To be born an old woman here is to be called an old woman here. Not even the herbal emollient smeared on me could soothe the confusion of my birth. My case was going to be one without a remedy. I was going to be my only comedy.
Mother had seen how aged I had looked at birth, and for that reason named me ‘Nana’, saying “Grandmother has returned,” for Nana was the name of her late grandmother who didn’t die well.
Mother said I didn’t cry as I made my first appearance, but that I had sneezed just the way her grandmother did after sniffing tobacco. A woman who dug me out of Mother said I was a stillbirth but had later become animate after she bit my ears. Whether I was exhumed or harvested, I have forgotten. All I remember is that my skin was dry and tough because it is still dry and tough. To cross the ‘t’ and to dot the ‘i’ of my indignity, Mother’s mother insisted that I should be given a facial mark—the exact specification of my great grandmother’s. I think that in addition to the threadbare clothes, bronze snuffbox, bowls of spices, and the other moth-eaten things they paid homage to me with, the mark came on my first birthday as a dark gift ushering me into a second-hand life.
Father knew nothing of this future-wrenching act because he and Mother were separated at the time of my birth till I was two and because Father knew nothing too. After drinking much ogogoro, he positioned a strange woman on his bed and beat Mother for trying to come in between. It made Mother leave him while pregnant with me to go and live with her mother.
When I heard of this story, I was just seven and sensible enough to look at Father’s veinous hands. They had an uncanny resemblance with what really endorsed cruelty.
I disassociated myself from him when I was talking about him to anybody who had cared to listen. I never knew this was happening until I had a conversation with a fragile boy called Donatus.
“He asked me to give this to your father,” I said to Donatus, flashing a machete at his face.
“Who is he?” Donatus asked.
“Who else?” I said.
“Which person?” His pale eyes flattened.
“Your dad’s friend, of course.” My eyes widened.
“Which one of them?”
“My mother’s husband!”
Donatus was furious at me for having drawn him into such a weird conversation. He was a sickler. I was supposed to know that sicklers were not to be bothered.
On the other hand, I called Mother by her first name, Kokoni. But it meant nothing because I couldn’t enjoy her and share in what muted her and made her keep vigils where she gurgled and mumbled words in prayer. Sometimes, it was my bed-wetting that made Mother remember I was a child—her child, not her Nana.
Home and away, I was thought to have had an ample juice out of everything. I knew about this the first day I arrived at school. I was five.
That day my teacher had an attack. Seeing his unorthodox display, I ran out of the classroom, hoping never to return if that was what school was about —teachers collapsing on the floor, gnashing their teeth and jerking like crazy. But when I got home, gasping for breath, Mother reprimanded me. “Nana, just look at you,” she said, “You were supposed to know he was convulsing. You have seen epileptic people in your previous life. Or have you not? You should have helped him. Now, tell me, Nana, why did you not help him?” I was lost.
When I got into high school, I was not asked for owo mugo—the money one pays to bullies for being a fool. Every newly-enrolled was looked upon as a fool, a big fool. Bullies didn’t just observe that I was new. Perhaps, they felt I was too old to be new. Most of them fourteen, fifteen… but yet I was too old at eleven. I had an influence over the other students that shut them up whenever I approached the rings of their gossips. I was the dreaded killjoy! It got to a point when most of them took unending turns to report themselves to me. They would come to my seat with falling shoulders and tell me who did what and what to them. I would just look favourably at them, shrug my shoulders and then say sorry. That two-syllable word would give holidays to their heart in ways they had never counted on. Now, I perceive that the high-fevered respect most of them had for me had come from a certain incident or better still, an accident.
There was a beautiful girl. Her name was Amaka. Amaka had come to me complaining about a boy who had ruffled her hair with his messy hands after seizing her lunch box. His name was Okon. I didn’t take it lightly because Okon was the leader of the few who called me ‘penguin’ behind my back, never minding that I didn’t know what a penguin was then. Also, the fact that I didn’t own a lunch box made one too precious to be snatched.
