The Greening Of Aunty Ama

The Greening of Aunty Ama | Julius Morno | Nigeria

They say a massive dam in Cameroon has overflowed its banks, so the Cameroonian authorities had to open up their spillway to release the excess water. But there were torrential rains from north to south. It was stated by scientists that it was all part of climate change while religious people declared that it is an expression of God’s wrath on the country and we need to pray and repent of our sins. Doomsday theorists preferred to see it as a sign of the end of times while conspiracy theorists connected it to a grand strategy orchestrated by foes of the country to bring it down to its knees. Whatever it was, the Niger and Benue rivers overflowed their banks as a result of the excess water from the said Cameroonian dam and the total excess rainfall of that year, submerging a large part of the surrounding areas from the extreme north of the country all way down to the south.

The daily images of unfortunate people whose mud houses have been dissolved by the never receding body of water graced our TV sets, begging the government for prompt intervention with their tears. Most of these people live on their ancestral lands. While some heed the government’s warning and accepted the offer of temporary settlements in the form of camps, others vehemently rejected it, calling the act of running away from their ancestral land abominable. And so, they are found washed away together with their properties, adding to the casualty of the disaster and the tragic story that will continue to be told many years later.

While the whole country was still morbidly immersed in the images on TV, my neighbourhood’s interest had already shifted to a rather strange incident that happened overnight as a result of the flood. The flood water has swept off a large part of Auntie Ama’s fence and the back of her house is completely exposed. When I arrived at the spot, a small crowd had already gathered and the number kept growing right after then. Most people here are seeing the inside of Auntie Ama’s compound for the first time. It was such a shock, an event that snapped our often quiet neighbourhood out of its preoccupation with banality. The droopy trio is not here, it would have made the picture complete.

The incident had happened the previous night at Auntie Ama’s house. Nobody that lives in our small housing estate can claim not to know about Auntie Ama and her garden. It’s been more than five years now since Auntie Ama suddenly went green and conveniently turned the remaining space at the back of her house into a lush green garden populated with varied exotic vegetables and spices. Auntie Ama has developed a strong love affair with this garden which she started right after Uncle Bello, her husband left her and disappeared into oblivion and nothing tangible was ever heard of him again except unproven rumours that are the order of the day in any small working-class neighbourhood such as ours.

At first, we all thought that this garden project was just a grief-phase preoccupation to deal with her husband’s disappearance but almost six years later the passion has never diminished. It can only be said to have flourished. In direct proportion to her passion and the thriving of her garden is her happiness. It has been obvious to all of us that the secret to Auntie Ama’s happiness lies in this little garden behind her house. She spent many hours in the mornings and evenings watering and tending to her plants and when the vegetables are ripe, you can’t miss the deep satisfaction on her face as she goes from house to house with a basket full of exotic veggies and spices, sharing generously with neighbours so they can partake in the happiness she had found.

But let’s talk about Auntie Ama and how she was before going green. As a kid growing up in my neighbourhood, I’ve always known that Auntie Ama was a very special person. This is not just a private opinion of mine, it was shared by all the young people that I grew up with here. Auntie Ama is the most elusive personality in my whole neighbourhood, an old working-class residential quarters with an austere aura both in physical appearance and character. She was able to sustain her mystique through these past years which were nothing but trying for her. This woman represented for me a certain gracefulness that was specially preserved and bestowed upon the most highly evolved of feminine beauties. As kids, our fantasies were never complete or worthwhile without having Auntie Ama somewhere in them — it’s either we were married to her or she was our girlfriend — even when we knew she was happily married.

We always used to have these fantasies at the same time, every one with his own Auntie Ama. And yet no matter what exaggerated versions of her we had in our young minds, they had never done anything to dilute the magical feeling that you have when you are in the physical presence of the real Auntie Ama. She had that Monalisa smile that always leaves us arguing among ourselves about who was the target of the smile, the one she loved the most among us. She never belonged to our world, not this deadbeat residential quarters inhabited by wannabes. Of course, we never shared our fantasies with parents and grownups, not just for fear of being punished for the unutterable things in our young minds but also for possibly arming them to win the competition because as we believed, everyone shared the same fantasies about her including the grownups.

