Last year, my husband came back from Britain with his bagged honours degree, as he called it. I’d dressed all the children in their Sunday’s bests to welcome him at the airport. Baba Sade pressed our four children to himself in joyous hugs but he did not embrace me. Instead, he gave me a kiss first on my left cheek and then on the right cheek. His lips felt cold and dry on my Vaseline-shiny-soft face. Then I saw her standing behind him. Her skin was very fair like Bassey; the albino cobbler that lived on our street. Only that her hair was jet black and the length of it sent jealous prickles running down my spine.
“Mama Sade, this is Maggie. She’s my wife.”
“Maggie, this is the mother of my children,” He said, turning to the mammy-water beside him. She smiled and stretched out her hand to shake me. I took her palm in my hand; it felt very soft like Shea butter. There was also a funny smell hanging like a halo around her. It was like the scent of many flowers and herbs mixed together. I looked disbelievingly at my husband grinning beside Maggie. He had complained bitterly when I had started using the perfume I bought from Ahmadu. Baba Sade said it smelt like the disinfectant used in washing dead bodies. I soon discovered that Maggie could do no wrong in the eyes of Baba Sade.
“She is the quintessential civilised African woman,” Baba Sade said, when I asked why he brought a foreign woman home. My eyes widened in amazement at his words. Maggie, an African woman! Impossible!
Baba Sade told me Maggie was also an African woman just like the rest of us because her ancestors were African. They were part of the people that crossed the Atlantic during the slave trade. He said being African is not defined by the language someone speaks or the skin colour because there were many light-skinned Africans in Northern and Southern Africa.
If he likes, let him recite the lecture from dawn till sunset, I thought to myself. Maggie can never be considered as an African woman; definitely not as African as me.
“I have heard you, my husband. I will accept Maggie.” I said in my most docile voice. That was another thing, Maggie had not learnt – she spoke her mind every time and loudly too.
“Honey, don’t be so uncouth, you should close your lips while chewing,” Maggie would say, as we sat on the table eating dinner.
“Yes dear.” Baba Sade would reply, as he began to chew slower.
Baba Sade had taken me aside and explained things to me. Maggie was the woman who helped him to survive in the white man’s land. “I would have died of hunger and cold without her.” He’d said in a hoarse whisper.
Even though every woman desires to be the sole apple of her husband’s eye, I’d realised that men’s eyes are prone to rove like a frog looking for a fly. So, my contention was not with my husband taking a second wife. I hated having a foreign woman as my rival. We could not even fight properly over our husband. Maggie did not understand the abusive songs in our language that I used to taunt her.
“See the wife with two left legs and a stick for a hand…” I sang one morning, as I watched Maggie throwing the burnt slices of yam she cooked into the dustbin. Maggie did not understand the concept of African polygamy at all. Imagine her saying we could be good friends or like sisters. “I came to Africa to rediscover my roots. I read that polygamy is not savagery like the West presents it. It’s a functional family system.” Maggie chatted parrot-like. I shook my head at her ignorance. She talked as if Africa was just one big country with one unified tradition and identity. Even with my Standard-six brain (as Baba Sade named it), I knew that notion was very wrong. Has she come to rediscover the Yoruba roots – to learn the bata dance and the names of the multiple gods? Or to learn the system of age grouping amongst the Igbo?
“Why do you folks dip a curtsey to each other? Isn’t it meant for the royalty?” Maggie asked, when she noticed everyone kneeling before her. I told her it was our way of greeting each other; both the young and old. My ribs cracked in their cage the next morning when Maggie knelt before my children in greeting. Baba Sade was very embarrassed and the children could not stop giggling at their ridiculous stepmother.
My amusement soon turned into resentment as Baba Sade continued to give Maggie special treatment. He installed an air-conditioner in her room because she complained of the stifling heat and when she became pregnant, he bought her a gleaming Peugeot 504. I got so jealous to the point of distraction and I grumbled out loud but Baba Sade only laughed at my dissatisfaction. He said Maggie was not troublesome like indigenous African women and I should be happy to have her as my co-wife. That was before Maggie started acting up.
It started on the day set for Baba Sade’s chieftancy celebration. Maggie walked around the house pensively ticking off and adding items to her endless to-do list. She really got blood pulsating at my temple with the way she tried to control everything as if she was the senior wife.
