By Emmanuel Onyedi Wingate (Nigeria)
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Biography - Emmanuel Onyedi Wingate
Nigerian born Emmanuel Onyedi Wingate is the author of three published novels: Memoirs of Jezebel; Captive of Love; and The Reunion, a children’s novel.
He was joint-winner: 2005 ANA/Imo Children’s Literature Prize, for The Reunion, and was first runner-up: 2006 ANA/Imo Prose Prize, receiving honourable mention for Captive Of Love, which has been serialized in the Saturday Vanguard. Major Nigerian educational publisher, Africana First Publishers, Onitsha, has accepted Onukwughaa, a novel written in his native Ibo language, for publication. He is currently of the Faculty of Law, University of Nigeria.
There was an infectious excitement spreading about No 112 Ojukwu Avenue Bungalow of Chief Agu Okoro. From the moment Ukala, Chief’s driver, blared the horns of Chief’s Honda Jeep, the house became a flurry of activity. Musa, the gateman, swung the heavy gates open. Etim, the houseboy rushed out, his bathroom slippers slapping the pavement.
“Oga welcome,” Etim said, slightly bowing down.
Chief nodded at him. He said not a word. Etim carried Chief’s suitcase, and a cellophane bag alongside it, and walked towards the house. Ukala parked the car properly and then headed towards the Boy’s quarters.
It was about 8 p.m. Nwanyiocha, as soon as she learnt that the Lord of the house was about, had flipped off the television, and hurried to the kitchen.
“Ulumma,” Nwanyiocha shouted, calling for her housemaid.
“Madam,” came the reply from the Boy’s quarters.
“See that the soup is warmed,” Nwanyiocha instructed.
“Yes madam,” Ulumma said.
“Boil some water for the gari. When it’s okay, call me. I shall make it myself,”
-Nwanyiocha added, addressing the retreating figure of Ulumma.
Nwanyiocha swiftly and routinely surveyed the sitting room. The lace curtains were properly arranged. One of the decorative cloths on one of the sofas was rumpled. She straightened it out. Every other thing was in its place. The rug was spotless, and the giant television had been dusted till it shone.
The door opened and in came Etim, lugging Chief’s suitcase. Chief followed closely behind. He took his steps gently, like an Ijele masquerade, casting furtive glances around, surveying his domain.
“Chief welcome,” Nwanyiocha greeted, curtseying.
“Ah! Lolo m. How are you?” Chief asked, touching her back with his chieftaincy hand-fan.
“I’m fine, Chief,” Nwanyiocha replied, stroking her fleshy neck, and then gently tugging at her hair.
“Where are my children?” Chief asked.
“Adanne, your eldest sister, came and took them to her home for the holidays,” Nwanyiocha answered.
Nwanyiocha had borne Chief six children: five daughters and one son. It was a miracle. God had heard her prayers and granted her Chimdi after five daughters: Ada, Ngozi, Chinwe, Chioma and Onyinye. Because she wanted a son, she had borne them in quick succession – six children in fifteen years of marriage. She still had nightmares whenever she recalled those agonizing days of fear – fear that she might never bear a son. Chief and his people were at her throat:
“When will we have a son?”
Then Obasi had come to her aid, and she had Chimdi, securing her place in her husband’s house.
The daughters whose birth had hitherto brought misery were now the most priced possessions of Chief. He called them his ‘Savings Account.’
Chief adored his daughters. He predicted they would grow into Cinderellas – just like Nwanyiocha their mother. But he always tactfully avoided mentioning: ‘before I married her.’
Bearing six children had taken its toll on Nwanyiocha. Though in her early thirties, she could pass for middle-aged. She was fully rounded, like the Lolo she was. One saw her protruding tummy before the rest of her. She had the look of a perpetually pregnant woman.
“See what I got for you, Lolo m,” Chief said, handing her the cellophane bag beside his suitcase, which Etim had dropped on the table.
“For me!” Nwanyiocha exclaimed, touching her chest. She brought out the priced Akwete material, and screamed in delight.
“Thank you, Chief,” Nwanyiocha said.
“I’m glad you like it,” Chief said, moving towards his room.
Nwanyiocha followed, bringing his suitcase.
“While you have your bath, let me get your food ready,” Nwanyiocha said.
“That’s all right,” Chief said.
Nwanyiocha hurried to the kitchen. The wrapper that she had tied from her chest downwards felt loose, and she fastened her armpits to her sides.
“Madam, the water is boil,” Ulumma said.
“Okay,” Nwanyiocha replied.
