Somebody’s grandmother started the club to assure a steady availability of virgin brides at Christian weddings, especially with so many girls growing up in this profligate city where the Alhajis could always admit one more in their harems, and when so motivated spared no expense to acquire her. The late old woman was fabled to have married off all six daughters as virgins; she was an expert on how-to-be-the-proud-mother-of-a-virgin-bride. And the motive of widening her parenting circle to other people’s daughters was her distaste at seeing so many young girls with potential burning out their lights at the feet of sensuous, old Fulani men.
Most of the women that started out with her remembered some stimulating arguments like:
“For cake and suya I surrender my life!”
In their time, it was humourous sarcasm. Or even
“Fanta! Fanta! Shoes and laughter!”
The grandmother had downplayed every instinct to grapple for material things. She’d taken time to explain that a woman’s virginity was all her glory, all her pride. Imagine the unspeakable joys when your mother received that gift from your new husband! How your parents would congratulate themselves and call down heaven to bless you! Your virginity was your dignity. Simple.
Over the years, the club changed. The pioneer members had married grateful men – mostly, others then took their place and got married themselves and somewhere along the way they had changed their name to the more youthful Girls on Fire. It was a fellowship with an upbeat vibe.
“Young ladies,” a member would address the house.
“On fire for Christ,” was the traditional response.
All mothers knew the vagaries of raising virtuous young women; some felt the anxiety more keenly than others but no girl was ever prevented from being a Girl on Fire. As one of the recent grandmothers remarked, Sokoto was crawling with bad examples of Christian girls who had slackened their hold on the church until they drifted out of it forever. You raised a Mary and in her bloom she turned Maryam and brought you a grandson named Mubarak. It was all very startling.
Talitha could be said to have been born a Girl on Fire. She was her mother’s pride in every way, a precocious child who somehow managed not to play any rough games adults would disapprove of. She was quiet, did well at school, and nothing fascinated her so much as a new book.
“Your little girl loves to read,” some mothers would observe with envious admiration.
Her mother usually just smiled and smugly let them compare her prize daughter with the crass, noisy imps they were raising in their own homes. Talitha, it came about, roused a lot of attention at her young age. Though she honestly didn’t know, all her playmates saw the golden star on her forehead and either resented her or were proud to be associated with her.
She was not a very beautiful child, being rather plump and slow, but the eyes got fondly accustomed with frequent exposure, and those who really knew her could pick her any day over a right Nubian princess. And Sokoto was swarming with Nubian princesses – little girls of different ages dressed in colourful hijabs, with painstakingly painted faces, hawking non-descript snacks in dangerous places. Needless to say, Talitha never hawked. Bu somehow, her gentleness acquired the finicky particularity about a young girl’s appearance and comportment that pervaded the town. Because Hausa-Fulani girls generally married early, it was never too early to learn how to act like a proper lady.
Talitha walked in careful, measured steps with leisurely but purposeful affectation, like all the beautiful Sokoto girls did. She spoke their dialect of Hausa to perfection, though she was from Plateau State and both her parents were Birom. She could pull of full traditional African attire with a flair above her age – most Sokoto girls did it every day without blinking an extra wink. Her head wraps were art; every outfit had in it the makings of a photoshoot. Her head was always covered, partly due to the social environment and partly due to the distressing inconvenience that her hair was not as blossoming as those of her other Christian friends who could flaunt a rich tapestry with every style. And her mother didn’t yet bother with any hair extensions for her – she was only eleven years old then.
Back to the club now. It was started by somebody’s grandmother many years ago, but now old unmarried “aunties” were its grand matrons. They didn’t like the budding, adolescent girls to powder their faces, use lip gloss, plait elaborate hairstyles, or do anything at all to enhance their appearance. So during meeting days, all the pretty would sit behind demurely looking like mere shadows of themselves in dull tops on dull skirts and no jewelry at all. And of course their heads were scrupulously covered to hide the startling tints of their hair extensions.
“Sister Barbara,” Aunty Grace addressed a young, slim beauty stiffly. “Next week you will do the Word sharing.”
“Yes, aunty,” the young girl answered. She was fifteen, and outside of Girls on Fire everyone called her Barbie. Talitha was fascinated by her, but so far nothing had brought her to the notice of this tight, popular girl.
