At that time, I was a tiny little thing. Mother carried me on her back wherever she went. She would place me on her back and use one of her wrappers to tie me to her. Sometimes, she did not tie me with any cloth. She would just support me with her left hand while she used the right. Often, it would be when she was cooking or doing some other domestic chore. She carried me that way whenever she was angry that I cried and distracted her work. Then I would kick, scream, and scratch her until she stopped working and held me in her bosom where I could suck her milk. There was a time I kicked and screamed but Mother did not pay any attention. That day, we were on the farm and I was laid in a little plastic bath dressed with a wrapper and my little pillow. Mother had thought I was asleep, but I was not. So after some moments, I screamed and kicked, and she came and carried me on her back. I did not want her to work with me on her back, so I screamed, kicked and scratched her but she will not carry me in her bosom. Then I fell silent and found an uncovered spot on her back. I bent and bit her with my teeth. There were the only little thing in my rather empty mouth: two little incisors. Mother sent a terrifying scream into the air and almost immediately, pushed me off her back and I fell on a stony heap. Since that incident, I learnt to scream, scratch and kick but never to bite Mother again.
My little elder brother, Mark, was sometimes asked to look after me. He would carry me on his little back and sing some beautiful tones to me. I did not fully understand what they meant, but those tones fascinated my little mind greatly.
Ojuju is hiding in his tent
Eater of children, what do you want?
You can’t have my little Paul
Ojuju stay away or I’ll call my mother
No one had ever met Ojuju before, and if he existed at all, it was only in Mark’s songs. Nevertheless, I knew him. The things he was always associated with said much about him. For instance, when Mother was bathing and I cried to be taken to her, Mark would threaten: “stop crying or OJujuwill catch you.” Then I would look around terrified and would cling to him firmly.
One afternoon, a man came to our house. I was lying on a little mat Mark had spread out on the ground under the shade of a Mango tree in our compound.
“Where is your mother?” he asked Mark.
“She has gone to the market,” Mark said, which was a lie.
“I say where is she, or do you want me to circumcise you?” the man asked and held Mark by the hand. “Come here,” he ordered and Mark screamed, kicked and fled from him, crying. Circumcision was a memory every little boy never lost: the scissors, cotton wool, some liquid in a small bottle and a man or woman carrying a bag. This picture was a preamble to what was to follow – the tearing-off of the skin covering one’s little penis. And it was a painful thing whose memory every little boy kept strongly. When Mark screamed and ran away, I turned to look at the man where he stood. What I saw terrified me: a thickly grey-haired old man, bearded with grey hair growing out of his nostrils and with eyes as red as the wound on Mark’s leg. I was frightened and I screamed. Since that day, the old man’s face remained associated with Ojuju’s image in my mind.
The old man and Mother entered her hut with me in her bosom. Mother’s hut was a large one. It was where she kept her yams when they were harvested. A large bamboo bed lay on one side of the hut, and behind the door was a large earthen water pot.
“Now,”the man said when they both sat on the bed. His voice was acutely unstable and cracky. When he spoke, though with his mouth, his entire body shook and I wondered why in spite of it, he still wanted to talk. “You said your husband beats you often,” he said and Mother nodded.
“Sometimes when I cook and he complains about too much salt or lack of it in the soup, I tell him to keep quiet because he does not even know how to roast yam,” she said.
“You do that?” the old man asked.
“Yes, and then I go and take away the food from him and I tell him to go and eat where he spends his nights,” Mother said.
“Where he spends his nights?” he asked again.
“Yes, he sometimes does not even spend his nights in this compound. Today, my husband has a mistress everywhere he goes. He spends his money on them and when he comes here and I serve him food, he complains about everything.”
“Was this how he behaved since you married him?”
“Now,”the old man resumed, fumbling in his ancient bag. “Here, take this,” he said and handed Mother a little parcel wrapped up in dry cocoyam leaves.
“Yes Baba,” Mother said.
“Whenever your husband gets angry and starts quarreling with you; do you know what to do?”
“Simple,”the old man exclaimed. “Quickly unwrap this parcel and throw it into your mouth. . .”
“Close it,” he resumed, “and never open it until he stops quarreling. Then you can remove it and wrap it up again,” he advised and rose to go.
“Yes Baba and what of . . .?”
“Yes Baba. What is it going to cost?”
“Nothing, my daughter; it costs nothing. My price is compliance,” he said.
“Thank you Baba,” Mother said. “But are there no conditions?”
“None, my daughter; it is just your compliance. That is all.”
Father and Mother always quarreled with each other. Sometimes the quarrel also involved Father’s other wives, two of them. One evening, when it was Mother’s turn to cook for him, something happened. When he was served pounded yam with fish and bitter leaf, he complained that the food was cold.
“This food is very cold,” Father observed. “Its pounding must have lasted a very long time,” he said.
“I knew he would complain,” Mother told us or rather, Paul; for people thought I was too little to hear and did not bother to talk to me. The food was actually cold because she had to postpone its cooking and carry me on her back while I cried. “I don’t know why it is always the lazy one who has nothing significant to contribute to cooking who is the first to notice when something goes wrong,”she continued.
“This food is just too cold today,” Father observed aloud when Mother went before him to bring back the plates to the kitchen. She hissed.
“I know he will always look for a fault to complain about,” she said. “Yesterday, it was too much salt; today it is the food that is too cold.”
“But can’t you see it is really cold today?” Father asked. “I have never been served it so cold before.”
“True,”Mother agreed. “And that should have told you that something went wrong today. Then you should not be complaining too much.”
“Have I complained too much? Father asked. “I have just . . .”
“You have,” she cut in. “You complain too much. Can’t you see women are always very busy? So when we make mistakes like this, you must bear it, not hang the woman.”