Nwanyiocha made just a cup of garri, fighting the urge to eat again. She dished the garri into a plate. She went to the pot of uha soup, which she had spent almost the whole day preparing. It was steaming hot. She stirred the soup, hitting the ladle she used on her left palm, and licking her palm. The soup tasted just fine – fit for her lord and master. She dished some of the soup into a plate, making sure that enough goat meat and okporoko went with it. She forced a chunk of meat into her mouth, keeping her mouth open as she chewed, her eyes bulging, because the meat was too hot.
“Chief, your food is ready,” Nwanyiocha shouted, after she had set the table.
“I’m coming,” Chief replied.
While Chief ate, Nwanyiocha watched television, waiting for him to finish, so she could clear the plates. Chief required that she personally waited on him. The program showing on the television was called ‘Women’s World.’ Barr. Mrs. Okongwu, director of the famous NGO, ‘Women’s Advocate,’ was being interviewed:
“… In fact, any woman that feels she is being maltreated or cheated by her husband, or her husband’s relatives, for any reason whatsoever, should come to me. I shall try my best to see that her rights are vindicated…. Women are human beings too, and they have rights, even in the home of course….”
As Barr. Mrs. Okongwu talked, she clenched her fists, raising it up, and pushing the air with it, her voice bold and forceful.
“Where will such women see you when they need you?” the interviewer asked.
“Our NGO, ‘Women’s Advocate,’ is conspicuously situated, just opposite the Women’s Development Center, on Azikiwe Avenue…” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu replied.
Just then, Chief pushed back his chair, stood up and began washing his hands. Always on the alert to attend to her husband’s needs, Nwanyiocha put off the television, and hurried towards the dining area. She was unhappy to see that he had swallowed only a few balls of gari and eaten but two chunks of the goat meat. The food was as if untouched. She felt like all her labour was in vain.
“Chief, have you eaten?” -she half asked, half stated.
“Yes… I’m all right. You have cooked well,” -Chief replied.
“And you have eaten well,” -Nwanyiocha said.
“Ulumma,” -Nwanyiocha called.
“Madam,” -Ulumma answered, rushing towards the dining area.
“Clear the plates and clean the table,” -Nwanyiocha said.
Nwanyiocha headed to her husband’s bedroom. She found him reclining on the bed.
“I came to see if you needed anything…mm… if you are all right,” Nwanyiocha said, stammering, shuffling from one foot to the other and wringing her hands like a new bride. “Chief, don’t you need anything?”
“No… nothing, my Lolo. Thanks,” Chief said, yawning.
“All right. Goodnight,” Nwanyiocha said, heading towards her own room.
“Sleep well,” Chief shouted, hugging his pillow to himself.
It was early morning, about 5 a.m. Typical of them, the PHCN had withheld power since two days now. The Ojukwu Avenue area was in a blackout, the huge Lister generators having been put off at 12 p.m. The darkness, however, was thinning out, stream-lights of day penetrating through the cloak of blackness. Nwanyiocha could hear the birds begin to twitter. She had risen very early, lighted a hurricane lamp that she usually kept beside her bed with a box of matches on its head, and proceeded to the kitchen to prepare breakfast for Chief.
Nwanyiocha had soaked some black-eyed beans in water and rinsed off its skin. She grind the beans into a paste, mixed with salt, spices and onions, before frying it in boiling groundnut oil to make akara. She served it with steaming hot akamu, which she made from the finest corn-paste, together with sugar and milk. This was Chief’s favourite breakfast.
It was about fifteen minutes to 7 a.m. Nwanyiocha heard the clangs of gates opening and closing, the sound of cars being revved, and she knew that the neighbourhood had come alive. She surmised that Chief must have had his bath, and was fully dressed, ready to leave for work.
“Chief!” Nwanyiocha called, not too loudly.
“Yes?” Chief bellowed
“Breakfast is ready,” Nwanyiocha said.
“I’m coming,” Chief replied.
Soon Chief stepped out of his room, carrying his suitcase, ready for the day’s work, at the accounting firm, Okoro Agu and Company. He was dressed in complete Chieftaincy regalia: Isiagu jumper atop a plain black trouser, heavy red beads hung across his neck, and bead bracelets around his wrists. He also had two black eagle feathers stuck into the red cap he wore. In one hand he held his portfolio, in the other his chieftaincy hand-fan.
“Lolo m, how are you doing this morning?” Chief asked Nwanyiocha, smiling.
“I’m just fine,” Nwanyiocha answered, smiling back at him, though keeping her eyes on the floor.
