It was 3am Dakar time. I was sitting up now in bed, my back against the wooden head-board, legs hidden under the cover. Sleep had long been replaced with shock and smoldering fury. The room was morosely dark, a perfect reflection of the feelings enveloping me. Why would the church blackmail one of its high-profile pastors? Would they go to such lengths to destroy a marriage? Nothing my husband of eighteen years was saying made any sense to my investigative journalistic mind.
“Hello? Nma, are you there?” Chigozie asked, his voice distraught and frantic on the other end of the line, breaking my chain of thoughts.
The urge to hang up had never been so great, yet I heard myself asking, “Were you drunk?”
I repeated the question—not as a bad joke but an attempt at self-denial, an escape route I hoped Chigozie would use to mitigate his indiscretion. But judging from the principles Chigozie lived by, I already knew he couldn’t, wouldn’t grasp at the flimsy straw on offer.
Surrealism was watching a fortified tower topple at the snap of a finger. It was also letting myself trust, accept and give love—something I never aspired to, or even believed in until the fourth year of our marriage. After years of trying to get pregnant, the gods smiled on us—but not for long. Four months later, I had a fever, and we lost the baby. It was the first and only time I would be pregnant. Four years into our marriage and two years after the miscarriage, Chigozie’s mother Ndidi and his younger sister Juliet took it upon themselves to remedy the situation.
Juliet developed a habit of visiting, while I was away for work, with friends of hers, who flirted outrageously with Chigozie. I knew about those visits because he complained when I returned, and we would laugh about it the same way we did when he registered his displeasure at his mom’s unrelenting quest for a functioning uterus.
“Ekene is a final year nursing student at Uniport,” he said, mimicking the exuberant tone Ndidi used to demonstrate her approval. I would always laugh it off and Chigozie’s expression would always turn solemn. “She disrespects us—what we have—when she does such things,” he would lament.
As the years went by, their machinations grew more outrageous. Ndidi graduated to planting under wears in my drawer while Chigozie’s mother reminded me, every chance that she had, what an impediment I was to her son. Like the time I dozed off in the parlor while cooking beans.
“A real woman would never abandon her kitchen,” she replied in a clipped, self-righteous tone not looking up from her playing cards after I’d thanked her for watching over the food.
Whether her piquant remark was a dig at my pursuing a career or a reproach for being childless, I decided I wasn’t going to bite the bait, and instead chose to channel my anger into skinning the plantains on the counter.
“Nma is a real woman,” Chigozie retorted. Ndidi’s lips were poised for protest, but Chigozie continued speaking. “She is a real woman. Our inability to have kids doesn’t diminish our marriage because I married Nma for a thousand other reasons. The best being that I love her.”
Those were the words that dealt the first crack to my armor. I wanted to walk over and give him a tight bear hug.
“But you’re the opara and our only son,” Ndidi shot back incredulously as if he’d suffered from a brief memory lapse. “Do you know what that means? The name Nzerem dies with you.”
“Then so be it,” he replied wryly, gathering the playing cards on his side of the table and adding them to the deck. “Besides, you’ve got Juliet. She can give the name to her own child.”
His mother’s face darkened. “Juliet’s a woman. Her children will bear her husband’s surname.”
“No law stipulates it must be so.”
“But there’s tradition.”
“Which tradition?” Chigozie arched a brow. “Igbo?”
Save for oil sizzling in the pan, silence reigned over the kitchen.
“I didn’t think so.”
Mother and son stared each other down. Then after what seemed like a century, Ndidi sighed noisily, rose slowly from her chair, announcing it was getting late and she was going home. She gave me a dirty up and down look, suggesting the altercation was my fault, before exiting the kitchen. Neither of us saw her off to the front door.
Two weeks later, Ndidi returned with Juliet as reinforcement to force sense into her Chigozie’s ears. The powwow which had taken place in my absence was acrimonious, so much as that Chigozie ordered his sister and mom out of the house, telling them never to darken our door.
“It’s us against the world,” he proclaimed, pulling me into him after narrating the ordeal. A month later, when he immortalized the same words on our wedding bands, the armor slid off, and I fell in love with him. This same love was now making Chigozie’s phone confession torturous to listen to.
“Who is she?” I was struggling to keep bile from rising.
There was a lull, a brief hesitation at the end of the line.
“Obioma,” Chigozie replied.
“Which Obioma?” There was only one Obioma we knew mutually. One side of me was still playing the denial game.
“The chief chorister.” He said after releasing a deep, torturous sigh. His voice was quiet. Contrite.
A shallow, dry laugh erupted, bouncing off the walls and silhouetted furniture. In the distance, revelers advertised blissful drunkenness with songs and muddled sentences.
Obioma. That hazel-eyed and shapely woman in her early twenties whose mission was to ingratiate herself to me with insincere compliments on those Sundays I made it to church.
“Mummy, I loooove your shoes and dress!” she would moan about a pair of classic pumps and non-descript sheath dress, as she wrestled my handbag or whatever else I was carrying off me.
She was adamant about calling me and Chigozie ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’, a common appellation younger congregants bestowed on pastors and their spouses that forever made me cringe. Attempts by Chigozie to discourage the use of that address fell on deaf ears, and soon we grudgingly accepted it.
After another Sunday service, Obioma gushed about my ‘divine’ makeup, joking that I owed her a make-up tutorial.
“Ah, then it’s your facial regimen,” she brazened through when I pointed out that save for my mascaraed lashes and chapsticked lips, my face was bare. I thought of assuring her I didn’t have any, but decided a disclosure would only motivate her to offer yet another explanation. I was eager to shake her off before I got to my car.
“She’s got a good heart. That’s all.” Chigozie argued, chuckling at my wry description of Obioma’s excitement at seeing me to that of a dog welcoming its long absent owner.
Obioma, good heart. Rubbing my fingers back and forth over my forehead, I wished my dead mom were right about the power of names, about their influence over a person’s character or destiny, so I could be spared this sordid reality.
It’s been nine years since Chigozie quit his engineering job to commit fully to pastoral duties. Pastor Chris, the seventy-year old general overseer of Nigeria’s biggest church, Holy Ghost Fire, had offered him the position of a head pastor for its newest branch at Woji, a district famed for its potholed roads and enervating traffic. And with the new church opening, Pastor Chris had envisioned my quitting my job to settle into the role of a pastor’s wife like his wife and those of the other pastors. But he couldn’t have been more wrong. He had stressed the importance of projecting the image of the supportive wife.
“Pastor Chris, I can assure you my wife already gives me all the support I need,” Chigozie said with a small smile. “She doesn’t need to work for Holy Ghost Fire.”
We were sitting in Chigozie’s office following his well-received maiden service.
The old man’s eyes widened in amazement. “Surely Gozie, you’re not encouraging Nma to eschew her godly duties, are you?”
This time it was me who spoke. “My job already has me fulfilling several godly duties.”
“And what would that job be, my dear?” he sneered, each word punctuated with sarcasm.
I detested him immediately. “Investigative journalism. Uncovering the truth is just as godly as preaching the good news.”
Here was a man with a warped notion of how the world operated. Members of Holy Ghost Fire were expected to work for the church. Hours clocked and pay were determined by one’s level in the hierarchy. Rank and file mostly volunteered while head pastors, head choristers and their spouses worked full time, earning a sizable stipend.
One month after Pastor Chris’ failed attempt at recruiting me, a battalion of pastor wives ambushed me on an aggressively hot Sunday morning after service as I made for my car. The women, decked out in resplendent, sky-grazing geles of varying shapes, conspicuous gold jewellery and eagerly drawn eyebrows, would have passed for store mannequins if they weren’t animated.
“Thank God, we’ve finally seen Pastor Gozie’s wife,” a stout, raspy-voiced woman announced as the group gathered around me. Introductions over, they began a litany of testimonies of how they loved being living appendages to their husbands.
“I was a Zenith bank manager, you know. Earning my millions,” one of the women confessed. “But I wasn’t happy. It wasn’t until I started working with my husband and the church that I found vocational happiness.”
