The aroma from the tilapia on the grill wafted around the street corner. Entering every home through the front door and exiting through the windows. Everyone in the neighbourhood knew when Mama Ogie had set up shop for the morning and when some tilapia sizzled on her open grill. The pull was magnetic. By 11:00 am a line of community folks and passers-by had formed even though the first servings were yet to land on the plastic plates that crowded the tray on the rickety wooden table that served as her bukateria.
“I’m grateful to Mama Ogie,” a man said to his neighbour. “Her grill is so special. I don’t come here because I am hungry…”
“You don’t come here because you are hungry? Please, say something else,” his neighbour interrupted him. “What do you come here for? To learn how to cook?”
“I come here,” the man calmly replied, “because whenever I perceive the aroma of the tilapia, I am assured that I am well. You know one of the symptoms of COVID-19 is the loss of sense of smell.”
“So, this is your testing centre? Why don’t you smell the aroma from a distance instead of wasting my time by taking the space before me?”
“I would gladly have done so and saved some cash,” the man replied. “Unfortunately, I have to eat the fish to be sure that my sense of taste is still okay.”
“I know how you eat your fish,” replied his neighbour. “Through your nose!”
Mama Ogie looked up the customers lined up before her and splashed some vegetable oil on the grill. Today will be a good day, she told herself. Ogie, his 10 years old son, shared a broken wooden chair with his friend, Idemudia. The two were inseparable. They had big dreams of life as business tycoons or politicians. Every day the same debate: what is the difference between the politician and a business tycoon?
“Who will be the politician? Who will be the tycoon?” Ogie asked.
“That is easy to know,” Idemudia laughed. “Who makes promises and never keep them?”
Mama Ogie turned the fish and nodded satisfied by how they were turning out. She roasted some plantain along with the fish. The two made a perfect lunch for those who could afford them. Just a few months ago most of her customers always bought a combination of fish and plantain. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, only a few could buy the two. They had to decide whether to snack on fish or pile their belly with plantain.
Soon it was the man’s turn to place his order.
“That’s Mr Social Distancing,” Ogie whispered to Idemudia.
“Yes,” Idemudia agreed. “We will see if the plantain will keep a social distance from the fish today.”
The man looked around furtively and signalled his neighbour to maintain his distance. He drew in as much of the aroma from the fish as he could. He wished he could get a mouthful of the delicacy through his nostrils. Then he bent forward, got closer and closer to the fish…
“Mr Man,” Mama Ogie yelled at the man. “Be careful! Stay back. Maintain your social distance.”
“Social distance is between people,” the man replied, “never between man and fish.”
“That bridge is crossed with Naira,” Mama Ogie stated sternly. Then she laughed. “You are a funny man. What does your pocket say today? Can it close the gap between the fish and the plantain?”
Ogie winked at Idemudia. No social distance between man and fish? Does he live in the river? He always enjoyed the banter between her mother and the man. This was their street corner school. They learned the habits of the neighbours just sitting here besides the Mama Ogie’s Fish is Ready shop. Ogie thought they should prepare a signpost to brand his mother’s business. Maybe even produce some business cards, Idemudia suggested. We could even start a fish delivery service. Mama Ogie’s Tilapia Special. That sounded nice. Since Idemudia’s father was a fisher, they could ensure there is enough supply of fish to be grilled. We will be rich! We can turn it into a joint business, Mamas Ogie and Idemudia Special Tilapia?
Trouble was that Idemudia’s mother was a dealer in catfish. While Mama Idemudia was engaged in aquaculture, her husband would not tolerate any fish that was not caught at sea. He had no qualms killing fish but believed that the fishpond was restrictive and punishing for the fish. Eating farmed fish was like eating chicken bought from the big poultry farm from across the city. Lazy chicken. You could kick them, shove them. They could not and would not be moved. Fat chicken. Papa Idemudia believed that for chicken to land on his plate it must be able to fly over buildings and be chased across the neighbourhood. The chicken had to fight for its life before he would be satisfied. Just the way he chased fish when they dragged his line in a futile attempt to escape his grasp.
Fishpond fish or fish from the sea. This was the contention at the dinner table most nights when Papa Idemudia was not out at sea. One day he had a bout of runny stomach after dinner and accused Mama Idemudia of having cooked some of her catfish. She swore it was the wild catfish.
“You could tell by the length of their whiskers, can’t you?” she asked her husband. “You know everything about fish and can tell which is from the pond and which is from the sea by looking at them or simply by looking at how they lie in the pot.”
“You are right,” Papa Idemudia answered. “I can tell which is which even in the darkest night. In fact, when I am out fishing, I just have to whistle a tune for a particular fish to jump into my net. Or to swallow my hook. There is one particular fish I know by sight. It likes playing around my boat. Sometimes I pat its head with my paddle. I think it may want to come home with me, except that I do not think it would like your pond.”
Ogie’s eyes widened as a big car pulled up. Mama Ogie urged Mr Social Distance to pick up his roasted plantain and move on. He looked wistfully at the fish he could not afford. He couldn’t just saunter off. He hung around to test his sense of smell a little bit further. Maybe his belly could be filled through his nostrils as they say doctors do, at times. The door of the big car opened, and someone stepped out. Ogie’s mother was effusive in her welcome. This person had never stopped by her stand. There was to be a party tomorrow and the person wanted to give invitees a special treat of street food. A large order was placed. Tomorrow at noon. Sharp. Grilled fish and roasted plantain. A wad of cash exchanged hands. And the car zoomed off, tyres screeching, water splashing. Street Food. How could anyone call her special food Street Food! In any case, the money was good. No receipt. No guarantee. That person may love street food, but certainly there was no street sense.
