Benin was demure in a way Abuja wasn’t. There were no men in flashy sports cars zigzagging through the streets, intimidating other road users. Some of the roads were riddled with potholes and patches of elephant grass. Where Abuja thrived on the cab system, most of Benin’s occupants ambled about in red and yellow buses. One of Imade’s earliest memories while in secondary school was being assaulted almost daily by the body odour of the bus conductors. She felt a pang of nostalgia as she passed by Ring Road, marveling at the beauty it now was. Her parents had moved to Lagos when she left for the University, so her memories in Benin had ended after secondary school.
As she shut the door of her hotel room behind her and surveyed the room, Imade felt a pang she recognized as missing Abuja.
Her phone rang at that moment – Mrs Ajayi.
“Hello lady,” Mrs Ajayi’s voice wrapped her with warmth. “I’m guessing you’ve arrived.”
“Yes ma. I just checked in. Sorry, I should have called.”
“No problem. I was just calling to make sure you got in safe. How’s the hotel? We picked somewhere close to the orphanage for easy access. I hope you like it?”
“Mmmm, yes. It looks good,” Imade looked around. The room was a standard one, a well-made bed with four pillows, a nightstand, a mini flat-screen and a good enough bathroom, from what she could see. “They have hot water sef.”
“Ah good. Good. I can’t vouch for their food, though. So, maybe find an alternative outside.”
Imade laughed. “Okay ma. No problem. Thank you for checking.”
“Tomorrow, you will be meeting with Mrs Osakwe. She is the current caretaker of the orphanage. I’ll send you her number now so you both can agree on a time and place.”
“Okay ma. Looking forward to it.”
“And remember, anytime you get lonely, you can always call me. If I am not hanging out with Mr Ajayi, I will pick your call,” Mrs Ajayi chuckled.
Imade was smiling as she hung up the phone. One more person she needed to call.
Yvonne answered on the first ring: “Babe!”
“Ahn ahn, were you standing beside your phone just waiting for me to call?” Imade teased.
“Of course. Don’t you know I have nothing better to do?”
“Clown’s friend. I’m guessing you’ve reached Benin, ba?”
“No, I’m calling mid-flight. I was missing you so much I decided to risk my life to call.”
“Okay, I’m hanging up now. Call me back when you’re really missing me.”
“See this woman. How you dey jor?”
“I’m good. Just got back from a hospital appointment with small madam.”
“Well, as good as can be. We are still on a journey to managing the situation. Her body is adjusting, so are we. Anyway, how’s Benin?”
“Same, I guess. Different from Abuja. Quieter, in a way.”
“I can imagine. Do and come back eh.”
“By the grace of God. Er…I need to take a shower now. I just called to let you know I had gotten in. I didn’t want you to panic.”
“I don’t blame you. Na me pick your call. Oya, have a nice shower. Talk to you later.”
Mrs Osakwe was a large woman with beady eyes and a small crisscross of tribal marks on the side of her face. Even though she looked and sounded like an indigenous Edo woman, she was knowledgeable, a woman with experience in sad things of life. It was she who suggested their first meeting take place at the orphanage.
The orphanage – God’s Heritage – was an old building with dry white paint coming off like shells off an egg and walls that stained whoever dared lean on it. The building was tucked between two mango trees on a street that housed more trees than buildings.
Imade had had to use a bike to get to the orphanage because well, Google maps could not locate the street. She would have missed the old sign board if not for Mrs Osakwe who was standing in front of the orphanage, holding a scrawny child by the arm, and who began to wave wildly when she saw the bike approaching.
“How did you know it was me?” Imade asked when alighted.
“We don’t get that many visitors on this street. And you looked out of place,” she replied, giving Imade a once-over. “Welcome Imade, I am Mrs Evangeline Osakwe.”
“Hello ma’am. Nice to meet you,” Imade let her hand linger by her side, unsure whether to go in for a handshake. “And who is this little lady?”
“Lara, greet. What do you say?” Mrs Osakwe nudged the child on the shoulder.
“Good…morning ma,” the girl’s voice was faint. Her hand gripped Mrs Osakwe’s tightly, while her eyes stared at Imade like she was the eighth world wonder.
