My mail box is full of papa’s whisperings. Even now that I no longer need them, they are voices refusing to acknowledge my silence.
I am trying this again. Sometimes I sit for hours, not knowing what to write. How to write it. I imagine your reaction. I write. I crumble. For each one I have written, I have a dozen balls of sheets in the waste basket. That’s my loyal friend. It accommodates all my shit. I’m writing this listening to the crickets. The night came early because it rained for most of the day. The sky has been lazy. The sun slept all through. I’m in my brown sweater. And trousers. As I write to you every day, my table is full of papers wearing these words from my heart. This is a leap of faith. I hope this persistence reaches the door of your heart . . .
Mama, you wanted a good life for me, for us. It is not your fault. Not mine. Don’t blame yourself. I won’t. There are things I wanted to tell you. But my body couldn’t. Because the oath of silence it drank in my madam’s room of red walls and a smiling skull on a red, dressed table wrapped me in dread. Stories floated about those who didn’t let the silence live inside them. I heard names like: Nora. Lami. Ekua. Ebo. Labo. Kenro. Tare. And Mari. Their lips grew bigger than their faces could carry. Their eyes left their sockets like terrified rodents. The spaces between their thighs vomited worms. Their bodies rot before their lives left them. Or death played games with their family members. I thought of you. I thought of the terror. Silence was my new shelter.
For three months, to cover costs I didn’t know of, I was a bowl of sweetness for ten men every day, tasteless to myself, eaten slowly, quickly, and left like a morsel. My thighs were a home. Europe, America, Africa, and Asia slept there. Until I left my madam undressed of thirty thousand dirham.
You were four when I left. Your baby photo is always in my breast pocket. You were sitting on your mother’s lap when I shot it. It was one of those days when my mood didn’t bite me. I don’t remember what else happened that day. But I was happy. Your mother too. It’s a photo of smiles. Your chubby hands. Your dark hair. Your teeth. Your eyes are thin lines on your face. Your lips are spread wide. Do you remember my face? From the photo you sent to your mother, you’ve not changed much. I still see the baby in you. But you’ve grown into a fine woman.
Mama, I have come home to see you. As I promised. Since I left. Four years ago. My body would have been twenty. Your eyes flutter behind their closed doors. You must be dreaming about seeing me.
I know you are angry with me still. You don’t want to read my messages. You’re right. You need to be. I wanted to come back many times, but I felt I had wronged your mother too much to deserve her any more. And yes, I still don’t. So, I stayed away. And thought I had no chance. I must tell you, it’s not easy with your mother either. We are trying to get back together.
Your house is tucked away in Unguwan Aboki like a secret. It is the way you like it. Me too. The outside walls are brown like the dirt road. It’s a colour that does not shout, you said. Two mango trees stand in the compound and sway along the twitter of birds. A gray painted Peugeot 404 lies in their shade like an old photo. Like that black and white photo of you and papa smiling into the camera as though competing for whom has the best set of teeth, and of me standing behind bottles of Sprite, coke, and a heap of cake, crying as if I held grudges for being born.
The white walls inside evoke your mantras: white is for forgetting. The past is where you go to amend what is no longer there. As I am doing now. I am no longer what I was. I am what I should be, pure as in your head. A roach crawls across. I step on it. It doesn’t bother. Or feel the need to. Its antennas point unflinchingly to the unwashed plates in the sink.
Your mother and I had what you may call an R&B love in the first years of our marriage. We waited three years before you came. We were happy you came. That was why we named you Ogechi—Godstime. Your mother was so taken away by you, or so I thought, that all her time was spent on you. Your hair. Your face. Your clothes. Your smell.
The last time you and I ate together. Tuwo and miyan taushe. On the eve of my departure. At that former house in Unguwan Aga where you sold ugwu leaves at Kasuwan Layi. The single room was cramped with faint smells of those leaves. We sat on the floor and ate and swam in the sweet words of my soon-to-be madam, Mama Sara—a former leaf-seller who had left and come back with big cars. And had gone back with girls. Who had returned with their own cars too.
