2016. I am civil war.
The first gun roars on the New Year. On its eve, I leave Amarachi Attamah’s house and travel back to be with family for the celebration. This woman keeps calling my phone, says she’s Joe’s wife. Her voice is bad news. I see your number all over my husband’s call log, she yells. I tell her to call back, the noise inside the bus will not let me hear her. She cuts without saying ok, I think of what to tell her to make things ok. But if what she wants is battle. I don’t have battle to give.
Joe is tall and dark and wears handsomeness like a part of his body. The night we saw, he was sitting behind the steering wheel, his darkness marinating with the dark. Our chatter was measured. He was in the east for a big court case. We both had big things to eat off our individual busy plates. I turned and entered the house. He drove off with his talkative friend. That talkative friend gave him my number, got it from my friend, Amarachi. When I call Joe’s wife later, I tell her exactly this. I hide the part where Joe tells me to leave my teaching job in Awka, come to him in Abuja and take this banking job; how Joe tells me he wants to be with me forever, how Joe talks about her like she is a bad language, how we chat all day, exchange edited pictures.
“Your husband is just a casual friend,” I say. But there is nothing casual about the way I close my eyes and hug my pillow while looking at Joe’s pictures, knowing I turn down his advances because they were words said over the phone, knowing that saying no to him will wear a new complexity were he looking into my eyes, holding my hands, were he standing few feet from me. Joe works with EFCC in Abuja, and counts his visits to the east. “Your husband is just a casual friend,” I say again.
“You bloody liar” she says. She will show me she is Hausa, she will use many means to chase me all through life for sleeping with her husband, she says. Her husband told her how ugly I am and how disturbed I am that he is not in my life, that he is not mine exactly. This is where I laugh and tell her to fuck off. I have got a new year to celebrate.
I would write this on my Facebook wall. My friends say, “don’t mind her. The problem of woman is woman.” But I think women are like two ants in a bottle. Men know how to shake this bottle for the ants to collide.
As 2016 grows teeth, Awka quits reflecting a ghost-land. As schools, offices and ministries open, I have academic records and diary and register to fill in British Spring College, Awka where I teach. Lesson notes to write, slides to prepare, and stories gnawing at me to be written. I am becoming antisocial too. My emotion is an oxymoron. I like this person today, the next day I start having objections, withdraw, cut off. It was how I sent Nnamdi a long text. I forgot the days Nnamdi pinned me on his bed, my thighs circling his hips, my heart melting because here was a man who knew what to do with my body. In the text, I wrote in capital letters, said he should pick his romantic leftovers in my life and just go. He would come back on my birthday and sponsor a mini-party for my birthday, his way of knowing if I am ready. He leaves for good when he doesn’t see signs. I hear he is married now. He is an only son, needs a son too.
I spend 60% percent of my salary on books from AMAB. Yet, I rarely read as much as I should. I buy the books for their smells. Life is from workplace, British Spring College, to the postgraduate class in Nnamdi Azikiwe University. When I come home, it is to breathe less. And read school books. Work is no longer letting Microsoft Word glow at my face. Work is walking from one class to the other, shouting the definition of noun, showing how to write better essays, marking these essays. UD-XY writes beautiful essays. His mother is creative too, the way she substituted Udochukwu with Ud and adds the male chromosome to his nickname. The boy once wrote about fulfilment, compares it with numbers, satisfaction is the way figures stand complete, un-fragmented, from one to the last, not bothered about the depth of the next or of the previous. Humans should do same, like figures, understand there are different times for our needs to be met. There’s time for everyone. It should never be about money or something like that. The sky is as vast as a blank page, and like every figure, every human will enter because every human matter.
My childhood friend, Sandra Adibe, had just been given a million naira by the Anambra State Government along with other people who bagged First class honours from the university. She would fly out of Nigeria to study for her Master’s degree. She has a fine fiancé. Family looks at me, shakes head, watches me with third eyes like I’m heading for a jump at the bridge. I am just a plain chick who couldn’t keep up with her relationships, whose highest successes include almost nothing. My seventy thousand naira teaching job pummels me. My effort-intensive postgraduate classes and assignments and thesis have become a rather ugly shadow swearing to bury me. Nothing I write seems good enough for anything. I hate my luck, hate myself, tear my hair. I am beginning to think the coffin will be a better resting place than my bed; freed from the thought of thinking how to breathe, how to constantly breathe.
