By OLAIYA TEMITOPE TEMPLER
Ajoke Adigun awoke drowsily as rays of the rising sun penetrated the window slit. In order to remain in bed she had defied the odds – the cock that persistently crowed beside the window, the bleating of daddy’s favourite goat, the chatter of the neighbour’s children, whose turn it was this week to clear the animal droppings. But she couldn’t resist the unmistakable shrill voice of her mother, Iya Awero, dishing out routine instructions to the early risers in the compound.
‘Ise ya, ise ya, omo ogun ise ya, ise ma ya o,’ sang Iya Awero. This is the folklore song chanted by citizens of Ogun State in southwestern Nigeria.‘People of Ogun State, it’s time to work…’
Whenever Iya Awero sang this, it was understood by all who heard it as a call to duty. Ajoke stood up, wiped the back of her palm across her face, stretched and yawned noisily.
‘It is time to work,’ she muttered to herself. And in Ifo, a sleepy hinterland of Ogun State, work means pain and physical hardship in its crudest form. The workplace is Oko Fufu, a cassava plantation, where cassava is torn apart and manually processed into staple food items such as fufu, amala, starch, kadioka, and gaari.
Since President Goodluck Jonathan, through the Ministry of Agriculture, unveiled the campaign to promote cassava bread by compelling flour millers to add ten per cent cassava content to wheat flour for bread-making, cassava supplements have been in hot demand. The Oko Fufu workstation has played host to numerous confectionery companies too.
Ajoke and company – which includes her mother, siblings and her father’s other wives – do not only believe in the dignity of labour. They also take the division of labour seriously. If hard work is good for the soul, it also makes pain for soiled hands and bent backs. They, however, all hold one truism dear on the cassava plantation – the analogy of the broom. ‘When separated, the broomstick is of no use and can be easily broken; but when tied together, it is impregnable and can be used for sweeping. That is how we have been able to sustain this lifelong profession and ensured no part of the food chain is broken.’ Thus says Baba Awero, head of the Adigun family. So, together, they work their hands sore to keep the pangs of hunger at bay. Their efforts help to feed the nation, while putting money in their pockets.
On this particular morning Ajoke looked dejected. Dressed like a city girl in pink sweatshirt and a faded blue jean, she thought aloud:
‘There must be a less tedious way to make a living.’
‘Omo Ajoke?’ her mother enquired. ‘You are still on one basket, when you should have filled up three. Is anything the matter?’ She peered into Ajoke’s eyes to search for answers.
‘It’s nothing serious mama, I have a sore thumb and my back is aching.’
‘That is because you refused to use the local balm I prepared for baba. Hurry up! Do you know how many families will go hungry by sundown if you don’t show up this evening at the market square?’
Ajoke stared hard at her mother. She was on the point of making a sneering reply. But her resentment melted when her mother threw the sun cap she was wearing into her lap.
‘Have that to protect your newly plaited hair from this scorching sun,’ Iya Awero told her daughter.
For the rest of the day Ajoke worked harder by way of compensation for her mother’s gesture. She peeled the harvested cassavas into a basket and soaked them into blue-coloured large containers filled with water. That done, she earned her deserved rest while the others removed the soaked cassava and mashed them into tiny bits before commencing the back-breaking task of separating the wheat from the chaff.
During the break from active work, she pondered on her mother’s words: ‘Do you know how many families will go hungry by sundown if you don’t show up this evening?’ It had never once crossed her mind how important was this daily routine of hard work to so many families and homes, since she herself had never lacked food. This evening, she was prepped to hawk her wares, head and shoulders raised.
She looked across from where she sat and glanced at some company vans waiting to pick the dried cassava extracts. Nothing was left to waste on the plantation – even the peelings are gathered to feed goats. She nodded to no-one in silent recognition of the important role Oko Fufu was playing in the community and even beyond Ogun State.
After a studied silence, she rose up, volunteered to join the rest in cassava processing and – almost to her own surprise – began to hum, ‘Ise ya, omo Ogun ise ya.’ Others joined in and soon a cacophony of discordant voices rended the air.