At that time, the droopy trio was not as old as they are now and their alliance was still in the process of being formed. Lipka’s husband has not yet started beating her up, Martha has not caught her husband with the teenager and my uncle has not brought home a pregnant girl that will later become his second wife. The three women have not yet concluded that all men are assholes. They still meet each other once in a while in the neighbourhood and make small talk but they have not yet seen the need to form the legendary gossip trio. They were still young and confident, just simply housewives going about their business.

While we all stand here trying to make sense of this crowd-pulling incident, I think back to the time before the small piece of land behind Auntie Ama’s house was put to productive use. The land was a filthy patch. During the rainy season, it was waterlogged and overgrown with sharp-bladed wild weeds and thorn bushes. It was a miniature rainforest with non-stop loud croaky sounds of toads to torture your sleep at night and a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. There is also an abandoned well that has no other use rather than being an incubator for mosquitoes. In the dry season, the compound will be infested with crawling reptiles. On several occasions, dangerous snakes have made it into the house but were fortunately exterminated before they could find a victim to strike.

Apart from the obvious dangers, the land was something of an eyesore, the grasses grew too fast and towered above the fence during the rains. It will soon be time again to hire some men to come into the compound and cut everything down. This was something Auntie Ama was always reluctant to do because she prefers to keep everything that goes on in her home private. Bringing in workers intrudes on the privacy of her home, especially when they take a break from cutting grass to have lunch inside the house. She will soon have to deal with the consequences when they go out and peddle exaggerated stories about the going-on in her home and how she doesn’t see eye to eye with her husband. Once a story like that enters the ear of any of the droopy trio, you can be sure that they will make the best out of the opportunity by analyzing it before spreading their distorted version.

There is one thing that makes for an interesting topic for gossip in this place, what happens in Auntie Ama and Uncle Bello’s home. It seems the same intensity of admiration that was reserved for their fairy tale marriage when they used to hold hands and go everywhere together was directly transferred to a morbid interest in its deterioration. They all love to wag their tongues about Uncle Bello’s latest drinking spree and the young girl he was sighted frolicking with. And then they will feign concerns for Auntie Ama’s wellbeing and how disrespectful Uncle Bello has been to her. Deep in their hearts, they yearned to see Auntie Ama’s mystique ruined. The droopy trio, trio yearned for the day they will witness Auntie Ama shouting at the top of her voice so they can point their fingers at her and say “Look at her, she is just like any of us” or “Listen to her, she is as crazy as the rest of us.” But that was a pleasure they never had. Auntie Ama remained as calm as ever.

She was still unperturbed when rumours were rife about the fling her husband had with Sarah, the loudmouth secretary at his office. Sarah later confided in Afiniki, a friend of hers that stays a block away from our house, that Uncle Bello desperately wanted to have a child with her and take her as a second wife but the plan backfired when it was found out that Uncle Bello was not fertile enough to father a child. This was contrary to the rumour being peddled that Auntie Ama was sterile and that was the reason for their childlessness. When my aunt heard this from Afiniki, it was a gossip goldmine. She quickly threw on a headline and off she goes to meet with her allies. Duty calls.

Perhaps the fallowness of Auntie Ama’s life, just like the land behind her house, was mistaken for infertility but she knew the truth all along. All she needed to do is put it to productive use so that she can share it with the world. And so, when her husband left her and disappeared into thin air, she graciously mourned him as only Auntie Ama would. She locked herself up and mourned his departure like she would a deceased spouse, in the privacy of her home. She never moved an inch when nosy neighbours knocked at her gate. When she emerged from the house, she went straight to work on the land. She never hired a hand or asked for help from anyone. Armed with a common hoe, she cut down the tall grasses and tilled the soil. By the time she was done, it was a cultivable land beautifully partitioned into beds. Nothing was haphazardly done, the beds looked good enough to be slept on and they were raised high enough to create a network of troughs at the borders for easy drainage of water. Without a single crop planted, Auntie Ama’s land was already a beautiful sight to behold, especially if you can remember how it was or more so if you have been cut by the sharp blade of grass, pierced by a thorn bush, narrowly missed by a snake or if your sleep has been threatened by the croaky sound of the toads in this rainforest.

