by: Maureen Onuigbo1
An excerpt from Maureen Onuigo’s forthcoming novel provides evidence of the the life-altering capabilities of a letter…
“Who’s to say Mmeri won’t get there and take off with some hapless man? I would have spent all this money to educate her for another man. Studying in America is not cheap as you very well know,” father said.
He wasn’t whispering. Even though he sat with his back to our bedroom door, I could hear him well. I perched, quiet as a mouse, behind the door between our bedroom and the parlor. My sisters and I wedged the door at its hinge whenever we did not want it to shut completely. It squeaked a racket. The wedge kept it still. A ragged curtain in the doorway provided good cover.
I strained my ears to hear Uncle Obi’s response. Obi was my uncle visiting from the United States of America for Christmas. My grandmother, Da Akunma, told me Uncle Obi was trying to persuade father to send me to America to study. One of my sisters heard it too. Me? In America? I had to hear it for myself.
“Look Obidike,” father said, “I want you to find a man, an Ibo man, in America to marry Mmeri and take her there. He can educate her as much as he wants. That would help me a lot. I intend to take a wife in the near future, to bear me a son. I want my first two, maybe, three daughters married and out of the house before any wife. If Mmeri marries well, the others will follow suit with equally good or better suitors. That’s how it happens. Set Mmeri up and the others will follow.”
My poor father. He had no son. We had no brother. I was the first of a string of five daughters. A bunch of useless girls, as father called us. No brother to anchor us and carry father’s line into time. The one son mother had did not live. She died trying for another. It was our bane and we bore it, with shame.
People in my village talked about father, how his seed was weak and made only girls. No sane person would see my father and think “weak.” He was a square of a man endowed with boundless energy.
A man to marry me, a son-in-law for father. Should I be glad or sad?
“These proxy marriages don’t work out, they never do. I don’t want that for our Mmeri. She’s too smart for that. I want Mmeri to come to America on her own. She’s smart, she works hard. She’ll do well on her own.” Obi said.
“Like you did on your own?” father said. Uncle Obi went to America and married a white woman. He visited that first Christmas after the war and showed us pictures of his wife. He told us she was black American like we were blind and couldn’t tell a white woman from a black one.
I could hear father hit his snuffbox and twist it open. Then his voice changed like it does when his nostrils are full of tobacco, trying to talk with his mouth wide open.
“Find a man in America, an Umuahia man, or even from any other part of Iboland to marry Mmeri, then she can go to America with him as his wife. That’s the only way I’ll allow it. River State is fine, Cross River, Bendel. That’s it. North of Nsukka, Nkalagu, you’ve gone too far.” He blew his nose in a half sneeze.
“I want no Hausa man marrying my daughter. You hear me?”
“Who said anything about a Hausa man? There are no Hausa men in the US, maybe at the embassy. A few civil servants come for short courses here and there. I don’t know any Hausa man in America to introduce Mmeri to. You don’t have to worry about that,” Obi said.
“Of course. Why would any Hausa man leave house and home to live in foreign land? Why? They have it made right here in Nigeria. They’ve had three years to cushion and feather their nests while we were preoccupied with this god-forsaken war. A war we had no chance of winning. It was bait and we took it. We should have stayed in Nigeria and fought back, as Nigerians. It will be years before the Ibo man finds his footing again in this country. Years, you hear me? None of the other Eastern tribes want to be associated with us any longer. Even the Ibo man does not want to be identified as such. We used to be number one. Ibo was the lingua franca of the East. Not anymore.”
Obi heaved a sigh. “Brother, the war is over, three years now. The past is past,” he said.
“Is it?” father said. “You can say that. You were not here to see it, the suffering, the starvation, conscription of women. The past is never past, my boy.” Obi is my father’s youngest brother. Still, it’s never a good sign when father calls him boy.
“We have been sat upon in this village by Nigerian soldiers sowing their northern seeds all over the country side. Who knows how long they’d live among us? Maybe forever,” father said.
I’d heard enough ranting and raving from my father about the Nigerian soldiers living in our village after the war. It got worse after one of my aunts took off with a Hausa officer. Nobody knew where she was, Maiduguri, Sokoto, Birnin Kebbe, somewhere up north. I crept out from behind the door and nearly tripped over my youngest sister, Isioma, who was seated on the floor.
