She felt for the lock in the dark, holding on to Junior’s slight, trembling frame to steady herself. There was a strange padlock securely fastened to the latch. A new latch.
“Your father has done it at last,” she said in a shaky voice.
Junior couldn’t see her but he thought she was crying.
They were standing in front of the door to their house, an old colonial that was one of many like it in the area but was now leased or sold out to private individuals.
Sammy had lived there when it was the staff quarters of the Government Boys School and when the government decided to privatise it, he’d quickly bought the house.
It was a thing of pride, of course. And Onya had revelled in the fact. Now her husband owned a house – she owned a house in effect, you know.
The phone calls home to family and some forgotten friends whose only value now seemed mostly in the memories they evoked and the envies they consistently awakened, were made. Onya even had to look for Ooja’s phone number so she could call to “greet” her and somewhere in all the necessary chit-chat let her know that she was doing very well for herself. When your husband owns things and does things, it’s all you in effect y’know? At least that was how most of her friendships worked.
She remembered the last time Ooja had called to “keep in touch,” after the black-belle woman forgot to even say a God bless you on the poor infant when Junior was born. That time she called, she was just gushing with platitudes and eiyas and how’s-our-baby-boys and ehh-ehhns, until gbam! She said it. Her husband had gotten a scholarship to study abroad. Onya had screamed, congratulated her friend, prayed for the man and then began to feel that it was an inordinately long phone call and her baby might begin to cry any moment then.
That was 7 years ago. Ooja now lived in Abuja, drove cars, used flashy hairs, flashy shoes, flashy clothes and sleek everything. Omeyi lived in Sokoto, and she was standing in front of her own house at night, with her prize baby boy, obviously locked out.
She hissed. “I don’t even understand this man; simple keep key for somebody he cannot remember.” She tried to make light of the issue by putting on a tone of trivial annoyance, but her heart was thumping so much from fear and anger that she wasn’t very successful.
She pressed a button on her old phone and the screen came dimly alive. 7:48 p.m.
“Come, Junior,” she held the boy’s hand and they began to walk slowly. “Let’s go to Baba Shehu. He’ll know what to do.”
Baba Shehu was their closest neighbour, about ten metres distance from their house.
“Mama, are we sleeping there?” Junior asked in a tiny voice.
“Haba, nooo,” she tried to force a laugh and shook his tiny hand in hers playfully.
“We’ll go to our house, then tomorrow I can go and play with Mustapha and Jibril and Ummu, ko?” he sounded like the doubts were about to clear away from his mind.
“Yes. Tomorrow after you have your bath and eat your food, then you can go and play,” she said.
They had arrived in front of Baba Shehu’s house. Onya knocked loudly.
“Salamu alaikum,” she called.
“Wa alaikumussalam. Maman Junior?” a loud female voice responded from within. It was Sadiya, Baba Shehu’s second wife.
“Au,” Onya affirmed the inquiry.
Somebody could be heard coming to the door and in a few moments, Sahabi, Sadiya’s lanky teenage son opened the door.
“Ina wuni, Maman Junior,” he greeted as he reached his hand to carry the boy over the threshold.
“Lahiya, Sahabi. Baba na nan?” She was asking whether Baba Shehu was in or not.
“Wallah ya hita.” He had gone out.
Sadiya was visibly happy to see her.
“Maman Junior ke nan!” Her voice was light with friendliness. “Ke taho muyi dumi ko! Wallah na ji dadin zuwan ki! Marhaba, lale!”
In spite of herself, Onya had to smile and push her worry thoughts to the back of her mind.
Sadiya was spreading a mat on the verandah. Junior had joined the groups of children on the mats under the mango tree in the court yard. Because of the excessive heat, a lot of time was spent outdoors at night before people went to bed.
The two women sat down and Sadiya continued to make friendly enquiries of her friend.
“Ya mijinki Sammy? Lahiya lau yake ko?” She asked.
“Ina na gane shi balle in sani?” Onya’s nagging worries came to the surface.
Sadiya’s mood instantly changed to one of concern. “Mi at matsalart, kawata?” What’s the problem?
“Wallah Sadiya, Sammy gaba daya ya canza min. Wanga Sammy’n ba shi a mijin da ni amra ba. Yalla ma yanzu korata ya daura niyyar yi. Duk na rikice, wallah,” the tears immediately followed. Sammy had changed. He wasn’t the husband she married. Maybe he had even put her away.