“Young ladies,” Aunty Grace called.
“On fire for Christ,” the girls chorused their customary mantra.
“Remember who you are and who you belong to,” Aunty Grace was giving a closing admonition. “Your future and your destiny must not be compromised for any temporary pleasures. Say no!”
Somehow, whenever Aunty Grace presided over meetings, the word virgin was never explicitly stated. She had a way of sternly insisting upon it while reverently refusing to utter it.
Girls on fire
Christ our freedom, love our shield
We say no, we do not yield
We are wise, no compromise
Girls on fire –
Dignity. Virginity. Responsibility.
They all loved the anthem; it was set in beautiful music, and singing it alone at home sometimes, Talitha would wonder what it’d be like to marry. Girlish dreams of a handsome husband would fill her eyes, but she never quite pictured him as more than twelve or thirteen years old and, somehow, he usually wore the face and smile of Jerry, the boy next door. Jerry was eleven years old, just like Talitha, and he was all she thought a husband would be.
“Talitha,” Jerry had met with her outside once. He was really dirty, with mud splodges on his face and some light bruises on his knees and elbows.
“Yes,” she’d smiled very widely, more because he looked amusing than that she wanted to be friendly.
“Please, please, please,” he put his hands together and begged her exaggeratedly. “Please give me water small – let me wash my body small before Mummy will see me,” he pressed his lips together and looked at her like she was very important.
“Okay,” she darted into the house.
Carefully, she sneaked out a plastic kettle – almost all houses in Sokoto had one.
“Take water,” she stretched out the kettle to him.
Somehow he managed to wash his face, but his bruises smarted at the sensation of water so he only dusted the rest of his body with dampened hands. He handed back the kettle, said thank you, and walked toward the direction of his house like a gentle lamb.
He’d made an impression on Talitha that day and she faithfully put his face on every subsequent daydream. Jerry. Yes, Jerry was exactly the kind of husband she wanted and she’d keep her virginity for him. Sometimes he was not very nice to her, he especially liked to tease her on the days she looked the prettiest, but it was okay. She knew enough, at eleven, about marriage to know that though you loved your husband, it wasn’t necessarily everyday that you liked him.
A few weeks to Christmas, Daddy said that they’d all spend the holidays in Jos. It would be for two weeks and they’d surely stay at his brother’s Rikkos home for most of it and maybe they’d even go to the village. Everyone was excited. Talitha told all her friends; Fatima even cried because she was going to miss her. Girls always had a keen sense of friendship and Talitha understood that it was only when you were going away that you knew who your true best friends were. After that day, Fatima was Talitha’s certified bestie.
Only a few things cast faint shadows on her excitement to have a Jos Christmas. The first was she’d miss the Christmas carols in church. Girls on Fire had a part there and she really liked singing soprano. The second was she wouldn’t see Barbie’s Christmas clothes with her own eyes, she’d have to wait and be told about it. Uggh!
But everything else was good, so good that she clean forgot that Jerry was her husband and you must always say goodbye to your husband before you travelled. Talitha enjoyed the journey though she slept through most of it. The bus stopped at Funtua, Katsina State to allow the passengers relieve their bodies from long sitting and have something to eat. Very late in the evening, they arrived at Plateau State; it was freezing cold weather. When a chartered taxi took them from the park to Uncle Wang’s house in Rikkos, she lost all sleep and was once again excited to see everything. Aunty Jummai hugged her warmly and made her drink tea though she didn’t want any.
Her cousins Nerat and Tom were as excited to see her as she was them. By some special miracle, Nerat was only twelve years old, just four months older than Talitha. The girls made fast friends. Tom recently turned sixteen and he was usually alone in his room, ravaged by a noise in the permanent earphones that were like a growth on his ears.
Tom looked at Talitha, but he barely spoke to her. He watched her play with his sister, sometimes, observed as they taught each other songs and games, and whispered silly confidences that always climaxed in giggles, oblivious of anyone else in the room. But Tom took to his aunty. Talitha’s mother was an upbeat person, she liked to tease and play and she was always picking on him about the music he perpetually listened to.
“It’s J-Town guys, aunty,” he explained finally, a little self-consciously at first.
“J-Town?” Talitha’s mummy quirked an eyebrow.
