Good words are like flowers kissed by the morning dew— an African saying…
The story continues…
Nne’s was the final voice of authority in my mother’s decision to send me to Lagos without Papa’s permission. Not only because her mother was held in the highest esteem by her husband, but also because Uncle was the son of my grandmother’s late, little sister. When that sister passed away, Nne had been the one who co-raised the children she left behind, including Uncle. So when she said I could go to Uncle in my father’s absence my mother’s concerns were silenced once and for all. Because of the cordial relationship between my grandmother and my father, if need be, Nne would step in and diffuse any tension on Papa’s return. Everyone knew that, including my mother.
My uncle was a brilliant man, everyone said so…brilliant and unusual. A quiet and unobtrusive individual, he was more comfortable with his nose inside the pages of a book than in his surroundings. Nne used to say that the world could be swirling to an end and Uncle would be in perfect harmony so long as he had a book to help him navigate the chaos. He’d been a child prodigy from a very early age — one of those ‘strange’ children who performed equations adults didn’t even know exist and found solutions to math problems that had the most intelligent of them scratching their heads in confusion.
As can be imagined, my uncle was extremely well respected in our community, many said outside of it as well. Even though he was barely in his forties, elders who were twice his age frequently consulted him over one issue or another. It was this brilliance that had caused our family and community to come together to raise money to send him overseas to study in one of the ivy-league universities in England. As fostering goes, everyone agreed there was no better home for me to be sent.
The home to which Aunty and I headed shortly after the long ‘luxurious’ bus that transported us from the eastern part of Nigeria had rattled to a stop — more than 16hours after leaving the motor park in Ikot Ekpene — was in an area of Lagos known as Ebutte-Metta. The flat was ‘mini and temporary,’ Aunty said. The family was awaiting the completion of their permanent home at a newly created city called FESTAC Town. The ministry Uncle worked for had allocated to him a ‘proper’ place there, a place ‘right’ for his position, she said.
Two things became immediately apparent after our arrival. The first was that contrary to what she had told my mother, the chores Uncle’s wife expected me to attend to every day included tasks that were unsuitable for a child my age. My uncle’s wife was a professional nurse and she had two sets of work uniform, one was white and the other blue. Both needed starching after washing but the blue had to be soaked in blue colouring powder to refresh and renew its colour. The starch was made by dissolving raw unprocessed starch into a runny paste using cold water, then adding boiling water — being attentive to stir it constantly to avoid it turning into chunks of lumpy mess. The blueing process was a bit simpler but even then, the measure of water had to be just right, otherwise, the colour did not catch well when applied. The entire process was complicated.
And then there was the washing of the uniform itself, thick, heavy fabrics that turn my young hands raw when I scrubbed to get rid of the many strange stains from the hospital. As if all of that wasn’t enough, I was expected to iron everything ‘board smooth,’ without ‘extra seams,’ Aunty warned. It was all too complex for someone my age and therefore hard to master quickly. My uncle’s wife was not a very patient teacher. When I could not learn some of the tasks faster enough she began to call me stupid.
The second indication that my life was not going to be as simple as Aunty had let on was to do with the relationship she had with some of her neighbours, and the roles she expected me to play in those relationships. In particular, Aunty had a neighbour with whom she wasn’t in good terms - They were called Mr Mrs Uche.
The Uches were a family of four and were also fostering a young girl (also the husband’s sister) called Uju who, judging by her budding chest, was already in her mid-teens. I learned that Aunty had had an on-going situation with Mrs Uche for a while, the kind that had resulted in fistfights several times. It seems the woman thought Aunty was a ‘show-off’ because she was married to someone like my uncle. Aunty, on her part, considered Mrs Uche crude and troublesome. Apparently, Uju had joined to disrespect Aunty in the past. I don’t recall my uncle’s wife categorically telling me to disrespect Mrs Uche too, but I know that she fully expected me to take part in any fight that ensued between them. But I wasn’t raised that way. Back home my sisters and I were strongly warned against what our parents and grandmother called usuene idem k’anwa — or public display of indignity. Public fighting was considered by them to be the highest form of usuene idem k’anwa. ‘Only ill-bred children from uncultured homes engage in public fighting. Young girls, especially young maidens from good homes, should never be seen doing such.’ What my parents termed ‘maidens’ is similar to what is regarded in the western world as ‘ladies.’ That is, young girls who have been put through ‘finishing’ school — a practice very common in my region at the time and encapsulated in the rite-of-passage tradition known as mbopo in Ibibio language (or nkuho in Efik). As maidens, my sisters and I were expected to adhere to strict rules of comportment and social decorum. One of the frequent admonitions of our grandmother was, ‘You are a young maiden, conduct yourself accordingly!’ In addition to other social decorum, maidens, and all children in general, were expected to revere those older than them and accord them the utmost respect. And so I couldn’t bring myself to hiss and mutter at Mrs Uche’s the way her husband’s little sister did whenever my uncle’s wife walked by.
My refusal to disrespect Mrs Uche, or join in the frequent fracas between her, my aunty and the rascally teenaged Uju did not earn me my aunt’s devotion. Her name-calling graduated from stupid to useless and worthless. Her exact words were, ‘You will never amount to anything; you are worthless, useless and stupid.’
It was a terrible thing to say to a child. It’s a terrible thing to say to anyone. But for the next five years, I was to hear these words and others much like them, again and again as the abuse evolved from the verbal into the physical.