The girl had the prettiest eyes Imade had seen. Large and brown, her eyes were the only endearing thing about her; otherwise, she was thin with bony hands, legs and neck. Her mouth was set in a thin, solemn line, like she had forgotten how to smile. She wore a too-tight jean and a faded pink t-shirt that hung loosely on her thin frame.
“Nice to meet you, Lara.” Imade said.
“Let’s go in,” Mrs Osakwe turned. “Would you like to look around, first?”
“If you don’t mind.”
There was nothing much to see. The orphanage was really a three-bedroom flat with space that had been divided to accommodate different areas. The ventilation, Imade noticed, was poor, so much so that it gave the air a musty smell like wet clothes that needed sun.
“This is the common area,” Mrs Osakwe said, sweeping her hand towards a small space with a television, two sunken sofas, an ABC mat spread on the floor and a wooden table in a corner.
“We gather here for devotion and in the evening to watch TV, if there is light. And sometimes, if the rooms are full, some of the older children sleep here,” Mrs Osakwe explained.
“Hmm,” Imade mumbled.
“Lara, go and join the others outside, okay? I will be with you soon.” Imade noticed the way Mrs Osakwe’s voice softened as she spoke to the child.
Lara nodded and slipped away quietly.
“Is she okay?” Imade asked.
Mrs Osakwe sighed; “are they ever? Lara arrived here when she was one. Her mother’s sister dropped her off one harmattan morning. The child was crying uncontrollably. The mother’s sister didn’t say much, only that her mother had left her to go to Italy and she could not handle the responsibility. Perhaps Lara sensed that abandonment, like they all do, but she took it personal. She’s been with us four years now, but she hardly talks, doesn’t socialize and has attachment issues. So, to answer your question: no, she is not okay. Nobody here is. They all just try to be.”
As she spoke, Mrs Osakwe led her to the sleeping areas. There were three-inches thick foams lying side-by-side with mosquito nets hanging over each one.
“This is where the girls sleep. Their toilet is over there. We try to teach the importance of privacy from a young age.” She explained.
There were multiple red-and-white Ghana-must-go bags lined up against the wall right beside the open toilet door.
“Clothes. Some of them donations,” Mrs Osakwe explained when she saw Imade eyeing them. “The boys sleep over there.” She pointed into another room that was arranged similarly to the girls’ room.
“So…um, how many children do you have currently?” Imade asked.
“Fifteen, currently. Ten of them are above two. The remaining five are recent intakes, one and below. Those are the ones our nannies pay more attention to. Frankly, that’s where our money goes.”
“Hmm. And how many nannies currently?”
“Three. That’s all we can afford.” Mrs Osakwe stopped in front of another room. “This is our kitchen. Children, say hello.”
There were two girls and a boy in the kitchen, they were gathered around a woman who was sitting in their middle, head bowed, focused on something. When they turned, Imade saw that there was a large ceramic tray in front of them filled with unshelled egusi.
“Hello ma,” the children echoed, their eyes drinking in the sight of her. She wondered how old they were.
“Hello. What are you doing?” she asked, stepping into the small kitchen.
“Egusi,” one of the girls replied, thrusting a few seeds at her. She stepped towards Imade and Imade noticed she had bowed legs. “Who are you?”
“Beauty!” the sitting woman snapped. “What did we say about asking questions like that?”
“No, no…it’s okay,” Imade replied, reaching out to pluck the seeds from Beauty’s palm. “I don’t mind. Hello Beauty, my name is Imade.”
“Aunty Imade,” Mrs Osakwe corrected.
“Nice to meet you, Aunty Imade,” there was a twinkle in Beauty’s eyes that made Imade smile. She already liked the girl. “And that is Gboye, and Sunshine. She’s called Sunshine because everyone says her smile brightens up the day like the sun.”
“Really? That’s interesting. Nice to meet you, Gboye and Sunshine,” Imade smiled at them.
“You too ma,” the boy and girl mumbled, eyes averted.
“Okay, thank you for the introductions, Beauty. You can continue your work. That is Ms Obed, one of our nannies.” Mrs Osakwe pointed at the sitting woman.
“Hello Ms Obed,” Imade greeted.
There was a scowl on the other woman’s face when she responded with an inaudible, “hello”.
Imade wondered what had happened to make her so unhappy.
“Shall we go to my office?” Mrs Osakwe asked, turning to Imade.
Imade nodded, following the older woman, even as she wondered what an office would look like in a place like this.