she was raised by her intelligent mother to control her destiny by grabbing it by its neck, but now she is stuck in fate and a life that is clearly falling apart…
I still had an anthill; I just realized it sitting beside the window of my kitchen again. My mother called this special anthill anything valuable that was built from the seeming minute and useless fragments of life. The problem with any anthill was that it took so long to build that the rest of the world could have moved on by the time you were through, or you could get impatient and tired just when you were somewhere with it and you would not know it. It had a very obvious beginning but the end was either infinite or not very clear.
There were a lot of anthills while I was growing up in the suburbs of Benin. We probably lived like rats compared to the mostly white collar people of the city. It was natural to want to rush out of your teenage years and gain freedom to jump on a bus there and leave tedious farm work behind. There were both the physical anthills that belonged to real ants, thriving among the shallow bushes of Ekpoma, and the one I built in my mind at the request of my mother. I built it there because I did not have the physical tools to do it in reality. I walked to the farm everyday buried head deep in it. I only came out of it at school when a teacher made a joke about my continuous absent mindedness. The jeers and mockery from the rest of the class only made me retreat back into it.
I was never depressed. I was born in a family that could at least afford a meal a day and also a lot of love to go with that. My father was never a part of our family, it was just my mother, my younger sister and I. he had two wives, my mother included, and was enjoying the comfort of his newest wife. I admired my hard working mother the most the day he walked in, smelling of strong palm wine. He banged at an already opened door and yelled in an exaggerated masculine voice to frighten us. His chest was also pushed out so he looked like a boy playing a local warrior in a school play. If only he realized that the new generation laughed at fathers who taught they should still be treated like gods in a family. He even had to get drunk because he needed the courage to talk to my mother.
“I am tired of you!” he screamed childishly from the door post immediately my mother was in sight. I followed closely behind her “You are so lazy and ugly. I am getting a new wife.”
My mother just kept looking at him staggering there like a fool, with her smile tucked comfortably behind her lips. There was no other expression on her face besides plain mockery. She had never seen the four walls of a secondary school and yet she composed herself in a way that any professor would have envied. She knew exactly how to play a man as arrogant as my father and that always made him so irritated and angry.
“So you are going to just stand there and look at me?” My father thundered realizing that she was playing one of the many games that he was never too smart to understand for the eleven years they have been married.
“You wanted me to say something?” She asked revealing her laughter. I could not help but giggle too.
He turned round still sweating and left. He lived the rest of his life with a woman we never cared to meet, but that did not stop the laughter we had started the day he left. We began to build our “anthill” from that day by making sure that we at least went to school. My sister was six when my father left and my mother was able train her until she got into secondary school, but then it got harder.
We knew what we had to do and we did it all the time, that was how we got by. We worked hard at the farm to harvest yam and cassava because we could sell those to the traders in Ore to put food on the table. My mother made sure that we lived a happy life amidst people she owed money banging hard at our door constantly and everyone else referring to us as poor. It could have been harder for us if my mother had not been that smart and yet very simple with the principles of life.
“The easiest way to lose a battle if you use your own two hands to give up” My mother would say “If you keep fighting, you could have a chance.”
The chance did not come until Three years after I finished secondary school. I had to forgo university because we could not afford it and I had to help my mother with the expenses. I was willing to do anything for both of them, but she understood the hunger in my eyes. She would watch me for a while as I looked long fully out the crocked window of my poky room. I would realize she was standing there minutes after, mutter an “oh” and then get busy with the day’s activities. She knew that I wanted more because she was the one who taught me how to do that. She had taught me that life was easier when you close your eyes and followed your heart because that way any kind of regret or shame that could have held you back would become invisible and here she was asking a lot more from me. I did it because I did not want to break their hearts and I loved them very much.
I bumped into a man suffocating in a blue suit and that was when I got the chance. I did not know what he was doing in the bushes, but he kept apologizing even though I was the one who was wrong. The glasses he wore looked permanently glued to his nose. His eyes were so invisible behind those frames. We spoke very scantily and he asked me my name. After I told him, he talked on and on about his job in Benin, the reason why he was lost here, his name was Eric and he would like to see me again. He scribbled his phone number on a paper and we parted ways for the day.
Before I finished telling my mother this story that day, I knew that I had to marry him. Love was not important; instead it was finishing that anthill I started when my father left. He could help lift the heavy burden we were carrying here. My sister had to be educated and I had to leave here someday. This was an important grain to be added to it.
My mother who now looked very old because of the sacrifices she had made sighed sadly. We both looked deep into each other’s eyes and we understood exactly what each other was thinking.
“Do not marry a man you do not love Onna” She said shaking her head “I am a living example.”
“I understand” I said and we both knew it was true “But Amina has to go to school. I am a burden to you mama and this man can help me with my education.”
“You are sure that he is that rich?” My mother asked jokingly.
“Well if he isn’t, I will just dump him.” I replied and we both laughed. The humor in that laugh was so stale and forgotten.
“Onna you do not owe me or even your sister anything” She said seriously “You are already twenty. You should do the things that you want.” She was indeed a clear example that people did not really need school to be smart or to full understand people.
“I would do it because of the anthill” I said with a smile. My mother was confused at first.
“You remember the anthill you used to talk about when I was in secondary school” I said rolling my eyes “The one you used to illustrate people’s continued effort in accomplishing the things they thought was once impossible.”
My mother realized it and laughed. I doubted if she knew the meaning of the word “illustrate” though. She had not had time to talk with me for so long that she had forgotten her own favorite words. That was what poverty could do.
“I learnt it from my father” She said “But Onna if you must do this, then you should be fully prepared for it like a farmer prepares to avoid a snake if he sees one on his way to the farm.”
“which one is snake again?” I teased.
My mother laughed a little. “Snakes love to hide in bushy paths,” She explained “bushy parts lead to farms and a farmer must go to a farm because he would starve if he doesn’t. You are now a farmer going to farm. Make sure you are very careful in avoiding any snake if you see one.”
I was careful with my mother-in-law, with my new surroundings and my husband. Eric managed to keep his promise of sending money back home to my mother and sister but I was yet to set foot in a university. I brought it up one evening after dinner and he complained so bitterly that I wished I had my mother’s knowledge of tackling husbands. We have only been married for a year anyway, and it seemed unfair on my side to pressure him into doing this. So at the end of the day, I left a house I could have at least be seeing my mother’s intelligent face every day to live in my dream city only to continue washing clothes and doing dishes. I have even grown bored of the little zooming vehicles that were very scarce back home.
It was always easy to translate my mother’s proverbs in my life but the snake confused me greatly. I have played snakes and ladder with my neighbor’s wife Sandra after she taught me how to play. Back home, the only dice game that was common was “ludo”. I wandered if the snake my mother talked about was like the one in this game. Maybe it was her figurative way of telling me that marrying him did not mean I was moving forward with my life. This snake was probably coiled up on the anthill that I had built all my life, grinning because I could not get any higher with it sitting there. Every day here was like a waste of time but i knew i had to do something at some point.