I told Okon that somebody was going to beat him soon as a payback for the ugly thing he had done to Amaka the beautiful girl. As if life was imitating what I had said, on Okon’s way home a huge man in a black overcoat beat Okon for throwing stones at a sick dog which belonged to the man. Okon would have had his buttocks flattened had it not been for Sister Aurora. The news spread that apart from being too old, I also was able to quicken karma.
Did I mention Sister Aurora? Yes. Sister Aurora was a plump good-natured Irish woman with deep neck folds and a deeper keenness for the piano. The tunes her nimble fingers picked out of the keyboard had the resemblance of a mourning elephant compressed into a musical note. Oh, how she pressed her soul out during our assemblies while we sang!
The Sunday Sister Aurora was introduced in our parish would remain evergreen. After a few words touching on her vocation, the catechist added that she was ‘accidental’ instead of saying ‘occidental’. For a long time, that blunder would make me wary of her as if she was someone harmed by fate. I was thrilled to death by her singsong voice, especially when she said, “Beautiful people thank you for having me in Africa.”
We were made to believe that white skinned people were simply extraordinary and that their blood was thicker than tomato paste. Every time Mr. Odisa, our principal, mounted the podium he started his speech by saying, “A white man once said…” or “the whites have said….” For this reason, we nicknamed him ‘Black Liar’. And so, when Sister Aurora was attached to our school by the diocese to be our counselor and music instructor, it was relieving to know that I was going to hear from a white person for the first time.
Mr. Odisa was such a disorganized man who wanted to disorganize everything. But he treated Sister Aurora as if she were a butter cake. He would rush to carry her bag and open doors for her. He also apologized for natural conditions. He would tell her sorry for no cause: Sorry Sister, the rain fell much today or sorry ma’am, the African sun is just too hot for you.
On our way to the latrine, we would pass Sister Aurora’s office silently because we had been told that she hated noise, the very stuff we were made of. The more daring of us would whisper, while sometimes I forgot to breathe.
One day, as I was leaving my classroom for the latrine, Sister Aurora appeared before me and said, “Loosen your face and now, smile.” I smiled, “Smile more, keep smiling.” She added and then she called me ‘Alannah’. I wondered why.
Soon, I got into her office after the mathematics teacher reported me to her.
During a Mathematics test, I could not answer the set questions so I set my own questions on the answer sheet and then I answered them—very well. It made me feel unleashed. When Sister Aurora heard this, she told the teacher that she was going to handle the case.
“Why did you do it?” She asked me warmly.
“I was trying to help myself out.”
“And was that necessary?”
I kept quiet.
“Was it necessary? Alannah, answer me.” Who was Alannah? The name was mellifluous. I ran out of the office. Again, I was lost.
The next day I saw her office door ajar and so I went inside. I had gathered enough heart. I was going to explain why I did what I did and to investigate that name—Alannah. The office was walled in white and well-being. A fragrance gave out a redeeming scent. I found her sleeping, her saintly head on her dairy. I was astonished to see a roasted corn in a translucent wrap near her mouth. It was the same type Mother roasted and sold. It amused me – knowing that white people also ate roasted corn. Mr. Odisa didn’t tell us that. Soon, a din arose from the playground and chased out the quietude in the office, and at that moment, I tried to run away before she was roused by the sound. I had lost my strong heart. It was as if the whole school was scorning me with that abrupt noise. But then, she woke up and gave me a shy grimace, having caught her sleeping.
I can still picture them—those rare and glassy eyes at close range, how like a calm sea. She wiped the slobber off her face and wrote something on a piece of paper in a neat swift hand and then she gave it to me with a disarming smile. It read:
I have been waiting for you, Alannah. I knew you were going to come back.
It was so hypnotizing—the sound of that word ‘Alannah’. As I struggled to mean under her presence, she said, pointing at the window, “I watch you from there.”
