I.

That cold Thursday morning, as I swept the rear of Papa’s room, I saw the cat. Severally, that cat had re-defined night sleep for every member of our household, appearing in the dead of the night and meowing through every corner of the house. The meowing was expected and like one bad mosquito inside a well laid bed net, it kept the family awake all night over.

At the sound of my broom, the cat, instead of scurrying, stopped and fixed her blue eyes on me, hissing and carefully gliding her slim body through the crack in the fence. The urge to run and kill the cat was over-powered by my reflexive fear, so I stood there with my eyes fixated on the fence. 

On Sunday afternoon, Papa died.

The house was solemn, cold and silent like a graveyard. Everywhere felt empty. Our tiny apartment felt unusually big and anything you said would echo. I want to say Papa has finally died but it sounds harsh. Papa suffered a stroke for two years. He died a slow and painful death and on his last birthday before he died, the fifth of September, I asked him to make a wish. He wished to be taken away from the hospital and left at home so that he could die in peace. I don’t know what hurt me most—the fact that Papa’s illness was diabolical, or the fact that we had suffered for two years just to watch him die, or the exorbitant hospital bills that Mama kept struggling to pay.

The first day after Papa died, the Umunna came to Aba. Uncle Uzo first drove to St. Ambrose Hospital at Umuoba Road to carry Papa’s body from the mortuary. That same day, the Umunna demanded a list of Papa’s properties, holdings, investments, bank statements and everything that had to do with money. Every other valuable item was also requested, including the electronic items in our house at Aba. Mama was disinherited; everything was to be taken away. She was not qualified to own or inherit any property. This was because she did not have a living male child who would inherit Papa’s property. She had girls, just girls, female children who were supposedly not equal to the task, so Papa’s people would take everything their brother owned.

The second day after Papa died, we arrived Otolo, Papa’s village. When Papa’s mother hissed as soon as we stepped down from the bus, I knew we had come for serious business.

The ino na nso started that day. Mama was secluded in a room upstairs and still today I call it her little corner. She was regarded as unclean, filthy and defiled, so she was made to sit on the floor as a sign of the dethronement of a woman who had just lost her pride, her status, her everything, because of the death of her husband. The Catholic mothers insisted Mama wear white as her mourning outfit instead of the usual black, for purity reasons.

Mama was always curled up in one corner in the room, her little corner, shriveled like the rag in our kitchen at Aba, torn, worn out. She rarely spoke to anyone and when she did, once in five hours, she would stop halfway like she had something in her throat, and after that she wouldn’t say another word for another five hours. And on the days people came to say “ndo, sorry for your loss,” she would nod and move her face immediately. 

The fourth day after Papa died, Aunty Ezinne arrived from Onitsha. She was Papa’s eldest sister. The eldest of the Umuada, and the one who detested Mama like she was getting paid for it. Some of the other women followed suit, strange and hefty women, some of whom I had not met in all my life. I found out later that they were my paternal aunties.

“Aunty nno, welcome,” I said as they walked in. 

“Nnem ke kwanu, how are you? You people are here already,” Aunty Ezinne said. She hugged me tightly. I was surprised because she’d never done that before, although I know she only did it because Papa was dead and I was bereaved. She said, “ndo nnem” with her very deep voice and then proceeded into the house to announce their arrival. I always thought she should have been a man. She was built heavy, big arms, big feet, with the biggest head I have ever seen since I came into this world. The first time Papa slapped Mama during an argument and Mama threw our large frying pan at him, Aunty Ezinne had threatened to use her own head to break Mama’s head. I didn’t understand what she’d meant—maybe she was going to use her head and hit Mama’s head continuously until Mama’s head would break and divide into two halves like a coconut. 

Obianuju, my junior sister, was yelling my name from our room upstairs, repeatedly telling me that Mama was calling for me. Obianuju had the habit of shouting from wherever she was. Send her on an errand and she won’t move an inch. She will deliver the message from wherever she is and, mind you, not with a mobile phone, with her God given voice. Papa used to call her Otimkpu, the shouter. She was the favorite daughter. The younger daughter who had all the common sense in the world, the one that passed her exams in one sitting, the one who kept good friends, the one that wasn’t rebellious, the one who was cordial with the boys and didn’t hate men, the one whose “eye never tear open”. I was the opposite of all this, the rebel, and the bad daughter who wanted a life that was above her parent’s reach; well, according to Papa, because Mama loved me regardless and thought I was self-willed.

