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Mountain of Yesterday: Elders divided over Amina

Jun 09, 2017
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“Of course you’re right, Ichie Edordu. But let’s not be too hardened on this matter. Don’t forget that the other women you talked about all spoke our language and largely shared similar beliefs with our people. This woman is from a totally different and distant land,” Abala said.

Ikuku turned sharply toward Abala and hollered, “Do you know the implication of what you’re saying? Are you suggesting we abandon the only thing that discourages our wives from conspiring with our enemies to kill us? What is really going on here? Or am I the one that is out of my mind?” He stretched forth his hand to Edordu. “Ichie Edordu, please pinch me let me know if I am still in this world.”

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The assembly roared in support.

Obodo looked across the room and countered. “But come to think of it, there could be a point in what Abala is saying. This is a woman from the hilly North. Their ways are completely different from ours.”

Chineke! Ichie Obodo, you too have joined them. Tufiakwa! Please, you people should permit me to leave before you provoke the anger of the gods on all of us. Have we all lost our minds? Are we now a people without traditions, tossed about by whichever wind comes?” Chief Ikuku said.

All the while, Chief Obodo sat quiet and deep in thought. The chief priest, seated on the floor at the far corner of the hut in his red apparel and dada hair, appeared to be oblivious to their arguments. He would intermittently mumble some incantations and jiggle the staff in his left hand, the clanging of the tiny bells on the iron rod further heightening the din in the hut.

Unlike the united voice that protested Udoka’s violation of the rites of kpakpando, the refusal of Amina to adhere to their request this time had not met with similar collective condemnation.

Obodo knew that the community was equally divided on the issue, so the inability of the chiefs to reach a consensus on the case was not surprising to him. He watched as the elders canvassed their divergent positions on the matter.

In times past, when they had such conflicting views, he would adjourn the meeting to give time for further reflection. But they did not have such luxury now as time was running out. The community was beginning to demand that their son be allowed to rest in peace. He flashed a look across the meeting and signaled for calm.

He expressed regrets that the fabrics which held the community together were being gradually decimated by circumstances that were most unfortunate. He said he completely opposed the erosion of their age-long values and beliefs but, as elders, he advised that they must know when to compromise and review their stand lest the entire roof collapsed upon them. He reminded the house that leadership was nothing if followers were not on the same page with it. The high chief disclosed that reports reaching him indicated the youths of the village were mobilizing to protest the elders’ rigid position on Amina’s case. “As painful as it is, my people, it will be difficult to maintain the peace in the village if we continue to stick to our position,” he said.

Edordu broke in, “Ichie Obodo, you’ve abandoned our tradition. This line you’re toeing is a dangerous one.” He glared across the assembly. “My brothers, stand, let’s go,” he howled.

“Take it easy, Ichie Edordu. You’re always too much in a hurry. You don’t lick hot soup in haste. Yes, I can understand your pains but please let’s allow this particular incident to pass. At least to enable us first commit our son to Mother Earth,” Abala said.

Ikuku turned to Abala. “This is not our custom . . . mba nu, I disagree. Even if you all succumb to this, I will never . . . over my dead body,” he said, his tiny frame quivering as he spoke.

Obodo looked at their faces. He said, “It’s a difficult one, really. But the truth is that the longer the body remains in the mortuary the more our people will be angry.”

“Thank you. You see what I mean? Let us tread with caution,” Abala said.

Lamenting the dilemma in which they found themselves, Obodo cautioned that in order not to further provoke the wrath of the gods all subsequent customary requirements must be complied with. He concluded by pleading for restraint and understanding on this particular issue.

Edordu glanced furiously across the place and muttered, “It’s OK. We have heard you, Ichie Obodo.” He stood and turned to Chief Ikuku. “Stand, let’s leave. The animal that escapes the hunter today remains a target for tomorrow,” he said and walked angrily toward the exit.

“Hold on!” the chief priest bellowed. The audience froze. He rose and began to pace about the small hut. “A man cannot be in the house and a goat will give birth in tethers. A child does not point out their former house to his father. We cannot urinate in the house because of the darkness without. You all must act fast before you bring the calamity of the gods upon the land.”

“Chief priest, please can you speak in clearer terms?” Madu said as he glared at the white circle around the priest’s left eye, drawn with the paste of native chalk, nzu.

The chief priest jiggled the rod in his hand and shook his head. He walked to the door of the hut and turned to the elders. “You don’t scratch the eye with same thing you use to scratch the ear. You cannot be so hungry that you’ll eat your tongue. I see disaster ahead. The anger of the gods is boiling over.”

Edordu glanced impatiently around. “What’s to be done, chief priest?” he asked.

“That woman from the hilly North must meet the demands of the land,” the chief priest yelled. “The only option is for her to spend three nights alone at the shrine of the village and let the gods determine her fate,” he said and walked out of the meeting.

The elders watched in silence as he exited the compound and then, in dispirited countenance, they all began to leave the hut. They had not drunk of the palm wine presented by Chief Obodo. Usually, whenever they had such heated debates, they would stay back after the meeting proper to cool off with palm wine. But this day was different. They walked out of the building and headed in their different directions.

Edordu accompanied Ikuku out of the place. They pushed their bicycles along as they discussed the outcome of the meeting.

“I’m beginning to wonder what’s come over him,” Edordu said. “You mean Chief Obodo?” Ikuku asked.

“Yes.”

“Thank you! He’s been acting strange lately. I can’t believe he’s the one saying all what he said today.”

“That’s very unlike him.”

“Something must be wrong somewhere . . . we must find out what that thing is . . . are you sure the absconding of that his young wife has not affected his head?”

“Well, whatever it is, thank God that the chief priest was there to bring him back to his senses.”

Ikuku stopped. With a scowl on his face he said, “How’re you sure he’s been brought to his senses? We need to do something before the situation gets out of hand . . . I’m happy you heard what the chief priest said.”

“Yes, but what are we going to do? Can you imagine that some of the chiefs are with Obodo on this, too?”

Ikuku signaled him to come with him to a bush path on an obscure side of the road. They walked on the desolate stretch and stopped.

“We need to forget Ichie Obodo for now. Don’t be surprised that his views will shift again tomorrow. You know how unsteady he can be. Let’s focus on Udoka’s wife . . . is it not when a person is alive that he or she can have an opinion?” Ikuku said.

With a flourish of enthusiasm Edordu hailed, “Ikuku, nwa dike! What have you got up your sleeves this time?”

“Let’s kill her and bring an end to all this rubbish. I don’t know about you . . . me, I can’t take it any more,” Ikuku said.

Edordu tightened his lips and nodded. “But how? When?”

“I suggest we do it now to enable us go on with the burial . . . or do you think we go ahead with the burial and do it thereafter so as to appease the gods with her blood?”

Edordu looked thoughtfully away and began to tap his hands on the bicycle seat. “Hmmm . . . that’s to say, should we first wash our hands before eating the monkey or do we go ahead to eat the monkey and wash our hands thereafter?”

“Tough choice, I guess.”

“It’s OK. We do it now.”

“Good.”

“But are you ready to see it through?”

“Just give me your cooperation. That’s all I need. The dog says you should just drop the pieces of bones and leave him to contend with the gods. Edordu, don’t you trust me any longer?”

Chief Edordu beamed at him and gave a sardonic grin.

* * * * *

Uncle Madu got home and leaned his bicycle on the wall of the house. Isioma was sitting on a long bench under the orange tree while Nkiru was taking in the clothes she had washed and left to dry on the long drying lines beside the house. The lines consisted of ropes whose two ends were usually fastened to sticks that stood some meters apart. He waved aside their greetings and entered the house. In five minutes he had breezed out. He pulled up his bicycle and began to edge out of the premises.

Nna anyi, where are you going again at this time? It’s getting dark,” Nkiru said.

“I need to meet up with an appointment,” he said.

She asked why he did not make the appointment before coming home. He did not answer further enquiries from her but simply rolled his bicycle out and rode away.

In ten minutes, he had reached the residence of Chief Abala. Smoke from firewood, presumably for the evening meal, billowed from the open space of the backyard. Abala welcomed him into the house and asked what urgent matter could have brought him that late after the meeting they’d just had. As he made to call for drinks and kola nuts, Madu beckoned him not to bother.

“My brother, I have come so we can put heads together and quickly find a solution to this Amina problem,” Madu said. He stressed that the warning of the chief priest was too grievous to be taken lightly. Abala stood and asked him to come along. They both walked out of the door and sat on the long bench beside the wall of the mud house.

“Abala, nwokem, I haven’t been myself since we left the house of Obodo. I’ve been thinking about the matter and from what I’ve seen it does not seem that Amina is going to submit to washing the corpse of her husband and drinking the water,” Madu said. He added that the option given by the chief priest appeared to be the only way left to avert the looming calamity on the community, emphasizing that they must make a concerted effort to convince Amina to sleep at the ancestral shrine of the village for the mandatory three days.

Abala patiently listened to him while he tried to explain the situation. He tapped his foot and tightened his lips as he watched his visitor. He could see the seriousness in Madu but was not so sure what his intentions really were. He had noted the views expressed by Madu in several of their meetings. Although he acknowledged that Madu had not been as uncompromising as some of the hardliners among the chiefs, Chief Abala had his fears about abandoning the bereaved woman alone for three days and nights in the forest; very few women had survived the ordeal.

Even though Abala could not confirm or deny the complicity of Amina in the death of Udoka, he believed that she was from a different society and culture and should not be subjected to rituals that only had meaning to the natives. He tried to explain these facts to Madu but when he noticed he was still insisting on compelling Amina to go to the village shrine, Abala simply concluded that he would not be party to that arrangement.Madu, leaving his residence, said he was heading for the home of Ikuku.

*****************************************************

It was a sunny Thursday morning and the last day for Amina to subscribe to the customary requirement of the land. Abala had battled all through the night to properly situate his discussions with Madu. As he recalled the desperation that undergirded Madu’s arguments, the thought came to him that if he truly desired to protect the defenseless widow he had to do more than just sit at home and moralize over the issue. He donned his black long shirt and brown trouser, adjusted his red cap and set out for the rectory. The gloomy outlines on the faces of the girls he met on their way to the stream and women returning from farm with loads of firewood on their head underscored the tension that had enveloped the community.

Father Akaduchi had locked up and was about to leave the yard when Abala arrived. He stepped back and shot a curious gaze at him, knowing that it was not usual for the elderly chief to visit. The priest could count the times Abala had come to the church premises; they were all on Sundays. He waited for him to properly park his bicycle, made the sign of the cross and welcomed the chief to his abode.

As the priest walked his visitor to the empty church hall, Abala said, “Father, I know you’ll be surprised at my visit. I can see you’re hurrying somewhere, too. Please spare a few moments, I won’t take much of your time.”

They both sat on one of the long church benches while Abala narrated his mission to the priest. He expressed fears about the safety of Amina, saying that it was not in his character to protect people who had flouted the rules of the community. However, something told him the life of the bereaved woman might be in danger, particularly as that day was the deadline for compliance with the ritual. He noted that many hardliners among the elders truly believed that such violation of the traditions as Amina had done would spell disaster for the community. In his opinion, these people might go to unimaginable lengths to avert what they saw as a calamity that could come upon them, their family and generations unborn. “I beg you, Father, find a means to take that woman away to a place of safety,” Abala pleaded.

“Bless you . . . thank you for your kind concern, Chief. In fact, I was just about setting out to meet some people who have invited me over the matter,” Father Akaduchi said.

“Please, we really need to do something fast,” Abala said.

“Sure, I agree totally with you. I can feel what the poor woman is going through. That was exactly how they accused my mother of witchcraft in our village.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes. You needed to see how they subjected her to all manner of rituals . . . of course, the poor woman never recovered from it.”

“Don’t tell me she died.”

He sighed and shook his head. “Please, Chief, let’s face the matter at hand. I don’t always want to remember her death.”

“Oh dear. Sorry, Father.”

“It’s OK. So, how possible will it be to pull Amina out of the house in this mourning period?”

Abala fixed his eyes on the floor in deep thought. “Hmmm. That’s true. You’re right, we just have to come up with a plan. It’s already past noon,” he said.

Ihe nka di kwa serious. Time is not on our side, but come, who else among the elders shares our opinion on this matter?”

“They all sound bitter but, ehm . . . I think Ichie Obodo may reason with us.”

“Ok, then, let’s meet at his residence two hours from now.”

**********************************************

As scheduled with Ikuku the previous day, Madu arrived at the ogbono tree on the outskirts of the village. He alighted from his bicycle and rolled it toward the bush path on the left side of the tree. Outlines of dampness had discolored his brown long shirt. He took off his red cap to wipe away the beads of sweat that had clustered on his forehead and walked a few minutes into the bush path to lay his bicycle on the ground. A tree trunk was five meters away. He went over and sat. The exertion of the ride had been aggravated by the scorching sun.

As he recuperated from the thirty-minute trip, he turned toward some rustling leaves further ahead. Ikuku appeared from the dense vegetation, clutching on to a black nylon bag.

“What took you so long?” he asked.

“Sorry, my brother. You know women with their problems. I had to attend to a little dispute between Nkiru and Isioma,” Madu said.

“It’s OK. Meanwhile, Edordu had to leave. He couldn’t wait any longer. He said he had an urgent matter to handle,” Ikuku said. His eyes darted about the place. He moved closer to Madu and brought out a small black pot and wrapped paper from the nylon bag. “Here they are. Ensure Nkiru does not fail. The items must not be touched by water,” he said.

Madu strained to pick his tiny voice as he took the materials from him and put them into his trouser pocket. “You’re sure it will work? I hope it’s strong enough?” he asked.

“Just play your own part and see what happens.”

“OK. I’ll reach you tomorrow.”

While Madu was readying to hurry out of the bush, Ikuku turned the right corner of the bush path and disappeared from sight.

Madu rode the long way home and, seeing that the cloud had begun to thicken, he chose the less busy pathways to avoid coming across familiar faces as he made a dash for home. He knew it would take more time to traverse those quieter routes, but he just could not afford the long greetings that follow such meetings as were likely to occur on the popular paths.

If there was anything he desperately desired it was to get home before the rains began to fall. As the wind blew a haze of dust into the air, he wiped his eyes to clear his view; then he began to ponder who between his two wives would be more appropriate for the assignment. Although he had assured Ikuku that he would get Nkiru, his second wife, to do the job, he suddenly became worried about her affections for Amina.

Even though Nkiru had curtailed her association with Amina because of his undisguised hostility toward the widow, he doubted her readiness to see the assignment to a logical conclusion. He then considered the option of involving Isioma, his first wife. All she needed to do was sprinkle the powdery substance on Amina’s food.

But again, while he was convinced of Isioma’s ability to accomplish the task, he wondered if her relationship with Amina was of such intimacy as would make the bereaved woman eat of her food or feel at ease eating in her presence. For only in such circumstance could he hope that the poison would be administered. After weighing both options, he settled for Isioma.

* * * * *

Father Akaduchi and Chief Abala got to the residence of Chief Obodo as scheduled. Although the old man duly welcomed them to his house, he expressed surprise at seeing both men together and jokingly asked if they had come to inform him that Abala was joining the seminary. Though they laughed briefly at the remark, the distressed countenance of his two visitors left Obodo in no doubt about the seriousness of their mission. Father Akaduchi wasted no time in briefing the octogenarian about the potential threats to the life of Amina. Abala followed up by stressing that they had a duty before God and man to find a way of taking the bereaved woman out of harm’s way.

Obodo saw with them but expressed worries about the challenge of relocating Amina from her residence during her mourning period. He noted that it was a taboo for her to step out of the house before the expiration of the mandatorily prescribed days of mourning.

“Let’s position village guards around her,” Abala said.

“How are we sure some of the guards have not bought into the warnings of the chief priest?” Obodo said.

“That’s a point,” Father Akaduchi said.

“Of course some misguided ones among them may be used to attack the poor woman,” Obodo said.

Father Akaduchi heaved a sigh and muttered, “Moreover, no person of the opposite sex is expected around the widow at this time.”

Eventually they all agreed to go by an idea proposed by Father Akaduchi. He would send five women to keep night vigil of prayers with Amina. The women would be specially selected by the priest from the most trusted of his congregation and they would remain with Amina until much after the funeral rites. The three men concluded that the presence of the prayer team around the woman would deter whoever had evil intentions toward her.

Father Akaduchi and Abala rose to depart and thanked Obodo for his understanding and cooperation.

* * * * *

Uncle Madu had sent for Isioma the moment he got home. She stepped into the sitting room sporting an orange wrapper tied around her chest, her chewing stick dangling in her mouth.

“Good afternoon, Nna anyi,” she greeted.

“You are welcome, my beloved. Please take a seat,” her husband said.

He took time to explain the calamity that loomed over the community because of the stubbornness of Amina. Although the chief priest had spoken in general terms about the possible misfortune that would befall the people, Madu specified that all first sons in the extended family of the bereaved would die in their youth, while the first daughters would be barren for life, if Amina remained adamant.

Isioma did not tarry for her husband to conclude before she rose from her seat and vowed to personally go and drag Amina to the shrine. But he calmed her down, saying there was no need for such violence and that there was a better way to bring the whole ordeal to an end once and for all. He stepped into the room and brought out the little pot and the black powder.

She fumed and stomped about the place as he untied the piece of paper, poured the black substance into the pot and shook it repeatedly to blend the contents. The instruction was simple: she was to sprinkle the contents into Amina’s drink or food. He had hardly finished with his comments before Isioma snatched the item from him and dashed out of the door. She hurried to her hut behind the main house and changed into a green blouse and brown wrapper.

Nkiru had always told her how much Amina loved the smoked salmon fish, groundnut paste and garden eggs prepared by her daughter. On her good days, she had given same to Nkiru to pass across to Amina. She now brought out a sizeable quantity of smoked fish, sprinkled the black substance on it and put it in a polythene bag.

It had begun to drizzle. Isioma pulled out her umbrella, fastened her wrapper around her stubby frame, and stormed out of the house with the bag. In a minute she was at the residence of Amina.

She noticed the large presence of women milling around the house singing Christian songs. On reaching the door, she buckled the umbrella and placed it by the wall, splattering some drops of water on the bag and her hands. She quickly brushed this off and went into the house. Amina was seated on the mat spread out on the floor.

“Our wife, how’re you doing today?” Isioma greeted. “Arrhh, long time! You’re welcome, ma,” Amina replied.

“It’s well, my daughter. We’ve been quite busy lately with farm work.”

“Yes, I can understand. How’s Nna anyi and the family?” Isioma grinned as she glanced across the room. “They’re fine. Nna Anyi sends his greetings.”

“Thank you. Please extend my regards to him. What can we bring for you?”

“Oh, we should be the ones bringing things to you,” Isioma said. Her face glowed with the milk of love, yet the heart raged with a thirst for blood. She drew up the bag and stretched forth her hand toward Amina. “Here, my daughter. I brought some smoked fish and garden eggs for you.”

Amina beamed with smiles and took the bag from her. “Wow. Thank you, ma. I haven’t tasted this in a while,” she said. She quickly drew the bag open. Her eyes gleamed and her stomach rumbled as she beheld her beloved delicacy. She was yet to have a meal that day. She called Amuebie to serve her some of it in a clean flat plate and put the rest away in the kitchen. Amuebie picked up the bag and left for the kitchen and, in no time, she had returned to the sitting room with the garden eggs and fish.

As she placed the plate beside her mother and began to eat with her, Isioma excused herself and left the place.

* * * * *

Madu strutted restlessly about the room, waiting for the return of his wife. He knew that a lot was at stake, for if anything went wrong with the mission, he would be finished in the community. But, as he imagined, success would not only mitigate the doom hanging over the village, it would also end the repeated embarrassment he had received from Amina and her late husband. More importantly, it would open up access to Udoka’s property. Lost in thought, he gave a start when Isioma tapped him on his shoulder.

“How did it go,” he bubbled.

“Very well, of course. Don’t you trust me?” she said.

“Did you give it to her? Did you see her eat it? Did. . .”

“It’s OK, my husband. By this time tomorrow the wailing across the land will still be on.”

“Isi! Isi! Who else could have been trusted enough to do this if not you, my dear wife.” With broad smiles on his face, he brought out the snuff box from his pocket and made for the next chair. “Abeg send any of the children to Ikezue bo! My snuff is almost finished,” he said with a profound sense of fulfilment.

“OK, Nna anyi.”

“And please look by that corner and get me the keg of palm wine from Elendu.”

“Arrhh, I’ll surely join you in celebrating this one.”

Eight

Chief Obodo was returning from the king’s palace on Monday morning when he noticed signs of trouble. The youths of the village were gathered at the village square, shouting and chanting war songs. Seeing that they were wielding machetes and sticks, threatening to unleash mayhem on the elders, he ducked into the corner of a building and watched from his safe hideout as they marched onto the major paths of the village.

He waited for a few minutes to ensure they had gone far before he emerged from his cover and hurried to his residence. Not quite an hour after he got home, messages began to reach him about how the youths had marched round the village, shutting down all activities in the vicinity. As the last visitor was leaving his house, his first wife, Adanma, walked into the sitting room from her hut behind the building.

Nna anyi, thank God you’re back o. We were beginning to worry,” she said.

“Where’s everyone? I hope they’re all at home?” Obodo asked.

“They are. Everyone is home except Njoku. He hasn’t returned since he left the house in the morning.”

Njoku was one of the teenage sons of the high chief and was generally seen as the most unmanageable of them all. Many a times he would be chased into their compound by a group of irate boys he had fought in the village. It would take the appeal of his mother to calm the nerves of his furious pursuers.

Obodo shook his head and gritted his teeth. “That boy will not kill me. I just hope he’s not part of that riotous group of youths that have turned the town upside down.”

After he had conferred with his wife, he asked her to send out one of the children to the elders. He needed to quickly gather them so they could find a way to stop the crisis from degenerating.

In no time, the family elders had arrived at his residence and all moved to the ogwa at the front of the house. Ordinarily, they could sit and discuss in the house, but for serious matters that required the full weight of traditional sanctions, the mud hut was the appropriate location.

Not quite a minute after the meeting commenced, Chief Ikuku raised his walking stick and pointed at Chief Abala. “Ikechukwu was the person spear-heading the protests of the youths today. I recognized the boy when they passed by my place. You need to see how he was rampaging all over the place,” he fumed.

Embarrassed and embittered, Abala retorted. “How could you say that, Ichie Ikuku. I heard there were many boys and girls involved in the protests. Don’t you think it’s possible you may have mistaken my son for someone else?”

Ikuku sat up, still clutching his walking stick. “I know what I’m saying. I may be old but my sight has not started failing me. I’m telling you that I saw the boy. You people are weakening our stance,” he said and angrily hit the stick on the floor, the rod slipping off his frail and small fingers.

“Come to think of it, there is little or nothing anyone can do to hold back young men these days from doing whatever they have agreed to do. We just may have to review our position,” Abala said.

“How do you mean?” Edordu said.

“Of course, that’s the situation. It may surprise you to know that Njoku, Ichie Obodo’s son, was part of them, too. Somebody said he sighted him with the mob,” Abala said.

The elders were divided along the arguments of both chiefs. While a few of them insisted they would not renege on their resolution, the majority of them were at odds with the resolution. Eventually they all grudgingly capitulated to the demands of the youths.

* * * * *

The burial of Udoka was held the following Wednesday but the exercise was boycotted by several of the chiefs. Although the traditions of the land forbade the old from physically appearing at the burial of younger siblings, the aggrieved chiefs technically indicated their disapproval of the exercise by preventing members of their immediate families from attending the funeral.

The wives and children of Uncle Madu were in attendance, yet the hostile stares of Isioma left no one in doubt of the tension within the family.

Isioma and her husband had not been able to understand why the poison they gave to Amina was yet to take effect; they continued to look out for every sight and sound that indicated the expected end.

Meanwhile, the burden of funding the funeral was largely left to Amina to bear. She managed to do so from what was left of her earnings. Her children returned to school a week after the burial ceremony, having missed out on much of their studies. They would need to work harder to catch up with the rest of the class. But that was not the major challenge that confronted the bereaved family.

The children had gone to farm as they always did at the weekends before the death of their father. On getting there, they noticed that a rope attached with pieces of red cloth, tiny calabashes and omu was used to cordon off the farm. Omu was a long piece of leaf pulled out of a palm frond and used as a traditional symbol of injunction.

They rushed back to notify their mother of the development. She was still observing the customary rites of bereavement which barred her from leaving the house or engaging in any form of work. She wondered why her children would be denied access to their father’s farm and sent Amuebie to Uncle Madu’s house to ask Nkiru to come over.

Nkiru came in and joined Amina where she was seated on the floor. “How’re you doing today, my sister?” Nkiru asked.

“We give God the glory,” Amina said.

“This one you have sent for me this morning, I hope all is well?”

“The children went to the farm but came back to report that the place has been sealed off.”

“Why? What happened?”

“I don’t know. How would I know when I’m seated here all day? I thought you might know or have heard something about it.”

“I honestly don’t have the slightest idea about it. But hold on. Let me go and see Nna anyi. He must be aware of this,” Nkiru said and left the house.

She returned some twenty minutes later to brief Amina of her findings. She informed her that the closure of the farm was a decision taken by the elders. A dispute had arisen between Uncle Madu and another member of the family over who was the proper person to inherit the land. Madu had laid claim to the property, being the oldest surviving direct relation of Udoka. But another member of the family had reasoned that the farm should be assigned to the general pool and split among members of the family. The elders had to intervene by keeping everyone out of the place pending a resolution of the dispute by the council of elders.

For a few minutes after Nkiru had finished speaking, Amina kept silent and stared at the floor. She shook her head for a moment and turned to Nkiru. “So, what happens to me and my children? You mean we don’t have a say over the property of their father? On which land are we going to farm? How are we going to survive?”

Nkiru bit her lips, rested her back on the wall and glanced at the ceiling. “They say property can only be inherited by male children,” she said.

“Ehen, what about Afamefune, my son?”

Nna anyi says your son is still too young to lay claim to any property.”

“Really? That means they can also come in here any day to dispossess us of this house.”

Nkiru sighed in exasperation. She held Amina by the hand and in a teary voice said, “Nna anyi is laying claim to the house too.”

“What!” Amina screamed.

“My dear, that is not just all. He says you have also become his wife in line with the customs of our people,” Nkiru said and folded her hands.

Startled and quivering, Amina grabbed Nkiru by the shoulder, “Nkiru, please tell me you’re joking,” she said.

“It’s the truth, my sister,” Nkiru muttered.

Two days had passed before the reality of the situation began to sink in. Further enquiries Amina made with visiting friends and sympathizers all confirmed that the disclosures by Nkiru were indeed the prevailing norms of the people. Amina observed that virtually every person she spoke to did not think it as despicable and distasteful as they did the issue of the corpse and bath water. But she still could not resign herself to the fact that she was to become the wife of Uncle Madu or any other person for that matter. Remarrying was the last thing on her mind. While she was willing to forfeit the property of her husband to whoever was laying claim to them, the question of having another man would have to be at her own time and volition.

As she pondered the problem, she thought of who else she could bare her mind to. She remembered Father Akaduchi. She called Afamefune and asked him to proceed quickly to the rectory. The young boy was no stranger to the place, for apart from attending Sunday service with his parents and sisters, he occasionally went there to help out the Reverend Father with house chores. He squeezed into his shirt and dashed off on the errand.

In time, Father Akaduchi arrived at the residence of Amina. His white cassock shone in the light of the day’s sun as he made the sign of the cross. She took time to outline all she had been going through since the death of her husband and, though Father Akaduchi had no direct influence over the decisions and actions of the traditional establishment, his empathy enlivened the morale of the hapless widow.

“There may not be much I can do in the circumstance, but I believe we can find a way around the situation,” he said.

“How do you mean, Father? Could there really be a way out of this?” she asked.

“I think so.”

“How?”

“Send a message to Chief Madu and Chief Obodo and tell them you want to address the next meeting of the family elders.” Amina adjusted her position on the floor and pulled up the black wrapper that was placed over her legs.

“Really? Will they agree to admit me to their meeting? What am I possibly going to tell them?”

Father Akaduchi sat up. The cushion on the wooden chair drooped toward the floor. He stood, pushed it in and sat back on the seat. “Good. Once they agree to hear you out, which I believe they will, then you already would have put one foot in the door,” he said.

“So, what shall I tell them at the meeting? How do I begin to convince them to abandon their age-old tradition, knowing our recent experiences?”

“Tell them you’ve agreed to remarry.”

“What! No, Father. I’m sorry I’m not prepared for that now. No, no, no . . . I’m sorry, I won’t do that.”

“Look, tell them you’ll adapt to the traditions of the land and remarry, and being that your new husband has to be someone from the family, tell them to at least give you the honor that’s due every woman by allowing you to pick a man of your choice from among members of the family.”

“Father, you don’t seem to understand me. There’s no member of the family that can win my love and affection, no matter how fine or rich he is. I just don’t have the time or emotions to share with anyone now.”

“There’s someone that can meet all those expectations.” Amina reclined on the wall and looked disinterestedly toward the opposite corner of the room. She gave a sarcastic grin and scoffed.

“Here in Ubo? Impossible! Who? Except you’re saying Udo will resurrect.”

“Yes. He’s already resurrected, and that’s in Afamefune, your son.”

Amina turned and fixed a bewildered stare on the priest. “What are you talking about, Father?”

“Tell them you opt to marry your son, Afamefune. It’s allowed by the customs of the land for widows to opt to marry their sons in these circumstances. That provision of the tradition has not been invoked in a long while, but it’s there and remains very valid. Go ahead and take your destiny in your hand, my sister. The Lord shall see you through,” Father Akaduchi said and stood to depart.

Amina gaped at the man of God as he stepped out of the house. She was so enraptured by his counsel that she forgot to bid him farewell. Echoes of his footsteps rang in her ears and gradually paled into thoughtful silence. Then it struck her that she had heard about such incidents having happened sometime in the distant past. She could not recollect if it was from Udoka she’d heard the story, or from one of the many people she had come across since they returned from Bulum-Kuttu. She never gave any meaningful consideration to the idea as it had quickly receded out of memory like many other stories she felt were the fables and folklores of the people.

A sudden burst of enthusiasm swept aside her confusion and dejection. She stood, folded the mat and stepped into the room. She called Amuebie and asked her to reach out to Uncle Madu. The message was simple and brief: Amina wants to have an audience with the council of elders.

* * * * *

The following day, Chief Obodo called the meeting as proposed by Amina. Uncle Madu had not hesitated to make her request known to the old chief. The elders were in full attendance thirty minutes before the scheduled time. They bantered in curiosity over Amina’s desire to meet with them.

Amina arrived for the meeting on time, together with Amuebie and Afamefune. She wore a black head tie, a black bubu and a pair of gray slip-ons. The chiefs welcomed her to the meeting and requested to know her reason for calling an emergency meeting of the council of elders.

She proceeded to narrate her experiences since the death of her husband. As she had imagined, the elders advised her on the need to remarry into the family. They said it was the only guarantee she had for unimpeded access to the various privileges that would ordinarily elude her as a woman.

The elders all heaved a sigh of relief when she conceded to their demand. They turned to one another in excited whispers that the non-conforming northerner had finally come to her senses. But the respite was short-lived. They were stunned to silence when she stated that her choice of husband was Afamefune, her son. For a while, they stared in bafflement at one another and gradually began to nod in resignation to the inescapable reality.

When Madu observed that there appeared to be no opposition from the elders, he attempted to dissuade her on account of the young age of Afamefune. He argued that she needed an older man who would be able to manage the peculiar challenges of her situation. His submissions were, however, roundly dismissed by the elders who contended that the widow had made her choice and should not be subjected to further frustrations and misery. They directed that no other man should make advances at her and that she must be given all the respect and honor due a married woman.

A date was subsequently appointed for payment of the relevant dowry and presentation of drinks by Afamefune.

The elders did not, however, reach a consensus on who was to inherit the property of Udoka, as many of the chiefs argued that Afamefune was still too young to be eligible for such acquisition. They posited that an elderly member of the larger family should oversee the property until Afamefune came of age.

After listening to the various shades of opinion on the matter, Chief Obodo submitted that a person they had all collectively agreed to accord marital status cannot at the same time be said to be too young to own property. The old chief contended that if Afamefune was adjudged sufficiently qualified to own a woman, it should be given that he was equally qualified to own property.

With no dissenting voice to his argument, Obodo ruled that all the property of the late Udoka henceforth belonged to Afamefune. Although this position was largely adopted by the house, the murmurings and gloomy countenance of Madu left Amina with the conviction that the last may not have been heard of the issue. She returned to the house with her children and that night she observed that for the first time since the death of her husband, Nkiru did not pay her the usual evening visits.

Amina called her children and explained the situation, advising that they gird their loins for the bumpy times that lay ahead.

* * * * *

Afamefune and his sisters concluded their holiday a week later and resumed school for the new academic session. Two days after resumption, Amuebie returned from school with a letter addressed to her mother, requesting full payment of the school fees for her three children; they would no longer be allowed to attend classes until they made full payment of the fees. Amina breathed out and sank into the wooden chair in the sitting room.

Although she had tried to make good her sewing vocation, the income she generated from USMAN & LABARAN was virtually exhausted in preparing for Udoka’s burial. She thought of who to resort to for assistance and bearing in mind that Afamefune was the god-son of Uncle Madu, she sent Amuebie to the old man asking for audience with him. Amuebie did not meet him at home, but Nkiru was at her shed cracking palm kernel with her daughter. She advised that Amina should come later in the evening when her husband would have been back.

By seven in the evening, Amina had reached the residence of Uncle Madu. She met him and explained the difficulties she was encountering fending for the children, pleading that there was no way she could singularly sustain her three children in secondary school. She asked the old man to assist in paying the fees for the boy, while she would endeavor to handle the schooling of the girls.

Uncle Madu was quiet. He sat and gazed emptily into space as she spoke. When she was done, he turned toward her and expressed regrets over his inability to assist, saying that things had not been going quite well for him in recent times. He asked her to make a choice on who among the three to keep in school and who to send to farm, or join her in the tailoring profession.

The old man stated that the popular practice for indigent families was to first send the oldest one to school, while the others would wait for him to pass out and secure a job. It was from the income from his new job he would sponsor the education of his younger ones. But Uncle Madu admitted that Amina’s case was a little complicated because her two older children were both girls. He stressed that it was wasteful to prioritize the education of girls over boys.

“They will be married off after their education,” he said.

“Of course, Nna anyi, I know they’ll not live with me forever. But I believe they’ll not forsake their blood,” Amina said.

“Oh, so you really expect them to fend for their younger ones when they’re gone from here?”

“I believe they won’t forget their home, sir.”

“Which home? The one you’re in control of or the one their husband and his extended family would be running? My dear, you better use your tongue to count your teeth. One has not eaten yet one is throwing the little that is available to a goat. Woman, I’ll advise you find a way to send your son to school,” he said derisively and looked away.

Seeing that he was not willing to assist, Amina thanked him for his time and departed his residence.

For two days she was in a dilemma. Afamefune had not been doing well in school. Beyond failing promotion exams once in primary school, his first term examination results in the secondary school had left much to be desired.

The prospects of his passing to the next class looked bleak. He was fourteen years old. If he did not drop in any of the classes, he would be in the university at nineteen. His sisters had four and two years on him respectively. They would be in their third and second year by then. That would be the dream of every mother, Amina imagined. Meanwhile, the girls had consistently made better grades from primary to secondary school, particularly Nonyelim, whose results had been excellent.

Amina sought the advice of her friends and Father Akaduchi. The priest duly advised that the girls should be educated first with the little resources she had, but the fears expressed by a majority of the other people pushed her in the opposite direction.

On one Tuesday night she called Amuebie and Nonyelim to her room. She was in tears. She tried to explain the difficult times they were going through and the reality from which they could not escape. Then she broke the news to them. They would have to discontinue their education for the sake of their younger brother. The two girls gazed at their mother in shock and confusion.

They cried and pleaded that they were ready to double their efforts in the farm so they could remain in school, but their mother said that even such sacrifice would not amount to much. The school fees were simply unaffordable. The girls left the room and wept for the rest of the night. The next day, they cradled and held on to their school bags, as they sobbed and watched their young brother step out of the house to begin another academic year.

Nine

A day after Amina concluded the period of mourning her husband, she set out to farm with Amuebie and Nonyelim. It was a Friday morning. She managed to trudge along the three-mile distance; the three-month stay at home had taken a toll on her fitness but she had no other option. She knew that the absence of Udoka meant she had to double her efforts so as to cater for the family. By six in the morning they had reached the farm and immediately settled down to work.

While Amuebie focused on weeding the undergrowth around the cassava planted the previous year, Amina and Nonyelim busied themselves planting yam seedlings. For hours they toiled in the hot sun. Thirty minutes was all they took to rest and eat.

They moved into the small hut in the farm. Nonyelim stepped out five minutes later to gather the firewood they would use to roast the yam they had set aside for the day, while Amuebie prepared the palm oil and dry fish for the meal. In thirty minutes they were done with the short break and returned to work. It was not until five in the evening that they got home.

That was the daily routine of the family. Saturday was set aside for house cleaning and laundry. Afamefune was assigned the task of scrubbing the multi-coloured rubber carpet and white ceiling fan in the sitting room, as he would not be going to school on that day. The fan was more a piece of decoration than a functional instrument of comfort as there was no electricity to power it, but they kept it clean. Saturday was also a day when Amina would stay back to attend to her tailoring. On Sunday they would all go to church in the morning and return a few minutes before noon.

Amina had become enamored of popular lines at the Sunday service and would repeatedly reflect on them in her moments of solitude:

Be of good courage for the Lord thy God does not slumber . . . those who sit in covens to invoke elements of the firmament against you shall call destruction upon themselves . . . the doors to prosperity and the treasures of heaven shall open as you call upon the Name of the Lord . . . sickness shall not locate your house . . . the witnesses assembled against you shall find no listening ear . . . their rage for blood knows no bounds but God shall hide you in His secret place…you shall be invisible to the harbingers of wickedness . . . Holy Ghost fire shall strike them down as they emerge from their habitations of cruelty . . . in the race for life you shall be Carl Lewis, in the race of life you shall be Haile Gabrieselassie . . . your prayers shall not be obstructed on the highway to the Most Merciful . . . your ceaseless supplications shall bring endless benedictions . . . your sacrifices shall speak for you on the altar of judgement . . . those who thought they had shut the door against you shall see you break through from another door . . . the God of heaven and earth shall not allow your neighbors to arrest your destiny . . . the world shall not only be revealed to you, you shall be revealed to the world . . . who is he to call death upon you when the Lord has not spoken it?

Not minding that the hours after church were the only time they had for whatever could be considered leisure, Nonyelim would use that period to go through what Afamefune had studied in school for the week. Although she had been a class ahead of him before she was withdrawn from school, the bits and pieces she picked from his notes and text books helped to refresh her memory.

On this Sunday afternoon, Afamefune and his mother sat in the living room, while Nonyelim busied herself in the room reading. As Amuebie was in the kitchen preparing dinner, their mother sought to know from Afamefune what the school timetable was for the coming week.

“When next are you having mathematics?” she asked.

“That’ll be on Tuesday afternoon,” he said.

“You really need to take it more seriously if you still want to become a doctor.”

“Yes, Mum. That’s the course I want to study. I’m going to be a doctor. I want to be like Dr. Usman.”

Although Afamefune had not been particularly bright in school, he had developed a liking for medical doctors. Severally Amina had told him and his sisters how Dr. Usman saved her and their father during the riots that compelled them to flee the North. That story had remained etched in their consciousness and, for Afamefune, he had said he would become a doctor someday so he could be in a position to save lives, too, like Dr. Usman.

“But, Mummy, the teacher is making the subject difficult.”

“How do you mean?”

“He does not take time to teach a particular formula before he jumps to another topic.”

“How come other students are able to cope with him?”

“Many of them are complaining too.”

“Have you raised the issue with him?”

“Arrhh. He will flog the hell out of us if we dare.”

“You mean you can’t approach him to discuss your problems?”

“No o.”

She did not take kindly to the revelations by her son. If she was straining herself to send him to school, then the teachers must fulfil their own part of the bargain.

The next morning, she accompanied Afamefune to school. The mathematics teacher was not available—he had gone to Akeh to supervise an examination.

She requested to meet with the principal of the school. She had met the principal when she was processing the admission of Afamefune, but she doubted if such chance meeting was sufficient to register her identity in the principal’s memory. The rumor mill claimed the woman had no friend. Her reputation as a strict disciplinarian was always a topic of discussion among the locals.

Her office was two blocks away from the classrooms, adjacent to the staff room. As Amina walked toward her office, she turned to the open field and saw some students trimming the over-grown portions with machetes. She remembered the day Afamefune returned from school with blisters on his palm after he had been made to serve corporal punishment with five other boys for their failure to identify from amongst them the student that had made a sneering remark at one of the teachers.

Amina was still wondering the offence the current set of boys may have committed to warrant their ordeal when she cast a glance toward the office building. The principal was stepping out of the door in her white blouse and brown skirt. As Amina approached her, she observed that the principal’s features had not changed much since she last saw her—she was a stout, dark, middle-aged woman.

“Good morning, madam. I’m Mrs. Amina Udoka Ndukwe. I wish to see you, ma,” she said.

“Oh, my pleasure. You are welcome. I am Emenike. Mrs. Caroline. . .”

“I know you, ma.”

“Oh, good.”

She turned and ushered her into the office. It was half the size of a standard office, and the only window in the room was partially blocked by one of the rows of steel file cabinets.

