Obike – A strong heart 

                                                        

It was June when we met. That month when the clouds opened themselves up and let torrents of rain fall. When scantily-dressed children danced and chased each other in the rain. When badly-thatched roofs showed their weakness, and furniture and other household items had to be moved to more secure locations. When everyone brought out plastic and metal pails or other containers and placed them beneath the eaves, and watched with joy as the brown liquid flowed into the buckets because that meant they would be spared the long walk to the river, for the next few days at least.

It wasn’t raining the day we met. But the air was fresh because it had drizzled the night before. The ground was still wet, and the earth gave way beneath the precise, sturdy stamping of the dancers as their bare toes dug holes into the moist soil. Each rapid movement matched the cadence of the drummers and the high-pitched melody of the oja.

It was my cousin, Adaku, who called my attention to him.

"That white man has been staring at you the whole time."

Which one, I asked. For there were three of them, all dressed in ill-fitting dashikis. Two of them willed their bodies to match the sounds emanating from the musical instruments, a futile effort. With broad grins plastered on their large, florid faces, they moved their bodies as if they didn’t belong to them. The other one, his hands crossed in front of him, was smiling at me. I smiled back because it seemed the right thing to do. There was something boyish about him. I wasn’t sure if it had something to do with his awkward stance or the cherry baldness of the other two.

He walked up to me as the drums stopped beating and the dancers dispersed. With an arch smile on her lips, Adaku pinched my arm before ambling away.

"Hello. I’m Sebastian. I like your blouse."   

There was nothing spectacular about the blouse. I could make out at least three other girls who wore similar ones. But I thanked him nonetheless. He asked what my name was.

Ijeoma.

"And what does it mean?"

Safe journey, I said.

He loved how African names always had a meaning, a logical function. His eyes, the colour of the sky, pierced into mine, searching. For what, I couldn’t tell. And because I couldn’t, I looked away, for fear that they would not find what they were seeking. The wet red soil seemed a more bearable alternative to the penetrating blueness of his eyes.

Maybe he could take an Igbo name. I told him I thought Sebastian was a fine name and didn’t need a replacement. It was nice of the villagers to welcome them with such fanfare, he said. It was another thing he loved about Africans: our warmth and friendliness.

I told him how we all looked forward to the boreholes and tarred roads he and his colleagues were going to dig and construct for the village. The farmers were already talking about ways to put the grants they would receive to good use.

"That’s what I love about my job. I get to travel the world and help people who need it the most." 

He asked me what I did. I told him I worked at the local convenience store. But that I had plans to study at the university as soon as I had saved up enough money. He thought it was nice of me to want to improve myself. He asked if we could be friends. I said we could. He asked if I had a phone. I told him I didn’t, but I could give him my friend’s number. He said he had to leave now. He was staying in Aka Nkise, the nearest town with a hotel. He would let me know whenever he was in the village to supervise the projects.

Two days later I saw Adaku running towards my house, waving her phone in the air as she did so. She stretched the device towards me, grinning.

He was in the village and was wondering if we could meet. I told him I’d love to.

"I’m under the big tree."

There were many big trees in the village, I told him. He would have to be a bit more specific. He laughed, and the warmth of his laughter filled my ears.

He didn’t seem to notice the furtive glances we got from passers-by or mind the children who pointed at him, giggling as they yelled onye ocha after him as we walked down the uneven main road. He asked me what it meant.

White person, I translated.

"It’s only fair. I am white after all," he said with a casual shrug.

Being with him was like being with a child. He asked questions about everything. What did the markings on the houses mean? Was it true that a widow could be forced to marry her late husband’s brother? He had read somewhere that the Igbos used to engage in human sacrifice. Had I ever witnessed one? His curiosity amused and excited me with equal measure.

We had just arrived at mmiri eze, the village lake, when he turned towards me and said,

"You’re so beautiful."

It wasn’t the first time I had heard it. But before then it had always come from inexperienced pubescent village boys who were trying to practise their wooing skills. This time it came from someone who seemed to know what he was talking about. He moved towards me. He stood so close to me I could smell the garlic on his breath. The tips of his fingers brushed against mine. He asked if he could kiss me. I thought it strange that he asked. It had seemed to me the next logical action. I nodded because uttering words out of my now dry throat proved difficult. His lips were soft, and it took me some time to find their rhythm. And just when I finally did, he pulled away. He took a few steps backwards, pulled his t-shirt over his head and with one swift movement plunged into the water. We swam for what seemed to me like hours. We giggled like schoolchildren as we splashed about in the shimmering water; the sun reflecting on our skins.

As we laid on the grass waiting for our clothes to dry, surrounded by the susurrus of the palm trees and the gossiping of the birds, he said, ‘I haven’t been this happy in a long time.’ I took responsibility for this happiness and felt a sense of achievement.

                                                                                                ***

"Someone said they saw you with a white man. Is it true?" my grandmother asked as she tapped on her snuffbox.     

I didn’t ask who the someone was. Because 'someone' could have been a close relative or a stranger. The bearer of the message was usually insignificant compared to the message itself.

I said it was. The white man needed someone to show him around. I kept sweeping away the black goat droppings and hoped that the casual movement of my hands would show that I gave the matter no serious thought.

"And were there no men in the village to show him around?" she asked, beetle-browed.

I didn’t reply because I knew I wasn’t expected to.

"Have you forgotten what happened to the girl in Umunkwo?"

Umunkwo was a neighbouring village that had the privilege of being the first to have electricity in the district. And until about a year ago, that was all it was known for. Before a teenage girl got herself pregnant. In any other circumstance, such a thing would have remained the sole concern of her immediate family. But it became a scandal that extended beyond not just the confines of her family but those of her village as well, spreading its tentacles to all five villages in the district. For the father of the child was one of the Chinese men who had worked on the electric plant for the village. Since this was no longer just a family matter, elders of the community were called to intervene. Things took on an intricate turn when the accused denied knowledge of the enceinte girl.

It was a known fact, the Chinese man argued, that most Africans couldn’t tell one Asian from the other. This was obviously the case with this poor child. Neither the elders nor the young girl’s family could argue with this reasoning, for it held some truth. And so the story from Umunkwo became a warning to all unmarried girls in the five villages. Because she hadn’t only brought shame to herself and her family by getting pregnant out of wedlock, she had also been too stupid to identify the father of her child.

I told my grandmother she needn’t worry. That Sebastian and I were just friends. She grunted as she sniffed the tobacco, wriggling her nose as her eyes teared. I understood her fears and loved her for them. She was a grandmother and a mother rolled into one. When my mother died shortly after my first birthday, my father, overwhelmed with the daunting task of raising a toddler, handed me over to his mother while he remained in the city. The plan had been for me to re-join him at some point. But twenty years later I still lived with my grandmother, while he lived with his new family in the city.       

Sebastian called me again a week later to inform me he couldn’t come to the village because he had a string of very important appointments in town.

"Would you mind coming over? I could send my driver to pick you up tomorrow."

I told him I didn’t.

I put on the blouse I had on the first time we met, matching it with a slightly tight miniskirt. I told my grandmother I was going to town with Adaku. We needed to get some things for the convenience store.

The driver picked me up at the main junction. Throughout the ride he kept winking and smirking at me, eyeing me up and down. I felt my body stiffen when his eyes lingered on my thighs. I instinctively pulled on my skirt and wished I had worn a longer one.

He dropped me off at the entrance of a hotel and told me to go to room 213. I walked through the lobby, heading towards the stairs. I felt like I was doing something wrong, the nature of which I wasn’t sure. But all uncertainty dissipated as soon as Sebastian opened the door. The first button of his shirt was undone, and sparse hair stood out.

I let him take my hand and gently pull me into his room. He said he was glad I was here and asked if I wanted something to drink.

"I only have Coke. The Coke here tastes different from the one in Germany. It’s sweeter. Can’t stomach the stuff."

We sat on his bed and I listened to him talk about his work. How fulfilling it all was. Of course, it was challenging sometimes. Like recently, they weren’t allowed to tar a part of the main road because the elders deemed it sacred land dedicated to the gods. But even though it made their work difficult, he understood the importance of respecting indigenous culture and tradition. All he wanted was to help. And the people here appreciated what he did. He could see the gratitude in their eyes. Back home in Germany, he had never felt any sense of accomplishment. And that was why last year, shortly after his thirtieth birthday, he had signed up with a non-profit organisation looking for engineers to help in developing countries.

"Here you guys are content with the little you have and can still dance and smile despite the difficulties."

I wanted to tell him that people here really wouldn’t mind having a bit more and that we didn’t particularly relish poverty. But I didn’t because even though he held my hands and looked at me as he spoke, his utterances seemed to me a soliloquy.

Just then he raised his hand and stroked my face. I closed my eyes and felt my cheeks tingle. My eyes remained closed as his lips rested on mine. His upper body leaned in and I let my body lower itself onto the bed. Making love to him was a new experience. He stared at my body the way one stared at a work of art, trying to decipher the artist’s intention, hoping to find where the symmetry lay. While he covered my body with kisses and caresses, he kept muttering the word 'beautiful' over and over again until I believed it. 

                                                                                                   ***

Peeling the cassavas was tedious. As usual, Adaku had given me the blunt knife, keeping the sharp one for herself. My palms were sore from the additional effort I had to put in to rid the tubers of their brown skin.

"Stop complaining. My knife isn’t any better," Adaku said. "And please don’t take out your frustration on the cassava. It’s not its fault that your white man left."

I felt my gut tighten as the last sentence hit me. I had no idea Sebastian had left. Our last meeting had been at the hotel two weeks ago. According to Adaku, he and his colleagues were now in Ghana, working on another project. Her father was on the local development committee. So she had to be telling the truth. Just like the white tuber in my hand, I felt bare, stripped of any form of certainty. Didn’t he say I was beautiful? Who leaves beauty behind with that much ease?

It was three months later when my grandmother said what I knew to be true, but didn’t dare to acknowledge, not even to myself.

"You’re pregnant."

I nodded.

"Is it the white man?"

There was no way to reach Sebastian. Whenever I called his number, a disconnect tone greeted me in place of his warm voice. I realised I didn’t know his last name or anything about him for that matter. My grandmother informed my father and suggested I move to the city to be with him before I started showing and the villagers had something to talk about.

"Let her stay in the village and bear the shame of her actions," he replied.

And so I locked myself away in the house, nursing my broken heart while cradling my swelling belly. The only visitor I had was Adaku, who with each passing day infected me with her positive anticipation for the child.

"Just imagine how beautiful your baby is going to be," she would say.

And so I started to. My heart still ached, and the cracks were still there. But I began to hope that the child would be the binding agent that stopped it from completely coming undone. I started to pick names – Obike if it were a boy – a strong heart. Because I knew I would need it to face whatever was ahead of me. If it were a girl, I would name her after my grandmother - Anwuli - joy. Who doesn’t need some joy in their life, I thought.

                                                                                            ***

Even though I had never been in labour before, I knew my child was coming. The dull ache in my back and lower abdomen was like nothing I had experienced before. With my head resting on my grandmother’s lap, and the humourless midwife - with hands as hard as a grudge - kneeling between my thighs, I did as the stern voice commanded and gave one last push. Other than my loud breathing and groaning, there was silence. I felt my grandmother’s grip tighten. And then Obike’s wailing pierced the silence, carrying with it bounties of relief. The midwife extended the swaddled child towards me. Staring into his eyes, the colour of the sky, I knew that my heart was strong and would remain so as long as I had him.

 

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