August 12th 1989.
Your mother was still pregnant with you when she left the tranquillity of Port Harcourt for the fireworks of Onitsha with your father, in a truck loaded with all their property – a standing fan, two plastic chairs and a wooden table that gleamed olive-brown from too much washing, a mattress, books stacked in cartons, and clothes neatly folded in Ghana-Must-Go bags. At the back of the truck was written in white over deep blue, IT’S GREAT TO BE YOUNG. Your mother sat in between your father and the driver. She felt very uncomfortable because she always had to adjust her legs whenever the driver needed to switch gears. The doctor said she would be due in two months. They were not sure what to expect. Your mother refused to go for an ultrasound. Too many expectations, she said, could break the soul of a man.
You started to kick. Your mother whispered to your father that you were uncomfortable. It wasn’t your first time of protesting. You kicked whenever she sat for too long in the sitting room or in the toilet. Your mother liked the smell of the toilet when you were in her. She said you liked it too, but not when she sat on the cistern for long. Your father told the driver to stop. He held your mother’s hand when she was getting down from the truck. She walked around, past people who sold groundnuts and bananas, past the bread sellers. Your father walked behind her, while the driver took time to check the water in the carburettor before he sat under an avocado tree to eat walnuts. Your father and mother bought roasted corn and pears. She said that it was what you wanted. She had become seasoned with saying things like that – how you wanted pepper soup and agidi, how you needed her to be massaged because you made her legs swell.
“Oga, you go increase my money o. We don waste too much time wey I for use make small money before today end,” the driver said when they finally got back from strolling. Your father did not say anything to him. It made your mother smile. It was one of the things she liked about your father, and also something she disliked him for – the ability to kill any pending fuss with silence. She only disliked him for it when he did it to her, when he muffled all her plagues with self-sufficient muteness.
From a distance, monstrous flames were going up the sky. They flung the remains of their corn out of the window and the infrequent shots from the exhaust pipe made your mother jerk. The driver slowed down and parked under a pine tree by the roadside. Cars reversed as fast as they could. They said a petrol tanker fell and caught fire, that a lot of cars were caught up.
“We for dey there,” the driver said.
The realisation loomed before them that they could have been dead, been burnt to ashes alive, that they could have been some of those people stuck in their cars while they watched death fly with an unimaginable speed to them and roast their hearts.
“This child wey you carry na miracle o,” the driver said.
Your mother noticed his coloured teeth when he smiled. Yellow from excessive use of tobacco and cigarettes, she thought. She noticed too that he was close to the ground and burly, that the hair in his nose curled out and intertwined with his moustache, and that the darkness of his skin threatened her brunette hair.
She brushed her palm on her stomach, and with her inner voice, she said thank you. You moved. She smiled. You heard her.
November 7th 1989
This was when you came out, after an extra three weeks of relaxation. Your mother sat in the hospital bed in a green Johnny gown. On her head was the hospital shower cap. Your mother’s sister, Necherem, sat at the foot of the bed and watched your mother cuddle you wrapped in an ivory shawl. Your mother stared you in the eyes, in your bold black iris.
Your father had gone to tell his mother in the village. He had scratched his elbow on the blue wall of the corridor outside the theatre room while he jumped up, when he heard you cry. He would later feel the pain in the bus as he went to tell your grandmother.
“He’s just so beautiful, and he looks like a white man,” Your aunt said.
“He must have gotten it from his grandmother,” your mother said and rubbed her finger on your hair. “Look at how scanty his hair is,” she said, with a dainty smile.
“Maybe he’ll have our kind of hair,” Aunt Necherem said. They both laughed. Your mother seemed to weigh her laughter, meticulous in not igniting pain under her abdomen.
Your mother knew when she became overdue. You went totally numb when you were supposed to be demanding for freedom, when you were supposed to be kicking your prison walls. She visited your aunt three days before in a school-bus-yellow gown with pink rose imprints. Her house smelled of antiseptic. It made your mother nauseous. Yet, you didn’t move.
“I was just passing by, and I felt the need to check on you,” Your mother said, as she held the armrest, widened her legs, and slowly sat on the merlot sofa.
“You shouldn’t have stressed yourself to climb the stairs,” Aunt Necherem said. She sat beside your mother and looked at the lump you made of your mother. “I am not pregnant, but climbing this stairs weakens my legs.” She stood and moved to the dining table. “I thought you were due last month.” She turned with a bottle of groundnut in her hand and looked at your mother.
Your mother nodded. “Yes, last month. It moved in August and September, but when we got to October…,” she said and threw her hands in the air, “pishikom.”
“And what have you done about it?” Aunt Necherem asked and sat back on the sofa. The flesh on her forehead creased, likewise the skin under her brows. She poured some groundnuts on her palm and gave your mother the bottle.
