The sky is pregnant with rain this morning; a task at which Kamsi has yet failed. It has been two years since she and Osagie started trying, although “trying” has become too vigorous a description.
People have called her barren; a word that is mocking in its expression, not of what she simply does not have, but who she can never become. Kamsi has never conceived and, therefore, cannot share in the sympathy that accompanies the loss of a child. But she is not oblivious to the silent competition among mothers, women her age whose admiration of virtue, often intelligence in boys and comportment in girls, in other women’s children is muted in public but is the standard by which they measure their own children in private.
She knows her cycle like the back of her hand and has a calendar by the bed she shares with Osagie. He practically lives with her and her with him; their possessions roughly divided between two addresses. She has her fertile days underlined in a shade of green the colour of the Nigerian flag.
Osagie doesn’t pay these things much mind. He has told her that if they never have a child together, their love is enough. But he has three children, all boys, by his ex-wife. Kamsi’s mother has said that she needs to secure her place in his life because love is too tensile a thing to keep a man with one woman. Oaths to God, duty to family, and, above all, the measure of shame from which it is impossible to hide is necessary to pin men in place. She may be the love of his life, but he owes those children his inheritance. Under the weight of his responsibility to them, their tender love will fracture and heaven will not fall.
She has considered that God may be punishing her. He was married and she knew. They were separated but no matter. Married is married. She and God are like friends who were once inseparable but who now cannot converse beyond civil pleasantries without staring at the ceiling to escape each other’s gaze.
Early in her childhood, she loved the Bible story where God called Samuel. But teenage cynicism changed her mind. When, at 14, she read again that Jesus was the Good Shepherd, she thought that it did not matter in the end. The sheep would eventually be killed or sold and neither of those outcomes were good for them.
And then there was the matter of the rapture. One pastor said that only 144,000 people would enter heaven according to Revelation. So, if she told a small lie and died after, despite what good she might have done before, no more heaven waiting for her. Then people started saying they saw visions of Michael Jackson in hellfire because he moonwalked, and that they saw another popular pastor in eternal anguish because she wore trousers and permed her hair.
Despite Kamsi’s faith the temperature of tea untouched until afternoon, she capitalized the ‘g’ in god, feared curses, and thought that an enemy from the village could kill her with lightning.
The only scripture she knew by heart was Psalm 91. When weekly newspaper headings read “Man Found with 3 Human Heads in Nylon Bag” and “Mass Grave Discovered Near Shrine,” Kamsi’s mother made her recite the psalm with her brother before they left for school in the morning. But Kamsi loved Sunday Vespers in Latin. The solemn praises and incense moved her like nothing else could.
In university, Brother Bayo, the Scripture Union leader said that everything she knew about God and the Bible was not true. She was uneasy around SU people who responded to a casual “good morning” with a spirited “God bless you!”
“Salvation is a free gift,” he said.
“You see, the law only tells us where we have failed God. But it does not give us what we need to make it right. That’s why Jesus came. Every punishment we deserved, he received. He paid our debt in full!”
The way he said “free gift” bothered her. Why would anyone pay for a gift in the first place? Her irritation aside, she considered. The gravity of what he said was too good to be true, but she maintained the possibility that it might be. The idea that a deity would reconcile with the world by sacrificing his heir, because the price of peace between Creator and created would otherwise be impossible, touched her.
She was eager to explore that idea but reconsidered when she discovered that Brother Bayo came to university to find a wife. He “ministered” to the first-year girls who were young enough to need guidance, likely virgins from Christian homes, and very familiar with pots and pans.
In third year, she took a class with Funto, a kind-hearted guy with a depth and quietness of conviction whose coexistence she hitherto considered impossible. He was also the only person she had met in the whole of Nigeria who was convinced that he was Jewish. Funto often smiled to himself as if he knew something that others did not.
She had thought that Nigerians worshipped Christ, served Allah, or venerated their ancestors’ gods. This Jewish business was strange.
Because of his long beard and yarmulke, people often assumed that he was a Muslim. Once, before lectures started, they sat under a guava tree enjoying the late evening breeze. They had all just returned from an ASUU strike that set them back a whole semester. Opposite them was a group of friends from the law faculty posing for the campus photographer. A course mate asked how he celebrated Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holiday celebrating the end of fasting for Ramadan.