Nwanyiocha wondered at his smiles this morning. The day would indeed prove to be bright. Nwanyiocha watched with satisfaction as Chief ate his breakfast with relish. Chief bit into the akara, munching hastily, and spooning the akamu into his mouth.
“Lolo m, you cook so well,” Chief said.
“Thank you, Chief,” Nwanyiocha said. “You also eat well.”
“Come and sit here,” Chief said, motioning to the seat beside his. “I have something important to tell you.”
Nwanyiocha expectantly shifted her head near her husband’s; her ears wide open.
“Who knows what important news my husband has for me? Perhaps the supermarket business he’s always promised me…?” Nwanyiocha thought.
“You have been a good wife to me and a good mother to my children all these years I’ve married you…” Chief began.
“Mm!” Nwanyiocha beamed, basking in the euphoria of this sudden and unexpected praise.
“You have all a man would ever want in a wife. My first wife… you have never given me cause to get angry with you,” Chief added.
“Thank you, Chief,” Nwanyiocha said, smiling.
“Ehm!” Chief cleared his throat.
“Now… the supermarket!” Nwanyiocha thought, expectantly.
“The reason…mm… I called you beside me is for us to talk like husband and wife,” Chief said, tightening his expression.
“Hm!” Nwanyiocha moaned.
“You see … I have put a woman, Penelope is her name, in the family way, and I intend to marry her as my second wife,” Chief said, exhaling.
“Chief!” Nwanyiocha yelled, biting at her lips, tears beginning to stream out of her eyes.
“No…no, Lolo m. You have nothing to worry about. You will always remain my first wife. Nothing can change that. Not even if I marry ten more wives like I have the right to,” Chief said.
Now the sobs wracked Nwanyiocha’s bulbous frame.
“Chief why?” Nwanyiocha asked, groaning, her face down, drawing patterns on the dining table with her fingers, her nails chipped and full of kitchen grime.
Chief did not look her way again. He munched away at the akara, chewing furiously, and pausing to spoon some akamu into his mouth.
Nwanyiocha’s eyes went to their framed wedding portrait, hanging just above the television set. She was sure she had never looked prettier before or after; never mind that the wedding dress hardly concealed her protruding tummy. In the picture, she stood beside Chief, her hand on the knife, his atop hers, as they cut the wedding cake.
“Chief… the church! We were wedded in the church. What will the church say? You will not be allowed to receive communion again…. Our marriage is one man, one wife…” Nwanyiocha said, her voice shaking, remembering the wedding service that had made her so secure as she patted her swollen belly.
“Look here,” Chief bellowed. “I am man of the house here. I married you with my own money. Nobody, not even the church, can tell me what to do.”
Just then, Chief’s eyes fell on the framed photograph of Nwanyiocha and him, taken upon the conferment of the chieftaincy title of ‘Ochiriozuo’ on him. His face brightened as if that explained all.
“I am a Chief, and can marry as many wives as I want. I should bear many children. I have enough means to maintain a mere two wives and God-knows what number of children. Penelope is carrying my child. What do you want me to do? Ask her to get rid of it?” Chief said, maintaining a continuous tapping of his feet.
The dread of women had fallen upon Nwanyiocha. She knew it, as did every other woman. The day your husband married another woman added to you, is the end of dreams – dreams that your marriage is all it should be – a crumbling of the make-believe world married women cloak around themselves, proudly announcing themselves as ‘Mrs.’ A string snapped in her head.
“No… it shall not happen, chief. You will not marry another wife and me,” Nwanyiocha screamed.
“What did you say?” Chief snarled.
“I said you would not marry another wife. I will not allow it,” Nwanyiocha said, hitting her palms on the table.
“You must be out of your mind,” Chief said.
“You are the one who is out of your mind,” Nwanyiocha retorted.
“What!” Chief exclaimed, his eyes reddening like he had puffed at ganja.
“Yes, you are out of your mind,” Nwanyiocha screamed.
“Tam!” the slap landed, Chief’s five fingers showing on her puffy face.
“He has killed me o!” Nwanyiocha wailed. “Stupid man!”
“Tam! Tam! Tam!” more slaps landed again and again.
“Ewoh! He wants to kill me and make way for his new wife!” Nwanyiocha screamed, sobbing, as she tried to ward off the blows.
It had now passed the stage of mere slaps. Chief was furious. He kicked her, punched her, beating her mercilessly.
Nwanyiocha felt herself going down and down. She gripped at a chair, but it was no use, she was falling down. Chief’s blows were felling her, like a slim tree, hurtling at an elephant’s push. In a bid to steady herself, she tugged at the beads on his neck. The strings snapped and the beads flew to various directions. This maddened Chief, and he became a crazy dog that a child had thrown sticks at. He hit her harder.
