When I was born, I was told I did not cry as was expected of a newborn. The midwife had starred hard at me, her thick eyebrows creased in a frown, and taking me to the fire side where a clay pot boiled over in the corner of the hut , she had held me upside down by my tiny legs and gave my bum three firm smacks. I let out a tiny wail and she smiled in satisfaction as she wiped my tender body with kernel oil before handing me to my mother wrapped in a warm cloth to be breast fed.
From the day I was born, I was made to know I was a woman. From the “Ohs” and “Ahs” and the words of congratulations to my proud parents, I knew and understood everyone’s expectation of my role as female, as my mother sat cuddling me in a nice soft warm blanket surrounded by the women who had come to visit and offer words of advice and praise. Even the gifts presented to my mother for me , had set the wheel of my role and place in the home and society spinning.
“Ohhh, in no time she would be up and about and also running errands for you,” the woman with the black scarf said gesturing at my tiny feet.
“Ahhh, daughters are such a blessing, they look after their parents in old age,” said another with the gapped teeth knowingly.
“Ahhh she should be betrothed to a good family,” a younger woman suggested.
An older woman nodded in agreement with her, “You know a good daughter would fetch a good bride price for her father especially if she is hard working and beautiful. Throw in some education and the price could be more,” she winked with micheif written all over her face.
“She would make a good wife for a strong man,” another woman peered at my half covered face from where she sat on a very low stool.
“Hmmm, I hope she grows up to be fat and supple like her mother, You know fertile bodies are not stick thin and dry!” the woman with the worn blouse voiced her hopes.
“We must put beautiful beads around her waist to enhance her curves!” the oldest woman adviced knowingly as she placed her dry hands around her old waist.
“She will bear many daughters can’t you see her cheeks?” her sister brushed my soft cheeks tenderly with affection.
“ No she will bear many sons,” another refused frowning. “You know sons define a woman’s place in her husband’s house.”
“Very true,” most of the women nodded in agreement.
“Ohhh , we can’t wait to have her ears pierced!” another young woman sighed in an excited voice.”I have the perfect earrings for these lovely ears , since I have no daughters of my own.”
“Ohhh , look at her thick black hair, we should always keep it nice, long and plaited!” the woman with the many bangles felt my thick curly soft black hair.“You can tell from her gums that she would have a gap in her teeth like her mother, men like that you know,” she added.
The women went on, “Ahhh a good daughter this” and “Ohhh a good daughter that.”Humph! A woman has so many uses.
Here they were, all seated at my naming ceremony celebrating my functions. Even the name I was going to be given had a meaning based on my importance, function or circumstances surrounding my birth.But then my grandfather came in to where the women were sitting in a circle and instructed, I be named Blessing. At the raised eyebrows he simply explained, “A woman is a blessing,” with that , he went to join the other older men seated in the courtyard over gourds of Palmwine with their calabash cups in their hands.The women sat pondering on their life experiences and roles first as women in the society,then as wives both in and out of their husband’s homes and finally as mothers.
My mother thought back to when she reached puberty and woke up to find blood stains on her mat, she ran to her mother in confusion. She did not understand why blood should flow out of her body when she wasnt hurt nor in pain. How long was this going to continue for? Her mother had smiled kindly and patiently explained to her that this monthly flow of blood was sacred and united most women in significance to the beauty of womanhood.Not that the child understood any of it. It had many names, her mother explained to her, and went on to give her a list of the different names.
This stage of a girl’s life , she explained to her daughter was the begining of womanhood. A good girl should also be wary of the sugar coated tongues of young men, as her young sprouting breasts and curvy hips would draw them to her like ants to honey.Sex and pregnancy outside wedlock were not an option. A woman should go to her husbands house in her full virtue as the Holy Book had instructed. Her husband should be her first and only, the reaper and taker of her fruits. The fact that the other women he had been with before her would be wives to others should not concern her that was the loss of their unfortunate husbands. Her mother had advised her.
Other girls who had gotten pregnant or tasted the forbiden fruit before marriage had been regarded as wayward, they were a disgrace and had brought shame to their families, no one would marry a woman with a child. A man desired the first fruits of his wife’s womb. It was his right. She would either remain unmarried or some man would take her as his second or third wife. An unmarried woman no matter how rich or educated she was, was not respected like a married woman, not to mention an unmarried woman with a child. My mother had sat confused listening to the long list of dos and donts of her new role and wondering if it was all worth the trouble. Slapping a mosquito nicely perched on her thigh about to get down to business, her mother had adviced her daughter to adjust her waist beads as these enhanced a woman’s curves and would get her good suitors as men liked a tiny waist.
A woman should keep herself and her home immaculately clean as cleanliness is next to godliness. She should also make herself useful around the house, skills of excellent cooking were very important as a husband should come home to a good meal and the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. An education is important for a woman but what came first was her ability to run a good home and please her husband, that made a virtuous woman and a good wife. A woman should be seen but not heard at all times. The so called voice of civilization was not always the best, they advised. The ways of foreigners were alien to our people.
When she got married, the mysteries of life would come calling. Pregnancy, chilbirth and motherhood. “What about women who are unable to have children?” she had inquired.
“Ahh,” the older woman had smilled knowingly. “Children have many mothers in every family, your sister’s children are yours and your brother’s children are also yours. A village raises children, it is not the sole responsibility of only the father and mother.That is the reason some of us are blessed with many mothers and sisters when our fathers marry many wives and bear many children.”