I told her that I was not Alannah, that I was Nana, and that she had probably mistaken me for whoever Alannah was. But she was quite sure of what she had written. And then she said, “Alannah means ‘my child’ in Irish.”
She told me that she was very much aware of me and wondered why I was called a penguin. It was then I asked her what a penguin really was. She promised to show me a picture of one the next day. And then, she said, “Alannah, break-time over, tomorrow we’ll make a better start.”
Tomorrow came on time and she made good her words by showing me pictures of different birds from a colourful book. I saw a penguin and then I saw a kiwi too. I thought that I looked more like the latter —dry, cadaver grey and out of place.
I told her everything: that I was a myth, that my childhood was enthroned on an old tombstone, that my being evoked memories of the dead, that I needed to slough off the script and that, it was for me to set my own questions in the mathematics of my life.
She beamed and touched the tip of my nose, and then, she cried, “Oh! Alannah.” And then she hugged me, even with her tears.
When I skipped school because I was down with chickenpox, Sister Aurora came to lift my heart at home. Mother didn’t say much to her because Sister Aurora was too exultant and too beset with joy to be engaged in a discussion by a woman who had seen the jagged depths of sadness.
“Look at my face closely.” Sister Aurora said to me.
I saw them —the traces of pockmarks on her face. It meant she was immune. I was happy that I had what she once had. It united us together in an inexplicable affinity. Before she left, she kissed my hair—something Mother would never do. That night before I slept, I formed the ritual of rubbing powder on my face to look a little white in the morning. As I did this, Mother came in and asked me to remind her of the Sister’s name.
“She is Sister Aurora.” I offered, “Aurora means ‘light’. Until the light arises in your heart, nothing is yours.” I saw the streaks of anxiety my words had wrought on Mother’s face and, for once in my life, I wasn’t bothered.
At home, I suffered from a favorable abandon. I did whatever I wanted and went unpunished because Mother would not suffer herself to beat her grandmother, and Father didn’t care. But there were times I got beaten by others.
One day, Mother told me to remove the bones from the fish she had sun-dried but I had heard it the other way round: remove the fish from the bones. So I ate all the fish and left her a neat skeleton like an archaeological find. When she saw this her heart broke. Mine broke too when I saw how sad and helpless she was.
There was a slovenly woman in our compound who was always everywhere. It was to this woman Mother complained bitterly. The woman plucked a whip and thrashed me as if I were her own child. As she beat me, I watched the rising and falling of her massive breasts. For days, I would go on thinking of them. So, I tied a scarf tightly around my chest to hamper any sudden shameful growth.
I asked Sister Aurora why she didn’t get married. The sister said that she was ordained for an enviable destiny.
“We have been called into glory.”
“I want glory; I don’t want to get married. I hate to lose.” I grumbled.
“God didn’t ordain marriage for losses.”
“But look at my parents. Look at their marriage.”
After saying a lot she added calmly, “Alannah there are many things I cannot say now. Break-time over, please go to your classroom.”
But good and enough for me, the things she said were many. They flowed through my veins without having to observe break-times.
The first time I hugged a boy other than my brother I thought I was pregnant and already married. Our debate team had scored a point. We were all joyous. Immediately I realized that we were hugging, I elbowed him off and then, I felt a severe tightening in my abdomen.
From another discussion with Sister Aurora, I learned that God had a way of giving bad boys goodwives. Father was not an exception. Hearing this, I aspired to be very bad so that if I eventually got married I would not be given to a bad boy like Okon the bully.
One day, I asked Father why he had poured a jar of water on Mother. He said that women were not supposed to talk while their husbands were scolding them.
“If you cannot talk to Mother with love,” I told him, “why did you marry her? Why did you not just marry her father’s dog?”
He flung the jar at me. That night, Mother pleaded that I mind my own business, that it was her marriage, not mine.
The next morning, I wrote on a big paper: One will chase a thousand. Two should chase ten thousand. Not ONE. And then, I stuffed it into the pocket of the shirt Father was to wear that morning.
