THE WIFE I NEVER MARRIED – GRACE OCHIGBO
The journey is beginning to get endless for Laibe, sitting almost off the seat with this old and torn at the sides ‘Ghana must go’ bag firmly held to her chest in the rickety, once white now the colour of dry clay, Peugeot 504 that had already become filled with dust from the untarred road leading out of Ofabo.
Her eyes looked stoned from eagerness, or was it anxiety?
She came down some minutes ago to bring a fairly huge stone from the bush just beside the road. The stone was almost becoming unbearable for her to carry because her fingers were shivering and that made her weaker at the ankles so much so that she almost fell over with it when her legs stepped on a slippery grass. She decided to hold it more firmly to herself but this time the poor stone was dragging for movement space with her flowery flare over-sized gown and her legs. It didn’t go well in her head that the large stone, after laying drenched in the red mud for God knows how long, was altering the cleanliness of her most cherished dress. She bought this dress at Ofabo central market four years ago with the little profit she made from sales of garri- some sort of flakes made from cassava flour. That day was so memorable for her because it was her first attempt at buying clothes aside that it was also her first time of having a new dress anytime earlier than December.
Was it even December? Not just December but Christmas.
Her Christmas clothes, for all she’s been aware of, were always sent down by her aunty- her father’s younger sister- who lives in Ankpa, or better still who lives ‘in the city’ as her aged grandfather would always say. Aunty Udale also sends alongside a medium-sized bag of rice and two three-litre cans of groundnut oil, especially any year she wasn’t ready to come home herself. Grandfather told her that her aunty works as a nurse in the Ankpa Local Government Area General hospital and hence very busy most of the times.
Laibe had been eagerly, yet silently awaiting this trip for over a week now. It sounded like the best thing that could happen to her in a lifetime when her aunty mentioned ‘taking her away from the village soon’, the last Christmas they all had together. Though Laibe has never been given any opportunities or options to choose from, she definitely knew she would jump at any chance to leave Ofabo, the place of her birth and the village of her growing up for the very first time ever. That was why she went under her mother’s bamboo bed to look for this bag she is holding firmly to her chest now. It was what her mother came to the house with, over a decade ago, after marriage and the poor bag has since then been tied carefully and kept in a place ‘out of children’s reach’ according to her mother. It took Laibe almost an hour to bring it out when she finally did, partly because underneath the bed was so dark and dusty.
Of course, it would be.
Virtually no one was permitted to look for anything there except her mother who used to clean the place up once in a blue moon; maybe days she is just recovering from malaria, as that has been the only known thing potent enough to stop her from going about her business of selling cooked food at the market square, or days she needed to use one of those ‘special’ plates she also hid carefully in the same place.
Unlike the houses of her friends’ mothers, there was no cupboard in her mother’s hut. In fact, the hut was built in such a way that two rooms were narrowly carved out of it. By narrowly, it means that an average size woman would not conveniently pass through the entrance door without turning through her sides. The thatch roof over the hut started leaking some months ago and there has been no money to fix it yet so it’s always a muddy house whenever it rains, regardless of the white paint bucket placed underneath the area of leakage.
Yesterday afternoon, Laibe was happy when she finally laid her hands on the black nylon in which her mother told her the ‘Ghana must go’ bag was tied. She went out to bring in her clothes, the three special ones amongst them. Her friends, Ebi and Umali, told her three days earlier that only educated rich men live in Ankpa. They further told her not to carry any of the rags she wore as clothes there, so no one would think she was a mad girl. She compulsorily took out time yesterday, even though it was market day and she had made garri in anticipation as usual, she needed much more than anything else to wash her ‘travelling’ clothes. The weather contemplated remaining sunny or raining from the morning she washed so the clothes were not completely dried. It was her third time of going out to the line and rubbing the back of her palm lightly against the clothes to check if they were fully dried or not but this time, she concluded she would pack them in, no matter what.
