Maami kekere was seated by the fire. She looked up as I drew close. “Iyawo Osinkin!”, she teased me, smiling. I smiled shyly and greeted her, then started to apologize for not helping her with the meal preparation. She waved it off, “Aawu! There is much for a bride to learn and I saw Mama and Maami Agba (referring to my mother as senior wife) talking with you. I’m sure you are very hungry. I saved your food. Come sit beside me and eat”.
She called her little daughter to bring my food and in moments, the child appeared carrying the covered wooden bowl carefully in her small hands. Naked, her well fed stomach protruded over the waist beads that were obligatory for all females. She knelt to greet me and I raised her up and seated her on my laps. Then together, despite her mother’s protests, we proceeded to finish the asaro oduku together. Once the bowl was empty, she scrambled off my laps and took the bowl away and returned with a drinking bowl filled with water. I drank the water then turned down my stepmother’s offer of palm wine respectfully, explaining I needed to return to my mother’s hut. She teased me some more then bid me goodnight.
Normally on most evenings after the meal everybody gathers in front of my mother’s hut for storytelling. My mother was a natural storyteller and could weave the most complex plot out of the simplest tale. She had inherited this talent from her mother and the two of them telling stories together was any child’s dream. That had naturally turned my mother’s front space to the proverbial village centre in our compound. It was fairly common for wives and children from other compounds to join us. But there would be no storytelling time that night. The next day was harvest day and everyone would be going to the farm with the men. That meant an early night for all.
With my hunger pangs now satisfied, I made my way across the compound, stopping briefly at Maami Osan’s (my father’s second wife) hut to greet her. I took the now normal iyawo ribbing with placidity then bid her goodnight also and walked on.
I called out a greeting to my mother as I arrived in front of her house. It was the norm to do that whenever you were about entering a person’s hut. This was to alert the person of your arrival. Normally, after doing that you await the person’s welcoming response before making your way inside. However, this was my mother’s hut so such protocol was not needed. I reached out a hand to lift the woven raffia mat that served as a door in those days but I didn’t quite make it.
My mother swept the mat out of the way and grabbed my arm much as mama had grabbed hers earlier and literally dragged me inside. I was taken by surprise and almost lost my balance. My mother did not give me time to recover. With my arm still tightly gripped, she demanded ferociously, “Did you wear any of the beads?”
“No, no, no” I stammered out, shaking my head. Then I suddenly remembered trying on the wrist bead and opened my mouth to tell her but just then my mother let go of my arm and sank down on the wooden stool behind her, “Edumare, mo dupe o!” (God, I thank you) she exclaimed in relief.
I have thought about that moment many times over the course of my life. Sometimes I tell myself it was fear that made me keep quiet about wearing the wrist beads. Fear of what my mother would do to me or fear of what the revelation would do to her; her relief was so obvious and heartfelt. Or perhaps it was the dawning fear in me that something was horribly wrong. Sometimes I say it was the way my mouth dried up at that realization and other times I tell myself that it was my grandmother’s interruption at that exact moment that made me keep quiet. But the truth is I don’t know what made me close my mouth. All I’m sure of is that I opened my mouth to tell her about wearing that wrist bead and then I shut it again and the moment passed. I never told a soul about it till today.
Why am I telling you now after so many years? Because that omission is why I’m here today.
My grandmother spoke up from where she was standing in the corner, “Abeke, you are not going to the farm tomorrow. You will accompany me and your mother somewhere”. Then, “Where is the bag the beads were in?” Wordlessly, I unknotted the side of my wrapper where I had tied the bag and handed it to her. She took it from me and stared down at it in silent reflection for a moment. Then she drew herself out of whatever contemplation she was in with a slight shake of her head and entered into my mother’s sleeping quarters at the rear of the hut, partitioned from the rest of the house with another woven raffia mat. My mother immediately followed, leaving me to my fearful thoughts.
