During the crisp early hours of a Saturday morning, a group of restless teenagers take to the sleeping Jump Street of Lagos to play roadside football. They will not be obstructing traffic. This Saturday is the last Saturday of the month. In Lagos state, every last Saturday of the month is used for cleaning up the environments. It is called Environmental Sanitation day and it is an offence to move out of one’s locality from 7AM until 10AM while the clean-up lasts. Young lads often use this opportunity to play monkey posts football- four aside; bare feet; eight referees and as many assistant referees as the total number of spectators; first team to score two wins and winner takes all if there is cash at stake. There is always cash at stake. The game starts. A lot of gingering amongst the players is equally rivalled by the same amount of shouting and chanting amongst the spectators who have various bets at stake in different categories- first to throw; first to play a corner-kick; first to wound; first to foul; first to score aside the main bet. This kind of football has the largest number of stars ever assembled in one single match. All the big names in all the top leagues of the world are represented here by their doubles. Pride is at stake too. So let’s go.
The first throw-in happens at exactly three minutes of play and money exchanges hands. The frenzy continues. Game on. Then Carlos of the favourite team takes a shot at goal from a rather long distance and as these things happen in real life when the real Carlos takes a shot at goal, the shot goes above the players’ heads instead of through their knees as he deigns. It goes completely out of the field of play and continues its flight some twenty metres away before descending over the fence and into the compound of a building that is very far from the stadium. Some hail him while others shout at him to always put it in his thick foot that this is a monkey post football and not FIFA approved standard pitch. He scoffs at these and smiles at his hailers. Meanwhile, one of the numerous ball-boys runs back from where the ball lands and informs everybody that the ball can’t be retrieved. Why? His seniors want to know. Someone suggests that the boy is a lazy boy. The boy denies the suggestion and thereafter explains his inability to retrieve the ball. He says it in just a sentence and everybody calms down for a while.
“It is in the compound of number seventy-seven.”
Everybody calms down for a while because everybody knows that that is the compound of the witch, Mama Seventy-seven. As would be expected, her compound is out of bound to all. These young crops of football stars stunt-doubles know the story of Mama Seventy-seven like they know the stories of their favourite football stars.
A long, long time ago before these wannabe football stars were born, there was a legend, a fairy tale legend. It was carefully woven around a river, two estranged lovers and numerous others too inconsequential to list but whose participation in the making of the legend was nonetheless crucial. This is not a love story. This is a story about love. Mercy was a peaceful child. The only child of a farmer and his wife, she grew up into one of the most beautiful young girls in the new town, Agboile, which was just springing up around the big, flowing river, Uren. Uren’s reputation was impeccable. She was reputed to have given the fruits of the wombs to many barren women in the new town. In fact, the emergence of Agboile was primarily because of Uren. During the beginning of the raining season, every year, a festival was held in honour of her. There and then, every year, all those that laboured and were heavy-laden would come and beg her for anything that troubled them, especially barren women. Uren was said to be magnanimous in her dealings with all that came to her for help. It was said that more people came to give testimonies to the efficacy of the water goddess than the number of people that came to beg for her help every year. But because she was a female herself, Uren was more concerned with the womenfolk than with the men. So she was more into the ministry of giving the fruits of the wombs. In time, the sleeping town of Agboile woke up from their slumber and gravitated to the heights of their neighbouring cities because of the influx of the city people. As a form of tourism, people came from far and wide to see and sometimes partake in the festival that had put the locals of Agboile on the map. Uren lived up to expectations as she continued to bless all that came to her. With the influx of the city people came different lifestyles and the easy beliefs of the city people. Whereas Agboile folks were steeped in traditions and cultures that kept them grounded, the city people were bound by the freedom of everything. They took freedom in all things simple from the mode of dressing to everything with a stronger meaning like faith, trust, integrity and love. They made the rules as they go, claiming to be free. The unwritten laws in Agboile were slowly and carefully re-written by these free people of the cities that had somehow settled amongst the locals because of the very thing they had no regard for like trust and the fear of God which the locals of Agoile exhibited by adhering to the laws of their ancestors.
Mercy herself was a testimony of the thriving ministry of Uren. After three years of fruitless marriage, her parents had partaken in the feast of water at the festival of the water goddess. They were there the following year to give testimony to the faithfulness of Uren. At the age of seventeen, Mercy was already a woman in the eyes of the laws of Agboile. And so suitors came. Among her suitors was a native of Agboile, Omidun, a fisherman. He had the eyes of Mercy and her parents because of his humble nature. He was also a hardworking young man. These traits meant more to the natives than they did to the city people. To show that his intentions were noble, Omidun gave Mercy’s father a couple of yam seedlings. Mercy’s father accepted it to show his support for the union according to their custom. So when Tommy, a product of the civilization of Agboile dropped his hat in the ring for the contest of Mercy’s hand in marriage, everybody knew he stood no chance of winning because he was arrogant, conceited and lazy. He was also too free. He had no serious faith and he made the rules as he goes. The average Agboilean frowned on these traits in a man.
But Tommy had another trait. He was the only son of one of the richest men in the new town of Agboile. With an ace up his sleeves, Tommy changed the rules of the game in one fine move. In an unpredicted move, Mercy’s father returned the yam seedlings that Omidun had offered as a gesture of goodwill. Mercy’s father turned around and gave her daughter’s hand in marriage to the rich but otherwise unworthy Tommy.
