Volume 22, Number 3

Firewood Girl

Adetokunbo Abiola

In July when I turned 10, Omoregie asked me to accompany him to steal and sell firewood as a solution to my desperate hunger. The previous month, he had told me a story of a company near our house called Uwelolalo Sawmill. Its workers processed wood from forests at Ogbese, Ondo and Idanre, and the premises had a chain of headless trees jamming it as far as Omoregie and other children could see. The wood was sawed by men and then taken by lorries called agbegi to cities such as Lagos and Akure, where they were turned to furniture for other cities. After the wood had been taken away, many poor and starving children swarmed the sawmill, gathering the remnant firewood.

Omoregie told me stories of children going to the nearby Ogbese market, selling the firewood and having money in their pockets a few hours later. Some of the children once sold sachets of ‘pure water’, mango and guava in search of money to feed and faced a lot of trouble in the process. One girl had been called by a man who pretended he wanted to buy ‘pure water’, lured into a room and then raped, the man not buying anything. Another child had joined a gang to steal mangoes, only for the market women to say the mangoes were rotten and call the boy a thief to avoid paying him. Omoregie told me a story of a girl driven from home by her mother. She would not allow the girl to eat because she did not make enough guava sales from the hustlers near the market. After the girl made money from selling firewood, her mother begged and pacified her by buying her a coat of many colors.

Omoregie said I wouldn’t have problems stealing and selling firewood. There was always firewood to steal at the sawmill, and market women, especially one of them called Mama Bisi, paid good money for it. He said he had stolen so much firewood he had lost count how many times he had done it. Could I not see he always licked sweets and ate biscuits while I starved?

He stole—like many of us did—because he was hungry. We were hungry because our fathers and mothers were out of work and only fed us once a day. So we wouldn’t die of hunger, we stole mangos and guavas from the trees in other people’s houses on our street. But Uwelolalo presented a new challenge to me. It would be my first stealing expedition outside my street.

It was Kokumo, my elder brother, who initially stopped me from joining Omoregie in his escapade. Whenever Kokumo saw me talking to Omoregie, he would call me into our one-bedroom apartment and invoke the name of Bolanle, the Dare-Devil Girl. In the second week of June, Kokumo, who was five years older than I, saw me speaking to Omoregie, and his eyes darkened. He wagged a finger at me and told me to come into the room.

“Have I not told you to stop talking to Omoregie?” he asked when we got inside. “You had better watch yourself or you’ll end up like Bolanle.”

When I asked him who Bolanle was, he said she was a woman who didn’t listen to her elder brother when she was a girl. She scattered things and fought with everyone in her street. When her elder brother told her not to steal, she did exactly that. She stole money from her mother’s purse, stole fish and meat from the soup pot and beat up young girls so she could steal their sweets and biscuits. Bolanle did it for a long time, graduating into breaking into other people’s houses and armed robbery. She was caught by the police, tied to a pole in Lagos and shot. Kokumo said Bolanle started by playing with boys like Omoregie.

After he spoke, I sat down on the only bed in the room and touched my aching stomach. I beat it with my fist and then squeezed it, grimacing with pain. The aches eased and then started again, and I beat my stomach one more time. I squeezed and pinched it until the door creaked and Father, who worked as a freelance bricklayer, entered.

In mid-July Kokumo caught me talking to Omoregie again. Omoregie had just returned from Uwelolalo. Driven by uncontrollable hunger, I begged him for sweets and biscuits. When Kokumo saw me, he frowned, grabbed me by the shoulder and shoved me into the room. It smelled of dirt, guava, and stale soup.

“Jemila, have you forgotten what I told you about Omoregie?” he asked. “If I see you talking to him again, I’ll tell Mother. She'll take you to the police station and say you want to be another Bolanle. They’ll lock you up in a cell, and witches will suck your blood.”

I did not want to be like Bolanle, tied to the stake then shot kpam kpam kpam by policemen. I decided not to think of following Omoregie to Uwelolalo. If I did, I would end up like Bolanle and cause a lot of trouble to Mother and Father.

When Omoregie told me about the sawmill a week later, I said only bad children went there. He said, “I don’t mind being a bad child. At least I’ll eat a lot of biscuits and sweets. It’s better than hunger every day.”

“My mother said if I follow you she’ll take me to the police station,” I told him. “She said the police will lock me up like Bolanle.”

“It’s a lie,” Omoregie said. “The police will not lock you up for not doing anything. We are only taking what other people don’t want.”

“God forbid I go to Uwelolalo with you,” I said.

“Don’t ask me for sweets and biscuits again,” Omoregie retorted. “If you ask me I won’t give you anything.”

