I had been a housemaid for nearly half my life when I met Urenna.
My first sojourn as a housemaid began when I was ten. That morning, before it was fully day, I went by myself on a big bus, the kind that went to Lagos. I went to live with Papa Emma and his wife. I would do little chores around the house and I would be sent to school. That was what Mama Nkemdilim told me. I was excited to go, a little apprehensive too, but I knew that anywhere would be better than living with Mama Nkemdilim after my father had died. And Lagos was the biggest city in Nigeria — everyone knew that. Mama Nkemdilim said men who had gone from our village either married Yoruba women and never came back, or they came back smelling of money and comfort.
It was no surprise that Mama Nkemdilim would send me away at the first opportunity that knocked on our door.
“Amosu,” she would call me, a witch. “Why do you still hold out your hands for food?” she would ask, squeezing her face in puzzlement when I stood outside the kitchen, waiting for food.
“Is all that blood you suck from me and my children not enough? Or does it all go to your big head?” she would wail, referring to my head, which looked huge on my thin body. Other children called me Atinga, giving proper due to my bony slenderness. Mama Nkemdilim did not think that the little food we had in the house should be wasted on putting extra flesh on my bones. Extra flesh would be a drag on the speed needed to run the many errands she sent me on.
Mama Nkemdilim blamed me for all her misfortunes. And misfortunes had visited often since she came to live with us, coming down like rain in July. When she could not conceive after two years of marriage to my father, she pointed fingers at me. A dibia, she said, had told her that I was responsible for her empty womb. Bad luck, she liked to say, followed me around like the mosquito sought the ear at night; like flies followed feces. After my father died, she would point out that he had survived the war where he had served as a soldier, had withstood poverty, had held on to life after I came along and killed my mother as I forced myself out into the world. My father had weathered all this. But how, she asked, did one survive a wicked child who had killed her mother?
“You will not kill me too,” she would cry, conviction ringing like a soprano alongside the alto of disgust. “Mbanu, you will not. I am not as foolish as your mother, not as soft as your father. I will kill you before you kill me,” Mama Nkemdilim would insist, as if I, a mere child, were a monster with seven heads like those spirits in fairy tales.
“I did not kill my mother and father,” I would say, my head turned away, waiting for her hard knuckles to rap against my almost hairless big head. A loud, painful koi.
Yet all her blows had not yet driven away the remnants of my defiance. If I could kill, the spirit in me said, Mama Nkemdilim would not be living while my father and mother lay in their almost
forgotten graves, now covered by grass in front of my father’s house. When she approached with the cane she hastily broke off from the onugbu plant beside the kitchen, I did not stop for her hand to go up and down my body. I ran out to the road, screaming for my dead father, even though I knew my punishment would wait until I came back to my senses and returned home. When she starved me, I woke up in the night to creep to the kitchen and help myself to some of the soup and dry fish she gave only to her children, to prevent kwashiorkor, she would proclaim.
When I turned ten, Papa Emma, a distant relative of Mama Nkemdilim’s, came home to the village at Christmas. He said he needed someone to help his wife around the house. Mama Nkemdilim thought that I would be a good choice: it would get rid of me. But she also worried that it might be too much of an opportunity for me.
“Do you not think that this is too good for her?” she asked her friend, Mama Odinkemma.
I listened intently from outside the kitchen.
“Hmm,” Mama Odinkemma said, “do you want her living here, sucking your blood, sucking Nkemdilim and her brother’s blood every night, while blowing cool air on all of you like a rat?”
“Eh, that is true talk. Eziokwu. But what if she becomes a big person in Lagos?”
Mama Odinkemma laughed. It was a genuine laugh. And it went on for long. She could not imagine Nwabulu, the Atinga, becoming a big person anywhere. Not even in Lagos, I heard her say. For once, I did not disagree with Mama Odinkemma, Mama Nkemdilim’s thick-set friend with the pointed mouth that made you wonder how food made it through to her belly. And yet she could often be counted on to be chewing something like a goat chewing cud. I silently agreed with her that it was laughable that I could become a big person by cleaning, cooking, and
doing chores in a house, even if it was in Lagos, the biggest city in Nigeria. Even a ten-year-old child, who had not gone to school for two years, knew that this was like the long tales the tortoise told the other animals he had offended by his greed so that they would not throw him down from the sky.
