I was in great confusion. What could this mean? My husband, Koso, had only a few hours ago returned from Cotonou, where he had gone to see to some of his business interests. He had immediately taken a shower and hurriedly dashed off to see a client. For a woman whose husband could not spare some time with after having just retuned from a one week trip, I was not bothered. I had got used to it. Such was expected of me, the young housewife of an up and coming international business man.
Like the dutiful loving housewife I was, I had proceeded to unpack my husband’s luggage. It was then my eyes saw my ears. I raised the eyesore, my husband’s immaculate white pants, which I usually laundered with my very hands. I had never seen it so soiled before. I inspected it closely. The red smears were unmistakably lipstick stains. Could it be true? Was my husband cheating on me? I had to know more. I needed further tell-tale signs to buttress my suspicions. I searched harder, sniffing at his clothes. They all seemed to be permeated with strange perfumes — feminine, I thought, or was it a figment of my imagination? The coup-de- grace was my discovery of a strange bra among his effects. Now the cliché was complete. I was boiling with anger, undoubtedly spoiling for a fight. Had Koso returned at that instant, I would have torn him to pieces.
Koso did not return till about midnight. I had not had reasons to doubt him before, but the seeds of suspicion had been sown, casting aspersions on his credibility. I wondered what kind of client he could be seeing, leaving me his wife, out in the cold. Our three kids: Bola, seven; Tosin, five; and Shola, three, had all gone to bed. With nothing to occupy my hands and mind, my thoughts was tuned back to my husband’s glaring infidelity. The popular radio jingle suddenly began to play:
Beware of casual sex
And multiple sex partners;
Be faithful to your spouse.
Hear my people o!
Aids is real.
It struck me with a jolt. I was not invulnerable to the dreaded Aids that have no cure. ‘That which culminates in red sand’ as our people termed illnesses from which one never recovered from. My husband had only to contact it from any of his numerous mistresses, perhaps prostitutes, for what type of woman will condescend to sleep with a married man. I was horror stricken. Will I shrivel up and die like my friend, Alani? God forbid! I must not leave my yet tender children motherless. Now I think of Alani, we had both been classmates at secondary school. We were quite close. It was thought we were sisters and we hid nothing from each other. Oh Alani! What a shameful death she had. I remember how it all happened.
That afternoon, I was feeding my last baby, Shola. Like all males, he was very greedy for my breasts, always wanting more and more. That reminds me of a joke I had once heard that males are never done with breasts. From their mother’s they proceed to their girlfriend’s and then to their wife’s. Allow them and they will as well seek their daughter’s. The doorbell pealed and in came Alani looking downcast. She looked like she’d seen a ghost. Luckily, I was almost through with feeding Shola. I cleaned him up and laid him on his cot. He soon occupied himself with playing with his toys and uttering unintelligible gibberish that sounded like the Pentecostals speaking in tongues. This never failed to elicit a smile from me, but today, I was tensed up, not even the way he kicked his legs towards me, laughing spiritedly could assuage my worries. Normally, the contentment of my lovely children as I did things for them always left me satisfied and happy.
Alani looked like she’d seen death. What could have gone wrong? Had her husband, Bayo, who was a traveling merchant met with an accident? Now that I think of it, he should have rather died in an accident, leaving his wife widowed but alive to care for their children, than the tragedy which he brought upon them.
“Alani, what has happened?” I asked, taking her in my arms.
To my chagrin she broke into uncontrollable sobs.
“Alani, what is it?” I asked again, preparing myself for the worst.
I was sure now that Bayo was dead.
“Ah! The world has fallen on my head,” she lamented and continued to weep, heaving and sighing, the sobs wracking her huge frame in paroxysms of pain and despair.
In that split moment, I had visions of her widowed, a poor housewife, having to toil exceedingly hard to make ends meet. I even contemplated on the wickedness her in-laws will mete out on her, seizing her husband’s properties and daring her to do her worst. With what will she bring up her four children? Ah! Alani, this world is indeed unfair.
“Speak up Alani. There is nothing new under the sun. Did our people not say that nothing seen by the eyes would make it shed blood? If the world falls, it will not only be on your head but mine also. A problem shared is a problem solved,” I said, coaxing her to tell me for I was dying of suspense, torturing myself with grotesque images.
I was not prepared for her shocking revelation.
“It is Bayo, he…”
I thought as much. My worst fears had been confirmed.
“What about Bayo?” I asked, my heart thumping in suppressed distress while cleaning her face with a napkin.
