Íjè: A Voyage into Island Immigrant Life

Through this project, we are presenting Prince Edward Island immigrants to public consciousness on their own terms. Written, pictorial, and illustrative submissions will showcase immigrants as the full people whom singular stories of aspiration or accomplishment have not accurately represented.

We would love to hear from you! Here’s how to participate:

Read the Guide: We have put together a description of what we intend to accomplish through this project. The Guide also includes our sub-themes and suggestions. You can find it here.

Prepare your submission: You may submit essays, short stories, illustrations, recipes, photographs, and photo-essays, etc. The deadline for entries is September 16, 2021.

Write to us: If you have any questions or comments, please send an email at ijetheproject@gmail.com.

Photo credit to Evgeny Nelmin via Unsplash.

Brittle

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!”

She turned.

“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.

Shadow

Her flight from Boston to New York has been cancelled. She looks up from the novel she is reading to hear the PA announce that a mechanical failure has caused the delay and eventual cancellation. Ranti will have to book a hotel room to pass the night. She has been traveling since the evening of the previous day and has one more flight before arriving in Lagos. The novel is one of those she picked up from the used bookstores when she visited her cousin, Darasimi, in Seattle. It is about a man who is running from the police because of fraud and has fallen for the manager of the obscure motel where he is hiding. She has tried to finish the book thrice in the past but has managed to get derailed each time.

Her sister, Aduke, the firstborn girl, is getting married and it is a big affair. Ranti has not returned home since she left and is ambivalent about the whole thing. Not her sister’s impending marriage, of course. She is happy about that but is not certain that home contains the measure of belonging it seems to hold for others. She isn’t sure it ever really has.

Growing up as the last child meant that her milestones were not really cause for celebration; as if her parents were saying ah, yes, we have seen this trick before. When she cried, there was no urgency to her being comforted. It seemed as is if they were crossing off all the legitimate reasons why she could be crying. Diaper changed at eight, fed at nine. Her toys and clothes were passed down from her sisters Aduke and Remi, both of whom were two years apart.

The only one who really saw her was Jaiye, her brother. He was eleven when she was born. When she wailed in her crib, he would gently knock at the door and come into her room, kneel, and look her in the eye. She would stop crying, start babbling, and reach for his cheeks. Jaiye would say something back; as if what she had babbled was absolutely true and of utmost importance. It was not that Aduke and Remi did not care; it was that they had each other and no real need for anyone else. Jaiye was her friend; the only one who knew what was wrong without her saying.

Once, Ranti put her arm between the narrow spaces of the staircase railing and could not get it out. She had tried and tried to pull it away, but it did not yield. Her parents were in their bedroom and she could hear Lagbaja’s Rock me Gentle playing while her sisters chased each other downstairs. They probably would not hear her if she called them. She crouched by the railing, placed her left hand on her knee, and hoped someone would walk by. She wanted to cry but crying for a problem she put herself in would mean more trouble. Jaiye was coming up the stairs and saw her. Then the tears came. He guided her hand free, told her sorry, and gave her cold Fanta.

Another time, she hid under the bed in the boys’ quarters just to see if anyone would notice she was gone. She was there for hours; laying on her belly and taking note of the cobwebs and dust that had gathered. It was not until her father returned from work early that evening and did a headcount that the search began. When they found her, her father asked why she hid herself. But her reason sounded so small and so accusatory of casual negligence that she said nothing. Don’t do that again, he said as he held her hand. She mattered to them. But she wanted more than to simply matter.

Jaiye was her person. His eyelashes were long and delicate, too beautiful to belong on a boy. He was graceful in his gait and took after her mother. His skin was a polished cocoa brown. But his personality was undeniably identical to her father’s. They had the same calm, measured manner. Never reacting in the heat of the moment, always saying the right things all the time. Even the way they smiled was appropriate for every time and place. They were elegant in a way that did not threaten. They had an ease, a fluidity to their mannerisms.

Jaiye was an obvious choice for head boy at their school. His uniform was neatly pressed and had gators running on either sleeve. His shoes never scuffed. He was not one of those senior boys whose appearance was contrived; combing their hair while rushing from one class period to the other. Their school was nestled in a quiet corner of Ikeja; with both the primary and secondary locations in one spot. The principal worked as a nurse in England in the 80s and returned with her family to find that the Nigerian curriculum had significant shortcomings. Ms Ajayi, a stately woman who barely spoke above a whisper started the school, which enjoyed a reputation for excellence in instruction and extracurricular activities.

Once, the boys in Jaiye’s set decided that they could go out since their final exams were over. One of the boys had a cousin who had just returned from Germany and was throwing a party. Girls from their set would be there. Best of all, Rolake was attending. She was the only girl Jaiye gave any attention. All the boys adored her and even the girls who tried to hate her could not. Even their mother said she was ‘just so lovely.’ She was light skinned because of her Greek mother but took after her petite father from Idanre.

Jaiye was the one least likely to be suspected of wrongdoing if the police were to wave them down and was appointed the driver for the night. He waited until the house was quiet, got up, and made his way downstairs. He convinced Baba Matthew, the security guard, that his parents knew that he was going out and picked up the rest in his mother’s old Volvo.