“Ewoh! He has killed me. Somebody help me!” Nwanyiocha shouted, sobbing loudly.
“Shut up! I shall teach you a lesson today,” Chief yelled.
The servants stood afar off, in the sitting room, having been attracted by the imbroglio. Ukala, Chief’s driver, kept saying:
“Oga, e don do.”
“Haba, Chief! Dan Allah, take am for sofry,” Musa, the gateman said.
Etim, the houseboy, was crying. “Oga a beg o!” he wailed, tears streaming out of his eyes.
The worst hit was Ulumma, the housemaid. She tore at her hair, jumped up and down like a prophetess at the peak of divination, yelling:
“Make una come o! Him go kill madam o!”
Ulumma performed some jigs, shouting atop her voice to attract the neighbours, but the huge gate was firmly shut and no one came.
The children were not around. The servants could not interfere. They stood afar off, watching helplessly. The blows continued to land, Nwanyiocha yelling, her voice croaking, feeling her lungs giving way.
“Is this how I am going to die?” Nwanyiocha asked herself.
Nwanyiocha tried to cast a few blows herself, but it did not amount to much. She was strengthened by anger, added to the fact that she was on the large side. Her eyes fell on the ceramic plates Chief had been using to eat. She clutched at one like a warrior who had managed to grasp a fallen sword, while groping on the floor, his opponent towering above him. With all her might Nwanyiocha broke the plate on Chief’s head. The still hot akamu flooded into Chief’s eyes, momentarily blinding him.
“This woman has killed me!” Chief exclaimed, using his hand to feel his scalp, which was bleeding. He staggered, struggling to keep his balance, ignoring the pain.
“Let me just get at you now. You will be dead,” Chief groaned. He groped along, making a grab at her.
Nwanyiocha was a wounded lioness. She grabbed at the other ceramic plate, and landed it on his head again. This time Chief was finished. He just collapsed on the floor, breathing heavily.
“Ewoh! My husband!” Nwanyiocha yelled, realizing what she had done. The servants were now emboldened. They bundled Chief up and took him to the hospital.
It was three days later that Chief returned from the hospital with Penelope in tow. Penelope had watched after him in the hospital. He had left instructions to the effect that Nwanyiocha must not be allowed near him.
“She wants to kill me,” Chief told anyone who asked.
“Chief bikonu,” begged Nwanyiocha.
“What are you still doing here? I say leave my house immediately,” Chief said.
“Bikonu… di m o!” Nwanyiocha pleaded, kneeling down, sobbing her heart out, but Chief would not be swayed.
“I say leave now,” Chief barked.
“Oga, please now,” Ulumma begged, sobbing along with her mistress.
“You will follow your madam too, foolish girl,” Penelope sneered, flashing a smile of victory.
Penelope was dressed as befitted a new madam. She wore a snug Adire caftan, and had flashing gold jewelry to complement its effect. She had now assumed the airs of an ‘oriaku,’ and had left the ‘campus big gal’ look behind.
“Chief bikonu o!” Nwanyiocha begged again. This infuriated Chief the more.
“You decided you are better off a widow. I refuse to die. You had better pack your things and get used to living without a husband,” Chief said, grim faced.
When Chief saw that Nwanyiocha was not making a move towards leaving, he went into her room, brought out her boxes and her clothes hanging in the wardrobe and threw them outside the gate, and then he came for her. He pushed and shoved until she was outside the gate, then he shut the gate on her.
Chief went into the kitchen, assembled the cooking utensils – mortar, unused tripod cooking stand, and other crockery, and threw them outside the gate.
Nwanyiocha was crouched atop her belongings – the only she could rightfully lay claims on – sobbing. When she saw her kitchen utensils – those that had formed part of her dowry, she knew her marriage was ended.
“There goes fifteen years of marriage,” Nwanyiocha thought, sobbing louder.
“Are you still there?” Chief yelled. “Woman, be gone. I never ever want to set my eyes upon you again,” he said.
“You said he sent you packing and will not admit you again as his wife, despite all entreaties?” asked Barr. Mrs. Okongwu, taking notes.
“Yes ma,” Nwanyiocha said, dabbing at her face with a soaked handkerchief.
“Your parents have begged… the church members have begged, and even the Town Union Officials…?” Barr Mrs. Okongwu asked again, seeking to clarify salient points from what Nwanyiocha had told her.
“Yes ma,” Nwanyiocha answered, wringing her hands. “He even chased my father and the delegation he came with, using his double barrel,” she added, wincing.
