The prayer of the century
It’s two hours into my sister’s baby shower and so far not one person has said, “So, Yinka, when is it going to be your turn?” Or the classic, “Yinka, where is your huzband?”
Thank you, God!
After going crazy with the party popper emoji and asking Nana what time she’ll reach, I shove my phone into my back pocket. Let’s just hope I haven’t inadvertently jinxed myself by celebrating too soon.
Slouching back in my chair, I stare at Kemi and her friends dancing in the center of her living room: all bumping and grinding, serious expressions on their faces, as though they’re competing in an Afrobeats dancing competition.
I look at those still seated: a red-haired woman and another with an eyebrow piercing who must be Kemi’s workmates, and four of my aunties. Like me, my aunties are struggling to finish their plates of jollof rice. It’s far too mild for our palates. I know everyone can’t take spice, but whoever made this didn’t represent us, Nigerians. Succumbing to defeat, I abandon the plate under my chair. When I look up, I spot Mum waddling through the throng of dancers, her wide hips swaying. When she gets to the front, she jabs her fingers against Kemi’s phone, before giving up and swiveling around. Mum still owns a Nokia 3410 so operating an iPhone is beyond her capacity.
“Hello-o! Hello-o!” she cries in a thick Nigerian accent. The thick Nigerian accent, mind you, that she still has, despite having moved to the UK way back in the eighties. “Can I have everyone’s attention, please?”
But the music drowns her out. Kemi and her friends carry on dancing to the song. Except my younger sister goes one step further. As though she has completely forgotten about the massive bump attached to her front, she dips her knees and bends her back and-oh, good Lord. She’s twerking.
I chuckle. Ah, man. Such a shame that I don’t see Kemi as much these days. Before she got married, we were in and out of each other’s houses. It’s not been the same the last year.
“Excuse me, everyone!” Big Mama’s twenty-thousand-decibel voice punches through the music. “Can everyone stop what they’re doing, please? Kemi’s mum wants to say something.”
This announcement from my aunt (Daddy’s sister) does the trick. Within seconds, conversations end, phones are tossed away, and, like rolling snooker balls, the dancers disperse to the sides of the room. With one hand supporting her stomach, Kemi penguin-walks to the sound system and switches the music off.
“Thank you,” says Mum, pressing her palms together. “And thank you to all of you for coming to celebrate my daughter’s transition into motherhood.” She swings her head around to Kemi and flashes her a proud smile. “As you know, motherhood is a verrry important chapter in a woman’s life. So, I would like to dedicate this time to praying over Kemi, her huzband and the baby. Now, everyone, please rise to your feet and hold the hand of the person standing next to you.”
A lot of shuffling follows as those who are sitting rise and form a circle with the already standing dancers.
“Don’t look so nervous,” I hear Mum say to Kemi’s workmates, their faces now watermelon red. “If you don’t believe in God, you can just bow your head as a sign of respect.”
I catch the eye of the red-haired woman. I can smell her anxiety all the way from here.
Kemi’s school friends are standing on either side of me, and I reach for their hands as I bow my head.
Mum clears her throat. “Dear Heavenly Father . . .”
What feels like ten minutes later . . .
“I thank you, Lord, for granting my heart’s desire to become a grandma-an “y‡-“y‡. I pray that your love, peace and guidance will be with my daughter in the delivery room. She will be well, in Jesus’ name. Her huzband will be well, in Jesus’ name. The baby will be well, in Jesus’ name.”
“Amen,” we all drone like gaunt zombies.
“I thank you, Lord, for bringing Kemi and my son-in-law, Uche, together while they were studying at the university. I pray that . . .” There’s a stretch of silence; Mum’s voice quivers. “I pray that like my late huzband, Kunle, Uche will be a wonderful dad. Give him long life and good health.”
“Amen,” I say in a low voice.
Mum continues to pray for protection, safety and security. No weapon formed against Kemi shall prosper. My legs are starting to ache and my knees begin to wobble. Then, at long last, Mum says what everyone has been waiting for:
“Lord, answer our prayers. In Jesus’ sweet, holy, precious name we pray.”
The last “Amen” is triumphant.
I open my eyes to see a wave of women collapsing on their seats, each breathing a loud sigh of relief-except for Big Mama. She’s already slumped in her chair, shoes kicked off and legs outstretched. Her toenails look like pork scratchings dipped in red paint. I smile. Big Mama may not be the most decorous of my three hundred-odd aunties-because in Nigerian culture, every African woman who is older than you by at least ten years is by default your aunty, regardless of whether or not you’re blood-related-but still, I can’t help but love the woman.
“Hold on.” She thrusts forward in her chair. “Tolu! You didn’t pray for your eldest daughter.”
Mum, who for the past two hours has been patting her bird’s nest of a weave sporadically as if she has fleas, turns to me with wide eyes. “Oh, yes!” she exclaims, using one hand to hoist up her wrapper, while the other continues to pat her itchy scalp. “How could I forget about Yinka? The investment banker!”
Heads swoosh in my direction and despite my attempts to avoid eye contact with my aunties, I can tell they’re grinning at me encouragingly. No matter how many times I’ve told Mum that I work as an operations manager in an investment bank, she still gets it wrong. Whether she does this due to pride or because it’s easier to explain, I’m still unsure. And to be fair, it’s the first thing that most people assume whenever I tell them I work for Godfrey & Jackson. No one ever thinks of the operations team, the unsung heroes who work in the back office, and work through all the processes to settle each banker’s trade. (Okay, operations may not sound glamorous, but it’s still a solid job, and I’m proud of it!) Anyway, whatever the reason, Mum sure does mention my profession as an “investment banker” a hell of a lot more than she mentions Kemi’s job as a drama teacher-though not to the extent to which she gloats about Kemi being married or having a baby, of course.
“Yes! God has blessed me with two daughters. I should pray for them both.” Mum claps. “Oya! Everybody, rise to your feet. We have to pray for Yinka.”
The groans are somehow both quiet and yet loud enough to fill the room.
“Ah, ah! What is all this gr-gr-grumbling?” The remark comes from Big Mama, of course. And yet, while everyone is reluctantly rising to their feet, she’s still sitting comfortably like she’s on a throne. “If Yinka’s mum said she would give twenty pounds to everyone who is standing, would you be moaning the way that you are now? Abeg! Get up, my friend. Don’t you know it’s good to pray?” She kisses her teeth. “Nonsense.”
The woman with the eyebrow ring snatches her jacket from behind her chair and stomps out. “This is too weird,” I hear her mutter as she marches past me toward the door.
The red-haired woman looks desperate to leave too, just not as brave. I give her a rueful smile.
“How about I pray?”
A familiar voice makes my brows shoot up. I turn around. My heart plummets. Standing at the doorway is none other than Aunty Debbie.
“Funke, what time do you call this?”
Mum is the only person to still address her younger sister by her native name.
“Did it not say two o’clock on the invitation that I gave you, ehn? Seriously, you take ‘African time’ to the next level.”
Aunty Debbie tuts and pulls off the huge Chanel glasses that have been sitting on her heavily contoured nose.
“Tolu. I live all the way in Hampstead, you know.”
A ripple of suppressed chuckles fills the room and I resist the urge to roll my eyes. Yes, Aunty, we all know that you and your husband make a tidy sum thanks to your flourishing property investment business. You don’t have to constantly remind us.
“The drive took over an hour,” she drawls in her best attempt at a “British” accent which she tends to put on and take off like a coat. “That reminds me”-she folds her glasses, hanging them over the V-neck of her white silk blouse-“will my Porsche be safe outside?”
Mum’s mouth hangs open. Big Mama kisses her teeth.
“Debbie, Peckham isn’t how it used to be, you know,” pipes up Aunty Blessing, the oldest of the three sisters. Unlike Mum and Aunty Debbie, Aunty Blessing has what I call a BBC newsreader accent, one she developed over her thirty-plus years of being a barrister. “In fact, the place is pretty much gentrified.”
“Gentri-what?” Mum looks confused.
Kemi butts in before they start arguing. “Mum, I thought you wanted to pray for Yinka?” She folds her arms over her protruding stomach, then cocks her head at Aunty Debbie. “And Aunty,” she says with a small laugh, “Don’t worry. Your car is safe outside. Uche and I have lived here for close to a year, and no one has nicked our Ford Fiesta.”
“Well, who would want to steal- Never mind. Anyway, Tolu, let me pray,” says Aunty Debbie, and immediately my stomach tightens with dread. “We could all do with a change of voice, yes? And besides, I’m late.” She fluffs her wig. “The very least I can do is pray for my niece.” She flashes me a wide smile. I return to her a tiny, begrudging one.
I haven’t forgotten what you did at Kemi’s wedding, I think, scowling at her as she closes her eyes.
“Dear God . . . we thank you for the life of Tolu’s eldest daughter, Yinka Beatrice Oladeji.”
I feel a tug at my right hand as the lady beside me pulls hers away.
“Sorry,” I whisper. I must have been clenching her fingers.
“We thank you for the excellent job you have blessed Yinka with, and the house she bought a few years back. She is quite an exemplary woman and has achieved some remarkable things.”
My hunched shoulders relax. Okay. This isn’t too bad.
“Lord,” she continues. “We’ve not long entered the new year-”
“New year,” Mum echoes.
“And the Bible says that through you, all things are possible-”
Mum claps. “Yes, Lord!”
“So, with this in mind, Lord, I pray that this year will be the year . . . the year that Yinka finds her huzband.”
I glare at Aunty Debbie, who has paused for a hot second to allow everyone to say their Amens. Obviously, Mum and Big Mama’s are the loudest, and they raise their arms to the ceiling as though any second now my miracle husband will descend.
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Excerpted from YINKA, WHERE IS YOUR HUZBAND? by Elizabeth Damilola Blackburn, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Elizabeth Damilola Blackburn.