I am 37 and I am a divorced woman. Don’t get it twisted; this is not the story of a woman emancipated or a feminist movement. This is the story of a tired woman. A woman drained; desolate like a shell left behind by a hermit crab. It wasn’t always like this; before I became the dried up older looking woman with receding hairline, before the children that left me overweight and saggy with skin hanging onto bone-like clothes on one line all that I was Nkemdili, the lithe girl with the light laugh.
I turned eyes in the village. I was beautiful, I was 18. I had just graduated top of my class in the village secondary school. I spent my days doing chores and talking about boys. We all agreed that our brothers were annoying. We all agreed that Nnamdi, with arms like tubers of newly harvested yam, was the man of our dreams; it was Ekene, his friend who walked as if the ground was made of hot charcoal, that I wanted his arms around me.
But it was the talk of marriage that excited me the most. My friends agreed that I’d be the first to get a husband. It wasn’t surprising; I was the finest, with full hair as black as coal and skin so light they called me Oyinbo. I had a full bosom and my slight figure had all the right curves in the right places. I knew all these because I liked looking at myself in the mirror; because the men followed me around calling me their colour and Apunanwu. Because I could see the envy in the eyes of the mother’s friend. “Nkem has grown up to be a beautiful woman!” They would say, slightly touching my mother’s leg and smiling smiles that didn’t get to their eyes. “Suitors will soon start coming for her hand.” And they came. Men with goats and cartons of drinks. My mother refused. She hoarded me, kept me from men. She made me believe that no one in the village was good enough for me.
Then that Christmas Obioma came back from the village. Obioma was ordinary; he was lean and had the complexion of rancid oil. It became worse if he stayed under the sun. But he had a car, a shiny contraption that hummed. My mother’s eyes took on a light when she saw the car. It was the same one she had when she wanted to haggle at the market, the same one she had when she wanted to get something from Papa.
A few days later, Obioma was at our house. He came with drinks and bags of rice. The marriage was a simple affair. Obioma had to leave for the city and my mother wanted me to leave with him. “You will give him sons. Sons will keep him by your side.” My mother said as she hugged me goodbye.
When we got to his place, a two-bedroom flat with whitewashed walls, he took me to his room and mounted me. His kisses were clumsy and rough, nothing like the ones Ekene gave me. His thrusts were fast and frantic as if he was rushing somewhere and by the end of the month I found out I was pregnant. Obioma was perfect during the duration of my pregnancy; he did most of the chores and bought food from outside most of the time. He tucked me into bed and he massaged my feet.
When I went into labour, he stayed in the lobby of the hospital and waited. When they put Chinyere in his hand and said “Your daughter Sir?” He was able to hide the disappointment before anyone could see it. But I saw it and that night before he turned his back to me, he said “Do not worry. It will be a boy next time.” But it wasn’t a boy next time, it was Obianuju, the one that came a day after he got his promotion at work. He wasn’t there when I went into labour but when they came and they told him it was a girl, he didn’t bother hiding his disappointment.
After that day he started eating bananas while muttering under his breath that they would make his sperm stronger and he would give me boys. Those times, I thought of stronger sperm, semi-liquid substances with arms like Nnamdi. The thought always made me smile. Obioma changed completely after the birth of Chioma. He left me with the child in the hospital and wouldn’t talk to me when I got home. He referred to our children as mine alone and he would hit me at the slightest provocation. He only touched me when he was drunk. And those nights he treated me like a rag, a cheap whore. Sometimes I wondered if he would throw money on the floor to pick up. I would have picked them up.
He refused to take any more responsibilities for our daughters. He only did the barest minimum. I had to take care of them. I started petty trading. After I gave birth to Nnenne, he went back to the village on his annual leave and came back with another woman. “She is my new wife. She is carrying my son!” He said when I asked him who she was. They left me standing in the sitting room and just before he stepped into the bedroom he said: “You will have to pack into the Children’s room with them.”
The other wife was a chameleon, but you can decide not to believe me. A wife’s story about her co-wife should always be taken with a pinch of salt. But my husband didn’t know this. So when She lost the baby and told Obioma that I pushed her, he didn’t stop to think. He threw us out of the house, screaming that we had killed his son. Chinyere, who had just turned 18 then, spat on his face and called him shameless. But in the end, we had to leave. I found a place I could afford. The roof was leaking and I had to share a toilet with five other rooms but it was a roof and it was over our head.
So you see, this is no story about empowerment. This is a story about a woman and her daughters. Chinyere makes me proud. She is in school now. Studying abroad on a scholarship. Obianuju is headstrong and is dating an older man. Chioma and Nnenne are the apples of my eyes. Taking care of them is the best thing I could have done for my life. And even though I worked myself lifeless to take care of them, I am satisfied. For where I failed as a wife I triumphed as a mother.