I grew up in Eastern Nigeria with Grandmother. Grandma was the typical African woman and I do not mince words when I say this. I remember her chiseled face with its dark eyes and pointed nose, which I now bear. She got married at the weaning age of nine and had started giving birth by the time she was ten. Grandma didn’t go to school, for women didn’t go to school. There was no need. The purpose of every African woman was to get married and bear children. Grandma would follow her husband to the farm and harvest crops; she would then leave her husband at work and go home to prepare his food. He would come back and meet a hot, full bowl of yam and palm oil. He would eat and then go into the room where grandma would be lying down on the bed and he would go into her.
African woman. She sorrowed when she didn’t bear a male child. She had three daughters already and because Marriage was never relevant without a boy child, when she got pregnant again, she said prayers to the gods and offered sacrifices to her ‘chi’ to provide her with a ‘complete’ child.
“If you do not give me an heir, I will marry another wife and even send you packing. You barren woman, a nwanyị aga!” were the words of her husband. Grandma described that stage of her life as the worst ever. She had another girl.
Nnamdi, her husband, married two wives after her; simultaneously. She accepted the wives in good faith and blamed her ‘chi’ for disgracing her woefully when the second wife bore a boy child, and another. It wasn’t long when my own mother was given to a chief in the village. She had me and died of complicated delivery as she was only twelve. I wasn’t chief’s responsibility since I was not even a boy, so I stayed with Grandma. While growing up, Grandma would rub my head with ‘leaves’. She said it was so I could give my husband a son, for a woman who couldn’t please her husband was a shame to womanhood. I was never a girl. I was a wife. Right from birth, I was trained to be a wife and when I saw my first period, I was given out to a man I knew nothing about. Two years into my marriage, I was fruitless. Oh, I offered sacrifices too. I slept in shrines, nothing happened. Like Grandma, I would cook for my husband, Nkem. And I would perform my marital ritual every night even when I was completely exhausted. Nkem hated me because I was ‘barren’, ‘worthless’, ‘useless’.
“What is the benefit of a woman who cannot give her husband what he wants?” he would spit before sleeping with me.
“Ah! This wife is cursed. No child! Not even ordinary girl!” his mother would say.
Three years, I was still without a child. I was sent back to my parents’ house. My Grandmother cried the day I returned home. My step-mothers mocked me and compared me to their own children who were blessed with children. One day, Grandma called me to the backyard. She said a priest had requested I stayed in his shrine for twenty-one days to perform ‘apology’ sacrifices to the gods because they were offended with me. I said no because I was fourteen and I was tired.
“Mbanu! You said no? Don’t you know it would have been better if you weren’t born than for you to be in this condition?”
“What condition? Nne nne, I am tired. I want to go to school like Nsofor’s son.”
“Shut up! Do you want to reform tradition? Are you a boy that will go to school?”
Nsofor’s son, Obi, goes to school in the city. One day when he came to the village on holiday, I went to see him in his house.
“Ha. It is you who have come looking for me. How are you?”
I smiled shyly as I said fine. Obi was tall and light skinned, he had crooked front teeth but he was a fine boy. Maybe that is why I feel shy before him but I must tell him what brings me here.
“Obi, I have a question. In the city, do girls like me go to school?”
Obi laughed for a long time before he responded, “Of course. It is here that girls like you do not matter.”
I went home that day and thought of what he said. For days, I kept on thinking about it. A part of me was afraid that the gods would strike me dead for daring to go against tradition so I stopped sinking into Obi’s words and concentrated on appeasing my ‘chi’ to make my next marriage fruitful.
But Obi came asking for me one day. We were in the backyard when Obi sat me down and told me a lot of truth. I listened with rapt attention as he said these words: “Look, in the city, women are doing what men are doing. I am not talking of farming oh. I am talking of being lawyers, doctors, anything at all.”
He then whispered: “And what you people are doing here is not marriage.