“Sorry,” I begged.

“Don’t beg me,” he said. “You’re the only one who is different in this house.”

When I thought about what he said, I discovered he was right. Our house was situated in the midst of shacks, hovels and dingy streets in Ogbese. Many children lived in it, and they all did dirty work. Omoregie and Babatunde stole firewood from Uwelolalo sawmill. Gbenga stole guava along the street when he was not stealing meat from his mother’s pot of stew. Shina sold ‘pure water’ on the streets and stole banana off the trays of boys younger than he was. Shina's elder brother, Ayorinde, worked as a load carrier at the market and sometimes stole and smoked cigarettes. Kokumo worked with Father, stealing loose change from his pockets. As for me, I dropped out of primary school because Father could not pay my school fees and did nothing after.

When I refused to follow Omoregie, he stopped playing with me. When I asked him for sweets, he would say: “Don’t ask me for sweets and biscuits again.” He used to help me fetch water from the well before. But when I got to the well now, he would hiss and walk away. When he wanted to steal mangos from the neighboring compounds, he called the others but ignored me.

He stopped the others from playing with me as well. He was 12, older and bigger than us. Besides, he had beaten all of us, except Nosa, who lived in the bungalow opposite our house across the street. There would be trouble if the others disobeyed him

I never knew Omoregie spoke to others until one day in late July when I saw Babatunde coming from Uwelolalo and asked him to play cards with me. Pulling up his over-sized shorts, he said: “Omoregie said I should not play with you again. He said you’re a coward.” The next day, after I stole meat from Mother’s soup pot, I offered to share it with Shina, but he ran away from me and said: “Omoregie said you’re a coward.” He then pursed his lips derisively and walked away.

Even Gbenga ignored me. It surprised me because we played hide-and-seek together in the night. When I stood in front of our room, he would beat me on the shoulder and yell: “I’m the last to touch you.” I would run after him so I could be the last to touch him. But when we got to the mango tree behind the kitchen block in the backyard, he would stop and wait for me. As I touched him, he would grab me and fondle my breasts. When we hear someone come up to the backyard, we would yell and start to run about as though nothing happened. But that was before Omoregie spoke to him. When he saw me now, he would hiss and walk away.

And Ayorinde became hostile toward me. I used to punch him at the back on the corridor when he went to sell guavas, and he would smile. But after Omoregie spoke to him, he shouted at me when I touched him. One day, he put his tray containing guavas to the floor and pursued me. When he caught me, he slapped me, and I said, “I’ll tell my mummy.” “Coward,” he said. “I’ll tell her you were the first to beat me.”

Unable to bear my isolation, I decided to go to Uwelolalo, but I didn’t know how to approach Omoregie about it. After thinking for two days, I knew what to do. Omoregie usually wore a yellow T-shirt that said “Arizona Boy” and hung it on the clothesline when he washed it. It was his only shirt, and no one dared touch it. One day, when I was sure he would see me, I snatched the shirt off the line and sprinted to the mango tree behind the kitchen. He pursued me, shouting. Before he caught me, I stopped and threw the T-shirt at him, saying, “All right, I’ll go to Uwelolalo with you.”

He was going to beat me, but when he heard what I said he did nothing. He turned and walked away. But the children in our house started playing with me in the afternoon. Babatunde invited me to play cards, but I remembered he refused to play with me for weeks, so I told him no. Gbenga tapped me on the shoulder and ran toward the mango tree at the backyard, but I did not follow him. In the evening, someone whistled under our window. I knew it was Omoregie because he usually whistled when he wanted to call me to fetch water. I went outside, and he told me, “We go tomorrow,” and I nodded. When I got back into the room Kokumo accosted me.

“Was that not that rascal, Omoregie?” he asked. “What did he tell you? I hope he’s not up to some mischief.”

“No.” I said. “He said water is in the well. He said we should go and fetch water.”

“I just hope you’re telling the truth,” Kokumo said. “If I find out you’re lying, I’ll tell Mother. She’ll kill you with her hands. She’ll then take you to the police so they can lock you up like Bolanle.” He sat down on the ancient sofa in our room and began to hum under his breath. Soon after, he started telling me the stories Grandmother told him when he visited her in January.

He told me how the tortoise disobeyed its father, fell down from heaven and broke its shell; how the ear disobeyed its mother and was punished by the mosquito; and how the tree disobeyed its father and walked into the sharp teeth of the saw. He even told me how Grandfather defeated forty other men before he could marry Grandmother. I didn't ask him to repeat any story as I usually did because I was distracted by the thought of going on the trip to Uwelolalo the next day.