“Take a seat, madam,” the principal said as she settled into her chair and clasped her fingers on the wooden table.

“Sorry for bothering you this morning, madam. There’re some matters I need to bring to your attention,” Amina said.

“You are welcome. I’m all ears.”

Amina went on to narrate Afamefune’s experiences with the mathematics teacher and her dissatisfaction with her son’s general poor performance in school. The principal promised to look into the matter and reassured her about the commitment of the school to the overall success of the students. She then sought to know what Amina did for a living.

“I’m a seamstress and farmer,” Amina said.

“Seamstress? Don’t tell me you’re the same Amina who sewed the USMAN & LABARAN brand for many of the students?” The principal placed her two hands on her forehead. “Afamefune’s mother . . . oh, my God. Where did my memory go? C’mon I should have guessed so,” she said. Her eyes glowed with excitement. She said she was especially delighted by the high quality of her clothes as evident in the flawless finish. She remarked that even in the big cities like Awka, where her family lived, their uniforms lacked the exquisite attention to detail that had become the hallmark of USMAN & LABARAN.

The principal enquired whether Amina would have the time and capacity to produce those uniforms in larger quantities.

“We don’t like the idea of students looking disjointed in poorly produced uniforms. We want to standardize their appearance,” she said.

“I can create time to produce them, madam. But the problem would be money . . . getting the money for such expansion,” Amina said.

“It’s OK. I was with the chief inspector of education over the weekend at Akeh. We discussed all that and the need to quickly find a good tailor to do the job. I’ll mention you to him. Advance payment is usually given to successful tenders. But you have to apply for it first. Bring your application letter to me here tomorrow morning, together with some samples of your work.”

Amina gaped at the principal in astonishment. “Really?” she asked.

The principal nodded. “There are many competing bidders, though, but let’s try and see how it goes,” she said.

“Thank you, principal . . . thank you so so much, ma,” she blurted.

“You’re welcome.”

Amina got home and dashed to her room. She went on her knees to glorify God, praying that agents of wickedness would not make the principal change her mind before the next morning, for she knew that it was one thing to ask for her application letter and quite another to see her through the entire process. After a while, she made for the book shelf by the sitting room. She had spent most quiet moments of her post-mourning period reading and had gone halfway on The Pursuit of History by John Tosh. She picked it and returned to the room.

* * * * *

Although Amina had hired some young men to work in the farm so her daughters could focus fully on the tailoring work, she observed that Nonyelim was not showing as much enthusiasm in the business as Amuebie.

“You’ve not been looking happy these days, Nonye,” Amina said and, from her chair in the sitting room, glanced at her second daughter.

“I’m fine, Mummy,” Nonyelim said.

Amuebie stood from the dining and moved to join them in the sitting room. “Nonye, Mummy’s right. I observed the same thing, too,” she said.

Nonyelim said, “Ehh, it’s not as if I don’t like the business, but, Mummy, I really would wish to go back to school.”

“Oh, is that the reason you’ve been so moody? No wonder,” Amina said.

“Ehen! I thought as much,” Amuebie said and watched her mother.

“That’s OK. I can understand,” Amina said and turned toward Amuebie. “What about you. Will you not like to return to school?” she asked.

Amuebie shrugged her shoulders and shot, “Hiaaa! Not at all. I love what I’m doing now. Business is my calling and business I’ll do. I want to be a big businesswoman.”

“Are you sure you’re both speaking your minds?” Amina asked, her eyes scanning her two daughters, “You must settle for what’ll give you happiness in life.”

“Me, I know what I want and I’m not going to change my mind. Mba nu, not now that market is expanding and business is booming,” Amuebie said.

Amina observed that Nonyelim had fixed a stare on the floor and had suddenly gone thoughtful and reticent.

“What about you, Nonye? You seriously wish to leave the business and return to school?” her mother asked.

“Yes, Mummy, but I’m thinking of how you’ll be able to cope with the cost of training me and Afam at the same time,” Nonyelim said with her gaze still on the floor.

“That’s OK. God will provide. But remember, you’ll not be starting from where you left off last year. They’re going to step you down to Class One,” her mother said.

“I don’t mind, Mummy,” Nonyelim said.

“What!” Amuebie broke in, “You’ll now be junior to Afam in school. Lai lai! Never! Count me out of that kind of arrangement,” she said.

“Whatever. I don’t mind,” Nonyelim said. She glanced across the different family pictures hanging on the wall and focused on their father’s graduation picture.

“It’s all right. Get ready then. I’ll get across to the principal tomorrow,” their mother said.

Nonyelim jumped out of her chair in a burst of excitement and ran to her mother. She hugged her, a well of tears in her eyes, and stuttered, “Thank you, Mummy. Thank you so so much.”

* * * * *

On the evening of the following Saturday, Uncle Madu returned from the farm and began to complain of dizziness. In no time he had lost his voice. Isioma observed that his face had twisted to the left side. She sent for Nkiru and two of their children. By the time they arrived, Uncle Madu was lying motionless on the bed. Isioma asked one of the children to quickly get a cab. More vehicles had begun to ply the village since the road from Ubo to Akeh was tarred by the state government two years earlier.

They hurriedly secured a cab and rushed Uncle Madu to the hospital. The doctor disclosed that he had suffered a stroke and an unusual facial protruberance that would require further diagnosis. He advised that the old man should be quickly taken to the hospital in Awka and that if they delayed for more than thirty minutes his condition would deteriorate irreversibly. Meanwhile, the estimates he had given for the man’s treatment were way beyond their capacity.

The two wives thought of what to do; how were they going to raise the money to save the life of their husband? Nkiru suggested that they reach out to Amina for assistance, but Isioma balked at the idea and stared furiously at Nkiru. She warned her never to mention that name before her again. She wondered if Nkiru did not know that Amina’s desecration of their customs may have been responsible for the strange ailment that struck their husband.

Isioma returned to the doctor and deposited the little money she had come with. She asked him to proceed with the plan to take her husband to Awka, stating that Nkiru and one of her sons would accompany him, while she would meet them up later with some more money. She fastened the wrapper around her waist and stepped out of the building.

Ten

On hearing about the illness of Uncle Madu and how he was rushed out of the house for treatment, Amina quickly left her house and made for the hospital. Incidentally, Uncle Madu had been taken to Awka when she got there. She returned home and began to contemplate whether to proceed to Awka or not. It was already past six in the evening.

Nonyelim had just stepped into the room with her dinner. She noticed the mood of her mother and walked toward her.

“Mummy, are you OK?” she asked with a mouthful of yam and plantain clump.

“Yes. It’s Uncle Madu.”

Nonyelim stopped and placed the plate on the stool. “What happened to him?” she asked.

“He’s been rushed to the hospital. I hear his condition is very bad.”

“Oh! Let’s go and see him.”

“It’s not the hospital in Ubo. He’s at Awka.”

“What! When did that happen?”

Amuebie and Afamefune breezed in. They had heard the conversation between their mother and Nonyelim.

“What happened to him?” Afamefune asked.

“I hear he suffered a stroke. But they say it’s not just that. There’s a lump on his head which the doctors couldn’t understand,” their mother said.

“Arrhh! Ngwa nu! That serves him right . . . Not only a lump but dump,” Amuebie mocked and walked away to take a seat at the far end of the room.

“Hey, you don’t say a thing like that,” Nonyelim said and turned to take her plate from the stool.

“I’m thinking of going to see him this evening at the hospital in Awka,” their mother said.

Amuebie stormed out of her seat. “Never! Look at the time. It’ll take you three hours to go and return. Why take such a risk for him? You have forgotten all they did to you and daddy?” she said.

“But we can’t let him die,” Afamefune said.

“Ehen, are you a doctor? What are you supposed to do when you get there?” Amuebie asked.

“At least let’s show some concern. Mummy should go and visit him,” Nonyelim said.

“How much of that concern have they been showing us? Please o, you’re all we’ve got. It’s just too risky to start traveling,” Amuebie retorted, swinging her gaze from her sister to her mother.

“But we don’t have to pay evil with evil,” Nonyelim said. Afamefune glanced at the clock on the wall. “It’s late, though. Mummy can just go to their compound to see the family today. By tomorrow you can start thinking of what to do,” he said.

Their mother had sat quiet listening to the dialogue between her children. Inasmuch as she was pained by all what Uncle Madu and his cohorts did to her family, she felt she still had a duty as a Christian to show compassion. While she admitted that it was indeed too late to embark on the Awka trip, it would not be out of place, as suggested by Afamefune, to take the one-minute walk to the residence of her in-laws. She stood and asked Afamefune to accompany her to the house of Uncle Madu.

They got to the compound and made for the front door of Uncle Madu’s hut, only to see Isioma hurrying out of the place, her travelling bag in her right hand. She was moving toward a blue Toyota Corolla that was parked by the orange tree in front of the house. Amina greeted and pulled closer to enquire about the situation. Isioma gave her a disinterested look and hopped into the vehicle.

Embarrassed and disillusioned, Amina and Afamefune stood and watched as the vehicle did a reverse and sped out of the area, spewing a hail of dust on them.

* * * * *

A week later, Amina secured the contract to supply uniform to schools, having received the award letter from the principal. It was issued by the Ministry of Education Headquarters through the chief inspector of education. Amina would supply school uniforms to all the secondary schools in Ubo and Akeh, under the name of USMAN & LABARAN.

The measurements and specifications for the first set of five hundred garments were given to her. Subsequent orders would come with the relevant details. She was given a cheque in the sum of five hundred thousand naira, while the balance amount of one million naira would be paid at the completion and delivery of the first set of uniforms.

She was all smiles from the school back to her house. No one was at home to share the joy with her as Amuebie and Nonyelim had gone to the market. She pranced about the house in excitement and began to figure out how she would cope with the deluge of work that had come. She thanked God that she had been training many people over the years; at least, there would not be a problem assembling the team to work with her. She already had a pool of well-groomed tailors she always called upon whenever she had a load of work. But all that haphazard arrangement would now give way to a more formal engagement of the workers—she would need to offer full-time employment to some of them.

She immediately contacted her local sources of supply and set out to procure the cloths and extra sewing machines for the new assignment. She selected the best from her pool of trained tailors, taking time to visit them individually to seek the consent of their parents. Some declined the offer as they did not wish to take up tailoring as a profession. Those who agreed were recruited and placed on a salary.

She dressed the women in her favorite colors of gray skirt and orange blouses, while the men wore shirt and trousers of same colour. With the logo ‘U&L’ boldly embossed at the front of the uniforms, they became a spectacle in the village, and by the second month, she had rented a bigger house. A large white signpost with black inscription of ‘USMAN & LABARAN’ hung from the roof of the bungalow. She bought power generating sets and moved her equipment and staff from her house to the new location.

Uncle Madu and his family had been following the sudden turn in the fortunes of Amina. She had changed the 14-inch black and white television in her sitting room to a 24-inch colored set. The book shelf had been expanded to a mini study to accommodate the additional books they had acquired. The rubber carpet had given way to a red rug, while a velvet damask fabric had taken the place of the cloth on the cushioned seats. Although Nkiru still made efforts to visit Amina once in a while, it was clear that their relationship had suffered a mortal blow from the circumstances of Udoka’s burial.

Isioma never bothered to go near Amina since the day she presented the poisoned food to her. She and her sick husband remained convinced that the widow’s days were numbered. Every day they hoped to hear that Amina had dropped dead. The more the reputation of Amina soared, the more the relationship between the two families soured.

Eleven

Amina got up early one day and set out for her shop. She had scheduled to visit Awka that day to purchase a bale of cloths for the uniforms she was to send to schools that week. The scarcity of clothing materials at that period had affected her tradition of promptness. One of her suppliers informed her that he could make some materials available if only she would pay the extra cost. She did not object. All that was important to her was her integrity with the schools. She could not afford to fail them. Not after all the commendations that had come the way of USMAN & LABARAN from far and wide.

She called the cashier and asked that the money from sales be given to her. One hundred and fifty thousand naira was brought, but that was barely enough to meet the demands of the suppliers. She looked around the shop, put together all what she could gather and made her way home to prepare for the trip to Awka. She arrived in a few minutes, and just as she was about to step back out of the house, Nkiru rushed in panting and crying.

“How is he?” asked a bewildered Amina.

Nkiru wiped her eyes and slouched by the pillar of the house. “My sister, the situation is beyond me,” she said.

“What are the doctors saying? Cheer up, dear. Nothing is impossible with God,” Amina said as she walked toward Nkiru and, with a hand across her shoulders, ushered her into the house.

“His condition is not improving. In fact, it is getting worse,” Nkiru said, gazing at the floor. Then she turned and faced Amina. “My sister, we need your help. We’re stranded. The doctors say they need two hundred thousand naira to carry out an operation on him. We’ve been able to raise fifty thousand. All I’ve made from my palm kernel is gone.”

Amina sighed and recoiled on her seat. Inasmuch as she wished to save the life of her in-law, she knew that her own survival was hanging in the balance. She had not only failed to meet the deadline for her supplies to the schools, the money she had managed to put together was barely sufficient to clear her obligations. She could see the agony in Nkiru’s eyes as she sobbed. Amina understood what it meant for a woman to lose her husband. The pitiable sight of her closest confidante in the village evoked memories of her own ordeal just a few years back.

Gaskiya, this is a difficult time,” Amina said. It was all she could mutter as she stared meditatively into space.

Nkiru scooted to the edge of the chair and knelt before her. “Please help me, Amina. My husband is dying. Kindly forgive whatever we have done to you. I beg you in the Name of God.”

Amina stood and tried pulling her up. “Please get up, my dear. Believe me, there’s no iota of bitterness in my heart. The past is gone and it’s gone.”

“I know what the situation is. It’s only a person with your type of heart that can overlook all that was done to you. I didn’t tell Isioma I was coming here. But please try to ignore her and consider me.”

“Isioma, or any person for that matter, is not a problem, Nkiru. The issue is that there just is nothing I can do now. This is happening at a very wrong time. I’ve committed all I’ve got to my business.”

Nkiru folded her arms and gazed at the blank wall. “I can understand. I know it’ll be difficult to forget the recent happenings. I know,” she said.

Amina shifted on the chair. She took pity on her friend. Thoughts of giving her the money she had raised that morning started to well in her. She remembered her own predicament: if they terminated her contract with the schools for failure to meet up with her contractual obligations, all she had built around USMAN & LABARAN would come crashing down, and she would return to her former days of penury and helplessness. She remembered, too, that beyond the pressures from the school, she still had the tenement rate of her shop to cope with.

The local government council had sent in the accumulated bill that morning, and the staff who brought the notice had threatened that the shop would be sealed off if the bill was not settled within two weeks. Tears dropped from her eyes. She moved toward Nkiru and held her by the hand.

“My sister, you just have to believe me. I don’t have anything to give at this time. It’s not because of what may have happened before. If I were in a position to help, you know I would, walahi,” she said.

“It’s OK. Thank you. Let me go and continue cracking my palm kernels,” a weeping Nkiru said as she stood to leave the room, Amina sauntering behind her to the door. Nkiru stepped out of the house and, without a backward glance, headed dejectedly toward her palm kernel shed.

Ten minutes after Nkiru left the house, Amina was still agonizing over her discussion with the distressed woman. She had no one at home to share her thoughts with as Amuebie had gone to the shop while Afamefune and Nonyelim were in school. The urge to intervene and help the dying man began to grow.

She knew her conscience would never let her have peace if Uncle Madu died when she had in hand the money needed to save his life. She had concealed it behind one of the book shelves. If she gave part of the money to Nkiru it would hardly solve the problem. It would seem as if no help was offered at all. The man was at the point of death. The situation needed immediate intervention. She took another look at the money, nodded her head and walked out of the house with the bag.

* * * * *

Nkiru arrived at the Awka hospital in Udeozor Street and rushed to the office of the consultant surgeon. She did not bother to go to the general ward where her husband, Isioma and the children were staying. She feared that Isioma might ask her to return the money she had just taken from Amina. She understood that Isioma’s hatred for Amina knew no bounds. Isioma would rather their husband died than stoop to accept any assistance from Amina.

She got to the doctor’s office and was told he had gone to attend to some patients within the hospital. She chose to await his return. As she lowered her tall frame onto the visitor’s chair, she began to pray for Amina. She had lost all hope. She was dumbfounded when Amina walked into her palm kernel shed and handed over the entire money to her. It took a while before she was able to regain herself. She had hugged Amina with tears in her eyes.

As she recalled those moments, she began to wonder how she would ever be able to repay Amina for her uncommon kindness. Her tears of joy had hardly dried up when the doctor stepped into the office. Nkiru informed him that she had raised the money for the operation. He stared at her in doubt and only became convinced when she pulled out the money from her bag and gave it to him. Though he quickly directed her to take the money to the cash office and make the payment, she could see the shock on his face. Even after he had asked the nurses to move her husband to the theatre and prepare him for the operation, his countenance was for a while shadowed by disbelief.

Isioma too was amazed at the swiftness with which the medical staff began to attend to their husband. She called Nkiru aside and asked how she was able to raise that kind of money. Nkiru replied that it was a saving she had made over the years. With her lips tight, Isioma glared at her suspiciously and gave a wary nod. They both went to the adjacent room to await the fate of their husband.

* * * * *

Amuebie returned home for lunch and was surprised to meet her mother in the house.

Hiaaa! Mummy, you’re still at home? I thought you’d long left for Awka to get the cloths,” she said.

“No, some other urgent issues came up that I needed to quickly attend to,” her mother said.

“So, when are you leaving? Or are you no longer going today? The time’s almost gone.”

“It’s all right, dear. If I’m not able to make it today, I’ll do so tomorrow.”

Amina would not let her daughter in on what she had done, especially in the face of Amuebie’s attitude to Uncle Madu and his family.

“With the seriousness you showed in the morning I thought it was urgent that you reach your suppliers in Awka,” Amuebie said.

“It’s okay. I’ve sent a message across. I’ll meet them some other time,” her mother said.

Amina peeked at Amuebie from the corner of her eyes and saw her daughter cast a searching look at her. She suspected that Amuebie would be wondering why the sudden lack of enthusiasm about the Awka trip, considering the desperation she had shown in the morning. She could sense a tinge of disillusionment around her daughter that she had not seen in a long while.

“Mummy, are you sure there is no problem?” Amuebie asked.

Her mother pulled her eyes away from her and stood to head for the kitchen.

“It’s all right, dear. There’s no problem. Try to get something to eat so you can return to the shop in good time. I guess we still have some of the nsala soup left?” she said.

Amina knew that Amuebie was not convinced. She could feel her daughter’s eyes on her trying to detect any subtle indication of trouble. Remembering her daughter’s traumatized childhood, she hoped nothing would ever again make the family relapse into the dark old days.

When Afamefune and Nonyelim returned from school and sought to know the situation with Uncle Madu, their mother simply informed them that he was responding to treatment. She ensured the discussion was brief and was relieved that none of them asked if Uncle Madu had been able to get some assistance from her. All through the day, she tried to avoid any conversation that would highlight the delivery of the uniforms.

It was not until the next morning that she began to come to terms with the reality of what had happened. Although she had been able to scrap additional thirty thousand naira from what she had at home and office, she realized she had no option but to reach out to the suppliers and plead for a down payment of the thirty thousand naira. She hoped they would release the materials to her on credit, with plans to defray the outstanding debt when she finished her supplies and got paid by government. She concluded it was the only thing she could do in the circumstance and, after her children had all left the house, she dressed up and set out for the city of Awka.

* * * * *

Although the doctors battled all night to save the life of Uncle Madu, the operation was unsuccessful. He died in the early hours of the morning. The information did not get to Ubo until noon when his children returned home to break the news. Isioma and Nkiru had stayed back at the hospital to arrange to deposit his body in the mortuary. The two wives returned to Ubo two hours later to behold the wailing from the horde of sympathizers and relations who had besieged their residence.

Amina was yet to return from her own mission to Awka but Afamefune and Nonyelim were back from school. They took off their uniforms, slipped into their house wears and dashed to the house of the late man to join the bourgeoning crowd. It did not take time to locate Nkiru in her hut behind the main house. Afamefune was the first to sight her seated on the floor with a group of women.

“How is your mother?” Nkiru asked welcomingly.

“She’s fine, ma. She’s yet to return from Awka,” Afamefune said.

Nkiru nodded her head. “OK,” she muttered into her folded arms.

Afamefune and Nonyelim expressed their condolences and, after a while, they stood and excused themselves to visit Isioma. They got to the hut of Isioma and could hardly find their way into the abode of the bereaved woman. Although they eventually managed to force their way in, they did not get the same attention they received from Nkiru. Among the number of people who had swarmed the house were Chief Obodo and many of the elders. As the first wife, Isioma’s abode was the formal reception point for condolence visits.

Afamefune and Nonyelim kept craning their necks, hoping to make eye contact with Isioma. They did, but the venomous stare from the bereaved woman made them understand they were in enemy territory. Afamefune winked at Nonyelim and, quietly, they slipped out of the place.

They got home to the aroma of fresh soup that had enveloped the sitting room and quickly headed for the kitchen. Amuebie was sprinkling ogiri into the egusi soup she was preparing for dinner when Afamefune and Nonyelim strolled in.

Afamefune sneered. “Oh no, I thought it was oha soup,” he said.

“See who is talking. Can you prepare any one? Where’re you coming from?” Amuebie asked.

“You won’t believe what we saw at Uncle Madu’s house,” he said.

“What’s it?” she asked disinterestedly and turned away to stir the soup.

“Hmmm! It’s Auntie Isioma o,” Nonyelim said.

Amuebie remained focused on the pot of soup. After she had stirred the contents, she pulled up the long spoon and tapped a little of the soup on her left palm. As she bent to taste her cooking, she asked, “What happened?”

“The way she frowned at us ehhh! Hmmm . . . you’d think that we’re the ones who killed her husband,” Afamefune said.

“Really?” Amuebie said.

“Yes o. I’m sure if she had a gun she would have shot us,” Nonyelim said.

“Serves you right. Who sent you on the errand? Why did you have to go there? Is that your JAMB exams you should be reading and preparing for?” Amuebie fumed.

“Of course we had to go. How could we hear that Uncle Madu was dead and not go to sympathize with them?” Nonyelim said.

Amuebie turned the control of the stove to lower the flame and then lifted the pot and placed it on the concrete floor. She had filled the kettle with water and as she placed it on the stove, she said, “It’s when you get into trouble that you’ll know what you’ve done to yourselves.” She adjusted the kettle and turned toward them. “I just hope it won’t be too late by then,” she said and breezed past her befuddled siblings.

She was just stepping into the sitting room when Amina came into the house. Amuebie noticed that her mother looked pale and dejected, and also did not acknowledge her greeting. She watched as her mother sat on the chair by the door, leaned her head on her hand and gazed sorrowfully at the blank wall. She’d gone a little darker, with her straight and thick eyebrows looking slightly unkempt.

“Mummy, what’s the problem? You’re getting me scared. For two days now you’ve been looking strange,” Amuebie said.

Her two younger ones were now a few steps behind. They all gathered around their mother who looked up and tried to disguise her agony.

“It’s all right, my dears,” she said.

“It can’t be all right, Mummy. Amuebie is right. I’ve also noticed you’ve been looking worried for some time now. Or is it the death of Uncle Madu that’s made you moody?” Nonyelim said.

Amuebie scowled at her sister. “Which Uncle Madu? Please forget about that one,” she said and turned to their mother. “Mummy, please don’t tell me it’s because of those people you’re looking this way.”

Amina stood and walked toward the TV stand. She clasped her fingers and gradually made her way back to her seat. “You won’t understand,” she said.

“There’s nothing there to understand, Mummy. Those people have never meant well for us. Why bother yourself about them. Can you imagine how they treated Afam and Nonye when they went to see them,” Amuebie said. Her naturally thick voice sounding a notch stronger.

Amina’s eyes shot across her three children. “What happened?” she asked and focused on Amuebie.

“Ehen. Ask them. See them,” Amuebie said, waving in the direction of Afamefune and Nonyelim as she moved to sit in the chair opposite her mother.

Amina looked again at the two. Their faces were downcast. “What did they do to you, Nonye,” she asked.

“It’s Auntie Isioma,” Nonyelim said.

Nonyelim narrated how they had gone to see Isioma and the hostile manner in which she reacted to their presence. Although Amina was taken aback by her children’s experience, she knew that such despicable attitude was not beyond Isioma. She had gotten used to her crankiness over the years, but she would have thought that her bereavement would have tempered her excesses.

“That’s OK. You stay at home. When I need you to go there I’ll let you know,” Amina said.

“Aaahaa,” Amuebie said.

Amina stood and began to walk toward the front door. “I’d be back soon. I’ve not been there since his death,” she said.

In less than a minute she was at the residence of Uncle Madu. The usual mourning crowd was already ambling about the premises. She greeted and exchanged banters with the familiar faces around as she made her way to the hut of Nkiru.

Nkiru saw her walk in and rose from the floor she was seated. She gave her an impassioned embrace and uttered, “Oh, my sister, God will continue to bless you.”

The other people in the room looked at one another, amazed at the burst of delight from the bereaved woman who had been reticent all through the day. Amina stayed with Nkiru for about half an hour before proceeding to the hut of Isioma.

She had just made her way into the room when Isioma looked up and saw her. She halted the conversation she was having with the sympathizers seated around her, gave a loud hiss and swung her face away from Amina. Her other visitors turned and stared at Amina as she stood by the door, befuddled by the reaction of her sister-in-law. For a moment she hesitated. Then she calmly inched her way into the room and went over to where Isioma was seated—her bulky frame had taken up a large portion of the floor.

“Sorry about what has happened o,” Amina said as she stooped to sit on the floor.

Two people were seated between her and Isioma. Isioma gave a dismissive glance, nodded and mumbled cynically, “Thank you.”

She picked up her chewing stick from the flat rubber plate by her side, nudged the visitor seated next to her to continue what she was saying, but the woman was struck dumb. The visitor looked at Isioma in bewilderment while the others all glanced at one another in silence.

Amina looked across the place and sighed. The cold stares in the room delivered the message. She stood and excused herself. Isioma ignored her and kept looking in the opposite way. Amina had hardly exited the room before Isioma spitefully rekindled her conversation with her other visitors.

* * * * *

Mrs. Caroline Emenike, the principal of Community Secondary School, Ubo, arrived at Akeh Motor Park by noon. She stepped out of the cab and hurried to the office of Mr. Dumbelu, a hundred meters from the council secretariat. As she walked into the room, the chief inspector of education was going to the iron file cabinet beside the window, nervously tapping the scroll he held against his leg. He turned with a furious look toward the visitor.

“What’s happening? Where’s the woman you recommended? Where are the uniforms for the children?” he yelled.

Mrs. Emenike flinched in embarrassment and slowly placed her handbag on the seat adjacent to the table. She had made an effort to keep the fact away from the authorities, hoping they would not discover that Amina had defaulted in her supplies to the schools. Now that the complaint had reached the C.I.E.’s office at Akeh, she knew there was big trouble. She inched closer to the chief inspector of education.

“I’m sorry, sir. The woman has never failed like this before,” she said.

“Where is she exactly? You just have to do something fast before petitions begin to flood the headquarters. Parents are already complaining.”

“This is very much unlike her. Please, sir, I can assure you she’ll supply the uniforms.”

“When, Principal? She’s already three weeks behind schedule. Many students now go to school in mufti. Some are even using that excuse to stay away from school.”

“I’m going straight to her place from here.”

“This is a clear failure on your path, Mrs. Emenike. You should have done due diligence before bringing her to do this type of work.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I’m leaving for her place now.”

“You better do so,” he said and threw the papers he held on the wooden table. He cast another fiery glare at the principal and stomped to his seat.

Mrs. Emenike had never seen the chief inspector in such an angry mood. As she left his office it began to dawn on her that she truly should have weighed the capacity of Amina before engaging her to produce uniforms for the schools. Twice in the last week now Amina had asked for more time and twice she had failed to deliver. Now my own job is hanging in the balance for trying to patronize a woman I hardly know.

She returned to Ubo and headed for USMAN & LABARAN. The staff she met at the shop informed her that Amina had returned home for the day. She had held most of her meetings with Amina at the shop. The few times she met her at home were at the weekends. She thought it was unusual for Amina to close from the shop and return home before four. She stepped out of the shop and flagged down a tricycle.

In ten minutes she was at the residence of Amina.

“Who’s in the house?” she asked and rapped on the door. As her eyes swept the area, she noticed that many people were streaming toward a house located about a hundred meters away. She feared that Amina may have joined the crowd that was building up around the place. She knocked on the door again.

“Who is it?” Amina’s voice rang from inside. “It’s me, Mrs. Emenike.”

“Arrhh, madam you’re welcome. Please come in.”

As Amina swung the door open, her heart skipped a beat on seeing the stern frown on the principal’s face. She ushered her to a chair and stood by the next seat. “You’re welcome, madam. Please what can I offer you?” Amina’s voice was apologetic and her mien benign.

“What’s happening, Mrs. Ndukwe?”

“I’m really sorry, madam.”

“This is not a question of being sorry. There’s trouble.” Amina was startled. She knew she had defaulted on the terms of her contract. She knew there would be consequences for such failure, but she had not imagined the scope of the problem until she saw the vehemence on the face of the principal that afternoon. With tears streaming down her face, Amina knelt and held the principal by the hand.

Don Allah! I’ll supply the uniforms, madam. I promise you, I will.”

“When, Mrs. Ndukwe? When? This is the third time you’re saying so in the last three weeks.”

“No, I’m serious, ma. I am serious.”

“You should have told me you didn’t have the capacity to do the work. Now I’m about to lose my job because of you.”

“God forbid! You’ll not lose your job, ma. Never, not when I’m serving a living God.”

The principal looked Amina in the eye. “OK, tell me. I want to hear the truth. What really is the matter?”

Amina pulled back and sat on the chair. She looked out of the door, exhaled and put her hands on the chair handle. She wondered whether to open up on her predicament or continue putting up a courageous face with the hope that in no distant time she would be able to sort out the issue. As she momentarily weighed the options, she looked up and noticed the principal’s eyes were still fixed on her.

“I ran into some difficulties,” Amina muttered and stared at the floor.

Mrs. Emenike leaned closer. “Sorry, I didn’t get you,” she said.

With moist eyes, Amina turned again to the principal. She explained the circumstances that led to her not being able to meet up with her obligations. She held nothing back. She told the principal how she had tried to save the life of her father-in-law. The principal listened with rapt attention as Amina tried to justify her magnanimity to a dying man.

Amina however conceded that in light of the reaction of Isioma to her and her children, it was beginning to look like her benevolence was misdirected. She appealed for a little more time and promised that their meeting that day would be the last they would ever again discuss this matter.

Mrs. Emenike was torn between empathy and disgust and for a few minutes after Amina had finished speaking the principal folded her arms and gazed helplessly at the wall. The principal glanced at the pictures hanging on the white wall. She fixed a look on Afamefune’s. Then she reverted her gaze on Udoka’s picture. She took another intent view of both images and turned to Amina.

“So how’d you intend to raise the money to purchase the cloths?” she asked.

“I’m already discussing with my suppliers. In fact, I’m supposed to have a meeting with them tomorrow,” Amina said.

She did not tell the principal that the few people she had met among the suppliers had all declined her request to make the materials available. None of them was ready to supply the cloths and await payment. They all rejected the thrity thousand down payment; releasing their goods on credit in such time of acute scarcity of cloths was too much a risk to take. Only one of the suppliers had indicated willingness to sell on credit.

Chief Omenka, the seventy-year-old leading distributor of textiles in Awka had shown some sympathy toward the widow, but the man had come up with a condition that frightened Amina. She was so rattled by the demand of the septuagenarian that she had not summoned the courage to mention it to anyone. The man had asked Amina to accompany him on a three-day pleasure trip to Lagos.

Although in the real sense, as a widow, Amina had been discharged of all marital obligations, she felt that to travel and sleep with a man she didn’t know would not speak well of her. Moreover, her Christian faith forbade her from having an affair with another woman’s husband. On the strength of this, she had courteously declined the man’s offer and returned to Ubo without accomplishing the objective of her visit to Awka.

A few minutes after the principal had left the house, Amina began to ponder the options she had. Failure to supply the uniforms within the week would not only see to the termination of the contract, but also permanently damage her integrity in the entire area. She neither had sufficient collateral nor the requisite connections that would have facilitated a bank loan. As she grieved over the issue, it began to dawn on her that the demand of the randy seventy-year-old businessman appeared to be the only lifeline in the circumstance.

* * * * *

Preparations for the burial of Uncle Madu had gone into high gear. The elders had met and appointed dates for the funeral ceremonies. Amina had been informed that members of the extended family had begun arranging how to put in a befitting appearance at the occasion. Since her arrival from Bulum-Kuttu, she had observed how burial ceremonies across the various communities in the area had become a theatre for the display of the social status of the different family members.

The wake preceding interment and the post-burial reception had gradually metamorphosed from the solemnity of old to a carnival of sorts. She wished that a way could be devised to scale down the cost of burial ceremonies, being that, more often than not, funeral expenses left bereaved families impoverished, with only few able to re-build their finances to pre-funeral levels.

While Amina and her children prepared for the exercise, disturbing messages began to seep from the compound of Uncle Madu. It was a Thursday and Amina was readying to depart for Awka when one of her customers walked into the house. Amina had structured her work schedule in such a way that her customers met her more at the shop than the house. She knew that those who came calling at home, in most cases, had serious issues to discuss beyond the demands of the job, and seeing the distressed appearance of the middle-aged woman on this day, Amina knew she had come with discomforting information.

The woman informed Amina that she had heard from the grapevine that Isioma and her children were planning to attack or embarrass her at the funeral ceremony.

“My sister, you and your children should be careful on the day of the burial o,” she said.

“But what exactly did she say I’ve done to her?” Amina asked. “She’s telling people that you’re responsible for the death of her husband.”

“Me? In what way did I cause the death of her husband?”

“That was what she said o. I feel I should let you know so you can be on your guard. My sister, they say that the stone a person had seen coming does not strike her eye blind.”

The woman said Isioma had told some people that Udoka and Amina’s violation of the customs of the land was what brought tragic repercussions on not just Udoka but now, Uncle Madu, her husband. Moreover, Amina also never cared to come to their assistance when they needed help in the hospital for Uncle Madu’s treatment.

Amina thanked the woman for the timely information and managed to conceal her feelings. She felt it was not in her power to question the deaths in the family. And, it was also not necessary to make public the assistance she had rendered to the late Uncle Madu. Even when her kindness was already threatening her own survival, she resolved to dig deep into her inner strength for the fortitude to face the catastrophe that loomed in the horizon.

After the woman had left, Amina began to prepare for her visit to Awka. While she was putting things together for the trip, she could not help but ponder the information from the woman. If the threats from Isioma and her cohorts intensified, she would be left with no option than to stay away from the occasion. She would not want to cause any scene on that day, nor would she want to endanger her life or that of her children.

However, the traditions of the land demanded that she and her children not only show up at the burial ceremony but also participate actively in all the funeral rites. There was no way she could abstain from the exercise without attracting the brunt of traditional sanctions. With that in mind, she concluded she would do all within her ability to make her presence and that of her family felt on the occasion, hoping that other people would comport themselves accordingly.

She hurried to the village square for a vehicle that would take her to Awka, for the principal had visited earlier in that day to press for the supply of the uniforms. She had come threatening and had vowed that if the uniforms were not made available in three days, she would get the police to arrest Amina.

Twelve

A friend had mentioned the name of another supplier that was renowned for his generous attitude to his customers. Amina decided to make a last ditch effort to visit him but she would not submit to anything that would dishonor her as a woman, for she would rather go to jail than compromise her moral and spiritual convictions. As she sat at the back of the Toyota Corolla, tears dropped from her eyes. She pulled up her bag and found her handkerchief. How I wish Udo was still alive.

It was a windy day at Awka. She arrived and proceeded to the shop of Mr. Iwuagwu. On meeting him, she solicited for credit purchase, with a down payment of thirty thousand naira. She narrated her ordeal to the trader and begged for his understanding. Mr. Iwuagwu sympathized with her but declined to offer any assistance, saying he had not known her well enough to enter into such a huge transaction with her. Moreover, there was severe scarcity of materials. He just could not part with the little he had on credit.

All appeals from her did not move the man. She left his shop and took another taxi to head back to Ubo. As the vehicle made its way through the city, they drove past Eke-Awka market where Chief Omenka—the old man who had requested to take her on a Lagos romp—had his shop. They had driven some fifty meters past the shop when she suddenly asked the driver to stop and reverse. Her heart began to pound. Should I or should I not?

As the vehicle got close to the shop of the lewd businessman, she asked the driver to pull over. She stepped out of the car, paid off the cabman and began to head for the shop of the old trader. She was a few steps from the building when she stopped and glanced around the area. It was a busy environment, with people darting about the place in pursuit of their daily bread. A group of women with basins of gravel on their heads were shuttling back and forth at a nearby construction site, while further off some others were hawking groundnuts in the scorching sun. She saw she was not the only one fighting for survival. Everyone appeared to be laboring in dignity for livelihood.

For a while, she stood by a tree beside the shop. The leaves on the tree flapped in the racing wind and her heart fluttered along with them. Should she or should she not? How does a hungry soul put wisdom to practice? She shut her eyes for a moment, knowing that the bitterness of reality would not be so easily obliterated by the rumbling of the hour. She turned back and headed out of the vicinity to continue the dialogue with her conscience.

She got a taxi and returned to Ubo.

She got home and began to think seriously of a way to solve the problem without compromising her self-esteem. She had spoken to everyone she could conceivably speak to and they had all shuddered at the request for a credit of two hundred and fifty thousand naira, not minding her proposed thirty thousand advance payment. More painful was the attitude of the suppliers she had patronized in the past. None of the traders was moved to sympathy by thoughts of the various successful transactions she had had with them. She had thought they were building a business relationship that was beyond a mindless cash and carry routine.

Suddenly her mind went to Father Akaduchi. The priest was one confidant to whom she was yet to present the matter; she had not bothered to look his way because of the non-materialistic lives of priests. The probability of finding financial succor in the church was the least by her estimation.

But she imagined that there was no harm in sounding him out on her travails. If for no other thing, at least she would get his advice and prayers over the matter. She recalled the breakthroughs that had resulted from his counsel in her previous predicaments. With Father Akaduchi still on her mind, she drifted off to sleep.

* * * * *

Father Akaduchi was in his white shorts and white singlet when Amina arrived that morning. Seated in the front of the rectory, he looked up as the widow approached. She was sporting her gray wrap skirt and white blouse.

“How’re you doing today Mrs. USMAN & LABARAN?” the Reverend Father asked and made the sign of the cross.

“We give glory to God, sir,” Amina said.

“Bless you. What has brought you this early? I hope all is well?”

“All is not well, Father. But I believe that God is faithful.” After the Reverend Father had pulled up a chair for her, she began to narrate her ordeal to the priest. She told him how the only person willing to assist her had requested to take her to bed. Father Akaduchi was moved by the plight of the widow.

He however chided her for not letting Isioma know that she had made a contribution of such an amount to save the life of her husband. The priest said that on such matters of life and death, it was proper that the contributions of everyone were made evident. Moreover, it still was not clear from her explanations if it was a loan she gave to Nkiru or not.

“You should have at least made her sign some papers before parting with such money,” he said.

“It was a desperate situation, Father. The circumstance was such that I could not bring myself to do that. She was crying and hurrying to the hospital,” Amina said.

“Well, I think it’s a lesson to you. You don’t take things for granted these days. She can simply deny you ever had such a transaction with her.”

“Deny? Well, God is my witness.”

“Yes, I know. But remember we are still mortals. And as long as we remain on this plane, you must learn to relate with humans bearing in mind their imperfections as mortal beings.”

Father Akaduchi saw the desperate situation in which Amina had found herself. He knew that if nothing was done to assist her she might be compelled to seek less virtuous means of solving the problem.

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The Reverend Father recalled the exemplary manner in which she had upheld her Christian faith and felt that her current travails were a classic case of the devil lurking around the corner seeking whom to devour. He gazed contemplatively at the church building. He remembered he still had the offerings that were made in the different parishes across the local government area for that week; he was yet to submit them to the diocesan headquarters.

He could dip into it to solve the immediate problem confronting the helpless widow. But he knew he must make up the money and submit to headquarters before the coming Sunday. How am I going to raise such funds in five days? Different thoughts began to flash through his mind. He thought about appealing to the Bishop to convert same to a loan he would repay before the end of the month. Before then Amina would have been paid by the government and she would have returned the money to him. The priest stood and made for the vault of the church.

* * * * *

Amina rushed to Awka to purchase the materials, and prayed all through the journey for Father Akaduchi, for he had virtually pulled her away from the jaws of the lion. She arrived at the shop of Chief Omenka before noon. The old man was sitting on a wooden bench by the entrance and on sighting her he began to lick his lips and beam with smiles. He called on one of his salesmen to get his vehicle ready for movement, and beckoned her to sit next to him on the long bench.

“You’re welcome, my darling. We shall soon leave,” he said. Amina greeted him. She walked past him to the stack of cloths behind. “Please, sir, I have come to pay and collect these cloths,” she said and pointed to the roll of blue and white cloths on display. The message from her stern expression was unmistakable; the old man knew that his amorous appetite had hit the rocks. He stared at her, wondering how she could have mustered the money she so desperately needed.

“OK . . . OK,” he said.

He stood and made for the bale of cloths, and in an hour they had cut out the quantity required by her and got a pickup vehicle to take the load of cloths to Ubo. As she left the shop, the man sat and gritted his teeth in grief, seeing that his much-cherished target had escaped his ambush.