“Bayo has been diagnosed as suffering from… mm … full blown AIDS,” she said, still sobbing.
Now I knew I had not heard aright. My ears must have been playing tricks on me. I had never seen someone suffering from AIDS before. Once begins an experience. Would I start with my best friend’s husband?
“Are you telling me that Bayo has got the dreaded AIDS?” I mournfully asked, immediately regretting my action.
I was adding to her distress. She expected me to take charge.
“Yes, the doctor says he has a few months to live,” she replied, suddenly laughing like one demented.
Somewhere in my heart a mournful tune was playing. I tried to shirk it off. I had to be strong for my friend but instead the wordings came rushing in my head:
What is it like to be sentenced to death?
Alive seeing your very death gnawing at you;
No crime committed deserving of capital punishment,
Nor terminal disease to battle against.
Your doctor has read out the ruling,
Of the almost almighty judge —
You listen: sentenced to death by AIDS.
I later pieced together the whole story. It was indeed a pathetic tale. The lot of women — ah! The pains we pass through. Her husband had returned from one of his numerous philandering, in the name of business trips, very sick. He had running stomach and was looking terribly wasted. She could not believe it. Her husband had left home three weeks ago though not in perfect health but hale and hearty. Her once robust husband was now almost a pack of bones. Seeing him, she felt he had been bewitched by enemies of progress who were jealous of his booming business. A typical example of native African juju, the victim is doomed to waste, dying slowly, bit by bit.
She rushed him to the hospital. She would seek orthodox remedies for her husband. She also sent for her father. He would consult a Babalawo, to seek the source of his ill health and if possible, appease the gods to intervene. She was shocked when the doctor announced that her husband had AIDS and that she was at risk. She could not understand it. This AIDS the radio, television and other media concern always made a vendetta of but was hardly seen, just like the SARS scare that was made much noise of only to become quiescent was now at her doorstep. Ah! Why should she drink water and it sticks to her teeth? This world has been unfair to her.
Later, her husband confessed to her. He had a regular girlfriend at Sapele, where he usually went to buy timber for his fledgling business. Her name was Anita. Sometime ago, he had felt the usual itch after a hectic day. He had gone to visit her to sate his lust. He was shocked to hear that she was dead. No one told him the cause of her death. He had instantly put her memory behind him and had not given her further thought. He now suspected that it was she who had transmitted the disease to him. He wanted Alani to forgive him.
Needless to say that not long after Alani’s husband was dead and buried, she developed the symptom of full blown AIDS. Depressed, there was no desire in her to fight the disease. She had not lasted long, passing away on a hospital bed like a candle snuffed out. My grief was immense. I felt I had lost not only a friend but a sister and confidante. It galled me that there was nothing I could do to save her. I had kept the memory of Alani close to my heart. She, whose four children: Kayode, Leke, Bunmi and Sofola were so dear to. When she realized they were going to be left orphans, she had mourned her own death, further debilitating her frail health.
“Oh! my children! God could you not have spared me, at least for this innocent children?” she kept bemoaning her fate.
What could I do to help? I had taken to buying things for her children. During celebrations, when I bought clothes for my family, I bought for them. I looked in on them at their grandparents place every once in a while, taking various necessities to them. Sometimes, I bring them to my house to stay the weekend. Oh! Such lovely children now left orphaned. How they must have missed their parents. Once when they had come to stay the weekend with me, Sofola, the youngest had come to meet me in the kitchen, clutching her doll.
“Aunty Ronke,” she called me.
“Yes, Sofola my lovely daughter,” I replied.
“Does mum know that Aunty Funke calls us idiots and does not give us any food when we return from school? She says lunch is for lazy people and spoilt kids.”
My heart went out to the little girl who was only five and was in nursery school. Were she alive, Alani would not stand for these. Her own children starved of lunch? Would Alani not pawn her prized wrappers and jewels to make sure her children fed? Oh! AIDS is a terrible thing.
“Don’t worry, Sofola. Mum does not know, but know that the angels of God are watching over you. They will make sure you don’t come to harm. Only try and be a good girl,” I said to her, taking her in my arms and cuddling her for sometime.
