It’s all lonely and silent here, Aunt Edna. I’m just struggling to unburden my heart to you and leave as quickly as I can. I saw Imo, the black sheep of our family as I was headed here, and I was quick to remember how his unguarded utterances unleashed a chain of events which ended in your arrival to this cold-hearted prison. I have come to tell you not to hold it against him. I think he was actually a prophet. Mike did really come today asking for his bride price to be returned, and he requested an interest on the money! We told him you had gone with the bride price and with everything. I have also come…please don’t mind the fact that I’m sobbing. I have also come to tell you that the house has been so cold without you.
I was there when Imo made the silly remark years ago. It was on a mild afternoon. Men from our extended family were gathered at the front of the Big House, expecting people who were coming from a nearby village to seek your hand in marriage. Women and children were at the kitchen and several places in the compound. I was my usual self: quiet, unobtrusive, everywhere and nowhere. Imo had joked that it would be wise for our family to go straight to the bank and make a deposit of the bride-price money our would-be in laws would bring, so that we can pay it back to them, interest included, when the marriage hits the rock. Asked why interest should be included, Imo replied “of course it would be their consolation for making that kind of investment. If the money is invested elsewhere, it is capable of turning up an amount of profit beyond our wildest dreams!”
Everyone had laughed, and dismissed Imo’s comments as the impolite incursion of a lad into what should have been an ‘adults-only’ gathering. Yes, Imo was an unyielding lad, the most notorious in the village. Remember he often engaged his father in mutual name-calling and mud-slinging, and was reported to have retorted, in defence of his father’s remarks that he would not amount to anything if he kept on with his dishonorable lifestyle, that if his father’s chances in life were any better, he would have had his picture in any of the almanacs hanging on people’s walls.
How could we have known that you overheard Imo’s joke and the unkind laughter it drew from your uncles? You were then in the sitting room, dusting up the louvres and getting rid of cobwebs, while everyone thought you were at the kitchen with the women. You later confided in me that your discovery that you had become an object of derision among your uncles and cousins killed your spirit, and made you distrustful of just everyone. It was for that reason that you made some of the decisions which ultimately took you away from us.
Come to think of it, did you really need anybody’s permission to get married? You who had tasted the magic waters of female liberation? I remember you told me that you returned from Abuja not because you needed anybody’s permission to get married but because you felt you owed something to the community. I remember wondering why you felt this sense of debt toward us. I know rich people carry a sense of guilt defined as noblesse oblige, similar to what captains of industry call Corporate Social Responsibility. In layman’s terms, “giving back” to the community.
Why did everyone expect you to give back to the family and the community? You were such a phenomenal beauty. That was your sole claim to distinction. Nothing more. Not that you were sponsored to higher education by collective effort or that you were heiress to some impossible fortune. Your beauty was simply extraordinary, like a great story. Reading it makes you electrified. Finish reading, and you exclaim ‘wow.’ And then you want to read it again.
Everybody seemed to have forgotten that you had already attracted the construction of a modern four-bedroom bungalow in your late father’s house, which we call the Big House. You had also placed the name of our community in the map when you were seen in a newspaper picture, standing beside Sir Greg Nwosu, full of life and full of smiles. Sir Greg was once the most highly-placed African in the British colonial government, having been appointed Governor-General of the Eastern Region, the first native man to hold that post in Black Africa. You were then regarded as an illustrious daughter of the soil. Unfortunately, everybody wanted more from you. They wanted your beauty to fetch us a great kinship with one of the ‘movers and shakers’ of the country. Aunt Edna, you told me that you had already paid the price of citizenship by being the pretty, agreeable figure who lightened the dour mood of our politicians, and brought more varnish to state occasions with your super elegance and electrifying smiles than any artificial ornamentation could do. You took that as your humble contribution to national development. Had you been the self-seeking or ambitious kind, you would have craved material reward. Yes, you were flowing with every stream of power: from Enugu to Lagos, to Abuja. With that they felt you were a signatory to the unwritten transfer of power from ‘agbada men’ to ‘khaki boys,’ back to ‘agbada men,’ then again to ‘khaki boys,’ and that made them disillusioned at your inability to simply grab one of the lords of the nation at the groin, and drag him to Ubiji!
That was when tongues started wagging. People said you were a flower that did not have much time being in bloom, and that it was either you attracted us something great, or you retired to the village to face the same crooked fate with the rest of us. As your age rose, there came a change in popular expectations from you. If you could not bring home a man who would change the destiny of the community, you should at least help them guard their dignity by coming home to be married the proper way!