Amina hurriedly mobilized all her staff, including those who were not working on permanent basis with her. They toiled day and night to meet up with the three-day ultimatum issued by the principal. But they could only go as far as was humanly possible. By the afternoon of the third day, the principal came with a group of policemen from Akeh.

“There she is,” the principal said and pointed toward Amina.

Three policemen moved for Amina whilst the remaining two stood guard outside. Various lengths of cloths littered the floor of the shop, so much that the policemen could hardly find their way in.

“You have to come with us,” one of the policemen said as he inched closer to Amina.

She reckoned he was the leader of the team. He had managed to hop over a stretch of cloths and had almost tripped in the process.

Amuebie and the other workers stopped what they were doing, and watched as Amina gaped beside her table. Amina dropped the cloth in her hand and pushed the sewing machine aside.

“What is the matter, Officer?” she asked.

The principal had stomped further into the shop. She froze at the sight before her. Many of the uniforms were on display on the long hangers by the wall. Her eyes flashed across the various tables; the uniforms glittered in their various stages of completion. She noted with grudging admiration that the urgency in which Amina had sewn the uniforms did not detract from the sublime finishing for which she was renowned.

The lead policeman gazed at the principal. He observed that the principal had suddenly turned pensive and was looking seemingly remorseful.

“What? Are we no longer arresting her?” the policeman asked curiously.

“Hold on a minute,” the principal said and turned toward Amina with some measure of calm. “When will they be ready?” she asked.

“Eighty percent of it is ready, as you can see,” Amina said and pointed at the hangers by the wall and the boxes stacked by the corner of the shop. The completed uniforms sparkled in their diverse colors. “I’ve already sent for two Hilux pickups to take the available ones to you today.”

The principal ran another glance across the place. “It’s OK, Officers. You can leave now. I’ll sort it out with her,” she said.

Scarcely had she finished saying so before screeching tires pierced the tension in the shop. The two Hilux pickups were just arriving. They loaded the vehicles with the uniforms and headed for Akeh.

After the principal had left with the consignment of uniforms, Amina went round her staff, patting them on their backs. She asked them not to be demoralized by what had just happened, as every path to enduring success was strewn with obstacles. If anything, they should be spurred to higher heights by the embarrassing experience. For it was only by so doing they would erase all misconceptions about their performance.

A few minutes later, a lady walked into the shop and sought to see Amina. She wore a white scarf and a white gown; she had come with a message from Father Akaduchi. Amina welcomed her in and took the letter she brought from the priest.

She quickly tore the brown envelope open and fished out the note and, for a few seconds after reading the message, she held on to the letter and gazed out of the door. After a while, she began to pace about the room. Then she pulled herself together when it occurred to her that Amuebie and the rest were watching. Yet, she could hardly concentrate to do the job. She stood again, picked up her bag and walked out of the shop.

* * * * *

Amina arrived at the rectory to meet the priest pacing about the empty church hall in his cassock. He was speaking silently, lost in his world. On seeing her, he stopped and fixed a frightful stare on the widow. She gasped and moved in guarded steps toward the Reverend Father, for she had never seen him look so worried and desperate. If there was anyone who had inspired and given her hope with his confident management of crisis, it was Father Akaduchi. But the countenance of the priest on that day stood at stark variance with all she had known about him.

“We have a problem, madam.”

“What is it, Father?”

“They want me to turn in the money this Sunday.”

“I thought you said you could make them hold on till the month end?”

“Yes, I remember I said so, but I just don’t know what happened. The Bishop is insisting I have to render full account this weekend.”

Amina moved toward the left side of the aisle and took a seat. In the heat of the moment, the Father had not remembered to offer her a seat. Amina knew that big trouble was in the offing. She could feel it. The intensity was scorching. It hung in the air as though the sun had fixed its furnace on the church. Blobs of sweat had begun to build on her face. She was yet to supply all the uniforms, but even if she succeeded in supplying the uniforms that day, there was no possibility of getting paid within the remaining two working days.

“What are we going to do?” she muttered.

Arms akimbo, Father Akaduchi moped about the place. He could not understand why the Bishop would want him to urgently turn in the collections in his possession. It was very much unlike the Bishop to pressure him to render account of the church. But he recalled, too, that he had never been this long releasing the church funds with him.

“I just can’t think of what to do right now. The situation is getting more confusing,” he said and turned toward Amina. “What did the principal say? How far have you gone with them?”

“They took the first batch of the uniforms today. I hope to turn in the last batch tomorrow.”

Father Akaduchi feebly made the sign of the cross. “Bless you . . . is there a way you can get them to make some payments to you before Friday?”

“Arrhh! That’s the next two days. I doubt if anyone would listen to me. Until I complete the supply, nobody is going to look my way.”

He exhaled and began to pace about the place again. Later, he asked Amina to return to her shop so she could meet up with her plan to make the final supply the next day. They agreed to meet again after she had done the supply.

* * * * *

Mrs. Emenike got to Akeh and discharged the policemen she had taken to Ubo. She hurried to the office of the chief inspector of education with the boxes of uniforms she had received from Amina. Unfortunately, the chief inspector of education was not on seat when she arrived the office. The secretary said he had gone on inspection to another community within the local government area and it was not likely he would be back before the close of work. But there was a letter he left behind for the principal. She took the letter from the secretary and acknowledged receipt of it on the dispatch book. When she tore the pin off the white paper, she found it was a query from the Ministry of Education headquarters.

The letter had not only suspended the contract with Amina, but also directed the principal to explain in writing within forty-eight hours why she should not be dismissed from service for gross misconduct bordering on embezzlement of public funds. For a few seconds, the principal stood and gazed at the secretary.

“When did they bring this from headquarters?” she asked. Her voice had begun to tremble and her hands quivered.

“It came this morning, ma.”

“What did oga say about it?”

“Hmmm . . . he’s not been himself since he received the letter o. I believe it was the real reason he traveled out of station. He probably wants to have some quiet moments with himself.”

Mrs. Emenike pulled the chair by the desk of the secretary and sat. She stared at the floor and began to sob. She did not return to Ubo that day. She submitted the uniforms to the office and went back home to be with her family.

* * * * *

The burial of Uncle Madu would hold the next day and, Afamefune being the godson of the late chief was expected to submit four yards of white native cloth, akwa ocha, to the immediate family of the deceased. Amina did not have a problem putting together the required cloth for her son, but she had always wondered what exactly the cloth was meant for. The explanation she got was that cloths from close relations were usually placed in the coffin of the deceased so that on his onward journey to the world beyond he would maintain an affinity that would be specially rewarding to those close relations who made the cloths available. She was yet to understand how all the collections from members of the family would fit into the narrow casket.

In any case, she rose in the morning and headed for the residence of the late man. Canopies were being erected at the front of the house, while a number of boys were offloading plastic chairs from the two trucks that had brought the items. The wake preceding the burial proper would come up later that evening. Friends and sympathizers would gather under the specific tent of a family member for whose sake they had come to the ceremony. It was there they would be entertained with drinks, food and music by their host.

Amina greeted the workmen and strode to the hut of Nkiru. She stepped into the mud house and saw her seated on the mat stretched out on the floor, amidst a circle of friends and sympathizers, wearing a black blouse and black wrapper, her hair totally shaven.

“Good morning, my sister,” Amina said.

Nkiru looked up as Amina shuttled toward her. “Amina, it’s you. Come and sit, dear.”

Amina joined them on the floor and placed the nylon bag containing the white cloth on the empty chair by her side. They had exchanged banter for a while before Nkiru noticed the bag on the seat. She was first at a loss as to who the owner of the bag was, but remembered that she had only noticed it when Amina came around.

Amina saw Nkiru look enquiringly at the bag and it struck her that she needed to broach the topic with the bereaved woman before more people began to stream into the place.

“Please, I have brought the white cloth for Afamefune. I know I should have taken it to Auntie Isioma but I wouldn’t know how she would react to it.”

Nkiru’s countenance suddenly took a dip. She looked at the bag and turned again to Amina.

Okwa ya?” she shot out.

“Arrhh, yes o. Gaskiya, I’ve heard many disturbing rumors lately.” Nkiru furiously stretched forth her hand. “Please give it to me. Don’t mind her. Onye ara. It was even good you didn’t go there. I’ll submit it on your behalf.”

Everyone in the room watched on in bewilderment as Amina heaved a sigh of relief. She was glad that at least she had avoided the ordeal she would have faced with Isioma. In ten minutes she had concluded her visit to Nkiru and assured her she would return later in the evening for the wake. Nkiru then described the exact location her own tent would be and requested that Amina come straight to the place.

Amina returned in the evening as promised and headed for the tent of Nkiru. She came with her children. They were all dressed in the brown coloured Ankara that was designated for the occasion. She did not bother to pass by the place where Isioma’s people had gathered. As it were, she thought the crowd that had come for the occasion and the many entertainers dancing to the different music bands were of such spectacle that it would be difficult to know who had or had not come for the ceremony.

It reminded her of the wake for Udoka. She was indoors all through the night and too devastated then to notice the events of that day. But she recalled the din that reverbrated into the house; it was virtually of the same magnitude as what she was now hearing.

Amina and her children were with Nkiru until the early hours of the morning when they retired to their house to prepare for the burial ceremony proper.

On their return later that morning, a fracas erupted just as they prepared to depart for church for the funeral mass.

The elders and immediate members of the family had gathered in one of the rooms in the house where Uncle Madu was lying in state. They had started calling for specific families to submit the white cloths for the burial.

Amina and her children were seated in one of the canopies mounted in front of the house and when it came to the turn of the Udoka family, Nkiru brought out Afamefune’s cloth.

Isioma protested. “Mba nu! Never!” she yelled.

She grabbed a wrapper from one of her children and fastened it tightly around her waist in combat readiness. The elders stared at her in shock. They asked why she was objecting to what was the common custom of the people. For a moment, she was silent. Then she said, “Amina had a hand in the death of my husband.”

“Ehh!” the house roared.

The elders flashed curious glances at one another.

“Woman, what did you just say?” Chief Abala asked.

“Aaa haa!” Nkiru exclaimed.

“Do you know the seriousness of what you’ve just said,” Chief Utomi added.

Isioma’s eyes flashed across the place. She lurched her heavy frame forward, shoving aside some of the elders.

“My husband said I should not allow Amina participate in his burial,” she blurted.

All eyes fell on her.

“How do you mean?” Chief Abala asked.

“When did he say that? Please don’t believe her,” Nkiru said and folded her hands.

“He told me so on his sick bed. He said it was the abuse of our customs by Udoka and Amina that made the spirits of the land to visit him with that strange ailment,” Isioma said, her round face contorted in the fury of the moment.

“That’s a lie. He never said so,” Nkiru objected.

The elders looked at one another. Ominous silence fell on the room. Chief Abala stood and asked the rest to join him. They moved into the adjoining room. For twenty minutes everyone waited as the elders conferred, while Nkiru stepped out to inform Amina of what was going on.

Amina listened calmly as she narrated the proceedings to her. People had started clustering around them. Amina thanked her and requested that they return the cloth to her should they refuse to accept it.

By the time Nkiru returned to the house, they were already set to depart for the church. The elders had resolved that the cloth from Amina would not be accepted. Nkiru protested and again the process was held up. Conflicting opinions enveloped the place. The assembly was struck dumb when Nkiru opened up to say that the one hundred and fifty thousand with which she paid the hospital bills when they desperately needed money actually came from Amina.

Isioma was about to speak but froze on the spot. It suddenly dawned on her that of a truth Nkiru couldn’t have raised that money on her own. She remembered that Nkiru had suggested they should reach out to Amina for assistance but she had shut her down and flatly dismissed the idea. So Amina was actually the source of that money? Isioma recoiled and gradually began to pull back into the crowd.

The elders glanced at one another and called for a second round of consultation. They rose to head for the adjoining room. It did not take long this time, and when they returned to the room they asked Nkiru to bring forth the cloth from Amina.

By ten that morning they had reached the Catholic church. Beyond festive periods, Uncle Madu and his family had not attended church services. But Father Akaduchi understood the culture of the people. He had relaxed the stringent requirements of the church in an effort to harmonize the fundamentals of tradition with the basics of ecclesia, hoping that with time the people would come to embrace the strict ethos of the Christian faith.

On this day, the cathedral was filled to capacity—many seats were set outside to take the overflow of people—and Father Akaduchi was on hand to conduct the funeral service.

Trouble began again when Isioma prevented Amina and her children from sitting at the section reserved for family members of the deceased. Nkiru saw what was happening and rose from her seat to intervene. Isioma stood her ground.

One of the mass servants promptly drew Father Akaduchi’s attention to the commotion that was building up inside the church. The priest stepped off the sanctuary and moved toward Isioma. But when he saw her ferocious outbursts and combative posturing in the hallowed temple of the Almighty, the man of God cringed as though he were standing before an incarnate of Lucifer.

Amina began to walk out of the church and beckoned her children to follow. Amuebie, Nonyelim and Afamefune all filed behind her. Nkiru and Isioma had started shouting at the top of their voices, and it took only the stern intervention of Father Akaduchi to calm frayed nerves. He asked them not to desecrate the spirit of the late Uncle Madu whose body was lying right before them in the casket at the end of the aisle.

After he had quieted the two wives of the deceased, the priest sent for Amina and her children—they had taken seats outside the church building. He apologized and arranged another set of chairs for them inside the church, alongside Nkiru. Although his sermon on that day dwelt extensively on reconciliation and forgiveness, the fiery glances from Isioma confirmed to Amina that the message had little or no meaning to the thick-set woman.

In two hours, the church service was over and as the procession began to make its way to the residence of Uncle Madu for the interment, Nkiru approached Amina and begged her to overlook the embarrassment that Isioma had caused everyone that day. Amina said she was not ready to face further humiliations from Isioma and it was better she returned to her house with her children rather than participate in the remaining items billed for the funeral. Once again it took pleas from Father Akaduchi to get Amina and her children to accompany them to the interment.

* * * * *

Father Akaduchi was summoned the next day by the Bishop of Awka diocese. He arrived at Awka before noon and headed for the Bishop’s house. When he got there, a furious Bishop Augustine Igwedinoku was frantically pacing about the office in his gold-coloured priestly robe. He was a short, dark-skinned man of burly frame.

“What’s happening, Father Akaduchi?” the Bishop asked.

“Sorry, Your Grace. I have a little challenge.”

“What’s the problem? This is not the Akaduchi I know. I hope you’ve not opened the gates of your life to the devil.”

“No, Your Grace. Never. The mansions of my soul remain as fortified as ever,” Father Akaduchi said and made the sign of cross.

“Then what’s this smoke from the pits of hades I am seeing around you, Father?”

Father Akaduchi was torn between explaining the truth of the situation to his Bishop and continuing to keep the matter under wraps, hoping to buy some time in the process. But he knew that no matter the concession he was able to wring from the Bishop, it could never exceed the end of the month, which was just seven days away.

His mind wandered away. What if Amina did not come through by then? The Catholic convention was coming up next month. The diocese could not afford to carry over unbalanced accounts into the national ceremony. That would be an abomination. The scandal would be unimaginable.

If he opened up to the Bishop, he did not know how he would take it. The Bishop had held him in high esteem all these years and had proudly told anyone who cared to listen that he could leave any amount of money in the custody of Father Akaduchi and go to sleep. He felt the Bishop would be devastated if he found out the truth. The priest concluded that he would rather keep hope alive— Amina could still get the payment within the next seven days. There was no need opening up the true situation now.

He informed the Bishop that he had been busy attending to the various conflicts arising from the funeral ceremonies in the village. He had hardly had the time to sit and work on his books. He sought the understanding of the Bishop and asked that he be given the next seven days to put his records in order, promising to render the accounts by the end of the month. The Bishop acceded to his request but drew his attention to the implications of exceeding the deadline of month end.

Father Akaduchi returned to Ubo and headed for Amina’s shop. He got there and was told she had left for the house. It’s unlike her to be in the house at this time. I hope she hasn’t gone out of town. He needed some more assurances from her. In fact, not just assurances but stronger commitments to their seven-day target. Luckily, he met her at home. As Amina swung the door open to usher him in, she observed that he bore this unusual frown that was gradually settling on his countenance.

“Good afternoon, Father.”

“Afternoon, Amina. What happened? I have been to your shop,” the priest said and went to take a seat.

“Sorry, I had to leave early. I have this headache that’s been making me feel dizzy,” Amina said. She took the seat next to him.

“Sorry. Hope you’ve had some medication?”

“Yes, I’ve taken aspirin.”

“The Lord is your strength . . . so, what’s the situation with the supplies?”

“Yes, I’ve given them all the uniforms.”

Father Akaduchi sat up. For the first time in days, his face beamed with optimism. He stretched forth his two hands to the heavens and then made the sign of the cross.

“Oh, glory be to God. . .” He turned back to her. “So, when are they making payment?”

Amina gazed at the floor in deep contemplation. “Honestly I don’t know yet. I haven’t heard from the principal.”

The smile began to disappear from the face of the priest, laying bare the furrows in his naturally broad jaw and forehead. “You don’t think they’ll pay next week?” he asked.

“I just can’t say for sure now until I hear from the principal. But at least I’ve supplied all the uniforms.”

“I’ve put everything I have on the line, Mrs. Ndukwe. If we don’t raise that money in seven days, then I won’t be worth more than a piece of rag before the world.”

Amina tapped her feet and wiped her eyes. She looked pitifully at Father Akaduchi. “I’m sure God will make a way before then, Father.”

“Amen.”

Several minutes after Father Akaduchi had left the house, Amina leaned her head on her hand, wondering how to come out of the logjam. She knew the priest had taken a big risk by offering the assistance he did, and she did not want to put him in trouble. But the more she pondered on the situation the more it seemed unlikely that payment would be made in the next seven days.

She understood the processes of the civil service. Officials of the education ministry would have to first audit what she had supplied before the schedule officers would apply for release of funds. Ordinarily, the procedure would take about ten days, that was if all things were to be equal. But she knew that the circumstances surrounding the entire matter had been most unusual. If she was to meet the seven-day ultimatum, then she may as well begin to explore other options.

* * * * *

The principal was at her desk that morning when Amina came calling. The cold glance she threw at Amina as she stepped into her office spoke to the new status of their relationship.

“Good morning, madam,” Amina said.

“Hmmm, good morning,” the principal mumbled. She barely raised her face from the file on her table.

“I’m sorry, madam, for all that has happened.”

The principal closed the file, pushed aside the papers and looked straight at Amina. “My dear, it’s not a question of being sorry. That can’t change anything. Now everybody is in trouble. I’ve been queried for engaging your services. The entire transaction has been suspended. No one knows where this is all heading.”

“God will see us through, ma.”

“Well, you better pray hard to that God because it will be a disaster if my thirty-year career goes up in smoke just like that.”

“God forbid.”

“Aha,” the principal sneered with contempt and looked away.

With the comments of the principal, Amina knew well not to mention the issue of her outstanding payment. The principal had said that everything pertaining to the contract had been suspended pending the outcome of investigation. She knew from experience and the much she had heard that it would almost take eternity for the money to be released. And, realizing she had no godfather in official circles to speak for her, she simply resigned to fate. She made further apologies to the principal and left her office.

All that now bothered her was how to pay back the money she took from Father Akaduchi. As much as the contract with the schools had lifted her beyond the poverty line, she did not wish to delude herself that anything could still be salvaged from the arrangement—it was as good as dead. The only thing that mattered now was how to pay back Father Akaduchi’s money.

* * * * *

Amina got home, locked herself in and began to dwell on how to save Father Akaduchi from embarrassment. She knew that it would be tragic to lose out on both fronts; for, whilst her contract and integrity before the principal were as good as gone, she would not want to bring that same calamity upon the priest. She had explored all possible avenues for raising the funds and no hope seemed to be in the horizon. She then remembered the family land which they farmed—Udoka’s land that was inherited by Afamefune.

As Amina’s business had grown, she’d hired some men and women to cultivate the land for her. The people operated with little or no interference from her. They harvested, sold the produce and rendered account. They remitted profits to her on an agreed sharing formula of 60-40. She allowed them to keep a higher percentage of the sales, having acknowledged the tedious work they did in the farm. Now she would have to sell the land. That was the only option left. In fact, how come the thought of selling the land never occurred to me?

But selling the land was not as simple a matter as it appeared. She remembered that the property was their distinct family identity on the soil of Ubo. To give away the land was like pulling their roots out of the community. Apart from the embarrassment it would cause her and her children, the consequences on Afamefune’s future relations with his kinsmen could be devastating. The peculiar conservative culture of the people was still evident across the landscape. She was in that pensive mood when Amuebie returned to the house.

Hiaaa! What’s the matter again, Mummy? You can’t continue like this o. You’re too young to get hypertension.”

“I want to sell the family land.”

“What! Why?”

Amina stood and stared out the window, and for a while she was silent. Then she said, “That’s the only way we can raise money now.”

“What about the uniforms you supplied? Are they not paying the balance money?”

“They’ll pay. But nobody knows when.”

Amina narrated the situation to her daughter. She felt it was no longer necessary to continue keeping the truth away from her, for she had come of age and had to be kept abreast of developments within the family. Although Amuebie had expressed some reservations about the idea of selling the land, she too realized that they were left with no option in the circumstance. They both agreed that it was proper they sold the land. There would not be a problem convincing Afamefune and Nonyelim. Amina knew that once she and Amuebie agreed on any issue her other children almost always flowed along with them.

But it was not an easy sell when Afamefune and Nonyelim returned from school. Amina saw that the usually pliant Afamefune was resistant to the idea. He was vehement in his objection to selling the land, arguing that it would mean he had no stake in the community. Nonyelim rose to his defence, stressing that it was important they gave due consideration to Afamefune’s position as a male member of the family.

The situation was literally deadlocked until their mother reminded them that it was the only way to ensure that even Afamefune and Nonyelim were able to pick up their admission into the university. They had sat for JAMB exam some months back and had both secured admissions into the university that week. They would need to make substantial payments for registration and accommodation. Whilst Afamefune took the exam as a fifth and final year secondary school student, Nonyelim sat and passed the exam from Class Four.

Grudgingly and reluctantly, Afamefune and Nonyelim agreed to the plan to sell their family land and the entire farm produce that had matured for harvesting.

Meanwhile, Nkiru came that evening to visit the family. “My sister, I hope you’re doing fine with the children,” she said.

“Well, God has been faithful,” Amina said.

“Thank you for all you’ve done for me. I just don’t know how I can repay your kindness,” Nkiru said and folded her hands.

“It’s OK, my sister. To God be the glory.”

“I heard about the difficulty you’re having receiving payment for the school uniforms. God will see you through.”

“Oh, it’s OK. I’ve left the whole thing to God,” Amina said and grinned.

“My sister, the Lord is your strength. I actually over-heard Isioma talking about it. You know she’ll always speak very loud whenever there’s something bad she wants me to hear,” Nkiru said.

“What was she saying this time?”

“Of course she was rejoicing. Ekwensu! She said she knew that the gods of the land would eventually catch up with you. But I know that it is she that the God I worship will catch up with and punish.”

“Don’t mind her. My destiny is neither in her hands nor the hands of the gods she worships. Try to ignore her, my sister.”

“Of course, I’ll always pretend I don’t hear what she’s saying.”

“I hear that some of the chiefs, too, are mocking me. Well, it’s

  1. But they should know they’re not God.”

“I never knew that people could be so heartless. My sister, we just have to be careful with them.”

Thirteen

Afamefune and Nonyelim set out for school the following month. He would study history while Nonyelim went for economics, both at the University of Lagos. Amina had duly settled her debts to Father Akaduchi, and used the remaining proceeds from the land sale to offset commitments toward the university admission of her two children.

Nonyelim was given accommodation at the popular Moremi female hostel. Afamefune was not officially accommodated. Although new students were usually given preference in accommodation slots, he failed to fill the relevant forms for allocation and, therefore, lost the opportunity to secure an official space. He ended up squatting at Mariere Hall, popularly known as Baluba, with one of the boys he had struck a friendship with during registration.

During his first few days in school, Afamefune spoke with their mother virtually every day on phone. She had installed a land line at her shop, and Amuebie had noted that if they took an inventory of the calls on the new phone, Afamefune would rank as the most frequent caller.

He had told them that right from the gate to the school bookshop, the apian way with its palm trees looked like the streets of Los Angeles. The senate building stood at the heart of campus like the skyscrapers on Broad Street, Victoria Island. The ambience was further colored by the numerous oyibo students and lecturers bouncing about the place.

Virtually all the affluent Nigerians had their children in the school: the Tejuoshos, Okoyas, Aikhomus, Animashauns, Ransome-Kutis, Mbanefos, Bakares, Danjumas. Although the spawn of these families were easily distinguished by their Mercedes and BMWs, practically everyone on campus walked with a stuck-up air of importance—even those he later discovered were no better than his relatives in Ubo.

Afamefune had called again that day complaining about the boys he was staying with—they were five in the room. He informed his mother that, apart from the fact that they were heavy smokers and always returned to the room drunk, he was beginning to suspect they belonged to one of the secret cults on campus. He also raised issues with the food. They were not like the native food he enjoyed so much at home.

Nonyelim, in her case, reported that she was settling very well into the routine of the school. She had made new friends, many of who were from wealthy homes. As such she had not spent much from the pocket money her mother gave her. She said her generous friends were taking care of her feeding; she would be spending her money mostly on books and other instructional materials.

She however raised the issue of the numerous big men who drove into the school at night to hunt for girls. The car park was turned into a market place of sorts at night. She hinted that her hostel, Moremi Hall, was the most notorious of them all.

Amina replied them both and asked that they focus on their studies and not be distracted by the social life on campus. She implored them particularly to stay away from the numerous beaches and other swimming places in Lagos. Her phobia for swimming had made her to discourage her children from going near water, no matter how shallow the depth. Over the years, she deliberately had not allowed her children to learn to swim. Besides her upland background, she had seen the deaths of many young boys and girls who had gone playing in local streams and ponds.

But Afamefune’s problem was a little peculiar. He could not cook and had not bothered to learn because that duty was discharged at home by his sisters.

“Afam, it means you just have to look out for canteens with better quality food,” his mother had said.

“Mummy, that’s extra cost for me. My allowance will be gone before the month end,” Afamefune replied.

“It’s OK. I’ll see how I can augment your pocket money.”

“As in seriously, Mum?”

“Of course, I don’t want you to come home looking like a skeleton.”

“Yeah! That’s my Maama.”

“It’s all right. Let’s talk some other time. I’m rushing to Awka. Today is the second sitting of the panel on the school uniforms.”

Ewo! What are they saying?”

“Well, I don’t know . . . until I get there. I’ve left everything to God.”

“Mummy, God shall see you through. Nothing will happen.”

“It’s OK, my son. We will talk later.”

* * * * *

Chief Edordu had gathered with the elders at his residence to begin preparations for the New Yam Festival. Since the death of Chief Obodo a year before, he had become the new head of the council of elders.

“There must be something special about that Hausa woman,” Chief Edordu said.

“How do you mean?” Chief Ikuku asked.

Nekwa! You didn’t hear how her case with the schools ended? Hmmm . . . they’ve directed the chief inspector of education to pay up all her outstanding claims and also renew her contract. They said she had never failed in doing the contract, and that in spite of the general scarcity of materials, she still supplied the uniforms,” Chief Abala said.

Chief Ikuku flashed a surprised look across the place. His mind would always go back to his bush meeting with the late Chief Madu. He had continued to wonder why all they had done had not accomplished the desired result. Although the experience was beginning to pale in his daily contemplations, his face would contort any time the name of Amina was mentioned.

“Don’t tell me you’re serious,” he said.

“Is it only that? I hear Senator Ibezim has asked her to come and contest for the chairmanship of the local government council under their party, NLF,” Edordu said and gave a grimace that magnified the deep creases around his mouth and brow. His thick frame had shrunken over time. He shook his legs repeatedly, but it was not with the intensity of the former days. Age and his new position as head of the elders’ council had tempered his propensity for restlessness. He gritted his teeth and, although the fiery posturing of old had been diminished by time, the blaze in his eyes spoke to the fury within.

“Impossible! Alu!” Ikuku yelped.

“That’s the true situation, my brother,” Abala said.

“You people must be joking. Who’s going to vote for her?” Ikuku said.

“Arrh, don’t say so o! Many people seem to like the woman. Or should I say her USMAN & LABARAN has made many people to like her,” Abala said.

“OK, maybe outside Ubo but definitely not here. Not after all she and her husband have done to ridicule the customs of our forefathers,” Ikuku said.

“Well, let’s watch and see how the whole thing goes,” Edordu said.

“There just is no way it would work. Ubo will not vote for her. You can be sure that I and my household will never vote for her. The frog does not jump backwards,” Ikuku said, with a venom that belied his tiny voice.

“But, come to think of it, is it not in the interest of the community that a woman from Ubo is the local government chairman?” Abala said.

“Exactly,” Utomi added.

“Is she from Ubo? She’s a Hausa woman. She’s not one of us. And look at who is even sponsoring her. . . Ibezim. That boastful Awka man. Mba nu . . . never,” Ikuku said.

Abala shot a searching look at him, “Aaaaah, you still say that after all the children she has given us? No, no. That’s not what our tradition says. If you are talking of Ibezim being proud and arrogant I will understand. But not that Udoka’s wife is a stranger.”

“Well, thank God that National Liberation Front is not the only political party we have. They’ll definitely not get my vote if they field her. A good friend is better than a bad sister,” Ikuku snapped.

“Are you saying you’d rather an outsider won the election than a woman that has lived with us and called here her home?” Abala said.

“I wonder. It’s a bitter pill to swallow though. But what can we do? We just have to accept and endure the reality that has come upon us. It is with fortitude you deaden adversity,” Chief Utomi said ruefully.

Ikuku re-positioned his small body on the wooden bench and tried to pump some verve into his tiny voice. “Well, if it’s only through that Hausa woman that we would eat, let her keep her food. We won’t die of hunger. If anyone mocks me for being hungry, I will protrude my stomach for such a person. I tell you, I’ll vote for someone from another village instead of that witch of a woman.…but wait a minute…I just don’t understand you people anymore. Is it that you have all been bewitched by her? Ehh? Is it when every man in the house has died that you will realize the calamity this evil woman has brought to the family? Well, her spell will never get to me. I can assure you.”

Silence fell on the place. They shook their legs and gazed thoughtfully at the floor.”

* * * * *

Amina got home after the day’s work, and was about taking dinner when emissaries from Senator Ibezim arrived at her residence. They included two women who were incumbent local government chairpersons in other parts of the state and two senior members of the political party. One of them was the councillor representing Ubo in the council and the chairman of NLF in ward 4, which comprised Ubo, Akeh and some other communities. Amina took particular note of the ward chairman, for he walked with a drag, as though he was pulling his left leg along. She reckoned that he may have been deformed from birth or disfigured by an accident.

The delegation expressed the compliments of the distinguished senator and conveyed his request for Amina to contest for the chairmanship position under the ticket of National Liberation Front. They told her that it was a unique opportunity because she would be the first-ever female chairman of the local government council.

Amina thanked them for the visit and said it was a great honor to have been so recognized. She however invited their attention to the fact that she was not a politician and, besides lacking the relevant experience, she did not have the financial might that would be necessary to accomplish such a huge task. The delegation said her worries were understandable but she could rest assured that all those issues had been considered by the party and would be handled appropriately.

A meeting was consequently scheduled for the following weekend between Amina and Senator Ibezim at his residence in Awka. By then the senator would have come home from Abuja, for it was his routine to return to his constituency every weekend from the National Assembly. It was an opportunity he used to brief the people about the latest developments at the senate and how far he had pursued their interest.

Thirty minutes after the emissaries had left her residence, Amina was deep in thought about the proposal from the politicians. How was she going to convince the people to vote her as their representative? Although she had made some acquaintances in the course of her supplies across the local government, she was not unmindful of the many factors that would stand against her candidacy: She was Hausa. She was a woman. Her relationship with the community had not been the smoothest. She never had any prior dealings with politicians.

The more she thought about these odds, the more it appeared to her that she was ill-fitted for the assignment. She was still in that state of agitation when Amuebie returned from work.

“How did it go at the shop? I hope you people were able to finish the dresses we are taking tomorrow to Amawbia?” she asked.

“We’re almost done with them. It should be ready before nine tomorrow morning.”

“Please get me something to eat.”

Arrh, Mummy, you mean you’ve not eaten since you came back?”

“My dear, you won’t believe what has occupied me since I left the shop.”

Amuebie’s face lightened up with curiosity. She paced closer to her mother and took the seat beside her.

“Hmmm. Tell me, Mummy, what happened?”

“They want me to join politics.”

“How? Who?”

“NLF wants me to contest for chairperson of the council under the party.”

“Mummy, please be serious.”

“I mean it. They just left here now,” her mother said and pointed to the empty bottles of drink on the table. “They drank those.”

Amuebie sprang to her feet. “Great! That’s the thing I’m talking about.” She stood arms akimbo and gave her mother a curious look. “Don’t tell me you didn’t take up the offer.”

“I told them to give me some time to think about it.”

“No! Mummy,” Amuebie cried, “you don’t have anything to think about. Please let’s reach out to them and make them know you’ve accepted the offer. This is a big opportunity. People love you. They’ll will vote for you.”

“It’s OK. I have another meeting with them this weekend.”

“Good. I’ll go with you to the meeting. Oh, thank God! Fantastic. I’m going to mobilize all my friends for this election. I can’t wait to tell Esther about this . . . maka Chukwu, any one that will stand against this project will die.”

Esther was Amuebie’s closest friend in the community. They had met some years back when Esther came to USMAN & LABARAN to make a dress. They had developed an intense companionship ever since. Esther had introduced her to a correspondence college where they were both pursuing a diploma course in marketing. They were to travel to Awka the next day, being that the weekly lectures for the program held every Saturday afternoon at one of the secondary schools in Awka.

* * * * *

Dressed in a white cassock, Father Akaduchi was praying in the church hall when Amina arrived that morning. Since she repaid the priest the money she borrowed from the church, they had not interacted much beyond the regular Sunday service. Amina took a seat a few meters away from the sanctuary where the priest knelt praying. As she took her seat, she shuffled her feet so as to attract his attention. He took a view of her and continued with his prayers.

When he was done with the prayer, he gathered the Bible and rosary that were on the table and moved toward her.

“How’re you doing today?” he asked.

“I’m doing fine, Father. How’s the ministry?” she asked and stood to greet the priest.

“All is well. We give God the glory,” he said and beckoned her to come with him. She was elated to see him walk again with the unhurried and confident steps by which she had known him. They both strolled to his office in the building behind the cathedral. She had observed that although she had had discussions with Father Akaduchi inside the church hall, he always felt more relaxed discussing in his office.

The office was no bigger than half the size of a standard room. She took in the thick incense fragrance in the air and glanced across the place. A wooden file cabinet, two plastic chairs, and a desk, were the few furniture in the office. Various work of Christian literature dotted the floor even as a big white candle flickered by the left flank of the room. The right side of the wall bore a lengthy Latin inscription ending with, Ad maiorem Dei gloriam. There was also a thin white wrapper, spread out on the far right angle of the office. She guessed that when the body had tired of the strain of reading and praying, the floor was where the priest lay to sleep and recuperate.

She was still running her eyes around the place for glimpses of anything that may have been added since she last visited when the voice of the Father rang out.

“So, how has it been going? I’m happy the Lord intervened in your matter with the school.”

“Yes o. We thank God, Father. In fact, that’s not just all. Something else has brought me to you.”

“I hope there’s no trouble again?”

“No, sir. It’s something different. National Liberation Front wants me to join them.”

“What!”

“Yes. They want me to be the next council chairperson.”

He sat back, beamed a smile at her and made the sign of cross. “Bless you. You mean they want you to become a politician?”

“Yes, Father. I just don’t know if I have the strength for that kind of life.”

The priest stared at her as he assumed a more serious mien. “Well, honestly, I don’t see anything wrong with politics per se. It’s the attitude you bring into it that matters.”

“That’s it, Father. I’m wondering how I’ll be able to operate among them without compromising my beliefs, considering all the things they do.”

“Sure. That’s where your Christian faith comes to play. You can live an exemplary life amongst them. After all, we’ve once had a Catholic priest as governor somewhere in the north-central part of the country.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Reverend Father Moses Adasu. I think that was in Benue State or so. He was a shining example for the other governors. In fact, he never lived in the big government house all through his tenure.”

“You don’t mean it.”

“Of course, it’s true. He operated all the while from his private house. So you can also set a worthy example here in your own way. I know the people will vote for you.”

“Thank you, Father. But what about the elders? You know my family history with them.”

Father Akaduchi tossed his right hand in the air and waved away the doubt. “Forget it. How many are they compared to the number of the youths in the village? Moreover, how many of them will come out to vote on that day? Don’t forget that a majority of the people today are happy to have abandoned those horrible traditional practices because of the way you steadfastly stood against the chiefs.”

“Yes, I know. We give God the glory.”

“And also remember that Ubo is not the only community in the local government area. Let’s even assume everyone in Ubo doesn’t vote for you, it will not mattter because of the votes from other villages. My sister, I think this is a great opportunity. Make hay while the sun shines.”

“Thank you, Father. Walahi, you’re always an inspiration. I’ll take up the offer. I’m to meet with them again this weekend.”

“Go ahead. This could be the purpose of God for your life. That could be the real assignment God has for you. Your recent experiences may have been a blessing in disguise. Some people don’t discover their true calling in life until they are confronted with adversity.”

“Hmmm.”

“Yeah. Your job is what you do for a living while your assignment is what really gives you fulfillment. This could be what God has in mind for you.”

“That’s true.”

“It is well. But you must guard against temptation. Ala adihi level, my sister.”

“How do you mean, Father?”

“You’re a single mother. The reputation of unmarried women in politics is subject to all manner of rumors. The presence of a man would not only prevent those stories but also form a protective shield around the woman. Don’t you think the time has come to look for a man to share your life with?”

Amina smiled and looked away. Although she had vowed since the death of Udoka never to have any serious thing to do with another man, she understood that the circumstances, as pointed out by the priest, appeared to call for a second look at her decision.

“Yes, Father, I know.” She looked at him and smiled. “Time will take care of that, sir”

“Let that time be timely enough, madam. Things happen very fast in the vocation you’re now stepping into. The reputation of USMAN &LABARAN’ has already gone ahead of you. You need the deterring presence of a man and strength of character to manage the pressures of such exposure.”

“The Lord shall provide.”

“Amen,” he said and made the sign of the cross.

Amina left the church for her shop, unaware that Amuebie had broken the news to the the staff at USMAN & LABARAN. As Amina stepped into the premises, chants of ‘Honourable! Honourable! Honourable!’ rent the air. She flushed and hurried to her desk. She thanked them and advised that they focused on their duties.

While they hammered away at their sewing machines, every now and then the staff would wink at one another and giggle at the prospects of their boss as the new helmsman of the local government council.

* * * * *

Afamefune had a busy day in school. Six lectures came in quick succession; there was no time to break for lunch. He was famished when it was over. But more disconcerting was his experience during the first lecture. It was an elective English course titled ‘Phonetics and Phonology.’ He had attempted an answer to a question the lecturer asked and the hall had erupted in laughter when the lecturer said Afamefune’s knowledge of the topic was disastrously limited.

Afamefune was ridiculed all through the day by his classmates as they kept mimicking the comment of the lecturer. The phrase “disastrously limited” became the chorus of the day. He got to the hostel in the early hours of the evening and stamped to his corner of the room.

His cold response to greetings from his roommates gave them a peek into his state of discomfiture. They watched in bafflement as he brought out his Walkman from the bag and clamped the earpiece over his ears, and they never bothered to engage him in their usual banter. After a while he headed out to the cafeteria.

The hall was bustling with the usual horde of students. As he made his way to the corner of the place he did not notice that Nonyelim was coming behind.

“Afam.”

He stopped and turned. “How’re you doing, Nonye,” he said and stepped forward to take a seat.

She walked past him to sit on the next chair. “Have you heard from Mummy?” she asked.

From her broad smiles he knew there was good news, but he was still too distraught from his morning experience to give a cheerful response.

“No. You heard from them?” he asked.

“What’s the matter? You’re not looking good. Abi na hunger dey make you look like this?” she said.

Afamefune would not let her in on his encounter with his lecturer and the humiliating reaction of his classmates. He simply told her he was famished and had had a long day in the classes. But when Nonyelim broke the news of their mother’s political intentions he quickly came to life.

“How does she intend to do it? Who is going to fund her campaign? Who is. . .”

“I don’t know. She didn’t go into details. I think it’s NLF that approached her. But from the way she spoke, Afam . . . hmmm, I believe she’s made up her mind to run for the office o.”

“I hope she doesn’t throw herself into another debt. These politicians are not to be trusted at all.”

“I think she said they’ll be the ones to foot the bills,” Nonyelim said.

“Are you sure? That’s what they’ll say only to abandon her when things get hot.”

“Well, let’s see how it goes. Leaving now. I’m sure she’ll be properly guided. I was returning to the hostel when I saw you heading this way.”

“I thought as much. I was wondering when you started coming to the restaurant to eat.”

Nonyelim stood to leave. She glanced around the crowded hall. “Of course, you know my room is a restaurant of its own. In fact, Modupe is the one cooking today. Let me rush back before they finish all the good meat in the soup.”

“OK, see you later.”

