suck-shriveled orange. He ducked into the buka.

The fermented whiff of cassava meal mixed with the aroma of boiled okra and fish made Furo lightheaded.

       A middle-aged woman with a red hairpiece cut in a bob sat on a barstool behind a table laden with aluminium pots. Three benches were arranged in front of the table. A man dressed like a construction labourer—blue denim shirt faded grey on the shoulders, mud-encrusted blue jeans cut off at the knees, and yellow rain boots—sat astride one of the benches, and in front of him was a sweating bottle of Pepsi, a plate of okra soup, and three wraps of fufu, one opened. The fermented whiff of cassava meal mixed with the aroma of boiled okra and fish made Furo lightheaded, and he sat down quickly and placed his folder beside him. He looked up to catch the food seller staring at him, as was the labourer, his hand motionless in his soup-smeared fufu.

       ‘Do you have egusi soup?’ Furo said to the food seller, but she stared on in silence. He raised his voice. ‘Madam—do you have egusi soup?’

       The labourer recovered first. ‘Answer am, e dey ask you question!’ he said to the food seller in a biting tone. He seemed angered by the reflection he saw in her face.

Then, as if unable to stop herself, she looked up at Furo and said in a rush: ‘Abeg, no vex, but you be albino?’

       ‘Yes,’ the woman said. She rose from the barstool and made a clattering show of opening pot lids to check the contents. Then, as if unable to stop herself, she looked up at Furo and said in a rush: ‘Abeg, no vex, but you be albino?’

       ‘Open your eye, woman,’ the labourer said before Furo could respond. ‘No be albino.’

       The woman ignored the labourer, she kept her questioning gaze on Furo, and so he shook his head no. ‘I’m not an albino,’ he confirmed.

       ‘Ewoo!’ the woman exclaimed. ‘You be oyibo true-true.’

       The woman fell silent, but her thoughts played across her features, changed her expression from wonder one moment to glee the next. The labourer resumed eating, his face soured with scorn. Seeing as the woman made no move to serve him, Furo asked with a touch of exasperation, ‘Do you have eba?’ The woman caught the note in his voice, and she beamed a smile at him as if to say, what can you do, you white man, you barking puppy, but she said nothing, she nodded yes. ‘Give me three wraps of eba and egusi soup,’ Furo said.

       The woman placed the wraps of eba on a stainless steel plate, and then picked up an enamel soup bowl and her serving ladle. ‘How many meat?’ she asked, and Furo held up one finger. But when she set the food and a bowl of water before him, he saw two chunks of meat mixed with the shredded vegetable of his soup. He glanced up in surprise to meet the woman’s wide smile. ‘I give you extra meat,’ she said, her voice lowered, conspiratorial, but still overhead by the labourer. At his loud sniff of derision her smile slipped, she shot him the evil eye, and then returned her gaze to Furo with a smile that shone even brighter.

       The stiff smile Furo shot back at the food seller strained his jaw. He was grateful for the extra piece of meat, but he was also wary of the woman’s kindness, he didn’t want to be drawn into conversation about himself on account of it, and so he said nothing. In the silence opened up by the missing thank you, the food seller beat the air with her expectant breath, and then, coming to see the futility of waiting, she shuffled her feet in disappointment. As she moved from Furo’s side, he caught the aroma rising from his food. Bending forward, he rinsed his hands in the bowl of water, opened the wraps of eba, kneaded them into a large lump on his plate, and began to eat, his hand moving swiftly from eba to soup to gulping mouth.

       ‘Hah!’ the woman exclaimed from her vantage point behind him. ‘See how oyibo dey chop eba. This one nah full Nigerian o.’

       The labourer had had enough. ‘You this woman, I think sey you get sense before,’ he said. ‘As you old reach, why you dey behave like small pikin? You never see oyibo before?’

       ‘Why you insult me?’ said the woman. Her voice bubbled with outrage.

       ‘Who insult you?’

       ‘So you no insult me?’

       ‘Leave me abeg. Make I chop my food.’

He shouldn’t have asked. Not of a woman who made a living off dealing with hungry men. And especially not of a woman who wore red hair. Furo steeled himself for the explosion.

       ‘I no blame you sha. Nah your mama I blame. She no train you well.’

       ‘No carry my mama enter this talk o,’ the labourer said. He rose to his feet and pointed his finger at the food seller. Okra soup dripped from his hand onto the bench.

       ‘Hah!’ the food seller cried out with a clap of her hands. ‘You dey point me finger?’

       The labourer’s courage didn’t falter and neither did his rude finger. ‘And so?’ he asked the woman in a taunting tone. ‘Wetin you fit do?’

       He shouldn’t have asked. Not of a woman who made a living off dealing with hungry men. And especially not of a woman who wore red hair. Furo steeled himself for the explosion.

       ‘Dirty Yoruba rat!’

       ‘Old Igbo mumu.’

       ‘Bastard son of kobo-kobo ashewo!’

       ‘Useless illiterate woman.’

       ‘Thunder fire you! See your flat head like Sapele dodo!’

       It was now a roaring quarrel. The woman’s curses were more colourful, her delivery more dramatic, and her well of invention ran deeper. The man’s baritone was louder. Their yells vied for supremacy with each other and also with the horn blares of the traffic outside, which muffled their words doubtless for passersby, but not for the person trapped between them. Furo rushed his meal, eager to make his escape before a crowd gathered. After he cleaned out the soup bowl with his fingers, he washed both hands, rubbed them dry on his handkerchief, and drew two hundred naira from his breast pocket, then sat waiting for the shouting to subside. From the sound of things, it wouldn’t be long before the man realised he had the lost this fight.

       ‘Nah because of oyibo you dey talk to me anyhow!’ growled the labourer in a final burst, and before the woman could retort he leaped over the benches, slapped aside the lace curtains with his food-stained hand, and stalked out.

       ‘Where you dey go—pay me my money!’ the food seller shouted, and made to rush after him, but Furo, horrified at the thought of a scuffle starting in front of the buka while he was still inside, threw his arm out and grabbed the woman’s wrist.

       ‘Please, madam, I beg you, let him go. I will pay for his food.’

       ‘But why you go pay?’ the woman yapped, straining against Furo’s hold. ‘That agbero chop my food finish, curse me on top, and e no even get money to pay! Hah, no way o. I go show am today sey I be Lagos woman. Abeg leave my hand!’ With a heave she yanked her arm from Furo’s grasp, then spun around on the balls of her feet and bounded through the curtains.

       Furo pocketed his money and reached for the bottle of Pepsi the labourer had left behind. He wiped the bottle mouth clean and drank the chilled cola as he sat waiting. When he heard sounds of the fight—shouts of many voices and the stampeding of feet—he set down the emptied bottle, picked up his folder, then walked to the side curtain and slipped out of the buka.

Contributor Notes

A. IGONI BARRETT was born in 1979 in Port Harcourt, situated in the Niger delta region of Nigeria. His second collection of stories, Love Is Power, or Something Like That, was published in 2013 and was chosen as a “best book of the year” by both NPR and Flavorwire. In 2014 he was selected as one of the Hay Festival’s Africa39, a list of 39 of the best African writers under 40. He lives in Lagos and is writing his first novel.