I lay awake into the night wondering, what is the value of my soul, anyway? What is my dignity, my worth? And I’m not speaking of self-worth; I’m referring to the word in all its concentric ramifications.
Please, don’t laugh.
I don’t know how I developed my ideas of right and wrong, how I formed them into brittle whips lashing at my conscience, bruising my sensibilities such that my heart has become a mass of moral welts.
Does he love me?
I cannot answer many of the questions life just keeps throwing my way. In fact, I do not recognise any questions until it is too late – when they have become irradicable answers. I remember thinking I could fit my whole life in its perfect place – his arms. I loved him thoroughly, truly, not in a fitful and passionate way, but in that gentle, seeping, dripping, sure way of true love. The kind that’s made to last forever.
Well, so what? He loved me too.
But I feel like a lamb led out to slaughter, except that I have been trained under the illusion that I can choose not to go. I can choose. I can. Everyone is willing to turn away, gloss the realities up a little, sacrifice me. Everyone is willing to sacrifice me.
In her smile I see hope, desperation, shame. She is trying to help me see reason. She wants me to be wise, to be receptive to opportunity, to say yes. After all, am I a virgin? No, she’s sure I have a boyfriend somewhere and I’m giving it to him. So what’s so different? If anything, I’ll benefit and my family will benefit. Please, don’t laugh.
I’m all nods, all assents, all yeses and okays. But he is old. He has lived his own life and wants to encroach on mine. Mama, can’t you see that? Well, since we’re talking about this, I think she should know about this boyfriend. Isn’t he beautiful! He takes my hands in his beautiful, soft ones and traces the intricate designs on my palms, whispering assurances of beautiful tomorrows, a wonderful future full of laughter and children and love. And I giggle dreamily, happy to participate in this curios flight of fancy, happy to think of happy days ahead.
He would call and wish me good night in that sing-song voice of his, and he’d say he loves me and I’ll believe him and go to bed happy. But what does he know about the hunger in my house? Not belly-hunger; heart-hunger, soul-hunger. Why should we not have the stuff our peers can afford to play around with, show off? Why can’t we also show off?
It’s not that he has no car; he does and it’s working. But it’s not good enough and he’s willing to sacrifice me for a better one. And who does not want to study in Ukraine or Malaysia? So he is also willing to sacrifice me. Well, do I know what it means to be the only woman who has to wear a base imitation of that Hollandais wrapper in the whole gathering? Do I know how she wishes she could hide her feet because her best shoes just became so inferior? And what do I know about big women who own big cars? How about my younger ones? Who says it is easy to get their school fees paid?
I can’t sleep? Is it true that all these futures depend on me? Am I so cursed for being so beautiful. I want to tell him everything, but I can’t. He does not know our hunger; he must not know it.
Every day at the super market is the same. Sales are always up, the place is always restocked, sometimes fully, sometimes a little. I don’t know why I’m not in school. No one has said anything to me about it, nor have they told me why I am the permanent sales girl in this place my own parents own for God’s sake. But I’m not questioning them. No. I come here obediently every morning and leave 10:00PM, 11:00PM sometimes.
Mama always wants me looking beautiful and she wants me to be nice to the customers so that they’ll come for more and bigger things. Well, I can’t get that done hiding away in some damn campus of a godforsaken tertiary institution now, can I? But that’s how I met him – my Faisal, my beautiful Fulani man.
You can tell that he loves me when he speaks my name, when he says Ohhja, his peculiar contraption of the pronunciation of my name Ooja. I never could get him to place the stress properly, falling and rising in the first syllable and then rising in the last. You can see it in his text messages and hear it in his phone calls. It’s exciting, giddying. Then the Comptroller had come along and expectations of me kept swaying, becoming more and more unpredictable. But Faisal has always been by my side, so faithful, so unassuming. And then I made up my mind and said no to all of them.
‘’I’m not going to be a prostitute for any of you or your needs,’’ I shouted at Papa one calm night when we were closing shop.
He looked at me quietly, not saying anything, just shaking his head.
‘’If you’ll never send me to school like any other parent, then okay,’’ I said tremulously, my voice made shakier by anger rather than fear. ‘’Papa, God brought you to this world, not me. Anything he gives you is exactly what he thinks is fit for you. Manage. I’ll not allow you to use me to better your lot,’’ I said and stomped off.
I could not sleep that night too. It’s true that I’m not exceptionally intelligent; I’m barely an average student. But they have refused to give me a chance. They have saddled me with too much responsibility; too much. But they can all go to hell for all I care. I’ll die two times over before I become prostitute-breadwinner for any family. We may be a little poor, but we’re not suffering.
My thoughts were still buzzing in the whirlwind of my emotions when I heard a sound at my window. Faisal was trying to get in. I gasped and rushed over to help him climb in. He was out of breath.
‘’We have to go,’’ he said through clenched teeth.
‘’What? Why? Slow down, where are we going?’’ I was puzzled and emotionally overworked.
‘’Police station. Everybody. They are coming,’’ he said rapidly, looking out furtively through the window.
I stood there, studying him. He strode the few steps between us and clutched me in his arms.
‘’Please, Ohhja,’’ he groaned. ‘’Please.’’
I heard it in his voice, the frenzied urgency, the apprehension, the fear. Rushing out of my room, I made the rounds of the three other rooms, whispering ‘’police station. They are coming.’’