“Oh my goodness, you folks are slaughtering the cow on the dirty grass, that’s unhygienic.” Maggie squealed like the rats inside our foods-store. The butcher-men grinned at her; ogling at her flawless skin.
“Ha! Oyinbo Madam, we go wash the meat. No wahala,” the men replied with an over-eagerness to please. That was another thing I detested about Maggie. Wherever she went, the men became crazy and clamoured after her like he-goats on heat – even the randy bleating was part of the meaningless charade.
Sometimes, I wonder at the wisdom of our men. They are so enchanted by these akata women as if the women at home are not good enough for them. Their fascination with these foreign women is akin to a child’s endearment to a doll. Like the child, they realise these women are not real but they like to live with the deception.
Baba Sade’s chieftancy ceremony had been scheduled for 2:00 pm but the guests did not begin to arrive until two hours later. This made Maggie very upset because she did not understand the concept of African time.
“Maggie don’t get all worked up, people will soon start to arrive,” Baba Sade coaxed. Maggie continued to fret as she thought of all her carefully laid-out plans going to waste.
“They are all very rude people. Imagine coming to a scheduled event this late!” Maggie fumed, as the guests began to trickle in at a quarter to four.
Then the debacle began. Maggie grabbed the microphone – “You people should be ashamed of yourselves! I was told that it’s a common practice for you to observe African time which is no time. It’s such mediocre practices that leave Africa in the dregs of its underdevelopment.” There was a meaning-laden silence for several minutes after Maggie’s reprimanding speech. Then, the high-life band killed the silence as they burst into the refrain of Ebenezer Obey’s song:
ko s’ogbon te le da, there’s no act of wisdom
ko si iwa t’ele hu, no good behaviour
ko s’ona tele lo, no direction that one can take
te lefi t’aye loorun o. That will satisfy everyone
I laughed merrily at the sarcasm of the musicians; they saw Maggie as the disgruntled foreigner who felt she had all the knowledge about Africa – what it should be or not be even more than the original Africans.
“She’s just an outspoken woman. She didn’t mean any harm.” Baba Sade said, in defence of Maggie after the ceremony. Outspoken indeed! I would have been nailed outrightly mad, if I had dared the same feat. I swallowed my anger as a true resilient African woman.
The whole matter travelled from weighing down my back to choking my throat when Baba Sade moved into the same bedroom with Maggie. He even preferred a pregnant-Maggie over me. Then, I remembered what Maggie said during her angry speech – “You people in Africa are powerless people. You have no great technology and no significant scientific discovery has come out of the continent in the last century.”
I walked away from their bedroom’s door smiling. I was not going to shout and scream like a powerless woman. I was going to show Maggie the virulent power of African science.
I watched as Baba Alaro tied the two effigies together – one was male and the other, a female. Their backs were turned to each other.
“Make sure you throw it inside the biggest river you can find or it might be better for you to bury it in the ground where no one can find it.”
“Thank you Baba,” I said as I left Baba Alaro’s groove, a triumphant woman.
“This place is all messed up. Bullshit! I can’t stand it anymore,” Maggie shouted very early the next morning. She began to throw her clothes in a suitcase, while Baba Sade grovelled before her.
“Baby, honey, sweetheart,” rained the sweet expletives but she paid him no attention.
“But you can’t take my child with you.” Baba Sade, finally stated in exasperation.
Maggie paused from her suitcase-stuffing for a bit. “Did I hear you say your child? Have you not heard that a woman owns her body and all that’s inside it? This child would be mine and no one else’s.” She said craddling her jutting belly in her hands.
Then, I fell into playing my part. “Maggie please don’t leave us this way, I beg you.” I pleaded, trying very hard to keep the triumphant smile off my face.
“I’m so sorry to have come to disrupt the unity of your home. It was really a bad idea to have come to Africa.”
“You mean Nigeria, don’t you? You know you could try South Africa. I heard a lot of people like you stay there because it feels like home to them.”
“I will think about it.” Maggie said, as she hugged me. Baba Sade sat helplessly on the bed with the forlorn look of a child whose favourite toy had just been snatched away. Maggie ignored him and headed for the door – out of our lives forever.
“Yeee!” I yelped as Baba Sade pinched my arm.
“I know you must have had a hand in what just happened.”
“How can you accuse me of such a thing? Where is your proof?” I protested.
I laughed inside me. The good thing about African magic is that it leaves no fingerprints – it’s a silent and portent power.
Africa my Africa!