Afamefune was not unenthusiastic about his mother’s foray into politics. He was simply worried about her prospects of winning. He thought of what was likely to be the consequences if after spending all that money on the usually expensive campaign she still ended up losing the election. He knew how she struggled to ensure they were able to take up their university admission. He still had not fully come to terms with the fact that they had to sell their land in the village to fund their education.

But he understood, too, that if they won the election their social status would change significantly. He was not unaware of all the privileges that came with the trappings of political power. Some of his fellow students came from political families, and how they swaggered with an air of aristocracy. Their urbane lifestyle, especially the cars with government license plates they paraded on campus, put them in a different league. Could this be a risk worth taking? He ordered his meal and for a moment his mind wandered away from the humiliation of that morning.

* * * * *

By eight on Saturday evening, Amina departed Ubo for her meeting with Senator Ibezim. She was dressed in a white blouse and gray skirt. She had gotten Elendu to supply her with two kegs of his fine palm wine. She took along with her the drink and a shirt she specially sewed for the senator. She had taken time to get a good description of the man from her ward chairman, Mazi Chukwuebuka. She hoped that even if she missed his proper measurements, the big politician would at least appreciate the quality of her work.

As they sped along the way, her mind flashed back to the bumpy earth road that was once the road from Ubo to Akeh. She remembered how stressful it was some years before to travel out of Ubo. In her estimation, the ease with which people could now drive to and fro Ubo was one commendable legacy the political class had built in the preceding years. How much things had changed!

She thanked God that the wind of economic development had also blown positively in her angle. The expansion of her business had seen her employing more staff and purchasing two vehicles within the last year—a Toyota Hilux pickup and a Hiace bus, with ‘USMAN & LABARAN’ boldly inscribed on the sides of the two vehicles.

The vehicles had not only eased her distribution work, but also ensured that her mobility was no longer at the mercy of commercial transport operators. For two months now the bus and pickup had enabled Amuebie shuttle effortlessly from Ubo to Awka to supervise the new showroom they opened in the state capital for their clothing line.

Amina had also been able to restructure their residence and got it re-painted in white color. The three-bedroom bungalow Udoka built was expanded into a five-room building, with an adjoining hall added. The hall served as warehouse and, during periods of heavy patronage the large space would become a workshop of sorts. It struck her that the facility would come in quite handy as a place for political meetings. Realizing that only the grace and favor of God could have made all these possible, she prayed silently and gave all the glory to the almighty Father.

By nine she had arrived at the residence of the senator in company of Mazi Chukwuebuka. It was situated in a highbrow GRA neighbourhood of Awka. A high white fence around the premises effectively concealed the identity of all that was located within. The USMAN & LABARAN bus in which they had come had driven past the huge black gate before she beheld the imposing mansion, a gray edifice.

Armed policemen of the Mobile Unit moved about the place. Cars and SUVs of various makes dotted the premises; they glittered in the blaze of halogen lights. Amina had complained to the ward chairman that she was not used to night movements and the short, dark-skinned man had told her it was something she must begin to get used to because all serious political decisions were always taken at night. But as she stepped out of the vehicle, her pre-conceptions about night hours were swept away by the splendor of Ibezim’s country home.

They sat in the waiting room for ten minutes before a butler came to take them to the living room of the senator. Amina’s eyes roved over the place—the reflection of chandelier lights on the marble floor, the exotic artefacts, supple ostrich leather seats from Gucci were a sight to behold. She had never come across such luxury. She was still in awe of the place when the senator’s soft voice filtered out.

“How’re you doing, madam?” She swiveled her face.

“Good evening, sir,” she said. “You have a very beautiful house, sir.”

Her eyes swept the place again. Impressively-large family portraits hung on the wall.

“Thank you, Mrs. Ndukwe. You’re welcome.”

She watched the fair-skinned, robust politician as he lounged on the blue Arabian chaise adjacent to a large screen TV set. His white beard was impressively trimmed around his jaw. Unlike many politicians she had seen, he looked graceful and well groomed. She noticed too that he repeatedly tapped his left hand on the arm of the chaise.

“Take your seats, please,” Senator Ibezim said and asked them to pick their choice from the assorted drinks that were set on the glass table at the center of the living room.

While she carefully looked across the table to see which of the exotic drinks on display met her taste, her ward chairman had swooped on the table—his deformed leg was no hindrance. He picked up a glass cup, grabbed a bottle of Hennessey cognac and briskly unscrewed the cork. With the greatest ease, he filled his glass to half level and drained it. He turned toward Amina with a satisfied smile and beckoned her to make herself comfortable. Torn between embarrassment and amazement, she sat up and pointed to the can of Coca-Cola beside the Hennessey.

In no time they settled into the business of the day. But that was not before she had presented her gifts, for which the senator expressed his appreciation and admiration. He told her that he had been monitoring her rising profile ever since the death of her husband and commended the success she had made of USMAN & LABARAN. He said it was particularly inspiring that she had built the popular fashion house from very humble beginnings.

The senator also recalled her resilience and commitment to democratic principles during her face-off with elders of the community. He emphasized that people like her were needed in the political arena to help strengthen the functioning of the democratic machinery.

“I am convinced that NLF will win the next council election if you run as a candidate under the party,” he said.

“Thank you, sir, for inviting me to take up the ticket,” she said.

She identified with the goals of the party but expressed worries about not being a politician. She made references to issues that bordered on funding and other logistics associated with elections.

“Yes, Mrs. Ndukwe. I can understand your anxieties. Not to worry, those are things we shall handle,” Senator Ibezim said.

“Thank you, sir. But please, sir, if I may ask, what will be my own contributions to the elections besides standing as a candidate?” she whispered in that soft sonorous voice of hers.

“Oh, that’s a brilliant one. Good. You’re already beginning to sound like a politician,” the senator said. He glanced at the ward chairman. “Your ward chairman will assist you in organizing meetings and reaching out through campaigns to the different communities. I think what you really need to give is your time. That’s the commitment we’ll require from you at this time. Luckily for us, with the good name you’ve made across the place, your candidacy won’t be a hard sell with the local communities. I’ll handle the rest. I’ll smoothen out your nomination at the top.” The senator tapped his hand and smiled. “I doubt there’s anything I’d look for now in Abuja that I can’t get at this stage.”

They spent the next ten minutes acquainting her with the names and locations of the prominent members of the party in the area. She would be accompanied by the ward chairman and some other party faithful to those places for introduction and familiarization. When they were done with the meeting, Senator Ibezim thanked her for accepting the offer and gave her the sum of one hundred thousand to start preparing for the exercise.

They had barely left the gate of the big house before the ward chairman nudged her and stretched out his hand in solicitation. Because the senator had given ten thousand to him for his efforts, she was surprised that the ward chairman still asked her to give him something from her hundred thousand. Reluctantly, she pulled out ten thousand naira and gave to him.

As they made their way back to Ubo, she began to ponder on the entire experience. She noted that asides his hospitality, the senator appeared genuinely concerned about the welfare of the people and general development of the area. But she felt the middle-aged senator seemed overly nice and warm.

The occasional glances and smiles from him appeared somewhat suggestive. She wouldn’t wish to jump to conclusions at this early stage, but she could feel that there was something else about the senator’s interest in her beyond his avowed desire for popular representation.

Fourteen

Afamefune did not sleep for much of the night as his roommates were chanting and beating drums all through; his fears about their belonging to a secret cult had been confirmed. The oldest among the five boys, Jayesinmi, had called him aside the previous day to intimate him about the thinking of the other roommates—they had sent Jayesinmi to ask him to join the fraternity or find another accommodation.

Afamefune had nowhere to go. If he had to quit the room, he would have to be sure of another accommodation within the campus. He was moody all that morning as he left the hostel for the lecture halls.

He arrived in the classroom and proceeded to his regular position at the back of the hall. He did not notice the steps that were strutting behind him.

“O boy, wetin dey happen? You dey look like who dem snatch im babe . . . but I know say you no get babe sha,” Michael said.

Afamefune sneered at him and walked past. “Na so so babe matter you sabi, this Igbo man in Yoruba family,” he said.

Michael had been the person he had gotten closest to in his class since lectures started. He was light-skinned and huge, and Afamefune had always teased him by saying that his robust biceps made him look more like an Igbo man than a Yoruba man. He would ask if Michael was sure his mother did not have an unholy liaison with an Igbo trader in their Ila-Orangun community prior to his birth.

“Seriously, Afam, na which yawa don gas for your side this morning?” Michael asked. He knew that Afamefune was not a very sociable person. He had noticed that he talked little and liked keeping to himself. But there was no way he could have mistaken his mood that morning. “O boy make you talk na. Abi na when the lecturer don come you go talk?” He took the seat next to Afamefune and beamed at him.

Afamefune wondered whether to confide in him or simply say something else to divert his enquiry as they were yet to fully know themselves. Even though they had struck some level of familiarity from the first day they met, he still could not say for sure if Michael belonged to one of the secret cults on campus. He knew that many fresh students had fallen prey to the recruitment drive of the cultists, either out of sheer intimidation or an innate desire to belong.

In the end, he decided to take a chance with him. After all, if he was to make friends with people, the earlier he knew where they stood the better.

“Na this cult boys dey worry me,” Afamefune said.

“Arrhh. Them don reach your side? My brother, confra boys dey everywhere o, she mo? Na so dem dey wahala me every day make I join,” Michael said.

“My case is different. I live right there in the same room with them.”

“Ye!”

“So you can now understand my situation.”

“Why not ask them at the student affairs unit to relocate you?”

Afamefune had not told him he was a squatter. He always felt embarrassed telling anyone he was a squatter. Practically the entire school knew that every fresh student was entitled to accommodation. He felt particularly embarrassed because he had missed it out of his own naivety. True, he could walk to the students’ affairs office to seek another accommodation or at least register his complaint, but his status as a squatter had made that impossible.

Squatting had long been declared illegal by the school authorities. Although the university turned a blind eye to it, no occupant dared in his position as a squatter to approach the authorities to seek redress over whatever infractions existed in a room. Afamefune’s eyes went to the door of the lecture hall and he saw the lecturer walk in.

He turned toward Michael, “O boy, I be squatter,” he mumbled.

“What!” Michael shot.

“Shhhh . . . my man, na long story . . . the man dey look us.” It was after the lecture Afamefune narrated his accommodation experience to Michael, who then advised him to pack out of Baluba and join him in his own hostel, Henry Carr. Even though it was quite far from the Arts block where the lecture halls were located, Afamefune saw the offer as a big relief.

“But I hope say you no belong to any of the cults o,” Afamefune had said.

“Me? Never. I don’t believe in all those Aiye rubbish,” Michael replied and began to dash down the staircase. He was of a pacy gait by nature.

“Wait na . . . wait for me . . . e be like say na hundred meters you for dey run for Nigeria instead of this school wey you come so.”

“Oya, come na . . . you sef too dey slow for everything.”

“But, seriously, you no dey cult sha?”

“Forget. I dey pure, my brother. No fear. Go pack your things come. But make sure you don’t quarrel with them o.”

“Why? Of course, I won’t.”

“Yeah, they might want to pick a quarrel or start a fight with you. Don’t fall into that trap. Just thank them for their assistance and tell them you’ve found a relation to stay with.”

After the lectures of that day, Afamefune took a taxi to his hostel and moved his belongings. The hostile stares from his roommates further confirmed that he had overstayed his welcome. He thanked them for accommodating him all the while and left the room. None of the boys asked to know where he was relocating to.

* * * * *

Nonyelim returned from the lecture hall and quickly made for the bathroom. She had fantasized all day about what the evening party she was attending was going to look like. Her roommate, Modupe, had invited everyone in their room to her birthday party taking place that evening at her family house in Surulere, a middle-class district in the heart of Lagos. For the first time, Nonyelim would be leaving the campus to attend a ceremony in town. Although she was not quite accustomed to the values of urban culture, she had been able to raise her game in the short period she had associated with her roommates. On this day, she wore a black shirt and a pair of blue jean trousers. She thought of putting on her big white face cap but dropped the idea. She might be overdoing it—her slim and tall frame had sufficiently complemented her attire.

The residence of Modupe was on Bode Thomas Street, Surulere. It was a white duplex. Like many other houses in the neighbourhood, there was not much space between the building and the high fence around it; only three vehicles were able to find space within the compound. All other vehicles were parked outside the fence where they formed a long stretch on the street.

Nonyelim and her friends alighted from the gray Mazda car and made their way upstairs. While Nonyelim was salivating to the appetizing aroma from the kitchen, Modupe was singing to the music blaring from the sitting room. Then she turned to Nonyelim.

“I’m sure you’ve never heard this. That’s Ebenezer Obey’s ‘Anjade Loni Eledumare.’”

Nonyelim was not quite at home with the song, but she began to nod her head when Sunny Ade’s ‘Merciful God’ came on stream.

They walked into the sitting room to the warm welcome of the guests that were already seated for the occasion. Nonyelim glanced about the place as Modupe moved from one seat to the other to kneel and greet the older people. She noted that Modupe’s parents must have invited some other people to the party, and that the older people in the gathering were much more than the young ones.

The place appeared a little tight for the number of people around. It was obvious that the TV stand and black leather chairs in the sitting room had been pushed against the walls to create more space in the middle. Plastic chairs were placed in the gaps between the settees while the birthday cake stood on a stool beside the TV stand.

It was as though they had all been waiting for Modupe to step in before commencing the party proper. They all rose and began to sing “Happy birthday to you. . .”

When they were done with the chorus, Modupe pulled Nonyelim and her other two roommates aside to introduce to her parents.

They had begun to wine and dine when Nonyelim asked Modupe why there were many old people at the party. She had expected to see more of their age mates and fellow students.

“Don’t worry, my dear. You go see groove today,” Modupe said. Nonyelim gave a cynical laugh.”Na wah for you o. Which groove your mum and dad them wan give us?”

“Relax, my babe. This is just the beginning. The main groove no be for this house.”

“What?”

Modupe glanced around the place and whispered in a barely audible tone, “My boyfriend is throwing another party for me in his guest house. Once we leave here, we head for his place.”

“Where is the place?”

“Ikoyi.”

Nonyelim had heard about Ikoyi but had never been there. She knew it was the highbrow side of Lagos and was excited about the thought of visiting the popular neighbourhood of the super rich. But something was beginning to bother her. Inasmuch as she was fascinated about the visit, she was worried that she would be frolicking with men she knew nothing about.

She had enthusiastically consented to accompanying Modupe outside the campus on the understanding that everything would take place under her family roof, with her parents keeping a watchful eye. Now they were not only going to a part of the city she had never been, she obviously knew nothing about the characters they were likely to meet there. Moreover, the time for the visit was clearly inauspicious. It was already eight. She was naturally not disposed to such night movements.

She thought of excusing herself. She could simply tell them she wanted to return to the campus. She could say she was beginning to feel sick. That would be the right thing to do, she thought.

The crowd that came for the birthday had started to disperse. She did not understand the Yoruba language but she guessed from the interactions between Modupe and her mother that it would seem they wanted to round off so their daughter could return to school on time. She began to suspect that Modupe may not have told her parents about the party in Ikoyi.

Time was running out. Nonyelim needed to make up her mind quickly. The other visitors had all virtually left. Thoughtful, she tapped her feet to the rhythm of the music. Her other two roommates were in a different world; they joyfully sang along with Ebenezer Obey’s ‘Ota Mi Dehin Lehin Mi’ booming from the speakers. Modupe and her mother had stepped into the inner chambers of the house. Nonyelim knew that the moment she returned to the sitting room they would be departing the place.

She ran another gaze around the place. She didn’t want to intimate the other girls about her worries as she didn’t want to be branded a fearful village girl. She stared at the wall, shook her head and began to brace herself for the afterparty in Ikoyi—it was too late to break away from the company.

* * * * *

The trip to Ikoyi took about an hour. Although they went in the same Mazda car that brought them from school, Nonyelim observed that the driver appeared more talkative and cheerier than he had been on their way to Modupe’s house. He excitedly sang to the music from the car stereo. She supposed that he must have taken a little more drink than was necessary, but she was however impressed that in spite of appearing tipsy, the old man remained in firm control of the wheels.

“Baba Dayo, ejo, play another song for us. Abi na only Sunny Ade you get? You’ve been playing Ade since we left school,” Modupe said.

Ma bi nu o. I thought you were enjoying it too. Arrhh, you children these days don’t know good music. You mean you don’t like “Ekilo Fomode’? It’s one of Ade’s finest. Oh, children of these days . . . mo mbo, let’s see if I have something that you’ll like,” the driver said. He scanned his collections and, shortly, he said, “OK, this is ‘Talazo.’ I believe you like King Wasiu Ayinde Marshal, KWAM 1?”

“Aaa haa, now we’re talking,” Modupe said and began to wiggle and sing to the tune.

They arrived at the Ikoyi location at nine-thirty. The odour of cigarettes and smell of alcohol all over the place confirmed Nonyelim’s fears that it would be a sharp contrast to the Surulere party. She noticed that it did not appear like a residential building but looked more like an exclusive pub. It was a large compound of about the size of half a football pitch. It had a brown bungalow and an open bar attached to its left flank.

Boys and girls milled around the place with their drinks and cigarettes in hand. Shina Peters’ ‘Afro Juju ACE’ blared from the bar; it was the rave of the moment, particularly among students. Many of them had taken to the floor dancing. Virtually all the girls were dressed in skimpy skirts and bum shorts. Nonyelim thought she looked out of place in her dark shirt and blue jean trousers. The few girls who wore jean trousers to the occasion came in faded and ripped jeans.

A debonair young man was pacing around the front door of the bungalow. He briskly walked toward them as they alighted from the vehicle. Dark-skinned and short, he wore a white silk shirt and black trousers. Nonyelim noted that he did not look like a student. He seemed to be a working-class man in his thirties and, from what she could glean of him in the fairly-lit premises, although the man did not appear particularly handsome on closer view, the tiny gold chain that sparkled on his neck had a charm of its own.

“What kept you girls so long? We’ve been waiting,” he said.

“Sorry, sweetheart, we couldn’t break away from them. We had to wait until all their friends were gone,” Modupe said.

“But I told you, I know how such parties organized by parents usually end up.”

“It’s OK, honey. We’re here now. Let’s join the groove.”

“Yeah, sure. But I just hope you won’t start hurrying to leave again.”

Modupe smiled. She slowed her steps and turned to face Nonyelim and the other girls.

“Not when I’m here with my friends,” she said.

He stopped and glanced at the three girls. “Wow. You didn’t tell me you had such beautiful friends. Hello, angels. I’m Morgan. You’re all welcome.”

“Thanks,” they chorused and introduced themselves.

While they joined the other guests at the bar Morgan walked to the MC and urged him to stop the music. He picked the microphone and welcomed everybody to the party. He called up Modupe and asked that they all charged their glasses and toasted to her. Thereafter, he sang a happy birthday song that brought tears to her eyes, and then proposed a toast to the delight of everyone. The rest of the evening was all music, dance, food and drinks.

While the other girls dug into the champagne and cognac available, Nonyelim stuck to the soft drinks she was familiar with, for alcohol had never been part of her habits. She guessed that she was probably the only one in the whole gathering not reeking of alcohol. She would occasionally dance with the boys who came up to her, but one seemed to have taken a particular interest in her. He asked her to take a walk around the place with him. A couple of boys and girls were already hanging around the cars in the premises, while some others were huddled up inside the vehicles.

They turned the corner of the building and anchored by one of the vehicles.

“I hope you’re enjoying yourself?” he said.

“Yeah, sure. What’s the name?” she asked.

“James. James Appiah.”

“That sounds foreign.”

“Sure. I am a Ghanaian. And you?”

“I am Nonyelim. I am from the East.”

“I see. You do have very fair girls from that part of Nigeria.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I’ve seen quite a number of girls from there and they all look gorgeous. Here, again, see the angel standing before me.”

“Thanks. But it’s not always the case. My older sister is darker than you.”

“Are you serious?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Well, I’m sure she must be an exception; and, by the way, you’re welcome, dear.”

“So, what do you do? Are you a student like me?”

“No no. I am a consultant with Metropolitan Bank here in Ikoyi. Morgan is actually a, should I say, client who has become my friend.”

She fixed a more measuring gaze on him and noticed that he appeared younger than Morgan, though he was taller and more on the plump side. There were two tiny nicks on both sides of his face that looked like tribal marks.

“How is the work? I hope to be a banker someday.”

“Oh, that would be fine. It’s an interesting job. What are you reading in school?”

“Economics.”

“Good. I guess you’ll fit in easily.”

Her eyes strayed toward the bar. “I suppose we should begin to return to the party,” she said.

“It’s OK, dear. I hope I’ll get to see you again, my pretty queen.”

“If you so wish.”

On his request, she left her hostel address, while she took his office and house contacts. She muffled her excitement when he said he was a bachelor and asked her to freely visit him any time she so desired. All she needed to do was simply notify him she was coming. They later joined the others at the bar to relish the fun of the night, which went on until past midnight when the place began to empty slowly. She looked around for her friends as she imagined it was time to return to campus.

She looked everywhere but could not locate them. She hurried to the bungalow only to find the door was locked. She walked to the frontage where the Mazda driver had dropped them off, but the car was not there. She looked around the place again but the car was gone. On getting back to the bar, she saw the hall had become virtually empty; there were just about five people left and she was the only girl in their midst. The only face she could recognize was James Appiah.

She walked to him and asked after her friends. He said he did not know where they were and suggested it was likely they had left with some of the guests. He had only seen Morgan drive out of the premises twenty minutes earlier. He was not sure if he left with her friends. James Appiah could see the fright on Nonyelim’s face. He tried to explain that it was a normal thing for people to leave at the end of parties in ways different from how they came.

“But they should have at least told me they were leaving,” she fumed.

“You’re right, dear. They were supposed to let you know they were leaving.”

“What kind of irresponsibility is this?” she said and turned away.

“But, again, you know what the mood is at times like this— with all the booze and frenzy of the moment.”

Nonyelim looked shocked. “You mean they could have been drunk,” she said.

“Yeah. It’s possible.”

“But no decent man would take advantage of a girl in that condition.”

“That’s right . . . you’re right. That would be sheer wickedness. But it could well be what they agreed to do. It may not necessarily be that they were so drunk they didn’t know what they were doing.”

She looked away. She realized she was in trouble. She should have followed her instincts. Now I am left alone in the middle of the night with people I don’t know. She walked out of the bar and began to pace about the empty parking lot. He kept a respectable distance from her. He could see her eyes were wet with tears.

“Would you mind if I found you a place to stay?” he asked.

With the back of her left hand, she wiped the tears that had begun to roll down her face and stared at the man before her. What could his intentions be? She had to take a chance. She had no other option. She nodded in helpless submission and walked along with James Appiah to his black Mercedes-Benz E-Class.

* * * * *

The ride from the party to the house took about twenty minutes. James Appiah’s residence was a three-room building located at the fringes of Victoria Island. The house was in the dark when they arrived.

“Almighty NEPA has struck again,” he said and turned to give her a reassuring smile. Her face was expressionless. She watched with bated breath as he stepped out of the car to unlock the gate.

The garage was a suspended roof of blue aluminum. Another vehicle was covered with tarpaulin jacket. Although she couldn’t make out the type, she figured from the height of the vehicle that it was an SUV.

“Hold on in the car, dear. Let me put on the gen. It won’t take a minute,” he said.

He quickly dashed to the back of the house and in five minutes the generator had started humming, supplying light to the compound. In no time they were in the house. She looked around the sitting room. Two giant air conditioners stood at the edges of the room. Further down the room was a marble bar stuffed with assorted drinks. James Appiah beckoned her to take a seat.

“Do you stay here alone?” she asked as she walked toward the red leather sofa on the left side of the projector television.

“Yes, dear. I have a steward, though. But he’s gone to visit his parents in the village.”

She nodded calmly and bit her lips. She glanced at the Kenwood music set beside the projector screen and watched as he stepped out of the sitting room to the inner chambers of the house.

He reappeared a few minutes later. “You need to make yourself more comfortable, dear. Come let me take you to the room you’ll be sleeping in.”

“No, thanks. I think I am OK here.”

He looked at her, befuddled. “You can’t sit here all night, Nonyelim.”

“I am OK. It’s just a few hours before dawn.”

He moved closer to her and placed his left hand on her shoulder. She calmly removed the hand.

“I can understand your fears, dear. I assure you that no harm will come to you. I’m not sleeping in the same room with you. I’ll simply show you the room and you can then lock yourself in till morning,” he said.

Nonyelim eyed him warily. Should she or should she not? After she had hesitated for a while, she stood and walked behind him to the room.

“Make yourself comfortable, dear,” he said and pointed in one direction. “The bathroom is over there. See you in the morning.”

He had barely stepped out of the room before she rushed to lock the door. She leaned on the wall and heaved a sigh of relief. She waited until she heard a door clicking open and shut before she let herself breathe normally. She latched the door before going gingerly toward the bathroom.

Fifteen

Nonyelim was woken the next morning by the aroma of fried eggs and coffee. It was twenty minutes past seven. She had over-slept. Ordinarily she rose every morning by six. She quickly rose from the eight-inch bed and dashed to the bathroom and after she had refreshed herself she made for the sitting room.

A wooden arc separated the dining from the sitting room. James Appiah had set the table for breakfast. He strode into the dining room with a plate of fruits.

“Hello, dear, hope you had a nice night?” he said.

“Yes. Good morning. Thanks for everything, sir.”

“You’re welcome, Nonyelim. It’s my pleasure. Please join me for breakfast.”

She sauntered toward the dining table, brushing past a vast piano in the corner.

“You should have woken me up to help out with the cooking,” she said.

“It’s OK, dear. I knew you’d be tired and would need to have a lot of rest.”

“Hmmm. That’s quite thoughtful of you. Thanks.”

“That’s all right. Let’s hope I’ll have the opportunity someday to taste your cooking.”

She smiled and pulled the chair to sit opposite him. “I hope you won’t be disappointed. With what I’m seeing before me, you seem to be a good cook.”

“Well, just trying to learn the ropes. Got a few tips from my mother.”

“Where’s she?”

“She’s late.”

Eiyaaa. Sorry o.”

“It’s OK. That’s quite some time now. But she made sure we all learned to cook.”

“How many are you?”

“Five. Two boys and three girls.”

“They’re all in Ghana?”

“No. Only my elder brother is still there. The women have all gone with their husbands to different parts of the world. Sylvia is in London. Charity is in the USA, while Esther is in South Africa.”

“Don’t tell me none of them married Ghanaians.”

“Interestingly, their husbands are all Ghanaians. They left the country in search of the Golden Fleece, just like me.”

When they finished with breakfast, he stood to clear the table but Nonyelim insisted she would be the one to do it. A friendly argument ensued. He said he was the host and should be allowed to treat her with unfettered hospitality. She said that it was uncharitable for a lady to sit and watch a man clear the table, not minding who the host was.

It was a dialogue she got the upper hand with. She took the dishes to the kitchen and washed them. After she was done, she told him she had to return to school. When he offered to take her there, she asked him not to bother. She said she would not want to disrupt his programs for that morning. It would be just fine if he could drop her off at the nearest bus terminal. He insisted.

In thirty minutes they were at the University of Lagos. As he drove into the car lot of Moremi Hostel, he pulled out an envelope from his trouser pocket and handed it to her. He asked her to open it only when she was alone. She thanked him for his generosity and promised to keep in touch.

She got to the hostel and saw that her friends were yet to return. Hurriedly, she tore open the envelope and pulled out the note. It read:

I love you, Nonye. I hope to see you again soon. James.”

Also inside the envelope was the sum of twenty thousand naira and his business card. She returned the contents to the envelope and for a moment she sat on the bed and gazed at the floor. Then she smiled and put the envelope in her locker.

* * * * *

Afamefune had settled in with Michael at Henry Carr male hostel. Although it was much farther from his lecture halls than Mariere Hall, he was happy to have left the company of his former roommates. The two boys he met at Michael’s room, Taye and Gbolahan, were of a more cheerful disposition. They were both boxing fans and could bore you for hours with stories about boxers. But there was something else that Afamefune had to contend with.

The boys he had left in his previous accommodation were yet to give up on him. He noticed that they kept hovering around him. He would once in a while see them loitering around his new accommodation. Even though they were mostly students of the Sciences and Engineering, whose lecture halls were quite a distance from his, he observed that they were also putting up unusually frequent presence at his Arts block lecture hall.

He raised the issue with Michael hoping to find a more purposeful approach to the problem. Michael had never been known to be the daring type. He simply suggested that Afamefune ignore them and focus on his studies. But Afamefune knew that it would require much more than that to deter them from stalking him. He mentioned the matter to Nonyelim who advised that he report the issue to the school authorities. She believed that with a stern warning from the school officials the boys would stop harassing him.

Every cultist understood the implication of getting his activities on the record of the school. But Afamefune did not think the matter had reached the point to formally put up a complaint. He knew he would need much more tangible evidence of their threat than mere fears of their suspected intentions. Until he was able to establish that, he might just be exposing himself to ridicule and a backlash of their wrath.

He had not communicated with his mother in a while. He would not wish to encumber her with details of his school experience. If anything he would want to be seen as capable of handling the pressures of adult life outside the protective ambience of motherhood. Nonyelim and Amuebie had always taunted him about his attachment to the apron strings of their mother. An impression he knew was not uncommon amongst friends of the family. Moreover, his mother had in their last communication hinted about the widening responsibility she was beginning to assume because of her new political engagements. He really would not want to further compound her worries.

In any case, he felt it still would not be out of place to mention, even though in passing, how he had been able to manage the different challenges of school life. It was within that context he would let her in on his encounters with his former roommates. It would be a general comment, devoid of such specifics as could raise an alarm.

He stood to head for the nearest phone booth. Then he remembered that they must have closed for work at USMAN & LABARAN. He could only speak to them again when the shop would have reopened the following day. He wished his mother had installed a phone at home as she had promised to do in their discussions. He had no choice but to wait till the next day.

* * * * *

Amina returned from work on a Wednesday evening and drove to Akeh to visit the Chairman of Ubo and Akeh local government chapter of NLF. She had commenced political campaigns to the eleven wards, accompanied on the movements by the NLF chairmen of her ward and the local government area. The primaries for the ticket of the party was largely a smooth sail for her as Senator Ibezim had been able to get the other aspirants for the office to step down.

He had successfully whipped up the sentiment of having a sole woman in the midst of the many male contestants. The task was made less burdensome for him by the policy of the party; it was one of the rules of the NLF that preferential treatment be given to female members of the party aspiring for any political office.

In Amina’s case, although the consensus did not come without pockets of resistance from some aggrieved aspirants, Senator Ibezim muscled his way through the system by using his extensive political clout to stifle the protests. All the petitions the disgruntled aspirants addressed to the national headquarters never made it beyond the state branch of the party.

Amina arrived at the residence of Chief Polycarp Umeadi, the local government party chairman, by seven in the evening. She had gotten used to night movements, having realized that if she seriously intended to make a success of her new vocation she must learn the art of night movement. It had become clear to her that all the important decisions of the party were indeed taken at their night meetings.

She recalled the counsel of Father Akaduchi during their last meeting. She was yet to adjust to the fact that the Reverend Father was transferred from the Ubo parish less than twenty-four hours after that meeting. Every day she wished the priest was still around to offer those invaluable pieces of advice.

She could not help but wonder how much of a sharp contrast the Reverend Father was with the chiefs and elders of Ubo. She still had not forgotten their reaction to the news of her decision to contest for the chairmanship position. She had gone to the residence of Chief Edordu, who had assumed the head of Umunze quarter since the death of Chief Obodo, to seek their blessing. But their cold response to her speech left her in certitude about their hostility to her aspiration. After that day, she never bothered to return to keep them abreast of developments.

She later visited the Obi, His Royal Majesty Omekaokwu III. It was her first visit to the palace, for in the heat of her family’s brushes with the elements of establishment in the community, the matters never went beyond the consideration of the elders of Umunze quarter. For her, the visit to the palace held pleasant expectations. It was arranged by the local leaders of her political party, in whose company she made the trip.

In the course of their discussion, she was amazed at the ease and familiarity with which the tall, dark-skinned traditional ruler recounted her numerous conflicts with the community. Although the king did not expressly disapprove of her ambition, the drift of his remarks betrayed his negative attitude to women in his domain.

She left the palace and resolved that she would not be deterred by the depressive realities about gender participation in partisan politics. She thanked God that Nkiru had always been around her. Right from the first day she mentioned the chairmanship contest to Nkiru, she had been mobilizing support for the project and would accompany her on all the tours and campaign movements. Nkiru had so established her presence around her that many of the politicians had come to identify the woman as her personal assistant. Amina ensured, too, that Nkiru never returned again to the drudgery of cracking palm kernel.

On this day, several party faithful had gathered at the residence of the local government party chairman to strategize for the next round of their political campaign. They were beginning to run short of funds and would need to reach out to Senator Ibezim.

Although he had returned to Abuja for the plenary sittings of the National Assembly, they would have to agree on who to send on the journey to the nation’s capital. The pattern had always been that the chairman would pick a member who would proceed on the journey. It was always an interesting period for the chairman. He enjoyed the lobby by members of the party who were desirous of embarking on the mission. They knew that apart from the campaign funds requested from the senator, whoever was sent on the errand would always return from the trip with his own largesse from the Abuja man.

By some inexplicable coincidence, Ibeto had enjoyed the favor of the party chairman much more than any other party man. Dark and stout, with thick legs on the ground, he was the one sent on the last four visits to the capital. Some people believed that he must have been making considerable returns to the chairman to be able to maintain such consistent patronage. Many others said he was simply using juju on the hapless man.

The meeting lasted till eleven at night—the issue of Amina’s speeches at the rallies took a considerable portion of the time. Her last addresses at the two wards they visited were said not to be quite impressive. They had noticed that in the course of telling the people what motivated her to seek elective office, she was making promises that were clearly not achievable by the party.

She had pledged to eliminate all discriminatory practices against women, tar all feeder roads in the community, abolish all school fees and levies, make every school child to enjoy free feeding two times a day in school, place every unemployed person in the local government area on monthly salary and other such popular expectations that were way beyond the budget of the local council.

They all agreed that she would have to improve on her manner of speaking, and took time to intimate her on how to address the people. It was advised that she should speak less on what she personally desired to do, and dwell more on what the party’s programs were. She would tell the people that her aspiration for public office was informed by a burning desire to faithfully implement the programs of the party as highlighted in their manifesto.

She thanked them for containing her naivety and gave assurances of better presentations in subsequent public appearances. She got home by midnight to prepare for the movement to the next ward which would commence from the residence of the party chairman by nine in the morning of the next day.

By eight thirty she was already at the residence of the chairman. Many of the party members had also arrived for the movement to ward 7. She stepped into the sitting room and took the seat next to the favorite position of the party chairman. She had always wondered why he did not think it necessary to change the torn leather on virtually all the seats in the sitting room.

She had gotten closer to him since she began relating politically with him. That access had given her the opportunity to have an insight into the financial dealings of the party chieftain, particularly the generous payments he received from aspirants to political offices to whom his residence had become a Mecca of sorts.

She knew he could afford not only to resurface the torn leather on his seats, but also buy new leather seats altogether. It continued to beat her imagination why he would leave the tattered seats to remain in his sitting room.

“Hello, Mrs. Ndukwe,” Chief Umeadi said.

She was so lost in thoughts about the seats she did not notice he had walked into the sitting room.

“Good morning, my leader, sir,” she said and rose to pay respects to the man, bowing as she said ‘leader.’ It was the general way of expressing loyalty to superior members of the party. The greater part of wisdom dictated that a member should make an effort to understand the unwritten order of seniority within the hierarchy of the party. A breach of the necessary acknowledgements could attract repercussions such as one may never be able to trace their root cause.

“You’re welcome, dear. Please have your seat.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“There seems to be a new development.”

“Ok, sir,” Amina said as she reclined into the chair and fixed a curious look on the man.

“You may have to accompany Mr. Ibeto to Abuja.”

She winced in amazement and said, “I thought he left this morning.”

“Yes, he was supposed to have left but Senator Ibezim said he should come along with you.”

“Ooh oh.”

“Yeah, he said he’d like to introduce you to some members of the National Working Committee of the party.”

“Ah! Small me! That’d be wonderful.”

“Count yourself lucky, my dear.”

“So, how’s the movement going to be?”

“Well, we’ll continue with our scheduled ward visit today. It’s too late to cancel it now.”

“Yes o. They must have all gathered waiting for us.”

“Sure, but you’ll begin to get ready when we return from today’s tour so you can travel with Ibeto on Monday.”

Amina had never been to Abuja but had heard several interesting stories about the capital—the big politicians all lived in Abuja. Therefore, the invitation of Senator Ibezim was an opportunity to start acquainting herself with the high and mighty in political circles. All through the drive to ward 7 for the rally, her thoughts stayed on the visit to Abuja.

They arrived at Mkpisa, ward 7, to the warm welcome of the jubilant crowd that had lined up on the major street of the community. Amina’s posters were pasted on virtually every tree and wall in the village, and the youths and women sang and danced all over the place. They proceeded with the motorcade from the community gate to the secretariat of the party, which was also the house of the ward chairman.

That was the practice across the local government area. The moment a person emerged as the chairman of a ward, his residence automatically converted to the secretariat of the party; all party activities would henceforth hold at his residence.

On this particular day, the canopies mounted for the ceremony had all been filled by party followers, while the crowd that led the convoy on procession through the streets formed a sea of heads around the canopies. The ward chairman then directed his vice chairman to welcome the visiting campaign team.

A dark-skinned man of middle age, with a bald head which shone in the afternoon sun, he thanked the local government chairman for leading the campaign to the community and thereafter presented kolanuts and assorted drinks of palm wine, beer and beverages as part of the customary courtesies of welcome.

After the formalities, the ward chairman addressed the people and introduced Amina as the chairmanship candidate of their party, NLF, in the forthcoming local government elections. When he mentioned that she was the owner of the popular USMAN & LABARAN, the crowd burst out in cheers. Many of them shouted that they were wearing her clothes right there at the venue. He then urged the people to vote for her as she would continue the good works of their party in the area.

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When Amina was eventually called up to speak, she stood and spoke for about thirty minutes, the crowd roaring with intermittent chants of ‘The chair! The chair!’

The highpoint came when she pledged to address the multiple problems bedeviling women in the community. The place exploded with shouts of ‘Winner o . . . Winner!’

It took more than ten minutes for the ward chairman to bring the crowd under control again. By the time Amina and her entourage departed the arena, nobody was left in any doubt about the victory of the party in the community.

Sixteen

Amina and Ibeto arrived Abuja in the evening of Monday. They could have reached the city much earlier but for the snail speed of traffic from Lokoja. Right from the moment they drove into the confluence city, the day began to darken, with intermittent glow from flashes of lightning. Debris swirled in the air as the winds swept across the road. When the rains began to lash out, their wipers tottered on the windscreen like playthings of kindergarten. So the traffic crawled. Up to the outskirts of Gwagwalada, the clouds rumbled and thundered as though there was rebellion in the heavenlies.

But what a contrast it was from the gates of Abuja. The day glowed as if the land had never been watered in years. Amina was sporting an orange blouse and a brown, flowered wrapper whilst Ibeto shone in his sokoto and red cap. They had taken a taxi from Akeh to Awka where they joined one of the commercial buses that plied Awka-Abuja daily. Ibeto, having visited the senator in Abuja on several occasions, had become quite conversant with the route to the residence of the big politician.

They disembarked from the bus and boarded a taxi to the house of Senator Ibezim. Although all members of the National Assembly were given official residence at the Apo Legislative Quarters, the senator preferred to stay in his private residence in the Asokoro section of the city.

Meanwhile, Ibeto was lamenting the severe heat he always met in Abuja. He pulled out his handkerchief to wipe the sweat off his face. From the back seat, he leaned forward and tapped the cab driver on the shoulder, asking why he did not install an air conditioner in his car. “Oga, sorry, sir. Na servicing…I go service am tomorrow,” the driver replied. Amina simply smiled and said she wished Ibeto would someday pay a visit to Maiduguri for a real experience of what heat meant.

In no time they had arrived at the sprawling white mansion of the senator. But Amina noticed there was something different about the steps of Ibeto. In his red cap, flowing white sokoto and black shoes, he now walked with greater confidence and much more leisurely. There was an air of nobility about him that was not there in the village. His thick legs and pot belly further cast him in the mould of Abuja henchmen. She was sure that if she had not known him, she would have thought he was one of the big politicians in the city.

She looked on in awe as the security men at the gate greeted Ibeto in familiar tones and ushered them into the compound. She had marveled at the imposing residence of the senator during her visit to his home at Awka, but the magnificence of his Abuja abode was far beyond imagination. From the gate to the main building, the groomed vegetation and paved lawns blended in perfect harmony with the serenity of the entire surrounding.

By the corners of the house, four huge pillars rose from the ground to the concrete roof of the mansion, as though the entire edifice rested on them. The wooden structure of the front door was of such massive frame that a lorry could conveniently drive through.

A steward dressed in white had stepped out behind the door to receive them into the cool sitting room. Amina’s eyes roamed around the palatial chamber. The curtains draped in their golden hue from as high as the eyes could see to the glistening marble floor, while the purity of the white walls evoked blissful images of Vatican cathedrals. Amina observed that the furniture and electronic appliances in the room were about the same as what she saw at Awka, the difference being that the items in Abuja were of considerably bigger sizes than the ones in the village—even his family portraits in Abuja were larger.

A notable addition was the picture of the president. The giant frame stretched from the floor to the ceramic ceiling, leaving Amina to wonder if the large image of the president was a true reflection of the senator’s affection for the number one citizen or, as had been said of many politicians, a mark of sycophancy that would disappear a day after the president left office.