“No Eid for me. I’m Jewish,” he said.
He was smart and helpful, so despite the confusion, nobody could insult him too much.
It is only a little past eleven this morning that feels like a Friday and the roads are clear. It is still drizzling. A few hours before, school buses, staff buses, and yellow commercial buses crammed the roads bumper to bumper. Congestion, aggression, noise, extortion, falling trailers, and traders running after vehicles for change are components of daily movement in Lagos, the absence of which is cause either for worry or wonder.
In a few hours, junior office workers will forsake the pristine restaurants their bosses frequent for rickety bukas, roadside restaurants where customers eat with sleeves rolled up, hands washed, and ties hung to the side.
The radio is tuned to 98.1FM and the volume is turned down. A woman with an accent that is neither quite American nor British but certainly foreign to Nigeria reads the news. Kamsi does not turn up the volume.
The rain is coming down hard now. The droplets are heavy and slanted, slapping the walls of the buildings they pass and tapping furiously on the windows. Her driver, Dede, fully turns on the wiper. Kamsi rests her head on the window and softly exhales as the rain moistens the ground.
Only rich people enjoy rain in Lagos. They can make a cup of tea and longingly gaze outside their windows without setting buckets under their roofs or fearing that rainwater will soak their mattresses. Kamsi and her family lived on the second floor of a three-storey building in Yaba when she was a child. Her mother, a tailor, worked from their veranda and her father worked at a plant that manufactured plastic household items. When it rained, Ify and Nkiru, the children of their neighbour on the ground floor carried their mattresses, fridge, and television to the corridor of the second floor with a nimbleness possible only through practice.
Once, Kamsi’s father returned from work in the evening and complained that the bus driver refused to take them past CMS because rainwater filled the potholes and the road was dark. She was in the kitchen about to light the kerosene stove, and the wicks had fallen to the bottom. If the flame burnt orange and not blue, scrubbing the pots would be hard.
Kamsi’s father was intelligent. She knew this because of his cool, incisive analysis of issues and the sharp inflection in his tone when he said words like praxis and quantum. Books like Economic and Philisophic Manuscripts of 1844, The Innocents Abroad, Man’s Search for Meaning, and The Gulag Archipelago lined his headboard. When she tried to read them, Kamsi found that they had no pictures. She opened one and saw, “The necessary result of this competition is a general deterioration of commodities, adulteration, fake production and universal poisoning, as evident in large towns.” She set it down and never looked again.
She liked to hover around her father when friends or relatives visited after Sunday mass. He peppered his sentences with words like effusive, obfuscate, and umbrage. He described one uncle as obtuse and called another cousin cantankerous.
He wanted to attend university, but his family was too poor to send him. Yet what he lacked in formal education, he substituted with his critical, cerebral nature. There were six children in his family. Some entered the trades and two lived abroad; one in England and the other in Poland. Being the first of the six, he was the ladder by which they climbed. He met Anulika, her mother, when she had just finished her last year of secondary school and they married at the Roman Catholic parish in their village. When he told Anulika that his people wanted to meet her father, he swore to her that their children would go to school. The work at the plant paid for Kamsi and her brother, Chizi, to attend St. Catherine Memorial School, the best in the area. But he did not see them graduate from university. He woke up one morning with a headache and by night his heart had stopped. His death was both sudden and bewildering in its finality. One morning she had a father and by night she did not. Just like that. Kamsi still held God on the collar for that one.
She and Osagie met about twelve years after she finished university. Her youth service year took her to the Federal Ministry of Power, Works and Housing in Abuja. She returned to Lagos writing off her countrymen and choosing instead to work with their children. Their innocence was untouched by the corruption that perfumed the country. Kamsi worked as a math and statistics teacher at a private school in Lagos and now lived closer to her mother since Chizi had won a scholarship to graduate school in America.
The headmaster at her school called an emergency meeting for parents of troublesome children. He wanted both parents of each child to attend. Having faced the disciplinary committee and now placed under suspension; these students would be expelled if they appeared before the committee again.
The meeting began as soon as the headmaster, Mr Mensah, walked in and greeted everyone. Their children made it difficult for other students to focus with their antics, broke open three computer screens to see the inside, and carved the words “Big Foot Was Here” on the white boards in their classrooms. As usual, the mothers outnumbered the fathers. Mr Mensah was displeased.