“Who is talking about hanging any. . .?”
“You are,” Mother said. “You want to hang me just because the food is cold, but I can’t see any evidence that you haven’t enjoyed it fully.”
“What is the evidence that I enjoyed it?” Father asked. “Can’t you see the difference between . . .”
“What difference?” Mother countered. “A man complains that he does not like his food, yet he eats more than half of it. If he liked it, would he as well swallow the plates?”
“Woman,”Father called. “Take your plates and go, or do you want to beat me in addition?” he asked.
“I can’t beat you,” Mother resumed. “It is those mistresses of yours who beat you.”
“Now, mind your tongue,” Father warned.
“Those ones,” Mother continued; “even if they keep you hungry for a whole day, you can’t complain despite that you pour money on them.”
“If you don’t keep quiet,” Father threatened. “Woman, you will get into trouble,”he said, pushing her away.
“In other homes where the men also help in the kitchen, they know what is involved,” Mother went on. “But here where the man thinks himself some god even when he can not boil an egg for himself, he knows how to condemn one’s cooking.”
“This woman . . .” Father murmured bitterly.
“When he is at home,” Mother was now shouting; “he shows his strength, but when his mistresses begin to maltreat him, he begs like a slave. What manner of man!”
Now Father was furious and walked to Mother’s kitchen where we were. “Here woman,” he called out and pulled Mother by her blouse. “How often do I have to warn you to mind your tongue each time you talk to me?” he charged.
“Leave me,” Mother said as she struggled to free herself. “Is it on women that you can show your strenght? If you were strong, why did you not fight Mathew, your own agemate who has taken over your father’s land? Leave my . . .”
“You deserve it,” Father said hotly as he landed her a slap on the face.
Mother screamed, seized a soup plate and in a moment, poured its content on his head. “You will kill me today,” she said between sobs. “Kill me and take my corpse to my parents. Mathias, kill me.”
“You will see fire today,” Father threatened as he pulled off his oil-stained shirt.
“Kill me now,” Mother continued. “Kill me. You think you can beat me just like that. Try it and see whether I will not break your jaws,” she threatened.
This last point must have stung Father like a red wasp, for he jumped at her with a folded fist. It could have hurt Mother greatly if it had hit her, but he was held back. Father’s two wives, who had been watching the exchange all that while, reluctantly stepped in and their intervention saved Mother from the blow.
“It’d okay,” they told Father. “Just leave her alone,” they said.
“Let him come over,” Mother shouted. “Let him come and kill me. He brought me here to kill me, so why are you holding him?”
“Martha,”one of Father’s wives addressed Mother. “It’s okay. Can’t you see this is getting serious?”
“What is serious?” she asked. “Mathias had been having girlfriends and mistresses since the day he was circumcised and yet they did not give him a child. He brought me here and in a few years, I have given him two boys. If this is how he can appreciate me, let him come,” she said and wept.
“Your language is too provocative,” Mary, Father’s wife told Mother. “At this rate, no man will feel well if he doesn’t split open your skull.”
“Let him come on,” Mother charged. “Or do you want to help him split open my skull?”
“You see how your language has made things worse,” Mary continued, ignoring Mother’s barbed language. “This was just about food. If you had kept quiet . . .”
“Why didn’t he keep quiet himself?” Mother countered. “Must people complain about things they can’t even do better?”
“That’s the way of men.”
“It is not,” she shouted. “I have seen real men, not this shadow of men.”
“Mary,”the other wife called. “Leave her alone. Have you ever heard a nice word from that woman’s mouth?”
“Thief,”Mother addressed her hotly. “Your eyes glow like one with a fish bone hooked in her throat.”
“Let her be,” Mary advised.
“I won’t,” Mother charged. “That artificial woman has a mouth like a piece of meat has fallen from it.”
“She is your senior, remember.”
“Senior my foot!” Mother exclaimed. “What manner of senior is she? Senior of harlots?”
“Who is a harlot?” Grace, the other wife charged.
“You of course,” Mother said. “If you were not . . .”
“Don’t talk to me or I’ll show you pepper,” Grace threatened.
“I don’t talk to harlots; ashawo like you,” Mother insulted.
At that, Grace jumped at her and they were locked in a fierce exchange of blows, while Mary tried to separate them. Then Mother screamed: “she had bitten me. The harlot woman has bitten me with her rotten teeth,” she cried.
“I thought you said you could fight me,” Grace taunted. “Why are you crying? Stop crying and talk to your mate.”
“Juju woman,” Mother insulted her. “Is it not true that you have used your womb to acquire juju?”
“Who are you talking to?” Grace charged.
“You used your womb to make juju and now that you can no longer have children, you are jealous,” Mother went on. “Did I talk to you? What was your business with me and Mathias, busy body?”
“Why are you crying?” Grace asked. “Mother of children, are those toys of yours children? And I’m glad Mathias has really given you what you deserve.”
Mother had a friend who visited her sometimes: a stocky, fair-skinned woman with breasts so large that they made her look rather short. The weight of her breasts must have been interfering with her posture; for when she walked, she bent over, and her shoulders stood out as though a shorter person were pulling her by the neck. I admired her breasts and envied her children, though I did not know if she had any. In my little mind, I always wondered what would happen if Mother’s milk got finished. It was a possibility I hated to think about. Mark did not share the milk with me, but I always knew there was a possibility of his doing so. In fact, there were moments Mother threatened to invite him to share the milk. “If you don’t stop crying,” she would begin; “then I will let Mark suck the milk,” she would say. Then I would cover one nipple with my hand while I sucked the other. So when I began seeing Mother’s friend, I wondered whether she had more milk than Mother.
To be continued