The steward asked that they make themselves comfortable. As usual, various types of drinks stood on the central table. The steward said the senator was not at home, but that he would join them as soon as he closed from work. He had left instruction that they should prepare meals for them and take them to the guest rooms in the compound, adjacent to the main house.

Ibeto whispered to Amina that she seemed to be a lucky woman. He recalled that on his previous visits to the senator, he had never instructed his stewards to make his guest house available to him. Although he would welcome him with the same drinks and food, he had always asked that he be taken to a nearby hotel for his accommodation

The senator did not return to the house until about nine that night. He dropped off his briefcase in the main house and proceeded to the guest house; it was a three-bedroom bungalow. When he stepped into the sitting room, he found Ibeto listening to the Network News of the Nigerian Television Authority. He had tried to sleep but was woken by the ceaseless barking of the Alsatian dogs in the compound. He had always wondered where the dogs were in the afternoons as they never made a whimper in the daytime.

“Good evening, most distinguished senator,” Ibeto greeted and rose to welcome the big man.

“How’re you, Mr. Ibeto? Sit, please,” Senator Ibezim said and lounged on the next chair to Ibeto’s. He tapped his left hand on the arm of the chair and quipped, “Sorry, it’s been a very busy day for me.”

“We understand, sir. You’re welcome back, my leader. I can imagine what you go through here every day. Very few politicians take their work seriously the way you do.”

“My dear, it’s not easy. But it’s OK. That’s why I am here. Where is Mrs. Ndukwe? I hope the journey wasn’t too stressful for her?”

“She’s OK, sir. I think she’s just a little tired and may have slept off. I believe she has not travelled this distance by road before.”

“Oh dear. I imagine so. It’s all right. I guess I should just allow you both to rest for the night.”

“Oh no, my distinguished senator. Let me go and knock on her door. You know you’re a very busy statesman. Tomorrow might also be a long one for you.”

“No, don’t bother to wake her. Try to have some rest. I can always adjust my programs. I’ll see you tomorrow,” the senator said and rose to depart the room.

“OK, sir. Goodnight, sir.”

Kachifo.”

* * * * *

The next morning, Amina and Ibeto were invited to join Senator Ibezim at the main house for breakfast. She had gotten used to waking every day by five in the morning to prepare herself for the day. She dressed in a gray skirt and peach blouse and took time to smarten her braided hair. Although age and childbearing had taken a toll on her, she was not oblivious to the heads that turned occasionally to behold her shapely physique.

She had always wondered who it was that looked more like her between her two daughters. Whilst Amuebie was fleshy and had taken after her dark skin, thick and straight brows, Nonyelim’s elegant shape was an unmistakable incarnation of her physique. She knew that if Nonyelim was not fair-skinned with more angled and low brows, people would be confusing their identities.

Meanwhile, by the time she and Ibeto arrived at the main house, the table had been set, with the senator sitting at the head of the table. As they approached the dining table, Ibeto began to shuffle his legs to the ‘Nwoke Ezu Ike’ by Oriental Brothers that was playing from the Harman Kardon music system. Amina watched in amazement and glanced at the senator, who was beaming with smiles.

They greeted the Abuja man who beckoned them to join him at the table. Amina strolled behind Ibeto and waited until he had pulled a seat before taking the chair next to him.

“I can see you slept early yesterday. I hope you’re refreshed now?” Senator Ibezim said and smiled at Amina. “Please the table is open. Make yourselves comfortable.”

“Thank you, sir. I didn’t know it was such a long journey,” she said.

She picked up a piece of flat Chinaware and took some boiled potatoes from the big serving bowl.

“Oh, sure, it is. You can now see what we go through every weekend to ensure we’re in touch with our constituencies,” Senator Ibezim said.

“That’s because you’re a grassroots politician, my leader. I believe it’s not all your colleagues that do that . . . arrhh, thank God we have you as our representative. You’re too different from the other Abuja men,” Ibeto said. He was already munching away on the fried yam, plantain and chicken stew he had heaped on his plate.

“Well, you’re right. That’s what you see in a profession that has no entry qualification. I actually don’t think I’m operating on the same level with many of these people that call themselves politicians. I guess we all have our different ideas about service. So, how’s the home front? I suppose everyone is fine?” Senator Ibezim said and sipped the coconut juice in his glass cup.

“Yes, sir. We’re all fine. Just that the campaign is beginning to slow down a little because of logistics,” Ibeto said.

“Yeah, I was told so by Chief Umeadi. We shall sort that out. How about the response of the people? I hope they’re receptive to her candidacy?”

“Wonderful. Ask her na,” Ibeto said and turned to throw a glance at Amina. “I’m sure she’s been overwhelmed by the crowds that have been coming out to receive her at the rallies.”

Senator Ibezim looked at her and smiled again. “Don’t tell me you’re scared by the crowd you’re seeing?”

She smiled and fixed a look at the plate of potatoes before her. On her other plate were some prawns in liver and kidney sauce, spiced with curry leaves and ginger that she had scooped from the main dish. She steadied her hold on the cutlery and hoped they didn’t notice it was almost slipping out of her hand.

“I’m coping, sir,” she mumbled.

“She’s doing quite well, sir. Although she stumbled a few times with her addresses at the initial outings, she now sends the crowd wild with her powerful speeches. In fact, your choice of her is the best thing to have happened to our people. I commend your foresight, my leader,” Ibeto said.

“Oh, that’s good. That’s good,” Senator Ibezim said and looked at Amina with deep regard.

When they were done with breakfast, Senator Ibezim asked them to accompany him to the headquarters of the party at Maitama district. He said he was going to have a brief meeting with the national chairman of NLF and would wish to use the opportunity to introduce them to some of the key officers of the party at the secretariat. Amina was excited at the opportunity of meeting some of the names she had only known from newspapers and television.

Not long after, they set out on the trip to the secretariat in the senator’s official black Toyota Land Cruiser. She was seated in the front seat while Ibeto kept the senator company behind. The senator’s three-man security detail joined the Hilux pickup with revolving light to lead the way.

In less than twenty minutes they had arrived at the party secretariat. Amina realized that Senator Ibezim must be a well-liked person. From the gate up to the national chairman’s office on the second floor of the three-story building, the senator was greeted with such flourish that could only have come from years of profound goodwill.

The national chairman was on hand to receive them into his office. It was obvious from his benign condescension to the senator that there was much more to their relationship beyond the courtesies of office. Senator Ibezim introduced Ibeto as a party executive and Amina as the in-coming chairperson of his local government council about whom he had spoken to the chairman.

“Good to see you, madam. I’m Alhaji Abdulkareem Isah. Senator has been saying very good things about you and USMAN & LABARAN. I hope I’ll get to wear one of your products someday,” the national chairman said.

She flushed. “Yes, of course. Thank you, sir,” she said.

“We really want you to be a good ambassador of our great party in your local government,” the chairman said and then broke into Hausa language. For a while, they both spoke in their native tongue.

Insha Allah . . . By God’s grace, I’ll put in my best, sir,” she concluded.

“It’s OK, Alhaji. We’ll be there to always advise and guide her. You know there is nothing I am involved in that fails,” Senator Ibezim said.

After the pleasantries, the senator and the national chairman withdrew into an inner chamber of the office, while Amina and Ibeto were entertained by a staff of the office. The special attention the staff gave Ibeto showed the poor girl was obviously carried away by his protruding stomach and false air of affluence.

It was not until twenty minutes later that the senator and the national chairman emerged from the meeting with three other people. Senator Ibezim took time to introduce them all to Amina. Amongst them were the national organizing secretary and a member of the board of trustees of the party.

Senator Ibezim informed her and Ibeto that he would be going with the party officials to see the president at the Villa. He said he would arrange for another vehicle to take Ibeto back to his residence, as only Amina would accompany him and the other party bigwigs to the presidential lodge—he wanted to also introduce her to the president as the in-coming chairperson of his local government.

As Chief Ibezim strutted toward his Abuja colleagues, Amina tugged at Ibeto’s sleeve, urging him to press on the senator to allow him accompany them to the seat of power. But Ibeto whispered to her that although he would have wished to meet with the president, he knew that for not taking him along the senator would in recompense gratify him much more generously than before. He calculated that it was better to set his eyes much more intently on how his pocket would look on his return trip to the village than his fleeting presence at the various offices in Abuja. He told her not to bother about his not being a part of the trip. He joined the driver back to the senator’s residence, leaving Amina in the company of the senator and the other party heavyweights.

* * * * *

Amina and Senator Ibezim sat at the back seat of his Land Cruiser as they made their way to the Presidential Villa. He asked about her experiences since joining politics and how she had been able to combine her tailoring with the busy campaign programs. Her responses were brief and straightforward; this was the closest she had come with the senator—all their meetings had been in the company of other people. She tried to calm her tensed nerves.

She turned and, for the first time, took a deep look at the Abuja senator. She saw he was not as tough as he looked from a distance. He had wide-set lovely, eyes and a smooth skin that belied his age. The white beards around his chin were lush and proportionally trimmed. His teeth square and clean. There was a compassion and grace about him that she had only seen in Udoka. The warmth of his presence evoked memories of the magical moments she shared with her late husband. She had not had real feelings for another man since the death of Udoka. A sudden emotional desire for companionship began to sweep through her. She managed to pull her eyes away and stared out the window.

“Thank you for everything, sir,” she muttered.

He looked at her, smiled and held her by the hand. “It’s OK, Amina.”

A flurry of sensations ran through her body. “I . . . wonder how . . . I’ll ever pay you back for all this kindness,” she said.

“You don’t need to pay me back for anything, dear. Just be yourself and try to serve the people well.”

They looked each other in the eyes and smiled.

The trip to the Villa took about twenty minutes. After they had passed the first gate, she fixed her eyes on the second gate ahead and observed that a more elaborate security process appeared to be in place there. Several cars were queued at the place. Two plainclothes men took time to determine the identity of the occupants of the cars, while some uniformed officers kept vigil close by.

As their convoy pulled closer to the vehicles, it veered off the road to another street on the right.

“That’s the gate to the president’s office. There’s virtually no day I don’t pass through that gate,” Senator Ibezim said as he pointed to the queued vehicles at the major gate that had engaged her attention. “But we’re not going that way. We’re meeting with him in one of his private guest houses.”

She took another look at the gate and simply nodded her head. She repositioned herself and kept a curious eye on the vehicles ahead. They headed into the driveway of a white duplex. The building sat prettily atop a hilly landscape some hundred meters away. Armed soldiers sauntered around the area.

They arrived at the place and were ushered to the living room by a steward in white. Amina observed that the sitting room was not particularly sophisticated, at least not like the opulence she had seen at Chief Ibezim’s residence. She had imagined that by the pecking order, the majesty of the presidential guest house would have been a notch higher than the senator’s Abuja abode. The chairs, chandelier lights and large TV screen in the presidential guest house were no more than reflections of Ibezim’s Awka country home.

They had been sitting inside the building for about ten minutes when the president walked in from one of the rooms. She immediately recognized him from the pictures she had seen—slim and fair-skinned, but much smaller than the imposing images out there in the public consciousness. They all rose to greet the man whose table was the last bus stop in the country. She shuddered when the president stopped by her side and fixed a look on her.

“Have we met somewhere? Your face looks quite familiar,” he said.

She was struck dumb. She simply stared at the president, wrapped by the strong musky whiff of his fragrance.

Then the senator intervened, “Oh, Your Excellency, that’s my incoming council chairperson. I believe you must have seen her picture in one of the national dailies. It’s a settled matter. We’re sweeping the polls. I’m fully in charge at home.”

“I see. You obviously have a taste for good things. You sure made a fine choice here. You’re welcome, dear.” The president said and proceeded to sit three chairs away.

He asked that they make themselves comfortable with the drinks and biscuits that were at the center table. Amina carefully waited until they had all picked their choices before settling for a can of Coke. Meanwhile, the president chatted away with Senator Ibezim and the other party leaders, speaking generally on preparations for the coming local government elections. Given the ease with which they discussed the matter, she concluded that the election was the least of their problems.

The only matter which seemed to elicit a little worry from them was the fear that some governors who were not happy with the choice of candidates imposed from Abuja may sponsor their preferred candidates to contest the election from other political parties. But even at that, Amina noted that their dismissive approach to the idea clearly pre-supposed that they had more important matters of state to contend with than the peripheral issues of rural governance.

The meeting turned out to be more of a socializing of friends than what she had expected would be a gathering for consideration of critical matters of politics and government. An hour after they had had their buffet lunch—Amina took tuwo shinkafa and okra soup—the president excused himself to attend to a visiting diplomat. Senator Ibezim and the others stayed behind and did not leave the guest house until some thirty minutes later. At that point, the convoy broke and the various groups went their different ways.

They had driven some distance out of the Presidential Villa when the senator turned toward Amina and held her hand.

“I hope you’re not in a hurry to return to the house?” he asked. It was a question she had long expected. She looked the senator in the eyes and, in spite of his efforts to disguise it, she could see his desire for her written all over him. His eyes had gone dreamy and his smiles, alluring. She remembered she was a single mother; she genuinely needed a stable companion and had held on for far too long. But there had to be some safeguards. What about his wife? Does he want me as a second wife? Or is it to simply be his mistress?

Could it be she was reading undue meanings to his goodwill? After all, he was yet to say anything to concretely establish his romantic interest in her. Nevertheless, she imagined it was in her best interest to carefully follow his promptings until he could speak more clearly about his intentions.

“It’s OK, sir. I don’t think there’s much to do in the house anyhow. I won’t mind seeing more of the town. I don’t know when next I’ll be in this beautiful city,” she said, her naturally soft voice evoking a wisp of melody.

“OK, dear,” he said and turned toward the driver, his left hand tapping on the leather seat. “Thomas, take us to the Hilton.”

* * * * *

The next morning, Amina and Ibeto got set to leave Abuja and return to Ubo, but they were not going back to the village the way they came. Senator Ibezim had directed his driver to take them to the airport for a flight to Enugu, from where they would take an hour drive to Akeh.

Ibeto said he would rather they traveled by the method they were used to—neither of the two had ever traveled by air. But Senator Ibezim overruled him and insisted that air travel was something they needed to experience once in a while. The senator then asked one of his personal assistants to accompany them to the airport so he could help sort out their ticketing and boarding processes.

Although it was a first attempt, they both found it exciting and pleasurable. From the hospitality of the staff at the waiting lounge to the excellent services of the crew in the business class cabin, they relished the novel experience. The only moments of anxiety were the occasional fright from bouts of mid-air turbulence. When they eventually got to the arrival hall of Enugu airport, Ibeto joked that he wished there was an airport at Akeh or Ubo for the plane to land.

Days after their return to the village, the air experience remained a veritable item of entertainment in their discussions with the locals. Many of their colleagues would tease them by asking when next they were to travel by air so they could take them along. They said their gaits since they returned had assumed the social graces of the Abuja high society.

But Amina noted that the excitement of the air travel gradually began to pale into subtle resentment from many of the politicians. Prior to the Abuja trip, she had enjoyed the support and affection of virtually every politician she came across. But now she began to notice the increasing coldness of some people who had related to her with considerable fondness. Her greetings were returned with noticeable frowns and contempt. While many of her party members still showed up for the tours and campaigns, the earlier enthusiasm had begun to wane. Her ward chairman, Mazi Chukwuebuka, who had accompanied her to all the rallies, was becoming reluctant to attend those occasions with her. He missed out on two of the last four campaigns, giving the excuse that he was having pains from his bad leg.

Her posters which usually flooded any community they visited were beginning to thin out, while the large crowds that freely thronged the streets to herald her arrival had all but disappeared. She mentioned her observation to some close party members but they had dismissed her fears as the usual pre-election anxiety of contestants for political office. They said that at such peak periods, real politicians usually retreat to their units to consolidate their base. The election was just ten days away. She was not a politician but she was not convinced by their explanation. She was observant enough to know that the tide was changing. If she was to win the election, she would have to devise a way of contending with the whims of the local political elites.

On this day, she got to her shop by eight in the morning. Amuebie had complained the previous night that sales were beginning to drop as some of their regular customers were no longer coming around as frequently as before. As Amina stepped into the showroom of the shop, she saw that the usual affable countenance of her staff was no longer there.

“Wetin dey happen to una two today?” Amina asked.

The girls pulled their long faces away and stared blankly toward the open window.

“Madam, market no dey move again . . . we no know wetin dey happen,” the taller, darker girl said.

“So? Is that the reason you’re looking like this? Just look yourselves in the mirror. Your face alone is enough to scare people away,” Amina said.

“We are sorry, ma,” the girls said. Their faces further contorted in displeasure.

“Please, my dears, cheer up. Things will get better. You don’t expect things to be smooth all the time. Such are the ups and downs of business.”

“Mummy, I think the situation is beyond that o,” Amuebie said. She had just walked into the show room.

“How do you mean?” Amina asked.

Amuebie went to the display stand by the window and picked out a purple gown. “Look at this,” she said and walked toward her mother. “It’s been a week now since a lady walked in here with much excitement to ask for this. She said she was coming back the next day. I’ve not seen her ever since.” She turned and pointed toward the hanger by the left corner of the hall. “The same thing happened with another customer who wanted that red blouse over there.”

“Is that so?” Amina asked.

“Madam, e be like say na politics dey cause am o,” the short, light-skinned girl chipped in.

“In what way?” Amina asked.

She had tried to distance her business from her political pursuits. In all her dealings with customers she had related to everyone without the prejudices of partisan politics. She deliberately would avoid discussions that tended to draw her into political judgements.

“Mummy, I think she’s right. It’s not everybody that believes in your party, NLF,” Amuebie said.

“But what has that got to do with fashion? If they’re complaining that the quality of our work has dropped I’d understand,” her mother said.

Mba o. Your opponents would feel that by patronizing you they’d be giving you money to fight them,” Amuebie said. She had actually been told by her friend Esther that she had overheard people discussing along that line.

“Are you saying they’d rather settle for lesser quality than buy from us, all because of politics?”

Okwa ya o. Mummy, that seems to be what’s happening.”

Amina knew quite well that her daughter was telling the truth about the situation. She just did not want to further frighten them by acknowledging the reality on ground.

Her major worry was that the problem seemed to be coming more from women. She had begun the political race riding on the huge support base of women, but it did appear to her that the recent resentments were coming more from women than men.

She wondered what would have been the case if she had made public the full picture of the feast she had in Abuja with the political deities of the nation. She had kept that sizzling experience to herself so as not to arouse the jealousy of her contemporaries. Could it be Mr. Ibeto has let the cat out of the bag?

She remembered the words of Senator Ibezim. In the course of their private discussions, she had asked why many female aspirants did not win elections as much as their male counterparts. The senator had hinted at the petty jealousies that always arose among women. They would mostly vote for men instead of using their numerical superiority to support one of their own. He had advised that in her own case it was better she picked a few men who had shown strong support for her and constitute them into an inner caucus of her political structure.

The team would lead an underground movement that would drive the campaign machinery through its critical days. They would operate mostly at nights, for that was the time such nuclei teams were most effective. They would embark on quiet visitations to individuals and select groups, at specified times and locations, insulated from public knowledge.

Amina realized that the advice of Senator Ibezim was the only way to create an alternative platform to whatever the party was doing as an organization and avoid being held hostage by any political bloc. She could still count on a few loyal men who would advance her cause no matter the odds. She would form them into a secret campaign committee.

Seventeen

On this breezy Saturday afternoon, Afamefune had met with Nonyelim at the school library. Nonyelim was happy that he was no longer complaining about the threats from the cultists in his previous accommodation. Rather, he was confronting the new problem of living with smokers—all his three roommates were heavy on cigarettes. Although it was a discomforting experience, he felt much safer in their midst.

They had struck an understanding where they all agreed that nobody would smoke in the room. The only problem was the tobacco odour that went around with his roommates, which tended to give a permanently unpleasant smell to the room.

Nonyelim said it was something common among students. Even the female ones were not left out of that culture.

“Modupe smokes much more heavily than most boys,” she said. Afamefune stared at her in surprise. “Are you serious? And she just doesn’t look it.”

Nekwa! You won’t believe what that girl can be up to. Don’t mind her innocent looking face o. But I’m lucky like you, too. All my roommates agreed not to be smoking in the room. I can tell you that many other students are not that lucky.”

“What about Mummy? Have you heard from her recently? She wasn’t at the shop the last time I called.”

“Yeah. I spoke with her two days ago. She’s fine. You know the campaigns are taking all her time. But, come o, don’t you think we need to return home and help her with the election?”

Afamefune shrugged his shoulders and looked away. “You know I’m not very excited about this her politics of a thing. It’s a very dirty game. They’ll see that something is white and tell you it’s black. You really can’t trust any of them,” he said.

“I know. But are we going to abandon her now? She’s already in it. Let’s do the much we can to help.”

“Well, if you say so. But just know that my heart is not in it at all.”

“Let’s go and help her, biko. At least you can talk to some of those your boys at home while I join Amuebie to lobby the girls.”

“But you know Mummy. She won’t be happy we left our studies to come for the election.”

“Look, let’s surprise her. She needs our presence and support at this time, even though she won’t want to tell us.”

“OK, let me think about it. I’ll get back to you.”

After Nonyelim had left him for her section of the library, Afamefune decided to do some research on politics and politicians. He tried to read anything he could lay his hands on about politics and the pursuit of power. If he was going to plunge into the murky waters of partisan politics with his mother, at least he should acquaint himself with the fundamentals of political craftsmanship. What he lacked in practical political experience, he would make up in theoretical knowledge of the vocation. In that way, he would be able to offer advice and help his mother navigate the turbulence in her new occupation.

Later that evening, he confided in Michael about what he had read and the parts that held his interest the most.

“Hmmm, Afam, Afam. So this is what you’ve been coming to the library to study? My brother, you better read for your exams and leave politics for politicians. Come make we go relax small for lagoon front. You don try for today.”

The lagoon front was a popular seaside shade of trees where students freely gave expression to all manner of social excesses. Smokers, drinkers and lovers of all hues found comfort in the cool ambience of the lagoon front.

From the moment they left the library, Afamefune kept inundating Michael with snippets of what he had read that day on politics.

“Have you heard about the law of perceptions of power?” he said.

“Which one is that again, Afam?” Michael said.

“Don’t you ever wonder why people in authority appear helpless and unable to solve the problems we always complain about?”

“Ehh, it’s because they don’t care na! They can get anything they want. Moreover, their families don’t live here. No be abroad all of them dey?”

“That’s not it, Mike. I used to think like that too.”

Michael stopped and looked at him in surprise. “See this guy o! You don already dey join them wey una never win election.”

Afamefune grabbed his hand and pulled him along. “No be so, my brother. Na because say wetin dem see from far before dem enter no be wetin dem come see wey dem eventually reach there. The closer you get to the seat of power, the less the magnitude of that power appears in your perception. But the farther you are from the locus of power, the larger such power would appear in your imagination. That’s what they call ‘the law of perceptions of power.”

“Na im be say we no go dey hold dem accountable for their failures, abi?”

“No, no. Not at all. It’s just that we get to dey pity dem small too.”

“O boy, you sure say na wetin dem write for book you dey quote so?”

“Believe me.”

“Na you sabi. Anybody wey no ready to solve people’s problems should sit at home and not bother himself with governance work.”

“I know but. . .”

“Come, I hope say you no go tell your mum all these things o. If na so, make she kuku sidon for house o,” Michael said, hopping away from him.

“Wait, Mike, come, come back. Look, I no fit for your hurry hurry waka today. If na so, make I just go back.”

It took the presence of Philomena—a girl Michael had introduced to him as his girlfriend but who Afamefune had never seen thereafter—to eventually break the deadlock. She had sighted and hurried after them as they turned the corner of the auditorium to head for the lagoon.

If there was anything that would quieten Afamefune, it was the presence of a girl. Michael had long noticed that Afamefune was the shy type around girls. He had always made jokes out of those moments of his self-imposed dumbness. He would tease Afamefune saying he may never summon the boldness to make advances to a girl.

On this day, true to type, Afamefune never uttered a word again until they arrived at the seaside. He would only nod in agreement to references that demanded his response. Michael and Philomena located a seat for themselves on one of the concrete slabs that dotted the place, while Afamefune went some two seats away and pulled out his Walkman. He straddled the earpiece over his head and began to hum to the music.

He had barely settled into the seat when he smelt the odor of cigarettes and turned in the direction of Michael. Philomena had risen and was walking toward Afamefune, a stick of Benson and Hedges cigarette hanging between her lips. She dragged and blew the smoke away as she approached. Afamefune pulled off his earpiece.

“You want some?” she asked and stretched out the pack toward Afamefune.

“No, dear. I am OK, thanks,” he said.

“C’mon, try one. It’s not going to kill you,” she said.

“I’m not really into it. I don’t think I need one now.”

She sat and shifted close to him, her rosy fragrance wafting into his nostrils. Then she pulled out a stick from the pack and lit it. “Ehh, guy. Here, a drag ain’t gonna kill you.”

Afamefune looked in her eyes—they were hazel and dreamy. He ran a gaze all over her and marveled at her pointed nose and skin which glowed in its creamy purity. Slowly and with smiles, he took the cigarette from her. On taking a drag, he choked and with moist eyes, began to cough. The cigarette fell off his hand as he gasped for fresh air.

Philomena held and squeezed his hand. “It’s, OK, dear. It’s normal. You’ll get used to it with time . . . and your hair, I think you need to go to Choices to shape up your afro. They’re the best hair studio in town,” she said.

“Where is that?”

“Yaba, off Murtala Mohammed Way. Would you want me to go with you?”

Afam looked at her and took a furtive view of Michael. “It’s OK. I can always find my way there, thanks,” he said.

* * * * *

James Appiah drove into the car lot of Moremi Hall and pulled into the last available parking space. It was a Saturday and the premises kept true to its promises. Visiting men strolled about the place as they waited for their girls to emerge from the hostel. Several girls were already frolicking with their visitors beside the different vehicles that dotted the place.

It was believed that the sophistication of the visitor’s car determined the length of time the girl would stay by the car. The posh cars got more time as they spoke to the credentials of the visitor and, invariably, the rating of the girl amongst her peers. Girls with less-endowed visitors would hurriedly exit the premises in the modest vehicles of their companions.

James Appiah, not oblivious of the culture, came in a Nissan Pathfinder. The red SUV needed no introduction. It was for the select league of the upwardly mobile, new breed executives. Two times he had visited Nonyelim in school, two times he had come with different exotic cars.

His skin cut, white shirt and trousers shone in the ebbing evening sun. He had watched Nonyelim walk spritely across the road that separated the hostel from the car park. Her pink polo shirt atop a gray skirt bared an elegance that heightened his evaluation of her beauty.

“How’re you doing today, dear?” James Appiah said.

“Good evening, sir. I’m doing fine.”

“You look astonishingly splendid, my love.”

Nonyelim flushed and rested her back against the Pathfinder. “Thank you, sir,” she said.

“C’mon, my baby. For how long will you continue to call me sir? Just call me James. That would do me a lot of good,” he said. He took her hands and placed on his chest. “I love you, Nonye.”

She began to breathe heavily and looked at the concrete floor. Then slowly she raised her head and stared at him.

“But I don’t really know you.”

“I can understand, dear. I assure you, you’re safe with me.”

“What about your girlfriend, or is it girlfriends?”

James Appiah grinned and caressed her hands. “I don’t have any, my love.”

“How can you say that?”

“That’s the truth.”

“I don’t believe you. How can you tell me you don’t have a girlfriend?”

“OK, let me put it this way. Yes, I had one until two months ago.”

“Hmmm. Now you’re talking. So, what happened?”

“It’s a long story. OK, step into the car and I’ll tell you everything.”

He got in the car and lowered the volume of the stereo. Notorious B.I.G. was on the beat with his ‘Mo Money Mo Problems.’

For about twenty minutes, he narrated his experiences to her. He told her about the various relationships he had had both in Nigeria and Ghana. He said the most devastating of them all was the one he last had that ended two months ago. She was a Ghanaian he had known when they were both in the same secondary school in Accra, Ghana. Although they never dated then, they related as good friends. More so, their parents had known one another even before they were born.

It happened that they met again in Nigeria two years ago and in no time struck a seeming harmony. The affair appeared to be heading somewhere as they were already beginning to discuss the possibility of marriage, until he realized the girl was having an affair with a forty-year-old journalist. He said he was so shattered by the experience he never believed he could be on another love trail two months down the line.

“You mean it was so bad that you couldn’t forgive her?”

“Honestly, I was completely devastated.”

“But if you truly loved her you should have forgiven her.”

“Yes, I know. The problem was that she didn’t show enough remorse.”

“How do you mean? Are you saying she didn’t apologize?”

“She didn’t honestly show she regretted her actions. She even tried to rationalize her infidelity by saying that she didn’t do it with a man,”

“What! You mean she’s lesbian?”

“Yes, honey. I later got to understand that she had been in it for a long time.”

“And she didn’t promise to stop it?”

“Well, that was not the impression I got from her. Rather, it’s like she was saying that provided she was not dating a man, I should be able to overlook it. That didn’t sound to me like the saying of someone who was ready to quit the practice.”

“Hmmm.”

“Can you now see what I have passed through, my love?”

“Yes. I’m sorry for making you recount all that. I can imagine how bitter it all must have been.”

“It’s OK, dear.” He looked her in the eyes and took her hands again. “Nonye,” he said and stroked her hands, “I hope you’ll help me to heal this painful wound?”

She heaved a sigh and shut her eyes. For a moment she was silent. She stared at the floor, then she turned to him.

“I’ll need some more time, James. I don’t want to be hurt.”

“Oh dear. It appears you’ve had some awful experiences, too?”

“No, not exactly. Just that I’ve heard so many horrible stories, I wouldn’t want to fall a victim of such.”

“Darling, but you know I’ll never hurt you.”

Nonyelim took his hand and placed on her lap. She looked up and stroked his chin. “Let’s give ourselves some time, please. If you truly love me, then we don’t need to hurry things now.”

“That’s OK, my baby. I’ll wait for you as long as it takes. I love you, Nonye.”

“I love you too, James.”

* * * * *

The smoke at the lagoon front the previous day had given Afamefune a cracked voice. He now strained to speak. He lay bare-chested on the bed, sporting his big basketball shorts. Taye and Gbolahan had gone home for the weekend, while Michael was yet to return from church. Although Afamefune was raised in Catholic traditions, he comfortably attended the nearby Pentecostal fellowship with Michael. On this day, the discomforting effect of his smoking experience had compelled him to stay back. He was still contemplating how to soothe his discomfort when he heard a rap on the door.

When he unlocked and drew the door open, he found Philomena standing there. His broad eyes popped at the sight before him. He made way. She walked in dressed in a skimpy jeans skirt and see-through blouse that laid bare her cleavages. He welcomed her and beckoned her to take a seat on the white plastic chair pushed under the small table beside the bed. She sat, pulled out a packet of minty tablets from her handbag and gave the packet to him. She said it would soothe the pains in his cracked throat.

She apologized for putting him through all the stress and assured him that the minty candies would swiftly relieve him of the discomfort. Afamefune wondered how she knew he was in the hostel. He noticed, too, that she did not ask after Michael. He would have expected that she would be concerned that her boyfriend was not around.

He realized that Michael may have spoken to her. That was the only way she could have known that he was the only one around. He thanked her for coming, promising to tell Michael how caring she had been. But he was stunned when she asked him not to inform Michael she was around.

“He doesn’t need to know I was here, Afam.”

“You mean. . .”

“Never mind. He doesn’t know and he won’t know if you don’t tell him.”

Afamefune took a sharp look at the packet of candies lying on the wooden table. She quickly read his mind.

“You can put that in your locker. Tell him you stepped out to buy it, if ever he asks how you got it.”

Torn between a flurry of excitement and a sense of betrayal, he hurriedly stood and picked up the packet, opened his locker and squeezed it into the innermost part of the closet.

“Are you assuring me you’ll keep our secrets secret?” she asked.

He gaped at her. Her eyes were cat-like with their upward curve. Her nose had its special appeal; it was a perfect specimen of an aquiline nose. It always left him wondering if she had a Caucasian ancestor in her blood line. She reached out, took his right hand and placed it on her cleavage.

He began to feel his loins bulge. “But you think he won’t. . . “

“Just leave me to handle it,” she cut in and pulled him closer. She ran her tongue between his lips, her right hand browsing his hairy chest and gliding toward his hardened manhood. As his knees began to buckle to the electrifying sensation running through him, she gently lowered him onto the narrow hostel bed.

Eighteen

Afamefune and Nonyelim set out for Ubo in the morning of Monday. They had taken a school bus to Jibowu bus terminal from where they boarded a second bus to Ojota Motor Park. They were lucky to find seats on the loaded AKA CHUKWU luxury bus that was headed for Onitsha. Their seats were located at the rear of the bus.

Nonyelim tugged at Afamefune’s shirt and asked in low tone if he could perceive the strong smell of crayfish and urine in the vehicle. Afamefune turned to glance at the stack of sacks that had taken up the entire backside of the bus. He whispered to Nonyelim that the heap could all be bags of crayfish. She held her nose for a while and told him that the odour was not coming from the back. She said the smell could be the combined stench of sweat from the passengers, most of whom she suspected were tradesmen and market women.

Afamefune slid the window open and spat out. The bus had started moving before they got a reprieve from the air flowing into the vehicle. It was not until twelve noon that they got to Ore, a mid-way stopover town for travelers on the east-west route noted for its many restaurants on both sides of the road.

When the passengers disembarked from the eighty-seater bus, Afamefune and Nonyelim walked into a restaurant with the signpost declaring it ‘Old Mama’s Pot.’ Whilst Nonyelim ordered for white rice and beef stew, Afamefune asked for pounded yam and oha soup. He breathed in relief as the waiter came with the food. The soup was a blend of uziza, oha, cocoyam and stockfish. He thanked God for the meal and said he could not remember when last he ate real Igbo food.

A few kilometers after Benin city, just before Okwahie Bridge, a location infamously known for multiple accidents, a passenger raised an alarm that his wallet had been stolen inside the bus. He said he had taken it along as they went to eat at Ore and also returned with it to the vehicle. The bus had not stopped on the way, so the thief must be in the vehicle. The conductor asked him to hold on until the vehicle made another stop.

As the driver pulled over to refill the bus at a fuel station in Abudu town, the conductor requested everyone disembarked from the bus. He began to pat down the passengers one after the other as they emerged from the vehicle. After the last person had left the bus, he went in and combed the vehicle from the first seat to the last. The wallet was gone. Until they got to Onitsha the owner kept cursing whoever was the culprit.

Afamefune and Nonyelim got to Ubo by seven in the evening. It was Amuebie and her friend Esther they met in the house. Amuebie said their mother was yet to return from the campaign that day—the election was just five days away and political activities were at a frenzy.

Amuebie expressed surprise at their coming and sought to know why they didn’t call to say they were on their way that day. Although they had hinted they may be coming for the election, Afamefune and Nonyelim intended to make it a surprise visit.

Their mother did not return to the house until midnight—Afamefune and Nonyelim had slept off but Amuebie was still awake. She had learned not to sleep deeply in order to await the late return of her mother so her siblings had asked her to wake them up whenever their mother returned.

“But why did they have to abandon their studies and embark on this long journey?” Amina asked after Amuebie had briefed her about the arrival of her two children.

Hiaaa! Me, I complained about it too o.”

“They really should not have bothered.”

“They said they were not able to concentrate and read in school.”

“Why? They shouldn’t allow this to distract them from their studies.”

Amina did not take much offence at their action, for she understood that it would have been difficult for her children to resist the urge to come, knowing that a crucial political battle involving their mother was raging at home. Amuebie then opted to go and wake them up but their mother stopped her. She said Amuebie should allow them to sleep until the next day as they must have tired from the long journey.

By the next morning Nkiru arrived at the house. Her regimen had always been to reach the house before seven any day they had to make political movements. On this day, they were scheduled to depart on campaign by nine. She would usually run through the itinerary for the day with Amina, and later oversee the disbursement of logistics for the tour to occupants of the ten buses that usually accompanied them on the movements.

Nkiru’s presence that morning awoke Afamefune and Nonyelim. She was discussing the day’s schedule with Amuebie when they caught her voice. However, they went to greet their mother first in the room.

Amina observed that Afamefune was beginning to look more like his father, Udoka. His jaw and forehead were beginning to widen. His eyes and eyelids were becoming fuller, broadening out from the face. Although he had always been slim and tall like Udoka, his increasingly evident moustache and fair skin further underscored their resemblance—the only difference being their hair. Whilst Udoka had maintained a low cut, Afamefune liked his hair full and thick. Amina knew that the disparity was more a reflection of generational preferences than genetic deviation.

All three of them then went into the sitting room to meet Nkiru. The speed at which they moved to hug their granduncle’s wife spoke of the affection they had one for another. They asked how she had been doing since they left for school and, when Nonyelim observed that Nkiru may have lost some weight, their mother said the stress of the campaigns was definitely taking its toll on the woman.

But the message Nkiru came with that morning was not the type of news they would have loved to hear on their first day of arrival. Amina had asked her the previous evening to meet with some of the persons she had constituted into a team for private nightly campaigns. Nkiru’s meetings with the people revealed that although she was doing well in other communities, her lowest rate of acceptability was recorded in Ubo.

Quite significant, too, was the fact that the resistance was coming from the elderly women and men in the community. The only consolation was that an overwhelming majority of the youths were strongly behind Amina. Nkiru said that the night canvassers also confided in her that Isioma was the one spearheading the campaign of calumny against Amina.

“Not to worry, Mummy,” Afamefune said.

All eyes fixed on him.

“How do you mean?” Nonyelim asked.

Afamefune glanced across the room. Although he had not been particularly enthusiastic about his mother’s aspiration and had been reading some books on politics to spur his interest, the smear campaign against his mother provoked a sudden desperation to protect his family.

“As far as elections will hold in this Ubo, we shall see who’ll prevail on that day. I’m meeting with the leaders of the Ubo Youths Association later today,” he said.

“Please o, we don’t want any violence, Afam,” Nonyelim said.

“Ehen,” Nkiru concurred and folded her arms.

“I’m not talking of violence. Nobody is fighting anybody. But Ubo must protect her own,” Afamefune said.

“By the way, I hope you know they have a new youth president now,” Amuebie said.

“Yes, of course. Ikechukwu,” Afamefune said. “Which Ikechukwu?” Nonyelim asked.

“The son of Chief Abala,” Afamefune said.

“Arrhh! That stubborn boy that is always instigating protests in the community,” Nonyelim said.

“Yes, he’s the one. But if we can get him on our side, that would be just fine,” Amuebie said.

“Leave that matter to me,” Afamefune said.

They had talked for about twenty minutes before Amina left to go and prepare for the day’s movement. But before then, Nonyelim had suggested that it might be proper for her mother to personally reach out to Isioma and some of the chiefs, but the idea was quickly shot down by Amuebie who said it would be a futile effort. Nkiru also aligned her opinion with Amuebie’s, stressing that no matter the efforts they made, people like Chiefs Edordu and Ikuku would never change their mind about Amina. It was in fact difficult to tell who—between the two chiefs and Isioma—was most bitter about Amina. She advised that they better look beyond them and focus on reaching out to as many other people as possible.

Nkiru had also pulled Amina aside to whisper some other confidential information she gathered in the course of her interaction with members of their private campaign team. She had been told that there was a rumor making the rounds to the effect that Amina was sleeping with Senator Ibezim. The story was that the big politician was behind the setting up and funding of USMAN & LABARAN. Some people had even gone ahead to insinuate that the relationship between the two started long before the death of her husband.

Nkiru said she and the campaign team had been making efforts to discredit the rumor but it happened that, as much as they tried to portray it as the wicked machinations of her political opponents, it would appear the rumor was gaining momentum by the day.

Amina did not confirm or deny the story. She simply shook her head and thanked Nkiru for the information. Her indifferent reaction left Nkiru wondering if the rumor was true or, as more likely was the case, Amina had simply developed a thick skin to such rumors as had become the pastime of political assemblies.

* * * * *

Nonyelim accompanied Amina on the campaign tour for the day, while Amuebie left to supervise the work at the shop. With the increasing intensity of the campaigns, Amina had left the running of the shop largely to Amuebie. Lately, she had worried about the plummeting sales and was beginning to doubt the ability of her daughter to manage the business. But now that the issues had been put into clearer perspective by the overview they took of the competing pressures that bore on the business from the political arena, it became evident that USMAN & LABARAN had remained afloat in spite of the challenging times largely because of the exceptional prowess Amuebie had demonstrated in managing the business.

Meanwhile, Afamefune had gone to meet with the youths of the village. He asked Ikechukwu to arrange for him to first meet with the fifteen executive members of the association before the general assembly of the body. They eventually gathered at the residence of Ikechukwu, where Afamefune tried to convince them of the need to defend their collective interest by supporting somebody from the community to run for the office of chairperson of the local government.

He said it was only a person from the village that would understand the problems of the community and would have the passion to confront those problems no matter the odds. Although there were a few dissenting voices, Afamefune was glad that an overwhelming majority of the youths, including Ikechukwu, were in support of his position. It did not take long before they were able to convince the few voices that had held a contrary view.

They however did not reach a consensus on what to do with those elders of the community that were still bitterly opposed to the candidacy of Amina. Some of the youths advised that they pick a few among them to visit the elders and seek their cooperation. But others said there was no time for that—the election was already at hand and the elders had done so much damage with their negative campaign against Amina.