“There’s nothing sweeter or more fulfilling than helping your husband with God’s work,” another attested.
“We don’t see you in church every Sunday. How come?” The raspy-voiced woman asked.
“Work,” I said. “And sometimes, I’m just too exhausted to brave the traffic to church.”
The women exchanged bewildering glances at what they’d interpreted as a flippant comment worthy of being characterized as a mortal sin.
“Preaching is my husband’s job,” I added. “I don’t expect him to abandon it to help me with mine and vice versa.”
A back and forth ensued. Finally the women retreated, but not before one of them threw in a last word, “You should consider it o.” It had sounded more like a warning than an entreaty.
After a year of overtures by senior pastors, their wives and Pastor Chris himself, I was politely shunned. Invitations to symposiums or other events organized for pastors’ wives were never extended to me. Not that I cared. And once when I accompanied Chigozie to the Pastor Chris’s annual Christmas cocktail held for head pastors and their family, a security man at the gate barred us from driving in on the grounds that my name wasn’t on the guest list. Of course, the omission was deliberate since we had RSVP’d.
Still, I didn’t think Pastor Chris’s cold feelings towards me would birth something this vile. No, there had be something more… sinister.
“This is a fallout from that wedding I told you about,” Chigozie said, as if on cue. “I know it’s the wedding.”
The wedding? Now the puzzle pieces were beginning to fit. The battle that began almost seven months ago between Chigozie’s liberal interpretation of the Bible and that of the church had finally come to a head. His decision to officiate the wedding of a conspicuously pregnant woman meant he blatantly ignored the church’s mandate that women submit to pregnancy tests prior to getting married, a dogma he called discriminatory and antediluvian. Also, it didn’t help that he was challenging church leaders on the misappropriation of church funds. Then there was the polemic reply to questions on Twitter asking his thoughts on the recently passed anti-gay law: Lowbrow silly, and how he planned celebrating the public holiday: Mostly enjoying a piece of roast ram and whatever else my Muslim neighbors cook up.
Yet, such controversies did not stymie the growth of the Woji church. Thanks to Chigozie’s charisma and his ability to weave biblical lessons into real-life practicalities with personal anecdotes.
And now this.
“Gozie, I trusted you. How could you have been this foolish to do this to yourself? To us?” The sting in my voice pierced the darkness. “For a pair of perky breasts and a round ass you stooped to become an ass. Christ, and what were you thinking screwing her in your office? Oh, I forgot. You weren’t thinking.”
The bed had gotten hot and constricting, the air heavy even as a fan revolved at full speed. There was a strong urge to punch something. Someone.
At those words, anger surged through me like a geyser. “Don’t you dare say that again.” I spat out, furiously pacing the narrow rectangle between the bed and window. “I don’t want to hear it. Not tonight.”
I glanced out the window overlooking the Atlantic as a lone car came up the road. Then it was all blackness again. I shut my eyes.
“Besides Chris—who has the video…who else is privy?”
“Honestly, I can’t say. Maybe the senior pastors. I just don’t know.” Chigozie’s voice sounded pathetic, anxious and tired. I almost felt sorry for him.
“So what’s your next course of action? Because the way I see it you’re holding the fag end. You either become a ventriloquist’s puppet with the video hanging over your head or you resign.”
“I haven’t thought it through yet. Wanted to speak to you first. Do you… er want me to pick you up from the airport?”
I didn’t want to see my husband. Not in three days. Maybe not ever. “No. I’m extending my holiday. I need to think this through too.”
“Nma, please promise me you’re not going to think of a divorce,” he pleaded. “Please, promise me.”
I cut the line and tossed the phone. It hit the bed without a sound just like the tear coursing down my left eye. Eyes closed, I leaned my forehead against the cold windowpane fighting back tears, listening and imagining the waves of the ocean wash away the pain.
Post image by Raquel Lopez via Flickr
About the Author:
Shayera Dark is a blogger whose work has appeared in the Nigerian Guardian, Ms Magazine and This is Africa. She is currently working on her first novel. Follow her on twitter @shayeraD