Later that night with all the chores done and the whole compound quiet, I heard them whispering late into the night as I lay on my sleeping mat. I could not make out their words but their hushed voices followed me into my dreams.
Not going to the farm the next day didn’t spare me the early morning call. I woke the same time with the rest of the compound, well before cock crow! I helped get ready the morning meal. It was my mother’s day to cook but she had apparently made another arrangement with Maami Osan because my father’s second wife handled the cooking instead and I was sent over to her hut to help her.
In my family, there was no rancor between the wives. We all lived together happily. I chatted amicably with her as I fetched and stirred and prodded the firewood. She on her part smiled and responded and prodded me for any information to satisfy her curiosity why my mother and I wouldn’t be going to the farm. Aside from the woman at the river and the beads, which my mom had sternly warned me against discussing, I really had no idea what was going on. Maami Osan soon realized I was as clueless as her and she reluctantly gave up the questionings with her curiosity even more peaked than before.
By cock crow, the whole family had eaten, chores had been done and farm tools packed. They set out with my father at the lead. My father stopped briefly to speak with my mother and then moved on with hardly a glance at me standing beside my mother. I knew my mother would have told him all that transpired the day before and where we were going and, why because he had to be privy to all his wives’ movements and as the head of the home, his permission was needed for any undertaking. But neither by expression nor behavior did he give any indication of his knowledge.
In those days, fathers were strangers to their children. They never interacted with us children. In fact, our communication was mostly limited to greeting him mornings and nights and whenever else we bumped into him during the day and his response was always a grunt. Their sole responsibility was to provide for the household and it was the mothers who raised the children and tended the home. How my father spent his days (and nights) was a mystery to me. He was a mystery to me!
I was treated to curious glances, iyawo teasings and cheery waves as they all exited the compound. Watching the loud, raucous march made me feel quite lonely. Working on the farm especially during harvest was hard and strenuous but also a lot of fun. There was always a lot of singing and stories and eating as we worked. Not only within our family but also with other families on neighboring farms. It was the only time apart from during festivals and ceremonies where we interacted with practically the whole village.
My mother didn’t give me much time to feel sorry for myself though. Hardly had they gone than she put me to work. I was sent to the back of the compound to get five of the biggest, whitest cockerels in our poultry farm. My grandmother followed me to make sure of my choices.
Let me tell you a little bit about my grandmother. I knew her as well as my mother. She had been with us long before I was born. My mother was her only child. She often told us the story of her desperate search for a child for almost fourteen years after her marriage and how she never had another child after my mother. She always told us my mother was worth ten children and I have to agree. My mother loved and took care of her! Her husband, my grandfather died soon after my mother married my father and my grandmother came to live with us after the mandatory mourning period so I grew up under her and my mother’s care.
Once during her regular recital of her long search for a child, my little sister had innocently asked why she had to search for a child. My grandmother had grown quiet and seemed to withdraw into a not so pleasant past and then finally pulling herself back, responded in a soft regretful voice “I unknowingly made a wrong choice”. When pestered for explanation, she laughed it off and said it was her destiny as decided by Edumare.
My grandmother spoilt us children. Not only her grandchildren but all the children in the compound. She was much loved and respected by all of us and had been adopted as the household’s MAMA. She was also the family’s in-house doctor, consulted for remedies to all sorts of illnesses due to her extensive knowledge of leaves and herbs and also assisting in child births round the village. She was always busy making her herbal medicines or cooking her various sweet treats that she always seemed to have available for us children.
Mama was very much a part of our family. Her personality and presence coupled with my mother’s position as the first wife and adeptness with stories made my mother’s house the heartbeat of our compound. Nobody begrudged that.
After choosing the chickens, Mama tied their legs together and put them in a large basket which she then placed on my head. We went back to the front of the hut where we met my mother with a packed basket balanced on her head waiting for us. My grandmother quickly ducked inside the hut and reemerged with the little burlap sack of beads. The three of us went out of the compound into the fast lightening day.