“I see no reason why this meeting, explicitly requiring both parents to attend, has mostly mothers present,” he said. “You know, you leave your children with us for eight hours, five times a day. You run around Lagos working and working. We do what you pay us to do but the rest of what happens with your children is in your hands.”
“You know we have jobs to do and places to be, yes?” a man asked.
“And your wives don’t?” Kamsi asked.
“No, that is not what I mean. We are not absent out of choice. We just, unfortunately, don’t have the time.”
The voice sounded like an older version of one she knew.
“If we all have 24 hours in a day, then this is not a question of not having time. Mothers show up the way they do because they don’t have the privilege of assuming fathers will attend meetings like this. And you have not proven them wrong. They are here because they make their children a priority,” Kamsi said.
“Is that so? Fathers are slaving away at jobs we hate for longer than we like because of these children we apparently don’t prioritize?”
“Coming every now and again to see what your money has bought you wouldn’t be such a bad idea, would it?”
They sounded like quarrelling lovers.
“Miss, I pay your salary and I, quite frankly, don’t have to explain myself to you.”
Kamsi came close to spreading the palm of her right hand and telling him waka, the Nigerian equivalent of the finger, for that casual yet authoritative way he dismissed her. But she did nothing. Because of his grave and somewhat kind face, his words surprised her. Perhaps he just was an asshole of a different variety.
“Let me step in here,” Mr Mensah said. “Mr Bello, Ms Obi teaches Efe. She means well and your point is well taken. You are all busy parents. Yet, the simple fact is that children need present and active fathers in their lives. Your children need you. Best intentions and legitimate reasons cannot erase that.”
The next time she saw Osagie was five months later. They were standing in line at RiteMart, an expansive supermarket in Ikeja. They were the first ones in two separate queues, each facing a cashier.
“Your bill is 17,530 naira, ma,” the cashier said. “Cash or card?”
“Card please,” he said. Osagie had seen her wandering the aisles in her orange boubou and black turban.
Kamsi turned to face him. There he stood; without the self-importance that punctuated the lives of men like him, wealthy people who did not make noise. Others carried on as though society owed them gratitude for pocketing their arrogance.
“Thank you,” she replied, surprised by how easily she accepted his gesture. No argument. No, “you don’t have to.” Only simple gratitude.
She gathered her things, nodded at the cashier, and began to walk away. He caught up to her.
“Miss? Miss Obi!”
“Are you running from me?”
“From you? No o. Some of us have jobs to do and places to be.”
“Haba. You still have not forgiven me?”
“I pay your salary,” came to her consciousness at random moments. Sitting in traffic, brushing her teeth, making her green juice that tasted like bile. She suspected she would see him again because of Efe. He was one of her cleverest students. His handwriting was illegible and he always seemed to be wherever trouble was, but his heart was sincere. His twin brothers had passed through the school, but she did not meet them.
The third time she saw Osagie was at school for Open Day. When they had a moment alone, he told her she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. And she thought that he should get out more and meet other women before concluding like so but did not tell him that. The men she encountered called her proud for rejecting them. She would evade their advances politely at first, then more sternly the next few times because they would not leave her be. They would then tell her to be grateful that they even took notice of her because she was not pretty at all. She would grow old and wrinkled in her father’s house if she didn’t change, they said. It amused her, the extent to which their egos were brittle little things.
As a corper in Abuja, after she turned down an Alhaji who was rumoured to have women flown in from Italy every weekend, he looked her up and down and said, “This is Abuja. You will play ball.” His connections were so vast and so deep that if he wanted to make her life hell, it would not take much.
“Let me buy you dinner,” Osagie said. His eyes were soft and pleading. He was trying to make amends but there was something else. He wanted to know her.
He took Kamsi to a spot his cousin owned on the mainland. It was a place where tourists “passionate about Africa” might call “authentic” because of the wooden figurines, the bamboo huts, and the mosaics of people dancing and playing a xylophone in a village square. She had never seen anybody except academics and politicians fixated on Europe or Asia in the way Westerners with regular jobs, regular mortgages, and regular lives were fixated on Africa.
