I haven’t seen her for eight years, this ancient crone of a woman. I might have missed her a bit.
I land at the University of Ibadan for the ANA convention, husband and infant son in tow, galvanized there by the publication of my collection of short stories. We inhale everything, the greenery, the changes, the eager undergraduates who make us seem ancient, the memories. We have a long-standing joke between us, about how he bought me pepper soup and a Maltina on a rainy day and I still refused to date him. I tease him about how other guys were doing more than pepper soup and Maltina for girls back in the day, and he retorts that he was never so stupid as to spend obscene money on an unsure thing. Our grandchildren will be hearing that one.
He takes scores of pictures. We discover that student food can be as cheap as it used to be—although in my opinion it was better-tasting back then. As we walk, we take a shortcut through Trenchard Hall and, remembering fondly my time in the school choir, I almost break into school song: Unibadan, fountainhead of true learning, deeeeeeep and sound… Oh, I recollect the joke that’s told of a guy who wanted to deceive a girl that he attended the University of Ibadan. When he was asked what hall he stayed in, said, Trenchard Hall. Haha, he must have been a bum. As night falls, there’s a new and amazing sight: shops in the halls have their own generators as the school is plunged into darkness, their rattling an incessant nuisance. How do students study with all these distractions?
On the day of the book chat my cousin, doing her Industrial Training in town, comes to help with the baby while my husband goes to get his B.Sc. certificate. Provident how he’s gotten by until now without it, with only a Statement of Results, securing a job, bagging a masters and a doctorate abroad. I imagine him collecting a moth-eaten piece of paper, the calligraphy barely legible. In the end it looks better than mine, even in all its laminated glory.
Fresh from the National Youth Service Corps, it is she who teaches me how to just be.
To encourage myself, to test my own resolve, to be quasi-independent. Jobless, without money to go back to school for my M.Sc, the admission slips away. I receive an offer from a family friend to pay my tuition, but I turn it down, wanting to be able to fund it myself (thankfully that wish comes to pass years later). My folks have moved to Delta, my father’s state of origin, but despite suggestions from him which later congeal into orders, I remain, hopeful. My first job is teaching English at a family friend’s secondary school. Luckily accommodation is free, but even then the salary, a 500 naira cough above my NYSC allowance, comes in maddening trickles. But I get by until the school starts to fold. And then I get a JOB! Nothing fantastic, but shoulders above the teaching one. I almost swear to never go back to teaching again.
I learn to pay rent, to share a flat with my best friend until she gets a job in Lagos. I learn to live alone. I learn to NOT date a guy younger than me…although it’s sweet while it lasts. After all, you can’t really forget the first time a guy cooks for you and delivers.
It is here that I answer her academic call, reluctantly, as inertia fights to tether me to my beloved Jos.
(But Daddy put his foot down, rather firmly. So firmly I wished I could chop it off.)
A transfer had brought us back, making us trade rocks and wildlife for humidity and space. I flitted back and forth for a time, finishing secondary school until I had to fill that JAMB form with my first choice in block letters as I-B-A- *sigh*. And she claimed me.
In her university’s esteemed corridors I am one of the many JAMBites, going from one registration point to another, our gazes skittering off those of jaded seniors who regard us with careless amusement, expressions haughty, trusting the system to cook our pasty countenances into an enduring doneness…. The system does its thing, lecturers, sadists, lecturers, NEPA, student union protests, lecturers, then seeing our first semester results…! The scales fall off our starry eyes, open them to this thing called a university education with its highs and lows, its unique mundaneness where days flow into weeks into months and where the slothful get left behind.
We metamorphose into the haughty ones. In between classes we sip soya milk, letting the ice cold vanillaness coat our tongues, sink sharp teeth into sweet tender kernels of steaming boiled corn, and with fast fingers pop open warm groundnut shells to enjoy the saltiness of the cooked seeds…and we learn to gossip and to pose for pictures and to dress better and to live life.
It is here that I meet my future husband.
When my eyes fall on him for the first time, his talldarkhandsomeness, my thoughts splinter…then gather themselves, narrow into a burning, I’m going to talk to that guy. He is taking one of my courses and more and more I hang around the guys in my class with whom he hangs until one day I am overjoyed to lend him my notes when he misses a class. Will he be taken by the coherence of this girl, her pretty penmanship, her wit? (It turns out he was more captivated by the size of my derriere.) And then he finally, finally asks me out…hurray! But then other thoughts intrude: Am I ready for this? What does he really want? Can I trust him? What does he really want? Can I handle all this…hotness? What does he really want?
I say no.
Not quite ready for a relationship, not sure what I will do with one, my father’s voice warning me about boys plays like an ominous soundtrack to my naivety. Listening to a roommate’s friend who comments, He resemble person wey go like woman, unwittingly articulating my fears, cements my decision…even as my heart yearns. He doesn’t linger, doesn’t press the point, doesn’t struggle too much to change my mind, and I feel I can’t have dented his heart much, maybe his ego more. We remain ‘friends’, that tenuous, deceptive term for something that could be more than, but ends up being much less than…friends. Without the benefit of seeing what the future has in her belly, I feel the loss keenly at first, but it fades as time passes, and I continue to see him around. Although once in a while I do acknowledge the tiny nibbles on my heart, twinges of what could have been.
Our paths will diverge, take me back to Jos and him to the UK before they will re-converge a decade later, first on Facebook, and rendezvous later in the nation’s capital… and the rest, as they say, is history.
It is here that my father remarries.
