Shaba lived in a compound with a well at the entrance. The well served the neighbourhood until a child fell inside and died.
Shaba was seven when it happened and the boy was his friend. They would play together and nurse their small wounds afterwards. The day it happened, the little boy said he could jump over the well. His friends cheered him on. The last thing they saw was his head hitting the side of the well and his body crashing into the water.
The next day Shaba saw his dead friend’s mother pushed out of her house by her husband, with her clothes like confetti, littered all over the compound. Everyone watched from a distance, hands folded, whispering and shaking their heads. He tried to pick up the brassiere that fell at his feet, so he could hand it to over to the woman who was now screaming with her hand on her head, a chorus of sadness rolling out from her tongue; but his mother pulled him back.
“Drop that bra! You don’t know that she is finished? Her son is dead because she was working psychedelic work instead of sitting at home and watching him. She is finished; her husband will marry another wife.”
Shaba didn’t understand; after all, the father worked too; why wasn’t anyone throwing his things off the balcony? But he knew not to ask any questions. That night, he cried quietly for the woman and his dead friend.
Life would continue with its complacent normalcy and quotidian ordinariness. His his late friend’s father would indeed marry another woman- one much younger, as young as his first daughter. Was that right? He wondered.
It was not even months since the death of his friend, since the mother was kicked out,. He still remembered how her belongings fell from the sky and the bra that stopped at his feet, as if begging for him to do something, save the situation; and here was the husband as happy as a pretty strawberry cake!
When he clocked 13, something happened in the neighbourhood. Bisi got pregnant. She was only twelve! She told her parents who was responsible- her “uncle”, the one who helped around the house with plumbing and fixing bulbs. She was dragged by the ear and pushed into the house by her father, who then turned and slapped his wife so hard, Shaba grew goose bumps.
Why was the mother being attacked by the father, shouldn’t they be grieving and bemoaning their lot together? Shouldn’t the slap be reserved for the plumber? Queries cobwebbed around his thoughts.
Before daybreak, Bisi and her mother were gone, never to be seen again. He would later hear that Bisi died during childbirth. The “uncle” didn’t come to the compound any longer but he made new friends on the other street and continued his ‘plumbing’ business.
At home his mother would encourage him to go play in the sand, while his sister stayed indoors helping with the shelling of egusi and pounding of pepper. She was told how to sit, when to talk, how to wear an expression… nobody told him anything. He would play for hours, get his shorts dirty, leave his socks on the floor, yet he was greeted with a warm smile every time he came in with sand in his hair.
That was how he too started treating his sister, differently- with silence, almost as if she were invisible, and only seen when she was needed for a chore.
He attended child dedication parties with his parents and remember on many occasions his mother chatting with other women over bottles of soda:
“Ah! Thank God, it is a boy! You are finally the woman of the house. Your feet are now strong on the ground.”
“Yes oh! She has won her green card! A boy child, we thank God!”
At 15, he clearly understood what it meant- the boy was more important than the girl. Life starts when a boy is born, anxiety sets in if it’s a girl. Many times, he would thank the heavens for ensuring he came as the right gender.
His dad would get drunk and threaten his mother with words that made her grab the hem of his trouser, her knees touching the floor, begging.
“If you cannot ensure my food is always hot, I will go and marry a small girl that will come and teach you!” he would bark, and she would shrivel like a dead plant.
When his mother found condoms in Shaba’s bag at 17, she laughed and teased him, “Do you now have a girlfriend?”
But his sister, a pretty 16 year old, was told not to talk to boys or their saliva touching her skin will get her pregnant.
“We are so different; she is inferior to me. Everything she does is monitored; I get to live life to its fullest, but she can’t. She is born into a world that is distressed by who she is. Her opportunities are colourless, her role a cheerless one.”
He had watched his parents argue so many times, and with only the lifting of a hand that stayed motionless mid-air, his mother was silenced.
How did that work? He wondered.
He got the answer a few weeks later: Sitting with his friends and chatting in the open, an argument was ensuring in the store across from them. He watched the woman’s mouth move…watched the man’s mouth move…watched her shake her head…watched him wriggle a finger…watched her wriggle her waist. Then he saw the man’s hand rise above his head, like his father’s, fingers spread apart…motionless, then slowly descending…slowly… until- Gbam! A thud-like slap; stars flying everywhere.
Then he saw the reaction.
She lost her tongue. She withdrew. End of story.
So when he met Adia a few years later- pretty, smart and fresh out of a diploma programme, he fell in love, and so did she.
Just so they didn’t spend time arguing unnecessarily over small issues, he employed the practice he had witnessed over the years- from his father to the random male across the street: lift his hand, spread his fingers and bring it down on her face.
We are not the same. She is inferior to me.