She woke up that morning, apprehension knotting her insides. “This is the day,” she muttered to herself.
She was experiencing a myriad of emotions. This was usually the case before she embarked on any trip, not that she travelled a lot. She would sleep in snatches, waking up every few minutes wishing the cocks would crow and the waiting would be over.
This night was no different.
The straw mat rustled each time she turned and she half expected to hear her mother scold her to “be still and the day will break when it breaks.”
They had had a really long talk last night before she slept. Nne had gone over the same things from before. “Philo nwam,” she had started. “It is a thing of immense pride to your father that Nwokezurike’s people had come to make enquiries about you. Of all the girls in the clan, indeed in the village, Olisa bi na igwe has singled you out for such honour. You know he works in the city with the Whiteman and must have seen plenty sophi women, but when the time came for him to get himself a woman, he showed his breeding by asking his parents to find him someone from home.
“Do you think it was by mistake, or just luck that their enquiries brought them here? When we sent you to Ugwu-Awusa to stay with your aunty, Mama Teacher, you complained about how strict she was. Did I not tell you it was for your own good?”
She just sat there and wondered how staying with a woman who measures out exactly the quantity of food one eats, who calibrates yam slices with a ruler and signs her signature at the white end of the remaining yam; a woman who expects you to work like a mule and still score high grades in school, who cracks your knuckles with a ruler for the simplest of reasons, could be called a good thing. As for the sophisticated women in the big town, what would Nne know about them?
It had been a full day for her. She had plaited her hair, this was usually a tug-of-war as she inherited her father’s full, thick and very stubborn hair. Doing anything to her hair besides cutting it always left her with a headache.
Then she had gone to fetch firewood with her two younger sisters, after which they had gone to fetch water from one of the springs a few miles away. Now her head hurt badly and all she wanted to do was lie down and sleep, but mba, Nne had to choose this time to tutor her some more on how she was to behave when she went to spend the next three market weeks with the mother of a man she did not even know. A man whose people had had words with papa for her hand in marriage.
She struggled with sleep, and was thankful for the not-so-bright light of the oil palm bush lantern and Mama’s failing sight in one eye which ensured that her occasional nodding off went unnoticed. When she finally slept, it was fitful and only for a few hours. Now she just lay in the dark, she had blown out the mpanaka, and waited for the first cock crow.
On the journey to the lorry park, her sisters teased her endlessly.
“I hear his mother is old, and you know how cranky they can be.” Jacintha, her immediate younger sister said, a smile tugging the right side of her lips.
“Sister don’t mind her o,” Nkechi said. “It does not really matter. I hear he is a good man, slow to anger. They say when he gets angry, the air around him becomes hot, his eyes flash fire and he seems to grow and expand till he is like an iroko tree! That his voice when he bellows trembles the earth. They say that despite all of that, he is a good and gentle man.” She was the youngest of the three girls, the last child of the family and a somewhat dewy-eyed romantic.
Their father had previously been married; his first wife had died after giving him two daughters. He had refused to remarry, but when Martha, his first daughter turned thirteen with questions he was ill equipped to answer, the need for a woman around the house quickly dawned on him. He had married Nwafor from the next town. The most unlikely choice, according to a lot of people, and she had promptly borne him three children: two girls, Philomena and Jacintha, and a boy, Alexander.
With the birth of a son, his heir and confirmation that his name will be carried on for at least another generation, he channelled his energies towards catering for his growing family. When four years later another girl was born, he named her Nkechimzitaram. For he said, this child was sent to him by the maker.
With her first two sisters, Martha and Agatha married and bearing children before she turned six, Nkechi had never been able to call any of her sisters by their names, she called them sistah.
She sat on her portmanteau, a gift from her father containing all her essentials for the duration of her visit and squashed between some noisy boys returning to school at Amansiodo, popularly called Ama Boys. She watched through slits in the bodywork of the lorry as the landscape flashed past.
When the lorry rattled to a stop at Afor-Oghe, her joints felt like they had taken a beating. She tumbled down the gangway, and the lorry-boy dragged down her portmanteau. The grating noise it made irritated her, but she was more upset by the knowledge that he was defacing the beautiful black and red paintwork of her precious metal box. Covered in red dust collected on the trip, she bent down as the lorry-boy helped her put the box on her head. She thanked him, then looked round to see if anybody had come to welcome her.
