Book Excerpt

 

 

Advice is a stranger. If he’s welcome he stays for the night. If not, he leaves the next day.

Malagasy Proverb

 

Four days before my wedding to Rabiu, my older sister Ladidi explained the reason for my siblings’ collective decision to boycott it.

“It is a very bad sign that your marriage is starting out with a car accident and someone dying,” she hissed. “We can’t take the risk. Someone has obviously cursed this marriage. Who knows what might happen there.”

Hearing the dread in her tone, I knew it was futile to try to persuade her otherwise, so I privately nursed my disappointment. I shuddered to imagine the next three days, participating in pre-ceremony rituals without the support of my dearest kin. I would instead prepare for my wedding day with a gathering of distant relatives and villagers who felt like strangers.

“Okay, that’s fine,” I said, nodding as I blinked back tears. “I understand.”

I pondered whether fate had weighed in on the unsuitability of my union with Rabiu. The man hadn’t been my choice and was not the type of man with whom I’d envisioned myself. But, in truth, a Muslim Hausa bride has no right to expect anything better than a dreary existence of servitude—her obedience ensured by regular beatins if deemed necessary. For me, making matters even worse, the wedding-weekend car accident had now tainted me in the eyes of my fiancé and my future in-laws. En route to our wedding in Yoko, Rabiu had been traveling with several friends and family members when the head-on collision occurred on a steep mountain-ridge road. One of his friends, a father of five, had died in the wreck. Another was paralyzed. Rabiu was injured and had to spend several weeks in the hospital. His family blamed all of this suffering on me, and it was doubtful I would ever procure atonement in their eyes.

Even before this tragedy, Rabiu already detested the sight of me. The decision regarding our nuptials had apparently neglected consideration of his physical tastes. Our union had been prescribed by our families, a long-held tradition of the Hausa tribe. Some Muslim tribes in Cameroon embraced more progressive Christian views of marriage, and permitted their daughters to marry who they desired. But since I was a tiny girl I knew my destiny would entail an arranged union to a Hausa man, presumably a friend of my father or grandfather. In the Hausa tradition women could not go to heaven unless married. It was a blessing for a girl’s eternal salvation to be secure—some as young as 13 or 14. I was considered lucky to have a husband chosen for me when I was 16.

Still, despite the doubt, dread, and guilt that plagued me, I grasped at crumbs of hope. Maybe the marriage would be tolerable. I needed to believe it was possible.

Once Rabiu recovered from his injuries, the wedding was rescheduled for a day in August. In preparation for the nuptials, I had been living with my half-siblings Ladidi, Umi, Amamatou, and Mohamed in Yaounde—a developing city in Cameroon, Africa two hundred miles from the compound in Yoko where we had grown up. My father owned several houses in Yaounde, including the one we lived in. Each of us had been sent to live there for different reasons. For me the catalyst had been the day I hit the principal at school with a stick, compounded by the fact I argued with his beloved third wife, Alede. Mohammed was sent to Yaounde shortly after I was, for similar acts of rebellion. I thought he missed me after I left, and intentionally tried to get kicked out. But it wasn’t a punishment exactly. My father also wanted us to receive a better education, since the schools in Yoko stopped at eighth grade.

I enjoyed living in the city, and relished the luxuries it afforded—namely running water, electricity, and educational opportunities. My father’s compound was the first and only household in Yoko with electricity, a development revered as magical, heralded just a couple years before I left. I embraced the awareness that our family was fortunate, owing to my father’s unprecedented financial success. Most people in the village back home couldn’t afford modern amenities, even after they had become accessible.

As my siblings were refusing to attend the wedding, I had no alternative but to travel to Yoko for seventeen hours in a public van. I got on at five a.m. and shoehorned myself onto one of the bench seats amid a sea of sweating strangers whose bodies collided against mine with each jolt and turn. The air smelled of heat and dust. I rounded my shoulders and leaned forward, pressing my thighs together tightly to create space between myself and the elderly man squashed up against my side. All the while I mourned my siblings’ abandonment.