The trouble started when he did not return before their father was leaving for work in the morning. The car was missing and so was Jaiye. On the way back, they had been accosted by thieves who took the car at gun point. Jaiye, too ashamed to call for help, walked from Oniru to their house at GRA Ikeja. He was taller than their father, but he cleared the dining table, ordered Jaiye to climb on, and spanked his bare bottom. Everyone sat in the living room crying but afraid to beg because it was not like Jaiye to act like this. Her father spanked him not because of the car but because he was thoroughly disappointed.

When her father asked for water later in the evening, Ranti spat in it. After she gave him the glass, she lingered to watch him drink every drop. He said thank you and patted her head. It was retribution for Jaiye.

He now works as a banker in Geneva. Aduke returned from England seven years ago to start her own HR practice. Remi is a caterer in Lagos. After she studied economics at UCL, she decided that she had braved enough winters for one lifetime and returned to Nigeria. Her parents had contacts all over Lagos and with weddings every Saturday, decent food at a reasonable price would keep her busy with clients.

Her siblings are so painfully accomplished that having simpler lives is a choice they can make, not an existence they are confined too. For her, it seems that being ordinary is the only way to stand out. Her siblings obliterated, as her mother called it, their final exams. Her parents approached their education with the quiet assumption that they would study outside Nigeria in the name of global citizenship. They would study in England, but her father said they would not just take the IGCSE but the SAT alongside WAEC and JAMB. The rigour is good for you, he said. After her siblings graduated from university, London became unfamiliar to her. Even if she was not close with her sisters, she could at least say that she had family living in London.

Ranti is a victim of petty misfortunes; not those large enough to accuse fate of singling her out but ones small, constant, and sufficient for embarrassment. She has locked herself out of her car, knocked over a water glass at a job interview, pushed her shopping cart through a window, misread the dates for an exam, and tripped over her own foot. She is used to being looked over, so it does not immediately register that winter afternoon in her professor’s office that he has come onto her. It is something he says, and she does not remember what it is, and the way he says it, as if he knows that he is taking a chance and is cautious that it might not end well. She is first surprised and even embarrassed that he thinks of her in that way. But she says yes because he is the one with much to lose. He has someone. She has come up in their conversation a few times. As her research supervisor, he sometimes says that he cannot meet at so and so time because he is out of town with Jillian. He is easily ten years her senior and she admires him, likes him even. But he will not leave Jillian. He makes that clear from the beginning. Whatever they have exists outside reality. They spend time with each other and then retreat into their own worlds; he into the company of this woman he plans to marry and she into her insular life.

She takes the shuttle to a hotel with her bag since her luggage has gone ahead of her. The one she checks into is one of those nearby the airport. From her room, she can see the city’s layout. Tonight, red lights dot the people moving in their cars below the evening sky. It looks like a watercolour painting; some blue here, a dash of pink elsewhere. Ranti inspects the room, which has a king-sized bed, a reading area, and warm lighting. She might wish Sam slept over once in a while for the warmth of his body, but she is pleased when he leaves. Her bed becomes her territory once again. In a way, the arrangement with him is suitable. She might share her man, if she can call him that, but her bed is hers alone. Ranti lingers in the bathroom for a while; picking up the lotion to take a sniff, running her hands over the cold bathtub, and aligning the bathmat with the tiles. She places the lotion back on the sink and looks at herself in the mirror. She begins with the skin under her eyes then her breasts, cupping them in her hands. She travels with her gaze down her belly and then turns aside to look at the swell of her bottom. She is not ugly. But she will simply not show her colours to a world insistent on blinding itself to her. She remembers that she is hungry and that there is only about an hour before the hotel’s restaurant closes for the day. Ranti shuts her door and walks to the elevator, her footfalls sinking into the plush carpeting. The air feels perfumed and heavy and just then, she feels the urge to open a window.

She wants to have her meal at the bar and orders jambalaya and Chardonnay by the glass. As she waits, she plays Anita Baker’s Giving You the Best That I Got on her iPod. She looks around and thinks it best to move to a booth, since the restaurant is empty excluding a few patrons. She recognizes a few faces from the airport earlier in the day and averts her gaze save for one. Although his head is shaved, she can see that he is balding. She thinks it brave of him to scrape it off altogether. He has small wrinkles around his eyes and streaks of grey in his stubble, which looks five days old at most. He sees her looking at him and gives a small smile, but she turns away. He looks like a Babafemi or a Babatunde; aware of his charm but unintoxicated by it. Ranti downs the rest of her wine, tips the waiter, and heads to her room. She walks right in front of him, looking straight ahead until she exits the restaurant.

Her shower before bed is warm and languorous; complete with a concert for an audience of shampoo, body soap, and toothpaste. Afraid that she will oversleep and the plane will leave her behind, Ranti sets three alarms. Downstairs waiting for the shuttle to the airport, she does not find him from yesterday and chides herself for looking in the first place. Did he oversleep because someone kept him awake? He was working on his computer last night at the restaurant. Did he stay up to finish?

The final flight back to Lagos is filled with the regular sights; a woman praying loud enough for her entire row to hear, one man using his phone long after the cabin crew has asked them to put their phones away, and everybody clapping when the plane lands. Ranti is surprised by how little and how much of Lagos has changed and tears up when the woman at immigration hands her passport back and says, ‘Welcome home.’ Ranti questions the home bit but feels the genuine warmth in the woman’s voice.