“Hah! Aunty, Jos!” his tone sounded like he was offended that she didn’t know this slang name for Jos.
“Okay,” she laughed.
“Sokoto will not allow you to flow with these things,” he carried a faint aura of adolescent superiority. “Jos is the city where hits are made – M.I, Ice Prince, Jesse, Bella, and Yung Tom someday,” he seemed wistful, a child unconsciously confiding his dreams to an adult.
“Yung Tom!” she hi-fived him and he reluctantly rubbed palms with her.
“Lemme show you some rap,” he let the headphones hang down his neck then cleared his throat and began:
Ummm. Ummm. Tsk-tsk-tsk-tsk.
Dra la la la la la la
I hand heavy on your neck like a collar,
You know the boy’s so fresh you gotta holla,
Ladies be like… Yung Tom!
Oh Tom! Don’t go, don’t leave me!
And I be like… girl go on home to mummy,
Yung Tommy-Tommy better hustle,
No time for love, no girl drama!
Talitha’s mummy squealed with delight and patted him fondly on the shoulders.
“Yes,” she exclaimed. “There’s a rapper in the house.”
Nerat and Talitha had hurriedly left their game outside to check what the excitement was. When they came in, they only met scraps of Uncle Wang’s warning to the effect that Tom should not be encouraged in his obsession with music. They quietly went back out.
“You know, after Chriisttmas, when all our parents go to Vanessa’s wedding, we’ll have a party with a DJ!” Nerat told Talithat conspiratorially.
They were playing at braiding some of Nerat’s big dolls.
“Really?” Talitha’s interest spiked.
“Yes! I can’t even wait anymore. I’ve begged Tom to let us join,” Nerat said.
Though they were virtually age mates, Talitha marveled sometimes at how very different they were.
“Tom will perform too,” Nerat chattered on. “You’ll like it.”
Nerat then persisted in talking about this party so much that Talitha genuinely began to look forward to it. Tom was warming toward her too, it seemed, though once he called her fat and compared her to Nerat who was as thin as young girls came sometimes. It was during that holiday that she learnt that most boys found flatness undesirable in girls, and that she was even fat. It made her so uncomfortable she had to ask her mother if she really was fat.
“You’re only a baby, darling,” her mother had been reassuring. “You’ll grow out of it.”
But somehow she became conscious of faint tremors as she moved. Yes, her body shook while Nerat was sprightly anad hardly showed any signs of straining a muscle.
“There should be a boy you like,” Nerat was in a gossip-y mood just then.
They were in bed for the night but they usually talked for long until sleep would steal them away. Talitha’s mind vaguely circuited to Jerry and she smiled to herself.
“Mine is a boy in my class. His name is Oche. He’s always taking first position,” Nerat continued.
“What about you? Which position do you normally take?” Talitha asked.
“Third or fourth,” Nerat was indifferent. “Oche is always firstand Shola is always second. If I’m lucky I’ll come third; if I’m not lucky Simi will come third. That’s the way they’re doing it in my class,” she said and yawned.
“Me, I usually come first sha,” Talitha said with grave modesty.
Nerat giggled. “When you meet Oche one day, two of you will solve Math then I’ll know whether first in Jos is like first in Sokoto,” it was a vague challenge, holding no thrust, but Talitha felt moved to defend her school.
So the first week passed. In the second week, Aunty Jummai gave the girls Christmas hats and told them to prepare for a children’s party at the Wild Life Park.
“I love those Christmas parties,” Nerat enthused. “We’ll have ice cream. You like ice cream?”
“Very much!” Talitha caught the fever, “and Father Christmas!”
“Yes,” Nerat almost jumped. “But we’ll not touch him o! Last year he gave me lice, and he smells,” she waved at her nose, fanning away an imaginary odour.
“Okay,” Talitha agreed.
All their games then became Christmas-centred. They played at make-believe a lot: sometimes they were two friends, sometimes husband and wife, sometimes mother and child, or teacher and student, or anything they liked; they even played knife and potato once. It was after seeing them at one of these amusements that Tom remarked to Talitha’s mother:
“Aunty, this your daughter is too slow,” he shook his head pathetically for emphasis.