“That was the main reason I actually climbed the steps to this place,” your mother said. She shook the bottle to force the groundnuts out. Some fell on the sky blue carpet. She tried to pick some.
“Leave them,” Aunt Necherem said, and relaxed her elbow on the armrest. She faced your mother and placed a leg on the peeling mahogany centre table.
“My friend said that exercise like this can induce labour,” your mother said and threw some groundnut into her mouth.
“I can see how effective that has been. So you don’t know you need to drink castor oil? It is very effective for overdue pregnancies.”
It was castor oil she drank after three days which took away your comfort. She waited for three days because she wanted to finish peeling the melon seed your grandmother sent to her. Did you know that umbilical cord went round your neck, and gave your mother a tough push, until a nurse discovered it? Maybe you would have been choked to death. Maybe you were just a hibiscus with the lobes of a rose – a miracle. But your mother didn’t name you Miracle; she named you Ifem, my light.
December 14th 1989
“Daddy,” your mother called your father. “Did you notice that after combing this boy’s hair it tangles on its own into tiny ponytails?” She touched your headrest. “And there is this whitish stuffs that appear on his pillow.”
Your father stood there with your mother. They looked at you for a while. They watched you move your closed hands and your legs that hadn’t straightened.
Your mother tried to slide the comb she held into your father’s hand on the pink wooden bed you lay in. “Take,” she said, “comb the hair yourself.” Your father removed his hand from the bed. Your mother withdrew the comb she held and looked at your father, and then at you. She smiled. She’d never seen your father as petrified as he was.
Your father said nothing. He pulled the towel that hung on the door and headed to the bathroom. Your mother watched his butt in his oversized shorts quaver like refrigerated corn caramel. She smiled and looked at you. You started to cry. She took you in her arms and rocked you. And she sang:
Onye muru nwa n’ebe akwa?
Egbe muru nwa n’ebe akwa.
Weta uziza, weta ose,
Weta ngaji nkuru ofe,
Umu nnunu alacha ya.
You stopped crying. She carefully held your head and neck with one hand and the other hand on your buttocks, and she placed you back in the bed, in the manner with which eggs are borne. She pulled the footstool in front of the rectangular mirror beside the door to the foot of your bed, and she sat. She stared at you, at your hair, at its momentary forge to beehive. She remembered when she sat on a concrete made lawn seat with her friends in school, under the Royal Poinciana tree in front of the administrative block, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and talked about this thing that the hair of her son, her first child, was forming.
“I think boys who have dada grow to become really huge,” Nnedi said. She was sitting at the left end. She smacked her lips together to make sure the red lipstick was evenly distributed. “You know, just like Samson in the Bible, he had dada and it was his strength, until Delilah came. If you barb a dada’s hair, he loses his strength.” Nnedi was the one whose short oily black hair glistened under the sun. She smelled of a person whose being was instilled with the seasoned essence of citrus fruits.
Isioma was sitting at the right end, while Kate and your mother were sitting in the middle. Isioma sighed, “That’s nonsense.” She pushed her hair that fell on her left eye and tucked it behind her ear. “It is evil spirits that twist their hair. That hair is just too abnormal. Any person who had it or has it should go for deliverance.”
Comfort was shocked. She stared at your mother and then at Isioma, and she asked, “Is dada a kind of food or a kind of sausage?” They giggled.
“Dreads are very abnormal, just like albinism, stammering, homosexuality, gigantism, and dwarfism,” Isioma said.
“This is the most ridiculous, unintelligent, and stupid thing I’ve ever heard since I was born…and to think that it’s coming from you, Isioma,” Comfort said. “I’m disappointed.”
Your mother looked at you again. You smiled at her, and then, slowly, your face started to crinkle. You started to cry. She stood up, took you in her arms and gradually rocked you. When you didn’t stop crying, she sat back on the chair, and pulled out her breast. You started sucking before she could fully fix her nipple into your mouth.
February 5th 1996
This day, she died when you were not dreaming.
The most ancient house in the uneven street stood directly opposite the house you lived in. Its oxidized roof smelled of rust when it rained. And the cracked walls made home for weeds. The weeds scented the cracks for ants. The ants grew in numbers and offered themselves unwillingly to the redheaded lizards. And you, with your friends, in your shorts and polo that gleamed of permanent dirt, memories that refused to be washed off, hunted the lizards. You sometimes caught them, pinned them on the wet sand, and tore their bellies with your mother’s razor.
