October 2010 (Three Years Ago)
Martha had just arrived in Lagos. She went to the club which would eventually become her place of work although she did not know it yet.
She had arrived a day ago into the hands of her new guardian, Sophia. When she arrived, Sophia had peered at her for long and nodded her head, a smile spread on her bedizened face, which Martha believed had ruined her beauty. It was many months later that Martha would know that the simple nod was an acknowledgement that she would succeed in the ‘business.’
She was at home on the first day while Sophia went to work. She didn’t ask where she worked. Visitors, as she had learned, do not ask many questions. Sophia would tell her when the time was appropriate. So she sat at home on the leather settee, her shoes removed so as not to dirty the rug and tiles, and she watched television till her eyes itched. She slid into boredom later like a cube of sugar melting inside hot water and she moved her feet rhythmically to the hum from her mouth.
The following day, Sophia arrived at night and told her they were going to a club. She didn’t ask where. She wore one of Sophia’s jean and vest and followed. She felt strange in the trouser. It was tight and comfortable and made her feel proud of her own body. But it was louche, shameful and ungodly if her foster father could judge it.
She remembered how she had left home one night all too sudden, sudden and she surprised herself by showing the courage to run away. It all started with the man she called father.
Initially, she had thought she owed her life to him. The neighbour talked about the ‘favour he did for her’ as they would talk about one who invented feminism or the civil rights, and Martha, being a responsible little kid thought she had to worship him. It was said that he was kind and from the thought of his kindness, she had a deformed perception about kindness. They described him as a man with a heart of gold. Mama Toyin, their neighbour, said when he brought Martha home on that day in a cartoon of biscuit, she looked like a skinny baby crocodile. Martha thought she would have said lizard if Martha had smiled at other things. ‘You should be grateful,’ the old, lousy woman had added.
She wasn’t grateful. The stories did not help up to the bitterness of her situation even after she ran away, she thought of being left to rot on the refuse dump, fed upon by flies and rats and cockroaches. She had kept this to herself or she would have been whipped, to destroy the evil spirit in her soul and so she would smile and nod when the woman told such a story, her story.
So she became a member of a family of three, Mr Ajasin (the Good Samaritan and a bishop in his church), his wife and their first son, Ayo. It took five years before there was another addition to the family, a girl; they named her Florence. By the eight harmattans of her arrival in the house, Martha realized she had a strange love for music. Although she had the voice which was useful in the choir, it was her body that would want to expound this strange feeling. She danced. She would dance to the strings from the terrace’s metal pole, Ayo being the drummer. Her dance was different among the choir and they would stop and watch. She danced at home to the song on the radio and her siblings would hail.
‘Where did she learn to dance like that,’ her foster father would ask.
‘Leave her alone,’ the mother would say, mopping the table with a piece of cloth, ‘I know she would like to dance by the way she wriggle in my hands when she was a baby.’
She remembered it all. But she was done with such restriction. Now that she was away from them, she could dance and feel no torment.
They arrived at the club. There were a metal door and a sign at the top in blue light. Rendezvous clubhouse. They walked past a bar where people sat peacefully and drank. It was quiet there and they continued through a lobby till they reach another door. Two men stood by this door and they smiled at Aunty Sophia, allowing them into the interiors. They walked through a long lobby, with strange sounds from the side rooms, like a face-me-I-face-you house. The only difference was that there was no door, just curtains, and she could make out the shape of a girl or that of a man lying on his back, or the cry of a girl whose seem naked or actually naked. She paused and stared round. Where’s this place? Girls walked past her wearing just bras and pants and hefty men stood at intervals, smiling at Aunty Sophia as they allowed them and until they got finally to a big hall.
It was crowded. The light was red and dark that made her look twice before she could see their faces; even if she walked up to them tomorrow, she might not be able to tell if she ever met them. Two girls were standing on a podium, climbing, wriggling and twisting by two poles. They were wearing just their pants and bras, and by moving up and down the pole, they gave the world the chance to see the space under their thighs. She watched and, for a moment, forgot she was following a woman.