The passage between Yaounde and Yoko was scarcely populated with villages of two or ten homes, inhabited by families and tribes that lived off the land. Huts were made of organic materials, unlike the cement floors and walls that characterized modern dwellings, with barely enough roof cover to prevent rainfall from turning the dirt floors into mud. As we journeyed deeper into the bush, I stared out the van window as villagers sprung from behind the lush vegetation along the road. Their gaunt limbs and sullied clothes spoke nothing of the optimistic spirit displayed as their handswaved in the air, cheering at theapproaching van. Sometimes travelers stopped along the road to share what food they had, but the public van never pulled over. I cradled my knapsack to my abdomen as the van hiccupped along, remembering the stale, buttered bread I intended to share with my relatives in Yoko.

When it started to rain, the overcrowded van slowed to a crawl. The van was near to approaching Yoko when the flat, expansive landscape shifted into small mountains and hills. The driver maneuvered apprehensively along the narrow, slippery dirt path through the undeveloped countryside and over steep mountain ledges. Despite the lack of modern amenities and a population of less than a thousand, Yoko was a developed society when compared to the villages in the surrounding bush. The village was divided into quarters, territories delineated by the tribal language spoken.

Rectangular, cement houses lined either side of the main road as the van passed through the Christian territories of the Vute, Bravec, and Trikar tribes. The Vutes inhabited nearly eighty percent of Yoko, followed in numbers by the Bravec and Trikar tribes. The Hausa tribe, to whom I belonged, was the only Muslim tribe in Yoko, a stark minority representing five percent the population. Hausa quarters comprised around twenty families, distinguishable from the Vute, Bravec, and Trikar quarters by tall fences that encircled each property, shrouding from public view the children and wives that lived inside.

Though the distance was less than two hundred miles, the van did not pull into my father’s compound until ten o’clock at night. I unfurled my limbs and climbed out with great relief. The smell of earth hung in the wet evening air, enlivening my stiff joints and stirring nostalgia. As the van pulled away, I took a moment to breathe it all in. I saw the lights were on at my father’s house—which stood as a gatekeeper at the entrance to the compound. A tall fence and lush vegetation encircled the entire compound, enveloping the society within it in secrecy and protection. Just past the entrance, I could see the common ground in the center of six houses where women and children gathered to talk, eat, and play. It was the heart of the compound—where the family celebrated and sustained communal life.

Each of my father’s four wives lived with their children in a separate house, all identical. Another house accommodated boys who had outgrown the innocence required to cohabit with girls. The identities of the women and children living in the four houses fluctuated over the years. I had grown up in the house closest to my father’s. Memories of my mother’s exile flooded my mind, and in my travel-weary state I could barely hold back the tears. Despite the four years that had passed since my father had hurled my mother into the bush to fend for herself, my chest ached with the intensity of a fresh realization. My father still denied her permission to set even one foot inside his compound—and my wedding day was no exception.

I knew this night would be the last time I would be allowed to enter my father’s compound without the written authorization of my husband. Though bonds with my relations in Yoko had weakened in the two years I had spent in Yaounde finishing high school, still I found solace in my sense of where I belonged. After my marriage was official, I would no longer belong to my family. I perceived this debarment as needlessly tragic—intensified by my realization that Rabiu would hold the passkey to both my family visits and, according to our beliefs, to my salvation after death.

The marriage would be irrevocable only as long as Rabiu approved of my efforts to gratify him, regardless of my level of fulfillment. Hausa men were encouraged to fling their wives away if they grew bored or otherwise dissatisfied. On the other hand, if a Hausa woman was to quit her husband, she might as well stamp on her forehead the following three words: damned to hell. If she wasn’t sent to the grave by her husband, she would arrive before her time if she lacked means to sustain herself.

Marriage was different for Christian women in Yoko. While some entered into polygamous arrangements, it was by their own choice. Christian fathers viewed their daughters as precious, and warned husbands of the consequences for treating them with disregard. If a marriage soured, Christian girls were assured of a permanent haven within the family fold. In addition to a supportive family structure, many Christian women were educated and could support themselves. But it wasn’t so among Hausa women. A Muslim girl’s father told her that once married, she could never come back—even if her own husband wanted to kill her. She was taught to accept every problem in the marriage as her fault. Most Hausa Muslims were married when they were 13, didn’t know the alphabet, and lacked any trade skills. Options for survival outside marriage were limited.

