I woke up to the sound of my mother calling my name. She was shouting my name with a sense of urgency. I wiped the sleep from my eyes, trying to imagine what could have riled her so early in the morning. In my short fourteen years, I have learnt to identify the tone of my mother’s voice. I could tell that she was getting more impatient as she called my name a second and third time. I also sensed she was displeased about something. I would have to get up otherwise she would come into my room and drag me up herself. Then she would pull my ears and our confrontation would be much worse. I scrambled out of bed, put my feet into my slippers and tied a wrapper around myself to cover my nightgown. Three months ago, my mother had warned me not to step out of my room without covering up. I slipped out of the room and closed the door quietly without waking my younger sister.
I walked through the corridor separating my room from the kitchen towards the sound of mother’s voice. Immediately I walked past our living room, I knew why she sounded agitated. We had some early morning visitors. Three of our relatives had come from the village. They must have left the village the day before and arrived in Lagos with the overnight bus. I wondered what they had come for this time. Visitors from the village never brought good news. The last time we had unwelcome guests from the village, they came to tell us our grandfather was dying, and father had to foot a huge hospital bill. They stayed for three days eating everything in sight. And when they were leaving, father had to give them back their transport fare. I didn’t understand why our custom dictated that we should entertain unwelcome visitors and give them money for their transportation. After all, we hadn’t invited them.
Mother was stirring something on the cooker when I stepped into the kitchen. She looked to me like she had lost more weight in the past week. Her once plump cheeks were gone and in their place were just her high cheekbones. She had stopped smiling or laughing a long time ago. Her long hair was tied back and hidden under a black scarf. She had been wearing that scarf for more than three months now. I imagined the scarf was tired of being tied around her head. She turned to me as I greeted her.
“Good morning ma.”
“Ah Tope, you are awake. Your father’s relatives are here. Go and greet them and come back to help me with breakfast.”
This was what I got for being the first child and daughter in the family, I mused as I walked back into the living room. My sister was still asleep even though she went to bed earlier than I did. I had more responsibilities in the house than she did. She was three years younger me and everyone’s pet.
I entered the living room to greet the visitors. There was my uncle who was my father’s elder brother. He sat in the big armchair. My father’s aunt and another elderly woman I didn’t recognise were seated on the long sofa. There were three well-worn travel bags near the entrance to the living room as well as a bag full of foodstuff, suggesting to me that they planned to spend more than one afternoon. I tried to imagine how many days they would stay with the amount of luggage they had brought with them. I greeted them quickly but as I turned to leave, my uncle called out to me.
“Don’t you know how to greet your elders? You children of nowadays, because you are born in the city, you have forgotten our traditions and customs. Come back here and greet us properly!”
I hesitated for a second before turning back and going on my knees. I crawled round the room, greeting each of them in turn. My father’s aunt looked as if she was about to make a comment, but she changed her mind. After I had greeted the last person, I got up and waited for them to speak.
My father’s aunt spoke first. “Tope, come closer. You are too thin.”
I shook my head. “I’m okay ma.”
The elderly woman I didn’t recognise cleared her throat. “Tope, don’t you know me?”
I looked at her face intensely for a second before I spoke.
She looked shocked. “Tope? You don’t know who I am?”
My uncle spoke up. “You don’t know your father’s relatives anymore, you this girl. Go and call your mother for me.”
Then he spoke to the others in our native language as I left the room.
I walked back to the kitchen to call mother, wondering why relatives always seemed to make a big deal out of everything. All she had to do was tell me who she was. In the last three months, my sister and I had met many people claiming to be related to our father in one way or the other. We couldn’t keep up with all the names and faces after a while so we just smiled and greeted them politely.
Mother was cutting up a tuber of yam when I went back to the kitchen. “Mummy, uncle wants to speak with you.”
She frowned. “Is everything alright?”
I recounted what had happened in the living room to her. She shook her head sadly.“Please chop the onion and the tomatoes for me. Let me hear what they have to say now.”
She dropped the knife and the yam she was cutting. It looked to me like she had tears forming in her eyes again. I watched her as she wiped her hands on her wrapper and went to the living room. I picked up the knife, rinsed it in the sink and started cutting the onions and tomatoes. I did the tomatoes first because they were easier on my eyes. Then I cut the onions. They made my eyes water and I sniffed. I didn’t want to cry again. I knew I had to be strong for my mother and my sister’s sake. As I worked, my mind went back to the events that had been happening in our family since eight months ago.