Mama was still in her little corner when I entered the room. This time, she looked worse than the kitchen rag. She looked up immediately when I entered.

“Tell them I’m here.”

“Mama…” I paused to exhale. “Will you let them do this to you?”

She shrugged. When she finally stood up from her little corner, a pungent smell filled the room. Mama had urinated on herself.

II.

The fifth day after Papa died, the fourth day of the ino na nso, Mama was taken for the oath ritual. I did not go with her and when she came back, she refused to speak about it. The oath ritual is basically swearing you didn’t kill your husband and if the Umuada are doubtful about your innocence, you are made to drink the water used in bathing the corpse of your late husband. I knew they weren’t going to believe Mama’s innocence but I don’t think they made her drink the water from Papa’s corpse because the Umuada had promised the Catholic sisters that they wouldn’t do that. So instead, they locked Mama up with Papa’s corpse in a room for three hours with the belief that if she had killed him, she would die there.

Papa’s siblings believed that Mama killed Papa.

I wouldn’t know why, but that was what they believed, and till today even after all the oaths Mama took before and after the burial, I think they still believe she did it. Papa was young, probably too young to die, but I know Mama would never have killed him. She loved Papa. Mama was the typical African wife. Wife material, that’s what they call it. Suffering, enduring and eating shit all in the name of marriage. Those ones on the cover of faux Christian books about virtuous women that carry their husbands on their backs, holding their kids with both hands and a heavy load balanced on their heads.

When Papa got deported from South Korea and lost all his businesses, Mama held it down for the family till he got another job. She’d done it diligently and without complaints, paying the bills and our school fees, providing everything. And when Papa started drinking alcohol and misbehaving, the frustration building from being unemployed, she still endured it all and even started praying and fasting every Wednesday, asking God to change him.

I honestly hated Mama for all of that. I felt like she was a weakling or she was pretending to be okay with Papa’s bad behavior to avoid the wrath of Papa’s sisters. She lacked her voice or probably gagged it. How dare she open her mouth to speak up when she’s not even a complete wife, a woman with two daughters, no son—how dare she? I encouraged her to shout back at Papa or let him go hungry for the night when he didn’t provide money for food, but Mama would tell me to stop reading all those feminist books because feminists were just bitter people who hated men, and their marriages never lasted long. 

On the Sunday morning she threw the frying pan at him after he’d slapped her, I felt an unusual happiness. Maybe I was a bitter feminist after all, a bitter feminist who hated men.

III.

The eighth day after Papa died, Pastor Eme came. I think he came out of guilt because there was no explanation for him traveling all the way from Aba to our village to say ndo. He was the pastor of a prayer house, basically a ministry which held their church service on Tuesdays every week. I do not want to describe him; I’ll say terrible things. 

He walked straight to the entrance of Mama’s little corner like the Lord had specifically told him that she would be there. He said a few words to her from afar and in the blink of an eye he was gone. I was impressed that he knew better than staying to quote Bible scriptures and speaking in tongues because if he had opened his mouth to say pim, I would have given him the insults of his life. 

Mama was bankrolling Pastor Eme and his “House of God” throughout Papa’s sickness. She paid for prayers (he doesn’t pray for people in need without being paid) and sent her Seed of Faith weekly. Seed of Faith is an offering of faith in God that your request would be granted. In this context, Mama was paying and having faith that Papa would survive. The more money you give, the more faith you have, and the more effective your prayers would supposedly be.

Mama forced Obianuju and I into their routine of fasting and prayers. I love to pray, honestly, but seventy percent of the times I fasted, it was against my will. At some point it was purely starvation and I feared that I would develop ketonuria, because Pastor Eme would order us to fast from six a.m. till six p.m. Twelve hours. On some days we did normal fasting, no food, just water. And on some other days, we did dry fasting, no food, no water, just intense prayers and us staring at each other till it was time to end the fast and eat.

Mama took the fasting and prayers serious, it was obvious that she desperately needed Papa to survive. And one Friday evening while we were rounding up fasting for the day, she started speaking in tongues. I called our reverend father the next morning and reported her because all my life, I have never heard the brethren speak in tongues in Catholic Church. 