Civilized people fall in love before getting married.”
I did not understand. So I asked him, “What is this love? Eh?”
It was Obi who explained love to me. It was he who made me realize the feelings I feel when I am talking with him, or just looking at his face is not abnormal. It was Obi who told me that the African woman is now a reformed woman.
“See, these people and their gods are ignorant,” Obi said, another day when we met at the stream. “You people are practicing blind religion and dead traditions.” I looked up to the sky bewildered. I opened my mouth in fear. The gods will kill Obi! You do not insult our gods. Where did Obi get this confidence from? Obi opened my eyes to the truth. I saw what a man should be through Obi, and he told me what a woman could be. But for days, I expected news of Obi’s death; I wanted to see if the gods would take offence and smite him. But nothing happened. He went back to the city after the break and a part of me wanted to go with him. And so it happened that when grandma called me and said our neighbor, the man with two wives, a man whose name I didn’t even know – wanted to marry me. I said no. This time, not because I was tired but because I was starting to earn my voice.
“Eh! What do you want to do with your life! You are fifteen! No man. No child. No life.”
“But Grandma, I do not know him. I do not love him.”
“Maka gini? What are you saying? Do you not know that a woman’s place is in a man’s house?”
“Nne nne, question this tradition. This tradition that brings women to less or nothing. It is dead tradition.”
Grandma looked at me, dumbfounded. I was surprised too; where was I getting this courage from? Then Grandma ran to the priest to seek forgiveness on my behalf. I was beaten that day, and sent to my neighbor’s house. He paid my bride price and I became his third wife. I was a lazy wife. I prepared food for my husband and it was either peppery or salty. I did not lay in bed waiting for him to come and sleep with me, he had to call me. I was a very bad wife and people gossiped about me everywhere. I wanted to change, to go back to grandma’s style of African woman; to go back to when I was first wife to Nkem. But I couldn’t – for I already knew too much. One was that I didn’t even love this man and that was enough for me.
Obi came home when it was Christmas. I called at his place on my way from the stream and I met his mother instead.
“You. I heard you are not interested in your husband. My daughter, please bear a child for him, the interest will come.”
“I do not love him. I do not want to be with him. I want to be something else. Like the girls Obi talks about that are not just wives in the cities, but are also doctors and lawyers.”
Obi’s Mother sighed and nodded her head in understanding. She wore a deep sad look and told me Obi was at the backyard and I should go and meet him. As I walked to meet Obi, I couldn’t get the image of his mother’s sad look out of my head. For days, I saw how she sighed tiredly and wore that look and I wondered if maybe, just maybe, like me, every woman in this village wanted to be something else. That maybe there was a hidden voice in us.
“Amara, kedu ka ị mere?”
On sighting Obi, my mood lightened up and I smiled widely. “I am fine now.”
“So you have not been fine?”
We got talking about his school and he told me he was studying to become an English teacher and that his dream is to lecture abroad. He also talked about wanting to become a gender rights activist, especially for women. I listened as he spoke fluently and when I wanted to conclude that it is because he is a man that is why he has dreams, I quickly corrected myself by thinking it is because he is educated.
“When will you marry, Obi?” I asked after a while. I really wanted to know. Just to know.
“I am just nineteen. I have to set things before I marry.” A pause. “And I would not even marry from here.”
“Because I want a wife. Not a slave.”
I said nothing, for there was nothing to be said. So we sat in silence for minutes until he broke the silence.
“I heard you married again. I also heard you fought against it. It shows that you are seeing the light now.”
“What is the use of the fight?! I still got married to him.”
“I met Oma when I was coming. She said after she saw you fight not to get married, that she also will not get married to the man her parents want, if she does not love him.” He said and stroked my cheek. “The use of the fight is that girls will stand up for themselves. You led the way. Continue fighting Amara, you will win.”
When I got home, it was already evening and my husband was waiting for me, very angry..