Aunt Edna, I still find it hard to understand why you concurred with the primitive belief that you were beholden to the community. Thinking about it makes me go gaga. You came home for the preliminary wedding activity of accepting coconut from Mike, the man you had agreed to marry. People were fluttering around you like flies around palm wine, savoring your eye-popping glitter, news-hunting and fault-finding around you. Elderly women were tripping over each other trying to give advice. Quite early in the day, I found you huddled with my Great Mother in a corner of the kitchen, speaking almost in whispers. I was very good at lips-reading Mother to know that she was advising you to follow in the path of Njide (being my real mother) who overcame the life-crushing challenge of giving birth to me while unmarried at the time, and later became a happily married woman with a doting husband and several healthy children. “Nothing is impossible,” I read her lips saying to you. “Just determination and faith,” she said.
You told me that though you were disappointed at your kinsmen, you did not allow their insensitivity to cast a permanent dark shadow over your life. You had this astonishing ‘can-do’ spirit. No situation seemed irreversible to you. You didn’t change your decision to be married the traditional way. But you decided not to gratify any outlandish demand from anyone in the process.
It would have shattered your already assaulted spirit if you had heard the scathing remarks from the men as Mike and five members of his family entered the Big House. Someone wondered how you could accept being bestrode by Mike’s tiny legs when you were already used to being bestrode by hefty legs. Even as a girl, I knew that Mike was not a short man, and the remark did not imply any physical smallness in him. How on earth was I supposed to tell you that people thought and openly expressed that the match was inauspicious and doomed from the start?
I did not tell you, but it appeared you found out these negative reviews one way or another. Because from that moment, I noticed that the contagious warmth and effusive charm which you normally exuded was greatly dissipated.
After the traditional engagement marked with the symbolic acceptance of coconut from the in-laws, you went to live with Mike in Aba. We later gathered you became pregnant soon afterwards. Mike who had originally expected a marriage process that would take a year or so to complete, then another nine months or one year for a baby to come, was financially unready for the responsibilities he was soon going to shoulder. He was very scared. He talked you into going back to the village to stay with your mother for a few weeks, till he came for you and the baby, while promising to always come to visit and support you as long as it lasted. You agreed and returned to Ubiji. Days rolled into weeks, weeks became months, but Mike was neither seen nor heard from.
That was when things fell apart. Uncle Udo, who had not been on the same page with your mother on your marriage arrangements, complained bitterly of the impending disgrace to the family if you were allowed to give birth to a child out of wedlock. Not stopping at that, he gave his support to the marriage advances being made by Ogene from a nearby town. Ogene, an elderly man, was well-to-do in the traditional sense: a rich barn of yam, two wives, several farmlands and, alas, fourteen girls. He had no male issue and, being desperate for one, entered into a pact with Uncle Udo to the effect that he would pay your bride price in order to own both you and your unborn baby, in the hope that the baby would turn out male. Aunt Edna, you and your mother fought alone. But Ogene and Udo prevailed. The pact was sealed. You became Ogene’s wife.
I remember when Mike came back after a two-year absence. You had already given birth to Kaka, a beautiful tubby boy. We learnt that he had been in Malabo, working in the anti-piracy team of an oil company. He said he wanted to take back his wife and son. With lots of cash speaking for him, he made his case at the palace of the traditional ruler of our community. Mike literally bought some elders over to his side, who pledged their support to his plan for subverting tradition by taking away a woman who was legitimately married to another man. I know that even with all his money, Mike couldn’t stand a chance against the custom of our land if not that our traditional ruler decided that his decision lay with your choice in the matter. We watched with bated breath as you stood in front of a throng of people, about to set a precedent in our custom. And when you raised your resounding voice and chose Mike, we all said Mike it was. It was you who tipped the balance, Aunty, and we supported you a hundred percent.
We watched you depart with Mike and Kaka, this time to Malabo in Equatorial Guinea. You left with your head high, your charm still potent, and your reputation intact. I thought you were a great woman. You were strong and resilient. You had known the highs and lows of life, and had handled the different baggage they brought with remarkable adroitness. Not a few people thought that you were a queen without a kingdom.
You were back from Equatorial Guinea after a few months, nursing a pregnancy as well as an incredibly wounded heart. We soon got to know that Mike had found out that you were already pregnant for another child at the time he came for you and Kaka, and had decided he would have none of it. He asked you to go. You had begged and cried, explained and pledged your love and loyalty to him, but couldn’t make him accept you and the unborn child. The glorious days of your glitz and glory were gone. A dark cloud of normalness and sheer ordinariness was gradually enveloping your life, and the drumbeat of your beauty was receding beyond the horizon. What could you have done in the circumstance if not return to the village?
One evening, I saw you seated under the sinking sun; your magnificence seemed to be sinking with it. As I watched you struggle with a pregnancy you ultimately did not survive, I was weighed down with guilt for my part in your sorrow. Even as we both developed a strong bond of mutual trust and deep friendship in the twilight of your life, I cannot stop thinking of the magnitude of the guilt we all bore in your death. I will keep cherishing the light you brought to our lives during your brief sojourn on earth.
Image: Javardh on Unsplash (remixed)