“La ila ha illallahu! Onya! Don Allah ki bar cewa hakan nan. Wacce irin magana kenan wagga? Ke san ai kowa sassauci yaka bida; yalla wata harka ce ta buge-bugen duniya irintasu ta maza ta dauke mai hankali,” Sadiya said, holding Onya’s hands in hers.
No. Onya shouldn’t say these things. Everyone was seeking ease in the world, after all. Maybe he just got busy with the all the running around that was the way of men in the world.
“Tau, gata nan dai. Yanzu ya kulle gida ya yi wani wuri, ni da ƌa na mu kwan waje ba ruwa nai ke nan ko? Ke gani dai,” Onya lamented against all consoling. See, he’d locked the door and gone wherever. So she and her son should sleep outside, ko?
Sadiya was thoughtful for a while and Onya sobbed quietly. The two women were each trying to understand what could be going through Sammy’s mind. He knew Onya would be at church; it was a Wednesday evening, so why would he lock her out? And with a young child too. Kai, the whole thing was very disturbing.
Sadiya asked how his conduct had been for some time. Well, he’d answered her greetings with monosyllabic gutturals, barely played with Junior, was out a lot – even on the weekends, and seemed to enjoy himself more talking on the phone than talking to her.
“Waiyo, kawata!” Sadiya exclaimed in alarm. “Kishiya ta am matsalart!” A rival was the problem.
“Don Allah!” Onya was incredulous with pain – the pain of having her worst suspicion confirmed.
“Au wallah!” Sadiya affirmed. “In ke ga namiji gaba daya ya zama bai da tunani tau mata ta, yar uwarki,” she seemed a little lost in thought. If you saw a man becoming completely thoughtless, then there was a woman somewhere, your sister.
Onya barely heard the other things Sadiya was saying. She had collapsed to inconsolable weeping. The children still played a little distance off, running around the mango tree, swapping jokes and stories.
“Minana, Onya? Ba kuka ta za kiyyi ba. Wagga matsala wata dabara taka son a bida. Ke ga sai ki bar kukagga mu bide ta in Allah ya so,” Sadiya was holding Onya’s shoulders, speaking to her softly.
She sent Sahabi to check whether Onya’s house was open yet. After a while he returned to say that it was.
“Madallah!” Sadiya lifted her two hands upward. “Yanzu sai ki tashi in raka ki mu tai gidat. Ke ga ba bari za kiyyi ya san ke yi kuka ba. Ga ruwa ki tsaftace fuskakki,” she said. Now get up and let me take you home. He must not know that you’ve been crying. Take some water and clean your face.
When they got to the house, Sammy was busy in the kitchen, trying strenuously to make some supper.
“Salamu alaikum, mai gida,” Sadiya greeted familiarly.
“Sadiya,” Sammy called from the kitchen. He came out wiping wet hands on the back of his trousers.
Junior ran to him and grabbed his legs. “Daddy!” he said.
“My boy, how are you?” Sammy lifted him and held him in his broad arms.
“An wuni lahiya?” Sadiya was addressing Sammy again, quietly nudging Onya beside her.
“Mmaino, okpani,” she said at last. Sammy looked at her and nodded.
“Abole ke?” He asked with a cursory glance her way.
“Alo ba lohi,” she said weakly. “A hoi hodile neh?” was he cooking?
Sadiya didn’t understand a word of what they were saying. They had slipped from Hausa to their native Idoma.
“Na bar ku lahiya,” she was leaving. The situation didn’t appear to be as they’d suspected just minutes before.
Onya went in to the kitchen and completed the meal her husband had started. Junior was fast asleep in his bed. She wasn’t really sure what to think anymore. He ate his food in silence and she just watched him, afraid of all the questions she wanted to ask and all the answers she needed to know.
“A b’eche gboji iche,” she began tentatively. He’d stayed out long today.
“Eh,” he easily acquiesced, eating another mouthful. “O l’odei nun ge ya bab’aa, o ge l’eya for some time.” There was something he was working on; it’d have to be that way for some time.