We also held night vigils where we prayed throughout the night, crying and asking God to heal Papa and give him a second chance. And after all of this, Papa still died. 

IV.

Koko, my best friend, sent me a long condolence message that evening. She’d probably seen the news of Papa’s death on Facebook. Obianuju posted a long and heartfelt farewell message on her timeline the night Papa died and, while I read it, I stared at her in disbelief because half of the things she’d written about Papawere a far cry from him.

Koko and I were literally inseparable until university happened. We attended the same schools all our lives, until we applied for the University of Nigeria, Nsukka together. Koko got admission but I didn’t. Life has a way of separating you from people you’d think you cannot do without. First Koko, now Papa. 

I texted Koko back immediately and I told her my plans.

V.

The first phase of the ino na nso ended after twenty-eight days, thirty days after Papa’s death. He was buried.

Papa’s family wanted to bury him immediately, fast-fast, and his burial plans were made without Mama’s knowledge. His immediate and extended family held several meetings after the ikpo oku, traditional summon. They involved me, sometimes; I think it was just to fulfill all righteousness because I was the Ada.

The wake keeping was done the night before the funeral. Obianuju slept throughout. I was surprised Papa’s family had agreed to do the wake keeping and the Catholic funeral mass. I cried throughout the night vigil. 

The funeral was like a carnival and, till today, I’m still confused on what point Papa’s family was trying to prove. The house was full. It was like ikwa ozu, celebration of the dead, and at some point I was confused because Papa’s burial was meant to be a painful exit. Papa’s relatives came down to the house in massive numbers but Mama’s family members left immediately after the mass. Papa’s mother sat at the entrance of the house crying and going on and on about how “they” killed her son.

Pastor Eme came for the burial. Noticing him from a distance, I laughed. Guilt, guilt will kill you fast. I went straight to greet and welcome him but he turned his face away when he saw me.

“Welcome, Sir. I didn’t know you’d be able to make it. Aba is quite far and you’re not even a family member. Thank you so much, dalu.” 

“It’s the least I could do. I’m really sorry about what happened,” he said with his head down.

I could sense his fear. I don’t know why he was scared, but I know he was scared. I smiled and turned to walk away but he held my arm to stop me.

“I brought this for your mother.” He heldup an envelope. “I know your father’s family and tradition would not allow her to receive condolence gifts or monetary presents because of the rituals, but I want you to keep it for her. Once all of this is over, give her the money. It’s her Seed of Faith—a percentage of her seed of faith,” he said, staring at me, eyeball to eyeball. 

“The Seed of Faith is for the Lord, Pastor. I cannot take this.”

“Don’t worry about that. I run the church. It’s my ministry and I make the rules, inugo? Just give your mother the money.”

I collected the money, carefully tucking it into my blouse. He smiled as I did so. 

“Thank you, Pastor. Also, you don’t have to feel guilty about anything. You didn’t kill our Papa. God gives and God takes okwaya?”

He nodded. I walked straight to my room to put the envelope into my box.

V1.

There was a huge fight at Papa’s burial. It was on that day I finally found my voice, my voice of rebellion. The Umunna hijacked the corpse and refused to bury Papa on his land. They wanted to preserve the land for themselves because it was virgin land. Mama found her voice that day too. For the first time since Papa had died, she told me, “Adannaya, do not allow them to take your father’s body away. He must be buried on this land, his own piece of land,” she said fluently. And I was happy, because finally we were going to speak up. 

I walked straight to where the Umunna were gathered and stood there, firm.

“Why are you here? Did you see any female in this gathering?” Uncle Uzo asked. ‘‘Biko go inside, your presence is not needed here.”

I didn’t move. “Papa said we should bury him on this particular land.” I pointed to one part of our large compound. “So, I just came to tell you, it was his wish—his dying wish.”

They laughed, all of them except one, the one who always wore glasses.

“Nsogbu adi,” my uncle said. “We will bury him inside this compound, but not on that particular land, inugo? That land is a virgin land and we have to build something productive on it. We will preserve it. Now, go inside.”

I stood transfixed. I didn’t know what to say, and before I could find my voice back, they had dispersed and some of the men were already digging a grave.

