I have always marvelled at how grown ups carry things on their heads.
In my six-year-old world, nothing could be more magical, and I was quick to learn that there were varying degrees of mastery of this art.
Those unable to free both hands supported their containers with either one or both hands. They walked slower, and every few steps water jumped out of their swaying containers and hit the earth sending wet sand everywhere. Water that ran down their arms, briefly disappearing in the pits of their arms before showing up again as wet patches on their tops.
Then there were those who actually balanced anything from a pair of slippers to a big bowl of water on their heads so perfectly that they did not need hands to support them.
They bobbed and swayed their necks and heads, the mesmerizing shimmer of water in the evening light as it caressed the lips of the containers but never dropped, not even once, on the ground. It was so beautiful to watch, and I would sit out there on the balcony and watch them make the trips up and down our street somewhere in Surulere.
I eagerly waited for the day I would grow up and be able to do that. Just to be able to carry whatever I wanted on my head was my single focus, my one desire.
It was not until I turned eleven that it occurred to me that I may be grown enough to try it.
On Saturday evening, as she had done for some time now, mother washed and cleaned the tomatoes and peppers for making stew that night so that all we had to do the next day when we returned from church was boil rice.
That day though, there were more tomatoes and peppers than usual because my cousins were spending the holidays at our place, so there were more mouths to feed. Instead of the usual custard bucket, she used a bigger bucket.
If she saw the gleam in my eyes, she chose not to say anything about it as she sent me on my way with the money to pay Mama, the woman with the ero, the big, blue grinding machine four houses down the street.
Carrying the bucket by hand was not difficult at all, I suspect the excitement welling up inside me made it seem even lighter.
I went down on both knees to greet Mama just like mother had taught me, and then I waited for the noise that was sure to follow when the machine came on. The whirring and rattling and clanging were as loud today as they were every other time, but instead of making me wince and plug my ears with my fingers, it was like music to my ears. The vibration of the machine seemed to be coursing through my body.
All too soon, Mama was done and I paid her. I then went down on both knees and asked her to help me with the bucket on my head.
My heart raced and I was afraid she could hear it beating loudly in my chest.
What if she refused?
What if she insisted I carried the bucket by the handle?
“Osuka e da?”
“Mo ni, osuka e da?”
Ehen! I knew I had forgotten something. The pad of cloth that usually went on the head for support and balance. I shook my head to show I did not have one. Mama sighed as she lifted the bucket and very gently placed it on my head.
I was doing it! I was actually doing it!
I was out of her compound when the first few drops hit my back. I didn’t know whether to continue or return. I took the next few steps and nothing happened. For what it was worth, I held onto the bucket with both hands, fingers digging into the sides of the bucket on the inside.
The pepper sloshed about and licked the tips of my fingers inside the bucket. My head bobbed from the motion of the contents of the bucket, still I persevered. I tried to walk quickly, but more liquid ran down my back and splashed in front of me, hitting my feet as I walked. I slowed my walk almost to a crawl. I was too afraid to look from side to side as I had seen the neighbours do, I just looked straight ahead. I don’t know how long it took me, but I finally made it home.
As soon as I walked through the door, everybody turned to see who had come in; my cousins and father were watching tv in the parlour, mother was standing in the kitchen doorway.
She made a quick dash for me and snatched the bucket off my head, I managed to catch a glimpse of the bucket before father whisked me off to the bathroom; half the contents were gone.
My gown was stuck to my back, streaks of the puree trailed down my face and was beginning to cake. Father gently peeled the clothes off my back before leading me into the bath tub. For a long time he stood there looking confused, and I was about ready to cry from embarrassment when he turned on the shower.
A jet of water hit me and fiery heat seared my body everywhere the water touched. I hopped and danced and cried, but there was nothing for it.
Mother came and took over from him. when she was done, she rubbed me down with palm oil, and that was how I stood there, my neck stiff, fingers, feet, back and face on fire, covered in palm oil with only a pair of underwear around my waist. My cousins struggled to keep a straight face.
I don’t know who said it, it did not really matter, but with that one word, something broke. We all laughed so hard, I had tears coming out my eyes when I came up for air.
The irony of it was, for as long as I can remember, my cousins had called me ata wewe because of my ‘sharp mouth’ which they said was like the small hot pepper.
Needless to say, from that day, Pepper became my official name at home.
Today as I mark the end of one, and the beginning of another, year of my life, I take stock and I ask myself again if this is how I saw my life playing out.
One thing is for certain: I don’t like being grown up. There is a sense of finality about that phrase. Grown ups have way too many responsibilities, take things too seriously and they lose sight of the little child in them.
For as long as I can remember, all I wanted to be was grown up. It all seemed so grand: grow up, get a job, get married and, most important of all, people would take me seriously. And therein lies the rub: it is all a scam.
I prefer growing up. In this place I am allowed to make mistakes, to learn from them, to evolve, to dream, to hope.
Things are really changing for me. I am at a point where I am making more crucial life decisions.
Stock taking done, I find I am growing up without my consent. The nice thing though is, I am doing so surrounded by the most amazing people, and for that, I am thankful.
PS: In the six months that I was gone, I followed as many of your birthdays as I could on twitter, Facebook and via Blackberry. I only hope that beyond the parties (or the absence of one) we remember what is important: the people around us. There is nothing nicer than having good people in our corner.
Catch up on all FRANQUE’s STORIES HERE.