The last time Ranti encountered a woman from immigration was when she was leaving Nigeria for school. She put her purse down for examination before boarding as others before her had done. Now that she thinks about it, why did they need another check before boarding? Hadn’t the X-ray machine done enough? But who could blame the airport authorities for not trusting their own people? Nigerians themselves did not trust each other.

The woman sifted through her purse, took five hundred naira, and looked at her as if to say you won’t be needing this one where you are going. Ranti almost said something but left it alone.

She sees Jaiye and their father standing together as they wait. They could pass for brothers. She often wonders if they ever speak of the spanking incident. The whole thing was out of character for their father as much as it was for Jaiye. He was not the one who spanked. His philosophy was that children were not animals and were capable of being reasoned with. Even animals can be trained, he said. But their mother was a different story. She spanked with a cane, or a belt, or a spatula. If she was too tired, she would wring their ears and say, ‘Raise up your hands and close your eyes.’ They would face the wall serving this punishment, but if their eyes opened or their hands drooped, their mother’s voice was in their ears. She knew. But they had it easy compared to some of their cousins. Folu dropped her mother’s tumbler and was made to kneel on the broken pieces. This had been the third one that week. Ire refused to cry after his father spanked him for burning his shirt and was denied food for a day.

She is in her father’s arms now. She has grown to be about as tall as he is, but he still has that fresh minty scent and is clean shaven as always. Jaiye pulls her from their father and wraps her in a warm hug. He takes her bag from her and comments that a zipper from her box is broken. They make their way through the crowds and into the car park. Louts don’t bother them as they approach.

‘You were supposed to come in yesterday, Ranti mi. Kilode?’

Ranti is certain that Jaiye told him what happened, but it is just like their father to hear it from the horse’s mouth.

‘My flight got cancelled, daddy. I had to spend the night in Boston.’

‘There were no direct flights to Lagos?’

‘They were quite expensive.’

She could easily have asked her parents or even Jaiye to pay but she didn’t want them to bother. She didn’t even confirm that she would be attending the wedding until a week before she booked her ticket.  

‘Your mother is picking up the last bit of things. Everybody is excited.’

‘You like him, daddy?’

‘Well, he seems like a respectful young man. Decent family. Thorough education. He is good for Aduke. He will balance her out very nicely.’

Her father has always been pragmatic about love. When aunties and uncles brought their intended, he would keep them in the living room quizzing them about their upbringing, their work, and current affairs. After one of such sessions, he announced that he was not confident in their decision to marry. To which her mother said that they would manage. It was such a Nigerian thing to say, that people would manage. Nigerians tolerated bad government, no light, bad hospitals, fake drugs, death traps called roads, police brutality, and corrupt clergy in the name of managing. Suffering and smiling, Fela called it.

They arrive at home and everyone is there. Aduke and her fiancé, her mother, and Remi. Her mother’s headscarf is pushed forward and balancing on her forehead and she has her feet up on a side stool. The television is on but Ranti is not sure what station it is tuned to. There is a man and a woman at the microphone stand giving a testimony. They have a baby on the way after eight years of marriage and after eating ‘Miracle Groundnut’ consecrated by their Papa, the pastor. The camera zooms in on the woman’s protruding belly and the congregation is applauding.

‘Ranti, omo mi.’ My child, she says as she rises to greet her.

‘Mummy, how are you?’

‘My dear, we thank God. Welcome home, my dear. This one and her husband have been disturbing me for months now.’

She may be stressed but she is happy. Beaming, actually. Ranti’s mother is the family’s party planner. She planned birthday parties and weddings people spoke of for years. But they are keeping this one low key. The service and reception will be held in their garden.

Aduke is five weeks gone and their parents seem to be fine with it. If she remembers correctly, her father called the fiancé ‘respectful.’ This is new.

Her mother begins to snore on the sofa and her father removes her scarf and fans her with it. This fresh inflow of air makes her mother stir. He wakes her and leads her to their bedroom.

Aduke and Remi stay up chatting with Jaiye while she takes a shower. She returns to find them at the same place and Remi pats on a spot for her to sit.

‘There’s moin-moin and eko that mummy made. Do you want some? It’s really tasty’, Aduke says. Ranti nods as Aduke enters the kitchen, rubbing her belly. Pregnancy looks good on her.

Remi puts an arm around her as they wait and Jaiye lays on the floor on his chest, with his two hands under his chin.

‘So, is anyone joining us from Boston on Friday?’

Jaiye is looking for trouble. He knows about Sam, but Remi and Aduke do not. Today is as good a day as any to tell them. Their parents are upstairs and Aduke has returned with a tray of food and cold water. They will have maybe one more day of rest before relatives descend upon them. It is quite a miracle that has not happened yet.

Ranti begins with her research and arrives Sam. They remain still like obedient schoolchildren. She tells them about Jillian too.

‘Are you happy?’ Remi asks.

‘Yes. But not for long.’

 ‘How do you know?’ Aduke asks.

‘He hides me. It has been over a year and he has not slept over. I cannot hold it against him. I have no right. Arguing with him over it would make me too much like the other woman, even though that is what I am.’

‘And a family of your own is something you want someday?’ Remi asks

‘Yes. It is a good thing.’