I miss the house—the endless chatters of other tenants at night, the songs of rats in the roof. It was in that room I wrote poems for Ali, the boy from the opposite door, instead of writing my math assignment. It was there I lay on the sofa, he, a sack of eagerness on top of me, our lips hugging, our hands scampering about, when we heard you return from the market. He slipped out through the back door like an edited scene of a movie. The memories sat on me like wet clothing dripping wet emotions. Then they got wrung, dry and crumpled like an old rag. Did you find my little notebook after I left? Did you laugh? Did you smile? Did you feel disappointed in me? I have rummaged through my body’s span. I can’t find a yes or a no.
Mama, at thirty-eight, fifty is your soul. You reel on me messages from your absent husband. The man you say is my father. In my dreams, he is a faceless man who has beards like plates on his face. I don’t want to hear anything about him. I don’t want him in this house I have built for you. But you carry your vegetation of scars and say: ‘Everyone makes mistakes’. So papa made mistakes when leaving us, leaving you. He wanted to chase the smiles and laughter at the corners of work, until he was one of those laid off like withered leaves at the bank, and still stayed out without telling you, and came back one day just to say: “I’m sorry.” I want you to be happy, Mama.
I felt lonely after you came. Understand me. I don’t know where that feeling came from. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I couldn’t tell your mother because I didn’t understand myself either. Maybe I was overwhelmed by the thought of a family of two becoming three. I still can’t explain. I went to work, stayed later. And later. “I’m okay. Just loads of work.” I used to tell your mother when she asked. Maybe I was jealous. I felt ashamed of it too. A lady colleague at work, Udama, entered the spaces in me and filled them with what I thought I was missing at home, in my life at that time. The affair ended when the bank folded. I didn’t come back home. I just told your mother that I wanted to be away for a while. She didn’t understand or didn’t hear me well. But that was how I left. Far away. I got in and out of jobs. And relationships too. All left me hollow as I was yearning for something I couldn’t get.
Your voice, the last time I spoke with you, was jolly as if something heavy had left you, Mama, and you laughed. It tickled me. I laughed along. But my laughter was a veil. I wore it like those photos on billboards, of people baring their teeth like artifacts. You wondered at some points how a sales rep could make so much money as I did. The first sum I sent you, half a million, was a two-day romping with an Arab man. He told me about his wives, four of them. How he wanted to divorce the first, how the last was boring and yet to conceive, how he wanted to taste an African woman.
I talk to myself a lot these days. Ramblings. They are senseless. Or so they seem. But I let myself hear them. Do you also talk to yourself? It’s a lonely world. It’s sad. Do you let yourself listen? No? Good for you. You know, some people are so full of talks in their heads they want to pour them out to anyone who cares. Without judgments. I am those people. At least, this is true of me. It’s the way I feel sometimes. No. Most times. I’m not saying I’m making any sense, or making a case for myself . . .
I moved in and out of places, from Al Ain to Sharja to Dubai to Abu Dhabi, and back to Al Ain, away from Police raids. I made new friends too. Tika, whose eyes were balls of moons on her face used to say it was going to be her last: she wanted to go home where she had four rented bungalows. Mona, whose hair danced on her round head when she walked, wanted to stay much longer than go back to the Philippines. Linda didn’t want go back to Cameroon, where being an orphan was not the weight she wanted to carry after her father and mother, both teachers, had been whisked away in the arms of the Francophone siege. Her English degree had become useless in her Southern region, where the English language was being stifled, where schools had been closed down for nearly two years, where there was a heavy military presence to checkmate separatist clamours.