In the night, I had a strange dream. I was pursued by someone or something. Sometimes it was a man holding a long stick of firewood while balls of fire flew out of his eyes. At other times, it was burning firewood pursuing me through the streets of Ogbese. I ran but tripped on a trunk of a big tree lying across the street. The man with the burning firewood stood over me. As he struck me with the wood, I screamed and woke up. Kokumo held me in his hands, tapping me on the head to calm me down.

Despite this, I was determined to go to Uwelolalo for the firewood because of my agonizing hunger. In the morning, while we fetched water at the well, Omoregie told me about the trip. He said we would leave in the afternoon when women plaited their hair and men played draught or drank ogogoro, local gin. We would pass through one of the two tracks in the stretch of bush at the end of our street and get to the sawmill eight hundred meters away. We would steal as much firewood as we could, pass by the side of the sawmill and burst out on the highway leading to the market, where Mama Bisi would buy everything from us. Omoregie said we would take a different route back so we don't run into ghosts in the first one.

“What about the two-headed dog in the bush?” I asked. “My mother said it would bite us.”

“The dog doesn’t move about in the afternoon.”

“What if we meet a ghost from the cemetery in the bush?”

“Ghosts always come out at night,” Omoregie said. “We will have finished stealing the firewood before they come out.”

Omoregie, Babatunde, and I left for Uwelolalo in the afternoon after a heavy shower. We were excited about leaving home and going in search of firewood. We did not pass the second track leading into the bush because Omoregie said boys who had gone to pick snails the day before had seen two-headed spirits there. We had no problem leaving because Mother and her friends were busy plaiting their hair and talking about their no-good husbands. Only one man, Audu the drunk, saw us. He shouted: “Where are you going?” But we swept past him, knowing no one in the street would take him seriously if he complained about us.

We ran when we got to the track in the bush. We had to be quick so we could gather the firewood and leave the sawmill before ghosts started coming out of the nearby cemetery. We also had to run so we could come back early and fetch water for our mothers for the only meal of the day. Omoregie would also be able to go on errands for his drunken father, and Babatunde, to buy snuff for his grandmother.

Uwelolalo from afar looked like a dump of a thousand logs of wood scattered on a dark soil. Omoregie talked mostly of firewood in connection with the sawmill, but its logs were impressive. Some were long and big with grey marking on their trunks; others were short and had their boughs and roots cut off by machines. All were flung in front and at the back of a long building built of zinc, cement and wood. I could not see the firewood from our distance. As we ran toward the sawmill, I smelled damp earth, mud and chemicals in the air.

“Stop!” Omoregie shouted, stopping on the track. Babatunde and I followed suit.

A dog stood on the track, blocking our way to the sawmill. It was high at the shoulders, had a thick skull, big feet and a brown face. Its skin was stretched tight over its bones, and it looked lean and hungry. Though it was not the two-headed dog Mother spoke about, I realized this wasn’t the experience I prepared for—a run through the track and the excitement while gathering stacks of firewood. I wondered whether the bad luck Kokumo always said I had conjured the dog from nowhere to stop our journey to the sawmill.

Omoregie shouted at the dog and stamped his feet to the track. The dog flapped its ears and growled. Babatunde joined Omoregie in shouting and stamping his feet to the track. Emboldened, I shouted and stamped my feet, but the dog growled, not leaving the road. Omoregie picked a big stick, flung it at the dog and howled. The dog backed away. Babatunde picked another stick, shouting as he threw it. The dog barked, turned and started to run up the track, its long tail tucked between his legs.

Yelling, we ran after the dog on the muddy track. Barking as it ran, it increased its speed, but we narrowed the gap between us. Weakened by hunger, I panted and felt strength leave my body. I wished we stopped running after the dog, but Omoregie wanted to catch it and teach it a lesson so next time when we went to the sawmill it would not block our way. A thick bush lay by the side of the track leading to the cemetery. The dog turned into it and disappeared. We came to a stop and started pelting the bush with stones. The dog barked inside the bush.

“Let’s go after it,” Omoregie suggested.

“Suppose the dog is a spirit?” Babtunde asked, pulling his over-sized shorts to his stomach. “Suppose it is a dead man who turned into a dog?”

“Coward,” Omoregie told him. “My father said dead men don’t turn into animals. They turn to human beings.”

“I don’t want to go into the bush,” I told them. “I don’t want to stone the dog. I just want the firewood.”