You see, I felt like running away. I hated it when my elder brother came from the boarding house and the first thing he would ask was not, “Nana, how have you been?” but “Nana, how have they been?” And the last thing he would say was, “Be watchful if anything begins to happen shout, help−thief! Thief! Don’t forget.” I would laugh. I never thought it could work any wonder until the night Father was almost tearing Mother apart. I ran out shouting “help−thief!”, and in a very short while, the whole compound was at our doorstep. After that, whenever Father was not in good terms with his sense, I would shout “help−thief!”, “Thief, thief! Help!” Even though nobody would come out, my shout would tether his bestiality.
Mother knew Father was seeing strange women. Mother knew.
One night, Father came home looking like a shattered totem. He usually honked his horn five times. It was 12 a.m., there was no honking, and there was no car. Before that night, he hadn’t come home for two days. Like always, I was awash with joy, jumping and dancing. But Mother told me that there were many things to a man not coming home when he just felt like not coming home.
“Where were you coming from when your car was snatched?” Mother asked Father, “It serves you right.” Something was spurring her. Her pact with silence had been broken by the weight of her over-sorrowed heart. As a result of this, Mother’s face gradually became fat and strange; it was a testament to what Father’s fist had done when I was fast asleep.
The following day, my head became fat and strange too; I was stung by a bee.
I had wanted to celebrate Father’s car─lessness because of what he had done to Mother, so I prowled the top of a tree in search of fruits. I had loaded my stomach and was enjoying the warbling of the birds from the tree top when the buzzing disaster knocked my forehead. For the first time, Mother and I seemed united—by facial disfiguration.
That night, she held her ribcage while she sang a song of absence and pain in the dark. Suddenly, she stopped her song with a shrill laugh, and with an urgent sense of purpose, she said, “Hooray! The light has risen in my heart.”
As she spoke other words inaudibly, she lit the head of a candle and I saw the ambitious fire lick the darkness away to reveal a faint trace of Sister Aurora’s face.
Before dawn, I saw a shadow against the wall of my poorly lit room and I heard some footsteps. Then, a well-stuffed raffia bag assaulted my eyes which were now like slits on my swollen face. My mind raced to the bizarre story Sister Aurora had told me in school about a man who had overslept and didn’t know when the devil had come to pack all his clothes. I had never heard such an eerie story before. What I knew was that if you sleep facing up, the devil would come, massage you, and give your stomach a big ulcer. Anyway, Sister Aurora had spliced the story to these words: Sleep catches the mind before it catches the eyes. I myself must have overslept in my mind because seeing the stuffed raffia bag, I thought the devil had packed all my clothes and was about to take off. “The devil has come! Aaaaaaaargh!” I screamed till I could taste blood. “The Devil. He has come!”
The shadow was startled, it ran towards me and covered my mouth with its hands. All of a sudden, I could perceive the kitchen, the laundry and the tale of desolation in them—they were Mother’s.
“Ssh! It’s Kokoni. Sorry, I frightened you. Let’s go. We are running away.” The voice I heard was not Mother’s. It was that of a woman who was tired of being a nanny to a repulsive man. The voice was of a woman who had learned that it was one thing to be in bondage and it was another thing for bondage to be with you, and keep on pinching you where it pained the most.
“Ssssh! Nana, come quickly. Hurry!” Her eyes shone. In them was the distance she was willing to forge and walk, away from her nightmarish existence.
The neighbours now awoken to my irresistible scream had jumped out and found us at the gate stealing away. Father had woken up too, more confused than embarrassed. He would never have believed that Mother could think of a life outside his. His eyes bulged with disbelief.
Who was to say that a dog cannot run from its tick—the tick on its fur? Or that a cow cannot run from the flies that swarm around its body?
Let me speak of a girl who ran from herself. That girl was me. That night, I broke Mother’s hold on me and leaped into the dark, searching for home, freedom, an uncluttered identity and somewhere I would forever be called Alannah.