She wanted so much to ask why he had changed the lock, but something prevented her. She wasn’t sure if that was how the women did it when their husbands would lock them out – just crassly ask for your own set of keys? She carried Junior to his bed and sat at the edge, staring intently at his peaceful face.
The next day, Sammy went out early again. They were civil to each other but he didn’t mention anything about any keys. When Sadiya came by to ask if everything was alright again, Onya confided her confusions.
“Yanzu kawai gida za kiyyi,” Sadiya sagely said. “Ki ƌau yaronga ki tahi yaji. Sai ya biƌe ki.” The only solution was for her to go home on a little marital strike – “yaji,” and take her son along.
Onya shook her head and laughed dryly. “Garin mu da nisa,” she said. Her home was too far away. How did any aggrieved wife manage to do yaji when the distance between her marital home and her parents’ house was as far away as Sokoto to Benue? There was no help for it; she had to stay.
“Allah ya sa dai ba wata mummunar hali ya shiga ba,” Sadiya said after a brief silence.
“Amin,” Onya answered mechanically.
After her friend had left, she thought about the whole thing thoroughly once again. Junior was on holiday from school; she wasn’t employed by anybody; there was no reason why she couldn’t go home. But to leave her husband like that, to travel so far and not even be given a tidy allowance to buy things and take home to people – it cured her of the crazy thought. She’d give him one more day and then she was going to the pastor. That decision firmly made, she was able to get through the day with some modicum of sanity.
Night fell. No Sammy.
Junior asked for his daddy and she told him something she wasn’t sure she could remember the next morning. He still managed to sleep soundly. This time, she didn’t go to Sadiya. At least instead of locking her out, he’d decided to stay away. Much better. She was jolted back to reality by a steady knocking at the outer door.
“Sallama!” a firm, baritone voice called out.
Her heart began to beat faster. It wasn’t Sammy’s voice. She quickly rustled a hair tie and went to open the door. Two tall men dressed in white jallabiyah stood in front of her house.
“Madame, good evening,” the one who must have been knocking greeted her.
“Good evening, sir,” she said.
“Where is your husband?” his eyes appeared to scan the darkness behind her.
“He’s not around. Any problem?”
“Madame, your husband killed a man. If you know where he is tell us now.”
“Elelele! Jesus,” Onya felt all her body go numb. Sammy? Killed a man? “No,” she heard herself saying “my husband did not kill anybody.’
“Then why has he run away? Yesterday we came here and there was nobody. We even changed the padlock. And today you’re telling me he’s not around again. Just go inside and call your husband for me,” the man was very irritated.
“But you’re not the police,” her brain had begun to work slowly.
“No. we’re from the alkali, it will be Islamic something he’s going to do since the whole thing was accident. He has been delaying for many many weeks but now the family is tired,” he explained.
Onya sighed, torn between grief and relief – her husband was still her husband after all, just that he owed some people a few million. Money nobody had.
“I told you he’s not around,” her voice trailed off.
The silent one gave her a menacing look; he must have been related to the deceased. After a stern warning, they turned around and disappeared into the darkness.
For a long time, Onya did not sleep. When Sammy came home finally, it was dawn.
“Ayinya’o’wa,” she greeted him. Welcome.
“Eh, ayinya,” he said. He looked so withdrawn, so pitiful that she wondered how she couldn’t see that he’d been suffering all this time.
“Eh wai dok’u’wo,” she said directly. They’d come to look for him.
“Okay,” he answered absently.
He had his bath, wore clean clothes and asked her to cook something. They would run away. When she told him that it was day and they didn’t stand a chance, he assured her that everything would be fine. He’d been planning this for a while now and Sokoto was a place where having a face was optional, anyway.
While they were still eating, Baba Shehu came by with a little bag. He turbaned Sammy until only the slits of his eyes showed and did the same thing to Junior as well. Onya wore a liqab – she was a sturdy pillar of billowing black; only her eyes could betray her identity. There were three camels outside. Two men were sitting on two of the stately creatures, dressed in much the same way as Sammy. Junior was saddled behind one of them while she was to ride with her husband.
“Ba magana,” Baba Shehu nodded gravely at them. No talking. “Allah ya rufe asiri,” he quickly turned away in the direction of his house.
From the little Sammy could tell her, they were fleeing to Niger.
Image: Abhishek Srivastava via Flickr (modified)