“What kind of husband was he?” asked Barr. Mrs. Okongwu.
“He was a good husband. He never shirked in his duties towards the children and me. He never, until that fateful day, hit me. He made sure the children and I never lacked. In the early years of our marriage, he had even setup a motor-spare-parts business for Okafor, my younger brother, and the eldest son of my parents,” Nwanyiocha said.
“How come he changed then?” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu asked, her palms resting on her chin.
“I don’t know,” Nwanyiocha replied, sniffing.
“Did he chase after other women?” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu asked, resuming her note taking.
“Men will always be men,” Nwanyiocha replied, sighing.
“What exactly do you mean?” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu asked, tightening her face.
“Chief has always loved ladies. He has never made any secret of it. Even before I married him, I knew I should never expect to be the only woman in his life. But I felt secure. I am the woman he married… the woman he took to the altar. I know that a man is free to marry as many wives as he wants. But then, a man who is wedded in the church can only marry one wife. He is free, though, to chase as many girls as he desires,” Nwanyiocha said.
“Are you saying that you knew your husband slept with other women, and you did nothing?” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu asked.
“I never complained,” Nwanyiocha said, nodding her head.
“Why?” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu asked.
“Husbands are scarce. A good wife does not cause trouble in the home. I was in the house. Others were outside. So, why complain. Chief always provided for the family. Why then should I make trouble?” Nwanyiocha said.
Barr. Mrs. Okongwu yawned and dropped her pen on the huge mahogany desk, her palms clenched. She was breathing heavily. After a moment’s thought, she resumed her interrogation.
“Since you got married, have you ever been unfaithful to your husband?”
“Tufia!” screamed Nwanyiocha. “It is an abomination,” she added, bristling with indignation.
There was total silence for a while, the lawyer writing briskly on a paper in a file. Nwanyiocha took the opportunity to look around. Hanging on the wall was a photograph of the lawyer and her husband. They looked quite happy. She placed them at about the same age bracket, so unlike Chief and her. Chief was fifteen years older than she was. There were shelves around the four corners of the office, and they were full of somber black bound volumes. Behind the lawyer, stuck to the wall, were some plaques, proudly announcing the many awards bestowed on the lawyer, for fighting the cause of women. Nwanyiocha looked on, wistfully, recalling how she had dreamed of becoming a lawyer in her secondary school days.
“Ma, what made you become a Women’s Rights Activist?” Nwanyiocha asked.
The lawyer looked up from the file, and whirled some degrees in her swivel chair, smiling nostalgically.
“It was mama. She was strong. She did not let society put her down. When papa died, and his brothers took everything, mama fought hard to keep head above water. My sister, Ure, and I, helped her sell chopped firewood after school. Mama saw both of us through school, but she died the year I was called to bar, from hypertension. Ure, who became a nurse, said it was brought upon by exhaustion. Mama toiled too hard. When I thought what difference it would have made in mama’s and our lives, if some of papa’s property had been left to us, I dedicated the rest of my life to fighting for the cause of women,” Barr. Mrs. Amaka Okongwu said, sighing.
“Oh dear!” Nwanyiocha sympathized.
“Now, lets get back to you,” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu hastily said, tapping at her table.
“All right ma,” Nwanyiocha replied.
“Tell me how you met and married your husband,” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu said, leaning over the file once more.
“I was in class four when I met Chief. Then he was not yet a Chief. He was a young man – an eligible bachelor of whom all the girls and mothers dreamt of,” Nwanyiocha began.
“You were among the dreaming girls, yourself,” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu teased.
“I don’t really know. You know how parents groom their daughters for marriage, and seem impatient to have them off their hands? All the girls begin to yearn for a prince-charming to bring the wine and bride-price that will prove them good and useful daughters,” Nwanyiocha said.
“I can imagine,” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu said, nodding.
“Chief, then a young man, was working in a multi-national firm of chartered accountants, had a posh car, and had even built a stone house in our village. When his parents came to seek my hand for their son, my parents hastily agreed,” Nwanyiocha said.
“And you were just in class four?” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu asked.
“Yes. I was seventeen then. Everyone agreed, though, that I was to finish secondary school. But that was not to be. One day, I had gone to visit my prospective in-laws. I had stayed on to help my mother in-law with the household chore. Chief had seduced me. ‘Are you not going to be my wife, after all?’ he had reasoned, and I gave in to him. The next thing I knew I was pregnant, and was expelled from school,” Nwanyiocha said.
“Oh, poor you!” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu said, shaking her head.
