The chatter came to an abrupt stop as Mama placed two plastic bowls on the table. Nine restless bodies nuzzled the creaky wooden table as their eyes scanned the unknown content.
What could it be this time?
Their peckish faces glowed before an oil lamp. Chinyere’s eyes twinkled as she watched spittle drip from Jude’s mouth.
Mama started a song and they moaned impatiently.
Why the holdup!
Nevertheless, a song was necessary because every meal was a miracle. Although Papa thought a song was an oppressive display to usher in a meagre meal while the kids starved.
Mama ignored everyone, swayed from side to side to her claps and song. They joined, not without grudging. If they didn’t join her, they wouldn’t eat any sooner.
That evening Chinyere had hoped for a tasty meaty soup and fufu to go with it. Nothing less.
Breakfast had been five small cubes of leftover yam porridge which she had shared among herself and her eight siblings.
Mama and Papa had drunk cups of water for breakfast and had promised them a great and tasty lunch. Yet, when lunch came, it had been soaked garri and a handful of roasted groundnuts which tasted awful. Again, Papa had promised a great dinner and she hoped he didn’t fail this time.
Whatever it was, Chinyere wished it was good and plentiful. But looking at the bowls, she doubted if it was anything good.
When the praise ended, Papa led the prayers over the meal as they held hands. The table creaked continuously. Papa sensed the ‘fix me’ warning but ignored it again. The sound had become a part of their everyday table life. It’s like a melody playing in the foreground.
The awaited time came.
Mama opened the bowls and the table and all surrounding it went dead silent so much so that Chinyere could hear their breathing.
The silence was disturbed by sudden and simultaneous sniff of four kids while the rest cast their moist eyes on them.
Chinyere’s shoulders dropped with her sigh and her eyes brutalised the oil lamp hanging above their heads. She wished it’s flames could go off with her anger. The poor lantern had lost its handle years ago and needed it replaced. But none of them cared just like no one cared they hated cocoyam and oil with fetid stench of ogiri flavouring.
When she felt the tears on her cheeks, she yanked her eyes off the lamp and down at Papa, then on the unpleasant food.
‘What is the problem?’ Papa’s voice was hushed. He spoke like that whenever he failed to keep his promise.
‘Why are you all crying?’ Mama asked and picked two tuber of cocoyams and flapped them before gloomy faces. ‘Let’s not be ungrateful. God has given us a meal, delicious cocoyams and mmanu ogiri.’ Mama’s optimism grieved Chinyere. How could she say that? She knew they all hated cocoyams. She knew it made her throat. tingle.
‘Ok. I apologise for failing again. But understand that we tried hard. All I want you to do now is eat your meal happily and go to sleep. Look, it’s high time you all got used to our best traditional meal. In addition, what matters is not what we eat but the heart with which we eat it.’
‘When will we ever enjoy good meal again?’ Chinyere retorted. ‘It’s been long I set my eyes on a proper meal. I’m dying to eat soup and garri?’
‘I want indomie and fried eggs!’
‘I want rice and stew!’
‘I want jelof rice and fried plantain!’
‘Say, ‘me four’ not ‘me five’ dumb skull!’
‘Be quiet! Be quiet!’ Mama cried out. Papa chuckled. They might have gotten a taste of his neighbour’s cooking. The day he told them not to visit the house on the other side, was the same day they told Mama Okem that he told them not to visit her house again. Mama said Mama Okem was furious.
‘Eat and thank God you have something to eat. Many children are going to sleep right now on an empty stomach. You have food. Be thankful.’
‘That’s what you keep saying everyday mama!’ Chinyere said and Papa growled at her.
‘Show some respect to your Mama child. It’s not her fault,’ The kids threw their eyes in his direction.
‘Who’s fault is it Papa,’ the seven year old girl asked. Her innocence reflected in her eyes.
‘It’s the fault of the virus. It’s everywhere and we can’t go out on our normal businesses to get money to buy food.’
‘Is the virus here now?’
‘Stop talking with food in your mouths. Respect all table manners this minute,’ Mama scolded. Silence came in a flash and flew away.
‘We’re all going to die.’
‘No, no Simon, don’t say that. We will not die. The virus won’t kill us.’ Papa waved both hands at everyone to re-assure their safety.
‘ But hunger will.’ Chinyere said and mama growled.
‘Don’t talk like that Chinyere.’ Mama clapped her hands, ‘Alright, everyone finish up so you can go to sleep.’
‘Papa, is the virus everywhere?’ The five year old pouted his lips.
‘They are out there Jude and you never know where they are.’
‘Do you think they are in Mama Okem’s house too.’ . Mama dragged Jude up and took him to the kitchen to shut his mouth, fetched water into a bowl and began to wash his hands vigorously. But Jude’s mouth couldn’t stop
‘Okem ate rice and tomato stew yesterday. Today his mama made soup with pleeeeenty meat which they ate with semovita. I saw it with my two eyes, mama. Can I go over there tomorrow to eat a little? Pleaaaaase. Okem promised me some meat. Can I take? Just once?’
‘No!’ Jude stomped his feet and hit his head on her ribs and made her spleen explode. She bent and gave him a stern warning, ‘If I see you there tomorrow, I’ll cut off your legs.
The drama was yet to be over, when mama ordered them to go to bed. Chinyere took them to their only room. She had wished time and again that Papa could build a bigger house like Papa Okem’s storey building, so they could all have their rooms each. At twelve she was big enough to own her own room like Chisom, her snobby classmate who always talked about her pretty dresses her Papa bought her.
That night Chinyere couldn’t sleep because she kept dreaming of meaty soup and fufu.
She hoped to go to Mama Okem’s house the next day to break Mama’s rule and eat good food. She was thinking about how fast her mouth could water before she forgot about everything.
Next day, mama went out very early in the morning and came back later with lots of stuff for cooking. When Chinyere saw meat, stockfish and fufu, she felt mama’s optimism had won.
She needed to sprint to Mama Okem’s house to drag Jude and the rest home. In mama’s word; ‘Whatever they are looking for on top of the mountain has found it’s way to their table.’
In the kitchen, before the meal was cooked, Chinyere rumbled a song of praise to God the giver of life and the provider of meals.
This time it was in spirit and in truth.