No one cares that you’re the best graduating student if your grad dress is trash. Last year, Fatima was roasted on 2go because she gave her valedictorian’s speech in a wrinkled white jalabiya. That will not be me; I sold my laptop for a dress. The guy at computer village cheated me, but let’s focus on the good part. The dress!! I had to find something that summed up six years of angst, tears, and tests.

On the Saturday before graduation, the Lagos sun came out in her glory and fury to enact vengeance on thousands of hawkers and buyers trudging the narrow street of Balogun Square. Balogun is a hot pot of efo riro soup. There is assorted meat, pomo, shaki, titus fish, snail, panla, and orishirishi vegetables, each fighting for air and space to survive. Sweaty bodies, traders, hustlers, humans, and spirits squished into me as I tried to navigate my way to the dress shops. 

The woman next to me was moving fast for someone so burdened. She carried an infant on her back, a pot of ewa agoyin on her head, and an exhausted toddler tied to her wrapper. The infant on her back sucked a lollipop covered with catarrh dripping from its nose, creating a slimy symphony of slurping. That baby found something better than ecstasy. A complete contrast to the toddler holding onto his spiderman shirt and mother’s wrapper for dear life. 

The pot on her head was the traditional metal gourd for party cooking except smaller. Red oil dripped down the pot’s sides to her forearms. I closed my eyes and saw her trip. The steaming pot of mashed beans and sizzling palm oil splashed on everyone around her except me. The woman wearing a white jumpsuit next to her was covered in red oil and screamed from the burns. People shrieked and cried, blisters on their arms. Someone slammed into me and I returned to reality. 

“Sweet, Sweet Beans! Mama Ijebu Ewa.” She shouted her wares at the top of her lungs, competing for customers’ attention with every other sound in the market. The music shop blasted Pasuma from five speakers, the danfo drivers hailed passengers, “Ojuelegba! Ojuelegba! Surulere! Surulere!” and somehow her voice sat calmly above the noise. “Sweet, Sweet Beans!! Buy Ewa Agoyin! Mama Ijebu Ewa.” 

The swish of her burdened back and the gait of her straightened figure did more to part the crowd than any motorcycle could. I followed right behind her, careful to stay far enough in case the pot fell but close enough to enjoy the path she was making in the crowd. 

Two wheelbarrows collided into each other just ahead of us creating a gridlock. The grain seller whose millet was now soaked in the grime and puddle rained curses on the yam seller whose tubers were salvageable. The crowd tried to placate the traders and clear the road before the human traffic became unbearable. The traders would not budge and my anger exacerbated. I could be trying on designs and fabrics but I was stuck in human traffic. The Beans Woman continued hawking in the standstill. “Sweet, Sweet Beans!! Buy Ewa Agoyin! Ijebu Beans for fresh Agege Bread.” 

I could not stop staring at her. She looked at me and I turned away. The baby on her back was now rubbing his eyes and fussing. She rocked him lightly, tipping over some oil to the irritation of the irate crowd.

I sighed and pictured myself walking down the hall on grad day in the most shimmery dress possible. The rustling beside me broke the trance. Beans Woman was searching her wrapper looking horrified; her toddler was no longer tied to it. 

“Emma!! Emmanuel!! Emma! Where you dey?” the woman shouted. “Auntie! Auntie!! Which side he go?” she asked me.

 I turned around in confusion. “Me? I don’t know.”  

“Heiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiaaaaiaaaa,” she shouted. 

Have you ever struck a peacock in the throat with a spear from a goldsmith’s furnace? That’s how she sounded. Her tears came in quick succession. The crowd thickened around us and the market grew louder. I could barely breathe. The grain trader moved the shouting and curses to gear 3. The Pasuma’s voice and drum accompaniment reverberated through the market stalls. The traders, bus conductors, and rogues advertised their wares viciously. An Okada man revved his engine and plunged into the crowd. Commotion everywhere, I closed my ears to quell the panic in my chest. There was no opening through the mass of bodies. 

The baby on her back started wailing. His nose dripped more mucus and the child kept sucking. Beans Woman looked at me like she was gonna lose her mind. 

“Do you need help?” I asked.  

She sized me up and took the pot off her head. 

“Oh no no no no! That’s too big for me to carry.” Who asked me to do this? I screamed internally. She placed the pot on my head and miraculously slipped through the crowd shouting her child’s name. 

My neck strained under the weight of the pot. I tried moving my purse to another hand, but I felt greedy eyes on me. I muttered a prayer that my dress money would make it safely to the boutique and tucked my purse into my bra. The plan was to help Beans Woman real quick and then find my dress. 

I saw her wrapper in the distance and followed. The pot made it difficult to navigate through all the different bodies fighting for space. The warmth of the metal on my head rubbed against a balding spot on my scalp. Beans Woman kept shouting her son’s name and running like a mad woman.  

“Emma oo, Emma, Emma! Emma abeg! Abeg na,” she cried, grabbing innocent people by the shirt to ask if they’d seen a small boy wearing a spiderman shirt. I focused on following her without falling. 

We reached a clearing in the marketplace, the timber section with thousands of harvested trees tied into bundles. There was no adult or child in sight, only old men sweeping wood shavings. Beans Woman knelt and banged her head on the ground. As I brought the pot down to get some relief, warm oil spilled on my clothes. I set the pot next to her and almost slipped away, but she started wailing.

“My pikin ooo! My pikin oooo! My child have loss. After nine months and two days labor, they have steal my child! My God!! I was selling market every day, till the time I born Emmauel! My Emma oo!” 

“I am sorry, ma.” 

“If na my market wey loss, I go fit bear am,” she said. “This one na my child. You fit buy child for market?” 

I had no answer. 

“They have take my Emma. They have kill my baby. They have use my child to do ritual oo.” She flailed her arms and legs in panic. 

“Don’t cry, madam. Your boy is safe. He may be laughing somewhere or even eating ice cream,” I said, willing it to be true. 

“Safe?” she laughed. “In this Balogun?” She pulled off her scarf and slapped both cheeks. The timber sellers stared at her and murmured. The baby threw away its sticky lollipop and started licking the mother’s clothes. 

Sunset loomed on the horizon and I became paranoid. “We need to go, ma. Your baby is hungry. Emma can be on the way. Let’s go.”

I helped her up. She dusted herself and adjusted the wrapper holding the baby to her back. I pretended like I was going to carry the pot again. 

“No ooo…give me.” She pointed to the pot.

“Are you sure?” 

“Don’t worry,” she said.

I hurried to help her place the pot on her head. As we maneuvered our height differences the pot tipped and its contents poured on the ground. The sand turned deep red as it soaked up the beans and oil. Her livelihood for the entire day was gone. Beans Woman started laughing hysterically. She laughed and laughed till her voice turned hoarse and cracked. I looked from her teary face to the spilled beans and then to the clothing stores ahead. Before I could say anything, one of the men from the timber stalls walked towards us. 

“Madam! Which kind of nonsense is this one? You’re messing our area nah,” he said. 

“My son have loss and you’re shouting because my beans pour in your area,” she scoffed at the man. She kicked her empty pot and walked away.

“Esan! My name,” she said as we walked back to the main market.  

“Esan, you will find your boy,” I assured her. 

“We will find my boy,” she echoed. 

We asked every person we saw if they’d seen a small boy about seven-years-old wearing a spiderman shirt. The answer was no after no after no after no after no. 

The market got darker, almost eerie, as shops started shutting down. 

A black mannequin wearing a feathery, leathery, sequined gown caught my attention from the second floor of an outdoor boutique. I couldn’t tell if it was a ball-gown. It looked too extra. But that was the goal, right? To graduate from secondary school and shed this nerdy wallflower energy. Esan caught me looking at my watch and in the direction of the boutiques. 

“By God’s grace, I go find am,” she said, “go buy your cloth.”

“How did you know I was going to get a dress?” 

“E dey your face.”

“You will find your boy, right?” I asked.

 She faked a smile. 

The dress that determined my future was right ahead of me. I was on the second flight of stairs when I saw the police car parked on the other side of the street and a spiderman logo screaming up at me through the car window. Alarm bells went off in my head. 

“Emma! Madam! Madam Esan! Your boy,” I shouted, jumping and waving my hands. Esan was in a far corner of the market busy asking strangers about her son. 

“Madam Esan!” I jumped higher so she would see me. 

The little boy stared vacantly through the car’s windows as I weighed my options. If I went down, I could get stuck in the crowd, howbeit dwindled. I had nothing to draw her attention with from up here. I looked down at my sandals and took a deep breath. What’s the worst that could happen? 

Ready. Aim. Throw.

The sandal went flying, and kinda landed on Madam Esan’s baby. The baby started squealing. She turned around and passersby pointed to the person who’d stoned her child with a sandal. 

I waved frantically and pointed towards the police car. 

“Your boy! Madam Esan!” I called out. 

She looked confused.

“Emma! Emma! Emmauel!” I shouted, continuing to point at the police car. 

Madam Esan ran into the street without care for the cars or Okada drivers coming her way. Vehicles braked to avoid her and Okadas swerved to let her pass. She ran straight for the police car and started yanking at the door. A policeman dragged her away from the door and took her aside for questioning. I was too shocked to move, watching as they interrogated her. 

The shop owner started taking the mannequins inside the store. The questioning continued. Madam Esan waved for me to come. The policeman pointed to his notepad and shouted something. Again, Madam Esan waved me over.

 Did they need me to help prove the child belonged to her? 

The shop owner called out to his neighbors to help him move more mannequins inside the store. Madam Esan waved me over. Emma punched the car window. Madam Esan held the door handle. The policeman pushed her away. 

I ran up the stairs and didn’t look back. The faint sound of wailing trailed behind me but the cadence of my classmates’ mockery drowned it out. 

About the Author

Delight Chinenye Ejiaka is a fiction writer whose works focus on the African experience and history. She is an MFA candidate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She was a finalist for the 2022 Frontier Global Poetry Prize. Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in Isele Magazine, What You Need To Know About Me anthology, Lee Review, Whale Road Review and Vindagua. Twitter @DEjiaka 

*Featured image by Goran Tomic