In Awka, we lived in an estate near Government House. I exchanged novels with this dark girl with endowed bosom whose jarring opinions bit my tongue as I searched for more sardonic comebacks. Once my only sister made this snide remark in her presence, she fiercely said, “Of course familiarity breeds contempt”, her eyes darting with anger. And when I had written and read my first poetry in an Anti-Aids symposium, had hemmed my ego with people’s compliments, she said, that’s really not poetry, said I had simply picked words from the dictionary and experimentally placed them side by side. I was young and withdrawn. She was in an all-girls’ Unity school in Onitsha. During Ezinwanne’s wedding, we were both her bridesmaids, and Ezinwanne, wearing a short brown sequin dress, pulled her both ears and said her other bridesmaids shouldn’t beat us down, we should represent, we are her main babes in this Awka. Sandra bought her sandals before me. She hid it, waited till I got mine before I could see hers. We grew in that, enemies in the same camp.
Our mothers flavoured our cold fights. “Just look at the Sandra you grew with, see how well she has done for herself, see her first class, see there is a man to marry her now.”
My father would tell my mother, “Chinyere, no.”
My mum reopens talk on marriage. Ebele and Chiagozie and all the girls in our country have married. She says a woman doesn’t stay alone. Like stars, she stands with her army. I tell her stars stand with fellow stars, I search for mine.
“A woman doesn’t search. If you can stop talking to men like they are boys, they will go on bended knees.”
My goal in 2016 should be to capture a man. She spreads the news. My father’s friend sends his friend to our house, to sample me. His eyes are yellowish like he starves in some concentration camp. There is something about his leanness that reminds of a thin pawpaw tree. He works in the Ministry of Power, says he has uninterrupted power supply in the home he built with his own hands. I nod and tell him I don’t know my genotype when he asks. We will go and check, he says, we will get into his four wheel drive and go check. I eye him and walk to my room and know my parents will frown when I tell them the man should never darken our door again.
I go to work on most Saturdays because of visiting days or meetings or trainings or special classes. On Sundays, I insist I must cook. This day, I cook egusi and semo. My father calls me, asks me if Tony’s wife is around.
I nod and head to the balcony to get my slippers when he says ‘wear slippers’.
‘Now, go to their flat, tell Tony’s wife to give you more bags of salt, add the bags to the one your mother has. Pour everything into this soup. Shebi you want to eat salt–soup?’
I cook for weeks after that experience. I read. I write. I delete. I read. I write. I send. And magazine-editors reply with well manicured paragraphs about how I should not give up writing. I forget to enjoy the quest of writing, of having stories to tell, of having the means and the zeal and the urge to tell them. I wanted the validation.
I cook again. This time, it’s jollof rice. I take my time, use my mother’s recipe, time the food accurately, bless the food, serve and get into my room. My father calls.
“Is there water in the tank, Nne?”
“Yes Daddy. You want more water?”
“Not exactly, I was wondering why the rice is raw, if maybe there is not enough water to parboil it.”
That is going to be the end of my cooking. But I get one more push. I boil yam. The yam turns out exceedingly soft. My father says Nne, if you knew you were going to pound the yam, you should have simply cooked garri instead of wasting time to boil yam that will end up as pounded yam.
It’s July. BSC vacates. On the day the students leave, my class boys and girls cluster my table. All of them, so happy and alluringly beautiful in their dry-cleaned blue shirt and ash skirt or trouser. They are asking what I will get for them when school resumes. They tell me what they will get for me. Amarachi Madueke says she will get me heels, says she loves the way I strut in heels. Nneka will get me a handbag from America; she is going there for summer. Victor promises to get better in his essay. I don’t see Ud-XY. He plays somewhere; he does that too much, I worry. I had spent the term working so hard to deliver that I forgot they are not parcels. I didn’t see, didn’t acknowledge the emotions on their faces. My preoccupation was their success, and not the process.