I remembered mother coming home from work one evening, looking very happy and excited. She told me and my sister that she had important news to share during dinner when father got home. I hadn’t taken much notice at first, until my sister tried to guess what it was. We argued about what it could be and we narrowed it to two things: she had gotten the promotion she deserved at work or her brother had finally gotten his visa to the United States. When father came home, we told him about mother’s surprise news and our guesses. We were all taken by surprise when she announced at dinner that she was expecting a baby! We had stared at her with complete surprise, looking at mother’s face to see if she was joking or pulling our legs. But she wasn’t, she showed us a note from the hospital confirming her pregnancy and her next appointment. Father’s face displayed several emotions at the same time: there was shock, then joy, then pride. He got up and hugged mother tightly, something I had only seen him do once before. After we all calmed down, mother had told us that she knew that this baby would be a boy, that he would be a wonderful brother to us girls, and he would have dad’s nose and her eyes. We all laughed at this at the dinner table and as we lay in our beds that night, my sister and I had talked and imagined having a little brother. She grumbled a little about giving up her position as the baby of the family. But I knew that deep down, she was excited about the news and she was looking forward to having a younger person to fuss over.
My mind was brought back to the present when mother came back into the kitchen. She looked sad, with downcast eyes; lips pressed tight together and a stressed expression on her drawn face.
“Your father’s relatives say I’m a bad mother,” she said half to me and half to herself. “They think I’m not raising my children properly. When will I ever do anything right?” she leaned heavily against a wall.
I rinsed my hands and went to hug her. We seemed to be having this strange role-reversal scenarios a lot lately.
“Mother, please don’t get upset.”
“They said I don’t feed you well because you are thin. They said you are spoilt because you don’t know how to greet your elders,” she was crying softly now and her shoulders were shaking. “They said I am turning you against their family.”
“Mother, please stop crying. We know you are not turning us against them and we know you are not a bad mother.”
She stopped crying after a few minutes and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. I could feel a headache coming. I was tired of crying and I knew mother was tired of crying too. I went back to the stew I was making, stirring it slowly as I added the tomatoes and onions into the mixture.
I remembered mother coming back from her second appointment at the clinic to tell us that the doctor said he thought she was carrying twins. It was still a bit early to tell, but he booked her for a scan in three weeks time. She was excited as we all were. I had touched mother’s stomach in wonder, thinking of how big it was going to grow if it was true that she had two babies in there. Three weeks couldn’t come quickly enough. Father was especially excited. The day before mother had the scan, he decided he was going to take her to the hospital himself. Indeed, the scan had confirmed that mother was carrying twins and they were two boys! Father had been so proud of her. He had gone out and bought her two dresses the very next day. He commanded me and my sister to help out more with the chores in the house. He began to pay more attention to mother, asking her if she was hot, cold, tired, hungry or thirsty almost every ten minutes, much to the amusement of my sister. She had remarked that they looked like newly-weds the way dad was looking after her.
Mother’s voice brought me out of my reverie. “Please pay attention to what you are doing Tope. Don’t let the stew get burnt”.
We finished making the meal of boiled yams and fish stew and served it. While mother set the table for the guests, I went to wake my sister up. I peered into the living room as I walked past. My father’s aunt and the other woman were whispering together and pointing at something in the corner of our living room.
My sister was still sleeping soundly when I entered the bedroom.
“Bola wake up.” I said as I shook her.
She turned to me sleepily.“It’s early Tope, why are you disturbing me?”
“Daddy’s relatives are here again.”
She sat up when she heard that. “What do they want? Do they have any news?”
“I don’t know. Mum says you should get ready and come out for breakfast with them.”
“I won’t go out to see them.”
“Look, you must go out.”
She folded her arms and refused to move. I pulled her nightdress.“Do you not hear me? They have already made mother cry this morning.”
“They said she is not raising us well.”
“Stop asking me foolish questions. Just go to the living room, and make sure you kneel down to greet them properly.”
She looked at me and without speaking, it dawned on her that I had been given a hard time about kneeling down that morning already. She hurriedly put on her dressing gown, and we went to the bathroom to brush our teeth.
When we got into the living room, our visitors were seated at the dining table. I noticed that my uncle had taken father’s usual seat at the head of the table. The unknown woman sat next to him on his right, while my father’s aunt sat on his left. Mother served the meal and sat down next to father’s aunt. I sat between my mother and my sister. From where I sat, I could look outside the front window. I watched three of our neighbours leave their houses dressed up to begin their day. The parents were going to drop the children off at school, before going to work. I tried not to think of school. My classmates would be wondering why I wasn’t back in class since the beginning of the term.
Father’s aunt took a bite of the food and made a face.
“There is no pepper in this stew.” she said.
Mother got up to get some dried pepper for her from the kitchen. The rest of the meal passed slowly in silence. The only sound at the table was the sound of the cutlery against the plates. I thought about how different this setting was from what we used to have when father was around. We used to discuss and laugh during our meals. Mother used to tell us funny stories about work and her staff members, Bola and I would talk about school, father would tell us about the politics going on at his office. Now that seemed like a lifetime away.
When breakfast was over, my uncle announced he wanted to have a talk with mother. Bola and I cleared the table and went to the kitchen to do the dishes. We spoke in low tones while trying to listen to the conversation the adults were having in the living room.
“Why have they come again?” Bola asked me.
“I wish I knew,” I replied. “They came with luggage so that means they plan to stay for a while this time.”
“Where are they going to stay? We have only one guest room.”
“I hope mum doesn’t tell us to give up our room for those women or something like that.”
“I hope not! Do you know who that other woman is?” Bola said, piling the dishes into the sink “She looked like she’s older than uncle.”
“She asked me if I knew who she was, but she didn’t tell.”
“I don’t like her. She kept eyeing me during breakfast. I’m worried about this visit.”
“Well I’m not delighted either. I’m worried about mother.”
“Me too. Father used to protect her from his family members.”
“But father’s not here…” I trailed off, scrubbing one plate with too much vigour.
“When do you think we can go back to school?”
“Mother says she needs to sort some finances out before we can resume. Help me get the glasses from the table.”
Bola went to the living room to collect the glasses and came back to the kitchen in a flutter.
“I heard them talking about father!” Bola whispered. “Shhh… let’s listen.”
We moved close to the kitchen door and leaned on the wall separating us from the living room. We heard mother speaking:
“That’s easy for you to say. My children and I still believe he is alive.”
Another voice said: “We have to assume that he’s dead.”
“No! I can’t believe that.” That was mother’s voice again.
“Well the elders in the family have decided to begin the funeral arrangements.”
“How can you start arrangements for a burial when we have no body to bury? And….”
“Look, our wife, he’s been missing for more than three months” a voice that sounded like the unknown woman spoke up.
“I can’t give up on him just like that.”
“You have to move on. We all believe he’s dead now” That was the voice of my father’s aunt. “Since he disappeared, nobody knows his whereabouts and we have not heard from him. If he was still alive we would have heard from him by now.”
“The children and I believe he is still alive.” mother repeated.
My elderly uncle spoke up. “For how long will you continue to live like this? He’s dead, let his family bury him and …..”
Suddenly mother raised her voice and shouted:“I know what you are trying to do! You want to bury him so you can take our house and everything he has!”
My sister and I ran into the living room when we heard this. Mother turned to us and pulled us close to her.
Father’s aunt stood up, clutching her wrapper, and shouted back. “How dare you accuse us of trying to take our son’s possessions?”
“Why else would you declare him dead? What would you have to gain from his death?”
“We only want what belongs to our family.”
“But we are his family! I am his wife and these are his children!”
My uncle stood up and pointed at us. “You call yourselves his family? My brother has no heir.”
“What do you mean he has no heir?” mother was getting agitated now. “If he is dead, everything he has worked for will go to his children! I won’t let you take away my children’s inheritance!”
“Listen woman,” my uncle said. “You have no claim to my brother’s wealth. You did not produce a male child for our family.”
Mother froze in shock. My mouth was agape. I could not believe what I was hearing. My sister and I looked at each other and then at mother.
Then I heard Bola’s voice.“How can you say that? Are we not considered daddy’s children because we are girls?”