What sealed my fate was Mama Odinkemma saying, “Mama Nkemdilim, send this child away. That child has her mother’s blood. They are all witches in her mother’s family. You do not want her to initiate your children into the cult, or worse still, kill them?”
After that, Mama Nkemdilim satisfied the necessary obligation of informing my uncle Nnabuzo.
I wanted to go to Lagos, climb mountains and swim seas, just to get far away from my stepmother. But I did not want to leave my uncle Nnabuzo.
My uncle did not like the idea of Mama Nkemdilim sending me all the way to Lagos. It should have been his responsibility to determine what happened to me, his brother’s child, but he appeared weak before Mama Nkemdilim’s verbal and emotional onslaughts. Sometimes her barbs were subtle, but more often they were blunt like the stone with which we ground pepper in the small mortar.
“Let me take Nwabulu,” he said to Mama Nkemdilim. “At least we will keep our eyes on her.” He rested worried eyes on my face, but his tone was gentle, as always.
“Did my husband, your brother, not say that what he would like most was for Nwabulu to go to school?” she asked. Mama Nkemdilim always knew the right thing to say.
“Yes, it is true,” Nnabuzo said.
“The people with whom she will live will send her to school. Emma told me himself. I cannot send her to school,” she moaned. “It is all I can do to feed myself and your brother’s children.”
Nnabuzo knew when he was defeated. My uncle could barely feed his own family with his palm-wine-tapping trade. His wife, Nnedi, had a baby every year. At last count, there were nine of them. Her thin frame was often to be seen with a protruding tummy as she was going about her duties. I had heard Mama Nkemdilim say that her baby-a-year habit was the result of my uncle Nnabuzo’s sickening inability to keep his own penis to himself. Mama Nkemdilim reminded him as often as possible of his neglected duties to his late brother’s family, always implying that, in the face of his failure to do so, she must continue to shoulder a man’s burdens on her frail woman’s shoulders.
On the day I left, a cold harmattan morning in January, Nnabuzo was the only one who came to say goodbye. I dressed in the dark, half listening to my half-sister, Nkemdilim, as she slept on the other side of the bed, sucking her tongue noisily as she was wont to do, the sound going thu thu thu rhythmically.
When I stepped out, I shivered from the cold. Nnabuzo took my hand and drew me to him. I hugged him tightly. He put a few naira notes in my hands. I curled my fingers closely to hide the money from Mama Nkemdilim, who would snatch it away if she had any idea.
“Ezechitoke will take care of you,” he said, referring to the God of all the earth. “Remember your father. Remember where you come from. We do not steal. We do not lie, nor do we cheat. We are content with what we have, be it big or small. Do not shame us.” I nodded solemnly. Later, I would remember hugging Nnabuzo, holding on tight, memorizing his thin frame and the tobacco-snuff smell of him, before Mama Nkemdilim pulled me away, saying that we had a long way to go to get to the bus. It was the last time I ever saw him.
Looking back at him as we left in the dark that day, the first tears of uncertainty had run down my cheeks, leaving white
marks that the large-hipped woman beside me in the bus later wiped off with her fingers, moistened with spit. In the two years that had gone by since Papa’s death, Uncle Nnabuzo had tried his best to play the role of father to me. It was he who told me stories of my father and my mother, stories of my birth, stories he said I must not forget because my father would want me to remember. He was the one who told me how Papa, his elder and only brother, had come to name me “Nwabulu” after my mother died while pushing me out into the world.
A child was still profitable, Nnabuzo said he told his brother, who was beside himself with grief at the death of the wife he loved deeply. Even if her mother had died pushing her out into the world, a child was still gain — the supreme prize. Why did men marry and procreate? To have children. Why did a father toil from sun-up till sundown? For children. Why did a woman marry? To bear children. Why did she stay even if her husband was lazy, or a wife-beater? For the children.
So, my father, exhausted from grief, unanticipated burial expenses, and unforeseen single fatherhood, chose the name from his brother’s words, Nwabulu. And I was truly gain, my uncle told me, a benefit to the world, bearing my mother’s beauty — that beauty that had made my father swim seven seas, climb seven mountains, fight off seven monsters in seven evil forests to marry her.