On another hand, it bothered her that many upwardly mobile Nigerians cared more about narrative than reality. Those ashamed of the narrative of Africans as hopelessly poverty-stricken were usually people whose families were middle or upper class, who attended university abroad, and did not want their classmates to ask if they had pet monkeys.
She often wondered how those who lost their livelihoods to wars and floods and begged for their daily bread felt about the matter. Did they concern themselves with such privileges as dignity or pride? Had humiliation become the price of their sustenance? They lived in a country that took everything from them and then shamed them for being poor. Did they care that people pitied them if that pity kept them from starving to death?
As they walked in, she heard AB Crentsil’s I Go Pay You Tomorrow playing. The palm wine was fresh, the breeze was gentle, and the waiter was rude. She took too long to appear, told them they had to order something else if they wanted to linger after their meal, and held on to the change when Osagie paid. Just across from them was a European-looking couple, possibly Swedish, to whom she nearly genuflected as she answered every question.
Kamsi and Osagie talked and laughed but left room for quietly gazing out of the window into the city as they drove back. She liked that about him; that he just let things be and did not conjure up questions to escape silence. She thought of asking him up to her flat but decided not to. She did not fear that his affection would grow cold if they took their time.
Later, when Osagie told her that he and his wife lived apart but had not dissolved their marriage, she had the same feeling as when, after running to catch the bus as a schoolgirl, she saw it pass her by. They were on the floor of the living room in her flat. She cooked the chicken stew and he fried the plantains for lunch that afternoon. She sat up slowly and looked at him. Shock stilled her tongue. Efe’s mother did not have Osagie’s last name. The woman had always spoken so kindly to her whenever she picked up her son, and the thought that she had been seeing her husband made Kamsi itch in places she could not name.
She got up and put rice on fire. At the table, there was very little speaking. But he continued to look at her, wondering when it was safe to say something else. All that interrupted the silence they shared was occasional sighing, forks and knives tearing apart chicken flesh, the low humming of the fridge, and the ticking clock on the wall.
“Lock the door when you leave,” was all she said and went in.
When she got like that, it was pointless to say anything. It was his doing after all; he should have told her from the start. Now it looked as if he tricked her. But it was that he feared what would happen if she knew of the contradictions in his life that defied integration.
Kamsi did not speak to Osagie for three months. He did everything to see her, to explain, to pacify, to apologize. His last message said that he knew that the marriage complicated everything but that she needed to know the whole story before making a decision about them. He sounded defeated; like he wanted her but would let her be if she did not want him anymore.
She called him early one Saturday morning in April. She was reorganizing the bookshelf in her bedroom and saw his books. She missed him, wanting at first to push the thought out of her mind but instead becoming conquered by longing. Kamsi dialled his number before she had the chance to overthink. It rang twice and she hung up. He called her back immediately. His name flashed across the screen, but she did not answer.
He left a message.
“Kamsi. Kam, hi. If this is what I think it is, meet me tomorrow. Please. Café Orange at seven. I have missed you. I want to tell you everything.”
She replayed the message twice that morning and once before bed.
In his voice, she heard hope for a future they could share but also a resignation that she had made up her mind. How he spoke her name had not changed; as a prayer, as a declaration of victory, as a reassurance of belief in Providence.
She arrived first and sat facing the door. He rushed in about ten minutes later, afraid that she had left. When she rose to greet him, he first held her face, embraced her, and did not let her go. It was quiet at the café and they did not hurry their reunion.
Osagie did not waste time. He told her that he was sorry and that he understood her need to keep away from him. He met his wife in university. They began as friends and then became a couple. She got pregnant with the twins when they graduated and then married to please their families. Chores and children replaced passion with civility. They attended counselling to make it work but instead made a baby. It was the end and they knew. There were no hard feelings at all, he said. Only a quiet realization that their marriage had run its course. But they decided not to divorce until Efe entered university.
Kamsi was incredulous. She did not know one Nigerian woman who simply let go of her man once he said that he did not want the relationship anymore; even if she felt the same way. Such news was accompanied by tears and tremors, litanies of sacrifices made, threats of curses, and pleas for relatives to talk the offending man back into his senses. She sounded too Anglicized, brainwashed by Western sentiments about love, and Kamsi told him so. To the countrywomen she knew, love was something to fight for and something to lose sleep over. It was worth invoking ancient gods and swearing to conform, to obey, to become pliant to childish yet tyrannical whims and wishes. Osagie said that she would relocate with Efe when he went off to school as if that explained her behaviour.