Omoregie stared at me, thoughtful. His T-shirt was torn, showing the scar on his bony chest. He got the scar from a wound when he fought with Nosa over a small loaf of bread. The scar was black and ugly, disfiguring his chest. After a few seconds, he shrugged and said, “Let’s go.” He picked one last stone from the ground, threw it at the bush and moved up the track.

By the time we got to the sawmill, we gasped and sweated in the sun. The waterlogged sawmill was deserted as the workers had gone home. It was as though they packed their cutlasses, chisels, machines and other tools and left the premises, chased away by the ghosts coming from the cemetery. But a thick wood smell hung in the wet air, and we heard the roar of the cars and lorries as they sped past on the highway fifty meters away. There was no firewood.

As we stood looking at the rows of log, I remembered what Kokumo always told me when he found I had stolen yet another piece of meat from the soup pot. He would say: “Jemila, Jemila, you’ll come to no good” I wondered whether this was why it turned out there was no firewood. Perhaps there was something about me that brought bad luck to me and people around me. I did not know what to do, but Omoregie grabbed my hand and pointed at the large building in the sawmill. I saw firewood stacked on each other beside the building. Omoregie raced toward it, and we followed him. We climbed over the logs on our way, stepped on marshy ground, laughing and laughing, until we got to the firewood. We packed them on our hands, but I made sure I picked the small and smooth ones so their edges wouldn’t pierce my skin. As we took the track leading to the highway on our way to the market, we sang as we trudged through the muddy ground, boasting as we moved from the sawmill.

“I’ll use the money from the firewood to buy London sweets,” I told the boys.

“Shut up there!” Omoregie said. “Where are you going to find London sweets in this village? My father said those things you call London sweets here are fake.”

“I’ll buy Nasco biscuit,” Babatunde said. “I’ll buy sweets. I’ll buy bean cakes, akara, and everything in the market.”

“You’re a fool,” Omoregie told him. “Do you think the money will be enough?”

“It’ll be enough,” I said with confidence.

“I’ll buy a cane so I can use it to beat people,” Omoregie said, then stopped, making Babtunde and I do the same thing.

Twenty meters ahead of us, Nosa and one other boy stood on the track, holding firewood and blocking our path. Nosa was 12 and a fighter most of his life. He lived with his uncle because his father and mother were dead. He terrorized most of the children on our street, but Omoregie always fought him to a standstill. The boys on our street said Nosa got his power from the ghosts in the cemetery. They said one of his blows could make a house collapse. They said he could kill small girls by pushing them with his hands. He even fought Audu the drunk to a stalemate. I knew he would want to take our firewood.

“Let’s go back,” I told Omoregie.

“So that we meet a ghost on the road?” asked Omoregie. “No way. We must fight him.”

“Do we have to fight him?” Babatunde asked.

“Shut up there, coward,” Omoregie told him. “Let’s go on.”

We walked up the track and stopped ten meters from Nosa and his friend. As we stood in the middle of the wet track, I was filled with fear. I did not remember Omoregie could fight Nosa to a standstill and that we were three while our enemies were only two. I did not remember we would make money if we got to Ogbese market and sold the firewood. I only thought we should go back. I also felt my bad luck was to blame for making Nosa and his friend waylay us.

“Put all your firewood on the ground,” Nosa said with authority. “We’re going to take your firewood.”

“That’s a lie,” Omoregie said, throwing his stack of firewood to a nearby pond, staining some of it. He bent down and picked up one stick of firewood.

“Bastard,” Nosa swore and marched forward. He and Omoregie went at each other like madmen. Babatunde and Nosa’s friend tackled each other. Dropping my firewood to the mud, I started to cry, “Stop fighting! Stop fighting!” jiggling my feet as though I was bitten by an army of ants.

I stared at Omoregie and Nosa. Omoregie bounced on his feet, feinting with the firewood. Nosa held his up, a grim look in his eyes. “I’ll teach you a lesson today,” he told Omoregie. He swung his firewood, but Omoregie caught his blow, and their firewood sticks clattered against the other. Nosa pulled back a step, then lunged at Omoregie, who fell to his knees. Omoregie swung his firewood, and it hit Nosa’s crotch. Screaming, Nosa dropped his firewood. As he held his crotch and took a backward step, Omoregie whipped his shoulder with his firewood, yelling. I ran toward him so as to stop him from killing Nosa. As I grabbed his hand, he swore and pushed me away with violence. I screamed, crashed into a nearby tree and lay crumpled on the ground, almost losing my remaining strength. As I whimpered on the track, I saw Omoregie and Babatunde chase Nosa and his friend down the track, Nosa hobbling as though he had a crushed penis. Two minutes later, Omoregie and Babatunde returned, pulling me to my feet.