Growing up in Yoko, I had witnessed one of my older half-sisters’ attempts to flee her marriage. One night, she had weakly stumbled to my father’s house—her swollen, bruised face caked with dried blood. She beseeched my father for refuge from her husband’s brutal beatings, but her hysterical pleas didn’t sway him. He refused her sanctuary for even one night. Instead, she was accompanied back to her husband— with a harsh directive to entreat him for forgiveness.

My fears were momentarily brushed away by the greeting I received just minutes after stepping out of the oppressive van. I was immediately surrounded by children, most of them my half-siblings, who flung their arms around me. The impact of their liveliness weakened my footing and dislodged a surprised laugh. They expectantly thrust out their hands, and I reached into my bag and pulled out small slices of hard buttered bread I’d brought to share.

My father’s current wives, daughters, aunts, cousins, along with women from the village had gathered in anticipation of my arrival. I didn’t recognize many of them. To them I was a remote relative who belonged to their fellowship because of my father. It was their obligation to prime me for the wedding. I marveled. If they felt a lack of authentic affinity for me—it didn’t show. They encircled me with a spirited, celebratory welcome of dancing and laughter.

I allowed my conflicted emotions to slip into the black night and embraced the merriment. The group of chattering, delighted women and children led me to one of the wives’ houses. All of their homes were identically appointed with a living room, kitchen, and two bedrooms, walls and floors crafted of gray cement. The day’s heat lingered even now, long after the sun had disappeared, but through the open windows and doors the dewy air and faint breeze carried refreshment. I was thankful they had not chosen to congregate in my mother’s old dwelling—it was hard enough for me to quash my pain at her absence.

Once inside, the women invited me to sit on a plush purple pillow. An elderly woman from the village, Amaziah, prepared a paste of herbs and water. She then painted meticulously detailed crimson designs on the canvas of my chocolate-colored hands and feet. My breath mellowed as I yielded to her warmth and attention.

She sat crouched in front of me, wearing a wide, knowing smile. “This is a new life for you and that life has one secret,” she said, her words deliberate. She took a deep, satisfied breath. “If you want everything to go well for the rest of your life, listen carefully. If your husband says ‘do,’ you do. If your husband says, ‘no,’ you say okay. If he points to a green pillow and tells you it’s yellow, just agree with him.”

I nodded graciously. As she spoke, the trenches encircling her mouth and marring her brow distracted me. They struck me as uncharacteristically deep for a woman only in her thirties. Despite her enthusiasm, her hollow eyes betrayed the integrity of her words. I wondered if there was ever a day in her life on which she had experienced fulfillment or delight. She averted my gaze and fidgeted with her headdress, suddenly aware I was seeking beyond her words for a clue of how my future might unfold.

I listened as they sang a blessing, and then a younger, newly married girl said quietly, “Never discuss anything with your husband. Never give your opinion.”

I lowered my head and nodded deferentially.

“That’s right,” said another woman whom I didn’t know. I guessed she was in her mid-twenties. She knit her eyebrows together. “People say marriage is difficult, but it’s not that hard. Really. There’s only one secret. You always say yes to your husband.”

The others murmured syllables of agreement, expressing their solidarity. I sat motionless and smiled respectfully.

“That’s right. If he wants something, get it,” she continued. Buoyed by the other women’s support, she spoke with mounting confidence. “If he needs something, do it for him. Is it really that difficult to do what your husband wants? After all, without him you will not go to heaven. Simply do whatever he wants you to do and you will be happy for the rest of your life.”

“Thank you,” I said. My heart was genuinely filled with gratitude for their sincerity.