I wanted to speak but I couldn’t. Mother regained her voice and her composure after a few seconds. Then she spoke calmly and quietly.
“Please pack your bags and leave our home. You are not welcome here any more.”
“Are you chasing us away? From our son’s house?” my father’s aunt asked.
“Yes I am.” mother replied. “This is still my home and I can throw you out if I want to.”
“How dare you? You can’t send us out! This house is our son’s house!”
My father’s aunt and the other woman started shouting. They called mother some ugly names and threatened to deal with her. My uncle shook his head and started packing the bags. He spoke quickly in our language to the two elderly women and they hissed. Eventually he calmed them down enough and they turned to leave.
Father’s aunt said “We are going to have a burial soon whether you like it or not. We have already started making arrangements. And you won’t get away with the way you have treated us today.’’
“We’ll be back very soon,” the unknown woman said with another hiss and a snap of her fingers. “You will all leave this house by the time we finish with you.”
Mother held on to me and my sister. “I won’t let you ruin our lives even more. Please leave and never come back here.”
Uncle said, “You’ll soon hear from us again.”
They eventually left, talking loudly and heaving their bags as they left the compound. We watched them hail a taxi outside our gates. I turned to mother and looked at her face. She was breathing rapidly and she looked like she was shaking as she sat down on the long sofa. It was the first time I had seen her like this. In the past, my paternal uncles and aunties had been covertly horrible to my mother but she hadn’t reacted to their bullying for peace sake. Previously father’s presence stopped them from being openly nasty to her. Now father was gone, they probably felt that mother had nobody to defend her. I felt proud of her for standing up to my father’s relatives.
Bola sat down on the sofa and put her head on mother’s shoulder. I sat on the floor with my knees drawn up to my chin, and my back resting on the sofa. We stayed in that position for a long time, each person with their own thoughts. Everywhere was quiet until mother started speaking softly.
“Everything started going wrong after I had the miscarriage,” she said. “That was the turning point wasn’t it?”
I looked up at her and shook my head for her to stop speaking but she continued anyway.
“That was when he changed; he started to withdraw into himself. He stopped talking to me, he stopped caring about anything. He didn’t even notice that I was going through my own grief. I had dashed his hopes for a son.”
I knew what she was talking about even though I didn’t want to hear it again. Everything had happened so fast. One day I had been looking at mother’s rapidly growing belly and asking her if the babies were already kicking. The next evening, she had complained of slight stomach pains. By the morning, the pains in her belly had increased and father had rushed her to the hospital where she was admitted immediately. He had stayed by her side the whole time she was there; he only came home once to get some things to make her comfortable. Mother was discharged after two days and father brought her home. They told us mother had lost both babies, and the doctor said she needed plenty of rest. Bola and I were very sad to hear it, and we had cried for a long time.
Then about two weeks later, father disappeared. He just went to work one day and didn’t come back. We had prepared dinner and waited for him to arrive, but he didn’t come back home at his usual time. By the time it was eleven pm, we knew something was wrong. Father had never stayed out late after work before because we always had dinner together as a family. Mother and I had kept a look-out for him throughout the night. Bola stayed up until one am but she eventually fell asleep.
The next morning we didn’t know what to do, so we went to the police station to report him missing. After three days, we were getting more worried about what could have happened to him. Thoughts of attack by a group of armed robbers kept crossing my mind. We had waited for three weeks before telling our families about his disappearance. The situation worsened after that. Father’s family members had accused mother of so many things. They suspected she sent father away by making life unbearable for him, they speculated that he had gone to live with another woman since mother wasn’t making him happy or perhaps mother had even killed him herself! Mother had made herself sick with worry and all the trouble that she had been re-admitted into hospital again for another three days. She was on compassionate leave from work for a month and the doctor had reiterated that she needed to rest.
And now this: the family members threatening to take our house from us. It did not bear thinking. What would happen to us? Where would we live?
“Tunde where are you? Why did you leave us alone like this? Why is this happening?” mother sobbed. “Where will I go with my children? What will I do now?”
“Mummy please don’t cry any more.” Bola and I put our arms around mother’s shoulders even though tears were running down our faces too.
“Isn’t there anything we can do?”I asked her.