In the same house lived the girl with grey eyes and long black hair. They had just moved in. I think you remember her. The girl you told your friends that her eyes were as soft as water when you stood at the balcony and looked at her sitting in between her mother’s legs while she plaited her hair into beautifully patterned cornrows. You remember her. She stood there sometimes, alone. And you wished the buildings could press closer, warmer, so that you could stretch your hand and touch her gleaming yellow face and smile. And maybe, through the touch, make her fall in love with you as you fondly and irrevocably fell in love with her. That sad smile in your face shows you remember her. It shows that you occasionally dreamt of her, of when the two of you sat in the little garden by the side of your house. You dreamt of when butterflies swooped around the two of you, and sprinkled their colours on your hair and clothes and skins. You dreamt of when you plucked one of the dewed flowers and tucked it in her butterfly coloured hair. But she died when you were not dreaming. And you couldn’t touch her hands to know that they were as silky as heaven. Your mother told you she died of malaria, but she lied.
Your incisor tooth had been shaking for days and it ached you in a way that silent tears formed in your eyes. This day, you sat in your bed, shut your eyes tight, held the bed sheet firmly, and shook your tooth. The last one that fell out didn’t give you much trouble. Just a few munches of bread and it was off. But this one, this one…you felt the pain as you pulled, you felt tears form in your eyes, and regardless of how tight you shut your eyes, they still found their way out. You sensed the metallic taste of blood on your tongue, and briskly, your tooth pulled out. You stared at the tooth in your palm and the crimson around it. It hadn’t occurred to you that love is a milk tooth which grows, but begins to shake at some point with grave pain, and then it falls off, creating a vacuum only time knows how to fill.
You washed your mouth with water, and when you spat it out in the sink, you watched as the wine liquid streamed down the drain. This was learning how to accept, how to wash off molecules of hurt, and how to get the green light to shine on your stage.
Your tooth was still in your palm when you got outside, to the intense sun that broke fragments of sweats on your body. Without thinking once over, you threw your tooth on top of the flat zinc of a bungalow beside the old house with cracked walls. To throw it into the gutter was off-limits, rats would eat it, and you would grow rat tooth. You threw it on top of the zinc, because there, it gave your gum a room to grow a fine tooth. You looked up and saw the grey-eyed girl. You looked down immediately, and you looked up again. She smiled and waved at you. You smiled back, but there was a heavy reluctance in your wave that later made you feel you looked feeble in her soft eyes. That was the last you saw of her. The day she died.
The truth your mother didn’t tell you – she was raped when she went to buy sugar in her emerald peplum gown, the one she was wearing when you saw her at the balcony. And another thing, the blood you and your friends saw in the uncompleted building close to the palm tree down the street, where you played often, was not the blood of a stolen chicken strangled by the thief, as you and your friends talked and laughed about. It was the blood of her innocence, of her closed eyes and of her hot tears, of her benumbed limb and of her muted screams.
August 13th 2010
“You smell of coffee,” the girl who sat beside you in the bus said.
You were not sure if she was talking to you or if she was just muttering to herself. You looked at her with the tail of your eyes. You could tell she was beautiful without looking at her entire face, the same way you could tell her cologne contained a certain percentage of alcohol by the way it made you stifle your sneeze few times.
“And your hair….” You realised she was facing you, and you remembered that you forgot to comb your hair. Your eyes widened and squinted almost immediately. “The tight curls, it’s magnificent,” she said.
You looked at her now. The hair on her head pushed forward to her forehead – curly, smooth, and excellently fragile. Her eyes were wet black. They glistened like an oily paint poured on the sun. There were two bold pimples you saw on her right cheek. “Thank you,” you said and smiled. She smiled back and the two pimples quickly lost their relevance.
“I like yours too,” you said to her.
She smiled and said, “Don’t try to be too modest. It’s a wig. I have a terrible hair.”
“I know,” you said. “I mean….” You shut your eyes tight and emotionally punched the air with your fist. “…not the part of your hair being terrible. I know it’s a wig. That’s what I mean.”
She smiled again. And you wondered how often she made boys neurotic like that. You saw it from the mastery of her smile.
“I know,” she said.
“My mother and her sister have a very terrible hair,” you said to her. You were not looking at her. You were looking directly, through the front windscreen. Your eyes moved sideways, tailing her. And your smile was tiny and supple.
She looked at you and said, “Really?” You pouted your mouth and nodded. She grinned. “I’m Elizabeth.” You watched her tongue role and got held by her teeth. You loved the way her lips moved, the way the word left her lips without the ‘a’.
“Oh! Eliza,” you said. Because that was the way your grandmother called your mother with weighty emphasis on the last word. Elizabeth looked at you. Your eyes met hers. And you both laughed out. The old man in the seat before yours turned and looked at you two, and he turned back. You looked at her, the way she suffocated her laughter that made her shoulders undulate. You didn’t tell her that your mother’s name was equally Elizabeth, that perhaps, people who were called Elizabeth had terrible hair, but were earnestly beautiful.