Nobody even vaguely misunderstood my message. They all just got up, put on their jackets and matched quietly to our neighbourhood police outpost. There was Mama, Papa, Alex my elder brother, and Oche and Ochanya my twin younger ones. The policemen on night duty didn’t ask what we had come to do; they simply exchanged greetings with my parents and let us alone.
Papa kept making little noises in his throat, probably an outcome of his many thoughts.
‘’Who told you?’’ he turned to me. Other families had begun trooping in less quietly.
‘’Faisal,’’ I said curtly.
No one spoke. The place was soon cramped with many people, men, women and children. Occasionally, the piercing cry of a baby tore into the stillness and the fear in that room swallowed them all into its dark hole. Then the distinct sound of a gunshot was heard in the distance; and something else dreaded by all – a bomb. The silence in the police station was instantaneously broken. One woman took up a wailing song and others followed, crying, praying, groaning and clapping stunned hands slowly. Some clutched their breasts and seemed to will themselves either to die or to disappear.
The next day we found out that they had incinerated our little chapel beyond repair. Mama and Papa no longer forbore their previous polite tolerance of my friendship with Faisal.
‘’That boy is Boko Haram itself,’’ Papa once said.
But I couldn’t care less. He loved me. I loved him. How much simpler did it have to get? But no one saw it that way. Not even Faisal’s parents. He couldn’t come to the house or the shop anymore and I couldn’t go to his. In fact, I had to change his name in my phone; I made it Fortune – he is my one good fortune. We spoke or chatted with our phones most of the time, and sometimes when I would lock up the shop alone, he walked with me to the gate of our house. For, as everyone insisted on telling us, there was no point delaying the inevitable; he was a Muslim, you see.
I missed him. I yearned for his good humour and optimism, his clear visions of happy tomorrows and his uncanny ability to espy children under the elusive skirts of the future. And they never stopped trying. Look at our condition, Ooja, they seemed to say. Can’t you see that this country has conspired against us, Ooja? Just save us. And this time when I said no, I wasn’t sure what I was saying no to. No, I won’t be your immoral salvation? Or no, I don’t want to see things your way? I won’t manipulate the system like it’s manipulating me, cheat it for cheating me? But I kept saying no. I held on to Faisal with all my worth.
Then that morning, Papa opened the shop only to find that it had been burgled the night before. Everything was gone. He found a chair and sat down, stupefied, waiting for me to affirm the truth of what he thought he had seen.
‘’Papa,’’ I gasped, taking in the horrid sight of empty shelves and a few droppings of match boxes, salt sachets, sugar cubes, candles and so many little things most certainly strewn about as they were as a result of hurry.
‘’Papa,’’ I said again. It was the only thing I could say.
‘’Ooja,’’ he replied absent-mindedly. If Papa ever cried, he had to be crying now. No tears, yes; crying, yes. Anyhow.
Everything changed after that day. Mama even began to muse about my taking some entrance examinations. And the hunger seemed to disappear from our home. If it wasn’t so sad, it would have been a welcome change. Papa withdrew deeper into himself, I almost missed him. Then all of a sudden, the pressure began to pour down again. Only this time, Papa was the only one with dreams he was convinced I had been born to fulfil – on my back.
Of course I said no. I always said no. One night, a soft tap on my door and a creaking sound as it opened awakened me. Papa had come to reason with me. I cannot quite remember how he began, but it went something like the world was full of injustice and everybody seems to be getting what he does not deserve – good or bad. Then he said he’d never do anything to hurt me; he was, after all, my father. I listened, all the while steeling myself against his obvious end game. Would I help him get the business going again? He really would ask for no more after that.
I said no. whatever God chose to do with anybody was God’s own business. I won’t meddle. Never. Then Papa got mildly irritated, angry, furious. Is it because of that good for nothing Faisal?
And then I was angry. How dare Papa even think that I could not form my own ideas without some external influence? I could well decide for myself what I wanted to do, what was right for me, Faisal or no Faisal.
‘’Please, leave me alone,’’ I said at last, hoping he could feel the piercing edge of my words.
He seemed to be hesitating, thinking something important in his head. But I couldn’t care anymore what it could be. He made for the door and spent a good deal of time acquainting himself with the handle.
‘’Can’t you do this even for your father?’’ He seemed at the same time to beg and to command, as if he was only demanding his due.
I cannot account for the rest of what happened after wards. I had begun to sob softly, while Papa’s form loomed over the bed where I lay. Was it out of a maniacal desire to prove a point? Was it one of those lessons parents insist on visiting on their children despite how uncomfortable and humiliating they were? If I screamed at all, then all the world was deaf to my cries, indifferent to my situation. I was alone and at the mercy of tyranny, a power that by all natural laws, ought to defend me was violating me. I think that was the moment I lost any love for life, the exact time I tasted death while there was yet breath in me; not even my thoughts of Faisal offered any hope.
He left so quietly that I began to imagine I had only dreamt the whole horrid episode and not lived it at all. But as my hands felt the bed in which I lay still, there was no doubt left in my heart. Papa had just raped me. I lay there quietly, defying all the urges in me to cry or to scream. I determined then in my heart neither to be victim to shame or sorrow. I would not present myself to the prying eyes of those who would delight to hear my tale in the name of pity. By day break, they’ll all be free. No one would awake to apologise to me, no one would feel the need to saddle me with any more dreams, no one will see me except as I would lie in state upon this bed prepared by my own father.
© Felicia Taave
Image: Barta IV