“I don’t know who I can run to. My own parents are dead, my brother depends on me for his own food and my aunt lives in the village. Who can I turn to?”
I hated seeing mother feeling so helpless. I started thinking about any possible solution to our situation. There had to be other people we could ask for assistance apart from family.
I asked her, “Mummy can’t we go to the police?”
“The police wouldn’t want to get involved because they will classify this as a family matter.”
I got up from the floor and sat down beside her.
“What about a lawyer?” I continued.
“Lawyers are so expensive,” mother answered. “I don’t know if I can afford one.”
“But we can’t just give up like this!” I wanted mother to think about solutions, not just the problems.
“Okay.” mother sighed and the room was silent for another moment.
Then she sat up and stopped crying.
“Listen girls,” she said. “You both witnessed what happened. Your father’s relatives want to strip us of our home.”
“What can we do?” I asked.
“Who can help us?” Bola asked.
“Let me think,” mother replied. “Maybe I should go and see my friend, Mrs Ajani. She is a lawyer and she can advise us.”
“Can we come with you?” we asked.
“I should call her office first to get an appointment,” mother replied. “It would be good if we could all go together.”
“Ok ma.” we replied.
While mother went to make the telephone call, Bola and I went to our bedroom to talk. “I pray we can get this lawyer to help us,” I said. “Otherwise….”
“What will happen to us then?” Bola said, looking confused.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Maybe we’ll have to stay with one of our relatives on mummy’s side in the village.”
“I don’t want to move to the village! How will we go to school?”
Just then, mother came into our room.
“Don’t worry girls; I have just spoken to the lawyer and there is hope.”
“What did she say?” I asked her.
“She said there has to be a way to protect us from being evicted from our home, in the event of your father’s death. She also asked me if your father had made a will.”
“What’s a will?” Bola asked.
“It’s a document that a person writes before they die, that explains how they want their wealth to be shared.”
“Did daddy leave a will?”
“I’m not sure. But the lawyer suggested that even if he didn’t leave a will, his wealth should go to his wife and children as immediate beneficiaries.”
“So she can help us?”
“Yes,” mother sighed with relief. “She said she’s busy today, but we can come and see her tomorrow.”
“Thank God!” Bola and I said.
“What I need to do now is to look through all your father’s documents and keep anything that looks important. Come with me and we’ll go through your dad’s files.”
For the rest of the afternoon, we sifted through father’s files, searching for any documents that would help our case with the lawyer. Mother found a lot of useful documents including their marriage certificate, father’s bank statements, contract letters, house deeds and employment records. She put them all in a file and set it aside to take with her to the lawyer’s office the next day.
Later in the evening, after we finished having dinner, mother went to the living room to watch the news on the television. I went to the kitchen to do the dishes, while Bola got out the broom to sweep the dining room. About three quarters of an hour later, we heard mother scream loudly. In a panic, I dropped my work and rushed into the living room to see mother clutching at her chest and half-kneeling on the floor staring at the television. I looked at it and caught the announcement. They were announcing my father’s obituary on the news.
I was in a daze. Mother was still screaming and Bola was too shocked to say anything. We all stared at the television until the announcement came to an end. Then we looked at each other. “Look at what your father’s relatives have done!” mother was about to start crying again. “Just look at that! They are really going to bury your father so they can carry out their wicked plans.”
“Don’t worry mummy” I said quickly. “We will go and see the lawyer tomorrow and we’ll explain everything to her.”
She wiped her eyes with the back of her hands.
“You know, I’m already tired of this,” she shook her head. “I just wish your father never left. I just wish I didn’t have to deal with all of this…”
Bola and I hugged our mother. “It’s going to be alright mummy; let’s go to bed now.”
We half pulled her into the room she used to share with father and sat her down on their bed. She was still mumbling to herself when we crept out of the room. We both finished our chores in silence each of us trying not to show our emotions. Afterwards we turned off the television and the lights leading to our bedroom and got into our beds. I stayed awake for a while thinking about everything that had happened. It had been a long, emotional and confusing day.
Early the next morning, we were jolted out of our sleep by the bell at the gate. I rushed out first and Bola followed close behind. We stopped in our tracks when we got close enough to gate to look out. Father was at the door, looking thinner than I remembered.
(c) TP 2007