‘We miss you. We miss you a lot.’ Aduke says, holding her hand. Aduke’s hands are warm and clammy.

Ranti considers holding back and saying nothing. But this moment is one they have not had in years. It is worth it to take a chance and say something, she thinks. She tells them about that day on the stairs and moves to their time in London. She says that she never felt like she belonged and worried that she was an inconvenience; someone to drag along and look after. She tells them that she wanted to be seen and known, in the way Jaiye sees her.

Aduke squeezes her hand tight.

‘Ranti, we didn’t know you felt this way. Why didn’t you say? Remi asks tearfully.

‘I wanted you to notice something was not right and come after me.’

‘You know, we are close because you allow me. These two woke me up one night and asked me why it felt like you were pushing them away. They had just gotten in from some rave in Manchester and I wondered where all that depth was coming from. They wanted to try. Really. But they thought you did not care because you clung to only me. Does that make sense?’ Jaiye asks.

Ranti takes one deep breath, shuts her eyes, and shakes her head. They are misty when she opens them again. Two things are happening. First, she is realizing that the pain of rejection she carried all these years may have been self-inflicted. It would have been one thing to feel unwanted and truly be unwanted. But it appears this was never so. Next, it is becoming clear to Ranti that they have been waiting for a chance for a while. She closes her eyes again. All she feels is love. Aduke’s hands are sweating in hers now and Remi has been looking at her like she is a one-woman show. Jaiye is sitting up and waiting for her to say something. She is softening.

In the morning, the sound of the lawn mower wakes her. Sunday, the gardener is cutting the grass, singing to himself as always. The women downstairs have started frying meat and boiling pepper for the rice. She sees baskets of onions and tomatoes, a basin of frozen fish, and bags of rice and beans in the backyard. They are preparing as many ingredients as possible so that they have less to do on Friday. Two young men about her age are sharpening knives in the corner and someone else is setting up a charcoal fire. These are Remi’s people. Aunties have started arriving with their children to help.

‘Ranti, o ti dagba o!’ ‘Is this not Ranti of yesterday?’

‘How is Boston, my dear?’

‘Kabo, jare omo.’ ‘Very soon, it will be your turn in Jesus’ name.’

‘Ekule o! Greetings to this house!’ ‘Ahn ahn, iya iyawo, ekaro o!’

On Friday, her family will wear clothes from the same fabric sewn into different styles and sit on one side of the grass, while the groom’s family will do the same and sit on the opposite side. After dancing in from the gate with his friends, Banji will prostrate before her family and her parents will lay their hands on his head to pray for him. As the youngest female child, Ranti will read the letter the in-laws will write asking for Aduke’s hand; describing her with words like ‘delectable’, ‘hardworking’, and ‘respectful.’

Ranti finds Jaiye in the living room by the water dispenser.

‘Did you sleep well?’

‘In and out. Jet lag did a number on me.’

‘Pele. I have a friend joining us for the wedding. I’m surprised you didn’t run into him. He was supposed to be on your flight.’

‘Interesting. Is he meeting us at the house?’

‘We were classmates long time ago. He will drop by today and then stay for the wedding.’

Jaiye answers his phone.

‘He is here.’

She recognizes him when he walks into the living room in the manner of one used to things going as planned. It is Babafemi or Babatunde from the restaurant.

‘Ranti, meet Babafela. Fela, my sister Ranti,’ Jaiye says.

‘I remember you,’ he says as he takes her hand and squeezes it a little.

‘I didn’t realize you could sing. I would have come over,’ she says.

Calico

Autumn has brought dead leaves and new beginnings. She watches quietly as students scatter and chatter on their first day of classes. They walk from one building to another, maps in hand, wearing plaid shirts and sneakers. She shakes off the instinct to think of them as children. Some will find themselves here. Others will drown. Some will begin one way and end another.

The nights are growing shorter and apple picking is around the corner. Years ago, she and her flatmates would load up the car and drive for miles until they arrived an an orchard; the air fragrant and fresh. Rows and rows and rows of apples from Cortland to Gala to McIntosh. They always took more than they needed and baked apple crisps and pies. Nutmeg, cinnamon, and vanilla would linger on their coats for days.

It is so distant a memory that looking back feels like walking into a tunnel. It is time for lunch and although she considers sitting in the grass, the impracticalities are numerous. The breeze will sweep dust and pollen into her sandwich, her top will ride up, and she will see someone who knows her. She has stayed long enough at this university for that to be a given. She wants to be quiet. Talking to others has been exhausting lately.

Her sandwich is a grilled ham and brie panini. How English of her, she thinks. She can hear her mother’s voice in her head, half-teasing

‘Nne, i wu so onye ocha.’ You have become a white person.

She has indeed become white. White enough to eat sandwiches and not rice and stew for lunch like a proper Nigerian. White enough to sleep in and have brunch on Sunday, sans church. White enough to let Dave move in with her.

Just then, a text from him comes in. He is asking if she wants to join him and new work friends for drinks at 7. She does not. It will be another round of “where are you from” and “tell us about yourself” and “you don’t speak with an accent”. They mean well, she knows. But she is tired. Something somewhere deep inside her is aching, longing for rest.