It’s a one month holiday. I ditch my thesis, travel to Enugu State. We think of an event literary enough to bring books-lovers, yet social enough to accommodate non-readers. Amarachi and I, we plan it, hold hands through it, share the ideas, laugh and laugh, love; our friendship, the energy drink you take for the stimulation. First month in August, we use Ofu Obi, a very artistic event centre with traditional lodges. I am the compere. It’s resplendent. People come. People perform beautifully. We discuss feminism. Ogunna and Nze don’t like the feminist movement. We argue and opposing fires spark. So many sophist analyses. I get pissed. Ogunna calls me feisty and other adjectives I refuse to own, spoils my day.
In the days that followed, I do more writing, less running, less crying, more longing. I want to feel what it means to clinch a prize for something I have written, to have a publishing company fall from their heels. That same period, Rextun Publishing Company approaches me for a book contract. In love with it that first day, I negotiate the idea. Afterwards, I ignore their e-mails. I am a cloud blueing for rain only to whiten with the first droplets.
In September, a big stupid storm comes. It’s what happens when your head doesn’t speak with your heart. I wear bass and thickness where gentility and softness should be. And push everyone off my cliff. School resumes, everyone suddenly succeeds in climbing on my neck. I take them with that brashness. First, it’s the Social Studies teacher whom I presume, because he is new, should know his place. But no, he has told himself that anybody without a penis isn’t fit to be respected. My mouth works like the claws of ten lions—digging deeper pains into victims. Not good for me, yet I don’t know how to tame it. The Igbo teacher comes next, threatens to report my friend for not giving her the scripts she’s supposed to collect herself. I try to make her see sense. But she wears anger as amulet, throws it at me. My mouth follows her. She cries like I swallowed her best child, claims she’s Mary and tells colleagues I am Monster. Colleagues tell her mad things, “You don’t know that Chioma?” Trouble! They come to me, “You don’t know that Nwada?” Stupid!
Emeka, one of the school’s Heads of Departments, comes. After following me to Enugu during the holiday and learning my no to his advances is a sincere no, tells himself he can get me grovelling. He tries. Sends problems like rain. I solve some, some stain me. I don’t stay sane. One evening prep, he comes to my class. I am marking scripts. My students were spending the short break in the class. They were reading, and the class was quiet. Emeka walks into the class carrying a rickety chair. He touches one of my boys and tells him something I can’t hear from where I sit. When the boy comes and says Ma, Mr Emeka said I should exchange your chair with this one.’ I look at the boy, and say nothing. He stands there till I gesture him to go and sit down. Emeka comes to where I sit and speedily, like he has been waiting for this moment, pushes me off my chair, leaves the rickety chair behind and walks away with my chair. I stand up, run to him. I slap him, take my chair back and ask my students to lock the classroom’s door. I spot him from my classroom’s window as his mouth works in the School Administrator’s office. Two hours later, I will receive a letter. I have been suspended. I bundle my belongings.
Everyone that hears of my experience in BSC is telling me these things happen because big something is coming. Is it rapture, I ask? In 1999, church people said big something is coming the next year; 2000. They called it Rapture. Only church people would develop wings and fly into the sky
I am the egg that doesn’t know how it will go home; by oil or by water. Two days after suspension, I don’t sleep. I don’t eat. I lock myself in my room and cry. I take the kitchen knife and stare at it, cry more because I am such a coward for not being able to try again. I had swallowed rat poison once, the second time a man forced himself on me, now that is another story.
My mother calls her pastor. He says I need deliverance, never stopped saying to me, you slapped a man? You mean you raised your hands and slapped a man? A whole man? The story spreads like it’s diesel. Friends call. Foes call.
