Today is the first day of the rest of my life. Mother is happy that after six sons she has a girl to mold in her own image. Father has the look of a boy gifted with his first bicycle. He picks up the phone and calls his friends, home and abroad, and then he has the crazy idea to call random numbers off his head to declare his new status. He will throw a party for my naming because in this new land it is conventional practice after eight days. Mother will buy a whole market for the party, Father will beam like a strobe, the guests will open their palms to take some powder for good fortune and people will long to hold me and breathe in fresh baby scent. I look like a baby rat—wrinkly, shriveled; if I wasn’t so small I will pass for an old woman. But everyone calls me cute anyway.
I am seven years old. I have grown into a young girl with Spider limbs and a love for athletics. The team is made up of a 5:2 boy-girl ratio. Mother is unhappy about this. She says I spend too much time with the boys. I tell her she has too many boys in the house. Sometimes she spank my bottom for being flippant, other times she laments that this trait must be from Father’s gene pool. My brothers teach me to climb a tree, ride a bicycle and climb to our neighbour’s house through the fence whenever Father bars us from walking out the gate. Mother says these are bad behaviour for a girl, I will not get a man interested in marrying another boy when I am older. She wants me to learn to cook, clean, read a book, walk and talk like a lady. I tell her dear husband has to live with it.
I wake up to stickiness between my thighs. Fear chills my bones when my hand makes its way under my shorts and comes away with blood. This is something I know about; mother has made certain I am sufficiently educated and where she left untouched my home economics and science teachers covered. My feet feel like lead as they make their way to mother’s room. She sees me and knows in a way only mothers can. Her smile is visible as she directs me to shower and fixes me up. The lectures follow again; they must be understood. You are now a woman, she says, no man must touch you. I carry myself with the awkwardness of a thirteen years old, terrified of the consequences of playing with boys, uncomfortable from the squish of my sanitary pad—I think people might hear too. I fear mother will finally have her wish: I must become a proper lady.
Aunty kemi comes to pay us a visit. She is not a real aunt but Father insists I call her that as a sign of respect. She’s spread-eagle on my bed, contentment etched on her face—I wonder what she’s been up to. We talk about everything, Kemi and I. She likes when I address her by name; Aunt makes me feel old she says with a laugh. I like her laugh, practice it sometimes when I’m alone. It’s not the sweet peal of a bell or the teasing tinkle of wind chimes; it’s a cackle like the witches on television—peculiar in its own right. She asks me about boys and I tell her of Ugo the boy I’m in love with. He’s handsome with sharp features, an intern at the University teaching hospital, and makes me feel special. She tells me to let him touch but never to allow him fully unclothe me or put it in; it’s important I remain a virgin. I nod in understanding but a growing dread fills me: I do not know for how long I will be able to stop him; I am not sure I will always want to stop him.
It’s my seventeenth year.
A boy will get married and forget his family; a girl never does, her parents are forever in her heart Father tells me. His is seated on a stool in the kitchen while I work my magic on a pot of soup. I smile because he expects me to. This is a sensitive topic for both of us, any misplaced word and someone will stomp off fuming. My mind appears busy with the soup which I already know by heart, but truly I am thinking of my friend Nzube, an age mate who has been married three years, and blessed with three boys. Father has met her on certain occasions and perhaps wonders why his princess can’t be like her friend. He voices my thoughts. I am trying to be and asset I say to him; men today are not interested in women whose only skill is working a delicious pot of bitter leaf soup and pounded yam. The economy is bad, the polity is facing unrest, investors are scared, there has to be more than a proficiency in Home Economics that I bring to the table. Father blesses my effort with a chuckle. He imagines this is the 21st century version of a bride price. We remain silent while I cook but I can see the longing in his eyes and the unspoken prayer he says on my behalf. I am twenty-five years old.
I am garbed in blue African print, face painted in bright colours and beaming for the seven continents. Through my open window the melodramatic song of the artist drifts in while Kemi, looking exhausted from the weight protruding from her belly, sighs. I feel so old she tells me for the millionth time; I wonder if it’s all right to call her Aunty now. Mother comes for the girls, it is time to show myself to the guests. Today is my traditional marriage ceremony. The weather is pleasant, too pleasant I suspect someone must have seen the Rain Maker. My girls dance so well I’m convinced someone will be finding a husband today. Everyone is beaming—a direct result of seeing me married off or from having drunk too much palm wine, I cannot say.
It is time to go. My bags are taken to the car waiting outside; my heart is thumping against its cage. Mother wipes the tears in her eyes, she tells me of all the joy I brought to her at my birth. Kemi pulls me to her side, one more thing she says with a mischievous glint in her eyes, let him put it in. Father says a prayer and plants a kiss on my head. My husband is waiting by the car as I say my goodbyes, but before I get to him Mother-in-Law envelops me in a hug that takes longer than is necessary. I feel her lips by my ear.
What did my Mother want, he asks, when the car begins to move. I smile, ever the eccedentesiast. She can’t wait for the children…
It was a wise man who said, the mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven. I watch the endless stretch of road ahead and wonder what the future holds for me– time will tell. But if time is the gambling partner on the other side with all the deck in its hand, then providence is the winning hand. Today is the first day of the rest of my life; I can only hope she smiles on me.