Dave’s entry into her life took her by surprise. Surprised still is she because he hasn’t left. Despite her foul mouth and grudge keeping. Despite her scowls and silent treatment when she does not get her way. Despite her low blows when they argue. He is still here. He loves her. He fascinates her, mostly. As much as a little bird perched and chirping on a window pane would.

He works in investment banking, like his father and his father before him. Last Christmas, as usual, the conversation veered into major markets and predictions for the new year. His four brothers had their women at the table too. Jeff, Sam, Paul, and Ryan had effectively brought home four iterations of their mother. Her sweetness quickly soured when she felt challenged, even on the smallest things. Like whether sugar had a place in cornbread. Anna, whose family owned and operated a ranch in Texas, said that it did. That her family’s recipe included sugar and on and on.

‘Thank you, Anna. Pass the wine, would you?’

Edith was old money. One of those to whom it did not occur that wealth did not give them a monopoly on truth.

Dave is older by two years. But so unassuming. She met him on the train on her way from Lewiston to an African store in Harrisburg. She was reading Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come when their eyes locked. Somto looked away at first and looked up again when she felt his eyes on her.

‘Hi,’ he mouthed when she looked up.

‘Hi,’ she mouthed back and looked away, shooing him with her eyes.

But his gaze lingered. She looked up. He moved swiftly. The train was barely half full; pockets of people scattered around. She flashed the smile she reserved for tellers and waiters. Endearing and plastic. Plastic and endearing.

‘Is it true?’ he asked, pointing at the book.

‘For some people?’ she replied.

‘What separates “some” from the rest of us?’

‘What separates East from West?’

‘Do you always answer questions with questions?’

‘Is that a problem?’

She was smiling now, as was he.

‘I’m Dave.’

‘Somto.’

‘Sumta. What does it mean?’

Somto. Join me,’ she said.

‘No way! How did I know that?’

What a lovely man. That is the same thing she thought when he told her that he loved her a year later. And again when he asked her to move in with him.

No, she told him. But he could move in with her, she said. She will rearrange her life for no one. Even him. Even though he has a soft place in her heart. She will make room for him, but she will not pack her life neatly into boxes and plant herself elsewhere.

She had always known that she would break his heart. She knew it that day on the train. He was too good. Too unblemished. Too divine.

The answer again is no. Tonight, she will be going over the results of her qualitative analysis with Raul, her TA.

It is a lie. She will be at the cinema eating overpriced pretzels and watching Love Jones. She is holding onto any chance to live in her head a little longer. She sees Deb when the film ends.

‘Sumta! You’re here!’

‘After all this time, Deb? Just call me Santa already,’ Somto says.

‘Oh, don’t mind me. I’ve missed you.’

She means it. Heart of gold. Deb was the baker in the flat. Pies, strudels, cakes, and souffles. All the girls blamed Deb for their weight gain.

They embrace. She has been smoking again.

‘I thought you were on the patch.’

‘I was. I got fed up.’

‘What will I do with you?’ Somto says, pulling her cheeks.

‘How’s Dave?’

‘He’s great. Out with work friends tonight.’

‘You’re all alone. Good thing I found you then.’

Deb locks arms with Somto and walks her to her car. They are quiet save for their heels clicking and clacking on the pavement. They walk past a cafe, Lionel’s butcher shop, a convenience store, and a movie rental place. They walk past old buildings and failing streetlights in an even, unhurried pace.

Lionel is not in today. His shop is the only one in the area that carries fresh cuts of oxtail and goat meat. He went back home to Jamaica last year, 17 years after leaving it for England. His father had died. Lionel had told her many times that he wanted to show her his home one day.

‘My lady, I know you will like it.’

He knew about Dave. They met once when he helped her with her bags while Dave came around with the car. She saw Lionel size him up when they shook hands. Behind his polite smile and gracious bow was a man studying his competition. He knew that they would never be but that did not keep him from trying.

Deb is one of Somto’s oldest friends. Silence has meaning to them. They converse in it, hopping from topic to topic, tapping where it still doesn’t make sense, slow dancing where it hurts. Deb squeezes Somto’s arm tighter just before she says that something is not fine.

A pause. The clicking stops.

‘He died. My father died.’

The smoking makes sense.

‘Oh, Deb. I’m sorry.’

It was the cancer that ended him. It came back for the second time and was spreading fast. Deb’s father did not want treatment. He wanted to spend his last days surrounded by love.

‘They say that knowing before it happens helps. It is supposed to help you make room for grief. It is supposed to help you button up your life jacket as you prepare to dive into sorrow. What they don’t tell you is how the fear of the pain that arrives with the loss first overshadows then weakens you. They don’t say that you will begin to mourn what is still breathing. But you do.’

The air is colder and stiller now. They continue to walk.

‘I wish I saw you more often. You are good for me.’

Somto wraps her in her arms. She wants the embrace to absorb Deb’s pain.

‘Sumta, you will break me,’ Deb chuckles.

Tears well up in their eyes.

‘Are you angry?’

‘At myself. For before.’

“Before” is when Deb and her father did not speak. He and her mother divorced when she was five. Then he married a woman who gave her hell. She tried to tell her father. He couldn’t see it. He did not see who she was until the euphoria of new beginnings ended. New things get old. Did he not know? Deb was gone by then. She was living with her mother who taught at an academy for boys. It would be years before he would swallow his shame and find them. She declared that she was fatherless when he showed up at their door and began his speech. She said rebuffed him for another 7 years.