“My in-laws hurriedly performed the traditional wedding rites. Chief was their only son. They had been pressuring him to get married, instead of wasting his money on city girls. My in-laws were generous. They made my parents proud,” Nwanyiocha said, smiling, as if she could still feel the pride coursing through her parents.
“Hm!” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu exclaimed.
“Even me. I was proud of myself,” Nwanyiocha added.
“Really! Why?” Barr Mrs. Okongwu asked.
“For getting married to a rich husband,” Nwanyiocha said, laughing out loud, and blowing her nose with a handkerchief, bedewed with tears.
“I’m sure you were proud of getting pregnant too?” Barr Mrs. Okongwu said.
“Not exactly,” Nwanyiocha said.
“Did it not occur to you that if you had concluded your education, you might have grown as rich as your husband is?” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu asked.
“No. All that mattered then was getting married to a rich husband,” Nwanyiocha said.
“I don’t even consider your husband to be rich. He is comfortable not rich,” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu said.
“I was somewhat brilliant. I never came below the fifth position in class, and I know some of my classmates I was better than who made it to the university,” Nwanyiocha mused, remembering her dream of becoming a lawyer, and how she used to be the best speaker during debates.
“Poor you!” Barr. mrs. Okongwu said, sighing.
“Well, I was happy when Chief fixed a date for our church wedding. After that I knew I would be his only wife,” Nwanyiocha said.
All this while, the lawyer had been taking notes, pausing once in a while to cast quizzical looks at Nwanyiocha.
“Do you have a copy of the marriage certificate?” she asked.
“Yes. It’s right here,” Nwanyiocha said, handing over a gilt-edged certificate, which she brought out from her bag.
“Oh no!” exclaimed Barr. Mrs. Okongwu.
“What is the problem?” Nwanyiocha asked.
“This is no marriage certificate,” said Barr. Mrs. Okongwu.
“Why? The Priest handed this to us after the church service,” said Nwanyiocha.
“You see,” explained Barr. Mrs. Okongwu, “there are only but two types of legal marriages in Nigeria: monogamous and polygamous marriages. Monogamous marriages are those that conform to the Nigerian matrimonial causes Act 1970. All others - Islamic and Native marriages, are polygamous marriages. For a marriage to be by law, monogamous, the marriage must be officiated by a legally approved authority. The church where you were wedded is not registered to conduct statutory marriages, as shown by the certificate you have, and that is a problem,” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu remarked, sighing.
“What is the implication?” Nwanyiocha asked, shivering.
“The implication is that since you were married according to customary law, all incidents arising out of your marriage must be governed by customary law,” said Barr. Mrs. Okongwu.
“Oh my God!” Nwanyiocha screamed.
“Yes! That is why I keep telling women to make sure that the Church where they are to be married is registered to conduct statutory marriages,” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu said.
“Our native law and custom allows a man to marry as many wives as he wants,” Nwanyiocha mused.
“Not only that. The man is entitled to send the woman away anytime he fancies. He has absolute rights to custody of the children of the marriage, and he is under no obligation whatsoever, to see to the maintenance of the woman he has sent away,” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu said.
“Ah!” Nwanyiocha moaned.
“In fact, customary law marriage is discriminatory of women, and offers them little protection,” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu added.
“So what will happen to me now…? Fifteen years of marriage… gone just like that?” Nwanyiocha said, weeping.
“I do not subscribe to the idea that a wife should be dismissed just like that, like a hapless village housemaid, without any further obligations. This is to my mind unjust.
“What will become of me? What do I do know? Chai! Goats have eaten palm fronds over my head,” Nwanyiocha moaned.
“Well, we shall not merely fold our arms. We shall do something… head to court. Who knows, the court may grant you reprieve,” said Barr. Mrs. Okongwu, handing Nwanyiocha a fresh handkerchief that she usually kept handy for the many women who came crying in her office.
A week later, they were in the State High Court, Enugu, appearing before Justice Idenu Okonko.
“… My Lord, I beg to submit that sending this poor woman away, without a kobo, amounts to injustice. She has within these fifteen years contributed to the growth of his home, even though a complete housewife. My lord, if the hours of work she has spent cleaning, cooking, washing and generally taking care of the home front is quantified and assessed in accordance with labour costs; will Chief Agu Okoro be able to pay…?
Again, my lord, must she be deprived of the love and companionship of the six children she has suffered to bring forth within this fifteen years? The thoughts of her children alone… not knowing what is happening to them, is indeed, capable of sending her to an early grave….
Having said all these, my lord, I pray this honourable court to grant my client the following relieves:
(i) An order requiring Chief Agu Okoro to pay my client, his estranged wife, the sum of five million naira, being payment for all the work she has done, building his home.