“I’m going to America.” I said to her in hushed excitement like it was all settled.
“Sister Mmeri, please bring me a monkey when you go,” Isioma said.
“A monkey. There are no monkeys in America,” I said.
“No? How about a giraffe?” Isioma is such a killjoy.
“How about an elephant?” I said with a hiss.
I turned around to see my father standing in our room.
“What is going on here?” he said. I froze. Isioma took cover under the bed. The small saliva in my mouth refused to go down my parched throat.
“I want to know what is going on in this room.” I kept my eyes on his hands. I knew those hands well. Slaps, fists that sent me flying with stars twinkling in my eyes and bells ringing in my ears like I was going blind and deaf at the same time. I held my arms over my head and waited for what was coming my way. He took a swipe at me as I jumped back out of his reach. Frustrated, he pommelled me with both hands.
Obidike dashed into our room and separated us.
“Deh, it’s time you stopped beating Mmeri like this. She is fourteen, almost a young woman. This is not right.” Uncle Obi said.
“Mmeri is my daughter,” he said, jutting his head out at Obi. “I shall treat her as I see fit. This child has brought me nothing but bad luck. An evil child who shows up before her time. She was supposed to come after one, maybe, two sons. She comes first and after her, a bunch of useless girls. No son, none.”
I hid behind Obi, clutching his fancy American clothes to keep him between father and me.
After they returned to the parlor, I hurried out to the kitchen. I needed a place to hide my ugly face. I hate to be reminded of my sin, my cardinal sin, of usurping the position of a son. I was supposed to be a boy. If only I’d been a boy. If I were a boy, instead of eavesdropping,, to the right of my father. He would send me and I would go as his word and his will. He would take me out and do whatever it is fathers do with their sons. He would show me how to stand before my brethren and deliver a rousing speech peppered with proverbs and the sheer poetry of Ibo language, my head held high, proudly, the first son of a first son. He would teach me how to be a man and assume my position in society. How different life would be if I’d been a boy.
I could not find a place to be alone in my busy household. As soon as I sat down in the kitchen, Dah Akunma pushed the mortar and pestle to me. I folded my dress between my legs, bent down and started pounding the pepper and onions in it. My eyes felt wet but I did not cry. I never cry. Crying was for girls and weak people. I may be a girl but I was tough and strong like a boy. I pounded as hard as I could. The aroma of the onions hit me.
“Stop sniveling, will you,” Dah Akunma said, “you are eavesdropping then you start talking. What did you expect?” She yelled like she was going to smack me. That’s grandma’s usual tone of voice even when she was on your side.
“You need to learn how to avoid getting yourself beaten up. You do. You’re not a boy, I keep telling you. You’re a girl, a woman. You have to learn how to be one, for your own good, your own safety, Mmeri.” It was the same sermon I’d heard a million times from grandma. Don’t talk too loud, walk two steps behind, keep your head down. My head was down, always down, for goodness sake. How far down did it have to be?
The next evening we were helping Dah Akunma in the kitchen when Uncle Obi came in. My uncle liked to hang around the kitchen with us, an irksome habit he picked up in America no doubt. Grandma did not like it at all. She said it was unmanly for a man to be in the kitchen and we all would get uncomfortable whenever he sat with us. All uncle had to do was say what he wanted and we’d get it for him. We waited for an exchange between them.
“Mother, I would like Mmeri to escort me to Okpuru-Udara. I want to visit somebody there?” Obidike said.
“Who are you going to see? Let me get somebody to drive you there.” Dah Akunma said.
“Mukoso, I promised to visit. I want to walk. I need the exercise. I want Mmeri to escort me.”
“Mmeri, hurry up. Please be back soon. She’s helping me with evening meals.”
“I’m sure you can do without her just this once,” Obi said.
I jumped up and out of the kitchen as fast as I could. I put on my slippers and washed my face and Obi and I headed out the front gate to the main road.
It was evening time. The bicyclists raced home trying to squeeze in one last run transporting passengers from Umuahia Township to the villages before turning in for the night. Several villagers were hurrying home on foot carrying their wares on their head. A few old men strolled along the roadside with their canes. We exchanged greetings with them. Everybody greeted my uncle like he was royalty. They called him by his full name, Obidike Obidede Obinnaya. At the next compound, an old woman brought us to a complete stop.