They rather suggested that a few of their properties should be attacked as a warning shot, preparatory to the election day proper. At the end of their arguments, they agreed to first send a delegation to the Obi and the elders. It would be led by Ikechukwu. By so doing, it would be on record that the youths had approached them to desist from sabotaging the interest of the community before unleashing their rage on them.

Ikechukwu picked two boys and a girl to accompany him on the visitation. Afamefune had indicated willingness to go on the movement with them.

“O boy, I go like to follow una do this waka,” he said.

“You sure?” the girl had replied.

“Nna men, that level no gel. The more the palle dem see you, the more them go dey provoke,” Ikechukwu said.

“But I for fit download things for them na,” Afamefune said.

“O boy, these oldies no need too much yarn. Na action go make them maintain,” the girl said.

Although they finally resolved not to go with Afamefune, the visit was true to expectation. The Obi, His Royal Majesty Omekaokwu III, stated that the youths were still too young to understand what the entire matter was about. The traditional ruler contended that a man was better positioned to give effective representation to the people than a woman, saying that a woman would easily be cowed by her political superiors and would only end up pandering to the dictates of her sponsor.

All entreaties by the youths to the effect that Amina, as an Ubo person, was better suited to understand their problems were ignored by the Obi. The response they got at the palace of His Royal Majesty Omekaokwu III and the house of Chief Edordu was the same thing they experienced in all other places they visited. They eventually resolved that they were left with no other option but to teach the elders a lesson they would never forget.

* * * * *

Amina and her team did not return from the day’s campaign until eight in the evening. It was Nonyelim’s first experience on the campaign trail. Although Amuebie, who had been on the band wagon on many occasions, had painted a stressful picture of the exercise, Nonyelim found the movement to Umuedebe village remarkably exciting. For her, watching the dancers that gathered to welcome the entourage and listening to her mother address the crowd were a spectacle to behold.

She narrated to her siblings the seeming carnival she saw in that village. Incidentally, it was the last of the visitations to the different communities, being that the electoral law forbade further open campaigns forty-eight hours to the elections. She wished she still had more of such rallies to attend.

But Amina knew they were lucky to still meet the enthusiastic response they saw at Umuedebe village. Their last two tours had witnessed a remarkably reduced crowd. She suspected that the rumormongers who were trying to diminish her aspiration had probably not made in-road to the village. She vowed not to be deterred. She would forge ahead whatever the results turned out to be.

She had thought of visiting Senator Ibezim who had returned to Awka to monitor the elections but realized it would only further fuel the suspicions of her traducers. Moreover, all her visits to the senator had always been in the company and instance of the ward or local government chairman. None of them had indicated any need for such a visit.

She concluded that in the circumstance she was left with no other option but to intensify her personal visits to people and the underground campaign of her mosquito team. At least, that was one group she personally selected without the influence of the local political leaders. She could always count on their unflinching commitment to her cause.

Meanwhile, Nonyelim had complained to Amuebie that she was not quite comfortable with the kind of people she was seeing around Afamefune in the last couple of days; they looked vicious and vengeful. While she could identify some of the faces as members of Ubo Youths Association, she suspected that several others were stranger elements that may have been imported for purposes of the election. She feared that their intentions may not be strictly honorable.

Amuebie had dismissed her fears and scolded her for not having the nerves to face the storms of political warfare.

“You must understand that they’d simply overrun you if you fold your hands and keep thinking everybody will behave decently like you,” she said.

“Are you saying we should encourage violence just because we must win elections?” Nonyelim said.

“My dear, if that’s what our opponents are using, then we must match them or else they’ll easily eliminate us,” Amuebie said.

“But we can still win without all that. I saw how they came out to welcome Mummy. People love her. She’ll win the election. They’ll vote for her. We don’t need aggression to win.”

“And what if the people are not given the opportunity to vote? Or they vote and the ballot boxes are snatched and destroyed?”

“But they are sending some policemen to protect the polling units.”

Hiaaa! How many policemen are they sending? You think this is university campus? Please let’s protect ourselves first while waiting for the police to arrive.”

“I’m not just comfortable with this arrangement.”

“Then you better pack your things and go back to the comfort of school if you can’t stand the heat in the streets of politics.”

Nonyelim later reported her observations to their mother, expressing worries that Afamefune may be endangering his life the way he was going about the whole thing. But she was not satisfied with the response of their mother, for she had expected her to sharply condemn Afamefune’s seeming resort to violence— that would have been their mother’s natural response to such vices. All she heard from her was that there would not be violence.

She observed, too, that their mother could hardly look her in the eyes when she said it. From what she was able to deduce, her apparent indifference was a tacit approval of Afamefune’s activities. That was not the attitude of the mother she used to know. There just was something that seemed to have come over her.

Nonyelim did not push the matter any further. She simply withdrew to her room and began to pray for the family.

On the day of the election, Amina and Amuebie left the house by seven in the morning for the poling unit, and seeing that the clouds were giving indication of rainfall, they took their umbrellas along. They prayed for clement weather, knowing that rainfall would prevent many of their supporters from coming out to vote. On the way, Amuebie pulled aside, bent and scooped some sand.

“Please God don’t let rain touch this land. Make it to fall only at Asumpe, and don’t ever give them peace in that village,” she said and blew the sand in the air.

Asumpe was the community and support base of their opponent, Chief Asikabu Awuta of DPA.

Amuebie looked up and paced away from her mother. Amina watched and smiled as the gap widened. She could not help but recall the difference between her two daughters. While Amuebie walked and did her things hastily as if every minute was business, Nonyelim’s steps were measured and graceful.

The polling booth was located in one of the classrooms of a primary school some ten-minute walk from their residence. Two polling clerks were seated on white plastic chairs behind a wooden desk. Another table was placed by the corner of the room where voters would take their ballot papers to thumbprint. The distance between the two tables provided sufficient privacy to enable voters express their choice of candidate in secret before dropping same in the box positioned in front of the classroom in public glare.

Nonyelim and Afamefune could not vote because they were yet to register with the Electoral Commission. So, while Nonyelim had kept herself busy at the mini library in the house, Afamefune left with some of the youths and did not state their destination. He simply told Nonyelim they were going out to monitor the exercise.

After they had voted, Amina and Amuebie returned to the house in the company of Nkiru and some of Amina’s supporters. It was not until the evening that results began to filter in from the different polling units. Results coming from many communities across the local government showed that Amina was neck and neck with her major opponent, Chief Asikabu Awuta of the Democratic Peoples’ Alliance, DPA.

The expectation was that she would coast to victory with the superior votes she would secure from Ubo, her homestead, more so when early counts showed she had comfortably won at her polling unit. Nkiru had been able to counter the negative campaign Isioma had mounted within the vicinity. Voters in the neighborhood had stuck with Nkiru and Amina.

However, the signals coming from the other six polling units in Ubo were not encouraging. Some members of her campaign team had come to the house to inform her of cases of violence in some of the polling units. The reports had reached the headquarters of the Electoral Commission at Awka and for this reason all the results from Ubo were said to have been suspended pending the determination of the petition filed by her opponent, calling on the electoral body to discountenance the results paraded by Amina’s agents. He claimed that the youths of the village had harassed and scared away many of the elderly voters, and had also gone ahead to manipulate the counting and collation of votes at some of the centers in Ubo.

Worried by the turn of events, Amina’s ward chairman visited her that evening and asked that she should accompany him to the residence of Senator Ibezim—he wanted him to intervene in the matter. The ward chairman told her that from the results they had gathered so far, if the Ubo result was not declared, it would be difficult for them to win. Chief Asikabu Awuta had already amassed a wide lead from the votes he got from his village, Asumpe, and it would require a similarly favorable outcome from Ubo for Amina to match and possibly overturn his lead.

They arrived at the residence of Senator Ibezim by seven to meet the local government party chairman and some other leaders of the party who were already gathered at the place. From the forlorn and frustrated looks on their faces Amina did not need any further indication to confirm that the matter had gone out of hand. They said the senator was not at home as he had gone to meet the governor. But while they were all anxiously awaiting his return an argument arose as to who instigated the violence in Ubo.

Some of them criticized Amina for not reining in the youths of the village, being that Chief Awuta had alleged in his petition that it was her son Afamefune who mobilized the youths to disrupt and alter the votes in Ubo. Amina stared in embarrassment, for she knew her son had been up to something uncharitable. Although the ward chairman and some other people tried to exonerate her from blame, it was made clear that if the allegation was established, the electoral body would uphold the results presented by Chief Awuta’s agents.

When Senator Ibezim eventually returned to the house, they all scampered toward him for any positive news, all eyes fixed on him. He smiled and asked them to join him inside the house. As he asked his boys to serve everyone drinks, the countenance of his visitors began to lighten up. Amina remained expressionless; something inside of her continued to tell her that the senator was simply putting up a courageous face. All was just not well. She was right. The senator told them that their version of Ubo votes had been rejected by the Electoral Commission. They had lost the election—Amina had lost the contest to Chief Awuta.

They all dropped their drinks and gaped at the senator. Amina sat back and gazed into space. The senator’s eyes roved about the place. He was disturbed by the disquiet in the house. He thought about what to do to cheer them up. They did not only believe in him but had always seen him as a politician who could fix anything. He tapped his left hand on the arm of the leather seat and reached for the bottle of Remy Martin cognac on the table.

He drained his glass and cast another look around. He told them that all hope was not lost as he intended to take up the case at higher quarters. But in the meanwhile, he asked the party chairman to begin the process of contesting the results at the Election Petition Tribunal.

His visitors were not overly enthusiastic about the legal option. The party chairman whispered to Amina that tribunal cases had a 50-50 chance of success; this could swing either way. They would have preferred they had won and let their opponent be the one contesting the result at the tribunal. After the senator had finished addressing them, they began to exit his residence with drooping shoulders and lamentations.

Amina hesitated about leaving. She tactically waited until most of the other people had left before she stood to depart. She expected the senator would have a word for her, just anything that could enliven her mood. As she made for the door she peeked at the senator, but he was not looking her way. He appeared lost in thought.

She had got outside the house and was about to join the ward chairman in the vehicle when she turned and saw one of the stewards hurrying forth.

“Oga wants to see you,” the man said.

The ward chairman and Amina gazed at each other, wondering who between them the steward meant. Seeing the confusion, the steward pointed at Amina. The ward chairman motioned impatiently for her to go in. She would have to be quick about it as the night had been far spent.

She returned to the sitting room of Senator Ibezim. The two were now alone. The senator moved toward her, took her hand and looked in her eyes. She began to sob. He pulled her closer and gave her a hug.

“It’s OK, my darling. We’ll overcome this. It’s just a temporary setback, I can assure you.”

“It’s OK, sir,” she said.

“I’ll get across to you,” he said and pulled out an envelope from his trouser pocket.

“Thank you, sir,” she said as she took the package and began to head for the door.

Nineteen

Amina returned to Ubo by midnight and pulled Nkiru aside. Nkiru was in the house discussing the unfortunate turn of the election with the numerous visitors that flooded the residence of Amina, all wanting to know the final outcome of the suspended results from Ubo. Nkiru had tried all through the evening to keep their hopes alive. Amina told her to subtly discharge the visitors as she would not be able to address them. She was too tired and needed to have some sleep.

By the next day the news had spread round the community about the void results from Ubo following the violence that erupted in the village. The declaration of Chief Asikabu as the winner of the chairmanship race was repeatedly aired on radio for much of the day.

“Does it mean it’s all over?” Amuebie asked.

They had gathered in the sitting room that morning to discuss the matter. Amina glared at Amuebie and did not know the appropriate words to give her daughter. She bit her lips and looked out the window.

“It’s OK, Mummy. This is not the end of life after all,” Amuebie said.

“I’m sure we would have won if the Ubo votes were not disputed,” Nonyelim said.

“We can’t be too sure about that,” Afamefune said.

“How do you mean?” Nonyelim said.

Afamefune turned toward Nonyelim. “Yes o. You need to hear what some of our people were saying about Mummy. Ndi ara. Even those I know have benefitted so much from her. I just couldn’t believe it,” he said.

“God will punish all those people,” Amuebie said. The seemingly masculine strength in her voice rising a notch.

“That’s the reason we had to scatter some of those results. It was all going against Mummy,” he said.

“Maybe you guys shouldn’t have destroyed the whole thing. Possibly we could have won in some areas,” Nonyelim said.

“Which areas? Can’t you hear what he’s saying?” Amuebie yelled.

Amina sensed the dissension between the two sisters. “It’s OK, it’s OK,” she said. “Who are we to question the will of God? If God said we would win the election, no amount of violence or betrayal would stop us from winning.”

At that point, Nkiru knocked and called from outside. Nonyelim stood to open the door. Nkiru’s swollen eyes told the story. Amina knew she had cried all night. She walked in with her arms folded and settled into one of the chairs. She said she was not particularly bitter because they lost an election, after all, people had lost elections in the past and still carried on with their lives. The humiliating part of it all, she lamented, was the mockery of Isioma and her cohorts. For, since the previous day when news of the cancelled results began to filter out, Isioma had been dancing and drinking in the house, being very loud so everyone could hear her celebration of Amina’s defeat.

She added that they would have to be more watchful. Isioma had boasted that they were not done yet with Amina and that by the time they finished with her, no one would tell her to find her way back to the North where she came from.

She disclosed that Isioma was saying it loudly so she could hear, knowing that she would definitely pass the message to Amina. But even more worrisome was the fact that as she was coming over that morning she heard that Chief Edordu and two other elders were chatting happily on their way to Isioma’s house. She feared they may be plotting something much more sinister than what they did at the elections.

Amina appealed that they should leave the whole matter to God as power belonged to Him and He alone could guarantee the security of anyone.

After they had reviewed the situation, it was agreed that Nonyelim and Afamefune should return to school. They had missed out on much of their lectures and it would not make any sense for them to continue to stay in the village. Amina on her part would have to return to her shop to give more attention to her business. USMAN & LABARAN had been struggling since the elections went into high gear.

Nonyelim wiped her tears and went to her mother. She put a hand across her shoulders and advised her to put the defeat behind her. She should now focus on her business and try to bring the once-bubbling brand back to winning ways.

* * * * *

Two days after Afamefune and Nonyelim returned to school, the ward chairman, came to see Amina in the shop. But he was not alone; he came in the company of another man and, from his black suit and white shirt, Amina concluded that the light-skinned man was a lawyer. He appeared to be in his early thirties. She welcomed the two men and took them to the inner room of the shop.

Although the place served as her private office, she could count the times she had used the room for that purpose. If anything, it served more as a place of rest for the times she took a break from the endlessly clattering sewing machines in the open shop. She would spread out the Dunlop mat by the corner of the room, lay a wrapper on it, and catch some sleep.

But that was not the plan for that day. The ward chairman limped into the room with the lawyer in tow. They took the two seats by the desk. He introduced the lawyer as Barrister Okwuamaka and said that something had cropped up at Awka.

“The senator has hired him for your case.”

“Oh, that’s good. May God continue to bless him for all his efforts. But come, where is all this going to take us? Is it not better we just forget about everything and move on with our lives? Walahi, I don’t have the strength for all this. Please, just help me thank the senator. Let him save his money for more useful things. Haba!” she said.

“No, no, calm down, madam. The situation is not as bad as it looks. I know how you feel. We’re all devastated by the defeat. It’s the feather that conceals the sweat of the chicken from public glare. My children will tell you that for two days after the results were announced, I didn’t step out of my room,” the ward chairman said.

“I really would wish to focus on my business now,” Amina said.

The ward chairman sat back and stretched out his left leg, as though to relieve the pressure the walk of the day had put on the bad leg. “Madam, it does not stop you from doing your business. Remember that while the squirrel is feasting on the ripe palm fruit, it caresses the unripe ones with its tail.”

She turned and peered at the lawyer. He looked unruffled in his chubby frame. His low cut hair had a parting in the middle that reminded her of old school headmasters. He had not uttered a word since they came in. He simply sat and watched the interaction between her and the chairman. There was an occasional grin from him she could not understand. It seemed to her that the man appeared too young for the assignment. The image she had of successful lawyers was that of men beyond the age of fifty.

“My brother, abeg no vex, what’s the special thing you’re going to do on this matter? Please I don’t want the senator to spend much more than he has done on this chairmanship project.”

“Thanks, madam,” the lawyer said as he repositioned himself on the chair. He spoke with a deep voice that could easily pass for that of Barry White. “It’s my pleasure meeting you. I’m an election petitions specialist. My chambers are in Awka and Onitsha. Yes, I was at the Election Commission headquarters with the local government chairman who had consulted me on the option of legal redress. I suppose there’s considerable cogency in the postulations of your ward chairman. I am of the conviction they’ll either rerun the election or accept our version of the results.”

She turned to look at the ward chairman. Then she returned her gaze to the lawyer. “How are you going to do that?”

“Simple. I would submit that, yes, the election was said to have been marred by violence at Ubo, which is your home base and stronghold, but to have invalidated the entire results signed by your agents was a clear miscarriage of justice, particularly when you were neck and neck with your opponent until the votes from his homestead conferred upon him numerical superiority. It would not only be unfair, but a callous repudiation of universal canons of justice to deny you the votes from your own kinsmen.”

“Really?” she asked with growing enthusiasm.

“Yes. First, to substantiate their claim of violence, they must discharge the burden of justification. If not, I would argue for the results to be accepted by the Electoral Commission. But if, with demonstrable certainty, they establish their submission, I would request that they conduct a repeat of the election in all polling units where the violence was alleged to have disrupted the exercise.”

Her hopes began to come alive again. She thought it would be wonderful if the lawyer could pull it through, for that would give her another opportunity to secure the support of her Ubo homestead. She listened with rapt attention to the legal presentations of the learned counsel and, although she was not equipped with the relevant knowledge to contest his arguments, his opinions appealed to her common sense even as she was fascinated by the flourish of his diction.. She did not wait any further before giving her consent for the party to go to court.

It was after the ward chairman and lawyer had left that it began to occur to her that it might not be as smooth sailing as anticipated. All the reports she had received had indicated that the supposed support base she was to enjoy over her opponent at Ubo may be a mirage after all.

Apart from the resentment that had been demonstrated openly by her age-long traducers in the village—like Isioma and the elders—she recalled that the few votes that were counted before the disruption were definitely not going her way. She wondered if it would not be better that the generality of people believed she lost because the results of the elections in her hometown were disputed than to get them to re-conduct the election and expose her true standing before her people?

* * * * *

Afamefune and Nonyelim had settled into their school routine. He had appealed to Michael to make available to him notes from classes he had missed in the period of his absence and, since he returned from the village, he occupied himself copying the huge volume of notes.

“O boy I no know when I go copy these things finish o. Hand don dey pain me jor,” Afamefune said.

“O boy, but you lazy sha. Shooo! Na this small note you still dey copy for how many days now? Make you just kuku photocopy them na,” Michael said.

“E be like say na so I go do, my brother. Only say I dey feel better copying it by hand because I go dey read am in the process.”

“Arrhh, see this paddy o. My guy, I still need to read am for the exams too na. Abi you think say my brain na computer?”

“Na true. Na true. No wahala, I go photocopy the whole thing tomorrow and return to you . . . so na wetin don dey shelle for school since?”

“Nothing much, my brother. But, come o, e be like say this girl dey jisoro your side o.”

Afamefune pretended to know nothing of the subject. “Which girl be dat?” he asked.

“Philomena.”

Afamefune thought about what to say. He wondered if Philomena had confessed their fling to Michael. Would it be better if he opened up the truth to his friend? But won’t that be betraying the confidence of a woman? He struggled not to make eye contact with Michael and hoped he would not notice his discomfort.

“Are you serious?”

Gba be.”

“O boy, the girl no be your babe again? Wetin you dey find for my mouth?”

“Arrhh. Me, I no just understand the girl again. The way she dey ask of you every day no be small. Na wah for these ‘pepper-less’ babes sha.”

“So wetin you want make I do na?”

“Me? Arrhh, I no know again o.”

“My dear, make you face your woman. No be you dey talk say I no fit talk to a girl? Abeg leave Moremites matter for now. Let’s go for our next lecture.”

Afamefune was uncomfortable all through the day as different thoughts agitated his mind. While he acknowledged the exciting and deeply pleasurable experience he had with Philomena on that day, he would not wish to keep a secret affair with her. He knew that the university community was a small place. There was no way he could carry on like that with Philomena without being seen or the affair leaking out one way or the other. He feared that Michael may be quietly observing his discomfort and it would not be long before he began to add things up. If he ever got to find out about his liaison with Philomena, the consequences were better left to the imagination.

Afamefune was in this state of confusion and was about departing the lecture hall for the hostel when he got a note from Philomena. The sealed envelope was delivered to him by a female classmate. Although he had always seen the student as one of the upscale girls in his class, he had never made any acquaintance with her. He glanced around and quickly squeezed the letter into his trouser pocket.

He guessed he was lucky the letter was not given to him in the presence of Michael. The girl brought it after Michael had stepped out to go to the restrooms. But how come the timing was perfect? Could it be that Philomena has given a hint of what’s happening between us to this girl? Afamefune imagined that the whole thing was getting out of control. The more people knew about it, the more the risk of exposure. His eyes darted about the place. He had barely finished stuffing his notebooks into his bag when Michael returned.

“O boy, how far? You don ready?” he asked.

Afamefune was torn between admitting he was set to leave and buying more time to enable him read the note from Philomena. He needed to know what the message was. Maybe she wanted a response through the same channel. He just had to find a way to read the note.

“O boy, are you ok? Shuo! You dey look like who wan face firing squad. Na the exams dey put you for high jump like this?” Michael said.

“My man, e be like say I wan use the loo, too.”

“Ok na. Go, do quick make we dey go.”

“I dey come,” Afamefune said.

He hopped out of his chair and hurried toward one of the four toilet stalls. Briskly he pulled out the letter from his pocket. The message was brief and clear—Philomena wanted him to confirm, through the same girl, if they could meet that night by eight at the lagoon front. He hurriedly tore the letter and flushed it down the toilet. He thought of how to send his reply across without raising the suspicion of Michael.

There was no doubt he would want a repeat experience with Philomena, for what he’d had with her in their room was simply indescribable. Yet he wished it was all not happening. Time was running out. He must make his decision known in a matter of seconds. As he sauntered out of the restrooms, the girl from Philomena was at the corridor, just by the entrance to the restrooms. She winked at him for a response. For a moment Afamefune stared at her.

Then he nodded. “I’ll be there,” he muttered and walked away to join Michael.

It hit him that he was living dangerously.

* * * * *

By seven thirty Afamefune had started fretting around the room. He could not focus on the novel, Of Human Bondage, which he had picked from the library earlier in the day. He would flip through some pages of the book and strut to his locker to search for something he knew was not there. He was still in his shorts, which was what he usually wore in their hostel room. Michael was playing a Ludo game with Gbolahan while Taye lay on the bed reading. Taye and Gbolahan would intermittently go into conversation on boxing.

“Those nicknames don’t make any sense to me. The one I like most is James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith,” Taye said.

Gbolahan would reply, “What of Roberto ‘Hands of Stone’ Duran, Bernard ‘The Executioner’ Hopkins, or Hector ‘Macho’ Camacho.”

“Ehen! That’s more like it. Remember Nikolai ‘Beast from the East’ Valuev, Danny ‘Little Red’ Lopez, Thomas ‘Hitman’ Hearns.”

“Yeah! That’s my man, the Motor City Cobra!”

“O boy! What of Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini, James ‘Buster’ Douglas and Evander ‘Real Deal’ Holyfield.”

“Great! Don’t forget our own Azuma ‘Zoom Zoom’ Nelson.”

Irritated by the distraction the dialogue was causing them, Michael broke in, “Bobo yi, try focus on this Ludo and leave boxing for now.”

Afamefune was thinking very fast. It had been that whenever he chose the lecture rooms to read at night it was always in the company of Michael. Repeated threats from the cultists in his previous accommodation had made him seek the regular company of Michael, particularly at night. To now leave the room alone at that time, he would have to come up with such an ingenious scheme as would put his motives beyond reproach.

It would be ridiculous to suggest he was going out for anything that was outside the routine of collective participation. Incidentally, he had returned the notes he took from Michael for copying. If he had not photocopied the notes, he probably would have claimed he needed some privacy to enable him copy the notes.

It was now ten minutes to eight o’clock, the hour scheduled for him to meet with Philomena. Walking from his hostel to the lagoon front would take about thirteen minutes. If he was to leave at that time and hasten his steps, he might make it in ten minutes or less. He knew it was not only dishonorable but also risky to leave a girl waiting alone at that time at the lagoon front.

“Nna men! I wan go see Nonyelim,” Afamefune blurted out. It was like a bolt from the blue. All his roommates stopped and stared at him. He went to his locker, trying to avoid any eye contact. He pulled open the locker door and brought out his shirt and trousers.

“Aaa aah, o boy wetin dey happen?” Taye asked.

“She says she has a message from our mum,” Afamefune said. “Did you see her today?” Michael asked, perplexed at the sudden information.

“Yes o. She sent someone to me.”

Michael seemed to forget the matter quickly and became engrossed in his Ludo game with Gbolahan again.

“Oh oh! Look, I don dey pin this guy here. I no wan leave this game now. Try wait small make we finish so I go fit go with you,” Michael said, his eyes firmly fixed on the Ludo board.

“Never mind. Enjoy your game, I won’t be long,” Afamefune said.

They all watched in amazement as Afamefune squeezed into his clothes and made for the door.

“Arrhh, my man don turn James Bond o. I sure say this election wey you go don harden you proper,” Gbolahan said.

Afamefune turned. “You no well,” he said. He gave a wry smile and plunged into the night.

By the time he got to the specified location at the lagoon front, Philomena was already lying on the blanket scarf she had spread on the green grass. She saw Afamefune approach and stood to welcome him. She wore a black body hugging gown that amplified the elegance of her natural endowments.

“I missed you, Afam,” was all he heard as she unzipped the gown to lay bare the lovely curves of her femininity. As Afamefune fell into the embrace of her soft flesh she whispered into his ears, “Please, honey, don’t leave me for this long again.”

They had spent an hour before Afamefune told her they needed to return to their hostels.

“I feel like staying here with you all night,” she said.

“I can understand, dear. But we have to go now. It’s already late.”

“So, when am I seeing you again?” She pulled out a packet of Benson and Hedges cigarettes from the handbag on the ground.

“No, no, no, you can’t smoke now. The smell will be all over me and I won’t be able to explain that when I get to the room.”

She stopped and turned to him. “Do you really need to explain anything to anybody?”

“Yeah, I know I don’t have to, but we have to be careful for now.”

She sat back and threw the cigarette away. “It’s OK, dearie. I don’t mind. I can quit smoking for your sake.”

“No, it’s OK if you’re enjoying it. Just try to stay off it when I’m with you. Hope you understand, dear.”

“Sure, I do. So when are we seeing again?”

“You know it doesn’t have to be too frequent. Maybe we should take a break for, say, ten days.”

“Ten what?”

“Yes, sweetheart. I feel Mike is beginning to suspect that something is going on.”

She drew closer and wrapped herself around him. “Oh baby, don’t bother yourself with what he thinks,” she said. Her tongue ran across his lips while her right hand caressed his loins. As she felt him begin to bulge again she whispered, “Darling, do you really mean ten days?”

“Yea . . . ehm . . . no . . . OK . . . you’ll . . . hmmm!”

Twenty

It did not take much time before Amina started adjusting to the reality of losing the election. She began to spend more time at her shop and give much more personal attention to her customers. She would personally deliver finished clothes to their houses and in some cases make free clothes for their children. Although the petition her lawyer filed at the tribunal was on-going, she did not put up further court appearances after the first day. She would ask Nkiru to attend the proceedings and brief her of developments thereafter.

One Tuesday afternoon, Mazi Chukwuebuka, the ward chairman, had returned from the court session at Awka. He had not seen Amina in two weeks and thought it was necessary to give her an overview of the journey so far. From her regular work station at the last row of sewing tables, Amina saw him hobble in fits and starts on the steps of the shop. She stood to welcome him. But this time, it was a gesture that was informed more by a desire for a quick resolution of his mission than a genuine interest in his vision.

“The chair, you come visit us today?”

“Yes o, madam. How una dey?”

“Everyone is fine by God’s grace. Please come this way,” Amina said and led him to the inner office. She sat and beckoned him to take the opposite chair. “How’s everything sir?”

“All is well. I observed you’ve not been in court in a long while.”

“My dear, I say make I pay more attention to USMAN & LABARAN before the entire business go collapse for my head.”

“That’s all right. I can understand.”

“So, how is it going, sir?”

“Well, we’re making progress. The final submissions were taken today. The judge has reserved ruling for next week.”

“Oh, that’s good. Let’s get it done with so people can get on with their lives. How’s the senator?”

“We haven’t heard from him in a while. He has also not come home for some time now.”

“Really?”

“Yes o. I think he’s having some problems with the leadership of the party in Abuja.”

“How do you mean? With all the people he knows there?”

“Madam, I’m surprised at what’s happening to him. You remember one of our meetings with him when he boasted that there was nothing he could look for in Abuja and not get?”

“Of course, he never left us in doubt about that. What really could have happened?”

“My sister, I can tell you that even to secure his ticket back to the senate is now a problem for him. He was complaining to the local government chairmen who visited him in Abuja last week that the president and national chairman of NLF no longer take his calls.”

“Are you serious?”

Nwa nnem, na wah for life o.”

The chairman lamented the misfortunes that came with the twists and turns of life. He said he would never have believed that in so short a time things could turn quite so drastically for someone like Senator Ibezim—a man widely acclaimed for his mastery of political intrigues. He kept recalling how the senator had only very recently expressed much confidence in his formidable Abuja contacts.

“So, how have you people been funding the court case?”

“Luckily he had paid the lawyer his fees before the problem started. But you know how the system works. The moment a politician loses favor with those at the top, he’s left at the mercy of every Tom, Dick and Harry. Almost everything begins to work against him.”

“Thank God I never put much hope in the whole court thing from day one.”

“No, no, no. We shouldn’t lose hope. Let’s see how the judgement will go. It’s not over until it is over. You don’t despise a day until it is dusk.”

“It’s OK, Chairman. Thank you for the information. Let me get back to work. I’ve some urgent deliveries to make tomorrow.”

“It’s all right. Extend my regards to the family.”

She did not go back to her work after the ward chairman left the shop. She returned to the inner office to ponder on the story about the senator. Although she had not visited Awka in a while she had her way of keeping tab on the movements of Senator Ibezim. Even though she was yet to properly situate her relationship with him, she made efforts to get snippets of happenings around the senator from close political associates. She had observed that the frequency of his shuttles between Awka and Abuja had indeed reduced considerably, even a long time before her election. She had begun to wonder what the problem was until now that the ward chairman had put the issue in clearer perspective.

Many a time she had thought of paying a private visit to the senator in Abuja but was always dissuaded by the realization that, whether in open or private, the Abuja man had never said she could freely visit. Yet, the preferential treatment she got from the ward and local government party chairmen was a constant reminder of the cordiality she shared with the big man. How much she wished the rules of engagement with him were clearly spelt out.

She was ready to overlook the rumors circulating in the area over her relationship with him. As far as she was concerned, her conscience was clear. She did not need to send town criers across the villages to trumpet her innocence. She was not oblivious to the fact that her defeat at the polls was largely fueled by the popular misconception that she was dating the man. In her calculation, at such moments of personal crisis as the senator now had, it was of a higher moral calling to ignore all insinuations and give emotional support to a man who had so significantly impacted her life.

After much reflection, she concluded that it was fit and proper for her to visit Abuja. She would make the necessary arrangements. But this time it would be beyond the prying eyes of the political class.

* * * * *

By the following weekend, Amina had finalized plans to travel to Abuja. She decided it was going to be a surprise visit. She had been able to confirm that the senator would not be traveling out of Abuja that weekend. She would depart on Saturday and return on Monday. But the arrangements took an unexpected twist on Friday.

For some days she had noticed that Amuebie was beginning to act strange. She was getting irritable and increasingly withdrawn into herself. She observed she was always feeling sleepy and her skin was becoming pale but she did not want to believe what she was suspecting. She had called her to ask if anything was bothering her, telling her to feel free to confide in her.

“Amuebie, I’m your mum. If there’s anyone you would wish to keep things away from, it shouldn’t be me,” she had said.

“I’m OK, Mummy. I’m fine,” Amuebie had replied.

On this day, Amina arrived at the shop in the afternoon, for she had left the house in the morning to make deliveries in two villages close to Ubo. The distress in the faces of her staff indicated that all was not well.

“What’s the matter? Why are you all looking like this?”

“Madam, na Amuebie o,” one of the staff said.

Amina flinched. “What happened to her?”

“Dem rush am go hospital about one hour ago.”

“Hospital?”

“Yes, ma.”

“What happened?”

“We no know, ma. E be like say she been wan faint.”

Amina stormed out of the shop and headed for the only hospital in Ubo. In twenty minutes she was at the general ward. Amuebie was sleeping and had been put on drip. A doctor, Esther, and another lady from the shop were with her. The doctor said she needed some rest and asked Amina to accompany him to his office. They had taken their seats in the narrow office before the doctor spoke again on her condition.

“Madam, it would appear your daughter is pregnant,” he said.

“What?”

“Yes, ma. She’s two months pregnant.”

Amina sat and for a moment she gaped at the doctor. Then she reclined on her seat, gazing sorrowfully at the white ceiling. She shook her head and began to sob.

“Madam, I’m surprised you didn’t know. Is she not living in the same house with you?”

Amina still could not utter a word; she simply kept shaking her head in disbelief. She recalled she had suspected that Amuebie was pregnant and had discreetly tried to sound her out. She wondered why she would keep such critical information away from her. Who could be responsible for this? She had not known her to have any boyfriend.

Although she had seen a few men around her, Amuebie never gave indication of a serious affair with any of them. Could she have been keeping a relationship without her knowledge? Many ideas began to run through her mind. She looked up at the doctor.

“What are we going to do?” she asked.

“You’re the mother, madam. The decision is yours, really. Luckily, it’s just two months. We can still safely evacuate it at this stage.”

Amina shook her head again and gritted her teeth. She just could not gather herself to think of anything. Then she stood to leave.

“It’s OK. I’ll be back in the evening. I’m sure by then she would have been awake. Please don’t do anything until I return,” she said.

“It’s OK, madam.”

From the hospital to her residence, she tried to grapple with the reality of Amuebie’s condition. She imagined that the reasonable thing to do in the circumstance was to terminate the pregnancy. But she shuddered at the inherent risks in such exercise. Right from her secondary school days in Bulum-Kuttu, she saw the deaths that resulted from complications of abortion.

She regretted that she had failed to pay attention to Amuebie’s emotional needs as a growing woman. She noted that her daughter had indeed come of age and was open to the routine pressures of society. She had assumed that the strict upbringing she gave her children was sufficient to see them through the demands of the times.

If they were to opt to retain the pregnancy, how would she stand the shame and humiliation it would bring to the family from within the community and beyond? She remembered Isioma and her group of elders. This would be like giving them the matches to ignite their stockpile of inflammables. It might be advisable to flush out the pregnancy now that the information had not gone to town. She wondered if Amuebie’s friend, Esther, was already aware of the pregnancy.

Amina passed through the shop and asked Nkiru to take charge of the remaining hours of work. She simply said that Amuebie was suffering from exhaustion and would require some days of rest to recuperate.

By seven she had left the house for the hospital. Amuebie had woken up; she lay on the bed gazing at the white ceiling. Seated beside her were Esther and the female staff of USMAN & LABARAN with whom she had brought Amuebie to the hospital. Amina thanked the ladies for their prompt intervention and told the staff that she had done enough for the day. When she left, Amina sat on the bed and looked pathetically at Amuebie. She held her daughter by the hand.

“What happened, Amuebie?”

Amuebie recoiled and stared at the ceiling as she could not look her mother in the eye. Amina pulled up her handbag. She took out a handkerchief and wiped the tears rolling down her face.

“So this is how you’ve decided to repay all I’ve done for you, Amuebie.”

“I’m sorry, Mummy,” Amuebie mumbled.

“So who is responsible for this?”

Amuebie kept mute. She bit her lips and turned toward the window. Amina turned to Esther.

“You knew about this too and you didn’t tell me?”

Esther’s face contorted in embarrassment. She swung her gaze to the floor and remained quiet.

“You two don’t want to tell me what’s going on?” Amina asked, tears rolling down her face again. She glared at Amuebie. “Is it because your father is not alive that you’re doing this to me?”

“It’s Ken.”

Amina sat up. “Who is Ken?” Amina asked.

“The lawyer.”

“Which lawyer?”

“Your lawyer, Barrister Okwuamaka.”

Amina stared at her daughter in bewilderment and for a moment she was lost for words. She tightened her lips and looked at Esther.

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“Barrister Okwuamaka?” she repeated, as though to convince herself that she heard her daughter correctly. “When did . . . how did you . . . who. . .” Amina stammered. She could barely string together a coherent statement. She took another look at her daughter and stood to head for the doctor’s office.

* * * * *

James Appiah drove into the car lot of Moremi Hall by seven in the evening. Sunday was always a busy day at the Moremi car lot.

His silk white shirt sparkled through the wound-down glass of his red Pathfinder. He hummed to the ‘Me Against the World’ by Tupac Shakur that beamed from his Bose car stereo.

He stepped out of the car and walked toward a chocolate-skinned girl who was heading for the hostel. He greeted and requested she called out Nonyelim for him. Although they had spoken on phone severally, he had not seen her since she returned from the village where she went for her mother’s election.

In no time Nonyelim had strolled out of the hostel gate in her white polo and blue jeans skirt. James Appiah watched from the side of his car as she walked gorgeously toward the car park. My God! This girl is truly beautiful. If there was anything he admired so much about her, it was her graceful steps and shapely, feminine legs. He smiled as she came by the car.

“Baby, you know I would have long asked you to go into modelling,” he said. He took her by the hand and opened the passenger door to let her in. Then he shut the door and shuttled round the car to take the driver’s seat.

“So why have you not told me to do that?”

“Because I wouldn’t want to lose you, my love.”

“How do you mean?”

“Honey, no man would see you on stage or in those bikinis models wear and not go after you.”

“Oh, so you don’t even trust me to hold myself.”

“Cutie, you know I would always trust you. But I just won’t want to expose you to all the things that go on there.” He noticed the frown that was beginning to build on her face. “But it’s OK, my darling. C’mon, give me a hug. It’s like I’ve not seen my baby in ages.”

Nonyelim gave a weak smile and stretched out to embrace him. He tried to kiss her but she deftly pulled her face aside.

“So, how’s work?” she asked and calmly disentangled from him.

“All is well, dear. Just rounding things off for our AGM.”

“What?”

“Sorry, I mean our Annual General Meeting. It’s coming up this year in Jos.”

“Oh, really? When is it holding?”

“Next Wednesday. It’s usually a two-day program. Will you come with me?”

“Of course not. What would I be doing when you’re out for the meeting?”

“Many tourist locations to visit in Jos, dear.”

“Mba o! Sorry, I can’t. My exams are at hand.”

James Appiah noticed that she was a little cold that evening. Although he had long observed that she was not naturally adventuresome, she appeared worried and somewhat distant on this day. He took her hand and gently squeezed it.

“Baby, are you OK?” he asked.

She pulled her gaze toward the dashboard of the car to avoid eye contact with him.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m good,” she muttered.

She had been quite uncomfortable since her mother called the previous day to intimate her about the plight of her elder sister, Amuebie. Although her mother informed her that the pregnancy had been terminated, she called back earlier in the day to say they were taking Amuebie to a bigger hospital in Awka because she had been writhing in pain since the operation. Amina would usually call the porter’s lodge of the hostel from where Nonyelim would be invited from her room to take the call.

Nonyelim had not shared the information about Amuebie with anyone as her mother had asked her to keep it strictly to herself. Even Afamefune must not know about it. She wished she could share her feelings with James Appiah.

“I’m sorry, James. I’m not just feeling too good,” she mumbled.

“Oh dear, sorry. Have you taken some medications? Would you like me to take you to the clinic?”

“No, thanks. Maybe I need some rest.”

“It’s OK, sweetheart. You go back and have some bed rest. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

* * * * *

Afamefune met with Philomena in the library in the afternoon of Monday. Their usual courier had passed the location of the meeting to him during the morning lectures. He got to know that the girl’s name was Aisha. On this day, he spoke so glowingly to Philomena about the intelligent manner Aisha was communicating her messages to him. She had managed not to arouse the suspicions of Michael.

“Afam, the earlier you begin to forget about Michael the better,” Philomena shot.

“He’s my friend and roommate, Philo. There’s no way I can forget about him,” he said apologetically.

“OK, OK. I understand. But you may wish to know that I’ve already told him my mind.”

Afamefune startled and fixed a stare at her. “How do you mean? Come! I hope you’ve not. . .”

“Not to worry, my darling. I simply told him it’s not working between us.”

“Aaah haaa! No wonder.”

“What?”

“I just noticed he hasn’t been talking about you lately.”

“O! Good then. You can now see that we’ve both gone our separate ways.”

“But we still have to be careful, my love. Let’s try to keep it under wraps for now.”

“For how long are we going to keep hiding, honey? I want to walk freely with you on the streets; dine with you at Mama Calabar; hold and kiss you anywhere, show the world I love you; go clubbing with you at Faze 2, Lords, name it. I want everyone to know I’m proud of you, Afam. I want. . .”

“It’s OK, sweetheart. I know. Let’s just allow some little time. You know I’m still squatting with him?”

For a moment she stayed still and gazed deeply at him. “I see. Is that the reason you’re laid back? Baby, I can find another place for you to stay.”