He asked if they could begin again. He would keep nothing from her this time. All the parts of him too shattered to piece together would dance in the light.
She was surprised by how quickly they had resumed their love, although it was not really that they had suspended their affection for one another. What words could not express; actions professed. Holding hands until her sweat mingled with his; laughing at nothing; lingering in embrace for a few moments more. Quiet gratitude tinged the painful realization that their moments and lives could come undone like thread on fraying fabric.
That was years ago. Efe had now gone off to university and she had become principal after Mr. Mensah left for France with his family. Osagie’s divorced was finalized and she fielded “legitimate” inquiry into her womb’s state of affairs. His family still considered his ex-wife the woman in his life but occasionally asked after “his lady friend.” They visited now and again, declining food or drink each time. One thing she could not miss was the furtive glances at her belly as they exchanged brief pleasantries. Their conversation with Osagie was often in Bini but once he saw her come in, he spoke English. He did not want her assurance of his love to falter.
Marriage was on the table; it had always been. It was she who said no. If they were married, he explained, his family would have no choice but to respect her. Her status would be proper and steady. They lived together but had not gone before a pastor or a judge to pledge their lives and livelihoods to each other. Her father’s brother, Uncle IK, had asked time and again when Osagie’s people would bring wine.
“You are not getting any younger, Kamsiyonna, and you know a woman is a flower. You are ripe for marriage. Nne m, why not let him come and we will sort things out? You are a beautiful girl, he is comfortable and obviously loves you. Nothing is standing in the way for both of you to settle down. Biko o? So that your pride as a woman will be complete.”
Her uncle’s concern was marriage and her mother’s was motherhood. But her life with Osagie had the measure of permanence she desired. She had kept her job and her house, both of which she considered important. Legitimacy did not matter much. Osagie was hers. She paid his family little mind but always treated them with politeness, gently side-stepping whatever attempts at bonding could fetch her embarrassment.
Everything changed when the boys came home for Christmas two years ago. Whenever they returned, they stayed in their mother’s family house but that year was different. They wanted to be with their father. Their mother’s driver dropped them off at their father’s house with their things the day after they landed. They were no longer boys; even Efe towered above her when they embraced. In thinking of how they treated her, Kamsi graduated their mother from good woman to patron saint. She clearly harboured no hard feelings about Osagie moving on, much less who he moved on to. The boys grew up in that very house and saw their mother run it as she pleased, but adjusted to the fact that their childhood home was now under a different administration with such grace, calling her “Aunty” and happily helping with chores.
Kamsi began to look for what she had not considered missing the evening she returned from the spa. She went in for pampering from face to feet four times a year. The sound of water quietly falling, the dim lights, and the soft music lulled her. The cares of the day fell away as she breathed in the essential oil blend Ije, her massage therapist, held over her face. She returned that evening half-asleep, feeling like she had emerged from a cloud. With Dede driving her home, she fell asleep and snored softly with her supple lips slightly parted. She opened the front door past the veranda lined with bromeliads, majesty palms, cannas, and aloe vera. The aloes were from her mother. She went up the steps, careful not to miss one. As she reached the living room, she heard squeals of delight; the boys were playing video games and had pitched themselves against one another. Efe and Osagie were on the first team and the twins were on the other. She saw a version of Osagie she had seen before but had not contemplated deeply; he was a child again, playful in the manner men could be only with their sons. Efe was rubbing his balding head and the twins were beside themselves.
She stood there looking at them; marvelling, especially, at the boys as proof of a love that once was. They were a memory as much as they were a witness. She did not have that. No matter how much she loved Osagie or how much he loved her, there would be a tomorrow in which neither of them would exist. No one would speak of their love in a visceral, personal way. It would remain an intangible thing, not embodied in any human being.
So began the search for a child. For a time, she was a woman at war with herself; questioning every feeling, scrutinizing every emotion. She had questions and doubts, yet every time she saw a child, the desire to have her own fanned itself to flame.