The bus stopped for a woman with a baby strapped at her back to enter. She bent as she tried to enter. But her son’s head still hit the iron frame of the door. The baby started to cry. His brown dreadlock didn’t stop the pain from being severe. His cries sliced through the pores of your heart. And you had wished you could take all the pain he felt away. He cried like you did when you were his age, like a hill-climbing trailer. The woman sat. She untied the wrapper that bound the child to her back. She pulled him to her front and cradled him. She continuously, affectionately tapped his arms, to make his wails go away. He cried nonetheless. You took him from his mother. And when his moist eyes met yours, he stopped. He stared into your eyes, as though he was trying to understand why he was in the arms of a stranger. He didn’t yell and pull himself from you. He rested his head on your chest. You were delighted when you saw the wide smile on his mother’s face. You knew it just wasn’t the first time that kind of incident happened.
“Aha!” Elizabeth said. “You’ve got a magic touch.”
It was not what she said that made you smile at that moment; it was the intuition that when the child looked into your eyes, he recognised you.
November 18th 1990
You were a year old, walked with the gait of a drunkard, and pulled your hair like you would a prickle underneath your foot. You looked nothing like your father. You looked some things like your mother – thin eyes, modest neck. You looked almost everything like your grandfather – edged nose, slender face, small lips, lofty ears, excellent smile.
Your mother pulled you up from where you sat with a tiny plastic ball and plastic keys in between your astride legs. She had just finished her lunch after she fed you. It commonly surprised her how you began to take rice and beans when you were six months old. She would mash them with her fingers and would press them into your mouth. But now, with just six teeth in your mouth, you ate without them being squashed.
Your mother spanked you on the buttocks and muttered something about you sitting on the bare floor in your new clothes. Your father had gone out with his cousin to drink with their friends. It was a Sunday afternoon, when the sun was full and impressed its hot spell on skins. Your mother strapped you on her back. You wanted to walk – it was something that fascinated you, something that made you feel like a grown up, but you would slow your mother’s steps. She was in her second favourite wrapper and blouse and head tie, of the same Ankara. The Ankara that held you to her was of different design. It was slightly the same colour with her shoe.
You met your neighbour on the way. She smiled with your mother and swung up your cheek with her finger.
“Where are you taking my daughter’s husband to?” She asked and tied her wrapper, though it was firm, but it seemed like a ritual – this unfolding, flapping, and knotting of her wrapper – she’d unconsciously perfected.
“Nne, we are going to church,” your mother said. She wished she had gotten an umbrella. “Today is the day the Reverend Father scheduled to cut his dreads.”
“Oh!” Your neighbour said. She raised her head a little while she said it. Her eyebrows went up too, and her forehead drew lines. “You should be going. This sun is too much.”
Your mother sat in front of the Reverend Father while he wrote down something. He pressed the bell. A boy came in and collected the paper.
“Give that paper to the children’s leader,” the Reverend Father said. He stood when the boy left. “Please, follow me.” He adjusted his cassock and the bottle of holy water on his table. Your mother stood up. The ceiling fan had made you sleep in your mother’s arm.
“Where is the Cabin biscuit and sweets for the children?” The Reverend Father asked.
“Which Cabin biscuit, Father?” Your mother asked. Her eyebrows pulled downwards in surprise.
“You’re supposed to bring biscuit and sweets for the children before we start anything on the child.”
Your mother wanted to ask why, but chose not to. Rather she said, “I wasn’t told.”
“You have to go and come back with the needed things.”
“If you can, if not, you can come next week.”
“Okay, Father,” your mother said. She swung you to her back. The Reverend Father went back to his seat and sat.
In the evening, she let you walk, while you held her finger firmly. You walked past the bush path that led to the abandoned borehole with rusted tanks. You walked past the old woman who always sat in front of her shop, waiting for customers to buy cigarette and Tom-tom sweets. When she looked at you and smiled, you went through your mother’s back, from her left hand to her right. Her folded skin and sagged eyes scared you. Opposite the mango tree, few steps from the old woman’s shop stood the barber’s blue painted shop. Your mother walked in with you. She smiled and greeted the barber as though she knew him before then.
“I want you to cut his hair,” your mother said to him.
The barber looked at you, and then at your mother. “Are you sure?” He asked. When your mother stared at him, her smile had disappeared. The barber got the answer clearly. He pulled the chair, took you up to the chair, flapped his apron, and loosely tied the rope around your neck. He picked the scissors on the shelf and cut the air with it. He lowered it to your hair. Your mother stood with partially ceased breath as she watched your hair fall on the carpeted floor.
“Nothing will happen to you, Ifem,” your mother kept muttering under her breath, until she breathed in wholly and breathed out deeply, and then she began to nod to the music filtering in from the bar across the tarred road.
Related country: Nigeria