“What was I thinking?” She muttered, not seeing any movement towards her. She balanced the box properly on her head and gingerly picked her way through the stretch of fine sand that marked out the footpath leading through Obodo-Ofu, past her paternal village and on to her future in-law’s.
The warmth of the sand as the grains shifted under her bare feet was oh so familiar – this walk was one she had grown accustomed to making when her Nne-oche, her father’s mother had taken ill the year before, though she preferred the walk during the rainy season when the earth was cooler on the soles of her feet and held together by moisture.
The heat of the sun beating down on her shoulders was something else she did not miss. She would ordinarily have plucked a cocoyam leaf to shade her head and shoulders, but the box on her head prevented that; the box that only protected her head, but left her bare shoulders exposed. The sweat formed quickly on her brows, and from time to time she would mop them up with the corner of her wrapper, swaying as she did so, careful not to upset the perfect balance of the box. This took years of practice to achieve, but if mastered it allowed one carry load on the head and still leave both hands free to perform any number of actions.
A few minutes later, she came to the part where the sand gave way to solid packed earth. This part was her mental halfway mark, because she shortly would come to Obodo-Ofu and then the three-pronged fork in the road. The right path would lead her to her village, but she was not going home to her people, so that was not an option. The fork on the left would lead to Umuanu-obu. She had heard strange tales of inbreeding, intra-marriages and a penchant for trouble-making about its people.
Her course today was straight ahead. She set her face, shifted her box on her head and carried on. She had only taken a few steps when she thought she heard her name. “Onye na akpo’m zaa n’obuhom ka i na akpo. Whoever is calling me should answer, this call is not for me.“ She muttered. It was believed that if a spirit calls your name and you answered, you would not wake up from your sleep that night, so she was taught those words to ward off such evil.
She made to continue when she heard it again, this time there was no mistaking it. She looked up and saw three girls walking briskly towards her. They seemed to be having some kind of argument. She recognised one of the girls, the one in the middle.
Njideka is her future husband’s younger sister. They had met on a few occasions at the communal spring where they go to fetch water. Then recently her name had made the rounds all over the neighbouring villages when she packed her things and left her husband’s house. The details were sketchy, and the stories being told were obviously had salt and pepper added, but the one constant was that she left her husband and returned home to her father’s house.
One of the other girls looked vaguely familiar, but the third girl she had never seen before.
They had come to meet and welcome her, her reception party. They were supposed to meet her at Afor-Oghe, but had been delayed by Nkem, the third girl, which was the reason for their mock argument. Nkem was getting teased by both girls because she took her time getting dressed, though she claimed she was delayed because she had to cook for her husband. She was the newest wife into the clan, and so had been drafted to join Njide and Taata to go and welcome the prospective next wife.
Nkem and Taata were age mates and long-time friends, and though Nkem had caught the eyes of Taata’s father, she was still treated more as a friend than as a stepmother. This alliance worked in Nkem’s favour. Even the older wives treated this sixth wife more as a daughter than as a rival.
Njide helped Philo with her box while Taata regaled her with stories about Nwokezurike her betrothed. Nkem, on her part, threw in a word here and there about life as a new wife; the responsibilities, the expectations and the perks. The latter drew hoots of laughter and more teasing from her two companions, even Philo managed an embarrassed smile. And she thought her sisters needed Jisos!
She took in all the information, sifting and pondering everything until they got to the big black and white building. It stood there in the middle of the road with smaller footpaths to the left and right of it, as tall as one of those storey-buildings at the railway quarters in Enugu, dwarfing everything else around it. It did not have a ground floor, just the long flight of steps leading to the veranda and, past that, to the passage lined with rooms on either side.
Around the outside walls just under each window protruded a cement bulb like a calabash cut in half, or a water pot lying on its side. They looked like they were growing from the walls and added to the overall beauty of the house, like jigida beads round the waist of a fair maiden. This house belonged to Nkem’s husband, Taata’s father. Here Nkem left them, while Taata continued with Philo and Njide to the left of the house, around a corner till they got to her future home.