Somto’s drive home is silent, punctuated by tears. She hesitates before she goes in. Dave is not home. She begins to peel off her clothes as she climbs the stairs. Coat first, then shoes, bag on the floor, blouse on the staircase. A hot shower and sleep is what she needs.

Just as she climbs into bed, she hears the door. He is home. How can affection and indifference coexist so peacefully? Doesn’t he notice? The distance is gaping. What is wrong with her? Should she just end things? She will tell him soon.

He joins her, circling his arms around her waist. He plants a kiss on her forehead.

Tomorrow is “soon.” She realizes this after Dave makes breakfast the next morning. French toast, sausages, and eggs. He is pouring the orange juice when she knows it for sure that she does not want this arrangement anymore. He is good. He is everything. But he is not hers. Not anymore. Maybe he never was. She sees it now. Had he been a placeholder and she a spectator in this thing? Lately, they had barely communicated beyond the mechanics of their day.

‘What pizza should we order?’

‘Please grab milk from the store.’

Television, goings and comings, and romps in the sheets filled up what was left. Was it that she no longer wanted this thing they had created or that she wanted more? She was tired of love that did not satisfy. She was tired of nibbling. That’s what it was. She wanted to feast. Anything else would suffocate her. Can you imagine? Feeling both suffocated and hungry because of the same thing.

She looks at him. Looking at him feels like she is losing taste in her mouth.

‘Butter, please.’

‘I want us to end things.’ .

First he is silent. Then he scoffs.

At last, air reaches her lungs.

Romance as an Obstacle

To be honest, I struggled with this piece because I did not know where to start. As far back as I know, there has never been a time when I did not view romance as an obstacle. Until now. Maybe romance is the wrong word to use. But I think love is also the wrong word to use. For these past years away from home, I have been loved. I have known love from God, my family, my friends, and my teachers. And I describe love as wanting what is the highest good for someone else.

But romance or romantic love has been the thing I have shut myself away from. Except in 2015. And again in 2017. But that was neither here nor there. In fact, maybe this title is inaccurate. I have always known that love and romantic partnership can be a source of joy and strength. But my parents raised me to choose myself first. When I reflect on some of the males by whom I have been surrounded, I may have had to temper my ambition, my goals, and consider theirs.

I have feared propelling someone forward while leaving myself behind. I had seen many women do that. I had seen “love” consume them; swallow them whole, chew them up, and spit them out. I had seen “love” bruise and disorient them. Although that was not love, I did not know it. I did not want that to be my story, so I played it safe. My parents had invested too much, given too much, denied themselves too much for me to squander any ounce of my dreams.

Now I see that they were not wrong in what they taught me. I was wrong in how I interpreted their lessons. I did not realize this flaw in interpretation and could not recognize this misunderstanding until a few months ago. In taking a break from school, the one thing I had thrown myself into utterly, I began to see what stood there all along. I had always thought of love and ambition as mutually exclusive. I still don’t know why.

Maybe it is because I tend to see in absolutes. I had friends who were in loving romantic relationships with others and still excelled in areas where I prioritized. Somehow, I didn’t think it applied to me. In hindsight, that makes such little sense. It reminds me of the time I visited a therapist and confessed that I did not like having little treats and relaxing because I would spoil myself and forget how to work hard. I remember the pause that just hung in the air and the small smile that made me reconsider what I had just said.

‘Okay. That makes no sense’, I said.

‘You don’t just forget how to work hard. That is an enduring character trait’, she replied.

I agreed then and I agree now.

Why did I fear that the person coming into my life was going to subtract from instead of add to it?

Why didn’t the fact that I had seen love and stride convince me?

Why did I not see this until now?

My ability to analyze and plan is both my superpower and my Achilles heel. And I love my mind. But there is freedom in letting go. Entrusting my heart will be to someone who knows its value. Events in recent months have shown me how easily my heart is broken. I forgot that about myself. But calcifying should not be my response. The appropriate response should be to be wiser, enjoy life, and trust that God will order my steps. For a personality like mine, letting go is hard. But it can be learnt.

Who says only vampires are on the other side of the door? Angels could be standing there too.

Photo: Ekaterina via Pexels

Flat Foot

My conversation with Kide, the Uber driver from Congo, slowly unwrapped itself. I was in Ottawa for two nights and stayed in Gatineau, a city on the northern bank of the Ottawa River. The flight was smooth; we were enveloped in dreamy clouds and on solid ground soon again. Evening turned into night and my eyes grew heavy.

The grey sedan arrived in enough time for me to scan the reviews for the driver. I saw him when he stopped at the light and crossed to the other side to board. I was in no particular mood for talking and planned to say a polite “hello”, enjoy the ride in silence, and take in the sights. I liked were I was. Ottawa. The seat of power. The city felt like it was heaving a sigh of relief as elections had just come to an end. It was big but not sprawling. I was taken with its historic buildings and paced busyness. The people carried on as though they had places to be, but could spare a minute or two to help. I walked past one man in a gas station whose body odour reminded me of the traders under the hot sun in Balogun market in Lagos. I walked past another who called me his sister and was from Kenya.

