They said he was a rich man, and that he would take care of me.
My father, a well-known dibia, had consulted the gods and the forecast was good. He was from a good kindred, well-respected among his people, and could provide for his family; and that was enough for my father and more than most girls got, but it did nothing to calm my nerves. I did not know much about him, but his home was only a walking distance from my father’s house so I told myself that if all hell broke loose, I was not too far from home. I was my father’s heart, so it only took one cry from me, and his ancestry would be cursed for all eternity; and maybe his penis shriveled up too for good measure. I didn’t deceive myself though. I knew that if I went back home, it would have to be for a good reason. If I said he beat me, my father would first ask what I did to warrant a beating. After all, this was the 1930s and it was not particularly odd to see a man beating his wife. No, he would have to beat me to a bloody pulp for him to get a reaction from my father. Anyway, I did not wish for that, and from what my friends had heard about him, he was a good man. Actually my friends said I was lucky and that they wished they were in my shoes, but I was not feeling so lucky; not at first at least.
At first I was suspicious. Men who had more than two wives made me suspicious. Having two wives was common and almost normal, but why take a third? “His first wife couldn’t bear him a child.” My know-it-all friend, Ebere, had discovered. So to everyone, that was the same as having one wife. In essence, I was going to be the ‘unofficial’ second wife. I remember when my father called for me the day he came with his people to ask for my hand. My feet were rooted to the ground in the small room I shared with my siblings in our mud house. It was not until he called my name again and added “nde oso ohwi no?” demanding to know where I was, that my feet suddenly began to work again. They almost stopped working again the moment I saw him. What nobody, not even Ebere, had warned me about was how handsome he was. I got my wits about me in time to greet him and his people before my father asked me where my manners were; but just as the words left my lips, he stood up and I became awe struck again. Nobody warned me about how tall he was either! I told myself I had to remember to pinch Ebere for keeping me so uninformed. The man must have thought me a deaf mute when I did not respond to his “kedu?” I don’t remember much else that transpired during that brief meeting as I returned to the house not long after so that the men could finish up their discussions. But I remember the way he smiled. I remember it because it had made me shy. He looked at me like he had never seen anything so beautiful, and just when I thought I may have imagined it, my younger brother, who had been peeping from the house, confirmed it. “He looked at you like he was looking at a delicious plate of ohwe onugbu.” Of course I told him he was being silly, but the expression on my face was saying something different.
We were married two moons later, and I remember how nervous I was on the way to his house. He kept glancing over at me but I kept my head lowered and tried not to bring attention to myself – which was difficult to do, especially since the beautiful bangles on my wrists would not stop jingling. The third time this tall handsome man would stun me was when I arrived at his house. It was the most beautiful structure I had ever seen. It was painted in a unique black and white pattern, but that was not why it stood out. It was the only house of that size in the vicinity and, as I later found out, one of the first cement houses to be built in our village. It looked as tall as the duplexes I had seen in the White man’s magazines that Ebere had managed to steal from somewhere. The only difference was, there was no ground floor; instead there was a staircase leading up to the first and only floor.
It was simply magnificent.
As expected, there was a crowd waiting for us upon our arrival; many with happy faces and some with suspicious looks. I heard a few say “she is beautiful” but they sounded more disappointed than pleased, and I could have sworn I heard scorn and hatred in some of those voices. I tried to ignore it. As is the norm with Igbo traditional weddings, the festivities continued through the night. I was shown to an expansive room where I was to stay, and it was only after hours of waiting for my husband to come in that I realized it was my room. I heard through village gossip that he had given me the best room as I was his pride and joy. It made me happy but I did not let it get to my head. In as much as the youngest wife was always the favoured one, I certainly did not want to step on the toes of the older wives. There was no telling what benefits their allegiance could bring. More important, there was no telling what untold disasters their hatred could. Nevertheless, I was happy. He was a good man, a good provider, and he cherished me.
Seven children and three more wives later, my husband was still a good man and a good provider, though I was no longer the wide-eyed gullible young girl he had married. I had become a little hardened and learnt quickly that not everyone that smiled at you was your friend, especially when you were the first one in a polygamous household to give your husband a son. I learnt that if you cooked, you stayed in the kitchen till the food was ready, then you took it up to your room and made sure that your children ate ONLY your cooking. I also learnt to guard my firewood like a hawk, and lock up all my cooking utensils in my room as they tended to grow legs and walk away or simply disappear. You can say I was cautious, but we all were; anyone that was not was just plain stupid.
Cooking meals for our husband was done on rotation, as was sharing his bed; even though the other wives claimed he frequented my room more than he did the others. In fact, till today, people still swear that I was his favourite, but I stopped thinking that way a long time ago. You have to admit, it is hard to do so when you are the third of six.
He was away on business in the North as usual when word came to us that he had taken ill and died. Azubuike, my youngest, was still breastfeeding at the time. Cries went up all around the living room where we were gathered, but I was in a daze. He looked and had always been strong and agile, so how could he just die? Thanks to my upbringing, my first thought was that his death was not natural. Suddenly I started to look around the room suspiciously at all the other wives. None of us worked, we were all housewives and for that reason alone, one could argue that it would not make sense for any of us to kill our husband – especially as he was the sole breadwinner, but I have heard women kill for many reasons and since every wife had adopted an “every woman for herself” attitude, everyone was a suspect. Suddenly realizing I was the only one not wailing, I quickly came to my senses and started weeping quietly but audibly, lest all gathered think me the culprit.
Cradling Azubuike to my chest as I heaved back and forth, I wondered how my children and I would survive. The men that brought the bad news, members of my husband’s umunna, waited for us to cry a little longer before they continued. They went on to let us know that they had decided amongst themselves to train their brother’s children, and the sons were their first priority. The gasp left my lips before I could stop myself. All I had were sons; three of them to be precise and from what these men had just said, they were all going to be taken away from me.
It was then that I began to wail.
They said he was a rich man, and that he would take care of me; yet here I am grieving his loss and the loss of my children.