A Tale of Two Women|Oluwadunsin Deinde-Sanya|Essay

A Tale of Two Women

 

Last year, my grandaunt died. She was living with some of my father’s cousins in a state far away from Western Nigeria but her corpse had to be brought here. To her home and her people.

 

On the night she died, we were sitting in the darkness our living room had become when we received the news. It was 10pm and the air was chilly. Little drops of water made the to to to sound on our roof and thunder ran to and fro the sky. My father, who we call Dede, sat on his special chair, his radio making that cracking sound radio stations make before the OAP who calls Twitter twirrar or twiddar begins to speak. My siblings were sprawled on the floor pressing their phones, and their gadgets splashed little rays of light on our butter-coloured walls. I sat at the corner, looking straight ahead, my knees raised to my chest and my arms wrapped around my body.

 

Dede’s ringtone interrupted the OAP’s voice and when he put off the radio to pick his call, my sisters and I let out a sigh of relief. Dede placed his phone on speaker, turned it sideways, its speaker hole directly beside his left ear. The caller’s voice was calm. Eerily calm. Like the petrifying silence before a storm. The caller sighed, and paused, and sighed again as Dede waited, with bated breath, for the news that’ll gush out of the speaker.

 

“Mama is gone, she just passed away”.

 

Dede sat upright and shouted, ehn, in his loudest voice. Then, nigbawo?. Then, ah ya ya ya ya.

 

My mother rushed from the room where she had already gone to sleep and stood right in front of him. My siblings, who no longer pressed their phones, got up from the floor, eagerly waiting for my father to end his call so they could get the latest gist, as though they did not hear everything the caller said.

 

He sighed deeply as he dropped his phone. At first, everywhere was silent, then he looked up to my mother and said, Mama Agba ti lo. She is gone. And my mother, as dramatic as she could be, clapped her hands and exclaimed ye, ahh, ooo.

 

There was silence.

 

I tilted my head to look at my father, It’s that woman who calls you every month. It’s not a question but my mother responded, Yes, she’s gone.

 

There was silence again.

 

_

 

 

In Nigeria, burial is a big deal. When the young die, we bow our heads, bending it deep into our chests, silent tears trickling down our faces, our wails sticking to the walls of our trachea. We angrily dig the ground, stripping the earth of its sand until its belly is large enough to eat the corpse. Then, silently, we move away from the grave, not looking back. By this time, our tracheas are open and the wails flow, like saliva dripping off a tongue that just ate Miango pepper. Iku ofo, the Yorubas call it. A wasted death.

 

But when the old die, we kill cows and fling canopies into the air. We place the coffin over the corpse-bearers’ shoulders and dance around the village. We caress their sleeping body dotingly, dig their graves with tenderness and slowly lower their corpses into it. It is a celebration of life.

 

At these burials, there is joy and a huge sense of fulfillment. Glasses of wine are clunk, songs are sung, stories are told, memories are shared.

 

Dede was still basking in these memories when he got home on the night of Mama Agba’s burial. Swinging lightly on his feet, his breath warm, his words a little slur, his face looking so happy, he sunk into the cushion and began to tell the story we have heard a million times.

 

She died happy. Mama… hiccups… lived a fulfilled… belches… life.

 

_

 

My father’s tough and highly-feared uncle, Baba Agba, married three wives. Mama Agba was the first and she was the ‘apple of her husband’s eyes’. What was supposed to be a monogamous marriage soon took a left turn when years after the wedding, she could not have a child. Expectedly, he married another woman. The second wife went on to have 8 children, but they were never hers.

 

For a couple who have spent many years searching for a child, the cries of a newly born baby was a welcome development. But a few days after the child was born, he was weaned from his mother’s arms and was found cradled in Mama Agba’s arms. In the coming weeks, the baby would be in Mama Agba’s room, on her back, sleeping in her bed, taking a stroll with her, or squashed between Mama Agba and Baba Agba as they stared into the baby’s eyes, happiness oozing out of them. The baby was only with his mother whenever it was time to feed. When the second child arrived – a girl, she spent long hours in her mother’s arms only because it took more milk to make her belly full. Then she spent longer hours with Mama Agba.

 

Then came the third, fourth, fifth, up until the eighth. The cycle continued and history repeated itself over and over again. There was a look-we-only-married-you-just-so-we-can-have-babies attitude towards the second wife and the know-your-place unspoken rule stood.

 

As the children were weaned off their mother’s breasts, they forgot who their biological mother was. So while they called Mama Agba ‘mummy’, they found another name for their own mother: Aunty Oloyan – the one who owns the breasts.

 

As the children grew, Mama Agba represented them at every function where they were required to bring in their mother and there was nothing pertaining to the children that could be done in her absence. This went on for years until one day when Amoke, the fourth child, stamped her feet on the ground and spat fire.

_

 

Mama used to kneel to greet her husband or serve his food.

 

Whenever Dede said this, his eyes would light up, wonder and awe dripping off his tongue. I’ve never understood the reason for such reverence. I still do not understand.

 

One day, when he said this again, he and I were in the living room arguing about the subjugation of women in marriages.

 

Even when he’s not there. He continued. She kneels when setting his food on the table and she does not get up until her husband finishes his meal.