I wanted to believe their words, as a child hopes a flickering candle burning in the deep of night bridles evil to an infernal pit. I longed to trust that I might find happiness in the relinquishing of my opinions in deference to my husband. I was secure in my ability to be pliant and self-effacing—confident in my identity as a peacemaker. I had always respectfully obeyed my mother and father. A longing for peace had roused me to inspire harmony while my mothers and siblings lived out their jealousies and strife. I knew I possessed the ability to express a generous spirit that was entirely devoted to the gratification of my husband’s hankerings. I only hungered for one thing in return— to never be tossed aside—to never suffer the fate of my mother.

Iwondered if I had already seen too much through the unfiltered perceptions of a small girl to ever anticipate a polygamous marriage with optimism. Of one fact I was certain—there was no way for a man to have many wives and love them all. The human heart isn’t readily equipped to give in selfless devotion to even one other, let alone many. Even if my father had nobly aspired to accomplish the feat of truly loving each of his wives, cultural standards didn’t require him to channel his carnal urges exclusively to them. Nor was he expected to divide his attention equally for the sake of their feelings. But knit into the hearts of the women who raised me was an unquenched yearning for exclusivity, to be set apart as special. The biological imprint remained despite generations of women who had first endured the marital arrangement, a longing that refused to surrender quietly to death.

My father had only four wives at any given time, a limit that was imposed by the Koran. My mother was his first wife, known in the compound as Big Sister. It was meant to be a term of reverence due to her status as the oldest, but I thought it dehumanizing the way she didn’t have a name. My father chose Amina as his second wife within the first year of marriage to my mother. Born in the same remote village as my father, Amina possessed a commonality with him that suddenly cast my mother in the light of a stranger. It was a fleeting advantage because just a few months after Amina settled into her new life, my father married Alede. She was a Christian from the village, but had eagerly converted to the Muslim faith. Alede’s striking beauty and zeal for sex had proved to be a powerful cocktail of influence over my father. Rumors had circulated that her charm had fully squashed my father’s lust for more, and they seemed true when he didn’t take another wife for several years. But then he married Furera.

When Furera entered the compound on her wedding day, she had exuded a bullish confidence fueled by the short-lived distinction she had received as a newcomer. She was younger than the first three wives had been when they married my father. In fact, she was in the same class at school as my older brother Amadou, only five years older than me. She was the only wife who had finished primary school. Her pride that she could read animated her otherwise quiet demeanor with a loud presence.

My father, El Haj Na Allah, spent two weeks exclusively with his unseasoned bride, disrupting the established nightly rotation. Mama and the two other wives reverently cooked, cleaned, and anticipated the honeymooners’ needs with grace and decorum. Despite the fact my father never acted in violence, he had the power to snuff out the subtlest whiff of assertion with the intimation of divorce. So the displaced wives didn’t dare protest.

After abundant consummation of the marriage, Furera was integrated into the weekly rotation of duties. The methodical organization of daily life sustained the fragile balance between the wives’ blended purpose and individualities. Two days and nights of service—six days of reprieve. Communal activities of giving birth, caring for children, cooking, sharing meals, and cleaning united the women during the daylight hours. When the moon began to rise, a hush fell on the compound. The women were once again separate—each retiring to their respective houses to sit in their living rooms and prepare to sleep.

My father’s wives’ duties included cleaning and cooking meals for the entire compound. Between the women, their children, and visiting relatives and friends, it was common that forty-five people hungrily anticipated meals. When it was their rotation to cook, it was also their charge to share a bed with my father. On nights it was my mother’s turn, she first checked to see if my sisters and I were asleep. As she closed the bedroom door, I strained to hear her footsteps as she silently padded out of the house. I often would spring out of bed and spy out the window as she disappeared into a veil of darkness and cricket lullabies.

In the beginning, Furera had aspired to distinguish herself from the others with effusive gifts of service and exuberant submission. It seemed for a time that her efforts were fruitful.

“Where is Furera?” Alede asked my mother one morning at breakfast.

“Oh, El Haj took her to work with him at the store today,” my mother replied.

“What? Are you sure that’s where she went?” Alede asked, her voice trembling.

“Yes, she told me that El Haj wanted to spend the day with her, that he couldn’t stand to be apart from her.”

As Alede’s face contorted with jealousy, I thought I glimpsed the slightest flicker of enjoyment brighten my mother’s eyes.