Talitha’s mother only answered that her daughter was born gentle at which everyone laughed and called Talitha the gentlegirl. Talitha now became very cautious because in addition to finding that her size was disproportionate to her age, she was now made aware that her movements were not energetic enough.
Slowly, the day of the Christmas party finally arrived. Nerat and Talitha both were blue denim with pink sweater tops. They looked pretty.
“I keep telling Mummy these are witches’ caps, like in Harry Potter,” Nerat complained of the Christmas hats. “Last year the brim was wider and had ugly rusted bells. I refused to wear,” she shrugged.
“What’s Harry Potter?” Talitha asked quietly.
Nerat laughed, squealed and ran to Tom to announce that Talitha didn’t know Harry Potter. She’d followed at Nerat’s heels, self-conscious but curious.
“Really?” Tom looked at her.
“Don’t worry, before you go back to Sokoto, we’ll watch Harry Potter,” he seemed kinder than he’d ever been.
The two girls had a wonderful time at the party. They rode the carrousel, took turns on the long slides and saw a monkey that could really dance. Nerat won a first place prize in the dance competition. Talitha had never seen anyone move like that and all the songs were so new to her. Exactly as Nerat had promised, they had lots of ice cream, and after the party Santa handed out goody bags.
Home was a dull scenery to return to, but they brought back their laughter and their run-around giddy spirits. None of them seemed to mind that they only saw a monkey and Wild Life Park was stocked with so many more interesting animals. Everyone was excited at Nerat’s prize. It was a medium sized Valentine’s teddy, maybe because the colours were the same.
“Let’s take a picture,” Aunty Jummai clapped, admiring the red and white stuffed animal.
Nerat was fussing over the teddy – hugging it, tickling it, cooing and treating it like a little baby.
“Get the camera,” Talitha’s mummy said.
“Yeah, where is it?” asked Aunty Jummai.
“I think Tom has it,” Nerat answered. “Please, Talitha, tell Tom to give you the camera. Let me get this baby ready for the picture,” she added, adjusting the little “I love you” bowstrings around the teddy’s thick neck.
Talitha skipped on high spirits to Tom’s room. When after several knocks there was no response, she remembered his penchant for earphones and simply opened the door. He was sitting on his bed, violating his mind with noise, while about him was seeming tranquility. When he saw her, he eased off on an ear.
“What do you want?” he asked a little too loudly.
“Camera. Nerat said it is with you,” Talitha answered.
He rose and went to his closet, opening a drawer and retrieving the device. From the moment he brought it to her and she stretched her hand out to take it, everything else seemed to happen to someone else. She remembered his thin body pressed against hers, a warm bulge in his trousers, his hands groping her and his teeth sinking painfully into her unformed nipples. A finger probed under her panties, in front, behind, up and down. But she couldn’t scream. After that frozen reaction of stunned inaction, she wriggled frightfully out of his grasp and ran.
It was the worst holiday of her life. She was constantly attacked by feelings of acute nausea and she cried into the night for no apparent reason. Somehow, she decided on her own not to tell anyone. How could she, a true Girl on Fire? Maybe they’d think it was her fault. She was fat – her body shook when she moved, unlike the bodies of other eleven-year olds – and she was slow. That kind of thing could never happen to a girl like Nerat – she was too sharp.
All the activities that followed that day were hazy in her memory, and she was relieved when, at last, it was time to go home. Where she’d been quiet, she became mute. She hardly even wanted to play and Fatima seemed to her like a talking doll. At first, she didn’t want to go to those Girls on Fire meetings anymore, but her mother bothered her so much she had to.
And she’d look at all those girls hiding under the matron-approved clothes and reciting variants of the formula that first grandmother who had successfully raised six virgin daughters left, and that acute nausea would hit her again. Sometimes she saw an undefined fear in the eyes of the older girls, but it didn’t make her curious; it shrank her deeper into her shell.
Slowly, everyone came to know that Barbie was pregnant for a Fulani man and her parents exiled her to far away Benue to have the baby. Sandra had a traumatic abortion; her life was only snatched back by an act of God. And slowly too, Talitha noticed it wasn’t Aunty Grace alone among the matrons who meticulously skidded over the word “virgin.” She hated it too – it was a limitation, an inhibition, an insecurity that festered and festered and would not go away. A woman’s dignity.