God! She was the split image of Alani, bless her soul. I made a mental note to talk to Funke, who is Bayo’s youngest sister. Having not married yet, she was an old maid
Remembering all these, I realized how so vulnerable I was. Would Alani’s fate befall me? Would I not do something? Did not our fathers say that a black goat should be sought when it is yet daylight, before dusk sets in? What do I do? Do I leave my husband? I still love him. Besides, what will I tell the society? It is a man’s world. Society condones a permissive man. People will think me stupid for leaving my husband because I thought he had cheated on me. Will I be able to withstand the stigma associated with being a divorcee? They would say I have left my husband to play the harlot. Women would avoid me lest I snatched their husbands. Men would be wary of me lest I teach their wives the negative attitudes for which I was put away by my husband. How about my children? If I leave them, they would suffer. If I took them with me they would blame me for depriving them of their dad. Besides, how would we survive? I was an ordinary housewife with no means of livelihood except totally depending on my moderately rich husband. Ah! What do I do? How do I battle against vulnerability to AIDS?
The next morning I paid a visit to Barr. Mrs. Idehen Onalaja, vice president of the Women’s Advocate, an NGO dedicated to the fight for women’s rights. I have seen her on the television many-a-time.
“You are welcome,” she said to me smiling.
Instantly I was put at ease.
“Thank you ma,” I said, sipping at the Pepsi she’d had her secretary bring for me.
She made small talk, narrating the story of a recent case she’d handled in court.
“Men!” she exclaimed, shaking her head angrily.
I was reminded of a newspaper article written about her by the Herald columnist, Mr. Adadevoh. She was accused of being a man-hater and was said to be responsible for the breakup of many homes, encouraging wives to divorce their husbands, and depriving the husbands of their kids whose place was rightfully with their fathers.
“Can you believe it? Twelve years of marriage, yet he was going to send the hapless woman away, empty-handed. The woman, a trained teacher, had given up her career to marry him. He’d been making her life miserable. The only day she’d dared answer back to him, he’d packed a few of her things and thrown her out, keeping for himself the five children of the marriage. All entreaties to take her back fell on deaf ears, as he had already commenced the taking of a new wife,” she concluded, sighing.
“Poor woman,” I sympathized, greatly touched.
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “Forgive me. I was ranting away. What can I do for you?” she asked, controlling her rage.
Weeping, I told her my story. She listened attentively, not making even the slightest sound. I concluded with:
‘Ah! What do I do? I’m confused.’
She handed me a piece of tissue paper, and spoke sternly, her voice hard.
“Would you say your marriage has irretrievably broken down?”
“No,” I unhesitatingly answered. “I still love Koso… I love him so much!”
“Good,” she said, smiling. “You must know that the life of a divorcee woman in Nigeria is miserable. Better a widow than a divorcee, though none is without its sorrows. The lot of women is bad, very bad,” she said, frowning.
“What do I do now?” I asked, exasperated.
“I don’t know,” she replied, grinning. “Why did you come, anyway?” she asked.
“I’ve heard of how you’ve been helping troubled women. I thought you might be of help,” I answered.
“Well, I do know, for one, that women have a right to the safeguard and control of their sexual and reproductive health. However, how to assert it is a different thing altogether, especially for a married woman,” she mused, thinking hard, her left palm on her chin.
“Hm!” I groaned.
“Where is your husband now?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered.
“You mean he’s not returned since he left yesterday?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“This is serious. Experience has shown that once a man starts to dance in another woman’s laps, he’s no longer controllable,” she said.
“Ah!” I began to weep.
“You say you don’t want to leave him?” she asked again.
“Yes,” I replied.
“All right. You must take your destiny in your hands. You must protect yourself,” she said.
She whispered to me what must be done.
“Perfect,” I exclaimed.
Dr. Nike Osaro adjusted her glasses, “it is a very serious situation,” she mournfully said to Koso, who sat beside me, in her consulting room.
“What’s wrong? … Is she going to die?” Koso asked, holding my hands.
“Well, she certainly would if she gets pregnant again,” the doctor said, her face expressionless. “Your wife has severe hypertension.”
“There’s no problem with that,” Koso said, a bit relieved. “We have three kids already, two boys and a girl. We do not need more children.”
“Well, that’s not the only problem. Your wife’s body system does not tolerate such contraceptives like the pill or IUD. This leaves her at great risk of contracting a pregnancy,” the doctor said.
“What do we do then?” Koso asked, terrified.
“Well, you have to use a condom each time you have sex,” the doctor answered.
“Ah!” Koso groaned.
“koso please,” I begged, talking to him with my eyes, entreating him.
“All right,” he said, shrugging. “My wife is important to me and the children. I shall do as you say.”
“That is good,” the doctor said, smiling at me in a knowing way.
I gave her the thumbs up sign which Koso did not see, and hooked my arms into Koso’s as we headed to the car.