“Are you telling me the truth?” Alede asked, whining like a child.

“Why would I lie?” my mother replied.

For years Alede had brazenly flaunted her status as my father’s long-held favorite. She knew my mother and Amina despised her for it.

That evening Furera re-entered the compound arm in arm with my father, laughing and reeking of sardines, a coveted delicacy. It was a humiliation Alede had no intention to swallow. Her wounded pride stiffened her jaw, broadened her shoulders, and ignited a restless determination to reclaim what was once hers.

When my father bought new dresses for my mothers, he assembled them in a pile on the ground in the heart of the compound. Then he summoned the women to gather around his gifts. My father granted Furera, his newest bride, first dibs as a reward for being the youngest and freshest thing. She fervently sifted through the garments, determined to lay claim to the most distinctive and extravagant one. My mother, Amina, and Alede knew it was futile to try to discern between them. Just as my clothes were the same as my sisters’ in color and style, my mothers’ clothes were like uniforms, the homogeneity of their wardrobe reflecting the merging of their individual identities into one. But that day the jaded indifference was startled right out of my mother and Amina when Furera reeled in from the pool of green fabric a striking purple dress embellished with ornate beadwork.

Furera’s coveted status hadn’t lasted long—two months at most. The order of things began to shift again the day it was confirmed she was pregnant with her first child. While she was still required to participate in the rotation of cooking and cleaning, she was no longer permitted to visit my father at night.

“Why can’t I spend the night with El Haj?” she asked Alede.

“Because, if you sleep with him your child will come out a snake, if breathing at all,” Alede replied.

“Oh,” Furera said, stricken. “When will I be allowed again?”

“You can’t sleep with him for maybe a year after the baby is born. If you do his sperm will infect your breast milk and your child will get sick or die,” Alede explained.

Within days of learning of Furera’s pregnancy, my father quit requesting her assistance at the store during the day. It was the first time her steady burning light flickered and rippled like the flame of a candle right before a gust of wind snuffs it out. Then just when Furera’s power had begun its descent, Alede emerged one morning from my father’s house waving her underwear in the air.

“Ah, El Haj and I had such a great night. I’m so tired though, we didn’t even sleep!” she boasted.

During that first year of marriage I watched Furera’s spirit vaporize like a faint gray stream of smoke rising from the ashy debris of a once enrapturing fire. Her path to displacement had followed an already established trajectory from enraptured romance to pregnancy. So Furera joined my mother and Amina as they sluggishly moped about the compound sparing smiles and pleasantries. But Alede resisted the spiritual death that threatened to overtake her in the presence of the ever-fluctuating hierarchy through whatever means she could, even if it meant using black magic or distorting reality altogether.

Childbearing had diminished Alede’s physical allure when fat cells began to congregate on her stomach and hips, excluding her arms and legs. Her once well-proportioned, slender physique had shifted into the resemblance of a chicken. But it didn’t hinder her confidence. What she lacked physically, she made up for with her tenacity to battle for position.

I remember one day in particular. It was mealtime. The other children had finished eating and had hurried off to play. The women squatted on the ground around the oversized communal plate. With their fingers they scraped from the smooth edges the last of the fufu. I waited for them to finish so I could help my mother clean, since it was her turn to ready the meals that day and then spend the night with my father.

“I’ve been looking for El Haj Na Allah all morning,” my mother grumbled. “He has been so busy today!”

Just then Alede unexpectedly called out, “Na-am! Na-am!” She hastily rose to her feet and swaggered toward my father’s house.

“Where is she going?” one of the women asked. “Did you hear someone calling her?”

“No, I didn’t hear anyone,” my mother answered, with dispassionate curiosity.

The women all turned to see where Alede was running to. When she passed out of sight behind my father’s house, they exchanged baffled glances. After a few minutes she reappeared— frolicking.

“I don’t know what El Haj wants from me. He’s been calling me all morning,” she crowed. She shook her head, touching her fingers to her parted lips. “When I go there, he doesn’t say anything. He just looks at me and smiles.”

She exhaled loudly and then plopped herself down on the ground, eyes glowing with satisfaction.