When it was time for Auntie Ama to plant seeds on her beautiful beds, she carefully selected special vegetables and spices that are very vital to her nutritious needs and those she can share with neighbours. She was already very aware of plants that are of particular health needs to her and all that she has always missed. So she never planted what everyone else expected her to. Her passion led her far and wide in search of the finest seeds of the plants she wanted. The vegetables and spices were as varied as the knowledge she had gathered due to her deep interest in the topic. Apart from Ogu, Jerusalem artichoke, celery, turmeric, garlic, ginger, spring onions and different kinds of hot spices including jalapeno and long pepper, there were also other exotic spices from distant lands like sumac and juniper berries, St. lucie cherrie, ajwain and many others. And while the plants grew beautifully, they gave the compound a new lease of life.

Auntie Ama had the long abandoned well behind the house dredged to make sure that it produces enough water for the task at hand. She spoke with all her neighbours who kept chickens and requested that they keep the droppings for her to use in complementing the natural fertility of the soil. She kept empty sacs with them so that they can gather up the droppings from their chicken pens for her. At the end of the day, she had excess droppings in her garden. There is always so much gratitude whenever Auntie Ama goes around to collect the droppings — she is happy to get the droppings for her garden while they are happy to let go of what would end up as excess litter constituting a repulsive stench all around the neighbourhood. In the mornings and evenings, she is at the back of the house pumping water from the well unto her plants. During this period, there was so much happiness in Auntie Ama’s life that the trio started thinking that she must be going through a mental breakdown. They made it a duty of theirs to pass in front of the house several times a day, hoping to get an air of what is happening behind the fence of the house. There are times that they even knocked on the gate but no one came to open it, they pretended to be doing it out of good neighbourliness.

“Are you sure she is inside?” enquires Martha with a mischievous smile after they have walked a distance away from the gate.

“Of course, she is, where else can she go?” replies my aunt.

“The bushes perhaps,” adds Lipka as they all burst out laughing.

Auntie Ama’s plants have grown beautifully well. All the spices are looking like they have been properly tendered. She doesn’t allow weeds to grow and choke her precious plants, she is always armed with her small hoe, cutting and pulling out the weeds. That way the plants are never in any danger of being suffocated or in competition with the weeds. Because the land has always been very fertile and the weeds are used to growing wildly and freely, they see themselves as the sole owners of the place. Everything was rich and lush. As Auntie Ama’s passion grew. She hardly goes out of the house except when it’s very necessary. And whenever she goes out, you can’t miss the glow she exudes, it’s the type of glow that can only come from a soul that is genuinely happy and satisfied.

Auntie Ama shared her vegetables and spices generously with her neighbours including the droopy trio who seemed to have finally gotten over her. She has finally defeated them and rendered their alliance worthless. Although they continue to gossip about other people, it wasn’t as sweet as gossiping about Auntie Ama. For some reason it was as if the trio has grown too old and outstayed its usefulness, it started disbanding. They are hardly seen together as frequently as before. Sometimes, my aunt will even pretend to be sleeping whenever any of her other two comrades comes around the house.

Today, the droopy trio seems to have come out of retirement because it is here together, sharing what must be an ecstatic moment. The three of them are standing away from the rest of the crowd, making faces and speaking in hushed tones. The crowd has kept gathering right up till this point. Overambitious volunteers have already moved to work, they have finished digging and we have seen the full thing. It’s somewhere in the middle of the garden and it’s the corpse of a man. From what I can see, it must have been there for a long time, must have been up to five years. The body is far decomposed but we can still see what remains of the black leather boots and the polyester trousers, they once belonged to Uncle Bello.

We were all here when Auntie Ama was brought out of the house and taken away in a Police van. What a sight to behold, age has done nothing to this woman. She was in her most glorious form as she smiled and waved at people with a touch of royalty and allowed us for a brief moment to bask in her radiance. From that moment right to the point they took her into the van and drove off, I forgot what we were here for.

Julius Morno is an author and filmmaker from Nigeria. He is a graduate of the National Film Institute in Jos, Nigeria. Julius has attended many trainings and workshops at home and abroad in the areas of storytelling, scriptwriting and directing. Right from a young age, Julius has always been passionate about the writing of prose and poetry, a craft he has been honing even before going to film school. Julius Morno’s writings, mainly revolve around human stories, experiences and the human condition, themes that are always close to his heart.


Country: Nigeria

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