(ii) Grant my client custody of the children of the marriage, since their best interests lie with her because their father is irresponsible, even while he was married, having put a woman in the family way, contrary to the tenets of Christianity which he professes, having been wedded in the church, and is known to often not be at home, as has been proved before this honourable court, and cannot as a result be in a position to see to the good upbringing of the children, unlike their mother, who would be always there for them.
(iii) An order requiring Chief Agu Okoro to within stipulated dates provide money to my client, his estranged wife, for the upbringing of the children.
(iv) Any other orders which it pleases this honourable court to make….”
Barr. Mrs. Okongwu said all these and more while addressing the court.
Justice Idenu Okonko peered at his papers through his thick spectacles, looking bored. One would think he had not even heard the submissions of Barr. Mrs. Okongwu.
“Yes, Learned Senior Advocate?” Justice Idenu okonko said, looking towards the area where Chief Agu Okoro and his lawyer, Sir. Kodili Okoye (SAN.) sat.
Chief Agu Okoro’s lawyer stood up to address the court:
“My Lord, it has been established before this honourable court that the couple were married under customary law. As such, my client exercised his lawful right to send his wife packing whenever it pleases him. This woman was no good to him as a wife. She was disrespectful, and in fact, the straw that broke the camel’s back was when she became violent towards him. The doctor’s report shows the extent of the harm she caused this man. Even the servants have testified that she shouted at him, and hit him repeatedly with dangerous objects. His sending her away is certainly justified.
Again, my lord, the woman has no source of income, no accommodation. In fact, her lawyer has admitted that she is currently staying at the shelter home of the NGO: ‘Women’s Advocate,’ from where she comes to court. Considering all these, how does she intend to fend for the children? Being of a violent character, as her treatment of her husband shows, she is perhaps, likely to injure the children.
Consequently, my lord, I pray this honourable court not to pay heed to submission of learned counsel on the other side, and to grant my client who is in a better position to provide for the children, their custody,” Chief Kodili Okoye (SAN.) said, sitting down, sweating profusely.
The case had been dragging on for almost a year now. All this while, Nwanyiocha had been living on the goodwill of Barr. Mrs. Okongwu who was hoping that the court will order Chief to pay some form of maintenance to Nwanyiocha. She had even tried an out of court settlement with Chief, but he adamantly refused to be swayed.
“Let her go back to her parents. She is no longer my wife. I’ll have nothing to do with her. I’m not going to give her even a kobo,” Chief had thundered.
The judge was to deliver judgment on that day. He had adjourned for two hours, and retired into his chambers, presumably to add finishing touches to his judgment.
There was tension in the air when the judge returned to give his judgment. After reviewing the testimony of witnesses, the arguments and submissions of learned counsel on both sides, and expounding the law, the judge gave his judgment:
“…Having listened to learned counsel on both sides, and having sifted through all the available evidence before me, I find that Chief Agu Okoro did not err in any way in sending his wife away, nor in taking a new wife, as provided for by custom. Nwanyiocha is not entitled to any maintenance from Chief Agu Okoro by whatever name called – compensation or otherwise.
The best interests of the children, certainly of paramount consideration in any matter concerning children, as enshrined in the Conventions on the Right of the Child (CRC.) and the Nigerian Child Rights Act (CRA.), lie with their father, who is solely able to provide for their upkeep. I therefore vest full custody of the children in their father. I make no order as to costs,” the judge pronounced.
“ As the Court pleases!” chorused all in the court.
Nwanyiocha began to weep. The sobs convulsively shook her.
“Oh my children!” Nwanyiocha wailed.
“Don’t worry,” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu said, consoling her. “We shall appeal,” she added.
Since Chief sent her packing, things had been rough for Nwanyiocha. She had an option of returning home to her parents in the village, but the humiliation would be too much. Besides she felt that the drudgery of village life was not for her. Her father, Maazi Okezie, had protested about their appealing against the decision of the High Court Judge.
“You will send me to an early death. People are already gossiping of the abomination my first daughter committed - taking her husband to court. Let the matter rest. It was your fault, anyway, that he sent you packing. Who has ever heard of a wife wanting to kill her husband because he took a second wife?” Nwanyiocha’s father had said, threatening to disown her.
Nevertheless, Nwanyiocha’s travails had strengthened her. She was determined to stand on her feet.
“Don’t give up on life. Be strong,” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu had counseled, giving an example of her own mother who had raised two daughters without help from anyone, after she became widowed.