“Mà chè gbè mè kocho”, she convinced herself that the clothes were already dried when she saw the clouds gathering more intensely. She didn’t take chances of letting the rain beat her clothes. Not then. Not when her journey was the next day. It was when she attempted pushing in the semi-dried clothes into the bag that she noticed the large hole at the bottom. There must be a rat somewhere around, enjoying some feasting festivals from this precious bag kept under the bed for so-called ‘safety’. She checked everywhere around the house in vain; she remembered having a needle and thread sometimes ago when she needed to sew back a part of one of her dresses that got stuck with the handle of the wheelbarrow in which she convey her garri to the market. The handle tore the dress at her stomach level and all through that day at the market she sold with her slightly bulging navel popping out through the hole. She felt really embarrassed. The women must not see her like this, especially the older women who knew her mother, father and grandfather, else they would start gossiping amongst themselves that she has also joined the other group of ladies that Ebilì, who is the devil, infiltrated and degraded into wearing clothes that exposed all their bodies. Thankfully, she managed with her sales throughout, without anyone getting to see her bulging navel. Maybe it wasn’t noticed because she was a little too short so much so that the height of the bowl containing the cone-shape arranged garri on the table, swallowed up almost all of her height. That’s alongside the fact that her sunburnt skin colour was like that of light clay which fortunately blended perfectly with the torn part of the dress. She was thankful anyways, bearing in mind she must get a needle and thread on her way back home from the little profit made that day, no matter what. The place she eventually bought the needle and thread was the same point she turned in the market with her wheelbarrow on her way home two years earlier and heard an Igbo man screaming and persuading customers to come buy imported clothes. The clothes of different forms and sizes were laid on a sack that was torn and joined to form perfect carpeting on the red mud ground. Laibe bent down to select from the attractive ones she saw, picked about three different types to show the very tall trader with potbelly. The average aged man, having a dense Igbo intonation said one of the dresses was for two hundred naira, the remaining two were a hundred and fifty naira each. She looked at the money in her hand while calculating the consequences of buying any or all of the dresses and her wise brains eventually admonished her to go with one of the two that was for a hundred and fifty naira instead. That was how she bought her first-ever dress with her hard earned money, the same she is wearing today.
Meanwhile, non-living things, she believed, had their ways of hiding whenever you are in dear need of using them and that was exactly what the needle and thread did to her. She had to run out to Ebi’s house but unfortunately the fat dark girl didn’t have what Laibe was looking for. Laibe later got it at Umali’s house anyway. Well, what she actually got was a needle that appeared to be almost rusting and few strands of thread. Half bread to her was better than none right there as she hurried back home with her bare feet dipping deep into the red mud and the shallow flowing water on the grassy foot path. The three of them, she and her friends that is, though born in different months, are of same age and formed a kind of unbreakable triad; very famous in the village. It had rained some minutes earlier, almost immediately after she got into Ebi’s house so she waited for it to mellow down before leaving for Umali’s. The clouds weren’t still satisfied and the faster she ran, the better her chances of getting into her house would be, before the threatening rain would pour, but she wasn’t lucky after all. The rain caught her and beat her mercilessly down the whole length of the road. She even slipped somewhere while running but got up immediately and continued again.
Her drive was from within.
She was feeling happy, feeling grateful, feeling fulfilled already. None of the out turns of event were potent enough to put her down right there. Not when her long awaited journey to Ankpa was finally here. She noticed she had lost some strands of the thread when she slipped on her way home and with the remaining left, she partly patched wherever she could on the bag. So long as her clothes won’t get to drop down on the way, moreover, her aunty should come pick up her in a car tomorrow.
The night felt so unusually long and she couldn’t sleep continuously for an hour without jerking up to a sound only her seem to be hearing. Some hours before dawn, she couldn’t shut her eyes anymore while waiting anxiously for the cock in their neighbourhood to signify day break. When it finally did, she already had her bath and gotten ready. She was careful not to stain herself while getting the fire from her neighbour’s thatch-proofed kitchen to use. After gathering the few fire woods around and fanning the coals, she got fire kindled in her own kitchen as well, before placing the pot that served as frying pan- with back as completely dark as the colour of coal tar- on the three stones that formed the pot-stand. She needed to pour red oil in the pot and fry akara for her grandfather, alongside boil some water for ‘akamu’. Akara are cakes made from beans flour while akamu is the pap she usually made from millet corn. Baba, as everyone calls her grandfather, likes it whenever she prepared this great recipe for him as breakfast. For the old man, it felt like crushing down a Chinese recipe in a 5-star hotel once in a while because that’s exactly how the meal comes to him; once in a while. Laibe his granddaughter doesn’t prepare this all the time. Apart from the fact that she does this anytime she gets some money enough to fund the ingredients needed, she will also always do it anytime she is in a very elated mood as he observed in times past.