“I don’t understand why he keeps calling me like that. I just don’t understand why,” she said, smirking.

My mother couldn’t resist engaging her. “Oh, so he’s been calling you, looking at you, and smiling?” My mother’s eyes narrowed. “Tonight is my turn, and I’ve been calling and looking for him this morning. He’s very busy! Now you’re telling us he’s been calling you all morning? So what are you trying to say?”

Alede turned defensive. “He can call me! He’s my husband!” she retorted, with a snort of laughter.

“Your husband? Your husband? He’s our husband!” my mother burst out. Her voice shook, declaring her vulnerability.

Alede smugly pursed her lips and raised her chin—gratification glimmered in her eyes. Then she flounced off to her house.

I wondered if my mother’s stay that night with my father was marred by uncertainty about her appeal and value. She never confessed her insecurities, if any existed.

I had paid too close attention to the hate my mother, Amina, Alede, and Furera had hurled at each other. The agony of living with such a hungry need to be special rumbled just beyond detection, but could be roused to churn a feast of hostility at the slightest provocation. When they weren’t grasping for the admiration of my father, their animosity found expression in fighting about us children.

“You put a curse on Adijah, didn’t you?” Alede accused Amina. “I know it’s why she isn’t learning at school.”

“I didn’t curse your daughter, you bitch! Everyone knows you’re the one who has some kind of witch craft.”

“Stop denying it, I know it was you who cursed her!” Alede insisted.

“You’re the one that has psychics visiting you in the compound! Everyone believes you cast a spell on El Haj to make him want you. If I had that kind of power don’t you think I would do worse than make your daughter so dumb?” Amina snorted.

When the bickering had ignited into a blazing bush fire that threatened to destroy the foundation of life in the compound, my father called a meeting with the intention to smolder the flame.

“I’m not going to change,” he declared. “Just give up fighting. If you aren’t grateful for all I provide, the life I give you, I’ll see to it that you leave.”

Soon after that meeting anxious whispers infested the compound with reports that El Haj had been spotted holding hands with a young girl from the village. An uneasy hush fell on the wives as they contemplated the possibility that one day they might be rotated out of the compound altogether. Despite the hardship of their arrangement, life outside my father’s provision would be destitute. Even though the law permitted my father only four wives, it did not forbid him to marry again and again. Like in cards, he could take a new wife if he first relinquished ownership of one to the discard pile. There weren’t rules dictating which wife was released, that choice was at his sole discretion. No one was safe, and so the expectation of a lofty love plummeted into an embittered plea for survival.

After the rituals of beautification and advice giving were finished, the women spread out cloth mats to sleep on across the living room floor. I did the same, curling into a corner of the room. I resisted the heaviness in my eyes and limbs. I willed myself to stay awake for just a few more minutes so that I might grasp the clarity my mind was reaching for.

As I lay awake, staring into the darkness, I thought about my mother and wondered what advice she would have given me that night. Would she have inspired me to hope that the secret to marriage was a simple act of surrender? Her own marriage had served as a testament to the contrary. I grappled to imagine how our conversation would have unfolded. My mother and I had never shared our internal thoughts and perceptions that way. I had privately held my inner world to my heart. I had always been too reserved to feel at ease in the expression of it, despite assurances of her availability to listen.

We had never talked about the reasons she often appeared despondent, withdrawn, and vacant. She had erected a mountain between us. I sensed it was to shelter me. She had always encouraged me to play with the other children in the compound and ignore burdens too heavy for a mere child.

Still, it was difficult not to absorb her darkness in the evenings when she, my siblings, and I retired to our house. I struggled to filter which emotions belonged to her, perceiving her melancholy and despair as mine. I wondered then if she had ever, would ever, feel joy or bliss. During the day, when the house was empty, I often found refuge in the solitude. Sometimes, in that stillness, I blubbered and bawled for hours at a time—attempting to release the suffocating grip of sadness.

It was as if my mother had heard my longing for her that night. She was there whispering to me through my memories of her, “Don’t let what happened to me become your story too. You can have a different life.”

I let these imagined words comfort me as I drifted to sleep.

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