He turned and looked into her eyes. “Where?” he asked. “Here on campus, of course. I’ll find you a place at the staff quarters. One of the boys’ quarters.”

Afamefune’s face lightened up. He knew that accommodation at the staff quarters was the exclusive preserve of the rich boys in school. They were the only ones that had the access and could afford the exorbitant rent charged for a space in the boys’ quarters of the lecturers’ residences. He took another look at Philomena and saw she was dead serious. Hmmm! This sounds interesting.

He didn’t doubt the fact that the girl could afford the rent. Michael had told him her father was one of the big shots in Abuja. But he wondered how he was going to explain such phenomenal change of abode to his friends, being that virtually everyone of them knew his modest economic background. Was he going to allow this opportunity slip away?

“It’s OK, I’ll think about it,” he muttered. He hoped his voice did not betray the excitement and cautious optimism that was beginning to well in him.

“It’s all right, darling. Just let me know when you make up your mind. Meanwhile, Aisha said she would like your mum to make one of those beautiful clothes for her. Even me, too, I’ll need some.”

“Oh, great! That’ll be fantastic. My mum would love the opportunity to clothe you girls. All I need to do is send your measurements across to her.”

“Aisha is so excited about it. She said that when she puts on the clothe people will think she’s wearing her own label.”

“How do you mean?”

“Her surname is Usman. Aisha Usman. Don’t tell me you don’t know the surname of your classmate?”

“Sorry, dear. I know her by her first name, Aisha. And that was just recently when she started bringing those notes from you. But come to think of it, how many people really know the surnames of their classmates at this time?”

“C’mon, babe! That’s not good enough. I know it’s still early days of the semester but you need to start knowing the identity of people around you. She’s Aisha Hannatu Usman. She’s from Maiduguri.”

“It’s all right, cutie. You’re right. I’ll start doing. . .” Afamefune sharply turned to her. “Sorry, come again. Where did you say she comes from?”

“Maiduguri or is it Madugri? Don’t know the exact way they call it. I’ve never been there sha, but at least I know that’s the capital of Borno State.”

He sat up and gaped at her. “Where and when did you meet her?”

Philomena pulled back and threw a suspicious glance at him. “Ehen, what do you want to do with all that information?”

“No, I’m serious, honey. How did you get to meet her? I want to know everything about her. I’ll explain to you later.”

She sensed the seriousness in his countenance and knew his curiosity was beyond any mischief. “We’re roommates. We’ve been friends since our secondary school days. We attended Queens College together. We were classmates from Class One to Five.”

“How about her parents?”

“They’re here in Lagos. They live in Ikoyi. The father has been quite ill, though. He’s been in a wheel chair for months now. He’s a doctor. The mum teaches at Queens College.”

“Her father is a doctor? And they’re from Maiduguri?”

“Yeah, sweetie. You heard me right. But, hey! What’s all this about?”

Afamefune jumped out of his seat. “Baby, stand, let’s go. I need to talk to that girl now.”

Confused and surprised, Philomena watched as Afamefune briskly gathered his books.

“What’s the matter, dear?” she asked.

“Nothing much, dear. I just want to find out if she is who I think she is.”

Twenty-one

The turn of events was not what I would have wished for. I had expected my first child to lead a life worthy of emulation by her younger siblings. But there I was, battling not only to save her life but also to ensure that the news of her shameful act did not tarnish my reputation in the community. The situation was not only compounded by anxiety over my election petition, but also by the fact that my lead counsel was the architect of the entire tragedy.

The doctors at the Awka general hospital had told me that the operation done on Amuebie at Ubo was flawed, and it would require further surgery to stabilize her situation. Although the pains had reduced, the bleeding was yet to subside.

“What is to be done at this stage, doctor?” I asked.

“Well, let’s see how it goes, madam. We shall do a second round of operation this evening. By God’s grace we may be able to stop the bleeding,” the doctor said.

“And what if the bleeding doesn’t stop?”

“Madam, we shall cross that bridge when we get there.”

Since I came into the hospital on Wednesday, I observed that the slim, dark-skinned doctor had been quite warm and supportive. For two days he had taken a personal interest in my daughter and seemed to be going the extra mile to ensure she survived. I imagined it could be because they were in same age bracket; the affection could be the natural empathy among contemporaries. Or he possibly could be having an eye for Esther, who had been by Amuebie for most of the time.

If there was any other person, aside Esther and the doctor, who had shown such remarkable interest in the matter, it was Nkiru. Although I had tried to keep her away on the pretense that she needed to oversee the shop in my absence, I knew it would have been ridiculous to continue preventing her from paying a sympathy visit to my daughter. I now realize it was good that I eventually let her in on the true state of Amuebie’s health. All I needed to do was emphasize the need to maintain the strictest confidentiality about her ailment, just as I had done with Esther.

True to type, Nkiru’s response had been as though Amuebie was her daughter. She would prepare her meals and feed her, take her to the bathroom and stay with her the few times Esther was not around. It dawned on me that apart from the medical staff and Esther, no other person could have shown such care and still maintained the desired secrecy about the abortion.

By eight in the evening Amuebie had been wheeled into the theatre for the second operation, while I fretted from one corner of the waiting room to the other. Again, it was the consoling presence of Nkiru and Esther that tempered those agonizing hours of the night. It was not until two in the morning that one of the doctors emerged from the theatre to brief me of developments.

Although the operation was successful, Amuebie had lost a lot of blood, and I would need to urgently procure blood for transfusion. I presented myself to do the donation but was told, after the necessary tests, that I needed to boost my blood level. At that time of the night, I was left with few alternatives—my other children were hundreds of kilometers away.

I approached Nkiru and Esther and asked if they could be magnanimous enough to donate their blood to Amuebie. They did not hesitate. I was lucky. It turned out that Esther’s blood was compatible with Amuebie’s.

For the three days that Amuebie recuperated at the hospital, I shuttled between Udeozor Street, Awka, and Ubo, whilst still finding time to coordinate deliveries to various locations from USMAN & LABARAN. When we all returned home, I could not help but profusely thank Nkiru and Esther for their supportive presence throughout the period.

I deliberately kept the plight of Amuebie away from Barrister Okwuamaka, for I still could not come to terms with the fact that he could be so irresponsible and callous. More devastating was the fact that he had not bothered at any time to check on the girl he had put in the family way.

Two days later, I returned from the shop and had barely settled into the house when my ward chairman, Mazi Chukwuebuka, hobbled into the house.

“Madam, I’m sorry I don’t have any good news for you today,” he said.

I remained expressionless in an effort to disguise my disgust at the indiscretion of the man he had introduced to me.

“So, what’s the bad news?” I asked.

“We lost the case, madam.”

I pulled my face away. “Were you honestly expecting us to win that case, Mr. Ward Chairman?”

He moved closer and stooped in a benign gesture. “Madam, the lawyer still says we have a good case. He’s advising we appeal the judgement.”

I stopped abruptly and frowned sternly. “Please, Mazi Chukwuebuka, don’t ever mention the name of that man again before me.”

The ward chairman startled. Although it was natural for a person that had just lost a court case to be so aggrieved, he did not expect the personal resentment that appeared to have crept into the matter. For a moment, he watched in silence as I stamped about the sitting room. When he eventually regained his voice, it was clear I had drained him of all enthusiasm. “It’s OK, madam. I’ll take my leave now.”

“Thank you, Chairman.”

He had hitched to the door and was about stepping out when he turned again to me.

“Madam, please in case you have cause to change your mind, you let me know. We have two days to file an appeal.”

I simply waved my hand in the air without looking up. “Thank you, Chairman. You people should just not waste more money. I’m not interested. I told you so before all these things started. If you’d listened to me, we all won’t be in this mess.”

The ward chairman, not knowing the undercurrents propelling my vehemence, and being desirous of enlivening my spirit said, “But, madam, you’re not losing anything. Senator will pick the bills while we the party officials will be putting up attendance at the courts. You don’t even need to be there.”

I suddenly wished that Mazi Chukwuebuka could see what misery Barrister Okwuamaka had caused me and my family. Yet I knew the consequence of letting that information seep into public consciousness. Torn between a burning desire to get back at the lawyer and the need to protect the integrity of my family, I glanced at the ward chairman and bade him goodbye.

“Save all the efforts and money, sir. Goodnight and extend my regards to the family.”

After he had left the house I began to consider my proposed trip to Abuja to see Senator Ibezim. If for no other thing, at least I needed to thank Senator Ibezim for all the material and moral support he had given to me before and after the elections. I would not want to appear an ingrate, for if he was willing to part with his money to pursue my matter in court, then he deserved to hear directly from me on why I had turned down the offer.

Meanwhile, one of the shop attendants came to the house with a message. She said Afamefune had called shortly after I left the shop. He did not drop a message with them as he insisted he wanted to talk with me personally. All he told them was that something crucial had sprung up in school.

Suddenly, the need to install a phone at home began to dawn on me. I wished I had not repeatedly deferred my previous arrangements in that regard. As it were, I now would have to wait until I got to the shop the next day to speak with him. Leisurely, I walked into the study and began to flip through Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.

* * * * *

For most of the night I wondered what could be the message from Afamefune. Whatever was the case, one thing was certain, I was not prepared for another sad news. If anything, I needed something to help moderate the sad memories of Amuebie’s misfortune.

By seven in the morning I had set out for the shop. The attendants were still cleaning up the place when I arrived. I realized also I might have to wait a long time for the call from Afamefune; he had not stated the exact time he was going to call.

I should have taken my time to eat before coming to the shop. I had always ensured I took my breakfast every day before setting out for work. The uncertainties of the day, particularly in the heyday of the campaigns, had underscored the necessity of such a habit. Even on such days as I lacked appetite for breakfast, I had taken along some edibles in my food flask, I thought ruefully.

But it did not take long before Afamefune called.

“Mummy, guess what?”

“What?”

“The doctor is alive . . . Dr. Usman.”

For a moment I could not make sense of what he was saying. “Which doctor are you talking about?” I asked.

“Dr. AbdulFattahu Usman, the one you and daddy met in Maiduguri.”

“What!” I screamed and sprang out of the chair. “Where did you see him? How did. . .”

Afamefune cut in, “His daughter is my classmate. Her name is Aisha. I’ve gone with Nonyelim to see the man. They live here in Lagos.”

“Unbelievable,” I yelped as I pranced about the hall, the shop attendants staring at me in astonishment. They had not seen me look so excited in months.

“Mummy, they can’t wait to meet you. The man hasn’t been feeling too well, though. But he was very happy to see me . . . they said. . .”

“It’s OK, it’s OK. I am coming over to Lagos. Did you take his phone number?”

“Sure, Mum. Got a pen?”

“Hold on a minute.”

I took the number and immediately put a call across to Dr. Usman. His voice was weak. He spoke haltingly. I strained to pick his faint words. He said his health had been deteriorating of late, and expressed regrets at the death of Udoka. We had spoken some ten minutes before I realized I had cried all through the conversation.

I pulled out a handkerchief from my bag to dab the tears away. I dropped the phone and told the staff I would be taking some days off to travel to Lagos. They watched in silence, captivated, as I narrated the story behind the phone call and the name USMAN & LABARAN.

Afamefune called back an hour later. This time it was together with Nonyelim. They asked that I bring along some new clothes for them and gave me two additional measurements for their friends. I told them to quickly get across to Dr. Usman for his measurements and that of his wife, too. I instructed my staff to put aside every other thing they were doing and focus on the clothes I would be taking to Lagos—the clothes would have to be ready in three days.

* * * * *

By four in the evening of Wednesday I had arrived Lagos. I was beginning to applaud the smooth sail of the journey when I ran into the gridlock that was Lagos traffic. I thought how odd that the time it took from the gate of Lagos to the hotel I was to lodge in Surulere was about half the time from Ubo to Lagos. Street hawkers crammed around the crawling traffic, even as yellow cabs and buses blared their horns to further charge the energy of the populated city.

I had told Afamefune and Nonyelim the previous day that I would be staying at Vinco Hotels and Suites on the popular Masha Street in Surulere. The blue and white three-story edifice was the destination of choice for many travelers from Awka and the surrounding communities who were always quick to state that the hotel belonged to Brother Cornelius, a successful Awka-born, Lagos-based tycoon, even when many of them had never seen the businessman.

An hour after my arrival, the receptionist called to say that four people had come to see me. They burst into the room, two of them screaming for joy as they dashed toward me. Although I had told the receptionist I was expecting Nonyelim and Afamefune when I took the room, they had come along with two other people—and I had suspected they would come with their friends, particularly, Aisha. The three-room suite I had taken would adequately accommodate them.

Even though I could not fully recall how Dr. Usman looked, the features of one of the girls evoked memories of years gone. The bold eyes and thick lips of the shorter girl were unmistakable. When she was eventually introduced as Aisha, the daughter of Dr. Usman, I pulled her to myself and gave her an impassioned hug that spoke to the history of the two families.

“How are your parents?” I asked.

“They’re fine, ma. Just that daddy hasn’t been quite strong lately. They can’t wait to see you,” the young girl said, beaming with smiles.

“Mummy, let’s go now! Let’s go and see them,” Afamefune said.

“It’s OK, my dear. I’ve already spoken with them. We’ll be there tomorrow morning,” I said.

“How’s everyone?” Nonyelim asked and fixed a probing look on me.

I understood the question; it was more a desire to know the health condition of Amuebie than an interest in the general situation at home.

“Everyone is fine, my darling. Amuebie is doing well. She extends her regards to you all,” I said.

I gave her a reassuring smile, hoping she would understand that the situation had been put under control.

“Mummy, this is Philomena. She is Aisha’s childhood friend,” Nonyelim said.

I turned my attention on Philomena. “Oh! Is that so? You’re welcome, my daughter.”

I was not quite sure, but it was like I saw Aisha wink at Afamefune. Then he pulled his face away quickly. However, I was quick to notice a glow in Afamefune’s eyes that I probably last saw when he was in primary school. Philomena flushed as I beamed at her.

I was beginning to wonder if my suspicions were right when Nonyelim broke the ice.

“Philo and Afam seem to be getting on well,” she said and smiled at me.

I looked again at Afamefune and Philomena. This time there was no doubt about what they felt for each other. I gave a knowing smile and asked Nonyelim to call room service.

While we were all waiting for the orders to arrive, I stepped into the room to bring the clothes I had made for them.

When I returned to the living room, Nonyelim sprang out of her seat. “Oh Mum! I knew you would come with them,” she said and took the clothes from me.

It didn’t take a minute to sort out the ownership of each. There was a gray skirt and white blouse for Nonyelim. Afamefune got a sky blue shirt and black trousers. The other two got flowery pink and velvet gowns.

Afamefune and Nonyelim were used to the craft of USMAN & LABARAN, but for Aisha and Philomena, it was their first encounter with our creations. They both stared in astonishment. Philomena placed hers on her chest and shut her eyes, as though the cloth was communing with her soul. Probably wondering how a clothing line of such quality could come from an obscure community like Ubo. While they marveled all evening at the talents that lay in distant lands, I could not help but ponder over the prospects of the next day.

* * * * *

By ten in the morning we had all arrived at the residence of Dr. AbdulFattahu Usman on Adeyemi Lawson, Ikoyi. It was an old white duplex and had a long shape that was considerably narrower than its modern offshoots. On both sides of the driveway from the gate were knee-level flowering trees that tipped toward the open space in front of the house.

The premises reminded me of the images I had seen of properties that were bequeathed to the new elites of the Nigerian public service by colonial masters in the wake of independence in 1960. The sheer modesty of the building stood in sharp contrast with the elaborate designs of modern constructions.

Aisha cheerfully dashed out of the yellow cab and made for the door. Afamefune, Philomena and Nonyelim had come out of the car too. They waited for me to alight so we could all proceed to the house. I asked Afamefune to bring out the bag containing the clothes I had made for Dr. Usman and his wife.

As we all strolled to the house, I saw Aisha come back out the door with drooping shoulders. Her face was drained of the excitement it bore a minute earlier. I stood and wondered what the problem was.

Philomena moved and placed her hand on Aisha’s shoulder. “What’s the problem?” she asked.

As we joined Afamefune and Nonyelim to cluster around the girl, a dark stubby lady emerged from the door. I guessed she would be at the far end of fifty. I walked to her and greeted.

“You’re welcome, madam,” she said gloomily. “I hope everything is OK,” I asked.

The woman sighed and began to step back into the house. “Please come and take a seat, madam,” she said.

I walked behind and flashed a look across the corridor. They all began to make their way into the house. Aisha had started sobbing.

Dr. Usman had collapsed that morning and had been rushed to the hospital. The dark lady was the housekeeper. She introduced herself as Auntie Jemimah and said Aisha’s mother had told her I was on my way and had requested she explain the situation to me.

“Which hospital was he taken?” I asked.

“Addington.”

I flashed a questioning look at Philomena and Aisha. Philomena indicated she knew the hospital. I expressed my sympathies to the housekeeper and urged the others to come with me to the hospital.

In twenty minutes we were at the hospital. It was an imposing six-story building of yellow colour and red apurtenances. I asked for Dr. Usman from the staff at the reception. But I had barely finished my conversation with the staff when Aisha broke away and dashed toward a fair-skinned lady of middle age who was heading toward the reception.

“Mummy! Where’s Daddy?” Aisha cried as she fell into her mother’s arms.

We all moved toward her and sought to know the condition of her husband. She greeted and thanked us for coming over to the hospital, saying he had been taken to the Intensive Care Unit. She did not know how long he would be there. She welcomed me from my journey and regretted that we were meeting for the first time in such awkward circumstances.

“Can I see him, madam? Even if it’s just for a second,” I said.

“I’m afraid they won’t let you in. I was asked to leave and stay in the waiting room. My sister, please help me put him in prayers,” she said.

In dejection, I slowly pulled away and took a seat by the far corner of the waiting room. I had come all the way from the village with the hope of expressing my gratitude to a man who many years ago had rescued my family from the jaws of death. If only God could keep him alive to see my face again and know how truly indebted my family was to him. I went on my knees and began to pray.

* * * * *

Four hours later, the doctors sent for the wife of Dr. Usman. We rose and hurried after her. Dr. Usman had been taken out of the ICU and was now in one of the private rooms of the hospital. He lay motionless on the bed, staring at the white ceiling. I dashed to his bedside, hoping the man would be enlivened by my presence. But he remained static, oblivious to the movements around him.

It then struck me that he did not have the faintest recognition of his surroundings. He looked frail and darker than what I remembered of him. The hair on his head had turned white. But, in spite of age and ill health which had taken a toll on him, his essential features were still noticeable, particularly his bold eyes and thick lips.

“How did it go, Doctor? his wife asked the doctor with profound anxiety.

The doctor saw the nervousness of the women and tried to put up a reassuring smile. “Good. We’ve made some progress. He’s regained consciousness,” the doctor said.

“But he’s not talking,” she said.

“It’s OK. He’ll come through after a while,” he said.

I stayed in the room with the family until late in the evening. Dr. Usman had drifted off to sleep before I excused myself to return to the hotel. I told the wife I would come back to the hospital in the morning. A few hours earlier Aisha, Nonyelim and Philomena had gone to the house to get some food and other things needed for Mrs Usman’s overnight stay at the hospital, while Afamefune had returned to school with the intention of coming back to the hospital the next day.

I reached the hotel and had started towards my room when I realized that I had left the clothes I had made for Dr. Usman and his wife in the boot of the vehicle. I was lucky the driver of the cab was attentive, for I was rushing back out of the building when he came walking toward the entrance of the hotel with my bag.

When I reached my room I suddenly realized I had not eaten since the breakfast I had before leaving the hotel. I looked at the time. It was fifteen after ten. Although my stomach had started grumbling, I knew I would hardly sleep if I ate at that time. I eyed the two complimentary bags of Lipton tea and mini sachet of milk on the table. A half full kettle of water was a few meters away. A cup of tea would suffice for the night.

* * * * *

I arrived Addington hospital by nine in the morning and was gratified to see that Afamefune and the three girls were already in the room. I didn’t marvel much at the promptness of the girls, though, being that they had all spent the night at the Usmans’, which was not quite far from the hospital. However, the fact that Afamefune had come from school and reached the hospital at that time was pleasantly surprising. Mrs. Usman and Nonyelim had taken the only two chairs in the room whilst the others stood about the place.

My spirits lifted when I saw that Dr. Usman was seated on the bed. He turned to me and wore a friendly look as I exchanged pleasantries with the rest. Then I hurried toward the bed smiling.

“Good morning, sir,” I said with a flourish of excitement.

He beamed more intently at me and put the cup of fura de nunu he was drinking on the stool. He stretched out his hands to embrace me.

“You are welcome, Mrs. Amina Udoka. Yaya harikoki . . . how is everything? How was your journey from the village?” he said.

Harikoki alhamdulilahi . . . we give glory to God for everything, sir,” I said.

My eyes had begun to wet with tears. I held on to him, amazed that he could still recognize me after all these years. Memories from twenty-two years ago flooded my mind.

“I am fine, sir . . . we are fine, sir . . . never knew I would ever set my eyes on you again.”

“It’s OK, my dear. God works in mysterious ways.”

I knelt down by the bedside and held his hands. With moist eyes, Afamefune and Nonyelim joined me to kneel.

“Thank you, sir. Thank you for saving our lives. The God I worship shall continue to bless you and your family. Thank you so so much, sir.”

“Thank you, my dear. Please stand. It’s Allah that saves. I was only an instrument in his hands. Those troubles were the mountain of yesterday. Let’s thank Allah that we were able to surmount them. We must never allow the frustrations of the moment to diminish the strength of our humanity. We should be asking for greater grace from Allah as we look ahead with conviction and courage.”

Then we both broke into Hausa language. Speaking with much difficulty, he commended me for the success I had made of my profession, regretting that Udoka was not around to savor the joy of my success. He said he had been briefed by Afamefune and Nonyelim on my effort to honor him by immortalizing his name through the brand name ‘USMAN & LABARAN.’ He thanked me and asked that I accept the gratitude of the Usman family.

The room bubbled with excitement when I presented the clothes I had produced for them. It was an orange blouse and gray trousers for the wife, and a light blue French suit for the man. The way they both caressed the fabrics suggested I had hit another bull’s eye.

It was not until later in the day that I left the hospital to go and prepare for my return trip to Ubo the next day. By two I had reached the hotel in the company of Afamefune and Nonyelim, and after I had placed orders for lunch, I put a call across to USMAN & LABARAN.

“How’re you doing, Amuebie?”

“I’m fine, Mummy. How is it going there? Have you seen him?” she asked enthusiastically.

“Yes, dear. We were with him today. We thank God for his mercies. How’s the shop?”

“Oh, wonderful! How is he? How does he look? Did he recog. . .”

“Of course, he recognized me. He’s fine, he’s OK. Do not worry; you’ll get to see him too someday. He asked after you. He wanted to see the grown woman who came out of the pregnancy of that time.”

“Really! Wow. Can’t wait to see him, Mummy.”

“It’s OK. I’m sure we’ll see him again soon. Now, how’s the shop?”

“We’re doing fine. We made the last supply to the schools today. What about Afam and Nonye? Are they there with you?”

“Yes, hold on for them.”

The cat was almost let out of the bag when Nonyelim asked Amuebie if she had fully recovered. I winked at her to discontinue the topic. But Afamefune had picked the question, for he was sitting a few meters away.

“What happened to Amuebie?” he asked. Nonyelim was still on the phone. She peeked at me.

“Oh, she had a bout of fever,” I said.

“The devil is a liar. I hope she’s getting better. Nonye, tell am say I greet am o,” Afamefune said.

When Nonyelim was done talking with Amuebie, she passed the phone to me. She said Amuebie had some other information for me. My mind raced to the outstanding orders to be supplied to various communities by the following week. I had scheduled to visit Awka to purchase the materials for the work but for the trip to Lagos.

“Is it about the supplies for next week? Never mind, I’ll make the purchases the moment I return tomorrow,” I said.

At that point the waiter rapped on the door. I beckoned Afamefune to receive the orders and sign the bill.

“Mummy, it’s not the clothes,” Amuebie said.

The way her voice drooled on the phone indicated that the message was not likely to catch my fancy.

“What’s it?” I snapped.

“OK, never mind. I’ll tell you when you return.”

I sat back, yawned and stretched out my legs. “Look, you better say what’s on your mind. I don’t have the whole day. I’m tired and need to have some rest.”

“Mummy, please, I don’t want you to get angry.”

“Haba. You’ve not said anything yet you’re talking of getting angry.”

“Mummy, it’s Barrister Okwuamaka.”

“What!” I sat up and glanced around the sitting room. If not that Afamefune and Nonyelim had gone into their rooms with their meals, they would have startled at my scream. I tried to contain the rage. “What’s he looking for? I don’t ever want to hear about that animal from you again.”

“He was at the shop today, Mummy. He wants to see you,” she said conciliatorily.

The bile rose again. “Look! I say I don’t want to . . . OK, just wait there! You’ll see me tomorrow,” I retorted and banged the phone.

I stood and paced frantically about the sitting room. I glanced at the plate of rice and chicken I had ordered, but the disclosure from Amuebie had dulled my appetite. I stormed out of the sitting room to my room, wondering how the shameless lawyer could have the audacity to appear at my shop after all he had done. More infuriating was the attitude of my daughter. It was as though she was making a case for him. The compassionate and conciliatory tone in which she passed the message suggested she may not have fully come to terms with the disaster she narrowly escaped.

I had lain in bed an hour before it began to occur to me that I probably did not handle the conversation with sufficient circumspection. I had allowed emotions to have the better part of me. I probably should have heard her out so as to get a glimpse of the man’s intentions. Beyond his regrettable liaison with my daughter, he may have come with a positive update from the courts, or even a message from Senator Ibezim.

I was still contemplating these possibilities when I heard Nonyelim’s voice. “Mummy, your food has been lying on the table. It’s getting cold,” she said.

“Thanks, dear. I think I’ve lost my appetite,” I said with my face still turned to the wall.

O gini kwa? What happened? You were sounding so famished a while ago,” she said and moved closer to sit by the edge of the bed.

“I want to take some rest . . . will eat when I get up.”

She knew well enough to see there was trouble. Apart from me not turning to face her, she had picked out a tinge of disaffection in my voice.

“Mummy, you’re not happy. What’s the matter?” She said and placed her hand on my shoulder.

When I eventually turned toward her, a splodge of tears had formed around my eyes.

“It’s OK, dear,” I managed to say and stood to head for the living room, my daughter trudging behind, unconvinced.

Twenty-two

By five in the evening of the next day I had arrived Ubo and headed for the house. Amuebie would still be at the shop. I had barely settled in at home when Nkiru came in with those easy, broad smiles that were peculiarly hers. How much I missed them. Although her high cheek bones naturally gave a fine appearance to her oblong face, she now looked finer to me. I wondered what may have caused the change in the few days I was away.

“Welcome, my sister. We been don dey miss you o. How was the trip? E be like say the Lagos breeze come make you fine more,” she said.

I smiled and winked at her. “It is well o. We give God the glory. But you change for my eye, too, o. See your skin as e dey shine. How’s the home front?”

She broke out in her distinctive crispy way of laughing; rapid, brief and detached like a staccato of shots. “We’re all fine o. What of the man? Hope you met him?” she asked and settled into one of the chairs.

I walked to the window to pull aside the curtain. “Oh, great. It was a wonderful experience. Never knew I would ever come across him again. I’m simply the happiest person in the world now.”

Eiyaaa. You see how good our God can be?”

“I tell you, my sister,” I said and reclined in the seat next to her.

She sat up, folded her hands and turned to me. “But, come o, this other man has been eager to see you.”

“Who?”

“The lawyer.”

I turned and waved dismissively. “Abeg forget that man.”

“No, sister, he seems to be serious. He says he’s coming over again tomorrow.”

I knew that any argument at that time would not take me anywhere. It was better I maintained some philosophic calm until I heard whatever message he would be coming with.

“It’s OK. When did he say he’d be coming tomorrow?”

“Ten in the morning.”

“All right. I’ll be expecting him.”

A few minutes after Nkiru had gone, Amuebie returned home from the shop. She greeted me and walked lazily to one of the chairs in the sitting room. I observed that she was looking sad and I thought it was my harsh response to her message about Barrister Okwuamaka that had caused her dejection. From the dining table where I had settled upon my meal of semovita and ogbono soup, I called out to her, “Amuebie, don’t tell me it’s because of that useless lawyer you’re looking that way.”

“It’s not because of him, Mummy?”

The fury in me had begun to build. “So, what’s the problem? I don’t want to believe that at this age you don’t know what’s good for you.”

“The man is dead, Mummy.”

“Let him die, if that’s his punishment for wanting to destroy the life of another person.” I had made the comment before it struck me that I should not speak so ill of the dead. “Well, I’m sorry. May his soul rest in peace. But know that no evil deed goes unpunished.”

“I meant Dr. Usman.”

For a moment I gazed at my daughter. “What!” I walked to her and grabbed her two arms. “What did you just say? Where did you hear that?”

“Afam called as I was about leaving the shop. The man’s wife also called a few minutes later. They said he died about an hour ago.”

I sank into the chair next to my daughter and stared emptily away. Several thoughts began to race through my mind. Why did he have to die now that God had reunited the two families? Could it be that my departure was too sudden and may have precipitated the collapse of his feeble health? It then hit me that he also could have been dead a long time before I got to hear about him from my children. It could be that God had kept him alive in spite of his long incapacitation just for the purpose of the reunion.

Deflated and disillusioned, with tears streaming down my face, I muttered, “Did they say anything about the funeral?”

“They didn’t.”

Quietly I stood from the chair, shot a disinterested look at my half-eaten meal and stepped into the room. In five minutes I had changed into a black scarf and black gown. I left the house and headed for USMAN & LABARAN. Although the shop had been closed for the day, I had my own spare key to the premises. I let myself in and went straight for the telephone.

The steward who had introduced herself as Auntie Jemimah picked the call at the other end. When Dr. Usman’s wife eventually came on the line, I could barely make myself speak audibly.

“Why . . . why . . . why now,” I sobbed.

“My dear, I’m still short for words.”

“Just when . . . when I thought my life was beginning to have meaning again.”

“It’s OK, my sister. Who are we to question the ways of Allah.”

“What are . . . what are the plans for now? Is there anything you want me to do?”

“Thanks, dear. We’re reaching out to our relations for his burial. I’ll let you know of further developments, insha Allah.”

As another trip to Lagos loomed in my mind, I knew that I would sacrifice anything to further honor the man who had ensured we were not consumed by the rage of religious extremists.

* * * * *

By ten the next morning, Barrister Okwuamaka had arrived USMAN & LABARAN. Although I walked him to the inner office of the shop, the furious expression on my face testified to the contempt in which I now held the lawyer. I took my seat and gazed at the wall, tapping the table with the scissors in my hand.

He pulled close to me and went on his knees. “Madam, I know I do not deserve any forgiveness from you.”

His husky voice sounded like a cracked record. Swiftly I turned toward him with a harsh frown, his parted hair evoking memories of my most-disliked primary school teacher from whom I had received many a whipping in my time.

“How could you do such a thing? How could you be so wicked? You abused my hospitality and trust.”

“I’m sorry, ma. I’ve wronged both man and God. My action was inexcusably disgraceful. Truly, I exceeded the bounds of decency and common sense.”

“What could have come over you to make you behave so shamelessly? To the point that you didn’t even bother to know what became of her? Please stand up, I’m not God.”

He stood and pulled the white chair beside him. “Madam, I’ve been out of the country. I returned just two days ago. I swear to the God we both serve I didn’t know she was pregnant.”

“I definitely don’t think we serve the same God. Please focus on the demons that guide your passions.”

“Ma, on this particular incident I admit that my passions had taken a flight with demonic forces. But honestly, madam, I didn’t know. In fact, I told her before I left that I was going to meet you the moment I returned to. . .”

“Meet me to do what!”

He kept quiet for a moment, his face to the ground. Then he looked up remorsefully. “Madam, please permit me to marry Amuebie.”

“What! Marry who!”

“Mummy, I love Amuebie and I genuinely wish to be bonded with her in matrimony.”

“But wait a minute. When did this affair begin? Why did you keep it away from me if you honestly were thinking of marriage?” I sat back, heaved a sigh and took another much calmer look at him. “Ok, I see. You want my daughter to become your second wife, not so? Has she told you her age?”

“Mummy, I’m thirty-five. I’m single. I believe that age is meaningless where there is love.”

“Hmmm. I see. Please excuse me, I have more important things to do,” I said and stood to leave the room.

He held me by the hand and knelt again. “Please, Mummy, forgive me,” he said.

I turned and saw his eyes had become moist. I thought of how to make him leave before I succumbed to the pathetic sight of him. “It’s OK, we’ll continue the discussion some other time,” I said, looking toward the door.

He stood and stepped forward. “Please, ma. You may also wish to note that we’ve filed an appeal against the judgement of the tribunal.”

I shrugged. “I told Mazi Chukwuebuka I was no longer interested in that matter.”

“It’s all right, madam. You’ve nothing to lose. Just take your mind away from the case and pretend it does not exist. Leave all the worries to me and the senator. But I can assure you that you’re the next chairman of this local government.”

As my temper began to mellow, I sat and clasped my hands on the table. “And how is the senator, by the way? I just don’t want him wasting money on the case,” I said.

“He’s fine. He travelled out of the country two weeks ago. I think he’s gone on vacation to be with his wife and children. It usually takes about two months before he returns. I promised him he would come back to see you sitting on that chair in the council. Trust me, madam, I’ll do it.”

I was not prepared for the turn the discussion took. “I’ve heard you. For now, I’ve much work to do. I’ll get back to you on the matters you raised,” I said and rose to signify the meeting was over.

When he left the shop, I began to contemplate on his comments. His disclosures about Senator Ibezim meant I would have to put my trip to Abuja on hold. I thanked God that I had postponed the visit. How fortuitous that decision has come to be. It would have been devastating to travel all that distance and not meet the senator.

For Amuebie, of a truth, I knew that at twenty-two she could not be said to be too young for marriage. After all, I got married at a much younger age. The problem was the circumstances surrounding the entire issue. If Barrister Okwuamaka had presented himself in a less objectionable way, I probably would have given thought to his proposal and also taken time to do the necessary background checks. As it were, he had put me in a position that would naturally prompt one to undercut his ambition.

* * * * *

In the evening of that day, after work, I sent for Nkiru. I walked her to the large hall in my house that doubled as meeting place and warehouse and took time to explain my experience that morning with Barrister Okwuamaka.

“My sister, I don’t think the idea is a bad one. Amuebie has come of age. You know she cannot remain with us forever,” Nkiru said.

“Yes, I know, but he just does not strike me as a responsible man, Walahi. I’m not deceived by his parted hair.”

“I can understand how you feel. I’d feel so too if I were you. But if it’s true that he was out of the country and had also told Amuebie before he travelled that he wanted to see you, then we may need to start taking a second look at the matter.”

“We don’t even know anything about the man.”

“I’ve been quietly asking about him lately. I think he’s from a responsible home.”

“Really?”

“Yes. They’re from Awka. His father lives there. He used to be a chief inspector of education. I understand he was a primary school mate and friend of Chief Ikuku’s.”

“Ewo! Friend of who? Chief Ikuku . . . Ekwensu. Sorry, but no, it won’t work. Never.”

“Well, Chief Ikuku is not the Barrister’s friend but his father’s. . .”

“Forget it,” I said. I swung round and began to walk toward the exit. “Let’s go! That man is a monster.”

Nkiru scurried after me. “It doesn’t follow, though. Chief Ikuku might not have that kind of influence over their family.”

“Whatever. I don’t want a whiff of that wicked man around me or my children.”

“But what if your daughter is in love with the lawyer?”

I froze by the door and held the handle. Then I turned and glared at Nkiru. The thought came to me that my Amuebie may indeed have fallen in love with the man. I recalled that she had not been looking happy ever since she noticed my hostile attitude to their relationship. I could discern the underlying threat in Nkiru’s comment. If Amuebie could keep the affair away from you, she could as well elope with the man.

Nkiru may not have explicitly said so but it was implied in her statement. Suddenly I realised that the matter may be much more complicated than I had imagined. I waved Nkiru bye and stomped out of the hall.

* * * * *

All night I was agitated by Nkiru’s insinuation that Amuebie might elope with Barrister Okwuamaka. I began to wonder if history was about to repeat itself? I recalled my marriage to Udoka. He had met me on my way back from school when I was preparing for my WAEC, the school certificate examination conducted for final year secondary school students by the West Africa Examination Council. A fight had broken out a few meters away between factions of touts hanging out in motor parks: Agberos.

“Excuse me, please,” Udoka had said.

I had stopped and taken a hurried glance at him. He wore a multi-colored shirt and blue trouser that had not made much of an impression on me.

“Good afternoon, sir,” I had greeted.

I cannot quite recall the specifics of the conversation now, but he had said something like, “Which direction are you going, dear? Can I walk you home? You shouldn’t be moving alone with this fight raging all over the place.”

Although I had hesitated a moment, the evident insecurity of the moment had necessitated his protective company. I simply nodded in innocent acquiescence to his offer.

He waited for me again on my way to school the next morning. That was the beginning of the story. Just as it was between Amuebie and Barrister Okwuamaka, I had kept my liaison with Udoka away from my parents. Udoka’s case was a much more complex matter, though, as the thought of meeting my parents was completely inconceivable.

My father’s position as a Muslim cleric was widely acknowledged in the town and, in the religious climate of the time, the prospect of Udoka, a Pentecostal Christian, bringing the affair to his attention was, to say the least, abominable. It was inevitable that I had to elope with Udoka at the end of the day.

Is the relationship between Amuebie and the Barrister a reincarnation of that experience?

* * * * *

By five the next morning I had risen from bed. An hour after I got to the shop, I received a phone call from the wife of Dr. Usman.

“My sister, hope you’re doing well, you and the children,” she said.

“We thank God. How’re the arrangements going?”

“Yes, that’s the reason I’m calling. We’re flying him home now for burial.”

“Oh, good. I should be on my way then.”

“No, no. don’t bother, my dear. I just called to keep you informed.”

“My sister, please I need to be there. It’s important I pay him this last respect.”

“Never mind, madam. You’ve already honored us in many other ways. The joy I saw on his face when you visited was worth more than any other thing.”

“But I can still make it.”

“No, no, it’s OK, dear. I’m sure if he were alive he wouldn’t wish you to embark on that long journey. Moreover, the burial would have been done with by the time you arrive Maiduguri.”

I knew of a truth that the woman was right, considering that burial rites of the Muslim faith were quite different from the funeral patterns of Christianity. The elaborate ceremonial approach of Christian burials was in sharp contrast with the modest and brief interment of Islamic rites. Even if I were to go by air from Enugu to Maiduguri, I still needed to travel by road first from Ubo to Enugu.

It would have taken the whole day to do all that, and the burial would have long been over by the time I arrived. It struck me, quite painfully, that inasmuch as I had wished to attend the funeral of Dr. Usman, the odds were firmly stacked against it. I expressed my regrets to Mrs. Usman and prayed for God to give her journeying mercies.

I had scarcely finished my conversation with Mrs. Usman when I saw some elderly persons walk into the shop. From their dressy appearance I knew they were not from Ubo. It was also obvious from their comportment that they had not come to patronize the works of USMAN & LABARAN. I was not surprised when they eventually introduced themselves as emissaries from Barrister Okwuamaka’s family.

I took them into the inner office and asked my staff to bring in additional chairs. They were five: two women and three men. I was relieved to observe that the direct parents of the Barrister were not in the entourage, for the weight of their presence would have cast an irresistible ambience around their mission.

“Madam, we know you’ll be surprised to see us. Sorry we didn’t give you notice of our visit,” the eldest of them said. He had introduced himself as Mazi Ukachukwu, a kinsman of Barrister Okwuamaka. Tall, dark and soft-spoken. He seemed to be a man of measured manners. He carried himself in his red cap and long white shirt in a way that indicated he may have retired from the upper grades of the public service.

“It’s OK, sir, you’re welcome,” I replied and called on one of the shop attendants to bring some soft drinks for my august visitors.

“No, no, madam. Thank you for the drinks. Please don’t bother, we’ll have enough time later for drinks and food,” Mazi Ukachukwu said.

“You sure?”

“Please, we’ve simply come to greet you and express our appreciation of your good works with USMAN & LABARAN. I must tell you that we’re all proud of you.”

“Thank you, sir. I’m sure that if not for your support and prayers USMAN & LABARAN probably would not be where it is today.”

For a while they remained silent and looked at one another. Then Mazi Ukachukwu said, “Our son, Barrister Ken Okwuamaka, extends his warm regards. He has told us there’s a flower he has seen around you and it is his wish that you be kind enough to allow him water the flower.”

I knew where they were heading but acted otherwise. Although they appeared respectable members of the society, my anguish over the transgression of their son was yet to fully subside.

“There are many flowers in the garden. Could you be more specific on the flower you have in mind?” I said.

“Thank you, my sister,” one of the women spoke up. “It’s your beautiful angel, Amuebie, we’re talking about.”

I smiled and glanced across the room. “I see.”

“But, please, madam we’ve not come for introduction. Of course, we know what the tradition demands. We’ll come for that at the right time. We’ve only come to greet you and ask that you keep up the good work,” the second woman said. Her necklines were of fleshy folds. Her wrists dangled with silver bangles. With the large coral beads that adorned her neck and the crispiness of her green head tie and brown blouse, I could not help but wonder how she would look on the day of the wedding proper.