I fill in the shoes of maid-of-honor for the first time as I acquire a stepmother, get my eyebrows shaped. For the first time. On my seventeenth birthday, so that our felicitations are forever intertwined. A well-meaning aunt tells me God has given me the gift of a new mother, and I silently wish I could get something else alongside, something all mine and not a by-product of my father’s love life and marital choice. There is excitement but a dash of trepidation as I wonder how my life will change. But I can’t have imagined the seesaw of emotions that continue to this day, the love/hate relationship, the exchanged gifts—of appeasement and duty and genuineness, the tears, the leaving home and the returning thereof, the Talks, more tears, the endless introspections.
Some time later my father’s insistence that I call her Mummy is jarring, the example he gives being The Sound of Music as I loved it so much. (After the Captain marries Maria, one of the girls, I think it’s Liezl, says, “Look Fraulein Maria…I mean Mother.” At which they all titter in Hollywood glee.) I mean, really? A prime example of how clueless men can be sometimes. The word lodges in my throat like a tenacious fishbone each and every time so that at first I avoid saying it, and later, school myself to feel nothing when I do.
It is she who, rudely, teaches me the agony of loss, that deep, to the bone, choking stroke of grief.
When, in the early hours of the morning I had seen my mother alive for the last time as she waved me off (my father was taking me to the park to catch a vehicle back to Jos and school), a voice in my head said, This is the last time you will see her. I had tamped it down, smothered it as being melodramatic, my over-active imagination taking flight. But it was. The next time I see her, she lays cold, still, not there. And I remember her laughter and her jokes, her simplicity and her…momness. Wishing I had been a better daughter, a more affectionate one. Wishing, wishing, wishing. I’m still not convinced that voice in my head wasn’t my over-active imagination. Did fate capitalize on those thoughts? Or was it just coincidental?
Journeying from Jos’s frigid fingers, I come to her hot, sweating embrace.
Holidaying in houses overflowing with children, a shock to my lone, cautious existence, an awakening, I’m baptized into constant noise, activity, pranks that take me by surprise.
Where we breakfast on toasted egg sandwiches, run free in a humongous church compound and fan ourselves in the sweltering heat (or is that just me, convinced I will pass out?)
I trade my first not-too-long-ago relaxed hair for jerry curls—afraid to put my head down on the pillow lest they disappear (feeling pride when I’m told, You look like a black American!). I am confused when I catch the boys peeking through the crack in the doorway when I’m dressing up. I am older than their younger sister, more…different, not a relative and therefore intriguing. Although I don’t imagine myself to be someone boys peep at…
Where I crush on a boy twice my age who lives ‘across’, a lofty fifteen to my eight. He walks around the compound in these minuscule shorts, mostly bare-chested. We talk, rarely, me struggling not to stare, affecting a calmness that is only skin-deep, him—? I don’t know. Looking back I can only wonder what went through his teenage head and hope it was nothing nefarious. Might have just humored by the pudgy girl who had a hint of an oyibo accent.
Where I hear my first “I-love-you” and, although my heart leaps, with a budding woman’s skepticism I know it means nothing. A mere boy (not the teenager), what does he know? But we have great conversations and continue our friendship, as if those three potentially incendiary words were never spoken. Only a trap for older people, for us children they are easily brushed aside. I remember him now…may he rest in peace.
From here I make my first solo flight back to Jos, my aunt having to put me in c/o a fellow passenger, a man, middle-aged and slightly pot-bellied in my memory. In those days of greater trust in one’s neighbor than now, I was nevertheless on my guard with this stranger. I think my aunt’s move unnecessary as it’s just a one-hour flight.
However a stopover at Benin to drop off passengers turns into hours of waiting—is it a mechanical fault, what? I remember waiting, standing for most of the wait—anxious, wishing to start a habit of biting my nails, so that when my temporary guardian asks if I want anything to eat, I say, quickly, No thank you. My mother’s remembered warnings not to accept things from strangers makes my heart nearly pop out of my chest. And likely seeing my panic, he doesn’t insist. I wonder if he remembers that journey at all.
At the Jos airport, Daddy and my friends wait with steaming suya to receive me. I imagine the barbecued beef with fresh chopped onions, tomatoes and cabbage, liberally sprinkled with yaji, that mixture of hot red pepper, ginger and crushed groundnuts, maybe other spices. The aroma wafts up, filling up our bus like an offering… until it grows cold. It’s eventually eaten, and he goes to drop them off at home and returns to continue the wait. I arrive, relieved. A little older, not quite wiser, a whole lot worn, sometime around six that evening.
This ancient crone who heaves out newborns by the hour.
Cackling from the Oke’s to the lowlands—I come here, from the perfect cocoon of the womb to the stark realities of an uncertain existence. A year after my older brother is buried before seeing his second birthday. All I will know of him is from a picture or two, fleeting conversations with my parents. Likely they are unwilling to clothe themselves afresh with the stifling sorrow of remembrance. And me? I mourn the loss of what I never knew. I feel cheated. Of companionship, of a buffer, of imagined sibling quarrels.
Only vague memories remain of those early years, my years, mere flashes of faces, places, so that years after when I’m asked in disbelief, Don’t you remember Uncle So-and-So, I shake my head in embarrassed apology even though I know I can’t realistically be expected to remember anyone or anything.
Only traces, unfleshed sketches. Like uncooked ogi, nothing I can truly savor.
You who took from me very precious things…but gave me others. I might miss you a bit.
Post image by Michael Sean Gallagher via flickr
About the Author:
Hannah Onoguwe’s work has appeared in Adanna and BLACKBERRY: a magazine, as well as online in Litro, The Missing Slate, Cassava Republic, African Writer, The Kalahari Review, Lawino and The Stockholm Review. In 2014 her collection of short stories, Cupid’s Catapult, was published under the Nigerian Writers Series, an imprint of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). When she’s not reading or writing—or being distracted by the Internet—she enjoys watching movies and experimenting with new recipes.