“Obidike” she said, like she was just seeing uncle Obi for the first time. Obi’d been home for almost a month.
“Mma Mma,” we greeted her in the typical Umuahia fashion. She came close and touched Obi’s cheeks.
“Oh, my son, you are welcome,” she said.
“Thank you, ma,” Obi said. A noisy exhaust heralded the approach of an olive green army jeep on the highway full of Nigerian soldiers and a few girls from our village. It sped by spewing black smoke.
“This is our life, now,” she said. Obi nodded.
“I know ma. But we thank God the war is over,” Obi said.
“That’s what they say, they tell us the war is over. What can we do but to believe them?”
“Yes. It will be alright,”
“Did you get news of the war over there in Amrika?”
“Oh yes, mama, we got news all the time, pictures too. We saw it all.”
“The starvation and the sheer suffering?”
“Yes, I saw them.”
“And they did not come to help us? Why?” Obi looked away in the distance then on the ground. He kicked a weed on the roadside. He placed a hand on my shoulder and pulled me close to him. I grabbed his hand to show everybody that he was my uncle, my uncle from America. We said goodbye to the lady but not before Obi promised to stop by her place for some uha soup.
I knew the short cut to Okpuru Udara which weaves by the biggest tree in Ama Achara. Its branches provided a cool evening shade. But Obi wanted to take the longer route on the highway through the church house. He did not say much as we walked. I wasn’t going to be the one to speak first with a man, an older man like my uncle especially. So, I waited for him to say something.
At the church, I tried to cross the road so we’d make the right turn to Okpuru-Udara where Mukoso lived. Uncle Obi pulled me back. We walked straight instead, towards Eluama Okahia and then kept walking. That was when I sensed that this walk had nothing to do with visiting Mukoso or her family or anybody. My uncle walked very slowly, like he was mulling something over in his mind. I have never walked this slowly to anywhere. I slowed down for him. He took his time, patiently placing one foot in front of the other. I waited for him to say something, start a conversation; the silence was disconcerting. Suddenly, he stopped, completely. His arms folded, he turned to face me.
“Mmeri,” he said.
I knew it.
“I am going to make an introduction.”
“I want you to encourage him.”
“You hear me?”
“Be sweet, charm him. just tell him what he wants to hear, okay?”
“Yes, uncle” I said, nodding my head, my lips pursed. I needed a deep breath.
“Don’t question him, just follow his lead. I want you to make him marry you and bring you to the US,” Uncle Obi said. I looked up at my uncle.
“When you get to the US, we’ll see. Don’t be afraid. I’m behind you, always.” He patted me on my shoulder.
“Yes, uncle,” I said.
I felt my heart leap. Every girl should have an uncle like Obidike to conspire with. I was excited. We turned and walked back in silence. I wondered if we would go left to Mukoso’s place.
“Let’s go home,” Uncle Obi said, “there’s nobody there anyway. That’s what you’ll tell mother, alright? That there was nobody at Mukoso’s place?”
As we walked home, my head was swimming with questions. Was this going to be a real marriage or was it a ruse to get me to the US, out of my father’s house? I dared not ask. I did not want my uncle to think I was one of those forward and disrespectful girls who questioned men and elders as if they did not know what they were doing. No, I was not like that at all. I wanted my uncle to believe in me. I wanted him to know that whomever he introduced to me would be sweetened, charmed and reeled in, no questions asked. I knew I could do this. I would do it. I would be of use to father. I would marry early and to a man in America. I would recommend my sisters to his brothers or friends. Of course he would have brothers or friends who would need wives from home. If the three of us were out of the house, that would free up space for father to bring in a new wife and repopulate the house with sons, hopefully. My father needed a son. We needed a son to make us relevant, make us matter. The laughter and ridicule would stop. This was my duty and I would not shirk it. Besides, my heart was fertile for love, fertile like twice-fallowed land. I was ready, eager to fall in love, so much that it did not occur to me that uncle Obi said nothing about love or falling in it.
Uncle Obi returned to the United States in mid-January and our lives returned to their routine. We braced the Harmattan and returned to school. In March of that year, we had akumbe, floods of them. We sang to them to come to us.