I wanted the money, Mama. It would save you from drowning in the debt to the Ugwu Leaf Cooperative Society. The debt that flew me away from home, from you. I didn’t want to come back to you as an empty luggage, a patch of shame. Do you remember at the airport, how you held me with your eyes, with your hands? “Do me proud. Conquer,” you said between the heaves of your body. My quick nods didn’t stop water from leaving my eyes.
They told me things. Those clients. Things I didn’t ask for. I listened. It was good for business. They had a single definition of me. And wore it like emblems: she is just a poor African from a wretched country. We are doing her good by fucking her. As if I was not a glass of favour they were dying to drink from.
Bukar, whose skin was like mine, said he was a manager in the cement factory. His basic salary was 5000 dirhams, an equivalent of N500, 000. But his rough palms told me a different story. The one his lips hid and his pride didn’t like. He was a labourer, or a cleaner, earning a little above 900. Sex was the place of forgetting. The only pleasure he could pay for. And get. At the peak of his thrusts, the wrinkles in his face said farewell.
One asked me to read for him while his breath grazed me, and he poured out, and cursed himself, and I kept reading to his English non-comprehending-ears. But they were a shadow quicker this time, the police. Mama, for all the years I was away from you, my body didn’t belong to me. So, I wanted to own it, to be free. Leaving my body through the window of that fourth floor was freedom. I didn’t hear my body thump the ground. I had left it and watched it like a god in the sky watching over his creature. The hands and legs flailed. The hair sprawled in the air, the lips were apart from a scream and the eyes were wide in their sockets. I can still hear the scream. It’s a nagging music.
I am telling you this because I am free.
I hear it does not rain in the Emirates. Do you miss the rains? Yesterday, it left the sky like a loud sigh. Every now and then, my past sits beside me, in the corners of the day, cross-legged, and mocks me. I feel caged in its stare. I should go back and fix these things. It works only in my memory. Pity. It’s the stare I don’t want to face. I want to be free like the birds. But this is asking too much, right?
They wrapped the body in white like an expired capsule. They would discover I didn’t have a passport. The last time I held mine, I had just arrived at the airport. My madam gave it to an oldie, Nanke, for her to go back home. It was her twentieth year. Nanke’s body no longer invited customers. It was also the last time I saw her. She looked at me like I was the best thing that had ever happened to her.
But they were more interested in who had rigged his throat. On that night in his hotel room, he wouldn’t let me go after the two hours we spent. His eyes jeered in their old sockets. His teeth smiled through their cigarette-drunk lips. Then he turned me on my belly like a trophy. He didn’t wait for me to say no. He collected the yes I didn’t have and gave it to his voice.
“You . . . what will you do now . . . ?” he said when he was done pummeling my behind. Then he turned me over again like a bag of sweet rubbish, and hovered a knife over my face. Left. Right. As though he was counting my breath.
The laughter in his eyes slapped my fear dead. I didn’t know where it came from, the other impulse. But I paid heed. It was the only thing I felt I wanted to do. It must have surprised him. It must have made him wonder if he was in a cinema watching the superimposition of a feminine strength. And he didn’t realize the dampness on my chest was the sputter of red from his neck. In fact, I wanted to shred him into pieces of fine shapes, the way you did when you held down a bunch of ugwu leaves in one hand, and slice it through with the other. Each slice a loud munch.
My old Peugeot has been fixed. It was in it that your mother almost pushed you out, before we reached the hospital. By the way, we conceived you in it. These days, I’m a taxi driver. It’s all my fault. I failed you. I failed your mother. I feel terrible. I’m pathetic. I am sorry. Words do let me down. I mean I am sorry. I want to say this a million times. I hope you’d read this one. I hope you’d just pop a Hi at me . . .
Sincerely with love,
Mama, I am happy to see your lips wear a lazy smile even in your sleep, almost invisible. Despite the lines on your face, you look younger now. My madam used to say to me when I made my remittances: “You are the younger version of your mother.”
I want you to see me, to feel me. I want to slide into your sleep and tell you not to worry about my body. I am finer now.