Ogie eyed Idemudia. That’s the sign to confirm that we are in business. Mamas Ogie and Idemudia Special Tilapia. And Catfish! Yes, Mamas Ogie and Idemudia Special Tilapia & Catfish.
They would sell the idea to their mothers, and their mothers will sell the idea to their fathers.
They gave themselves a congratulatory high five and fell off their broken chair almost knocking down the grill. Horror! They looked plaintively at Mama Ogie. Would she hit them with here ladle?
“Go home, both of you,” Mama Ogie shouted, alarmed. “Idemudia, what will I tell you mother? That I poured hot oil on you? Go home!”
“Yes, home, children,” Mr Social Distance spat, then unable to stifle a sneezed let out an earth-shattering burst, tripping over a pile of charcoal. His plantain flew out of his hand, and landed in a puddle by the roadside, making his enviable dive to capture it completely useless. He sat in the puddle lamenting his misfortune. Although his olfactory organs functioned okay, he would have no way of knowing if his taste buds were yet in good order. No way to know, except someone offers him a morsel to bite, that is. And nobody did. Not yet. His neighbour walked close, clutching his plantain and the head of a tilapia. He wouldn’t offer him even the eyes of the fish.
“Go home!” Mama Ogie shouted again. “What must I do to you two?”
Idemudia began to pull Ogie by his shorts. Blame it on Mr. Social Distance. No, blame it on the broken chair. No piece of grilled fish for them today. Just then Idemudia’s father passed by on his bicycle. Stopped.
“Good morning, Papa Idemudia,” Mama Ogie greeted. “I will need plenty of fish tomorrow morning.”
“W-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l!” Papa Idemudia replied slowly. “That sounds like music to my ears. What are you celebrating? Marriage anniversary? Or is Ogie going to the university?”
Ogie wanted to step forward to greet Papa Idemudia but his friend pulled him back. Too late.
“Idemudia! Idemudia! How many times have I called you? Papa Idemudia called. “You should be at home helping you mother feed her catfish. What are you doing here at this time? Come with me quickly. These days no one knows who is spreading the virus. Have you washed your hands?”
“The pond is empty,” Idemudia whispered as his father drew him away and made to leave.
“Wait!” Mama Ogie called after him, “please, collect a deposit for the fish.”
That was a new one for Papa Idemudia. Getting paid before he goes fishing? Was that a good mor bad omen? And did she say, please? Wonders will never end. Mama Ogie, the fish and plantain seller, pleading with him to collect a deposit for fish he was yet to catch? Where will the fish come from? His fishing expedition of last night had fallen into a recent pattern. He had toiled, laboured and fished all night. What did he come back home with? A pitiful catch that could hardly fill up a bucket. What a rough night it was. He thought of joining his wife in catfish farming. But Mama Idemudia told him that due to the inter-city restriction of movements the supply of fish feed had dried up. Didn’t he help her pick all the fish from the pond two days ago? Just one throw of his net and everything came up, flapping this way and that. He saw Mama Idemudia peering at the pond the next day. Throwing a few scraps into the water and expecting a fight for her offering. There was no stir. The only ripples came from what she dropped. Her heart thumped. The pond remained silent.
He had gone to the sea with hope. He had to stay in the shallow waters. A naval blockade stopped movements into the deep waters. Did COVID-19 come from the deep? Throwing nets at the shallow waters yielded debris, plastics, invasive weeds. He got caught a few wiggly creatures. Is the Navy keeping us at the shore so that those international thieves that came with big trawlers could take everything away unseen, unchallenged? It was annoying that they were stealing the fish to make animal feed, not even for eating. What more rotten ideas would humans come up with? Thieves trawled in the deep, oil spills coated coastal waters. And the oil companies not only polluted the waters, they slashed through the mangrove forests creating canals for their barges and monstrous machines. Our freshwater creeks turning brackish. Adding salt to injury. He began to see sense in the fishers always saying fish is better than oil. He dreamt of Idemudia on an oil rig. A big man to care for him when he retires from fishing. Wie cannot eat oil. We cannot drink oil. Oil is forcing him into retirement. Should he give up? Here was cash for him to collect. Will tomorrow be better than last night? What if it isn’t? Oh, but my friend will dance to my paddle. It is quite big, almost the length of my canoe. If I invite it home… How do I get through the blockade to reach my friend? Will I betray a friend? Pandemic. Pandemonium. Take the cash? And then what? The pond was silent! The sea? He could only see!
“Here is the money,” Mama Ogie stretched her hands to Papa Idemudia over the head of the man in the mud.
“Ammm,” Mr Social Distance cleared his throat, still seated in the puddle, his plantain sinking into the mire. Out of sight. “I need to test my taste buds.”
Ogie winked at Idemudia as he climbed on his father’s bicycle. Mamas Ogie and Idemudia Special Tilapia & Catfish! You promised me a piece of fish, Idemudia frowned.