“Akumbe ya ya, Nwanyi nma ya ya”
When they did, we gathered them and put them in containers with water. Once in water, they lost their wings and the ability to fly. Then we roasted them for a delicious snack.
I was in form three in 1972. My favorite subject, literature, gave me such an escape. In class we read Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I fell in love with Thomas Hardy. I would close my eyes, crawl into the book and befriend Tess, grab her by the shoulders and shake her, warn her of what was coming her way. After Tess, we read other authors. But my heart and soul were already given to Hardy. I read all his books, and then moved on to his poems.
Life was tolerable. Father did not beat me except when I really deserved it, when I did something bad. I was fourteen and I tried my best to be good but I was not perfect. And, I was a girl, a loathsome one. So, occasionally, I got a beating from him. I got used to it.
I woke up one morning in a pool of blood. Grandma took me into her room and told me about the curse. As soon as she mentioned the curse, I understood. So I gritted my teeth and faced my bloody monthly, took it like a man.
The routine, the tedium, it was safety. We went to school Monday to Friday. On Saturdays, we cleaned the house and washed our school uniforms. We starched them and put them out to dry into hard, stiff cardboard before we ironed them until the fabric gleamed. The whites were steeped in Robin Blue to make them whiter.
On Sunday we went to church at the Methodist Mission in Ama-Achara. I stopped going to Sunday school, moving onto the main grown-up service. Sunday school was such fun until a new teacher came in and insisted we memorize entire chapters from the Bible. He was a dwarf of a man, his temper matching his stature. We called him Zacheous. I had no problem with working but not in Sunday school. Sunday school was for playing and gossiping and pinching other kids, not for memorizing Psalm 23 and the Apostle’s Creed. Zacheous rapped our knuckles with his cane if we missed a single word.
I moved to the adult service where I discovered the real use of church. Here we sang and danced until the sermon whenin I had the most restful naps while the preacher screamed from the pulpit, blessing all the uterine fibroids and blocked fallopian tubes in Ama-Achara to be healed and bring forth fruit, in Jesus’ name. And the people said, with faith and vigor, Amen, while the childless women looked around the congregation in discomfort. I wondered if the men felt left out of these pelvic blessings. The pastor never prayed for low sperm count or even blank shots, seeing that childlessness was a woman’s problem, always.
As you entered the church house, the men sat to the right and the women to the left. I learned to sit with the men in the back where I could sleep undisturbed. The mothers always shook me awake when I sat amongst them so I eventually stopped sitting with the woman. In the men’s section worshipers slept and snored loudly and nobody said a word, like they were entitled to it.
My siblings and I walked home after church one Sunday, Ezinwa and Chidi and I, when I heard people at the church yelling my name. “Mmeri! Mmeri! Mmeri Onume! Mmeri Onume,” they cried, and then something about a letter. At first, I assumed it was a letter for my father who was a half-hearted churchgoer. We went back to get it. It was a light blue airmail from America. It had my name on it. A letter! From America! I had a letter from America! I never received any letters and here was one all the way from America with my name on it. I covered my open mouth with my hands as Ezinwa took it and flipped it over. Chidi took the letter from her and read out the name of the sender on the top left hand corner, Ejike Okezie. This man was from Umuahia. I knew whom this letter was from. I liked his name and I thought at that instant that I liked him.
Chidi opened the letter and read, “My dear Mmeri” This letter was for me. I was so excited I shook. I took the letter from her but I couldn’t read it, my eyes refused to focus. I folded it and put it in my pocket. I held my sister’s hand tightly as we walked briskly, a few yards, then, a dash. We ran all the way, past Uzo-Obi into our compound to our room where we flopped sideways on the bed breathless. I took the letter out and we read it together.
Ejike Okezie wrote in the most beautiful italics, in blue ink. There were no scratches, no cancellations,. The penmanship of a good man, a man I was eager to marry. I looked at the letter and all the promise it held for me and for my family. It was I who was sweetened and charmed. I thought it wouldn’t be hard to love the man who wrote this letter. I clasped it against my bosom with both hands, my heart pounding. Then I flicked it open to read it again, and again, and again. From the top, April 17 1973. He put the month before the day, the way Americans do.
My dear Mmeri….
The Americanization of Mmeri is set to be released mid-2016!
- Header art is a photograph inspired by the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola taken by the incredibly talented, Cristina de Middel. [↩]