“Mbanu!” I shouted with my loudest voice. “You people cannot do this! Papa will not be happy! Bury him on his own land—stop preserving my father’s piece of land for your selfish purposes. You must bury him here. My mother and I have been silent for too long—because we’re women, right? —because anyi bu umunwanyi we cannot have a say. If you don’t bury my father where he requested to be buried, you people will have to kill me today! Today, today o, you people will kill me!”

“Tufiakwa!” Papa’s mother said, spitting on the ground.

Obianuju started crying. 

There was uproar in the compound but I continued shouting, threatening them as they continued to dig. Aunty Ezinne and two other women came and bundled me away, taking me into a room upstairs where they locked me in. I had failed. I had let Papa down. I cried throughout that day, cried till my chest started to pain me. 

I did not partake in my father’s burial, because, according to them, I was too overwhelmed with emotion. Obianuju did everything.

I wished Mama was strong like Mama Osi. She was rebellious, I admired her. She was an Obingwa woman who lived close to us at Aba. For her husband’s burial, she paid armed men in uniforms to surround their compound at Aba, giving them strict orders: “onye nye anyi nsogbu, gbagbuo ya, if anybody wan start wahala, shoot am dead.” Because of this, the Umunna did not take any of her husband’s property. Her husband’s people did not do anything to her other than the Umuada (shaving her hair) after the burial. Maybe she was more courageous because she had male children; maybe she would have been humble and meek like Mama if she had only female children. I don’t know.

When the day had almost ended, one of the Umuada, Aunty Uka, came to the room I was locked up in.

“You see that stunt you pulled yesterday—it is never done,” Aunty Uka said when she opened the door. I walked past her without saying a word and, as I walked through the corridor, I heard Papa’s mother telling her association of old women about how her son’s wife had givenbirth to useless daughters. I walked straight to the center of the compound to see where they had buried Papa. There was a shrine looking grave covered with palm fronds and leaves. It was the land they’d wanted, too—it wasn’t the land Papa had instructed us to bury him on; it was the land they’d chosen. 

As I went back into the house, I stopped at the entrance to Mama’s room. The Umuada were there already and one of them was shaving Mama’s hair. They scraped her hair with a razor blade. I could tell that Mama was in pain. 

She was taken for the ritual cleansing that night. They burnt her hair and the clothing she had worn for the nso period, and she was forced to take her bath at Papa’s grave. That was the end of the first phase. Mama would continue the mourning and after six months, her hair would be shaved and the cleansing rites would be done again before she would become a free woman.

At midnight, I left for Mama’s room to tell her about Pastor Eme and the envelope. She was crying, her shaved head looking smooth as glass as she poured ice water on her head. When I moved closer, I noticed that they’d injured her scalp with the razor while shaving her hair. I turned and walked away.

VII.

My mind was made up. Thirty-one days after Papa died, I made the toughest decision of my life. 

I ran away to Lagos to seek a better life. It was a selfish decision, probably the most selfish decision I’d ever made, but I needed to do it. I needed to hustle for a university education; I needed to prove Papa’s family wrong about girls being useless; and I needed to save Mama and Obianuju. I knew it was going to be one suffering after another for us, because the Umunna had taken everything belonging to Papa, including our house at Aba. They told Mama to go back to her people since she didn’t have a son; hence there was no one to continue their family name. We were being forced to start from scratch and I did not want to be a part of that. I wanted to go, to reduce the brunt of Mama’s burden.

When I woke the morning after the burial, Obianuju was still sleeping. I woke up very early, because Koko said the Lagos bus would leave as early as six thirty a.m. I’d packed my little box the previous night. When Obianuju had asked about it, I told her I was just arranging my things because we could return to Aba anytime. 

I tiptoed out and washed my face, slipped my buba on, and then made sure the Seed of Faith envelope was still inside my box before I left.

As I walked through the silent compound, the cleaners were just starting to clean and sweep. Everyone was still asleep, except the man who wore glasses; he was reading a book outside. I greeted him as I walked past, but he did not reply, neither did he look up. I walked through the gate of our family house, pausing to look back, and let out a sigh of relief. 

In less than two hours, I was on a bus to Lagos.

About the Author:

Joy “Jhoyy” Udensi is a writer. Find her on instagram @jhoyy._

Feature image by Sam Moghadam KhamsehUnsplash