Kamsi had become more sober, often lost in her thoughts. When she told Osagie that she wanted to take out her IUD so that they could try for a baby, he asked her if that was all she wanted to tell him. He took her hands in his, waiting for her to say something else. She laid her head on his heart and held him tight. She wanted to cry but held back because there was no reason to do so. Nothing was wrong.
Osagie could not understand. She said that she wanted them to try for a baby and he agreed. Did she not want that anymore? He could handle her sadness and soothe her pain. He could even handle how mechanical their lovemaking had become, but the vacant look in her eyes was beyond him.
She was ashamed to have once discounted this desire only to have it possess her thoroughly. Here she was, 37; aware that her window was closing but afraid to say that what she wanted most was the very thing she once took for granted. Kamsi was different now; the air around her, once airy and light, was melancholic and studious. She charted her cervical fluid religiously and measured her temperature every morning. She wanted Osagie no longer as a lover, but as an inseminator. If she told her mother, it would become true that she had been trying to get pregnant and failing.
Month after month, Kamsi was awash in fresh disappointment when she saw the red blotch on her panties. She looked at the children at her school, contemplating a life in which hers would make friends and return with homework. A woman came into her office to make inquiries about the school’s curriculum one Tuesday afternoon, and Kamsi all but reached out to touch her pregnant belly.
One night, she had a dream. She travelled with her mother to her father’s ancestral homeland in Agulu. Distant relatives ran and gathered to welcome them. She was pregnant, and holding her mother’s left hand while placing her other hand on her swollen belly. The women of the village, including her mother, began to sing and encircled her. One of them came closer to touch her belly and instead of feeling skin and bones, felt pieces of cloth unravelling.
Kamsi felt nauseous that week and ate very little. Her period had been late and she was tired often. She looked in the mirror at her breasts and wondered for a second at their size. She might be pregnant, she thought, and left it at that. It was a painful thing to hope, and she might die from heartbreak if all she had was a delayed cycle. But what if she was? This question nagged her until Sunday morning. She decided that she would just take a test and put everything to rest. She unwrapped the pregnancy test kit, took a deep breath, and spread her legs to urinate on the dipstick. The instructions said to place the stick on a flat surface for 7-10 seconds. She left it for 10 and looked at her feet while she waited. If she was pregnant, her feet would spread and her shoes would no longer fit. She picked up the stick and saw two lines; one solid and the other barely there.
She would say nothing to Osagie until Dr. Deinde confirmed. He trained at the University of Ibadan and had been her doctor for over 10 years. He worked in government hospitals in Ibadan and Lagos before starting his own practice. His warmth and greying moustache reminded her of her father. Nurse Abi gave Kamsi a urine container, labelled it when she finished from the bathroom, and drew blood. She would reeturn the next day for her results.
At night, she counted stars, traced the length of Osagie’s smooth back with her fingers, and woke with a start when she felt like she was falling. The sheets felt like crumpled paper and her sleep was restless. Morning came and she saw Osagie to his car. This man had been good to her; overlooking slights and indulging her when she got moody. He plied her with wine and chocolate and let her have the house to herself when he sensed that what she needed was time alone.
Dede arrived on time, despite the rain, and held the door open as she climbed into the car. She sometimes forgot he was there because of the quiet, simple way in which he did his job. He weaved past potholes and policemen and dropped her off at Dr. Deinde’s. Nurse Abi told the doctor that she had arrived.
“Kamsi, morning. Please come in,” Dr. Deinde said.
She sat like a schoolchild opposite him, first rubbing her palms together then placing them over her knees.
“So, you were here yesterday and we did a few pregnancy tests. I know you did one at home but the results were inconclusive for a number of reasons we will discuss later. But, you are pregnant. The blood and urine tests confirm that for sure. Congratulations, my dear.”
Kamsi sat back and exhaled. She did not expect joy to feel like this.
She asked Dede to take her to her mother’s house. She was the one she wanted to tell first. Her mother lived in the same flat in Yaba even though she and Chizi bought her one in Marina. She wanted to live in the house where she had raised two children and buried one husband, and rented the new one to English expats working for Julius Berger.
Kamsi looked as her mother came down the stairs and saw her hold the railing to steady herself. She had grown softer. Life had done with her what streams did with stones.