I heaved a sigh of relief and dropped the measuring tape in my hand on the wooden table. “It’s OK. Thank you for the visit, and for the words of encouragement. I’m sure we’ll find time again to meet.”

After they left the shop, I returned to my sewing table to continue the day’s work. But I did not fail to note the comment of the leader of the team, Mazi Ukachukwu, as I walked them out of the shop. He had hinted that they were on their way to the house of one of the elders of my family, and wanted to know the shortest route from the shop to the place. I gave a start when he mentioned Chief Ikuku. Although I managed to provide a rough description of his abode, I hoped they did not notice my momentary loss of composure.

* * * * *

Five days later, Afamefune called from school. He said he would be going on an excursion to Badagry with his classmates; they were going to study some of the historic sites at the ancient city preparatory to their exams.

“How long are you staying on the visit,” I asked. “Three days.”

“How’re they handling your feeding and accommodation?”

“The department is coordinating it. We paid some money. I had to pay from my feeding allowance. Mom, you have to send some money to me o.”

“It’s OK.”

“Yeah! That’s my Maama!”

“You need to do well with that your trip o, Afam.”

“I will, Mum. I just feel bad sha that Aisha is missing out on the excursion.”

Eiyaaa. So, how’s she going to make it up?”

“Well, there’s nothing she can do about it for now. It’s the practical part of our exams. She don lose some marks be dat o.”

“Oh dear. Poor girl. So sad. The Lord is her strength. How’s Nonye? When last did you see her?”

“Nonye has a little fever. I saw her yesterday at the library.”

“Oh oh, how is she now?”

“Think she should be okay by now. Haven’t seen her today sha.”

“Nonsense! Does it mean you don’t visit each other? Is it only at libraries and restaurants you meet?”

“Mummy, you know na. Everyone is busy with studies.”

“I hope the impact of those studies will show in your results because I just don’t know the kind of pressure that’ll keep you from visiting your sick sister, ehh, Afam? You better go and look her up.”

“Oya na . . . it’s okay, I’ll go and see her. Aha! Mummy, guess what? Good news!”

“What’s it?”

“You remember Philomena, the fair girl that was with us when you visited.”

“You mean your girlfriend?”

“Mummy!!!”

“What? You think I’m blind?”

“OK, OK, let’s leave that for now sha. The girl’s father is sponsoring a red carpet fashion exhibition at Eko Hotel next month. He saw your designs and they all want you to be part of the show.”

“Really? Are you serious?”

“Yes, Mummy. You’re about to join the big league. O kwa ebeano bu nka. Just begin to put your best stuff together. Can’t wait to see your clothing line on that red carpet.”

“It’s OK. That’s fine. We give God the glory. When is it coming up, next month?”

“Can’t remember the exact date now. I’ll call tomorrow to give you the number of the pageant manager. Her name is Savage, Mrs. Savage.”

“All right, and don’t forget to go and see Nonye.”

“Sure, Mum. Sure.”

I dropped the phone and broke the news to my staff. The hall exploded in ecstasy as they screamed and banged on their tables. I told them that their years of hard work and dedication to excellence had finally received the attention of the elite circles of the profession. They must not rest on their oars. If anything, the time had come to up their game.

“We’re taking USMAN & LABARAN to Lagos. We’re moving to national limelight,” I said.

I pulled out my Bible from the drawer and called the house to prayer.

* * * * *

Barrister Okwuamaka had informed me that his family would be coming to the house for the introduction ceremony precursory to his proposed marriage to Amuebie. Since the visit of the delegation he sent to me, some other family members had come to beg that I soften my position on the matter.

I began to make arrangements on how to entertain my prospective in-laws on the day of the visit. I remembered Elendu, the famed palm wine tapper. I would have reached out to him if he were still alive. Since his death some months earlier, no one in the community had been able to match the quality of his palm wine. I was left with no option but to make do with what was available.

Four days later, Barrister Okwuamaka called again to say he had an urgent message for me.

“What’s the matter? What happened?” I asked. “Madam, I think there’s a problem,” he said. “What?” How?”

“It appears that one of your chiefs has issues with the marriage.”

“Do you mean Chief Ikuku?”

“That’s it! Oh, you know. What do you have with him, ma?”

“Hmmm. That man again? He’s supposed to be a member of our extended family o. He’s never seen anything good in me or my late husband.”

“You mean it?”

Walahi. In fact, many of us still believe he had a hand in the death of my husband. The man is just out to destroy me and my family. So, what has he done again this time?”

“He’s been saying some nasty things about your family and, you know how these elders are, my people got worried and have been asking some questions.”

“Really? I see. So, what are you now saying, Ken?”

“No, no, it’s OK, madam. Just to give a little time to allow the dust to settle. You know that for me, I’ve no problem.”

“How can you say you have no problem when you’re already acting out their script? Can you imagine how my daughter and other members of our family will feel about this postponement?”

“I’m sorry, ma. Of course, I’m not on the same page with the elders on this. I’ll still do what I want to do, with or without them. I’m irrevocably committed to our connubial proposal. Just trying to give them the due respect for now.”

“I hope so. Anyway, as you’re speaking your big grammar, just let me know on time if you’re calling the whole thing off.”

“Arrhh! Never, madam. In fact, I’ll be coming over to the house this evening to see and reassure Amuebie of my stand.”

“Aha! You better come and tell her yourself because I honestly don’t know how to explain this to her.”

Barrister Okwuamaka visited me and Amuebie at home that evening. Although I had given the details of my discussion with him to my daughter, she waited for him to raise the topic so she could hear from the horse’s mouth. As it turned out, his submissions were, in all material respects, same as what I had told her—Chief Ikuku had asked the lawyer’s family not to marry any of my daughters as they would likely turn out to be the same or worse than their mother.

Barrister Okwuamaka, however, disclosed that they had made their own independent enquiries and were coming to take the comments of the old man with a pinch of salt. He said it had become evident that Chief Ikuku was simply speaking out of malice. The Barrister apologized for the misunderstanding, and sought my approval for the ceremony to commence as scheduled.

I knew my history with Chief Ikuku and his group. I knew they could be up to considerable mischief and had expected that they would attempt to frustrate the marriage. I could understand the fears of my future in-laws. For about twenty minutes, I narrated my family’s experiences with Chief Ikuku and his team of ultra-conservative elders.

At the end of the meeting, Barrister Okwuamaka, now better informed, expressed his sympathies for all the indignities my family had been subjected to and promised to never again give ear to such hideous blackmail. He said he could not reconcile Chief Ikuku’s tiny voice and smallish frame with the hateful exertions of his mind.

* * * * *

The introduction ceremony held as scheduled, after which the two families began to prepare for the marriage proper. I was at the shop one afternoon when Mrs. Bolanle Savage called from Lagos.

“Manager, how’re you doing today? I hope the preparations are going on well?”

“It’s OK, madam. We want to get a final confirmation of your participation to enable us make hotel reservations and put other logistics together,” Mrs. Savage said.

Ngwa nu, no problem, my sister. Go ahead, please. We’ll be there on Friday.”

“Good. That means you’ll arrive Lagos on Thursday?”

“Sure. We’re coming in on Thursday.”

“Fine. Please, when you arrive you can proceed to Federal Palace Hotel. We’ve reserved a suit for you and your entourage.”

“Wow. A suite?”

“Yes, ma. It’s for two nights. We’re footing the bill. All you need to do is simply confirm the bill they’ll present when you’re leaving on Saturday morning and sign off on it.”

“Ok, dear. That’s quite kind of you.”

“You’re welcome, ma. There’s a cheque of one hundred thousand naira you’ll collect from me on arrival to cover your transportation costs.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes, ma. We’ll be expecting you then.”

“All right, my sister. Thanks for everything.”

I had started counting my blessings when Nonyelim came on the line a few minutes later to say that Afamefune’s classmates were searching for him in Badagry; nobody seemed to know his whereabouts.

“What!” I screamed. The piece of cloth I was to position on the sewing machine fell from my hand.

Nonyelim said Afamefune and his colleagues had taken a break from their excursion to visit the Badagry beach. They all went on the picnic in the same school bus that brought them from campus. It was not clear if Afamefune joined the others to swim but he did not return with the team to their hotel. She said the police and local swimmers had mounted a search party for him.

My heart began to beat fast for I knew that Afamefune could not swim. Various thoughts started coursing through my mind. Could his friends have convinced him to go into the water with them? I had hardly ended my discussions with Nonyelim when I looked out the window and saw a group of people dashing toward the building, chanting, “The chair!” “We don win!” “Congratulations!” “Tune the radio!” “We don win!” “The people’s chair!”

Baffled and speechless, I stood and began to inch toward the front door. Before I could ask what was happening, they swept me off the floor and lifted me high to the loud applause of the burgeoning crowd. It was after they had put me down that the message began to sink in—I had won the case at the appeal tribunal which, as it were, was the final arbiter for local elections. My gaze swept the place. My staff had clustered around me. One of them came rushing happily from the inner room, clutching on to the transistor radio from the office.

“It’s here! It’s here! They’re still announcing it,” she screamed. In no time, a crowd of NLF party faithful and jubilant supporters had massed in front of the shop. I looked further up the street and saw more people streaming toward the building. For a moment I was befuddled. The crowd had started calling for drinks with which to celebrate the victory. If I allowed that, the entire shop would be shut down for the day. It would not do, too—my workers and I were still battling with preparations for the Lagos fashion show.

I managed to quieten the gathering and thanked them for their support and affection. I requested that they all proceed to my house for entertainment. I shuttled back into the shop and asked my staff to continue with their work, while I returned to the house with Amuebie to host the people.

I got home and noticed that canopies and chairs were being offloaded from a brown Mercedes truck. When I asked to know from whom they came and for what purpose, I was told they were from Barrister Okwuamaka. Although I had always taken time to ensure my surroundings were kept tidy, the Barrister had also mobilized a few boys to further clean up the premises and dust up the white building.

A few minutes after they started setting up the canopies and chairs in front of the house, the Barrsiter arrived and walked straight into the house, beaming with smiles.

“Congratulations, madam. I told you, didn’t I?” he said.

I marveled at the clarity of his voice and looked wonderingly at his parted hair. His white shirt and dark suit glittered like angelic garments. A profound admiration of his professionalism began to well in me. I tried to put up a smile and jokingly waved him aside.

“You lawyers and your ways,” I said.

But the momentary excitement quickly withered away as dreadful images of Afamefune began to loom large in my mind.

“This is my turf, madam. I’ve never lost an election petition. If I miss it at the court of first instance, I sure won’t miss it at the higher courts.”

“So how did you do it?”

“Haaa, you want me to reveal the secrets of my trade? No way, madam. It is mystery that confers mastery.”

“Ehh?”

“But, Mummy, honestly speaking, this was more of an inexplicable stroke of fate than the profundity of my professionalism,” he said.

“Ok na, Rotimi Williams or is it Gani Fawehinmi I should call you? Just try to reduce your grammar a little so I can understand what you’re saying.”

Barrister Okwuamaka smiled and took the seat next to one of the book shelves. “It’s OK, madam. But simply call me Ken Okwuamaka.”

“So, what really happened? How did they arrive at that judgement?”

“Hmmm. Let’s continue to thank God, madam. You remember we had called for a repeat or validation of the cancelled polls in Ubo?”

“Ehen, that was one of the reasons I didn’t show much interest in the whole thing. I just didn’t have the strength for another round of elections.”

Barrister Okwuamaka explained that the judge asked to know the total number of registered voters in Ubo, and the margin of difference between the votes across the local government area that were validly credited to Chief Asikabu Awuta of DPA and the votes validly credited to me and my NLF. He wanted to establish whether the difference between the votes of the two candidates was such as would render meaningless a repeat election. That is to say, if the election was repeated and every person in Ubo eventually voted for me, would it change the lead of Chief Awuta?

The Barrister disclosed that it was in the process of reconciling the figures it was discovered that some of the votes cast for me in some of the villages were fraudulently credited to Chief Awuta at the collation centers. After the whole votes had been correctly computed, it became clear that I had secured such a wide lead that if the entire Ubo votes were given to Chief Asikabu Awuta, he still would not equal my votes.

“Unbelievable. It’s only God that could have done that. My dear, let’s give God all the glory,” I said.

“I guess you should begin to prepare for the swearing-in ceremony,” Barrister Okwuamaka said.

“So quick? When is it coming up?”

“I don’t know yet. It’s at the earliest convenience of the governor. You know the ceremony will hold at the governor’s office. I’ll find out from the secretary to government.”

“I hope they’ll give enough notice to enable us prepare and also tell our people.”

“Of course they’ll put it in the media. But going by the ruling of the judge, you must be sworn in alongside the other newly elected chairmen. I hear it might come up within the next seven days.”

“What! A week? That would mean on or before next Friday. I’m supposed to be in Lagos on that day for an exhibition.”

“Wow. That’s going to be a problem. It means you’ll have to forego one for the other.”

I reclined on the chair and began to tap my leg, for inasmuch as I was delighted by my soon-to-be status as council chairperson, the red carpet show in Lagos was also a once in a lifetime opportunity to showcase USMAN & LABARAN before the world. More importantly, I had started planning of proceeding to Lagos the next day if nothing positive was heard about Afamefune before dawn.

“Is it possible for the governor to reschedule the swearing-in ceremony,” I asked.

“Hmmm, I doubt that very much.”

Barrister Okwuamaka said that the governor’s schedule of engagements was pre-arranged by the protocol department according to the priorities of his office. They could only adjust the items if there was an overwhelmingly compelling reason to so do. He glanced at me and grinned. “Madam, I doubt if the demands of your private business would fall into that category.”

I frowned and looked away. “This is not good at all.”

He repositioned himself on the chair and adjusted his trouser belt. “Cheer up, ma. This is a day you’re supposed to be happy. Let’s leave your swearing-in for now, after all, the date has not been fixed. We’re simply speculating. We only have to pray it’s not scheduled for Friday.”

We both rose to join the huge crowd already drinking and dancing in front of the house. As we emerged from the building, Barrister Okwuamaka began to sway to the song, ‘Dibia Na Uka’ by Ozoemenem Ayaka Nsugbe that was booming from the speakers. I raised both hands to wave at the crowd, as they roared with shouts of the ‘The chair!’ ‘The chair!’ ‘The honorable!’

All through the occasion, I tried to conceal my disillusionment. The thought of missing out on the Lagos pageant continued to bother me. As far as I was concerned, the fashion show would be a glorious consummation of all that USMAN & LABARAN had come to represent.

But even more disturbing was the uncertainty over the fate of Afamefune. Although I had tried to keep the information to myself as I did not want to panic the crowds converged at the house, it was clear that the victory song would turn to ashes in my mouth if the police went ahead to officially declare him missing.

Twenty-three

I woke up quite early in the morning of Wednesday and began to prepare to leave for Lagos. But Amuebie and Nkiru came up with a different opinion. They suggested I should not be too panicky about Afamefune, particularly when we had a major state event to attend on that day. They rather advised that we first go for the swearing-in ceremony in government house and, thereafter, if we still did not hear from Afamefune, we could all then depart for Lagos.

I did not know what would be the consequences of missing out on the swearing-in exercise. But I must confess that my desperation to go in search of my only son clearly overwhelmed whatever consideration I may have had for the new chairmanship office. Even though I eventually succumbed to the advice of Amuebie and Nkiru, the enthusiasm that had captured my imagination for the swearing-in event was virtually gone. I tried to prepare for the occasion dressed in a black skirt suit, white shirt and black hat.

“Mummy, you’re looking more like a bank manager than a politician o! Hiaaa!” Amuebie remarked, apparently trying to lighten my mood.

“My dear, I’m a professional seamstress and not a politician. We’re the people they call technocrats in government,” I replied half-heartedly.

Ngwa nu. Today na today. Tell them,” she said, smiling.

The crowd that jammed my house that morning could only barely squeeze into the eight buses I rented and the two USMAN & LABARAN vehicles. It took a while appealing to those who could not make the trip to sit and wait under the canopies that were mounted in front of the house for the reception that would follow on my return from the swearing-in ceremony.

By nine I had arrived at the governor’s office. I had thought I would be among the earliest to get there but was amazed at the size of the crowd that had massed around the gate before my arrival. It made me wonder whether they had slept overnight at the gate. They sang and drummed in the heat of the sun as the cars of the eighteen newly-elected chairmen made their way into the precincts of power.

Whilst the other members of my team were asked to wait at the gate, we were directed to a nearby hall for accreditation. Nkiru and Amuebie were in the same vehicle with me. Officials of the governor’s office had said that the EXCO chambers, venue of the ceremony proper, could only take two supporters of each of the eighteen new chairmen.

My eyes moved across the sprawling white edifice around me. It reminded me of the palaces of Roman Empire. I could easily pick out the staff of the office from the visitors, for they sauntered about with an air of authority. Even the greenery on either side of the pathways breathed out the cadences of power. No wonder these men are reluctant to leave office at the end of their tenure.

I alighted from the vehicle and was ushered into the hallowed chambers of the executive council by a female protocol officer. But that was not until I had been screened by security officials at the entrance of the white mansion.

I walked into the EXCO chambers and was taken to the seat that had been reserved for me; it was the fifth in the line of eighteen black leather chairs that were set opposite the high table. A thick red rug crested with the national coat of arms stretched from the high table to my location.

I observed that the sitting positions of the new chairmen had been serialized in alphabetical order of the councils, while officials of government shone in their heavy agbadas and suits at the high table. Amuebie and Nkiru were asked to join the other guests seated on the row of chairs behind the new chairmen. While Amuebie glanced excitedly about the place, Nkiru was somewhat inscrutable. I imagined that her mind, just like mine, was still fixed on Afamefune. Or she probably was yet to come to terms with the momentous occasion. She simply sat and, in her characteristic way, folded her arms and gazed at the spectacle.

The atmosphere was absorbing. I struggled to keep my nerves. Soon, the director of protocol announced the arrival of the governor. The hall rose as the chief executive walked in with majestic sway from an inner door to the red seat at the center of the high table.

Shortly after the national anthem and opening prayers, the protocol officer began to read out the names of the new chairmen. My heart was now beating hard. The tension had begun to get to me. In spite of the cool breeze from the giant air conditioners in the hall, blobs of sweat had started gathering on my forehead.

After a while, we were called up to subscribe to the prescribed oaths of office. I managed to keep my leg from buckling as I walked to the microphone. Holding up the Bible, I tried to steady my voice. “I, Amina Udoka Ndukwe, do solemnly swear. . .”

The governor in his speech admonished the new council helmsmen to explore ways to generate revenue internally, instead of relying always on monthly allocations from the federation account. He congratulated me on being the first female chairman of my local government council and said it was encouraging to see more women take up positions of responsibility in the public service. He advised that I endeavor to justify the confidence reposed in me.

At the end of the ceremony, I was pleasantly surprised that the local government council had positioned a female police orderly and a chauffeur-driven Toyota Camry to take me to the council. It was my official car as chairman of the council. As the tall, uniformed officer opened the back door of the car for me to enter, she put her right hand on her forehead and saluted.

“Good afternoon, madam. I’m Sergeant Deborah.”

I got in the car with Nkiru, and asked Amuebie to join the vehicle that had brought us three to the governor’s office.

In less than an hour we had arrived at the council secretariat for a brief familiarization exercise. There were about three white bungalows and a long, yellow building of pre-fabricated offices in the fenced premises. My office was in-between the other two bungalows, with the pathway to the building hedged by freshly trimmed grasses and flowers.

A thick lemon fragrance suffused the narrow corridor to the office of the receptionist. She was a middle-aged, fair-skinned lady in gray blouse and brown wrapper who was not quick enough to conceal the can of air freshener she had just put to use.

I was introduced to the various officers and heads of departments that would constitute the core of my administration. As I sat on the red swivel chair and glanced across the conference table, I saw a staff of USMAN & LABARAN walk into the office. She gazed excitedly at me. Then her eyes swept across the place. She hurried to Amuebie and began to whisper to her. Amuebie nodded, smiled and headed for my seat.

Afamefune had called. He said he left his colleagues at the beach because they were pestering him to join them in swimming. He had gone to visit a friend at his Badagry family house. “Praise the Lord,” I yelled. “Amen,” the house chorused. They apparently assumed my acclamation was in celebration of the occasion. I, beckoned on Amuebie to quietly return to her seat, knowing that only God could have made all this possible. After the customary felicities, I looked up and asked the house to stand for prayers.

* * * * *

“No, no, no, this is complete irresponsibility on your part. How could you have put everbody in such panic? You couldn’t tell me, you couldn’t tell Nonye, you couldn’t tell anybody where you were. Mba nu, this is totally unacceptable, Afam.”

“Mummy, it’s OK na. I know I should have called to tell you…but you know how these things are…I thought I’d return to school that same day but my friend said we should sleep over.”

“Please let this be the last time you’ll put up that kind of reckless behavior. I’m very angry with you, Afam.”

“I’m sorry, Mummy.”

“It’s all right. So, what have you had for breakfast?”

“Rice and dodo…Ehen! Mummy, when are you coming in?”

“I believe we should be there before five in the evening. I thought we would have left earlier this morning but the hangover from yesterday’s swearing-in has been something else.”

“Hmmm, I hear say the groove no be here o.”

“What did you expect, my dear. In fact, they didn’t begin to leave the house until they saw we had run out of drinks.”

“Wow, I can imagine so. Ok then, we’ll be waiting for you at the lobby of the hotel.”

“No, just walk up to the receptionist and tell her you’re from me. I’ve already told them you’re part of my advance team.”

“You sure they’ll allow us into the room? They say these Federal Palace people are very strict o.”

“It’s OK, dear. I already spoke with them this morning. Go in and make yourselves comfortable. Just ensure you sign all the bills for your food and drinks.”

“Great! We’re leaving for the place right away,”

“How is Nonye?”

“She’s fine. We agreed to meet at her hostel from where we’ll leave for the hotel. Ehen! Mummy, I hear you now have a police orderly that goes around with you in your official car. Is she coming to Lagos with you, too?”

“Of course, we’re all coming. Amuebie, Nkiru, the orderly . . . everybody.”

“Hmmmm . . . and please tell Amuebie to bring some of her wedding cards along. I want to invite a few of my friends.”

“Oh oh! I doubt if those cards are still available. It’s all right. I’ll ask them to issue more invitation letters from the office.”

“From the office? OK, the cards are distributed from USMAN & LABARAN.”

“No, my son. I mean the council, the official letters from the local government council. Afam, your mother is a local government chairperson.”

“O yeaaaaaah! That’s my Maama. Can’t wait to paint Ubo red on that day. And tell them o, na better oha soup and pounded yam I go eat that day o. Not all those rice upon rice they’re always serving at ceremonies.”

“Not Ubo, it’s Akeh. It’s only the traditional marriage that’ll hold at Ubo. The white wedding is at Akeh.”

“Akeh?”

“Yes, dear. The official residence of the council chairman. The reception will come up at the council hall, after the church service at Akeh cathedral. Never mind, you’ll see plenty of your oha soup and pounded yam to eat on that day.”

“Hmmmm . . . see levels! Mummy you don turn Aristo be dat o.”

“Which one una dey call Aristo again? There’s nothing you

people won’t learn in that Unilag.”

“Aristo be say you don become big madam na. Arrhh, Mummy, you don hammer o.”

I smiled and made to drop the phone.

“Naughty boy. Abeg go read your book. Shall speak with you later.”

* * * * *

Later, by eleven in the morning of that Thursday, I had set out for Lagos. I left in a convoy of four vehicles, comprising the Toyota Hiace bus and Hilux pickup from USMAN & LABARAN, and the two official cars, the Camry and the backup Corolla. Apart from me and the police orderly, Amuebie, Nkiru, Esther and five other staff of USMAN & LABARAN made up the entourage. The boxes of clothes for the exhibition were loaded in the Hilux and a large part of the bus.

As the vehicles glided to a halt at some traffic holdup and petrol stations, I would smile at the sight of the numerous roadside hawkers that clustered around the convoy with their wares hollering, “USMAN & LABARAN, make una buy banana,”

“We get cold water o, USMAN & LABARAN,” “Fanta and Coca-Cola dey here o.”

It was a scene when we eventually got to Ore and drove into one of the lines of restaurants. “USMAN & LABARAN!” echoed all over the place as canvassers of the various eating joints besieged our entourage for patronage. Tears streamed down my face as I recalled how far I had come since the escape from Maiduguri.

By six in the evening we had arrived the Federal Palace Hotel on Ahmadu Bello Way, Victoria Island. Afamefune and Nonyelim had stepped out of the hotel rooms to welcome us at the reception. They dashed gleefully out of the lobby on sighting the entourage. Amuebie and the crew stuck their heads out the windows, waving and screaming in joy as the vehicles pulled in. The usually serene and cosy ambience of the premises momentarily became agog with the flush of greetings and camaraderie that followed.

They had started off-loading our luggage when it became obvious that we would need additional rooms to accommodate the large delegation. But this time I would have to take responsibility for the extra bill. I called the receptionist and asked for three additional rooms, to be charged to my account, but they said they had no more spaces—all their rooms had been fully booked.

I began to wonder how to accommodate the team. The problem was not the possibility of finding an alternative hotel to stay—there were a couple of guest houses within the neighborhood, though not of same grade as the Federal Palace. The issue was that I would need my workers to be around so we all could do some rehearsals later that evening.

“Mummy, I think they can drop the clothes here with us while they find accommodation in nearby hotels,” Amuebie said.

“Sure.”

“At least they have the Hilux and the bus. They’ll return later in the evening and go back to their hotel after we’re done for the day,” she said.

“It’s OK. I guess that’s the only option we have.”

I asked Amuebie, Nkiru and Esther to stay back at the hotel together with Afamefune and Nonyelim, while Deborah, the police orderly, would take the other people to any nearby hotel. I called the receptionist to know the average cost of hotels within the area and gave the money to the orderly.

They had not been gone ten minutes when I got a call from my head of personnel management at the local government council in Akeh. He said he had just finished conferring with other senior officers of the council and they had realized it would not be advisable for me to attend the fashion pageant.

“What!” I screamed on the phone.

“Sorry, the Chair, but the Public Service Act forbids you to run a business outfit while in office as council chairperson,” he said.

“How do you mean, Mr. Iwunor? Why didn’t you tell me this before I left the village and traveled all the way to Lagos?”

“Sorry, madam. When you told me you were going for a fashion show in Lagos I thought you were going as an invited guest. I didn’t know you were a participant. When I also spoke with your son, Afamefune, he said you were invited as a special guest.”

“So, what am I supposed to do now?”

“I’m sorry, ma,”

“This is not a question of being sorry. What are we going to do? Are you suggesting we return to Ubo without getting involved in the exercise?”

“I’m sorry, madam, but that appears to be the case.”

“You’re not serious. You can’t be serious. Do you know what it has cost people to put this together?”

“Sorry, Chair. It’s just that if you go ahead with it, your political opponents might take it up against you. They’ll say you’ve violated your oath of office. You were expected to have withdrawn from every other employment.”

“Why didn’t you say so? Why didn’t you tell me this all this while? Is that how you civil servants are?”

My children stood and stared in shock. They watched as I banged the phone and jumped out of the chair. I knew this was big trouble. My heart began to thump. It would be a disaster to pull out of the show now. I wouldn’t also want to go ahead with it and fall foul of the law, more so, in these early days of my assuming office.

Amuebie suggested that she could lead the team to the show, while I monitored proceedings from the sidelines. Her opinion sounded reasonable all right, but I did not only want to be properly guided, I just could not accept the fact that, when it mattered most, my entire efforts only boiled down to a miserably marginal involvement. I remembered Barrister Okwuamaka and asked Amuebie to quickly put a call across to him. She tried his line but it was not connecting. I must contact him to get a credible legal opinion before the next morning when we were scheduled to depart for the venue of the ceremony at Eko Hotel. I wondered whether to continue with preparations for the exercise or stay action until I got confirmation of my eligibility.

“Mummy, let’s just continue with our arrangements however it turns out,” Amuebie said.

“And all that effort will be wasted if they say we can’t be part of it,” Afamefune said and walked dejectedly to sit on the sofa opposite me.

Nonyelim was already sulking in a corner of the room. “Chai! You mean all the sleepless nights you’ve put into this thing na for nothing?” she said.

Afamefune held his chin and gazed at the floor in deep reflection. Then he turned to me. “I think Amuebie is right. Let’s continue with what we’re doing. We’re already here. If they say we can’t be part of it, we pack our things and leave in the morning,” he said.

Although the group led by the police orderly returned later to meet me at the hotel, the rehearsals were not done with the enthusiasm that had propelled preparations for the ceremony; my observations and corrections were half-hearted. When they eventually dispersed to their hotel, I could not get myself to sleep. I practically kept night vigil, wondering what would happen the next day.

* * * * *

I did not rise at my usual early hours. I was niggling in bed over the turn of fortune when Amuebie stepped into the room and said that Barrister Okwuamaka was on the line. I got out of bed and walked gloomily to the living room. It was ten in the morning. I peeped through the window and saw that the other fashion houses invited for the ceremony had all departed for the venue of the event.

“How are you, Ken?”

“I’m fine, ma. Sorry the lines here were down for most of yesterday night.”

“It’s OK.”

“Amuebie told me what has been happening.”

“Na so we see am o, my dear.”

“No, no, no. Mba nu. Please get your things together and go to the place.”

My mood began to come alive again. “How do you mean? Are you saying we can participate in the program?”

“Of course, yes. All you need to do is make them to introduce Amuebie as the chief executive and proprietor of USMAN & LABARAN, while they introduce you as founder of the business.”

“Are you serious?” I asked and turned toward Amuebie with a broad smile on my face.

“Yes, ma. Get her to sign all the relevant documents and also receive whatever they’re giving to the company. She should stand as head of USMAN & LABARAN. We’ll formalize the company incorporation when you return.”

“Fantastic.”

I thanked him for his counsel and quickly called out our team for movement. We were already running against time. In twenty minutes we had arrived Eko Hotel and, as we strode into the banquet hall, ‘I Don’t Wanna Cry’ by Mariah Carey oozed from the acoustics, while a ray of colors from the klieg lights beamed across the hall in supreme flourish. The aroma of exotic wines and perfumes hung in the chilled air as the glitterati of Lagos high society strolled around the place. Their suits clung to their bodies like movie stars, they swaggered in different shades of agbada, and glittered in their gele, buba and aso oke as though they all were groomed by the best of Yoruba ancestry.

For the first time, I met the Mrs. Bolanle Savage I had been communicating with on phone. Fair-skin, slim and tall, she wore a purple skirt suit atop a pink shirt. Her contact lens a shade lighter than the brown strokes on her eyelid. But we were in for a shocker. I almost fainted when the event manager said that accreditation had closed and the program had long started; the order of appearance on the runway could not be disrupted at that stage. She sympathized with us and said she was sure we would be invited to the program the following year.

Sorrowfully, we went back to our hotels to prepare for a return journey home. Uptill the following day my head ached as though it was pummeled with a hammer. And from Lagos back to Akeh I virtually drifted in a pool of despair.

* * * * *

We arrived Ubo the next day and, in spite of the Lagos disappointment, began to prepare for the wedding of Amuebie and Barrister Okwuamaka. My spirit was coming alive again. The traditional marriage held a week later, after which all attention focused on the Christian wedding scheduled to hold at Akeh. The ceremony had become the rave of the moment across the local government. Two days after the traditional, I returned to my official quarters at Akeh.

The governor had indicated he would attend the ceremony, if an earlier-scheduled engagement in Abuja did not hold. Otherwise, he would send his deputy to represent him on the occasion. My political associates, the council chairmen, and some of the acquaintances I made in Lagos, including the wife of Dr. Usman, had all promised to be there. Although Senator Ibezim was still outside the country, he phoned in to congratulate me on my successes and promised to send a representative to the ceremony.

I woke by five on the day of the wedding and began to prepare for the event, which was to commence by ten in the morning at St. Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral in the heart of town. The wife of Dr. Usman had arrived town the previous evening with Aisha her daughter and, after they had spent some time with me and my children, I lodged them in the official guest house of the council.

As we all departed the residence that morning in a long convoy—I was dressed in a purple blouse and a wrapper of the same orange colour as my head tie—I scanned the council hall that would serve as the venue of the reception with satisfaction. RELISH EVENT MANAGERS—invited from the neighboring Delta State to decorate the venue and take charge of entertainments—had already swung into action. Balloons, ribbons and flowers dotted the entrance of the council hall, while plates, pots, and glasses of various hues were being discharged from their big truck.

Further away from them, the band of Oliver de Coque discharged musical instruments from a big white bus with the logo of the group boldly inscribed on it. I nodded and smiled as we drove past, knowing that Barrister Okwuamaka must have arranged all that. The smiles became broader when I looked up at the sky and saw the eastern sun begin to glow. I could not have asked for a better weather.

We got to the church and I was about heading into the building when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned and there stood Father Akaduchi. His square face had added a little more flesh. But still his old self. Confident and calm . He made the sign of the cross.

“I’m not happy with you, Madam USMAN & LABARAN.”

“Oh, Father. Where’ve you been?”

“You’ve forgotten me. That’s why you didn’t invite me to this ceremony. I almost said I won’t come when I heard about it.”

I gazed at him, embarrassed and bewildered. “Impossible! I personally signed your invitation letter. We didn’t know exactly which parish you were now so I told them to submit it at the diocesan headquarter, believing it’d get to you. Oh no, I’m truly sorry, Father.”

“Bless you,” he said and gave a reassuring smile. “It’s OK, madam. It didn’t get to me but I can understand. Never mind, we will all meet at the reception so we can chat some more. I don’t need to ask if you’re doing well. All glory to God. Aha! Yes, lest I forget, please always keep an eye on Afamefune and try to be prayerful over him.”

“Thanks, sir. Thank you, Father.”

Shortly after I left the priest, Mr. Ibeto walked up to me in his leisurely style. “Congrats, the Chair,” he said.

“Wow, Mr. Ibeto, long time. Thanks. Hope you doing good.”

“We thank God, madam. I go come see you for office o.”

“Any time, dear. Feel free to come, the council office is for everyone. I hope you’re in touch with the senator?”

Ibeto pulled closer to me, his pot belly almost shoving me off balance. “Madam, forget that man. He is finished. He has nothing to offer now. He’s been edged out of the scheme of things,” he whispered.

I cringed and glared at him. “Haba! Mr. Ibeto, you don’t say a thing like that. Wetin! Try also to remember all the good things he had been doing. The fact that Senator Ibezim is out of power does not mean the end of the world for him.”

“The Chair, this is politics. Those your moral talks don’t count in this game o. Na you dey reign now. Abeg, I dey come take my blessings from you next week.”

I shook my head and strode away from him. I stepped into the church and took a seat at the left side of the front row reserved for family members of the bride and groom. The front section of the right side was reserved for the governor and other officials of government. After a while, one of the Reverend Fathers stepped up to the altar and called the church to order; service was about to start.

Ken and his family sat at the far end of the left side. In his gray suit over a burgundy shirt, he projected a refreshing image in sharp departure from his regular black suit over a white shirt.

I glanced across the empty pews reserved for the governor and his personal aides and began to wonder if the number one citizen of the state would still grace the occasion.

Chiefs Ikuku and Edordu had stayed away from the Ubo ceremony, but I looked further behind me and saw them seated in their long white shirts and gray trousers. While Ikuku’s eyes roamed curiously about the place, I couldn’t confirm if Edordu was beginning to doze off. I hadn’t seen him in a while; the creases had virtually drooped over his eyes.

Chief Abala may have finally succeeded in convincing them to attend the ceremony, I mused. Or, perhaps they had come just to honor the father of Barrister Okwuamaka, who was Chief Ikuku’s old schoolmate. Although I did not preclude the idea that they also may have come to disrupt the ceremony, I was confident they would be swiftly subdued by the retinue of armed security men that hung around the place.

Nkiru, Mrs Usman, Aisha, Afamefune, Nonyelim and their friends were seated behind me. Afamefune leaned forward and, glancing at the commissioners, council chairmen and other top government functionaries that were already present, asked with a frown what was keeping the governor from coming. I could see that he and Nonyelim were disheartened. His broad eyes were getting moist. I had overheard them the previous day boasting to their friends that the governor would appear in person at their sister’s wedding ceremony.

I remembered that the governor had said he might be attending some other compelling state engagements. Although he had promised that his deputy might come to represent him, the deputy himself was yet to arrive. Given that his presence may not be as fulfilling as that of the number one citizen, his air would have helped to lighten the disappointment that was beginning to show on the faces of my children.

Suddenly I heard a squeal from the angle Chiefs Edordu and Ikuku were seated, or so I thought. I swung my gaze toward that area. Ikuku was looking agitated and bitter. He stood and began to hurry toward the major entrance of the church. Edordu was still seated. He shot a backward glance at Ikuku and turned to glare at the floor. It struck me that Ikuku was up to something sinister. He was about to create a scene.

Then the sound of sirens began to filter into the church. Ikuku stopped abruptly in his tracks and fixed a look at the entrance. As the blare of the siren grew louder, all heads turned toward the windows to behold the dignitary that was arriving. Protocol officers began to stomp about the place.

I shuddered when two fiery-looking men in dark goggles brushed past me and moved toward the seat reserved for the governor. They got there and stood inflexibly, one on each side. People were still not sure if it was the governor that was coming, knowing that his deputy moved also with those same paraphernalia of office, but there was suppressed excitement in the church. Ikuku gradually began to return to his seat. The thought came to me that he probably was going out to ease himself.

As the congregation rose for the opening hymn, I looked toward the back of the aisle and saw the governor approach gracefully in his gray suit over a white shirt. Afamefune grinned and clenched his fist in triumph.

I began to tremble with joy—joy and contentment as I had never before experienced swept over my heart as the service began. And, when Amuebie eventually stood at the altar, dressed in her dazzling white gown, to say “I do,” I knew that, of a truth, God could not have been more merciful.

The End

Kraftgriots

Also in the series (FICTION) (continued)

Victor Akande: A Palace for the Slave (2010)

E.L. Agukwe: A Tale of Trioubaz (2011)

Chris Okonta: Trampled Rose (2011)

Bolade Bamidele: Wits Battle of Awareness (2011)

Sam Omatseye: The Crocodile Girl (2011)

Ozioma Izuora: Scavengers’ Orgy (2011)

Ozioma Izuora: Merchants of Flesh (2011)

Vincent Egbuson: Zhero (2011)

Ibrahim Buhari: A Quiet Revolutionary (2012)

Onyekachi Peter Onuoha: Idara (2012)

Akeem Adebiyi: The Negative Courage (2012)

Onyekachi Peter Onuoha: Moonlight Lady (2012)

Onyekachi Peter Onuoha: Idara (2012)

Akeem Adebiyi: The Negative Courage (2012)

Onyekachi Peter Onuoha: Moonlight Lady (2012)

Temitope Obasa: Strokes of Life (2012)

Chigbo Nnoli: Save the Dream (2012)

Florence Attamah-Abenemi: A Bouquet of Regrets (2013)

Ikechukwu Emmanuel Asika: Tamara (2013)

Aire Oboh: Branded Fugitives (2013)

Emmanuel Esemedafe: The Schooldays of Edore (2013)

Abubakar Gimba: Footprints (2013)

Emmanuel C.S. Ojukwu: Sunset for Mr Dobromir (2013)

Million John: Amongst the Survivors (2013)

Onyekachi Peter Onuoha: My Father Lied (2013)

Razinat T. Mohammed: Habiba (2013)

Onyekachi Peter Onuoha: The Scream of Ola (2013)

Oluwakemi Omowaire: Dead Roses (2013)

Chidubem Iweka: So Bright a Darkness (2014)

Asabe K. Usman: Destinies of Life (2014)

Stan-Collins Ubaka: A Cry of Innocence (2014)

Data Osa Don-Pedro: Behind the Mask (2014)

Stanley Ekwugha: Your Heart My Home (2014)

Yemi Ajagbe: The Triumph of Childhood Trials (2014)

Ndubuisi George: Woes of Ikenga (2014)

Nwanneka Obioma Nwala: Wives on the Cross (2014)

Ebere Ezike: The Housemaid (2014)

Emmanuel C. S. Ojukwu: A Whiff of Kahara (2014)

Bizuum Yadok: King of the Jungle (2014)

Onyekachi Peter Onuoha: The Fears of Mama (2014)

Ikenna Nwadike: The Holy Heist (2014)

Chukwu Adindu: Destined Not to Arrive (2015)

rome aboh: above the rubble (2015)

Terhemba Shija: The Siege, the Saga (2015)

Deborah Oluniran: Ewa (2015)

Emmanuel Iwuno: The Broken Path (2015)

Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa: The Port Harcourt Volunteer (2015)

Onyekachi Peter Onucha: Identity (2015)

Gloria Ernest-Samuel: Iheoma My Dear (2016)

Diekara Oloruntoba-Oju: When Lemons Grow on Orange Trees (2016)

Clement Chukwuka Idegwu: Right to Be Angry (2016)

Emmanuel C.S. Ojukwu: Sugarcane Receipts (2016)

Ibe Ifeanyi: The Urashi Conquest (2016)

Phil Ngozi Nwoko: Dancing with the Ostrich (2016)

Aoiri Obaigbo: The Wretched Billionaire (2016)

Kaase Fyanka: The Golden Sword of Dragon (2016)

Data Osa Don-Pedro: I am Somebody (2016)

Liwhu Betiang: The Rape of Hope (2016)

Jerry Alagbaoso: Officers and Men (2016)

Lola Akande: What it Takes (2016)

Jude Ud: Preye’s College Experience (2016)

Zainab Alkali: Invisible Borders (2016)

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