I tell my mother my fear of not becoming anything. She says the rain will come. My aunt tells me live for the present and spread the wings still. I read. I want to know, want to write about the war and how children lived during the war. I have read of women; how these women bathed their sick children, combed these sick children’s receding hair, fought to feed these dying children, buried them; children with swollen stomachs and big heads. How these women were raped, how they prayed and how they compromised. I have read of men too. They fought. Faced the enemies with guns and stones and just words and ogbunigwe and armoured cars created out of void. I have smelled the relics and the paraphernalia of the war: the starvation, the abandonment, the miseries. I want to read something a child could read. I go to Lagos for further research at CRIMMD Free Library.
I discard my involvedness, nurture an escapist view of life while eschewing from normalcy. There’s something to prove. It’s November and whenever I remember Sandra is coming back to Nigeria with her master’s degree, I abandon the Biafran manuscript and go back to my thesis. My topic is Female Dependence in African Fiction. I grew up in the east where being a made-woman is synonymous with living off a moneyed man. I want to find out why we are the way we are. But in thesis writing, it doesn’t work like that. This is how it works: your submissions must align with what a certain scholar or professor has written in a certain journal. And it must be a journal; international journals are rated higher. You should also preen for contrary opinions from another gamut of oeuvres plausibly written by differing scholars and professors. These professors employ a theoretical framework which you must know and criticize after breaking down their highly adorned majestic titles and vocabularies. I am to know the names behind all the shades of feminism; they have been able to categorize feminism till there are many kinds, like trees in a forest: Marxist feminism, social feminism, liberal feminism, care-focused feminism, postcolonial feminism, ecofeminism, postmodern feminism, psychoanalytic feminism, spiritual feminism etc. There are Nigerian women shades too: womanism, Stiwanism, Snail Sense feminism, Women for change feminism, wife not cook feminism, etc feminism. My primary texts are: We Need New Names, The Fishermen and Woman at Point Zero. And my research must be culled from the works done by these professors. Unfortunately, some of these professors hear We Need New Names and think it is a new hip-hop album dropped by Davido, or Wizkid; mainstream artistes they wave off like their contribution to the Nigerian economy is on the same par with the widow’s mite. My supervisor had said exactly this, stating fixedly, without blinking that I include a more serious work, something as serious as Things Fall Apart.
A course-mate calls me one day saying, “This is hard. This is so hard.” I ask her if she’s crying. She says no. I hear her sobs. I work till I get sapped, till I have forgotten why I need this degree, then I go back to writing the manuscript. When I come on Facebook, and read how my Facebook friends are becoming the salts of the world, I turn into a spider scavenging the web for opportunities. Once I see, I abandon thesis and manuscript to write and submit a hurried story. Of course I get snubbed. Of course I get depressed. I run round this circle for a long time. I have since left Lagos because I am working on starting a poetry and performing art school in Awka, somewhere children can learn more than what they learn in school. It runs on Saturdays. I apply for grants too, to make the school as big as my dream. I get snubbed. I die.
I don’t know when exactly I carried my head in my hand and asked it to stay calm, to do all it can, but stay calm. Maybe when I started acknowledging the smiles on the faces of my new students and my aunt’s children: the way one year old Nubu says ‘danku’ even when given little, the way Bundom speaks English with Igbo accent, the way Okem protects them, says he is still their adult whenever I remind him he is only six. The way all of them eat food, not worrying the next time another will come, but knowing another will come. These things and more—more being every moment I live—make me fulfilled, make me count my losses and label them a climbed rung in my success ladder.
Because life is no war. Because in all our accumulations, nobody goes home with a country. In the cemetery, there is no victor, no vanquisher. I want to bring back those days of novels and innocence with Sandra when we sat and talked of boys and laughed sincerely about our crushes, about our mutual silliness; when we didn’t know who was more; who had nkali. Isn’t life supposed to be a field where only fulfilment is harvested, no matter what? It is for our being. And to define being as the ability to have and have excess is to kill the need for hope and existence. No part of us is worth killing before we die. If today we get all we hope for, tomorrow we would only live to hope for what? Yet, we always want something. ✚
Ezeano is an alumnus of Purple Hibiscus Trust. She was recently featured in the 56th issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern.