TRIGGER WARNINGS: CHILD ABUSE
Your lips just can't form the word no, can they?
Even when your brain screams at them to do so. When your tongue tries to push the word out. When your nails dig into your palms, your toes curl, your eyes squeeze shut, and you will, with every ounce of strength in you, your lips to part and let those two letters tumble out. Your lips just won't budge. And, if by some miracle, they do, it's only to allow the godforsaken yes sail smoothly out.
Yes. To a roommate's request to be her plus one at a birthday bash. Though you had to study for an important exam the next day.
Yes. To a friend's request to lend her money for an outrageously expensive pair of shoes she didn't need. The money you gave her, the one you had to break your piggy bank to get, was your tuition fee. This friend couldn't return the money in time. You had to claw your way out of a mound of debt.
And, yet, when another friend—one with whom you shared a relationship as shaky as a Nigerian politician's words—asked you to be her guarantor for a loan, you said yes. You knew the loan wasn't for a business investment. You knew it wouldn't help solve a life-and-death situation. Unless buying Aṣọ ẹbi for a party she planned to gatecrash was a life-and-death matter to your friend. Once again, you had to crawl your way out of debt, and not without more than a few scratches.
You were still sour from this incident when your employer sought your help. You work—actually work, not volunteer—at a small orphanage a stone's throw from your campus. Though it is supposed to be a motherless babies home, every child, but a few, in the orphanage are either crippled, blind, deaf, or mute. And every child, but a few, have parents.
Parents too ashamed, too busy, too weak, too poor, or too rich to bring up disabled children. Parents who have little to no qualms about dumping their children, along with some monthly token, and foodstuffs, to douse their occasional twinge of guilt, into the pudgy hands of your employer.
The free foodstuffs, money, expensive gift items from philanthropist, and high praises from religious leaders and others, are why your employer established the orphanage, and why she organises a Children's Day party every year.
Every year, on a day not even remotely close to the 27th of May, your employer gathers up the children, dresses them in their nicest clothes, rents a hall on credit—and never pays back—turns her employees into caterers and servers, and pieces together bits of stupid programmes to make a Children's Day show.
In one of those programmes, some of the children come onto the stage, stand before the orphanage's wealthy benefactors, and recite all the good stuff your employer has done for them. They talk about the top of the line education they receive—in actual fact, you and one other employee homeschool all fifty of the kids, at once, and for an hour every weekend. The other employee can barely write her name. You hate teaching—the high-end clothes they wear—more like high-end rags; your employer resells every nice clothes donated to the kids, save for the ones she has to don them in on Children's Day—the sumptuous food they eat—if anything sumptuous goes through anyone's mouth in that orphanage, it's through your employer's large mouth.
Because of your good English, your employer tasks you with teaching these kids what to say. You know it's wrong. You know you're teaching the kids to lie, helping your employer get away with maltreatment, embezzlement, and deceit, and therefore, just as horrible as she is.
But your lips just can't form the word no, can they?
So, Yes. To your employer when she asks you to teach the kids to lie this year, too. Yes. When she puts you in charge of the catering. Yes. When she puts you in charge of the decorations. Yes. Yes. Yes.
No. No. No, you lament to your roommate, I can't do it this time around. I can't.
Then why didn't you tell her so? she asks, not in the least surprised.
I tried to, but then I opened my mouth, and it started agreeing. But I won't do it this time.
She looks at you like she would an imbecile. You irritate her with your yes-to-everything attitude, though more than thrice she's used that attitude to her advantage. Last year, she says, you said you wouldn't do it. Same as the year before last. I'm tired of these talks, my friend. But I'll tell you what I've always told you. Your mouth is not the only part of you that can say no. Say no with your actions.
Your thick brows draw together. How? You ask.
You destroy the party. Simple, your roommate replies.
And so, on that starless night, a gentle wind driving in the stench from the dumpsters through the tiny window of your dingy room, you and your roommate sit splay-legged, a section of uncarpeted floor between you, and brainstorm on how to destroy your employer's party.
First, you pick out kids for the testimony-slash-recital. The ones with thinning hair, sunken eyes, deep wells in their collarbones, and yellowed skin. The ones your employer makes sure the benefactor never glimpse. To their delight, you assure them that they don't have to memorise a full page of lies. All they need do is speak the truth.