Kide was short and dark; his head shaven and beardless. The pleasantries ended as the ride began.

‘How was your day?’, he asked

‘Why don’t you go first? How was your day?’, I said

He chuckled and then told me that his day was good. When I probed further, he told me that he volunteered with people with disabilities earlier in the day. After I told him how my day went, he asked where I lived. I said that I lived on the East Coast and that I had moved there for school.

‘Your family must be rich.’

‘Yes’, I said, laughing.

‘Rich in love, rich in faith, rich in hope’, I continued.

Kide shook his head as if I had said something wrong.

‘I mean money. Did your parents pay your school fees with faith?’, he asked with all seriousness.

‘No’, I replied. ‘We are comfortable.’

My answer confirmed what he suspected. He told me not to waste my parents’ money or disappoint them, and reminded me of students who were squandering their tuition fees on new cars and parties. I felt like he was restraining himself. Like he was going to tell me not to get pregnant out of wedlock but stopped himself. After I told him that I had my own ambitions and was not taking anything for granted, he asked if I was a Christian.

‘Yes’, I said. I regretted that for a moment. I wanted to see what would happen if I said that I wasn’t. I also had the thought that he would not tell me all these things if I was white. This tendency to counsel strangers is a thing that is decidedly African, I thought.

The ride continued. He asked me how long I had lived in the country and I told him. I asked him the same question and found that he had lived here for twice as long as I had. When I teased that he must be a rich man, having worked all these years, his voice rose slightly when he said that he had five children and had been working only for the same bills to claim his bi-weekly pay.

I told him that I ultimately wanted to go home.

‘Why don’t you stay here and build a life?’, he asked.

There it was again. This telling strangers how to live.

‘Canada is nice and I like it. But it is not home.’

‘Except there is a man waiting for you at home’, Kide questioned.

I let him know that there was no such man and that my desire was fuelled solely by my aspirations. He found that unbelievable.

‘What if you meet someone here and marry and he does not want to go with you?’

‘I don’t believe in springing surprises on people. The issue of where to live is major. We will talk about it before we marry. And if we do not agree on where to live, there will be no marriage.’

‘Okay. But are you seeing somebody?’

‘I’m not’, I said.

Alarm rose from his chest through his throat into his mouth when he asked me this next question.

‘Are you selfish?!’

‘Selfish?’, I asked, taken aback.

That one surprised me. I am conscious of my flaws and selfishness is at the bottom of the list.

‘No. I’m not selfish. My self-improvement is my priority.’

Kide was now engrossed in full-throated laughter.

‘I’m focusing on making myself a better person. I believe in marriage and I love love. I admire my parents’ marriage and I hope to have something like that one day.’

‘I don’t want to rush into anything’, I concluded quietly.

‘No’, he said in agreement. Perhaps that was the only point on which we agreed. Perhaps he was tired of me and just wanted the conversation to end.

The encounter left me thinking. Choosing to develop oneself before sharing one’s life with another being considered selfish baffled and bothered me. I did not feel anger. I felt pity. Not just for him but for many others who thought the same. Maybe I should just accept that people will live their lives as they see fit and I should live mine as I want. But we don’t abandon people who want to hurt themselves knowingly or otherwise. We counsel, we admonish, we befriend.

Sometimes I forget that people want different things for their lives. Sometimes I forget that people will learn only after they suffer.

But I hope all the women and men who read this will choose themselves, heal themselves, and love themselves before they do the same for another. And I hope that we do not put ourselves through needless pain and unnecessary suffering to love another. I hope we do not starve ourselves to feed another. I hope we do not bruise ourselves to heal another. Because even we are worth loving, worth defending, and worth prioritizing.

Reflections for 9/18

My mother says I was the sort of child who knew what she wanted. When it came time for school, I enrolled in the nursery and primary school a stone’s throw from where we lived. The story of how I began is a little comical. My father and I had gone to the school at the close of day to retrieve my brother. Somehow, I wandered into the closest classroom and sat at a desk, agreeing to leave only when promised that I would return to resume the following day.

There was this red journal my father got from one of the banks he worked with, probably in New Year. That was where I wrote down my plan for my life. I have not set eyes on that journal in over five years, but I remember I planned a wedding on its yellow, lined pages and plastered its thick, leather cover with hearts and stars. For the wedding, I designed the invitation card using those my parents received and I had collected as a template. Not leaving any item to chance, I picked out the location and colours. It did not help that my mother and I had a tradition of watching reruns of weddings on tv on Friday evenings. At this point, I did not have a boyfriend. All I had was a crush on some boy who did not know my name. I was convinced that this future husband, whoever he was, would marry me in the church where my parents wed.

In that red journal, I wrote down my plan to be a doctor who lived in a six-bedroom mansion and owned seven cars; one for each day of the week. That red journal was my vault. It understood my tears and held my pain. It was where I documented the vivid night dreams I did not understand. I daydreamed a lot. Most of the dreams of a big, rich, fabulous life were inspired by the artists my father’s taste in music introduced me to. Luther Vandross, Handel, Celine Dion, Westlife. Also Oliver de Coque, Sunny Bobo. With my father’s radio, I discovered Anita Baker, Sade, India Arie, Jill Scott.