Omidun was crushed in spirit. He took his case to the river goddess. The natives advised him against it. They said Uren won’t do anything to her daughter. But surely this was a case of betrayal, Omidun argued back. Yes, it was, the now civilised people of Agboile replied him. But we were in a new world where money could buy everything, including the justice of Uren. They further informed the bemused Omidun that the chief priestess of the river goddess had been visited by Tommy’s father who somehow still believed in the workings of these powers. The chief priestess had been bribed to disregard Omidun’s plea for justice. He should move on. There were as many beautiful girls in the town as there were many fishes in the river.
Mikel Obi thinks it’s too early to end the game. Everybody agrees with him. Nobody thought it fit to bring an extra ball. And there is nowhere to buy a new one. All shops will be closed until 10am. And this is just some few minutes to eight. The game has to go on. So they all move towards the large and beautiful gates of house number seventy-seven. Zidane leads. At the gates, they are about deciding who will bell the cat. Some players from the opposing team are saying Carlos should go when they hear the rustling of the gates. They all flee. Ronaldo leads. A ball is thrown at them by Mama Seventy-Seven.
“Take your ball. You can come in for refreshments afterwards.” A soothing female voice calls at the fleeing lads. They slow down and turn to see Mama Seventy-Seven but she is gone before they could get a glimpse of the fabled witch. They all take a long look at the ball curiously; having a funny feeling that it must have changed shape. Messi juggles it for five minutes straight and the crowd cheers him on. The ball is still in a good shape. Maybe Mama Seventy-Seven is not a witch after all. The game continues and the first throw-in occurs. Money exchanges hands again. Game on.
Omidun was a joke amongst his friends. They said he was spineless. A man should at least have pride if he doesn’t have money. His best friend told him that he would kill himself if such calamity befalls him. Omidun finally decided to take his case to the river goddess herself. He had earlier on briefed the chief priestess who advised him to let go and let God.
“God?” The broken Omidun asked the chief priestess.
“Yes, my son. This is a matter of the heart. You see, even Uren has her limits. Vengeance is of God. Uren cannot judge, she can only bless. Only God can judge. Let it go, my son. These things make you a man. Let it go.” The chief priestess consoled the broken Omidun.
One cool and breezy evening, a few days to another famed festival, a broken young man made a solitary journey to the riverbanks of Uren and let it go…
“I come to you with a clear conscience. I have worshipped you all my life, believing that you are the link between us mortals and the unseen God. You have healed all that came to you in truth. I don’t want healing, Uren. I want justice. I want you to judge this case of betrayal. I have been unjustly wronged. Will you fight for me?”
Uren flowed by slowly.
“Will you be my avenger?”
“What do you want from me? What do you want me to sacrifice to you so you can give me justice?” Omidun asked in a loud but shaky voice. There were tears in his eyes. The tears flowed freely down his face and into the flowing river. Uren was touched.
“What do you offer, son of man?” The water finally spoke.
Omidun didn’t hesitate. “I offer you my blood.”
“What do you want for justice?” The river goddess asked again. Now, the river flowed by faster.
Omidun knelt down in the river and proceeded to name his idea of justice. But before he could speak, the river spoke again.
“Before you speak, son of man, you should know that the gods are as merciless in justice as they are merciful in forgiving and blessing. Choose your words carefully.”
But Omidun was far too gone in his misery to hear these wise words of the river goddess.
“Crush her seeds. Crush her seeds repeatedly. They took my seedlings, Uren. Crush her seeds repeatedly. Crush them!” Omidun kept repeating his idea of justice as he tore his clothes. Completely naked, he walked like someone in a trance to the deepest parts of the river and drowned.
“Goaaaaaaalllllllll!” First goal comes from the underdogs. It is a clean one from Rasheed Yekini and his double says a little prayer for his soul to continue to rest in peace. Money exchanges hands for the third time. Game on.
It is almost ten years since Omidun placed a curse on Mercy. Everybody has since moved on. Tommy found love in the arms of another woman who gave him sons and daughter. He moved on by moving out of his matrimonial home at number seventy-seven, Jump Street, Lagos. Mercy moved on by growing three years older for every year of her life after her first miscarriage. She would have forgotten too but Uren reminded her every time she got pregnant. Uren reminded her in fifteen miscarriages. Not being able to get pregnant is understandable. Killing your unborn children is not. The former could be from God. The latter can only be from witches. Alone, battered and without anybody to console her, Mercy grew into Mama Seventy-seven overnight. Thereafter, it was just a matter of time before neighbours started calling her a witch.
When the underdogs score their second goal, the whole stadium erupts for different reasons. Some wants the goal disqualified while some other wants it to count. Spectators run into the small-sized pitch to defend their rights and money.
In house number seventy-seven, a still beautiful Mercy looks at the wall clock for the hundredth time. She wishes for her youth. The mercies of the ever-flowing Uren still abide in her hometown. She had been headstrong all these years; thinking Tommy’s money would cure her. Tommy thought so too until his aged parents threatened to disown him if he didn’t get them grandchildren.
It is Uren that reminds her daughter still. She whispers to her to come for cleansing; for forgiveness. She whispers to her to come for healing. And when the river goddess calls, you answer. Mercy is ready to retrace her steps back to normalcy. She is now convinced that her healing is in the hands of the river. She is in high spirits this morning. That was why she returned the ball. Witches don’t do that under any circumstances, she muses to herself.
Today, in faraway Agboile, another festival beckons to all that labour and are heavy laden. Once again Uren is ready to do what she knows how to do best. Mercy looks at the wall clock and it strikes 10am finally. She picks up her already packed bag and heads for the gates. She intends to tell the young footballers her true story and probably buy them refreshments before she moves to the park.
She hopes they will let her do just that.