A Long "Summer" Vacation to Remember
© Copyright 2021 by Justina Ogodo
Photo by Timothy L Brock on Unsplash
What do you see when you do groceries in the produce section? I see hot peppers, and I remember. This story is set in 1974 when I was a young girl. I was born with a humble background in a small seaport city called Sapele, Delta state, southern Nigeria. At the age of six, we moved to a bigger city, Lagos. Like every city dweller, my siblings and I were unfamiliar with rural life where most of our extended family resided. Because of our city dwelling, our cousins in the village often thought differently about us, much like those living abroad in the Western world, Europe, North America, etc. My father planned my end-of-school long holidays for 1974 for my sister and me. I was ten years old. We would spend the entire vacation with our uncle on his farm situated in a rural part of the country. Initially, my sister, obvioiusly wired differently, resisted and defiantly protested, not wanting to go. However, all her maneuvers fell on deaf ears; our father had already made up his mind. I was the submissive child, always avoiding trouble, obedient, and approval-seeking. A long vacation on the farm, no question.
On that uneventful day, accompanied by our father, we embarked on a long, arduous journey to the countryside. The journey terminated at the bus terminal, and we proceeded our walk along a stretch of unpaved road. In my heart, I questioned my father’s decision but was not upset with him. Instead, I was ambivalent to the whole arrangement. On the other hand, my sister was tempestuous, throwing tantrums all the way. None of which perturbed our father. The walk to the farmhouse appeared endless through a vast landmass of no buildings in sight. Finally, we arrived at dawn to a warm, welcoming Auntie Daina, my uncle’s lovely wife, their two babies, and a male cousin a little younger than me who lived with them. The first thing I noticed when we arrived was the absence of other homes around, no neighbors. It felt strange because, culturally, we are communal. The three-bedrooms mud-house had zinc roof sheets. The living area was furnished sparsely with a two-seater wooden chair and two stools on each side. A big clay water pot covered with a round tray made with raffia—palm tree leaves was at one corner of the living area near the entrance. Two kerosene lanterns hung on the walls across from each other, and a small battery-operated transistor radio and a flashlight were on the bamboo center table. The clay pot kept the water cold as the weather was always hot and humid.
The doors to the bedroom opened directly into the living area but were separated by fabric curtains. Aunty Daina was elated to see us and kept calling us “city-people.” She was a very kind and accommodating woman, and she informed us that the bathroom was outside near the mango tree. On the other hand, we always feared my uncle, Jesa. He was a hard man, no, I take that back, let’s say he takes sadistic pleasure in the pains of others. I remember arriving there on a Friday evening, and our father left the next day back to the city. That Saturday evening, we asked our Auntie if we would go to Church the next day, Sunday. Before she could respond, our uncle, who had overheard the conversation, came from his room with a wide grin on his face, “of course, he said, we are going to church tomorrow,” and laughed hysterically. I was puzzled, not sure why it was such a funny question to him. He laughed so hard that auntie Daina joined in the comedic moment. I did not dwell on that for too long as we retired for the day.
Every Sunday in the city was church day. Children often dressed up in their Sunday best. Not everyone wore a new outfit every Sunday as we mostly recycled our few clothes; however, it was always an occasion to show off a new dress or canvas/cortina shoes, sometimes bata sandals. It was an exciting time to see friends eager to show off their newly acquired pieces of clothing. Therefore, Sunday mornings at Church were precious. That Sunday morning Flozzy and I dressed up in one of our Sunday best, intending to impress the rural children with our city apparel. My uncle stepped out of his room as we waited and saw us dressed and waiting for Church. He stopped in his track and asked, “are you people ready for church?” we both responded in unison, “yes.” Our response prompted a burst of prolonged hysterical laughter as he pointed at us. Something was so funny to him, but I could not tell what. When he regained himself, he said, “you know what, you are going to love church today, but I suggest you change those clothes to something not so fancy because you are going to a village church, and we don’t want to distract God.” Then he laughed just as hard again. Auntie came out but said nothing. I don’t get it, I thought. We stood up obediently but disappointed to change our dresses, as he called out after us, “hurry up because we do not want to keep God waiting,” and resumed his laughing spells.
We left for the Church, and I noticed how shabbily they dressed. We did not ask or say anything, avoiding another round of rancorous laughter from my uncle. We walked a very long distance before arriving at a small hut in the middle of vast farmland. There were cornfields on one side, endless rows of every kind of hot peppers on the other, some yams, cassava tubers, and vegetables, etc. I was still wondering why we were here when my uncle cut into my thought, announcing with a loud voice, “welcome to Church. I am your preacher, and this farmland is your people, get to work. The field is ripe; start the harvest.” I was horrified as tears began to flow freely. My sister was wailing at this point, which angered our uncle, “you spoiled city brats. Where do you think the food you eat in the city comes from? Good thing your father had the commonsense to send you here to learn.” He pointed to his right, where some large palm leaves weaved baskets were stacked, and ordered everyone, including his wife, to pick a basket. He proceeded to assign us rows of pepper to harvest as he snarled, “these are the “lost souls” make sure you fill the baskets. We filled the basket and deposited it in a designated spot. As soon as we finished assigned rows, he moved us to a new area. He was working as well. I noticed Auntie never challenged any of his actions but talked kindly to us. We continued picking hot pepper from sunrise to sunset with a short break for lunch.
On our way back that Sunday evening, I felt some tingling on my fingers with increasing intensity. By the time we arrived home, the pain had become unbearable. The total effect of picking hot peppers with our bare hands was upon us as our fingers lit up. The only way I can describe the pain is when one has winter frostbite. My sister and I cried all night, dipped our hands in water, slathered soap and oil, nothing, absolutely nothing could take the pain away. Our cries were very funny and exhilarating to my demented uncle. We could not sleep, Auntie Daina tried to fan our hands, but it did not help. We may have fallen asleep at some point because we were woken up and headed back to the farm the following day and the next for two months, harvesting corn, vegetables, but mostly hot peppers. The pains got better after a while, or should I say we got used to the process and did not notice the pain anymore.
Finally, the long-anticipated day came. An unspeakable relief and joy swept through our hearts and veins as Flozzy and I happily packed our few belongings. We were going home, and we were returning to the city. Our uncle generously loaded sacks of produce, but not before announcing, “the next time you eat any farm produce, remember the work that goes into the process.” We arrived home, and my uncle’s generosity elated our father; he thanked him profusely. We never mentioned our experience to our parents. But, one thing was sure, we never went back again, neither did we see our uncle again, but our father visited him. After that experience, whenever I walk past any fresh pepper in the produce section of a grocery store, I remember! I remember that long vacation in 1974.