They took a corner to their left and it led back to the lobby they walked past earlier. They entered a room, where Aunty Sophia sat and dressed like the girls on the pole, a pant and bra exposed her body too much. Then she stood and said, ‘wait for me. You can watch from this room,’ pointing to a corner, which hung the CCTV and a man sat by a desk ‘or you can come to the main hall. I will be back,’ she said and without waiting for Martha’s response, she left. She would learn later that the man behind the office desk was the manager of the most lucrative part of the hotel, Rugged (pronounced Ruggedi). Martha didn’t have a reply either. She couldn’t even nod her head and she just stared at the exposed buttocks and arms and back as Aunty Sophia cat-walked out of the room.
Like a zombie, she followed her back into the hall and stood by a far corner, where there was a bartender. There, she watched, first as Aunty Sophia danced briefly and then a man tapped her buttocks, flashed some money and she followed. The man sat on a chair. She was surprised to see Aunty Sophia adjusting the only piece of clothing covering her nudity by holding the edge of pant, expanding it and pulling it up. She folded her hands and watched and watched – Aunty Sophia, the other girls, the men drinking, the way they put money in the girls bra, the way the girls danced by sitting on men’s laps, pulling the men’s face on their chest, the way they led men out into the lobby, like a ram willingly following a butcher.
That night, they talked about Martha becoming a stripper. It was an idea she would not welcome, and, so, she shook her head and began to cry. This wasn’t what the woman told her. Aunty Sophia moved to the arm of the couch, sitting beside her, an arm across Martha’s shoulder. They were inside her apartment.
‘See, I started like you. Since then, I’ve been able to afford all these things.’
‘No!’ she said and sobbed.
This wasn’t the way she wanted to live, to spread her legs for men to see, to sit on their laps and place their head on her chest. No. She wasn’t going to take such a life; it wasn’t better than what she was running away from. Her life in Abeokuta was hell enough that she would wish death on the man who adopted her and when her prayer wasn’t answered, she sat by street corners and cried her energy out. The man would not let her dance and by night, when Martha lay in bed, wrapped in Mrs Ajasin’s wrapper, he would come as silently as a snail. Such time frazzled her and it never ceased to happen almost every night. The creaking of the door would cut her fantasy of becoming a famous dancer. She would toss and toss and toss, hoping he wouldn’t come close, and she would hold her leg tight, her eyes shut, body stiffened. But the hands would come on her buttocks and roll her over, then grip her legs, then pulling Mrs Ajasin’s wrapper off her body, the bed vibrating to hold his weight. Then her legs would be shifted apart, and she would shut her eyes tighter and tighter as if she was seeing a bad dream.
There was an old uncompleted building near their house in Abeokuta. She used to find solace inside for crying and to wish death on herself or the man. Twice, a woman had found her weeping and she lied about her woes. She didn’t say dancing was rebuked in the house; she said her father hates to see dancers. She didn’t say he climbed over her every night, she said she didn’t feel like one of the family and that if she could find a way to run away from the family, she would take it. The woman listened and the third time the crier met the sympathizer, an arrangement was made. She would come to Lagos – to escape that life – and by 2 am, one Sunday morning, she had gone into Mrs Ajasin’s purse ‘to borrow five thousand Naira she would pay back later in life,’ climbed the fence because the gate was still locked and left, her back turned against that life.
She wiped her tears with the back of her hand and pressed her nose to ease the painful sting she was feeling in the nostrils. When she thought she had been away from such life, being used as an object of satisfaction like a toy, she was signing up for another.
‘All I want to do is to work,’ she sobbed. ‘I thought I could work as a maid and raise some money and go to school.’ She stopped, keeping the rest of the story to herself. She had heard stories of how girls come to Lagos to work and many years later, they would become big women, riding fine cars to their village, parked before a small bungalow in the street. The neighbours would then tell the story – she was just a little girl when she left, working as a maid, look at her now, how did she do it.