My father’s dearest wish was that I would go to school and perhaps become a nurse or teacher. Some of the nurses he saw during the war had been sent by God, Ezechitoke himself, he told me. Teaching was good too, he said. As soon as I was old enough, he put me in the village school. Every morning, he would wake me up and we would walk to the school, one of the few houses in the village built with cement and a good roof. Every evening, he would ask what I had learnt that day. And I would recite the
ABCs and sing “A is for apple, B is for ball, C is for cat …” to him. He would nod and smile happily.
He would take me to the river to swim sometimes. It was our special thing. There, he would become the man my mother married — a light would come into his eyes, and his slightly sunken cheeks would rise into a smile. There, he would show me the spot where he first saw my mother. She had been swimming with her friends. He never failed to say that she rose up like Mammy Water, a mermaid, beautiful like no woman he had ever seen before, enebe eje olu, a woman you could admire all day, for whom you could miss going to work just to gaze at her. He always added that I looked very much like her, and that I would be just as beautiful when I grew up. In these times, it seemed to me that my mother came to the stream too and we were a family again. Until Mama Nkemdilim came along.
People would often tell my father that he needed a new wife, a woman who would be a mother to me and give him a son. One day, he listened to them and brought Mama Nkemdilim home. From that day, the peace and joy of our home moved somewhere else; peace and joy could not stay in the same room as Mama Nkemdilim’s jealousy. And, after she had a son, her feet became firm on the soil of our home, and her evil began to grow.
I was eight when my father died. He had not been sick a long time, just a few weeks. He had not even seemed seriously ill: a fever and a cough. Not ill enough to die. Nnabuzo was sure that he had been poisoned by enemies of our family. Mama Nkemdilim, with the same degree of certitude, knew that I was the one who had killed him.
With his death came changes. Some things stopped immediately. Like school. Mama Nkemdilim did not see the point when she herself had not gone to school and had still been able to marry a good man. She had not gone to school and yet knew how to
do all that a woman of Nwokenta could do — clean, cook, fetch firewood, make a fire, make palm oil, farm, buy, sell, and bear children.
Other changes took a little more time. Like going to swim at Amata. More than school even, it was being unable to swim in the river that reminded me that, when one’s father dies, things change. Things that told me that love was not just food and shelter.
Mama Nkemdilim gave me a little food and shelter. In the morning, my broom went up and down our compound, creating neat lines on the red earth while Mama Nkemdilim’s children slept. My head bore pots of water from the stream. Then I warmed last night’s soup over the firewood I had fetched the day before. I went with her to the farm and we worked until she was tired or the children began to scream from the heat of the sun. I could do everything — peel egwusi, pound palm nuts for oil, fry garri. She made delicious, moist, palm-oil-reddened okpa and I sold them at Eke Nwokenta. Sometimes, when I had sold the okpa fast, I would stay and play oga with some of my friends at the market. Mama Nkemdilim did not like this, and if she found out, she sometimes made me go without food.
In the beginning, after my father died, I dreamt about him often. He came to me and took me to our river. But when the chores began to grow like storeyed buildings, one on top of the other, I would sleep as soon as my head touched my mat and stay dead to the world until Mama Nkemdilim shook me awake, calling me Amosu and asking me to come back from bloodsucking journeys. I mourned the loss of my dreams as I went about my duties, sometimes chanting my ABCs so as not to forget them.
But this was all before I went to Lagos. As I sat in the shaky bus, jingling this way then that way like an ichaka, I tried not to be too excited. Yet excitement took up residence in my heart; living in the city could not be worse than living with Mama
Nkemdilim, I thought. My belly threatened to pour its contents on my neighbours — on the woman who wiped my dried tears with her spit, and the dry-looking man who slept most of the way, his mouth wide open, dripping saliva. Even that could not blunt the edge of my excitement.
Things were not as I imagined they would be in Lagos. Papa Emma and his family lived in a flat in Apapa, and they had neighbours from all the parts of Nigeria who spoke different languages — Edo, Yoruba, Itsekiri, and pidgin. Living with them was different and yet it was the same. They did not send me to school, as Mama Nkemdilim had led me to believe they would. I worked as hard as I had when I’d lived with Mama Nkemdilim. I was cleaning, cooking, washing, and helping Mama Emma at her shop in the market. But I did not have the relief of laughing with other children at the...