Second, you pick out kids for the testimony-slash-recital. The ones with some semblance of healthy hair, shallow wells in their collarbones, and what looks like brown skin. The ones your employer dolls up, wraps up, and present to the benefactors and sponsors. To their despair, you order them to memorise a full page of lies—same ones as the years before, only with a few tweaks. These kids, you'll use as a front, so your employer doesn't suspect a foul play.
Next comes the catering. There'll be really good food for the sponsors this year—rich Jollof rice, crispy chicken, hot Amala, thick gbegiri, soft Ogunfe, Five Alive, and Eva water— bad food for the kids—bland Jollof rice, chicken legs, lumpy Amala, and Pure Water. It's been this way for the past few years. Only this time, the kids' bad food won't be dished in beautiful China, but in the ugly plastic plates your employer insists they use on normal days. Days she doesn't have people to impress. Days she doesn't have people to wheedle money from.
God! How that woman disgusts you.
But you take comfort in the knowing you'll expose her for who she is—A tight-fisted, cold-hearted, child molester and fraudster.
And you do.
On the D-day, she toddles to you on heels too high and too thin for her thick legs, massive girth, and flabby arms. Owlish eyes brush the miserable faces of the children flanking you. Are they ready? Have you taught them all they have to say? she inquires.
Good. She nods, too. Then flicks a boy's forehead. You, she snaps, arrange your face well. You can sulk all you want after the party, but from now on, I want you to smile. You hear me. Smile!
A bead of tear trickles down the boy cheeks, comes to rest just above his now widened chaffed lips. The teeth he bares are off-white.
And you, she says to you, is everything set? The catering? I saw the decorations. The balloons, and the table dressings. They're good. They're good. I'll check on the caterers now. I hope you hired good ones, because you should know how important this party is. If everything isn't exactly right, we won't get money from these people. And we need as much money as we can get.
She needs as much money she can get. What she spends the money on, you don't know. She doesn't wear good clothes—even today, her Aṣọ oke screams fake, garish against the drab walls of the common room. She shoos her children away when they ask for money. She barely pays her employees—you can't remember the last time you got a full salary, much less a bonus.
Once, an employee, your illiterate co-teacher, swore she saw your employer lounging in a pool of money, and laughing like a maniac.
And you have to clean this room better, she says now, scanning the common room. Make the beds well, and put way all those ragged clothes. I have some dolls in my office. You'll place one each on the tables beside the beds. Make sure you return my dolls after the party. I borrowed them. Maybe clean the fan. In fact, I think you should move some of the beds to the vacant room. I can't risk any my benefactors complaining about lack of space. They gave me money to add more rooms.
She spins, toddles off. You hope she'll trip over the basket of ribbons by the door.
We only eat twice a day, says one of the kids—the kids you've taught to say the truth—on the stage. This girl has bleary eyes, tear-stained face, and a speech impediment that makes what she says more heart-wrenching.
The patrons' eyes narrow, darts to your employer.
Your employer's eyes pop.
Your eyes gleam.
Most times once. Especially on weekdays when the other ladies who take care of us are not around. The boys that says is blind, and has a deformed head. His shirt gapes in the front, exposing a frail body.
The philanthropists lips part.
Your employer gawps.
Your lips spread.
Five of us share a bed.
The philanthropists gawp.
Your employer bolts up from her high chair.
You tamp down your nerves.
Most times, we sleep on the bare floor.
The benefactors bolt up from their high chairs.
Your employer can't move.
You jump in your mind.
The toys and games we're gifted, she never lets us have them.
She slaps us.
She beats us.
We're suffering. Please, make it stop.
Some of the sponsors scramble to the stage, scoop up the forlorn kids.
Some yank out their phones, alert the police.
Your employer scuttles to you, grabs your neck. What have you done? What have you done? she screams.
Sabotage, you say. The good kind.
Your roommate clinks glasses with you. I told you, she says. There are ways to say no without using your mouth.
You bob your head, but you're not really listening. Your mind is on the kids. You don't know what will happen to them. You don't trust the government with them. The government officials assigned to care for the kids are may be as corrupt as your disgraced and detained employer.
You can't exactly say no to the government.
But maybe there are other ways.