“Ójó àbènè ómàmì”, the old man prayed that God would keep her as Laibe came over to pick the plates her grandfather just finished eating from. He started, as she always expect whenever he eats to his fill, his endless rounds of showering prayers of blessings on her again and again this morning. The prayers were so intense that they both didn’t hear a car drive into the space in front of their house till a voice came at the entrance door.
Laibe’s heart leaped for joy when she was asked to bring her bag into the car. She hugged her grandfather tightly, seeing the old man was at the brink of tears. They’ve had this conversation over and over again. At this point she must leave nonetheless. Though she wishes to go say proper farewell to her two friends as well before leaving, the hasty pressure made her reel off that idea. The girls planned coming over to see her off but they can’t leave their parents homes this early, definitely. Well, Baba would do the narrating and give the explanations on her behalf when they eventually show up, she thought, taking her seat at the back of the car just as the journey was about to begin.
“Tàné wà” Ocholi told her to come down again. He struggled hard to finally bring the car to a halt somewhere beside the road this time before stepping down and opening the car’s engine for the fourth time today. It was a wise decision they had put that heavy stone, she went to bring the other time, in the trunk just perhaps the car broke down much later.
And yeah! It just did.
Ocholi went over to the trunk, opened it, lifted up the stone that would be serving as wedge for the second time and placed it underneath the front tire.
Laibe looked around; the road was too lonely and deserted. The son of one of their village chiefs became a very senior special adviser to the state governor in the last administration and the young man decided to serve the people of his fatherland by linking a road through his village into Enugu. This way, civilisation would come and business growth could be empowered. She remembered the screams and dances in their local church when the elder taking the church announcements that Sunday announced that huge amounts of money has been released by their illustrious son to sponsor the project which was to last for maximum of eight months. It’s been a year and two months today since the contractors started the work and stopped midway and as if that was not enough, the road that was said to be tarred is getting to disassemble within the space of just six months. Laibe heard the men who sat to take palm wine at the market square saying sometimes ago that contractors always eat up the bulk of the money released for any massive project and deliver a job that is not up to two percent of what was budgeted.
That was quite true. And of course, she had plans, massive ones at that.
Even though it practically dashed all her hopes; she had envisaged being able to carry her sweet and soft garri to sell as far as Enugu, which would then become lesser than two hours drive from Ofabo, and getting extremely rich in the process. She also envisaged being able to do all she had ever dreamt of doing all her life but the contractors, who didn’t deliver what they were meant to deliver, dashed it all- the hopes and aspirations of a poor thirteen year old amongst others.
She looked down the whole length of the empty road in front of her. Here seem like a road in the valley of the shadow of death; no human in sight, no animal as well, except the chirpings of the birds and squirrels in the thick forest flanking the side walls of the road. Ocholi had used a stone to hit the engine over and over again to no avail and even if she wanted, she cannot push this car all by herself. Thoughts popped within her as Ocholi wiped off the sweat dripping down his forehead with the back of his dirty palm. He turned to look at her tiredly but she bent her head to avoid eye contact with him and just then she saw the red mud stains from the heavy stone that added to her already multiple-coloured dress.
Ankpa, as her friends who had been there over and over explained, was to take barely forty five minutes’ drive from the village but Ocholi and her had spent the last two hours of the morning on this road.
Was her decision wrong now?
Or were her grandfather’s words true?
When would she finally get to the Ankpa of her dreams?
She dragged in a much needed calming breath and held it.
To be continued next Tuesday,