Nwanyiocha sold some of her wrappers and priced jewels to raise money. With the help of Barr. Mrs. Okongwu, she rented a room in town, sparsely furnishing it. How she could earn a living was a problem for a while. Barr. Mrs. Okongwu talked to Mrs. Augusta Dike, Principal of St. Mary’s Girls College, Enugu, who was her classmate at Queen’s School, Enugu. She allowed Nwanyiocha to sell some of her akara in the school, which soon became the favourite snack of the students and teachers. Soon, by living frugally, and saving, Nwanyiocha was able to make a reasonable income
It was now almost two years since Nwanyiocha had last seen her children. Their father would not allow her visit them or vice-versa.
“If I see you near them, I would severely punish them,” Chief had warned Nwanyiocha, threatening to even cut off her head if she dared set foot in his compound again.
“What is a woman without her children?” Nwanyiocha often asked herself, bemoaning her fate, weeping her eyes out, as if the smoke from the fire she used in frying her akara daily, before taking them to school, was perpetually burning her eyes. She had now lost quite some stones, and dressed modestly – a far cry from the Lolo she used to be.
One day, she went to see Barr. Mrs. Okongwu at her office:
“I shall grow mad if I don’t see my children,” Nwanyiocha wailed.
“Why don’t you let them be? When they are old enough they will seek their mother,” Barr. Mrs. Okongwu said.
“I want to be seeing them. I feel I have abandoned them. I want to know how they are faring. Ah! I want to be setting my eyes on my children,” Nwanyiocha moaned.
Barr. Mrs. Okongwu wrote series of letters, but they were of no effect.
“I do not want to have anything to do with her again,” Chief wrote back.
Barr. Mrs. Okongwu was forced to head back to court on behalf of Nwanyiocha. It was a different Judge this time. Justice Okara Timi, after listening to both sides, gave an injunction, ordering that Nwanyiocha be given access to the children, at least during the holidays.
“It is in the best interests of the children that they have access to their mother as often as is practicable,” Justice Okara Timi said, in his ruling.
The gaiety in the one room apartment of Nwanyiocha was heartwarming.
“Mummy, I like the way you carry your hair now,” said Ada.
“Thank you my daughter. I wear my hair short because it interferes less with my job of cooking for the public,” Nwanyiocha said.
Ada reminded Nwanyiocha of her teenage years, before her marriage. She was slim, with long limbs that were shapely. Her skin was smooth and moist, the colour of ugba, and her face was spotless. When she walked, she had the sprightly canter of a cat, and she held herself with such aloofness as if she were the Eze’s daughter, brought upon by self-acknowledgement of being beautiful.
As Nwanyiocha looked at her daughter, she recalled her unspent youth.
“Let life be better for my daughters, dear God!” she inwardly prayed.
Nwanyiocha knew in her heart that their lives would be better. They were all doing well in school and Chief seemed not to want to wait for them to go to the university, so his ‘savings accounts’ would be bolstered. She knew their lives would be different by the example of Barr. Mrs. Okongwu. She, whose husband even took turns to cook the family’s meals.
Ngozi, Nwanyiocha’s second daughter, bent down, looking underneath her mother’s eight spring iron bed, a far cry from the mahogany four poster bed which she slept on in her father’s house.
“Mum, are these your akara things?” Ngozi asked, gazing at the mortar, and sack of brown-eyed beans etc.
“You are suffering, mama,” Ada said.
“I enjoy it,” Nwanyiocha said, nodding.
Nwanyiocha thought of the money she was saving.
“I shall contribute to my children’s upbringing,” she thought, smiling.
“Nwanyiocha, your years of marriage is not a waste,” she quietly mouthed, thinking, “Life must go on.”
Chioma, Chinwe, and Onyinye joined in admiring their mother. They all agreed she looked prettier now that she had lost weight. Chimdi was just seven years old. He clung to Nwanyiocha as if wishing to get back into her womb. The children all ate some akara.
“Mum, no one else can make akara as good as yours,” Onyinye said.
“True mum!” they all chorused.
Nwanyiocha smiled in contentment. They would stay with her till the evening, when Ukala, Chief’s driver would come to take them to their father’s home.
“Ada, please take care of your little ones,” Nwanyiocha said to her first daughter, as they prepared to leave.
“I will, mum,” Ada replied, meaning it.
“Mummy, when I grow up, I shall build a palace in my father’s compound and bring you to live with me,” Chimdi said, tears in his eyes. Nwanyiocha thought he was re-echoing what Aunty Adanne, his father’s eldest sister, used to tell him when he cried out for his mummy.
“I know,” Nwanyiocha said, squeezing his hands. “For now, life must continue,” she said to herself, struggling to keep back the tears.