My parents had this unshakeable belief that excellence was our only option. They did not make too much noise about it but simply carried on as if we were all in agreement. I would come to find out how little of this belief etched into my consciousness others had. I would come to find out how necessary it all was.

I am a year older today and in many ways, I am still that child. I chuckle at how juvenile some of those dreams were, but I am glad I had them. Childish as they were, they taught me how to hope for more and insist that my life was in my hands. I know the kind of life I want to have, even though the particulars are hazy. I know the kind of person I want to be. I feel trapped sometimes because I am uncertain as to what specific steps I need to get there. And then, somehow, I remember that I am loved by a God who knows the way and leads me by the hand. That has been the story of my life; that I have stumbled into things and realized His hand was in it only in hindsight. It is this dance between me and God, between stumbling and strategy.

This new year will be a year of boldness, not for the sake of intimidation but for the sake of all I have to offer so many. This will be a year of quiet strength. Of poise with a bit of sass. This will be a year of living fully, of enjoying the things that seem like they will always be. This will be a year of giving myself the same measure of grace I give others. This will be a year of both adventure and reflection; of making space for the things that truly matter.

Ka ubochi ncheta omumu m buru ihe anuli mgbe niile. May the remembrance of my birth always be a thing of joy.

A Melody by the Broken

I always knew what our story would be

How our story would end

There were moments that meant nothing to someone who was not us

The glances that became gazes

The handshakes that lingered

Until you did not let go

Until you owned me

Until there was nothing left

Attention sickly sweet like nectar

Love that made me shudder

And wonder

How I never saw

That I wore blindness like a veil

The butterflies in my belly settled into gravel

You stripped me bare

Poured me into the earth like a libation for ancestors

I became a shadow

Mist

Dust

Lost

You broke me and I called it love

You emptied me and I called it compassion

I called your callousness commitment

When you held my hands, you decided

How quickly I would walk

How loudly I would laugh

You were not beholding

You were remoulding

You put me through seven hells, seven depths, seven floods, seven moons

I have become seven hells, seven depths, seven floods, seven moons

I tell you

The next time you see me

Run

Therapy Surprised Me

“I’m not here because anything is wrong”, I began. The puzzled look on her face eventually gave way to curiosity. I studied psychology as an undergrad, and at one point considered a career as a therapist. But I had never physically planted myself opposite a therapist’s chair. A few hours prior, I had delivered a presentation to finish up the requirements for graduate studies and had started a full-time position a month before that.

No boy problem. No skin problem. Life was great. I could not pinpoint one negative reason as to why I should be where I was at that moment.

The podcast, Jesus and Jollof, had me hooked all week long. The hosts were Yvonne Orji– actor, writer, and fellow Igbo babe and Luvvie Ajayi– best-selling author, blogger, and culture critic. I was enthralled by their humour, honesty, and humility. On one particular episode, they mentioned how instrumental therapy had been to arranging their lives and making sense of their personal journeys. They shared that having an unbiased third-party to ask them questions that challenged their default ways of thinking helped them understand themselves better.

I knew that their reasons were valid. But they were their reasons, not mine. I settled on two: I wanted to become more self-aware, and I wanted to add more to my toolbox for navigating this new adult phase. I was not sure of what to expect, and even if I was, those expectations would be informed by the experiences of others and may have been disappointing for me.

I arrived about half an hour before my appointment, long enough to eavesdrop on the conversations of those who congregated in the receiving area. My therapist appeared a little while later. She was about my height and some years older. Right away, she seemed friendly and trustworthy.

When we began talking, one thing I did not expect to happen was for me to cry. But I did cry, and I was surprised. I am not much of a crier, although I feel emotions deeply. The tears came when I talked about my parents and how much I did not want their sacrifices to go to waste. How little they had when they grew up. How minimal their examples of mothering, fathering, and living were. How grateful I was for how far they had come.

She said that I did not have to defend them and that she would take whatever I told her as the truth.

Two separate but connected topics had brought us to this point. Earlier, I mentioned that with my parents’ challenging circumstances when they were young, their goal was for their children to do better, live better, and have access to opportunities they lacked. This goal did not come unattached with expectations. The expectation that we were so capable of greatness and so eager to take up opportunities that came our way felt heavy, at times.

We would say that we were tired and the response would be, “of what?” We were chauffeur-driven in cars, attended good schools, and ate good food like most middle-class Nigerians. According to them, what was there to be tired of?

The other topic was my tendency to think of things as an equation. That is, if I do X, Y will happen. While this is true in many circumstances, it has often led me to think of myself as the problem in the equation if things do not work out as I hope they do. My father has always said that some mistakes may take a person a lifetime to recover from. Even now, I think that is true.

The pressure was harder to shake off because I knew that it was grounded in both truth and good intentions. I also knew that I could not hold it against my parents because it had paid off in my life. Lofty as they were, those standards had become mine. So, how could I speak ill of something that had served me so well?

At the end of the session, I came away with the understanding that even good things could cut; like a double-edged sword. The way water can hurt when it becomes a flood. The way trust can hurt when it becomes blindness. The way heat can hurt when it becomes a wildfire.

We may not all see a therapist, but asking ourselves the questions that challenge us and creating time to dig deeper and answer these questions may mean the difference between existing and living.

photo via Annette Gallo