 

Slavery? I said.

 

Not slavery, tradition. He said. A mark of love, care, respect and submission.

 

“How is remaining on your knees until your husband finishes his meal a sign of respect or care? If you love and respect your wife, why would you watch her kneel while you eat?”

 

It is tradition. Culture. A man is above his wife, what’s wrong with her kneeling for him?

 

I scoffed. Couldn’t be me.

 

 

_

 

I never admired Mama Agba, but I always thought her strong. I thought it took a level of… heartlessness, mean-spiritedness? to watch your co-wife be subjugated in many ways, to rob her of her god-given role as a mother, claim her biological position and win her children over to your side. I had assumed that Aunty Oloyan was the weak wife. I believed it took a certain level of submissiveness (the word in my mind is docility and weakness, but I don’t want to be judgemental) to watch your children being stripped off your arms, watch them call another mummy and box you into the role of a milk supplier. But my assumption, in itself, is me being judgy of women I had never met. Because in my bid to state which of the women was bad or good or strong or docile, I had failed to consider that perhaps they were both victims of a society that places the burden of subservience on women. There is no strength in kneeling while your husband eats neither is there strength in being just a milk provider. But these women did it anyway. They probably saw nothing wrong in it, after all, there’s a way society grooms women to dance to their husband’s every tune, look up to him for everything and accept everything he dishes out to them – as long as they stay married.

 

It was my mother who changed my perception of Aunty Oloyan.

 

Ah, she wasn’t o, she was fire. She never did all those kneeling down rubbish or calling her husband ‘sir’. She stood up to him and talked back at him.

 

I had pictured a woman who cowered when her husband stood and blushed furiously when he untied her wrapper and parted her legs at night. I was wrong. She was the ‘rude and disrespectful’ wife.

 

It was she who looked straight into her husband’s eyes while he talked, served his food without her knees brushing the floor, and went out of the house without his permission. It was she who when one day, her husband slapped her hard across her face, she raised her hand and tried to slap him in return, but had barely touched his face when her hand went limp and it never became normal again.

 

Rumour has it that Baba Agba had serious jazz.

 

Another thing I failed to consider is that the women probably loved the roles they played in raising the children. Perhaps Mama Agba was more nurturing and the children naturally gravitated towards her? Maybe Aunty Oloyan cared less about who raised the kids as long as they were all well and healthy? Or maybe she felt it would be lovely especially since Mama Agba had no biological kids of her own? I’d never know. Still, I do not want to see this from my lens alone and judge a family based on my perception on what should or shouldn’t be.

 

_

 

On the day Amoke spat fire, she did so in the presence of her in-laws-to-be.

 

Her older sister was to get married and customarily, a date for the family introduction was to be set. While talking to the family of the groom, Baba Agba said “the mother of the bride travelled and we have to wait for her to come back before we can set the date for the introduction.” Ironically, Aunty Oloyan was around and it was Mama Agba who had travelled. Amoke, who had, for a long time, watched her mother remain a second-fiddle in the home, got up and insisted that her mother was around and the introduction date could be set.

 

For many minutes, the room was cloaked in silence and Baba Agba was stunned. How dare her? But that was when the whole story changed.

 

Since then, nothing pertaining to the children was done without their mother around. Although the name, Aunty Oloyan, stuck, there was a shift in the way the children saw their mother. A new level of respect and perhaps love.

 

Amoke ate the intestines of her mother.

 

When Dede said this, I was amused. Amoke is his favourite cousin, and this leaves me astonished. Sometimes I do not know where he stands. On one hand, he strongly admires the woman who kneels for her husband. On the other hand, he deeply loves his cousin who stands up to her father, looks him straight in his eyes and insists that her mother is her mother.

 

_

 

When I talk about the relegation of women in marriages, I remember the tale of these two women and the many God forbids I say whenever the story is being told. But it is a slippery slope for me. Years after Baba Agba died and long before Mama Agba died, she and Aunty Oloyan lived happily and peacefully.

 

I do not know if I am being hypocritical, but one thing I know is that many of these women whose stories make me tap my fingers, roll my hand over my head… once… twice and say tufiakwa, end up living well, at least in their own way. I saw the way the children took care of these mothers, the way they rallied around them and gave them the best they could.

 

Today, my father is still smiling. He still has that awe-struck look when he talks about Mama Agba. I think I understand why: submission and subservience is sweet when you are the one who doesn’t have to do it. When it is you other people kneel to. When you have the liberty to order people around as though you were talking to your pets. If these “traditional roles” were switched, men who hold on to them would be swift to agree that it is silly. A woman does not have to worship you or belittle herself to prove her love to you.

 

Let me be frank, I don’t admire these women, but who cares? Their children love and admire them. Their stories are told, not from a point of disgust but of approbation, honour and love, and isn’t that what matters the most?

 

Photo by Nilay Ramoliya from Pexels

BIO

Oluwadunsin Deinde-Sanya is a Writer from Lagos, Nigeria. She is a Content Associate at BellaNaija and most of her works can be found there. Her essays have been featured in Barren Magazine, The Kalahari Review, The Naked Convos, and others. She loves love, God, dogs, books and blues.

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