“Where have you been? I heard you were with that Schoolboy. Are you out of your senses?” he spat angrily.
“I have not done anything wrong. I have only gone to seek peace.”
My husband was so angered by this statement of mine that he grabbed me by the neck and spat on my face, he slapped me across the face. He then tore my clothes and carried me to the room. All along, I screamed and struggled but nobody heard, or listened to my cries.
“I am your husband! I will do anything I like with you!” he said as he tore off my panties and came into me, raw and sharp. “You! Dare! To! Talk! Back!” He turned me over roughly and had his way from the back.
When he was done, I cuddled up alone on the bed while he mocked and laughed at me. “You this barren woman. You talk back at me!” He hissed and walked out of the room. I changed into a gown and as weak and dishevelled as I was, I walked to my Grandmother’s house. I wanted sanity. I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t feel anything but pain – within and outside.
“Nwanyi! What happened to you? You look like a mad woman. Come, come inside.”
I looked at Grandma and saw that she had started having gray hairs. Grandpa was in the farm as usual. There was no rest for a man.
“He beat me and slept with me by force.”
“You do not say such rubbish. He is your husband.”
That was the explanation I needed to lose sanity. I was fidgeting. Something was wrong with me. My heart was beating very fast, and I could not think. I was grinding my teeth and scratching my hair profusely. I laughed out loud and tore my clothes.
“My daughter has gone mad! Help me oh!”
The next day, I was better. Grandma said I should dress up because she was taking me to the priest for spiritual cleansing. I fidgeted again, and started picking at my ears. I told Grandma I would be ready soon, and she went to her room to get ready. Grandma was getting old quickly; her husband had long neglected her ever since she couldn’t give him a male child. Loneliness and the long years of sadness had stolen her youth from her. I stood, still as disordered as I was, and made for Obi’s house
I saw his mother again. She greeted me in Igbo and looked at me pitifully before calling out Obi for me. Then she went outside to allow us privacy. When Obi saw me, he had no look of pity or anything else on his face. He was expressionless and somehow, it made me sane.
“What happened? I heard from my mother that you were deranged yesterday. I was going to come and see you later today”
When I told Obi what happened to me, I told him everything else that has been causing me madness, and how it just wasn’t fair. Obi became very angry.
“Who taught us how to live like this? Who closed our eyes to the truth? Who made us valueless and who made our men monsters? Who stole our voice and told us to never speak?” His voice cracked and he couldn’t speak again, so I spoke.
“I am tired Obi. I am tired of believing in the gods and believing in something else. I want to be a sixteen years old girl who knows what she wants. I want to discover myself first and find love. I want love, Obi. I don’t want a husband, I want love. I want to be maybe an English teacher like you. I don’t want to be grandma. I don’t want to be grandma. I don’t want…”
And then I cried. I cried while Obi held me in the comfort of his arms and allowed me to cry. When I stopped, he let me sit and he sat beside me. In silence, we spoke volume.
I didn’t go back home that day; didn’t even say farewell to grandma. I followed Obi to the city. His mother hugged me tightly before I left and she promised to deliver my message to Grandma for I promised to write a letter when I arrived at the city.
“Dear Grandma. The African woman has transformed into a new being. She is a woman who can think for herself, a woman who can stand for herself and most essentially, a woman who can speak for herself. I do not insult your tradition; it was useful at its own time when the world hadn’t started thinking, when the world was not smart. But your tradition is insulting to compel its law on developed beings. To seek to compress our rights, our emotions and our voice, it is insulting. Grandma, the African woman of today has evolved. She has suffered shame, inferiority and manipulation. I am glad to tell you that she has overcome, and she is now liberated.
Yours, African Woman,
IGBO WORDS TRANSLATION
a nwanyi aga – Barren woman
Mbanu – No
Makagini – What/why
Nnenne – Grandmother
Kedu ka I mere- How are you
Nwanyi- my daughter.
Image: Pixabay.com remixed