‘My dear, you are facing the reality,’ Aunty Sophia said, ‘if you are in this kind of job and you are smart, you can meet someone that would help you.’
‘Not this. I don’t think I can do this.’
‘When I heard your story, I feel you need help and I’m ready to give it to you. Trust me; you can have a good life after all this.’
‘Can’t I get a job as a maid?’ she cried, biting her lower lips.
‘You can but I’m not the one to help you find it. This is Lagos. Strip club pays you twice as you will get working as a maid. And a maid is a “useless girl” when madam husband cannot get to her. She is also a “useless girl” if madam husband gets to her and madam finds out.’
‘I don’t want to do that kind of work.’
‘My dear, you can do it. I didn’t die doing it. On lucky nights, I come with as much as twenty thousand Naira, because I’m smart.’ she said, raising her buttocks from the couch the way Martha had seen her done at the club, and smiled. ‘They will pay you every night. Cool cash,’ she winked.
‘I don’t know how to dance around that pole.’
‘I will teach you.’
Martha was quiet.
So it was set that she would become a stripper and she would start the next day. Through the night, Martha thought about her new life. She imagined the way her family would feel if they heard about it, that she regaled men in a night club. Then she remembered how much Aunty Sophia said she could make – that’s hundreds of thousands per month. She smiled. It took a very long hour of staring at the ceiling before sleep knocked her over.
The next day, they went to the club around 3 o’clock when it was empty and they met with the manager, who Aunty Sophia introduced as Rugged, then saying this is the girl I told you. Rugged was bald but he made for it for a good amount of beard and sideburns. He wore a white vest and black jeans, with a Rolex wristwatch. He smiled at Martha and asked of her favourite song. She waited for some seconds, thinking about what did becoming a stripper has to do with her favourite song. But he insisted, looking straight to her face.
‘Do me, by P-square’ Martha said. That was one song she could not get tired of.
Rugged played the song through a computer and the sound cried out of the big speakers, ‘could you dance to it?’ he asked.
Martha laughed. She couldn’t tell what he was driving at but it seemed like a big joke to have asked her to dance to this one song. She could dance to it all day and so she danced, first tapping her feet, front, back, her shoulders take their own movement and her waist rotating like the atlas ball fixed to a pole. Rugged clapped. Aunty Sophia clapped, beaming with a smile. Then Rugged sat on a settee.
‘Give me a lap dance,’ he said, tapping his thigh.
‘What’s sir, I’m Rugged. I said I want a lap dance.’ He frowned.
Martha glanced at Aunty Sophia, who crossed her hands on her chest and stared back at her. She made Martha remembered Mrs Ajasin when she was angry.
What will she do? She wasn’t interested in all those things she had seen Aunty Sophia doing to men the other night. She had feared this would be part of the job, and she had reminded herself it was better than living under the same roof with her foster father. She would do it, she had thought. She looked behind Rugged’s bald head, where there was the TV, a woman dancing to Dbanj’s song, Fall in Love.
‘I don’t know to do a lap dance.’
‘Are you sure you tell her what job she will be doing here?’ Rugged asked, turning to Aunty Sophia who was looking unpleased.
‘I did,’ Aunty Sophia said.
‘And other things?’ he asked.
Aunty Sophia nodded, then she said to Martha, ‘watch,’ and she walked to Rugged and started a lap dance. She started slowly like a cat walking over a soft mattress. She sat and twisted on his thigh, her back against his chest, Rugged’s face blank. she shook and teased her buttocks on his groin, shifted forward, then pushed back with a sudden jerk. Rugged gasped, and then they both chuckled as if they had communicated a secret that was oblivion to Martha. She stood, turned to Martha and said, ‘your turn.’
Martha froze. She could feel her heart drumming against her chest. Then silently saying, the lord is my shepherd, she took tentative steps towards the man who was staring at her chest with the keen interest of a doctor. When she began, Aunty Sophia scoffed, shook her head and said, ‘she needs to learn badly’ and so, they started training the next day, at home and at the club.