I have a distinct memory of her on my wedding day, dressed in a flowered lace buba, her lips bright red like her shoes and purse. She was sitting at the corner when I gave my husband the palm wine and took him to kneel before Papa. She didn’t come to spray us with money, as every other guest did, when we danced to Osadebe. The yard was bustling with activity, highlife music booming from the speakers propped at the corners of our compound, people dancing in all directions. For the first time in my life, I saw my cousin slink away from the crowd.
Papa said she had turned down every suitor because she thought the men were too poor or too short. She worked for the government and had an apartment in the classiest part of the city. She had been to London a few times and could talk endlessly about the streets wrapped with cobblestones and buildings that reached for the sky. She spoke an Igbo softened by the sliding sounds of English and would often pepper her sentences with foreign words. When she left after each visit, my siblings would pinch their noses and repeat things she had said, laughing with amusement.
Later, after the ceremony, she came into my room while I was undressing. She asked if I was already sleeping with the man I had just married, and when I gasped and said no, she insisted, quietly, that I must begin to do so, because if I didn’t get pregnant by the next Christmas the neighbors would mock me and call me barren. She said I must never, ever fail as a woman.
I wanted to say it was inappropriate to discuss such things, but I was too surprised to say anything, too taken aback to articulate any sensible response. Something bad must have happened to her, I thought. After she left, I finished changing into new clothes and went to join my husband in the waiting car. Driving out of my father’s compound, I kept thinking of what she said to me. Like mmuo ojo prowling at night, seeking souls to devour, her words ate me up.
And so it was my first objective as a married woman to get pregnant, the Michelin calendar on my bedroom wall marked with days I must have sex with my husband. More than once, he asked if I was performing some kind of ritual because I would prop my legs up against the wall after sex to keep his sperm from leaking out.
When my cycle stopped two months later, while my husband was on a trip to Dubai, I was delirious with happiness. The world began to make sense. For the first time since I got married I was able to stand straight. The relief came with such a great force that I called everyone and told them that I was pregnant. It was all working out for good, until an in-law visited, when I was five months gone.
We were eating jollof rice when she said she hoped the baby would be a boy. Suddenly, the food lost its delicious spiciness. My appetite disappeared. Something trembled in my stomach. My mind, long made fertile that day my cousin spoke those words and shattered my naivete, had begun wrestling with a new, worrying thought. Getting pregnant, I realized, was just the first step: I was married, happily married, but I was still sitting with one buttock. Only a son would plant my feet firmly in my husband’s house.
My husband was not burdened with these things. He went about his days as usual, talked endlessly about his trips, his blossoming business, the consignment he was shipping from Dubai, his plans to travel to Singapore and Vietnam and China. He was living out his dreams while I worried about the sex of our baby, about my place in his home.
My husband is kind and thoughtful, but he lives in a society that lets him stride past the tedious hurdles all women must jump. I wanted to give him a son, and I wanted him to share the emotional rigor of bringing that son into the world. But that is not how things work, and I resented that he did not see how I was shriveling under the weight of expectations.
I resented him for making us dine out with friends to drink fresh palm wine and eat spicy nkwobi served in wooden bowls. I hated the childish abandon with which he enjoyed Lionel Richie and Osadebe and Fela and Bob Marley, how he sang aloud when we drove together, his voice pushing against the roof and the wound up windows, competing with the voices from the stereo. He made plans for our baby: A custom bed built by a skilled carpenter. Ante-natal classes at the best hospital at Pound Road. Expensive baby clothes from Dubai. SMA Gold. I smiled and put up a good front when neighbors dropped by on weekends to eat the ofe akwu or ofe nsala I made. But at night, when he snored lightly beside me, I bit my fingers to the cuticles and prayed for a son. I prayed every day. And this phase was so excruciating that I didn’t get my hospital bag ready until the morning I was coming out of my room and my water broke.
I gave birth to a girl. Actually, the doctor helped me give birth to my daughter. Because I was drifting between sleep and wakefulness after two days of labor, he took his scalpel, nipped at skin, fused a vacuum device to my baby’s head, and pulled my daughter out.
After my daughter was born, I was always fully in act, cooking and serving and smiling at the family who was often around. Though I had a couple of childhood friends I kept in contact with, I had few new friends; the women I socialized with were the wives of my husband’s friends, those women who identified themselves by their husband’s aliases—Nwunye Emeka Japan, Nwunye Nonso London, Nwunye Tony Italy. A husband’s name, or his alias, commands respect, and our society permits a woman dignity only through marriage. You are a nobody without your husband’s name, no matter how much you have in your bank account or how many businesses you own. You belong to someone, and you are supposed to give him children, to give him son(s).
Many of the women had given birth to sons first. They walked with extra oomph in their steps, their laughter loud and free. My friend, the only classmate I could bond with at the polytechnic near our home where I pursued my diploma, already had three daughters. She was two years older than me and was often the light in the room, the one who made funny jokes, who dreamt of working in an oil company after she graduated from school, who talked about her dreams as though she could reach up and pluck them from a tree. Before my eyes she underwent a frightening transformation. I saw inside her an agony so deep that it ate her inside out, turned off the light in her eyes, wrinkled her skin, and hunched her shoulders. She walked like she carried invisible sacks of garri on her back, sacks so heavy they didn’t let her stand straight. And one semester, when she didn’t return to school, I learned that her husband had gotten their house help pregnant and this help had given birth to the son my friend never gave her husband.
This was what would happen to me if I didn’t fulfill the purpose for which I was married, I was sure.
In 2004, while everyone was terrified by the intense inter-communal violence and rise of insurgency in the Niger Delta, cities mere hours away from where we lived, I was yet again praying for a baby boy.
For months before my due date, I was in the middle of a deep depression. I had suddenly become a “prayer warrior” and would kneel in the middle of my room every night, whispering to God, asking for just one miracle. Labor was swift this time. I clutched onto a pamphlet with Jesus’ face I had gotten from church and chanted prayers all through my labor. And when the nurses pulled my baby out of my body, I waited for the magic words.
Imulu ife mgbowa, the nurse said in Igbo. “You have given birth to a being with a vagina.”
She was smiling. I was crying. And for hours, after we had been moved to a private ward, I stared at my daughter, at her pouted lips, the hair curled around her ears. I thought she was perfect.
Relatives did not come immediately to the hospital. I got a phone call or two, generic congratulations on the birth of my child. My father was ill, so my mother couldn’t come as quickly to care for me as our Omugwo culture demanded. I bathed my baby, cooked my own meal. It was liberating. There were no judgmental eyes around. But I did not stare too long at my husband’s face for fear that I would see disappointment staring back.
We moved into our own house, a small, unpainted bungalow that sat at the edge of a hill. Houses here are all bounded by tall, looming fences; we could go months without seeing our neighbors. But they saw us, our front yard riddled with wild weeds. Often I worked the yard with my husband, plowing the hard earth with rusty hoes and machetes, cutting the grasses. We planted guavas and papayas at the front, and ugu and bitterleaf and nchuawu at the back. I watched my daughters with an obsession that bordered on paranoia, keeping them in sight so they wouldn’t go tumbling down the cliff behind the house. On Sundays, we sat at the side of the house and drank Pepsi, and I made soups with vegetables I plucked from the backyard.
My husband and I spoke little about our depleting finances. Things had changed over the years. His business was struggling. His store had been broken into, his shipment of mobile phones stolen. It was a difficult time. Family and friends gradually stopped visiting. For the first time since we married, we were alone. And I was pregnant again.
My son was born on a warm Wednesday morning. I had spent the night squashing fat mosquitoes against the wall of my ward and breathing through my mouth. And when my husband drove us home the following morning in his red Toyota Bluebird that creaked when it rode over potholes, he kept reaching over to cup my cheek, to touch our son, his eyes bright with happiness. I had finally fulfilled my purpose. I searched my heart for joy and relief but found nothing. For many days, I wondered why I shrank each time neighbors came by, each time hugging me and congratulating me on my redemption.
Though my husband put up a good performance for our visitors, although he still laughed and listened to his favorite records, though he loved his daughters and his new son, he would often sit in a corner and stare at the middle distance, his eyes clouded with unspoken sorrow. He was disappearing before my eyes, this vibrant man I had married, his neck now thinned like a plucked chicken’s, his pants now loose at the waist. This man who laughed often, who was the happiest when throwing a feast for friends, had become a shadow of himself.
The week after my son’s birth a relative was sitting stiffly in the sitting room. He refused the beer I offered.
“Our son was doing very well before he married you,” he said to me the moment we were alone, his eyes raking over the bare sitting room, his lips thin with displeasure.
At nights while my husband snored lightly beside me, I would slip into the bathroom and cry my eyes out. One morning, out of the blue, I thought of leaving my children behind and running away. But I had no money. I had no job. So, who would I run to? To my parents? They would bring me back. So I woke one morning and went to hunt for a job with the diploma I had earned.
I found a job as a customer service officer at a local bank. The first month, I withdrew my salary, counted the nairas to make sure it was complete, and stuffed them in my purse. Walking home that evening was like a journey over enemy lines: I jumped when people walked past, clutching the purse to my chest until I got home, sure someone would snatch my bag. I gave most of that money to my husband. Giving him the first salary I had ever earned in my whole life and seeing the sun rise in his eyes was liberating.
That weekend we ate an extra piece of meat. We had a side of salad. We sat around the TV to watch our children’s favorite animated movie, and when the power company cut the electricity, my husband bought some petrol for our generator. Many years had passed since we used that generator, and now it hummed again, joining the symphony of evening noises in our neighborhood.
And so it happened, as many things do, gradually: I began to contribute to our family’s upkeep. I paid our children’s school fees. I helped to fix things that needed fixing. My husband stopped walking as though he was permanently hunched at the shoulders. And laughter began to rumble in our home again.
Once, during a visit, my in-law squinted at the new slick flooring of our sitting room and asked when we got the tiles. My husband pointed to me and said, with a smile, “She paid for it. She has been fixing a lot of things around here.” The in-law shook my hand and patted my shoulder and said, “You are a good wife.”
I stared at him. For a long time, I just stared. Only a few years ago, he had blamed me for our struggles. Now, he was smiling. Now, he thought I was a good wife. And in the months to come, all other relatives had kind things to say to me. Although we still endured a few struggles because our earnings were never enough, I saw then that it was my financial independence that had lifted the sacks off my shoulders, unlocked the yoke around my neck, and broke the shackles bounding my limbs. I could finally stand straight. I could finally breathe well.
I saw my cousin recently on Instagram. I was scrolling through my feed when I found her, a grainy vintage snapshot of her leaning against an old Toyota. I noticed the cheap synthetic weave-on, the chalkiness of her skin. Seventeen years had passed, and she looked thirty years older. I could vividly remember the chic cousin who came home wearing the most glamorous clothes, talking down her nose at the villagers. I still remember that Christmas when she came home with a new, shiny car that she wouldn’t let anyone ride in, except for me. She invited me to join her for the Ede Aro carnival to watch masquerades. She was dark and lean and had a body that poured into shapely clothes, and I was tall and thin and worried too much about the tightness of my dress, the length of my heels. At the carnival, people looked at us, flashing smiles, and I wondered if they thought we were siblings, even though she was twelve years older.
I often wonder how things would have turned out if my cousin hadn’t caused me to walk into marriage with a chest pressed tight with fear. I wonder if my early years in marriage would have been happier had she encouraged me to seek financial independence rather than an immediate pregnancy.
Seventeen long years have since passed, with our lives taking different turns. She married and moved to Enugu with her husband, and they have three daughters. She resigned from her job because he wanted her to be a stay-at-home wife. She stopped wearing her chic clothes, swapping them for cheap wrappers and blouses. She sold off her car and, years later, after a long fight with her husband, asked my father for a small fund to start a trade.
But before this, before she buckled under the pressure and agreed to marry, before she resigned from her lucrative job and moved out of her fancy apartment, before she moved into the two-bedroom flat in Enugu and settled for a housewife, before everything changed, I was an awkward teenager and she invited me to ride with her in a car she owned. She was smiling, so full of life. She said she would invite me to visit her in Lagos. She said things that made my chest bubble with laughter and I imagined growing up to become like her: a single, successful woman, unburdened by society, living on her own terms. And in those brief moments in my memory, we are happy together.
This essay first appeared in Catapult.
Ukamaka Olisakwe is the author of Ogadinma