Ifeoma’s view on life is about to change and it all starts with her arranged marriage.
I thought about what mother had told me before we left the house: “Don’t talk about anything opinion worthy, at least not the first time. Discuss about children, his family, favorite dishes and so on. It’s what he’ll expect.”
Edochie carried the long stool that was sitting in the sun and took it next to the trunk of the tree. He wiped the dirt off of it with his bare palms and invited me to come sit down.
It’s one of the few things I had dreaded about this day: that uncomfortable silence that Amaka promised would invite itself into the first ever conversation with my betrothed.
“Your parents are very nice people.” I said, hoping to break the ice.
He looked at me and smiled, then he picked up a stick and started fidgeting with it in the sand. Was this shyness or indifference? I felt like dragging it out of his hand and throwing it out of the gate.
“My mother is very fond of you, she always talks about how rare it is to find such a well behaved young man in this village.” Maybe a little flattery would help.
He thanked me with a nod and a smile. At this point, I just wanted to say anything to fill in the silence and leave as soon as possible.
“My favorite dish is okra soup but don’t worry I’m sure I can cook whatever your favorite dish is. Actually just yesterday I…”
“Do you know what’s happening in the South West?” He cut in.
“Err…” I was taken aback by his voice. I realized that I had given him the wrong image. Not only did his orotund voice exude self-confidence and authority, but he had suddenly changed his position. His entire body faced me and for the first time, he was truly looking into my eyes, waiting for a reply.
“The…The South West?” I asked in a tremulous voice. I, who was feeling a bit superior, immediately felt intimidated.
“Important things are going on in the city of Lagos. Things that can change the fate of our country… Do you know where Lagos is?”
I felt insulted by this question but somehow relieved. Relieved that he had an interest in something, something outside of this village and this in someway gave the feeling that he had a goal in life.
However, as much as I wanted to look him in the eye, tell him that in fact I knew exactly where Lagos was, that it was a port, that I was well aware that there was an important hierarchy between its inhabitants which was observable through segregation especially between the oyibos and the Yorubas, I still felt that this was some kind of ploy to get me to give my opinion about something.
“Eh… Yes I’ve heard of it but I don’t really know much about what goes on over there.”
He gazed at me like he couldn’t believe a word I said. After I insisted that I really knew nothing about the city, I thought I had seen disappointment in his eyes and that he had given in. He hadn’t.
“That is strange. My parents say that you know how to read and write… that you were educated by the CMS.”
The sound of those three letters and I knew that I couldn’t pretend anymore. The Church Missionary Society had arrived in our village when I was barely seven years old. I had been one of the very few girls allowed to assist in the teachings of the gospel and whenever my parents quarreled, mother would confide to me that the only reason I was allowed there was because the missionaries saw that father was a traitor, one immediately willing to be converted to Christianity.
“You don’t need to play ignorant when you’re with me. I want to know your beliefs.” He said. “They’re not many people here you can talk about these things with.”
I knew mother wouldn’t be happy, but he had already figured me out.
“I heard they changed the constitution a while ago, they’re giving the natives more power in the administration.” I repeated as I had read recently in one of father’s papers.
He didn’t say a word. I saw in his smile that he was impressed, he looked like he had just found a bag of money laying around.
I could feel the blood rushing up to my cheeks. This was only our first meeting and he already had a way of making me feel self-conscious up to the point that I didn’t dare meet his gaze.
“Ifeoma bịa!” Mother called out from the front door. “We’re leaving!”
A few days later, a meeting took place in our home with Edochie’s family and mine. Although they weren’t welcome, the warrant chiefs, who were making the most of their new title given to them by the English, were present. I had invited Amaka and Chinwe as they hadn’t yet seen the future groom and Chi had started thinking it was all up in my head: “You’ve mistaken those English books you read for reality.” she would say.
When Edochie was handed the umuada, the endless list of things to bring to the marriage, he gave a puzzled look to his father.
“She is well educated and well behaved. The list should be longer.” Father said in a surprisingly calm voice.
His father nodded in approval. We were engaged.
From that point on, we were both inseparable. We would get together, almost on a daily basis, to talk about everything and nothing. He made it clear that he was reluctant to the idea of an English marriage. “We’ll do it like it was done before they came here.” He once explained. The more we spoke, the more I realized how committed he was to ”freeing Nigeria” like he said. He talked a lot about going to the city and joining a nationalist group.
One evening while sitting in his parents compound and discussing about the inevitable topic, I decided to tell him what I really thought, what no one would want to hear whilst speaking with determination.
“I don’t think they’ll pay much attention to people like you.” I said.
“People like me?” He withdrew his hand from mine.
“They’re all intellectuals, elites who’ve studied in the English man’s university, Lawyers, Teachers… Do you really think they need you?” I asked with a shaky voice. “Our people are becoming more and more educated, we’re building houses with cement and we have solid roofs over our head. Isn’t there a little good in this evil?” I was scared that he would hear a woman in love trying to avoid losing her man rather than a friend giving rational advice.
“They educate us so that we can understand their religion. There’s a reason behind all of it.” I could hear the rage in his voice and decided it was enough for the day.
I put my palm on his cheek: “It’s already dark, I have to go.”
“Let me accompany you.” He said searching for his slippers.
“This isn’t the first time I’m leaving at this time, I can go myself.” I insisted, “Try to think of something else at least for the night!”
“I’ll think of you.” He opened his arms and I quickly entered them. I remember thinking at that moment why we couldn’t just declare ourselves married then and there, allowing me to stay in his arms as long as I wanted. Eternity.
Although I could only see their silhouettes, I greeted the few people whose voices I could recognize on my way home. I must have come across five or six people by the time I got to the long and narrow passage leading to my compound. Since the silence had already settled in a few minutes before, I was bewildered by the sound I could hear behind me. Was I frightening myself with my own footsteps? I changed my pace, walking faster, loping and eventually running. I didn’t dare look back.
In a flash, one hand covered my mouth tightly and another locked my hands together. Breathing heavily, struggling, screaming in vain, I looked closer to the sky. My cloth was ripped off. The moon had failed me on this day and even the stars stayed discreet. I felt the string of my jigida cutting sharply on my skin and the beads rolling on my stomach before falling down to the ground.
To be continued…