It was also important a woman bore her husband a male child. As these placed your feet firmly in your husband’s house. Bearing your husband children whether male or female did not mean, he would or could not go looking for loose women or father other children outside wedlock if he wanted to , but having a son, automatically staked your claim as a wife on your husband’s property and daughters got nothing as they were the ones who got married and left their father’s house to their husband’s home to start a new life and become part of another family.A good education in some cases , was the best you could offer her in her father’s house. This was why some women went to many lengths to have a male child and those with daughters either had their husband’s property inherited by his brothers and the widow left in abject poverty if these women did not have any form of economic independence. In other cases, if the wife was still of child bearing age, she could be inherited by her late husband’s brother or his first son if she wasn’t the first wife. This was why many women were advised to either get and education, learn a hand work or a trade.She was lucky, she had learned how to sew alongside her mother and when she got married, was able to support her husband financially in seasons when his farm produce didn’t do very, well. He looked at her her with different eyes, the eyes of honour and respect for in her he found both a friend, companion and helper and not just a sole dependant.
Her neighbor Mama Emike was blessed with six daughters for very many years but the family felt incomplete as there was no heir to carry on the family name. Daughters were alright but they would marry into other families and leave home and the family name would die off and their lineage would only be spoken about in stories. When she got pregnant the seventh time, everyone prayed she would have a son. People started calling her , “Mama Bomboy” long before she got pregnant as a way of encouraging her to try again.When news came that she had brought forth a healthy set of twins everyone had rejoiced but the tempo had gone down when it was announced that she had a set of girls. More women in the family? Her husband’s face fell.
“Daughters are a blessing, they look after their parents in old age,” a friend of his tried to console him. In my Mother’s opinion, Papa Emike should be grateful his wife bore him any children at all.
It took Mama Dotty almost fifteen years to conceive and even though her husband hadn’t married other wives he had borne children by other women outside his marriage and no one condemned him for his actions as it was expected that since the woman of the house had wasted time in bringing forth an heir, a man would seek other alternatives. She couldn’t complain nor blame him for his impatience as she had failed him due to no fault of hers . Before she finally got pregnant , there had been speculations that her supposed infertility might have been as a result of her promiscuity in her younger days, but everyone knew Mama Dotty had been a very good girl when she had married, she had passed the purity test and made her parents proud by going to her husband’s house a virtuous girl. Everyone remembered how her mother and the other women had danced around the village waving the blood stained white sheets with pride and other mother’s pointed out to their daughters the virtues of going to your husband’s house a virgin. When a baby didnt come in the first year of her marriage, the women had sympathised with her .Good girls didnt deserve this , had she been a bad girl and known other men before her husband, it would have been understood as her punishment for not respecting her body.
When she had conceived and borne a daughter, her joy knew no bounds at her proof of womanhood, now she could beat her chest with pride and boast that her breasts had suckled a child and she had exprienced the pain of childbirth which was a privilege. Her husband had been happy for her too but had secretly wished she had had a boy instead of a girl at least as the woman of the house , the legitimate son borne by her would be regarded with more respect as he was the heir.
Baba Baby’s compound was another story, he was a tall stick of a man who looked like a praying mantis, he had been given the name Baba Baby because he had many daughters and was surrounded by many women in his household. It was always a centre for many activities as in his search for a son he had married four wives. On good days, the family enjoyed the joy of many mothers and sisters but on bad days , the chaos went from annoying to ridiculous. A son had not yet been borne and the many daughters these women had borne, occasionally ganged up with their mothers and fought among themselves over trivial things, like matches, washing soap, money, cooking turns, wrappers, favour from their husband, the list was endless. There was always a fight to separate or a quarell to put an end to in that compound. On one of the occasions when the fight had gotten out of hand as two of the wives were fighting and their daughters had come to support their mothers pulling at the opponet’s hair and wrappers. Baba Baby had tried to put an end to the chaos as the man of the house and in the process he was lifted into the air by the angry women, his wrapper falling off to reveal his nakedness and given a good beating.
His wives were brought before the elders and as final jugement the mothers were fined a goat each for their disrespect to their husband. How could women beat up the man of the house? When it was a taboo for an elderly man to fall ! If an elderly man fell and any youth within the vicinity saw him fall, they would be fined a goat too for seeing him fall not to mention laugh. Maybe the youth should close their eyes and run in the opposite direction when elders fell ! Elders were never laughed at and wives were not to disrespect their husband’s by pushing them, kicking them or touching their heads even in self defence. Their compound was never without drama.
Was the sex of a child a human or God factor?My mother smiled at my sleeping face as she craddled me in her arms , grateful to God for safe delivery and the blessing of motherhood. She counted my fingers and toes to make sure they were complete. At least even if she never bore any sons, no one would call her barren like old Ododo who people spiteful claimed had had all her children in the spirit world and eaten the ones she would have had in the world of men. She was also grateful that she was the only wife of her husband for now and secretly prayed he would not marry another so she could live in peace and they could continue to manage together as friends like they had done from the beginning of their marriage. Like my name , she wished us all long life and asked God to keep her long enough to see my children be they girls or boys.
As she held me close to her , I let out a loud wail and quickly she put me to breast.