“My leg is paining me,” I told them.

“Let’s go,” Omoregie said, breathing quickly. "The ghosts and spirits will start coming from the cemetery anytime from now. Do you want them to catch us here?”

“Is that true?” asked Babatunde.

“My father told me they come out at 5 in the evening,” Omoregie said, panting. “I’m sure it’s getting close to that now.”

As I trudged after them on the track, I felt aches and pains over my hands and legs and groaned. Omoregie said I should shut up and stop behaving like his mother when she was pregnant. As I trailed behind him and Babatunde, tired, I wished I had not followed them to steal firewood. Omoregie said in a harsh voice I should be quick so we could meet Mama Bisi in her stall at the market.

We did not meet her twenty minutes later, but we met her daughter, Bisi. Omoregie said we could deal with her; Mama Bisi allowed her do business with him. She was 13 and very pretty. Kokumo said she was prettier than all the girls in Ogbese put together. When she looked at us, she had a haughty look in her eyes. It was there when we got to her mother’s stall after crossing the dangerous highway. She took one look at our firewood and frowned.

“Some of them are stained,” she told us. “Mother said I should only pay five naira per stick for this.”

“But it’s not our fault,” Omoregie told her. “Pay us ten naira.”

“If I pay you ten naira Mother will kill me,” Bisi said, staring at the firewood with a pinched look on her face.

Omoregie stared at us as though he wanted to get our opinion. He turned to Bisi after a moment and shrugged. “All right, give us the money,” he said.

As we walked home a few minutes later, money in our pockets, I felt pain all over my body. My shoulders, legs, arms and chest ached, and I felt as though I wouldn’t be able to get home. It appeared as though someone pounded a pestle on my head.

I compared my situation to when I didn’t follow Omoregie and Babatunde to the sawmill. Though I had no money in my pocket, I didn't feel the pains now surging through me. I didn't feel guilty about stealing other people's firewood. No one pushed me so I could crash against a tree and injure my legs. I didn’t face the risk of seeing a ghost or spirit from the cemetery. No dog barked at me. I felt suffering from going to the sawmill was too much. Vowing never to go there again, I staggered along the road, gasping.

On getting home, I broke down at the doorway to our apartment. Kokumo, who had been looking for me, shouted. He did not ask me where I had gone or what happened to me. He did not threaten me yet again with Bolanle or other armed robbers shot in Lagos. Instead, he yelled: “I told you to stay away from Omoregie! See what has happened to you! You are about to die!” He pulled me up, dragged me into the room and put me on the bed, running from pillar to post. Ayorinde, who was with Kokumo, told him, “Don’t worry. I’ll get some aspirin.”

I wanted to tell him I didn’t want his aspirin. Omoregie’s father told me the aspirins sold in Ogbese were either expired or fake. Many were merely chalk Igbo traders manufactured in their backyards and called drugs. People rumored the drugs worsened illnesses rather than cured them. Even though many children died after taking them, people bought the drugs because they had no money to buy genuine ones. But I was so weak I didn’t have the strength to tell Ayorinde all this.

Kokumo had the strength to tell him. “My sister will not swallow your aspirin,” he shouted at Ayorinde. “My mother taught me how to boil herbs,” and he ran out the room. He came back an hour later, giving me a cup of boiled herbs, saying I should drink it, that I would get well. I drank the herbs and fell asleep.

After I became well, I avoided Omoregie and Babatunde. I didn’t want them to ask me to follow them to the sawmill. When I saw them at the well, I turned away. Whenever I went on errand for Mother or Father, I ran past Omoregie before he could speak to me. I placed my hands against my ears when Babatunde came to talk to me, blocking out what he said.

But by the end of the week, I was hungry again, having not eaten in two days. Desperate, I went to the mango tree at the end of the street. There were no fruits on it. Omoregie strolled along the road. As I wondered where I would get my next meal, Omoregie branched off the street and stood in front of me. He told me we should go to the Uwelolalo sawmill. It had a new supply of logs. The women at Ogbese market rushed at the firewood made from them. Mama Bisi said she would pay fifteen naira per stick if Omoregie could supply her. I would have plenty of money for sweets and biscuits if I followed him.

I realized I had to go if I didn’t want to starve. The sawmill was my only hope for food. Mother and Father were broke and had no money to buy a meal for the day. If I tried to be a good girl and avoid becoming like Bolanle, I would die of hunger. Staring at Omoregie’s torn T-shirt, I told him I would go.

In the afternoon, he and Babatunde, still wearing his over-sized shorts, called me and we left our house. We ran into the bush at the end of our street, shouting as though we had no care in the world.